Tuesday, June 01, 2010


I am spending a holiday at home, not doing anything much; and curiously I find my thoughts turning to work, but in a positive, not-particularly-about-anything, not-stressed-out-at-all kind of a way. In fact, with appreciation for the privilege that is nursing.

There are many wonders to be experienced as a nurse. Being part of a caring, curing team; holding the hand of the distressed and dying; seeing new life come into the world; snatching glimpses of the miracles that lie beneath the flesh. Of course, along with all that goes the blood and the gore, the smells and the unmentionables. Every nurse has his or her limits, beyond which the stomach turns so much that caring becomes a struggle. But it is true that familiarity helps one to cope.

As a student nurse I worried about what my reaction would be to the sight of so much corrupted flesh on display: the human body under stress can have a bit of a road traffic accident effect - it's difficult to stop staring. However, one quickly adapts such that absolutely anything seems 'normal' - as, indeed, it is. Now, I enjoy the variety - not in some sick voyeuristic fashion, nor in order to make me feel better about my own imperfections (although I admit that can be an added bonus at times - I'm only human!). Increasingly I find myself delighting in the diversity of the human body - its various sizes, shapes, colours and abilities. Dear Flo Nightingale said it well:

"Nursing is an art: and if it is to be made an art, it requires an exclusive devotion as hard a preparation as any painter's or sculptor's work; for what is the having to do with dead canvas or dead marble, compared with having to do with the living body, the temple of God's spirit? It is one of the Fine Arts: I had almost said, the finest of Fine Arts."

As a dermatology nurse I am concerned primarily with the outer boundary of the body. To see skin is to see the person - their race, their shynes and discomfort, their age. To touch diseased skin conveys a tender respect that many patients have not experienced for years. Diseased skin inhibits an individual, shutting them off from life experiences, even from the touch of those they love the most. It is such a privilege to be part of their road back to accepting themselves, as well as hopefully towards healing.

I feel honoured that so many people have entrusted their own bodies, or those of their loved ones, to my care. However much we seek to become spiritual people, feeding our inner beings, we are also absolutely physical. We occupy the space around us, breathing its air, polluting and changing the small plot of earth with which we interact. And oh, we are beautiful: yes, even you!

I have perceived that to be with those I love is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them, or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment - what is this, then?
I do not ask any more delight - I swim in it, as in a sea.

There is something in staying close to men and women, and looking on them, and in the contact and the odour of them, that pleases the soul well;
All things please the soul - but these please the soul well.
From 'I sing the body electric', by Walt Whitman.

Thank you, Walt: I have not heard it said better.

Some time ago I watched a programme celebrating the work of The Company of Elders, a dance troupe for older participants run by the artistic director for Sadler's Wells ballet. Many of the dancers had no experience in dance at all; but their age had encouraged them to become less inhibited as they got older, not more. As one of the more physically inhibited people I know (dancing and I are, if not total strangers, then distant acquaintances), I can only hope and dream. Perhaps it is when the tyranny of trying to stay young is forgotten that a true celebration of the body can begin.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Women's weekend

Just recovering from a busy 2 days at church, all the women getting together...Fun, food, poetry, prayer, dancing and discovery...
Huge thanks to Emma and Vicky for organising it all!
I wrote this specially for the start session.

At the women’s weekend
We shall leave the boys and the men
to fend for themselves; to liberate
our precious time for consecrated ends
As they refrigerate the washing
and then try to comprehend
the list of jobs we left behind.

At the women’s weekend
We shall bring our weary minds and bodies
in hope that this will be our time;
This will be the moment when we leave those lists behind
so to focus on each other in the presence of our God
who seeks to meet with each of us
not included in ‘man-kind’.

At the women’s weekend
We shall synchronise our moon-cycles
Knit bicycles from withies
Discuss the power of the matriarchal
prophet; and the proper purpose of polenta.
And we shall learn to juggle
our many hats and plates
To struggle with the daily weight
that sits upon our shoulders; to create
a new song, that our mouths may sing His praise
instead of being stuck with mantras older than the hills –
‘You forgot to put the bins out’ –
and ‘There’s nothing but repeats on television nowadays’.

And at the women’s weekend
We shall meet with One who met with women
Housewives and harlots, mothers and daughters
Those that were the centre of attention
and the ones who came alone. He caught her
who touched his cloak, she who bled and kept on bleeding
and lived outside the sphere of man’s respect;
He caught and raised her up, to stand erect
amongst the pressing crowd, and taught her
in that moment that he understood the depths of female pain,
when even sisterhood had turned its back. And leading
her on to walk along with him, so he calls each mother, daughter
Once again.

Monday, March 29, 2010

I've never seen Star Wars

...yes, obviously I've seen Star Wars; I refer you to my previous post. This relates to the radio 4 programme of the same name that has Marcus Brigstocke interviewing someone reasonably famous whilst encouraging them to try cultural experiences that they had missed out on, up until that point. This week it was the turn of Jenny Eclair, who is quite a favourite of mine as long as she isn't doing her stand-up act. Poor, poor Jenny Eclair. Other people have eaten innocuous salads, or played video games, or gone to see Hamlet. Jenny got the following 'must-do' experiences:

1. Reading a self-help book
2. Eating jellied eels
3. Watching Apocalypse Now
4. Listening to experimental jazz
5. Having a bikini wax

It says much about Jenny that, despite it going against all her feminist principles and hurting like stink, the bikini wax seemed to be the favourite activity out of that depressing list.

Still, there's a few more ideas of what to do on a wet (as it inevitably will be) Bank Holiday Monday.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bra Drawers (may the corset be with you)

Yesterday in an underwear drawer far, far away...

So yesterday I finally got round to a task that I had been putting off far too long, namely sorting out my bra drawer. I've read stuff about women's knicker drawers, and seen that scene in Bridget Jones Diary when BJ faces the difficult choice of sexy knickers versus knickers that make your clothes look good. In women's bra drawers the options are far more complex. The categories are as follows:

1. The Holy Grail of bras - the bra that makes you look good in your clothes, good in your underwear, and is extremely comfortable. This bra does not technically exist, yet the modern woman is diligent in her perpetual quest. She seeks it here, she seeks it there. Occasionally I have heard rumours ("It's amazing! But I had to go to the same shop as the Queen uses, and pay a small fortune!") but invariably the tale sadly ends, "...but then I put it in the tumble dryer..." and so the quest begins again.

2. The assertive bra: makes believe you have the perfect pair of gravity-defying breasts, yet would be the last item in the world you'd be seen dead in. Life is cruel. Alternatively, the assertive bra is neon coloured (you thought the straps would look good; then remembered you weren't 19 any more).

3. The 'it's-so-comfy-I-can't-bear-to-throw-it-out' bra, despite the fact that it now has holes, is greyer than Eeyore, and holds your once-pert pair in a ground-grazing position. Possibly with a maternity easy-release catch, for midnight snacking.

4. The 'pretty' bra, usually with matching knickers; the sort of bra that your mother-in-law would be proud of.

5. Conversely, the opposite. Need I say more?

6. The origami bra. Strapless, halter neck or just plain 'multiway', these are tricky to negotiate and can result in injury. Not to be confused with 'motorway', although similar results when it all goes wrong.

7. The neutral bra: vital for wearing under more sheer fabrics, but no amount of re-branding (It's flesh-toned! It's natural! It's nude!) can detract from the fact that you're wearing beige.

8. The sports bra. Designed to give you zero bounce, it grips your vital assets so tightly that breathing becomes optional. No wonder the Williams sisters always grunt so hard on the court.

9. The 'hang-it-all-down-with-the-kids-wear-it-on-the-outside bra. On one optimistic and sunny day you bought this, thinking you'd wear it half peeking round the corner of a sarong or under a lacy and inadequate piece of knitwear. You never did.

10. And finally, the novelty bra. The female equivalent of ties with reindeer, these have cute cartoon animals or slogans. The current trend is for 'nautical' bras. Nautical! I ask you... can't see Captain Pugwash in these.

So, having ascertained that most of my bras fit into category 3, I replenished the drawer with loveliness yesterday (mostly category 4, thanks for asking) and then had to go through the painful process of actually throwing most things away. Out with the saggy, the baggy, the grey and the torn underwear of yesteryear! In with the hard-wired, scratchy-laced, assertively-padded and tightly-strapped!

As Princes Leia put it: "Help me, Oh bra-36B; you're my only hope."

Friday, March 12, 2010

Burn after reading

Book Groups: seem like a great idea. You take it in turns to choose a book, you all read the book for the month, you have a friendly discussion over refreshments. In this way you are introduced to books you would never have found, or would not have got round to reading; and you get more out of books, by sitting back and thinking about what is good, bad and ugly about them with friends who may have a very different take.

I am now on my second book group, to which I have belonged for around 3 1/2 years. All in all I must have read an estimated lots of books for book group, some of which I have loved, many I haven't; but the one for this month is possibly presenting me with the biggest challenge yet. I'll admit it: I was prejudiced against 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo', by Stieg Larsson, for a number of stupid reasons:

1. Don't like the genre (it's a thriller)
2. Don't like the title
3. Don't like the cover
4. Don't like the fact that it's on the bestseller list
5. Don't like the number of pages (533!)
6. Don't like knowing that, despite all 533 pages, it's still only volume 1 of 3

I have been attempting to get into this book all week, and am still only up to page 37. Part of my problem (and please, try not to judge me too harshly here) is the unfamiliar names (it's translated from the Swedish). Whenever I come across a foreign person or place name I read it as 'bleah' in my mind, which makes for some very tedious sentences with this book: ..." said 'Bleah' to 'Bleah', as they crossed the 'Bleah' to the 'Bleah'" etc etc. I know, I know: I said try not to judge.

Richard thinks I should give up now, but I am loth to do so particularly as I chose a book for last month that several people found very tedious (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by M Schaffer and A Barrows. I thought it was a nice little book; note that - little - not 533 PAGES!!!). Anyway, it seems only fair that I keep going. In the meantime I shall remember some of the books and authors I have found and loved through book groups:

Skating to Antarctica (see above), and indeed most things I have read by Jenny Diski especially 'After these things' and 'Stranger on a Train'. I find her both touching and sharp, and for a woman who spends much effort shutting others out she manages to include the reader in her intimate circle.

'Half of a Yellow Sun' by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, a novel that gives remarkable perspectives on the Biafran war and famine in Nigeria.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: I suggested this one, but book groups are great for making you get round to reading books and this one was a real surprise - completely unlike its mythology suggests.

'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' by Kate Summerscale, an account of a gruesome murder that took place up the road from where my in-laws lived though slightly before their time; and how modern detectives began.

'Headlong' by Michael Frayn: difficult to believe that anyone could make the history of Dutch art a breathless page-turner, but he achieved it.

And not forgetting 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which I would probably never have got to the end of had it not been a book group assignment (there is such a thing as magical realismed-out) but I am heartily glad that I did.

Back to the Floozy with the Painted Shoulder, or whatever it is...

Monday, March 01, 2010


Yes I do know this isn't a menhir, or standing stone; it was somewhat perplexing to find that, despite the fact I am a self-confessed nut for ancient venerated bits of rock, I don't actually have a photo of a standing stone that also has the requisite atmospheric mist and lack of Yours Truly gurning at a camera. So please be satisfied by this image of The Cheesewring up on Bodmin Moor, taken on a glorious (ha!) day last August.

Anyway...thought it way past time I combined my (possibly unnatural) love for all things old and rocky with my love for writing. I'm reliably informed (by my father) that it is possible to 'get' the rhyme structure if read aloud, preferably by something ancient and flinty (no mum, it's OK; not talking about you).

In the cold dampness of November
Through the glooming light of a half-remembered day
I see you: Longstone
Ancient and beloved, alone
against the gorse and heath and sky.

You are the colour of the moor, its moods and shifts
reflected in the contours of your stone, the drifting
seasons both familiar and strange.
This is not your home; you stand estranged
from land that gripped and held you fast.
Your uniqueness recognised at last by ants
that ripped and dragged and rolled you to this place
to stand, your face turned towards the coming years.

Time has passed; four thousand
years of weathering winds and sun and rain
as lichen crusts the outline of your frame, and generations
pass beneath your shade. Your roots lie deep
within the borrowed earth that once
lay undisturbed, where now the dust of venerators past
can quietly sleep.

And why the toil to bring you to this place?
Why struggle with the soil, to pull and push you far from home
to stretch your twisted angles to the sky,
and grace the landscape with unyielding form? Were you
a marker for the days and years, the key
that unlocked flower and fruit and womb;
the panacea for barren lives and barren land,
whose loam holds those who made your profile true?

Or did they recognise within your form
One who would know, beyond the fragment of their time;
would show the way to mysteries far outside
the wisdom of their years. And could they hear
your call to brothers standing ‘cross the plain,
to another greater higher mind, a name
that quietly waits to speak –

I lay
my cheek against your cold damp skin, and sink
my hands into the glowing moss that shapes
and softens edges, as I wait -
As the wind keens across the heath, and the crow
disturbs the silence of the now.

TAW February 2010

Friday, January 29, 2010

On family weddings, dancing, and the provision of 800 bottles of wine: some thoughts

‘There was a wedding in the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there; Jesus and his disciples were guests also. When they started running low on wine at the wedding banquet, Jesus’ mother told him, “They’re just about out of wine”. Jesus said, “Is that any of our business, Mother – yours or mine? This isn’t my time. Don’t push me”. She went ahead anyway…’ (John 2 verses 1-5: The Message)

It was not the time.
Too soon, the guests would say goodbye
The celebrations now run dry
To mutter ‘cheapskate’ quietly
And slowly slip away; the bride
Would gather disappointed skirts, her dream
Now sullied by this hurt, her groom
Now anxious to divert so coughing nervously.

It was not his time:
He’d only just begun to pace the land,
to show to each his face
to find the ones in need of grace
to follow in his wake. This day was one
for other men to shine - take centre stage, to dance
and dine and drink before the Great Divine
until the morning breaks.

Yet on this most-blessed day, when joy
Suppressed by insufficiency was born again
When wine outpoured most liberally
- the best of wine, the zest of life –
filled each and every cup. When two
sought to become one, and through
this lavish miracle there grew
a new and blissful hope.
Six stone water-jars there were – six jars
Containing water, nothing more:
To quench the thirst, to cleanse the skin
Remove the stain and dirt and sin
The ordinary curse. He looked on water
seeing wine; the laughter in the bridegroom’s eyes;
the humdrum commonplace defied
by overflowing mirth.

And happiness
caught each one unaware
brought each one wonder in that place
where man and wife stood face to face
to dance amongst the throng.
And one who caused the heavenly song
Now joined the revelry, to dance
With bride and groom, with father, mother,
With smallest child and eldest brother
To each his heart belonged.

And then it was time:
Quietly, barefoot, on he danced
and pausing, with a backward glance
smiled at God’s benevolence
then gently walked away. And on into the night
the sound of wine outpoured and sorrows drowned
of love renewed on holy ground
went on till break of day.

TAW 2010