A Crack in the Viewfinder?

Last year, I was at the Easter Sunday service at Norwich Cathedral with a new acquaintance.  In the distance, I noticed a lady in the congregation whose face was very familiar.  “I think I went to College with her,” I told my acquaintance.

She didn’t miss a beat.  “Oh, that’s V. – you know, she had cancer last year.”

And I knew that very second that I would never be friends with my acquaintance.  Why? Because I do not want to be friends with someone who can find nothing to say about a stranger except that she’d had cancer.  She could have said that V. was a splendid cook, an outstanding gardener, an avid reader, or even simply that she was a lovely person.  At a push, “Oh, that’s V. – you know, she had cancer last year and recovered by using such-or-such treatment/philosophy/herbs/breakthrough surgery etc.”  Instead, she chose to describe a person exclusively by her affliction rather than by any personality characteristic she might have.  As though this woman was defined by her illness and nothing else.

It has been my experience that most people find it much easier – almost unhealthily more comfortable – to relate to another person’s unhappiness than happiness.  As a literary translator, I know that it is much easier to convey grief, fear and unhappiness from another language and culture than happiness and humour.  Unhappiness travels at the speed of light.  Happiness, for some reason, doesn’t.  It’s stopped at every corner, questioned, analysed, its visa checked, its motivation examined and viewed with suspicion.  Too much happiness is viewed as superficial, twee, unrealistic, whereas unhappiness is frequently described with such complimentary terms as “profound”, “real” and the arts programmes’ favourite, “dark”.  Happy endings are automatically considered flawed, while tragic or unresolved ones are worthy of respect.  Love stories that turn out happily are chick-lit, but the ones with characters battling each other’s demons are more likely to win literary prizes.  When and why did we decide that darkness is worthier than the light?

A few days ago, some neighbours were expressing their sympathy at my husband and me having to move house for the fourth time in as many years, and asked about our plans for the future.  “It’s very simple,” I said, flippantly.  “I’m going to buy a lottery ticket, win the jackpot, then buy a house in Norwich and an attic apartment in Rome.”

Interestingly, they didn’t comment on the obvious flaw in the premise of my plan.  Instead, their faces turned sad and they replied, “Ah, yes, but then when you buy a place you can end up with the neighbours from hell.  And then something always goes wrong and repairs are so expensive…”  There it was – the zooming in on a tiny crack in an otherwise perfect crystal vase.

“Not too bad…” increasingly seems like the favourite British response to the question “How are you?” and people are surprised when my reaction is, “Oh, dear, have you been unwell?”  To me, “Not too bad” implies that things could be worse but, well, they’re not good at the moment.

“A friend in need is a friend indeed” is a saying common to many different cultures, and yet it’s much harder to share good news with a friend than bad ones.  People rally around you at bad news, offer help and sympathy with an enthusiasm that (I hate to say this) sometimes verges on a hint of gratitude.  They plunge into the pool of your unhappiness and swim in it for hours.  Give them a tale of success, independence and joy, and, sadly, they’ll all too often walk around your pool of limpid water looking awkward, almost afraid of dipping their toes in it.

In a café, I overhear a woman at the next table talking to her sister about her forthcoming fiftieth birthday.  “It’s a brilliant age,” I volunteer light-heartedly, being two years her senior.  “It’s when you find out what you really want.”

The woman beams at me.  “Oh, I really don’t mind turning fifty.  In fact, I’m quite looking forward to it.”

“Ah, that’s what she says now,” her sister says.  “Just wait for her to be really fifty and then she’ll feel old like the rest of us.”

That’s what I call toxic.

More and more, I find myself drifting away even from people I love if their default setting is one of pessimism or their focus automatically on the negative.  If I can’t tell them about my joy, then I will not give them the satisfaction of wallowing in my unhappiness.  They have their own.  I have no inclination to encourage Schadenfreude.  

Why do so many of us accept only a vision of a flawed, doomed world? Is there a crack in our mental viewfinder that distorts our perception?

What makes us more attuned to misery than to joy? To pessimism rather than optimism? To despair rather than hope? Why is it often easier to sink under the gravitational force of darkness rather than dare to push upwards through the clouds and stand in the sunlight?

In a world that is a resounding “YES” why do we primarily hear a stream of little “no”s?

Scribe Doll

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Gender Equality: Women’s Attitudes.

International Women’s Day makes me feel uneasy.  The fact that there should still be a need for it.  For all the leaps and bounds we’ve have made in Europe and other countries since the relatively recent times when women couldn’t vote or own property, there are still many issues to address before true equality is achieved between the sexes. And one thing I feel very strongly about is that more could be done by women themselves to redress this imbalance.

Every International Women’s Day, I mentally give thanks for having a vote and for all the countless other rights I enjoy which were denied to my female ancestors and, still now, to millions of other women all over globe. But I also feel deeply sad when I think of how many women – perhaps inadvertently – still fuel this gender inequality with their own attitudes and the signals they send out to men and, especially, to other women. Perhaps our first step should be true independence and self-sufficiency.

Naturally, I am speaking here about women who have a choice.

A few weeks ago, I was at a lunch, surrounded by half a dozen or so women I admire greatly for their education, their professional achievements and their indisputable intelligence.  Every woman at that table could be a role model for any little girl. This is why I was somewhat shocked to discover that I was the only woman there who had not changed her surname after getting married. The others had kept their own names in the professional field but, in their personal lives, had legally taken on their husbands’ surnames. Time and again, I am surprised by the overwhelming number of women – and young women at that – who take their husbands’ surnames after marriage. Some will argue that most of us carry our fathers’ and not our mothers’ surnames, anyway, but there’s a huge difference between being given a name as a baby, when we have no choice in the matter, and consciously, actively choosing to take on a man’s surname in countries where this is no longer a legal requirement. Doesn’t that send a message akin to saying, “because we love each other I will let you own, change, part of my identity”? I hate to say this, but to me, this is setting the tone for inequality from the outset.  Please explain this to me if I am missing something here.

How can you attain equality without self-sufficiency? A landlady I used to lodge with when I was a student once prevented me from doing an easy repair on the cat flap. She said her boyfriend would do it when he dropped by later.  When I tried to insist, she said, “Never learn to do DIY, or you’ll always have to do it.”

Brought up in an all-female household where we fixed our own taps, I was shocked. Actively refusing to learn a skill you didn’t enjoy simply on the grounds that you might have to use it at some point in your life struck me as willfully curtailing, in however small a way, your self-sufficiency.

My landlady was not an isolated case. Too many women delegate financial matters to their husbands because they’re “hopeless at maths” (I confess I was guilty of that in my first marriage).  Too many women lack the most basic DIY skills because “it’s a man’s job”.  Women who – and that’s something I cannot understand – don’t have a bank account of their own.  Fair or not, having at least a little of your own money is the first step to self-preservation, never mind independence.  Many people choose to cohabit without getting married because it’s important for them to feel that they’re in the relationship out of choice and not because they’re bound to it by a legal document.  Trust me, the legal document can be dealt with much more easily than the crippling, paralysing fear, deep at the back of your mind, that you couldn’t leave even if you wanted to because you couldn’t afford a roof over your head or keep yourself in the style of life you have been accustomed to.

I believe that loving and respecting your partner or husband is also expressed by not being totally dependent on him, because every ounce of dependence you place on someone else is the amount by which you prevent him or her from being fully him or herself.  Of course, we all depend on our partners in many ways, emotionally, if nothing else.  However, being financially dependent not only gives your partner power over you and limits your freedom, but places you in a potentially very vulnerable position.

Every Friday night, walking past the pubs in the city centre, you see young women in sheer, short or very low-cut dresses despite the cold weather.  The men, on the other hand, are dressed for the season.  Apart from feeling astonished that they don’t feel the cold, I   can’t help but wonder: Why not just bring a jacket or a wrap in case they feel cold later  or in case it rains? Are they so sure of their health? Are they consciously or unconsciously relying on a man gallantly giving them his jacket? I see these young women balance on such high heels, it is anatomically impossible to – should, God forbid, the need arise – run or even walk fast on them.  As an older woman watching them, they appear to me like the picture of vulnerability and, consequently, potential dependence.

A bugbear of mine is women demanding to be paid maintenance after a divorce if they don’t have young children to support.  Women who feel that, having given “the best years” of their lives bringing up a family and then finding it hard to get jobs in middle age (and, yes, this is a social reality, unfortunately), they are entitled to be supported after a marriage has ended.  As a divorce lawyer I once met put it: a marriage is a relationship, not a pension plan.  Having no children myself, I cannot begin even to imagine how hard or even almost impossible it is to keep earning while raising a family well.  But I also know women who, as soon as their children started school, began attending courses, keeping abreast of developments in their professional field, and taken on part-time work.  Admittedly, many cannot go back to their original, pre-family careers, so they learn new skills.  I am not, not, not suggesting this is easy.  Only that it is worth doing whatever it takes to keep as much of one’s independence as possible.  How can someone who consciously allows herself to be dependent be viewed as an equal?

I frequently come across women doing work they enjoy, often artistic jobs, which don’t pay enough to support even just them alone.  They have the luxury of being able to do this because their husbands have “proper” jobs.  Apart from the blatant unfairness of the situation, what if these husbands suddenly lose their “proper jobs” or decide they want a divorce? Are these women equipped to survive financially? I know only too well how soul-destroying an unfulfilling job can be, but, surely, we have a responsibility to have at least the potential to keep the wolf away from the door, don’t we?

I love it when my husband or a male friend automatically pays for me in a restaurant or coffee shop.  It’s so chivalrous.  But, sisters, we just can’t have it both ways.  In general, I am often surprised by the number of self-proclaimed feminists who turn all 19th century fair sex as soon as it comes to putting their hands in their pockets.

I feel very strongly that one of the ways towards gender equality is also solidarity among ourselves.  Wherever possible, it’s important that women stick together, encourage one another, are sympathetic towards one another, and not undermine members of our own sex.

Let’s stop watching one another in the mirrors of ladies’ rooms, trying to assess who is better dressed, better made-up, more attractive, more of a competition out there where the men are waiting.  Let’s stop putting one another down.  It is deeply sad but undeniably true that too many women see other women as competitors rather than allies.  Too many catty remarks are made where praise and appreciation would be much more constructive.  At the beginning of last winter, wearing a new russet-coloured coat and a Tudor-style, brown velvet hat on a slant, I went to see a female friend.  The two men I was with had commented on how lovely I looked, so I rang my friend’s bell, a smile on my face.  She opened the door, took a quick look at me from top to toe, and said, “Gosh! Russian winter, is it?” My smile disintegrated.

A couple of years ago, a friend invited me over for tea on the occasion of her birthday.  H. had a prior commitment, so I went alone.  To be fair, my friend didn’t bat an eyelid, but the other woman in her living room, complete with husband, said, “What? Without H.?” Her arch tone and raised eyebrow suggested a hint of disapproval rather than genuine surprise.  But perhaps my making it an odd number of guests made the room look untidy.

Many a man is invited over for supper, by the wife of a couple, while his wife is away, “so he doesn’t eat alone, poor thing”.  How many wives are invited over for dinner while their husbands are away?

When a woman is single, it’s true to say that – at least in this country – attached women will socialise with her when their husbands are otherwise engaged and seldom invite her to couples’ outings.  Are they afraid that she cannot hold her own in a conversation without a man present?

Several years ago, a friend invited me to her engagement party.  “Please bring someone,” she said.

I was single at the time, so told her I’d be coming alone.

“But you’ll have no one to talk to!” she replied.

I hadn’t realised that it was a “bring your own conversation partner” event, or that she viewed me as a ventriloquist’s doll.  Needless to say, I declined her invitation.

My new female friend L. tells me this strong territorial instinct is a naturally-programmed leftover from our primitive female ancestors, who had to fight tooth and nail to keep other women from their males in order to ensure their very survival and that of their offspring.  I like to think that we have evolved since then.  We’ve had the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Sturm und Drang, and the Suffragettes.  It’s time to shake off the primitive leftovers, right?

Time to take full responsibility for ourselves, and treat our fellow women with compassion and encouragement – always.  The fact that many men still consider us as second-class citizens is not a reason to lose our self-respect and our dignity, but, on the contrary a reason to consolidate it.  This isn’t about their attitudes, but ours.

Scribe Doll

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Renters or Second-Class Citizens

The phone rings.  It’s the letting agents.  “This is a courtesy call to let you know that the landlord wants to sell your flat and this is your two months’ notice.”

The words hang over your head, making the air oppressive .  “Courtesy call.”  It’s what you associate with a computer helpline ringing to check you’re happy with the service provided, or with a hairdresser confirming that you will be attending your hair appointment.  A “courtesy call” to inform you that you’re being turfed out of your home.  Yes, your home – no matter what landlords and letting agents bully you into believing.  For as long as you’re paying rent for it, it is your home.  The home that the agent comes to check every six months to make sure you haven’t trashed it.  The home for which you have to pay rent six months in advance because you’re self-employed.  Where you have to ask permission before hammering extra picture hooks into the walls.

Once you’ve stopped reeling from the news, a list of questions pertaining to the required move starts multiplying in your head.  You call the letting agents.  “We’d like to pop in and see you –”

“What is it concerning?”

“Well, we have a few questions –”

“Can you ask them over the phone?”

You raise your voice, “Look, is it all right to come and see you or are we not allowed to?”

At the letting agents’ office, the individual who deals with you enunciates their syllables as though they think you can’t keep up.  Their politeness has so much added artificial sweetener, it positively makes you want to retch.

You’re told that, even if you’ve been asked to move out, you still have to abide by the contractual obligation of giving a month’s notice if you find another place earlier.  That you still have to have the flat professionally cleaned, even though it’s going to be sold and not rented.  They don’t sound particularly interested when you tell them you’d like to stay on the agency’s books.  You wonder why, and then it occurs to you that letting agents may consider it too much effort to notify renters if a suitable property becomes available – it’s up to the renters to hunt through the internet, find properties, and hassle the agents.

Moreover, you discover that your deposit will be returned “within 28 days” of your moving out.  This not only means that you have two months to raise a substantial sum of money, but that you won’t be there when the agents examine your flat, and can’t protest if  they decide to deduct any “damage” costs from your deposit.

Renters in the UK are second-class citizens.  You’ve known this for a while, so why are you so shocked, so upset? Haven’t you heard, on numerous occasions, your neighbours (who own their properties) make comments about rubbish being left around or other nuisance being caused, undoubtedly, by “the renters in No. this or that”? The law is on the side of the landlord, not the tenant.  The landlord has rights.  The tenant has obligations.  It’s back to the Middle Ages.

You walk into the other letting agencies.  They rush to you before you’ve had the time to close the door behind you.  “Hello, can I help you?”

“Hello, yes, could I speak to someone about rentals? –”

“What’s your budget?”

No come in, no take a seat.

You wish you could find your next home without going through letting agents.  From what you’ve experienced, they actually appear physically incapable of any warmth, feelings, or respect.  From the robotic way they act towards you, they seem impervious to any sense of shame.  Remember that word? Shame.  You haven’t heard it used for a while.  Shame.  It seems to have gone missing.  Disappeared.  Like honour.

You look around the flat you’ve cared for and made your home, your sanctuary, for the last two and a half years.  Only two and a half years.  You had so hoped you could have been allowed to stay longer.  You see all the books that need packing.  All the CDs, clothes, crockery, and all the odds and ends that can’t be categorised but which make it your home.  You notice that the bathroom sink needs to be cleaned.  You reach out for the scourer then stop.  What’s the point? You’re moving out soon.  You go out for a walk to clear your head.  It starts to rain.  Let’s go back home, where it’s warm.  But, suddenly, it’s not home anymore.  It’s an assembly of walls, floor and ceiling where you no longer feel welcome.  Where you no longer feel safe.

Time to pack.  You tell yourself your next home will be even better.  Yes, much better.  But how long will you be allowed to stay there?

Scribe Doll

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“Two legs good. Four legs better.”

I don’t understand politics.  Much to my shame, I am not as well-informed as a responsible citizen should be.

So I’m going to fumble a little here…  I just need to express this.  I need to get it off my chest.

I know I’m not the only one who, just over a week ago, watched President Trump’s inauguration with a feeling of sadness, disappointment and, above all, utter disbelief.  The same utter disbelief and shock I experienced when I woke up on 24th June to the news that, apparently, it was the will of the British people to leave the European Union.  The will of the people.  Five words that British politicians – both in Government and in the Opposition – have been whipping us with and rubbing our noses in for the past few weeks.  Interesting that nobody in the Government seemed to have paid much attention to the will of the people when thousands of us marched to protest about the war in Iraq.  I wonder if, years from now, the expression the will of the people will become a synonym of delegating responsibility, passing the buck, and using the response of a misinformed person or people to further your own interests.

For years, I’ve had friends of all (as long as non-extreme) political convictions and not allowed our differences to get in the way of our friendship.  Now, for the first time in my life, I find that I cannot be friends with someone who voted in favour of Brexit.  Just like I  cannot be friends with any US national who voted for Donald Trump.  It’s just too important.  I cannot sit at the same table with anyone who has contributed to depriving the younger British generations of the chances we have enjoyed being a part of Europe.  And I cannot break bread or have a drink with anyone who had a hand in electing as Leader of the Free World an individual such as Mr Trump.  As it happens, last June, H. and I met a couple of US lawyers in an Italian restaurant in London.  They said they would vote for Donald Trump.  They ordered wine for all of us.  We accepted.  At the time, although Mr Trump was already giving apparent signs misogyny, intolerance to some other cultures, lack of concern in the environment, and expressing generally extreme opinions, many of us still believed that he was somewhat “playing to the gallery”.  Over the past couple of months, I’ve often wondered if this American couple did go through with their intention, and vote for him, or if, after hearing one shocking statement too many on his part, they changed their minds at the last minute.  Now, I’m afraid I would not accept a drink from someone I knew had voted for him.  Or voted for Brexit.

Most of us, at one time or other, have regretted our voting choice after the event.  Politicians don’t honour their electoral promises, or else we discover a vital piece of information that escaped us before election day.  We slap ourselves hard on our heads and realise how stupid we’ve been.

But not in the case of Brexit/Trump.

In the case of Brexit, all voters had to do was look around at all the political figures who actively supported a break-away from Europe.  Nigel Farage.  Marine Le Pen.  Vladimir Putin.  Need I continue? All voters had to ask themselves was whether or not they wished to keep company with the above.  It was a no-brainer, as far as I was concerned.

Equally, with Donald Trump, people knew what to expect.  An individual who does a ridiculing imitation of physical disability, whose words on women suggest a misogyny totally out of order in this day and age, who appears to care nothing about the environment.  An individual who wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico, for crying out loud! Had no one heard of the Berlin Wall?

One could well ask how any of us non-US citizens dare protest against the election of another country’s leader.  Fair point.  Except that this isn’t just any other country.  It happens to be, at this point in time, a country with major influence on the Western World.  So, yes, we are entitled to shout our discontent and our disgust.

One thing in particular that strikes me about Mr Trump is his unbridled rudeness.  The parallel with our own Nigel Farage is blatant.  They don’t seem to possess a sense of boundaries.  By this I mean they don’t appear to have any sense of that mark which any decent person should never overstep.  They don’t have that sense of honour which demands that you treat even your enemy with respect and courtesy.  Increasingly, the lines from George Orwell’s Animal Farm ring in my head: “Two legs good.  Four legs better.”

I wonder about Donald Trump, in particular.  Watching him on the news, signing order after order with a flourish, clearly enjoying the process, I wonder what has led him to be so unaware of common courtesy and boundaries.  He makes me think of a spoilt child suddenly placed upon a throne and who sends people to be hanged, beheaded and tortured just because he can.  Does it come with the territory of being a millionaire with the power of hiring and firing at will that you spend years surrounded only by “yes”-people, are allowed to get away with just about anything, and lose your perspective on right and wrong? Did his wealth and power ensure that he was never in contact with people who would establish their own boundaries firmly enough to stop his own from sprawling?

“Two legs good.  Four legs better.”  I can’t get these words out of my head.

When, about fifteen years ago, I watched Tony Blair say that he would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with George W. Bush, I shuddered.  Two days ago, when I saw Donald Trump take Theresa May’s hand to help her down the steps or slope at the White House, I winced.

We are heading into dark times.  Times of tar-like ignorance.  Times when I feel it’s important to take a stand.  The time for wishy-washy evasiveness is over.  There is a right and a wrong.  They are not a matter of opinion.

I know I don’t normally write about politics – but I’ve had enough.

Scribe Doll

 

 

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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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