Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

I wonder if your feelings on New Year's Eve are similar to mine? As the old year creeps and creaks its way to an exhausted conclusion, I find myself awaiting the new version with a sense of hope and relief.
By the end of December I'm badly in need of a new year. Three hundred and sixty-five days are as much as I can cope with in one session.

I suppose it's illogical to have this concept of a new beginning. After all, what is a New Year? Nothing more than a date on a calendar, a man-made invention.
True, the cycle of the year is dictated by the movement of our solar system, but, other than the summer and winter solstices indicating a pause for reflection, there is nothing to indicate when a new year should start.

It is characteristic of English caution in such matters that we were late in joining the January 1st enthusiasts. Early in the sixteenth century, Venice, Sweden and The Holy Roman Empire were the first to opt for January 1st as their choice for New Year's Day. They were soon to be followed by Holland, France and Norway, whilst Scotland joined the club fifty years later. The English, who preferred to start their year on March 25th, stuck to their chosen date for a further two centuries. Only in 1752 did we come in from the cold and join the majority of Europe in their New Year celebrations.

In our globalised world, it's hard to imagine anything other than uniformity over the date of the New Year. Fiscal and educational reasons alone make it imperative. But, as I see it, the emotional need outweighs all others.
To be given a whole new year . . . twelve unblemished months . . . an empty book with three hundred and sixty-five blank pages . . . it's a priceless gift.

Not only that, it's a chance to draw a line under the difficulties and worries of the year that has come to a close. It's a time to take stock, to make resolutions . . . all right, I know we don't necessarily keep them, but the act of considering and making a resolution is a valuable exercise in itself. A New Year, a new chance, a new opportunity, a new beginning.

From every point of view, social, economic and environmental, 2011 was a roller-coaster of a journey. What is 2012 waiting to teach us? Time alone will tell. But, as of this moment, it's virgin territory with unlimited potential . . . who could ask for more?

So, let's take a deep breath . . . hold hands . . . trust in the cosmic, evolutionary plan . . . and, as pioneers, step forward into the unknown.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Should auld acquaintances . . . ?

Do you understand th
e complex etiquette of Christmas cards?
I wish I did.
Over the years my Christmas card list has steadily grown longer and longer. First come the cards I exchange with friends and family. Then come the cards exchanged with acquaintances from the past, people whom it's good to hear from once a year.
But, looking at my list last month, I realised that it included a considerable number of recipients whom I only ever hear from at Christmas and now barely know. At what point, I wondered, is it right for auld acquaintances to be quietly forgotten?

I'm sure you know what I mean. There's that pleasant couple that you met on holiday and exchanged cards with the following Christmas, how long should they stay on the list? Or, as in my case, there's the old school friend whom I haven't met since our schooldays. We weren't close friends in our teens, does she still want to keep in touch? Most illogical of all is the card I receive annually from my mother's cleaning-lady's daughter.

During my childhood in Kent, my mother had a cleaning-lady. Over the years they became good friends and, when we moved to Somerset, they continued to exchange cards at Christmas. When my mother died, the cleaning-lady maintained the tradition by
sending Christmas cards to me. It was when the cleaning-lady died that things became convoluted. Her daughter, whom I'd only met once (she was eight and I was ten) clearly felt obliged to maintain her mother's Christmas card list. For several years now I've been receiving an annual card from my mother's cleaning-lady's daughter, about whom I know absolutely nothing!

Heartened by the conviction that these people, and several others, would be relieved to strike my name off their Christmas card lists, I came to a decision. After careful selection, I made a list of seventeen cards that I would only send if the potential recipient acted first.

What happened? You've guessed it! All those cards that I never expected to receive came flocking through the letter-box. Even more surprising, for the first time for years many carried not just a signature, but a personal message and an enquiry. Not having posted their cards in advance, I was able to respond to these enquiries and forge new links with old friends.

Did I hear from my mother's cleaning-lady's daughter? Much to my surprise, hers was the first card to arrive! But it wasn't until I opened it that I realised how I value this link with the past.
No matter that we wouldn't recognise each other, that we know nothing of each other's lives . . we meet across the years, re-establishing memories through the exchange of cards.

Is it so very fanciful to liken Christmas cards to that first Christmas star? Like the star, they act as heralds to the Christmas story . . . and. in the manner of that first star, they shine their welcome light in the most unexpected places!

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Hot-Water Squirrel

As always, Shakespeare puts it perfectly:
"How easy," says Theseus, in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', "is a bush supposed a bear".
Does that sound familiar? It does to me. It brings back times when, hurrying home on a dark night, shadows can take on unexpected forms. Times when a rustle, unnoticed by daylight, is suddenly menacing.
Nor is this tendency for self-delusion limited to foolish humans. Chloe, my cat, has started to display an over-active imagination . . . and it's causing problems.

In her case, it's not a simple question of confusing bushes with bears, more a troubling case of mistaking an innocent hot-water bottle for a squirrel.

None of my previous cats had this problem. On the contrary, diverse as their characters were in many ways, they all appreciated a hot-water bottle for the comfort it offered.
But Chloe, influenced, perhaps, by the daily thrill of chasing squirrels in the garden, sees things very differently!

Is it, I wonder, the warmth of the hot-water bottle . . . the flexibility of the rubber . . . the gurgle of the water inside . . . the furriness of the cover? I wish I knew. All that can be said with certainty is that, to Chloe, the sight of a hot-water bottle is every bit as potent as the proverbial red rag to a bull.

My inoffensive bottle was minding its own business at the bottom of the bed when Chloe first became conscious of the warmth. She then detected the bulge. With all the enthusiasm and fighting spirit of her tiger ancestors, she dragged this intruder from between the sheets and went straight for its jugular. When I finally managed to rescue her mauled victim, it seemed best to bury it beneath a cushion on the bedroom chair.

I'd reckoned without Chloe's tenacity. Within minutes, she'd unearthed her prey and was dragging it triumphantly around the flat. For its own safety, and to prevent it from being punctured, the long-suffering hot-water bottle had to be confined to a drawer.

I was left with a problem: how to warm the bed in the depths of winter?
A cunning plan is now in force. An hour before I go to bed the bottle is placed between the sheets, the door to the bedroom is then firmly closed. On going to bed, the hot-water bottle is discretely removed and secreted from the room without a keen-eyed Chloe catching sight of these operational tactics. The bottle then spends the night hidden deep beneath a pile of towels in the bathroom.

It's true that Chloe's warm body, curled up beside me under the covers, acts every bit as efficiently for my middle regions as the missing hot-water bottle . . . although this doesn't solve the problem of chilly feet.

I'm sorry, forget that I mentioned my cold feet . . . it's not a thought to leave you with at Christmas.
Instead, let's follow Chloe's example and go in search of angels. Contrary to appearances, this beautiful, seasonal angel is completely safe. Whilst anyone might be forgiven for mistaking a bush for a bear, not even Chloe's wishful thinking could mistake a crystal angel for a squirrel!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"Climb Every Clothes-Horse"

Please, don't get me wrong. I love sharing my life with a cat. But the winter months, particularly when the cat is a highly-energetic two-year-old, pose problems. It is a time when my abilities to provide sufficient stimulus and entertainment are put to the test.

With the dawn delaying its arrival until breakfast, and the lights
needing to be switched on for afternoon tea, Chloe's three daily squirrel hunts in the garden are becoming concertinaed into an ever-shortening time span. At times it feels as though it's barely worth removing my coat. It also means that there's a very long evening during which a lively young cat needs to amuse herself.

Boxes are a never-failing source of entertainment, but they can hardly be called demanding, and this autumn, with the arrival of the long evenings, Chloe felt in need of a challenge.

I think I told you of my beechwood clothes-horse whose huge delivery box was promptly claimed for games of hide-and-seek. All went well so long as she restricted herself to the box. But what enterprising cat could be content with a mere box once they've discovered a clothes-horse? Not Chloe!

This wonderful and unexpected edifice in the bathroom provided her with the challenges she had yearned for. It was tall . . . it was tricky to climb . . . and when, wobbling slightly, your paws finally gained the top rung, there was an undoubted sense of achievement.
Chloe took triumphant possession of the clothes-horse!

What happens to my wet clothes?
It's a good question. Chloe comes in from the garden and, en route to her favourite perch, happily initials each item of wet clothing with large, muddy paw prints!

I think that this picture speaks for itself.
Knowing Chloe's disposition, she could well be singing:
"Climb Every Clothes-Horse"!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Caterpillar's Story

Let me tell you a story.
It's a tale of transformation, a story about change. It could, perhaps, be said to be a story about us.
But let's call it what it is . . . a story about a caterpillar. The history of every caterpillar.

Every caterpillar, once it has gorged its way through all the tasty leaves in its vicinity, arrives at a predetermined destination. It becomes a larvae.
Cocooned in this new form, it rests its bloated body and starts to mutate.

However, a disturbing thing is about to happen . . . disturbing, that is, from the point of view of the caterpillar.

There takes place what can only be called in internal invasion.
Within the cocoon what are known as imaginal cells start to take form. The caterpillar sees these small cells as an alien invasion and, much as our bodies would respond to a viral infection, fights the invaders by means of its immune system.

Initially, some of the imaginal cells are destroyed, but, such is the determination of these new arrivals, such is the rapidity of their proliferation, that, within a short period, they have multiplied sufficiently to take over the host body. The caterpillar surrenders and the conquering cells emerge from the cocoon in the form that destiny has chosen for them, they emerge as a butterfly.

That is an accurate, biological account of nature's skilful means of converting a rapacious, earthbound caterpillar into a dazzling, airborne butterfly . . . a creature that lives lightly on the land it embellishes.

I won't insult your intelligence by driving home any morals to the story But I would just suggest, very gently, that those imaginal cells knew what they were doing. They knew where they were going. They could picture the wings that awaited them, the scented air where they would hover.

If caterpillars want to remain rapacious and earthbound in the face of such inspirational determination, well . . . however voraciously they may have gorged in the past, they don't really have a chance . . . do they . . .

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Bright Yellow Angel

What would we do without our Guardian Angels? But have you heard of a Guardian Angel that took the guise of a bright yellow van? No, nor had I until last week.
If you've a moment to spare, I'll tell you the story.

There's a building site adjacent to where I live. Every day an incessant convoy of lorries streams past our front door. Recently the components of this convoy have changed to allow for a new stage in the development. In addition to the lorries there are
now cement-mixers.
Understandably, everything in the vicinity has been receiving a regular dusting of cement. It penetrates the windows fronting the street, and each day I dust it off my car.

Rain would have helped to lay the dust and wash it away, but for many weeks prior to my trip to Somerset there had been no rain.
I travelled down a dry and dusty M4 motorway and, whilst I was away, the sun continued to shine from a cloudless sky. It wasn't until the day of my return that the long overdue rain was forecast for the south-west.

It was evident that rain was approaching as I started for home, and the lowering clouds grew heavier as I approached Bath. Soon it was necessary to put on the headlights . . . then the rain arrived. Not a gentle shower, but a torrential downpour that had clearly come to make its mark.

For the first time for many weeks, the windscreen wipers had to be brought into action. But, as they moved up and across the screen, they drew with them a thick, white veil. In shocked disbelief, I struggled to see through the veil to the rain-drenched road beyond.
What had happened? It was only then I realised. Unbeknown to me, the cement that I had regularly dusted off the screen had become lodged behind the windscreen wipers. Now, mixing with the falling rain, it was doing what cement dust is supposed to do . . . it was turning into cement!

The car was now approaching the M4 motorway with heavy traffic on all sides. It was barely possible to see ahead, it was equally impossible to stop. The rain grew heavier, the oncoming headlights flared off the cement on the windscreen . . . the journey was fast becoming a nightmare.

Once on the motorway I was spared the oncoming headlights. Instead, I could dimly make out a very bright yellow van travelling ahead of me in the near lane. Even through the veil of cement, the yellow van was unmistakeable. Thankfully, I tucked myself in behind this gleaming vehicle and prayed that it would lead me all the way to London.

It took nearly fifty miles for the last of the cement to finally wash away from the windscreen. As clarity of vision was restored I realised that we were approaching a junction. The yellow van signalled that it was leaving the motorway and sped off to the left, leaving me, for the first time, able to focus through the windscreen to the rainswept road ahead. The clouds were lifting. I switched off the headlights.

Thanks entirely to my bright yellow Guardian Angel, I reached London safely.
As for cement mixers . . . I'll be looking at them very differently in the future!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mountains laid low?

I am, perhaps, taking on a Goliath with a very small pebble. Nonetheless, it must be said that, on one point at least, I don't agree with the prophet Isaiah.
"Let every valley be lifted up . . . " he declares, " . . . and every mountain and hill be made low . . . "

Why . . . ? Surely we need valleys? Every bit as great is the need for

Without a mountain how can you hope to get the unparalleled view from the mountain top, the sense of perspective that this view provides, the satisfaction of the climb and the humbling of the personal ego?
Without a valley where can the rivers run, the lush vegetation proliferate and people and animals find relaxation, food and shelter?

For three days last week, Chloe and I enjoyed a holiday in Somerset.
The unfamiliar, country environment proved intoxicating to my urban cat.
Why had no-one ever told her about the excitement afforded by dry-stone-walls, and the heady smells of the country? She was determined to make up for lost time immediately on arrival!

But, for me, the highlight came the following morning. On pulling back the curtains I looked out of our south-facing window.

Spread out before me was a panoramic view of the gentle, Somerset countryside. The sun was rising behind the trees, the mist was rolling up the valley . . . and the effect?
There's only one word for it, it was breathtaking . . . totally breathtaking.
Without the hills, without the valleys . . . would there have been that incredible connection with the numinous?

Surely we need hills and valleys, both physical and metaphorical, not only to provide a challenge, but also to offer the blessings of awe and wonder?

To take this argument further, wouldn't you agree that human beings also have need of light and shade?
The brilliant sunlight, glistening and gleaming on the ivy leaves in this photo, needs the deep shade. It offers contrast and enhances its brilliance. By the same token, the shade itself would lack its velvety depths were it not thrown into relief by the intensity of the sunshine.

Ours is a world of contrast, wonderful contrast. Day and night . . . hot and cold . . . height and depth . . . each extreme sharpening our appreciation of its opposite.

Mountains and hills laid low . . . ? I'm sorry, Isaiah, but in this instance I beg to differ!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Alarm Bells Ringing!

It was such a kind thought . . . it guaranteed that never again would I lose my keys . . . but . . .

Let me start at the beginning. A month ago, very foolishly, I lost the only set of keys to my car. In consequence I was stranded. Not only was it impossible to move the car, it was equally impossible to open the car door and get inside. Only after producing the log-book, my passport, proof of residence and a large cheque, could I apply for a new one.
As I'm sure you'll understand, when the new key finally arrived it was very precious.

A kind friend, anxious to support me and ensure that no key was ever lost again, came up with the perfect solution . . . a key-ring that let you know when it was missing.
A key-ring that flashed its eyes, miaowed loudly, and took the form of a small, black cat.

Needless to say, Chloe was totally intrigued . . . and more than a little disconcerted by the dazzling eyes and ear-splitting yowl of this newcomer!
This was a cat who wouldn't be easy to lose!

I fastened the helpful black cat to my bundle of keys, and felt reassured that they would never be lost again.

True, it was a little startling to hear a loud wail when I fumbled in my handbag and squeezed the small cat by mistake, but it was all in a very good cause.

Keys have a tough life. Pushed in and out of pockets, dropped into copious handbags, they are constantly on the move, constantly under pressure. Not surprisingly, the small chain connecting the black cat to the key-ring became broken.
But this posed no problem. There was a small loop in the middle of the cat's back which enabled it to be connected directly to the main body of keys. If anything, my keys were even safer than before.

It was the day after the small black cat had been attached in its new position (in close proximity to the car key-fob) that I needed to use the car.
Don't ask me what the small black cat said to the key-fob, but the key-fob's response was instantaneous!

As I turned the key in the ignition the car burst into life and sped off down the road to the strident accompaniment of the alarm siren screaming at full blast! It was as though I'd been kidnapped by a demented police car.
Desperately, I looked for some means, any means, of switching off the alarm . . . with no success. Passers-by stopped to stare, other vehicles pulled over and braked in surprise. I felt like a highly conspicuous car thief in full flight, but no pressure on the key-fob, or on the small black cat, would silence the cacophony.

Chloe, initially stunned by the outburst, raised her voice in strenuous protest, which only added to the clamour. There was only one thing to do. The day's plans abandoned, I headed for home, peace and sanctuary.
Once outside the house I switched off the engine and, instantly, the blaring horn and Chloe's squeals came to an abrupt and welcome end.
Thoroughly shaken, we went indoors to recover.

It was with sadness that I detached the small black cat from the key-ring. After all, it had only been doing, on a grander scale, what it had been asked to do in the first place.
As an aspirational small cat, it probably wondered why it should limit itself to protecting my keys when it was perfectly capable of protecting my car?

But the little cat has a new role. No longer a protector of keys, no longer protecting my car, it now sits on the shelf and proudly protects my flat.
Surely such a fierce blue eyes would curb any burglar's enthusiasm?

But I do miss the small, feline (occasionally noisy) bump that used to nestle in my pocket . . .

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Right Approach

Do you recall that tiger at the zoo?
We tried so hard to make him look our way.
You whistled; but I said, "It doesn't do
To whistle at a tiger. You should pay
Him more respect!" Do you remember that
He moved one furry ear a fraction when
I called out, "Hello, Tiger . . . ", as a cat
Will grant remote acknowledgement to men
Who recognise their place, "You're beautiful,"
I breathed, " . . . so beautiful . . ." his massive head
Turned slowly and two regal eyes blinked full
Agreement straight at mine. It could be said
That he was captive and that we were free,
But I was captured when he looked at me.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

One of the family . . .

You probably know this, most people probably know this, but it came as a shock to me when I discovered
recently that, in thinking of the founder of the Christian faith as having the name 'Jesus', I was mistaken.
To my surprise, I learned that, to his family, friends and followers the man I'd always known as 'Jesus' was, in fact, known by the Hebrew name of 'Yeshua'.

Does it make any difference to his teaching or to our faith?

I know that it shouldn't, but a name conveys a vivid image. My mental picture of a 'Yeshua' is very different from my mental picture of a 'Jesus'.

Try it for yourself. Say 'Yeshua', and then say 'Jesus'. Does an identical figure come to mind?
My 'Yeshua' is mature, substantial and quietly spoken. My 'Jesus' is young, passionate and slight of build.

Names shouldn't matter. But they do. Why else would parents devote so much time and thought to selecting the names for their children?

Nor is it just a question of the subjective reaction to a name. In changing the name of 'Yeshua' to that of 'Jesus', the early church was establishing its European base. 'Jesus' is a name still common in Mediterranean countries, you won't find it on the West Bank.

Historically, we've done this down the ages, changing names to make them more acceptable to the English ear. We insist on calling 'Firenze' 'Florence', 'Roma' has become 'Rome', and in Anglicizing the pronunciation of 'Paris' we've stripped it of all its Gallic zest. But when it comes to the name of 'Jesus', with all the significance that the name conveys, such a fundamental change feels different.

All right, when compared to the strength and universality of the teachings, it may seem a trivial quibble, and nothing that I say is likely to make the slightest difference to centuries of worship, not to mention Biblical tradition, hymns and prayers.

Nonetheless, in discovering 'Yeshua', I somehow feel a little closer to the original teacher's message . . . more one of the family.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Where's Chloe . . . ?"

It was my fault, I willingly admit to the fact. But, when ordering a rather elegant, beechwood, clothes-horse, I little foresaw the consequences.
The clothes-horse duly arrived, carefully packed in a very large cardboard box.
Chloe took one look at the empty box . . . and it was love at first sight. With an enthusiastic leap, she dived straight in. She has continued to dive joyfully in and out ever since.

Not that this would pose a problem were it
not linked to her love of the game of hide-and-seek.

Prior to the arrival of the inviting box, we had played regular games of hide-and-seek in which Chloe would hide beneath the sofa covering or under the bureau. I would then make a great show of looking for her, and she would finally emerge, the winner of the contest, very proud of her ability to outwit me.
However, with the arrival of the box the game's format changed . . . from my point of view, it was not a change for the better!

Let me explain. First of all, Chloe dashes into her chosen hiding-place. Here she crouches, quivering with expectation, waiting for me to find her. I then search the living-room, constantly repeating the mantra, "Where is Chloe . . . I wonder where Chloe is . . .?" at the same time carefully avoiding treading on a protruding tail!

Chloe's excitement and expectancy build up to such a pitch that finally, unable to contain herself any longer, she comes shooting out. Like a bolt of lightning, she rushes into the bedroom and dives head-first into the large cardboard box.

My role, that of the short-sighted seeker, remains the same.
Still reciting the "Where is Chloe . . .?" mantra, I slowly advance on the large cardboard box.

As my head finally peers over the top, Chloe, doing an inspired impersonation of a jack-in-the-box, leaps up and biffs me on the nose!

Guess where she goes next?
That's right, back into hiding . . . and the whole ritual starts up all over again!

Should you have a spare moment, might it appeal to you to be an occasional understudy for the demanding role of 'short-sighted seeker'?

As one who plays this role at least three times each day, I can assure you that it takes a long time for an eager and enthusiastic young cat to reach the stage of happy exhaustion depicted in this picture!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Building a Symphony

Did I tel
l you how I once sang a solo at The Albert Hall?
All right, I'll come clean and add that it wasn't an intentional solo. I was part of a group of enthusiastic amateur singers who had come together to sing Faure's 'Requiem'.
Over-awed by the splendour of the building, the privilege of participating, and the general excitement, I got carried away and came in a bar early in the 'Sanctus'.
Fortunately, my solo performance was short . . . very few people heard me.

This incident came to mind last Saturday when I was invited to a concert at The Albert Hall. It wasn't until we arrived that I learned where we'd be sitting. Not in the main body of the auditorium, but in the seats alongside the back row of the orchestra. There we were, behind the strings, facing the wooodwind, and cheek by jowl with the percussion.
In this position you were not so much a member of the audience as a silent component of the orchestra itself.

My view of the conductor was the one shared by those he was conducting. I was able to observe the intense concentration on the faces of the players - their periods of relative rest, the times of extreme activity, the page turning and the pauses - and to study their instruments in close detail.
Did you know that a drummer has at his disposal at least three different sets of drumsticks?

More than anything, it was fascinating to witness each individual contribution to the build-up of sound. Each note - however small, however seemingly insignificant - a perfectly positioned stitch in the formation of the musical tapestry.

We were halfway through the featured symphony of the evening when, to the left of me, a man rose to his feet. He had an air of purposeful concentration. On a stand in front of him was a small, metal triangle suspended on a frame. The man took a matching hammer in his hand and, with his eye on the conductor, stood . . . waiting. A few bars later his moment arrived. With quick precision, he brought the hammer down on the triangle.
Unlike my impromptu solo in the 'Sanctus', it arrived at precisely the right moment, the clear note blending smoothly with those rising from the other instruments in the orchestra. The man returned to his seat.

Had anyone noticed triangle's moment of glory? I doubt it. But, as an integral part of that moment in the music, it had made its mark. The concert lasted two hours, the triangle player lifted his hammer five times.

There's a story (you probably know it) of Sir Christopher Wren visiting the construction site for St. Paul's Cathedral. Three stone masons were working on the site and Sir Christopher stopped to speak to each one. He asked them, in turn, what they were doing.
The first mason explained that he was carving a piece of stone. The second replied that he was making the base for a pillar. But the third one looked up with an expression of pride, "I'm building a cathedral," he said.

For the percussionist at The Albert Hall I'm sure that the stone mason's conviction would ring true.
He wasn't playing a triangle . . . he was building a symphony.