Sunday, September 25, 2016

Poetry in Motion - Autumn

Yesterday was that time of the month for spending time with my friends from Poetry in Motion. The plan was all set, a short walk somewhere, a coffee shop for tea and biscuits and something to write about.

I wasn’t that sure about a short walk. My usual walks anywhere are based on the availability of a toilet. And it looked like rain was about to spill. My brolly was in the boot of the car.

We decided it wasn’t really a day for walking. One of us was really not up to it so we drove the minibus up to the woods. Beside the woodland classroom, on the veranda, under a sloping roof, was a picnic table that we could all sit around.

The topic was autumn. The forest wasn’t quite there yet – just the occasional splash of golden leaves on an otherwise green leafed tree.

Autumn isn’t my favourite time of year.  I’m a spring girl at heart. Autumn speaks to me of short days, long nights and an absence of much required sunlight. It’s not the absence of heat that bothers me, but I need my dose of sunlight.

We listened to a few autumn inspired songs and there was a sheet of famous poems - Yeats and his season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. We settled into writing.  I made lots of notes but there wasn’t an emerging poem in the words or phrases. I had an idea of a just-before-bedtime feel about the forest.  The year of spring with its furious bursting of life, and summer with its enjoyment of sunshine and breezes was not yet at the winter sleeping under the snow blanket stage. It was as if the forest was in the time just-before-bedtime. There was a changing of the outdoor playing clothes of green, to the indoor almost-bedtime of something softer and gentler like gold. I know some children that resent going to bed and put it off, and put it off, and get grizzlier by the moment.  The forest seemed to embrace the winding down of the year.

Short poems are good, right? We sat around the picnic table and read the things we had written. As ever, I recognised that I was in good writing company.  There were poems and pictures of squirrels and the autumn scavenge for food to hide away. There were poems of blackberry picking and pie recipes to bake them into. There were childhood memories, and observations about the wood itself and the dogs and children we could hear exploring.

A forest drifts into rest
Bright green garb softens to gold
As birds sing lullaby songs

I liked my line about the birds singing lullaby songs. It’s a first draft.  I will plough through my notes to see if I can see some other gems in my scratchings.

We had been there no more than ten minutes or so when it began to rain. Such rain! It was the lightest sprinkling of raindrops. We were under the shelter of the sloping roof. The sun was shining on the rain creating what looked like as gossamer jewelled shawl.  So light was the rain and the so delicate was the sunshine hitting each tiny drop – it really was beautiful. Turn your head just a smidgen to the right and there was no rain at all.

“We’re in a rainbow!” someone declared. Had we been back in the town looking up at the forest, we would have seen the rainbow.  But we were too close to see the rainbow from the right distance and the right angle.  Apparently there is a way to see the rainbow you are in if the light comes from behind you at just the right angle.  I moved to stand in the shower to see if I could have my rainbow moment but sun was at the wrong angle and the curtain of water had moved on.

We headed back to a coffee shop to tinker with our words.

As ever, the afternoon didn’t disappoint. I might not have written my best poetry but I sat in the quiet with a group of my friends and we enjoyed the silence and the peace of a forest almost in autumn. There was, as there always is, a lot of laughter, a lot of teasing, a knitted bonnet that did the rounds of various heads and people enjoying each other’s company. Take away the poetry and I would still want to be with there.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Why here? This Moment?

A friend posted a link on her website to a youtube where a poet, Dave Harrity, encouraged his viewers to take ten minutes out of their busy lives. They were to find a bench, to sit and observe people and traffic, and then write something about them. I think it was supposed to be a busy town centre where there were lots of things to observe. I chose a bench beside the river, not in the centre of town, not much traffic, but people strolling, and dogs, and bikes and pushchairs, and a river in full flow. The trees were in heavy leaf and the paving stones were damp with almost dried-up rain. It was nice to sit still and watch the water, and the people, and to be just an observer rather than a participator. It was restful, a space to breathe, to do nothing, to think. I made notes.

Afterwards I downloaded his book “Making Manifest” which promised a programme of meditations and writing prompts on bits of scripture. Apparently I was supposed to put away any other notes I was following and allow my writing heart to be exposed to the stirring of the Spirit.  I’m supposed to be discovering myself, peeling back the onion layers, as it were. I’m not sure that I’m doing it right. All too much of my thinking life is navel-gazing already.  I’d much rather think about God – which is probably where the book is heading!

At the end of every chapter there is a writing prompt.  Exercise 3 - What events led you to this moment? Take time to think about the recent epiphanies in your life – moments of awakening and realisation.  Pick one and reflect on in in no more than ten sentences.

It’s my notebook and no one is going to read it.  I can write more than ten sentences if I want to. No doubt keeping to the task is all about discipline and developing essential writing skills but it wasn’t a recent epiphany that came to mind. What events led to this moment? This living in Inverness as opposed to somewhere in the Midlands where I have my roots? This job that I do, teaching in a secondary school? This church that I go to?  This poetry writing vibe I possess? “This moment” is too vague.

I settled on why Inverness?  What event led me here? Nothing recent.

I went back to 1986 or thereabouts.

It was a letter written by the pastor of a church that my mum had started attending. I was working in Cyprus while she was living in Rugby. I was a member of a highly conservative Plymouth Brethren church and she has just joined a happy-clappy charismatic church planting project.

It was a neat letter, a very long letter, written by someone I had never met and had every intention of distrusting.  Plymouth Brethren and happy-clappy churches had little in common. Did I not know my 1 Corinthians 13 – the gifts of the Holy Spirit coming to an end now that we had the complete written Bible truth? It would appear not – that same Spirit and His gifts were soaked into every line of the letter. The pastor spoke of a way of living as a Christian that had little to do with the way I was living mine. A walk of faith went beyond following rules and regulations.  If the Holy Spirit was like the white rabbit, and I was like Alice, I was supposed to be on an adventure.

The letter provoked a response. A yearning, a hunger, a longing for the adventure. My mum had found a way of being a Christian that brought her joy. Now, I’m not saying I was not joyful. It just seemed that joy oozed out of her. She breathed joy, she sang joy, she prayed joy – she enjoyed Jesus in a way that I didn’t.

Somehow, in those pages of the letter, the Holy Spirit, leaked into me.

I still went to the Brethren Church on a morning and on an evening, but I went elsewhere in between – a charismatic church that met in a hotel somewhere along the beach.

The Holy Spirit settled and made Himself at home in my life. He rearranged my spiritual furniture and put His pictures on my wall. He was never intrusive.  I don’t think He ever needed to ask because He already knew I’d say “Yes”.

And then one day He asked me to make a decision. It was time to choose. My Sundays had become almost unbearable. I was finding it increasingly harder to live as a Brethren – the kind of Brethren in that place and at that time which is not everyone’s experience of the Brethren Church. The charismatic “me” was becoming hard to restrain. I was leaking in the Sunday evening gospel meeting. I became a woman who would not be silent.

So I gave in. I recognised the call and began an adventure.

I wouldn’t be here in Inverness without that letter, the words of the pastor, the hunger it created in me and my capitulation.

And the adventure continues.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Public Reading of Scripture

Sunday saw me up in the hills at the Moniack Mhor Writing Centre.  I had been lured there on the promise of writing poetry and exploring different poetry forms. The theme was “family” – not necessarily said with an Eastenders’ accent. I am a part of a family that expands often and shrinks occasionally. My own little branch is not really expanding apart from waist-wise.

The first prompt was to choose an object and use it as a prompt to describe a family member. Jewellery scored highly when describing mothers and grandmothers.  There were also pianos, fishing rods, teddy bears and false teeth.  For me there was a veritable mine of possibilities – but what to choose? I wish I had written about my brother’s urn resting on a shelf in a pub in Fuengirola in Spain. It might have made for a better poem than the one I did of my husband’s green dressing grown. I’m sure I have commented that I don’t do poems to order.  I’m never that creative on the day.

The second prompt caught my imagination.  This time it was about an activity we did as a child that we shared with an adult. Memories of playing endless games of rounders in the field at the back of the house came to mind. My mother was a child magnet. She was everyone favourite mother. The parents should have paid her for keeping their children occupied and entertained during long summer evenings. Two ever growing teams met to field or to bat. Children abandoned bikes, slides and climbing frames to join in.

I was never a sporty person. If awards could be given for trying hard I would have won a cupboard full of them. I just didn’t have the coordination.  The bat never met the ball.  There was no satisfying "thwack" as the ball sailed high and long.  No one had to chase after anything. I was rarely quick enough to drop the bat and make it to first base. As the looser I was told to join the fielders. I couldn’t catch balls either.  I wasn’t an asset to any side.

I wrote the poem, but was in the reading of it that it came to life. So much emotion was poured into such a few words! Did I really resent the other kids that joined the game?  Did I really feel that insecure that my mum might have preferred another, more athletic child, to me? I wasn’t the most secure child, nor indeed am I the most secure adult!

We commented about the reading of poetry. It was nice to hear different people reading poems. Among us there were different voices, different accents, different speeds of reading and a different imagining of what was happening in the poems and how they affected us. We bring our own baggage with us and can make connections, or not.

Reading out loud is a powerful thing when it’s done right.

“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” 1 Timothy 4:13

I am reminded of Ezra’s public reading of God’s book of Law and the impact it had on people. It mattered who did the reading, I think.  It wasn’t like an actor delivering the well-rehearsed lines of a play. Ezra read words of life, words that he lived by, words that he knew were transformational, God’s own words spoken reverently. It mattered that every word was clearly spoken, nothing mumbled or fumbled.

Sometimes scripture doesn’t need to be picked apart. Sometimes in the picking apart we slip in our own truth, or we soften it, or dilute it, or tell it a hundred different ways in the hope that someone understands it. We talk to the brain and the reasoning in a person, when sometimes all we need to do is talk to the heart and the spirit.

“...the public reading of Scripture” – God’s word without the spin. And the Holy Spirit indwelling to explain it to our heart. I think we ought to have “a public reading of scripture” revival and see what happens to us all.

I’m up for it.  Are you with me?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Never Making it to First Base

This is our game of rounders
Our bat, our ball
That’s our house just the other side of
                the wire fence
and that’s our mum
My mum
waving you over to join in

You could say, “No thank you,”
but you don’t
Do you think that because she
                knows your name
it entitles you to a relationship?

She’s my mum – not yours

I cross my fingers  and hope you will
drop the ball
but you don’t
You cup it in your hands as it falls
I wish that, bat in hand, you will miss
The ball sails high, thudding into
                the grass beside the slide
Maybe you will trip as you run
Perhaps you won’t reach first base
but you skip the circle -
first, second, third and home

That’s my mum
hugging you
and now I feel a prickle of anxiety
I can’t catch the ball
or hit it when it’s my turn
Only sometimes do I get to first base

I pray to God to
                let the sun set quickly
                so the game can end
and you can go home
and I can go home
with my mum

Monday, August 15, 2016

What is God?

This poem is based on "A Meditation on Question 4 of the Shorter Catechism" that my friend Jeanni led us through one Sunday morning at church - What is God? 

I have started reading through 1 Timothy and Paul cannot emphasise enough how important it is to have sound doctrine. Teaching false doctrine doesn't advance God's work.  It does nothing to transform the lives of believers.

What is God?

He is “I am”
Unchanging in essence
Never ceasing to be
He is wisdom
Marking every good path
Building houses on solid rock
He is power
Laughing at impossibilities
Dismantling the storm
He is King
Sceptre secure in hand
Increasing His government
He is love
Laid down life
For His friends
He is truth
Word in flesh dwelling
Sharp sword cleaving to core
He is “was, is and is to come”
Without parallel in the universe
Everything bearing His fingerprint
Alpha and Omega and
Every letter in between
Yesterday, today, forever

He is mine

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Jonny Rook and His Offspring

Yesterday we went to the Moy Field Sports Fair.  The weather forecast promised a dry morning with rain later in the afternoon.

Dry? We should have checked the weather for the previous day.  Not so dry, methinks. It was saturated underfoot. The paths between rows of tents selling wares were churned up mud.  The small margins of grass just alongside the tents that weren’t mud were soggy. It was a welly wearing event and I don’t have any wellies. I’m not one that forges ahead confidently in mud or wet grass.  Every footstep is cautiously tested. I have fallen too often on dry ground for wet stuff not to be a hazard. Yes, I minced delicately along, my socks soon wet in my trainers. The clouds that had threatened for most of the morning broke in the early afternoon for some warm sunshine.  I fooled myself into thinking it was drying out just a little.

The show arena was the just behind the food tent.  Food had been macaroni cheese and chips – not really enough of either to justify the price they charged. The tea was hot, though, and with the tea bag left in, strong too.

Something to do with birds of prey was being exhibited in the arena. 

The first bird to take to the stage was a very young owl. Not yet at the flying stage, he was a brancher, out of the nest hopping along the branch but not yet up to flying. It was his debut appearance. I learned a lot about owls. Their eyes don’t move in their sockets. Their ears do all the hard work.  When they fly silently it has nothing to do with sneaking up on their prey unheard. It’s all about them not being able to hear the sound of their own wings beating and being a distraction to hearing their prey on the ground.  Put food by their feet and they are unable to see it and feel it out with their feet. Interesting!  He looked quite big and fluffy and ran around a lot with his wings outstretched.

The next bird was an adult owl. He was quite happy to fly from perch to hand and back to perch as long as he had the wind behind him. He didn’t like flying into the wind, but was prepared to make the sacrifice for a treat.

The third and final bird was quite a rarity – one of only a few hundred in the country. I can’t remember the name of the bird or the country of origin. Quick google – the caracara from the Falkland Islands that goes by the alias Jonny Rook. Where according to the commentary owls are not as wise as they are given credit for, this bird was the Einstein of the bird world. He was also the boss of the bird criminal underworld – a nasty piece of work.

Where owls and other bird species reared their young responsibly, making sure they had taught them the skills to be successful hunters, these caracaras were not so conscientious. It was all down to the food supply. In a place where the food supply is limited, these birds had a “me-first” mentality. They were not food sharers. When they had chicks they reared them. They didn’t always take dead stuff to the nest but watched to see how cleanly, or not, the live stuff could be dispatched and eaten by the chick. Once the chick did that it was kicked out of the nest, violently, to fend for itself. Juvenile birds would form a gang, maybe eight or nine birds, and egg each other on to meanness.

They were not trusting birds. They had found out the hard way that mum and dad couldn’t be trusted.  The gang they flew with couldn’t be trusted either. It was every caracara for themselves.

I got to thinking about good parenting and bad parenting. The owls were good parents, taking time to make sure their offspring had the right tools to succeed. The owls had time to grow and learn how to fly. Mum and dad didn’t trip up junior as he hopped along the branch. He flew when he was ready to fly and not before.

The caracaras were not good parents. It was a practical move to protect a limited food supply but junior didn’t get taught stuff, he had to learn it for himself in a very hostile world.

I have been thinking about human parents. There are plenty of parents that follow the owl way of doing things. The offspring they send off into the world are well equipped for whatever challenges they face, and they have all the tools necessary to be successful.

However, there are a lot of parents that are more like Jonny Rook. For the birds they are simply being practical in kicking their youngsters out of the nest to fend for themselves. Is there a kind way to do it if you are worried about your own food supply? They end up creating the next generation of caracaras that don’t know how to trust anyone or anything. These are birds that opt for the pre-emptive strike – hit before the other bird hits you. Strike first, ask questions later. Juvenile caracara birds learn how to fend for themselves at an impossibly early age, hang around in gangs that terrorise a neighbourhood and don’t trust authority figures because of their parents. Perhaps part of the problem lies in the food poverty that the caracaras live in. If there was an abundance of food, would they be better parents?

So much of what happens in nature has a people-application. How the next generation of people turns out depends very much on us and how we treat them. It’s not the government’s job, or the responsibility of teachers to take over the job of raising children. It’s not only the parent’s job either to equip their children with the right tools. It’s a communal thing – all of us together involved.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Name Him Great

These hours, these days so full of tears
These weeks, these months, these barren years
Nothing green and vibrant growing
No seeds in hand for harvest sowing
In the turmoil God meets our fears

Times when locusts fall like rain
Destroying wine and oil and grain
Scaling walls and breaking through
Snatching all we’re clinging to
God, in love, restores us again

These things that injure, God permits
The hostile place that snarls and spits
Such times convinced we’re cut adrift
He grasps our hand, to rescue, lift
Sovereign on His throne He sits

The Lord, extravagant in grace
Bids us turn to find His face
“Come rend your heart, return to me
Surrender now and bow the knee”
Of enemies no hint or trace

We raise our hands to celebrate
We lift our voices, name Him great
Restoring fruit, lush meadows green
God’s fingerprint so clearly seen
On Him, our faithful God, we wait

(Joel 2:1-24)