Monday, December 19, 2011

Here it is...this year's Christmas Poem...

I wrote this for our candlelit carol service at St Matthew's last night. You need to imagine it read by 2 voices, one male and booming (Mr Wheelybin), and one female and a bit whispery (me, with the Cold From Hell). Also some rather lovely and evocative guitar and piano backing, which led seamlessly into the next carol - O Come O Come Emmanuel (I gave 2 musicians this version by Sufjan Stevens, and they played about with the concept - only without the words). I was aiming for 'solemn joy', the kind that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up...think we got there. I enjoyed it, anyway. Which, given the way I feel at the moment, is saying something.

Come, all ye faithful. Come and gaze
At mysteries beyond this age.
Come together, come alone
Come kneel before this meager throne.
Come, you Adams and you Eves
In unnumbered, countless throng
Follow the call that you’ve received:   
Come and join the heavenly song.

Come, you populace of dust                 
Come meet the promised God-with-us.
The One who painted starry skies
And now within a manger lies.
Come believers, come you doubters
Come with joy and penitance
Welcome Abraham’s sons and daughters
Come, join hands and start the dance.

The promise of forgotten days
The word the patriarchs obeyed
A vision of the stars and sand
A multitude, to fill the land;
Come now, you multitude, to hear
The angels sing of God made man:
The Word made flesh, the Prince of Peace
Now born a son of Abraham.

Come, come, you chosen sisters, brothers
Come, come, and dance with one another
Take delight in knowing he
Who takes delight in knowing thee.
Come bend the knee, and raise your sight
Towards the Lord of heaven and earth
Come welcome in his dawning light
Come sing for joy at heaven’s birth.

TAW December 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The God-particle

In the beginning the scientists searched, hovering and waiting over a sea of data.

Their concepts were as yet formless and void; and still
They hoped for Answers.

In the beginning, particles accelerated and crashed
purposefully, creating sparks of energy and possibility;
Radiating the notion that the elusive would be found.

And there was morning, and there was evening; a thousand times over
As the world waited for triumph or disaster
And the scientists spoke in a language all their own.

And the scientists called forth others
Media-savvy, able to explain and enthuse
Justifying the expense, the time, and the total lack of progress.
They waved their arms, and drew diagrams, saying:
‘Let there be a separation between the knowing and the unknowing,
between Them and Us. For we are the new astronauts
explorers of Time and Space, discovers of Matter
and Fact.’

In the beginning they groped in dark matter
For a fleeting glimpse of a legendary particle
That some had christened ‘God’.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Counting the days

I love new diaries and calendars, and can never persuade myself to use more up-to-date technology to organise my days. Having already taken possession of my lovely new 2012 diary, and entered all the dates and memos on little scraps of paper at the back of my old diary, I am now in the process of sorting out the family calendar. Usually I buy something with arty pictures / photos: since it is hung in a prominent place in our hallway that I see every time I walk downstairs, it becomes the artwork I notice the most. This year I thought I would buy one of those photo calendars and upload my own photographs: but which to choose?

I've already decided against pretty pictures, chocolate-box images of flowers and scenery: too bland. Pictures of my family will be given the thumbs down - there's always someone who will object, and to be fair, I would soon have something to say if I had to look into my own eyes every time I walked downstairs. Similarly friends - less likely to object, particularly if they never come round to see it, but still - bit of an imposition...

So all that's left is the oddities, not pretty, sometimes personal, often quirky. These are some of the photos currently on the shortlist. What do you think?

Oranges at Versailles


Best olive stall ever:
St Chinian, Languedoc

                                       Sundowner at Port Isaac

Conques, Auvergne

                                                     Pembrokeshire cottage

Ambling Band, Street Party, Bristol

Friday, November 04, 2011

Favourite Things

According to the adverts, women are obsessed with smells. We weep when we can no longer detect the fragrance of our air freshener. We throw ourselves bodily at inadequate young men wearing cheap deodorant. We rejoice when our home is filled with the odour of gravy, and delight in that of clean washing. Anyone would think we were nothing but walking olfactory organs.

Besides smells our interests venture little beyond fashion, food and fairly old-fashioned hobbies - that is, if you believe the women's magazines. Cream coloured ponies. Crisp apple strudels. That kind of thing. Oh, and visiting a certain budget frozen food shop is the obvious mark of true Madonna-esq motherhood.

After a fairly rubbish month I thought I'd write a ditty for the sisterhood to sing along to. Completely true, of course. Altogether now....

Perfume that makes me smell of Keira Knightley
Washing detergent that makes whites glow whitely
Finding my colours are Autumn or Spring
These are a few of my favourite things.

(Om-pom-pom, om-pom-pom x2)

Spandex that grips wobbly bits oh-so-tightly
Such things will bring me joy both day and nightly.
Plug-in air fresheners, and crisp pot pourri –
These are the things that will fill me with glee.

When my chin’s long
When the gin’s gone
When my hormones rule
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I can keep my cool.

More knitting patterns, so I can get knitting
Adverts for sofas so I can get sitting
Plates with a picture of William and Kate
These are the things I’m least likely to hate

(Om-pom-pom, om-pom-pom x2)

Fashion that suits me if I’m straight or curvy
Diets that protect against rickets and scurvy
Going to Iceland – the shop not the state –
Just some of the things I most appreciate

When I feel bad
When I look mad
When the world seems strange
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I know I’m deray –hay- anged!

And repeat, ad nauseum, until someone replaces the gin or the men in white coats come calling.

Friday, October 07, 2011

One hand clapping, cooking, typing...

This won't be a long post, for reasons that will become clear.

Back in 2006, when I started this blog and was stumped for a name, I chose 'one-hand-clapping' partly because I had recently had 3 lots of surgery trying to make both hands fully functional. I had spent a chunk of that time suffering the pins and needles, aching and generally useless digits typical of severe carpal tunnel syndrome. Treatment was largely successful, although I still wear splints at night.

However, on Wednesday my left hand went almost totally numb (my little finger is spared). Fortunately I am right-handed. That night I suffered extreme pain for 6 hours, and in the morning the GP confirmed a trapped nerve, probably at the elbow, possibly at the neck, but unlikely at the wrist so unrelated to the carpal tunnel. I am now doing the 'wait and see' thing, with the promise of physiotherapy next week and the threat of surgery if things don't improve soon. At least the pain has abated.

In the meantime I am back to coping unidextrously with life. Clapping is the least of the problems, frankly. Typing feels weird - you try using just your little finger on one hand (I used to use voice recognition software, but ended up screaming at the computer when it got it wrong. Curiously the words I used then used to be transcribed perfectly.) Cooking is like dicing with death. Doing up a necklace, or a bra, becomes a matter of faith.

What's the sound of one hand clapping? It's the sound of me punching the wall in frustration, mate.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Letter to an unknown future

I haven't posted for a while, not because nothing was happening, but because I didn't know what to say.

Two weeks ago my father-in-law was taken suddenly, seriously ill. He is slowly on the recovery road now, but is still in intensive care and has to face yet more obstacles to daily life once he is back to some sort of normality - compounded by the fact that he is also registered blind. In addition, he is the main carer for my chronically ill mother-in-law. I don't really want to say much else about this, as it's not really my story to tell; but if you are of a praying persuasion, we would appreciate your efforts on our behalf. Anyway...

This all dredges up the dreaded issue of aging again. So many of us fear old age, for a variety of reasons - the fear of pain and disability; the fear of the unknown, and eventually of death. But I guess one of the main issues is that of a loss of self. Depression is common in the years immediately following retirement, then tends to be less prevalent again; then becomes more common in the older population, late 70's and 80's. And no wonder, when faced with the catalogue of aging signs and symptoms, along with the side effects from whatever cocktail of drugs their doctors select. Deteriorating vision and hearing can cause individuals to feel increasingly cut off from their surroundings and contacts. Memory loss further detatches and debilitates. And along with all this comes the sense of losing personhood - that self image we all carry, stuck at age 20, 30, 40...

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
 - Laurence Binyon

As faculties diminish, assistance is needed. But first one has to ask for help, which is no easy thing. The aging person may be beholden to family, or to strangers; neither rests easy. To have to ask, to have the thing done badly or just not how you want it, and then to have to be grateful through gritted teeth... none of this comes naturally. And all to be surrounded by endlessly cheerful carers who treat you as if you were three years old. An old friend of mine used to refer to the 'Pop School of Nursing' - as in, 'We'll just pop your clothes off, pop you into a gown, pop you on the couch and then I'll pop off and get the doctor.' Sometimes I hear myself saying it; and cringe.

One of the things that frightens me is the tendency for older people to lose distinguishing features. Hair colour, waistlines, jawlines all slowly melt into the familiar generic Grandmother / Grandfather 'look'. Fortunately society does not 'expect' this so much, or so early, as it once did; there is no longer the need to adopt the same clothes and shoes, hairstyle and glasses as every other septa / octogenarian. As I look into the mirror and notice the slackening skin and wiry white hairs, the poem 'When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple' goes through my head. I fear I may relish the transformation into an eccentric grumpy old woman (a process that has very much begun already); and the very first nurse /carer who talks to me in that slightly high pitched nicey-nicey voice, telling me to 'Mind how I go, dearie' or similar will be nicely but firmly told to Sod Off. At the same time, aging brings the loss of loved ones - and old friends cannot be replaced. A few years into my marriage I realised I spent time almost exclusively with people who only knew me as married, as my older friends lived further away, and  the associated loss of a sense of self made me sad; how much worse to arrive at a place where no-one remembers you young. Photos merely underline the passing of time, rather than truly recalling the person you once were. perhaps it will be different for this digital generation, their every move captured on video. Old friends are the ones who know all the stages that brought you to this place, but still love you; who laugh with you and at you, dragging out old jokes whose mere mention provokes helpless laughter. Those old friends are particularly precious in my life; they have made me who I am. Without their company, I would be diminished; and would fear being forgotten.

In the meantime, I shall try my hardest to remember that every individual, at whatever age we happen to meet, holds the same potential for sadness, joy, laughter, quirkiness, anger and grief as the rest of us; that age is not a predictor of how anyone will react to any given situation, but that the general level of garbage that surrounds the aging process may increase the likelihood that it won't be good, at least not if the conversational opener is 'I just popped in to see how you are today, dearie'. That inside each person, regardless of age, exists a unique story, that affords a unique outlook on life.

If only we all had the time and patience to listen to those stories.


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The wise man built his house upon

We were rather taken by this unorthodox use of space in the French town of Vernon, near Giverny, whilst on our 'olidays.

I can only imagine the application for planning permission.

Looking rather like it has blown in from Kansas, it balances precariously across two of the remaining piers of a bridge that has long since ceased to function as such. Proof that nature abhors a vaccuum? Or that building regs in France have always loosened up considerably after the second bottle of wine has been opened?

Either way, if you're a pigeon, this is THE place to be in Vernon.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Home from home: post GB 2011 analysis

After four days of being in the microcosm that is Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival, I'm back home doing a bit of restorative work and asking the Big Questions - namely, what can I possibly eat, has the milk gone off, what was that all about, what can I take from that experience, and how can I get those stains out of my jeans?

And this year - did I follow the ten commandments of GB (see previous post)?

Well, I certainly saw more than I ever have done before, by the simple trick of Turning up on Time. I know, I know... not only that, but I turned up early enough to grab a good seat and so discovered that the time wasn't wasted, it was transferred into a lovely opportunity to chat with friends and strangers.

I entered a photo in the swap, and am now the proud owner of another stranger's photograph that has a lot of meaning for me. More new friends made.

I avoided any sit-at-the-back-silliness in communion by staying in bed that morning. It worked for me.

The prayer room was used, as was the Tiny Tea Tent and the Jesus Arms where time was spent with my God and with the fabulous people he gave me as my friends. And everyone seemed pleased to see me too, in a 'NORM!" from Cheers kind of fashion.

Highlights included talks from Nadia Bolz-Webber, Pete Rollins, Mark Vernon and Padraig O'Tuama (who managed to make me break a promise to my late grandmother, that I wouldn't 'turn Catholic', which I remembered as I stood and recited a modified Hail Mary..); performances from Paul Kerenza, Mark Thomas, Ockham's Razor and Will Stopha; music from The Unthanks, Billy Bragg and Get Cape. Wear Cape Fly; and a bizarre screening of the film 'Back to the Future' with comments throughout from 2 comedians (heckle from small child: 'You're ruining the film!' Answer: 'That's why we're here!')

Sadly, no salsa, as it clashed with Paul Roberts' 'Bluffers guides'; sad for me, a relief to Paul, and a lucky escape for Greenbelt. Instead, I danced and whooped and waved my arms to the great Mavis Staples (above), in a departure to my usual music listening stance (arms folded, feet steady, jaw set).

 I did however appreciate the irony that after a Greenbelt where so many talks embraced the uncertainties of a life of faith, we were all ending the festival singing together that our faith was sure and our hope was certain. Faith has a quantum quality, it seems - both seem to be true, until we open the box and examine it up close.

In other news: I managed to ignore the call of the toilet - a bit; I did engage with some slightly bonkers worship, although was sad to have missed the totally teched-up event (candles on iPads, prayers via Twitter) that realised at the last possible moment that they had forgotten the bread for the Eucharist and then had to search for an image of bread on-line (seriously, what could they do then? Take turns to lick the screen?); and largely due to close observance of commandment number ten, I engaged with everything I attended without coveting the GB experiences I had missed out on. Much.

Now, that is a miracle.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Greenbelt Commandments

It's that time of year again. Having missed our favourite Christian arts festival altogether last year, and made rather fleeting visits  that didn't quite hit the spot in the couple of years before that, we're in for the Full Monty this time (albeit in a wussy, hotel-plus-popping-home kind of fashion). Note to would-be burglars: various children, parents and cats are in and out of our house all weekend; so don't even think about it. 

This year is going to be different. This year I am determined not to spend my time flitting from the second half of one seminar to the back of the queue for something I'll never get into, only to end up first in the queue for the Ladies and thence to the beer tent where I look round for someone I know, then realise they're already talking to someone far more interesting than me. Nor will I interact with the art by spending exactly 5 seconds on each picture / sculpture / random idea presented in a visual fashion, before saying 'Hmm', nodding wisely, glancing at my watch and moving on. I will not skulk at the back of worship events refusing to enter in to something that, at first glance, resembles rather painful street theatre. No! I am a new creation! Out with the cynical, the tired, the critical, the aloof and the introverted! In with...well, with what, exactly? I feel I need a few ground rules...

SO, having perused the online Greenbelt 2011 line-up at length, I have devised the following commandments....

1. Thou shalt have no other goal but the seminar / event already circled in the programme: do not be tempted by the beer tent, the Tiny Tea Tent, the Bookstall etc etc or you will miss the queue and be left outside, where there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth etc etc.
2. You shall not make for yourself any bits of clay modelling or other messy collaborative art which always frankly ends up taking much time (see point 1) and looking like a dog's breakfast. Instead, play to strengths and take a photo along to the Photo Flash Swap.
3. You shall not change the words of all the songs during the communion services to something childishly funny. Oh, right then - you shall.
4. You shall not feel obliged to see everything, and rush around until feet are sore and head is frazzled. It's a spiritual holiday, not a route march. Instead, you shall spend time in the prayer room, and focus on the Reason for it All.
5. You shall spend your time enjoying the company of all the wise and lovely people God put in your life; and not assume that the others don't want to talk to you. Who knows who will bring what to your journey, this weekend?
6. You shall embrace life; specifically, you shall honour your agreement to learn salsa with the lovely Rev Dr Paul Roberts. Two completely left-footed people dancing...we should sell tickets...or perhaps two negatives will make a positive?
7. You shall be faithful to your first loves (Billy Bragg, John Bell, David Runcorn) whilst embracing new passions / gurus (Occam's Razor, Padraig O'Tuama, Mark Vernon) and maybe even attending Something Completely Different: Goth worship, anyone?
8. You shall not become so desperate that you will steal the loo queue place of a small child. On the other hand, you shall not become so obsessed about the state of your bladder that you begin to queue 2 hours before you need to, 'just in case'.
9. You shall not pretend that you enjoyed or even understood the 'Lesser Church of Little Gidding's Jesus-ran-away-to-the-Circus' event; but you shall at least attempt to engage with at least one such happening. There was a time when you were just as bonkersly blowing up balloons, setting fire to stuff and floating rose petals down a stream; perhaps it's time to rediscover that. A bit.
10. Above all, you shall not get to the end of the weekend feeling that everyone else found the good stuff. The good stuff is wherever you are, and whatever you make it. Breath deeply. Participate. Don't carp. Perhaps even pray.

See (some of) you there?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bringing home the bacon

One of the downsides of working in the health sector is that there is a tendency for others to see you as an expert in All Things Health Related. I never mind being asked about things in which I consider myself to be a relative expert, but have to confess these are fairly slim pickings. There are over 1000 dermatological conditions, and I'm very good at advising on four of them; reasonably good at around another twenty; slightly pathetic at the next, say, thirty; and frankly nowhere on the rest (correct that: I'd have a good stab at spelling quite a few). I really do wonder what I've been doing with my life... but that's another blog entirely. Having said that, there's a time and a place. Ideally the time is my working hours and the place is a consulting room; but failing that, I'd prefer it if friends do not, for example, drop their trousers in the middle of a dinner party to show me their awkward little rash. Not unless they've bought me flowers first, at least... actually a number of friends have flashed some skin at me in times of extreme anxiety / embarrassment / itching, and that's fine, we've remained friends, I think I helped, and anyway the matter now rests with our lawyers.

More problematic is the friend who rings up 'just to check' because the GP is closed and they're worried. Or else because they are too embarrassed to 'bother' the GP, and want reassurance that it really is 'something' that deserves attention. Over the years I have had calls about a range of symptoms, particularly from parents of young children in the days before NHS Direct. The difficulty is not overstepping the mark in terms of giving a person the impression I am in some way qualified to recognise, for example, the signs of meningitis - particularly remotely. I don't want a disaster on my conscience, so I may err on the side of caution - but on the other hand, I don't want to worry them unduly. So I flip between 'yes-I'm-sure-it's-fine-but-get-to-an-emergency-room-NOW!!!' - style advice. Not necessarily helpful to the recipient, but then, I don't want to encourage them...

Since NHS Direct started there has been less of this sort of thing, for which I am grateful. But last week, at 9:45pm, came this gem from the mother of a schoolfriend of one of my girls. And for once, I was lost for a good answer. I will try to recreate the phone conversation for you here:

"Hello, I'm sorry to bother you at the late hour, but I really need some urgent health advice and I didn't know who to ask."
(Me) "O-kay....what's up?"

"I know this may sound like an odd question, but is it safe to eat raw bacon?"
"Err...what do you mean, safe?" (stalling for time!)
"Well, I've just been watching my lodger preparing her supper, and she was cooking with bacon, chopping it up on the board we use for raw meat, and as she chopped she was putting one piece in the pot, and one piece in her mouth!"
(Desperately seizing on something I know) "I think it might be a problem in that she was using the same board as you use, say, for raw chicken..."
"Yes, yes, but is it OK to eat raw bacon? Is it safe?
"Well, I'm no expert on food safety, but isn't bacon a cured meat? I mean, does that make it a bit safer than normal raw meat? Certainly safer than raw chicken..."
"Oh, thank goodness! You've totally put my mind at rest!"
(Trying to claw things back rapidly) "Well I don't know! I mean, I'm just guessing!
"Who would have thought it! It's safe to eat raw bacon!
"I didn't quite say..."
"Well thanks very much for that, I'll let you get to bed!"

(Click. Brrr. The call ends.)

SO...if you hear or otherwise come across a wild rumour that raw bacon is the Next Big Culinary Ingredient and Totally Safe To Eat, please think twice before doing so. It may just have started here. And as you'll agree from the exchange detailed above - I Know Nothing.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Parable of the Lost Photograph

There was once a woman who had 10,000 photographs (at a very rough estimate: but definitely Lots). One day she realised that she had lost one. Rather than being satisfied with the remaining Lots she had in her albums and on her computer, she began to search the house: on tables, under beds, inside cupboards, beneath the piles and piles of papers that seemed to gather on every available surface in her rather rambling family home. Eventually she had to admit defeat; and, feeling somewhat miserable about the loss of that one photograph - which was precious to her, being a record of a happy and slightly bonkers moment in her marriage - she sat down and shared her misery with whichever of her friends happened to be on Facebook at that moment.

Some time later her husband, who (whilst a prime suspect in the development of the piles and piles of papers) could be quite an organised chap, had a brainwave; perhaps it wasn't in the house at all! Neither had it been cast into the outer darkness of the wheelybin, where there would be much wailing and gnashing of teeth (you know how it goes)... instead, it might have strayed from the carrier bag from whence it came and even now be wandering lost in the boot of the car!

And lo, it came to pass...

And when she found it, the woman gathered her virtual friends and family together and said, 'Rejoice with me! I have found my lost photograph, which means absolutely nothing to you but (you will be glad to hear) will shut me up moaning for five minutes!'

For what was lost has been found; and what was miserable now has a Great Big Bonkers Smile on her face.

Here endeth the lesson.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Photo Finish

Either you will 'get' this post, or you won't. I realise that in writing this I could well come across as entirely self-obsessed and self-pitying; or, even more so than usual.... I am writing it in a fairly miserable state of mind, so please excuse the self-indulgence (only three lines in and already far too much 'self'; but then, what else is a blog for?)

Today I lost a photograph; or rather, I realised that I had mislaid it, and probably in a place which ensured it went out with the rubbish last week. Of course, if that is not the case and it turns up, I will be delighted to share it with you. But as of this moment, it is lost forever. It was a daft photo of Richard and I, taken early in our marriage on Brighton pier, circa 1991; we have put our faces through the holes of one of those cut-outs much loved by the Victorians, a sort of 19th century photo-shop. I posed as Albert, standing with 'my' hand on Victoria (played by Richard)'s shoulder, who is seated. Of course, neither of us could see the other's face, to know how 'in character' we were. So the photo showed a po-faced Albert, nose in the air with the nasty smell of commoners up his (my) nostrils; whilst Richard provides Victoria with a crazed grinning mad-eyed expression. The combination was hilarious, though of course you will have to trust me on that one. For several years I have had it blu-tacked to the wall in my office, where it has amused many a passer-by and kept me going through dull audits and tedious spreadsheet updates.

Last Saturday I moved offices, and took the photo down. Rather than transfer it to another wall I took it home, together with other stuff in a carrier bag, with the intention of scanning it to share the full joy with fellow bloggers and facebookers. Only, I forgot; left the bag in the car, to be emptied several days later by husband who was oblivious that I had foolishly shoved the photo in the bag. I am sure it went out with the rubbish, which was collected on Monday.

So, to recap, so far I have: 1. Described a photo that you will most likely never see; 2. Shared the tedium of office life in the Dermatology Centre; 3. Shared the tedium of domestic arrangements in the Wheeler household. If you have made it thus far, congratulate yourself heartily (and try not to hate me). The reason I'm writing is not because of tedium, but because of loss. The reason I loved that photo so much was because it made me laugh, partly because the image was intrinsically ridiculous, but mainly because it was US. Us, at a moment in time, captured being ourselves - our young, funny, separate-but-together selves. We have so many photos where we are trying to smile for the camera (with, inevitably, one of us squinting or frowning or failing to look like a member of the human race), or where one of us is staring artistically off into the distance, with the slight impression of someone who is trying to remember if they need to buy more loo roll whilst attempting to solve Fermat's last theorem in their head. Staring wistfully in Ireland. Staring wistfully in Colorado. Staring wistfully in Brittany. Trust me, we have the set. But this photo...the lost photo...there was nothing wistful or artistic or contrived about it. Somehow it was our marriage, in a nutshell. We also, quite rightly, have hundreds of photos of our kids to the extent that a photo of the two of us alone is rare from the past 17 years. Now that we are beginning to imagine life after kids have left, I have become melancholic about those old photos of just the two of us.

Before you ask, yes I am well aware that there are people in the world with Real Problems. I am also aware of global warming, the debt crisis, the situation in the Middle East, poverty, famine and disease...OK OK this isn't ever a twitch on the needle of global suffering. And to be honest, it doesn't rate on the scale of things I am concerned about closer to home, either. But today, I feel sad. Sad that I will never look at that photo again. Sad that I cannot share it with anyone. And sad that I can't ever go back to the young, funny person who put their face through a hole and pretended to be a po-faced Prince Albert, while her young, funny life partner smiled manically next to her in the most unconvincing impression since Kim Jong-Il shared his Captain Jack Sparrow.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Usual Suspect

I like to have a little look at the stats about this blog. It's fascinating to see where people are when they look at what I've written, and what interests them the most. You're a strange lot, you are; of all the posts I've written, the most popular by far is a little throwaway comment on the health-giving properties (or not) of breakfast cereal. It wasn't big, clever, funny or even particularly interesting - just something to keep me writing, whilst nothing much happened - yet time and again it gets hits, mainly because people insist on searching for info on cereal. Strange.

Far more worrying, however, is the fact that several people have found my blog recently whilst searching for 'Arrest of Tracy Wheeler', or 'Tracy Wheeler mug shot'. I've found the mug shot, and I have to say - it's not pretty; though I doubt that I'd look my best either with no make-up under harsh lighting, and with a number stamped across my bosom.

So then I tried to find out what this Floridan Tracy Wheeler had done. OK she's got absolutely no link with me, other than a name - and that one 'e' down - but I felt a strange sympathy with her, if only because searching for her had led someone to me. But my second search found a SECOND felon - this time in Indiana, and this time with a full complement of 'E's'. Tracey Wheeler had been sentenced to 35 years in jail for possessing and dealing in cocaine, as well as 'maintaining a common nuisance' (well, who hasn't done that?). Her appeal in 2009 was turned down; so there she sits, still.

I guess many of us at some point have idly googled ourselves, perhaps with the hope that the little we do in the world has earned us a smidge of fame, or perhaps to see the road less travelled. Someone else with our name is the doppelganger we never had, the self we could have been. Up until now Tracey Wheeler has been a byword for safe and dull; achieving moderate success in sports, in creative design, and in complementary medicine. I am delighted to see that in 2008 Tracey Wheeler was advertising a gelding that on first glance looked half reasonable, according to a reader of Horse and Hound. She does a mean haircut. She's a college lecturer. She is paying too much for her electricity. And occasionally she writes a dermatology article or some poetry, and tells you about her cats.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the small moments or spurious reasons on which we base major decisions, that can turn a life in one direction or another. I went to Nottingham University, where I met Richard; but it was nearly Leeds. The decision came down to whether I wanted to go to Fontainebleau for the field course (Leeds), or Bavaria (Nottingham). Of course, that was the one year the usual field course professor took a sabbatical and the stand-in took us to (roll that drum...) Skegness. Without that decision I would not have met Richard; and our kids, these particular kids or similar versions, would not exist. No doubt you can think of similar instances in your own life. It is exquisitely poignant to think that such major personal matters rest on such numbskull moments. It is somehow more painful that a completely random event, because it seems as though we are in charge - which is, frankly, terrifying.

So... given slightly different circumstances could I be trading in horses, or cocaine? Could I be an expert reflexologist, or hairdresser, or doing fairly well at a chosen sport? Could I be standing terrified under the glare of a police camera flashgun, contemplating what I had done and what it would cost me?

Or would I just be paying too much for my electricity?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When Irish Eye is smiling...

So, Diarmuid Gavin finally wins a gold medal at the Royal Chelsea garden show.

In the past this mildly irritating but perseverant garden designer has come up with (amongst other things) coloured knobs on sticks, white globular pods to sit in much else, and what looked like quite a lot of dead grass. I'm probably missing something. This year he has won a gold for the first time, with a garden called 'Irish Sky Garden' - a plot with pools of water and mainly green planting (ie not a lot of action on the flower front) and a large metal 'eye', turfed on top and with plants around its benches, that can be hoisted by crane to a height of 82 feet - according to the Telegraph - or perhaps 52 feet - also according to the Telegraph (get it together, guys!). Apparently it was inspired by the film Avatar: I looked, but no blue people (3D or otherwise) were to be seen. There is room within this 'eye' for an interviewer and an interviewee, ie Dairmuid being interviewed by Alan Titchmarsh; though, owing to 'Elf and Safety regs, Joe Public will not be able to queue for a ride (quite right: what is this, Alton Towers?)

Amateur Gardening magazine editor Tim Rumball (oh, him) is incensed. The gardens are for everyone (so long as they've paid the £45 entrance fee)! All visitors should be able to ride in the Eye, and also to replicate the idea at home! This is just a gimmick! Well, duh....

After so many years of failing to reach the gold standard, Dairmuid played to his strength - a slight sense of the ridiculous. No, it would never be my favourite (nor that of the judges, for that matter, I suspect). No, I can't see anyone building a miniature version in their own plot, and hoisting it on the rotary washing-line. But did it get people talking? Was it memorable? And did it bring home the bacon? You betcha. With coloured knobs on.

Incidentally, the eye will find its final resting place in Cork. Every chance it will soon become another slightly odd graffitteed piece of public art. Good luck to it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A beautiful pea-green boat

There are plans afoot to sail a ship upon a methane sea on Titan, one of Saturn's moons.

I could just stop there; rarely have I typed a more glorious sentence than that. I am rarely switched onto astronomy, as it seems to involve far too much standing around in a freezing cold garden squinting through the eyepiece of a telescope at something that may or may not be Mars, and not nearly enough visiting the Hadron Collider hand-in-hand with Brian Cox. But think of it: if this project gets funding (and there's every chance), and if it comes off, in a few years time there could be a craft made by human hands sailing purposefully on an alien ocean. Titan is a place of extreme temperatures (minus 290F), sufficient to ensure that methane exists as a liquid rather than the gas it is on our planet. There is no hope of finding life in such conditions; but perhaps the clues to what sort of conditions existed before life began.

Saturn is perhaps the most romantic of planets. Not the biggest, not the closest, not the most colourful, yet certainly the most recognisable with its rings of ice, debris and dust. These rings spin to keep pace with the planet, and cradle within them over sixty moons, the largest of which is Titan. Titan is unique within the known universe in that it is the only moon known to possess an atmosphere. It has weather. Alien wind and alien rain. And weather produces features that we would recognise - lakes and rivers and valleys and beaches. It's not likely to become a top holiday destination, owing largely to a bit too much nitrogen in the air as well as the freezing cold and the distance. But if we could, if we could sail in that ship: ah... we would see something that looked a little bit like home, even as the ice and dust of the millennia whipped across the skies.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

So long, and thanks for all the fish

Ten years ago to the day Douglas Adams died of a heart attack, aged just 49. So it seems an appropriate moment to talk about the impact this author had upon me, particularly as a mid-teenager who hadn't really found her 'thing' at the age of 14 when the TV version of 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (or H2G2, as we geeks say) burst onto our screens. I say 'our' screens - I think it was largely ignored by my peer group, not really unexpectedly since left-field sci-fi comedy wasn't the staple diet of most of the pupils at Queen Mary's High School for Girls. Such fare would have detracted from the slavish following of Soft Cell and Adam and the Ants: all that backcombing took dedication and time. So I ploughed a lonely furrow in my little corner of the Midlands; but that was OK, because I felt part of something bigger, a world where at any moment I could order a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (the effects of which were like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick), where I could snicker quietly at those girls who still thought that digital watches were a pretty neat idea, and where it was enormously important to really know where your towel was.

H2G2 had it all, as far as I was concerned: ridiculous characters you could believe in, daft approaches to real philosophical problems (why was the answer to the question of life the universe and everything '42'? Because we've never really understood the question), laughably shoddy special effects (in hindsight, yes it was far better on the radio) and a cracking theme toon. But most of all, it had words, funny words, crafted sentences that were laugh-out-loud funny and repaid the reader a hundred times over.

And yes, I probably did read them a hundred times. Once the books came out I devoured them, over and over, until I seriously considered applying to Mastermind as an outlet for all this specialist knowledge. Favourite lines? Oh..."It must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays". "'It's unpleasantly like being drunk.' 'What's so unpleasant about being drunk?' 'Ask a glass of water'". "The first ten million years, they were the worst. The second ten million years, they were the worst, too. The third ten million I didn't enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline". The phrase "He just phoned up to wash his head at us" could leave me helpless with laughter. You probably had to be there.

And then there were the improbable situations. The whale, called into existence and hurtling fast through the atmosphere. The beast that was bred to enjoy being eaten, and could tell you so. The invention of the Babel fish, which provided simultaneous translation of any language when inserted into your ear.

The invention of cricket as Earth's response to a bloody intergalactic battle. The Bugblatter Beast of Traal, a creature so stupid that it thought that if you couldn't see it, it couldn't see you. An early adopter of new tech, Douglas mentally invented both the internet and the iPad in order for his concept of the Book to work. Ah, the Book itself: with the calming voice of Peter Jones, it had the words 'Don't Panic written in large friendly letters on its cover. I wanted to live in a galaxy like that.

I realise I have just outed myself as a total geek, but the point is this: at a time when every teenager needs a hero that has nothing to do with the choices of their parents, I chose Douglas. I pretend that music was a big influence, that I was segueing from The Specials towards The Smiths; but it was words, not so much music, that was my thing. The idea that this clever, witty, prescient man was writing and unwriting sentences, often hitting writer's block and avoiding his desk for days, appealed to me hugely. Waiting for another of his books put one in a special club. They dripped out, slowly, until eventually there were 5 books in the increasingly inaccurately named H2G2 trilogy, plus two in the Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency series (I recommend these to you, particularly if you are like me a Neil Gaimon fan; he owes a huge debt, and knows it). I love the thought, postulated by Adams, that the first Dirk Gently book was written to accommodate the sentence 'High on a rocky promontory sat an electric monk on a bored horse', which popped into his brain and then needed somewhere to live. Adams never claimed to find writing easy; he wrestled with it all his life, partly because he never wanted to produce words that weren't all individually chosen as the right ones for the purpose. I salute that.

H2G2 gave me a sense of belonging at a time when I needed it most, those awkward mid-teens (it gives you a true idea of my geekiness that I haven't looked up any of the quotes - they remain burned onto my brain). It made me yearn for a universe of smug doors, depressed robots and drinks dispensers that analysed my taste-buds then always produced a hot liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. Where Chesterfield sofas materialised, and important people spent three years in the bath. But most of all, where I too could put words together in such a way that made people laugh, think twice, and yearn to inhabit another world - one of my own making. I am still wishing.

It saddens me that I never wrote to Douglas to thank him for the impact he had on my life, and for the continued pleasure his words give to me.

I guess I have now.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Eight minutes

In eight minutes I could
Catch up with the headlines
Boil two eggs – consecutively
Take a shower
Grind beans, boil water, make coffee.

In eight minutes I could
Fall in love
Say my vows
Conceive a child
Sign my will.

Eight minutes would prove insufficient
To conduct an argument
Prove a point
Take things to their logical conclusion:
These things take time…

If I could go back in time
Eight minutes
What would I choose to do?
Walk to the postbox – and back
Clean the bathroom
Straighten or curl my hair?

Eight minutes ago
I had not yet decided
What I would do
With this eight minutes: yet
Eight minutes ago
The light that illumines me now
Left the sun
To take its long journey…
And now continues
Scattered and reflected
Bounced and bewildered
Into the deep darkness of outer nothing.

I exist in its past
My present
Is its future.

Eight minutes on
I have written this poem.
That’s all.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Professor Brian Cox

OK so this is rather tongue-in-cheek; and it may be just to annoy The Man, who feels he should have been given his own BBC show about the wonders of space since he is roughly the same age as Brian, and has the same Carl Sagan book from his childhood. But girls - come on. Look at those lips...

He paints a picture of the heavens with every word he speaks
Describes the telescopic view of every star he seeks.
He names the furthest galaxies and makes dark matter bright
He changes his location almost at the speed of light
His mouth describes phenomena, such as how the sun’s eclipsed:
But all is lost on me; cos I’m just looking at his lips.

Oh, Brian Cox, Brian Cox
You’re my favourite science fox
When you speak of nuclear fission
You’re like a man who’s on a mission

He understands how black holes squeeze the juice out of reality
Explains, with aid of diagrams, the lighter side of gravity
He’s a proper scientist, a real physics insider
He’s got restricted access to the large Hadron collider.
He knows which planet has what moons, their colour and their size,
But I remember nothing; I just gaze into his eyes.

Oh, Brian Cox, Brian Cox
Let me stroke your lionesque locks
I really wish that I could listen
But you’re creating quite a frisson

He comprehends the laws of nature, knows where Einstein’s at
Can update us on the status of Schrodinger’s blessed cat.
No place on earth is too obscure, no planet out of reach
He travels far, from star to star, to boldly go and teach.
He segues from the desert to the Big Bang to the sea:
But all except his glorious pecs are sadly lost on me.

Oh, Brian Cox, Brian Cox
Let us dance beyond Orion’s rocks
Please hear this, my heartfelt petition
You can be my personal physician

You’re so steamy, so D-reamy
I wish that we could form a teamy

Oh, Brian Cox, Brian Cox
You’re my favourite science fox
My love for you is spilling over:
Please stop, before I turn supernova.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Until the end

It shouldn’t be him.

I know everything he’s done, and everything he’s said, but still - it shouldn’t be him.

He’s too young, it’s too soon. There’s so much more he could do, that he could have made of himself. I believed in him; I knew we hadn’t seen the best of him yet. All this.... it shouldn’t be happening to him. He’s only 30 years old. All that potential…wasted.

Of course, lots of other people would say he got what was coming to him. That he’s a liar, a thief, and a trouble-maker. But I know him. I’m family, you see. I know he was only trying to do what was right by us. To feed and clothe us. If he didn’t look after us, no-one else would, not our sort. And, yes, he stuck it to the Romans at the same time. That’s why they hated him. He’s a dirty upstart Hebrew who didn’t know his place. Well, he always had a big mouth on him. I should know, he’s my brother. And perhaps he shouldn’t have taken what didn’t belong to him. And then of course the violence… well, he had to defend himself, didn’t he? No-one ever gets anywhere in this world by turning the other cheek. But he doesn’t deserve this. He should have got off with a flogging at most, something to remind others of who’s in charge. As if we needed reminding! Not this…horror.

He shouldn’t be here, like a common criminal. They’re the ones that deserve it. The murderers and villains, with no thought for human life. Still, they got what was coming to them. No-one cries underneath their cross.

Except I see I’m not the only one. There are other women, gathered under another cross, softly crying now. I recognise that state: the one that comes after the disbelief, and anger, and wailing. Soon they’ll be left with nothing but despair, like me. Because what else is there? We’re losing our family and friends. These ordinary men that are extraordinary to us, because we know them and love them. I wonder what he’s done to deserve this?

He’s panting out a few words now, my brother. Cursing the Romans. Spitting out his pain and grief. Insulting the man next to him, who was supposed to be some kind of religious leader, even the promised one from God, for all the good it did him. What else is there left to say?

This other man, the one with all the weeping women, is trying to speak. ‘Father, forgive them…’ Forgive who? The Romans? The Rabbis, now clustering round and muttering between themselves? The mockers, with nothing better to do on a dark Friday afternoon than to poke fun at a dying man? – or does he mean the rest of us, those who wait for death here on this forsaken hill?

There is another criminal, a real hard type, on the far side. Now he’s joining in, having a go at my brother. ‘Whaddya wanna go shouting at him for? He’s done nothing wrong! At least we’re getting what we deserve!’

Are we? Did any of them deserve this? Do any of us, who are watching and waiting, deserve this?

Now he’s asking for some sort of comfort. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom’. Kingdom – huh! There’s a crown of thorns on his head, and a sign above saying ‘King of the Jews’. A fine king he makes, all bloody and broken.

Now this ‘king’ is whispering back: ‘Today, you and I will walk together in paradise’. Well, I wish I could see that, I really do. The king and the criminal, hand in hand. Some people have no idea of reality.

He’s getting weaker. They all are. There’s a weird kind of half-light to the sky, and a low rumble of thunder in the distance. The birds are quiet. Everyone else seems to be staring up at the man beside us, waiting for him to say something more. No-one ever looks at the likes of us like that. We’re not important, not worth paying attention to. Just one more bit of street scum to be cleared away.

Looking up at the man called the king I see he’s looking at my brother, with something like pity on his face. No, not pity: love. It’s as if he knows him, like I know him. And loves him, like I love him. More, even. It’s strange… in the middle of all his pain, the man seems to want to reach out to a low-class scoundrel like my brother, seeing all the good stuff that’s inside him. Knowing all the bad, but loving all the good. My brother jerks his head up suddenly, and meets his eyes. Something happens to him, I don’t know what, but I know it’s good: then he sighs, and his head flops down.

I think he’s gone.

And through my tears I see that the King is looking at me.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Art in Lent 5: Resurrection

What words do we associate with resurrection? Are they static words, or active ones? Resurrection means ‘the act of rising from the dead’. It suggests upward movement; a change of state; a bodily transformation. For a long time I have associated the word resurrection with dance - that bodily expression of an inward state of being. Dance is capable of expressing joy and wholehearted involvement in a way that other strands of the arts cannot. A large part of the reason for that association is due to this image by Bagong Kussudiardja: though I must confess that it does not actually represent the resurrection, but Christ’s ascension into heaven.


Bagong Kussudiardja was an Indonesian artist, dancer and & cultural activist. He studied dance in New York, and founded an Indonesian institute of fine art. Working mainly with batik, his images are full of the fluidity he expressed in his dancing, with many pieces taking dance itself as the focus. Usually his figures are dressed in the bright cloths of traditional Indonesian dance. In contrast this painting uses more sober, stark colour – a deep brown figure against a pale background, in which a white bird shadows the uplifted movement of the figure in the foreground.

The title of the piece is ‘The Ascension’, which identifies the figure as Jesus and recalls the moment when he was taken back into the heavenly realms. However, his dress – a simple loincloth – calls to mind the moment of resurrection. The white bird behind him stretches out its wings and tail, as if it is taking the form of the grave clothes that Jesus is shedding. His ankles are crossed, as if still tethered to the cross; but his arms are flung wide, embracing the heavens.

As the figure lifts his arms his body is thrown off-balance, as if in movement: he seems to dance, or even swim, towards the heavens. This is in contrast with the more staid and regal bearing of Christ in many Western depictions of the resurrection, such as that of Piero della Francesca. Kussudiardja’s Jesus is more joyful, leaping from the earth and praising his Father in heaven. Yet this is not a solo performance; the presence of the bird demonstrates the opportunity for any who would join the dance. We are invited in, and feel that at any moment he may reach down and clasp our hand to swoop us up into ecstatic motion. The resurrection is both inclusive and ongoing.

Another image of dance that has spoken to me over the years is far more familiar: it is ‘Danse I’, by Matisse. In the fluidity of the figures and in the open circle I find a picture of the church: a people rejoicing in the freedom of Christ, both echoing his resurrection and looking forward to the day of their own. The circle is not closed; a print of this picture used to hang on our wall and I felt that at any moment I, inhibited and undemonstrative as I am, might join the dance. Each figure dances freely, individually, without concern for form or structure; yet the whole is coherent. This ‘church’ does not busy itself in striving towards conformity, but celebrates the diversity of the people of God. Even the gender of the dancers seems confused at times – even more so in Matisse’s second version of this subject – and I am reminded of the Biblical assertion that in him there is no male or female…all are one in Christ Jesus.

Behind the figure in Kussudiardja’s painting is a bird, a creature that inhabits both earth and heavens. Its wings and tail are spread open as it takes flight, reminding us of the verse in Malachi (4:2) – ‘the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings’. Specific birds are used symbolically in many cultures. It is not clear which bird this represents. Is it a swan? In Indonesia, swans symbolize the discrimination between good and evil. Or (more likely) is it a white peacock? The peacock is well recognized in Asian art, and Christian symbolism links peacocks to immortality and the incorruptibility of the soul. The white feathers of the bird also bring to mind that of a dove. To Jewish thinking the dove was the bird of hope, the one that found evidence that the flood of Noah was subsiding – and so that God’s wrath was ending. Within Christian thought the dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, as seen at the baptism of Christ. This painting marks a moment of rebirth, as Jesus leaves behind the limitations of human flesh and rises to the life eternal that he has promised to share with us, through the work of the Spirit. The bird acts as a midwife to this rebirth, as she will do also for us when we leave behind our own flesh and rise to eternal life.

It is interesting to consider how different artists have depicted the resurrection, over the years. Too many for my taste are in soft focus, perhaps even with Jesus developing a propensity to float several inches above the grass. In many paintings Christ is inscrutable, aloof perhaps. The scars of crucifixion are clearly there, reminding us of recent agony and death; yet the face is not entirely of this world. Many images have Christ alone, or surrounded by those who sleep; the resurrection has come stealthily and secretly, and has yet to be discovered. In some the harrowing of hell is depicted – the doctrine that Jesus descended to the place of the dead. Many update the events, or change the location to surroundings familiar at least to the original audience. How would we want to imagine the scene? Or how else could the energy and wonder of the resurrection be represented?

In a number of films of the life of Christ the film-maker stops short after the resurrection, or merely hints at it. Directors are squeamish about re-introducing the figure of Christ, after so bullishly murdering him in the previous scenes. For me the best modern film that portrays resurrection does so without any mention of Christ. Instead, an entirely innocent man is incarcerated in a hellish jail for almost 20 years. During this time he suffers all manner of degrading and agonizing torture, both physical and mental; and yet he retains his integrity and dignity throughout. He shows courage, wisdom and tenacity, and achieves moments of joy and a sense of freedom for the other prisoners and therefore also himself. At last he is pushed too far, and his long plan is revealed; during the time of his imprisonment he has been digging a tunnel out, slowly and painstakingly. He drags his body through the narrow tunnel, then crawls through half a mile of sewerage pipe to freedom.

Whilst Andy escapes he does not leave the others without hope. He ensures the downfall of the corrupt and vicious prison warden, and so ushers in more humane era for the prison. His best friend, meanwhile, is released soon afterwards, having served his time for a real murder and become a changed man over the years of imprisonment, many lived alongside Andy. Without the routine of prison life, he is lost; but is found in the revelation of the plan Andy has for his life. It is fascinating to me that the author of the book that inspired this film should have called it ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. In it the characters find redemption, both in terms of paying their debts to society and those they have specifically harmed; but also in terms of their very natures being ‘saved’ by the experience of knowing Andy. What was for Andy an escape from hell became a rescue mission for them all.

At the climax of the film Andy finally emerges from the hell of tunnels and sewers to stand tall, washed by the cleansing rain, a free man. Jesus has left the prison of the human flesh and traveled through the pit of hell and death to rise, arms outstretched, free at last. In Kussudiardja’s painting I see the same stance, the same joy and liberation. It is both an end and a beginning, a new start that each of us are invited to take – if we will only join the dance.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Art in Lent 4: Doubt

This should have been the easiest of the Art in Lent sessions for me to write. This is, after all, the one in which I feel that I am an expert. Doubt has been a major feature of my walk with God, so much so that I cannot imagine another way of ‘doing’ faith. Without doubt, would I even recognise faith, when it comes?

And yet I have really struggled to write this. In part, that struggle has come because there is no one piece of art that represents doubt as I experience it. Because, after all, doubt is an absence, isn’t it – and how do you paint an absence? Doubt is the missing piece, the gnawing ache, the secret guilt. Doubt at best is the thing we leave behind when we come to faith, or come to a greater experience of faith – so that we can say, yes I experienced doubt, and ultimately it strengthened my faith. It made me examine the reasons why I believe and means that I no longer shove things under the carpet. Faith becomes stronger, richer and more considered. Surely doubt is something that is cast off, so that we can walk in the footsteps of Christ once more.

Well…sort of. Actually that is not my experience, and that is perhaps why more than anything I have found it hard to write this session. For me doubt is a daily encounter, and for a long time that meant that I found it difficult to deepen in faith. Now I have come to a sort of armistice with doubt; it always hovers there, and some days it informs my thinking and feeling more strongly; but on the plus side, it also informs my faith. More on that later…

The image we are using is Caravaggio’s ‘The Incredulity of St Thomas’. Now housed in the San-souci palace near Berlin, it was originally painted whilst Caravaggio was in Rome aged about 29, around 1601. Although other details of its provenance are unclear it uses the same model for an apostle as was used for a series of paintings on the theme of Matthew’s gospel, commissioned for the Contarelli Chapel, which were his first major commission. Caravaggio’s religious paintings caused a sensation because of their dramatic and often quite macabre details. He used not idealized settings but realistic, dimly lit surroundings with his models taken from the street and elevated to the position of angels and apostles. Caravaggio himself lived a disreputable life: in the years following this painting he was accused of beating another artist, and a soldier; he was arrested following complaints about his behaviour;, and once for throwing stones at the guards. He was accused of throwing a plateful of artichokes at a waiter. He fled Rome in 1605 following a brawl in defense of his mistress, and following a disputed game of tennis in 1606 he killed a man. The darkness, violence and ugliness of Caravaggio’s paintings came straight from his life and his own heart.

And yet – he painted beautifully. Each line and furrow of the skin captured. Each passing thought expressed in each face. Every character in a Caravaggio painting has a role; there are no bystanders simply there to improve the composition. You instantly believe in the moment, can imagine the conversation and predict the action. Take his version of the meal on the road to Emmaus – each figure is intensely active, involved and ready to spring into word or action. Or his ‘Calling of St Matthew’, in which four figures are turned towards Peter and Jesus as Matthew doggedly counts the money. You believe in these characters, whether the style of art is to your taste or not; they matter. They are you and me.

Which is why ‘The Incredulity of St Thomas’ is interesting. There the four characters are, all intent on the wound in Christ’s side. Even Jesus seems engaged in self-examination. As I said, it is difficult to imagine how doubt could be portrayed in art, and this is not the moment of doubting but the moment of faith for Thomas, based on the evidence he sees and touches. This is a popular subject; but other depictions are rather more reverent, and certainly less visceral that Caravaggio’s verson which is comparatively graphic - the sort of art that would have the BBC putting out a ‘this contains images of a disturbing nature’ warning. As we travel into the painting we feel as if we, too, could reach in and place our fingers inside the warm soft flesh. It is shocking, unseemly – almost distasteful.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.                                                                   John 20: 19-20

We read here that Jesus appeared, and blessed the disciples (‘Peace be with you’), then showed them him hands and his side; then they rejoiced. His presence alone was not enough to convince them of his bodily resurrection. So it does seem a little harsh that Thomas is saddled with the moniker of the doubter. Jesus seems more than happy to allow for the disciples’ confusion and skepticism, and is not squeamish when he offers his wounds for Thomas’ inspection. In this painting Jesus even takes Thomas’s hand and guides it into the gaping spear-wound. He is not offended by Thomas’s incredulity, even as he is not offended by ours. But he speaks to us down the years as he says, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’. He lets us know that he understands the difficulty in reaching and maintaining faith without the tangible evidence before us. There is a special blessing for the disciples who are to come after this time.

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later… Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”                                    John 20: 24-29

Thomas himself looks old, a little weary perhaps, with his cloak coming apart at the seams; and he has clearly seen many things. He is not a young man who may be swayed by tall tales. He wants to weigh the evidence. He doesn’t want to be called anyone’s fool. It is unclear from scripture whether he actually touches Christ, or whether the sight of him is enough; but clearly this is a life-changing moment. But do we believe that he, or indeed any of the other disciples, never doubted again? They may not have doubted the person of Christ, nor even his death and resurrection; but they may have other problems, ones that we are less likely to struggle with, concerning the ongoing presence of Jesus after he had returned to his Father. I imagine that, after walking and eating and sleeping next to him for three years, it was hard at times to learn to walk daily beside him without his bodily appearance on earth. Thomas may have had doubts in his mind that co-existed with the faith that allowed him to spend the rest of his life sharing the gospel with passion. We don’t know; perhaps he never said.

What do we know of Thomas? In other mentions of him in the gospel he comes across as a rather pessimistic man, as in John 11 v 16 (‘Let us go with him, so that we too may die); and someone who wanted things said plainly, such as in the exchange with Jesus in John 14: 1-6 (‘You know the way to the place where I am going.’ ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’). And we may suspect that some of his refusal to believe in Christ’s resurrection came from feeling left out when all the other disciples were in on the action. For some of us, being told something by everyone else is guaranteed to make us dig in our heels.

And am I a modern-day Thomas? My doubts, unlike my faith, are a personal thing. I have no problem sharing my faith. I do so at work, at home, with friends, at church. Jesus is part of my life; I am not embarrassed about that, and I find that he crops up pretty often in all sort of conversations. But sharing my doubts? Ah, that’s another issue entirely, and one that is only made worse when everyone else at church seems so sure. The problem is that I don’t have periods of doubt, to be swept aside by renewed faith. Faith and doubt co-exist. One feeds off the other. To consider God is to question much of what I understand about the material universe, about suffering, about theology, about the history and imaginations of human beings. In considering the doubts I find myself back at the side of Jesus, being asked once more if I want to place my hand inside his flesh. The more I think it likely that I will one day throw it all up in the air, the more I feel compelled to follow. And yet still I find myself thinking ‘yes, this is the way I believe, this is how I think God is; that is, if he exists at all.’

I used to feel concern that such an inner struggle meant that I would not ‘grow’, and become more like Christ. Now I look back and see the miracle: it happened anyway. I am not the person I was, and where I have changed it is mostly in a Christ-ward direction. Such is the miracle: in the ordinary and in the doubting, God’s holy fire has surrounded me and made things new. I keep returning to the image in Exodus of the burning bush: just one more ordinary scrubby foliage, that was surrounded by flame and inhabited by the presence of God. The one who is ‘I am’ inhabits even the ordinary doubts, and does not consume but leaps into passionate flame. The two exist together, the material and the spiritual, the doubter and the believer, the Spirit and the flesh. Heaven come to earth.

In Caravaggio’s picture I like to look at the faces of the other two disciples. Rather than standing back with a smug ‘well-of-course-we-never-needed-him-to-do-this-for-us’ look on their faces they lean forward, intensely involved. I like to think they were glad of one more chance to check that they hadn’t imagined it the first time. In church we spend a lot of time saying what we believe, and checking that we are saying it ‘right’; but it seems to me that there is far more that we don’t understand that we do, and so it should be since God is infinitely more than we can envisage. One definition of doubt is ‘to be uncertain’. Whilst I wish I were more certain about some things – perhaps it’s not something that comes easily to my nature – I am also concerned when Christians claim to be certain about everything they believe. Such certainty breeds pride, and can be anti-missional. It is in the exploration of doubts that we discover the possibilities that faith presents to us, not in rigid certainties but in the creative envisaging of a God who is bigger and more wonderful than anything we have so far experienced. I think that church should be a place where we can doubt noisily and openly, and where questions are as much a feature of our lives together – lives of faith – as answers.