For the Old to Fertilise the New

Get a large, strong bag.

Clean your home.

Wash the floors,

Polish the wood,

Dust the shelves,

Scrub the sink.

Then drop all the dirt into the large, strong bag.

Walk around your home

And collect from the air and from under the furniture

All the hurtful words,

All the tears,

All the despair,

All the dead-end habits.

Then stuff these cobwebs into the large, strong bag.

Open your address book –

The paper one, the electronic one and the one in your phone.

Pick out, one by one, the names

Of all those you have forgotten,

All those who have forgotten you,

All those who have accepted, yet not thanked,

All those who have talked but not listened,

All those who have rushed to support you in your sadness,

Yet not been able to rejoice in your gladness.

Then empty all these heavy names into the large, strong bag.

Run a bath –

Hot water for strength,

Sea salt for purity,

Rosemary for clear thought,

Frankincense for inspiration

And oil of Rose Otto for joy.

Let the water wash away

All fear,

All anger,

All indecision.

Let the steam draw out the word impossible from your pores.

Then drain all this grime into the large, strong bag.

Dig a hole and bury the large, strong bag –

That the Old Year may fertilise the New Year

And help it sprout, blossom and grow into a year of Happiness, Perfect Health, Abundant Wealth, and Golden Brightness!

Scribe Doll

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Christmas Eve

“Once in Royal David’s City

Stood a lowly cattle shed”.

I hold my breath.  I always find myself holding my breath for the minute or so between the BBC Radio 4 announcer’s voice falling silent and the chorister getting to the end of his solo verse.  An opening verse which, for many, marks the beginning of Christmas.

Will the treble make it smoothly across the four opening lines? Will his voice crack? Will he hesitate? Will he stumble and fall flat on one of the high notes?

“Mary was the Mother mild,

Jesus Christ her little Child.”

He did it! As flawless and straight as a moonbeam, his voice floated up to the stone fan vaulting and caressed the stained-glass window panes.

On my table, the long, needle-sharp flame of the deep red Advent candle glows brighter as the light outside the windows slowly fades.  The edges of the rooftops grow blurred beneath a sky gradually drained of daylight, across which pink-mottled clouds are gently propelled by the chilly wind.

A blackbird is skipping on the gravel driveway, emitting the odd chirp.  It’s a commandeering, purposeful sound.  A crow lands on a chimney top and caws, bobbing its head, calling out to its mate until the latter swoops down.

I notice the white fairy lights of our Christmas tree reflected in the window panes of the neighbours opposite us.  Our Christmas tree, that is decorated in gold, silver and glass and, this year, a few deep red baubles.

In the distance, the Cathedral bells ring an invitation to the carol service within its Benedictine Norman walls.

It’s time to put the kettle on.  I decide to use the white teapot with the blue and yellow flowers.  The first teapot I ever bought, some thirty years ago, while doing my A-levels.  It’s steeped in memories of afternoon teas and midnight discussions about cabbages and kings.  Memories of stripy college scarves, 1980s haircuts and bicycles padlocked to lamp posts.  Steeped in the youthful sense that nothing is impossible.

I spoon Earl Grey then dried rose petals, then pour in the boiling water.  The aroma that wafts out is a blend of citrus and sensuality.

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, is closing the broadcast with the customary “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”.

I remember that yesterday, I bought some myrrh gum from the herb shop.  I prepare the stone incense holder and the glowing-red charcoal disk, then drop a couple of myrrh grains into it.  The rich, heady fragrance twists and twirls up then spreads through the room like a phantom creature.  I close my eyes and breathe in its message.  It soon becomes crystal clear that I’ve used too much myrrh.  Its astringent smoke constricts my throat and I start coughing.  I add some frankincense resin to mellow the concoction.  Its comforting, familiar scent puts its arms around me like an old friend.

It’s Christmas Night.  And the first night of Hanukkah.  The two coincide for the first time in a hundred years.  I choose to believe that it’s a happy sign.  A sign of good things to come.

Happy Christmas, happy Hanukkah, happy Yuletide to you all!

Scribe Doll

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The Alchemy of Turning Darkness into Light

A text message the day before, signed in both names, gently confirms that H. and I are to go the the Castle museum entrance a few minutes before the ceremony.

It’s a grey morning but unusually mild for December.  We walk over the bridge leading to the Norman keep, where for centuries, those convicted of crime were hanged.  I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with Norwich Castle.  For one thing, I find its sugar-cube shape on the hill dominating the city rather ugly.  It lacks the charm of Durham Castle’s irregular edges, or the Gothic feel of Edinburgh Castle.  There is something eerie about its bland squareness.  I first set foot in it about ten years ago.  I walked in, bought my ticket, caught a brief glimpse of a series of busts on display, and promptly and almost involuntarily dashed back out at full speed, overwhelmed with a totally unfathomable feeling of terror.  I couldn’t account for my reaction, which seemed utterly irrational, so the following day, determined to act like an adult, I went back, bought another admittance ticket, and marched in.  I saw the busts again and, as I drew closer, saw that some of the faces had twisted expressions.  I read the signs and only then realised that they were the death masks of men who had been hanged. Men who had been murdered by legal means, by the laws of other men who thought their right to judge and punish was equal to that of God.  Laws that respond to violence with more violence, to evil with more evil, and to despair with more despair.

But this morning, I am here not to visit a museum that keeps the memory of fear and suffering alive, but to attend a wedding.  The Norwich marriage register office has recently moved many of its ceremonies from the beautiful building near St Giles to the Castle.  We are shown into the waiting room and are welcomed by the sister of one of the grooms.  With a broad smile, she introduces us to the other eight or so guests, although I protest I’ll never remember everybody’s name.  It’s a small gathering but international.  English, Polish, French and Italian, among others.  The variety of accents all giggling with excitement at this happy occasion immediately dissolves my innate nervousness at social events and I mentally bite my thumb at all the Brexiteers out there.

Photos are snapped in various combinations of family plus friends, then more photos, in case some don’t come out well.  Everything must be done to immortalise the day and, especially, crystallise its happiness.

After a few minutes, the door to the ceremony room is opened by a tall, elderly lady with a kindly face.  H. and I give a little exclamation of pleasant surprise.  She reciprocates our grins.  “Did I marry you?” she asks. “I’m sorry, I can’t remember but when people look at me like that, it generally means I’ve married them.”

She squeezes my hand and hugs me with the tenderness of a dear old friend.

When the two grooms walk in, I am struck by how young they look.  I know they are both in their middle years and yet today, there is a youthful glow about them.

They stand by the registrar’s table.  Vows are exchanged.  For ever. There is a slight crack in the voice, a moment when tears are kept in check. When an overwhelming burst of gratitude, relief and unbridled hope fills the room.  Rings are slipped on fingers.  Gold, like sunshine.  Circular, like perfection.  Like timelessness.

When the ceremony is over and names have been signed in the large book, the registrar comes up to H. and me, and tells us this castle has a special meaning for her.  “When I was fourteen,” she says, “a friend and I came for a walk here one afternoon, to see if there were boys.”  She gives a mischievous grin.  “But we got followed by two American G.I.s – it was at the time they were stationed here – and got scared.  So we walked up to two local boys and I said to one of them, ‘Can we stand with you until the two G.I.s go away?’ Well, I’ve been with him ever since.  We’ve been married fifty-seven years.”

And now, over half a century later, she officiates at weddings in this very castle.  “I love doing weddings,” she says, and her beaming smile makes it clear that she does, indeed.

It truly is a Good Day.  Into this Norman castle, a building scarred by violence, fear and despair, these two beautiful humans who have just embarked on marriage are bringing love, kindness and hope.  And all of us in that room help shine some light where darkness has lingered for centuries like a sticky cobweb.  It’s time to infuse joy and love into these tear-soaked Caen stones.  Little by little, one wedding, one promise to love and be kind at a time.  One beam of light, then another, and then another, until the shadows have faded away.

Scribe Doll

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Sunday Concert

It’s a string quartet today.  Beethoven.  It’s what people enjoy.  The folding chairs have been put out.  The seat cushions have aged flower patterns and were last washed probably sometime at the end of the last century.

Audience members, mostly in their sixties and seventies (though the odd fifty-something can be seen, too), and regulars at this venue, collect their tickets and photocopied programmes from the table at the entrance.  Glances scan the room, lips on smile alert, in search of familiar faces to greet or impress.  In all the rush of opening their handbags and manoeuvring their purses while paying for their tickets, many women have forgotten to put away their car keys.  These jangle in their fingers, the pendant with the car manufacturer’s logo swinging prominently.  A homage, perhaps, to their husbands’ career – or financial – achievements.

The room begins to fill with block-coloured jumpers and block-dyed hair, faux-silk (a.k.a. polyester) floral scarves, large pearl, plastic and wooden beads around necks and wrists, as well as smiles that bear witness to the uncommon bliss of self-approval.  Many have known one another since their children were small.  Children who now have children of their own.  Some wave at other people who, just like them, have a holiday home in South-West France.  They did consider Italy and Spain when they were younger, but they already had some school French, and with so many other Brits already in that area, it was practically home from home.

There is a predominance of chequered and stripy shirt collars peering out of the men’s crew-neck woollen jumpers that look like old favourites.  They trudge with modest, respectable stoops behind their wives.  It’s as though the latter know best, after all.  They’re the ones who always organise everything.  They’re amazing, really.  What with keeping track of the children and grandchildren, remembering birthdays, getting the wallpaper replaced and volunteering one day a week at the charity shop, and lunch with the other female friends every second Tuesday, of course they’ve never had time for a job.  Many probably have a very uninhibited relationship with their husbands’ credit cards, even using them to buy their spouses’ birthday presents.

Before the music starts, I take out my little notepad and scribble away furiously in atypically for me small handwriting, so nobody can read it over my shoulder.  I look around.  I am not a huge fan of 19th-century chamber music, but an aficionado of people watching.  I giggle to myself.  I wonder what these people make of me and if they’ve made up an entire backstory for me, as well.  H. asks me what I’m finding funny.  I share with him, sotto voce, a few of my observations.  He frowns.  He doesn’t like my social generalisations.

He is a kind person.

I am less so.  I, like Mr Bennet, think, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Then the members of the quartet walk onto the stage area.  Four young people.  Much younger than anybody in the room.  They bow and take up their instruments.  They start playing and the music, uncompromisingly Romantic, speaks to each and every one of us equally, yet with different words.  I stop writing, and think that, actually, 19th-century chamber music can speak to me, too.

Scribe Doll

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The Secret of Winter

When winter envelops you in its embrace, the only place you can look is within.  Summer makes you look outwards.  It entertains you with a spectacle of colours, intoxicates you with its heady, floral scents, dazzles you with its bright sunlight, distracts you, takes you out of yourself.

Winter is about turning inwards and making peace with yourself.  It’s about contemplating, imagining and trusting.  It’s about guarding – and, if need be, keeping secret – the flame that those who fear the infinity of its possibilities may try to extinguish.

Summer is for those who believe only what they see, while Winter favours those who see not just with their physical eyes but also with the eyes of their soul.  For those who can speak with animals, trees and the winds.  Those who love Winter are not afraid to let their inner flame grow and burn with endless possibilities.  They do not allow their imagination to be fenced in but dare picture wonders others declare to be impossible.  Those who love Winter are those who trust, those who can already see what cannot yet be seen: that the tree’s bare branches will bloom with bright green leaves again, that the desolate-looking soil will yield fruits and crops anew, those who sense the miracle of birth and rebirth in the darkness of the earth’s womb long before the first green shoot springs out onto the surface.

Those who truly love Winter are privy to Magic.  They smile indulgently – the way one smiles at a yet ignorant child – at the paunchy, red-clad, doll-eyed image of Santa Claus, and, instead, wink at a very different Father Frost.  It is a Sir Christémas with a knowing face and a cloak woven with the colours of the earth – green and russet and gold, sparkling with icicles and embroidered with silver and diamond frost patterns.  An ageless figure with hazel eyes and the arcane knowledge of Merlin, who knows words that can alter elements, can cast spells and brew potions.  A shapeshifter who appears to you in the amber eyes of the russet fox that glint in the street in the middle of the night.  Or the mysterious green eyes of the tabby cat that looks up at your window as you close the curtains in the early evening, and says, if you can hear it, “It’s going to be a long, dark night, so guard the flame that glows within you well.  Cherish it, nurture it for when the time comes for it to grow into a fire that will turn imagination into reality.  A fire full of magic.”

Scribe Doll

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Winter Lights

H. dislikes Christmas, which is why I am surprised he suggests we go to the Norwich switching on of the Christmas lights.  “Yes, but they’ve put up a tunnel of light that’s supposed to look like the Northern Lights next to St Peter Mancroft,” he says.

I decide to be cooperative, for once, and not mention my dislike of crowds, the cold, the rain, the absurdity of all Christmas-related events two weeks before Advent, and the fact that I simply don’t feel like going out.  Instead, I put on my down coat, hat, gloves, boots – and a cheerful face.

It has stopped raining by the time we leave home, and the remaining shreds of clouds are drifting away, unveiling brilliant stars on an almost black sky.  The residents of Norwich, from micro-people in prams, cheeks all red and eyes sparkling, to University students, to senior citizens, are gathering in the market place, outside the Millennium Forum and Town Hall.  There is something heart-warming about living in a city small enough to gather everyone in the same place on special occasions.  One gets the feeling of belonging.  In Norwich, the Town Hall is an important focal point.  It’s where the 28 foot Norwegian spruce is positioned for Christmas, where rainbow banners are displayed on Gay Pride day, where an inflatable pumpkin leans out of the balcony at Hallowe’en, and where many of us gathered to protest against Brexit.

University of East Anglia students are handing out flyers for a season of Russian plays entitled Тоска (Toska).  I try and explain to H. how the word can be translated into English.  I ask one of the students and, after a brief exchange of ideas, decide that’s it’s a blend of depression, boredom, melancholy, and sense of unexplained longing.  Very Chekhov.  Very Tolstoy.  Very Dostoyevsky.  Very Russian.  We promise the undergraduate we’ll go and see at least one of the plays.  There’s a smell of toffee apples, caramelised nuts and roasted chestnuts wafting through the street.  A small parade is marching across the market place, towards the Millennium Forum.  There are children carrying paper lanterns, emerald green-clad elves on stilts, and a rather slim Santa.  There are also the boy and girl choristers from the Cathedral, in cerise cassocks, singing carols.  We follow the procession.  While waiting for the official lights to be switched on, we strike up a conversation with an old gentleman wearing the blue vest of the tourist information volunteers.  He says he’s been here since 1946.  An engineer, he was sent here and told that Norwich was “the graveyard of ambition”.  He felt so at home, he never left.  Like the woman who cooks the delicious breakfasts in the café we frequent most Saturdays, who came here from Wales for a weekend party fifteen years ago, and decided to stay.  Like so many others.

Finally, the moment comes for the local celebrity – in this case Ed Balls – to switch on the lights.  A chorus of excited “Aah”s rises from the crowd as fireworks squirt up from the Town Hall and the rooftop of Jarrolds, the department store, bursts of flame shoot up into the air, festive images are projected on the façade of the Town Hall and the wall of the Norman castle keep, and the 50,000 LED lights making up the Tunnel of Light next to Saint Peter Mancroft are switched on, its flow of colours producing the effect of the Northern Lights.  We walk through it, everyone’s face changing hue every couple of minutes, as the lights alter.

There is a gently joyous atmosphere in the city centre and, after over two years of doubt and feeling homesick for London, I smile to myself, and think I’m starting to like Norwich.  Truly.

http://www.eveningnews24.co.uk/news/can_you_spot_yourself_in_our_photos_from_the_norwich_christmas_lights_switch_on_1_4782164

Scribe Doll

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A Day Bearing a Unique Gift

I look at the clock.  It’s 5:50 a.m.  Beyond the windows it’s still night and yet I’m wide awake, with a sense of renewed hope and purpose.  Then I remember: the clocks have gone back an hour.  It’s the start of that special day that comes bearing a gift not even Father Christmas can bring – the precious grace of an extra hour.

I’m always excited on this day.  It gives you another chance to make a clean start, the possibility to put into practice new ideas that are better than the ones you’ve just swept out of your life along with cobwebs, possessions you’d been hoarding just in case, and people whose friendship had wilted beyond any nurturing.  A whole extra hour to do something you didn’t have the time to do yesterday, perhaps, or something you’ve longed to do for ages, or else something spontaneous and unexpected.  A potentially magical sixty minutes pregnant with all sorts of wonderful opportunities and possibilities.  So I’d better get out of bed now and not waste this charmed hour.

I sip a cup of warm water, then treat myself to half an hour of gentle yet invigorating Qi Gong practice.

wp_20161030_002The night sky is growing pale when H. and I go out for a walk.  A cushion of fog softens the contours of the River Wensum, the trees and the buildings, and throws a dream-like veil over the fiery autumn red, ocher and gold.  There are very few people about and those we encounter smile and say good morning in subdued voices, as though we humans are all aware of being out-of-hours trespassers in what is left of a night that belongs to hooting owls, amber-eyed foxes, and witches making last-minute preparations for Hallowe’en tomorrow.

A seagull calls out uncharacteristically shyly above our heads as it swoops slowly across the milky sky.  Somewhere deep in the thick, yellowing mane of a weeping willow, there’s the rattle of a magpie.  A squirrel runs across the path and scurries up a horse chestnut tree, then pauses to observe us from the top.

“Look!” H. says and points at a bush on the riverbank.

We approach slowly.  A cormorant is sitting heavily on a slim branch, causing it to sway, as though trying to hide from the solitary, ethereal swan that’s gliding on the far side of the water.

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By the flint building of Pulls Ferry, a red-breasted robin is hopping on the wooden gate post, eyeing us with curiosity.

He’s not the only one.  I can feel hundreds of eyes watching us benevolently as we walk, while golden leaves drop down from the trees and float towards us in swing-like motion.

As we reach the Close, the fog starts to dissipate, slowly unveiling the Cathedral spire that now looks like an Impressionist painting.  The sound of the bell drifts through the air, announcing Morning Prayer and the start of this human day which, today, carries the magic of more time.

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Scribe Doll

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