December Reflections 3: best day of 2020

Ladybird on rose leaf

It would probably be cheating to say ‘Sunday’, wouldn’t it?

I remember one day in March, standing on Clifton Suspension Bridge with two of my friends, looking out over the gorge, feeling intensely aware of all the strata of my own past, intensely uncertain of the future, with empty air under the bridge under my feet, feeling faithfully supported.

That one was a Sunday.

And I remember one morning in late July, having been blessed with a visit to the Isle of Wight and my family, revisiting all my favourite spots around Ventnor, spotting lizards, walking the dinosaur labyrinth, drinking coffee on the seafront.

That one wasn’t a Sunday.

But it’s the cumulative effect of those quiet Sunday afternoons at home that feels both the loveliest and the most characteristic of 2020. Sunday afternoons, with a stack of books and a folding chair and the contained space of the garden; the sound of a neighbour’s cockerel; the traffic not too obnoxious; bees and butterflies.

I had to go back through my diary to find the one I was thinking of specifically: 12 July. Earlier in the day, after church, I’d taken my bike out into the fens to the west, climbed the nearest hill and kept going under big fenland sky.

Huge pearly grey-white clouds against a blue sky, over a dark brown ploughed field

And after a shower and lunch I took my chair and my books out into the garden, and sat and read a few lines at a time, and watched the ladybirds crawling over the rose leaves and whizzing around the place in tiny red blurs, and much higher, white birds soaring, and, higher still, gliders circling, winking in and out of sight.

Sunday afternoon.

December Reflections 2: my favourite hobby

three shelves of books; authors include Arthur Ransome, John le Carré, Eva Ibbotson, Noel Streatfeild, Lorna Hill, C. S. Lewis, Charlotte Brontë, and others

I’m never quite sure what makes something a hobby rather than a mere pastime. How seriously does one have to follow it? Does it have to be creative? And of course, one person’s hobby is another person’s livelihood.

So I’m going to go for the very broadest definition and say something that I do because I enjoy it, that nobody pays me for.

I have plenty of hobbies, and I have most of them because I saw something in a book, thought, ‘I could do that’, and tried it. Some of them (crochet) I abandoned again; some (knitting) I do very intermittently; some (making bead jewellery) I do quite often.

Some (teaching myself to play the piano) are part of my regular routine; some (teaching myself to ice skate) have been scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic; some (gardening) have been made very much easier by lockdown; some (doing small drawings) I even do daily.

But really, all of those feel like quite a lot of effort at present. Indeed, at this point in post-launch torpor, I find myself thinking that I only write books because nobody else is writing the precise thing that I want to read. And so I go back to reading.

I’ve read quite a lot in 2020. I note that there’s a ‘best book’ prompt coming up later in the month, so I won’t talk about preferences, but I will recall…

  • taking a folding chair out into the garden to read Julian of Norwich over Holy Week
  • lounging on a blanket on the lawn, reading Miss Moonshine’s Emporium of Happy Endings
  • turning my ebook reader back on after lights out to finish Slippery Creatures
  • sitting in an armchair, legs tucked under me, working through the first seven Bond novels
  • picking up Busman’s Honeymoon to take a photo of it, and the rest of the day just disappearing
  • reading all of Four Quartets out loud to myself, with the rain beating at the roof of the conservatory
  • unable to sleep, making myself a late night cup of peppermint tea, and reading Spiderweb For Two for the first time
  • starting off a Saturday morning by inhaling a Jae or a Jill Mansell
  • bickering amiably online about Madam Will You Talk and The Man In The Brown Suit

I’ve read for research, both for other people’s blogs and my own, to finish things I’ve been meaning to read, and for sheer fun.

I have until the 20th to decide which was my favourite. I’ll let you know.

December Reflections 1: star

a deep blue night sky with three stars in an inverted T shape seen over a pitched roof

I’ve always loved stars, loved looking up into the night sky to see more and more pinpricks of light becoming visible to my adjusting eye.

My ability to recognise the constellations has been limited, however; I’ve known Orion, the Plough/Great Bear/Saucepan, and Cassiopaeia for years, but others have been trickier. Bootes has broad shoulders and slim ankles. The big square one might be some combination of Perseus and Andromeda. My knowledge remains sadly lacking.

What’s really helped has been having a phone with enough memory to cope with Stellarium. (The fact that it has a camera with settings advanced enough to cope with stars has also been a bonus.)

This year I’ve added Cygnus, sort of. There it is, dropping behind our neighbour’s garage. And the planets have been big and bright and hanging around in the same place for long enough that I’ve got used to them. Here are Jupiter and Saturn over the Solent in July. The moon is at the right and looking a bit lopsided; Jupiter is the bright speck about a quarter of the way in from the left; Saturn is just visible as a point about halfway between Jupiter and the left-hand edge.

Seascape at twilight with a bright full moon lighting up a stretch of sea at the right of shot, two ships, and, at the left, one bright speck, and one just-visible point of light

More recently, Mars has been looking very handsome in the south-east.

I could say that this year, when I haven’t really been going anywhere, I’ve been more aware of the stars, but I’m not sure that would be true. I haven’t had my evening bike rides home alongside the Cam, with Orion huge over the opposite bank; I haven’t paused in the back garden to look up before unlocking the shed.

I think, though, that I’ve become more aware of the here and now, and of the stars as a marker, a backdrop, a map, have wanted to know more. Much as I’m grateful for Stellarium, I’m also delighted by this analogue guide to the night sky. The rivet at the Pole Star allows the transparent window to be moved according to the time, day, and month: here I’ve set it at the time I took the photo at the top of this post.

Philips' 'Planisphere' - a star map with a transparent section revealing the stars visible at a particular time

And I’ve been fascinated by the way that humans relate to them. I’ve been reading this book, a history of astronomy that has itself been overtaken by history, one chapter every Sunday afternoon over the last couple of months. I’m still with Copernicus and Galileo, jumping through a new paradigm shift every week.

hardback copy of 'And there was light' by Rudolf Thiel held up in front of the same roof as in the first photo, but in daylight)

Also on Sunday afternoons, I’ve been reading back issues of hidden europe magazine. This week I read about a village called Groβmugl, just outside Vienna, which has become popular as a stargazing site, and where:

locals sometimes refer to the village as ‘Groβmugl an der Milchstraβe’ (Groβmugl on the Milky Way)

“On a Starry Night”, hidden europe issue 54, spring 2018

Well, I immediately wanted to go there (some day, some day, I’ve already promised myself a return to Vienna), but it resonated on a deeper level than that. Like a child adding as many lines as possible to their address, I thought that this could be here, too.

With love from Ely-on-the-Milky-Way,

Kathleen

A story from two blue notebooks

Hardback notebook with a cover pattern of blue and white waves

I was in Paperchase at St Pancras station.

Well, you see, I’d been writing everything, all of this, down in a little book, and I’d nearly finished it, so I went to Paperchase for a new one.

I always end up writing the story that I need to hear. And I don’t know whether I’ll ever be good enough to tell this one in fiction, or even if it’s a story that can work in fiction at all, ever, and it seems possible that someone else needs to hear it sooner than that. After all, I’ve found over and over again that, whatever’s happening, I’m not the only one to whom it’s happening. So I’m telling it now.

And I was looking at the shelves of notebooks, thinking about which one to choose, and I had a sudden, very strong sense that I wouldn’t need another one.

I bought one with a pattern of waves in blue and white. That was the Tuesday.

I’ve told the notebook story five or six times now. It’s a good story, a convincing one. It always surprises me how effective it is. I go in expecting pushback, argument, a compassionate suggestion that perhaps I’m mistaken in what’s going on in my own heart, and every time the other person accepts it.

Well, you’d hope they would. It’s true, after all.

On the Wednesday, I went to church. Lunchtime communion at St Pancras. St Pancras new church. And I was about half way there, walking along the pavement on the north side of the Euston Road, the wind blowing a few dead leaves around my ankles, when I understood.

It wasn’t there any more.

The leaving makes a better story than the arrival did. The arrival was cumulative, a succession of comments, questions, observations, from others.

2017. I’d been leading the twenties-and-thirties Bible study group. The ordinand we had on loan from Westcott said to the youth worker, afterwards, ‘Kathleen’s very good at this. Has she thought about ordained ministry?’

The youth worker reported this conversation to me. ‘And so I said to him, I don’t know, you should ask her!’

I thought it was just that I’d picked up some adult education skills from my day job. And forgot about it.

2018. The curate invited me to a Cursillo weekend. I thought it sounded fantastic. It wasn’t until I was signed up and paid up that she said, ‘Yes, that was where it all started for me.’

Oh, I thought. And then, Oh, well. And forgot about it.

I told a friend about the plot of the novel I was working on, how it all hinged on the fact that you can’t be ordained in the Church of England and be in a same-sex marriage. He asked me if my own vocation was going anywhere.

I’d forgotten that I’d ever told him about that.

I said no, though the curate had said what she’d said about Cursillo. And then I forgot about it.

I undertook tutor training. My first thought was how can I use this for church? It occurred to me that thirty-three was quite an appropriate age for all this to kick off again, really. I forgot about it.

I went on the Cursillo weekend and had my mind and my faith expanded in all sorts of other ways, and forgot about it.

I saw young women in dog collars – one in a bookshop, one on a train – and decided that it was confirmation bias.

I remembered Mary Poppins. The wind changes. I could smell the excitement in the air, and I knew what it was, and I didn’t want to admit it.

Returning to my novel, I asked the youth worker about the selection process. Most of my mind was focused on what I’d got wrong, what was going to screw up the timeline, what was going to rescue the arc. A little part of it was watching myself all the time to see if any of it pinged me as something that I was meant to be doing. It didn’t.

2019. I could feel it, smell it, sense it lurking in the undergrowth, waiting.

I demanded a neon sign. The next neon sign I saw said:

Started at the bottom

Now you’re here

It didn’t really help.

I decided that anything that felt that much like horrible and inevitable doom couldn’t be of divine origin. Possibly it was just that I needed a holiday.

(I did need a holiday.)

I prayed to feel better about it, if it was real.

With the twenties-and-thirties group, I was leading a course called SHAPE, designed to help people explore their gifts and their callings. In my day job, I was testing an online tool called Value My Skills. I was very aware of a parallel existence running alongside the life that I was leading, something that was more than a possibility and less than a probability.

I found myself thinking that if I got to the end of the SHAPE course without anything having come up, I was probably safe.

The week before Holy Week was peculiarly intense. Conversations and experiences piled on top of each other.

‘No, it’s not actually a thing, just a lurking sense of doom,’ I said to someone.

‘I’ve heard it often feels like that,’ they said to me.

I applied for a promotion at work in the knowledge that it was very possible that my future lay elsewhere.

I asked the Cursillo spiritual director about spiritual direction. She asked some questions about my church involvement. I answered: I was leading the twenties-and-thirties group, singing in the choir.

‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘I wonder what God’s got planned for you in, say, three years…’

I thought, oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck.

I emailed people. I dragged people out to lunch. Nobody was surprised. Their lack of surprise was both infuriating and gratifying.

I didn’t get shortlisted for the promotion. It was rather a relief: I couldn’t have fitted anything else in my head that week.

I told the curate. She prayed for me, and I, who very rarely got visual images in prayer, saw a small square of fog clear, and a set of railway points switch from one track to another. And I knew then, that if this was going to turn out to be true, that was the moment I knew it. She got me onto the reading rota and the intercessions rota and the PCC; she told the vicar.

The vicar was kindly, thoroughly, interrogative, and made it clear that I was going to have to get used to talking about this. I remembered that this was the part I’d hated the last time round.

I wept through the service. I wept because it was gone.

That was the thing: it wasn’t the first time.

At the beginning I thought I’d be able to treat it as if it was the first time, but it wasn’t long before I found myself saying, ‘Well, the last time this happened…’ and having to explain what happened last time.

‘I suppose it came out in my last year of university. I applied for a few pastoral assistant jobs, but I didn’t get any of them.’

But I couldn’t remember what it was like before. I couldn’t remember why I wanted to do it. I couldn’t remember the wanting to do it, only the desolation afterwards.

‘And it just disappeared. I walked the Camino, and by the time I got to the end it had gone, and I hadn’t noticed.’ And then I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I went to Germany as an au pair, and then I still didn’t know what to do with myself, and the year after that was the worst year of my life.

All I had was bad poetry, and a handful of stories that didn’t quite say what I needed to say. What if the widow had her mite returned to her? What if the big fish had received new orders and spat Jonah out on some beach nowhere near Nineveh? There was Abraham and Isaac, reprieved at the last moment, but that seemed a bit melodramatic. Didn’t it?

It felt like a wonderful secret. It felt terrifying and inevitable. It felt like writing a novel used to, back when I didn’t tell anybody about writing a novel.

Returning to my novel, I was struck by how wrong I’d got it. The point of view character wasn’t the one who had a vocation to ordained ministry; that was her girlfriend. But I’d bestowed on both of them the sense of creeping doom, the malevolent attraction of a black hole, that I associated with a vocation when I didn’t have one. Now I could see that it didn’t feel like that at all. When I was in the middle of the thing, there was an excitement about it, a joyful anticipation, a feeling of rightness, of everything making sense.

I read The Night Manager and for once found myself identifying with the main character accepting the call to adventure, rather than inwardly yelling at him not to do it.

I dragged out boxes of old diaries, started sifting through years’ worth of online journals. How many times had I learned this and forgotten it again? I went to Paperchase and bought a notebook with a gold-dotted blue cover. I promised myself that this time I wouldn’t forget.

I realised that I’d been thinking about it for ages. It was just that the feelings had caught up with me.

I worried about turning into a Church of England pod person with naff coasters with Bible verses on.

I knew I needed to become a person who could talk about it, and I didn’t know how to become a person who could talk about it without ceasing to be myself.

I went to an enquiries evening and was too shy to talk to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Vocations. I learned that the next thing to do was to book myself onto the vocations course.

I was under no illusions – certainly not the ones that would have tripped me up had I gone straight into selection and formation and ministry after university. I follow a lot of Clergy Twitter, after all.

But it seemed plausible that a decade working for a member organisation with big ideals and petty politics, one which depended for its continued operation on the labour of a lot of ageing volunteers, might have been just what I needed to equip me to deal with the Church of England. Last time might have been the wrong time. This might be the right time.

I did not book myself onto the vocations course.

I failed to do anything practical about it at all, just kept writing in my blue notebook with the gold spots.

It felt more and more like where I was going.

The Sunday before Advent, the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Vocations was the guest preacher. I talked to her, mentioning a little petulantly that the rest of my life seemed to be trying to happen at the same time (my husband and I had finally scraped together the deposit for a mortgage). She got me booked onto the next term’s vocations course.

On the Friday, the House of Bishops put out an even more tin-eared statement than usual, and I couldn’t help seeing the funny side. I wore a rainbow skirt to church that Sunday.

I went to the first session of the course.

That was the Wednesday before I went to Paperchase.

I saw the course through, as best I could given the challenges posed by Great Northern Rail (sometimes I got from London to Ely on time, and sometimes I didn’t) and (later) having to join in by Zoom over the phone, because the course had gone online and we didn’t have broadband at the new house. It was interesting, and enjoyable, and, for me, irrelevant.

I stuck around, waiting to see if the vocation was going to come back, whether it had been scared off by my moving house, or lockdown, or something. It didn’t.

I finished the novel. I started telling people that it had gone.

It’s ten months now since it went away; it already feels like another life. After the desolation came the relief. I don’t want to do this. I would have done it if I’d had to, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.

The other day I found a mind map that I made when it was there and new and I was trying to make sense of it. There it all was, in my own handwriting, and it was nothing to do with me.

And I still don’t know why it happened: why it came, and why it went away.

Was it a piece of research that got a bit too immersive?

Did I need to know what a vocation felt like in order to know when I didn’t have one?

Am I off on another circuit of the labyrinth, bound to follow a long and winding path to get back to the same place?

The more time elapses, the less I think about those questions. The answer’s always the same, anyway: I don’t know.

And I suspect I won’t, not for a long time.

Advent Sunday

Advent calendar window, lit from behind, labelled 'First Sunday of Advent', with a picture of Christ in majesty with two skeletons.

I’ve shared a picture of my lovely six-sided Advent calendar in previous years. Advent is a season of varying length, of course, so sometimes, as this year, the traditional ‘starts on 1 December’ calendar is missing a few days. This one, however, has doors for St Andrew (30 November) and each Sunday of Advent, so this year it works perfectly. First Sunday of Advent today. St Andrew tomorrow. Then we’re into December.

I don’t have anything terribly original to add to the myriad observations about how weird this year is, the plethora of jokes about how today is March 274. Nevertheless, I have been thinking a lot about time this year. I revisited Waverly Fitzgerald’s lovely Slow Time and David Steindl-Rast’s Music of Silence. Pottering in my garden, I thought about The Morville Hours. Exploring Ely, I found two new sundials. This evening I listened to The Annunciation by Edwin Muir, and noticed myself noticing all the signifiers of time passing in the second half, noticed my mind leaping to a friend’s setting of The Spacious Firmament On High. Time. Time and space.

And where I am I? What have I learned? Nothing more than to try to be here, and now. I suspect that I’ll be writing a lot about that over the next month.

I love Advent. I’ve been looking forward to it for ages. And yet this morning found me late for church (over YouTube, so nobody knew!), pulling my top on as the processional played, breakfasting on cake. Somehow, Advent has crept up on me. It often does.

Even in normal times, time has never behaved the way I’ve thought it should. I remember the Advent calendar that was a pyramid shape, so that each day it had a little more wax to burn, and the closer it got to Christmas the longer I’d have to wait to blow it out. Not the sort of thing that King Alfred would have used for a candle clock.

So here I am. Here and now. I seem to know less than I ever did, and to be far less bothered by that than I’d ever have expected. I’ll be taking part in Susannah Conway’s December Reflections project again this year, looking back over the last twelve months, looking forward to the next twelve months.

To the pedantic western Christians reading this, Happy New Year! To everyone else, I hope March 274th is treating you well.

December Reflections 31: my word for 2020

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I mentioned yesterday that earlier this year I attended an event called Thoughtful Eating. Much of what was said there wasn’t new to me. But the conclusion – an attempt at a Biblical approach to food – sparked something in me. In particular, two words: delight and sharing. They’ve stuck with me through this year.

So I put delight and sharing at north and south for my 2020 compass. The rest of the qualities fitted in around them.

IMG_20191212_115405_929

I expect 2020 to be difficult in many ways, and exciting in many ways, and enjoyable in many ways, and challenging in perhaps all of those ways. I wish to approach it seeking (look, there it is at south-east) for delight.

Delight, at north, is really another form of sharing: it’s noticing the good things that have been shared with me, seeing the holiness of them, and, if I can, sharing those things and that delight with others.

As, for example, the moment, looking back at almost the last daylight of 2019, when a swan swooped overhead just as I had my phone out to take a picture of bare trees against a clear, clear sky, wheeled around with a keen whirr of wings.

December Reflections 30: thank you for…

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… surprising and exciting developments.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be surprising. When in the autumn we added up the balances of our various savings accounts and found that they made a mortgage deposit, that was after many years of channelling a direct debit in that direction.

What else?

The opportunity to serve on a Cursillo weekend. I wrote a couple of days ago about ‘the privilege of loving people’, and this was largely what I had in mind. Making tea for people, putting chairs out for them, washing their hands… it was wonderful.

Good progress on two books. The Real World is more or less there in terms of word count, and I’m looking forward to diving back in with a red pen in a couple of weeks’ time. The Rassendyll Kidnapping is a lot more nebulous, but a whole load of plot came together in my head at the beginning of December, and I got most of it down before I forgot it again.

Time with family and friends – particularly a week with my family at and around Ventnor Fringe, and a week with the in-laws on a narrowboat on the river Avon, and another week with my friend Anne in York. I’d like to see more of more people next year, though.

The chance to see the best cyclists in the world ride past me.

New people and new places. Theatre. Museums. Good books. Good food. A really interesting talk that made me think about food differently. (The very short version: delight and sharing.) Wide-ranging conversations, leading (I think) to interesting places.

2019 hasn’t been a year of fruition, exactly, but it’s certainly been a year of emerging shoots. And I’m thankful.

December Reflections 29: home

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Up until five years ago, I lived in places where the horizon was adorned with a decent border of hills, or where the land fell away and fell away and fell away to the sea. I lived in places where hills or sea or both played intermediary between me and the sky.

I’m still learning how to feel at home under this vast pearly, milky, sky; to orientate myself against a horizon that’s low and flat and at once remote and close; to measure myself in a landscape where the tallest thing is a tree, or was built by human hands.

But it’s the same sky: this wide blue-and-white sky; this low, sulky, grey sky; this deep blue, starred sky. It stretches over everywhere I’ve called home, and the places I have yet to call home.

December Reflections 28: my wish for 2020

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Ely.

It seems to be where we’re going next. We’ve had an offer accepted on a house out on the north-west edge. It has pear trees in the garden.

I should have taken a photo of the first sight from the south, the cathedral side on, rising up from the flat land around it. The Ship of the Fens, they call it. It doesn’t look very ship-like from here, the middle of town.

Even this year I’ve spent a lot of time in Ely, mostly doing Cursillo-related things. It’s been drawing me towards it. City on a hill, fen-bounded island, eely Ely.

One of my internet friends wrote:

Build a home, put down roots, grow stuff, eat pears

and when I read it something resonated inside me: Yes. This. This is what I want.

I felt something similar at the end of the Midnight Eucharist, very early on Christmas morning:

Go in peace. Proclaim the Word made flesh.

Yes, this. And how that works, how far I stay involved with my current church, what else I do, what lies beyond that, I don’t know. I can only trust that two apparently contradictory wishes are in fact taking me towards the same figurative destination. Anyway, this physical location seems to be the place to investigate things further.

Ely, then. May it be good to us.

December Reflections 27: 2019 taught me…

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… how to move past despair;

… that my understanding of myself and of the world can change quickly and then feel as if it’s always been that way;

… that riding a road bike is similar to, if not just like, riding a bike;

… that the closer I stick to a template for a talk, the more artificial it sounds;

… about the sheer privilege of loving people;

… about who I’m becoming.