THE GREAT ESCAPISM

An absorbing book, a camera or sketchbook outing, a good film… All of these have been excellent means of escape from lockdown, news bulletins, lack of a holiday, and the absence of family, friends and regular social gatherings.

A book group I belong to has been meeting online instead of at the library. We recently shared our choices of eight Desert Island Books which gave us insights into each other’s tastes and useful lists from which to try a new author or title.

I fancy doing something similar for films. A recent re-jigging of my study resulted in better access to my DVDs. They’re no longer in danger of toppling off an over-stuffed high shelf into a messy heap on the floor, as they’re now more accessible and neatly arranged in alphabetical order.

Recent viewings have included The Age of Innocence, Whistle Down The Wind and, last night, Roman Holiday. If you need a bit of cheer, Roman Holiday works wonders – and not just because the delicious Gregory Peck and a young and brilliant Audrey Hepburn star in it. Their 1950s day out in Rome – and it was all filmed on location there – is sheer escapism, lots of fun for them and for the viewer and, with a bit of fisticuffs and love thrown in, it takes the number one spot on my Desert Island Films list. Other contenders? The Great Escape, Dr Zhivago, Brief Encounter, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rear Window. That’s eight. No space for My Fair Lady, Australia, Far from the Madding Crowd, Under the Greenwood Tree… so if you asked me again next week, I’d probably give you a different list. Have I whetted your appetite for escapism? If so, happy viewing!

 

 

BEHIND THE SUBJECT

Have you peered behind the heads of people who appear on video links, to see what they have on their bookshelves? The largest book on my shelves is a book measuring 35cm square. It’s entitled simply Vermeer. Its front cover image is his Girl with a Pearl Earring.

17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer lived with his wife, mother-in-law and many children during a time of political unrest and change. One imagines his household might have been noisy, boisterous and cramped. Maybe painting provided some peace and privacy from domesticity.

Many of his paintings depict an open window from which light streams onto the subject  – often a young woman who might be reading a letter, having a glass of wine, making music, or just musing. The light falls onto the fur of a jacket, the rim of a glass or the sheen of a pearl earring.

Where does your light source come from? The sun, perhaps, in the garden or on the beach; moonlight on a clear night; a candle flame’s soft gleam on a dinner table; a reading lamp above your head… and maybe also from the light of Jesus Christ who described himself as the Light of the World. Does he illuminate your being so that you reflect light – and delight – onto everything and everyone around you?

In some of Vermeer’s paintings, behind the person or people he’s painted, there are books, maps or pictures, scenes not so different from the insights we get as we scrutinise the backgrounds behind the people on our video screen calls.

Whether reading, painting, video calling, sunbathing, or looking at a work of art, let’s ponder and be enlightened by what we see.

HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?

Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With a lot of experimentation, pot luck, and sow and hope. And it’s not Mary who’s contrary but some of the stuff in the garden. Take my courgettes for example. The online solution: ‘You may be over-watering or under-watering’. But which? I don’t know. And now it’s raining, so will my courgettes thrive or die with the precipitation from the gloomy heavens? Well, I’m not going out to get wet, so the talking-to I might have given said veg will have to wait. Or are they fruit? Hmm. They contain seeds – like cucumbers, tomatoes and raspberries. My raspberries this year have behaved in exemplary fashion, yielding masses of fruit for the freezer (those that haven’t been popped in the mouth straight from the bush or via an ice cream sundae.)

As long as you’re laid back about potential success or failure and treat the whole gardening thing as an adventure, it can be good fun. So that’s fine. Courgettes – thumbs down. Raspberries – thumbs up. Thumbs. And fingers. Green fingers – green as in inexperienced, or green as in expert. I’ll be a hands-on gardener in my sometimes garden of sorrows, sometimes garden of hope.

The Bible’s garden of sorrows was where Jesus prayed before his death. And there was a garden of hope from which he emerged alive. Book-ended in the Bible are the Garden of Eden pre-Fall, and the Paradise garden of heaven. What places! Imagine the most perfect garden you can, then magnify it! Meanwhile each of us has a little bit of planet earth to tend – whether allotment, back yard or kitchen window sill. And guess what? It’s stopped raining. Time to inspect those contrary courgettes…

 

THE AIR THAT I BREATHE

What’s the air like where you are? In the rural part of England where I live the air is fresh – apart from on busy roads – and a contrast to London where, on a fleeting visit pre-lockdown, the air was of dismayingly poor quality.

The Air That I Breathe, a love song by Albert Hammond, in collaboration with Mike Hazlewood, was written in a smog-filled city. It’s been covered by many artists, including Phil Everly, and was a huge hit for The Hollies in 1974 – well worth a listen!

Can we avoid polluted air? Masks have been commonplace items of clothing in some global cities for a long time as people try to avoid breathing in stuff that could damage their lungs. Elaborate and colourful masks were used as far back as the 15th century, not for health reasons but for fun, to impress, and supposedly to hide one’s identity at masquerade balls. By contrast, a highwayman’s sinister mask was definitely worn to hide his identity – someone such as England’s 18th century Dick Turpin – and to put fear into the people he held up.

The wearing of masks today is more mundane. At present their use is to help prevent the spread of coronavirus by creating a barrier between people and the air that they breathe in and out. All that I need, the song says, is the air that I breathe, and to love you. Let’s hope that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the air that we breathe and the love that we give and receive, will be such that all of us may breathe a sigh of relief.

BLUE SKY THINKING

“Oh! ‘darkly, deeply, beautifully blue’, As someone somewhere sings about the sky.” (Lord Byron: Don Juan IV).

The sight of blue sky is joyous, particularly after a series of grey days. The night before last there was a beautiful sunset in southern England, the herald of a clear star-spotted night sky. Yesterday morning dawned with both the sun and half-moon clearly visible in a cloudless sky. It was glorious! Such blue-ness lifts the spirits after grey days.

Bloo. Bleu. Blue. The more you look at a word, the more odd it looks. No wonder that a child, learning to write, might spell blue b-l-o-o. It’s logical. You wouldn’t spell igloo i-g-l-e-u, so why spell blue b-l-u-e? The vagaries of the English language are enough to make anyone feel blue. Blew. The wind bloo. The wind blue. No, the wind blew. If you follow that spelling, yew would be you rather than a tree. How confusing.

Blue sky days to come is the title of a poem I once wrote. It was written on a grey day when I looked forward to seeing a blue sky again. Any of us can feel blue when the sky isn’t blue. Things happen in life that come out of the blue – a pandemic, for example. Whatever may be oppressing you today – whether trying to learn to spell, reeling from bereavement, loss of a job, uncertainty… remember: the sky above the clouds is blue, the stars do still shine and that life, though blue at times, has happy blue sky days too.

TRUST AND TRUTH

Trust is a dangeres game. I imagine it might be if you spell ‘dangerous’ like that. The sentence is daubed on a wall. It looks forlorn, the one piece of graffiti on that section of brickwork. Graffiti is sometimes beautiful, often ugly, usually fascinating. On a subway wall beneath the road is sprayed a rather splendid cartoon face. A finger points to the chin and the facial expression is one of thoughtfulness. I wonder what the face – and the brain inside – might make of the random sentence about trust.

Pontius Pilate asked, “What is truth?” after Jesus said, “I was born and came into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth.” Earlier in his ministry, Jesus said to his followers, “If you obey my teaching, you are really my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

And this is where trust comes in. Two words with the same first three letters. When Jesus spoke about truth, people had a choice: to trust his truth or not to trust and to find a different truth they could trust in.

Is trust dangerous? Trust can be dangerous. Human beings let each other down. Trust can be betrayed. Is trust a game? Perhaps the graffiti writer thought it was a game of chance. Maybe he or she had experienced something in their life that left them angry, cynical or distressed.

So… Jesus. Why trust him? Because he claimed to be Truth. Do you trust my word on that? Better to trust the one who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Trust him. Trust Truth.

“A CROWD IS NOT COMPANY”

What must it be like to play to empty stands? Do cardboard cut-outs of spectators help? Or piped crowd noise?

Sports stadia are special places, places of worship some might say. In ‘normal’ times, ardent ‘worshippers’ sing and shout their joy, or groan and howl their disappointment. A friend once showed me, with reverence, a paper bag in which were beige bits of dried grass, filched decades ago from the Centre Court at Wimbledon – a hallowed place for him.

Go to Wimbledon, Lord’s, the Principality Stadium or Wembley for a tour, as I’ve done in the past, and you’ll find no crowds, no media, no officials, no players. Interesting, but oh so quiet! Yet not lifeless.

Crowd-pulling sports events and summer festivals are on hold. Do we need crowds? Do we need to be part of a crowd? Francis Bacon said, “A crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures.” Would you agree with him? Are we individual and communal experience-seekers – wanting excitement, a sense of belonging, a place to feed our enthusiasm for the gods we adore? Is loyalty to a particular team best demonstrated in the company of others? Watching re-runs on TV of old sporting matches can never be as enthralling as in their original unfolding.

Like football clubs, traditional places of worship are currently reinventing themselves for new circumstances – as are theatres where ‘the show must go on’ – albeit online in each case and, arguably, with bigger ‘crowds’. Why? Because they want to share the subject of their enthusiasm with others. Whatever or whoever and wherever you worship, avoid being a mere cardboard cut-out. Know who you support and why – and go for it with enthusiasm.

EGG POACHER

Egg poacher. Two words from a newspaper headline caught my eye and immediately evoked memories of childhood teatime after an afternoon in the fresh air. The egg poacher – four little metal containers in a pan – was put on the hob, eggs were cracked into them, and four minutes later we had poached eggs on toast – delicious.

It quickly became apparent, however, that the newspaper article wasn’t about a metal pan but about a person who poached (ie stole) eggs from birds’ nests. And not just any eggs but highly valued eggs from birds such as eagles and peregrine falcons.

Back in the 50s, looking for birds’ nests was high on a child’s list of ‘Let’s find…’ Did I steal from nests? No, but I searched for eggs that had fallen from a nest. Bird numbers of some species have declined drastically since the 50s and there is an emphasis on protection and conservation. For a few people, however, money gained from poaching birds’ eggs rates more highly than the joy of seeing fledglings and their attentive parents.

Are you a poacher? Or even a poached egg? C S Lewis wrote: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.” Indeed. And if you want to poach eggs, there’s a choice there too. Put some eggs in hot water to poach for your tea or, as the man in the headline did, risk getting into hot water yourself.

FUTURE PERFECT

English grammar wasn’t taught at my grammar school in the 1960s. But Latin grammar was. Latin has six main tenses (I just checked!): three non-perfect tenses – present, future and imperfect, and three perfect tenses – perfect, future perfect and pluperfect.

Perfection. Imperfection. A robin or an ox-eye daisy: perfect. A lop-sided cake or a violent act: imperfect. Is it wishful thinking to expect things to be perfect? The reality is that, though in parts (the view of Earth from the Moon, say) ‘the world looks very beautiful and full of joy to me’, we live in a world where there is poverty, climate change, coronavirus, racism, unrest, disease, war and death. And we don’t like it – although we contribute to it.

The present may not look too rosy. Tiny or towering temporary triumphs happen, but also travesties and tragedies. Will we, one day, have a Future Perfect or Perfect Future? If you believe that the future is entirely in the hands of human beings and that goodwill will prevail, then there could be a Perfect Future, though history suggests otherwise. So is there an alternative? If you believe in God, you might say ‘yes’, as God has promised a new heaven and a new earth of perfection: Paradise restored. Future Perfect.

Meanwhile, we live in the present. Jesus said don’t worry about tomorrow. Live today. How? Enjoy God’s gift of this very minute. Live in faith and hope. ‘Leave no tender word unsaid; love while life shall last.’ That poem goes on to say that ‘Power, intellect and strength, may not, cannot last.’ The grace, mercy, love and creativity of God does last. In the midst of concerns, bask in that.

 

SCARED AND SACRED

What scares you? Spiders, Covid-19, climate change, rats, the unknown, abuse, death? What is sacred to you? Family, friends, nature, God, life?

Switch the ‘C’ and the ‘A’ and you have words of very different meanings and with different outcomes. An early morning radio news and current affairs programme comprised an hour of negative, pessimistic scare stories. Not a cheery start to the day. By way of contrast, the ever-popular BBC TV Springwatch series focuses on the positives of the natural world and, even with the odd spider, rat or wasp, the viewer is helped to understand each creature’s attributes.

Birds and their breeding habits are of great interest to the Springwatchers. And not just via TV… The tip of a tiny beak is all I can see of a robin in a nest box in my garden. She sits silently day after day, waiting for her eggs to hatch. One morning, instead of the beak, a beady eye stared solemnly at me through the round window of her box. I crept away. There is something sacred about that robin. Rather than be scared in the sometimes hostile world outside, she is at peace in her little home.

While we humans fret about our survival, nature is unaware of Covid-19. Springtime continues the cycle of the seasons. We witness nature’s variety, patterns, textures, colours, habitats and its very life. Sacred? Yes. And when we connect with it, perhaps we can see beyond its beauty to the very Creator whose creativity has made it sacred because he is sacred. Scared today? Discover the sacred.