Wednesday, 31 December 2008


The last morning of the old year.

A duvet of vaporous air is hiding the light. Its thick whiteness rolls down the hills and suffocates my garden, where the crunchy glitter of the frost rises to greet it.
It muffles sound. I am alone on a freezing, shifting white island.
The dog refuses to go out.

Obscurity: dingy, dull, dark and dim, says the Oxford Dictionary. I'm not happy with that. No year should end like that, nor new one begin.
Indefinite, remote from observation, unnoticed, humble, unexplained, it continues. Ah, that's more like it! I want my new year to be unexplained, and I imagine you do, too? Who would really wish to know what their future holds?
What would be the point of stepping out into an utter conviction of your own rightness; your right to happiness and prosperity and good health and all the other things we wish one another when we fall into the fountains in Trafalgar Square as Big Ben tolls the turning year (well, some of us do, anyway)? Where is the challenge in that? What an insufferable bore you would be by the end of 2009, and how your former friends would dread your company.

Equally, who could bear to step out into a year that they knew for certain held death and despair? Many of us will face this, but we do not do not know it yet, and so may hold on to hope; and that hope will temper despair with other, more positive emotions and make it bearable.

This is how a year should turn, from ending to beginning - obscure and unexplained, with promise and with hope.

Above that swirling duvet, the sun is shining. Underneath the sparkle of frost, the little verbena is quietly biding its time.

Happy and Obscure New Year to you all.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Winter of My Content.

Christmas Eve is a poignant day.

My husband left home on Christmas Eve three years ago to take some last-minute Christmas cards to friends, and never came back. His body lived for another ten months, but his mind did not. He and we never knew what had happened.

Despite this stark initial message, this is a story of hope and happiness, of growth and acceptance and rediscovery. It was a journey into the unknown for my husband, through the tortuous paths of brain damage, and for our sons and me in our attempts, if not to follow him, then to be alongside him in his confusion and distress.
We learned so much, all of us, about each other and ourselves.

I have always been proud of my sons (sometimes irritated, occasionally furious; always proud), but through the profound experiences we shared they became transformed before my eyes into wonderful adults: caring, thoughtful, funny, clever, hard-working, lovely people.
We grew, all of us.

Growth as a Senior Citizen is a challenge, and a challenge that I did not always wish to meet.
The creaking crystals in the knees were ignored as I forced myself out into the garden, come rain or shine. Never once did I feel anything other than refreshed and energised by having my hands in the soil. The stiffening fingers were also limbered up on the word-processor. I even learned to blog. My younger son gave me his old digital camera.
'Where's the manual?' I said. 'Teach me. Help me!'
'Stop fussing, Mum,' he said. 'Just do it!'
It was exactly what I had been saying about homework, a few years back.
Point taken!

I made new friends, and had the joy of being reunited with old ones. I discovered that I had resources and strengths that I had never drawn on before. I learned to be alone, without being lonely. I learned the immense value of solitude.

Now, as always, there is new growth in the garden. Invisible under the dark soil, things are stirring, reaching out to new life. Growth always happens when you are not looking for it.

I went out into the dark cold air of this winter morning, and the hellebores were in flower.
Christmas roses.

Happy Christmas, everyone!

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Working Relationship.

mm writes about the bleakness of winter, and the fragility of our over-developed lives. In the wet, cold darkness of the northern, recessional winter we fall prey to primitive fears. If that age-old market-place icon, Woolworths, can sink without much of a trace, so may we all. The gas may flutter in the pipes and die, the electricity snap off in an instant.

Here is my small answer, my measure of highly-prized independence, my puny fist raised in protest against darkness, bleakness, and the appalling behaviour of the gas supplier. My small stove.

It is dirty, it is gritty. It fills the room with a fine coating of ash, and when the wind is in a certain direction (south east), it may belch out clouds of smoke. The wind is seldom in the south east, and so it sits there, quietly glowing, the kettle simmering gently on its flat top.
I love this stove. It's Danish. The Danes really know about winters, and wood, and warmth. The stove burns wood, or smokeless fuel, or both. Its small air-intake dials respond to finger-tip control. It needs care and cleaning, ash-removal and soot-removal. Above all else it needs feeding at regular intervals.
I have wood in all shapes and sizes, from twigs to tree-trunks. I have fir-cones, dried cuttings from the vine, hanks of dried grasses.

During the summer, like the old European widow of folk lore that I am fast becoming, I go out gathering sticks and pine cones. I stack logs in my tidy woodstore. It is so basic, so primitive, so in tune with nature to stock up for the coming months in this way.
As the days grow colder I can warm up by cutting logs. I am hoping for a chain-saw for Christmas, as a concession to my advancing years. The smell, the texture of the logs, the skinned knuckles and aching back are all part of the primitive urge. My relationship with the stove is costly in terms of effort. What is the value of any relationship that does not cost effort?

In return for the effort I have warmth. I have a sense of achievement, and a type of security. I cannot run up huge bills without realising it. If I have fuel, I will use it. When it runs out I will keep warm by acquiring more.
If or when the gas and electricity supplies fail I can boil a kettle, heat soup, make toast.

Some of my friends think I'm mad, or at best eccentric. I rather think I'm not.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Reflection on the Arbitrary Quality of Life

In the Park the ducks get fed,
Kind people throw them bits of bread.
Oh, what a rotten stroke of luck,
To be hatched a pigeon, and not a duck!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Hoarding - the End of the Road.

But........hopefully the start of a new life in someone else's collection.

Once a week I work in a charity shop, sorting and pricing books. The books come in, some boxed, some in bags, or loosely tied with string. Maeve Binchy nestles next to Tolstoy, Thomas the Tank Engine lies down with P.D.James. Up the narrow stairs they go, into a holding bay, ready to be sorted by the handful of volunteers who also come in once a week or so.

We never know what we will find.

Sometimes there is a pattern. It looks as if someone has given up the linguistic struggle and a splitting carrier bag contains, 'Spanish in a Week', 'Teach Yourself Spanish', 'One Day Spanish', 'Basic Spanish in a Month','Beginners Spanish' and 'Conversational Spanish the Easy Way'. One hopes the holiday was a success.

The adult offspring have left home, and someone has finally cleared their rooms. There are two boxes of Ladybird books, and a great collection of hardback Enid Blytons. The Famous Five, apparently still parentless, are roaming the countryside, spying on suspicious-looking men, and being fed enormous cholesterol-loaded cream teas by friendly farmers' wives. Darrell and Mary-Lou are still being naughty in the dormitory at Mallory Towers School, while the early edition Noddy books remain a treasure house of political incorrectness.

Someone has had to sort out older treasures, perhaps from their parents' home, for in another box are some fifty-year old 'Boys' Book of Science' with many of the pictures crayonned in. The boys in these books wear knee-length grey shorts, white shirts, ties and pullovers, and when they go outside to do their experiments with string and baking powder, they wear their school caps with crests on the front. There are no girls in the science books.

There are sometimes bags full of Mills and Boon Romantic Fiction. We, the volunteer sorters, like Mills and Boon books. They are small, lightweight, easy to handle and can all be put on one shelf for collectors, without having to classify them by author. They can all be priced at 45p. Easy peasy.

Less easy are the big books of car maintenance for out-dated cars, the faded cookery books featuring prawn cocktail and Black Forest gateau, craft books full of ponchos and tam o' shanters in orange and lilac acrylic (see 'Beth' for more ideas) and town guides full of lovely photographs and twenty year old street plans. Collectors' items possibly - but where are the collectors?

More often there is no pattern, but each bag and box gives evidence of a life. A passing interest in Feng Shui and flower arranging, and a more extensive interest in thrillers and real-life murders. Can these co-exist? Perhaps this bagful indicates the end of a relationship.
Another box contains gardening books, especially about the cultivation of vegetables, several cartoon books about cats, including 'Feng Shui for Cats' which should really have been in the previous collection, and a clutch of historical romances. A more harmonious life, I like to think.
Then there is the disconcerting bag full of books about weaponery, which is not as disconcerting as the small man in the anorak who comes in looking specifically for such books.
'Have you got anything on martial arts weapons?' he says. 'Nunchaku and kamas and that?'
I ask if he would like to leave a contact number, so that we can tell him if something on nunchaku turns up. He prefers not to leave a contact number.

There is always a lovely assortment of children's books in this shop, fiction and non-fiction, all at pocket-money prices. Whenever I'm in the shop, filling shelves, I point children and their parents to the books. Much, much too often they smile politely at me and then drift across to the video and DVD collections. To the Disney shelf.

Have a look at 'Zhoen's' thoughts on Princesses, and mourn with us.

I do not give up on the hope that every book that has once enriched a life may go on to do its work again.
Sorting takes a long time. You can see why.