Sometimes you need someone else to remind you of the beauty and wonder of the world. Even at this balmy time of year, attention can grow tired. I find this especially true in matters of the spirit.
One Sunday a couple of weeks ago, sitting in morning mass at church, I was dully contemplating the long slog from Pentecost (in May) to Advent (December). This period is what is known in the Catholic and Anglican traditions as Ordinary Time, when there is – or rather, it can feel like there is – nothing special going on. Easter is done and dusted, Advent and Christmas are months and months away. It often feels to me a bit like trudging back to the office or the housework the day after a marvellous party.
Far from being the end of the excitement, Pentecost is, of course, only the beginning. This feast, celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, signifies the moment when the disciples of Christ changed from being followers to leaders. Fired with the Holy Spirit, they began to spread the good news and thus to start building the foundations of the Church as we know it today. The book of the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible is full of a sense of the exciting dynamism of this time.
Somehow, however, I so often seem to feel that Pentecost is an ending. It’s the last half-hearted hurrah after the spiritual high of Easter. After that, as the weather warms up and holidays come and go and school terms end and begin again, it’s just a case of dragging the children and oneself along to church, week after week, through all the disruptions and spiritual torpor of the season.
I’ve only ever been to Rome once, and it was for a single day. I was making my roundabout way home after a summer job in Italy, and had one day to spare between trains. My Scottish-Polish boyfriend had lugged his kilt across Europe specifically to wear it while paying his respects to the Pope, then a fellow Pole. Without a map, we found our way on foot across the hot and busy city to St. Peter’s…and discovered that the Pope was out. It was mid-August, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, and he was sensibly on holiday at his cooler summer residence in the hills.
That is what Ordinary Time often feels like to me. It is as if the Holy Spirit is on his summer vacation: still in charge, but not making any personal appearances on the balcony to hand out blessings.
Thinking about this feeling, a far wiser writer than me has pointed out that ‘to the new-born baby or the dying man there is no such thing as ordinary time: everything is shot through with wonder.’ I know this, and I too am constantly surprised by the wonder of the world – so why can’t I carry that feeling into my worship? Sitting in church a couple of weeks ago, I thought I must make more of an effort. Dutifully, I started trying to pray. But the old phrases that rose to my mind felt formulaic and stale.
‘This is getting us nowhere,’ I realised, ‘neither the Holy Spirit nor me.’
And I began to wonder: when I ponder what especially prompts praise and thanks at this time of year, what is it I really think of? Outside the stuffy church building, it was another glorious summer day. Beech and oak trees threw green shadows across the sunny windows; in quiet moments I could hear the chaffinches and bluetits chirping in the branches just beyond the door. And it came to me: summer woods, tall feathery grasses, calves growing strong in the meadow; hot sunny days, blue sea lochs, pebbly beaches. This is where I find love and wonder and praise. This is where I find prayer. Suddenly the Holy Spirit didn’t seem so far away after all.
Speaking of wiser writers, I have only recently begun to discover the work of Mary Oliver. (Isn’t it thrilling when you find a writer who can articulate your own heart? I feel so lucky to be embarking on a voyage through her poetry.) In many of her poems she writes about attentiveness, the importance of noticing the small details of the world. She writes movingly, too, about the soul’s instinctive awareness of grace. These two themes come together in her much-loved poem, ‘The Summer Day’. Reading it, I found that my own thoughts had echoed her words, as this little extract shows.
‘…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?’
You can read the full poem here, reproduced with permission.
I am so sorry. I’ve been neglecting you, haven’t I? Hope you are having a good summer so far.
We’ve been pretty busy, from the run-up to end of terms (including our younger son reaching the milestone of leaving our local primary school, as he goes to join his brother at prep school in September) to the usual happy chaos of the summer holidays.
In addition, the wonderful course I took in June-July on book art/ creative writing kept my focus and inspiration away from blogging for its duration. It was so full of ideas: I am still working my way through them and it will continue to feed my imagination for months to come. However, it did mean that poor old Dancing Beastie fell by the wayside for a while.
Then there’s illness. I’m happy to say that my M.E. is still relatively mild, and indeed I feel better than I did a couple of months ago. It does continue to sap my energy, however, both physical and mental.
So there you go, three, count ‘em, three excuses for a dearth of blogging. Enough! I’ll re-start small, with just a picture of flowers.
My younger son planted a small patch of his own in the garden in the spring. Returning from a few days away, we have found everything burgeoning after a hot week followed by heavy rain. The red currants and raspberries are ripe, the parsley is running to seed, tiny marigold plants have each become a shouty fistful of bright blooms and modestly sized clumps of nasturtiums are now a tangled mass of colour. Since everything in son’s patch is grown primarily to be eaten, he started gathering the biggest and most leathery of the nasturtium leaves, on the basis that we should eat those first before we start on the more tender ones.
‘You know what,’ I told him, ‘we have a whole garden to eat. Let’s just pick some of the nasturtiums to enjoy looking at.’
‘Oh. O.K., and then can we eat them?’
‘Weeell….how would it be if you let me pick a tiny bunch just to look at, and you pick as many as you want to put in a salad?’
Here is an essential difference between gardeners. Is it a male/ female thing, or just the pragmatist versus the aesthete? Whatever, he agreed; and so we had a very tasty salad for lunch, and I have a sun-bright posy of marigolds and nasturtiums to share with you. Consider it an apology for being such an erratic blogger this year, and a promise of more sunny days to come.
You might enjoy The very hungry caterpillar: a tragedy in three acts.
I’m not sure where the past month has gone. Oh dear, why does midsummer always take me by surprise? One moment I am bumbling along thinking, ‘Ooh, the year is starting to get rolling now, isn’t it, we’re into May already, I suppose that’s Spring well under way.’ The next moment, ‘Aaghh! The year is HALF WAY THROUGH!’ Anyway, here we are, only a few days from being able to observe sagely that the nights are drawing in again. I suppose it’s time I got going on my 2014 to-do list.
Out in the woods, meanwhile (the weather is far too nice this week to be wasted on ticking off to-do lists) I noticed with a start today that the season has changed while I wasn’t looking. Those heavenly bluebells have all gone now, leaving a forest of seed heads instead.
The edges of the woods have become a thicket of nettles and sticky goose-grass, almost smothering the many other plants growing vigourously there.
The meadow between the wood and the river ripples in the warm breeze, lush with long grasses.
And in the hollow horse chestnut – still the first tree in the wood to come into leaf every spring, despite its scooped out interior – a pair of crows have raised three young. I’ve often thought that this hollow would make a wonderful home for some creature or other; but I only realised it was in use at last when, as I was walking past it not so long ago, the tree croaked at me.
Peering cautiously inside, wary of being pecked on the nose, I spied three yellow mouths wide open in the gloom, squawking for food. A week later, the young were fledged and ready to go. The last one flew the nest a couple of days ago, to join the noisy mob who hang out in the big lime tree at the edge of the cow pasture. I wonder if the same family will return to the hollow horse chestnut next year.
Before I go, I should explain that I do have an excuse for having ‘lost’ a month, and for my woefully sparse blog posts this year. After a rather trying few months, I have recently been diagnosed with M.E. It seems that this can be triggered by head trauma, which my doctor is sure is the case for me. Anyway, what it means is that, for the present, my walks are rather fewer and shorter than of old, and my head is and has been rather fuzzy and lacking in inspiration and concentration for writing (or indeed for much else). However, I am in pretty good heart and am hopeful that it won’t get much worse before it gets better. Now, where’s that to-do list…
From the days when I had a pre-schooler at home, you might enjoy Midsummer’s treasures.
‘Think before you write.’ That is good advice for anyone committing words to paper or screen. Seventy years ago, however, it had rather more urgency.
Inspired, as predicted, by this wonderful online book art course which I am doing, I began to search the castle the other day for old scraps of paper ephemera. There is plenty of it about. Several members of the family over the past century have left desks here, each with drawers full of letters, photos, bills, diaries and all the odds and ends that we each think we really will get round to sorting out one of these days, only life goes on and more urgent bills arrive and perhaps ill health strikes and so on until, one day, it falls to the children to go through your desk instead. In a house this size, however, the desk can just be left in a spare room and forgotten about; so the contents remain inside, a time capsule of a life busily lived.
The strange thing is that, going through the contents of a desk decades after the death of their owner, one still feels an intruder. Inevitably we put ourselves in the other’s shoes, thinking how indignant we would be if someone else thumbed through our private correspondence. Indignation, however, is a prerogative of the living. It is the descendants we must consider more, I think, in our treatment of the belongings of our ancestors.
When you find something really interesting, however, respect for family privacy conflicts with the historian’s fascination. Thus, when I discovered, under a pile of bank statements from the 1970s, a carefully preserved cache of letters from two brothers serving in the army in World War Two, I could not resist reading some of them. In this week when we have just been commemorating the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, the massive assault which began the liberation of Europe from Nazism, these letters are poignant first-hand accounts of what it was like to live through the war.
I approach these letters, I suppose, in three minds. One is that of the family: this is the correspondence of men who are remembered with affection, whose children and grandchildren are our cousins. I feel that their stories are not mine to publicise. The second is that of the historian: time has rendered these letters historical documents, first-hand accounts of a period which is now studied by my children at school. It is my moral duty to keep these primary sources safe.
The third is that of the paper hoarder, amateur artist/craftswoman and lover of ephemera. And it is in this mind that I wanted to show you one or two details of the letters. Arguably it is the most trivial; but it is a way of sharing my appreciation of them without, I trust, invading the family’s privacy.
What fascinates me as a lover of ephemera is the stamps, franks and other officialdom displayed on these documents. Here are some letters sent by the elder brother, on regulation British Forces aerogrammes. I rather like the way that the king’s profile has been garlanded by the frank on the letter at the top of this first photo.
At least one of these letters was opened by an army censor, who stamped his own rather splendid crowned mark upon it:
One notices the imperious tone of British officialdom at that time: ‘Security: think before you write.’ ‘Air Letter. If anything is enclosed this letter will be sent by ordinary mail.’ It was an attitude which won us the war, so one can’t complain.
The letters from the younger brother are also fascinating. Captured by the Germans in 1940, he spent the next four years kicking his heels in Prisoner of War camps somewhere in northern Europe (I have yet to discover where). His letters home are written on regulation PoW paper. Each postcard or aerogramme is marked Kriegsgefangenenpost, Prisoner of War Post. At least this made them free of charge (gebührenfrei).
On one there is a rather beautiful German stamp: unusual as all the other correspondence from PoW camps was franked rather than stamped (if I have my terminology right).
These letters home from PoW camps are small masterpieces of the unsaid. ‘No letters for ten days or more,’ wrote our officer on a postcard one March. ‘Hope J & C [his siblings] are OK: longing for news of them. Weather foul – snow, sleet, mud. …When the spring comes and the place dries up a bit it will be a good thing.’ You can imagine how dismal it must have been for him to have mentioned it at all to his parents. ‘Got clothes parcel y’day, v. useful’, he wrote in another card in March ’41. I guess that he had been pretty cold. In one letter he was thinking of his good wool coat left behind at his club in England, and asked his mother to put some moth powder on it. How he must have longed for that coat in the endless winters in camp!
Both these brothers, happily, survived the war and went on to marry and have children and grandchildren. The letters have ended up here because they were inherited and treasured by their sister, my husband’s grandmother. Their story is for another to tell, or not: all I can tell you is that, whatever the temptation, these are pieces of ephemera which I will not be cutting up for my art course.
You might enjoy some wartime memories of the castle in Cycling in the ballroom: children’s castle memories.
If you drop by Dancing Beastie from time to time, you might perhaps have noticed a slowly-growing column of images tucked down at the bottom of the right-hand side of the page. It goes by the catchy headline, ‘Inspiring me this month’.
Here is where I put links to books and music that have captured the spirit of the moment for me. I began it in October 2012, fresh from a week’s art course in Venice, when I was bubbling over with enthusiasm for La Serenissima and her cultural treasures. The first link I put on my ‘inspirations’ column was, therefore, to a CD of the sort of resonant choral music I had heard during High Mass in St. Mark’s Basilica; a CD which I listened to over and over again in the following weeks.
Back home in Scotland, the year was mellowing into a golden autumn, a season for cooking up comforting dishes and sharing firelit evenings with those you love. Some friends visiting from south-west England brought with them the perfect cookbook to inspire me for the shortening days, which again I wanted to share here.
Gradually, the column of inspirations grew, a mixture of the reading and listening that breathed life into each month or which best encapsulated my current interests. Oddly enough, however, I don’t think that I have ever mentioned it in a post. Perhaps I felt that reviews were best left to more experienced critics; certainly I felt that it was not up to me to try to persuade anyone else to see the world through my eyes. If anyone wanted to follow one of the links, fine: if not, fine.
On reflection, I think that this attitude was rather disingenuous. What is a blog, after all, if not an attempt to show others the world through your own eyes? From now on, then, when I add an item to that list, I will say a bit about it and try to explain why I find it inspiring.
So, the book on Winifred Nicholson which I have belatedly added, for example: it was published for an exhibition of her work at the National Gallery of Scotland in 2003, but I have been re-reading it because of the bluebells, which made me remember her vision of the colour spectrum and of the special qualities of violet. For her, she explained, ‘ “Violet is the colour of highest tension, the colour only visible in its beauty at moments of high vitality and clearest sunlight…It calls to a colour beyond itself on the scale, a colour that our eyes cannot see, although we know that it is there by the power of its ultraviolet rays. Maybe we shall see this colour some day when we have trained our eyes more precisely.” ‘ (W. Nicholson quoted in Winifred Nicholson in Scotland, Alice Strang, NGS, Edinburgh 2003.)
Occasionally there are gaps in my ‘inspirations’ list, sometimes lasting several months. This does not necessarily mean that inspiration has been lacking completely in those periods; although there have been patches of mental inertia, of course. More often, however, it means that my main inspiration at the time has been either nature itself – in which case the blog posts are my outlet – or my faith, which is intangible and un-pinnable. The word ‘inspiration’ itself derives from the Latin ‘to breathe into': the breath of the Holy Spirit is not something you can buy from online bookshops! So I might sometimes refer to a book on the subject which is helping me along, but I shall not be proselytizing here.
There is something beginning next week, however, which I am very excited about and which you can acquire online. Remember that art course in Venice which I mentioned? It was run by an artist friend of mine, Rachel Hazell, and she is about to begin a brand new course of papery inspiration and guidance for aspiring bookbinders and artists – through the internet! There will be daily tutorials and plenty of interaction with other like-minded souls. I have cleared a desk and got my linen thread and washi tape and paper ephemera ready. I have warned my family that as of next week I am, for at least one hour (preferably more) every day, I am Otherwise Engaged.
It starts on Monday. I can’t wait. And I think I can already guess the subject of next month’s inspiration.
My introduction to Rachel’s book art courses – and to the delights of ancient Innerpeffray Library – can be found in ‘They say that life’s the thing…but I prefer books’.
Have you ever walked through a bluebell wood in full flower? If you have, you will doubtless remember it as one of the most sublime landscapes you have ever known. This year the bluebells are exceptional: they seem to have spread and flowered everywhere, in unexpected places, under bushes, on lawns, along the verges of the main road. And in the woods, their preferred habitat, they are just extraordinary.
There is an oak wood a few miles from us which is famous for its bluebells. People make journeys especially to visit it at this time of year. For a week or two, the ground beneath the young oak leaves turns to an ethereal violet blue, shimmering on the edge of sight: it is a colour which seems almost beyond the visible spectrum.
It is pretty much beyond words, too. I took my younger son to this wood yesterday after school.
‘ You have to see this,’ I told him. ‘I can’t describe it, I have to show it to you.’
We parked at the edge of the wood and clambered over the low wall onto a path. At first my boy was in high spirits, shouting and capering, balancing on logs and recounting anecdotes from his school day. A few minutes into the wood, however, and he began to fall quiet: the magic of the place was stealing over him. The air was full of birdsong and the sweet, cool scent of millions of bluebells.Everywhere we looked, a violet haze pooled across the forest floor.
‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,’ breathed my son as he looked about him. We walked on for a minute or two in silence. When he turned to me, his face was full of wonder.
‘OK, now I see why you said I had to see this!’
We stayed half an hour or more. As we reluctantly headed homewards, we met the occasional other walker, whose faces reflected our own response to this woodland. One couple strode past smiling, regular visitors who knew all the best paths. A man in a suit stood in open-mouthed wonder for a few moments before returning to his car. An elderly pair in indifferent health stopped to ask directions, their expressions already filling with light and peace.
Sadly I can no more adequately describe the experience of being in this wood to you than I could to my son. You just have to imagine the scent, the birdsong, the occasional breeze shaking raindrops from the trees, and that ethereal, infinite blue.
You might enjoy In the enchanted wood or An escape into the bluebell woods. An artist who had a profound feel for the way that violet blue shimmers on the edge of the visible spectrum was Winifred Nicholson: you can find a little about her here in The lure of the liminal.
In an idle moment a few weeks ago, while chaperoning my son in his piano lesson, I scribbled down a few ideas of things I’d like for my upcoming birthday and emailed the list to my husband. Presumptuous as this might sound, I’ve learned that he quite likes to be given some pointers to avoid the dreaded last-minute panic – especially, perhaps, as I’d been feeling rather sensitive about this birthday. It happened to be one of those numbers that spells mid-life…and therefore also a little bit of crisis.
I was in a whimsical mood, so the things I wrote down were dashed off without much reflection. ‘A cherry tree’, I wrote, as they bloom around my birthday and I love them. ‘A blank notebook’, because I can always use them. And at the top of my list, straight from heart to pen without being filtered by common sense, ‘a Pashley bicycle’.
Pashley bicycles are the classic cars of the bicycling world. They are still built by hand in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, birthplace of Shakespeare. (Warwickshire has also given the world the Land Rover and the Massey Ferguson tractor: a proud heritage of engineering design.) The modern Pashley bicycle is modelled exactly on the company’s first designs from the 1920s: they are comfortable, upright bicycles for pootling down a Warwickshire lane for tea at the vicarage. I can’t remember when I didn’t yearn for one.
The bike I rode as a student was a third-or-fourth-hand contraption with no gears which I bought for a fiver. I painted it dark green with some leftover gloss house paint, and forked out for a wicker basket to attach to the handlebars. I rattled happily around on it from digs to seminars to library, basket creaking with books, feeling every inch the quintessential Oxford student. Once I walked around a corner of my college to find some Japanese tourists taking photos of each other posing on my bike, so I must have got something right with it. In hindsight, I realise that it was a poor woman’s Pashley.
A Pashley, however, is to that old bike as a Morgan is to a moped. Designer labels per se hold no interest for me, but beautiful design is very seductive. To own something both useful and beautiful is a quiet pleasure – and Pashleys, to my eye, fulfil both of William Morris’s criteria. This perfection does not come cheap, of course. There was no way I could ever afford one. So I would content myself with the thought that such vehicles exist in the world, and make do with my two legs for getting about the local area.
But my lovely, kind, generous husband read my birthday list. And decided to act upon it.
Dear reader, I am now the amazed, ecstatic owner of a Pashley Princess. Glossy dark green, with sweeping, elegant curves which delight my eyes and a ding-dong bell which delights my children. A wicker basket attached to the handlebars with tan leather straps. A brown leather Brooks saddle. It is my perfect dream of a bicycle.
Who needs a sports car for their mid-life crisis? Not me. Any time I’m feeling blue, I can get onto my beautiful green machine and be off for a bike ride with my boys.
There is one more happy point to add. The anniversary of my brain injury comes two days after my birthday. My physical confidence took as much of a knock in that accident as my head did, and I’ve been rather timid about any kind of exertion ever since. Two days after this year’s birthday, however, I tried out my bicycle for the first time.* (I sat on it on the day, but didn’t really ride it.)
It is nearly twenty years since I last rode a bike any distance. ‘I’ll just go a few yards up the drive,’ I told my husband. Off I wobbled. A minute later, with a gleam in my eye, ‘I’ll just try going round the corner, but not down the hill.’ Then my boys appeared on their own bikes to encourage me, thrilled to see their mummy on a bike for the first time in their lives…and we were off down the hill, a wide smile spreading across my face. Then just round the next corner. Then to the crossroads together. And up and down the next hill…and so on, with shrieks of delight as I rediscovered that ineffable feeling of bowling along on a bicycle.
What a perfect way to spend the anniversary of my accident. I think that my husband has given me, in every way, a most wonderful gift.
*And yes, you bet I wore a helmet!
You might enjoy Cycling in the ballroom: children’s castle memories.