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Finding Christmas

On Christmas Eve we went to the midnight service – we wanted to go for a variety of reasons, probably.   But I felt ready for the tingle and scent of some holiness – candlelight and mystery – and the warm retelling of the old story in a way that felt both familiar and remarkable and relevant.  It didn’t have to be wonderful – not some peak experience besides which the rest of Christmas would seem pale and insignificant – but a little bit wonderful, maybe.

We were sadly disappointed.  The church was warm and light – but  too light for the lit candles to enlighten anything.  There was no sense of the special or the spiritual.  A bland, trite sermon that did not speak to either of us.  Maybe for someone there they were the words they needed to hear, but I doubt it.

And so we found our Christmas elsewhere – in poems, in each other, in the red squirrels at Eskrigg and the birds in the garden.  We always do of course – in places we look and also where we least expect it.  We were sent from the church empty-hearted and that maybe made us more open to finding Christ and Christmas elsewhere almost everywhere else.

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From the window I see the cherry tree leaves quivering, as if they have read a stage direction ‘be afraid’ and they decide that shaking is the best way to show that.  But only briefly – when the wind drops or changes direction they cease, still again in the cold, close afternoon.

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Greenwash makes me cross

A local gardening group recently made a song and dance in the local papers about getting a fair amount of money from a corporate body to create a wildflower meadow at our local Railway Station.  £1600 to be precise. The aim is to increase biodiversity – all very good.   They have done some good stuff – planted some birch trees and, presumably, some wildflowers that will appear in the Spring – although at present it is all daffodils. There’s something that is probably a bug hotel, although it looks like a gas meter box.  It’s in a good, public spot, but behind a fence so that it won’t necessarily get vandalised.

And they have put up some birdboxes – lots of them – at least 6 at the last count.  And every single one of them is facing south – so that any baby birds will cook in their nests. Everyone I have spoken to involved with the scheme realises that this is a mistake.  There are too many boxes, in the wrong place, and facing the wrong way.  Nobody seems that bothered.

Yesterday I spoke with the organiser.  He knows they are wrong.  He claims they can’t face any other direction because the funders (who also own, and/or  run) the station didn’t want the bird boxes facing the road, he says, in case bird droppings fell on cars parked there!    He says that anyway it’s just for show, and it doesn’t matter. And to some extent he’s right – the boxes are very unlikely to be used in the place that they are in.  But in a way that makes it worse.  They got money for those boxes, and yes,  I know it’s not a lot.  But it is such a  waste – and as it is in such a public space. it sets a bad example.

And they next time someone want to get some funds to do some biodiversity work, or tries to make a difference, some folk might think it’s going to be just for show, like this scheme.


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Wisdom is a Butterfly

I am not sure what I have here. I was shelving some books earlier today a took down a book I didn’t really know. It’s a  book of poetry by W B Yeats – apparently borrowed from, and never returned to, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals – there is a a bookplate on the inside front cover.  That in itself is a wonder – I have only fairly recently learned about this amazing organisation, which was established in the early days of the Great War, by Dr Elsie Inglis, after the War Office told her not to do any such thing.  She went on to set up  hospitals across Europe, and is still remembered and commemorated in Serbia.  How do we come to have this in our house?

But there is more.  On the flysheet opposite the bookplate is,  handwritten,

“For Wisdom is a butterfly and not a gloomy bird of prey” W B Yeats, March 1, 1918

At first I  thought that someone reading the book had written this in, a line from a poem in the book that struck them.  But it doesn’t seem to be that.  A couple of pages further on, there is a facsimile of a picture of Yeats, and his signature. It looks incredibly like the handwriting on the quote.  Did Yeats sign this book?

And there’s more.  The quotation is from one of Yeats poems, but not one that is in this book.  That poem, Tom O’Roughley, was published in 1919, in The Wild Swans at Coole, and was apparently written in early 1918.

Had Yeats just written that poem when he wrote a line from it in this copy of an earlier collection of his poems?

What I do know is this….

In Spring 1918, a soldier called William was dying  in a hospital near Calais, perhaps a hospital run by the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. His twin brother, James, travelled from Ireland, and was with him when he died, in April 1918. We have this image of men dying in war far from their families and yet, sometimes it seems, the family was there.

At about the same time, also at  a hospital near Calais, maybe the same one, maybe not, there was a doctor, a surgeon, from Belfast.

James and William had grown up in Belfast and may, or may not, have known this doctor from years before.  We don’t know.  What we do know is that,  years later, that doctor had a daughter, Eithne, who married one of James’ sons – also called William.

William and Eithne’s son brought this book here.  But whose it was, and how it came into their possession, is a mystery I would love to explore.

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I went coffeeneuring this Autumn

The idea was to cycle to 7 different coffee shops over 7 weekends.  It sort of worked.  It’s not that we  don’t have so many coffee shops here but many of the decent ones are closed on Sundays. One one occasion  I nearly had to go to Starbucks but came home instead, on a day when I was cycling round town doing the messages, which maybe didn’t count, except in terms of caffeine and calories.

I found that  weekends are often too busy – the joy of not having paid work is that you never really get a day off.  And on several occasions I was accompanying another coffeeneure who freelances and therefore has to work all sorts of odd hours, so we did a few weekday rides too.  As she lives about  10 miles out of town her mileage was much more than mine – I have to cycle the scenic route just to make it more than a mile into town.  Also I am a lazy wimp, so long rides and rainy rides do not appeal.

So here they are – but probably not in the right date order because it was complicated enough to do this.  It was fun, but my total mileage was less than 40 miles.  Yes, in total – I told you I was lazy.  But I did enjoy it a lot – and I will do it again especially as two rather lovely new coffee-shops will be opening in our town before too long: both independent, both serving Fairtrade coffee. And hopefully both with bike-racks.

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Escaping the morticed metaphors.

I came across the phrase ‘morticed metaphors’ in ‘The Greatest Prayer’ a book by Dominic Crossan about the Lord’s Prayer.  Crossan is wonderful for the way he can breathe new life into subjects that we think we know all about.

The phrase comes from a fragment of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  it is just a fragment –

Yes for a time they held as well

Together, as the criss-cross’d shelly cup

Sucks close the acorn: as the hand and glove:

As water moulded to the duct it runs in:

As keel locks close to kelson –

Let me now


Shake and unset your morticed metaphors

The hand draws of the glove; the acorn cup

Drops the fruit out: the duct runs dry or breaks:

The stranded keel and kelson warp apart

And your two etc

And that’s it – there is no more, and we don’t know where he was going to go next.

But it’s that phrase, the ‘morticed metaphors’ that Crossan takes to describe how metaphors can become more reified and more real than the reality which they try to describe.   They become concrete, set in stone, in a way that they were never meant to be.

For me, this is what has happened with Christianity. The metaphors have become set in stone and the truths they were meant to describe, allude to, have been discarded, or set as an optional extra.

God is a metaphor – for what a community sees as good and of value and life-giving.  It is a human construct and it can be a very useful, life enhancing concept.

Too often though  it becomes tied up with power and prejudice , and the metaphor becomes an idol – an object to be worshipped in its own right, rather than being recognised  as something that points to a truth that we should be trying to live out as a community.

However  I believe it does not have to be like this.  There can be groups of people living life to the full and ensuring that all others can too, sharing and loving and giving, and laughing.

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This morning’s glory

This year I planted some Morning Glory seeds.  In the last few days the plants  have started to flower.  Each flower only lasts a day. Every morning I can go into the conservatory to see whether there is a flower, knowing that if I miss a day, I may miss the only chance to see it.  It doesn’t bloom just for me, I know that, but it would seem almost disrespectful to ignore it.