Character piece

I was at the front of the house one day, doing something ordinary and unmemorable so it’s long since forgotten, when I heard a rhythmic clink, a strange quiet sound, as a neighbour I know vaguely but not by name, walked past and up the hill. She’s a strange little creature, wispy, wild grey hair, maybe 50 years old or maybe 70, it’s impossible to tell because she wears a dress and trousers, an anorak and wellington boots even in the height of summer, and there’s a cycling helmet firmly strapped on whether she’s out with her bike or not. If it’s true that we reveal our tribe  by the clothes we wear, this lady is the last surviving member of an ancient Iceni clan, but with her serene smile I think she would have been a bit pants when they went to war.

That day her dress was even more idiosyncratic than usual, her boots slapped her calves as they always did, and her hair exploded from the rim of her helmet as it always did, but she walked to a new accompaniment of clicks and clanks. Over her dress (which was over her trousers) was a net curtain, hanging upside down, as a skirt. The top of the curtain was at ground level, and the strange noise came from the plastic curtain hooks that were still attached.

download.jpgCurtain lady lives alone, in a higgledy piggledy cottage, with a higgledy piggledy garden, the stone walls a tumbled mass of brambles and glorious weeds and, at this time of year, courgette flowers. The vegetable beds are haphazard things, but ladened with fat joyous marrows or bouquets of vibrant lettuce, and sometimes a clump of corn – seeming to have wandered in from some other more exotic place.

I’ve tried to talk to curtain lady, but she just smiles and returns the greeting and walks on. If she’s on her bike and I’m in my car she returns my wave. I would love to know her better, I think her mind will be interesting and her soul will be  warm. I can imagine her looking at the plastic curtain hooks and shrugging to herself “They’re not doing any harm… let them be.”

I wonder if she has cats?

Wales isn’t the only place where ‘Characters’ come to enjoy old age. When I lived in Derbyshire I lived next to a man I came to know as ‘the cat killer’. I won’t go into details except to say that he always helped the distressed owners to look for the cats he’d killed and once said to me “It’s the least I can do.” At the time I thought he was a kind and good and selfless bloke, until I discovered why so many felines went missing thereabouts. After that, I found him quite scarey. I didn’t dwell on his mind or his soul too much.

Another of my neighbours in the Midlands was a retired scientist, who had turned his back on science to study History. He was very posh, very dishevelled (and not ever so clean) and  lived in a small miner’s cottage, which had stood derelict for many years before he moved in. His love of the past was such that he had done nothing to modernise this little hovel at all. I mean, at all. There was an earth closet in the garden, one cold water tap at the back door, and no electricity. When the town held a festival celebrating its history, and houses were opened for the public to admire, his was very popular – our visitors thought it was a historical reconstruction of a Victorian slum.

People are endlessly fascinating. I think of my friends right now, and in the past, all of them singular, some unconventional, all intelligent, free thinking, some quirky, one is a still calm pond of deep reflections, one a tempest, one an eternally sunny day. One is an anvil just demanding that life beats itself to a pulp on her unhappiness. Some are hard to know, difficult and edgy, but so worthwhile. Me? I’m me.  I don’t kill cats, or wear net curtains. That’s all I can say about me.

I look at those three characters – curtain lady, cat killer, history man – and I love their richness, and their peculiarity. This is life. This is story, the stuff of drama.  Was curtain lady ever loved with reckless passion? Did she once give up everything for a faithless man? Or was she deliriously perfectly happy until her lover was killed in a storm at sea (forgive me, I’m a dramatist)? Did cat killer,  growing up in the last world war, dream of being a hero, of valour and goodness and nobility? Does he dream of them still, hopelessly? History man, what does he think of his own history? Has he hankered for an impossibly lost past or has he somehow lived it?

I feel like David Copperfield, who was a witness to all those amazing characters; Mr ghastly Murdstone, delightful Barkis, loving Peggotty, Uriah creepy Heep, useless little Emily…. what personalities, what stories! But David, who the hell is he? He’s no one. A narrator. He has nothing going for himself but the story he tells. That’s how I sometimes feel now. The richest part of my life has been the stories I’ve woven. Excuse me while I go on a bit of a rant: Dickens didn’t have to make Copperfield such a tabula rasa. He chose to. He managed to make Pip in Great Expectations a fascinating character, and while both David and Pip narrate their own story, one is full of personality and wit and insight and the other, well, just a cardboard cut out, like my Captain Kirk.

photo 2-5.jpeg

Ah, you don’t know about my Captain Kirk. I had a life size cardboard cut-out of Captain Kirk and he would loom above my desk (Mr Spock too). When I first unpacked him,  he made me smile for the first couple of weeks. After two years, I was bored by him. His conversation was crap and when visitors ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhhed’ at him, it was just tedious. He was David Copperfield. Life played out in front of his glazed eyes but he was irrelevant.

The secret, I think, to a happy old age is to be someone who loves characters, who delights in other people, who enjoys the rich variety of old and young, and who fights to remain relevant. I paddled in the sea yesterday with a neighbour, a man of my age, who has never lost the wonder of life. He stood in the gentle surf, gazing with delight at the flow and ebb of a small jellyfish, its frilled petals opening and closing with every wave. A writer to my bones, just a storyteller, I looked at my friend, under God’s wonderful sky and in God’s teeming sea, and I was filled with praise for the lives we have. All of them. For the years we have had, all of them. For the span of our lives, short or long, gifted by God. For the unique histories and the hidden stories we all have to tell. For the richness and variety of all He has given us.  For net curtains and cycling helmets and jelly fish. For laughter and tears.

And for the love God has for us.

“God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

I know we’re a sinful lot, but when I think of my friends, the people I know, the people I live among, I sort of understand why He loves us.

 

 

 

Absurdly yours

Right, listen. Thing is, no, listen… I used to be a busy busy writer. It’s true. You wouldn’t think so if you’d been sitting on the beach with me for two hours this morning, but I was. I was extremely busy once upon a time.

I know I’ve been moaning on and off for the last five years about not having anything to do… and I know I’ve complained about missing exciting (fast) long drives in the middle of the night to filming on the other side of the country (always arriving, strangely, in time for a lovely breakfast on set) … and I’ve railed against how rarely friends make the trek over here….. and I’ve been whingeing on about how out of touch I am with the broadcast industry which is eons away in another culture (called the 21st century) … and I know I’ve felt unused and irrelevant and all that stuff for 5 years… and yes, I’ve done a bit of complaining about my brain dying from lack of use…. but listen…. my little old radio play is due to be recorded in a couple of weeks and I’ve just looked at the hotel that’s been booked for me…. it’s five flipping hours drive away! And it’s about an hour from the studio! And there’s a blanketty- blank cricket match on that day so traffic will be hell! And …. and… and…. it’s not as if Radio pays a fortune… it’s peanuts……

Man, I’m so good at discontent!

But of course that’s all nonsense. A mad woman’s ramblings. I’m delighted to be going to the recording and so what if it’s in Greenwich? If it was in Timbuktoo I’d go there, too. But complaining is delicious.

Complaining really is delicious. If there’s something we disagree with, some perceived slight against ourselves and our interests, oh boy, we like to complain. And complaining isn’t a great thing to do, it’s not a Godly thing to do. We’re told not to complain, not to grumble. Grumbling taints the air around the complainer so that others breathe it in and get poisoned. I should know, I have both been the poisoner and the poisoned in my time.

You know my fave verse ? Well, one of them (the list grows and grows). ‘Look to the Rock from which you were cut’. If I look to my rock, Jesus, I see no complaints at all. None. And He really did have stuff to complain about.

I heard about someone this week who has been distressed and unsettled by some complaints she’s heard recently. But I get it, in the past I, too, have played the game of ‘their grumbling has affected me’ and when I look back I wonder if I was telling the absolute truth? Did the dissatisfaction of others really distress me, or did I latch onto it and feed off it, joining in? Did I piggy-back on their complaints to disguise my own?

There’s a lovely lovely insight in the Book of Job, said by Zophar, who was ultimately trite and biased but on the way he found some real insight;

Though evil is sweet in his mouth
    and he hides it under his tongue,
though he cannot bear to let it go
    and lets it linger in his mouth,
yet his food will turn sour in his stomach;
    it will become the venom of serpents within him. (Job 20:12-14)

This illustrates so perfectly how we savour our wrongness, how we enjoy our sin, our delicious naughtiness, complaining and being self-righteous. Mmmmm. Lovely. Temptation is lovely, that’s why it tempts us. Complaining is so satisfying. And it rots our thinking, just as sugar rots our teeth and booze rots our liver. But they’re yummy! A big fat sugary doughnut…. a bottle of wine…. not together maybe, but you get my drift. We wouldn’t devour them if they didn’t tempt us. Obvs. A good old rant about how hurt we are, how offended, how rejected, unappreciated, persecuted…. delicious! And if we have a silent audience, or – even better – an appreciative one… it’s really satisfying. We feed our self, our sense of outrage, stoking it up, accepting victimhood, virtue-signalling with every phrase,  and if, on the way to our own ‘rightness’,  we judge or condemn someone else, well, that’s just us being truthful and honest, isn’t it?

No. It’s not. It’s us looking after ourselves at the cost of others. Not Christian. It’s us damaging the peace, harmony and love of Christ.

Socrates said ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ and he’s right. But it’s a costly thing to do, to examine your own life. It involves recognising our own flaws, self-deceptions, the veneers we adopt, and the games we play even sub-consciously. And for a Christian that means that we must take our examined lives, the discoveries we’ve made, however painful, and we surrender them to God. Ouch.

Really, ouch! I mean, really. Bloody hell, it hurts.

The woman who was unsettled by the complaints of others, how many of them did she share? Did she dwell on them and then build on them? Did they become her own? Is that why she’s so unsettled? Did the complaints she listened to and shared ‘turn sour in her stomach’? Is that why she’s weeping now? By opening herself up to the grumbling of others, has she allowed herself to be poisoned? And whose responsibility is that? Fifty-fifty, I reckon.

What can I do about my tendency to complain? What can I do about the complaints of others? Whether I’m the speaker or the listener, how can I guard against complaints? A verse springs to mind immediately;

whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’ Philippians 4:8

I expect I’ll continue to grumble about the life of a solitary 70 year old, but I hope I do so tongue in cheek, enjoying my life and inviting others to enjoy it with me. I hope that most of my time is spent delighting and not complaining. I’m reminded of falling down in the dunes, when I rolled about in the grasses and orchids for ages, when the absurdity of it just made me laugh and laugh and laugh.

To be here, now, after the life I’ve led, feeling like this, in love with God and full of disjointed thoughts and meanderings…. such a lonely happy contradictory mess… absurd. Absurd creature who God loves. Thank God that God loves us all.

IMG_8680.jpg

Already absurdly complaining, aged … erm, about 18months I think.

 

Hi ho Silver and awaaayyy!

Are you approaching old age? If so, let me be a warning to you.

A couple of days ago I sent off for some knitting wool and a pattern.

I did! Me! Honest!

No, I know! I could hardly believe it either! Was this really me doing this, choosing wool, looking at the picture of a comfy cardigan… and saying “Yep. That’ll fill a few idle hours” ? It’s ages since I tackled a knitting pattern, but I’m going to give it a go. I’ve also agreed to go to a village craft club and I’m finishing my patchwork quilt so maybe I can fill the next however-many -day- months-years with these homely activities.  I’m a bit disappointed that it’s come to this, filling the days for the sake of filling the days, but this is my responsibility, no one else’s, so bite the bullet and get on with it.  It’s been suggested to me that I could make myself useful in the church by baking cakes… but I’m not a great baker. I can manage muffins but that’s about it, and how often does anyone want my muffins?

That sounds like a euphemism. It isn’t.

Anyway. This morning, waiting for the wool to arrive in the post, I got out a jigsaw puzzle and began to sort out the edge pieces. Oh, my little pals, as my fingers sorted through blue sky and green grass, I knew that this was dire. Just dire. Jigsaw puzzles are great when they’re an escape from a productive life, but they’re no substitute for that life.

So I sat there, looking at the picture on the puzzle box, and I prayed. Not a sweet gentle humble prayer of thanks and serenity, a sort of rambling questioning kinda-argumentative-sorta prayer. Querulous.  I mean, I know that God has the answers, the over-view, and I trust Him, I do. I do, (don’t look at me like that, I do!) but I’ve been twiddling my thumbs for five years and……. and…..  oooh!

Oooh! A few minutes ago, an email pinged in from a publisher … saying that the idea for my next book is ‘an excellent idea’! Hah!  Fancy that! And going on to talk about the possibilities… and it looks like it’s a goer.

images.jpg

That email was the Lone Ranger galloping over the crest of a hilltop to rescue me from this horrible cactus that I’ve been tied to.. it was Captain Kirk beaming me up from the wastes of a disintegrating planet. Hurrah!

As my lovely George would say, raising a whisky to the new book and to answered prayer, even cross (but honest) prayer, “Here’s tae us, wha’s like us? Damn few – an’ they’re a’ deid.’  (Here’s to us, who’s like us? Damn few – and they’re all dead.)

The brain cells still have stuff to do. Thank you, Lord.  Thank you for that email and for words, and books and … erm… yep, also for knitting. I think. Even muffins. All that.

The book will be called “Norah” , a study of a woman very like my stepmother. That’s all I know so far.  I don’t know which voice it will be written in, or what the beginning or the middle or the end will be. I’m not even sure where I stand as far as the eponymous  character is concerned – pity? Fear? Love? All I know is that I want it to glorify God and it’s exciting, and it’s important to me and it has to be truthful through and absolutely through. I don’t know if it will ‘work’. I don’t even know if I can do it. But I’m going to try.

Psalm 90:17 May the favour of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us— yes, establish the work of our hands.

Oh, boy – that’s my heartfelt prayer right now, this very minute. I do love it when the Bible is written in that immediate, conversational, direct way “Yes, establish the work of our hands”  It’s like those lovely verses in Isaiah 43

“Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

I just love that conversational “See” and “Do you not perceive it?” My heart responds – yes I’m looking! And yes, I do perceive it! My God has come galloping over the hilltop, my God is beaming me up from a wasteland. He has rescued me. Again.

Now don’t muck it up, Luce. Stay with Him. Stay focussed. Remember it’s through Him and for Him and with Him.

Because without Him,  it’s gonna be a disaster.

IMG_6277.jpeg