Lines in the sand

I was watching one of those clichéd movie moments the other night instead of doing something productive. It was the moment when the hero says something similar to “That’s a line I will not cross!”. Usually there is dramatic body language attached, including miming drawing a line, presumably in mimed sand.

nooooooo

I recently discovered within myself a steely core of resistance in another area. In retrospect it was not really surprising but I was a little taken aback at the time.

It involved tea.

There is no doubt that clichés are popular because they resonate within us, and highlight something we all recognise. In this case, we all have limits to what we are prepared to do. Milgram’s infamous experiments purported to demonstrate that people can be pushed further if someone in a white coat and with an air of authority is doing the pushing. Whatever the validity of the findings it is true that authority figures can push us along, and potentially arguable that that is how organised religion gets away with so much. Let’s not go there today though.

The reason I am musing on this cliché is that I know I have my own limits. In some cases these are reflected in the charities I choose to support; for example, I prefer to donate to mental health charities rather than donkey sanctuaries, or overseas aid rather than diabetes. All of them are important but I have to prioritise. I will still put a few quid in any of those tins if shaken at me, or if someone is jumping from a helicopter, or whatever. I am just more likely to put additional time or effort into some of them, although sometimes it’s about what skills I have to offer or location and timing. I trust that other people prioritise differently and we all balance out.

I am a signed up professional so I adhere to a code of conduct. This means there are lines at work I will not cross either, and I have had occasion a couple of times in my career to have to stand firm. It has worked. People aren’t evil or stupid on the whole.

Back to the Tea Incident then.

I recently had surgery on both shoulders and as a result when I woke up from the anaesthetic I was severely restricted in movement. The nurses bustled about me and made me feel cocooned in a warm fuzzy glow. They brought me a glass of water with a straw because I couldn’t lift anything. I sucked it gratefully.

This was an English hospital, perhaps more importantly a Yorkshire hospital, so naturally the next question was not “how are you feeling?” but “would you like a cup of tea?”.

I indicated that I would. In fact I actually croaked out “Oh God! Yes!” and hoped it didn’t sound too desperate or needy.

Yorkshire tea

The tea lady checked how I took it (strong, dark and handsome, if you must know), and returned with a mug of the beautiful brew. A mug, I repeat, because this is the home of right and proper tea drinking. God bless Yorkshire and the NHS.

There was only one small blemish on the tea horizon. She had put a straw in it.

“You can’t lift that,” she said. “So I put the straw in.”

“I’m not having tea through a straw,” I thought. I said it out loud too.

I reached forward through gritted teeth to lift the mug of hot, steaming liquid.

The tea lady sucked in her breath audibly.

The other patients all froze, eyes glued to my bed, like a group of medicalised meerkats.

Somewhere the orchestra played tense music at the rate of a rapidly beating heart.

The nurse at the next bed went into one of those slow motion dives across the room, hand outstretched, crying out “Noooooooooooooooooo!” as my arm wobbled and I winced with the pain.

Well really.

Of course I didn’t spill it. It was tea. You don’t waste tea. It tasted wonderful.

As they say round here, even my dog wears boots.

What are the lines you won’t cross, great or small? What are the risks you will take?

Namaste.

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Santa made me cry

Saturday night in front of the telly and my evening’s viewing was disrupted by a noise outside. I put my glass of wine down carefully and tweaked back the curtain. It was the Lions’ Christmas float, cautiously inching past the cars on the bend in the lane and blaring out carols while people in high-vis vests ran about with buckets to collect money. There were lights and music and cheery greetings, and goodness me, there was Father Christmas, taking time out from his busy schedule to parade through our hamlet. The elves must have everything under control back at base while the wily old gent scouts out the terrain ahead of the Big Night. Mind you, the elves are pretty experienced and the wily old gent has been doing the rounds on floats for as long as I can remember.

Sometimes he sub-contracted.

If you are a big devotee of Father Christmas and write him imploring letters every year, do not read further. It may be distressing. If you are not sure what to do, check with your mum or dad and take their advice.

Meanwhile, all I can tell you is one of the sub-contractors was my own dear papa, and in fact this is why as a child I never believed in Father Christmas (although I do believe, perhaps more foolishly and childishly, in peace on earth and that Christmas tree smell; my eyes are still full of tinsel and fire).

Rotary Float in 1967

My Dad was the local Rotary Club’s Santa. His costume would be hanging up to dry in the kitchen throughout December and I knew that Dad was all there was (it was more than enough) and other kids were deluded. I didn’t tell anyone though; it would have been unkind.

So he would go out on the float at night, and when I was a little older I was allowed to go too and help with the collections. I always got a good haul because people were sentimental about a small child lisping her way through the spiel about raising money for the poor and elderly of the locality. It also meant I got to go on the annual coach trip to the seaside with the old dears, who spoilt me thoroughly with toffees and boiled sweets.

me as santaI even wore the costume on Christmas Day to hand out the presents.

It might help to explain what happened when I saw the float on Saturday if I tell you a bit about my week, or rather my Thursday. Recently the nurses found that my mother’s blood tests were indicating a lack of iron. As she has a good and varied diet the doctor decided she was bleeding internally, although he didn’t know why. She seemed well and was eating and drinking without problems. So we stopped her anti-coagulants, which would be exacerbating any bleed, and waited a bit. Her blood results have been improving steadily so she is no longer bleeding. Excellent news.

Except she is no longer taking her anti-coagulants, which means she is at increased risk of stroke and as she has vascular dementia, at increased risk of more vascular incidents which will further melt her brain.

The doctor and I talked it all through on Thursday. The bleed may have been a temporary problem highlighted by the anti-coagulants thinning her blood; it may be caused by some disease of the bowel; or it may be bowel cancer.  To find out would require difficult, uncomfortable and potentially inconclusive investigations, which she would find inexplicable and terrifying because she can’t understand what is going on. Even if they found the cause, which is not guaranteed, we would then be faced with a decision around whether she is strong enough to take any treatment, such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy or surgery. She isn’t, and even if she were, the trauma could be either damaging or fatal by stressing her too far.

So I decided we would let her alone. We’ll restart the anti-coagulants when her blood tests indicate she is back to normal, hoping she doesn’t have a stroke or vascular incident in the meantime (it should only be a couple of weeks). If her blood tests then get worse again, we will have to decide whether to risk stopping them or not.

So it had been a stressful Thursday.

There I was 48 hours later looking at a Christmas float pass by and waving to Santa, who waved back and boomed out a “Merry Christmas!” and I fell apart at the gate, in the dark and cold, where no one could see.

Because last year my mother saw the float and we remembered how Dad used to be Santa. She cannot now.

Because I wanted my dad here to help me. He cannot now.

Because whatever the blood tests tell us, nothing will be good or beautiful or gentle. Yet I must choose.

So I cried silent self-pity in the dark and cold where no one could see, then wiped my eyes and went back into the warm house and sat with Sigoth by the fire.

Because I have joy as well as sadness.

On Joy & Sorrow

Then a woman said, “Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.”
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

Namaste.

Which side of the fence are you on?

Rarasaur posts her Prompts for the Promptless on a weekly basis, but as I operate in a different space-time continuum I may appear to be out of step. It’s a challenge for those of us who choose to interact with you Earthlings.

Anyway, the other week the prompt was about the Litmus test.

The Litmus Test is a test in which a single factor (as an attitude, event, or fact) is decisive.  In other words, it’s a single question test, not necessarily related to the information that is gleaned from the test.

I knew what I wanted to write for this but then life got all inconvenient and it didn’t seem right. This morning the sun is shining and the birds are shouting and I have a spare hour, so I am throwing caution to the wind and writing what I wanted to write regardless of consequences.

The reason for the hesitation, my dears, is that my Litmus Test is Margaret Thatcher.

I left university in 1983 to unemployment, riots, IRA bombings, the miners’ strike and all kinds of social ugliness which I blamed on the government’s policies.  Indeed, they must take responsibility for much of it, although ugliness can only come from within. The provocation was extreme and we were all pretty ugly back then, whichever side of the fence we were on. I don’t think anyone was on the fence. It was a very polarised time.

I had a friend who was suffering from extremely serious depression and was suicidal. She had a few attempts to kill herself, which were clearly of the kind where she was asking for help. Her friends did their best, but the health services were in such disarray that they basically put plasters over here wrists and sent her home again. Three times. Finally she went around visiting each ofus to tell us how she appreciated us and we hoped she was turning a corner. Then she jumped off a multi-story car park and died.

I blamed Margaret Thatcher.

For years I planned to celebrate when she died in turn. I judged people by whether their view of her was that she was a decisive leader who made difficult decisions, or whether she was a divisive figure who split society in two when we needed to pull together, took us into war and taught a generation to worship money and consumerism over love and hope. You will have worked out, I am sure, which I think.

Then the inconvenient woman died, just as my post was starting to coalesce in my brain. Honestly, Maggie, give me a break!

I was surprised how uninterested I felt. The woman herself has been irrelevant for some years, and I feel a little sorry for her having seen her being manipulated in her turn by wolfish politicians trying to boost their own public approval ratings.

What I have realised is that it’s the Idea of Margaret that lives on, regardless of her particular tenure in this world. She left a legacy: and so she remains my personal litmus test, slightly amended, to how a person’s view of her and her ideology.

She remains my litmus test because she was divisive. You couldn’t be ambivalent about her policies or attitudes or achievements. You have to come down one side or the other. Whatever the subject, if unsure of how to respond, you can ask yourself “what would that bloody woman say?” and it will tell you which way to go.

Her behaviour, attitudes and actions made me sad, they made me angry and they made me choose.

Namaste.

Best. Teacher. Ever.

A recent daily prompt asked me (yes, me, personally) to write about a teacher who had a strong influence on me. I wrote about our French teacher from Hell yesterday before I saw the prompt, which coincidence amused me. I am easily amused.

Teachers have had a massive influence on my life, for good or bad; I am sure this is true of many people because many people spend a lot of time in their formative years with teachers. In his younger days, Sigoth was a primary school teacher and the children loved him very much, He is still in contact with some of them, over 20 years later, having seen them grow from barely more than toddlers to graduates and working adults.

I had a teacher like that too. Lots of my teachers were frightening; they thought that was how you managed children, poor things, or they enjoyed it, even more poor things. Imagine finding happiness by scaring little kids – how sad is that! Either way, I had one teacher who just loved teaching us and found great things to show us and teach us about.

The most important lesson he gave me was when he got the better readers in the class to sit with the slower readers and work through their books. Can you guess which I was? EBL: you can say many things about her, but not that she is slow with a book.

I sat with a boy who was virtually illiterate. The first thing he asked me was how to spell “phlegm”. I had no idea and supposed he wanted to write something rude, but I had a go and got it wrong. He was absolutely delighted to tell me the correct spelling and our teacher agreed he was right. I looked at the boy with fresh eyes and then we worked through his book.

I’m sure you can guess what had happened. Mr B, the teacher in question, explained it to me later so that I didn’t feel too bad (the lad had not been very gracious!). It wasn’t a fluke or chance that he got the spelling right, he had been primed by Mr B so he could show me he knew something I didn’t. That he could learn, if someone spent the time to teach him. That he was not, in fact, stupid.

Well, it worked. The boy felt better (and I hope he isn’t reading this! If so, know this: the respect stands), and I learned a lesson about hubris, which I can also spell.

One of the best lessons we had with Mr B was following an “incident” at school. Someone, someone you see, had been writing on the outside walls a very rude word. We didn’t know about graffiti back then, because it was the 1960s and English suburbia. Mr B got a boy to admit it (it might even have been our hero of the earlier story, in fact – hence my readiness to believe he might want to write “phlegm” somewhere). Then Mr B told him it was a bad thing to do, and paused.

“The thing that really upsets me,” he said, clearly upset because he was a bit red and huffy, “is that you spelled it wrong. It has a C in it. It’s actually an old Anglo-Saxon word for having sex. If you are going to do this kind of thing, at least make sure you know how to spell it and know what the word means. Swear words aren’t just swear words. They mean something.”

You could hear the jaws of 35 kids hitting the desks.

There was no more graffiti.

I kept in touch with Mr B after moving on to the school from hell. It was him that made my parents enter me for the scholarship. He told them that if I went to the comprehensive down the road I would be so bored by the time I was 12 that I would be in prison by the age of 14. I think he may have been right. He knew me well; I get destructive when I am bored. He wouldn’t have known how awful the teachers were or how soul-destroying the school could be. Even if he had, it was still better than the alternative. I won my scholarship and went to the posh kids’ school where I was bullied by some children and some teachers, but also had a chance to learn all the fancy stuff I love. Thanks to him I kept out of prison and went to university instead; my parents would not have put me in for the scholarship without his intervention. They did so because they liked him and trusted his judgment too.

So Mr B kept in touch and even came to my wedding. He was a lovely man and we often slipped up and called him “Dad” instead of “Sir”. He loved taking us all out for walks on the Common and bringing back pond water to look at under the microscope. He showed us how to make paper, and papier-mâché dinosaurs and how a candle went out in a bell jar because it needed oxygen. He taught us to respect the world and that we would lose the pandas and rhinos if we didn’t take care. He taught us to ask questions, and that knowledge was more important than tradition; he was incensed at a hymn we had to sing one day because none of us understood the words (“He who would valiant be”) – so we had a whole morning on what they meant and who John Bunyan was. We held trials in the classroom, where we had to play judge and jury, and prosecute or defend a moral argument.

He got in trouble for not teaching us traditional lessons, but we were the brightest class in the school.

He was inspiring and I have become unexpectedly emotional writing this. It was my privilege to have known him.

I hope you have all had the fortune to have known a teacher like him.

Namaste.

 

Old fogeys

Sigoth and I turn into a couple of old fogeys some nights, when it is dark and cold, and the wolves are howling in the hinterland. To distract us from the fear of Grendel coming to call, or worse, his mother, we turn to the bright, shiny presence in the corner, and watch TV.

I have a plan for spending my time at the moment which is going well. At least, I thought it up yesterday on the train home and managed to do some of it last night. So it’s going quite well, by my standards anyway. The plan for how EBL Spends Her Time is to avoid watching the bright-shiny-presence-in-the-corner all evening and then kick myself for failing to solve world poverty, finish my knitting or some such frippery. It finally guides me as to which hobby to pursue most evenings of the week, and is designed to be manageable when away from home, as I often am; it allows me evenings off, because I know that there are other things that will get in the way such as School Governors, or even, Heaven forfend, social interaction.

Meanwhile, the other night the wolves were loud and we turned to the television for comfort. It was a Top of the Pops Special for 1978.

Ah, 1978, that heady year! My dears, I remember it well. I was 16, completed my O-Levels and went on a couple of great trips to Germany and to the Baltic. I saw drop-dead gorgeous Swedish boys, fjords, the Tsar’s Winter Palace and the Little Mermaid. The sun shone, the birds sang and I got good enough grades to study A-Levels that September. I wasn’t allowed to take Latin, despite getting an A, even though I wanted to do Classics at university; so I rebelled, dropped History and took Maths instead, along with English, French and German. That showed them.

I remember the careers advice I got too. Our careers teacher was the chief French teacher, a fearsome spinster, with an interesting approach to pedagogy; in brief she wasn’t happy unless she had at least half the class in tears by the time of the first bell. She only managed it with me once, and that was a day she had the entire A-level class fountaining en masse because we failed to translate her reading of a JB Priestley novel in English into French on the fly. Indeed, we were veritable scum.

I entered the careers room, a dingy attic space full of dusty books and broken audio-visual equipment, keen to discuss courses, and options and the advisability of working immediately vs studying for 3 years. No one in my family had ever been to university and no one in my family, apart from me, could think why anyone would bother.

“What are you reading with French at university?” she asked.

“I’m not reading French,” I said.

She ignored me and continued to talk about careers for language graduates. It was fairly pithy stuff.

“You could get a job as a translator in Brussels with the Common Market. You can’t be an air hostess; you’re too fat.”

She was right. So I rebelled again. At least she settled the question of whether I was going to university at all. I was going and not reading French. Oh yes.

She glared, and assumed I was reading German instead. She and the German teacher were sworn enemies. It was worse than Paris in 1940. When she found out I wasn’t even reading a language she sent me away, unadvised but resolute.

School, eh? Worst time of my life. As Evelyn Waugh says in Decline and Fall:

Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums who find prison so soul-destroying.

That was 1978 for me, a topsy-turvy time, making life-changing decisions in the midst of hormonal fire-storms and the strenuous opposition of teachers and family. It was a bit lonely and a bit exciting and it was the year I made some good friends.

Back to the TV in the corner though. Sigoth and I watched amazed as our youth was exposed for examination from the distant perspective of middle age and parental experience.

The music – quite extraordinary! I hadn’t quite realised. There was everything from old glam rockers to punk, Mannfred Mann to Sham 69, Abba to Kate Bush, Brian & Michael to Althia & Donna: pretty much you name it, it was there. I remember thinking at the time that I hoped disco would go away soon, and that this new-fangled punk was pretty good if hard work to dance to (we had to pogo, it was utterly exhausting!).

For me the highlight of the programme was The Boomtown Rats. Bob Geldof in his youth, New Waving across the decades at me with “Rat Trap”. Absolutely fantastic. And is it just me, or does it make you think of “Dirty Old Town”, just a little bit?

Two years later I met Sigoth. We fell in love. We were kids. I realised it for the first time seeing that. Who knew?

Now we are older and greyer and more in love, and I hope always will be. Somehow it seems appropriate, in memory of that dreadful teacher, to quote Ronsard:

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant :
Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j’estois belle.

Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demy sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille resveillant,
Benissant vostre nom de louange immortelle.

Je seray sous la terre et fantaume sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendray mon repos :
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dés aujourd’huy les roses de la vie.

Ronsard was a bit of an ass, but I do like the poem.

Namaste.