FOR THE GODDESS ATHENE

FOR THE GODDESS ATHENE

I open my curtains.   The garden is misty and cool.   As I turn back to regain the warmth and comfort of my bed, I catch sight of my face in the mirror.   For a change, it is with surprise that I see that some of my former beauty still drifts around me much as the pale mist still lingers around the shadowy garden.   So often in recent times a tired, strained, pain-ravaged face peers back at me.   With its lines and stresses, the grim compression of the mouth, it reminds me of some older relative whom one once stared at as a girl, and felt that one would never reach such a strange and awful age oneself.   Yet age has come upon me stealthily, both slowly day by day, and suddenly and imperceptibly.   I am 63.   I am older now than other women whom in my youth I regarded as ancient.

And yet … and yet …    I would not return to the sunny optimism of former days.   The now, today, is always where you ought to be.

I have never wasted time lamenting my fate, and have on the whole been able to accept the joys and sadnesses of life and count my fortune a goodly portion.    21st century man suffers from the delusion that he is master of his destiny and can control his fate.   How the gods must laugh at our folly!   We can no more control our fate than one could turn back a tsunami and completely unanticipated events bear down on us as swiftly and unexpectedly as a deadly wave.

But there are compensations to growing older.    You have more time to reflect and understand.   You see that you do not have to strive so hard: or perhaps it’s just a gentler kind of striving.   Whereas once you may have directed, now you influence.   You understand the value of a good example.   A quiet word, a gentle touch, some modest encouragement, a small kindness – these tiny gestures can help people out of all proportion to the effort exerted.    You know this because you have received these kindnesses yourself.

My husband, when aged about 40, had a eureka moment, when he said to me, ‘I see I have to stop looking for father figures, and go out and BE one.’    Similarly, there comes a point in your life – and it is a bleak one – when the ladies whose example you have followed, those quiet models of good behaviour, courage, wise counsel, high standards – when they have departed one by one, when you look around you and realise there is hardly anyone on the road in front of you.   Soon there will be  only you and those coming after you.   You understand that you will have to BE that example, or attempt to be it, ill-equipped as you are.

These days I am attempting to practise meditation.   No practitioner of any discipline can ever have started with less aptitude, grace or facility at the art than the reluctant incompetence with which I attempt this.    You would think, being a cerebral type, that I would find this easy, but I do not.

Yet already I see some benefits.  I am calmer.   My face looks less stressed.   Actually my pain levels are reduced, though I am afraid to count this in case I lose it.    I think  it is fair to say that I have always been generous and just if well treated, but dangerous  if opposed.    The leopard does not change his spots, but still, I am able to make more allowances for people.   I do not get out my sword quite so quickly.

When I look back on my life, I have few regrets;  but I could have been kinder and more patient.   I never went looking for a fight;   I issued two warnings;  but once these preliminaries were over, I slew them.   As I hefted my sword, I used to think, couldn’t they see I held it?   Well , clearly they couldn’t.      There’s none of these people whom I regret in the sense that I think they didn’t deserve what came to them – and besides of course no-one was literally injured, so in theory they could live and learn.   But I was not particularly merciful.   I ask myself now, what was the rush to judgement?   The sword was mine.   I could always have used it later.

Sometimes (rarely) in the period of meditation, a physical image will arise unexpectedly and surprise you with its beauty or strangeness:  or an insight will occur to you.   While you are practising the discipline you set it aside, but you reflect on it later.

I realise I am content.   In some ways one gets older and weaker;  in other ways one gets (hopefully) wiser and stronger.   I’m still for the goddess Athene.    Even though I am an old woman, the girl I was still runs beside me.

If you believe, as I do, that the events which befall one are uniquely intended for one, then you can go out and meet your destiny, secure in the knowledge that however unwelcome are the circumstances which overtake you, never the less they are to be embraced for they are a gift of some description.

We do not control our  destiny, but how we rise to the challenges that face us can make all the difference from being swept away on the great wave of events, or surfing on it to a safer shore.

We should not fear old age, but be glad we have survived to enjoy it.

TROLLOPEs

TROLLOPES

I’ve been reading, mostly in the early hours of morning over  the last few months, the entire works of Anthony Trollope, and now alas I’ve come to the end of them.   Forty seven of his novels I’ve enjoyed, plus some travel writing, some criticism and an autobiography.

Now I’ve passed on to Thomas Hardy, and I loathe the man personally as much as I loved Trollope.   It’s not that there aren’t good things about Hardy.   His power of conveying in all its transient beauty the short period where England passed from being an agricultural community to an industrial one, is second to none, and his use of metaphor is superb.    ‘Curls nestled under her bonnet like swallows’ nests under the eaves of a house’ …    But skilled writing  should flow across your consciousness as though it were a stream slipping past your hand as you dabbled it in the water, whereas Hardy’s is  laboured and creaks from the effort.   His women are insufferable – stupid, ignorant, weak, inferior creatures – and his men are arrogant on the one hand  – they know so much more than the women! – and needful and self conscious on the other.

Whereas Trollope knows the value of money and understands at a glance the exact nuances of the English class system (which though to a lesser extent still functions down to this day) – he also understands what it is to be a lady or gentleman (although even he himself cannot define that precisely in words) – he knows that the real value of people has nothing to do with either wealth or rank.

Hardy on the other hand wasn’t a gentleman in either the class sense or in any other sense, and his view of the class system was distorted because he resented his place in it and sought to improve it.   You trust Trollope’s judgement, absolutely, whereas Hardy’s is you feel, highly subjective and unreliable.

Finally, you care about Trollope’s characters and want them to come to a happy ending, which, Trollope being a fine and truthful novelist, is not always guaranteed.    Hardy’s characters are not entirely believable;  you don’t like them and you couldn’t care less what happens to them.

I had previously subscribed to the criticism levelled at Trollope: that his plots rolled along without much planning by him, just episodic as it were, and in support of this is cited the alleged story that Trollope killed off the dreadful Mrs Proudie, the Bishop’s overbearing wife who ran the diocese with a feeble and acquiescent husband, when dared to do so by someone at his club.    It is true that viewing only external events, Mrs Proudie’s death is entirely unexpected.   But re-reading that novel recently, I do not think the criticism is  fair, for Mrs Proudie is undone by the refusal of a man she despises, poor and in danger of being (unfairly) disgraced, to bow down before her spurious authority.   He dismisses her from the Bishop’s study and addresses her as ‘Woman’ and she finds herself with no alternative but to leave.    She is powerless before his virtue and incorruptibility and so she dies (of a heart attack shortly afterwards.)      On reflection I do not think this is evidence of a haphazard  approach to his plots, but indicates his power and subtlety.

So, I can’t decide whether to abandon Hardy now and save myself annoyance, or to read on and hope I come to appreciate his merits more?   After all, I can’t just keep re-reading Trollope for the rest of my life.   Can I?

SELECTIVE AMNESIA

SELECTIVE AMNESIA

John’s sister, Helen (recently having become a Dame of the Catering industry, with tiara to match, for her work as hostess at Kilmichael Hotel, Arran) and  who is preparing to move house, kindly sent him a selection of photographs of interest to him which had belonged to their late mother.   He is delighted to receive them, especially a few of his father, which are scarce.

I leaf through the photographs, having to overcome my usual discomfort at the thought of photographs of us in the hands of other people.  (Yes, I know it’s ridiculous – one’s mother isn’t exactly ‘other people’.)   For myself, I am pleased to find a photograph of John and Rory which presumably I took but of which I have no recollection, standing beside the harbour in Portsoy.

When it comes to the photographs of John as a child, before I met him, we run into a few difficulties.   He recognises his parents, his  grandparents, his sister, his aunt and uncle and cousin.   But there are some  photographs where he stands, clearly on intimate terms with others who surround him.   ‘Who are all these people?’ I ask him.  He takes the photograph and studies it.    ‘No idea.’

John has an excellent memory.   He can find his way around a city he visited for a few hours only twenty years ago.   I can remind him of some incident, or recollect say a restaurant we visited many years ago, and from my vague description, he can swiftly and accurately place it on the map.   His timing is impeccable – he almost never forgets arrangements to meet; and his arriving  to time is legendary so that the few occasions when he has been unavoidably late are tales of wonder in our family.    And yet …   he seems to have an enviable capacity to delete from his memory banks anything he deems no longer relevant in his life.

There is a school photo.   I can’t pick him out in it so I ask him about it.   ‘I’m not in it.’ he announces.

I say, ‘Helen wouldn’t have sent it if it weren’t relevant to you.’

He scans it again.    ‘No.’

I say, ‘Do you recognise anybody?’

After another long look, he says he recognises the teacher.

Given his pattern of recollection, I point out, she must have been HIS teacher.   There is no possibility of him remembering anyone else’s.

‘You must be in it,’ I suggest.    ‘Look again.’

Eventually he selects a boy.   He is small, with a thin, sharp face;  sparse hair that looks as though it might have been  sandy, and sticky out ears.  He is the only child not in school uniform.   I begin to wonder if he’s taking the proverbial here.

‘That’s not you.’

He argues that it is.   I take the photograph in exasperation.    I resort to logic.

“That is NOT you.   Firstly, that child is small.   Secondly, you don’t have sticky-out ears.  Thirdly, you mother would never have sent you to school, not in school uniform.’    He acknowledges the force of the third argument.     Eventually I look at photos of him as a child, where we know he is definitely there.    His characteristics are :  invariably among the tallest, if not THE tallest,  child in the class.   (This is somebody who asked if he ever had a problem with bullies, replied, No.    Were there no bullies at your school?   Yes.   So how did you deal with them?   I just stood up.)   He also had  a longish face but wide at the jaw line;  abundant, unruly hair;  and generally an air of suppressed  mischief about him.     John, as a child, does not look like either of his sons did and they in turn do not resemble each other.  (They are half brothers.)    The young men of the family who as children most resembled John as a child are his elder nephew, Andrew, and his elder grandson, Craig.    They are both tall with luxuriant  hair and a mischievous air.   (Of course all the members of a family show passing resemblances to each other at different times.)

I consider giving him some early photos of himself and me and asking him who those people are, but I decide not to – it would be too awful if he couldn’t identify ME!

Carefully, we put the photos in a box.    They brought us laughter and pleasure, fond memories, regret over those who are no longer with us.

Thanks to Helen for sharing them with John.

ISLAND MEMORIES

Jeri on sofa Mannfield Avenue 1967 (4)

I’ve been following my friend Jane Coleman’s lovely blog of her sojourn on the Western Isles (colemanje.56.wordpress.com).

My maternal family came from the island of Lewis.   My mother came to The Mainland at the age of 14, and was more or less a permanent exile and ex-islander all her life.   I have visited Lewis twice, once with my mother when I was a teenager, and once with John and all five children when mine were still quite small.   I remember the strangeness of the Standing Stones at Callanish and an absolutely magnificent day on an utterly empty glorious beach on the Atlantic coast, complete with the horned island cattle, when Kerri my stepdaughter was swept away on an undercurrent and John only just managed to catch her.

Island life has never appealed to me (too small, too watched).    However I am looking forward to making a third visit this summer, when a massed gathering of the island’s descendants through my mother and my aunt will gather on its shore.     There will be ten of our number who have a blood connection to that place, none of whom have ever lived there.    We will return to the island the ashes of one of its own.

But when Jane of the lovely blog last visited here we were discussing Rodel, a harbour at the Southern tip of the Lewis/Harris  island which my mother and I had visited during our holiday there.   We stayed in a bed and breakfast where the food was very good even by my mother’s exacting standards.   My father had driven us to Ullapool from where we had sailed, and he came back for us but he declined to go, never having any time for holidays.  (What would I do? he would ask.)    We enjoyed as we often do, glorious weather during our trip, apart from that one day when we elected to go to  Rodel.   Jane was reminding me that it has a mediavel church of some interest but I had forgotten that.

My mother and I took the bus down, leaving behind the flat ‘macher’ (flower filled marshy meadow) of Lewis and came down  through the mountains of Harris with everything shrouded in mist and ‘small rain’.    I don’t recall anything at all about the port and village except that exploring them in this fine but penetrating ‘mist’ took no time at all and we then had several hours to dispose of before the return bus going North in the evening.

My mother said, we’ll just have to go and have lunch in the hotel.   There was only one hotel in Rodel, a sturdy large rambling building made of grey stone.   There was no clear entrance and we picked our way round the outskirts, until eventually we came across a door that opened to our push.

We found ourselves in an unkempt bar.   A profound silence fell as the occupants – perhaps half a dozen men seated at different tables – all stared at us.   There was a rough sort of bar, unattended.    The men looked at us as though we were interlopers from another planet.    No-one said a word.   We had come in out of the rain and the door clicked behind us.   After what seemed like the longest few seconds I have  ever experienced, one man bawled out, ‘Dougie!’    Steps sounded in a passageway and another door was opened and a dark head popped round.   “You’ll have to be getting Mary,” said the same man, gesturing with his thumb at us.

The whole man materialised from behind the door  the better to stare at us, as though we were a rare sight.   Then, without a word, he disappeared and his steps could be heard fading away.

“Let’s go,” I whispered to my mother.

“Wait,” she said.  “There’s no-where else and we have to eat something.”

The men withdrew their gaze from us but the silence continued.

Minutes passed, and then the door re-opened to admit a stout elderly lady, dressed entirely in black and with a face as sombre as her raiment.    These people did not seem to have t he power of speech, for she looked at us but said nothing.

“We were wondering,” my mother said, “whether we might have lunch?”

“Lunch?” repeated Mary, as though they’d never heard of such  a thing.

My mother nodded.  (This place appeared to rob everyone of the powers of speech.)

Mary looked at us for a long time , and finally said, “Will sandwiches be sufficient?”

In truth we had been hoping for something hot, but there did not seem to be much likelihood of that.    My mother nodded her agreement.  The men were again watching with interest.

“It’ll have to be chicken.” said Mary.

“Chicken would be very nice,” replied my mother.

Mary looked at us again, first at my mother and then with definite disapproval at me (mini-skirt, and not as tractable as my mother.)   Then she informed us, as though we had committed some grave faux pax, “And if you will be so kind as to follow me, I will conduct you to the Ladies Parlour.”

We followed.     As we trailed along slowly in her wake, we began to feel the house was like a tardus.   All was in darkness and our guide switched on lights as we went.   We climbed stairs, we walked along passages, we descended stairs.   I began to wish I had crumbs I could scatter like Hansel and Gretel.   Eventually, Mary opened a   creaking door and bid us enter a shaded room.   She herself crossed the floor and opened the heavy curtains and we were looking at the oddest room I had, at that tender age, ever seen.

There were faded but beautiful rugs.   The seating was heavily carved wooden chairs and sofas, piled high with colourful cushions.   Three large wooden elephants of decreasing size, though the smallest would have supported a child, took up quite a lot of space although this was a large room.   Glass-fronted cabinets were full of exotic items – carved wood, fans, silver, brass, boxes.   There were portraits of foreign ladies, dressed in saris, fading on the walls.   A tiger skin sprawled before the fireplace.   I cannot describe how astonished we were to find this den of the exotic Orient in a grey hotel on the Western Isles.

“If you will be so kind as to wait here, I will fetch the refreshments,”  stated our companion.

“Very well,” said my mother.   Mary turned and with her slow, sedate step left  the room, closing the door behind her.   Her footsteps receded in the corridor and silence fell once more.

I got up and tried the door handle.   It was not locked, although the windows were all screwed down and we were on an upper floor.   The room had a fine view.

“This is the oddest room I’ve ever seen in my life,’ I said to my mother, while examining my reflection in a spotted and distorting  mirror.

“Some owner has  gone to India and made a fortune and shipped all this stuff back home.”

“We’ll never be able to find our way out,” I said.

Since my mother did not say, ‘Don’t be silly,’ as she might have done, it was clear she was as uneasy as myself.   We waited.

We waited for a long, long, long, long time.   I left to my own devices would have lit out for freedom several times and at least made an attempt to make it back to the sunlit lands.   My mother however insisted the dark dame would return.   So we waited and waited.

Eventually, far off,  I could hear her slow footsteps returning.   I told my mother, who just nodded as though she had never doubted it.

The old woman’s progress was very slow and when she opened the door we saw she was carrying an enormous wooden tray.   My mother directed me to help, but any assistance was disdained.   The carved wooden tray was laid on a brass table beside my mother.

“Will  you be requiring the Ladies’ Room before eating?” Mary enquired of my mother who shook her head.

“Then,” she continued, pointing to an embroidered bell pull, “if you will be so good as to be pulling that bell pull, I will return and escort you to the Ladies’ Room.”

“Thank you,” said my mother.  I wanted to ask for a map, but didn’t.

When Mary’s footsteps died away, my mother whsked the cloth away.   There was another surprise.   A large  teapot, smothered in a teacosy with embroidered flowers we’d never seen , was  heavily encrusted with gold ornamentation;    but it was full of hot and very welcome tea.   There were linen napkins.    And a large plate of dainty sandwiches – fresh bread, moist chicken and mayonnaise.  Two pieces of delicious home made fruit cake and two shiny apples completed our feast.    We fell upon it and devoured it all.   Everything was delicious.

When we were finished, we put everything tidily back on the tray.   When the cloth was in place my mother pulled the bell pull.   We heard no ring.   I said to my mother – after a delay – she should pull again but she said it would be rude to harass the old lady.   Eventually the slow steps returned.

“That was just what we were needing,” said my mother.

“Och aye,” said Mary who clearly didn’t fraternise with strangers.  My mother directed me to carry the tray, but Mary would have none of that.   We followed her back to quite near the bar, where she showed us a modern ladies’ cloakroom.   When we came out, she was standing in the corridor.

“How much do we owe you?” enquired my mother.   Mary named a modest sum.   My mother paid handsomely.   Mary was about to go fetch change, but my mother  waved that away.

“I’ll let you out here,” said Mary, unbending a fraction, “so you’ll not be having to go through the Public Bar.”

We emerged into the light.

“That was a strange place,” I said to my mother.

“I’d never heard of it,” said my mother with sight surprise, for on an island everybody has generally heard everything about anybody.

I haven’t forgotten Rodel.   I might just go back this summer but after all this time and all my own travels, in the interim,  I’m sure the extraordinary impact it had on me will not be repeated.  (If indeed it still exists.)

(The photograph of Jeri is from about the time that we took that holiday in Lewis, and was taken by Eugene.)