Top of the Pile

Reading is my escape.

Last year I finished reading more books than the previous year, and I wanted to share some of the highlights and a few recommendations.

Mornings include escape time to centre and regroup before work. This means reading a chapter of something positive and a devotional thought to challenge me. I was encouraged to learn of some black authors I had not already read and these two stood out for me:

More Than Enchanting by Jo Saxton is encouraging, thoughtful and relatable. It was written to empower women – most women in my experience – who face barriers which prevent them achieving their God-given potential.

Still Standing by Tola Doll Fisher, editor of Woman Alive magazine, is a series of 100 ‘thoughts for the day’ on matters as wide-ranging as ‘How to spend a pre-payday weekend’ to ‘Imposter syndrome’ and ‘Why I’m not here for religion’. Tola has a fascinating life-story and uses her experiences, both good and bad, to connect honestly and powerfully.

Other morning books that connected well with me were:

Cathy Madavan’s Irrepressible, which champions resilience and lays out some excellent and timely principles to grow in it and Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, which speaks truth and kindness to readers of all ages and is already a classic in its own right.

Afternoons for me are for working on teaching tasks. As well as writing, I teach Biblical Studies so I try to read a chapter of the Bible in an original language during the day if I can fit it in. I’m working through Old Testament narratives now and finding things I haven’t seen in the English versions. I have found biblehub.com to be a valuable resource here; using an interlinear version is much faster than parsing and remembering every word (especially now that my memory is not what it used to be). It still gives my brain a workout though and I can click on the words for more information on pronunciation, roots, meanings and cross-references.

Evenings are for fiction, beginning with reading to my son when I put him to bed. One of the highlights of last year reading to a 10-year-old was The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius.

This story pulls you in to an absurd journey of twists and adventures centred on the wonderful main character, Sally Jones. Gorillas may not always have fared well in fiction, but Sally Jones is a highly intelligent and gentle ship’s engineer and out to prove the innocence of Captain Koskela. Will she succeed? Written originally in Swedish but translated with real fluency and pace, this page-turner leaves the reader curious to explore Portuguese fada music, Indian palaces and even how ships work. Great for adventurers aged 7 and up.

Other books I would recommend to children from my own reading last year:

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s fantastical The Girl of Ink and Stars has a female protagonist mapmaker searching for answers and evocative writing. The dystopian world comes alive a piece at a time, like a map being unfolded. You never know quite where the adventure will go next.

I love A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh for its wit and warmth. The photo is of the 1931 copy I inherited from my grandpa. A.A. Milne’s writing stands the test of time and the characters are so familiar you miss them when you finish the books. I think I am most like Rabbit myself. Milne has written other great stuff too, but Pooh is timeless and works for all ages. A great mood-lifter: innocent and silly but intelligent with it.

For young adults:

If you have not read anything by Stephen Davies, you are missing out. He has a knack for stories no one else is telling but which are gripping and gutsy. Chessboxer convinced me that a book about chess really could be interesting, with a flawed and feisty main character Leah Baxter, imaginative style and original plot.

Kwame Alexander’s Solo is told in free verse and engages the mind, heart and soul. The story of Blade, the son of a washed-up rock star, takes you in all kinds of directions and riffs on musical themes and ideas. Look out for other books by these authors too; you won’t be disappointed.

For older readers:

These all suit a slightly older readership for different reasons. Fran Hill’s Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? connected with me on various levels but I especially recommend it to anyone who’s taught at secondary level. Built on her own life experiences, this fictional diary contains astute observations on life, literature and loss, told with practised humour and intrigue. I lent out my copy and might need to replace it!

Annie Try’s Red Cabbage Blue tells the story of Adelle Merchant, a girl who only eats blue food and who has an overprotective mother. Her psychologist Mike Lewis is trying to solve the puzzles this raises, but he is also dealing with his own issues and relationships. Annie’s background in clinical psychology means this reads very convincingly – there are other books which feature Mike Lewis but I found this one the most engaging so far. A great story with a satisfying ending.

Manacle by Chris Aslan is arresting and provocative. This is the second of three books of his which tell stories from the Bible from a very different angle. Unlike many biblical retellings, I found this well-researched and well-written and without sugar-coating or preaching. I am eagerly looking forward to his next publication and highly recommend both this and Alabaster which overlaps a few of the characters: the content may be tragic and bittersweet in places but the settings are powerful and create a compelling view of people’s lives in the times they are set.

There are other books I read which don’t fit into any of these categories. They might fit into any time of day and they are generally curious, theological or both, so I might read them whenever I get a moment.

Women’s Lives in Biblical Times by Jennie Ebeling is an academic book (around £20 at the moment), but it is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to understand more about domestic life in the Old Testament – it is a perfect cross-over for me of my writing and teaching work. Jennie invents a character, Orah, who lives in ancient Israel in the Iron Age and describes her life using narrative, in addition to the non-fictional archaeological and biblical data she presents to make her case.

How Not to Write a Novel (the version by Newman and Mittelmark, not any others of the same title) is a superb read if you aspire to publish a book. By giving many examples of what not to send in to publishers, the authors hope to encourage people to give up their writing, or – failing that – to do a much better job at it. Very funny, frequently rude and full of brilliant parodies, this is one of the better works on how to write, quite possibly because it attacks the topic from an entirely different angle. No recommendations on what to do; just what not to do.

Beard Theology by The Church Mouse is the book you didn’t realise you needed. If you thought that the history of the church had no connection with facial hair, you have much to learn in this clever and very silly book. If there is one thing I’d add, it would be a chapter on the biblical stories on hairiness; but this would actually make an excellent sequel (think Absalom, Esau, Elisha, Samson, etc). Not having one’s own beard is no barrier to enjoying this and the illustrations by Dave Walker are hilarious.

Theology of Home, however, was a book I did not need. At least, not if I wanted a systematic and careful investigation of how faith and decorating a home intersect. I was curious about the concept and ordered a copy from America. The book is filled with large photos of happy and tidy rooms filled with beautiful things but not a lot of reasoning on the questions I actually had, which are along the lines of ‘how can we use our resources most wisely, and how much disposable income should we spend on our homes?’ – I still haven’t found good answers to these questions so am working it out as I go instead. This might lead to more thinking on this another time for me, so not an entirely wasted exercise.

One final book deserves a mention from those I completed last year. Another inherited title, Cornish Recipes Ancient and Modern by the Cornwall WI (1930).

Many of the recipes are not safe, several suggestions for cures are downright dangerous and the ingredients lists (where they exist) are as confusing as they are amusing: why give precise quantities? Written when powdered ammonia was still considered a rising agent and all parts of animals and plants seemed to have a domestic purpose, every page of this collection of concoctions made me smile. It may not be practical today, but it got me thinking and provided several jokes to share, so that counts as a great success.

Where will I escape in 2021? My To Be Read pile grows as fast as it shrinks and this year I am looking forward to some great releases as well as revisiting some classics. I’ve completed five so far, but have a number more on the go and this year I’m also recording when I finish books to see whether they always run in groups. I’m always on the lookout for interesting, amusing and well-written works so let me know in the comments if you have any good recommendations.

Oh, and please don’t try the pies.

We Need to Talk About Goldilocks

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On Saturday I cut the long, long hair of my daughter
shorter.

Disentangling her
and her hair
from unfair
association with any bears.

(Or bear-related criminal activity).

Her hair long enough to sit on,
I wasn’t going to stand around
and take it lying down.

I heard the cops might profile my daughter –
might escort her,
deport her, even.

So I cut her long, long, golden hair
shorter.

(You would, too).

Her description matched
The Flaxen Attacker.

It wasn’t the bears’ fault
they were victims of crime.
At the time
they’d been out,
at a picnic,
with the Cubs,
in the woods.

No big surprise,
they’d left their door unlocked.

And at the scene of crime
this evidence was there:
one long, long, golden hair,
stuck square in a large bowl of porridge (hot).

Not only that, but
the littlest chair
had been somewhat deconstructed
(her athletic tilts).

Criminal damage, breaking and entering, hate-crime, intimidation.
It’s big, big news down at the station.

She says she wasn’t there.

To make it fair
I chopped her hair.

Took an axe to the flax.

Popped it
under some stacks
of wood
round the back,
right next to the wolf-skin
from that awful incident
with granny
last Spring.

(That would take some explaining too).

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Noah’s Lockdown Diary

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Day 1

Well, this is truly unprecedented. The family have been stockpiling every conceivable edible thing and for the past week we’ve been taking in more and more foster animals. Ham asked me how much food I thought we’d need for us and all the animals, but I have no idea how long we need to lockdown. ‘It’s not my idea’, I told him. I’m just following official guidelines. Meanwhile, Shem has filled a whole cabin with toilet paper. Strange lad. No one has brought a corkscrew, so it looks like we won’t be cracking open any wine for the foreseeable.

I’m grateful that the family are rallying round now anyway. They do take up the room: maybe I should have measured a bit more carefully. Suddenly there’s elbows everywhere. We’ve divided up our limited area and everyone gets a bit of outdoor time each day, although there’s not a lot we can do about the smell indoors. I blame the pets. Mostly.

We have strict instructions not to leave, and I hope we will get through this without mishap.

Sounds like the rain has started.

Day 5

Well, that was a storm and a half.

I say was, but it’s still going. Decidedly soggy out.

Various neighbours have knocked on the door over the past few days. It’s a bit hard to hear them, so I climbed out on deck to call down and tell them they weren’t supposed to leave their own homes. Lots of shouting followed. It’s quite high up on deck, so pretty hard to tell what they are saying. If they are complaining about the smell, there’s not a lot I can do. If they are checking we are ok for food and toilet paper, that’s very kind, but really not necessary. Tried to explain this, but the near constant rain really interfered with communicating.

Day 17

Haven’t seen any neighbours for days. Probably for the best: they really ought to take this isolation thing seriously. Actually I’ve not been outside for a while. Rain was getting me down, and not enough space to dry out clothes inside.

Everyone is on a rota for the jobs that need doing. I was a little concerned to see quite how much I’d have to get done, as well as teaching my sons animal welfare, geography and woodwork. Am tempted to adjust the rota when no one else is looking.

Day 41

Finally, a day with no rain.

Looked out during my exercise hour and saw a rainbow. Had a little think and wondered what it all means.

Was startled by a runaway piglet splashing about on deck and spent most of my free time trying to catch the thing.

Jay said it was Ham. Ham said Shem let it loose. Shem blamed someone else, but I forget who; I had stern words and sent them all to their rooms. Five minutes later their mum told them to get back to their chores.  I would have said something, but I realised that I would be doing extra jobs if I didn’t keep my mouth shut.

Day 50

I’m really missing my friends. I used to meet up with several of them before all this started. The whole landscape has changed since then.

Also, I could really do with a haircut. Kids are joking I look like a yak.

Day 62

This is really getting tedious and most days just feel the same. Jay developed a cough, so is keeping to himself in his quarters. More work for the rest of us. Hmmph.

The wife pointed out that we are almost out of flour and she won’t be able to make any more bread soon. I didn’t want to mention that I don’t think there will be any more flour for quite a while. Even planting seed looks to be off the menu, so next year’s bread will be unusual. Might have to ration what’s left, or start eating some of the rabbits. I’m sure we didn’t start with that many.

Day 78

The wife has taken to knitting special beard masks for those of us who can still smell the animals. You put it over your mouth and nose when you feed or clean the animals. Can’t see it working, but I don’t like to upset her, now we are right out of flour. I didn’t ask where she got the wool from, although I noticed the llamas looked a little chilly last week.

I have been doing a spot of DIY and have designed and built a magnificent flagpole. Gets me outdoors and away from the lads – they will not stop squabbling! Might ask Mrs N to knit a flag if she gets time. You’d think you’d have lots of time in lockdown, but the days are all so busy.

Day 99

What a day! Ham went for a swim and we nearly lost him. How many times do I have to tell the boys ‘Stay Safe – Stay Indoors’? It’s not a suggestion: it’s a strict instruction. He did look a little drippy when we fished him out. Said he regretted it, but that he was feeling so claustrophobic. I do understand, of course. Being stuck inside so much, I have taken to eating more. Good thing I like rabbit.

The wife made me a flag. It took her a while, as she wanted it to be colourful – like a rainbow, she told me. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked her, but she went zooming off to do something else. Sat and talked with God a bit: the only part of the day which is making any sense now.

Day 121

It does feel like things are going to be very different after all this. The sky has been bluer, the stars clearer and water around us is cleaner. Except of course when Jay and Ham empty the buckets from the stalls. You do not want to be downwind of that!

Am getting rather fed up with rabbit stew, if I’m honest.

Tried plaiting my beard. Not really helping. I keep tripping over it. The yak doesn’t have this problem, I noticed.

Day 150

We are no longer floating, but it’s not clear why.

My beard is now so long the wife is talking about using it for making some new vests. Three-piece suit, more like!

Day 224

It might be our imagination, but it does look as though there are some little islands emerging around us. Jay said they must be the tops of mountains. Ham disagreed, as mountains have snow on the top. Shem laughed at him. Another squabble ensued. I will be glad to see the back of this lot and have a nice quiet drink when this is all over. Saw another rainbow as the sun was setting – wish I knew what God was up to. Asked, but all was quiet.

Day 264

Jay was right. The islands look much more like the tops of mountains now, although these are no mountains I can ever remember seeing. Not that I ever travelled much.

Still, before all this I was quite a different person I suppose. These things change you.

I released a raven. It didn’t come back; the boys thought it was rather foolish of me, so I let out a dove as well. Poor thing couldn’t find anything it wanted, and got tired, so flew back to the safety of lockdown with the rest of us. I wonder what it saw. Probably should have sent a parrot.

Day 271

Tried another release today with Joanie, my favourite dove. She didn’t disappoint; she returned an hour or so later with a fresh branch of olive in her beak. I realise now that I should have spent the last year training at least one type of bird to retrieve things for us. It would have come in especially handy. I’d love an actual olive. Haven’t had proper fresh food for months.

I’m not upset though. The branch is important – the wife will no doubt stick it in the scrap book.

Day 278

You can’t train a dove in seven days, it turns out. Joanie flew off today and didn’t return. I suppose this is a good thing, but I had hoped she would try and bring some proper fresh olives for us.

The boys are constantly asking how much longer until we leave this place. I’m not sure – still waiting on official guidance on that. Also I need to flatten my curve, as I don’t seem to fit into all my clothes any more. Can’t be seen out looking like this!

Day 314

Must say, it is looking a lot safer out there. Land is lovely and fresh, very few puddles.

Day 370

Lockdown is over – Praise God!

We got official notice today that we could leave here. Also all the animals we brought with us and haven’t yet eaten.

Feels so weird to be back out again.

Some bright spark suggested a barbecue. I thought it would be a good time to honour God for rescuing us from harm, so we sacrificed some animals on there. After the stinky animal pens (and family) it smelt particularly good.

Spent some time praying while the others walked about and when I looked up I saw another rainbow. Felt strangely satisfied. It occurred to me that God will restore the world and will look after all of us – people, animals, plants, everything he has created. I finally realised what the rainbow is about. It is like a gate between harm and salvation, a door from fear to joy. God wanted me to understand that he cares about all living creatures and won’t allow us to be utterly destroyed. He rescued us, even though it took a while and the journey was hard. He has good plans in the days to come and is far more powerful and beautiful than I previously realised. I can see that he was present with us throughout our difficult time.

I still have problems, mind. No idea what to do with the massive pile of remaining toilet paper, now there’s no one to sell it all on to. And my curve hasn’t flattened enough. It’s not going to help that I do think the olives down the hill might now be ready to pick…

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Images (c) Quentin Blake, 2020

 

 

Friday 500 – Christmas Pop Theology

Perhaps this is the year Chris Rea will make it all the way home in time for Christmas. We can only hope.

I like to listen in to the lyrics of songs. And, given that ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ is a popular non-religious Christmas song, I found it surprisingly full of hidden biblical references.

Consider the following extracts, and some interesting parallels:

I’m driving home for Christmas

The Israelites had to drive out the nations in the land before they could possess it. But perhaps that is the wrong sense. Think instead of Elisha, driving a pair of oxen as he ploughed a field. Was he driving homewards? Probably half the time. Events overtook him and he changed plans. Like Rea, we are left wondering if there was a satisfactory outcome to this slow march. Unlike Rea, Elisha stopped, killed his oxen, cooked them and feasted with his family, before heading off for a good long time. This seems as close to a portrayal of Christmas as I can find in the Old Testament. A biblical reference about the need for a good feast time with family.

I can’t wait to see those faces

This is clearly a reference to Joseph’s brothers travelling down to Egypt. The phrase ‘seeing’ a ‘face’ occurs five times in this story. The irony of course was that there was a lot of waiting to be done. Christmas always seems like a long wait. Until you reach adulthood in my experience. Then it comes round every twelve months, whether you’ve been naughty or nice. And twelve months come round a lot more quickly than they used to.

Well I’m moving down that line

David in 1 Samuel 17:48, running to fight Goliath. “As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly towards the battle line to meet him.” A reference to the need for proactive Christmas preparations. David already had his ‘gift’ for Goliath and was ready to sling it over to him. Granted, the motive was not pleasant, but it was the thought that counted.

And it’s been so long

An invalid in John 5 had been a very long time waiting for his turn to be healed at the pool of Bethesda. This is clearly a reference to this passage. Jesus heals him anyway, despite it being a non-work day. Which goes to show that the wait is worth it, but you shouldn’t forget those who have to work over the holidays.

But I will be there

This reference is to the consecration of Solomon’s temple, where God tells him in 1 Kings 9:3: “I have heard the prayer and plea you have made before me; I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there for ever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.” God’s presence is a rather significant part of Christmas.

I sing this song

There are many songs in the Bible, although I think the reference here is to Isaiah 44:23 where even the heavens, the earth, the mountains, forests and trees are all part of the choir. Choirs form a staple of Christmas and trees are now a prominent feature in many places to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Decorated and lit up, they too join in the great song of praise and glory.

It’s gonna take some time

This lyric refers to Nehemiah 2, where the length of his proposed journey from Persia to Jerusalem to shore up the city walls is discussed. Nehemiah is truthful. Partly because he does not have super-speed reindeer (he does have access to a donkey apparently) and partly because he needs an extended leave of absence.

Top to toe in tailbacks
Oh, I got red lights on the run

The levitical laws prescribed dabbing priests’ ear lobes and big toes with blood, which is bright red, just like tail lights. Clearly then, this is a reference to the priestly element of the Christmas story.

Get my feet on holy ground

Moses’ encounter with God at the non-burning bush is the obvious connection here. Rea sings about getting home in these terms, because he wants to be somewhere sacred and familiar. The message of Christmas is that the pitter-patter of little feet brings God nearer than ever before. We have the opportunity to really encounter God and his love ourselves.

And feel you near me

Immanuel, ‘God with us’, the classic Isaiah prophecy recalled at Christmas concerns God’s imminence and presence. Even when apart from loved ones, like Rea we sometimes feel the comfort of knowing they love us. Even when apart from God we sometimes recognise a piece of the divine Love, and when we are close to God we feel those pieces falling into place in our lives.

With a thousand memories

Psalm 105:8: “He remembers his covenant for ever / the promise he made, for a thousand generations”. Not just a thousand memories, but a thousand generations of memories. Which is figurative for ‘a very long time’, but nevertheless reassuring.

So, next time you find yourself stuck in a car, listening to this song on the radio about other drivers stuck in cars, have a think about the lyrics. Maybe there’s more I haven’t even spotted yet. Who knows? Or other Christmas pop songs?

In fact, I’ve gone way over my 500 words target for this week (I hadn’t posted so much lately so this one is longer), so it really is time I left this thought here.

Songwriters: REA, CHRISTOPHER ANTON

Driving Home For Christmas lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.