Saturday, March 27, 2010

A story for Jill

Although this is really a story for Jill, I know she'd want me to share it with you.

Jill was a friend, a very dear friend. During the final weeks of her life I visited her regularly in hospital. I sat by her bedside and we'd talk . . . how we talked! Wonderful, liberating talks that had no agenda and ranged seamlessly over such topics as our shared spiritual beliefs, our deep love of the countryside, and our mutual delight in the works of P.G.Wodehouse!
But, first and foremost came Jill's love for her family . . . and her love for the garden she'd created at her home in Oxfordshire.

Those who love on a generous scale provide nourishment for all creation. Jill's garden was living proof of this fact. What she wanted, she said, was a romantic garden. To demonstrate that this love-affair was in no way one-sided, every plant responded with joyful exuberance.

On my penultimate visit to Jill's small room in the hospital, I noticed a new arrival beside the bed - a small, wicker trough overflowing with spring flowers. It made a joyful statement against the sterile backdrop of trolleys, tubes and bottles. The bulbs had been lifted in full flower . . . snowdrops . . . anemones . . . crocuses . . . cyclamen. A kind friend in Oxfordshire had decided that if Jill couldn't come to her garden then the garden would travel to her!

"I'll take a photo," I said, "When the flowers fade, you'll have something to remind you."
After draping my scarf over a rack of bottles, to provide a less clinical backdrop, I took out my camera.

The following week it was clear that Jill was nearing the end of her journey. As the trough of flowers had disappeared, I placed the photo gently in her hand.
A smile of pure delight spread over her face . . . a smile that I treasure in memory.

Three days after Jill's death I received a letter in the post. Do you remember me telling you that I act as tutor on a correspondence course? The students come from all over the world and, although I rarely meet them, they become good friends on paper. The letter I received that day was from a student whom I'd corresponded with for several years. We had never met. She was, she told me, coming to London for a funeral the following Friday. As the funeral would be taking place quite close to where I lived, she wondered whether it might it be possible for her to come and see me?

I looked at the address on the letter . . . Oxfordshire.
I recalled the date and time of Jill's Thankgiving Service . . . half-past eleven on Friday.
Surely not . . . ?
I phoned my student.
"You aren't, by any chance," I asked, "a friend of Jill?"
Not only was my student a friend of Jill, she was the very friend who had carefully lifted the flowering bulbs and enabled Jill to enjoy her garden from the confines of her hospital bed!

Well . . . you can imagine the rest. My student and I, Jill's two friends who had been united in this totally unexpected and extraordinary fashion, met in advance of her Thanksgiving Service to give our own thanks for what Jill had meant to us. We then walked to the service together.

Through the Woodland Trust, I've planted a tree in Jill's memory. It will be putting down strong roots in a bluebell wood in Oxfordshire. What dedication, I wondered, should I put on the certificate? As Jill and her husband had deeply admired the work of William Blake, I chose four lines in memory of our many talks . . .

"To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."

. . . and guess what I discovered the day after after choosing this poem? The same four lines had been used as part of the service for her grandson's christening!

Did Jill's spirit arrange for me to meet her friend from Oxfordshire? It was one of her many delights in life to bring like-minded friends together. Did she ensure that I chose the right message on her certificate . . . ?

It's only on one level that I'm bidding her farewell. Who knows, she may be planning another gentle nudge for the future!

Thank you, Jill. Thank you more than I can say. Thank you for everything.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pigs in the Park!

Hey! It's Rupert here. Yes, I know you were expecting a letter from my Mum, but you deserve the truth. She'd want to tell you a story with a happy ending . . . how Rupert loved visiting the pigs in Holland Park.
Loved visiting the pigs, be blowed!

Here's the story . . . you can judge for yourself!
We were going to see the pigs in the park, or so Mum told me.
"Hold on," I wanted to say, "What's this?"
Pigs . . . ? What were pigs . . .? And what were they doing in Holland Park? Squirrels I knew well, they were there by the dozen. Foxes could be seen frequently if you sat still and kept quiet. I liked squirrels and foxes.

But pigs . . . ?
My Mum explained that it was all part of a cunning plan. An area of the Arboretum was over-run with brambles. Were they to be treated with chemical weed-killer the other wildlife would suffer. Were the brambles to be dug up it would be impossible not to damage the bulbs. Pigs, who rooted out brambles and scorned bulbs, were the perfect solution. A Saddleback sow and three piglets were coming on a two-month visit from Charton Manor Farm in Kent. It would give the pigs a holiday and rid the Arboretum of brambles.

From the start of this story I was unhappy. For one thing, I like undergrowth and brambles. Mice and small birds can be seen scuttling under the brambles. Brambles provide cover, and cats like cover. It's only dogs who enjoy vast, open spaces . . . pigs, I was beginning to suspect, had a lot in common with dogs.

Last Friday morning we set off. I didn't want to quench my Mum's enthusiasm, but, between you and me, I was far from happy.

When we arrived I peered nervously under the fence . . . how big was your average pig? Was it mouse-sized or dog-sized? Was it timid, or (unwelcome thought) was it fierce? And, most important of all, what might be its attitude to a visiting cat?

I could see nothing unusual underneath the fence.
Then my Mum picked me up and I had a completely different view. Suddenly I could see this large enclosure . . . with a curious, tunnel thing in the middle . . . but where were the pigs?
A moment later something moved in the far distance. Were those small, fat blobs the piglets . . . ? I wouldn't say I was pleased to see them, but I must admit to a faint interest . . . they were hardly threatening all that way away.
It was only then that I heard an unfamiliar, snuffling sound. It was coming up from the region of Mum's knees . . . curious, I looked down . . .
Good Heavens! What was this . . . ?
Holding me tight, my Mum, who by now was very excited, kept on telling me to look!
Look . . . ? Was she mad . . .?
Would any cat, with the slightest instinct for self-preservation, want to look at that massive, twitching snout . . . those small, beady eyes . . . ? What was more, there was always the slight hope that if I didn't look down at this alarming pig she mightn't look up and see me. With every moment that passed the more certain I became that cats and pigs were not cut out for enduring friendships!
My Mum finally got the message and took me off to a peaceful area of the park where I slowly recovered.

So . . . just in case anyone ever suggests to you that cats enjoy visiting pigs, let me tell you this.

Where pigs are concerned, cats resemble snowdrops an
d daffodils. They'll stoically accept the temporary disruption, but just you watch them rejoice when the disturbance is over, the pigs depart, and peace returns to the park!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Beyond Infinity?

If you don't mind, I'm giving myself a welcome break from housework and writing to you!

Tell me, are you a knowledgeable mathematician? If so, I'll apologise in advance for a sequence of meandering and fanciful ruminations on the subject. I'm not a mathematician, for me the realm of pure number is an alien world. Perhaps for this reason, when faced with a discourse in pure number, I find myself bemused . . . but totally fascinated.

BBC2 explored the subject of 'infinity' on the 'Horizon' series the other week. The programme was absorbing and totally captivating. What's more, each fresh concept was delivered with an engagingly zany sense of humour. By the end, even if my mathematical ability was no stronger, my sense of wonder had received an invigorating shot of adrenalin.

In case you missed it, I'll try to share it with you in layman's language.
It may sound quite absurd, but it had never struck me quite so clearly before that, when you start counting, unless you are aiming for one particular number, there is no conclusion to the journey. There is no end to reach, no final destination, no satisfying full-stop.

From one . . . to a hundred . . . to a thousand . . . to a million . . . and into the distance . . .
you just keep going. Numbers are infinite. Which, when you come to think of it, makes it a little puzzling that you are able to start in the first place. This point was never raised, but, if there is no end then surely, logically, there should be no beginning?
Perhaps that is true, there is no beginning. When we count, we are, as you might say, leaping aboard a moving train. The track stretches away behind with the same certainty as it stretches ahead. To look back is to see minus one . . . minus a hundred . . . minus a thousand . . . minus a million . . . numbers reaching away implacably to infinity. There is no resting-place in any direction in the relentless progression of number.

But number wasn't the main thrust of their fascinating discourse. What was being explored was going much further, it was travelling boldly 'to infinity and beyond'. By the end of the programme the eminent mathematicians had concluded that, in all mathematical probability, this is an infinite universe. However (hold on to your hat at this point!), it is equally probable that ours is only one of an infinite number of infinite universes!

Now, if that proposal doesn't give you pause for thought . . . well, nothing will!
(And it certainly puts the housework into perspective!)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Transformed by Otto

Have I ever told you the story of Otto?
The story of Otto is something that should be pinned up over every dog's enclosure at Battersea. It's a heart-warming story . . . just right for the winter.

I first met Otto over a year ago. Walking home one morning, I almost stumbled over an enthusiastic puppy. Straining at its leash, the small, wriggling Dachshund was quite determined that I shouldn't pass by on the pavement without giving him the greeting he deserved.
I stopped . . . and tickled its plump tummy.

"I'm so sorry," the apologetic owner was standing beside me, flushed with embarrassment, "he shouldn't have waylaid you like that," she picked up the wriggling puppy, "Otto, this lady doesn't want to stop and play with you!"

I assured her that stopping to play with Otto had made an enjoyable distraction, but she wasn't convinced. With Otto firmly clasped in her arms, she explained that she had never had
a dog before. On retiring from a demanding job, she had been persuaded by friends that a dog would provide both interest and company.
"I'm not sure that I'll be keeping him," she said with a worried frown, "he's such a handful. I really wasn't expecting anything like this."

Looking at her anxious face, I wasn't sure that life with such a novice owner was in Otto's best interests either. Pale, diffident, and clearly rather shy, she seemed emotionally ill-equipped to cope with an exuberant puppy.

But who was I to judge? Perhaps her friends were right.
"I'm sure he'll be a wonderful companion," I said, before tickling the squirming Otto under the chin and continuing on my way home.

Three months later I once again encountered Otto on the pavement. But was this the same owner?
No longer pale, no longer apologetic, she smiled happily as Otto rolled over on his back for me to tickle his tummy.
"Hasn't he grown," she said indulgently, "He has such an appetite!"
Clearly there was no longer any question of finding Otto a new home.
"He's a credit to you," I agreed.
As we stood there, talking about the exuberant Otto, several local residents passed along the pavement. Not a single person failed to call out a greeting to the small dog and his owner. With a new-found confidence, Otto's proud owner waved happily to these new friends.

Enthusiastically, she told me how Otto had a good walk every day in the park . . . that they
regularly met other dog owners . . . that Otto had made countless friends. The rather diffident, retiring woman whom I remembered meeting three months previously had been transformed into a proud and gregarious dog owner.

As for Otto . . . ? He's now the friend of everyone in the district . . . and doesn't he know it!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Questions in the air?

Have you a moment for some quiet pondering? This is something that's been niggling me over a period of months - it could even be years. But let's start by asking you a question.
At the end of a sentence, when the statement is one of uncontrovertible fact, would you expect the speaker's voice to go up or down?

Think about it . . .

Well . . . ? Did you say 'down'?

I would have said 'down'. There was once no doubt in my mind that the voice, except when offering a question, or a point that is debatable, comes down to rest at a full stop. There's something comforting and reassuring in that sense of coming to rest. After all, the voice is not merely a means of conveying information. The tone of the voice has a message of its own, it can add authority and reassurance to a statement. All's well in a world when a full stop is endorsed by a voice at rest.

But, have you noticed? Everything is changing. The newsreaders on Radio 4 were the last to hold out, then, this morning, capitulation took place. In common with what seems to be the rest of the English-speaking world, many of them are now raising their voices at the end of a perfectly straightforward sentence.

It could be said that I am being overtly pedantic. Fashions change . . . I should move with the times.
True, it may seem like that, but there's far more to this than a mere vocal whim. When the voice makes an upward inflection it indicates doubt, or a general sense of uncertainty. It makes the listener wonder whether he's being offered a fact or a question. An upward lilt is restless and incomplete. It leaves you waiting for more . . . an unvoiced question is hanging in the air.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into this switch in inflection, but I equate it with the general sense of unease and doubt in our modern world. Is it indicative of how we are all feeling . . .? Are we uncertain . . . indecisive . . . confused . . . unwilling, or unable, to allow our voices to descend into certainty? Many of the certainties of the past have been put to the test, a large number have been found wanting. Is it this that leaves us with such a profound sense of uncertainty that it resonates in our voices?

We all need questions, questions enable us to grow . . . we need doubt, without it we can never find our own truths . . . but we also need rest. We need a place of stillness and certainty from which to raise those questions and doubts. We need somewhere inside us to provide stability and reassurance, a place of strength that is echoed in the voice.
Voices have so much more to offer than the words they use.

Will you join me in a crusade to bring back the reassuring, stabilising downward inflection?
Who knows, it could be an invaluable asset at international summits!