Thursday, December 24, 2015

The ghosts of Christmas Past

It's a strange phenomenon, the power of Christmas Eve to resurrect memories so strongly and yet so randomly. As I listened to the first of the closing voluntaries from the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's, there came into my mind a memory of myself, in my late teens, stricken with some inconvenient malady on Christmas Eve and spending that short afternoon in bed with the radio on, drifting in and out of sleep. I can't remember what ailed me, and cannot think it lasted, but at the time it felt unreal and solitary as the day darkened.

The small me in the photo (I think I was two) lived in blue dungarees and had to be coaxed out of them for family Christmas tea. (The yellow duck didn't join us - his red felt beak was too chewed for respectable company). We ate Christmas lunch, I remember clearly, in our top flat in Novar Drive, Hyndland, and went for tea to my grandparents' house in Hyndland Road. The whole extended family - the Stewarts, that is - would turn up there at some point in the day, though as I was the first of my generation I was the sole child for the first few post-war years. Families tended to live close, and there was public transport for those who were beyond walking distance.

I was remembering this morning how in my early married life I didn't do any Christmas food: my parents' house was ten minutes' walk from our flat (still in Hyndland) and we went there for lunch and stayed, stupefied, until it was time for bed. My first ever Christmas cake was made just before I had my first child - I'm sure I've recounted how, having slipped on ice in Clarence Drive, I had such a sore behind that I couldn't sit down, and dispelled my fears by baking. But the Glasgow Christmasses didn't end with our emigration to Dunoon; Cal Mac ferries seem to me to have run on Christmas Day and we headed back to Glasgow with our baby son. I do recall, however, that on the first year in Dunoon I iced the cake just before heading out to Midnight Mass: for the first time in my life I was attached to a church and had singing to do.

The long years of running Christmas myself occupied the greatest part of my life, having ended only five or six years ago. It still seems odd not to be making stuffing on Christmas Eve, and ramming it into a recalcitrant bird before church, odd not to waken to the smell of cooking and worry that the overnight temperature had been too high - or too low if the smell wasn't making it as far as the bedroom. There are no small children for whom stockings will have to be filled. I no longer have the restless wait for all the grown-up family to be safely here, nor the unholy rush between the end of term and the 25th. There is, theoretically, all the time in the world.

Time, in fact, to miss family; to look forward to seeing some and regret not seeing others; to have a suitcase packed and worry about taking the right things or forgetting presents or cooking brandy. Time to think about having dinner so that we can have a proper rest before our midnight sing/play/pray (have I got the intercessions? the music?) Time to wonder how we ever had the energy to drag sleeping choristers from their beds to come with us (really).

Now these choristers are cooking turkeys, looking after young children, preparing for visitors, in different parts of the country, and we are here, with the dark firth calm at last and the rain peppering the windows. Everything changes but the message of that distant birth. Even the carols - tonight our introit will be Advent Song, which is only four years old. And then Advent will be over, the waiting over.

And it will be Christmas.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Three snacks and out

I found myself, in a procrastinating moment, leafing through a leaflet from the Co-op, a Christmas leaflet promising all manner of festive treats that could readily be bought or whipped up using a range of Co-op products. I was lured to check out the helpful little labels at the foot of each recipe - you know, the ones with the 'traffic-light' system of grading content of fat, salt, sugar etc.

I suppose I was thinking of the disturbing news the other day that doctors no longer know what the average healthy weight of an 8-year old is because almost all children in Scotland are overweight or obese. It seems that the adult population is also heading for the buffers fully laden, as it were, and the NHS is doomed as a result. (Ok - I was sweeping a floor at the time and may have condensed this slightly, but you get my drift.)

One caller on the dreaded Call Kaye programme suggested labelling every instant meal with an example of the kind of exercise that would burn off the calories contained therein. I thought this a marvellous idea - it was the realisation that to rid myself of the calories of an average pizza I would have to climb a Munroe carrying a pack that had me decide that life was too short to eat pizza and would probably be shorter if I did.

Back to the leaflet. On average, the calories contained in the average helping of the snacks whose recipes looked so tempting - and these are one- or two-bite nibbles we're talking here - the average content was between 400 and 500 calories. Thats's appalling. The main culprits seemed to lie in the use of cream and butter, even on apparently healthful things like sprouts. Three of these snacks would constitute the recommended calorific average for someone of my age, build and height for a whole day unless I took some exercise. 

That's it, really. I'll probably eat a few such items over the gluttony season, leave my body to complain afterwards of the abuse, but not without thinking about it. I'm not miserable about that at all - any more than I am about cutting out, say, oysters from my diet (they have dire consequences for me). And I am reminded of something my father said when I was a skinny teen going to the cinema regularly and eating a bag of peanuts in the darkness. "That's enough to feed a starving family for a day."

He was ahead of his time, I think.

Friday, December 11, 2015

All we go down ...

I was at a funeral yesterday, not as a mourner but as a provider of music, one of a quartet singing the Kontakion for the Departed at the end of a service in the Cathedral of The Isles on Cumbrae. This was significant for me personally in one important feature: it was doing exactly that at my very first funeral in that same cathedral 42 years ago that convinced me of all that I now believe in, as a consequence of which I was confirmed 9 months later and as a further consequence of which I came to live in Dunoon. There were differences, of course - that first funeral was of a friend, it was a requiem mass, the coffin was between the choir stalls and therefore right on front of me.

So I'd actually have gone a long way to sing this music again in that place and with these same musicians. But another truth dawned on me yesterday as I sang, and after the plainsong Nunc Dimittis with which we finished. It was a truth about music - that kind of music, timeless and beautiful and still. For after all the words, the telling to God of the deceased's character (thou knowest, Lord, the secret of our hearts ... ) and the hymns that were deemed suitable, this was the moment when it seemed to me that the otherness of death came close, that the life of the world was dimmed and the life of heaven opened, and the possibilities of eternity were real and endless.

And weeping o'er the grave, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia.

I would like to think that this music will be present for my end.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Dragons on Social Media

Now here's a thing. I have an ambivalent attitude to Facebook. It shows in the fact that I very rarely
post directly to it; I will share something that I find interesting or provocative but apart from that anything that appears from me comes through other social media outlets, primarily Twitter. But I use Facebook because it's useful - useful for contacting people, for posting group updates, for finding people.

That said, there are some implications in using such a medium. I came up against one yesterday, when I discovered quite by accident that someone I know in real life (RL) had "unfriended" me. (Vile phrase, but that's what it says). I only found out when I wanted to tag this person, to draw his attention to a piece of local news that could have had an effect on him. What could I have done to offend him? Had I snubbed him hideously? Maligned him in public?

Not being the reticent type, I asked him. His reply indicated that he'd found my posts too limited in range (i.e. not interesting to him personally). I'll not say anything about the things he posts about, nor about the online "friendships" he has struck up with people who are actually my friends. (I know - I've just said it. No details, though ...) 

And I realised - or at least I think I did - that actually it was ignorance that had caused him to cut me off in this unseemly fashion. For it is perfectly possible to hide the posts of someone you find tedious without actually consigning them to virtual outer darkness. Either he didn't care (so not ignorant) or he hadn't realised.

The fact is that I don't actually care either. But it brought home to me the added dimension of having an online connection with someone you see on a regular basis. It made me want to shun Facebook, as a goodly number of people do - but that's just silly. When I suggested it to another friend (RL as well as virtual) she protested that she enjoys my posts and links. So I'll just carry on for now.

But I realise that my attitude to this chap whose grasp of the niceties of relationships is so inadequate has changed. Perhaps I've learned something about him that it's good to have found out before it impinged on my everyday life. And I am reflecting on the fact that I originally signed up for F/b (long after I was an early adopter of Twitter) because it allowed for a more varied collection of people to stay in touch - former pupils, former colleagues, my family - and that is as important as it ever was.

But I shall think twice before automatically accepting the "friendship" of people I consider acquaintances - for there be dragons.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Remembering on All Souls

Holy Trinity Dunoon: All Souls

This evening we remembered. We lit candles in front of the altar for family and friends lost. We considered our mortality, and our human response to it. We were reminded how faith and raw emotion can make difficult bedfellows. And I remembered a poem I wrote over a decade ago.


Today I would have phoned -
wished to share the small
details of my life, the
safe return, the laughing
at the rain which fell
as if the Flood would come.
But had I rung the number
as familiar as my name
you would not be there.
A stranger’s voice would say
your words, and the strangeness
would be too much to bear.
And contemplating this
a glacial shifting in my soul
gave promise that in weeks not lived
the frozen tears would find the way
and spill into a distant sea like
drops into the ocean of my love.

C.M.M. 4/05

Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Mass of Questions

Was it wise to get me started again? Today I have a question. A question that returns to trouble me when I stray beyond my accustomed paths of worship for whatever reason - or sometimes when I'm in my familiar environment and find myself profoundly grateful for what I find there.

So: the question. Why do Roman Catholics sound so perfunctory in the celebration of the Mass? The rapid delivery - so rapid that anyone unfamiliar with it can't make it out, microphones notwithstanding (yes, I know - the rapid mutter of the Mass is a cliché, but it's one that would be well abandoned), the perfunctory prayers, the almost apologetic readings ... I'm not even going to mention the music; I suppose that's something that rather depends on what you've got. But why make the holy mysteries sound so very matter-of-fact?

You can tell from this that I've had a recent experience. And I noticed one difference from the last time. They said "Amen" in the way I'm accustomed to, rather than with the stress on the second syllable with the "Ah" said as "Ae". Who brought this about? Was it part of the upheaval that took the liturgy back to the language of the Prayer Book?

So come on, good people. I want to know.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Planning or living?

This blog post is an act of conscience, brought on by Kelvin's reminder of how much I've been neglecting my blog. So here's a wee blether for today ...

A couple of hours ago I was phoned by a pleasant-sounding woman - youngish, I'd say, West of Scotland accent - offering to help me plan for my old age. Just a few questions would do it. And I'm afraid I laughed. No, no, she said - it's for anyone over 35; 35 to 80 year-olds can do this thing, whatever it was.

She was clearly not happy with me. I told her I was probably past planning for my old age, and that rather than think about it I really needed to get out to the shops as my bare larder might result in our not needing to plan further. And she let me go.

Thing is, I can't accept that I'm old. And if I think about planning for when I'm utterly ancient I become depressed. Which makes me wonder if in fact that only people who should be planning for their old age are my children's generation, because then it still seems unlikely that it's ever going to happen to you, this old age malarkey.

But take heed. It does happen - but people like me, we stick our heads in the sand and sing "la la, I can't hear you". We continue to wear jeans and turn our hair improbable colours. We walk and we sing and we go on holidays. We play on social media and we watch rubbish on the telly when our absurd lifestyle wears us out and we need a wee sit down.

We often laugh a lot. Sometimes we weep. People fall off their perches around us, and we become sober for a while. We talk about what the future might hold, and agree not to think about it. So don't ask me to plan for my old age. I'm too busy living. Right now.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Washed up - a poem for today

Washed up

The children on the beach
have no cares.
Their garments lap upon the waves
that brought them here.
They are not playing -
they are dead.
Hair like seaweed in the foam,
their small bodies come to
rest where other children play.
So small, so dead. The hot tears
flow but cannot warm
those tiny souls that drift
and sigh into my heart as I
turn away, their image
floating useless in my mind.

©C.M.M. 09/15

When people take their children into leaking rubber dinghies in the dark to cross rough seas, knowing how many die every night, there is nothing “bogus” about their desperation. - Polly Toynbee, writing in the guardian, 3 September 2015

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Education debate - a builder's take

I was chatting to our builder yesterday about schools. It seemed to me that this successful tradesman, running the building firm that he inherited from his father, had the secret of attainment in school well sussed. He attended the same school as my children, at the same time, and he told us a story.

He was in a science class - about S3/4 level - who were being taught by a supply teacher. She was pleasant, but deadly boring. He and his pals began to amuse themselves; the lesson was doomed. So, it seemed, was the supply teacher - for all knew well that she'd never regain the control necessary for learning to take place. Ah well.

A week later his father called him over for a quiet word. The essence of it was this: You were in a class being taught by Mrs. Bloggs? And you misbehaved and upset her? Right. Mrs Bloggs is a good customer of ours - in fact, I'm working on her house right now. If I ever hear that you've stepped out of line in her class again, I'll f******g well do you. Right?

Crude but effective. But it contains the seeds of success in many a small town school, where no-one is unknown and where the strangest connections emerge with remarkable rapidity. Pupils, teachers, Head Teacher and parents are linked in a symbiotic relationship in which all have to play their part or be found out. It makes for a relatively enjoyable existence for all - and that is where I taught for over 20 years without any of the negative fall-out which newcomers to a small town tend to fear.

But what else can we learn from this story? Nothing new, actually. The seeds of underachievement are to be found on both sides of the garden: boring teachers who wouldn't inspire the most docile of students, and uninterested or incapable parents. And then there's the growing sub-group of hostile and resentful parents as well, the ones who encourage their children not to let the teacher "get away" with any attempt to prevent their precious weans from walking all over everyone. Any one of these on its own will spoil the business of learning; more than one and we might as well all go home.

So what do you do to ensure that none of these weeds enter the Eden of education? No amount of pupil testing is going to help Mr Tedious to become a glowing enthusiast; no closing of the attainment gap is going to happen without somehow involving the parents in the enterprise. And no political manifesto is going to make a scrap of difference unless a whole generation of teachers and parents are somehow unified in one glowing, aspirational whole where the excitement of maths and the joy of literature and the joy of finding out become more important than a tidy record of work or where the next meal is coming from, or the next boyfriend, or the next fix.

I wouldn't have Nicola Sturgeon's job for anything. But those who advise her, who tell her that National Testing is the way to ensure that every child can have the same chances that she did, these advisors should perhaps begin by pointing at the Sturgeon family. They were the bedrock of the First Minister's success.

And she maybe managed to avoid the boring teachers ...

Friday, August 28, 2015

Women and men and trains - and Jeremy.

I clocked Jeremy Corbyn's thought about women-only compartments on trains but didn't dwell on it until I read Kelvin's post and tried to leave a comment (it was eaten by gremlins so I'm doing it here instead). So - would this be A Good Thing? Or is it too reminiscent of purdah and all that western women associate with such seclusion: veils, burkahs, kinder, küche, kirche ...? And I considered my immediate reaction, and tried to reconcile it with the person people think I am, and this is what came bubbling to the surface.

I don't travel solo much on public transport these days, but one of the pensioner-like things I do is use the bus from Dunoon - Glasgow. It's free, it takes you on the ferry without your needing to get wet on the pier, it drops you in the centre of town, you can doze off on it and not be taken past your stop. But nowadays I either sit on the outer seat of a pair, or sit beside another woman, because of an incident a year or so ago. Dear, sensitive reader, picture the scene:

I am sitting on the bus which I boarded in Dunoon with about seven people. I am in a window seat, looking out in a dwam at the wet road when we stop to let people on in Gourock. A tall man - not fat, just tall - of about 70 sways up the aisle and crashes down in the seat next to me. He lands half on top of me, to be accurate, squashing my arm and pressing his own arm into my right tit. I wait for him to apologise and move. I go on waiting. I stare at him. He smiles, complacently. I point out that he is too close for comfort, but he makes no move. I tell him he's invading my space and I want him to get out of it. He scoffs, and moves very slightly. He then begins to complain in a loud voice about unreasonable women, until I tell him I'm going to make a scene if he doesn't desist.

I take refuge in Twitter, in which medium my niece saves the day by making me laugh aloud. (Annoying man finds this discomfiting and I am glad). She has coined a phrase to describe her pet hate on public transport, for it is younger men with  lava crotches that give her the most trouble. And happily annoying man isn't going all the way to Glasgow and I am freed from his clammy presence.

Kelvin in his post talks about the need to deal with violence against women, and I agree with him. But neither my Annoying Man nor my niece's spread-legged travelling companions are being overtly violent - they're just behaving in a way that none of the men in my own circles would ever behave. They wouldn't be in my circles for long if they did. But they represent two distinct classes of public transport-users: throwbacks to a past age and present-day strutters (you know the walk?) who still think they are the dominant species. The former are likely to think it's all right to address women as "dearie" if they complain, and the latter to use Anglo-saxon monosyllables every second word in conversation as well as hogging all the available space.

None of which is actually threatening - or is it? And yes, in a way it's less threatening as one becomes frankly old. But if I had to take an evening train alone, as I used to when I caught the 11pm from Edinburgh to Glasgow in my student days after a concert, I'd love to have the choice of a women-only carriage. And if there were to be such a thing, I'd use it. Every time. Even though I feel ashamed of writing that, even though it seems a betrayal of the equality I have worked for all my life, I know it's true.

And maybe it's because Jeremy Corbyn is my generation that he knows it too ...

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tea-parties and bigotry

I've just been reading a most unedifying church magazine. It's called SATNav, and purports to help the good people of Ayr to navigate the life and witness of Holy Trinity Church in the centre of that town. The very first item is, unsurprisingly, the Rector's letter, which begins thus:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3: 16
The July/August edition of SAT Nav contained a press release about The General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s decision to move, over the forthcoming two General Synods, toward the introduction of same-sex marriage being permitted within the SEC’s churches. I thought it appropriate that I let you know my views on this matter…

... And then he reveals that he has signed the declaration of the statement of the Scottish Episcopal Evangelical Fellowship issued shortly after General Synod. This states:
In contrast to [the decision of General Synod to "delete any reference to marriage as being between a and a woman"], we reaffirm the doctrine of marriage as given in the Old Testament in Genesis 2:24, reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:5 and by Paul in Ephesians 5:31 - ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’

At the end of the statement, he invites people to add their names to it by email. Lest they should hesitate over this step, he adds:
What General Synod has done then, is not only to take a major departure from authentic Biblical Christianity as practised by the overwhelming majority of churches worldwide, but to hasten the decline and possible final extinction of the SEC.

He backs all this up with this sweeping assertion:
As the SEEF statement makes clear above, God’s wish since the dawning of time for all humanity is that marriage between one man and one woman is the only place for sex to take place and that everyone else, irrespective of their sexual orientation, should lead a life of celibacy. That is because, in God’s design, through marriage, men and women are meant to complement one another in many ways, not just for reasons of procreation; ways that are just not possible in same-sex relationships.

I become terribly worried when people assert that they know God's wishes in this fashion. We could all do that, could we not? No. Surely such dogmatic insistence trivialises belief. For Christians like me, only one command comes through with that kind of clarity, and that is the demand that we love one another as God has loved us. Heaven knows, that's hard enough without adding man-made conditions (and yes, I mean man-made).

We are then assured that there will be no same-sex marriages in his incumbency, but that anyone who comes to the church will be loved and cared for regardless ... etc etc. Presumably his flock will conveniently forget that they will only experience this care up to a certain point - or might indeed simply note that no priest in the SEC is allowed at the moment to conduct such ceremonies and wonder what he's going on about.

The letter ends thus:
As a church, ahead of forthcoming Diocesan and General Synods, there will be plenty of opportunity to further discuss General Synod’s decision.

On an entirely different subject, I am looking forward to the Holy Trinity tea parties we'll be hosting at the rectory and in members’ homes from this month. (You'll find more about this on the back page.)

If you read my blog post of yesterday - which I wrote about an hour before seeing the above - you will know that the scones and stereotypes kind of mission is alive and well in Ayr, but that's a wry comment rather than the main point of my putting all this stuff here. What I'm asking is this: How would you feel if this arrived in your inbox, as a member of Holy Trinity Ayr? What happened to all the thoughtful discussion that went on at Synod? What happened to the care for ministry to all  that would prevent a rector from coming out with such a bold statement of personal prejudice? Did he, I wonder, tell the vestry who appointed him that he was mired in the first century and would admit of no further growth in understanding?

He refers to the imminent demise of the church if it chooses to remove the clause about men and women from the canon on marriage. Does he know that that specificity was a recent addition to the canon?

But I'm becoming incoherent. I'm putting this stuff here because I am realising what we're up against when it comes to moving forward in the church I want to remain in. The person who forwarded the newsletter to me did so with the comment that now I would know why she was never going back to Holy Trinity Ayr. She's not a stereotypical agitator - she's a straight woman in her 60s who is furious. How is she being ministered to? She can't just go down the road and find another church - it's not easy when a team rector's influence covers a wide geographical area.

I know how fortunate I am at the moment. My local church is ministered to by a thoughtful, forward-looking priest who is careful to take everyone with him and who thinks about the consequences of his words. This could change in the future, for clergy move on. But to my mind, tea-parties and bigotry make up the poison that is eating at the credibility of our church, and if numbers indeed flock to hear their ignorant prejudices confirmed on a weekly basis it's not a church that I want to have any part of.

So - a sour note to start the week after the exuberant joy of Saturday. God help us.

Monday, August 24, 2015

No scones, no stereotypes

I found myself thinking about Mission in church yesterday. I suspect something in the sermon triggered such thoughts, and the reflection that the word tends to make me uncomfortable. I have never been able to contemplate standing on a street corner with a sweet smile and a bible in my hand, nor picture myself chapping on doors to ask the bemused inmates whether or not they're saved; I'm not the kind of person who invites neighbours round for tea and scones because I don't bake, much, don't eat scones, and drink tea that makes most people turn up their noses. So there's never been an area, especially since I stopped teaching, where much mission seemed a possibility. (Note: I never tried to indoctrinate my little charges; there's just so much Christian background to our literature that it was easy to hold it out, as one might a visiting card...)

But yesterday I realised that I'd been indulging in a spot of Mission (with a capital M) on Saturday. Yes, it was on the initiative of Provost Kelvin and his pals in St Mary's Cathedral, but there I was walking through the streets of my native city, in the middle of the Pride parade, holding aloft a placard saying "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You". And as I've remarked already, people clocked this, pointed out the placards and the big plastic banner (quite heavy after an hour) and took photos of us and - on more than one occasion - gave us the thumbs-up.

The surprise element in Mission. That's what was up on Saturday, and what used to work, I felt, when I was teaching. It was underlined by Kelvin's wee badge: Yes, I am real. Not for me the polite presence behind a tea-table or the lone voice on the doorstep - because both would put me off religion for a start. Mission as the unexpected presence, the assertion that one can be a Christian and not conform to stereotypes - that's where I belong.

Another problem nailed. Cheers, Kelvin!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Proud to march with Pride

I'm no novice when it comes to marches, gatherings, protests and the like - from joining in a CND march when I was 16, the day after the fire that destroyed Glasgow's St Andrew's Halls (how do I remember that?) to organising marches in Dunoon in the 80s, picketing the pier at the American base on Holy Loch, marching through Clydebank, gathering in George Square; from producing a handful of protestors at Faslane to joining the huge anti-war march in Glasgow in the Blair era. I've walked miles in various linked causes, mostly in the rain. You'd think I might have had enough ...

But today I joined my first Pride march through Glasgow, as part of a group of Episcopalians stressing the point that there is a church where gay, transgender, bi and straight are welcomed, and where some of us are working for the day when anyone - of whatever sexual orientation - will be able to marry there if they want to. That's why I was there - a straight marcher among the most varied crowd I've ever been in - because the injustice of the current prevarication and and discrimination in church circles that means we're still wrangling over whether or not we'll join civil society in a bit of human decency.

What was it like? Well, to be honest, it was brilliant. I think a big part of it was the sheer exuberant joy of the thing. No-one seemed to be angry, resentful, pugnacious - though God knows many present must have had reason to be. The music, pumping from supermarket lorries bursting with people and sound-systems, was infectious (as long as you weren't standing right in front of it. Then it was merely deafening.) Dancing Queen at that volume? The Proclaimers? Great. Loved it. And as we marched from Glasgow Green through the city, people hung out of windows, took photos, waved, smiled. It was particularly gratifying when people clearly took photos of the banner shown above, gave the thumbs up, showed others that there was a real live priest in his black duds and all marching under a rainbow umbrella.

I wondered how it'd feel, being so much in the minority on this day, but to be honest it didn't feel like anything. I felt I was in a crowd of people, united in a common purpose. No-one could tell if I was straight or not; I couldn't have cared less. Everyone was friendly. It was a good place to be.

But it would have been lovely to have had one of our bishops marching beside me ...

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Missing Link

 Readers of this blog will know that I've been dabbling in my family tree - can one dabble in a tree?
It was this photo that clinched the knowledge that the families I'd been trying to link were indeed the one extended family. This came from a tweet from the cousin I've been pestering for the past year, intermittently, with suggestions about various relatives and dates, and when I looked carefully - i.e. not on my phone screen - I recognised faces. I hope he doesn't mind me sharing it further, with my part of the family as it were ...

The first face I recognised was that of the young man in uniform in the middle of the back row. He was my uncle, my mother's wee brother. I didn't notice right away, but I'm convinced the woman second left on the front row is his sister, my aunt. But the face I saw next was the woman standing beside my uniformed uncle - and then the man beside her. My Great-aunt Chrissie, and her English husband Jack Smith. That tilt of the head - those ears ...

And then I went burrowing and found this photo in a box, a nice, clear photo taken by my father.
Recognise the same couple? This was taken in 1958, in Arran, outside the house we rented every summer, and I remember the day they came to visit - presumably because we were there for the whole 8 weeks of the school holidays when they had paid a visit to Scotland, travelling from Letchworth where they lived. And yes, that's me in the photo, with a dire hairstyle - it took me a while to find what to do with short hair after my pigtails came off; I owed, I fear, a debt to Helen Shapiro for several years thereafter.

But how strange that it should be Aunt Chrissie, someone we rarely saw, who should be so immediately recognisable. My grandfather's sister, whose voice I remember as being wonderfully deep - a family trait. I can remember her telling her husband to go and keep my father company when he went outside on this day, worn out by hours of family gossip, seeking solitude: how we laughed! He always joked ruefully about how this same Aunt Chrissie told him that when he married my mother he became her 57th relative; for the rest of his life he referred to my mother's family as the Heinz 57 varieties.

So that's today's excitement. This genealogy malarky can become engrossing - and hugely time-consuming.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Rummaging among the ancestors

James Roger Stewart in 1937
I've been spending today, this rainy day, in the company of shadows. Piqued into action by a succession of Tweets with a second cousin I only know online, I started looking at old photos first - my grandfather in the Witwatersrand Rifles, in his adventuresome young manhood when he took off to South Africa to help run a school in Pretoria; my grandmother as the pupil teacher who set off from rural Aberdeenshire to meet and marry this man she hadn't seen for two years; the tinted photographic postcards he sent her, photos of the house, the school, the countryside, the grand buildings of Durban and Johannesburg. Eventually I shall get round to digitising some of these images, but for now I need somewhere convenient to put down some names.

Because that was the second thing I did, as the rain worsened and the day grew drearier: I phoned the brother-in-law whose persistent patience means that he knows more about my rellies than I do. And that way, I learned about one strand of the family tree - that of my maternal grandfather, James Roger Stewart, he who was a prize shot, who went to South Africa but returned with his wife and his two-year-old daughter Margaret, my mother, and who was heartbroken that a stomach ulcer prevented him and his skills as a marksman from being sent to the Front.

This is what I found:

Father David Stewart, born Ireland c. 1852; d. 15/11/14 in Gairbraid Road, Maryhill, Glasgow.
Mother Sarah Rogers, d. Maryhill, 1894.

James Roger Stewart (1878-1958); my grandfather.
Frederick Stewart (1879 - ?) -----------sons James Stewart, 1909 - ?; Frederick Stewart.
Margaret and William John, twins; died at 2 years.
David Stewart (1885-1916)
Mary (died in infancy)
George Thomson (1889 - ?)
Jane Cunninghame (died in infancy)
Sarah (died in infancy)
Christina (Auntie Chrissie) (1893 - 1978) Lived in Letchworth when I knew her.
Sarah Agnes (1894 - ?)
and by David Stewart's second wife, Margaret Cameron, whom my grandfather called "Steppie" -
Clara (d. infancy) and John (neonatal death)

Gosh. All those babies, and all those deaths, including the death of a wife. Apparently the advent of the second wife drove my grandfather to leave home - he'd have been in his late teens and they didn't get on. The photo I have here is of a younger man than I knew, but the hat and the pipe and the moustache are familiar accoutrements. My own father took the photo, presumably in the days when he would set up his spare room as a studio with four lightbulbs screwed into the base of a jelly pan and mounted on some contraption to produce the ideal lighting conditions. More photos will follow.

This century beckons ...

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

There, then, you have it. Synod recollected in tranquillity.

We used to have an English teacher, a formal, pin-suited, begowned sort of chap, who was in the habit of saying "There, then, you have it" at the conclusion of any discussion. It's the phrase that comes into my head as I sit down to recall the events of last week's General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church, perhaps because in all likelihood it will be my last. If it is, I'm glad I made it so far; glad I was able to make a contribution to the effort to move my church forward in its recognition of the diversity and sanctity of human relationships. Others - notably Kelvin and Beth - have been much quicker off the mark, blogging in the evening what had happened during each day; I blame the fact that I only had my phone with me to excuse my failure to do more than tweet at the time.

It began, really, with the motion showing on the screen in the photo. There were other motions that seemed more promising, but this was the starting point. We'd all (I hope) read the Doctrine Committee's lengthy report, and receiving it was a start. The thing was that every time - were there three times in all? - the issue came up, people debated. Some contributed considerable points; others expressed bitterness. There were clearly people who felt that their traditional stance was no longer being given a chance - and believe me, it was traditional. I worry when someone says with calm certainty that they know what God wants. But there were also contributions on the side of change delivered in the measured tones of compassion and reason - words spoken by people I have grown to respect and admire - and I could feel a change in the atmosphere as we moved towards the vote that would result in Synod's deciding to ask the Doctrine Committee to remove the first section of Canon 31. ( The Doctrine of this Church is that Marriage is a physical, spiritual, and mystical union of one man and one woman, created by their mutual consent of heart, mind, and will thereto, and is a holy and lifelong estate instituted of God.) Apparently - and I hadn't realised it - this section dates only from 1980 or thereabouts, and was inserted by the last Provincial Synod, of which I was possibly the youngest member, after the debate on the remarriage in church of divorced persons. I well recall that debate; it seemed such a big thing at the time.

You can read more details in other places. Don't come to me for details. I'm inside my memories now, and they're not especially precise. At the end of the first day's debate, I spoke on the nature of marriage in relation to the idea of man and wife being one flesh. That makes it sound measured, considered - "I spoke". But it wasn't like that. I was prompted to my feet when someone said something that I couldn't let pass, and then sat there waiting my turn with nothing in my head but scraps of Shakespeare - Hamlet saying "Husband and wife are one flesh; therefore my mother ...". I didn't know how I would begin, even, until I stood up. And then it came, and I said my piece fluently and I enjoyed saying it (I love a microphone) and people clapped. The following day I was bowled over by the words of another woman of my own generation - and people clapped. A bishop made it clear that sexual ambiguity is in all of us, and did so by recounting his own experience, and the silence as we listened was one in which I felt that something hugely hopeful had come into our midst.

But when later that day the votes were counted, there was no applause. No-one punched the air, and the sense was one of relief rather than triumph. It was as if none of us dared to believe that after all these years the church had taken the first hesitant step towards recognising that the God we believe in made us all the way we are. I was aware of tension lifted; there were tears from those that in the end we had been discussing all those years. There was a knot of people sitting together who had voted against the motion and against the idea. Their faces were tight, expressionless. It will be hard for them, though not, in my opinion, as hard as it has been all those years for the excluded and the patronised, those who, like all of us, have no choice in the matter of their sexuality.

One thing seemed to lurk like a cloud on a sunny day, and that was the defeat of the Rule 10 motion on Saturday. In a house depleted of those who didn't attend on the last morning, a majority wanted to discuss the possibility that the bishops would look again at their decree that no-one in an equal marriage could be considered for ordination.* But it was not the required 2/3 majority, so we didn't even get to discuss why they might decide to let it stand. I know that at least one bishop voted for the motion, but the Primus did not. Oh yes, there's a kind of logic to this apparent failure of logic: the change to Canon 31 will take over 2 years to become law, and has to pass through two readings and debate at diocesan level before it can do so - therefore let's not pre-empt the outcome by even thinking about changing our minds on this one. No hope held out, then, to someone in a same-sex marriage who might long to put herself forward for consideration and training; they will have to wait even longer.

It must be tough being the chairman of the board, the Primus inter Pares (first among equals) who has to front the decisions and - presumably - carry the can for whatever goes wrong. The Primus presumably doesn't want further to dislocate the noses of those who are sure we're all heading to hell in a handcart. But at least one of his equals felt we should be discussing further thought, and I thank God for him and for all the brave souls who have spoken selflessly and thoughtfully for change. It is they who inspire confidence in our church and its future.

Despite that last-minute barrier to change, it is once more a church to which I feel able to belong with joy.

*As has been pointed out elsewhere, you can apparently be considered for ordination if you are in a civil partnership, or merely quietly getting on with whatever arrangements you like to make for yourself. It's marriage that's the bar.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Being Wilma, or a day in the life of a church organist.

I shared the joke on the right the other day, on my Facebook page. Dead funny, eh? Wee Wilma with her big organ and her shotgun. Snigger. But it got me thinking, and then I was talking to an organist. (I do this frequently, you understand). And what follows is the result of my chat, and the sniggers we shared about Wilma - a joke I first saw on the timeline of another organist of my acquaintance.

Now we can't tell from this picture if Wilma is any good at the organ. After all, she's a wee old wifie who'd be fair game for a sneer anyway. But that's not the point. This is:

If the organist plays a prelude (the music before the service, if it's not a familiar word) he or she (I shall give this dual gender up from now on - take it as read) has probably taken time to choose what to play (I can't do that one again - someone will notice I did it last week ...) and had a bit of a practice at it. If she wanted to use the pedals, that would probably mean spending time in the unheated church (midweek church is usually baltic) because she doesn't have an organ in her sitting-room.

Sunday comes, and Wilma is there early enough to change her shoes and get her music out. She may have to put the hymn numbers up as well, but she hopes someone will be there to help with this. Five minutes before the service begins, she sits on the organ bench. There is bedlam in the church as people greet one another loudly, argue over whose turn it is to read, or just catch up on the week's news. She starts to play, straining to hear the quiet passages above the noise. It's still noisy as she finishes, but as if by magic the very fact of her ceasing to play quietens people - because someone will likely announce the first hymn any minute now.

And that's only the Prelude.

By the end of the service, the valiant Wilma has played five hymns and accompanied the singing of the Liturgy. (We're in a Pisky church ...). Depending on the preference of the celebrant, the procession will either wait for Wilma to play something else (a Postlude) or will start processing in the expectation that she'll get going in a moment. So Wilma plays again. This week, she's playing something rather beautiful by Orlando Gibbons. Last week, she hadn't had time to look out something and instead extemporised on a tune that had been used for a hymn. She has a gift for improvisation, but is never satisfied with her own efforts. This matters not a jot: the congregation had burst into spontaneous applause at the end. Not so this week. The Gibbons flows serenely to its conclusion and, released from prayer and politeness, the congregation gets back to its conversations.

Wilma isn't happy. She knows all too well that the Gibbons met the musical needs of perhaps two people in the church besides herself. She also knows that she could improvise tear-jerkers or rabble-rousers every day of the week, but that wouldn't make her happy either. She can't help wondering if the people who applaud one week and not the next know how insulting they are. She ponders the possibility of playing nothing outwith the actual service (and did you know that the use of "outwith" is confined to Scotland and that's why I have a red dotted line under it just now?) Would it worry people, having nothing to signify that it was time to be quiet, time to go for coffee?

Who knows. Most of all, actually, Wilma wishes one thing.

She wishes they wouldn't applaud.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Road to Siem Reap

Listening to Vaughan Williams as I am borne along 
a Cambodian highway
the red dust billowing at our passing
I hear the cool, silver tones
of choristers in the echoing chill of
vaulted stone and know
as never before
the music rooted in the land
of its gestation.  A white ox
wanders over dusty grass
as the road beneath our wheels
Turns to dry, rutted mud
and the red cloud envelops
two small determined girls
emerging from a school
as crisply clad as if they too 
could sing qui tollis peccata
with the boys whose voices sound
a million lives away.

C.M.M. 03/15

I actually wrote this on a bus - an air-conditioned coach - on a six-hour journey over roads of varying degrees of completion through Cambodia. I scribbled it on the back of a daily bulletin in handwriting that I could barely decipher and transcribed it onto my phone notes when we stopped. I was listening at the time to Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor, consumed by the strangeness of the contrast between what I heard and what I was seeing.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A glimpse of heaven

It is 4.15am when the phone rings. Our alarm call drags me from sleep in the strangely lucid state that such sudden awakenings sometimes bring and I am slathering on the Rid (an Aussie DEET preparation) almost before Mr B has put the phone back. By 5am our group is out of the hotel in the warm darkness heading for Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. I am hauled off the coach to have my photo taken, and return with an entrance card round my neck. The photo on it looks pale, wary. My photo.

Equipped with torches of varying efficiency, we are led through the dark. We concentrate mainly on our feet, and on not walking into the person in front. Beyond my pathetic circle of light, the blackness seems absolute. I cannot tell how many people are on this pilgrimage, but sense their presence.

My earpiece crackles. After sunrise, meet under that banyan tree. I can see our guide pointing left. The tree referred to is an intensification of darkness, nothing more. I have not the least idea of what a banyan tree looks like, having only encountered one in the rudimentary graphics of Jet Set Willy, but assume that in daylight I shall recognise my fellows if I see them.

We arrive in what feels like a wide open space. To my left, I realise there are lights, tables laid with some kind of biscuits in wrappers, bottles of fizzy wine, orange juice in cartons. Everywhere else it is still black. Underfoot I can now see dusty yellow grass, and we stop. Apparently we have arrived at the vantage point.

And there we stand. Slowly, the sky turns grey. A dark red glow appears in front of us, and for the first time I am aware of the outline of pointed towers. I put my torch off, and can see my companions as vague outlines in the gloom. The light keeps growing, and we hold up phones and tablets like some primitive offering. At one point it is as if someone has thrown a switch, as millions of cicadas strike up with their own dawn chorus. A cock crows. We drink some tepid bubbly, eat a cracker or two, and continue our watch. Behind us, the moon sails above a tattered palm tree.

And then it comes. The sunrise is every bit as amazing as one could hope for. I can see the reflection of the temple in the pool which is now revealed in front of us, where the tiny ripples of visiting mosquitoes create their own beauty. I insert myself between two large people to take the photo at the top of this post. We watch until the sun is clear of the roofs, then retrace our path to find the banyan tree. It is, after all, entirely recognisable - and the only such tree to be seen.

We still have a visit to make - we are about to go inside the walls, ascend to the highest level, see the surrounding jungle in the golden morning light. We will learn that only the God can live in stone houses, and we will see amazing stone carvings. We will not end this visit till 9am, when the daytime crowds start to arrive. It will be amazing and memorable. But even without it I would have been content. I have seen the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

A visit to Hell

I've been putting it off, I realise - but now, before I allow it to fade in my mind, I have to write about my visit to Cambodia's Killing Fields. That's a sort of general name given to, I believe, more than one location, but the one we visited was near Phnom Penh, where a memorial park has been built around the mass graves of many thousands of victims. The "Killing Fields" name came from journalist Dith Pram, whose story was told in the film of the same name; the place we visited was called Choeung Ek.

And that's the history, briefly, and that's all we might have heard had we been with one of the other guides, the young men and women who looked after the other three groups every time we toured off ship. But our guide was older, probably in his mid-forties, and our guide had been there, in the heart of the process that the regime of Pol Pot initiated. This is really his story.

His name was Buntah, and that name was one of his first losses when the soldiers came for him. His family had fled Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived; his father was a teacher and would have been a target for the usual rounding-up of intellectuals. Fortunately, his father's hobby was carpentry, so he was saved by the callouses on his hands in the first few encounters with terror. They settled in a village, and life went on. Buntah had seen how some of his friends had been taken away by groups of soldiers, and told his mother he was scared it would happen to him. No, she said. You're too small. He was seven.

One day he had come home from school and was waiting for his parents to return when the soldiers came. Come with us, they said.
Can I wait to tell my parents?
No, no need. Come.
Buntah asked permission to go back into the house for a moment. He left his red cap on a table, a pre-arranged sign, and went with the soldiers. He never saw his parents again, and has no idea where they are buried. He was seven.

The next three years gave him the nightmares that had kept him from sleeping the night before this first trip with us, that wakened him every time he knew he would have to relive them for others. During that time, he forgot his name, answering only to the name the comrades gave him. At ten, he learned to use an AK47 rifle. After the lesson, the older soldier told him that someone would start running over the field in front of them. Try to shoot him, he said.
I don't want to do that.
All right - give me the gun. You start running.
And Buntah took aim, and succeeded in shooting the running fugitive. It took him 28 shots. He felt bad about that.

This child, this primary-school-aged child, served at Choeung Ek, and at Tuol Sleng, the notorious prison created in a Phnom Penh school. He told us how victims were killed - not shot: that would waste ammunition. No, they were clubbed and their throats cut. His voice broke several times as he told us of these things, especially when we came to the tree where infants had their brains dashed out.
Strangely, it seemed, he was smiling one moment and weeping the next. I didn't understand the smile of embarrassment until it was explained, much later.

We stood on the iron-hard dry earth of the paths between shallow pits from which hundreds of bodies had been retrieved. We had to watch our step: the rainy season washed the paths away and exposed more bones every year, bones which had become
set as in concrete. They would be rescued when it rained again. There were shreds of black clothing; a tattered jacket hung on some wire. If we looked up, the surroundings were beautiful with blossom and trees, while at our feet it was entirely hellish. None of us spoke; we couldn't even look at one another.

Later, at Tuol Sleng, Buntah told us how he'd had to help with the torture of high-ranking prisoners. Every so often, his pronoun would change - from "they did this" to "we did this". Every time he did this, I shivered. He told us about the scar on his shaved head - how a comrade had battered his head with a rifle because he'd caught the boy eating grass in his hunger. Stealing even the ears of long grass was a crime against the regime. He had lain unconscious for hours before crawling to a hut. It was never stitched. We could see that for ourselves. He was ten years old.

It was malaria that saved him. When he became ill and couldn't work, he was discarded. A woman took him in, looked after him. When he heard that the Vietnamese army was coming, he fled into the jungle. He lived. He was discovered by a cousin, who called him by the name he'd forgotten after being brainwashed. The cousin and Buntah were the only survivors of a family of 14. Buntah had to take up school again, learning at 13 the things he'd known six years earlier. He spent a year in a Buddhist monastery, repenting, meditating, studying. He learned English and now teaches his neighbours in the evenings. He has a wife and a son, to whom, one day, he will tell his story.

But I think the repentance for what he was forced to do as a small boy is a life sentence. His work condemns him to remember - and this kind of work, guiding tourists, is coveted in a country that is still so poor. So we were the agents, that hot morning, of another bout of nightmares and self-flagellation, a hot morning that changed us all.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

I'm back ....

Saigon skyline
I've been away. I'm back. And actually I've been home for a fortnight, but so far I've not felt able to write about the most extraordinary journey of my life. It was so different, you see - and though conversation with a friend and reading travellers' tales and watching movies and having my evening meal with the Vietnam war playing on the telly had all done their bit, nothing had quite prepared me for the experience of being in Vietnam and Cambodia. It was, indeed, only after returning home that I read, in the small guide book that was part of our pre-holiday goody-bag, the immortal words "visiting Cambodia is more of an adventure than a holiday".

I must say at this point that what became known as "The Hanoi Cough" didn't leave us unscathed, even though I was absolutely unaffected until the day we left to travel home. (It's amazing, the protective power of belief: I was convinced it was an allergy to the pollution, of which more later). And on a small cruise ship - our home for a whole week of the trip - such maladies spread, despite the  precautions; I can only say that the other great threat to health and happiness was avoided by being scrupulously careful with what we ate and drank, and the neurotic sanitising of hands).

There are moments that I shall want to revisit, but right now I thought to record some impressions before they become part of what I know and therefore less remarkable. The first was the heat. I've never been in the tropics, and the half hour we spent outside the airport in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) waiting for a hapless wench who was having visa trouble gave me a chance to notice how soup-like it felt. It wasn't that I was sweating much - in fact, unless I wore a rucksack, there was little outward and visible sign of sweat the whole time I was there. Interestingly, when I look back on the holiday, I realise that at no time did I complain of being too hot, other than in the cabin at night when we started taking the advice of Aussies who said to leave the air-con at 26ºC to avoid drying the air so much that it made coughing worse. The heat beat down when we were in the sun, battered us with its ferocity, but with a decent hat and the right clothes it was fine, as long as we didn't think about it.

The pollution proved a greater problem. A cyclo ride through central HCM City meant sitting in an
oversized bicycle basket being pedalled among hordes of motor-bikes along oceans of traffic while observing that my cyclo-rider and I were the only people I could see without a face mask. I am told that masks don't help with this kind of pollution, but the psychological effect was interesting. Even when we left the city and started to sail up the Mekong River we were affected - the farmers burn everything, so that a pall hung over the countryside every evening, and visits to traditional brickworks and crowded markets (where huge loads arrived on motor-scooters) all presented the same air-quality problem to someone more used to the cold wet sea air of Scotland in February.

All this sounds very negative, but the smells and the hot air were the ground bass to every other experience of the holiday, some of which were absolutely wonderful and require whole posts to themselves. But this introduction, an introduction for me as well as for anyone who reads it, will end now with a couple of generalisations. Vietnam seemed to me to be extraordinarily vibrant and go-ahead; the people seemed energised and forward-looking and the warfare of the 70s sufficiently in the past to be discussed as a proud history, even by people who were involved in it. Cambodia, on the other hand, showed me poverty as I'd never seen it: real, third world type basic living conditions;
terrifying lack of sanitation; acceptance of standards of hygiene that made us quail. We felt unbearably rich as we dropped in from our other world; I felt horribly guilty as the procession of coaches through rural Cambodia showered red dust over every thing and every person we passed. I know that the organisation that took us there makes a big contribution to the economy - as well as supporting an orphanage in Siem Riep - and that by visiting we were assisting in the recovery of a country that had only recently torn itself apart in a particularly brutal civil war, but I'm still thinking about it. I learned a great deal.

A final impression? The people. Unfailingly gracious and smiling whenever we encountered them. And young - at least, young to me. The average life-span in Cambodia is 68; if you live on the river, it's 58. So young, and so slender.

Oh, and that brings a memory that makes me smile: That cyclo ride? Mr B and I were among the last in our group to mount up, so that we were at the back of the train of cyclos weaving out into the traffic. By the time we rendezvoused at the Reunification Palace, we were the first to arrive, and it was clear that my cyclo driver had enjoyed overtaking one by one his colleagues who were burdened by the large white people who filled their baskets.

Me? I felt smug.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Another birthday, more memories ...

Another week, another rush of birthday memories. My second son was born on a bleak February day 37 years ago, exactly 4 years and one week after his brother. Writing that, it seems absurd that it was only four years, for in that time my life had changed so completely. For one thing, it seemed as if I had completed the transition from my Glasgow childhood - including university, work and marriage - to the adult life I've lived ever since. Not only that: I'd moved from the odd transience of our initial 18 months after moving to Dunoon with our 5 week old first child, 18 months when the fact that we were living in a council house used by the education department held out the promise of a possible return to the city - I'd moved from that to the house I still live in, overlooking the Firth, as solid a house as I'd lived in as a child. I'd made new friends, at least one of whom had already moved away to another life; I'd joined the church choir, become a vestry member. It was as if no-one had actually realised that I was a novice mum, a novice church member, a novice adult. From this perspective, 37 years on, I feel that four years are but a blink, but then they were a life-changing lifetime.

Having a baby in Dunoon - and are babies still born here, I wonder? - was very different from my
Glasgow experience. No due-date induction here; this was a GP maternity unit and you waited "until baby is ready". In my case, that meant waiting almost a fortnight past the due date that I at least had calculated with some accuracy: a fortnight of dragging my poor mother for walks up the Bishop's Glen in the hopes of getting something started, of complaining of the heat in our draughty sitting room of an evening when others were huddling round the fire. When I eventually reached the stage of thinking something was happening, it was the middle of the night; I phoned the hospital and was told to go back to sleep and come in after breakfast. Talk about anti-climax.

The morning was grey; there was light snow falling. I waddled carefully up the path to the car, waving goodbye to #1 son and grandma. I was admitted, the only patient on the maternity ward. And then it all stopped again. Another woman came in, I remember, clearly pregnant but convinced she just had a stomach upset. By teatime, she had a baby - she'd mixed up her dates. I was still unmoved. My GP arrived, told me he'd leave it to his colleague the next day if nothing happened before then. Nothing did. And so, two weeks later than I'd anticipated, I was induced after all.

But it was still very different. I was brought my lunch, and ate it between contractions. "You'll need all your strength", the nurse said. My husband arrived, suffering from flu and looking worse than I felt. Four hours later, #2 son was born, delivered by one of my lovely GPs in a pink shirt and a plastic apron. "You've got another great big boy here, Mrs McIntosh," he told me. We were left - husband, baby and I - in the delivery room, to get acquainted. We wondered at the red eyes of this large baby - the effort of birth had affected us both. He looked solemnly at us. Later, over a cup of tea, he was returned to me, clean and sleeping. "He's got all his bits," I was reassured. There was no-one else in the small ward - the other mother was next door.

In that half hour or so, while the nurses went for their tea (I presume) and the early evening darkened outside, I knew I was happy. This doesn't often happen - frequently we look back and recognise happiness after it's over. But I was suffused with a happiness that I knew and owned, and I've never forgotten it.

One sad memory from the week that followed: I could never bear saying goodbye to 4 year old #1 son at the end of afternoon visiting. He used to cry, and when he'd left, I cried too, in that bleak time in hospitals between visiting and teatime - and see how that is the same time when I was so happy on this date? And so began the juggling that is the lot of anyone with more than one child ...

So, #2 son, if you read this from wherever in the world your extraordinary job takes you, this shows once more how much more memorable your children's birthdays are than your own. Of course, you and your brother already know this - and you in your turn will still be remembering, God willing, in 2055.

How, I wonder, will you choose to record the memories then?

Monday, February 16, 2015

I remember it well ...

 I've been thinking about birthdays today - not least because it is the birthday of my firstborn. Now he's a very adult person and has been around for longer than the clarity of my memory would lead you to think, and that's the point, really, of this post. All through Saturday, I was remembering that Valentine's day over 40 years ago, when I was leaving to go to the maternity hospital and suddenly my husband turned up, having been sent home from work because the school boiler was burst. No maternity leave, just chance making the mid-term weekend slightly longer. And then I could go on to remember the very strange day indeed when I was subjected to then customary rigours of being induced on my due date, and faces came and went, and I lost interest in how my life was going to be changed for ever and concentrated on the more pressing (as you might say) matter in hand.

The birthday is actually today, because even with induction and much yelling from two midwives, the business of labour took so long. But it is the clarity of the memories that lead me to the conclusion that actually one's birthday is of far greater importance to one's mother than to oneself.  I think that unless one is a small child excited about presents and parties the whole business of remembering the actual day is one in which only a parent can fully participate. I remember with some angst my lack of
preparation for the birth - my refusal to go out and buy baby garments, for some reason connected with superstition and not counting chickens. My parents, I remember, turned up one afternoon at my flat in Hyndland bearing a Mothercare bag and insisted I stash it somewhere sensible ...

We, of course, had complicated matters by deciding to move to Dunoon. Mr B was already working
there, and the early mornings were fraught with getting up in the dark and wondering if the ferries would be running. There were nights when the boats were off and he couldn't get home. There was the strangely transient feel to my existence at the very time when I suppose I should have been building a nest. And I can remember it all.

I suspect we're all the same, we mothers. My mother - above, holding a rather small me - used to tell me how, high on whatever pain relief they gave you in these days, she hallucinated that there were men dancing on the roofs of the houses on the other side of Great Western Road from Redlands. She also told me they offered her tripe for her tea. (She declined.) And she always made sure she gave me something great for my birthday - many of the most esoteric books on my shelves came through her.

The other baby photo is of the one whose birthday falls today. I won't embarrass him by giving him a name. But I wanted to record the moment I realised that no landmark birthday of my own has ever seemed as unforgettable as his - or his brother's.

But that's next week ...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On cooking, baking - and custard creams

I've been thinking about food. Or, to be more accurate, I've been thinking about cooking and baking and how I feel about these activities - and about the fact that this morning I spent about an hour reading a recipe book. (I was given a pile of wonderful Ottolenghi books for Christmas; they're already full of paper markers and a list to tell me where exciting-looking things are.) It is perhaps a clue to my attitude that I then felt compelled to clean the bath - for a small inner voice told me that I'd been wasting time, sitting in my cosy living-room looking at the birds on the snowy feeder and reading about food. And cooking.

I love food. I'm what you would well call fussy, in that I like interesting and well-cooked food, and that there are things I body-swerve with increasing dedication: cream, fatty foods, shellfish, anything that will lie weightily in my digestive system long after I'd prefer to have forgotten about it. My mother, and now my sister, have long mocked my preference for green tea. But because I love good food, I try to produce same - and on the whole I would say I succeed. The creation on the right is one I recently enjoyed - venison fillet accompanied by freekeh pilaff and garlic yogurt - and I usually say that no-one who likes eating should be incapable of producing a decent meal.

But even after almost 44 years of being responsible for making the meals in my own home, I still feel it's not really me. I have the sense that I'm a sort of dilettante cook, playing at it without having acquired the basic skills or even the right equipment. Baking is even worse. My closest pal throws pastry together without a thought and uses it to entertain my grandchildren; she may never know (unless she reads this) how much awe I hold her in for this simple act. My Christmas cake is the best I've ever eaten, but since I stopped making children's birthday cakes it's the only cake I ever make - and more or less the only cake I eat, come to that.

So when I refer to myself as a Domestic Goddess, you should know that I do so in the spirit of deepest irony. Cooking - and the odd bit of baking - gets fitted in round the rest of my life even if the results are totally toothsome, and there's always this feeling that I'm in the same boat as the monkeys writing a Shakespeare play. Or something. My attitude to eating, I've decided, has hardened over the years. I shall never again, for example, eat a pizza - because you have to climb a Munro to use up the resulting calories. And I shall leave you with one final, devastating truth:

Life is too short to eat a custard cream.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A kind of madness ...

It's a sort of madness, I suppose. This need to be out of doors, preferably away from streets and cars and - if I'm honest - other people. This compulsion to walk fast enough, far enough, or maybe high enough to be tired, to warm up, to feel hungry.

Yesterday was not one in which I could accomplish this - a trip over the water to an appointment in Greenock and a subsequently late lunch meant that daylight had almost gone, and the rain was battering down once more. But today?

Not as promising as you might think. We drove out of Dunoon into a blizzard; the hill where we planned to walk couldn't be seen. But there was a glimmer further west, the merest hint of blue in the sky. I felt all would be well. And it was. Actually, we had one or two fierce snow showers in our faces as we walked, and an arboretum wasn't exactly a sensible place to start in the aftermath of a gale. There were branches and twigs all over the track; four conifers had fallen in a straight line, each one miraculously not hitting any of the trees among which they toppled; one huge eucalyptus was down while another swayed at a crazy angle. We could hear the wind roaring through the tree-tops, and there were alarming creaks all around. There were two daunting moments when we had to duck under half-fallen trees on the track. (One, two, three ... Why? What will that do? ... Make sure we have no survivor guilt.) But then we reached the lookout point, and the sun was out. It was quite sheltered, and the tall deciduous conifers to the left of the picture were swaying in unison as if conducted. My shadow, and that of the lone tree beside me, were clear on the far side of a small gorge - you can tell how far by the tiny figure beside the tree, which is yours truly.

By the time we got home it was 2.30pm. We'd eaten nothing since 9am. I felt legless with hunger. But I felt so much better than I have for days. It's a sort of madness, but it's my madness.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Snuffing out the candles

 We are in the season of Epiphany. Today I took down the (moulting) tree, put the decorations back in the loft, looked out at the rain, noted that the gloom of early morning had moved imperceptibly into the gloom of early evening, and reflected. I reflected on the past fortnight or so, in which the raging energy brought on by the pronouncement of the Bishops (read back - the links are all there) had been dissipated in singing beautiful music and soothed by the magic of Christmas.

And I have been consolidating something I've known for a long time. It's a long time since I stopped thinking that the gospel accounts of the Nativity are literal truth, half a century or more since I realised that in fact the gospels are full of what a student of literature recognises as the hallmarks of a fictional account. (Think of all that direct speech, for starters). And over the years I've heard sermons that have, in their way, dealt with that - pointed out relevance, invited us to think. And I've thought.

Now, as the rain batters on my study window, I can see clearly what it does, all this magic. I don't care that the stories of the shepherds, the angels, the Magi (and Eliot's wonderful poem about them) - I don't care that they can't possibly be true in the way that it's true that I was born in Glasgow. I don't want them changed in any way, for they are perfect. They are perfect poems that contain a truth that inspires, and they are best absorbed as poems, enhanced by art and music and beauty.

And what does this truth inspire me to? I suppose in one way you could say that it inspired me to become a damned nuisance. It certainly knocked me off a comfortable path and set me climbing the spiritual equivalent of the Aonach Eagach, on a ridge walk that I'm still clambering along more than forty years later. It's exciting, it's bound only by trust and love and balance, and that's how I want it to remain.

What does not inspire is a set of rules. Dogma and authoritarianism aren't very thrilling either. Dry politicking within ecclesiastical structures leaves me cold, and people - men, usually - telling me what can and cannot be done because of history and prejudice will tend to set me off on yet another mountain, to sustain the metaphor.

So what about all the beauty and mystery and the stories that tell us of Love incarnate and inspire us to love justice and truth and our neighbours as ourselves? I can't imagine that our bishops, for example, haven't had a bit of that for themselves this Christmas. None of them, after all, is as old as I am - surely they're not blasé about the mysteries they dispense? Does none of it do something to rekindle the fire that, presumably, used to burn in them?

Because in the end, that 's what it does, this season we've just had. It rekindles a fire. Dangerous element, fire - but warming and wonderful. Gives you courage. Gives you passion. I have heard at least one of our bishops preach with passion - but a new image has just presented itself to me, and it seems horribly apt.

Bishop's mitre as candle snuffer.

Icon, anyone?