Life is a dappled thing



We painted the trees near our house with treacle and beer to make a trap for moths. We heard that creatures, rarely seen in the light of day would come when night fell. And they did.

Our first specimen was large, startling, magnificent. An Old Lady moth, big as a bird and feathered with scales like shingles on a roof, neatly laid in rows; mottle and daub, smudge and blot. Each of her wings a canopy spread, like boundary line falling in pleasant places. The trailing edge of the hindwing was flower thin and petal shaped, lace edged and layered. The trailing edges of the forewing was marked with large quadrants of deep grey colour set against the patches and spots. Stippled and sprinkled, spare and sparse; patterns on a moth to match a sky filling up with stars.
I remembered why I called my blog, Dappled Things.
“Glory be to God for dappled things …” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in the 1918 poem, Pied Beauty. So much glory packed into so few words; a thesaurus entry of flecked, speckled and freckled loveliness. It is so perfectly how I see the world, pulsing vast and various with a hint of chaos that places it way beyond my control. It takes me outside myself, and outside of the house, into wildness where God can surprise me and even the most orthodox of belief is not quite what it seems. In this poem Hopkins includes the blemished  in a vision of God that is startling and unconventional yet deeply loved by Christians of different hues.

Hopkins was a Jesuit priest who had an uneasy relationship with his own writing. On entering holy orders in 1867 he burned all his poems, considering such works incompatible with his life as a servant of Christ. The biographers continue to plough through pages of letters and journal entries in search of what troubled Hopkins most about poetry. It could have been that the absorbing work of writing distracted him from prayer. Or maybe indulgence in self expression and writing about darker places in human experience was considered a temptation to sin. It may be that the concept of pursuing beauty in poetry came into conflict with the theology of pursuing God in prayer. It seems that a person who writes like this is at risk of transgressing good doctrine and leading others astray.

Whichever of these things are true, we see in Hopkins a poet who would try and escape these restraints every time he penned some verse. This is literature as an act of rebellion against repressive faith cultures and their need to control (a need that incidentally, is rarely if ever found in God). Artist may often approach matters of faith in this (subversive) way, very human people certainly do. Why would the church have problems with people who feel or hurt or ask questions? Why would a little thinking outside of the box send it into a wild panic, why does it run from difference or self expression?

In later life biographers tell us the Hopkins succumbed to the depressive illness that had hovered on the horizon most of his adult life. The vigour of religious life and the austerities he had imposed upon himself, including a refusal to publish poems whilst he lived, finally ganged up on him. Towards the end he felt he had been neither a good priest nor a good poet. The poems of the time heave under the weight of a sickness of spirit that one of his friends called a “terrible crystal”, meaning that they represent a crystallisation of his inner conflict. Hopkins wrote, “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. /  What hours, O what black hours we have spent / This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!” Yet the last recording he made in his journal read, “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.” I’m glad it ended well, but I can’t help wondering whether a person like Hopkins would find a home where he could flourish in the church today.
When the American Presbyterian minister and writer, Buechner, came to write about grace he penned this now famous quote,
“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
Placing grace in the settled context of God’s love, Buechner has won the hearts of so many  Christians struggling to hold in tension the messiness of their human lives with their purpose in a troubled world.

Every pale shadow, every blemish, each slant of sunlight, the white of silver birch trunks in a wood striped with shade, the patterns of tiny plants in the turf under my feet, the crawling insects, the nettles and thorns. The story I heard on the news, that special birthday coming up, a friend’s hospital appointment, an unexpected bill, the flowers you brought me when I was ill.
The only world I know right now is deeply beautiful and deeply troubling. I throw myself on God, immerse myself in now. Life is a whirl or life is a flutter. Lingering, hurrying, patient or hasty.  Before my eyes and in my head. The world is botched and blessed.

Pay attention! There is no denying this dappled life.



Big books



I like big books and I cannot lie.

I confess that I have escaped life between the pages of a book like some people escape into alcohol or drugs. The comfort of a big book, for me, is that it will not end too soon and one can postpone the final-page slump that inevitably comes when a shorter book reaches its premature end.

When I was a child we would prepare for our Scottish holiday by choosing six books from the library. Before the two day drive to our destination was over, me and my sister had finished all of our library books. The rest of the holidays were spent with nothing to read, waiting for the treat of a town with a bookshop where we could make a rare purchase of a paperback read. I now travel with a Kindle, because I never want to have to risk this experience again.

I have been known to cry  (make that sob) at the end of a very good book, not because the story was sad but for sheer despair that something so lovely was gone. I don’t have a very good memory for the novels I read, but once a book is read it an never really be read again. When the Canadian novelist Carol Shields died in 2003 I had been reading the novels one by one as they were published. The thought that I would never read a new Carol Shields novel again descended on me like a life sentence. Whilst her family and close fiends were grieving the loss of a special person taken too soon, I was just upset that a source of particularly good reads had dried up for good.

These is some of the history behind my love of big books. With a big book on your bedside table you can delay, for the time being, all of the anxieties of what to read next. Starting a big book is full of challenge and adventure, like the first day in a new job. Reaching the end of a big book is like approaching the summit of a mountain or delivering a baby after a long labour. A big book in the coffee shop, or propped open on the train is a sign to all the world that you are no amateur when it comes to fiction. With a big book in my bag I feel like I could take on the world.

So, if you too are looking for some long reads for the summer, here are five recommendations, all over 800 pages long.

Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

I’m very grateful that my sister pointed out to me that Anna Karenina is a better read than War and Peace. War and Peace is an epic of Russian history with multiple families and storylines to keep up with, whereas Anna Karenina is on a smaller scale. Adultery and self discovery set against of background of Russian class war, this is everything you want from an epic nineteenth century novel.

John Galsworthy, The Forsythe Saga

Following the recent Radio 4 adaptation I went out and bought second hand copies of both volumes. The second volume will be my summer holiday big book read. Irene Forsythe is just as fine a character as Anna Karenina, in this vast family saga of feuds, fortunes and emotional tragedy.

Victor Hugo, Les Miserable

The musical beautifully covers just a tiny portion of the full story. This novel transports the reader to nineteenth century France through a series of diverse characters, locations and historic events. Monseigneur Myriel, the bishop, is one of my favourite character in fiction. This novel reads like many smaller novels in one volume, with carefully plotted connections and interactions, that create a cohesive whole.

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

I will be forever grateful to my dear friend bookshop Jo who suggested this book to me during an intense season of insomnia and low mood. It provided the perfect escape. The story centres around a small art work that becomes separated from  the gallery that owns it. Avoiding too many spoilers, the quality of writing in the scene that sets the plot in motion is exquisite and the pace and tension of the rest of the novel makes for a compelling read, something that is essential  in a very long book.


 Ken Follet, The Pillars of the Earth

My love of all things medieval, especially cathedrals, means I was destined to read this epic tale of ambition, power and intrigue, though it isn’t the type of book I would usually choose. Some of the writing , characterisation and plot device is pretty dire but spite this I don’t regret the time I spent on this book. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to enter into the minds of a late medieval master builder and his prior, even if the portrays did lack a certain psychological realism.

Happy (long) reading!

In other news …



I met with my counsellor this morning.

I’ve been seeing her for eight months now and at the end of the session I think we both sensed that the course of therapy is now coming to an end; not because I’m completely free of overwhelming thoughts, but because I’m now well enough to let my rational brain bring a little order back into the craziness whenever things get wild.

Life is good.

I drove into town after the session and parked up in my usual place by St James in the City. I walked up to Saint George’s Hall along Hope Street and smiled because only Liverpool would have a street named “hope” with a cathedral at each end and a statue half way commemorating the historic relationship between the Anglican Bishop Sheppard and the Catholic Bishop Worlock.

It’s along time since I’ve written on this blog  but I did spend the afternoon in the Picton Reading Room with my notebook, as I did last Wednesday, and the outcome was one or two good sentences.

I went to evening prayer at the Anglican Cathedral at the end of the day. The vast interior of the building was running with children, 16 schools from Warrington gathered to perform gospel songs in a concert for their parents. It was much too noisy for evening prayer which had been moved to the Lady Chapel. I was glad to help the verger carry the prayer books down in the lift and just a few of us gathered for the short service underneath the dazling blue of the stain glass window and its brilliant light.

If you have never been to evening prayer I can recommend it as short and consolidatory. It pulls together all the loose ends of the day without making any outrageous promises that it will be unlikely to deliver on.

Evening prayer includes a Psalm, the Magnificat (the song Mary sang when the angel told her she was to have a child) and the Nunc Dimittis (the song Simeon sang when Jesus was presented in the temple). There is the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and a chapter from both testaments of the bible.

In these days our world is full of words: news media, social media, electronic communications, arguments, controversies and many, many conversations. Church life too: so many views and opinions, so many competing voices and plans.

Rarely do I hear so much scripture in one sitting. Rarely do I hear so much scripture read aloud. And scripture seems at home in the cathedral, with its gathered congregation, those from its own community and us visitors too. The scripture seems somehow bigger here, as if my home and my head were too small to contain its fullness.

This is from the Old Testament reading for today, some trustworthy reassurance after another day of political turmoil and perspective for us in uncertain times:

Your eyes will see the king in his beauty
and view a land that stretches afar…
In your thoughts you will ponder the former terror:
Look on Zion, the city of our festivals;
your eyes will see Jerusalem,
a peaceful abode, a tent that will not be moved;
its stakes will never be pulled up,
nor any of its ropes broken.
There the Lord will be our Mighty One.
It will be like a place of broad rivers and streams.
No galley with oars will ride them,
no mighty ship will sail them. For the Lord is our judge,
the Lord is our lawgiver,
the Lord is our king;
it is he who will save us.

Isaiah 33


What I learnt in March


Today I’m linking up with Emily Freeman who organises one of the many end of the month blog shares that can be found around the internet.

Partial success is still success

I disappointed some folk this month, quite by accident. They were pretty angry with me and didn’t hold back in telling me so. I had to have some difficult reconciliation conversations that didn’t really go my way. Even though my counsellor seemed to think I managed pretty well, (I am paying her to say all the encouraging things), I couldn’t shake off the idea that I’d failed.  It will take me a while to adapt to the (healthy) notion that a success in life is sometimes a mix of the good and the bad; that a situation doesn’t have to work out perfectly for it to be OK. That a situation doesn’t have to work out perfectly for me to be OK.

Friends matter

I’ve had my fair share of coffee dates this month and have enjoyed seeing friends. I’ve also enjoyed some additional online company through joining an online writing group and an online reading group. Nothing beats face to face real-time friendship apart from really good online conversations with friends you have never met. It brings to mind something CS Lewis said:

Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, “What you too? I thought I was the only one!”

Also something Flannery O’Connor said about writing:

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.

I love reading but …

However much you like reading you’ll never find the answer in a book. This is probably this month’s  most important observation. Having spend many hours reading and several inches of column time writing about the special books that have shaped my life, I’m more convinced than ever. Books are important in personal and spiritual formation but other things are more important.

What other things? Maybe I’ll be able to say more definitely in “What I learnt in April”! Probably: prayer, face-to-face friendship and face-to-face church (an d the places where these things intersect).


I tend to fall through most of the week tackling the things that present themselves and all the new thoughts and ideas in no particular order.  Four children, full time work and a driven lifestyle have only confounded this rather  poor habit. In terms of spiritual disciplines I’m convinced of their value but nervous of setting myself up to fail. This month I’ve been making friends with some helpful habits that seem to work for me.

My first habit is using a bullet journal to stop myself becoming over whelmed by demands and to-do lists. You can read about the method here, but I have to confess to being a rather casual keeper of the bullet journal.

My second habit is herbal tea in the same pretty cup every night at bedtime.

My third habit is daily journalling and prayer. I have been writing using the same format everyday based on The Book of Common Prayer. I write my own collect, copy out some scripture and maybe add some quotes and comments before finishing with a written prayer. I then read over what I’ve written and practice some silence or simple contemplative prayer. I’m experimenting rather tentatively with the Jesus Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer.


We renewed our National Trust membership after Jonathan said it wouldn’t be a Bank Holiday if he didn’t get dragged round the garden of a stately home in the rain. It was the first week of clocks forwards and despite the gloomy weather everything was looking gloriously green and full of life. I have been making a point of bringing a little spring into the house each week with potted hyacinths and magnificent bunches of florist daffodils. On the nights when I don’t sleep well, the birds start singing at about 4.30, bringing a little music to the night-watch.  Its good to have them back!

If you’re joining me via Emily freeman’s blog, drop me a line. It would be good to connect!



In search of spring



We took a walk in the woods yesterday. It felt like spring.

The water of the mere was still, but for a few slow ripples stirred by the movement of birds: goldeneye, teal and widgeon. A pair of great crested grebes, in the shallows pulling at roots and weeds, looked like they might be getting ready to build a nest. Buds were sprouting on the dark twigs of hawthorn and there were lamb’s tail catkins hanging in the sun. Underfoot a delicate carpet of tiny green leaves were making a show, nettles, sweet ceicely, wood anemone, cow parsley, many textured, in every shade of green. Lesser celandine, gorse and coltsfoot; some of our favourite first flower of spring are yellow. Their shining faces bring out of hibernation all the humming insects and the bees.

Sitting in the hide with the window open and the sun shining on my face I came to think of images of spring and the power they have over us. We can be renewed inwardly when the  black branches come into bud and the first shoots of flowering bulbs stand proud from the cold ground. When the days grow longer we understand more clearly than before how a light has shined in the darkness and the darkness can never put it out.

The writer of the Song of Song said this:

See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.

It has!

They do!

I will!

Spring will reign forever as a powerful image of renewal and hope in every Christian heart. Yet walking in the woods yesterday, it was not enough. I have done this nearly every year of my life. I’ve seen it before and been cheered by it before. I will be cheered by it again. But we have struggled and we have been troubled. It is not a casual thing, it is not easily swept away. It isn’t that the imagery of spring is inadequate only that we hunger for more; this bright shining light, this chance to see all things made new. We dig deeper, look more closely, wonder more ferociously, write with more care. We know that the beauty of the earth is never quite enough.

I prayed that God would speak to me in new and startling ways outside of cliches and well worn phrases. Or, I prayed that I would get beneath the thin skin of the too familiar words and images to the heart of the message, to the heart of me, to the heart of him. That I would know myself startled by this voice, truly taken aback by what he says, listening and watching for something more. That I would have courage when I am stirred by this beautiful world to know that feeling for what it is: a holy call to something more.

A holy call to something more.



Yarn Along – March 9th


I’m reading The Museum of You, by Carys Bray. I really loved her first novel, A Song for Issy Bradley and she is also a local writer. The copy I have is a publisher’s proof and it feels quite special, a sneak preview before the official date of publication (June 16th in the UK).

museum ofu

Her first novel, A Song for Issy Bradley is the story of Claire, a mother who loses her baby and most of her faith in God. Claire’s husband Ian is a good Mormon elder who is ill prepared to understand what is happening in his family. His wife takes to her bed and his teenage daughter Zippy falls in love for the first time. In the process she begins to unravel some of the double standard inherent in relationships generally and in church life particularly. Whilst this is going on his youngest son Jacob is hoping for the miracle that will put everything right and their rebellious older son, Alma, finds his own miracle in the most surprising place. The final scene takes place on the beach not far from where I live and it caused some interesting discussions at home because my husband and I both interpreted the outcomes differently. But maybe that is one indicator of a really good read …

The second novel promises to me good like the first, though it was a little slow to pick up pace. I’m only 100 pages into The Museum of You and so far I’m totally convinced and engaged by the main character Clover Quinn and her mission to put together a museum style exhibit on the mother she never knew. I’m particularly intrigued that so much of the novel is set locally, with detail of streets and locations that are familiar to me on a daily basis. Not something I’m used to in a novel and frankly a rather unusual fiction reading experience.

When it comes to knitting I’m mainly making baby cardigans. They seem to bring so much pleasure to me and others. I think this is my sixth this year. I stick with white and love using vintage patterns that various lovely people have passed on. When I finish this one I’m planning on something a different; maybe a light shawl in some exquisite yarn or a summer cardigan in pink cotton (for me).




PS. I just noticed that an audio book of Issy Bradley is currently available from Amazon in both the UK and the US for free. Can’t recommend it highly enough!

Today I’m joining a link up with other knitters and reader, hosted by Ginny Sheller of the exquisitely photographed blog Small Things.



Live life like a mother


An intense lesson in living, shocking enough to make sure you never live casually again. The first time you hold your newborn against your naked self, you are tired and slightly traumatised, yet strangely alive with passion and resolve. You will never live life in quite the same way again.

The over used notion of “intentionality’ does not begin to do this justice.

This is how so many women heard their first call to live life more fully. One small new life made you a mother, it gave you a vocation. You said would never be the same again and what you meant was you would live your life more fiercely now because of that little someone else. Suddenly the possibilities for joy increased, the opportunities for growth multiplied but isn’t this also true: so did the opportunities to be flung into wild living panic at a moments notice, to lie awake sleepless in unexplainable despair.

We learn some of the most beautiful lessons of our lives there between the night feeds and the groggy mornings trying to find a pair of socks that match, persuading the little ones out of the door amidst arguments about why you can’t take your comfort blanket to nursery with you, why you can’t wear the fairy princess costume to school. Didn’t we feel out done by first dates and Facebook fall-outs and teenagers who believed they were too fat or too thin? Didn’t we lose the plot over course work deadlines not met and lost bus passes, parties with alcohol and learning to drive? But somewhere, somehow we found the right words and when that failed we found the right silence. We showed up and we showed love beyond a simple hug and kiss. We were creative, resourceful and inspiring but mainly lost and always out of our depth.

Behind the closed doors of our family homes, amongst piles of discarded toys and the bags of outgrown clothes that never made it to the charity shop, we did the hard work of becoming more human and helping our children do the same. Overdue library books under the bed, longed for pets that need to be fed, a half empty fridge and still we put food on the table everyday, because kids are hungry beasts and who knew how much pleasure can be found in sitting round a table at the end of the day. Our plates were full and so were our lives. Achievement, success, hidden talents and reserves of strength found in surprising places at surprising times, but never more so than now.

I don’t want any mother to feel defined or confined by narrow definitions of what it is to parent as women or for any man to feel his contribution is diminished. I don’t want anyone to be excluded because they chose not to mother or didn’t have the opportunity to mother even when it was something they longed for with all their heart.

I only want to say that there is a quality in mothering that makes you come alive and small lesson in living that we should be sharing with the world.

Our world needs more resilience, more resourcefulness, more hope. “Live life like a mother,” I keep whispering to myself as I pick my way through the complexities of a too anxious life. Write like a mother, teach like a mother, love like a mother, grieve like a mother. The world could do worse that practise a little more of this good love, this forbearance of the hard things, for the sake of those who need our care.

Here are some of the things that motherhood taught me. This is how I live life like a mother.
Choose your battles
I wasn’t giving into them, spoiling them, pandering to them, I was choosing my battles. Choosing your battles means accepting that there is plenty wrong in this world and you are not big enough to change it all today. One small step at a time is the way to proceed, by choosing  the things that matter the most.

Be a grown up
A time comes when we are just too old to tantrum and throw the toys out of the pram every time things don’t go to plan. I still remember where I was when I realised I was the grown up in my family situation and that my children were looking to me, to draw the boundaries, make the decisions, extend the care and  make their world safe. They weren’t being demanding, they were just being children and suddenly I wanted them to enjoy this part of childhood. I wanted to create an age appropriate environment where the balance of safety and challenge fell on the side of safety.  Be the grown up to the people in life who are in need of this type of care.

Give others the freedom to be themselves
I always imagined that my first child would be a well behaved, gentle spirited girl, academically precocious and musically gifted. But my first child was not this and eventually I learn to stop trying to turn him into the fabled person I wanted him to be. Ultimately you cannot control another human being. You cannot dictate their beliefs , preferences or behaviours. As your children get older they will make choices that you feel you did not raise them to make, choices that you think are wrong. Sometimes you have to let them. In this world too many relationships are marred by manipulation and the desire to control. Find another way to play a part in the lives of the people you love. Control is never good.

Practise the art of imperfection
Life is messy. Children will only make it messier but once you’ve found a way to be comfortable with this you increase your ability to do well in other areas of life. Things go wrong. Mistakes are made. Learn a little resilience and give yourself a break. Your role is not to work hard to hide your imperfections from the world. Your role is to find a way of living that embraces mess and gets on anyway. It is very tiring putting on a show to the world that everything is OK when often it is not. It’s very isolating to suggest to other people that you have it together when you do not. Live authentically, wear your imperfections with ease and help others to do the same.

Be kind
Children need discipline and sometimes love has to be tough but how often did we make everyone’s life much harder with misplaced tough love. A battle with a toddler is rarely about who is right. You are almost certainly right but this is probably not the best time to making your point. I am convinced that its better to be kind than to be right and I’m willing to risk making a wrong call if necessary. So often we thought our zero tolerance approach would pay us dividends in the future and it only made the situation more intransigent. If in doubt, be kind.

Enjoy it
Despite the challenges, parenting should be fun, more love and joy that anything else. And this is true of life. I can not except that life is a drudge, a brief period lived in miserable suffering. I’m not a natural optimist, I’m just someone who has decided I need to live in pursuit of good things, rather than living to struggle with bad things. My children ultimately make this easier. They give me plenty of reasons to be glad. When seasons of life bring trouble I go in pursuit of beauty and joy more fiercely than before.

What has being a parent taught you about living life well?