What do the Farne Islands and London have in common? In 2012 I took a boat trip with the older of my two brothers to celebrate his 60th birthday on the Farne Islands. Last week, I had lunch at the Barbican in London with my younger brother to celebrate his 60th birthday.
What places of contrast! Idyllic islands, unspoilt by human beings and home to birds and seals. And London. Last week London shocked me, country bumpkin that I’ve become. That part of the capital is a mass of glass and steel towers. What would the Romans think of it – they who built the London wall, part of which still stands rock-solid beneath the towers? And the builders of an old church that’s also dwarfed by its new neighbours?
My first job, as a teenager in the school holidays, was in an insurance company close to the Bank of England. I spent a numbingly tedious month filing dusty card folders. Oh, how the city has changed in appearance, as have its companies’ methods of filing! Man’s money box towers and nature’s islands…
Both my visits, however, were celebratory, and reminded me that in all the changes and progression of life, there is someone who is unchanging and as relevant now as ever: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.”
Does the world seem mad to you? “Stop the world; I want to get off!” sang Anthony Newley in the Sixties. Short of popping your clogs, the only way you can get off Planet Earth is to pop up to the International Space Station. From there, as we see from photos, the world doesn’t look so mad – just a beautiful orb in the blackness of space.
Meanwhile, down here in the reality of close encounters with fellow human beings, industry, noise and politics, where do we find sanity? For me, this morning, it was while out walking: a robin took a drink from a puddle, a beech tree was reflected in another puddle, two crows perched on a rugby goalpost – each on top of an upright. And the sun rose silently above misty valleys.
The sanity continued later as sunlight shone through stained glass windows into the little church where I worship the God of the whole vast universe. There I was reminded that God loves each individual – whether mad, bad, or sad. Life is tough for many people. How often does someone say, when asked how they are: “Bearing up,” “Soldiering on”? Jesus came into a dark world as the Light of the World. He told his followers to shine, to reflect God’s love and to bring hope. Ultimately it is HIS world. What a relief!
Knitting a poppy wasn’t as easy as I’d anticipated. I had to keep my wits about me, concentrate on counting and, for once, not try and multi-task. The result was a slightly lop-sided flower with a black button stuck into its centre. It now adorns the local Guildhall, along with thousands of others, on this Remembrance Sunday.
There are four red poppies still blooming in the garden, remnants of the wild flower mix that attracted bees and butterflies throughout the summer. The poppies, being buffeted by the wind today, and out in the chilly air, are an apt reminder of the men and women who, with minds and bodies concentrating on the task before them, sacrificed their lives to secure peace and freedom for us.
This afternoon, in order to justify sitting for a couple of hours watching Federer on TV, I got out my knitting needles. The pattern was complicated and, as I knitted, I made mistakes because I was trying to concentrate on two things at once. I unpicked several rows and, while doing so, missed crucial points in the match. Trivial, I know…
Knitting a poppy could have been a trivial pursuit – unless it reminded me of what that poppy represented: Focus. Commitment. Perseverance. Skill. Sacrifice. For each person who gave their life that others may live, I’m grateful.
Is it silly to say that I feel more alive on autumn mornings than at other times of the year? What is it about autumn that causes such vibrancy? The brilliant saturated colours of autumn? The juxtaposition of orange and blue? The crisp cold frosty air of this very morning when sun and moon appeared at opposite ends of the sky, round and large and dominating the dome above a wakening earth? Possibly… Probably… But the feeling is there too when it’s foggy.
“Go out and take pictures in the fog,” said my tutor on a photographic course. Daft idea, I thought, but no – it turned out to be an exercise in observation, contemplation, quietness, and even cosiness. The enveloping greyness wasn’t oppressive or sinister, just another facet of weather to marvel at. Think of the objects that are enhanced by fog: spiders’ webs, water droplets suspended from leaves, monochromatic images of old-fashioned lamp-posts, cathedrals, seaside piers…
Metaphorical fog in life can make us wonder whether life will ever become bright again. Burdens, anxiety, bewilderment can oppress the shrouded soul, bruised body or numbed mind. But, just as there is an invisible sun in the silence of the fog, so too – in the screaming silence of our personal fogs – there is an invisible yet all-seeing and compassionate God who offers his companionship, not necessarily to alleviate the fog but to be in it with us.
Once upon a time I worked in a coffee shop. It was the hardest job I’ve ever done. A queue of people waiting for their drinks, the constant clatter of cups and hissing machinery, and a complicated till that I never got the hang of… were enough to make me quit the job before I was sacked for incompetence.
I could never be a barista. Let me make instant coffee in a mug at home! Let my life be uncomplicated – and quiet, at least some of the time.
‘Listen’ is an anagram of ‘silent’. In a world of constant noise and busyness where caffeine keeps us going, it’s good to find times to be silent – and listen. One day last week I went out with my camera before dawn. There was little traffic to pollute the air with fumes and noise. I heard the beating wings of swans flying overhead, the calling of geese as they pierced the sky in a v-formation, and then the plaintive call of a peregrine. I felt leaves falling on me from bronzed beech trees, I watched brown trout in the river and observed early morning light playing patterns on the slow-moving water. Calm and invigorated, I walked home contentedly to make… a cup of tea.
Do you look good for your age? An impertinent question, perhaps, but one to which ‘experts’ are keen to provide answers. They suggest how you can: whiten your teeth, remove facial ‘blemishes’, have toned muscles in a perfect body, a beautiful smile, shining hair…
Is nobody content with the body they have? Doesn’t the ageing process happen whether we like it or not? Is life only about looking good and feeling good? Aren’t there more important questions: Why am I here on planet Earth? Where am I going? How do I relate to other people? What am I doing with the life I’ve been given?
3000 years ago a prophet was sent to choose a potential king from eight brothers. He went to the eldest of the bunch – a tall, handsome chap. Ah, this must be the one. No. The prophet inspected each brother in turn. None of the first seven was chosen. The eighth and youngest son was called in from tending sheep in the fields. Yes! This was the one. Why? Because God, who had sent the prophet, said, “I do not judge as man judges. Man looks at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart.”
Age and looks are less important than character. Is that a relief or a challenge? God looks. But not necessarily for good looks.
How observant are you?
Last week the harvest moon rose in early evening to dominate the sky in its luminosity and largeness. Before its appearance the October dusk darkened daylight’s objects, to reveal slowly but steadily the things of night. At first the stars were tiny pinpricks of light then, as darkness progressed, they were revealed as an apparently random scattering of bright lights flung by an invisible hand into the space above earth. I stood outside, head tilted back and gazed in awe. Then the moon rose and the stars became less bright against the backdrop of the massive moon.
When my head eventually returned to its normal position I continued my moonlight walk, but then had to bend my head downwards to avoid tripping over tree roots and… a random hedgehog. Yes, a hedgehog! I hadn’t seen one for years – not alive, anyway. I stood and watched it snuffle its way across a patch of grass in search of supper.
The immensity of the universe – moon, stars… And the minutiae of tiny creatures – hedgehogs, worms, ants… Life is out there to see and wonder at, day and night – if we look. W H Davies wrote, “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” Let’s make time to look and be thankful.
PS ‘Berry Nice’ photos are on the Photo Gallery of the website.