Wednesday 30 September 2020

The Importance of a Good Story

I did not watch last night's Trump versus Biden debate. It's a whole different time zone over here. Instead I slept and had a nightmare in which I had a real, public meltdown about not having children. This will chill B.A.'s blood, but I think in the dream I was shouting at two of his female work colleagues.

"It's as if you could never go to university," I yelled at one. 

"And it's as if you could never, ever go on holiday," I screamed at the other. 

In real life both these women are childless, by the way, and apparently tranquil about it. 

Anyway, that's the last time I look at the "pets available for rehoming" websites just before bed. 

Sometimes I get chastised for promoting happy singleness because it seems anti-marriage to my critic. It can be difficult for people to understand that being a happy Single is key to attracting a potential spouse. It's a paradox. The happier you are as a Single, the more likely you are to get married--or to find the right religious order, if that is the life to which you are called. People like happy people. 

Of course, you can't marry just anybody, which, by the way, my critics occasionally contest. For years I thought that the reason to promote the chaste Single state as an attractive way of life was to help women not marry the wrong man (e.g. the one whose attraction mainly lies in being the man most interested in you the week before your 25th birthday). Then I realised that another reason is to help women not marry when they are still the wrong woman. 

Because there are serious implications to not marrying until you are in your late thirties, it would be a gift to Catholic women to sort out how to become the right woman (and find the the right man) in one's twenties. Naturally, a lot of women have this sorted in their twenties. The rest of us might be able to learn from them. 

But to skip ahead to what makes a marriage last, I think a good origin story is very important. If the way you and your spouse met, or how you got married, is a heartwarming story, that story can get you through the rough times. "Origin story" is, I believe, an expression common to comic book fans. Historians might call it a "founding myth." 

A myth is not necessarily fictional but it always conveys meanings and values. And I think this is why it is important for children to learn and love the foundational myths of their country. I'm not American, but I have enjoyed and admired the stories about the Pilgrims' First Thanksgiving, George Washington and the cherry tree, Betsy Ross and her flag, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox, and John Henry Born with a Hammer in his Hand. I am also edified by stories of the Civil War, in which thousands (including my own relations) died to end slavery in America, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

I think people spit on those stories at their psychological and civil peril. 

In case you are feeling sad about my nightmare and are worried that this sort of thing might happen to you, you should know that this is something which, in my experience, comes and goes. Whereas "what the heart doesn't know, it doesn't sigh for" doesn't apply, it is not at all like having lost a real, come-into-existence child. I will probably never know what that is like, which is a mercy.

Tuesday 29 September 2020

Joy of Childhood Things

We are home from Cambridge, having had a splendid time. 

On Sunday B.A. and I went to the TLM at Blackfriars, walked down as far as St Mary and the English Martyrs, and then met our Cambridge Uni pal for a Sunday roast at the Architect. After that we ambled down to the river,  agreed to take a river tour and were punted down and up the river by a genial guide with a good line of patter for 45 minutes.  

We saw many beautiful buildings and bridges and heard a number of interesting stories, some of which might even be true. 

Then we all took a long walk towards the railway station and, after some delay and looking at maps, found the place where my parents, my brother Nulli and I all lived when I was 3 and 4. To my delight, the woods looked the same, although the field (now screened with hedges) seemed a lot smaller. The raised "duckpond" has been drained, which is sad, but at least it is still there. The next time I visit, I will remember to crouch down and to look at everything from a four-year-old's point of view. 

Our house-complex (Grade II listed) was in a pretty neighbourhood, and B.A. and our friend enjoyed looking at the older houses as we made our way back to Hill Street. (I was on Cloud 9.) 

St. Mary's was open, so we all went in. I thought I recognised the pews, but I hadn't remembered how beautiful the church itself was. Naturally when I was four, my parents didn't think it was necessary to tell me of the lives and sufferings of St. Thomas More and Bishop St. John Fisher, depicted in stained glass. In some ways, St. Mary's is a monument to 19th century English Catholic triumphalism, but it has a Polish Mass on Sundays, which sweetens that. 

The challenge of the weekend was staying warm. Thanks to the Covid lockdown, our friend couldn't invite us into college rooms, and our AirBnB was tiny, so our days consisted of walking around between one reservation to the next. To kill time and rest our feet on the way to supper at the Mitre, we all ducked into one of the more Evangelical Anglican churches shortly after a service had ended. Rather soon we were approached by an Evangelical couple who welcomed us to Cambridge and asked who we were, etc. They asked my friend if she had come to Cambridge for a new job, and I was unpleasantly reminded of how, when I began a doctoral program, 15 years ago, people would assume I was too old to be a student.  

Life tip: when meeting someone older than you at a university or in a university town, never assume he or she is not a student just because they are over 30. It's intensely aggravating. Thank you. 

Eventually we were chased out of the church, which probably would not have happened pre-Covid, so no hard feelings, and we turned up early at the Mitre, which let us in. One or the other of us did all the frightening police-state routine with a smartphone. In short, if you want entry in a pub or restaurant in Cambridge (and presumably elsewhere in England), you must register yourself there with your smartphone. This, alarmingly, is called "Track and Trace." You are encouraged to order by smartphone, too, although at the Mitre we didn't. Instead we ordered pies and a trio of puddings from the waiter. The trio of puddings, which were classic British ones like bread pudding and jam sponge, were simply heavenly. 

Then it was only 8 PM or so, but we said good-bye as we were all terribly sleepy from a day out of doors and pub grub. 

On Monday, I studied Italian for 45 minutes and then wrote an article for work. B.A. brought me a pain au chocolat from the Castle St. Fitzbillies, which was very kind of him. Then, at lunchtime, I departed the AirBnB with my computer and the luggage, and met B.A. and our friend in the same Fitzbillies for a good-bye lunch. Then we all walked down to the railway station (which took exactly 32 minutes), and B.A. and I got on the 13:27 to London. We alighted at Hitchin, and took the 14:19 to Peterborough, whence we caught the train to Edinburgh. (The ladies' loo in Peterborough gave me a very bad impression of Peterborough.) 

During this complicated train journey, I managed to write another article, so I didn't feel guilty about travelling on a work day. The thing is, there was no return journey on Sunday. Meanwhile, my heart gave a bounce when I saw Berwick Law, for it meant we were back in lovely Scotland. 

My overall impressions are that Cambridge is a lovely town and students there are greatly to be envied. Covid has reduced much, but not all, foreign tourism, and most tourists are from other parts of Britain.  The "track and trace" system is shocking, annoying, and even frightening. If you or a companion does not have a mobile phone, you will not be permitted entry into pubs and some restaurants. 

The New Blogger is pretty terrible, so I have given up inserting photos and will just put them below.

Saturday 26 September 2020

Joy of a Sunbeam

We are in Cambridge which, as I expected, is a little cold and damp. When the sun came out, I felt a thrill of joy. B.A and I were with our friend, who is a student here, outside a cafe on the new (1989) Quayside by the river,  and a sunbeam lit up the wall of the Las Iguanas restaurant across from us. 

So that is my moment of joy for the day, standing out amongst the general contentment from eating brunch,  visiting a college, going to a super bookshop, wandering through the Fitzwilliam Museum, having tea and cake on the Quayside, and later having a splendiferous Indian super near Jesus Green.  

Friday 25 September 2020

The Toddler's Mite

What is the first memory of receiving enormous generosity? 

Mine is from the mid-1970s when my family lived near Cambridge University. My father was on sabbatical and my brother Nulli and I, the only siblings yet born, were enrolled in a nursery school.

The nursery school had a playground with a number of activities, I imagine, but the only toy I remember was the scooter. 

I very badly wanted to play with the scooter, the one day I remember, and I waited throughout recess for the bigger children to let me have a turn. Sadly, they did not. They did not relinquish the thing until recess was over and we were all called inside. 

That was my chance! Ignoring the call, I got on the scooter and scooted a bit. 

The next part is a blank, but I remember that I was punished. The school regularly gave us milk and cookies for our snack, but that day I was not allowed cookies, and possibly not the milk either. 

I'm fuzzy on that part, but not what happened next. My brother, who was only 2 or possibly 3, perceived that I did not have any cookies (or, possibly, milk) and immediately shared his with me.  

That was over 40 years ago, and the reason I thought of this this morning is probably because Benedict Ambrose and I are going to Cambridge this afternoon the 4 PM train to Peterborough. (I will be working on the train, never fear.) 

It's quite a lovely story: I hadn't before noticed the contrast between being oppressed, as it were, by the stronger only to be comforted by the (then) weaker. 

Wednesday 23 September 2020

The Satisfaction of Cider

We just bottled our cider . We are drinking the 100 mL or so we measured with the alcohol thermometer, and it is very pleasant so far: appley and sweet, if not at all fizzy. That will come later. 

We filled all 12 of the new glass bottles I bought this year, and one brown glass bottle and six plastic bottles. The next step is to store them somewhere cool and wait for Christmas. 

In other news, I spent from 4 PM until 6 PM in the dentist's chair, and so I am very tired. One more round of dentistry to go this month. What a thing it is to have human teeth. 

I was told not to eat anything hard, like nuts, or anything sticky. Frankly, I was not in the mood to eat anything when she said that. During one particularly horrible minute, I was glad I hadn't eaten all day. However, shortly after I tottered outside and to the bus stop, I thought hard about soft and squishy comfort food. I was definitely in need of comfort. 

The upshot was that I stopped in at the supermarket on the way home for milk and chocolate and cooked a chocolate pudding as soon as I got home. It is now cooling in little glass ramekins in the fridge.  I shall cut up my supper into little tiny pieces, and then I shall have the Comfort of Pudding.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

The Joy of Recollection

Today I read the CDF's new letter "Samaritanus Bonus: On the care of person in critical and terminal phases of life." You should read it. It is good. It's literally life-affirming. 

I was reading it very closely to see if there was anything new. New can be good, but it is often bad. I was very much hoping I would not find anything bad, for I would have to ignore all the good and bring everyone's attention to the bad, for such is the nature of my work.  

But the loveliest part of Samaritanus Bonus was the emphasis on accompanying the very ill, visiting them in their loneliness, and being compassionate with their suffering, and giving them hope of a better life beyond this one. There was a wonderful meditation on the Crucified Christ, too. And as I read about all this accompaniment, I remembered going to see Benedict Ambrose every day when he was sick, and what he was like when he was sick, and how I called in as many friends and family I thought he could bear the night before his make-or-break operation. B.A. was then too addled to think much about hope, but I was full of hope. 

Then I went into the sitting-room where he was reading and kissed the top of his head because I was so happy he didn't die after all. 

I went back to reading Samaritanus Bonus, and to my immense relief, on page 19 the CDF explained that priests can't give the Last Sacrament to people who are planning to be euthanised. They can't even be around when it happens. If I decide (God forbid)  to get myself bumped off by a medical professional, a priest will not be allowed to sit there and hold my hand while I am bumped.

The CDF had emphasised the love, companionship and care for the sick and dying for eighteen pages, illustrating why euthanasia of any kind was no substitute for that and was, in fact,  an a serious sin. That is the context, by the way, in which the guidance to pastors is given. And I was very glad that the CDF didn't cave and allow the the Last Sacrament into a kind of superstitious mumbo-jumbo or toss all the beautiful things it had said out the window in the cause of "being nice." The CDF meant what it said, the Church means what it has always means, and our lives do not belong to us, but to God. 

The meditation on the Crucified Christ should be enough to convince His followers that we shouldn't get a pass on suffering, or take the easy way out, when we die. 

I wrote a sad story some time ago now about a man who went to see his priest about his funeral shortly before his assisted suicide. A visiting priest had already given him the Sacrament of the Sick, not knowing (apparently) what he had in mind although half the parish did. The pastor tried to convince the man not to do it, but the man was adamant. He had a big party and the church choir came and it was all very Petronius' Banquet in Quo Vadis except with hugs and hymns. Then the man was pumped full of drugs, lost consciousness and died.  

What struck me about this story, when I was reading Samaritanus bonus, was the party. What if we had more parties for the very ill? I had a lovely, lovely friend who came home from the hospital to die naturally of her horrible cancer, and for the last days of her life, she kept a kind of salon. Her friends and family came from all over Britain to sit with her and each other, drink, eat sweets, swap stories, pet the cats, and tell her she was marvellous. She was marvellous. I pray for her all the time. 

Anyway, read Samaritanus Bonus. It's a bit repetitive and clogged with bishopese, but it is edifying and sound. 

Monday 21 September 2020

The Joy of a Joke...(and of a Song)

Naturally you had to be there. However, I'll give it a shot. 

After we had come back to the car from our walk up and down the mighty hill on Saturday, our friend told us about a young man who listened to her talk about Catholicism for hours. She was very impressed that this young man, who is not a Catholic, hung on her every word. And then he said: 

 "I've known God exists ever since I learned that the world is flat."

 He was dead serious. 

My friend was nonplussed. He had listened to her for three hours, she said, so she didn't feel it would be polite to argue him out of his flat-earth beliefs.

In the car, we all pondered why someone might believe that the world is flat. The young man had read about it online, apparently, but the ancients and mediaevals knew that the world was round. All the same, when B.A. began to talk about where the world might seem to end in flat-earth theory, I said, "How do you know there is a Russia?" 

At the time, that was a really very funny joke. Three of us laughed, and B.A. sighed, and I felt both happy and comfortable to have made a witty (if transitory) joke at my husband's expense. 

This has nothing to do with joy or jokes but today I was in the dentist's chair having a filling replaced, and "Teenage Dirtbag" appeared on the radio. 

I could tell that the three women in the room--the assistant, the dentist and I--were all silently dancing inside to Wheatus as we fulfilled our functions of hoovering spit, packing a tooth and stoicism. Inside we were all about 20 years younger, too, which made the dentist 14 or so and the hygenist 6. 

Actually, come to think of it, "Teenage Dirtbag" has a lot to do with joy, especially since it has that transformative power of erasing 20 years. 

When the song came to my second favourite part, which is "Her boyfriend's a d*ck, he brings a gun to school", the music played on but the lyrics were wiped out. To my amazement (possibly because B.A. listens only to BBC 4), the Scottish radio station would not air the words "he brings a gun to school." 

 As I lay there in the chair, with a 6 year old assistant on my left and a 14 year old dentist on my right, my mouth open and various instruments of torture shoved in it, I felt mildly cross that some Nervous Nellie thought that children would be adversely influenced by the revelation that Noelle's boyfriend brings a gun to school. After all, this is what clearly makes him a d*ck. oaf. It's an anti-bring-your-gun-to-school song. Driving an IROC, which is what boys who roared up to my school to pick up their girlfriends drove, is annoying but not as oaffish an oaf move as bringing a gun to school. 

Not to blow the plot of Teenage Dirtbag, but as my dentist, her assistant, and I all know, it ends well and is in fact quite a joyful song. I shall now link to it in celebration of the bars that almost always make me sing along. Naturally I was not in a position to sing along this afternoon, but I can now! Dirt ba-a-agg!


Sunday 20 September 2020

The Joy of a Winsome Beast

 We were here.
This may be an odd one. 

It takes me a long time to relax on the weekend. Our favourite thing to do is to go for a long country walk, and I find that very helpful. I don't always expect JOY as it were. Just moving along, looking at beautiful vistas, like the one I photographed, is enough. I feel generally tranquil, or perhaps a little challenged, if we are climbing something steep. But yesterday I wondered why I was not feeling euphoric.  

"Should I not be feeling joyful?" I thought, for after all we were with friends, and we were hiking through the incomparably beautiful Scottish countryside. The sky was blue and cloudless. There were no cars to be seen. We even saw, after we came back down a hill, a horse and rider clopping along as if the car had not yet been invented, or was confined to highways and cities. 

We continued walking along what one of our friends calls "The Hidden Valley", replete with tiny stone villages and church in good repair, and castles and other churches in ruins. We had stopped to look at a church in ruins, when I looked behind me and saw a horse's nose reaching out towards a tall shrub of some  sort. The horse was having a little nibble while somehow contriving to look winsome. 

He or she was adorable and suddenly I felt what I felt when I was about 12 and had drawn and coloured the head of my dream horse. I was positively delighted with this work of art but forgot all about it, of course, until yesterday. The image swam before my eyes, and I felt overjoyed.  

I'm not sure if the joy was joy in seeing an extremely cute animal, or if the joy was in suddenly and magically being 12 again. 

Saturday 19 September 2020

The Joy that Cometh in the Morning

I am delightfully happy, the sort of happy that follows the news that your young friend, a gallant young adventurer, has not been drowned, shipwrecked, or murdered by pirates. 

He will no doubt be covered with enough public embarrassment to deal with, so I will be merciful and give him a pseudonym. Ajax will do. 

Ajax embarked on a sailing quest from England to Constantinople some months ago, taking photos for social media, writing freelance articles, making and meeting up with friends at various ports. I last heard from him on September 2, when I asked him if he would be in Italy in October (about which more anon). He replied that he would be in Greece. I saw his last social media postings a week later without thinking much about them.

But then other social media tom-toms began to beat: Ajax had not turned up at an appointment in Athens, and he was a week late. His phone was offline, and various maritime officials had not seen him. "Please pray." 

I joined the tom-toms and reached out to the only other British yachtsman I know,  a skipper with much more experience, and a much more sophisticated boat, to ask  if he knew anyone currently sailing in the Ionian Sea. He did not, but asked intelligently for all the details I could muster and then he presented various hypotheses of what had happened to Ajax, bad and good.

Since a surprise hurricane hit the Ionian Sea yesterday, the hypotheses of bad were stronger than those of good. Not being able to do anything else, I found my rosary and got on my actual knees. 

This morning I broke my new habit of staying off the internet until 10 AM, and I'm so glad I did. Two hours before Ajax had gone online and apologised to all. He reported various earlier thunderstorm and being blown off course back to Italy. He had unplugged his radio so that it wouldn't be taken out by lightning. He was about to reach a Calabrian town and check himself into a hotel to sleep. 

The social tom-tom had been beating joyfully for two hours. 

I wondered, yesterday, what Patrick Leigh Fermor's family, friends and acquaintances felt while he walked to Constantinople. I was having a weird time-shifting feeling, as though somehow Ajax had fallen into the 1930s, a much more likely decade for young men to set out on adventures and sometimes not come home. However, this is the 2020s now, and Ajax is alive and well. What a relief! 

I wasn't weeping all night, and indeed I hope nobody was, but when I was thinking of what sort of joy the joy of discovering a pal is not lost at sea is, I thought of a line of a Psalm. I didn't know what the Psalm was offhand, but I looked it up, and like a good Eng. Lit. MA, my inner translation came from the King James Bible: 

"For His anger endureth but a moment; in His favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning" (Ps. 30:5).


Friday 18 September 2020

The Joy of Discovery

In the midst of mental chaos, I managed to take 20 minutes for Italian reading yesterday. I am at a very tricky part of a book, in which the author imitates an encyclopaedia in describing the setting. The words, my tutor assured me when I asked, are old-fashioned and one of them he didn't recognise the the context. 

One of the most recent head scratchers was "martora", which my dictionary told me was a witness or a martyr. The online dictionary I was consulting assured me the same. This seemed unlikely, since martore in the book are a threat to poultry.  So I put the word into the Google search engine, no doubt adding to Google's psychological profile of User 987558977 (or whoever I am), and Google suggested "martora animale." I clicked on it, and here is what turned up: 

I was delighted. Not only did I find the word at long last, I got to see photos of a cute poultry-killing beast.   Meanwhile, I wouldn't have known what a European pine marten was had it bitten my toe. The more I know, the more I know I don't know (unlike, possibly, Google). However, the flash of discovery was a real joy. 

Update: We decanted the apple cider today. There was some evaporation and we avoided the gunk at the bottom of the fermentation bin, so we estimate we have about 9 L now.


Thursday 17 September 2020

The Joy of Work

Emotionally speaking, my job is a very difficult one. I put myself under a lot of pressure. If I haven't got two stories done by the end of the day, I feel badly. If I spell something wrong and editorial doesn't find it, I feel worse. If editorial puts its own mistakes in, I am incandescent with rage. 

There is also the challenge of getting the story right. This is particularly difficult now, when the mainstream news (especially about Covid-19) changes so fast and contradicts itself so often, you would think we were living in Orwell's Oceana.  I have contradictory stories and voices and slogans coming at me all the time. That would be fine if I cared only for a narrative and not about truth, but like everyone else at work, I'm a believing Christian and truth is a big deal. Truth is the only deal. 

Then there's the disapproval of wider society. On Facebook a woman with whom I went to (Catholic) high school responded to one of my posts with "Pro-lifers don't care about children after they're born." This was so hackneyed and obviously wrong that I was stunned. In the end I wrote back "Do you know any pro-lifers besides me? Do you think I don't care about children?"  

Then there was the weird moment when I clicked on Mark Shea's Twitter handle and discovered he had blocked me. As far as I know, I have never spoken, let alone written, badly about Mark Shea in my entire life. Au contraire. I've been blocked by someone else at Patheos, too, and I really don't know why. 

I've been trying to submit two-to-three stories a day for over three years, though B.A.'s illnesses, hospitalisations, surgeries, radiotherapy, Covid-19 furlough, and now Covid-19 redundancy. When the fire system in the Historical House exploded, and we had to leave, I submitted stories from wherever we slept. When we are told we weren't coming back, and B.A. was told he needed radiotherapy, I submitted stories and negotiated to purchase a home at the same time. Meanwhile, I get as much annual leave as the average American or Canadian worker gets. All around me the British get 28 days off, plus public holidays. Twenty-eight days. Can you even imagine?

Anyway, I had a Very Bad Day a week ago, and it was so bad, it stopped the two-to-three-a-day train in its tracks. It was so bad, I agreed to call a therapist. It was so bad, I'm not going to tell you about it. I have been miserable. I'm miserable because I just want to write my two-to-three stories and feel good about it afterwards. 

However, I spent yesterday reading an interesting book for review, and then I interviewed its very clever author. I was so wrapped up in our conversation, that afterwards I felt great. I still hadn't submitted anything, but I felt so much better. The joy of work is a wonderful joy. It's one of the best joys. Usually it keeps me going.


Wednesday 16 September 2020

The Joy of an ... Old Wall?

Despite excellent pastries, yesterday was a bad day. Near the end of it, Benedict Ambrose coaxed me out of the house for a walk.  The evening air was soft and warm. 

I followed B.A. along the route up the hill to where the Romans built their fort and multimillionaires now live behind high 17th century walls.  One of them has what sounds like a three-headed dog rushing forward from hell to rip our guts out. The rest of the village is usually tranquil and almost silent 

On our way back, the wall along the path loomed in the gloaming, and my heart actually lifted. I do not know why unless, like the Historical House the wall gives a sense of permanence. I don't think it is A-listed, but I very much doubt any of the villagers would permit its maiming or destruction. Thus, billionaires may make coercive plans for humanity, or journalists may write that they do, and plagues may rage, or  politicians say that they do, and yet the wall will still stand. 

The wall is also an easily proven fact. Whether or not we can believe anything well-meaning, or ill-meaning, people tell us, there is definitely that wall. It was also well-made, and whoever built it is blissfully anonymous. Even if (God forbid), some idiot comes along and scrawls racist epithets on it, no blame will fall upon the mason(s).  I hope he or they had a good life, and that he or they earned enough to feed their families. 

Finally, the wall is much bigger than my fears, my disappointments, and, indeed, me. Perhaps the wall is a metaphor for God. 

Tuesday 15 September 2020

The Joy of Old Houses

A friend drew this from a photo I took.
Yesterday Benedict Ambrose and I went to the grounds of our old home, the Historical House, to pick blackberries before dark. 

It was a bit like the Second Mrs DeWinter's nightmare about Manderley in Rebecca. The shrubbery was overgrown, and the recently paved drive was marked here and there were tufts of bright grass growing right through it. A dog-walking couple who recognised B.A. told him there was a mass of hay just rotting at the end of the field; being in the know, I explained that there was so much dog faeces in it, it couldn't be sold for animal consumption. 

Fortunately, the House was okay. The rock-smashed window has been repaired. Whatever has happened to the grounds, at least the House looks fine. 

I felt a wave of nostalgia as we went through the fields looking for ripe blackberries. It's still rather early in the month for blackberries in Scotland, and someone had been before us anyway. I thought about past summers, especially the parties we would have. I felt a bit sad, too, that it is unlikely that I will ever visit our old attic flat again. 

But then I looked at the House, and B.A. quoted a poem by a long-dead owner addressed to its future possessors (us, once, in a way) about using his House and grounds generously and then giving them up cheerfully and with gratitude. And I was happy because this great man actually thought about us hundreds of years before we were born, and, unless there is a devastating fire, his A listed national treasure shall stand there long after we are dead.  

Monday 14 September 2020

The Joy of the Enthusiasm of the Young

There were at least two excellent moments this weekend in which I witnessed youthful approbation. One involved a twelve year old revealing that he had finished reading The Eagle of the Ninth and had loved it. The other was the somewhat socially-distanced crowd that lingered outside the church after Mass yesterday. Once the priest drove off, I was the oldest person there, which means that everyone there was under 50.

There were two three main conversation groups: married couples and singles without children, married couples with children, and the children. Children clustered around the parents or ran around on the grass. The youngest teenager stood alone, not quite ready to join the singles-and-married-couples-without-children group. The oldest teenager present, however, was perfectly at ease in this milieu. 

It was a beautiful sight, and tangible evidence that at least a slice of the future has voted for Catholicism and the Traditional Latin Mass. 

Saturday 12 September 2020

The Joy of Being an Old Shoe

Today I taught writing. One of my students objected to my suggestion he send his best story to a contest, saying slyly that I had said romance was out of fashion. He had inadvertently written a rather brilliant scene in which a wife locks herself in the bedroom to save her husband from catching the plague from which she will shortly die. 

"That's not exactly romance," I said. "That's one of the funny things about marriage."

And then I laughed because one of the funny things about marriage is that, after a point, it isn't really romantic, except once in awhile, or in unusual circumstances. If you're both happy, it's better than romance. It's like finding your other shoe when you are already wearing one shoe. 

Update: I admit that there are better similes for this. It's more like being trees side-by-side in a forest

Friday 11 September 2020

The Joy of Apple Jelly

One of the problems with reporting on the Saddest News in the World is that it very often makes me sad, and sometimes it gives me nightmares, so even sleep is not always a relief. However, there are people who manage to stay joyful and calm even in the worst circumstances, and I want to be one of them. Thus, to help towards this goal, I will try to write a joyful thing a day. 

Today's joyful thing is that my apple jelly has set. I have never made apple jelly before, and it was a long time ago that I last made jelly. That was at my parents' house, where jam and jelly making is an ordinary thing. My mother made red currant jelly just last month. 

When I was a child, we lived in a house with a pear tree in the garden. For some years, my parents ordered us all out of the kitchen, affixed a baby gate to the doorway and made jars and jars of pear jam. I got very bored with pear jam, but of course now I go into transports whenever I taste something that reminds me of it. 

Yesterday I chopped up 2 kilos of apples, cooked them in 1.25 litres of water, and left them to drip in a muslin-covered plastic colander set over a cooling rack set over a bowl. This got me about 5.5 cups of juice to boil down into jelly this morning.  I added 115 g of sugar and as much lemon juice as I could squeeze out of a lemon. As I could not get the recommended 2 Tbsps out of it, I threw half the lemon peel to boil along for awhile. 

I bought a candy thermometer from Hobby Craft yesterday evening ("Made in China"--alas), which was necessary to see that it really does take a long time for apple-juice-and-sugar to reach 220 F.  It may have taken 45 minutes, and I had to watch the pot carefully to make sure it didn't boil over. At one point it did boil over, sadly, but I managed to clean up the mess quickly. Meanwhile, I kept dripping boiling juice hopefully into a glass of cold water, looking for threads, and onto a cold plate, looking for gel. 

When the apple juice finally gelled on the cold plate, I was delighted. I turned off the heat, put on oven mitts and filled 5 sterilised jars with hot, red-gold jelly. Obeying the British recipe, I put circles of baking parchment on four of them, screwed down the lids and, lacking cellophane, sealed them extra-shut with sellotape. The fifth jar was only half-full, so we will eat it up first. 

One of the wonderful things about apples is that they are so full of pectin, you don't need to buy any pectin to make apple jelly. And now that I have made our first batch of ordinary jelly, I will experiment by making other jellies with our apples. Next week B.A. and I will collect brambles (blackberries) from the bushes. According to tradition, brambles have to be picked before St. Michael's Day. On St. Michael's Day the devil spits on them or rolls about on them peevishly or carries out some other petty and vengeful act upon them.  

Wednesday 9 September 2020

The Best Thing That Happened to Me All Day

"I really enjoyed reading Seraphic Singles when I was in college. It seemed like the one place I could go for humor, sanity, and wisdom on what it meant to be a single Catholic woman. You helped me conform my expectations to reality. Thanks for your pithy and humorous writing!"

Man, I needed that. What a kind young lady.

Tuesday 8 September 2020

Apple Cider Day 2020

Our tree denuded of 180 apples.
This year we picked about 180 apples on Saturday, September 5 and turned them into juice for cider. I also took some photographs. Sadly I thought about photographs only after I had finished climbing about in the tree yelling "I'm a monkey."

After collecting our first 130 apples, we popped them into the bathtub for washing and then took them to the kitchen for chopping and mincing. This year this laborious stage was easier because we now have two wooden cutting boards and I got a friend's never-used big food processor out of the shed to add to our little one. Shortly after noon we had filled every large bowl and pot within reach.  

And then, because it was a nice day, Benedict Ambrose carried the fruit press into the garden and bolted it to a wooden pallet. We then began to press the minced apples, attracting the interested gazes of our neighbours, who eventually came outside to see what we were doing.
Chopped and minced.

I was hoping very much for 10 litres of juice from the 130 apples, but as time went on and the fermenting bin filled but slowly, I collected another 50 or so apples and took them indoors for chopping and mincing. In the end, we got just under 11 litres of juice. 

Then there was a large fuss as I tore the flat apart looking for the Campden tablets. Campden tablets kill any nasty bacteria that has got into the juice plus, unfortunately, the natural yeast on the apples. Technically the Campden tablets are optional, but I am always unconvinced that we have been careful enough about touching the juice only with sterilised stuff. Finally B.A. found the Campden tablets on the microwave oven, beside the eggs (see above).
Nectar of the apple gods.

This year I wore plastic gloves, rinsed the spoons with which I crushed the corrosive Campden tables and washed my hands. 

Meanwhile B.A. and I had opened our two last bottles of 2019 cider. One was drinkable, and one wasn't. We think they were from two different batches that got mixed up since both batches went in identical bottles and later got move around. 

Naturally, we hope all the cider from 2020 will be drinkable. I always worry about it because we never obey the "put your cider in a warm cupboard" instruction because we don't have a warm cupboard in September. Ironically we could have a warm cupboard in November when we turn on the bathroom radiator. However, there it is. I put the fermenting bin on the lowest shelf of the bathroom cupboard to "warm up" for 24 hours. 

In reality it "warmed up" for 48 hours, for we went away on Sunday morning and didn't return until Monday evening. I then sterilised an alcohol measurer, two small spoons and a big spoon, took a juice sample, put in 20 drops of pectinase to break down the little bits of minced apple, scattered over cider yeast, crushed 4 vitamin tablets and chucked them in, and gave it all a good stir with the big spoon. Then I put the fermenting bin back in the cupboard, and next Wednesday, if all goes well, we will rack the cider, which means to put it in demijohns for the next stage. We have two 5 litre demijohns.

For some reason our cider is a lot more variable than B.A's elderflower champagne. B.A. doesn't sterilise anything* for his elderflower champagne, and yet it always turns out amazing. Our cider seems to change from bottle to bottle, which is most aggravating.

This is our third September in this flat and thus our third attempt at making cider. This year B.A. was tired after his cider endeavours but not too exhausted to see the pressing to the end. The first year B.A. was still recovering from extreme radiotherapy and the second year...he was still recovering from extreme radiotherapy. But here we are three years later, and he is strong enough to chop, mince and squish 180 apples with me in one day. 

That said, he doesn't want to do it again this year, so I will be harvesting the rest of our apples for pie filling and jelly. I haven't made apple jelly before, but it seems like a worthy project. Apple jelly is a good base for other jellies, too, so we will pick a lot of brambles, too.

*B.A. says he now sterilises the bottles and the fermentation bin for the elderflower champagne, and before he used "hot soapy water". Huh.

Saturday 5 September 2020

Building Resilience

A restful hotel room in Kraków
Good morning, faithful readers!

Where have I been, you ask? I have been off doing a partial internet detox, which means filling my morning hours before work with therapeutic reading, language study, and pedalling away on our stationary bike, which is now set up in the kitchen. This way, when I begin work around 10 AM, I have not already been stewing my brains in the internet for two or three hours.

I still sit around too much, but I've decided to work on that.

One of the problems with being addicted to the internet---the never ending stream of information, opinions, news items, laughs, shocks and alarms---is that it eventually fills me with rage and self-disgust. Hours and hours go by, wasted.

One of the worst aspects of words-on-screen is that they are harder to remember than words-on-page. Now when I'm writing a complicated story for work, I print out first source material so that I can actually read it and check it over and over again if need be.

That is why, after I wash the dishes in the morning, the first thing I do is read a chapter of a Real Book. Since returning from Poland, my Real Books have been James Clear's Atomic Habits and Rick Hanson's Resilient. I highly recommend both.

Happily for me, I took Resilient with us to Poland, so I learned about absorbing pleasant experiences for later use while still on holiday. In stressful moments in the past two weeks, I have been able to regain equilibrium by imagining myself back in Polish Pretend Daughter-in-Law's hotel room in the countryside, looking at the sunny, green lawn where my husband was sitting with a book, watching golfers hit balls into the pond. Ahhh...

Another lesson from Resilient is that human beings need safety, satisfaction, and connection with others to feel happy. Safety can mean a roof over your head, satisfaction a job well done, and connection simply remembering how much someone loves you. I woke up one day last week full of dread about something, and so I began to list off things I was grateful for--our home, our savings, the apple tree, everyone in my family is in good health--and the dread went away.

Resilient cost £12.99 because I bought it new at a real bookshop, and this was much less expensive than a single session with a therapist. Benedict Ambrose, alarmed by my rage and self-disgust, had begun to suggest I see a therapist.  Poor BA was trying to be a therapist by telling me that although some thing or situation (like a typo in an article I had submitted) felt like an enormity, it wasn't really.

So hooray for popular psychology books, structured activities, and the exercise bike. But now I must go for today is cider-making day. I shall let you know how that went anon.