Don't know when I first realised that mathematics is a foreign country to me – but I suspect it was around the time I gave up on Long Division. If there ever was an answer to prayer, and concrete evidence of the existence of God, it is the invention of the calculator and the death of Long Division. True.
I remember getting a Detention in school way back in 1966, for not knowing my nine times table. (I know it NOW … ) Fair cop, Mr Robinson, I WAS fifteen.
I had to do serious maths to pursue my interest in science, and the night I measured, correctly, the distance between the Earth and the Moon with two pieces of stick and a set of log tables, I decided that I would never say I was no good at maths ever again. Nevertheless, my relationship with numbers leaves me at ease with mystery, which serves my spiritual life very well indeed.
It's a few years since I completed The Open University 'Creative Writing ' course, amd I only mention it now because I learned one or two useful tips that I am happy to pass on:
1. Writing is seriously hard work, and I'm too idle to make a career of it.
2. Poets NEVER make any money unless they're REALLY good.
This looks on the surface like bad news, but, curiously enough, it wasn't. Having learned that writing is never going to make me rich or famous, I relaxed and began writing just for the fun of it. I DO enjoy reaching into my cerebral cortex, having a bit of a rummage, and popping down on the screen what I find there.
Well there's a thought. As soon as I became aware of my thinking, it stopped happening. No, hang on, here comes a walk in an Alpine meadow in Romania and the discovery of a grass crown. That was something I can tell you, a grass crown being the highest award to a Roman general. Who made it? Weaving and plaiting an intricate and beautiful artifact with such enormous historical significance then just leaving it there – a gift to an English woman who knew it's significance. I left it too: some objects are too sacred to own,
And here I go again, hanging upside down on a fairground ride convinced I'm about to fall out of it and die. I'm sixteen and beside me is William The First, who later became known as The Bastard, but it was oh so long ago, and I did so much more with my life than he did, so we'll call it quits.
Finally, because I can go on like this all day, here I am drinking a glass of Three Choirs 'May Hill' white wine and eating a fish pie we made together. My daughter Kate and I, last Thursday, enjoying a few special hours together, just because they were there.
Fairgrouds, meadows and fish pie: some inconsequential things out of this one beautiful life, the living of which is such a glorious adventure.
Lucky eh? I should say so.
Don't you be sorry for me though, all I have is a lingering cold, which has kept me confined to quarters for a few days.
I am extraordinarily fortunate to be able to do this. Midday, sitting up in bed, a virtual pile of books to devour, some great music to listen to, a few games to play … All on my iPad, which I came close to giving a name to, once. I shall muse on it. '”Boswell” might fit the bill …
Well, Bos, do your duty. This Blog was started for my friends (such as are interested, I thank you) and my family as a true-ish record of my life which I fondly imagine my descendents scouring with interest when I am gone.
No, really, I only have a COLD. My interest in my own mortality is prompted by my recent study of Buddhist practice, where the reality of impermanence is much to the fore. And a good thing too.
I shall remain a Catholic, if they'll have me, because I rather like ritual, and I love the people. I would almost certainly love Buddhists too, but there aren't any around here.
I was listening to a Dharma talk by Jack Kornfield the other day, and he, a GREAT story-teller recalled being contacted by Cosmopolitan (or Time, I forget) for hints on, “How to make New Year's Resolutions More Permanent”. To which he replied, gently, “Buddhists aren't really into permanence.”
Besides, and I am thinking of my former denomination-skipping activities here, the real truth lies within you. Jesus and The Buddah both taught this. Sit still, hold the silence, quieten your mind, open your heart and you will find your own truth, descendants, that's what I say.
I have been listening to the debate over chilhood vaccination prompted in the US by the re-emergence of measles in Disneyland, of all places.
I'm four years old. I'm in a isolation hospital, which is now, thank God, a superior housing development, and I am in a coma.
My parents are desperate. My mother climbed onto the old bridge over the River Severn. She wanted to jump.
I recovered. Recovery was so rare, the doctors called it a miracle. I had a cerebral heamorrhage precipitated by whooping cough. I remember it. My earlist memories were of coughing fit to burst until something did burst, a vessel in my brain. I recovered, but with a limp, and I had seizures for years afterwards. I remember waking up from them, ravenous, and my father and mother, so relieved, so glad to have me back, willing to go out in the middle of the night to get me anything I wanted.
My best friend and constant playmate, in those earliest years, was Gary, the boy next door. One bright summer's day we fished for tiddlers and plashed unheedingly in the stream behind the shops at Matson. I remember the sun on the water, our laughter …
Three days later, Gary couldn't come out to play. Three weeks later he was dead. I know where he is buried, in the churchyard at St Katherine's, Matson. For years afterwards I would go and sit beside his grave and chat to him. His tiny memorial, ' From Friends and Neighbours' has long since vanished, as has the bent yew tree under which he was buried.
“Polio” My parents whispered, so glad it wasn't me, so sad for Agnes and Brian, going through the agony of losing a child.
Thirty years ago I had to think about having my daughters vaccinated. It was a tough decision, really it was, but because I remembered, I hardly hesitated.
I feel for parents of babies today who have to weigh the possibilities and choose for their own children.
Talk to people who remember the terrible days when babies and young children:- their friends, brothers, class-mates, cousins – died of vaccine-preventable deseases. And listen. We're better than the internet, because we were there.
I often ask myself what the heaven is Church for? And sometimes the answer is, “You mean apart from making me feel good, guilty or foolish? The answer has to be, Not Much”
Then something really worthwhile happens, and I sigh with relief. I may be uncertain about lots of things I'm supposed to believe in, but THIS is really, really doing the stuff.
I am thinking about the churches in Gloucester and their response to harmful cutbacks in services for the poor. We've seen in Gloucester what happens in the health service when the resources are pared away until it can no longer cope. The hospital shuts down. Everybody hears about it, everybody cares, everybody gets mad, and the accountable officials have to defend their actions.
Sadly, not everybody cared, and very few people got mad when the Night Shelter for the homeless closed in February 2013. A few raised a shout when the Day Shelter went on January 3rd this year. Both, note, in winter, when they were most necessary. The County Council had a plan. When obliged, ie when a SWEP was called, they had a contract with Premier Inns to take the rough sleepers to their hotel in Cheltenham.
I doubt you know what a SWEP is. It's a Severe Winter Emergency Protocol. When the temperature is forecast to fall below zero for three consecutive nights, the Local Authorities have a statutory duty to provide shelter for rough sleepers. Except that a week ago when SWEP was initiated Gloucester County Council, and Premier Inns didn't.
You'll never guess why. In the first place there seems to be a lot of official bungling. Bearing in mind, the reason for closing the Night Shelter was because a robust plan was in place to ensure that no-one slept out in severe weather, it seems nobody at the official level knew who was eligible, where they were, and who was responsibile for getting the vulnerable into a place of safety. Because, basically, nobody in charge cares too much.
But the Christains know. At night they take hot soup and a sandwich to those on the streets, and during the day, the churches relentlessly hold the officials responsible for what doesn't happen when it should. A hero of mine is a wonderful man called Tony Hipkins, a volunteer who keeps on and on, quietly, graciously, kindly, asking “Who? What? Where? Why…?
On January 16th. Premier Inns, despite being under contract to do so, refused to take in the rough sleepers because – wait for it – they couldn't supply an address.(!) Or an ID. And the public servant responsible for finding shelter for these people said, ” Premier Inns have refused them, I have no further responsibility.”
There was nowhere for these people to go, except back onto the streets. In sub- zero temoeratures. Fortunately nobody died. Sadly, this isn't always the case.
I'm fed up with the softly, softly approach, so I am sounding off here, where all of 25 people will nod in sympathy or roll their eyes and say, “Here she goes again!” To the latter group I say,
It's time to get mad.
Somebody lives here. I took this photograph yesterday after leaving a fresh duvet. It's the doorway of an empty office block about three minutes' walk from Gloucester Cathedral.
You know, don't you, that I feel it incumbent on myself, from tiime to time, to keep you abreast of the latest news to hit the world of science, as reported in 'The New Scientist'? If you didn't know, you do now. I expect no thanks, I regard it as a public service.
A recent issue concerned itself with the topic of reality. More specifically. The length of the present moment. “Easy,” you might have thought, “A moment is a fraction of a second surely? Besides, ” – I think this too – “How can it possibly be measured?”
Turns out, it can. Furthermore, it's three seconds long. I was, and remain, flabbergasted. Three seconds seems like an age.
I am compelled to reveal more! Three seconds is the length of time it takes the sac of neurons we call the brain to construct reality from the mass of sensory data we feed it. Heavens to Betsy! What is going on up there in your head for that three seconds? Evidentiy we're not ALL floundering about waiting for reality to kick in, so the brain must be doing an amazing job of maintaining an illusion of dynamic continuity, and yes, an illusion it surely is. The brain gives us it's best guess, and we run with it.
My world turned upside down when I learned that I am more than 99% pure energy. Compress the nuclei of my atoms into a solid, and you get a lump the size of a grain of salt. Practically pure energy can get away with appearing remarkably solid, but there you are, it isn't, or anyway, not so much. Couple THAT with the three-second reality gap and Bob is no longer your uncle, because:
We are not, it seems, all that we seem, not by a long chalk,. We are pretty much pure illusion.
I was going to write about being a Storyteller. I glance up at the title and wonder how I'm going to get back to my topic. Dive straight in must be the best course, bearing in mind that I've wasted so much of your time getting here.
Whatever you think about yourself is a construct of reality based on your brain's best guess with the stuff that might be real enough once it's processed. You have three seconds every moment to intervene. What are the stories you have constructed to tell about yourself?
Look, I know I shouldn't be saying this, and please don't think I'm encouraging you to deceive yourself or others, but if your story doesn't bring you happiness, alter it.
At least give it a go. Reality is a highly questionable commodity, so don't be satisfied with what you don't want it to be.
I do not habitually listen to news programmes. I don’t say this is a good thing, it’s just my way of keeping in check the amount of sadness amd pain I’m subjected to, because, frankly, I just can’t take it. Sometimes, though, I feel I must.
Yesterday I watched an hour of news that was entirely concerned with the assassination in Paris, of the staff of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, that were targeted for ‘mocking’ The Prophet Mohammed.
I found it hard. I wept. For the men and women who were killed, for the shocked people of Paris.. . But I felt I had to see it through, to bear witness to this latest manifestation of hate, intolerance and wickedness that some are capable of in the name of God.
I despair. Mankind has no need of a God, or a prophet, that inspires such grotesque acts of worship as this.
There is good news too. I see that many people, including Muslims, are speaking out, holding vigils, wearing Tee-shirts, writing blogs …. Saying to the perpetrators of this hate-crime, ‘Me too! You might as well take me to…. Because living in the world you want to bring about, wouldn’t be worth it.’
They can’t kill us all.
Yesterday I returned from a fabulous holiday with my family, now almost a clan, and here I am reflecting on the joys of the second half of life.
All that I will 'achieve' in the worldly sense is now behind me. I have more 'stuff' than I know what to do with, and no desire to engage in the duallist ding-dongs of the days when I believed it was better to be right than happy.
It feels like my ship of state is sailing over the horizon, but the journey holds no fear. I have found real and lasting things to love: precious time with my family, the pleasure of a country walk the fun of playing silly games with my grandchildren …
There was a point rounding a headland on the beautiful Somerset coast where I just stopped, drew a deep breath and allowed simple gratitude to well up. To Whom, I'm not sure, but for what? Well, at sixty-four, still being able to bump down the stairs on my behind in a race with my three-year old granddaughter that I didn't even want ro win.
Before dawn, I walked to the top of Southend Lane to catch the 0715 number 678 Gloucester bus (via Tibberton) : the waning moon hung about, to the evident annoyance of the Phillips's cockerel i patient for the sun.
A bit early, so I sat in Starbucks, in Eastgate Street, wrote some Christmas Cards, read a portion of Cynthia Beaugeot 's “The Wisdom Jesus,” downed a bucket of coffee and broke fast with a raison whirl.
The whole of the morning I spent helping the Salvation Army serve a Christmas lunch to the people who need to eat where they can: rough sleepers, those in poverty – I make the tea, pour the coffee and greet our guests. There's a wonderful atmosphere in the room. Major Adrian comments that three years ago we fed fifty, today it's one hundred.
Home, exhausted by the early start and hard work! Had a very long rest. Ordered a new duvet cover from John Lewis as Ray's failure to sort the washing has left the second best bedding an unattractive murky pink.
Made a mushroom risotto, which was not too bad … Probably needed the wine, a vital ingredient I absent-mindedly drank yesterday.
Early to bed. Watched two documenteries on tv, one about darts, the other about the Dukes of Devonshire. I do not approve of having televisions in bedrooms, but a considerable rearrangement of furnishings has taken place, necessitated by the overhaul of the dining room, which needed to be emptied.
Drafted a poem:
I have lived many lives.
You know, I wonder at it. How, the
Grammar school boys on the bus,
The couple in a B and B who have no stove to cook on,
No money for MacDonalds
And Jeanette – over eighty, sprightlier than me,
Serving the gravy and the roast
With a smile a mile wide –
Can be here. Peering over my shoulder
Watching me write, reminding me:
Today, we lived each other's lives
In a nod, a laugh,
A serious moment
And a cup of tea.
I loathe and despise The Annual Review. Mine own were conducted by well-“meaning examiners with no concept of the complexities of my role, which was great, because I agreed to stupid 'goals' that needed no particular effort to 'achieve'. This was easy for me, because I'm a very bright woman with an honest face.
My true performance indicator was to engage in (legit) projects with an element of travel to clock up as many miles as I could without spending a penny. I made 100,000 miles before my career ended. Of this, I am unjustifiably proud. ( You know I'm not a good person, don't you?)
My staff got PI's like:” You've got children, get yourself home on time and don't take work with you.” This paid dividends in staff loyalty and excellence of performance that far outweighed the “gains” obtained by stressing them out with unrealistic numbers of Level 3's or whatever the current nonsense was. The pendulum will swing back my way, one day, you'll see.
I am so reminiscing because of Baroness Jenkins weigh-in against The Poor and their lack of ability to cook. You know what your Baronessness, I know Poor who have nothing to cook ON, or WITH but she doesn't, so I guess I should be making allowances. (Thought about it: Naw, she's not excused.)
Sometimes, I am a born-again Christian. That is, until other born-again Christians engage in gay-bashing, or in other ways show themselves a lot more interested in other people's bedroom habits than is healthy for their souls. ” I am not of you,” I get to thinking, “So I guess I must be something else now. Don't know what, but there you are. ”
Make no mistake, I still embrace and revel in the teachings of Jesus, especially when practised. I puzzled for ever over the enigmatic, “The Poor (whom he blessed by the way, it was the rich he sent away empty) will always be with you.” Well, yes, so it seems, but why? I read of Baroness 'apology' ( for saying that being hungry was The Poor's own fault because they were too something (Idle? Ignorant? Stupid?) to cook. Then I knew what the Bethlehem Babe meant: The poor will always be with us because the powerful will do anything to hang on to their riches. If Baroness Jenkins went out and talked to the Poor, and involved herself in their lives, she would become a whole, new, and much better person.
Have I lost the plot. This piece was about Performance Indicators wasn't it? Yes.
One day, and every day, I have to give account of my stewardship. The checklist doesn't have boxes for: Did you make a lot of money? Win any wars? Believe all the right doctrines? Belong to the right church? Get an enormous number of converts? Or even, God help us, Sleep with the right people? No. (I expect you've got where this is going…) I get rated on these criteria: Mary, tell me, did you: Feed the hungry? Comfort the afflicted? Visit those in prison? Clothe the naked?
Did I? Sometimes.
How about you? Find someone who's hungry and feed them this Christmas/Saturnalia/Sun Return! It will make you both feel better. Yes, really, it will.