Thursday 30 April 2020

Good Necessities vs Bad Luxuries

Visiting the relics of my patron saint is a GOOD luxury (arguably)
Yesterday was a dull day in that I worked through lunchtime and all the way to dinner time without any gardening or laundering or cooking or going for a walk or any of that good stuff. (It was cold and raining by 6 PM, too, which was an added disincentive to going outside.) And, sadly, I didn't get two whole articles done: there was a lot of consultation, translation, clicking around, and research dead ends. Blah.

French, I discover, is weirder than Italian although, contemplating localism again, more important than either Italian or Polish for one week of the year I am in Quebec. 

However, I again resisted the dopamine-rush of the internet until 8:30 AM this morning. I washed the dishes, made my coffee, took it outside as I visited my plants, and then sat down with Wendell Berry's 1993 "A Big Bad Idea", which meant the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). I see via wikipedia that GATT led to the creation of the World Trade Organisation.  

The message of this essay is that governments are serving Big Business instead of the ordinary folk the governments are supposed to protect, acting even as the "attorneys" for Big Business as opposed to a curb on their acquisition of everything. The result is that the freedom of farmers and the ability of any ordinary person to grow their own food is greatly diminished. 

Berry writes, "The issue here really in not whether international trade shall be free but whether or not it makes sense for a country--or for that matter, a region--to destroy its own capacity to produce its own food. How can a government, entrusted with the safety and health of its people, conscientiously barter away in the name of an economic idea that people's ability to feed itself? And if people lose their ability to feed themselves, how can they be said to be free?"

A year or so ago, I became interested in the ideas of "preppers"-- people who plan well in advance for natural disasters, keep six months' worth of tins around, and have "bug-out bags". (They must be feeling very pleased with themselves now.) One of the beliefs of preppers is that cities will become violent hellholes when the food supply chain is inevitably interrupted. Fortunately, our area did not become a violent hellhole the week the supermarket shelves were stripped almost bare. But my thought is that there would be no reason to panic over food if we town-dwellers all arranged our lives so that we could grow at least some of our own. 

The immediate objection to this is "apartment blocks" or "blocks of flats" and my glib answer is "guerrilla gardening" and "allotments" (personal spaces in community gardens). Guerrilla gardening is a lot more hopeful than allotments, for most, for the waiting list for allotments around here is long. In fact, it will be years before one becomes free. But B.A's maternal grandfather had an allotment, and he grew onions, potatoes, leeks, broad beans and, in a greenhouse, tomatoes. 

My own thoughts inspired by "A Big Bad Idea" are as follows:

1. How nice if we could have a Creation party, i.e. a party in favour of sustainability that wasn't directly opposed to Catholicism but, indeed, pointed out how very anti-ecological chemical contraceptives are. Perhaps we could call it the Reality party. 

2. The UK was right to leave the EU if the EU was running roughshod over the particularities of British farmers, fisherman, craftsmen and such other people. 

3. It really is important to support local organic farms and also to begin small scale organic farming.

4. I wonder who owns the local farmland and what crops grow there?

5. Good food & good work versus bad luxuries/expensive distractions.

Number Five is a challenging one. Whenever anyone suggests that the urban poor would be less unhealthy if they were taught to cook (assuming they have stoves/ovens/hotplates/fridges) from scratch and eat more vegetables, a host of commentators go nuts. The way the food industry is set up,   they say, it is cheaper to buy prepackaged microwavable food (assuming you have a microwave) than to buy, store and cook vegetables. This may be true: I'm not sure. (And if so, that itself is damnation to the food industry.) When I anticipated the stripping of. the shelves, I bought tins of canned tomatoes and beans--storable vitamins and protein--and they did not seem expensive. 

So I feel that I am taking a risk by pondering paying MORE for food, good fresh or bottled food, and less on "bad luxuries" and "expensive distractions." 

The nearest example of a bad luxury is the takeout Thai food we ordered on Saturday. It was both expensive and unsatisfactory.  Expensive distractions include movies at the cinema; pay-per-view television; ever larger, flatter television screens; and foreign holidays. Foreign holidays can also be a bad luxury: I am invariably grumpy for the first day or two days after travelling to an unknown place. Poor B.A. Barcelona was lovely and interesting, but the anti-tourist Catalans may rejoice, for I shall not go back to Barcelona. 

Meanwhile, I am very conscious that I have singled out the bad luxuries and expensive distractions of my own neighbours. However, although my origins are different from my neighbours, I make about as much money as the other homeowners, or less. Their bad luxuries and distractions are often mine, too. The lady downstairs worked, before the pandemic, in a hotel to make money for "extras" like chocolate and cruises. I asked her what the attraction of cruises were, and she explained that it was the entertaining floor shows and the going from port to port. She thought it was a good way to see places and decide if they were worth further exploration. I can see that part of it--that's exactly how I felt about my Contiki tour to Italy in 1998.

Good work, by the way, includes gardening and repairing stone walls, and anything else humans did for millennia before they were herded into factories. 

But no more about this, for I see that it is 9:33 AM, and I want to do some gardening before work. 

Wednesday 29 April 2020

"We must learn to live at home."

I have less and less to tell my parents on work days. Yesterday I once again rebelled against the tyranny of the computer by taking my coffee outside to look at my plants. I read Wendell Berry. I read a chapter of Baltic (not understanding all the words--I'll have to find that notebook). I put the last of the laundry in the washing machine. (B.A. later hung it up outside to dry.) I began work early.

I had a truncated lunch break.  I gave up on three of the runner beans and planted zucchini (courgette) seeds in their pots. I sowed radish and lettuce seeds in the Trug as I am unhappy with their siblings' slow development in the raised garden. Then I went back to work.

We were late to our 6 PM walk again, this time because I wrote to the man who sold me the dead runner beans seeds. Our walk was, therefore, just around local streets and avenues, but I cannot complain as many of the houses and building were pre-1939 and charming. The cherry trees and apple trees are still in blossom. There are Scottish bluebells in profusion in a local garden.

B.A. added extra canned tomatoes, kidney beans and a bell pepper to Monday's leftover bolognese sauce, and it became chili con carne, minus chili. (We thought the leftover tomatoes were leftover salsa, thanks to the jar I had stored them in.)  We watched an episode of "Chef's Table" (a Brazilian ex-punker chef) and the last episode of the first season of "The Chosen."

B.A. went to bed and I unwisely looked at social media and discovered I had been wronged. This kept me awake for hours. In the end I meditated on Our Lord's advice about someone taking your shirt (give also your cloak) and walking the extra mile if a member of the Occupying Army makes you carry his pack, and that greatly helped.

This morning I woke up thinking about reports about people in their 30s and 40s suffering coronavirus-related strokes, which had frightened me very much, and decided not to go back to being furious. B.A. and/or I could be dead by the end of the next week (God forbid), and therefore I would rather be as happy as possible this week.

I enjoy finishing at least two stories for work a day, so work is part of happiness. But maximal happiness these days is getting outdoors and, to be honest, eating supper.

"We must learn to live at home" comes from Wendell Berry's essay "Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse," which includes a number of principles for saving the planet, all of which are about "thinking locally." Berry explodes the "Think globally, act locally" slogan, which amuses me.

As I seem to be following the psychological pattern of other English-speaking people (at least) in their response to the crisis (beginning with the family pack of loo roll I bought before we went to Poland in February), I would not be surprised if tens of thousands of people are also reading Berry for the first time. Certainly these essays seem tailor-made to this particular ecological crisis we are living in.

"Global thinking is not possible," says Berry, which makes me feel better about weeping over New York on 9/11 while being merely sorry for the Bombing of Baghdad in 2003. (Thomas Aquinas writes about localism, in a way, in his Summa Theologiae when he discusses precedence in love.) He thinks the only way to save the planet is through thousands of small acts done by locals, and that the locals will do these things if they feel affection for the place they live. To learn to love the place they live, they should get out of their cars (or off their horses, a lovely ideas) and walk through it.

And this is true. B.A. objected to buying a flat where we live until we had to, and now through our daily walks, he has come to admire it. My affection for the place has increased, too, and when B.A. went to Tesco I asked him to pick up the local newspaper. Now I really want to know where we are.

My notes upon reading "Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse" are as follows:

Forced localism has increased our knowledge of and affection for our area.

Our area still has countryside and farms nearby, and so is still a good candidate as a locally sustainable community.

Migration and tourism have, on this occasion, endangered the world and this country.  (This is not to pick on China, as I am also thinking of luxury skiing holidays in the north of Italy. And that is also not to blame those who go to Italy to ski: it is an observation of an unintended consequence. Also, my parents were/are principally endangered by unwitting people who brought the virus back to their neighbourhood from Iran. )  

Could inherent xenophobia (for which the ordinary 20th century Briton was thoroughly mocked by more privileged/cosmopolitan Britons like Agatha Christie) be a defence against plague? (Not my original idea; I read it somewhere.)

How local is local? Last week B.A. and I walked about 3 miles from home before turning back. We have in the past walked a little over 5 miles to central Edinburgh. When you can't drive, local really does mean local.

The virus has driven many people, at very least in the English-speaking world, to gardening. Why? To be sure of food? To get out of the house? To get into the sun? To increase endorphins? Because, robbed of our usual distractions, we are reverting to what humans are supposed to do?

Not having a car means we go on foot.  Being frightened of public transport ensures it.

And this morning, I thought: Is our lockdown sustainable? That is, really, can we "learn to live at home" in a radical way?

B.A. and I are very, very fortunate because it looks as though we can. I will be very sorry if I can't see friends in Poland and Italy until 2021, but it won't crush me. At this stage of my life, I am impatient with sightseeing for sightseeing's sake, and therefore have little interest in travel unless it is to visit friends or improve my languages. My preferred freedom date is, therefore, February 2021, which is when I plan to stay with my family in Canada for a month.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Good-bye to Amazon

Another lovely sunny morning, if chilly. I have again broken my morning dependency on the internet by going outside with my coffee to visit my plants and then returning to sit down with Wendell Berry.

Today I  reread his essay "Conservation and Local Economy." Then I read a chapter of Baltic na głos  (out loud), which would not really be in the spirit of localism, were it not for the fact that the largest group of my non-British neighbours are Poles. As I've mentioned before, Polish is the most frequently spoken language in Scotland after English and Scots. (The census counts Scots as a language.)

Yesterday morning I read Berry's "Conservation is Good Work" and made notes in pencil. My brief summary is that both conservation movements and government are inadequate to protect and preserve  nature, and that personal responsibility and household economy are necessary. We should think of nature as Creation and our home, not as "the environment". We should buy products and hire services locally. We shouldn't buy anything we don't need. We should do as much around the house and garden as possible ourselves, and when we can't, we should ask a neighbour. We should take our recreation locally instead of travelling hours and hours to national parks. We should grow our own food or eat locally grown food. We should buy good products rather than bad ones.   

I wrote my own thoughts underneath this list, and the first one was No More Amazon. This was not an extremist objection to the rainforest but a consumer's vote against Jeff Bezos' economic machine. I'm confident that if we all stopped using Amazon, he would be left with enough money to buy a small farm and grow organic vegetables for a grateful community.  

A related note is Buy only things made in the UK,  and try to buy them within walking distance. As we discovered when we went to buy a speaker for my laptop, this is easier scribbled than done. There is also our tea, coffee, and chocolate habit. We are not giving up tea, coffee and chocolate; maybe I could add "Buy only foreign things shipped consistently to the UK since 1650 at latest." That covers coffee. It still doesn't cover computer do-dads. 

Fortunately for us, there is a bookstore (just) within walking distance. Naturally it is closed for the pandemic, but it has a sign offering book delivery. To help keep the shop going, I will order my next book from it. Should we win the lottery, I will consider opening a bookshop in our own neighbourhood.   

Another note is Charity should be local, too which may be a controversial idea, since I grew up with Unicef boxes and therefor the idea that our charitable gifts should go first to the developing world. I had quite a shock in a Catholic church in Hesse when I saw a sign asking for charitable donations to poorer parts of former Eastern Germany. Money for Europe? Whaaaat? But obviously one can give both locally and internationally.  

This morning's ideas were similar (more about shopping and walking locally) but I added "Learn more about local history, geography, industry, farming, ecology" and, terribly disturbing to our way of life,"Join spiritual life of local parish." To put this in perspective, we only darken the door of our local parish church if there simply is no other Mass we can get to. The irreverence, which B.A. points out is not the priest's or congregation's fault but the fruit of V2, makes us wriggle with shame. However, perhaps it would be edifying to attend lectures and day-long retreats and so on there, should the government ever allow its doors to open again. 

Meanwhile, I didn't do much else yesterday besides work. I lost a lot of time hearing, discussing and debating Pope Francis's St. Mark's Day homily, which I don't think equated all missionary efforts to the much-hated "proselytism," but others do. More newsworthy was the Italian Bishops objection to the Italian government maintaining a ban on public masses while allowing factories to open and extended family to mingle. 

I did a lot of laundry, as rain is forecast for the rest of the week, and I watered the lawn and gardens.  At 6:30 PM, we went for a very short walk, its brevity my fault for working late. We had spaghetti bolognese for supper, and we watched both an episode of "Chef's Table" and Episode 6 of "The Chosen". The "Chef's Table" episode was set in Lima, Peru and included an Andean woman praying to Pachamama. "The Chosen" had no reference to Pachamama whatsoever, as you could guess. \

Lunchtime Gardening Update: Gave up on three of the never-germinating runner beans today. Planted courgette seeds in their pots. Planted more radishes and lettuce, this time in the Trug.

Monday 27 April 2020

"IHS, not NHS," said the priest in England.

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday, and the honour and duty of preaching fell to Fr. Armand de Malleray at the FSSP Mass at St. Mary's Shrine in Warrington, England.

Mark and I, dressed in our Sunday-turn-on-Mass duds, watched intently to hear what he would say. The FSSP, in our experience, speak only to say something interesting, forceful and often uncomfortable to slack-and-idle souls. Click on to Daily Mass at St. Mary's, and you are likely to hear something about the Virus of Sin and fearing not that which destroys the body but that which casts both body and soul into  hell.

Since the bishops locked the churches against the faithful, Good Shepherd Sunday was always going to be delicate. I think Fr. de M managed that part of it very well, hopefully pricking episcopal consciences just deftly enough not to provoke irate phone calls to the Superior General. * However, where the British worship of the National Health Service was concerned, Fr. de M put aside the rapier and picked up the claymore. He was particularly brutal about the Prime Minister's Easter Sunday speech, which did not acknowledge the Christian significance of the holiday but instead called the NHS "the beating heart of this country."

"The IHS, not the NHS, is the beating heart of this country," slashed Fr de M (or something like that--I will get it right for LSN), and went at great lengths to explain what IHS means in this context (Iesus Hominum Salvator, Jesus Saviour of Mankind, rather than just the first three letters of the Holy Name, which I was taught).  IHS, not the NHS, is our ultimate salvation. He noted also that BoJo was baptised a Catholic. Dear Boris, first Ex-Catholic Prime Minister of England.

Fr de M didn't quite break into "Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land/Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go," but it is clear from his remarks on good vs bad shepherds and the IHS vs NHS that he is on the side of the laity who just want to go to church as freely as we go to the supermarket.

More on this if my editor buys my pitch.

We had a rather meaty lunch, thanks to the local butcher, and then I went outside to plant sweet peas along the north-facing fence. I have since discovered that sweet peas to best in direct sun, so their fate is uncertain. I have planted 25 seeds. If they refuse to germinate (like the runner beans on my windowsill, weep weep), I will plant shade-loving lilies of the valley in late May and snow drops in the fall.

Eventually B.A. came out, attached the hose to the bathtub and watered everything, including me.

Otherwise it was a lazy day in which we were held in thrall by our computers, and it was with great mental effort that we pulled ourselves out of our worn-but-Parker-Knowle chairs and went for a walk. This was nothing special--just along the river past the cherry trees and then back along the High Street to see how it is doing. It was mostly deserted and, of course, everything was shut. We pondered the restaurants sadly until we saw a man with a delivery bag coming out of our favourite fancy Italian pizza joint. I have since discovered that they are too grand (or clever) for a general online delivery service and have their own. Posh pizza will arrive this week.

When we got home, I sank back into an dopamine-fuelled torpor before the computer, and B.A. made dinner. It was pork chops with fennel and shallots with cannellini beans and was thoroughly delicious. We watched Peter Sellers in A Shot in the Dark to save Episode 6 of "The Chosen" for later, so it was more comedy sex-and-violence (although not the graphic Netflix kind) for us. Alas.

I woke up at 5:45 AM to escape a nightmare and couldn't get back to sleep. At 6:15 I gave up, went to the kitchen and made some coffee. But instead of sitting down again, I took the coffee into the garden and visited my various plants. It was too cold to remain, so I went back inside but picked up Wendell Barry instead of my laptop. I read "Conservation is Good Work" and took some notes. Then I re-read two Polish chapters of Baltic: the Dog who Sailed on an Ice Floe.  Next I went back outdoors to finish tidying up the sweet-pea strip by the fence. At 9 AM my alarm went off so I went back in to blog. However, I see that it is now 10:03 PM, so I must go to work.

*Update: I have been transcribing Fr. de M's homily, and actually there is no shadow of a hint of a suggestion in the text that the Bishops of England and Wales have not been doing their jobs. I am very cross with the CCBEW, so I must have heard the homily through that hermeneutic--er--lens (?). Hermeneutic ear trumpet.

Update 2 (Tuesday, April 28): And I submitted my Fr. de M article this morning. As I see it has been imitated already (to put it mildly),  I assert my authorship of the commentary and my presentation of the homily.

Sunday 26 April 2020

A Walk to a Pond

Not the pond.
What a glorious sunny weekend! Peter Hitchens wrote a column saying he's hating the unusually beautiful weather because it masks tragedies to come. My thought is that God is sending the sunshine to help us make enough Vitamin D.  I'm taking a break from my habitual warnings against wrinkles and skin cancer. With the usual warning that I'm not a doctor and you should consult one before doing anything new, everyone must go outside and get a lot of sun. If there's skin cancer in your family, wear a hat.

Yesterday I taught my students via Skype, worked on the lawn, and went for a long walk with B.A.
The Scottish Med.

My students were full of rancour. One was outraged that I had identified her hero (based on a locally important historical figure) as a Norman (and therefore fluent in French) when she wrote that he was SCOTTISH. She was also annoyed that I had suggested she spell the name of the hero's beloved "Cecelia" instead of "Cicelia" when apparently "Cicelia" is an authentic 13th century spelling. The other objected to my describing a cottage as Tibetan when the story is set in NEPAL.

Although not particularly respectful of their Writing Yoda, it was a lot milder than what I have to say when editors mess with my stuff. Even better, they were somewhat in the wrong.

The hero was most definitely an French-speaking Anglo-Norman, and his great-grandfather came over with William the Conquerer in 1066. The hero was also born on the family estates in England. That said, he did have a Scottish mum, who herself seems to have been culturally Norman, but it's very likely she also spoke Gaelic or Early Scots, or both. Thus, the hero could be described as a Scoto-Norman. But he absolutely spoke Norman French fluently, end of.
This is the pond.

As for "Cicelia", I think the odd spelling is too distracting for the reader. It is more likely lead them to wonder if it's a typo than to appreciate its 13th century quality. As for "Tibetan" vs "Nepal," the only hint of the geographical location was that the hero went by donkey to the Himalayas.

However, they were right to speak up rather than to stew in anti-Yoda resentment, and I learned a lot of interesting things.

The lesson afterwards was on the Six Plots of Literature: steady rise; steady fall; rise and fall; fall and rise; rise, fall, rise; etc. My students have rivers of imagination; I'm trying to direct them into tributaries so they can water the fields of literature.

Afterwards I went out to the garden, finished trimming the edges of the mown lawn, plucked out a few stray dandelions and encouraged B.A., who had come outside, to try attaching the garden hose to one of our faucets (i.e. taps). B.A. was surprised that we had a garden hose but upon seeing it for himself, he gamely carried one end up the stairs to the bathroom to experiment. The hose couldn't be attached the sink, but it could be stuffed up the bathtub faucet. Thus, after I raked and seeded the lawn, B.A. was able to water it.

The lawn, by the way, is 33 feet by 11.5 feet, which is more than half the size of our actual flat, and does not even encompass the entire garden. It is therefore possible that we own almost as much outdoor land as we own indoor space, an agreeable hypothesis.

Now the challenge is to not walk on the lawn while the seeds germinate and, I very much hope, sprout.

The walk was along the Firth of Forth and through a nature reserve to a pond. B.A., naturally, skimmed stones on the Forth and on the pond, and when skimming was not feasible, he just threw in stones to hear the splash. It's a bit like living in the One Hundred Acre Wood. Apparently I'm Tigger because I'm impetuous and bounce. B.A. says he's not sure who he is, but he is definitely whoever throws rocks in the water to hear the splash. At his worst, he's Owl.  This is admitted better than Eeyore. (When not Tigger, I'm tend towards Eeyore.)

The Firth of Forth was also being followed by a number of bicycles and the nature reserve wasn't empty, either, although I wouldn't call it crowded. So far everywhere we go, couples and families seem to be keeping 2 metres apart from other couples and families---except for youths bicycling together, as I do not believe they are all siblings. There is occasional sitting.  A  middle-aged Polish couple radiated happiness as they basked in the sun by the lake, topping up their Vitamin D.

Apparently the weather will cease to be so sunny by Tuesday, which will be good for our lawn and vegetable seedlings, but less good for us. We shall buy Vitamin D in Tesco and perhaps order new Wellies for me. And now to publish some photographs so I can go out and finish planting sweet peas.

Local humour.
By the way, the Warrington FSSP Sunday homily was a real barnstormer today. I will write about it tomorrow, but in the meantime, have a listen when the recording is uploaded onto livemass.

Saturday 25 April 2020

Reading Wendell Berry for the first time.

Outside a country schoolhouse.
The lawn has been dubbed "our green ribbon." Yesterday we both worked in its service. First I dug up a few more of the later appearing dandelions, and then B.A. trimmed it with the push lawn mower. At lunch time I went out and cut the edges with scissors, creeping along on my hands and knees. However our vegetables turn out, we have control over the lawn.

Needless to say, I have a zero-herbicide, zero-insecticide policy. I am willing to spray a black-pepper solution on my vegetables, if necessary, but that's it. 

Wendell Berry's Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays arrived in the post, and I wonder now how it was that I never read his work before. I dimly recall seeing his name in a mournful essay by one eco-theologian or another. If this was during my M.Div. studies, the answer is that I didn't have enough time. My intellectual strategy was to grasp systematic, or dogmatic, theology and apply it to pastoral issues, but my emphasis was still on the theology and the pastoral issues that most interested me were in the service of abuse survivors.  

But now I am gardening during the most catastrophic pandemic since 1918, a disaster greatly exacerbated by globalism, so I am interested in reading both about small-scale farming and localism. The name "Wendell Berry" popped up in my mind, and I took online advice to read Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (1993) first.

Having read only a few of the essays--and that at the end of the day when I was tired--I don't feel competent to say anything thoughtful about them yet. I will say, though, that as I read "Conservation and the Local Economy," I remember how I felt reading E.B. White's 1945 Stuart Little.  

Stuart Little is an odd book and doesn't travel well into adulthood, I decided last year when I was looking for a child's present and skimmed the beginning. The idea of giving birth to a child who is a genius and yet looks like mouse horrifies me. (I no longer see the world as Stuart but as his mother might have seen it, I see.) But the joy of Stuart Little for me was his car trip though the American countryside and his short sojourn in a small town called Ames Crossing. The description of the American countryside made me long very much for the American countryside as it was depicted in Stuart Little. This wasn't nostalgia, as I was only a child, and my experience of the American countryside was driving past endless cornfields in Indiana to see a relation or reach a holiday cottage near a lake. 

The closest I got seeing the Stuart Little world was when my parents stopped in a small General Store in some then-rural area near Ontario's Georgian Bay. We were allowed candy from this store: a very rare treat. There were Bottle Caps and Fun Dip Lick-a-stix and Pop Rocks--all the staples of the 1970s. While there I got the the same feeling I got from Stuart Little. 

Ames Crossing otherwise never came alive for me: I spent my North American life in cities with a few weekends and two weeks a year at Girl Guide camps and/or by a lake in the middle of nowhere. But my brother Nulli, come to think of it, lives in a kind of Ames Crossing. However, it's set amid lakes and mountains, not on rolling prairies, and its politics are divided between townies and usually absentee multi-millionaires who drive up prices and build mansions on the shores.

Yesterday was Friday, so I made dinner from my Moosewood Vegetarian cookbook instead of from the bag of fleshy goodies delivered by the butcher that afternoon. We ate our black bean chicaquile in front of my laptop screen, watching Episode 5 of "The Chosen."  Mary of Nazareth appeared for the first time, and we worried that the Evangelical filmmakers offend against her dignity in some way. Fortunately, they didn't. Episode 5 featured the Wedding at Cana, and I enjoyed the filmmakers' ideas of what it might have looked like: the family politics, the food, the drinking, the dancing.  

Friday 24 April 2020

Paradise Imposed: a Guest Post by Benedict Ambrose

I so much enjoyed the Speccie’s recent piece written by fellow inmates of their locked-down columnists that my pars meliora suggested I do a guest-post here.  I’ll spare you all the tedium of that and restrict myself to a bare few observations.  
If you promise to keep it to yourselves, I’ll let you into a shameful secret: certain irksome aspects aside, I’m really rather enjoying the impositions of lockdown.  Like countless other Brits in all sectors of work, my employer has put me on furlough and I’ll likely stay laid off (on full pay) until the end of May. The prospect of imposed idleness at first alarmed me, but I have since learned not to subject this gifthorse to too much tooth-prodding. After all, if someone had said to me at the beginning of the year that I could apply for a two-month sabbatical during which I could scratch my research itch to my content– and with none of the pressure of having to come up with something that looked to my employer like a worthwhile result at the end of it – I’d have gleefully opened a vein so as to sign up without delay. Seraphic* of course has to carry on working in the vineyard through the heat of the day, so I at least owe her the effort of not complaining about my enviable lot.
It’s not even as if our lockdown is particularly draconian.  I am a cheerful introvert at heart, and not exactly a gregarious gadabout at the best of times. The standard extent of my outdoor exposure consisted of a twenty-minute walk to and from work each day, usually punctuated with a stop at a supermarket, with a trip once a week into town for Mass. Whilst staying within the (exceptionally lightly-enforced) guidelines we’re walking a good bit further that that most days, whilst exploring the quiet delights of our locale in ways we never would have been tempted to before. Apart from missing Mass (the dismal effects of which are meliorated more than I would have expected by those being livestreamed) and not seeing colleagues on a daily basis, not a great deal has changed in my routine, and much of what has is for the better.  Seraphic is gardening with great gusto and with no little success and I am pleased that this creative displacement activity is keeping her from becoming too glum in the absence of her regular exercise regime.  The poor creature only really has me to interact with now and she’s coping rather heroically, it seems to me. Of the two of us, I am generally the more even-tempered but I’m prone to fits of grump, often related to the thousand natural shocks that employees are heir to, and which are no doubt difficult to bear.  Whilst I'm far from being transformed by furlough into an unwavering ray of sunshine, any remaining curmudgeonliness is at least not aggravated by stress, so if I’m grumpy at least I’m not “strumpy”. I’ve just mown our meagre (and almost dandelion-free) lawn and rather relished it.  That’s got to count for something.
I’m going to try to make the best of the hand we’ve been dealt, and it certainly makes one count one’s blessings when one is constantly reminded of the terrible tribulations of others.  So if I’m not exactly shouting “Long live the lockdown!” I’m going to try to learn to love it while it lasts, and thereby perhaps make it marginally more bearable to the one who has to share it with me.

*Note to relatively recent readers: That's Mrs McL's old nom-de-blog. [Ed.]

Another River Walk

Our apple blossoms.
I have just come away from a combox discussion about the Vile Germ and why, in the UK, a disproportionate number of people of colour are allegedly dying from it. Some have pointed out that the majority of Covid-19 deaths, like the majority of people of colour in the UK, are in London.  Some have pointed to the high prevalence of multi-generational households amongst people of colour. Someone else made a case for a lack of Vitamin D. He suggested that we had a sunless winter and that people of colour need five times as much sun as people of pallor do to produce Vitamin D. He suggested also that the elderly in care homes (also allegedly disproportionately dying) aren't in the sun much.

I am intrigued by this theory, but the first question that
comes to mind is the likelihood of the residents of Italy having a Vitamin D deficiency. (Maybe they do.) Nevertheless, I hope my white but housebound parents in chilly Toronto are getting enough Vitamin D, and that more research is conducted and advice about Vitamin D is widely published. Non-native Australians are given constant advice about skin cancer; it makes sense to warn about dangers from too little sun.
Golf course.

But to get way from theories about the Vile Germ, I can report I had a nice day yesterday. I blogged away until it was time for work. Around 1 PM, B.A. brought me cheese toast with tomatoes. Then I went out and dug up dandelions--and guess what? I have finished the entire lawn, and now need only go back over it for a mop-up operation. Naturally more of the green monsters sprouted behind me as I worked my way down the lawn.

I went back to work. One of the more curious stories from the pandemic is Pope Francis blaming human treatment of the environment for it. The more traditional Catholic idea is that pestilence is punishment from Almighty God. Pope Francis' notion (which he almost certainly got from eco-liberation theologian Leonardo Boff) is that it is Mother Nature "throwing a fit." Anyway, I was edified to discover that Earth Day was founded by a more-or-less respectable U.S. Senator concerned about air and water pollution. Senator Gaylord Nelson also was against uncontrolled migration to the USA, for the same reasons, and made birth control companies produce information about ingredients and side effects. [Update: The Earth Day "co-founder" was not so respectable, and I will have to look more into this.]

True fact: instead of going deeply into the theology behind the Church's objections to birth control, my high school religion teacher of that year instructed us to read the entire page-long small print on an advertisement for the Pill. That convinced me of the dangers of the Pill, let me tell you.

But back to yesterday. After work, I ran around like a puppy who wants to be taken for a walk and went outside to wait for B.A. and mop up a few dandelions. Then I suspected I had spelled a name wrong in an article and so rushed back inside to see. I had. Furious with myself, I nevertheless did not commit suicide. Instead I informed two editors and went for a walk with B.A. This time we ambled along the Bad Side of the river to the golf course, past a pony and two horses, and returned via the beautiful side of the river.

It was an idyllic walk, really. We are so fortunate and blessed to live where we live. I thought about Marcus and Esca from The Eagle of the Ninth walking through the woods along the river themselves. We are, after all, only 33 miles or so from Trimontium, the abandoned Roman fort where they encountered the legionary who went native. Meanwhile, real Romans absolutely did walk along this river during the Antonine Occupation. How cool is that?

I asked B.A. what he misses most, and he most misses being physically present at Mass. He thinks I miss people more than he does, which is true. He enjoys being at home, doing his research, making toasted cheese ... All we need is a heather priest saying Mass at a "safe distance" in a field, and B.A. is set.

"Oh when I joined the Eagles
(As it might be yesterday)
I kissed a girl at Clusium
Before I marched away."
As for me, I miss people but I cannot complain. The sun keeps shining, none of my family or friends has become sick or lost their job, our flat is not cramped for two, and my broad beans have not yet perished. My travel plans are for the future: Poland in late May if possible. Italy in October if possible. Canada in February---it has to be possible, even if I have to book a berth on a freighter to New York.
"The girl I kissed at Clusium
I remember best of all."

We didn't go straight home when we finished our walk. Instead we went to a traditional chippy and ordered a big pepperoni pizza and a side order of battered mushrooms for me. (A rare treat.) As we passed our row on the way back, I took a photo of a worried-looking bear.

We watched two more episodes of The Chosen as we munched our pizza. I cried at the end of Episode 4. Do check the series out. It really is edifying.

Okay, photo time and then I will push our old-fashioned mower across the lawn.

Blossoms reflected in water. 

Bear in the time of corona.

Thursday 23 April 2020

Exchanging Enthusiastic Alarmism for a Walk

Wait, what does that say?
A reader critiqued my "enthusiastic alarmism" yesterday, a phrase I very much enjoyed. Okay, no more enthusiastic alarmism. Instead of contemplating the Death of Civilisation, I will remember that it is very much alive and work even harder to keep the best of it going. For example, this morning I ordered £19 of locally-raised meat from the local butcher.

Work was slightly different because it was my monthly "professional development" or retreat day.  However, the work task I had been focused on still needed some attention, and I also discussed it for an hour on the phone with my Italian tutor. I sometimes worry that my Italian tutor is overwhelmed by this strange new world of il Cardinale Burke, il Arcivescovo Viganò, and even il nostro povero Papa Francesco, about whom the vast majority of my tutor's generation of Italians rarely thinks.  Their world is politics, football and food. Meanwhile, he speaks beautiful Italian, whereas I rattle on in my unique Canadian-Polish accent. The good news is that I am rattling on. Reading is easy; speaking is hard. Listening is even harder, of course, but I have improved a lot there, too.
Some things remain unchanged! :-D

After my lesson, B.A. and I went on a glorious government-mandated walk. This time we turned our backs on the new-to-us countryside and instead walked to an old and beloved neighbourhood. I love it so much. We would have bought there had there been a two-bedroom flat for sale at the time. I did look at a one-bedroom, but its just as well we didn't get it, as it had only a shared garden and shared gardens in these here parts are usually a combination of dog toilet and cigarette butt farm.

Now that I've made it sound delightful, I should stress that it is a neighbourhood of 18th and 19th century houses as well as 19th century tenement flats, parks, the Firth of Forth, small businesses, locally-produced food shops, and ten years of happy memories.

On our way there, we passed a small water treatment plant and stopped. Strangely, the sound of live bagpipe music was streaming out of the much-graffitied building. I suspected that  it was coming  from the shore behind the plant, but no. After walking to and fro, I determined that it sounded like someone was actually in the water treatment plant, playing away.

"They must have a key," said B.A.

[UPDATE: The highly characteristic dialogue was as follows:

B.A.: I guess they're water pipes. Ha ha HAAAA!
Mrs M: I'm taping.
B.A.: Oh, sorry.]

We continued on our way along the Firth of Forth, passing houses I haven't given a thought to in months, studying flashcards instead as my gym-bound bus travelled past them. It was so good to see them and their brightly coloured doors. I enjoyed seeing the bright camomiles (which B.A. insists are called only daisies) and even yellow dandelions, too, as they were on neutral territory. And eventually a friend, coming along on his bicycle, hailed us. This was an unexpected treat, and we exchanged news. The news about our friends  under 65 is good (or quirky); news about their parents is less so, unfortunately.

Our tentative goal was a very good bakery for (heavenly thought!) croissants and (mad luxury!) takeaway cappuccino. However, it turned out to have shut before we left the house, so no croissants or cappuccino this time. I had a work-related Skype appointment in half an hour, so we walked along the bus route until the bus came along and got on. This was the first time B.A. and I had been on a bus together since St. Joseph's Day, and it felt like an exciting adventure.  The speed of the bus relative to the speed of our walking was mildly entertaining, too.

In the evening, we had salmon for supper and watched The Chosen. a semi-fictional but entirely respectful series about Our Lord. It is actually very good. It is so good, we are going to send the filmmakers money to make more episodes. We won't even buy discounted "Binge Jesus" T-shirts; we will make a proper donation because the show is a (literal?) godsend.

Perhaps I am getting old and pious, but I feel sick of standard Hollywood and West London Film Studios productions: all the violent/comic sex and sexy/comic violence, ugh. Watching The Chosen, I was reminded of St. Ignatius of Loyola discovering that whereas reading romance novels made him feel bad, reading the lives of the saints made him feel good. I felt very happy watching The Chosen, which begins with Mary Magdalene in the grip of seven demons, and what I wanted more than anything was for Our Lord to turn up and save her.

I also remembered that the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland believes that it is wrong to make images of any of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, including Our Lord. This is a relatively new notion, as we have found human-made images of Our Lord from the third century on, and of course there is the Shroud of Turin. (B.A. thinks the actor playing Our Lord in The Chosen looks like the image on the Shroud of Turin.) Anyway, I was thinking that it would be a pity if the ban extends to acting and our friend Calvinist Cath wouldn't feel comfortable seeing the series. It really is a cut above the usual Evangelical   attempts to make films.

Now I am thinking that it would be amazing to watch only Christian-friendly shows in the evening before we go to bed. Meanwhile, I will add photos to this post for your quarantine enjoyment.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

The Last Dance

Yesterday I went sadly to bed, for the last thing I read (mistake) was a headline about the Vile Germ's many mutations. Now, do not be down of heart, for it was a study from China, and I will leave it to virologists to determine if their CCP-controlled brethren are capable of truth. But I was tired and it's difficult not to catastrophize during a catastrophe, so it occurred to me that civilisation was over, just like that.

"What do you mean, metaphorically fevered brain?"

"I mean dances. There can never be dances again. No more 'May I have this dance?' Future generations will know about them only from books."

"Present generations mostly only know about them from books. Remember grinding? 'May I have this dance' has mostly turned into strangers grinding on one another. As a culture, we don't deserve dances anymore."

"And concerts. Nobody can go to concerts."

"You mean those 20,000 people-strong, over-amplified, pricey burlesques?"

"Well, I am thinking also of the Dunedin Consort in the Queen's Hall..."

Et cetera.  Philip Larkin wrote what I thought was the most insulting poet about marriage I ever read, but it definitely fits our times because those of us not rebelling against our confines are stuck with only small number of people in our households. Called "To My Wife," although Larkin never married, the devastating second verse is as follows:

So for your face I have exchanged all faces,
For your few properties bargained the brisk
Baggage, the mask-and-magic-man's regalia.
Now you become my boredom and my failure,
Another way of suffering, a risk,
A heavier-than-air hypostasis.

"If you don't mean it, why are you writing it?" wailed B.A. just now. 

"I'm writing about being cooped up with the same people every day," I explained, but I should add now that one thing that I have learned from captivity is that I am lucky to have an intelligent, mild-mannered husband who likes to cook and feels guilty if I do all the dishes too many days in a row.  Meanwhile, nobody is anyone's "boredom" and "failure"; it's your fault if you're bored and nobody can be judged a failure by anyone until they are dead. 

But when I went to bed, I was frightened I would never see my extended family again. Only 16 flights took off from Edinburgh last week, only 25 from Glasgow. The point of quoting ghastly Larkin is expressing my longing for crowds of loved ones. It's been a long time since I thrilled at being in a crowd of thousands, but I dream of being in a crowd of twelve.

Fortunately, I took the May issue of "Homes and Gardens" with me, and as it was put together in February, there was no mention of the Vile Germ. Instead there were offers to tour the homes and gardens of the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Devonshire, etc. The Highgrove Tour was meant to be yesterday. Oops! Fingers crossed for Chatsworth in May. 

I am trying to keep it together by remembering that I had no firm plans to go to Canada until next February anyway. I keep cheerful by recalling that B.A. and I were there for Christmas. Thank God, the whole family was together for Christmas, and we were all polite and pacific. The children loved their presents. I enjoyed going for walks through the frosty hydro fields. The food was delicious. I enjoyed sleeping in my old room--which my mother has remodelled beautifully: wonderful wood-tiled floor in place of the ghastly shag wall-to-wall carpet.  

An interwar nostalgia bar in Wrocław.
And I also think about Córeczka's christening weekend, which is taking a Pan Tadeusz: the Last Foray in Lithuania shape in my mind. Her father loves the glamour and elegance of the Polish interwar period; well, that weekend was right at the end of the inter-plague period. It is too bad that PPS's concession to Lent was to forbid dancing. That said, there were jazz musicians in a cellar bar at midnight, and PPS did dance with Córeczka in his arms. I wish I had seen that, but I was so tired, I went to bed. The others didn't want me to go--how flattering was that?--and The Economist wouldn't let me out the doors. I began to hand him coins ("Are you trying to insult me?"), and the others laughed, so I escaped. 

Oh, the nostalgia for early March. To return to the near-present, yesterday I took newspaper off the beans again, edited a letter for publication, wrote an article about a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and watched parts of an Italian news broadcast that I will be discussing with my tutor and others today. I weeded more of the lawn--the end of the dandelions is in sight--ate risotto for supper, and watched Step Brothers with B.A., who had read in the Spectator that it was good.


Tuesday 21 April 2020

The Busy High Street

Wm. Kurelek again to soothe our nerves.
Yesterday was another day of staring at the screen, asking people for statements and resisting conspiracy theories. Here's one: China covered up a deadly virus to the extent of allowing citizens from the worst-hit area to continue flying all over the world, thus infecting people in other parts of Asia, Europe and America. The resulting pandemic killed over 170, 000 people, and forced Western economies to shut down. Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, suspended public worship.

Oh, sorry. That one actually happened.

But there were some relatively tranquil times yesterday. In the morning, I rushed out in my bathrobe to take the newspaper pages off the bean seedings. Then later in the morning I addressed an envelope to my girl student and walked to the new High Street (British for the principal shopping street of an area) to the post office. Although not exactly warm, it was another lovely, sunny, blue-skied day. 

I was shocked by the crowds, which weren't actually crowds, as everyone was more-or-less six feet apart. There were just a lot of people around, which I see now makes me nervous. There was a Romany beggar sitting on one side of the road, and a blonde beggar sitting on the other side. There was a long queue outside the chemist's shop and another long queue outside the bank. There was no queue outside the five-and-dime that houses the post office, I was happy to see. 

The homeless aren't bound by the lockdown rules, but all the same I was surprised to see the Romany beggar, despite Romany beggars being a part of contemporary Edinburgh life. Perhaps it was just too normal a sight for the perilous times. The blonde beggar and the long queue for the bank made me feel worried and sad; I wondered if she was a newly unemployed waitress and if the people outside the bank were there to beg for clemency on missed payments. 

On the way home, I was tempted to pop into Tesco for a falafel sandwich. I love the fancy falafel sandwiches with their crunchy veg and tangy sauce. However, I decided it was not worth risking the Vile Germ yet again, so I went straight home. 

In the late afternoon I took a break and popped out dandelions for half an hour. B.A. had gone out in a green boiler suit earlier and dug up some himself. I am not sure what his method was; from the looks of it, he attacked just the bigger, more obvious ones instead of minutely searching the grass, square foot by square foot. That took him rather far, which was a nice morale booster for me. I now predict that the dandelions will be gone from the lawn by the end of the week.

The neighbours further along the street were out. One of the best thing about our humble street is that the residents, no matter how impoverished, have a long strip of garden. The two-storey buildings were built for local workers by the local government circa 1930 when the Scottish poor still had many children. It was a manufacturing district, and must have been very noisy, but the buildings were well-built and the gardens generous: some philanthropic notions were clearly at play. 

Beginning in the 1980s, the local council began to sell the apartments to their occupants. Eventually the occupants sold them on at a profit or rented them out. I'm not sure if the Council still owns any of them; whoever owns the Moppet's part of the building is certainly neglectful. 

The gardens are separated by low hedges or wooden fences in good or bad repair, and it is easy to see right across them down the street. Three or four gardens over a tent has been erected in the lawn, and I spotted a boy near it, dressed in a purple velvet cloak and yet still staring down at the phone in his hand. 

After work, I went outside to grub again. The Moppet's mother sat on her stairs and chatted to someone sitting in the garden and coughing shallowly. She coughed; the pal coughed; I noticed the wind blowing in my direction. Cough, cough, cough. 

"Smoker's cough," suggested B.A. when I told him. 

Coconut aubergine curry for supper, rubbish telly, and becoming irritated by stupid opinions on Twitter. I suspect I will have to limit any reading of Catholic News and Opinion to Monday to Friday, 10 AM to 6 PM, for otherwise I will go insane. B.A. reads Catholic News and Opinions obsessively, too, and came in to tell me yesterday about Diane Montagna's tweet about Mayor Gabriele Gallina sicking the cops on a priest while he said Mass. I was working on something else, and thinking about another story--which my editor, of course, already knew about and had assigned to someone else--gave me an instant headache. 

Another conspiracy theory that is true: there are Catholics who tweet their hatred of anything beautiful or traditional just to make other Catholics upset. At least, that is the only reason I can think of for this message by a private high school religion teacher calling himself a "theologian."  

Okay: new resolution. No more internet reading before 10 AM or after 6 PM. I will force myself back to my language studies and also read some actual books. 

Monday 20 April 2020


Sorry, but I must share my rage. All the English-speaking world must know what a petty despot an otherwise completely unimportant and irrelevant minor Italian mayor named Gabriele Gallina is.

To make a long story short because I'm working, a priest was saying a live-streamed in Soncino, Lombardy. There are six people assisting. Another six people turn up out of the blue. They are grieving. Family has died. They want the consolation of the Mass. They're wearing masks. They maintain social-distancing. As you can hear from the echo, it's a big church.

Anyway, word gets around and the mayor--Gabriele Gallina, make him internationally famous--sends police over to disrupt the Mass. To disrupt the Mass. IN ITALY.  Full story at La Nuova Bussola. Just chuck it through Google translate.

I am no longer going to use any insult but "Gabriele Gallina" for the rest of the day. "Oh, he's such a Gabriele Gallina." "Some people defend Vidkun Quisling, but I think he was a total Gabriele Gallina." "Those people at Marquette who bragged that their graduates are helping out at Planned Parenthood--and I still have the screenshot--are absolutely Gabriele Gallinas. They are simply Gallina."

A Sunday Walk

Returning to our pre-Lenten diet may have been a mistake. I feel very tired. Yesterday I had the sense not to drink coffee in the afternoon, though.

B.A. came into the sitting-room, where I was with my morning coffee, to tell me that there had been frost in the night. I was terrified for my beans and rushed out with pop bottle cloches that I had cut too short. Fortunately the beans looked okay. There was frost on the lawn, but not on the trug. Possibly I am too invested in the survival of six broad beans.
Closest look at the butterfly

Then I wrote a letter to my writing student to explain what
she needs to work on, in case that was not clear from the red scribbles on her submission. I also went through the draft again to mark in black everything that was particularly good. Then I was haunted that I hadn't done this for her brother. I am going crazy worrying about seedlings and the psyches of two children.

At 10:55 AM I dragged myself away to get ready for Mass. I set up two chairs in front of the sofa table, found Warrington on my computer, put on a dress, and filled up the incense defuser. The homily was fiery about lockdown conditions, and B.A. repeated told the screen that this would all pass until he realised the homilist's rhetorical strategy.

Country path.
Leftover spaghetti bolognese for lunch, and then we went for a walk to the countryside. I had a headache and indigestion, but indigestion is not a symptom of the Vile Germ, so I didn't worry. However, after we had walked though a few fields and reached the next settlement, I vetoed walking to a copse. I was simply too tired and sick. So we turned around and took an even more scenic path home. Halfway there, B.A. also felt tired, so he sat on a grassy knoll and I lay in the sun with my Panama hat over my face. This I enjoyed. It was not a warm day, but it was certainly sunny. The sky was clear and bright blue. Apparently dogs came along and showed an interest in my hair, which presumably they took for a beast of some kind.
Rocky wall & the Pentlands

B.A. stopped off at Tesco to get a Sunday newspaper for my beans, but I went straight home to lie down. I took my computer and read an unintentionally funny article in the Harvard Review against homeschooling. The central arguments were that  90% of homeschoolers are conservative Christians (the horror) and that it is bad for children to be in their parents' clutches 24/7. The illustration showed a child locked up in a house of books (including the hated Bible) as other children played outside, which homeschooling Twitter users found risible.

As this is the first time in centuries that schools are closed all over the world and most children in America are being homeschooled, it seems like an odd-time for the Harvard Review to publish an anti-homeschooling piece. Perhaps it's to warn parents who have newly developed a taste for directing their children's education not to get any ideas.

One thing I am reasonably sure about schools is that children pick up the ethos of the one they're in during the most impressionable part of their lives and then it is hard for them to lose it. (This can take curious forms.) Meanwhile when my family in Quebec discerned that their children were being treated like Anglo-Saxon Uber Untermenschen they had the children out of that school and into another in a minute de la Ville de New York. Not all parents have the choice of a different school, though.

B.A. returned with the Observer, and I read its left-wing point of view with some interest. I skipped the Trump-hate in favour of the Boris-hate and Royal-hate. My goodness. Also hated: lifting restrictions on the quarantine, except for children in Spain, and lying about the neighbours to police to settle old scores. Loved: ratting on the neighbours for not following the social-distancing guidelines. I was vaguely reminded of the cult of Pavlik Morozov--here he is.
Pentlands again.

I had a telephonic Italian class, which I cancelled. B.A. jokingly called me a slug-a-bed, which did not go down well, especially as under my Observer reading, I was worrying about the dandelions.  When the sun went down, I put pages of the Observer over the beans.

Flowering tree.
We had duck legs (which had been on special) for supper and watched some rubbish telly before I,   cross-eyed with exhaustion, called my mother on Skype.

One cheerful thing: a Glaswegian acquaintance of long ago wrote asking if my short story manuscript had been published, as he wanted something to read. My manuscript (from 2015) was rejected so many times, I had given up on it. But I sent it off to the Glaswegian and a friend-fan in America, too, who accepted it happily. So that was gratifying.

Sunday 19 April 2020

Gardening of two kinds

Victory-over-Virus Garden
Blah! Only five hours sleep last night and I awoke with a headache. Naturally I thought at once of the Vile Germ and did some deep breathing while I could. After an hour of chasing the sandman, I got up and made a cup of coffee. I hope this cures my headache and meanwhile 1) no more afternoon coffee and 2) no more editing student stories at midnight.

Yesterday morning B.A. and I went to Tesco and carried home our last bags of compose for the trug. It was truly sad how we failed to keep sums in our heads as we argued about whether or not we had 420 L. B.A. thought we didn't, and I thought we did. When we lined up our collection of sacks on the grass, we discovered we had only 400 L. B.A. won that one, but I decided we should go ahead and fill the trug with what we had. We can put on 20 L of fresh compost in the autumn.

It was not a difficult operation. I emptied the sacks into the trug, and B.A. whacked at it with a gardening fork. Then B.A. went inside, spent from his exertions, and I planted my broad bean seedlings, cardboard tubes and all. After brunch, I returned to fuss over them, which meant draping butterfly netting over flowerpots stuck in the corners.

The lady downstairs was so entranced by the trug, she asked if she could come over and look at it. We had a nice conversation, moving apart when we realised we were breaking the social-distancing rule.

Although it was not warm--and tonight I am definitely putting newspapers over the beans--it was sunny, and I kept warm by grubbing up the dandelions. It is now a race between me and the dandelion blossoms. Apparently dandelions can go into the composter until they blossom, and this is a serious issue now that the Council is not picking up garden refuse. At the moment, our state-funded brown bin--which has a 240 L capacity--is half full, mostly of young dandelions.

I pulled out dandelions in the sun for two hours, and eventually B.A. came out with a garden chair, the Spectator and a cup of tea. It wasn't warm enough for sitting, so he soon went back inside. He returned with a load of laundry to hang, redeeming himself in the eyes of any judgemental neighbours who might have contrasted his repose with my labour.

Speaking of neighbours, I've seen mine more often in the past month than I had in a year. This is presumably because I've been out in the garden every day, but I suspect the neighbours are out in theirs more often, too. The Moppet's mother came out in a fluffy pink bathrobe to sit in her garden, and Sandy comes out periodically to smoke a cigarette. I've even seen our neighbour on the other side, whom we have never met and B.A. has still never seen. I've always assumed he is an airline steward or has some other peripatetic profession, as there is almost never any noise coming from his flat.

At 3:30 PM I went in for a cup of coffee and to work on my student's short story. My student, having formed the impression that proper stories are over 3,000 words long, half-killed herself turning out a 3,800+ long adventure tale. After hearing she needed to edit it, she was daunted--and no wonder. Editing is a lot of work, and it's very painful when it's your own story and cutting parts out feels like jabbing a fork into your leg.

Photo by Mike Peel (
I haven't taught children since I was twenty-one. For three years I taught writing skills to mature students at a community college, for two I taught essay-writing to my fellow students at theology school, and before my full-time gig I made $40 an hour editing doctoral theses in theology. I also proofread the scholarly work of Polish pals, all over 21 and smart and mature enough to do graduate degrees in a foreign language. Therefore, I find it very hard to read a piece of writing and not red-ink everything I think is wrong with it. I would feel I was not doing my job. So what if she's twelve? Gordon Korman wrote his first book when he was twelve.

Well, I'm joking about the book stuff. I was haunted by Gordon-Korman-wrote-his-first-book-at-twelve from the ages of seven to thirty-seven. It's too much pressure for a child to put on herself, especially when she thinks stories are dropped into the author's mind from above. It never occurred to me to sit down and consciously examine G.K.'s books to see how he did it.

There is nothing like going through a child's story to think about the relationship between imagination and structure. Imagination is a like a privet hedge free to grow all over the place. Structure is the shape of the hedge. Editing is like topiary, turning what could be a boring bush into something that will grab the audience's attention from beginning to end.

Editing also is the difference between Real Life and Art. Real Life, lived minute by minute, is mostly mundane and not of much interest to strangers. Art, however, takes interesting episodes or images from life and sets them in an unobtrusive narrative frame.

When writing stories, it is fun to begin at a beginning and to write until the end. Serial stories for newspapers certainly have to be written that way. Perhaps the first drafts of many scripts are written that way. However, films aren't shot that way. They are shot scene by scene, edited, and stuck together. They are transformed from a written daydream pleasant for the dreamer into something magical for thousands or millions of viewers.

But as I mentioned, editing one's own story, or having one's own story edited, is painful. It is hard to remember that a piece of writing is not really an extension of our very selves. When I bake a pie, I am perfectly capable of discerning that it could be flakier or less sweet or do with a bit of cinnamon without going into fits of depression. I just decide to try again. When I make pierogi dough, and a Polish pal looks critically at the lump and tells me it needs more kneading, I don't fall into a sulk. I believe she knows what she's talking about, as she has been making pierogi dough since she was seven, like her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother before her. Why, then, do writers go insane over editing?

Of course, there are terrible editors out there. Some people just cannot hear the difference between good phrases and bad, between educated speech and regional solecisms, or between fresh metaphors and clunking cliches. Being edited by someone like that is torture. However, some editors are excellent landscape artists, as it were, and turn a slightly off-kilter privet squirrel into a glorious green beast.

I hope I have shaped my student's privet squirrel into a glorious green beast, for between writing remarks all over her submitted draft and inserting my suggestions into a new draft, I spent seven hours on it. This is not because she isn't bright but because she is. If I didn't think she had the talent and drive to become the next Georgette Heyer (who published her first book at 19) or Rosemary Sutcliff, I wouldn't bother.