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