LIFE’S LITTLE IRONIES

Thomas Hardy wrote many short stories, some of which were put into a volume called ‘Life’s Little Ironies.’ He was brilliant at capturing the essence of rural Wessex and its residents’ dependence on the land for their livelihood. The vagaries of the weather were crucial. What would Hardy have made of climate change and the current heatwave that is affecting so much of the globe?

An irony of the last few days involves two umbrellas. On Thursday I sweltered in hot sunshine under a bright pink umbrella, designed to keep the powerful rays off my blonde locks and bare arms. Today I was done up in a cagoule and wellies with a large dark blue umbrella to keep the rain off my hooded head and covered arms. I was in danger of doing a Mary Poppins with the umbrella as gusts of wind threatened to take me off my feet to join the buffeted birds in the sky.

Weather has always been a topic of British conversation and will continue to be so as promised sunshine returns after the weekend’s rain blip. Spare a prayer for farmers; their livelihood is just as much in the balance as it was in Hardy’s day; perhaps even more so…

The best umbrella story ever, was told to me by a 2 year old. We were at an animal park, admiring the different patterns, shapes, sizes, and colours of the natural world. A male peacock, resplendent in iridescence, decided to display for our benefit. “Look!” the child said, “The peacock’s put up his umbrella!”

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FADING AND THIRSTY

Life is a curious thing. We’re born, we live, we die. A Bible prophet said, “People are no more enduring than grass. Yes, grass withers and flowers fade.” Well, in the present UK heatwave we have visual evidence of grass withering.

We humans will indeed wither and die but, while alive, we need water for survival – as did a lonely hedgehog I met one evening. Instead of giving it a drink of water, I tried to take a photo. The camera’s noise made the hedgehog scuttle under the hedge, never to be seen again. I failed to get my picture, he failed to get a drink. A Bible poet, troubled and lonely, wrote, “Just as a deer longs for a stream of cool water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for you, the living God.”

After writing about the grass, the prophet continued, “But the word of the Lord remains forever.” Though the body withers and fades, death need not be the end. A friend told me, “I’m ready for the Lord to take me.” A few days later she died, but she firmly believed that her last breath on earth would be her first in heaven. Shortly before that move, all she could drink were tiny sips of water and milk – “just like a baby” she said. Peter, one of Christ’s apostles, urged people to, “Be like newborn babies, always thirsty for the pure spiritual milk.” It is God who provides everlasting nourishment to give hope now and assurance for the future.

MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE I’M A…

Maybe it’s because I’m a… Well, what am I? A tennis aficionado, cricket fan, doting grandma, natural-wonders-of-the-world enthusiast or… “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner” that an A-Z map of London 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle provided an irresistible challenge.

The west half of the puzzle was marginally easier than the east for my husband and I to tackle as, in our youth, I’d worked in Paddington and he was at Imperial College in Kensington. Half a century on and we managed to complete that part of the puzzle with its royal parks. Next came the blue loop of the Thames, and then main roads in yellow were put in place. But we were left with myriads of tiny white bits with random lettering for all the little roads. Tricky. After many days of putting in a few pieces every time we passed the table, the job was done.

The jigsaw made me realise that there’s a lot of London I’ve never penetrated. These days I occasionally go through London below ground en route elsewhere, but last Wednesday, on a rare visit above ground, I met my youngest daughter and her three year old for a picnic lunch in St James’s Park. We topped off our visit with ice creams in Embankment Gardens, watching Roger Federer on a big screen. At that point he was winning; by the time I was home, back in the countryside of the southwest, he’d lost. I may no longer be a true Londoner but I’ll always be a tennis aficionado.

EVEN THOUGH…

A few years ago my brother drove me round parts of the northeast, a vast and beautiful landscape of gently rolling green hills. Only a few decades earlier coalfields covered the area. They’ve gone and nature has taken over. The changes were devastating for the population but the northeast continues to undergo rejuvenation, giving hope for the future.

Wild fires have wreaked havoc in the northwest and Wales in the recent hot weeks, blackening the landscape. Nature, however, will rally and, given time, habitats will be restored and fresh shoots appear. Hope again.

Farmers are worried. The grass has dried up and precious winter feed is being used to feed cattle. Grain isn’t swelling because of a lack of rain, though the hot sun means harvesting can happen earlier than usual. It’s likely that farmers will lose income. They’ll hope that next year will be better.

Such scenarios are not new. Centuries ago, a man called Habakkuk was fed up with the destruction of landscape and livelihood that resulted from violence, fighting and injustice. He complained to God but eventually said, “Even though the fig-trees have no fruit and no grapes grow on the vines, even though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no corn, even though the sheep all die and the cattle-stalls are empty, I will still be joyful and glad because the Lord God is my Saviour.”

Many changes are unwelcome and scary, and glib platitudes are unhelpful. Nevertheless we all, like Habakkuk, need to grasp even the tiniest vestige of hope in whatever our changing landscape may be.

FOOTBALL, FARMING AND FLAGS

A huge England flag hangs down from the tiny latticed upstairs window of an 18th century thatched cottage. In the fields around the cottage haymaking is in full swing. Has a bare-chested Ross Poldark been scythe-swiping? Alas, no. Presumably the cottage’s owner is a football fan, hooked on the World Cup and awaiting England’s game on Tuesday. And the haymaking? Done by the machinery and skill of a 21st century farmer.

Modern communication means we can follow the fortunes (often literal fortunes) of sportsmen and women around the globe. You don’t even have to sit at home to watch on TV. Your phone or other mobile device makes it easy to view where and when you like – and shrinks the globe at the same time.

What would the original occupant of that thatched cottage make of today’s local and global world? Would he be bewildered, terrified, amazed…? And what about us? Do we hanker for the simplicity and parochialism – and, yes, toughness – of Winston Graham’s Cornwall or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex?

In changing times – and life continuously evolves – we may thank God that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” Are you scared about the pace at which ‘progress’ advances? Be reassured by the stability and unchanging nature of God. Jesus identified with the people and culture of his time, using everyday happenings and observations of life to illustrate his teaching. If he were here today, think how football, technology and flags might feature…

SERVICE WITH A SMILE

You may be expecting a tennis blog, given the title of this piece! But tempting though it is, I’m writing about a different sort of service.

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall visited Salisbury last week. This was a morale boost to the city that had been shaken by the poisoning incident in March. The royal couple met shop workers whose businesses had been temporarily closed, the police officer who was injured, local residents and tourists. It was a beautiful day, everyone had smiles on their faces, the band played jolly music and people went home afterwards feeling better for the royal visit.

Whatever your views of royalty, there can be little doubt that the royal family has a sense of duty that means service with a smile. How easy can it be to walk, on a hot day, through crowds of people, taking a genuine interest in each person they speak to and making people feel special?

The challenge to me is: Am I as willing to do good, to show compassion, to work my socks off, for other people? The Queen sets an example as the servant queen and she, in turn, takes her example from the servant king, Jesus Christ, of whom she said, “He makes it clear that genuine human happiness and satisfaction lie more in giving than receiving; more in serving than in being served.”

STRONGHOLD

Stronghold isn’t a word that’s in my everyday vocabulary, but it carries an immensity of meaning that lives up to its name.

The Round Tower at Windsor Castle, the Keep at Dover Castle, the huge walls of Caernarfon Castle… All those fortresses were built to keep people safe inside and keep unwelcome invaders out. That the castles still stand, hundreds of years after being built, is testament to their solidness, strategic position, and the vision and leadership of William the Conqueror and Edward I.

The dictionary defines a stronghold as a place that has been fortified to protect it against attack. True, but I like to think of it also as a place of sanctuary.

A friend was going through the pain of a terminal illness. She asked that part of Psalm 27 be read at her funeral service. This was her testimony, “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?”

A Christian rock group sang, “Oh Jesus, you’ve got a good strong hold on me.” Whatever a Christian believer’s circumstances, they can echo those words. God is a solid fortress that protects, and provides sanctuary, against whatever attacks – physical, mental, spiritual – come a believer’s way. He is a stronghold and he has a loving and strong hold on their life.