Wednesday 31 October 2018

Burying the Cake

Memoir can be a face-squinchingly embarrassing practice. One runs the risk of looking pathetic and banal. However, human beings are--let us face it--pathetic and banal compared to the animals, let along the angels, and yet God loves us. And sometimes there is beauty in the pathos--or at least a salutary lesson.

For example, yesterday I buried our wedding cake. In old-fashioned British-Canadian tradition, a bridal couple saves the top tier of their wedding cake for the child's baptism. This, traditionally, is fruitcake, and a proper fruitcake is edible for years, let alone nine or ten months after it is made. The Christmas cakes you will purchase in December may very well have been made last winter, and it is no big deal.

Since I was determined to follow whichever old-fashioned British-Canadian traditions would not shock our guests, I certainly kept the top of our wedding cake. Alas, we never had a child, so this cake has hung around in an old ice-cream container for almost a decade. My mother says we should have served it at our fifth anniversary, but I hadn't given up on the baby yet and, anyway, it was starting to dawn on me that nobody really wants to eat old fruitcake. The fruitcake had become a symbol, really, like when I didn't move out of the choir loft for years because my plan was to leave when the baby arrived. Leaving before the baby came meant giving up on the baby.

Now it's understandable that this is all very sad. The question is, Is it socially acceptable to write about?

I wonder because after I buried the wedding cake yesterday morning, there was a minor crisis when the movers took off with a bag of things I actually wanted to keep, and I burst into tears. As an Ikea bag of wooden hangers and a shoe rack is not really worth crying about, the issue was clearly the cake. The only things to do to get over it, I thought, was to have a good cry in the bathtub (as close to sound-proof as anywhere in the new flat) and then write about it.

However, it was now 11 AM and time for work, so instead of writing about it on my blog, I wrote about it for LifeSiteNews, adding some trenchant thoughts on the evils of IVF.  I fear the readers of LSN are going to think I'm a real moaner, given that my LSN blog pieces tend to be about such domestic catastrophes as "My husband has a brain tumour." But I also feared someone--a non-fan--would write it, "Being childless is your own fault for having got married so old, you stupid woman. Why don't you adopt? Oh, you can't afford it? Well, that's your own fault too, isn't it? Stop whining."

The non-fans of my imagination are really mean.

The slings and arrows of outrageous non-fans are risks I'm willing to run in order to say what I want to say in print. The question of fitness may concern the motive: unhealthy self-absorption ("Everyone must feel my pain!) or solidarity with other childless people? Or a warning to young married couples that if they leave child-having too late, they will never have children?

Personally, I thought that there was a certain grandeur in a middle-aged woman (any middle-aged woman) burying the cake she hoped to eat (or at least look at) at her first child's christening. It was certainly more respectful to the concept of motherhood than throwing it in the bin.

Update: So far one "Why didn't you adopt?" type comment and one "That was HER choice. I'm Catholic, I used AID [Artificial Insemination with Donor--I looked it up],  I don't regret it" Oh my. You do have to have a tough skin in this Op/Ed business.

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Legal in Poland

Emptying the Attic Flat in the Historical House, aka Our Home of Nine Years, has been a difficult and painful job. Thank heavens I read Marie Kondo in 2017 and spend considerable time and effort getting rid of as much stuff as I could part with. Had I not done this, emptying the Attic Flat, which is at least twice the size of our new flat, would have been even more daunting. 

So far we have called a Man & Van service twice, a dear friend has brought over 2 carloads of stuff, another dear friend has helped move boxes of books down the stairs, into her car and then into her own cellars twice, and this morning three young men from a removals company turned up and took away everything we didn't want. 

By then the Attic Flat was looking rather empty. As B.A. showed the men around to tell them what not to take away, I suddenly remembered Something Illegal I had hurried shoved on the bedroom shelf weeks ago.

"Ahem," I said. "We have um, an illegal thing from Poland, that was left by a Polish guest, that um, forgot it was illegal here and um...."

"Oho!" exclaimed the leader of the removals gang, who all had Easter Road accents, such as I personally only ever hear in the Easter Road football stadium. "Whatever you do, don't give it to---."

But it was too late for an eager hand shot up and seized the Illegal Thing and curious eyes looked briefly at the word "Policjny" on the label before the Illegal Thing disappeared into a deep pocket. And I seriously hope it has permanently joined nunchucks and a ninja star and various other curios on a shelf or box for showing off to friends instead of being earmarked as a Friday night companion. 

The other object of interest to the removals gang that I know of was also left by the Polish guest. The leader of the gang found it on a shelf in the now ex-library and asked me if I wanted it. It was a small white statue of a famously ugly philosopher having a think, and I did not want it. 

"Who is it?" asked the leader.

"Socrates," I said. 


"The Greek philosopher."

"I like it," said the mover. "I'll keep it on my desk." 

It is amusing to wonder what other flotsam and jetsam disappeared into pockets as I knelt in the ex-dining room wrapping up wine glasses. I was called in to examine the hall wardrobe (which belongs to theHouse and when we finally found the key, we found an elderly newspaper inside) because it was filled with too many nice jackets. There were at least four fleeces and three tweed coats, a moth-eaten university scarf, a pair of old shoes and a rather good brown waxed jacket.  I was pretty sure that B.A. had abandoned them, but the leader of the moving gang thought they were too good to throw away.

"My husband hasn't thrown any clothes out since uni," I said but phoned B.A. anyway to be sure. He was sure--he had already brought as many tweed jackets, shoes, scarves, etc., that he thought would fit. So it is also amusing to imagine the gang in front of the House trying on B.A.'s pale green tweed jackets for size. The boys were wiry rather than muscular, so they might actually have fit. 

And now the Historical Attic is empty, save for two piles of stuff (mostly wine-glasses), the repro-Jacobean sideboard, the china cabinet and nine blessed palm crosses we haven't burnt yet. Blessed palm crosses are a pain as one cannot just throw them out, of course. Some years ago my mother banned them from her house, and now I can see why.   

Wednesday 24 October 2018

What You Need to Be a Journalist

I was asked the other day what one needs to be a journalist in the UK.

To be precise, the question was "What I need if I want to be journalism in UK?", so my first answer could have been "Fluency in English." However the questioner was serious, so instead I replied that that was a difficult question to answer as the profession had changed so much. 

"Excellent English skills are key," I warned.

My questioner thought this amusing and admitted that her English was poor.  However, she was willing to learn. 

"If you want to do journalism in the UK, your best chance--if you can fix your English to a C1 level--is through contacts in the Catholic Church," was my next advice.  

That may sound odd, but I was writing to a Catholic who, in her small way, is a mover and a shaker and a founder of pious groups. Moreover,  Catholics still subscribe to and publish newspapers while all around us mainstream media streamlines and collapses.  I suspect that when The Scotsman is no longer printed on paper, there will still be a plethora of Catholic newspapers for sale at the back of Sacred Heart, Lauriston Place.

"Why do you want to be a journalist?" was my next question. "It is badly paid. Especially in the Church." 

"I like writing," she said simply. 

Well, there is no arguing with that. I like writing, too. You have to like writing to be a print journalist--there's no way around it. You have to like reading as well, and if you don't like phoning people up and asking them difficult questions, you have to get used to it. You also have to do the hard slog of transcribing interviews, either your own or someone else's. It's very detail-oriented, but at least it's working with words. 

There are two ways to break into the industry that I know of. The first is to volunteer for your school newspaper and then go to journalism school. Presumably J-school arranges internships for you and, I sincerely hope, helps you to find a job after graduation. 

The second, and more traditional, is not to go to journalism school but to write all the time and then fall into journalism by accident, which is what I more-or-less did. I sold a couple of pieces to the National Post when it still paid top dollar for content in the then-splendid Arts section, and then I stepped into the breach when a books editor in a Catholic newspaper wanted one of my professors to write a book review. She didn't have time, so she asked me to do it.  I think I was paid $50. I'm not sure. It may have been $40. Perhaps less. But that's not the point at first.

The point at first is getting something you've written into print in a respected newspaper or magazine and to keep doing it, keeping track of all your articles on your CV until you have your own column, at which point you keep track on your CV of how long your column lasts and where else it appeared.  

Starting out may mean writing for free, just as you did for the high school newspaper and do now on your blog. (If you don't have a blog by now, you're not cut out for journalism.) There is no shame in not being paid; just make sure your work is appearing in a respected newspaper or magazine. (By respected I mean a newspaper or journal people are--or a Bishop is--willing to pay for.)  

Editors like new writers, especially if the new writers use spellcheck, understand the principles of grammar and style, and write with the editors' own audience in mind. This means pitching articles about golf to the editor of a golfing magazine and articles about quails to the editor of a poultry-keepers magazine. It also means checking a bunch of back issues to make sure nobody else has written on your theme recently already. 

When it comes to religion and politics, it is a good idea to be in sympathy with the most dearly held views of the editors. It amuses me greatly to think that once upon a time I had the bona fides to write for America. (I never attempted it, mind you.) There is some ideological wiggle-room with some of the papers---the ones whose editors sincerely believe they want "balance"---but a good rule of thumb is to pitch to journals you actually read and enjoy reading. 

I hasten to add that I am talking about opinion or informational pieces, not fiction or poetry. As I will never forget, I once sent a short story to my favourite indie arts journal and got a staggering rejection from the general editor, who asked if I had ever read the journal. I think that was in the 1990s, and it hurts to this day. The only advice I have there is "Don't give up"--although personally I have given up for the time being. 

This reminds me: to be a journalist you need to develop a thick skin. Many people do not like journalists, and some verbally abuse journalists by name in print. Sometimes you have to write unpleasant but important news about somebody many people like, and then those people get nasty on Twitter. You may also be called upon to be as politically incorrect as you can be within the narrowing laws, and this means a difficult and careful walk on the thin line between cowardice and hardheartedness. It's tough. It is probably much easier to test recipes for Chatelaine magazine: what a good gig that must be. 

Monday 22 October 2018

The Excellence of Chickens

It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone in Britain who can afford it should buy a little place in the country for the weekend repose and relaxation of his or her friends. Fortunately for us, we have such dutiful friends, and on Saturday after B.A. went to work, I went to the railway station where I missed my train by approximately 15 seconds.

Fortunately there was another train, so after a noisy cry (during which a foreign young man tried to comfort me, thus underscoring how very foreign he must have been), I got on it and went to my friend's little place in the country, which is half farmhouse and half Georgian grandeur.

To be precise, I went to the railway station nearest this Eden, and after my friend took me to her house, she remembered the dog food she had bought near the station, so she drove back to get it, leaving me in the chicken shed.

The chicken shed is a kind of large wooden box, about 7 feet high and 14 feet long and wide, with a plank outer door to the world and a chicken-wire inner door to the chickens, who live in one of two pens. Despite all this glorious space, there are only three of them. They are Rhode Island Reds and beautiful.

It was sunny, and as I stood among the chickens, who clucked and scratched away at the straw around my Wellington boots, I looked out through the open outer door at my friend's black lab sitting in the grass and beyond him (and a little to the left) at my friend's black-and-white cat sitting under a bush.

It was very, very peaceful.

After I fed the chickens, I went out both doors and around to their run and took the rock and the screen away from their pop-hole so they could enjoy grubbing around their orchard. They are enormously lucky hens in that their run contains at least one apple tree, so they can peck at apples or apple-eating bugs all they like. They also enjoy scratching at the earth while chuckling in a manner very soothing to the human ear.

And I thought that if you spend hours and hours every day in such worldly toils and cares as (for example) writing your 15th article about the McCarrick scandal, one excellent antidote is to spend some time with chickens, watching them peck and scratch in their tiny-brained way.  Minus chickens, it might be almost as relaxing as to play with blocks with toddlers. Watching chickens all day might become as boring as I'm told it is to play with toddlers all day, but as a change from brainwork both are excellent.

Another excellent thing to do is go on long walks through the Scottish countryside with the hospitable friend, who is wearing bright rain jacket so neither of you is mistaken for a duck/grouse/deer and shot. You walk over hill and under dale and climb over fallen trees (or crawl under fallen trees) and fall in the mud and get deliciously tired before dark and sitting down to a splendid supper. Naturally before eating you put the screen and the rock in front of the pop-hole after having checked that the chickens are all now companionably roosting together in a great feathery squash.


Oh, for the days I blogged for others not for myself. Auntie Seraphic was a lot more cheerful and fun than Mrs McLean, we must admit. Probably more interesting, too. On Saturday evening I began reading a wonderful little book by the Venerable Fulton Sheen, and he said that the beginning of Inner Peace was not talking about yourself.

Let us meditate on that, but also on mirrors, for today I was thinking about the faces my mirrors have reflected. Not mine. My face I have taken with me to St. Benedict Over the Apple Tree, but alas the mirrors that have reflected more beautiful and younger faces I have had to leave behind.

Moving is one of the most stressful things you can do, but moving when you didn't want to move is even worse. Although my rational brain knows we didn't leave because of an invading army or natural disaster, my reptile brain doesn't seem to know that. Today I told myself it wasn't like the Highland Clearances until I realised that it was exactly like the Highland Clearnaces in that the wicked landlords had a legal right to shove the poor peasants off the land.

The poor Highlanders took what they could carry and watched the rest go up in flames. The poor McLeans are taking what will fit in their two-bedroom walk-up and slowly divesting themselves of everything else. Two pieces of furniture of which I am (despite becoming minimalist) still very fond are my 1930s vanity table and the ornate mirrored set of drawers on the landing, and neither of them will fit in S-BOAT, so I must say good-bye, not only to them but to the memories they evoke.

Both the vanity and the "hall table," as we imprecisely called the ornate, barley-twisted thing, remind me of wonderful dinner parties and weekends or full weeks with out-of-town guests. The hall table was one of the first things guests would see when they got to the top of the stone staircase. Men would put their hats and scarves on it, and the ones who cared checked their pomaded hair in the mirror. My mother and I, at 40-odd and 60-odd, once contemplated our ageing selves in it, and I saw my grandfather looking out from both of our faces, which was rather disconcerting.

The vanity table was useful for the ladies, usually pretty young ladies, staying in the best guest room. It was a rather feminine and dainty little room before the Deluge changed our lives, and now it has the porcelain wreckage of our destroyed bathroom strewn all over the now carpet-less floor. Sometimes, mid-dinner party, I would woozily reapply my lipstick behind the shut door, and hear the Bass (who has a heavy tread) tromp along the hall from the dining-room to whatever bottle awaited him in the sitting-room.

The Historical House is too well-kept to be a haunted house, and I hope and pray none of its occupants or guests are ever reduced to earth-bound spectres. However, it would be jolly if the noise of one of our dinner parties somehow soaked into the walls and oozed out again every once in awhile so that, were anyone standing at the bottom of the correct staircase at midnight, we would again be audible. Great bursts of guffaws and giggles would be optimal, but I would settle for the Bass's tromp-tromp-tromp to the sitting-room, which would scare the living daylights out of anyone at 10 PM at night in an empty manor house.

Another jolly haunting would be if the reflection of one (or all of) our pretty young guests popped out  from the vanity table mirror once in awhile. Some poor student would be innocently gluing on her fake eyelashes when all of a sudden there Polish Pretend Daughter's face would be beside the student's face in the mirror. If you don't want to be this student, try not to buy a vanity table from and Edinburgh Bethany Shop in the next few months, that's what I advise.

And now I shall write about the excellence of chickens.


Thursday 18 October 2018

A Nun's Cell

I'm still sharing office space with boxes, which is why this post seems so poignant.

When I think of my idea living space, it's a white-washed cell in a beautiful house shared with others--a Victorian house, with a polished wooden staircase, wooden floors, a sitting-room with old furniture and a Turkish carpet, a dining-room and a cheerfully tiled kitchen. 

In short, it's a small non-cloistered convent in Toronto, only with family and friends in it instead of women religious. Apologies to the women religious and to women religious in general! 

Before my husband got so sick, I thought--should I be widowed relatively young--I might have a late vocation to a cloistered convent. But while B.A. was in serious danger of death, I knew that I did not. But it does seem like such a beautifully spare way to live! 

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Owning versus Renting

I have been reading Early Retirement blogs, not because I want to retire early, but because I don't want to be desperately poor when I do. Dancing gaily through life writing this and that, picking up various lifestyle university degrees, and then running away to a foreign country has been fun but impecunious. It would have been a good idea to have read Early Retirement blogs when I was 19 and lived off dividends from age 32, but there were no blogs when I was 19 and the possibility never occurred to me.

Having read quite a lot of Early Retirement Extreme and Mr Money Moustache,  I have recently been reading  Millennial Revolution, which is based in Toronto. The authors, being from Toronto, absolutely loathe the idea of buying a house. Instead of buying a house in Toronto, which can plunge the average person into almost a million dollars in debt,  Mr and Mrs Millennial Revolution put all their savings into stocks and bonds, rode out the 2008 crash, and retired when Mrs MR was 31.

As I read the Millennial Revolution's nightmare articles about their-friends-who-bought-houses-in-Toronto, I ponder whether or not it was a mistake to buy a home near Edinburgh instead of whacking all our savings into stocks and bonds and renting. After all, even as homeowners we can still hear people coughing or yelling on the other sides of the walls. Pinning someone down to fix the roof was a chore, too.

When, this summer, I began to doubt the buying project, Benedict Ambrose argued that paying rent instead of a mortgage was akin to setting the money on fire instead of investing it.  Also--this is not true in Canada--when you rent a flat in the UK, you still have to pay a kind of property tax to the government anyway. It's called "council tax". When we were the proud "key-holding" tenants of the Historical House, we weren't paying council tax only because B.A.'s employers were paying it for us. (I found this out only after the Deluge drove us from our home.)

Eventually I sat down with a pen and paper and calculated that, given our relatively small mortgage and relatively small council taxes, it did make more economic sense for us to buy a flat in our modest (but not crime-plagued) neighbourhood than to rent. Even locally monthly rent on a two-bedroom flat is more than our monthly mortgage payment.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, if you invest in a Help-to-Buy ISA (Investment Savings Account) at a bank, the UK government actually pays you a whopping percentage (20%) of what you put in. It is free money (supplied by the taxpayers) to bribe/help people in the UK to buy their first homes.

Therefore the answer to the question "Should I buy or rent?" seems to be another question: "What does it cost to live where we work?"

Where B.A. works--a ten minute train journey from the glorious Georgian facades of Edinburgh--property prices are relatively low: you can buy a two-bedroom flat for £120, 000*.

Near where my sister Quinta works, you can buy a miniscule two-"bedroom" condo for $530, 000 Canadian, which is about £311, 290.

Therefore, whereas buying near BA's UK workplace makes sense for a two-income couple, it would make less sense for Quinta to buy near her own Toronto workplace.

My gosh. I have just looked up property prices in my parents' neighbourhood and my eyes almost fell out of my head. Teeny-weeny bungalows going for $1,400,000 (£821,975).  Less than that would get you this in Edinburgh.

*Theoretically. In Scotland, all homes are sold by blind auction. You tell your solicitor how much you are willing to offer (which means all the money you can spare plus whatever mortgage you have "in principle" from a lender) on the closing date and then wait and see if your offer was the best. So if you want to buy a £120,000 flat and you know there are 5 other people who want to buy it, you shut your eyes, bid £130,000, and pray that if you win, you couldn't have won by bidding £127,000 instead.

Saturday 13 October 2018


This afternoon B.A. and I went to see a Polish anti-clerical film called "Kler" (Clergy). This is a blockbuster in Poland, and there were a goodly number of Poles in the audience, to say nothing of the Poles waiting outside the theatre to see the evening show.

I read and write sad news about Church scandals all week, so there was nothing new and shocking here for me* except that it was Poland and the director decided to drag the 1980s Solidarity priests into the mire. 

One of the priest-protagonists having an affair with a woman didn't shock me. Another being suspected of pedophilia--I've known of such things since I was 12. Still another being a financial fixer for his bishop--we've reported extensively on funny money business in the Vatican itself. But implicating a Solidarity priest in child abuse was really just too .... pass me my smelling salts

It could be an age thing, of course--especially for Westerners. It may be hard for Poles, especially young Poles, to understand what Solidarność meant to Eighties kids in Canada and the USA.  Of course, young Poles also don't know what it's like to worry about nuclear bombs flattening your town, either.  

But enough about Solidarity. I will probably write about Kler  extensively for LSN, but at the moment my first impressions are that the stories of the three priests and one boy were interesting and nuanced personal tragedies whereas the story around the avaricious bishop was gross, over-the-top, obviously political and even cartoonish.  

I read and hear the worst of bishops. I mean, seriously. I read things on social media about contemporary bishops than cannot be published because they have not been substantiated, but I have not read anything as bad or corrupt or ridiculous as what is alleged in the film of the fictional contemporary Polish bishop. I suspect that if I were a real moharowy beret (little old lady who listens to the Radio Maryja radio network) and I had wandered into Kler by accident, I would have fallen over dead at what is alleged about this fictional bishop. 

Meanwhile, it's not a badly acted film. There were four major stars in that film, and I shall now have a look and see how well their careers flourished under Communism.* I am also curious as to who funded this little anti-clerical shindig.

*Naturally there are upsetting scenes, and this is NOT a film for children. 

Signs and Wonders

So now it is a year since the morning I prayed all 15 decades of the Rosary on the one-hour commute to my husband's hospital the day after his make-or-break operation.

It was the 100th anniversary of the last apparition of Fatima, and the trad (and mad) continent of the Catholic blogosphere had been rife with rumours that Something Bad would happen. Since my future now hinged on how brain-damaged B.A. was going to be, it did not seem at all megalomanic to ask Our Lady that the day's Great Event be instead that B.A. have a complete recovery.

I  did not know if B.A. would recognise me ever again, so it was a great relief when I arrived beside his bed in Intensive Care and it was clear that he did. He couldn't speak, however, as he had a ghastly breathing apparatus down his throat, and eventually his nurse, and then several nurses and doctors had much ado preventing him from tearing at it.

While the battle raged, I was sent out of Intensive Care, only to be called in again because after the machine was removed B.A. started screaming and carrying on, and they thought I could calm him down.

Like many delirious people, he thought he was dying, but B.A. also wanted Mass said for him while he did, so as soon as he laid eyes on me he yelled, "Darling, darling, call Father E, I'm dying ---and her Immaculate Heart will triumph!"

B.A.'s brain surgeon was tremendously pleased that B.A. could breathe on his own and was in such feisty spirits although you can bet that soon after I left (about 8 hours later) B.A. was pumped full of sedatives. He was not so feisty when I saw him the next morning, let me tell you.

For three days he repeated that Our Lady's Immaculate Heart would triumph. The first day he yelled this over and over. The next day, his yells weren't so loud and the repetitions were less frequent. The third day, he just mentioned this inevitable triumph from time to time in a conversational tone of voice.

B.A. had no permanent brain damage from the operation, and when we saw the surgeon a few months later, he stared at B.A.'s face to see if any of the muscles were sagging, and they weren't.

"It's pretty miraculous," said the surgeon, and I proceeded to write two newspaper articles on the topic.

It was an awful blow to both of us when we discovered, a few months after that, that B.A.'s brain tumour, which can't be entirely removed, was slowly growing back. Obviously the worst part was that B.A.'s ordeal was not over, and he'd have to have radiotherapy. However, it was also disappointing that our miracle hadn't signalled the end of it all. Perhaps our miracle wasn't a miracle after all?

But I think that it was still a miracle, in the way that the Raising of Lazarus was still a miracle, even though Lazarus died in the end.  B.A. did not have a complete recovery from the tumour , but he did have a complete recovery from the very scary operation that could have left him blind, unable to breathe, immobile or dead. (You name it.) He also helped to promote devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary when he was completely off his head.

Some people, even devout elderly ladies, spout obscenities when they are delirious. Not my B.A.  As a temporarily brain-damaged person, he was really rather sweet. He may even have been heroic because even while he thought he was being murdered, he was proclaiming the message of Fatima in a dourly post-Christian city at the top of his lungs.  

Friday 12 October 2018

The Year Since Operating Dangerously

It's the first anniversary of my husband's incredibly dangerous fifth brain surgery. Naturally Benedict Ambrose remembers nothing of that day, whereas it is tattooed to my own brain.

The events are jumbled up, however. I do recall B.A. happily "signing" his consent to the procedure that could kill him and was half-expected to paralyse him in some way: he kept on scribbling until I took away the pen. Then I had to sign to confirm that was my husband's signature.

Then there were the could-be death bed visits. Naturally our priest came with the Blessed Sacrament (and poor B.A. was terrified evil forces would stop him), and B.A.'s mother came down from Dundee, and the Men's Schola came by, and the young Franco-Polish couple staying with me---and I think six was the maximum number of guests I thought B.A. could receive.

This was all very last minute, by the way. B.A. had been in the convalescent home, for which we had had great (but completely unfounded) expectations. He fell in the night and was discovered at dawn and whisked to the hospital for x-rays. I could understand very little of what he said, and the young doctors almost nothing. No bones broken, but the tumour had grown, and so B.A. was returned to the relative paradise of the Neuroscience department.

The memory that makes me cry is B.A. telling his mother with all seriousness that he had been in Carstairs. Carstairs is Scotland's prison for the criminally insane.

Well, my father would tell me that it is best not to dwell on these things. And he should know because my mother had a stroke at 50 and then brain surgery. She completely recovered and is hale and hearty, goes for long holiday hikes in the Highlands, and volunteers at a rehab hospital that nobody would think was Carstairs.

I suppose the value of talking about this at all is to provide hope for other people whose loved ones have a stroke or a brain tumour. Of course, the fact that B.A. was not damaged by the operation was a miracle, but that's a story for tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I am eternally grateful for all the prayers, cards, small presents and kind words of family, friends, and readers, let alone the sacrifices of both money and time of family members who flew to Scotland to be with us last year.

Update: Trying not to dwell, but the other miracle is that I have not gone insane between March 2017 and now.  That might be a source of hope for others, too. It is possible to care for your spouse through a brain tumour diagnosis, five operations, the malfunction of a fire retardant system, another brain tumour diagnosis, eviction from your beloved home of 9 years, flat-buying, and his radiotherapy  (while working full-time) and not go stark raving mad. In fact, I gave up anti-depressants months and months ago because WHO HAS TIME?

My principal advice here--besides not trusting a dangerously overstretched medical system alone with your loved one--is to save every penny you can possible save as soon as it dawns on you that you should have done this from your first paycheque.

Monday 8 October 2018

Canadian Thanksgiving

Today I was terribly sad and homesick, and it was through gritted teeth that I asked myself what I could do today to make tomorrow better. One thing I did was to acknowledge that I, like so many others, have an internet addiction and should strive not to get on the web before or after office hours.

But I also posted a letter to two nice Scottish girls immured in a French convent school and spent £17 on groceries, which I slowly began to turn into Thanksgiving supper. Originally I was going to have Thanksgiving supper on Sunday night with two English-Scottish couples, but one couple was out of town and the other's plans have to be made greatly in advance because of the need for a babysitter. I was going to invite another couple for real Thanksgiving, tonight, but I thought B.A. would be too tired from work. So in the end, I shopped for two.

The secret to Thanksgiving for two is to stick to the basics. If your spouse does not come from a Thanksgiving-celebrating culture, this is quite easy. You tell him what the basics are, and he accepts this as Canadian (or, I imagine, American) law. In our case, this meant a turkey leg, gravy, curried carrots with honey and ginger, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. I also provided store-bought gnocchi as a fast take on potatoes.

I was quite surprised to find a turkey leg for sale among the poultry. I meant to buy guinea hens, but there being an enormous raw turkey leg, I bought it. I suppose it must once have been attached to a turkey crown, now sitting in the frozen foods department of some grocery store somewhere in the British Isles. Tesco has already starting stocking Christmas things. Hallowe'en is not strong enough a tradition hear to keep Christmas groceries at bay.

At any rate, I began to prepare Thanksgiving Dinner at 5 PM and it was ready at 8 PM, and it was eaten by 9 PM, with all the dishes washed and the leftovers sweetly stored in the fridge. I shall be delighted with my current self when my future self walks into a clean kitchen tomorrow morning.

Incidentally, I made my pumpkin pie crust with lard (not vegetable shortening), and it flaked beautifully. I used to be awful at making pastry, but now that I have been married for almost ten years, I am rather good at it. Like making friends, it takes time.

Sunday 7 October 2018

The Marble Run & Adult Conversation

We have returned from our friends' delightful farmhouse, having had a lovely time and a 28 hour fast from the internet. B.A. doesn't have much energy these days, so he sat in sunbeams or by the fire and read "The Spectator" magazine while I cuddled the hens, or read Polish, or went for a walk, or discussed the stages of apple cider brewing.

While we were reading, a young family turned up, and eventually I found myself upstairs with a four year old, a two year old, and torture device called a "Marble Run." The torture part of the device is putting the blasted thing together.

Downstairs the young mother of these handsome children was having a chat with our mutual friend at the farmhouse kitchen table, and as I struggled with the not-particularly-helpful blueprints to the Marble Run, I was reminded of my mother's deep longing, in the 1970s, for Adult Conversations. 

Not to brag, but I have Adult Conversations all the time. These are usually work conversations, but before I had daily work conversations, I could pop across the Historical Fields to a similarly underemployed neighbour's house for an Adult Conversation about European travel, poetry in translation, or what have you.

My mother would very much have liked to have locked us all up in a closet and gone to a neighbour's for Adult Conversations, but she wasn't that sort of mother, so she didn't do it. But she did moan about how boring childish prattle is, and I admit that it can be, especially when you think of children not as children but as very short and obtuse adults. 

The way forward, I feel, speaking as someone who spends almost no time at all with them, is to remember that children have their own weird psychology, and if you can't put together the ghastly Marble Run, they will not hold it against you for life, or mention it at the next dinner party you're not invited to. 

In fact, a two year old and a four year old can be fobbed off for a pretty long time just with rolling a marble along a piece of plastic track, which in itself seems to be impressive. What children apparently want, besides telling you how old they are and what their parents' real names are (i.e. besides Mummy and Daddy), is a friendly adult person to entertain them with bits of plastic. 

Still, it's hard to lose the feeling that you're letting down the adult side by not being able to construct a Marble Run. By the time supper was announced, I had had quite enough of not being able to fulfil expectations of adult competency. I took comfort from the thought that the children would forget as soon as they had something to think about, i.e. supper and which parts of it they wanted to eat. 

The point of playing games made of plastic with children, I thought, is really to give their parents some time off, so that they can have some Adult Conversations, perhaps with other parents. But then I got my own reward, which was the feeling, after dinner, when we were still all around the table, of somebody under the table trying to remove my slippers. 

Paradoxical as it may sound, two year olds and four year olds do not try to steal the slippers off the feet of adults they don't like. No, they save such felonies for adults that are worth bothering about. It is thus a wonderful compliment to discover that some pint-sized sneak is removing one's footwear. And it is also an opportunity to play my favourite game with children, which is "I'm A Scary Monster Who Has Got Your Leg and Is Going To Pop Off Your Head." 

Naturally I thought a lot about Booklover's plight of wanting to make friend with Catholic mothers and have proper conversations with them that do not involve children. But I also thought about Catholic mothers, and how lonely they can be from day to day, and how little time they have to have any Adult Conversations at all. 

There were more young families at Mass today than usual (hooray!), and the young mothers and fathers, who seemed to be covered in children, talked happily together. I chatted briefly with a university student, a grandmother, a young mum I hadn't met before, a young dad I hadn't met before,  an old bachelor, a pregnant married lady who (alas!) is going back with her husband to their native country, her husband, her mother and her father.  And B.A. and I got a ride home from Mass from our  hostess, so we had another lovely conversation with her. 

I think one of the solutions to the no-Catholic-female-friends problem, as annoying is this will sound, is patience. When I first arrived as a bride in Edinburgh almost 10 years ago, I had no female Catholic friends here. But now I have many and a bunch of acquaintances that might also become friends, if and when they have time for Adult Conversations. Sometimes it just takes time. 

Friday 5 October 2018

Making Women Friends Later in Life When You Don't Have Kids

Reader Booklover has asked how to have Catholic female friendships after thirty when all the Catholic females around have kids and you don't.

That's a very good question. Booklover is lonely, and I am not surprised because I was super-lonely when I was the only woman over 25 and under 55 amongst my husband's Trad Catholic friends in Edinburgh. Not only weren't there any more childless married ladies my age, there weren't any ladies my age at all.  I would sit at the table at Men's Schola dinner parties and bear the brunt of their masculine humour, e.g. my supposed job on Salamander Street.  DON'T ASK.

"We'll have to find you some other wifies, hen," said the Salamander Street jester, and eventually some other expat gals did end up at our parish. I was initially suspicious of each and every one of them--goodness knows why--but then they all became my friends. A married Scottish lady with two daughters also started coming, and after a few years, we became friends, too. She now has hens, so I'm going to visit her and them tomorrow.

Of my fellow foreigners, one was recently married, and two started out Single. Then one married a Trad and one married an N.O. type from the Cathedral. The one who arrived married had babies, but the others haven't despite my fervent prayers for us all . The baby-haver now lives abroad, but when she comes back, she abandons her children with their grandparents and we go out for delicious cocktails.

Of course, our Trad parish is a bit weird in that it is very heavy on single, nulliparous people and relatively light on married couples with children. Married couples with children are a relatively recent phenomenon at our parish but a very welcome one. Somehow my mother and I got swept along by a giant crowd of them this summer to the Botanical Gardens. There I played "Red Rover, Red Rover" until someone got hurt.

I don't remember what I talked about at this picnic; I mostly remember eating delicious things with my mother and wondering how to stop the "Red Rover" game before someone got hurt.

My social life with women improved a bit when I volunteered to help the Traddy Girl Guide troop.  I enjoy talking to the Guides themselves, and if the mothers of the Guides talk about their daughters, it's a bit like gossiping at school only I tend to say things like "I think X and Y are so beau-oooo-tiful and smart" or "Z is really so clever at woodcraft."

The truth is I really wish I had clever, pretty daughters like so many women my age, and you really can't go wrong telling women how clever and pretty their daughters are. Actually, I don't mind listening to women talk about their children because I find the children interesting. What I don't like is when complete strangers ask me if I have any children because it always makes me sad to say "No."

I am not sure any of this is helpful. Oh dear.

With the exception of two Protestant friends, my life rotated in a very tiny circle around the Men's Schola and such Edinburgh or St Andrews Uni students (often Polish, usually male) considered clubbable enough for dinner parties until I started going to night school. Then I got to see a completely different sort of person once a week for years. At first it was awkward being around non-Catholics, but eventually I stopped being quite so paranoid.

After several years of night school, I developed a friendship with another childless woman, the daughter of a Polish WW 2 veteran, and we may even travel together to Poland together one day, which would be great fun. It takes awhile to develop friendships with actual Scots when you are a foreigner in Scotland, by the way, unless they are work colleagues or wives of your husband's university pals.

This is sounding too much like All About Me and not enough like Advice, so I will try a list of suggestions of what to do when all the women around are mothers and you are not.

1. Become a kind of helper to the mothers of older girls, like a Temporary Deputy Girl Guide Captain, which will give you something in common with them.

2. Try to cultivate friendships with mothers who have passed the stage of talking about nothing but their children, e.g. mothers of teenagers.

3. Try to cultivate friendships with mothers who lived for rock'n'roll before their children were born. Hint: this may be the woman who says "Sometimes I wish I could go back to being 22 for just a week, you know?"

4. Accept the fact that most women your age or older who do not have children are probably not good Catholics and make friendships with them based on shared interests, like foreign language class or love of books.

5. Also accept that fact that women are simply not going to play as big a role in your life right now as they did before you were married. Yes, this is rotten and, no, a husband does not make an adequate substitute. Keep a few women's phone numbers on hand for emergency wailing sessions.

6. Read books by splendid Catholic women you wish you could go out for cocktails with, like Rumer Godden or Anna Haycroft (Alice Thomas Ellis).

7. See your very best BFFs in the world, who are probably college pals, when you can. I have two. One is a non-Catholic with no children on Toronto's Queen Street West and one is Catholic with four children just off Toronto's Roncesvalles. I see them once a year. I go to their houses and sit on their sofas and sit calmly as the hurricanes of their daily lives roar around me.

8. Befriend older Catholic women as they appear in your lives.

9. Join a network of Catholics that is much bigger than your immediate Catholic world, for the chances of meeting other Catholic women without children will thus rise.

The women in (or who regularly come to) the UK I know well enough and like enough to have over for a cup of coffee range in age from 17 to 72. They are American, Australian, English, Scottish, French, Polish, Balkan, Bulgarian, Estonian and Italian. Some are Catholics, some are Protestants, and some are simply Communists, let's face it. Two are cloistered nuns so, in fact, they can never come for coffee. Of those with children, one is pregnant with her first, three have two children each, and nice new one has seven strikingly beautiful children under 13. Of those without, at least three are over 60.

Interestingly, only three of all these excellent women has had a cup of tea or coffee or hot buttered apple cider with rum in the new flat so far.  This, however, has a lot to do with the slow progress of our move, B.A.'s health, and my full-time job.

Tuesday 2 October 2018

Brigid Jones' Baby & A.A. Gill's Film

B.A. suggested it, and I crumbled at once and said we could subscribe to the super-basic version of Netflix. Then, after a companionable watching of "Suits", I watched Bridget Jones' Baby after B.A. went to bed.

Although it was a funny movie, it made me very sad, and I had a hard time getting to sleep afterwards. It was not just that Bridget looked so old, it was also that Mark Darcy looked so old. The ending of the film was mostly satisfying, but I got the sense that both Bridget and Mark had squandered so much of their lives. Also they looked terribly old, and if Renee Zellweger looks like that in her mid-to-late 40s, what must the rest of us over-40s look like?

I mean no disrespect to Ms Zellweger, by the way. I have no interest in resurrecting the what-did-she-do-to-her-face debate. And I wish to emphasise how old Colin Firth also looked. If he meant to play Mark Darcy as a man who was outwardly successful but was inside a howling void, he succeeded.

"It's so awful getting old," my grandmother told me, but it is also awful to watch others getting old. Well, such is the human condition, and we must be brave about it.

As I was feeling very wired from watching aged Bridget have a baby at 43, which I myself was not able to do--something else to be brave about--I picked up volume called  The Best of A.A. Gill.

A.A. Gill indirectly saved B.A.'s life by writing that he went to the doctor with a neck-ache that turned out to be cancer. After reading that, B.A. went to the doctor with a neck-ache that also turned out to be cancer, only the non-malignant kind that doesn't spread. But as I have written many times before, it is not wholly benign. Had B.A. not had his pains checked out, he would have died of hydrocephaly by now, probably in his sleep, and I would have woken up beside a corpse. Not a happy thought.

Anyway, besides indirectly saving B.A.'s life, A.A. Gill was a very clever and amusing writer, whose works I would recommend wholeheartedly, were it not for the fact that he wrote a p/r/on film. While reading his essay on the topic, I wasn't sure exactly what he was describing, and then I was sure, and I was neither impressed nor amused. It astonished me that someone who could write so passionately about the sufferings of refugees could be so indifferent to the acute degradation of the performers in his film.

Once again I am decidedly underwhelmed by contemporary British artefacts/pop culture, but at least there will an exhibit of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts at the British Library this winter so splendid that it will be worth our while to travel down to London to see it.