Sunday, 22 September 2019

Coffee table hymns and other tortures

It's been a wee bit quiet due to having been absorbed in writing another book chapter...

In the meantime, challenged by a friend yesterday who was off on a charity walk before breakfast, I wrote an 'encouraging' hymn, because why ever turn down the chance for quality doggerel?
Here below, a hymn for Eric, and indeed, anyone who needs coffee beans to get them up and at 'em and into the day.
This, to the tune 'Fill my cup, Lord.'

Fill my cup, Lord, oh, brew it up, Lord
Come and quench this torpor in my soul
Beans of Heaven, wake me 'til I sleep no more
Fill my cup, let me sup, and make me whole☕️

In a moment of madness, volunteering
seemed like a great thought at the time.
But in the morning hour, sleeping
Needed a jolt of caffeine or I'd die...

Fill my cup, Lord... etc☕️

In the morning, with my brain all a'creaking
I stagger to my sacred hoard
Of beans whose magic gives such pleasure:
Oh! Sweet sound of coffee being poured

Fill my cup, Lord... etc☕️
Oh my brother, why not try a strong expresso
Or perhaps a café au lait?
The mar'v'lous bean that we adore so
Keeps you walking for charity all day...

Fill my cup, Lord... etc☕️

Friday, 13 September 2019

Songs with low expectations

Just some random silliness in between work and writing and wonderment...

You've heard them: the big hits expressing high hopes for love, fame, success, or maybe just a quiet time out looking across the bay as the tide rolls away. It's all very well, but sometimes, life just doesn't work out that way; sometimes the expectations and the reality are poles apart.
Do songwriters need to lower their expectations?
Seems so: there's been a twitter feed rejoicing in the hashtag #SongsWithLowerExpectations.
So I decided to play.
Here follows a few of my own, perhaps more attainable or realistic, song titles...

Let's begin with some reworked hits for hungry folk:
Just haven't et you yet
Chips don't lie
Careless Whispa
There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop broke his pelvis
I want to hold your ham

or songs for specific professions:
The house that kill't me [a cautionary nod to Scottish builders]
Losing my hedge [a nod to gardeners]
The sounds of silage [a nod to farmers]
Hay, Jude [another nod to farmers]
I got ewe, babe [yet another nod to farmers]
Wouldn't it be gneiss [a nod to geologists]

or perhaps some songs for around the home:
House of the rising scum
Stairway to Devon
I gotta ceiling

and several general disappointments:
Papa's got an old used bag
Get outta my dreams and into my cart
All about that mace [a cautionary nod to stalkers?]

So, what other songs need to lower their expectations, I wonder...?

Thursday, 5 September 2019


There are times in life when inspiration is just utterly lacking,
or, when you're caught on the hop so completely, that words fail.
These tend to be the times when a particular prayer for a particular [and often peculiar] occasion is requested.
There are other times when, well...
it'd be kinda nice if someone else did the work.
What to do in times such as these?
I'm glad you asked.
After mulling over this wee issue during the week, I wondered just how useful a 'prayer for any occasion' template might be:
a Prayer-O-Matic, if you will

Given I've asked the question, it seems only fair that I offer a suggestion.
Here's a humble work in progress...

[insert deity name of choice],
we give you
[thanks and praise/ awe and honour/ a brief moment of our attention]
as we gather together on this
[day/night/am/pm/seriously random occasion]
[ask your blessing on x/ call imprecations down upon y].
Through the power of
[your Spirit/ the Force/ Greyskull]
may you
[cause this person/ group/ project]
[blossom and flourish/ wither and perish].
We are
[overjoyed/ excited/ secretly horrified/ quietly bewildered]
by this
[new ministry/ this bold initiative/ lipstick on a pig that's basically same old, same old].
Thank you that even now, you are
[with us/ gently backing out of the room, hopefully unnoticed/ beating your head against a concrete wall]
and that you
[hear us/ are inserting your fingers in your ears and singing 'la la la'/ sighing in despair].
We offer you our prayer in
[insert deity name of choice]

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Chaos and coup and countryside calm

sneaky peek at Tinto Hill, late afternoon...
A curious day.
In the long-winded saga that is Brexit, there have been so many labyrinthine twists and turns that not even a scattering of breadcrumbs would be much use as a trail to find a helpful way out. Parliament has been in a three year grid-lock of opportunism, grandstanding, and has seen very little in the way of leadership and common sense. This sorry episode in our political history grows more and more surreal on a daily basis; just when you think the whole festering fiasco can't be any more ridiculous, our political masters deliver more buffoonery. If this is the 'strong and stable' alternative to Ed Milliband that David Cameron promised in the lead up to the 2015 General Election, I think I'd like the catastrophic chaos of Ed, thanks.

Today's Brexit installment saw the PM opting to prorogue Parliament for 5 weeks in an act of supremely cynical timing. To do so basically involved throwing the Queen under a bus - not only undermining Parliamentary democracy, but also the Constitutional Monarchy. There have been plenty of hot takes on social media, lots of mud-slinging, confusion, uncertainty, and fear. Vast armies of hashtags have been pressed into service, including the currently trending #StopTheCoup. What's been remarkably absent is a slew of cat memes, a sure sign that this political jiggery-pokery of Boris must be serious. Taking the long view of history, Charles I and Charles II chose to rule without parliaments and that didn't end well. Meanwhile, we watch and wait, some of us humming under our breath 'Do you hear the people sing...'

As the interwebz buzzed and popped with comment and updates through the day, I had a late afternoon appointment to keep in a small country town. A diary mix-up from the other side saw me spend a cheerful time in the pub discussing the theology and spirituality of tattoos with one of the bar staff, and good banter it was, too. Some nods to the constitutional crisis, and one gloriously perfect steak later, I headed off back down the road in stunningly lovely early evening light. The beauty of the area I get to live in truly does, at times, stop me in my tracks and today was such a day. I pulled over to the side of the road, got out of the car, and took in the view of the sun beginning to make its way behind Tinto Hill. All was calm, quiet, and a tonic to the ongoing political chaos. I had no immediate place to be, so stood there in the moment, accepting that small gift of gentle grace. The old WWII public service poster came to mind, to 'keep calm, and carry on.' As I got back in the car and headed home, it was well with my soul.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Tiny tales of triumph

...or perhaps: feel the fear, and live life anyway
The summer holidays have ended, the school gates are open and, as I type this, young people will be emerging from their first day:
  • of school ever...
  • of going up a year in Primary school and becoming slightly bigger fish in their particular small pond;
  • of moving up to High School and suddenly feeling like quite wee fish in a strange, new, and rather big pond.
  • Some will still be waiting, and preparing for a new experience altogether: of being treated as adults and looking for work, or heading to university. 
Last week, Scottish Higher results were out, and today, it's the turn of England and Wales. On both days, there were many tweets along the lines of: 'it doesn't matter what you got, your results don't define you,' meant kindly, to reassure, and to help put life into perspective. I'm never quite sure about these tweets: for those getting lower than hoped-for grades, I wonder if  the kindliness almost has the opposite effect and feels as if the knife is just being twisted that little bit more. Also, while it's good to reassure, etc., it's also a good thing to be able to celebrate and for those who did get the grades they wanted, it can feel almost dismissive of the achievement and put a damper on celebrating. How better to balance that, I wonder... but I digress.

One of the big words around in teaching these days is 'resilience' and looking at ways in which to build it within our young people to help them prepare for a world where maybe not everyone gets a gold star. How do we help our young people and, for that matter, people in general learn to cope with setbacks in such a way that they can bounce back and keep going - to help build bouncerbackability, if you like? I'm often in awe of the work that staff and students do together in the five wee schools where I'm chaplain. From working together to build safe, kind, fun, learning environments and being involved in mutual decision-making processes, to ways of handling the wins and the losses in life, I see great team work, care and support. Here, building resilience seems to be the product of being:
  • a part of supportive, encouraging communities which... 
  • nurture respectful relationships, 
  • which have good boundaries set by the students themselves with the help of the staff, 
  • which not only foster healthy self-esteem
  • but also motivate students to be outward-looking - not the centre of their own universe, but a part of the universe itself with their own particular place in it... or 'not everything is about you.'
What I love is that I get to be involved a little, and over the 5 years I've been working here, it's been such a privilege to watch the students blossom and flourish, and see them learn to overcome some of the hard stuff of life. Their stories never make the news, but all of them are tiny tales of triumph. Long may that continue.

In the meantime, back to the first day of school, and of one person's tiny tale of triumph.
Among so many young people experiencing their first day at school, huge cheers for tiny 'E' this morning, who managed to successfully navigate the school gates with a brave grin. And, given all the stimulation and her particular special needs, managed very well. Wee star.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

of hills and river valleys...

On Thursday, I left the seaside behind, heading back to the Southern Uplands and to work. I love this time of year when the fullness of summer creates green canopies over country roads and the silage has been gathered up and formed into great, fat yellow cylinders ready to be packaged into black, pale green, and pink sacks for winter feeding - pink for breast cancer awareness, how excellent is that? The wee, fragile lambs of spring are sturdy and confident now, so big that poor patient mamas are lifted nearly off their hooves as their youngsters look for a cheeky feed.

Different sounds and smells here compared to the coast, the marked absence of herring-gulls fighting, for one. A family of swallows are annual, honoured eaves-guests and chat away in high-pitched peeps to one another outside the bedroom window in the early morning; four hatchlings this year. To the back of the house, where the Clyde loops and winds and becomes a natural boundary between newly-shorn fields, oyster catchers stalk the ground in search of snacks. Further along the valley, the hum of a tractor at work, a little late to the silage gathering. Closer, out front of house, the green and yellow of another tractor catches my eye. I watch it bounce along the road to turn off for the next field. Just like God, John Deere is ever-present.

At the moment, the field at the front is home to a flock of Bluefaced Leicesters. An odd-looking breed, tall with long, aristocratic noses and lovely sticky-up ears; they've now become a favourite. When I first arrived in the area I wondered if they were goats. Five years on, I am a little more advanced in the language and look of sheep, have learnt how not to get in the way at lambing time and have fed the occasional orphan lamb as needed. Yesterday morning, looking out at the field, I missed a perfect Kodak moment of what appeared to be synchronised sheeping. The flock had assembled by the gate. Rather than bunching themselves up, they were in a drawn out line of twos and threes, bodies all perfectly aligned, eyes all facing north-west and out to the valley as if watching the river. All were perfectly still. One of their number wasn't playing the game; in contrast, it was determinedly facing the other way refusing to conform. Or perhaps this was the star of the 'team' doing a solo? Having seen the young shepherd earlier in his trusty, rusty blue quad bike - with Don the collie at the back balancing on velcro paws - I knew the sheep hadn't come to wait for him. For fully five minutes, I watched them as they stood, stock still, poised and alert. I wondered what they were going to do. Nothing, apparently.
Sheep are weird.
Most of the farmers around here claim that the sole aim of a sheep is to see how quickly it can die.
Twenty minutes later, coming back by the front, they'd daundered off back up over the ridge of the hill and were lost to sight. Time now, however, to turn from sheep and turn to work.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Of estuaries and oceans

It must be because I'm by the seaside on holiday and staying in my wee bolt-hole, that I've been thinking of place...

Standing at my front door, I look to road's-end where the beach begins. Marram grass covers the dune, its pale green broken by bugloss blue, yellow ragwort, delicate purple milk vetch. The bushy buddleia continues on its take over mission, pushing up from the ground and spreading out, invading. By the tide-line is a scattering of sea-smooth stones, driftwood, a smattering of shells including the ever-present mussels after which the town was named - though older folk use a different name for this side of the river, remembering their fishing heritage: 'we're no' Musselburgh, we're Fisherrow.' High tide is mid-afternoon and the sun is beginning to peek out from dour clouds and lighten the mood. So close to the river-mouth the water is mixed up and muddied, never clear. This is not a beach where waves come crashing in; open sea is further out and here, although the Forth is broad, the tidal ebb and flow moves in a more kindly manner.

On coming back to this place, when I've been away for a wee stretch of time, it's the noise of the birds that always surprises - not quite Hitchcockian, but there are echoes of it as they flap and bicker overhead. Fierce creatures. Yesterday, a herring gull, presumably fallen in battle, lay dead beside the old wash-house in the courtyard. Still body gathered up, it was carried gently to the dune and buried, becoming part of the landscape more literally. Low tide then; the uncovered mussel beds the province of oyster catchers, black-faced terns, black-bellied dunlins, kittiwakes, the ever-present herring gulls, and two middle-aged wellied lug wormers searching for bait.

This morning, as the gulls pierced through sleep, in my half-dream state there were glimpses of another beach in a much wilder place; no gentle Scottish estuary. The sand was bleached white by a stronger sun and finely ground from free-rolling waves crashing on the shore. Blue-green transparent waves curled, glistening in the brightness of the light, then broke, surging into shore before pulling back out again into the deep. Somewhere, there was a hint of coconut oil in the sea-salty air....

It's been many years since I lived by the Pacific Ocean and yet, there it was in sight and sound and smell, and more so in the waves: there's something about the shape of a wave that marks its place in the world. Now, at the end of this day, the brightness and the vivid colours are still at play in my mind's eye, but it's the shape of waves that hold my thoughts. I look across to near where the kettle rests on the bench. Nestling nearby there's a jar of Vegemite and a box of Tunnock's wafers, symbols of the land of my birth, and the land I now call home. I wonder about the shape of my life, and how that marks my particular place in the world.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Stand up with a steely glint in your eye and crack on

the Nasty Party just got Nastier
Way back in the less dim and dark days of 2002 during the Conservative Party annual conference the then Chairwoman of the Party spoke of the need for change, arguing for a broader, more open, more sympathetic approach. The Party, she claimed, needed to rid itself of the reputation for being known as 'the Nasty Party.' That same speaker, Theresa May, who in the intervening years had risen to the dizzying heights of Prime Minister, today fielded her final PM's questions, then headed off to Buckingham Palace to step down as PM. In doing so, she left the post to the tender mercies of Boris Johnson.

If we thought the Westminster Government was relatively right-wing under Mrs May, the new incarnation under Boris was always going to be extreme right, hard-line. And, so it appears to be. With astonishing speed, having been sworn in as the new PM, Boris has wasted no time in what effectively appears to be a night of the long knives - culling any who expressed support for other contenders in the Party leadership contest as well as any not prepared to leave the EU if 'no deal' should be on the cards (as looks more likely to be the case). Within a couple of hours, the new PM had appointed someone who:
  • lobbied for the tobacco and alcohol industry
  • did backdoor deals with Israel as a cabinet minister and in so doing, threatened National security
  • opposed equal marriage
  • threatened Ireland with food shortages over Brexit
  • wants the death penalty reintroduced
and that’s just Priti Patel, the new Home Secretary. There's also the terrifying thought of Jacob Rees-Mogg who, with all his Pullmanesque Spectral presence, will soon be looming over Parliament in his new role as Leader of the House Commons. Strident Brexiteers and BoJo supporters have been duly rewarded with other Cabinet posts bringing into being a Cabinet that could only have had Nigel Farage as midwife. Truly, if it were at all possible, the Nasty Party has just become even nastier.

Why am I writing about this wretched turn of events? Yesterday, a friend posted a tweet expressing her despair at the thought of Boris becoming Prime Minister. She wondered how to get out of bed when waking up to such news. As I sat and looked at her tweet I realised that now, more than ever, we don't have the luxury of not getting out of bed: at the most basic level as followers of Jesus, we're called to stand up, speak out, be love in both word and in action. While there is no ideal political party, this is the Party who, through their long and inhumane policy of austerity, have preyed upon the most vulnerable in our society. Rather than tackling the various companies that pay virtually no tax, instead, the Party has scapegoated the poorest, the sickest, the ones not in a position to defend themselves - the ones Jesus named as 'the least of these.' This new Cabinet contains those who are cheering at the thought of leaving the EU, because they will no longer be committed to adhering to the EU Convention on Human Rights. It is now even more the Party of the elite, for the elite.

In response to my friend's question about how to get out of bed, I tweeted:
With fire in the belly, determination in your heart, and resistance in your soul.
They want us to roll over and be passive.
No. Don't let them off with anything.
Stand up with a steely glint in your eye and crack on.

I'm thinking of getting a mug made with that last: a small cry of resistance in times such as these.

Soft closing loo seats for serial killers

On holiday, and with a little more time to ponder life and deal with some household practicalities, I can't help but think what a strange, wee world it is. No, not the world where Trump and BoJo are apparently leaders on the world stage; I'm talking the world of bathroom accessories. In need of a new toilet seat *genteel cough*, I went on t'interwebz. I'd always thought that I was relatively easy to please and in this case, I was after a simple white wooden seat. Typing key words into a popular search engine, a vast cornucopia of delights and assorted horrors spilled out of my screen.
Ah, yes, add 'soft closing' to the search terms.

I looked at dolphins desporting themselves gaily on seat covers and twitched a little at the thought of another set of dolphins curiously watching my progress as I... well, let's just draw a veil over that.
I raised an eyebrow at seats with mottos such as 'Carpe Diem', 'Just do it!', and 'Yes, you can!'. I can do without motivational messages on a loo seat, thanks all the same. A small mercy: at least the first resisted going down the 'Crape Diem' cheap pun route.

The sheer variety of food and beverage themed seats truly had me puzzled:
a reminder of what goes in, must come out?
Then there was what I named the 'bling' range:
diamantes, sparkly glitter-pink decoration, pearls and champagne. Why?
Several seats left me oddly disturbed:
the large and too jolly Santa Claus seat...
the bloody hands - a favourite of friendly neighbourhood serial killers, I suspect.
However, I needed quite substantial amounts of brain bleach to get rid of the rainbow unicorn image.

toilet seat, please.
Clearly, I'm too conventional with my water-closet accessorising needs.
Where's my hammer?
Am off to build my own.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

sitting with the words: Didion and a grief observed


“I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: 
he would need shoes if he was to return. The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought. 
I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power.” 
― Joan Didion, 'The Year of Magical Thinking'

Very occasionally, a piece of writing manages to lodge itself somewhere deep within soul, flesh, bones, and sinews; takes up residence in a quiet corner and settles in for the long-term. I've been sitting with one particular piece of writing for several years now and keep returning to it, wandering in, wondering, and very occasionally, weeping. Each time I make the journey to the dwelling place where these well-considered, well-crafted words live, there's a sense of silent ritual; a physical nod as I pick up the book and realise that it's time once more. The ritual - blink, and in a moment, it's passed - involves a cleansing, a paring away. Sloughing off assorted encrustations of white noise and distraction. There's a baring of the heart, this to create that sacred space for honesty, a little like shoes being taken off in acknowledgement that, to be here is to stand on holy ground. These words are good; worthy of attention. These words refresh; a well of cold, pure water to drink long and deep. Time spent in their presence requires the patience of the goldpanner - to read slowly is to find those small shining specks that stand out, shimmer, call you to reach back in to the stream for more. The writing nourishes, is cathartic - tears, silent wonder, and deep yearning interweave - leaving gratitude and hope, clarity of mind and purpose, calmness of soul. With a nod to life, and a  satisfied sigh born of doing useful work, the return journey is made, and shoes put back on ready for the world once more.

So it is for me, with Joan Didion's 'The Year of Magical Thinking'.
What is it to grieve? Didion's unrelenting gaze, so often focused on others, is directed upon herself, examining her grief in the wake of husband John's death. It is astonishing, powerful, and written in her singular style: cool, crisp, and observing the small details, the marginal - people, reactions, items such as shoes, that elsewhere would go unremarked. Didion tells us this is how grief was, and is, for her filled with 'magical thinking.' Items don't get thrown away because they may be needed; they sit, waiting patiently, symbol of hope for the beloved's return. To remove them is to walk in unfamiliar territory, to let in the possibility of no return at all. Surely this present is just a strange dark dream that will end, and all shall be well once more? The shoes will be worn again, glimpsed under the table while the loved one sits on the old, wooden chair, engaging in the ease of old, familiar conversation. Grief is the place that unites mind and heart, who work together in disbelief and denial of death, creating magical thinking: keep the shoes and you might just cheat death itself.

Didion, in studying her process of grief, holds it out, arms-length so as to examine it more clearly. She refuses to give in to mawkish sentimentality: the years of disciplined observation of others now in full clinical sweep even while her heart and world is breaking. The disorder of grief is made orderly as she calmly recalls, examines, processes. Through the writing, Didion gives herself permission not to feel that societal pressure which tries to rush us out of the awkwardness and embarrassment of grief so as not to feel a bother to others; it is well-measured, there is space. Be. Breathe. Recollect. Release. This is what makes it an extraordinary book; it is defiantly counter-cultural - Didion doesn't shy away from doing the work of grieving, and as she does, provides a way for others to quietly do that work in their own time, in their own space.

There are many kinds of loss. Didion marks the loss of a loved one. When working through change, and loss of various kinds, I come back to her book, looking for traces of magical thinking within the particular situation. It helps to declutter my mind, reorient, and refocus it. Currently I'm pondering institutions, particularly the mainline church in which I serve, and which is undergoing a profound sense of loss: the glory days of 'empire' and establishment fading, the default norms of ecclesiastical power no longer automatic, the language now of 'managing decline' underlining a quiet hopelessness. There is magical thinking a-plenty within a structure and pattern that has seen better days. The thrawn resistance to change - the determined keeping to ways of doing and being that echo keeping shoes, just in case they're needed. I'm not convinced the Church was ever meant for power within the earthly framework of empire, so perhaps am less inclined to keep those particular shoes. How do we move forward, however, regroup, and do so that isn't a panic-induced rush, but allows breathing space for reflection? I wonder not what kind of shoes, but whether we need them at all?
If we want to stand on holy ground, we have to let go of the shoes.

Friday, 18 January 2019

heading home: Mary Oliver

'Meanwhile the wild geese...are heading home again.'
photo by Steve Gardner, Scottish Wildlife Trust
Safe home, beloved poet, with so much gratitude and heartfelt thanks 
for paying attention and for your one wild and precious life.

And while I love 'The Summer Day', it's to 'Wild Geese' I turn today...

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.