Thursday, 29 November 2012

Remembering Africa

Mrs Ngai stops me in the middle of the compound. The red earth, beaten flat by many feet. I am  surrounded on all sides by the dilapidated barrack-buildings of the village school.

She has a question. Which class am I visiting next? Do I need toilet paper? It doesn't matter. the answer will not suffice, our conversation will roam around the world and I will have to shade my eyes.

It's mid-August, the middle of winter, cool for Mrs Ngai. I pull the rose-pink silk scarf over my head, and turn away from the bright midday sun. I am burning, and must soon head for the cool of the mud bricked refuge that is the staff room.

My day's work lies on a desk beside the door. The notes for a seminar on teaching English as a second language, a copy of,  'The Musicians of Bremen' to dramatise for the primary class, and the makings of a science experiment for the learners hoping to matriculate.

I transfer the staff meeting notes to flip chart paper ... Seven bullet points in impeccable primary school,teacher's handwriting, learned when there were blackboards. My colleagues exchange opinions on the  day-to- day minutiae of school life:  same everywhere - the shortcomings of the District Office, the  achievements of the brightest pupils, the failures of the rest. I haven't a clue what's actually being said of course : It's all in Xhosa. I am aware of the unfamiliar cadences, the soft clicks; the sounds are rhythmic, comforting, and without an obligation to join in, I am far more productive here, than at home!

'Mary! You work too hard,' someone laughs, Mrs Soxiewa hands  me a cup of tea. Five weeks here, so much to do...

I guess some things did get done. At the end, the school threw a party for me. Mr Mjodo prepares the scripture and homily for the great day with special care. Psalm 91: The sun shall not harm you by day... ' everyone laughs.

Mr Mximwa, the school principal has the final word... ' Mrs Mary,' he looks at me and grins, 'Is a MAN! '

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Fifty Shades of Better Sex Diet

Oh! Alright, this post is nothing to do with sex or dieting, it's about my addiction to Public Radio.

I am spoiled, for I have the BBC.  Poor Aunty Beeb, she's in hot water at the moment, and Rupert Murdoch is probably calling for her demise, but I'm not worried.

I rarely listen to commercial radio, because I don't want to be advertised at. I am very content to pay £145 a year for the privilege of not being. Though I make an exception, to be truthful, for 'Classic FM'.

It's not the BBC I was listening to this morning, however, but American Public Radio. I was wonderfully entertained by, 'How It's Done' where I heard a story about a shortage of cockroaches in Australia. Now wouldn't you think this was good news? I did, and on the whole, it seems it IS - but not if you're the producer of, 'I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here' who has to source cockroaches for the programme. You see, the Z-List worthies who head for the Australian bush to be ritually humiliated for our amusement, are routinely invited to get up close and personal with cockroaches, and now they can't.

'How It's Done', stepping in to help, interviewed an entomologist for advice on which insect substitutes  might fill the breach. Overcoming his amazement that no-one had thought to look under the sofas in student housing in search of 'roaches feasting on three-day old pizza, he recommend two possibilities:

There is a cricket in New Zealand that wouldn't do too much damage despite being the size of a mouse, and a 180 mm long centipede from Venezuela, that would accommodate a mouse if minded to do so. Either will do! I cry.

Before being obliged to switch off in order to get to Mass on time, I caught a discussion on PRX (Public Radio Remix) by authors, on the title of a book most likely to sell...

How Dead Do You Have to Be?

My sister-in -law, Sylvia died of a massive heart attack last month, and some of her organs are now bringing new life to others, and I am glad.

Sylvia's doctors acted with compassion, and with the utmost correctness, I am sure of it, but when I sat with her, holding her hand, I didn't know whether she was alive or dead. That's OK, but I  am beginning to wonder if anyone did.

It's raining heavily today and I am catching up with my reading. The most fascinating piece of which, from the top of the pile, is New Scientist (20 Oct 2012) , which is a Death special. The problem I'm tussling with lies  with the brain. When does it die?

I discovered that current medical practice allows for a body to be capable of movement, and even to have discernible brain waves, and still be declared, 'brain dead'. EEG's are not routinely given to dertmine brain death, and family members are discouraged from staying with donee bodies because these, what we regard as, ' life signs'  may still be evident.

Showing life signs, does not preclude the possibility of imminent death, of course, and harvested organs have to be fresh to be useable - but, but, but, don't we have the right to know everything about the condition of our dying friends and loved ones? Don't you want to be convinced that 'dead' means 'and gone' ?

Forty people over the last few years have had life support systems removed because they are enduring 'locked-in syndrome'. Forty. Yet,  very recently, it has been discovered that it is possible to communicate with these sufferers using brain scanning techniques. No blame. Doctors can only act on the science at hand... But, but, but, shouldn't we now question how those of us living in the shadowland between life and death are treated, for when our number's up?

Am I still a potential organ doner? Yes, but I shall be leaving a requirement in my will that death before donation be confirmed by brain scan. Probably.

Check it out:

Sunday, 18 November 2012


The postman handed me a letter, the envelope of which, was stamped, authoritatively, with the name and address of a firm of solicitors. I admit it, I panicked. This was the first letter I have ever received from a lawyer, and I assumed it foreshadowed Trouble.

My mind raced. Every thought, word and deed that had occupied me over the preceding weeks jostled for position at the forefront of my conscience for examination. Most were instantly dismissed as irrelevant: the odd one or two set aside as unlikely to have, as yet, been brought to the attention of a solicitor...

I tore open the letter in dreadful anticipation to read:

Re: The Estate of  Elly Maria Pantekoek Deceased

And to receive a cheque for £167.60

This is how it happened.

Elly Maria Pantekoek was a brand new friend. I have few, and am therefore particularly aggrieved when one dies, but to be fair to Elly Maria, she had made it clear from the beginning that death was imminent, and would, in the event, be welcomed.

I am going to move to bullet points here to advance this story at a respectable pace.                  
  • Sister Elly Maria was Dutch, and a nun. 
  • She lived alone, following the rule of St Benedict, in a very large house, with a magnificent garden, with a poustina, some five miles from my home.
  • She was large, disabled, got about in an electric wheelchair, wore brightly coloured track suits, smoked, drank, kept a dog, questioned the catholic hierarchy in a way that might have offended them and quilted. A lot. She designed and made exquisite quilted banners to the glory of God and the benefit of the church.
  • She was kept mobile with the help of an army of carers, all of whom were devoted to her, and all of whom learned to quilt.
Having established, in a pretty two-dimensional way, what this amazing woman was like, I am going to tell  how I moved into her charming circle. I used to take Jesus to her. That is, as an Extraordinary Minister of Communion, I occasionally took her a consecrated host, in a silver pyx, and would say the liturgy of the Communion for The Sick with her, and administer the Host - to both of us, the Body of Christ. (A mystery peculiar to Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, and a beautiful one.) At first she terrified me. I didn't know quite to do with her unorthodoxy, her piercing questions, her abrupt manner - or her quilting. But I got used to it all, and came to respect and love her.

I asked her to make a banner  for our church for Easter 2010. Which she did, though she made me help, and frequently reminded me how little time I'd given her to do it in - especially as, three weeks before Easter, I was bound for the USA. 

On hearing this, Sr E M's eyes lit up, and she requested that I bring her back some 'fat quarters ' which are bundles of  squares of material. I could hardly refuse on the grounds that she might die before I returned, could I?

We called in on Sr Elly Maria on the way home from the airport... I left my husband in the car, and made my way into Elly Maria 's work room. She was delighted to see me (as I was her) and she left her computer to pour over the 'fat quarters ' that she had ordered and I had collected. She was over the moon , and I, pleased that I had been able to complete my commission.

'I am very busy with this,' Elly Maria said, returning to the tax return she was completing online,' Do you mind if I give Aidan a cheque to pay you? ' I wrestled with the possibility of Elly Maria's demise for the shortest possible amount of time, before replying that of course, I didn't mind! Waiting a couple of days wouldn't matter at all.

When I heard, a day later, that she had been rushed into hospital, I prayed fervently for her recovery, to no avail.

That was a year and a half ago, and, as is the way of it, the loss of my friend had become a memory I recalled only rarely, and I have to confess, with the edge of a smile, as I thought about  the tussle with my conscience over the money. So the cheque was received as a special gift, not so much a monetary one, but as a gush of affection for a wonderful women, summoned  to God when her work here was done.

' Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord. Let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace. Amen!'

Monday, 12 November 2012

Bumping Into Flash

A tooth broke on Friday whilst crunching down onto a hunk of  pork crackling. This did not go down well with the family auditor, as the possibility of having the tooth drilled, secured and crowned was not exactly budgeted for this side of Christmas.

But, a gap in my charming smile, was not in my lifestyle plan either, so an emergency appointment was made to visit the dentist, which to my surprise happened today. I was prepared for a long wait. 

My wonderful dentist is a very competent and very personable young Spaniard. 

' Are you anxious about pain?' Asks Fernando.

' Uh, No.! I smile, toothily... I have given birth. This is a walk in the park.' 

'That is interesting - many women tell me that having a tooth drilled is worse than that!

'Ha!' I reply, with feeling, 'They must have had epidurals.'

Pleasantries over, Fernando, quickly, efficiently, proficiently, reconstructed the damaged tooth with amalgam, beautifully, for a fraction of the cost of the crown. 

I smile and smile, lifting my left upper lip, ever so slightly, to reveal the beautiful new tooth.

Fernando's efficientcy enabled me to present myself at the bus station early, for the 13:37 Number 32 bus to Ross on Wye. 

Waiting in line was Flash. With Paddy, his dog. Flash  is a rough sleeper and a beggar. We met last Wednesday at the Day Centre for the homeless. Where I gave him coffe and a sausage roll, and he gave me his life story. 

Which would fill a book. Far too incredible a tale for a sensible blog.

'Flash! ' I give him a kiss and he hugs me back. 'How did you get on? 

Flash was due in court last Tueday, but there was an adjournment. I forget the reason why.

Flash doesn't dwell on his summons for attacking a policeman, which was, as I was quick to point out, 'A Bloody Stupid Thing To Do.'

Flash has his own opinion on this. ' Six months bed and board, and the opportunity to get off THIS,'he said, waving a can of beer in my direction. 

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Well I Never!

I have laboured under the illusion that I wrote this blog for a handful of people, most of whom stumble upon this by accident, and I find to my surprise that I have entertained over 1300 viewers from ten countries. Now I know viewing isn't reading, and I know too, from my idle clicking on the next blog button up there ^, that casual and brief acquaintance with someone six thousand miles away  is part of what this is about - but I am thinking 'audience'  now, and I feel a sense of duty coming on.

You see, I thought most of the page views were mine, as I tinkered with my prose, and agonised over my punctuation, for no particular purpose except to while away an hour with the possibility of, perhaps, letting my children see it just before I died, so they get an insight into my more colourful side...

 Just look at this:

Entry              Page views

UK.                 550
US.                  502
Switzerland.    132
Russia.               49
Poland.               41
Germany            27
France.                 9
Ukraine.               8
South Korea.        7
Iran                       6

Wow! I have gone global and I didn't know it!  Thank you all for your interest, and if you would, just leave a smile and the name of your country, I'd be so thrilled!

'It's not about...

Our grandchildren, ' Frances said, 'They'll do well anywhere, ' It's about the kids we used to teach.'

Five retired head teachers, chewing the fat (not literally, 'Coco's Bistro' in Cheltenham serves excellent food) and doing what you might expect. Bewailing the fact that education is not what it was it was in our day.

I could go on about the stress that teachers are under to raise SATS scores (which fools think is synonymous with raised standards) and how these stressed teachers do stupid things, like cheat, or yell at kids, but I won't, because that will soon become evident, and the see-saw will hit the pendulum, and softer voices will be heard again...

I am incensed at the possibility that in the pointless pursuit of the higher grade, lasting damage is done to children NOW. We five  know that time and space for listening to music, messing about with paint, and working with the raw material of experience ( the REAL science experiment, not the video clip, for example) where real, permanent,  learning occurs, is being reduced,  robbing the child of the opportunity of the point of education. . To grow a brain.

Longer days, fewer breaks, little time left to dream, to imagine, to stare into space and wonder... Many of the ' kids we taught' live in areas of social deprivation, where the school is a haven of  normality. These children are undernourished morally, intellectually and spiritually, as much as nutritionally. Fed fast food in their homes, they are now offered the education equivalent  in school. Instant pap - hours and hours of extra 'tuition', that amounts to endless drill,  to give the correct Pavlovian response to key words on a 45 minute question paper. This isn't a programme for the future, it's the return to the nineteenth century. It's not education, it's theft.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Soul Food

Sometimes I give myself over to thoughts that have little to do with being a diplodocus - which, in truth, was just a passing fancy - and I think about The Meaning Of Life. Now if I'd found The Key, or even A Clue, I'd be raking it in, having written A Book and I'd be fronting a tv programme asking you for lots of money.
Keyless  and clueless then, with barely the audacity to expect you to read any more of this, I offer Fr Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation, and my take on it:
Conservatives look for absolute truth; liberals look for something “real” and authentic. Spouses look for a marriage that will last “’til death do us part.”  Believers look for a God who never fails them; scientists look for a universal theory. They are all on the same quest. We are all looking for an immortal diamond: something utterly reliable, something loyal and true, something we can always depend on, something unforgettable and shining.
There is an invitation and an offer for all of these groups from John’s very short Second Letter, when he writes: “There is a truth that lives within us that will be with us forever” (2 John 2). But most of us know very little about this, so we end up as St. Augustine admits in hisConfessions: “Late have I loved you, Beauty so very ancient and so ever new. Late have I loved you! You were within, but I was without.”
Jacob wrestled with God and got a limp and a new name for his trouble (Israel: ' Struggles with God')
I think the writer of Exodus was on to something, and Fr Richard is holding a torch to it -  this 'journey out of certainty 'doesn't feel like a walk in the park, it feels like mud wrestling.
You're in there to get hurt (which you will) and when you think you have grasped something, it's as likely to slip out of your grasp as not.
I think for fifty years and more, I avoided the fight. Who wouldn't? Certainty is safer. Makes no demands... And it seems to me, as it did to St Augustin, St Catherine of Siena, and others who got it, that the fight isn't with anyone else, or found anywhere else, it's with myself. Within not without! That's it.
So take the 'mystery of suffering' . As I tried not to in conversation with a friend last week. Why does God allow suffering? Who knows? We'll  never know. The quest in the question is, 'Why do I allow suffering? Why do you?
Struggle with THAT, and you'll know you walk with a limp too.