Sunday, March 29, 2009

Let's be awkward!

You asked me to tell you about the Climate Change seminar organised by the Council.
Oh . . . where do I begin . . . ? It was only yesterday, but I’m still feeling overwhelmed.
Perhaps the act of sharing it with you will help me to sort out my own feelings.

The speaker was Dr. Stephan Harrison, a scientist and university lecturer who has been researching the subject for twenty years. There was no doubting his research, his commitment, or his conclusions. And they were grim. We were all prepared for bad news (after all, we consisted of delegates from ‘green’ organisations and action groups), but you could tell that we were still clinging to unwarranted fragile hope. The children in our schools, we told him, were all highly motivated, with more information they would lead us in the right direction.
He scoffed at our naivety. If we left it to the children, he replied, we had no hope. Either we saved the situation ourselves or there would be no situation to save. This really made us sit up.

Climate change, he told us, was under way. There was no way it could be halted. We had delayed too long. At the very best we could mitigate the effects. To merely try to adapt would be self-defeating, the changes would be too great.
We flinched when he told us that the rise in temperature would not necessarily be gradual. History proved that there could be a sudden, dramatic increase over a matter of a few years. Nor was the rise in sea levels likely to be evenly distributed. A rise in height of twelve metres could take place in one part of the globe with little or no advance warning. We shuddered.

The solution, he said, was up to us. By now we hardly felt empowered, but we kept listening. Governments, he told us, wouldn’t save the planet. They couldn’t be expcted to. They had their own agendas. The only solution came not from the top, but from the bottom. It would be the ‘awkward squad’, those who asked questions, those who demanded energy saving measures, those who, in their own communities, practised sustainable living and care of the environment, who could still avert the worst possible scenario.

We looked at each other. Did he mean us? Were we suffiently ‘awkward’? And, if not, just how awkward should we be?
But the Council representatives hammered home the message. There would, they predicted be elderly people dying of heat-stroke in high-rise flats. There would be unprecedented flooding.
We took a deep, collective breath . . . and made our way home full of good intentions but wondering what, just what, we could possibly do?

Wriiting this account for you has given me time to reflect, and it strikes me that there’s another way of looking at the whole situation.
Let’s look upon ourselves not as burdened down with an impossible responsibility, but as an enormously privileged generation.
For the first time since the human race evolved on this planet, we are in a position to choose whether or not we stay. We are in a position to put right what, in all innocence, our ancestors did wrong. They didn’t know what they were doing when they started burning coal, what they were doing when they put pollutants in the rivers, what they were doing when they slashed the forests, what they were doing when they took to the air.
We know. What's more, we know what we need to do to put things right.

Yes, it is scaring . . . worse than that, it is terrifying. Our grandchildren may well be unable to survive the temperatures and the flooding that our thoughtless actions have created. It is already too late to stop the levels rising. But, if we put our minds to it . . . no, if we put our hearts to it . . . we can prevent the worst of those temperature rises, the worst of those encroaching seas, from making our planet uninhabitable for future generations.

Looked at in this light, it could be seen as a golden opportunity. How often do we really get an opportunity to say ‘sorry’ and amend our way of living?
This is our chance . . . our enormous chance . . . aren’t we the lucky ones!

Now . . . it’s just a question of getting others to help us . . . over to you . . . and remember, there's only one qualification needed to join the squad - the world-saving ability to be awkward!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

My very good friend

Do you find, as I do, that you make friends in many unexpected and wonderful ways?
Well, if you think that question is an excuse for a story . . . you're dead right!

About six months ago I was walking up the hill when I was accosted by a traffic warden. He was delighted to see me. Clearly he thought he knew me. He was so sure that he knew me that, anxious not to hurt his feelings, I pretended that I knew him too.
"How are you?" he wanted to know.
This was getting tricky.
"Fine . . . " I replied cautiously. Adding, as something more was clearly needed, "How are you?"
He, too, it appeared was fine. As I couldn't prolong the encounter without revealing that I'd never, to my knowledge, seen him before, I gave a tentative smile, murmured 'goodbye' . . . and hurried on my way.

I bumped into him again about two weeks later.
Again, he recognised me with evident pleasure. This time, after a moment's hesitation, I, too, recognised him. This time my greeting was genuine.
Since then we have met each other regularly every two or three weeks. We stop and chat, we wave across the road, I've even learned that his name is Steve. But how or why I was supposed to have known him in the first place, I haven't the faintest idea!

I saw him a few moments ago.
"Lovely flowers!" we agreed, as we paused t0 chat on the pavement.

My very good friend the traffic warden!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A story for Mothering Sunday

Now, I may have told you this story before. If so, the moment it starts to sound familiar STOP. But, if I haven't . . . well, this seems the right moment.

I was thinking of my mother today (hardly surprising, seeing that it’s Mothering Sunday), I was also thinking of angels . . . and this story features both.

You'd have liked my mother. She had abundant charm and great determination (and she didn't like having her photo taken!). As I've told you before, because of my father's last illness, which was diagnosed when I was ten, mother and I were thrown together very early in my life. Not only were we close, we were also very good friends. True, our personalities were markedly different, but we shared the majority of our beliefs and convictions. Most important, we shared the same sense of humour.
For the final six years of her life, mother left Somerset, and, together with Sophie, our Siamese cat, came to live with me here, in London.

Mother died in January, sixteen years ago. Little more than six weeks later, Sophie, then aged twenty, also died. My family hadn't been very large to start with, but the three had shrunk dramatically to one - all in a matter of weeks.

I'm sitting and writing to you in what is now my book-room. For six years, this was mother's room. It was the room in which she died. After her death I disposed of everything - the carpet went to St. James's, the bed to the Salvation Army, the clothes to Oxfam, the dressing-table to a friend. No longer needed by mother, the room became what it is now, a study, and I'm sure that this is what she’d have wanted.

But clearing out is never quick nor easy. I was continually coming across yet more of her belongings that needed rehousing. Shortly after Sophie's death in the March (and before the arrival of Rupert, whom I had yet to meet), I was relaxing in here one evening, sitting on the sofa watching television. Behind me was the closed window. Between the back of the sofa and the window, waiting to be rehoused, was yet another of mother's suitcases. It was full of clothes that someday, when I got round to it, needed to be taken to Oxfam.
Sitting there, I suddenly felt chilly, it was as though there was a draught. Getting to my feet, I went round to the back of the sofa to check on the window. It was firmly shut. About to return to my original position, I chanced to look down . . . and it was then that I received a considerable shock.

To my startled amazement, there, sitting on the upturned suitcase, was a very small panther. It was no more than two inches long, made in all probability of plastic. Crouching happily on the suitcase, it looked for all the world as though it had always been there.
I stared at it in amazement. This was something I had never seen before. My thoughts raced . . . where on earth had it come from? No children had been in the room since mother had died, and mother had most definitely never had such a thing as a small, plastic panther. It couldn't have come through the window - not only is this a third floor flat, but, being mid-winter, the window had been shut for quite a while. The suitcase had been placed behind the sofa only a few days previously . . . so, where on earth, or heaven, had the panther come from?

I fully expected the small figure to dematerialise before my eyes . . . but it didn't. So, accepting its reality, I picked it up and looked at it. It was beautifully made and very tangible. Perplexed, but grateful, I put it in a purse in my handbag, where it has been ever since.

Where did it come from? All I can think is that it came from mother to offer me a 'cat companion' until the arrival of Rupert. The colouring of the panther was that of Sophie, the physique that of Rupert. How did it come? Well, there is nothing that the angels can't achieve!!

Now, sixteen years later, that window has become rather special. It was from that window that I photographed the orbs on Christmas Day. As for the book-room itself, I'm sure that mother and the angels overlook its perpetual untidiness and give it their special blessing!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wish upon a star . . . ?

I've been reflecting on that mind-blowing series of diagrams that your Buddhist friend sent you from Toronto. Do you remember the ones I mean?
The diagrams that showed, firstly, how much larger our Earth was than Venus. Then, compared to the size of the Sun, how the Earth was a mere pebble. Then, how the mighty Sun itself paled into insignificance beside a vast globe called Arcturus. And, finally, stretching the mind like mental elastic, how Arcturus was a trivial blob compared with the mighty Antares.

Antares . . . ? What is Antares . . . ? More to the point, where is Antares . . . ? How is it that I've lived all these years in total ignorance of an organism so vast as to defy conception?

After reflecting on these mind-blowing images for a while, two thoughts came to mind.

Just for a moment, look out of the window at the sun. All right, it's difficult this morning as it's cloudy, but you get a sense of where it is and how very far distant it is. Now . . . think about the stars, the few that we can still see (despite light pollution) and the many more, way out there, that are literally light-years distant. Can you feel your mind stretching with this sense of infinity and extreme distance? But now, it gets even more exciting. Take a deep breath and envisage the sun and the stars in relation to those diagrams, and in relation to those much vaster, much more distant sentient bodies that I'd never heard of.
Suddenly, we are rubbing shoulders with the stars as closely as tube passengers in the rush-hour. Planet Earth is literally cheek by jowl with Venus. Distance has crashed in on us, and needs to be totally re-evaluated if we are ever to fathom - however imperfectly - a sense of all that lies around and beyond.

That isn't a calm, blue sky out there, keeping us safe within its boundaries. It isn't even an infinity of open, tranquil space.
Let's try to grasp the mind-boggling concept that somewhere, somehow, when we look out of the window we are gazing towards vast worlds, even vaster solid beings and space . . . endless . . . endless . . . inconceivably endless space that links it all.

Now . . . are you still with me? Let's look at it another way. Take planet Earth and put beside it a football . . . and then a marble . . . and then a molecule and an atom . . . and then realise that we are each of us constituted of millions of these atoms, each of which is a sentient being in its own right.
Then . . . but this is becoming impossible . . . put one of those atoms alongside Antares . . . do you see what I mean?

And we have the nerve to think that we can understand all this? And, what's more, that we can analyse and pin down the creative intelligence behind it all? As Shakespeare put it, "Lord, what fools these mortals be! "

But at least we're divine fools . . . and we come from stardust!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

So near . . . and yet . . .

This is totally unimportant, in fact, I may be foolish to tell you this story as it's nothing more than a record of my stupidity.
Ah well, stupid I may be, but I'll also be generous. I'll sacrifice all my credibility in order to offer you a laugh.

I hadn't yet been to see Jill's new home in Clapham. True, she'd brought me the estate agent's particulars when they'd first received them (an ideal home on the top of a hill, with a view over London) but, since their move six weeks ago, there hadn't been an opportunity to visit. Jill wanted me to come . . . I very much wanted to go . . . yesterday was the first day that suited us both. Rupert and I would go over in the car and spend the morning admiring this new home in Vicarage Grove.

You'd think that anyone living in a city would be cosmopolitan. That they would be widely travelled, at least within the boundaries of their own city. I hate to admit it, but the sad fact remains that I'm as insular as any eighteenth-century rural villager. South of the river I'm lost. East of London I'm lost. North of London I'm unsure of my whereabouts . . . it's only a very small part of the capital that feels like home. I'd never been to Clapham. I wasn't even sure where Clapham was (other than knowing that it was south of the river and had a Junction). This was venturing into the unkown.

Well in advance, I took out my 'A to Z' and carefully mapped a route. It looked relatively simple. Straight over Chelsea Bridge and keep going. So it was that, on a lovely, sunny morning, we set off. Rupert was thrilled to be going out. He sat with his nose glued to the window as I drove down Sloane Street, around Sloane Square and made for the river. Having successfully reached the foreign territory of the southern bank, we headed for Clapham. The myriad railway lines that comprise the Junction passed over our heads. With my written directions wedged firmly between the steering wheel and the windscreen, I negotiated the various turns and, finally, found myself in the maze of narrow streets that comprise the Clapham 'Groves'. It's a fascinating area. None of the roads are straight. They wind around each other like an urban maze. Somewhat confusing for the visitor, but very attractive for the residents.

Jill had warned me that extensive drainage work was being undertaken in her area. For this reason, she told me, I wasn't to try to park in Vicarage Grove. Any of the side roads would do. Accordingly, I found a parking place off Vicarage Grove outside a church, put all my small change in the meter, and took Rupert out of the car. Only then did I make a very unpleasant discovery. All my anxiety had been focussed on not forgetting the presents, not forgetting the route, and not arriving late. Now, standing on the pavement, I realised with a considerable shock that a vital element to the success of the visit was missing . . . what I had forgotten was my address book. I had absolutely no idea as to which house in Vicarage Grove I was supposed to be visiting, nor had I brought Jill's 'phone number!

Standing on the pavement, I looked up and down the unfamiliar road. There was no sign of Jill . . . no sign of Abigail . . . theirs could have been any of the houses that lay behind the anonymous, closed doors. Desperately thinking back, I remembered that the picture on the estate agent's leaflet had shown a house up a flight of steps. This information was helpful as the houses on the left were all on the level, only those on the right were up steps. I only had one side of the road to explore. But, as I realised with growing dismay, if I made my way down the whole length of the road, enquiring at each house, the money I'd put in the meter would have long expired when I reached the end of my quest.

It was then that inspiration struck. Jill had told me not to park in Vicarage Grove on account of the sewage work. Sure enough, there was a deep trench in the middle of the narrow road and, down in the trench, a group of workmen was hard at work. Surely, I thought to myself, one of them would have noticed which house laid claim to an eighteen-month toddler? Carrying Rupert, I made my way to the trench. The workmen looked up at me, somewhat surprised to see a woman carrying a cat.
"Er . . . I'm so sorry to bother you," I said, "but you wouldn't happen to know which of these houses has a baby?"
Amused by my plight, but anxious to be helpful, they consulted with each other . . . finally, they pointed to a house a few yards away.
I thanked them profusely and mounted the steps.
Directly I'd rung the bell I knew that this was a mistake. From the other side of the door came the strident sound of a large dog barking . . . Jill had no dog. Rupert looked alarmed . . . I felt alarmed . . . hastily retreating down the steps, I apologised over my shoulder to the man who opened the door!
Back on the pavement, I was approached by one of the workmen. They'd just remembered, he said, it wasn't that house, it was the one next-door.
Once again I mounted the steps, once again I knocked on the door . . . and, joy of joys, this time the door opened to reveal the welcoming smiles of Jill and Abigail!
The workmen cheered, Rupert scrambled out of my arms and rushed indoors to explore. Full of relief, I followed him . . . to recover over tea and cakes in Jill's new sitting-room.

The moral of the story . . . always check where you are going before you leave home! Either that, or make sure you have a posse of helpful workmen on standby should you need help on arrival!

And yes, just in case you were wondering, I loved Jill's new home!