Friday, August 18, 2017

Treasure Consigned to the Archives

A while ago I joined on online book club.  The focus tends to be Christian literature and perhaps not the kinds of books I would naturally turn to. They can be quite academic and challenging and usually highlight how little I know about most things. The opportunity is always there to contribute to a discussion on the current chapter but I am content to merely read. I don’t feel equipped for anything more.

The current book is “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should know” by Terry Glaspey. We are over half way through and I can count the masterpieces I have known on the fingers of perhaps one hand, certainly not two, and definitely not counting my toes as well. I have loved the sigh of familiarity as I have come across a known poem or book or painting. The sighs have been few and far between.

The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ” is a series of over 400 pictures recording the life of Jesus in the gospels. Every story, every miracle, every encounter Jesus had is drawn and painted. James Tissot, in his early days, painted scenes of life in Paris and women dressed in the fashions of the day.  I googled his name and some of the pictures were familiar.  I’d seen them somewhere, posters on walls of cafes, perhaps. They had the “Oh, yeah,” factor but I’d never known the artist’s name.

He looked for interesting settings for his women and in on one place, the Church of Saint-Suplice, he had a religious experience, a revelation, a vision. He had been a Roman Catholic Christian, a lapsed one. You can always take the boy out of the Roman Catholic Church, but taking the church out of the boy is different thing entirely. He painted a picture of his vision.

He went on to paint a series of pictures based on the gospels.  He travelled to the Holy Land and made sketches of the landscape and people. He wanted to provide a visual guide to the life of Jesus, from a kind of eye witness viewpoint. He wanted his pictures to be realistic and not idealised, sentimental or sanitised in any way.

People queued up to see the series of pictures when they were shown in galleries around the world. They would stand before them in hushed silence or kneel weeping in front of them. This was exactly the response that Tissot was looking for. He wanted to evoke a personal response in people, help them to imagine the scenes they had read in the Bible and make it real to them. They were published in book form which proved to be a best seller. Obviously not everyone liked what they saw. They had, perhaps, been brought up on the equivalent of the series “Jesus of Nazareth” with Robert Powell and his blue eyes. Now they were confronted with the equivalent of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” with all the blood flying everywhere.  Sometimes there’s nothing compelling about Jesus’ serenity amid horror, but people choose the serenity because it doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable.

The chapter in the book ends with these lines:- Once a large draw to the Brooklyn Museum which raised the money to buy the complete “The Life of Our Lord Jesus” series through enthusiastic public donations, the works are now rarely exhibited and are stored in their archives.”

I read those words with such sadness. I imagined Tissot looking down from heaven with tears in his eyes. The very purpose for which he created them – to be seen and the power of them to bring Jesus alive to them – was no longer happening. Consigned to the archives and very rarely seen is not the end he was looking for. Yes, I appreciate these things need to be protected. Art deteriorates, colours fade, frames buckle and time dismantles treasures if permitted. I think it’s just sad. In today’s world there’s a hypersensitivity to being offended and no doubt some people would be offended and the exhibition taken down. I still think it’s sad – archives and some temperature controlled cupboard somewhere and a powerful tool for bringing some people into contact with Jesus is switched off.

I wonder if Tissot would have been happier knowing his paintings were falling apart through age, but being seen, rather than being protected with no one to look at them.

It makes me think of all those other powerful tools that could bring people into contact with Jesus being hidden in drawers and cupboards. It’s like the man with the one talent burying it.  He thought it was too precious to risk losing but it did no good buried under six inches of soil.

I’d like to think that I was making the best use of my gifts and talents to make Jesus come alive for people. Faith is a risky business. There are things that are supposed to out in the world and seen. I’d like to think I have assigned nothing to the archives.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


friendship begins when
I know myself alone and
I cannot keep breathing if
no one knows my name
my face and frame or
the thoughts I think or
the things I hold dear

a birth certificate with fading words
on folded yellow paper
records time, place and parent
nothing to tell of
the candles on my birthday cakes
my love for James Arthur
or the tears I shed when he left

you know those things – my memories shared
you know I exist
because I reached out and
entrusted you with “me”
and in the touching and embracing of you
and him and her and they
I became something more than just “me”

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

An Abuser? Not me!

Confession time. There is abuse happening in my house. It’s not an everyday occurrence but became sufficiently bad at the weekend that we called in an expert to deal with it.

I am not the victim. I am the abuser. My husband isn’t the victim either before you start matching up any bruises you might see to any comments he made about walking into a door.

Sunday afternoon the washing machine stopped working. We won’t go into why I was breaking rules about the Sabbath. I understand entirely the fact that I have a whole week in which to do the washing and I shouldn’t be doing it on the Sabbath. It’s just that I like a full load and sometimes that doesn’t happen until the Sabbath.

The door wasn’t closing or locking. There was no satisfying click. No button pushing. No gurgle of water. No gentle turning of the drum. Nothing.

It wasn’t an old washing machine. The sticker on the machine assured us that we could expect 10 years’ worth of washing. We hadn’t had it 10 years although time seems to flash by sometimes. On a previous machine we had replaced the door at least twice so the problem wasn’t new to us. Apparently, so I read somewhere, doors on front loading washing machines were always needing to be replaced.

I once stayed with my brother in Spain. I wasn’t actually staying with him as he was in hospital and I was staying in his flat whilst visiting him. He also had a broken door on his washing machine. A screwdriver rested on top of the machine. There was a knack to manipulating the screwdriver to close the door.

The expert, an earnest young man with a very large tool bag, and no replacement door, diagnosed the real problem – abuse!

“You’re slamming the door” he accused. He swung his arm in a short arc, acting out the offending action. “The inner mechanism of the lock is made up of plastic. The plastic bits can take only so much abuse before they break.”

Dis he actually use the word abuse? I think so.

I felt very ashamed.

He repaired the door in five minutes but the lecture lasted considerably longer. I could see he was a man who cared about appliances. His touch was gentle and his voice, addressed to the machine, not me, was soothing.  He was less so when he turned to me once the task was done. He gave me a tutorial on how to open and close the washing machine door, watching me with eagle eyes, and hovering nervously in case I got it wrong. Satisfied that I knew how to so it properly he added a sticker to the washing machine door. It wasn’t a five step reminder of how open and close the door properly but his name and number if I should resort to my abuser habits and break the little plastic bits again.

Later, I told my husband about the young man, the fact that the washing machine was working and passed on what I had learned about washing machine doors and the right treatment of them.

“Abuse, huh?” he said. He has bushy eyes brows, my husband. They danced a little before settling down.

There was clearly an implication being made. It would seem that the washing machine wasn’t the only object of my abuse. That’s possibly true. I promised myself when we bought a new cooker a couple of years that I would never let it get to the baked-on spilled messes of the previous one. TLC – tender loving care could be applied to any number of gadgets about the house – actually the house in general.

But what about people? Am I a people abuser? Do I slam the door on them and break what’s fragile in them? I worked for a while as a waitress in a local hotel. The day I left the manager said that it had been a pleasure to see a gentler, more patient side in me develop.  What? Was I that bad?

I confess that many of the conversations God and I have are about my people skills. They are not absent by any means. I’m not always gentle. The actual interaction I have is mostly gentle, but there’s a not so gentle mental commentary going on. One of these days the mental commentary is going to cease to be merely mental I fear. Something will slip out. How I think about something or someone will affect what I do or say.

Kindness to washing machine doors is one thing, but kindness to the people around us is something else. People also need that gentle touch and that soothing voice. Yes, sometimes they need to face up to realities but they don’t need to be slammed. The world slams people. The media slams people.  Social media slams people. And sometimes the church slams people. And what’s fragile in people breaks.

Is it really that hard to be kind?

We have an expert at hand who doesn’t just tell us to be kind bit, through the life of Jesus in the gospels, shows us how.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

I am Usain Bolt

I didn’t watch the race. It was Usain Bolt’s last race and a final opportunity to gain another gold medal to add to the collection he already had. The script didn’t go as planned and Justin Gatlin won the race.

I know little about the world of athletics. It has been hampered, as many sports are, by performance enhancing drugs and Justin Gatlin doesn’t have clean hands, or clean arteries, where drugs were concerned. My husband wasn’t happy that Gatlin won. He chuntered on for a while about athletics being reduced not to good runners, diet, exercise, hard graft and the will to win but down to which drug company does the better job. In a world where coming in second is not celebrated the pressure to resort to something other than talent and hard-work must be a temptation.

The husband chuntering continued for quite a while. He didn’t have a good word to say on Gatlin and he wasn’t alone in that. That Usain Bolt was beaten was not the issue.  Being beaten by Gatlin was a big issue. I’m not sure why life time bans have to be overhauled, or how eight year bans can get reduced to four years. Do the goal posts of banned substances shift and change so much that athletes get caught out? Does the cough mixture they used to deal with a tickly throat contain the wrong combination of chemicals? I can’t believe that it’s all accidental.

“Let’s be Usain Bolt in this,” I said to the unhappy husband by my side.

Usain Bolt was the real winner not of the 100 metres, but of something of greater value.  Beaten into third place he found the time to give Gatlin a hug and congratulate him on the win – and not through gritted teeth or with a mental image of running the man down with a big lorry. 

"He [Gatlin] is a great competitor. You have to be at your best against him. I really appreciate competing against him and he is a good person." 

The general reaction of the athletics world was something other than Usain Bolt.

"Why should we celebrate Gatlin's win? No-one wants to see someone in their mid-thirties who has had two drugs bans win the 100m. We don't know what lasting effects the drugs he has had in his system have had. It makes a mockery of the sport for me," said one three-time bronze medal winner.

“You can't sweep things under the carpet. The people who run the sport have to sort things out because we are not supposed to have moments like this,” said another Olympian.  

I know where they are coming from. I have a real problem with Christians letting the side down. I think because of their faith they should above things like adultery or abuse – but then I’m not above the smaller abuses. This morning God and I were talking about my lack of self-control.  I’d been playing around on Facebook and done one of the quizzes.  Morgan Freeman was about to tell me the truth. Apparently I don’t have to lie down and surrender when faced with a chocolate bar, I don’t have to cram it into my mouth and claim I coudn’t help myself. Self-control, God reminded me, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit – I am without excuse!

There is a generosity that seems to be absent from the world these days. I remember reading this verse many years ago from Psalm 20. 

“May we shout for joy over your victory and lift up our banners in the name of our God.” Psalm 20:5 

It shouldn’t matter that I was not in a good place at the time. It seemed that just about everyone I knew was succeeding in life, flourishing and blessed. I was crawling through my days, barely hanging on by the fingernails. To celebrate their victories when I was living through failure seemed a big ask. It was a big ask to demonstrate generosity when I was living in poverty. I think I chose to shout for joy convinced someday I would have my own victories. My life and times then. as now, were firmly entrusted into God’s hand. 

Sometimes it's not just the victories of other people that we don't celebrate - it's our own victories too that we fail to shout joy over. We stain them with "Yes but, I could have done better".

Was it a big ask for Usain Bolt to hug and congratulate Justin Gatlin? Bolt didn’t think so.  If anything Justin Gatlin showed courage in facing s hostile crowd. That could not have been easy. To know that this time it is just you and your hard training, without the artificial stimulants, that also takes courage. To I know that you are running against everyone’s hero and will perhaps end his dream that takes courage. To reclaim what you once tossed away – that takes courage. Maybe that’s what Bolt saw and congratulated.

I would like to say “I am Usain Bolt” but I have a long way to go.

Friday, August 04, 2017

The Power in a Poem

I reunited myself with the Velocity Café Poetry night yesterday. It had been a while since I was last there. We had a falling out, Velocity and I, although they were probably unaware of it, over a poetry event I tried to organise with them and they double booked the night and I had to find another venue at really short notice. Deeply stressed by the whole thing I swore never to cross their door again – you know, as you do. So I didn’t, that is until last night.

I had stopped going for other reasons – our church prayer meeting is on a Thursday night and I love the fellowship and family bonding that goes on. Some people have moved on to other places taking their poetry with them. One woman used to present, not poetry, but some kind of short story prose thing she claimed to written in the hour or two before the poetry night began. The stories were often on occult themes and seemed to go on forever.

Of course, there was the whole guilt thing about bikes! The café’s main business is bikes. There is a workshop at the back and an Information notice on the wall about prices for mending your bike on your own or getting someone else to help you. They have a ladies cycling club too. I feel I ought to have a bike tied up to the railings outside rather than flat-tyred and abandoned in the shed.

Listening to the poetry can sometimes be a challenge. I don’t listen well to poetry that I haven’t written myself although I am improving. The cafe has wooden floors which really doesn’t help. The noise of the coffee machine is distracting.  It’s not a physical environment that is conducive to poetry readings.

One man read a funny poem, a first draft he insisted, imagining what life would be like if we were like spiders. To have the capacity to pull string out of our bottoms might be helpful. Perhaps if we had some spider qualities, we might have a better understanding of them and there would be fewer spiders washed down plugholes.  

Another man read a poem, first draft he also insisted, about living in Inverness. Once upon a time, the city used to be a place you stayed one night on the way to somewhere else. It doesn’t have its own attractions. There is no busy city nightlife – or busy city day life, come to that. The poem was about all the things you can’t do in Inverness.

Another man read six poems about Donald Trump. He sent his younger daughter out to check on the bikes for some of them. He was not a fan and the poems were scathing of Trump’s presidency – amusing, but scathing.  

As I was listening I thought about freedom of speech. Another country, another leader and the scathing poem read out loud would put us all in prison, listeners and readers alike. Poetry and song has the ability to carry a strong message and is viewed as a threat in so many places.

One of the many books I have read over the holiday was a science fantasy written by George R. R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones series. The storyline was set in a world where the lines of society are clearly marked out. People follow the occupation of their parents regardless of talent or ability. A famer’s son can only be a farmer, not a doctor. The people with the privileges and wealth maintain it and the people without those things struggle day to day. That sounds all too familiar! A fisherman’s daughter breaks with tradition and the book is about the how and the why and the consequences.

Throughout the story poetry and song are used to pass on a message of victory for the down-trodden and defeat for the ruling classes. The poets tap into the mood of the population and stir emotions. Put their words to music and sing them over the world and they become as powerful a weapon as any missile. The ruling class threaten to pull out the tongues of the singers and chop off fingers of the musicians. Censorship doing its worst. Someone steps in to save the day and the changes happen and every lives happily ever after. We are still waiting for that to happen for us.

When I enrolled a creative writing class at the college many years ago, one of the assignments was to write on event in three different genres. I wasn’t sure what a genre was. The event I chose was an alien occupation. One of the pieces was a short story on the theme of the body snatchers. The second piece was a diary entry of a burglar breaking into the clinic where the body swapping was going on and making the discovery before being caught and body swapped himself. The third part of the assignment was a poem from the perspective of a fly on the wall. I discovered quite early on that by changing a line or two, or a name, I could make my own political statement with it. I posted it onto s poetry forum way back when George Bush was president. Someone commented that the FBI had probably opened up a file on me and I was now considered a threat to American democracy. I dug out the poem last night and did a name change. 

The Fly

I am a fly, I am a fly
And I spy with my million faceted eye
That the American president is an alien spy
And the earth’s population is going to fry

I am a fly, perched quite high
I see everything with my million faceted eye
As I watch and I see events pass by
I know Mr Trump you’re an alien spy

I am a fly, a tiny sly private eye
I know and you can’t deny
That I’ve seen everything with my million faceted eye
My, oh my, what secrets I could spill to the FBI

I am a fly, just for you I’ll turn a blind eye
For in my own way I am an alien spy
The world and I don’t see eye to eye
I know they’re out to get me as I fly by