Category Archives: Room for Reading

Reading Doesn’t Need To Be ‘Classic’ To Be Useful

I really hope I don’t give the impression that I only read books that are termed ‘classics’ or that I am snobby about any genre. True, there are books I’ve read that make my toes curl, as the writing, in my opinion of course, feels so dreadful. However, I have learned that in the world of reading, the saying ‘horses for courses’ most definitely applies. What I find to be awful, might appeal to others. I have good friends, whose opinion I respect, recommend books to me and which I found  to be boring, or confusing, or I simply couldn’t ‘get along with’. There are also  times when I recommend a book I enjoyed to someone who later tells me they hated it! There was a time when I would be aghast that a friend could possibly hold a different view to mine about a book, but I guess I’ve matured enough to accept that we can differ – it need not divide us though.

All reading is useful. A bold statement, I know, but I do believe it is. Even the terrible reads I have mentioned have been helpful in leading me to discern more clearly what sort of reading I am most likely to enjoy in the future. No human being has time to read everything that’s ever been written; we need ways to learn how to filter. Whatever we read adds to the refining of that filtering system. Sometimes this might mean we filter out books that we may well have liked, ‘if only we’d known’, but we simply have to have ways of cutting that pile of ‘books-still-to-read’ down to a manageable size.

The MOST useful reads though are those that make us think, no matter what genre they are described as. They might stop us in our tracks (thinking tracks, that is) and lead us to reflect on what is being said, or to make an association with some other experience we’ve had, or connect us with other thoughts we’ve had. We may not even be clear how the association is made, or why a word or phrase halts out thinking, or sends us down a new thought-track. It doesn’t really matter why or how it happens – it’s just brilliant when it does. Even better is when that thought won’t let you go; when you put the book down and it still has hold of you. You find yourself at a party, perhaps, or on a bus, or out on a walk, and there you are, thinking those thoughts that sprang to life in your reading and they’re with you now, changing the way you look at others or how you see the world. And you find yourself asking questions, saying words, telling stories, thinking more thoughts – that were never in your head before. And that’s so exciting. That’s learning. That’s useful.

What has been the most ‘useful’ book you’ve read recently?

Sleep Walking Through Life

IMG_0739“How on earth did I get here?” You know the scary thought I mean, don’t you? You’ll sometimes get it when you’re driving – which is quite possibly the scariest time of all to have it. You’ll be bowling along in your car, thinking you’re taking note of traffic, hazards, places along the way and suddenly you look around and think. “What?!! I’m here! But how?” And you panic , ‘Did I go through lights?’,  ‘Have I been speeding?’ It’s as though a bit of your mind had disengaged from the rest of it – like you’ve been driving on autopilot. Coming to awareness pulls you up so sharply you start to drive in a very precise way, taking note of everything around you and making doubly sure you keep to the limit and stop at every red light. You wipe your palms down and calm your breathing.  Scary!

I can’t think what that process is called, but it’s happened a few times to me, while driving and also while walking – often in busy town centres. But it happens in life too. You get to a point and you have that scary thought, “What brought me to this place” As though you don’t recall the route you took, or you can’t recall the reasons you had for making certain decisions that led you to arrive at this point – this job; this house you live in; this marriage.  As though you have been sleep-walking and suddenly you wake up and find yourself in a place you don’t recognise.  Scarier still, you find you no longer recognise the person you have become. ‘Who is this person standing in this supermarket buying this food?’

Lady feels like this.  ( “Lady’s Dreaming”. by Tobias Woolff) As the story opens, she fights to stay awake in a hot, airless car, driven by her husband.  ‘Lady’s suffocating”. Seems to me that might be a metaphor for her life – if only she could have stayed awake, she might have noticed where she was going, but she can’t have the window open, “because the air blowing into the car bothers his eyes”. Not that he’d make a fuss, he’s a nice man, “never a mean motive”. It’s an “effort of will” to keep her eyes open now – it’s so hot, it’s almost like having a fever. In this strange place – on the edge of sleep, but skirting consciousness, she begins to see more “things more distinct and familiar”. Is she coming to a place pf greater awareness now?

We learn about Robert, her husband, from her thoughts. “Tells the most boring stories. Just lethal”. Says so much. Maybe it’s the storyteller within me, but those short lines had me – I couldn’t like him from that point on! He’s a man who considers all his words. He’s careful. Orderly. He is considerate. Before the second page I find myself wanting to scream. No wonder Lady wants to stay asleep. Even though he is desperate for her to stay awake. He likes to say her name. “Shut her up in her name”. You can do that with someone. Make them a prisoner to what you say they are. He loves her name – she is what she is called. And he traps her there. Now it seems she can’t move away from it. He has defined her and curtailed her existence. She’s trapped.

He tried to call her to wakefulness but, “Sorry, sir, Lady’s gone”. Where to? “She’s back home”. Lady has escaped down the years back to a place with her mother and sisters. She’s waiting for Robert, the young soldier and her beau then, to come, but also “not waiting”. Why is that? Because the three of them on that porch are actually complete as a unit. They are at ease with other, joking and teasing each other. “Sufficient unto themselves. Nobody has to come”.

Robert is on his way to her though. Now we see him as a thoughtful man, who learns poetry and recites to her, although she laughs at that. He believes he needs to get her away from that family “among sensible people who don’t think everything’s a joke.” Where she can become the very Lady she is named for.  This young woman is so very different to the girl his family would choose for him. This washis rebellion, though it’s a subconscious one. But he doesn’t believe that you just fall in love – that’s something more purposeful, “you master your choices”. He speculates nervously about what his father will think; of her “rawness” and the fact she is “spoiled and willful and half wild”. He is so afraid that he is on his way to end the relationship. It seems he has been sleep-walking and has shocked himself when he wakes up and finds himself in this place.  “He’ll tell Lady anything except the truth, which is that he’s ashamed to have picked her to use against his father”. How could he? Having met him in Lady’s thoughts earlier, I’m now really angry at this guy. So he was going to use her to beat his father over the head with, was he? ‘You can’t make me choose the sort of woman you’d like for me, Dad, I can have anyone I like and if I want trash, as you would say, then I will have trash!’ I don’t like the man and I like his father even less.

But wait, nothing is ever so simple. Maybe choosing him is her own personal act of rebellion? Maybe she wanted out of this place more than she might admit? Or is that she actually does love him? That young girl goes to meet her young man, the one resolved to break her heart now. He sees her and tastes in his mouth the sweetness of her, even as she stands at a distance from her. It dissolves his intention and “he takes the steps as if he means to devour her”.

As she revisits this place of her youth, the girl she was is there before her, but neither of them see that early hesitation of his.  Instead this older self wants to call to the young girl, “This man is not for you. He will patiently school you half to death”. Would our younger selves ever take any notice of our older, wiser selves though? The young girl won’t listen; she is moving towards her beau even as Lady is dreaming. Oh the irony that his earlier resolve to leave her would actually have saved her from being locked in this prison he has made for her! Instead it is her sweet freshness; her rawness and her wildness that melts his heart, lulls him back into his own sleepy state and washes away his previous purpose. He is smitten. But over the years, the very charm that drew in has been smothered and now her only escape is to pretend to sleep.

We fall in love with who we see and their very differences draws us to them. Do they stay appealing? Or do we want them to conform to what we had imagined we really wanted? Do we want to be lifted from our sleepy states and awakened to something richer and wilder? Or will we try to tame the ones we love so that they fit the lives we think we need to fit?

 

 

Call Me by My Pet-Name

sonnets 33A selection of the ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ were among the first poems we read at ‘Gather 2 Read’ in Honley.

Number 33 my choice for you for Poem of the Day –

 

 

 

Yes, call me by my pet-name! let me hear
The name I used to run at, when a child,
From innocent play, and leave the cowslips piled,
To glance up in some face that proved me dear
With the look of its eyes. I miss the clear
Fond voices which, being drawn and reconciled
Into the music of Heaven’s undefiled,
Call me no longer. Silence on the bier,
While I call God—call God!—So let thy mouth
Be heir to those who are now exanimate.
Gather the north flowers to complete the south,
And catch the early love up in the late.
Yes, call me by that name,—and I, in truth,
With the same heart, will answer and not wait.

I always think of my Dad when I read this, although Barratt-Browning wrote this collection as love poems (and they were quite risqué for the time!). Dads have those pet names for us, don’t they? And faces ‘that proved me dear’. It’s usually a Dad or a Mum who loves in that unconditional and always-delighted way. Don’t we always look for those faces – the ones that tell us we’re okay – we’re valued and loved just as we are?

That phrase “let they mouth/ Be heir…” – isn’t that stunning? The one who loves her now has taken the place, taken on the role of loving her the way she was loved as a child – freely, and with no holding back. You can’t imagine that’s possible when you’re a child, can you? Now she can be truly happy and offer her heart and “not wait”. There is no hesitation as she runs to the one who calls her and fills her heart again, in the way it was filled and how it responded, as a child.

 

Monday’s Child

IMG_5698
Whose Children?

I’ve written before about the reading group I run in a Care Home.  I go monthly, meet with between 4 and 10 elderly residents, mostly women, but there have been 2 or 3 men who have come along. I’ve been visiting for over a year now and they have become dear friends. We share an afternoon together; moments in time where adventures of the mind and soul can be had.  Our reading can take us to wonderful places; we meet characters who delight or intrigue; we laugh; we are puzzled; we feel sad, we cry, we become angry. In short we are, as lovely Doreen said last week “We are stimulated”.

There’s plenty written about what makes us think and what sort of thing galvanises us into action. What I have seen and experienced though, on those Monday afternoons, is something really special. What would I say to a lady of 89 who I have only just met? Who spends her life now surrounded with those whose gait is even slower than her own? Who feels as if life is going on ‘out there’ without her now – while she waits, often in pain or at best discomfort, for the door to open to the next world? What do I have in common to begin a conversation? How do I find out what lies behind those rheumy eyes? Reading is the key that unlocks the mystery; that gently enables us to share a lovely time and a place – like  a little room we can go to. We keep it simple – short is good (listening and concentrating gets harder over the years) – poems work – little stories too – a fairy tale might occasionally enchant – but  Shakespeare, Thackeray, Elliot, Hardy – they are much loved too. Some of my friends know the classics well, some have read little throughout their lives but on those Monday afternoons we share in the delights of a variety of good literature

This week, I decided on the theme of “New Beginnings” – after all, we’d had a summer break and we were starting a new term. When you’re in your nineties, it always seems to be about ‘endings’ (they told me about two deaths there had been over summer) so I thought it would be refreshing to think about beginnings – about new born babies and the way we celebrate them. There were six of us this week. I read something we probably all know:-

Monday’s child is fair of face,

Tuesday’s child is full of grace,

Wednesday’s child is full of woe,

Thursday’s child has far to go.

Fridays’ child is loving and giving,

Saturdays’ child works hard for a living,

And the child that is born on the Sabbath day

Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay. (Anon)

Well, a few of them knew it and were joining in quietly and tentatively, but by the last line everyone had found their voice, were sure of the words and we chorused it together. Then everyone wanted to talk! I heard of an older sister who had been a Wednesday’s child – “Always whining, she was too!” said Mary. Bessie had been a Sabbath baby “A lot to live up to!” “Me too,” I offered, “I try to be perfect, but never quite make it!” Everyone  was laughing and the afternoon was filled with sunshine. And Jean told of being a Saturday’s child, “I was expected to do everything for my brother. He never lifted a finger”. A good time to move on to “For an Unborn Baby” by Janet Shepperson, then:

If she’s a girl,

I hope she’ll stretch her wings

and grow up free, wide ranging

like a seagull, dealing with the winds

competently, swifting on currents of air,

able to live on anything she can find

in the murky sea, or even on rubbish heaps,

adapting with ease when storms drive her inland.

May she choose wisely if in the end

she settles on one name, one piece of ground.

 

May she banish those who’d seek to protect her

from heartbreak, or joy.

– And may he achieve no less

if he’s a boy.

So began a discussion of how our hopes for girls might be different – how we might choose different colours for their clothes even. Emily started to talk about her daughter – she tells all about the dreams she had for her and how they never happened. How she married a man who Emily hadn’t liked and how she watched with sadness when the marriage broke up, yet couldn’t somehow offer comfort to her daughter and how even now, many years later, all that lies still unspoken, between them. “She’s never married again. That’s sad. But she’s happy. She seems content with her own company”. She sits pondering that thought and the rest of us keep a companionable silence with her for a moment. “She comes to see you though”, says Joyce. “Oh yes.” And that’s what matters now – that she comes; that they have that time with each other.

We laughed together at the next tale from “Blue Remembered Hills” by Rosemary Sutcliffe – about babies being brought by a stork. It ends:

“Nor did it occur to me that at age zero, I would have been unlikely to have had teeth to chatter”

That led to lots of sharing about what we believed as we grew up about where babies come from and some wonderful stories about how children ‘fill in the gaps’ when they don’t know the truth.

Our favourite of the afternoon was Kahlil Gibran’s “Your Children”

It begins:

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

they come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

 

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of to-morrows, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

 

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that

His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as He knows the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Kahlil Gibran (1883-1950) https://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/gibrn.htI

I read the last words and let them rest in the room. I feel it again – the magic of hearing words allowing thoughts to come from within our souls. Emily is the first to speak, “Very deep.” Joyce adds, “Fancy being a bow”, and she says it shyly. “I suppose that’s all parents can wish for, isn’t it?” puts in Doris, who hasn’t any children of her own, but was  a teacher, “To set them off on the right track and hope they get to a good place”. Soon, our thoughts still milling around, we are taking tea together and sharing a platter of fresh fruit, brought to us by the Activities Coordinator. When we are old, we need to have our activities coordinated, you know, we relinquish our ability, so they tell us in care homes, to coordinate our own activities. She is a good person though and loves the people whose activities she is coordinating.

I leave and on the way home I think of all my arrows, and wonder at the joy of how I now have learned “to be like them,” and I pray  to the Archer who I know and love, and thank him that he is guiding them, that he has a purpose for them and that “He loves also the bow that is stable”.

 

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Take Me Back Down the Years

Facebook-20150511-115544This is a picture of me taken when I was probably nine or ten years old. My auntie Janet found it for me and I am fascinated by it. You see, I recognise myself in that picture. I knew it was me, before anyone confirmed it. I see my ‘little self’ there in that chair and although I can’t actually remember the moment it was taken I immediately connect with her – that little me-girl – and the things that were going on in her life back then – down the years.

It was taken in the back garden of my grandmother’s house. I can smell the roses and see the flamboyant bright colours of the dahlias and the chrysanthemums. In later years there would be a fish pond in the spot where I am sitting. Before me, off camera, are two greenhouses and if I get up from that chair I can go in, push open the door (that is quite stiff) and feel the warmth and inhale the sweet scent of tomatoes and cucumbers and lettuces. I can hear my grandma’s voice from the kitchen, just behind me, calling me in and smell the cakes baking. I can taste the sugar on my tongue as I lick the mixture from the wooden spoon that she lets me use to scrape the bowl. I can run down the garden and tell my granddad to come on in for his cup of tea – and I can see him straighten up, put a hand to his back, roll his eyes, take his huge handkerchief from his pocket and blow his nose. “I’m on my way” he says and I run back and tell Gran. “Yes and so is bloody Christmas”, she says.

Then I’m standing on a stool shelling the peas he’s brought in and slipping as many as I can into my mouth – the green freshness of the taste delighting me – before she can see me and catch me round the ears with her damp tea towel.

I am there in the garden and in the kitchen of the place where so much of my childhood was played out. Where I learned to play cribbage at the age of 5, whilst recovering from measles; where I snuggled into the huge bosom of the grandmother who taught me outrageously bawdy songs and told me wonderful stories.

The chair I am sitting on was called by my Uncle Bill ‘the Director’s chair’ – she ruled the roost all right and though many argued with her, she would generally have the last word. I am sitting in that chair and wouldn’t have dared if she’d been around, unless I was ill and I remember then I had been. I’d had my appendix out and had gone, after the operation to stay there, while the rest of my family went on holiday. Clearly the reason for my rather sad little face! Bless my little cotton socks.

I could weep for that girl and all she would face but I could also tell her – “It will be fine; you’ll come through. Life will be good for you.” But today when I look at her, I’d like to simply go back and sit with her for a while; not speaking – just to keep her company and enjoy the scent of the roses and the colours of the dahlias. To taste again those cakes, those peas and feel the warmth of the greenhouse and the soft bosom of my grandmother. I feel a tear slide down my cheek for those moments and want to be there. It won’t last – this feeling – I’ll stay where I am in my present and make a coffee, write some more, hang out the washing or go shopping – just get on with my 57 year old life.

I’m reminded of D H Lawrence’s “The Piano”

SOFTLY, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;

Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see

A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings

And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

 

In spite of myself, the insidious mastr’y of song

Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong

To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside

And hymns in the cozy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

 

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour

With the great black piano apassionato.

The glamour of childhood days is upon me, my manhood is cast

Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

See the beautiful way the poet talks of ‘betrays me back’. As if those memories have stolen into his present and given him away – revealed him to be that one he has denied himself to be. ‘The heart of me weeps to belong’ – that was exactly what I felt as I looked at little me in the picture – I wanted to climb back into that time and just be there. “My manhood is cast down in the flood of remembrance” – I couldn’t have thought of that line but it speaks precisely of what we often want to do. Just lay down who we have become – these grown up selves; these adults who have to be so responsible – and let the memories flow over us and take us back, back to the times we remember as being happy or even just without the cares we have now.

It isn’t that we want to stay there – I don’t think it is that. It’s not escapism – it’s about making connections to strengthen our being now, where we are. I’ve just finished reading “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s a compelling but painful story of two women – Sarah, the daughter of a judge and cotton plantation owner in Charleston, and Handful, the slave she was given on her eleventh birthday – and the relationship they forged between them. Sarah Grimke was one of the most famous of America’s abolitionist eventually. Handful’s mother, Charlotte, spends most of her life trying to be free and suffers terribly for it. She is an excellent needle worker and quilter and sews pictures of her life and her daughter’s into a story quilt she bequeaths to Handful, telling her of all the hurt and pain she has endured; the beatings, the brandings, the humiliations. She urges Handful to continue to try and get free but to always remember who she is and where she has come from; all she has experiences. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you come from”, the slaves would sing. The stories of their lives connected them and grounded them so that they could hold on to an identity that was significant and of value.

This is about knowing where we have come from, so we can know our own starting points, tell our own stories and are able to thread those pieces together to join us to where we are now. Of course, we will cry for those times when we feel ourselves overwhelmed with longing – for that was the place we came from – the first chapters of our story and our present will make little sense if we don’t have that place to turn back to. We are richer and stronger when we know our own stories.

 

Glimmers of Hope in Flecks of Lilac

There are glimmers of hope. At last it seems we are moving towards spring! I wonder why it is that winter always seems the longest season. I mean, it isn’t really as if it’s been frightful – it’s just the seemingly endless dark days; days that feel as though they don’t start till midmorning and are shutting down for business by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Days that have been very cold, damp and just don’t stimulate positive thinking. Well, they don’t do much for me anyway.

Not that I hate the cold as such – a clear, blue sky on a frosty morning when you can see your breath and you have to pull your hat over your ears and can’t bear it if you think you’ve dropped your gloves! I love those sorts of days. When the ground is crunchy underfoot and you can hurry back home and drink a hot cup of tea and really revel in its heat and restorative goodness. Yes, they’re good wintery days. Even days when you’re a little bit afraid walking on a steep slope as you see the frost glistening or you have to get up early to scrape the car windscreen and your fingers go numb and you have to blow on them while the car heater is still warming up. Yes, they are great, stimulating, invigorating days.

What I hate are the days that never seem to get going. When you wake, knowing you’ve been in bed a whole night and yet it’s still pitch black outside. And it’s raining, or it’s been raining. It’s not even really cold – at least not frosty. It’s just miserable. And you’re making your tea and looking out the window and all you can see is your own miserable reflection staring back at you in the dark – like it’s your soul that nipped outside and has found it wanting and can hardly bear to give you the bad news. Then you see children going to school and it’s barely light. It’s like things you’re doing slow down but the day itself slips passed you faster, so just when you think you’ve got a grip on it, it grinds down to a halt. And you’re looking at your own reflection in the window again – wearing a ‘so where has that one gone then?’ expression. Short, miserable days. Oh I know they’re not all quite like that – there’s lots to be thankful for too – but they do drop by more frequently – those gloom-filled days.

But they are coming to an end! Ha ha! I want to laugh out loud and shout ‘so there, winter, you didn’t see me off!’

Even before it’s here, I know it’s coming. There are these signs all along the walks – tiny buds appearing on branches. Each one prompting a wee spring in my step and a slight quickening to my heartbeat. In the shade of a tree in the churchyard (oh, don’t ask me what kind of tree it was; I always get them wrong!) there they were, just peeping through the mulch there – tiny flecks of lilac. Crocii making their yearly appearance.Glimmers of hope in lilac

‘Hello, again!’ they seem to whisper, ‘Is it time?’ At first they appear quite shy, as if they’re afraid someone (like a horrid, north-westerly gust of wind or harsh frost) will shout them back down, with a ‘Get back in the ground you fools! It’s not your turn yet!’

Well, it is! There were a few hints last week – sunny intervals (as termed by the weatherfolk) and milder air coaxed them onto the seasonal stage and there they were – as if they were waiting for me to climb over the wall into the cemetery. Like a warm greeting they met my eyes and I had to pause and smile at them in return greeting. I just had to get the Iphone out and take that picture. I wanted to note it – make an imprint of it. All the rest of the day I could revisit that picture – even in my mind – and know that spring was coming – the winter wasn’t going to last forever.

Over the winter months, being someone who is seasonally affected, I really have to work hard not to let myself slip into a reactive depression. I’m not meaning a clinical sort of depression, although it can verge on that by the way it presents. I mean that the darkness seems to push me into a corner of my own life and I can find myself stuck there. It goes like this: because of the darkness I can’t go out walking so early, so I stay in bed a little longer; staying in bed longer makes me feel bad about myself, so I start the day on a low note; I roll out of bed instead of jumping; I stay in my dressing gown, as what’s the point of getting dressed? I find myself wondering it it’s worth opening the curtains or raising the blinds. What’s the point? There’s nothing to see. Just me looking back at me. I sit and think how miserable it is and this makes me feel even more miserable. I end up eating breakfast so late it makes eating lunch not worth it and then I worry that I’ll want dinner too early and the evening will seem shorter! I do shorter walks and when it’s raining they get shorter still. Not being able to be outside makes me feel even more miserable. I have to put the light on to read and before I know it, I’m closing the curtains as the darkness starts to descend – yet again! And it’s only just gone!

Do you know those days? I have to make myself get a grip. Honestly, I have to take myself in hand and give myself a stiff talking to. I find there is a Psalm that often comes to mind when I’m like this:

                        Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you disquieted within me?

(Psalm 42:11a)

I love that this psalm was probably written by King David and that he, though he was so close to God (being called a ‘man after my own heart’ by God himself! How brilliant must that be!), finds himself in these same dark places that I get myself into.

It seems important to me that I do that chastising of my soul. So when my reflection stares back at me through the dark glass, by an act of will, I make myself say this line. I talk to my own soul – essentially telling it to ‘get a grip’. Of course, as a Christian, I don’t believe that I can do this in my own strength. For that I thank God – as the second half of that verse gently steers me to where strength can be found and where my hope really is, reminding me that I’m never actually alone; God is bigger than my circumstances. They are only temporary.

                        Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my help and my God.

 

It doesn’t happen immediately; it isn’t like there is a blinding light or that in that moment I am lifted to some higher plain. Not at all, I have simply reminded my soul that things are not hopeless. I have a choice. I can stay in the corner of my own mind; I can dwell there in the dark. I can make my life smaller and shrink into myself. Or I can remember what the light looks like – focus on where my hope really is founded – and I can make that my driver. I can hitch my soul on to something worth getting up for. I can find light, joy, laughter, sunshine in the smile of a stranger; the hue of the leaves of a plant in the bathroom; a robin on the birdfeeder; a phone call from a friend; an episode of a ridiculous soap opera; a chapter of a good book; a slice of chocolate cake; a bowl of lentil soup; a visit to a museum.

On a short, dark, cold winter day, in the driving rain, I can curse the mud and wet; sit and watch it batter my windows; or I can go by the tree in the cemetery, shelter under the branches, stand on the mulch there and remember that underneath all this, something is happening; life is stirring; bulbs are being fed; roots are extending – and soon, and very soon, tiny shoots of green will appear, followed by flecks of lilac – glimmers of hope for tired souls.

Sunshine Doesn’t Last Forever

Sunshine Doesn’t Last Forever

ThoraOnce a month I run a reading group in a care home. I’m not allowed to read to individuals in their own rooms, which saddens me as I know there are many who would really enjoy that, because that’s against the rules as I have no DBS clearance. Well, actually, I do have clearance, at the enhanced level no less, for my role as Reader minister, and I have the same clearance for my work with New Wine ministries, but that doesn’t count with the care home because it, like all organisations, has to undertake its own DBS checks. (If you’re reading this and wondering about DBS – it stands for ‘Disclosure and Barring Service’ and replaced the Criminal Records Bureau). The whole process is supposedly in place to weed out those individuals who have ill intentions towards those who are vulnerable. Not that it can really do that – as it can only found out about those who have police records, including cautions, so the clever ones who haven’t ever been caught can still carry on doing what they’re doing. I could wax lyrical about what I think is wrong with this system but I won’t (for now anyway!). I don’t apportion blame to the care home for not allowing me to visit individuals – they are following vulnerable adult policies. That is laudable in itself. However, in our zeal to protect (and quite rightly those who are vulnerable deserve our protection), I wonder if we are forgetting sometimes to balance the needs of the vulnerable to access positive and enriching experiences. It bothers me. We can too easily forget how much pleasure can be gained from simple exchanges with another human being for instance. We can take for granted the rays of sunshine that can pierce an otherwise gloomy day when someone pauses to talk to us, or even briefly smiles at us in passing.

All of the people in my group once had purposeful roles in society – they raised families and ran homes; they held down busy jobs. Among them are retired clergy members; teachers and head-teachers; nurses, midwives, hairdressers, business owners and one delightful lady who was an entertainer for the armed forces. They have not always been frail and, as they refer to themselves, useless. The care staff I come across largely seem to me to be caring sort of people. However, there is something about the way they speak to my friends – the tone, the language used, the facial expressions I observe – that is markedly different from the way they speak with each other and it makes me uncomfortable. My group members have become ‘categorised’ – they are now ‘care home residents’ and as such must be subjected to all that comes with that categorisation. People don’t even seem to notice they’re doing it – moreover, it’s not just acceptable, it’s expected.

“Just sit back down, Jean” one very young assistant said last week, rolling her eyes at her colleague and smirking. This, to an 89 year old woman, who once ran the Home Economics department at the local high school, because she had dared to stand up and try to move a chair as they entered with the tea trolley. Despite the fact that we were in the middle of reading a very moving poem, in a group that has run monthly for over a year, there was no knock on the door and “Who wants tea or coffee?” was called out without so much as an “Excuse me” or even a cursory nod to me, who is reading to the group. Immediately, the tone of the room is altered, the beauty of the words hanging in the air is banished and the members are back in ‘care home resident’ mode making sure they don’t miss out on the only hot drink that will be on offer until tea-time.

Joanna Harris has written some excellent stories about two fabulous elderly ladies who live in “Meadowbank Retirement Home”. Faith and Hope Go Shopping was the first one and can be found in her book ‘Jigs and Reels’. They’re all written in Faith’s voice who displays an indomitable spirit and has formed a friendship with Hope, who is blind, and who was once a university professor. Well, it’s never going to be easy fitting into the categorisation of the nursing home, is it?  Especially if your life has been so very different:

“…they try to find things to entertain us, but when you’ve been you’ve been a professor at Cambridge, with theatres and cocktail parties and May Balls and Christmas concerts at King’s, you never really learn to appreciate those Tuesday night bingo games. On the other hand you do learn to appreciate the small pleasures (small pleasures being by far the commonest) because, as some French friend of Hope’s used to say, one can imagine even Sisyphus happy.”[1]

I’ve read a couple of the Faith and Hope stories to my friends in the care home – there is always much laughter and knowing comments, but there’s also a poignancy stemming from a “how did I come to this” feeling that seems to emanate from each of them.

Growing old should bother all of us – it is inevitable, if death, equally inevitable, doesn’t claim us first of course. We talk of growing old gracefully – I wonder what on earth we mean by that? Retaining some integrity? Hanging on to dignity? Accepting with good grace what one can no longer do? Does it have to mean being treated as if we were somehow part of a different section of the human race – less deserving of common courtesies?

Then there’s the business of being a bit naughty. Or defiant. Or obstinate. The chasing of rainbows and the running after butterflies. Or the desiring of ‘unsuitable’ red shoes (You simply must read ‘Faith and Hope Go Shopping’ to get that one!). Or mixing with ‘undesirables’ and even indulging in something a little bit unsavoury. We might never want to do any of these things while we actually can, but what of when we are no longer able – or are prevented from doing?

There’s a wonderful play written by Alan Bennett – especially for and performed on the radio by Thora Hird when she herself was very frail. The subtle but perceptively sharp humour, laced with pathos, is as you might expect from Bennett and you can hear Hird delivering the lines with her acerbically soft tones:

Mr Pilling says, ‘ A grand-looking woman, your daughter.’

I said, ‘You’re not alone in that opinion.’

‘Why,’ he says, ‘who else thinks so?’

I said, ‘She does.’

He smiled.

‘I’m going to read from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.’

 

There are clues from early on in the piece that all is not right with the way Mr Pilling relates to the vulnerable elderly ladies although if you blink you might miss them, it’s so cleverly done. With so many abuse cases in the media at present, not least the prolific and predatory abuse carried out by Saville, it’s actually a topical piece and there’s something even more disturbing about the issues it raises. I read it some years ago the first time and returning to it recently found myself not being able to get it out of my mind for some time.

Bindra’s just been round with the air freshener when Mr Pilling arrives. Raincoat always neatly folded. Puts it down on the bed. Holds up the Bible. Lovely fingernails. I complimented him on them once and he said ‘Well, its not something I would want broadcasting, Mrs Walker, but I have them manicured. Kelly does them at Salon Snippets and I count it money well spent.’

Never looks at you when he’s doing it. Just concentrates on the words of the New Testament.

Down goes the raincoat, up comes the Bible and away we go.[2]

You can’t help but feel revulsion for what Mr Pilling seems to be up to with the four residents who share their room. When Mrs Walker’s daughter (Mrs Turnbull) makes the discovery, and reports what she observes, she believes her mother’s had a lucky escape but has her eye on a compensation claim. She is taken aback with the response:

‘Not to put too fine a point on it, I like having the tops of my legs stroked, even at my age, and so does Blanche and if there’s a gentleman like Mr Pilling willing to undertake the task and derive pleasure from it then I prefer to think of that not as something disgusting but as God moving in his mysterious way…I shall tell them it was all done of my own free will. We were consenting adults. So you can kiss goodbye to your flaming compensation.

Bindra comes in with the air-freshener. I said, ‘Bindra, I think Mrs Turnbull wants a tissue’.

Shocking? Of course it is. But I wonder if that’s really to do with what is initially an apparent abuse of position or more that an elderly woman is articulating her desire to be intimately touched . And more, that she apparently has no care to who provides what she needs. Was it abuse? It seemed to be at first reading – but there was more going under that raincoat than we first guessed.

It’s what I like about the writing – that it leaves us disturbed and chewing the unthinkable over and over. Actually, there’s a bit of me that really doesn’t want to think about such things. Like when I was a teenager and I heard those noises from my parents through the thin bedroom wall. How could they be doing that? At their age? It was certainly never to be mentioned by them.

So Mrs Walker wants to make the most of the last of the sun – she knows it won’t last forever. While it is shining in our youth we take it for granted. We bathe in its rays and drink of it greedily. But we think of that other species – the old and infirm – as having no right to it. Not only are they categorised as worthy of disdain, but as no longer having a right to express desire. That sort of sunshine apparently must not be allowed to last forever.

[1] Faith and Hope Fly South in “A Cat, A Hat and A Piece of String” by Joanna Harris

[2] The Last of the Sun in ‘Untold Stories by Alan Bennett