Friday 17 May 2024

Tiling

Benedict Ambrose and I are now the proud owners of a functional bath shower room. All that remains is for the project manager to receive a last bit of wallboard, for the joiner to put it in, and for the decorator to paint the plaster. The tile floor glows like an angel. 

I am rather in love with the tile floor. It is almost funny now that I treated the designer's catalogues like horrendous math textbooks--or worse, a tax guide--and left it up to B.A. to choose the myriad of expensive stuff that goes in a bathroom. Now I pore over the pages of tiles, dreaming about tiling the tiny foyer--and eventually the kitchen floor--and maybe even the porch. 

Having unlocked the savings account to pay for the works, I am in a spendy mood and tempted to tile my own self. During our luxurious Stockbridge weekend, eating top quality bread and cheese, I bought and read two books on Parisian style I found in charity shops: Alois Guinut's Dress Like a Parisian and Ines de la Fressange's Parisian Chic. Guinut subsequently wrote a book called Why Frenchwomen Wear Vintage, so she would probably approve of me buying her work in Cancer Research UK. Also, her ideas are not necessarily ruinous to the pocketbook. I particularly liked her nonchalant attitude to make-up and hair. 

Horizontally stripped shirts about in both these volumes, and I was pleased to find a nice pale-blue and white one by Boden for £4 or so in Mary's Living and Giving Shop. I have been less pleased to notice navy-and-white striped shirts on several members of the 70-something set wherever I go. Obviously the 70-something set may wear whatever they like, but I have joined the ranks of those who have reason to fear looking even older than we are. (Although why do we? Would grandmotherly softness not attract more social cache than the harsh battleaxe lines of middle life?)

Normally I dress out of the House of Bruar catalogue when I am not simply slobbing around in my gym clothes, so the idea of Parisian dressing (especially on the cheap) is rather beguiling.

More importantly, B.A. managed to get himself into the massive walk-in shower, pulling himself along by hanging onto the grab rails. He then sat firmly on the fold-down seat under the rain nozzle. We think we might need one more grab rail, and I think we need to affix a hook for his bathrobe on the far end. Putting on his bathrobe by himself was his scariest task. The short-term goal is for B.A. to be fully independent while washing. 

The long-term goal, of course, is for him to leap about like a mountain goat. When that day comes, he will have to dance with me: he promised! 

In fact, I might sign him up for swing-dancing class. One day, years ago, he appeared in the hall when I was taking a Saturday swing-dance workshop. I dropped my partner like a hot potato and hurried over to my cherished spouse. Alas, B.A. had only taken it into his head to say hello, and he went off to read the Spectator or the Times Review of Books in silly old Starbucks.


Monday 13 May 2024

Guest Post: In Praise of Pottering

As you may imagine, having recently had the sensation and mobility in my feet and legs melt away precipitately over the course of a few months – I hazard by about 70% since Michaelmas, when I could still haltingly walk my way through a Dashing White Sergeant – has been a bit of a bore. Standing without support, let alone walking, is practically impossible. I lost my balance at a local bus stop a couple of weeks ago after absent-mindedly letting go of my walking frame and landing heavily on my left hip – cracking a small bone in my pelvis – which has hardly helped things along much. There are many things which I took entirely for granted before but which I can no longer do, at least at the moment: chemotherapy and prayer (Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster and Cardinal Mindszenty, since you kindly ask) may, DV, restore some of them in due course. But there is one mundane activity in particular in which I can no longer indulge, the deprivation of which has been surprisingly difficult: pottering. 

It is now poignantly and somewhat absurdly evident to me that a large proportion of my time at home was taken up with casually random but not entirely inconsequential activities: getting up from my chair to adjust an object’s place on a table or straighten a squint picture; popping into the kitchen to wash a glass or fetch a biscuit or lackadaisically cook a meal whilst listening to the radio and glugging a glass of wine; picking up a fallen flower head on the other side of the room; or wandering out into the hallway to open the front door and look out over the garden (whilst glugging a glass of wine). I did them almost mindlessly, unconsciously, and constantly. And, I now realise, I quietly enjoyed doing them (especially whilst glugging). They made up the background fabric of my domestic existence and as such were a constant thread in the unremarkable tapestry of my life. I can still do some of them, with the aid of a little wheelchair lent to us by a kind young friend, but they take much longer and a great deal more effort – and risk. Consequently, they involve a substantial amount of mental energy even to scope out, and I’m pricked with anxiety that I’m going to come a cropper – drop a plate or scald myself or fall over. As a result, they largely remain undone, even if technically doable. And, it turns out, I miss doing them terribly. 

 

The burden of this loss has of course not been mine alone. Mrs McLean’s devotion, considerable extra physical efforts and patience have been quietly heroic, but I can tell that it all takes a heavy toll upon her [Ed. --I quite enjoy the meal-planning and cooking, though.] If in my perished potential to potter I have lost the quiet pleasure of being cheerfully and moderately active and the feeling that I’m being useful, she has lost a cheerful and moderately useful husband. She is left instead with a husband whose requests for her assistance with a million tiny things he used to do for himself without even thinking – however politely and appreciatively they are meant to come across – are inevitably grating and wearisome. This is on top of her having to assume almost all the other domestic chores we used to share between us. We are both penalised by the passing of my pottering.

 

I pray (do thou likewise) much of this will improve when my fracture heals, the twinges stop buckling my leg, I can build back more strength and lose some of the dull terror that I’m going to injure myself again. It’ll get better to some degree even if things don’t change or improve immediately or drastically with my general mobility – at worst, I’ll just get better at coping with it, so long as I’m spared any further deterioration. But if I were asked what activity I would most like to be restored to me it wouldn’t be popping down on a whim to the pub with pals, or taking long country walks in the spring, or picking my way through crumbling castle ruins: it’d be the simple freedom of peacefully pottering.


Benedict Ambrose

Thursday 9 May 2024

Fifteen

Benedict Ambrose and I have now been married for 15 years. To celebrate, we will call a cab and go to Edinburgh's Prestonfield House for lunch today. We will be travelling further than we imagined, for we are not at home but in an AirBnB in the Stockbridge Colonies. 

Life is full of surprises, and we had a big one on Monday morning when a three-man building crew arrived at 8 AM to gut the bathroom. We had had a vague understanding that the contractors were coming this week, but we were not prepared when they actually did. So there was me in a DFB (Deutscher Fussball-Bund) shirt (only three stars, a collector's item) and pyjama bottoms hurriedly scooping the contents of the bathroom cupboards into blue plastic IKEA bags, and there was B.A. pulling on clothes and dragging himself into a wheelchair. 

B.A.'s need for a wheelchair was also one of life's surprises, of course. However, like the building crew, it was not totally unheralded. First there was the dreadful diagnosis last May. Then there was B.A.'s coming home with a walking stick. Then there was his all-too-brief love affair with a rollator. And now there is his borrowed wheelchair, which came not a minute too soon: the day after he broke a bone in his pelvis. 

As I inwardly chant to myself whenever someone now asks me for a favour or is even the tiniest bit critical, I have a husband with cancer and a full-time job. Like St. Martha I am beset with many cares. This means that my poor brain cannot currently hold all the information it needs or make all the necessary plans. For obvious example, I didn't work out what we were going to do for a bathroom when our own was a construction site. 

I had a vague hope that this was one of companies that promised us a portable toilet, but I didn't ask outright. And B.A. had a vague hope the National Health Service would lend him a commode, but the NHS said no. And although I can just run to Tesco for the loo and to my gym for a shower, B.A. cannot. And so, after a miserable afternoon, B.A. secured an AirBnB and a taxicab, and here we are. 

We love Stockbridge, so this is a good thing. The taxicabs, with their kindly drivers who push B.A. up and down the foldaway ramps, are also a good thing.  The new bathroom will also be a good thing--as will be our anniversary lunch this afternoon. 

This morning I woke up at 5, and I thought about my dream 25th wedding anniversary party, which looks rather like a dream wedding, only festooned with silver. B.A. has promised to dance with me when he can walk again, so obviously I we must have a proper ball with a ceilidh band and a jazz quintet that plays late into the night. 

While writing this blog I began to think about Anniversaries Past. The obvious one to look up was Eight, which fell after B.A.'s first big operation, and Nine, since for a very scary period it seemed that there might not be a Nine. Interestingly enough, when my erstwhile Polish teacher asked us for the secrets of a long marriage, we did not say, "Don't die." 

However, this is now first on our Tips for a Long Marriage list. 

Monday 29 April 2024

School of Grace


Having written an article (and, in a report for Mass of Ages, a paragraph) arguing for the role of social dance in traditional Catholicism, I'd like to write in defence of traditionalism in Catholic social dance. The first argument is contra Catholics who believe dancing necessarily leads to sin and the second is for Catholics who suspect some undead oppression lies behind traditional ballroom deportment. 

My own dance parties are simultaneously very old school and mildly quixotic. Guests are begged to reply to invitations, but they are warmly welcomed if they come without doing so. Everyone invited either goes to the local TLM or went to one of my ticketed dances, so I know who they are. If young people visiting our TLM from afar appear uninvited at the party, they too are welcomed. (I would really very much prefer that someone introduce me to them first, though.)

So far we have three old-fashioned but helpful conventions: the RSVP, which helps the host or hostess know how many people whose enjoyment he or she must work toward; the exclusive guest list, which helps the host or hostess guarantee that the party is companionable (and safe); and introductions to potential guests, so the host or hostess doesn't feel that he or she has been mistaken for a youth worker. At the same time, the Christian value of hospitality takes precedence over strict observance of these tools of civilization.

Now we come to the parties themselves, which are currently held in hall with a wooden dance floor. Unusual for adult parties these days, they involve planned entertainment: primarily dance instruction. And the oldest of old school conventions occurs at the beginning of the lessons when I ask all the ladies to sit on the cushioned benches and then invite the gentlemen to ask them to dance. 

Gentlemen asking ladies to dance

I can imagine the objections already. Women, equal in dignity to men, are made to sit and wait for a man's invitation? And men, who could be at home playing video games, are expected to risk women saying no to them

If this were an alt-right meme, this is where the big-jawed "based" man says "YES." However, it is a blogpost, so I will write (from experience) that learning to sit and wait for the man who truly wants to spend time with you (and is not just being polite) is one of the most important lessons the modern woman can learn. Meanwhile, the man who is too scared to ask a woman to dance is one day going to have trouble inviting the woman he really wants to marry him. 

Gentlemen leading ladies back to their seats

But wait--there's more! The gentlemen take the ladies by their left hands and lead them to the dance floor. And when the waltz is over, the gentlemen take the ladies by their left hands again and lead them back to the bench (or "their friends," as I imaginatively put it). 

There are two reasons why we do this. The first is that I have zero training as a dance teacher beyond watching YouTube videos, and my favourite YouTube waltz teacher is Egils Smagris. And when Mr. Smagris teaches his class of impossibly tall, slim and beautiful students, he directs the boys to offer their hands to the girls, lead them to the dance floor, spin them around when the dance is over, and lead them right back to the side. Mr. Smagris won the Latvian Ballroom Championship in 1987, and I'm not going to argue with him. 

But the second reason is that this very old school approach solves the problem of a man abandoning his partner the middle of the dance floor, leaving her standing around awkwardly wondering if she should wait there for her next partner (if one ever turns up) or scurrying back to her seat. 

Gentlemen as metaphorical party hosts

In short, from the time the lady accepts a gentleman's invitation to dance (her RSVP, incidentally), she is his guest. And like a good host, the gentleman escorts her to the dance floor, does his best to keep her entertained and unharmed, and then sees her back to her temporary home when the 2-to-5 minute party is over. Like a good guest, the lady follows along with what her host has planned (the dance steps), keeps a cheerful countenance, and thanks him when the mini-party is over. 

Thinking this through, it is because the gentleman is expected to provide the entertainment (the direction the dancing goes) and the protection (avoiding bumping into other couples) that it is up to the gentleman to do the asking. There's a big difference between offering to give someone something (entertainment, safety) and asking for those things. It's the difference between "Please come to my party!" and "Can I come to your party?"

Also, the gentleman making the lady his guest (as it were) before and after the piece of music is over, suggests that he is engaging with her for her own sake and not just because he needs a live body to dance with. 

The hostess' sneaky ulterior motive

Thus, despite all this emphasis on masculine actions and decision-making versus feminine sitting, accepting (or rejecting, remember), smiling, and being led about, the real goal is to make women feel honoured, cherished, comfortable and that they are having a very good time. Of course, I also want men to feel confident and appreciated, which is easier when there is a clear set of conventions to follow and the women they interact with are fun to be with. However, I am a woman who has felt very bored and rejected at dances, and I never want a woman--any woman--to feel bored or rejected at any dance that I organize. Not on my watch. 

Meanwhile, in modernity...

Yesterday I went to a ticketed tea dance in Edinburgh with two female friends. The dance featured a live jazz band, and I would have paid just to hear them. For one thing, I might want to hire them one day. 

The dance was entirely unlike my own dances and not just because there were no lessons involved. First, there was no discernible host or hostess--just name-checkers at the door. Second, there were more ladies than gentlemen. Third, there was no institutional interest in whether or not the ladies along the walls were dancing. Fourth, I was not introduced to any potential partners. Fifth, the ladies were not escorted back to their seats. (When a dance ended the partners had desultory conversation in the middle of the floor and then parted there.) Sixth, some women darted hither and thither, looking for unengaged men to ask to dance. 

Mrs McLean, the one-day-to-be-famous Trad Catholic Dance impresario, sat smiling in her seat and was only just saved from total wallflowerdom by a gentleman who recognized her from elementary swing class. We had an agreeable Lindy Hop, and that was that. I was also approached by a nice young man who recognized me from swing events years ago, and I introduced him to my friends. He thereupon asked one of them to dance and then, when the music was over and after desultory conversation, he left her in the middle of the floor. (Sigh.) O tempora, o mores

The band was excellent, and I was sorry none of my gentleman acquaintances were there, for those who like swing-dancing would have had a very good time, and we ladies would have been assured of partners. I have been to enough Edinburgh swing events to know that it takes a very long time and much hard work to become one of the women the male adepts ask to dance. I walked in not expecting to do so. 

Meanwhile, there was a silver lining in my black invisibility cloak, and it was the evidence presented that in presiding over old school ballroom manners, I am indeed making life easier--not harder--for young women. I hope I am also making it more pleasant for young men. What I am running, however imperfectly, is a school of grace. At least I hope so. 

Update: I feel inspired to mention that in the 19th century, gentlemen didn't necessarily take ladies right back to their seats/friends/chaperones during a formal ball. They were expected to ask her if she would like anything from the refreshment room, take her there, get her a drink and a snack, and chat with her until someone else insisted on chatting with her. In fact, gentlemen's duties at upper crust dances in the 19th century were so heavy, it is not surprising to me that so many kept to the card room instead. 

Friday 19 April 2024

Futureproof


Benedict Ambrose and I have decided on a bathroom-refurb company, and the tub is doomed. Good-bye, bathtub. Originally I wasn't going to give our business to any of the salesmen who used the neologism "futureproof", but this company came up with a great design and plentiful choice among good materials. It will add to, not detract from, the resale value of the flat. 

I disliked the word "futureproof" not only because it meant turning the whole bathroom into a waterproof tank at great expense but because it suggested B.A. would get worse, not better. If you are swapping a bath for a walk-in shower (or roll-in shower room) because you are 75, well, chances are your mobility will get worse. However, if you are bidding farewell to the bath because your merely middle-aged husband has spinal damage, your great hope is that he will get better. 

Unfortunately, my husband is not currently getting better. His love affair with the rollator is coming to an end; he wants the freedom and security an electric wheelchair will provide. He's afraid of falling down, and no wonder. He fell down trying to take his seat in the doctor's office this week, and he fell down this morning, dropping his cup of tea on the carpet. 

This became a slapstick incident. When he fell, I jumped up from the sofa, only to place my stockinged foot in a puddle of blazing-hot tea. There was then much hopping about as I tried to soak up the tea with towels and then limped to the bathroom to stick my foot under the doomed bathtub cold tap. While I was sitting on the edge of the tub, there was another commotion in the sitting-room. I rushed in to find that B.A. had dropped his bowl of cereal and milk. So I got a soapy sponge and wiped all that up before returning to the tub. I am now wearing slippers.   

When the ultimately successful bathroom salesman last mentioned futureproofing to me, he acknowledged that if B.A. were confined to a wheelchair he wouldn't be able to get up and down our outdoor staircase, and so we would sell the flat. Therefore, there was no point to a tanked room. Such money-saving discussions are my idea of futureproofing. 

Meanwhile, it is perhaps a lucky thing B.A. stumbled at the doctor's office. He has a Stoic (but not always helpful) habit of minimizing how sick or weak he is feeling, and it didn't occur to him to call up the oncologist and tell her his mobility was much worse. But now she knows and is apparently swinging into action, applying on B.A.'s behalf for an NHS-supplied electric wheelchair, disability allowance, a bus pass, and chemotherapy. She and her assistant gave B.A. a very minor scolding. 

Child of the 1980s, I was once terrified by the word chemotherapy, but this kind doesn't involve an I.V. and hair loss but a lot of pills to be taken at home five days a month. I am very grateful to all the people so interested in science (and so determined to cure cancer) that they dedicated their lives to improving cancer treatments. 

Because I wrote for so long for Singles about being Single, I often want to caution the wistful that marriage is not a solution to all ills but merely another stage of life, one that has its own ills. These ills are not directly caused by marriage, I hasten to add. They are just more likely because you are more directly affected by things that happen to somebody else. 

It is impossible to futureproof your life perfectly, especially when that life is shared by another person or--if you have children--other people. However, you can do your best by making sure you marry someone with a good character, someone you respect, not just someone whose appearance accords with your idea of beauty. 

I've never been able to forget a co-worker at Statistics Canada (and we had a thoroughly miserable job) telling me about her husband, a man she met on the beaches of her Caribbean birthplace. She was a lovely person--black and buxom and good-humoured. She met the beauty standard of her curve-loving island, and her handsome husband had considered himself very fortunate---until she got him back to Canada and his new colleagues in the building trade bantered him about her weight. His ardour cooled, he spent too much time away from home, and he wasn't contributing much to the household income. 

"I thought getting married would make my life easier," sighed my colleague--and God only knows how many women throughout the ages have said that. 

Arguably, what getting married does is give your life more meaning (as well as a slightly higher status in your community, if that's how your community rolls). And, in fact, your life becomes even more meaningful if your spouse gets sick because he really, really, needs you to stay alive and, ideally, healthy, strong, cheerful and employed.

Tuesday 9 April 2024

Why Catholics must learn to dance

Rumour has whispered in my ear that a growing number of traditionalist Catholics have turned their backs on dancing, even ballroom and country dancing, considering it immoral.....

[Dear readers! I have submitted a version of this blogpost to an online American Catholic magazine, so as to preach to the non-converted. I'll either link to where it is published, or shamefacedly put it back later.]  
 

Monday 8 April 2024

The Eastertide Dance

I have just paid the bill--small--for the advert I placed in Mass of Ages magazine, and so now all the Eastertide Dance expenses are settled. Sleepy as I was, I entertained myself on Sunday evening by working them out and totting up the ticket sales (and, heartwarmingly, donations) and seeing how close we got to being able to make a donation to Una Voce Scotland. 

Nobody cited Mass of Ages as their source of knowledge about the dance. However, I consider them £14 well-spent for announcing our presence to the wider TLM-loving community in Britain. We're here, we're dear, we're in Scotland. 

Easter Saturday night's dance (7:30 PM - 11:00 PM) was "convivial" someone said, and it was certainly a lot of fun. Nobody, seeing me cut capers in a green-and-black evening dress, could have guessed I had spent the past two days miserable in bed or chair with my annual Easter viral rhinitis, reading Lucy Maud Montgomery, Robertson Davies and then Lionel Shriver like a literary review of life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood. 

The dance began with the Prayer to St. Michael and an explanation of the dance cards I had handed out at the inner door as people came in. There followed 15 minutes or so of noisy conversation which was supposed to be men requesting places on the ladies' dance cards and writing the latter's names in their own. Then our expert Caller explained the figures of the Dashing White Sergeant, the young ceilidh band (playing guitar, accordion, fiddle) played their first chord, and the dance began in earnest. 

The ceilidh dances were interspersed with waltzes. The Expert Caller (who was also officially in charge of the musicians) and I had decided that we would have a waltz-heavy first half and a ceilidh-heavy second half. During the intermission, our volunteer keyboardist would play jazz and anyone who liked could swing-dance. I would also not shout orders from the stage this time, trusting that the gentlemen would ask the ladies in good time without my prompting. 

So naturally I ended up shouting from the stage anyway, which I probably enjoyed too much. However, it was very good fun to watch the couples drifting onto the dance floor and to call out broad hints to the gentlemen who had not yet got partners, the dance cards notwithstanding. 

Dance aficionados may be interested to read that after the DWS we danced to Shostakovich's Waltz No. 2 (which I danced with a Classics professor), Kilar's Waltz from TrÄ™dowata (a choice praised by the violinist's Polish father), the Canadian Barn Dance, the St. Bernard's Waltz (a ceilidh-waltz hybrid), Waldteufel's Skaters' Waltz and Mancini's Moon River. 

I believe all the ladies were on the dance floor (we had one or two more men than women) for the Skaters' Waltz, which made me supremely happy.

"Well, Our Chaps ask women to dance," I imagine myself bragging to less fortunate Susans*. "Our Chaps make it a point of honour to introduce themselves to ladies they don't know and ask them to dance. Hospitality is so important to Catholics, wouldn't you agree? Yes, Our Chaps do stand out from the crowd in that regard. They're Traditionalists. "

Many of them are also musical, and I was agreeably surprised when a singer informed me that he had been working with our jazz musician on the intermission music. Traditionally ceilidhs aren't black-tie events, but kitchen-or-barn jamborees in which everyone sings, plays and/or dances. I was even more delighted when the violinist, who was sitting across the room with her parents, suddenly joined in playing to Fly Me to the Moon. Structures should create space for spontaneity--and behold! 

(Another spontaneity was the ceilidh band finally deciding on their name so that we could introduce them properly.)

As I made tea and coffee and set out the cake, wine and beer, I was delighted to see that swing-dancing, though as yet very much a minority interest, was actually going on. The intermission was 45 or 50 minutes, and then we were all back in the middle of the floor for The Flying Scotsman.

This was followed by the Eightsome Reel, the Blue Danube Waltz, and Waltz of the Flowers (I think--the dance card says just Tchaikovsky Waltz because I couldn't decide between Flowers and Sleeping Beauty and left it up to our able pianist). After the Blue Danube Waltz, I saw that we had 65 minutes left but only three more dances scheduled, so we took longer breaks and after we danced Waves of Tory, we had the Dashing White Sergeant again, and only then Strip the Willow, which currently is the last dance we dance at Scottish ceilidhs. 

Of course we followed that with Auld Lang Syne, because we're in Scotland, and we ended with Regina Caeli, because we're militant Catholics. I then went back to the inner door to bid people good-bye, just like a hostess in Etiquette for Ladies. Say what you like about the Victorians and Edwardians, they knew how to make people feel acknowledged and cared for at dances.  

As that particular hall doesn't offer china or glassware, the presence of proper wineglasses, china tea set, giant tablecloths and the large reproduction of Guido Reni's St. Michael were thanks to the Security Man and his little red car. The car of one Generous Donor (we had a few Generous Donors, whose names are known to heaven) broke down, so the Security Man volunteered to make extra trips to acquire, and then take home, the electric piano and its owner. This is a bittersweet acknowledgement that it is difficult to have well-appointed dance without a car---and impossible without a Committee. 

I am very grateful to our Committee, for I finally followed my own management philosophy and delegated as many tasks as possible. (Take note, fellow Susans.) For example, it was a great blessing to be free to leave the dishes to the Kitchen Manager. This was one of the lessons I learned from the Michaelmas Dance. Thanks also to our first foray, I bought only 12 bottles of wine (bringing 5.5 bottles home), baked only one giant carrot cake, and solicited a donation of beer.

This dance had lessons of its own, and I think the first is to have music from the moment the guests step over the threshold. As with the Michaelmas Dance, the beginning was a little timorous and unsure. I wonder if we know any pipers? 

Meanwhile, Benedict Ambrose waved aside my taxicab suggestion and decided to have a quiet night in. I now regret getting someone to rescue me from his approximation of the waltz at the Michaelmas Dance, as we suspect that it will be a long time before he is able even to attempt to dance again. However, he enjoyed hearing about the Eastertide soiree, and he wrote me a delightful poem about it in advance. In fact, this highly flattering poem gave me the energy I needed to finish the preparations, and so I am grateful to him, too. 

*A Susan, in case you are wondering, denotes a Catholic woman who interests herself greatly in parish church affairs, cf Susan from the Parish Council. Not all Susans are bad, Harry. Parish councils, on the other hand... ;-)