I invite you to close your eyes, and to choose something - a place, a concept, an object, a person - that you regard as sacred. What is the quality in it that evokes the sacred for you? What values or virtues does it represent? Are they values or virtues that find an echo within you? Is the sacredness an inherent quality of it? Or does it shine through it, as if its source is elsewhere? Just focus for a while on your sacred place, concept, thing or person. Allow its virtue to shine for you; hear its inner music, smell its perfume. [long pause] Now let the place, concept, thing or person fade from your mind and just focus on the virtue itself, and recognise its reflection in your own heart.
... the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
The sound rolled across the surface of the lake like the gradual crescendo of some Russian Choir moving through their cathedral battering the ears of the Almighty with petition and praise. It was Eastertide in the Correze but our choristers were a great company of green pool frogs sitting on the lily pads which spread from one end of the lake to the other. One frog, agitated by a predatory hedgepig snuffling along the far bank, began the chant which was slowly taken up by hundreds of his brethren. Then, as it had begun with a single voice and grown into a great triumphal shout "Allelu-ee-a", it died gradually away from the mighty chorus to a single soft note somewhere in the middle of the lake.
Only a few yards away from us among the great old trees of the deserted parkland young red squirrels played. They darted up the huge pines like tongues of crimson flame cauterising the old winter bark and burnishing the new spring growth. Common lizards roamed around and about or lay on small rocks basking in the gentle April sun. Shy creatures by nature, they largely ignored us, their attention concentrated on the abundance of new springtime food and the exigencies of the rapidly approaching mating season. In mid-western France where we were, the trees were already in new leaf, the rough grasses were studded with tiny yellow and blue flowers, the lake shimmered in the sunshine and the ubiquitous wood pigeon chortled happily to itself as it surveyed its newly rich April forest home.
Later in the afternoon with Oliver and his writing safely ensconced in the salon, I took my crutches and poled down
into the village. Accompanied by a loud chorus of "Bonjour Madame. Ca va?" I made my way into the Place de l'Eglise. The church of La Roche Canillac is one of the several rather dull churches of the region - a box of unadorned stone rather like a Yorkshire barn, a bell-wall instead of a tower, but with an unlocked door and a quiet interior which said "Come in. You are welcome."
The incense of the morning Mass lay heavy in the air and the great Paschal Candle rose high above the sanctuary. On a chair close to the statue of the Virgin I sat down and chatted to the Lady about the great festival of revival we had found at the lake. I was no longer a Christian and had never had any special devotion to Our Lady, but I talk to seagulls, to the moon in the night sky, so why not to Mary the mother of Jesus? Sitting in this small French rural church I perceived myself united with anyone and everyone who celebrated the same miracle of rebirth I had glimpsed that morning. I lit a candle, as a symbol of my hope and of my thanks giving, and I went home singing.
Laughter is a Precious Gift
Oliver and I got into terrible trouble once for making a small joke in The Friend about a medical condition from which I suffer. The author of the pompous article which had nudged us into this solecism became quite incandescent with rage that we should dare to laugh about Serious Matters. She wrote to us, and went on at some length listing our manifold iniquities and hoping fervently that we had not done too much Lasting Harm to her Cause. We were not at first exactly amused by this communication - although it did serve as a salutary warning to engage imagination and brain before opening word processing programme - but my bruised psyche was later much soothed by a vision I had of a first Quaker martyr about to be run over by my power chair.
This long ago episode, however, did absolutely nothing to alter my firm conviction that laughter and humour are good for you: they lower the blood pressure, assuage the effects of anger, deflate pomposity and generally restore the equilibrium of the body and of the soul.
Regard these two men -they just happened to be persons of the male gender, nothing sinister in my choice. The first, a very senior cleric and distinguished peace campaigner, I met striding through a meeting hall with what my agnostic and slightly less distinguished peace campaigner partner described as "teeth gritted into a dazzling smile of Christian good humour and loving kindness" spreading unease wherever he looked. The second, an Anglo-Catholic priest I once knew, one memorable Sunday morning in the Sanctuary tripped on his
overlong alb up the altar steps, then, burdened with overmuch ecclesiastical iron-mongery and blinded by 'holy smoke', fell down the steps again and finished up on the floor with the Gospel Book clasped to his bosom and his feet inextricably entangled with the base of the Paschal candlestick. He struggled there a second or two in the face of a silent and horrified congregation until he lay back again convulsed with laughter. Everyone laughed, and remembered why they so loved and respected this holy and humble man. Which of these two would you rather sit next to at a dinner party, or entrust with your most intimate problems?
Maybe, as I am reliably informed, there isn't much explicit humour in the Bible, but if we are indeed made spiritually in the image of God, then God himself, herself, itself or themselves must have laughed first and given us an example we should follow. Listen to the chuckle of the beck as it runs down off the high moor or the gentle teasing of a soft wind in the leaves. Look at the sunlight laughing on the tops of the waves or the wide smile of a fenland sky, and be glad.
Black Eyed Peas, Spinach (Greens) and Dirty Rice. Adapted by Linda 'but I never measure anything!' Haggerstone With the able assistance of Mr. Paul Dunlop Background: In honour of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his dream of peace and freedom. The food we eat is part of our culture. our history. our identity. Soul food is a cuisine which evolved in the Deep South of the United States . It is slave food. On Southern plantations, it filled the belly and kept the body moving. I've met quite a few African-Americans who will not touch it for this reason. Nevertheless, it remains to this day a favourite in many households. Families have made it an important part of their New Year's Day celebrations, and for many, including celebs like Oprah Winfrey, it means comfort and 'down-home' cooking. Having spent a good part of my childhood in Dixie, this is also true for me. Here is a soul food recipe I have adapted for my own needs over the years. I have not included chitlins or pig's feet. I have used spinach leaves instead of collard greens, which are usually tenderised in a salt and vinegar bath, and have included a vegetarian option for the peas. The changes are mine, but the heart and soul of the dish belongs to those for whom the original version very often meant life or death - and their descendants who have shared their traditional recipes with the World. Black-Eyed Peas: ½ packet (about 300g) of dry black-eyed peas 2½ cups water 1 tsp + 1 or 2 drops olive oil 1 large white onion 4 cloves garlic 1 tbsp honey or 3 tbsp of brown sugar (+ ½ tsp honey or 1½ tsp brown sugar if using tofu) ½ tsp basil ½ tsp nutmeg ½ tsp cumin ½ tsp white pepper 1 pinch of sea salt 1 pat butter (if using tofu) 4 sweet cured rashers British style bacon or 1 cup firm tofu cubes. Put the peas in a large saucepan and add enough water to cover them. Allow them to soak overnight (8 hours or until they split). Drain, rinse and drain again. Add 2½ cups water and 1 tsp olive oil to the drained peas and bring to a boil. Cover, and reduce the heat to a low boil, stirring as needed, while the other ingredients are prepared. Chop the onion into small pieces. Mince the garlic. Sauté together in a drop or two of olive oil until the onion has softened. Add the garlic, onion, honey (or brown sugar), basil, nutmeg, cumin, pepper and salt to the peas. Stir. Cover, and continue to cook on a low boil for about 30 minutes or so, stirring as needed. Lift the cover slightly, reduce the heat and let the ingredients simmer for about 1½ - 2 hours, stirring as needed, until the water reduces and the peas have created their own sauce. Prepare the bacon or tofu as follows. For bacon: cook until just crisp, drain and cut into smallish pieces. For tofu: cut into cubes and sauté in a wee bit of honey (or brown sugar) and the butter pat. Add the bacon or tofu to the peas. Stir. Continue to simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes, stirring as needed, until the water has reduced and the sauce has thickened. Dirty Rice: 3 cups water 2 cups dry mixed brown and white rice 1 tsp black pepper 1 crumbled chicken or vegetable bullion cube 1 tsp paprika Wash and drain the rice, then put it in a large saucepan. Add water, and stir in the pepper, bullion cube powder and paprika. Bring all the ingredients to a full boil. Stir, cover (with just enough of an opening to allow steam to escape) and reduce the heat to lowest hob setting. Steam the rice mixture until the water has been absorbed (about 20 - 30 minutes). Remove from the heat, and let sit for about 10 minutes. Spinach: 1 tsp olive oil 1 pinch of sea salt 1 dash of white pepper (if desired) 4 large packets of pre-washed spinach leaves 2 splashes of red wine vinegar (1 for each batch of spinach) Heat the olive oil in a wok or skillet till a few drops of water sprinkled on it dance away. Add the sea salt and pepper. Stir. Add 2 packets of the spinach. Splash on the red wine vinegar, and stir the leaves quickly until they have softened but not yet turned brown. Remove from the heat immediately. Repeat with the other 2 packets of spinach. To Serve 4: On each plate, layer in order: a bed of rice, a blanket of spinach and a pillow of black-eyed peas. Then, dig in. Enjoy - and may all your dreams for the New Year come true! NB:
The 15th of January, 2007 was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the U.S.
Occasioned by the Death of Oliver Postgate, 8 December 2008
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil
They had long been walking with Death on a bleak and lonely path. At first Death padded behind them, like the Tiger of her childhood nightmare: "Don't be afraid, I shall not harm you. I am soft and I am warm." He had spoken then as now in a voice gentle and light, but always the burning breath was on the back of her neck and the jagged edges of toothed shadows were all about them. The Tiger melted away and a tall young man, Death the Companion, saturnine and unsmiling appeared between them. He put their hands into his hands and drew them close together under the cloak he wore. "Come," he said quietly, "there must be no more delay, the time is almost here. There is nothing left to fear." But the young man's voice was like the jangling of slivers of ice in the moonlit wind, and they were afraid. He because it was his longed for time that now was almost come, and she because she could not imagine any future without him.
He looked up and remembered the warmth of her love even in the most terrible times of his illness, and he smiled at her in the abiding pleasure of her company. She watched as he bent again over his stick, head hunched into his shoulders, as painfully he shuffled and stumbled along the stony path. She put out her hand and stroked the greying cheek red blotched with the marks of his sickness, and to her he was as beautiful as the day she had first met this once-upon-a-time giant of a man, vast in intellect, magnificent in spirit.
"How long now?" he whispered to her. "Not long now." and she took his hand. "I love you." he said. The young man led them to a flat place from where they could see the valley beyond and the steep banks of a river so vast, with water in such quantity that it might have been fed by all the rivers and the oceans of the world, mighty cataracts and great tidal waves, quiet pools and bubbling mountain streams. Everywhere the myriad droplets leapt and danced, wheeling and plunging across the surface of the eddying waters.
Death the Angel who separates the soul from the body, now stood beside them, above them and all around them. "Why have you brought us here?" she asked. Death shook out his silvered robe and spoke gently: "This is the eternal river which cradles the Universe. From it you both came, and to it this night he is to return." The clouds suddenly cleared the moon and unrolled a wide glinting pale gold carpet across the waters, stretching far into the shadowy distance. "Follow me now," invited Death, "and ride the waters into eternity." Death led him to the edge of the shining path and together they walked towards the depths of the shimmering waves. She watched him go and marvelled as all his anguish and depression, his anger and confusion, all seemed to fall away from him. He dropped his stick; straight backed and laughing, he plunged into the river and she could see him no longer. A tiny droplet flashed white diamond bright high above the dancing waters, and she smiled.
"I told you sixty years ago," said the Tiger standing beside her, "that I would not harm you." She leaned silently against him and stroked his soft flank. And the Tiger, who was Death the Merciful, purred gently with a quiet pleasure.
"You may call God love, you may call God goodness. But the best name for God is compassion."
- Meister Eckhart
Gideon knelt on the bedroom windowsill. He could feel the edges of the dark brown tiles bite into his cold three year old legs and when he looked out into what should have been the night black sky, he was afraid. What, he asked, was the flickering red-gold light which had spread across the edge of the world. Out of the darkness his mother's voice, sharpened by a terrible anxiety, replied that the light in the sky was London burning; German pilots were dropping fire bombs on the City.
The boy who had learned to be afraid the night the sky burned, now in the aftermath of war learned to hate the enemy who had captured his Jewish doctor father near Anzio and sent him back to Germany and the gas chambers of Dachau . This hatred survived university, Middle Temple and an increasingly successful legal career. In 1978 he was asked to advise the Home Office on the likelihood of successfully prosecuting a former Unterfeldwebel accused of the murder of four Russian Jews, P.O.Ws in the Sylt Concentration Camp on the Island of Alderney. The evidence against the man was considered to be fairly slim, but there were those in government anxious to prove their wholehearted support for the State of Israel. Gideon accepted the offer, he told himself, as a duty - an almost sacred duty - and he was seized with a curious trembling excitement. He had dreamed for so long of somehow avenging his father's death. He studied the prosecution papers, pondered various legal opinions and flew to Jersey to interview the suspect.
In a claustrophobic room, windowless and airless, with armed guards on every corner of the corridor outside, he watched the prisoner, grey pale from incarceration, soft voiced and still like a heron watching for fish. This then was his enemy; now was the longed-for time of retribution. He looked into the watery grey eyes and saw in them not the cruelty of the fanatic Nazi who had once perhaps strangled Jewish P.O.Ws, but a but a frail, weary, hopeless, shadow of a man seventy five years old - another pathetic victim of hatred and fear, rather like himself.
This was no blinding Damascene moment, no trumpets sounded in that bleak cell, just his own voice gentle now: "I shall recommend to the Home Secretary that you be sent back to Germany . I think you are not well, and I hope you will be allowed to return to your own folk for what is left of your life." Gideon stood up, his own fear and hatred wonderfully purged, and he quietly clasped the old man's hand. He walked out of the prison into the sharp air of a late December evening and shining in the north over the cliffs of Alderney he saw a great light. Not this time the reflection of a city on a fire, he thought, but the radiance of angels on a hillside proclaiming their eternal message: 'Peace on earth to men of goodwill'.
- T S Eliot: 'East Coker'
One amazing November morning when the sun shone with that sharp, pale golden, early winter light so clear and pure that you can almost hear the sound of an invisible finger stroking crystal, I rode down to the Harbour and parked myself on the quay. A run of gales and very high tides had coincided and the receding waves had left great lagoons abundant with small fish stranded across the top of the beach.
Three Great Black Backed Gulls were fishing. Even two of these, the largest of our native gulls as big as Barnacle Geese, are not often seen together on the South East coast, so the presence of three of them on our beach that morning was pretty remarkable. Accompanying them was a crowd of eager juvenile Herring Gulls as large as their watching, elegantly feathered white and grey parents, but themselves still wearing their speckled baby plumage.
Each time one of the visitors came out of the pool with a fish, some of the juveniles gathered round with shrill calls trying to harry the huge adult into feeding them. Exasperated, the Great Black Back dropped its fish and, just like a goose, raised its beak to the sky and honked a warning. One of the juveniles, quite unintimidated, darted across, seized the abandoned fish and flew off hotly pursued by the Great Black Back. Another Great Black Back emerged from the pool, fish clamped in beak; the remaining juveniles gathered round, and the drama began all over again.
The action was fast, the dialogue simple, and the villain triumphed every time. It was a lovely piece of natural theatre: the backcloth immaculate, the lighting stunning, the air conditioning superb, and the performance was free - a beneficence from a laughing God.
I laugh too all my small miseries forgotten, and thus by some miraculous osmosis an elderly lady in a wheelchair and a few dozen preposterous seagulls are absorbed into a piece of glory. It doesn't last, that blinding flash of perceptive lightning - that amount of intensity would be too much for humankind to bear for more than a moment; but the enlightening remains, like a bright golden thread woven into the fabric of memory.
Words in themselves mean absolutely nothing. They are merely bundles of sounds, or of written alphabetical or pictorial symbols arranged together in such a way as to indicate a consistent combination of sounds or an unchanging pattern of picture or letters which those of us who speak or read a common language tend to invest with more or less the same meaning. I think 'discrimination', a word many of us bandy around in a fairly indiscriminate fashion, is a rather difficult and possibly a rather dangerous word, whether written or spoken.
According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary the verb to discriminate in its first meaning is merely 'to make or see a distinction', a perfectly neutral action influenced rather often by innocent fancy. I like the colour red, I don't very much fancy the colour turquoise, so I choose to buy a red jumper and I choose not to buy a turquoise jumper. Unfortunately some tiresome person then comes along and say: "Look at her, she always wears red and always ignores turquoise. She's discriminating against turquoise. She's a Turquoiseist!"
Next the politically correct brigade will arrive, write letters of outrage to the Guardian, boycott my tea-parties, hold silent vigils of protest outside my house, found MAT ( Movement Against Tuquoiseism) and generally attempt to 'persuade' me into renouncing my antisocial and immoral actions. The MAT might try to justify its campaign by citing the Concise Oxford's second definition of to discriminate - 'to make a distinction, esp. unjustly and on the basis of race, colour or sex. Its members would, I believe, in this be wholly wrong because they would have omitted from their reasoning the most crucial factor in this equation: my motive for discriminating between red and turquoise jumpers.
None of them ever asked me why I ignored turquoise jumpers. Did it never strike them that I might just, perhaps, simply have noticed that wearing turquoise makes me look like a swept up, faded, wrinkly old leaf which didn't quite make it to the municipal bonfire? Or has aesthetic discrimination just become a piece of 'unjust' discrimination, non-PC? At least in red I look like a still vibrant, positive, only slightly wrinkly old plum not yet quite ready for the municipal bonfire. Maybe I have deeply held spiritual objections to displaying myself in turquoise - for that is the colour of the mystical and malevolent Greater Three-Horned Toad. Perhaps I am severely allergic to one of the constituents of turquoise dyes. One shred of the offending fabric wrapped around my person, and my skin erupts into a a dreadfully uncomfortable and hideous purple rash. Are spiritual convictions and medical problems all now to be condemned as non-PC and to be expunged from a properly ordered society?
Ridiculous isn't it! The story board for a warped kind of fairy tale, quite silly really. But not only might this sort of nonsense conceivably happen, something very like it probably will happen. Indeed, maybe it's happening now, only all the sensible people like you and me just haven't noticed yet.
We had been discussing varieties of epiphanic experience and were lost in the contemplation of glory when my friend Andrew looked out of the window and crashed back into unpalatable reality. He counted the gas-guzzlers parked in the Square. "I would like", he said, "to go to the driver of each of those monsters and say 'If you do not trade that thing in for a small more eco-friendly car, a little girl in Bangladesh will drown and you will have killed her.' And do you really need to have thirty eight pairs of shoes? Think of all that wasted energy." With this parting shot, he took his leave. 'Who needs enemies?' I thought. But I had to agree with him. I don't need thirty eight pairs of shoes and I would like each individual and every government to reorder lives and society so that the world may escape the terrible results of what our reckless consumption seems to be bringing.
But there's a worm hidden in the enticing bud of this argument. Pursue the policies I want to see, and the Law of Unintended Consequences will raise it's ugly head. Cut back or cut out, control and ration - then jobs will disappear, services shrink and the weak go to the wall. At best, in the afluent West there would be big rises in unemployment and its consequent miseries, in taxes to pay increased benefits, in rural chaos as tips and breakers' yards overflow with forbidden 'toys', less fun, much anger at the loss of our precious freedom to do what we like and to hell with the rest of them. At worst, if women like me stop buying shoes we do
not need, a worker in a Far Eastern sweat shop may be sacked and his family go hungry. If his little daughter gets sick, he will have no money to buy medicine and another little girl will die.
If we are prepared to radically moderate our own life style, whether we be government or individuals, then we must also prepare to radically moderate our treatment of Third World Countries. Unless every kind of European and American protectionism against third World economies is ended and accurately targeted practical assistance vastly increased, our well meaning attempts to prevent one possible global catastrophe may be in danger of precipitating another, equally devastating. If we have the common sense not to risk global cataclysm, then we must also have the moral sense not to condemn the weak to disaster in order to save the strong.
Otherwise, we shall sit precariously on the horns of the great grandmother of all dilemmas: half the world might still be damned if we do what people like me believe the whole world needs - but the whole world may be damned if we don't.
Sir Rainald's servants found the young man lying beside the track leading to the Manor House. His clothes, though dishevelled, were made of fine cloth and his hands were pale and soft, but his eyes were blank and he could not speak. He had no visible injury and allowed himself to be led to the long time empty cottage close to the Manor Farm. There Sir Rainald himself brought him a blanket of coney skins, a bed, a stool and a six-board oak chest black with age and beeswax. Each day food and wine, wood for the fire and candles to light the dark evenings of winter were sent to the cottage. Not a word did the young man speak, but he bowed low to Sir Rainald and nodded briefly to the servants.
One frost white morning as the reluctant Christmastide sun rose behind the low timbered walls and the reed thatch, a boy of perhaps ten years lifted the latch of the young man's door, and went into the small dark room He was ragged and grubby, but he smiled and bade the young man a Good Day as he unpacked his basket. The young man looked silently away, unsmiling. Was there anything else the master wanted Aldret persisted. The young man hesitated, then pointed to the small wooden pipe which hung from the boy's belt. "Play me a tune." he said, and lay back against the wool filled mattress. Aldret put the mouthpiece to his lips and the young man shut his eyes
As he always did, he saw in his mind's eye his wife Ysolt in her coffin, her new born babe lying on her breast. The pipe
filled the December gloom with the trilling of birds and the soft song of running water, and suddenly the darkness of the cottage seemed to be overwhelmed by a midsummer sun. He could hear laughter and there was Ysolt in her blue gown, her corn gold hair flying out loose behind her as she danced with him in her father's hall. He walked with her once more across soft green fields and amongst the dancing dappled shadows of the ancient forest; he stood again beside her at the Christ's Mass in the cold church made warm by the light of a hundred candles which flickered and spluttered under the sheltering bows of slender ivy and scarlet berried holly. He laughed and he wept, and he held out his arms to the life that was returning to him.
"What miracle is this?" Sir Rainald came into the cottage as the young man, smiling while the tears still ran down his cheeks, put a hand on Aldret's shoulder and a silver coin in his scrip. "No miracle, my lord,"the young man said, "as when our Saviour was born of a Virgin and cradled in a manger. Rather it is the marriage of your abiding kindness to a mind-sick stranger with Aldret's generous sharing of his music with me, that has opened my eyes again to the loving presence of my lady who lives on in my heart's memory. I give thanks to the generous God who has given to us so many discrete blessings and signs of his love. If courtesy and love such as I have found here in your Manor were always to direct us thus towards all those whom we meet then, my lord, in this world we should perhaps have little need of miracles."