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.