Year of the Dog – May

I asked Faye what she wanted me to include in this month’s update for the Year of the Dog series. (See January, February, March and April if you haven’t already).

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‘Woof’

She’s not very good at English yet. She doesn’t say much either, to be fair.

Not to worry. I am learning more and more Dog, specifically Greyhound dialect. I can’t speak it, but I am trying to understand it. Mostly understanding Faye comes down to body language. Thankfully, she is always keen to please, lives in the moment and is grateful for every bit of attention, meal, walk or car journey.

So instead of Faye’s animal version of events, here’s my own round-up of what Faye has been up to and new things she’s encountered with us in the past few weeks.

In order to help reduce her prey drive, we have made a point of low-key and short introductions to small dogs and other animals. She gets lots of praise for a quiet, relaxed reaction. Here Faye is observing guinea pigs, sheep, ducklings and any number of imaginary squirrels, rabbits and birds. Most of the time she is doing amazingly. Sometimes we have to hold her firm; even today a cat ran across the road in front of her and she thought it necessary to pull hard on the lead. She is trained to chase and has a natural drive to go for moving furry things. Very fast.

Dogs chasing the lure at Crayford, where Faye used to race

I am glad she has a muzzle when we’re out – if a small fluffy dog decides to run up to her she will react with a growl and then sometimes snap at them. She won’t do it unprovoked, but in order to see these smaller dogs as friends she’s been doing some short walks with some local Bedlington Terriers. Apparently these two breeds historically used to work together to flush out and chase down vermin. I’m not sure Faye would know what to do next though; most greyhounds have very little retrieving ability.

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I had heard that greys are not interested in digging either, although that also appears to depend on the actual dog. Faye observed us preparing a vegetable patch (she was very keen to come out and watch several times) and then managed her own bit of digging on a bit of garden while no one was looking. It didn’t do any damage, and thankfully was before we had planted anything in that patch. Maybe I need to get her observing me doing some more helpful tasks, such as shredding or collecting the post. But not both at the same time.

This month has also been about teaching Faye about where she lives. She was born in Ireland, but that’s no reason not to try and understand the British way of life too. She accompanied me to the voting station in the local elections recently, but was not impressed by the Royal Wedding – she thought the plastic hat was for her and took it into the garden, then slept through most of the ceremony.

We don’t hold it against her though. She’s not the brightest button. Sometimes she isn’t even sure if she’ll fit through an open door.

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‘Can I come in? I’ve been waiting here hoping you’d open the door…’

Um, have you tried coming through the gap?

For all her silliness, we do love her to bits. She came with me to my writing group in Norfolk this week and did brilliantly. She behaved well, and we went on from there to drop off some fish kibble which hadn’t been working for us to the King’s Lynn branch of the Retired Greyhound Trust and had a walk with the beautiful Maud.

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‘Is it short for More dogs please?’

Maud is a gorgeous and gentle girl with over a hundred races under her belt. Or should that be collar? Her fur is very soft, and has special ‘snowflake’ white flecks in the black. She got on brilliantly with Faye and would make a super pet for someone – she’s still only four years old. Click on the link here to see more pictures of her:

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Faye would have loved to have taken Maud home as a sister, and I would have happily taken her too, but it is too soon for us to be getting another greyhound in the family.

On Sunday afternoon she will be meeting a lot of other greyhounds and their families though, at the Newmarket Greyhound Extravaganza. I will hopefully be able to report back next month about how it all goes.

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For the time being, Faye is comfortable just chilling and spending most of the time asleep in whichever position feels most comfortable. I don’t blame her.

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Happy dreams, Faybo

 

The Writing Place – Hans Christian Andersen

I have had a thing about Lego for as long as I can remember. This led to a school project on Denmark, where I announced that I had not been to Denmark ‘but I would like to one day’. I don’t know how old I was, but I do know my writing looked this bad:

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I never was much good at drawing Norwegian fjords

Denmark is a country I have a deep affection for. I get Denmark and Denmark gets me. Perhaps I should write a blog post raving about how exciting it is to visit a place with stunning architecture, views, Viking sites, the original Legoland, food, castles, design, pastries, bacon and clever Scandi-solutions everywhere you go, but this is not that post.

Well. You get the idea.

Nope. This post, following on from one I did about Rudyard Kipling’s home in East Sussex, is the second in an occasional series I am writing about places associated with well-known writers. I want to learn about what other authors’ places were like, what inspired them and how their creative spaces looked, if it is still possible to visit them.

I first went to Denmark for a long weekend with Matthew for our tenth wedding anniversary. We took the children last summer on a return visit. As well as Copenhagen, we got to travel on a replica Viking boat and were able to spend time on Jutland so that I could fulfil my ambition to visit Legoland Billund. As a writer, one of the highlights for me was popping in to Odense in order to visit the home of Hans Christian Andersen.

Someone obviously moved those islands since I drew them

Odense is on the island of Funen, which is connected by bridges to Jutland to the West and Sjælland (Zealand) to the East. A visit to Odense is well worthwhile; it is a pretty town with lots of history and is conveniently between Copenhagen and Billund. 

It is also, of course, the home town of the celebrated Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875).

Hans, sensibly wearing layers in the changeable Danish climate
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Andersen’s childhood home

Odense is home to the birthplace of Andersen, which has been adapted and extended into a fascinating museum about the man and his work, and also his childhood home, a humbler and much smaller yellow building with lots of timber details and the same tiny, curtained cot-beds and metal box radiators you can find in other historic buildings in Denmark.

 

Both sites fascinated me. I was intrigued to learn a lot about this famous author, but also surprised at how humble his beginnings really were. His mother was an illiterate washerwoman, who had hopes of her son becoming a tailor. Hans was certainly an odd character himself. He wrote prolifically (over 3000 works, including fairy tales, poetry, novels and travelogues), travelled widely and had a hobby cutting paper shapes. Bizarre, enigmatic paper shapes. He was tall and had a large nose and chose a life of celibacy, perhaps to disguise his various attractions. His stories were as bizarre and creative as his papercutting.

Some of Hans Christian Andersen’s more famous stories are ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Snow Queen’, The Ugly Duckling’, ‘The Princess and the Pea’ and ‘Thumbelina’. Though few people read them in the original Danish, many are very well known through translations, films, plays and ballets.

Andersen clearly had a vivid – and often disturbing – imagination. He had grown up in poverty and been mistreated by a school-master. He had been told not to write and had failed at various career options. However, he appears to have had confidence and a need to write, which led to some of his writing getting published in Denmark and then acclaim in Germany and England too with ‘The Improvisatore’, a novel set in Italy and published in 1835.  The same year, his first fairy tales were also published, almost unnoticed. The first ones were re-told folk tales with strong moral messages, and later ones came from his imagination, often drawing on personal memories. Many of the fairy tales have strong characters and memorable dramatic or emotive situations. Andersen had an ear for telling stories like a child and an eye for sentimental detail.

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While we were at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum we bought a Danish edition of an English retelling of his Danish work, ‘The Little Tin Soldier’. I’m not sure if you can source it anywhere else. My Danish is not strong, but I’m pretty sure the internet is right in translating the first part as ‘He began to blow as hard as he could.’ The second part is easier to guess.

 

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I never did trust jack-in-the-boxes. So unpredictable.

 

“Ha’ ikke hovedet under armen – for din sikkerheds skyld”

Danish is a curious language. If you have learned German and are fluent in English, a great deal is guessable. If you know Norwegian or Swedish it is even easier. Danes are quirky and direct. You are likely to see signs like this at the stations, for example. The literal translation is ‘do not have your head under your arm – for your safety’ and the meaning equates to ‘keep your head screwed on’.

I can’t help thinking the national mentality is still not far removed from Andersen’s.

 

Hans kept his head under his arm however, so to speak. He kept his hands busy too, churning out page after page. This is one of his writing spaces, at the Museum:

 

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Andersen’s writing desk (far right)

Such an elegant space, with many nineteenth century details, dark wood and curves. As a tall person myself I doubt he would have been particularly comfortable at the desk for long, although he was often travelling and writing. If it represents Andersen’s real work space it appears remarkably tidy, not to mention free of tiny paper cuttings.

There are few other books in this space and everything feels dignified and proper. Perhaps he was trying to show his wealth in a good light.

Here are a few more facts about the man himself:

  • Hans left school at fourteen, started as an apprentice tailor in Copenhagen and tried unsuccessfully to work as a singer, dancer and actor there, having lost his father in 1816.
  • He often lived as a guest in the country estates of wealthy friends. He loved meeting celebrities of his day.
  • He overstayed a visit to Charles Dickens and was eventually asked to leave after five weeks; this meant the friendship broke down.
  • He couldn’t spell or write elegant Danish, as he struggled to work systematically after a poor initial education; his writing is colloquial and easier to read as a result.
  • He was frequently in love, but apparently always unrequited; the famous singer Jenny Lind turned down a marriage proposal from him.

Today, thousands of people visit his hometown each year to see where he grew up, and millions around the world know his stories. Andersen has been immortalised in many ways and in many places. The latest is this:

HCA legoLego Creative Personalities set 40291 has just been announced: a book with reference to the great Dane. It seems Hans Christian Andersen still captures the imagination of young and old alike. Even in Lego.

 

Year of the Dog – April

Before Faye, I honestly felt like I was missing something. There was a broody dog-shaped hole in my life, and I was sincerely hoping Faye would fix that. I had already made peace with the idea that it may never happen, and the equally frightening idea that it may not turn out to be what I had hoped.

Now we have her, Faye is proving to be all I hoped for, and far more. While life itself can often leave us unsatisfied, owning a dog (or being owned by one) turns things around. I have started being grateful for things I wasn’t grateful for previously, such as the beauty of the early mornings, getting out of the house when I would otherwise have been dozing, feeling accomplished at making another heartbeat happy in the world and noticing so many fascinating things on walks around the area.

We have achieved so much in such a short space of time, but I felt it would be good to highlight some of the moments which meant a lot to me in the past few weeks.

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Get that booper – Faye asleep in her favourite spot
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Teddy paws

 

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The well-trained sleeping machine

 

Taking Faye out and about is always great fun. She has been around the village a lot now, as well as to Thetford Forest, Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds (Joe realised Faye could help carry the picnic blanket for a short while), Felixstowe to see the sea and the hairdressers (for Lily). People often stop and ask questions, mostly about why she is wearing a muzzle, or to ask to stroke her. She takes all this in her stride and loves people. She is still working on reacting well to other dogs, but is making good progress already.

 

Faye won’t roll over for me, but will do it for Lily when I’m not there, just to have her belly rubbed!

 

She hasn’t quite worked out how to get treats from a Kong toy, but likes licking peanut butter from it. She also loves tea, and sometimes gets a taste when I’ve finished mine. She behaved very well in her first restaurant, lying on the floor patiently and enjoying the atmosphere.

 

She makes me laugh – sometimes she won’t eat a treat unless she’s allowed to take it in the ‘right’ room, and this week she was so tired she thought I was sending her to bed in the garden and lay down instead of toileting. She’s also been known to stop and lie down on a walk when exhausted, even if we’re already almost back. She won’t eat pasta or vegetables she can see in her meal. She finds the comfiest place to lie in the garden or house, even if it means flattening plants or using a bag of clothes. She crosses her legs like a diva and when she spots something cat-shaped she is transfixed, no matter how much you call or pull. It doesn’t matter whether the cat is real or not. She also loves spotting rabbits and squirrels.

 

She is a 26 kg dog but can still curl up into her dog bed and ignore everything – until she hears a sound like another dog, or food.

 

Here she is following the kids home from school. She has learned to be responsible and carry her own bags. I have to watch her carefully as she gets spooked by the scooters sometimes and moves sideways into the road. Walks are great fun for Faye, and checking her ‘weemails’ takes longer each day now the weather is warming up!

 

There is a secure orchard a few minutes’ walk from our house, where we can let Faye off lead and call her back. She is ridiculously fast with a very long stretch as she runs; she makes her high-speed bursts look very easy. She doesn’t like to go off on her own thankfully, and will happily chase around with the children or come to us if we call her.

 

Although most of Faye’s time is spent asleep, she loves to relax even when she’s out and about. The other day we discovered her secretly sitting, which is difficult for greyhounds to do. Usually when she is getting up or down, or perching in the car, she ‘sits’ with her legs to her left. On this occasion she was actually sitting properly. If she does it more I will teach her the ‘sit’ command.

On the beach, she dug a small dip in the sand for her huge ribcage so she could lie down comfortably; I’ve no idea if that is usual behaviour.

Faye now has a super new blue martingale collar for best and red house collar for everyday to match her normal martingale; I’m looking into whether to get her a harness to help keep her close when she wants to pull away at the wrong moments.

She’s taken to raising an eyebrow at times, although we are learning to read her body language. She does try to communicate with us when she wants something. As long as we take the time to listen to her and try and hear what she means to tell us; it could be that she wants to go outside, is finding her muzzle itchy or is waiting for her meal.

Faye’s met her ‘grandparents’ and got on really well with them and other visitors. She has interacted with other dogs and been on a walk with a vizsla successfully. I was also able to take Faye to a group dog walk last week, where she did really well most of the time with the six other breeds, although there were some nervous dogs there and one very small, very furry shih-tzu which took her fancy and had to keep a distance.

I am hoping to help her socialise with more dogs over the coming weeks and begin some command training with a clicker now that she has settled into the family. The local community in the village have been wonderful at welcoming her and showing interest when I posted on the local facebook page that she is still adapting to life in a regular home. Many folk came over to our yard sale at the weekend and met her too, which was thrilling. It has really opened opportunities to meet many more folk in our area. Faye is a talking point and a way to connect to people of all ages and abilities.

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Suppawt dog walk

 

 

HI muzzle

 

Faye is making us more disciplined as a family (e.g. time-keeping, responsibilities, getting up and dressed) and helping each of us feel more loved. She is also getting a lot of love from us: learning new walks, trying new treats, having her teeth brushed, fur groomed and a chance to relax safely.

So the dog-shaped hole is definitely filled. I would love another dog, but Faye has taught me that she is enough and is constantly reminding me that there are so many things to be grateful for in life, big and small.

 

Year of the Dog – March

It is now just over a week since we brought Faye home. What an amazing week it has been. The anticipation in the final days leading up to her arrival was not dissimilar to the final days of pregnancy. Are we ready? Are we going to feel like family? Are we going to break the dog? What if something awful happens? Have we read everything? Why? Is all the chocolate and alcohol where the dog can’t reach it? Is all the chocolate and alcohol where I can reach it? Who can we ask all of our remaining really silly questions? Will this be my last ever lie-in? The usual stuff.

Then came the trip last Tuesday, in snow showers, through black fen fields, under moving skies. We were glad the weather had not prevented us travelling. In the morning we met with the Brecks, Fens & Pens Christian writers’ group in West Norfolk. Then a quick bite to eat and off to meet Faye again, fill in paperwork, chat through logistics and ask all the remaining silly questions. Debbie at the King’s Lynn RGT centre was patient and thorough and made sure we knew what we were doing.

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We left with Faye at around 1:30, back under the moving skies, through black fen fields and dodging more snow showers, in time for me to collect the children.

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It was necessary to stand up and look around at every roundabout

Faye has adapted well to living with us. She has whimpered a little in the first few days, and surprised us by barking a couple of times when there were people playing outside at the front, but is very relaxed and easy-going most of the time. I think she must realise she is part of the family now, and is also tentatively trying to become part of the furniture.

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Checking out the decal butterflies (this stops greyhounds bumping into windows)

Greyhounds love sofas; we have decided however to provide lots of alternative soft and snuggly spaces for Faye. That way, she can have a quiet spot under the stairs and a duvet which can be moved around to different rooms and we have the sofa to relax on without lots of dog hair or having to push her off. She has taken to lying straight on the floor and once or twice trying to sneak on to the sofa when no one is about. She can jump up there no problem, yet apparently isn’t able to jump up into the car. Perhaps she’s after the princess treatment. We’ll have to use treats and take her to lots of interesting places for walks to get her more excited about car travel I think. For now she enjoys spending most of her day asleep wherever she feels safe. Usually this is not far from me, which is wonderful, unless she has recently eaten tripe and got a bit windy. And no Faye, that is not funny.

When she is not snoozing, the next best thing is Going Outside, which Faye can tell might happen at the first sound of getting a coat on or picking up her lead. She adores walks, stopping to check out all the latest smells and wanting to say hello to all the other dogs (most of which are a little nervous of her, as she is still wearing a muzzle at this stage). Even in the snow she enjoyed getting outdoors as often as possible. I love walking her and getting the chance to introduce her to my own friends and people I’ve never met before. Lots of people ask to stroke her or what breed she is (part tiger?) and why she’s wearing a muzzle. The short answer to that is she has to wear one for a few months, while she learns about smaller dog breeds and birds. She’s been trained to race after small furry toys, so may not realise how to behave until we’ve retrained her. Hopefully in time we can trust her on walks without it.

It has been cold here, with snow on several days last week. On Saturday I forced the children off screens for a time to go outdoors and make memories, because that’s the sort of mean mummy I am. Joe helped make a snow-hound, which was great fun. He’d already picked up how Faye lies with one of her front legs folded and one stretched out in front.

Actually I amazed myself by getting creative making a gate sign. I decided I wanted a ‘dog’ notice on the garden gate, but didn’t want anything aggressive. I realised I could paint the shape of a greyhound using a printed outline, a pencil, a sharpie, a block of wood and some old tins of paint. I even drilled the holes and screwed it to the gate.

I’ll do another post on Faye next month at some point, but if there are any topics about greyhounds you want me to cover, do suggest them and I’ll get to those sooner.

Year of the Dog – February

Faye RGT

Meet fabulous Faye!

Faye is going to come and live with us, and we are utterly thrilled and excited. We are all counting down the days to bring her home.

Faye is a sweet four-year-old brindle greyhound, retired from racing and waiting for a home and a family. She is small as greyhounds go, quiet, walks well, has a lovely gentle character and behaves well with people. She used to race under her alter ego as Ferryforth Style in Crayford, winning nine times in 63 races. What’s lovely about rehoming greyhounds is that you can look up their racing history and pedigree back to the early nineteenth century on the greyhound data website (you have to create a login, but it is free). Some have video footage of races they have been in, although Faye doesn’t.

We have been preparing a lot more at home, including finishing her den space under the stairs and making the garden more secure and safe. The children have learned a lot more about caring for dogs and what they can and cannot do. The RSPCA had a helpful section in their advice booklet on adopting dogs:

We also had another valuable chance to spend time with a local greyhound called Turbo on Friday as it was half term break; we took him for a walk and chatted a lot with his family about practicalities. Getting familiar with the breed was something Matthew and I both felt strongly about, as we don’t want to make a mistake in homing a dog which isn’t well-suited to us.

On Saturday we revisited Debbie at the King’s Lynn Greyhound Trust to meet a couple more possible dogs. Each of us were nervous; I think I was as anxious and apprehensive as when I’d been overdue with each of the children. I was so keen to meet ‘our dog’, but also worried that a suitable dog wouldn’t be there for us and that we’d have to keep waiting. The dogs we thought we were going to see were a black and white girl called Kitty (now reserved), and a young fawn boy called Dave. We loved the look of Dave and spent time with him, but after chatting with Debbie, we realised we would not be ready to take him on. He is a gorgeous gold colour, has ridiculous ears which won’t behave and is a real character, but he is clumsy and silly and would need a lot of crating and a close eye. Here is a link to Dave, so that you can see how gorgeous he is. I do hope he finds his home soon.

Dave is just 2 years old and a real favourite with everyone. He is funny, clumsy and very affectionate. Dave really…

Posted by Greyhound Trust King's Lynn on Sunday, January 21, 2018

 

Instead, Debbie introduced us to Faye, who we had very briefly met last month when we first visited. I remembered looking in and apologising to Faye that we couldn’t take her last month, and wishing her a happy birthday. Lily has talked about her several times since. In fact, Faye was too bouncy when we first met her so we thought she was ruled out, but she has mellowed and is much calmer now. Lily fell for her completely.

Part of the reason I have long wanted a dog was to help children learn responsibilities and to enjoy the unconditional affection a dog can bring. Lily was a different person around Faye: happy, confident and buzzing. Faye relaxed with Lily, gave her attention and was not pushy or overbearing. Seeing Lily happy and feeling loved is marvellous; she can be sensitive and anxious a lot of the time. Where Lily struggles getting close to people, I wanted her to feel accepted and be able to get close to a pet. The character of the dog we chose had to work for us. As a result, the look was always going to be secondary. If I’m honest, I was not taken with brindle patterns at first, but as I got familiar with Faye and took her for a walk I realised she had an inner beauty that radiated, like the markings on her face. She carries herself with dignity and confidence and wears her coat with charm. Her colouring makes her look like a tiger or a tabby cat. Her eyes are deep and thoughtful, while some greyhounds often look somewhat vacant. She has great big feet and an impressively long back, with legs full of muscle and a tail full of joy.

I prayed silently as we thought through our options. Dave was gorgeous, but we weren’t really able to take him on. Faye was not the dog we thought we’d come to see, but she had won both Lily and Joe’s hearts, and was tugging at our own heart-strings too. A number of times along the journey, while perusing pages of retired racing greyhounds, God has clearly said to me ‘that’s not your dog’, when I’ve liked the look of one or other. And there are some stunners out there. I prayed about Faye. I prayed about Dave. Dave was not our dog. I let go. And then I felt the warmth of knowing that if we wanted Faye, God would bless her into our family. From that moment she became part of us.

Like the moment a child is born, a love switched on in my heart. The journey may be muddy and crazy and costly, and will involve pain as well as joy, but the journey is begun. It is exhilarating. It is still sinking in.

And God has a lot to teach us through caring for Faye, I am sure. It has already started. We have been looking at covenants in church and in the New Life lent book. When I studied Faye’s face I found evidence of two covenants right there. She has a rainbow over her eyes, like the rainbow sign of the covenant God made between himself and every living creature (Genesis 9). And she has a cross like an Ash Wednesday smudge, a sign of the covenant of new life, reminding me of mortality and of God’s grace. I think God knew what he was doing when he brought us to Faye.

It is still sinking in here, but in one week Matthew and I will actually go and adopt Faye, bring her home to keep an eye on what’s going on in the garden, to snooze under the stairs and to poke her long nose into anything of interest. How fabulous! Can’t wait to bring you home, Faye!

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We are new to owning dogs, and I will keep up this ‘year of the dog’ series to let you know how we get on and what we are learning along the way.

Giving up giving up

Ooooh, it’s Lent.

And today it’s also the Feast of St Valentine, which conveniently has Lent right there in the middle of it.

Or, if you like, A loveseat tent sniff, which is a useful anagram for the day.

Not often that Lent starts on Valentine’s Day, and as Easter Sunday falls on 1st April, this year Lent is bookended with love and joy.

I like that.

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A lot of people I know try and discipline themselves over the season of Lent by giving something up. While their efforts are laudable, sensible and often far too health-conscious for regular humans like me, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of refraining from something I enjoy and feel nourished or sustained by, unless I feel convicted by God to do it (i.e. fasting, from food, drink, social media or the like). There are times when God asserts his place by insisting on our attentions. Food, drink, even facebook, are not to become more important than God. But neither are those other precious things in life: partners, children or oxygen. And while I put God ahead of my husband, my children and the air I breathe, I don’t honestly think he is asking me to forgo them for six weeks. The family may be a little confused and upset, for a start.

Fasting has its place. Giving something up for Lent often has its place when God convicts us, but if it is about a personal detox, it is not a spiritual endeavour. Perhaps some people, in their earnest desires to improve themselves, have made ‘giving up’ a bigger deal than ‘getting close to God’. They want to see whether they can manage to accomplish something valuable but difficult. Great. For me though, I want a closer relationship with God. Sometimes he will want me to give something up. Sometimes he will want me to take something up.

For me, Jesus took up human flesh and frailty. For me, he took up the cross. In my experience, God has been wonderfully generous through the many ups and downs of life; multiplying grace and love over and over. He has sometimes put barriers up, but these have been wise and reasonable, even when I did not like them. He has sometimes allowed times of pain, but his presence has been close and his promises have endured.

In Jewish thought, the idea of stopping on the Sabbath and not working is not viewed as negative, but positive. The Sabbath rest is a proactive feasting and renewing time. Our best celebrations do the same.

So I will give up giving up. This Lent I am going to try finishing a few tasks.

  • I want to finish sorting the children’s artwork from the past ten years.
  • I want to finish getting the garage in order.
  • I want to complete several books I am in the middle of. And get promised book reviews to Amazon.

I am a great starter of tasks. Now I am going to learn to be a great finisher of tasks too. God has shown me that he continues with me, though I am still a work in progress. He will complete the task and what he starts, he finishes.

What about you? Have you got any tasks you are hoping to complete over Lent? Or any interesting Lent activities or fasts you are taking part in? Do comment below!

 

New Life ACW Lent Book – Update

I am thrilled to announce that I am in print, and the books are out now!

The Association of Christian Writers have compiled a book of creative devotionals in the form of a Lent Book, and I am one of the contributors. This is a very exciting experience for a fledgling author.

As I was keen, naive and wanted to put all my profits toward a church link in Albania we have set up with our home church, I managed to get a large number of pre-orders, so am one of the very first to take delivery of my order. Responses have been fantastic and as my own stocks are now very low, if you are interested in a copy, do please order from Amazon, or support your local Christian bookshop and get it direct from them. 

 

Lent Book cover

 

 

Year of the Dog – January

Apparently the Chinese Year of the Dog is going to start in February. I am not one for astrology (Chinese or any other flavour), but the idea of owning a dog – a real live, smelly, silly and always-happy-to-meet-you canine – has been growing in my mind for some years.

And this year is the year we are hoping to make it happen.

It began some time ago. We agreed to start small, and have owned guinea pigs for five and a half years. We lost Stripe, the last one, in December. He had had a lump on his liver and had given up. I was sadder than I thought I would be at losing him, and at the change in the daily routine. Now, we do still have a hamster who lives upstairs, but Lily is responsible for Humphrey and I just take a passing interest in his welfare.

So the time was right to ask ourselves if we were ready for a dog, and if it was the right course of action.

Not everyone loves dogs. Some people are allergic to dogs. Some people have had a traumatic experience of dogs, and some dogs are violent and dangerous. Some religions consider dogs dirty. These things are important to us. Dogs are also hard work, expensive, trouble, need lots of daily attention and will – almost certainly – die before we do, which we know will break our hearts. There are always lots of reasons not to have a dog.

But having children has been no walk in the park. Even off-leash. They are hard work, expensive, trouble, need lots of daily attention and will – almost certainly – leave home, just as they start getting really capable and mature. We know this will break our hearts too. I don’t know of people allergic to children, but I know of people who choose not to have them, or be around them. That’s fine. We bring our children with us to lots of places, but on occasion have been known to leave them with loving grandparents for a bit of well-earned respite and rest.

When we moved to Cambridgeshire, one of the items on the list for our new home had to be a dog-friendly location. Somewhere with space for walks. We found the dog-friendly home.

We knew that the garden had a large number of plants which are poisonous to dogs, so we removed them, and planted new species. We remodelled the back garden to make it safe for a dog.

We spent months investigating breeds and matching ideas to our personalities as a family. We are all fairly introverted a lot of the time, and wanted a low-energy dog which could lift our moods and be a companion while I write in the daytime. Eventually we realised the perfect breed for us was probably a rehomed greyhound. So we spent more months researching greyhounds, learning about the Retired Greyhound Trust, getting a feel for what we would be letting ourselves in for.

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Until Stripe the guinea pig died, we did not want to go and meet any dogs. But it wasn’t long after my trip to the vets that we were able to book a visit to the RGT King’s Lynn branch and meet a few dogs there, early this month. We went with a specific dog in mind, but spent two and a half hours questioning Debbie and asked four pages of A4 questions. We would have loved to have adopted the dog we met, but she wasn’t right for us in her temperament. We trusted Debbie and arranged our home visit.

When you adopt a retired greyhound, you need to have a home check to learn what may prevent you taking one in, and any adaptations you have to make. We had travelled a fair distance to King’s Lynn, so one of Debbie’s greyhound connections, Sara, paid us a visit, and declared that we passed with flying colours. We are now in the process of finishing the garden and creating an under-stairs den for our future dog. We have moved a few smaller items to new homes and found a well-sized desk top (from an actual desk, not a PC), which we had kept when the legs were damaged. We have started some rewiring and painting.

Today a greyhound and his lovely owner visited from a nearby village to explore our house and teach us more about what life would be like. Turbo was big. I knew greys can be big, and our downstairs seems big enough, but he certainly had a real Presence while he was here. He loved sniffing everything and exploring where he could lie down and rest, and spent a few mad seconds doing zoomies in the garden. It was wonderful.

If all goes to plan we should be able to adopt a greyhound which matches us well in the coming weeks or months. As we are going into the Year of the Dog, I thought I might as well start a blogging series and make monthly updates on the journey here.

 

Deconstructing Alric

A few days ago I posted a historical short story here: Alric and the Sack. I mentioned that I would revisit the story to indicate what was based on historical evidence, and what was not. The story is a fictional reimagining of the terror of the monks on the Island of Lindisfarne on June 8th 793 when Vikings arrived and attacked them, destroying the church and killing many of the monks. It is based on real events.

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As the story seemed to flow best written in the voice of a third person limited omniscient narrator, it wasn’t necessary to expand on all the references to actual historical details. I’ve been researching a lot of historical detail for another project, and have decided that too much explanation in the text is not conducive to reading. Equally, forcing the text to fit details I do have can come over as wooden or contrived.

Stories have to flow their own way; if a story does not demand a close description of an earthenware pot, then the fact that I have extensive primary evidence I could use does not mean I should fit the story around it. Sometimes you just cannot place an earthenware pot in the tale. Equally, there are some details it is possible to intuit or make an educated guess about, and always ways to research what is known, through libraries, the internet, travel and museums. I did a little of each of these in my preparation, and chose the event as it resonated with things I care about (Scandinavia, faith communities, the North East of England, strange languages and Celtic artwork).


 

I chose the name Alric, a genuine eighth century male name, avoiding the spelling Ealric so that it would be more approachable for modern readers. (I remember some years ago reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone right through without knowing how to pronounce Hermione. I don’t have any excuse either, having studied Greek).

Alric was a product of my own creation, a youngster in the abbey, but his uncle Higbald (or Hygbald) the bishop was a real person. We know of Higbald because of a letter written to him by Alcuin, a local learned clergyman and scholar who was working for Charlemagne in France at the time. In the letter, following the Viking attack, Alcuin suggests:

It has not happened by chance, but is the sign of some great guilt.

Alcuin does not state explicitly what ‘great guilt’ he is referring to, but only six weeks before the raid in late April 793, a scoundrel called Sicga had been buried at Lindisfarne. Sigca, born a nobleman, had been part of a conspiracy to kill King Ælfwald of Northumbria in September 788. In February 793 he killed himself. It was not necessary to bury a murderer (who had indeed also committed suicide) on Lindisfarne, and some were surprised that the bishop had allowed it. The prevailing theology in the eighth century would interpret Viking raids as a divine punishment for sin.

In fact, portents from the heavens would have been noted and taken seriously too. In the run up to the attack, there had been a drought in the region, and reports of natural phenomena such as whirlwinds, lightning and ‘fiery dragons’ or fyrenne dracan which had frightened the monks, as noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

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The fiery dragons may well have been northern lights, which can occasionally be seen as far South as parts of the United Kingdom.

Vikings had traded widely and had discovered that isolated and unprotected island monasteries in the British Isles had a wealth of treasures which could prove to be easy pickings. They had no real understanding of Christianity, or that local people sent valuables to monasteries for safe keeping at the time. As cruel and unfair as it might have seemed to the Anglo-Saxons, this discovery of easy wealth must have been a euphoric time for the invaders.

There were religious items of some value stored at Lindisfarne too. The Lindisfarne gospels and the relics of St Cuthbert (who had been bishop there until his death in 687) survived unscathed.

The beautiful and highly valuable gospel volume was written and illustrated over a period of about ten years in Latin on vellum (calf-skin) by Eadfrith, also a bishop at Lindisfarne, who died in 721. We know it was later pressed, bound and covered with a metal case with jewels. If the Vikings had seen it, they would certainly have looted it. But they didn’t. The gospel had other adventures after this, including reportedly being lost at sea and miraculously found, and now belongs to the British Library. I was intrigued that no legend explaining the safe evacuation of the book survives.

When Higbald is reading ‘Pax vobis’, Peace to you, he is quoting from Jesus’ words to his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24:36; John 20:21, 26). The peace of a risen Saviour deliberately contrasts the sudden and unexpected babble of the raid.

When the monks sing “Eripe me Domine ab homine malo,” they are reciting Psalm 140, which begins Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men. This is also deliberately chosen, and becomes Alric’s refrain as he escapes.

Lindisfarne is a part-time island. Twice a day the tide cuts the community off from the mainland. I tried to investigate the tide times, but was not able to find out the details for such a distant date in history. As a result, I skirted around the exact timing of the raid. The modern paved causeway is about a mile long, and any route he might have taken would have been an exhausting run for Alric if he did think the tide was approaching.

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I learned other things about what Lindisfarne would have been like in the eighth century however. There would certainly have been a collection of buildings on the island, but not many of stone except the church and an outer wall. There was a cemetery, possibly some stained glass and through trade networks, some high quality metalwork and pottery. (Cuthbert had even had an elephant ivory comb). Pilgrims came to visit the sacred site. I used universal examples of fear, anatomy, bird life and the weather to link the characters’ experiences to those of the modern reader.

I did not know everything I needed to though. I assumed my character was familiar with the same seabirds found at Lindisfarne today, and that he slept in a straw bunk. I chose to hide the gospel in a sack, although I don’t know how big sacks were at the time; they are not the kind of item which survives twelve centuries in a wet climate. I did not find any contemporary art depicting sacks, but decided that it is likely a gospel would fit in a typical size sack for holding a reasonable weight of grain or wool.

Sometimes you can make reasonable assumptions, but I do like to understand what is based on fact and what is pure fiction. I didn’t want him to sound too modern in his language, but needed to find a place of overlap between the ancient experience and today.

Lindisfarne was deemed a significant and sacred site; it was one of the possible locations for the arrival of Christianity in the British isles. It was also the location for the first serious Viking raid. History tells us of the huge impact the Scandinavian peoples had on the British Isles in later years. And for some reason, though people died and buildings were burned, the Lindisfarne Gospels escaped. I’m very glad that they did.

Alric and the Sack

This is the text of a short story I wrote at the end of December, which I have just heard has won second place in the Association of Christian Writers’ Historical Fiction Competition. I spent some time researching historical facts and will write another post this week explaining what is, and is not, based on historical evidence (now published here). I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.


 

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Broken and unbroken voices rang together through the June morning air.

“Eripe me Domine ab homine malo,” they sang. Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men. Their harmonies echoed beautifully off the stone walls of their island chapel. Among the boys stood Alric, nephew of bishop Higbald, fiddling quietly with his scratchy woollen hood.

The older monks sang the Psalm with closed eyes. They stood huddled with leathered skin and weathered hearts. The work of many seasons had inscribed their bodies like human manuscripts; illuminated regularly with blues, golds and reds of bruises, blisters and burns. Some were master brewers and builders; some managed bees, herbs and livestock; others prepared the vellum calf skin for manuscripts. Every day prayer and worship from the chapel wove musical blessings into the fresh island air. As each day of the year came and left like the tides and the stars, every able body was required to work on the land too, to tame and bless it.

Blessings came hard, as Alric knew well. A drought had hit the monastery and sacks from the previous harvest were already empty. Beggar pilgrims came more frequently and fertile trees had grown no new fruit. Portents had alarmed the monks during Lent. Alric had heard of fyrenne dracan, colourful and frightening fiery dragons in the sky on clear evenings and had seen fierce lightning storms and high winds for himself. Would the signs in the skies foretell more problems on the land, or even from the sea?

 

 

Perhaps the monastery had reason to fear God’s wrath. The rebel king-murderer Sigca had recently been buried in the cemetery; rumours suggested he had even taken his own life. Higbald should have known better than to allow such a burial on this holy island.

 

After the service Alric returned to mending sacks in the sunshine and as he finished he looked out to sea. The water was calmer in the summer and on the northern horizon was a line of trading ships. Gulls arced overhead and Alric yawned. Another early morning; another long day. He craved a nap and the cool of his straw bunk. Perhaps his uncle would excuse him for a short time.

Higbald was still at chapel, reading their precious bound gospel aloud to a small group. “Pax vobis,” he read, and then looked up.

“Peace to you,” Alric grinned, confident that he understood the meaning.

“Yes, and peace to you too, my son,” Higbald replied. “What is the matter?”

“My uncle, I have mended these sacks; please grant me a few moments of rest before we eat.”

Higbald frowned.

“Is that all?”

“I saw trading ships too,” Alric said; “a long line of them, coming south from up the coast.”

“We must make ready,” Higbald considered, pinching his chin. “Boys, come with me. Not you Alric: stay here and study the gospel. Be ready to report back to me later.”

Alric flinched. His thoughts wheeled about like a greedy gull and a plan formed. He watched the others leave and took the heavy gospel off the altar. Its bright cover was jewelled and ornate. The binding was unlike any other he had seen. And the colourful pictures – so bright and beautifully drawn. Knotted patterns delicately woven and representations of people, animals and dragons. Alric could not believe he had been left alone with such a beautiful and precious book, as the others busily prepared for the traders. If he could hide the book in a sack, he could read in his bunk. He might get punished but if Higbald was willing to bend the rules to bury a murderer, Alric saw no moral problem taking the gospel out of the chapel.

Nobody saw Alric trot like a twitchy blackbird to the wooden hut. He tucked the sack with the book inside under the straw so that he could rest first. He would only be a few moments, he thought. His eyes closed.

 

 

Alric woke to screams and shouts. His first thought was anger with himself for falling asleep, but the noises from outside sounded strange and frightening; he could smell blood and smoke and hear people yelling in pain and cursing. What was happening?

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The sight which met him at the doorway was brutal and horrifying. Raiders from the northern countries had arrived in their boats. They held swords and axes and carried anger in their eyes. They had set one wooden hut alight already and were slaying monks with no mercy. Several warriors ran to the chapel as Alric watched, shouting strange words to each other. They were after the valuable things.

Alric’s heart fell. He could see bodies of his friends on the ground and hear the screams of the wounded. None of the raiders had seen him yet, though his head felt white with fear and a realisation that the precious gospel of Lindisfarne was in his care now. Trying to stay out of sight, he looked about. Higbald was there, bleeding from his arm, praying for one who had fallen. He looked up and made eye contact with Alric.

Suddenly there was hope.

“Run, Alric,” Higbald urged. “And take it with you. Get to your mother. Fast!”

So Higbald had known Alric would disobey him. And now he had a small chance to escape and preserve his life and the precious book. Could he thank God for his own sin? Hardly. He was aware that others were dying; perhaps it was his fault. The unholy sound of metal blows sobered and scared him. Alric crawled out of the window at the back of the hut, so frightened that it felt his legs might break like cracked eggs. Hugging the sack close to his chest he ran to the water’s edge. Could he make it? The tide was starting to come in. He knew well the path to take to reach the mainland; it was only about a mile, but he would have no time to tarry or look to save others. His feet plunged into the soft wet sand.

The tears in Alric’s eyes blinded him as he ran. Turning quickly, he wiped his face on his hood. On the island more buildings were burning and monks who had not been killed were running to hide or get to the mainland. Where was Higbald now? What if the raiders came this way? The waters were up to his ankles; he would have to keep moving.

“O Lord deliver me!” Alric sobbed as he ran.

“Please, I pray, deliver me from the evil men. Rescue me Lord!”

He reached the shore, stumbled in the sand and collapsed, and then realised that he had not prayed for his brothers. His voice cracked as he prayed again; a solo broken voice.

“And the others, deliver them too, O Lord! Protect them all from the evil men. And let me see my uncle again.”

Alric looked up. The skies had clouded in anger and a storm was starting.

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