Thursday, 27 February 2014

Keeping An Eye On Talkeetna

July 2007. A wild and wonderful adventure in a Camper Van around and about Alaska. This trip comes close to belly dancing across the Sinai with a camel, in terms of memorability, and I bring it up AGAIN because it's February, I'm cold, and I'm in need of distraction. 

Being in need of distraction, I thought I'd take another look at the Talkeetna Historical Society's website, and low and behold, I am mining gold.

OK, we have The Onion Fayre, and this is special because, well, it's spelled with a 'y' for a start! What we DON'T have yet, is any activity involving the random placement of animal excreta. I have heard of Donkey Dropping versions of poo-roulette, but the Talkeetna Moose Dropping Festival aces that by miles. Convinced that no moose are  harmed in the pursuit of this brand of do-doo hilarity, I am happy to acquaint you with it's ins and outs.

Firstly, volunteers scour the surrounding bits of Eco-system for moose pellets. These are collected by the bucket full and  each individual presentation alloted a number.

Next up, these numbers are sold on to punters. They are then, thirdly, (pellets, not punters) taken aloft in an air balloon and dropped over the local baseball field. The final drama is the discernment of the winning turd, which must land near some vital piece of a baseball diamond, the name and purpose of which escapes me, not being a fan. 

Winner takes all. 

I can imagine how much fun this is. 

Whilst laughing like a drain over this simple rural past-time, my eye caught a more recent Moose Dropping Festival Event: The Mountain Mother Competition. Sort of convinced, the MMC may add a little more  fun-provoking mileage, I read on:

"A Mountain Mother contest was added to the Moose Dropping festivities in 1991. The only requirement was that the contestant had to be a mom...married or not. Starting with a "baby" in a backpack, feats included: walk a log in hip waders, carrying two buckets of water;"shoot" a balloon moose with a bow and arrow; "catch" a fish; chop up firewood; change the baby and wash out the diaper; make a "pie" and call in the kids. Winners get useful things, like an appointment at the local beauty shop for a haircut, manicure, and massage; a nice dinner out, and gift certificates from the local shops."

Speechless, and overcome by it all, I do recommend you visit, at least virtually, and find out about it for yourself:

Jesus And Johnny

I am not a fan of Country and Western Music. Never will be. So I am very, very surprised to find myself moved to take up the tablet inspired by Johnny Cash. 

Yesterday would have been his eighty-second birthday. I would not have known this had it not featured on the WONDERFUL Canadian Public Radio show, 'As It Happens'. It turns out that a store keeper, somewhere In Canada, is serving baloney sandwiches and cake iced with black icing to raise money for the local Food Bank. My writer's seventh sense kicked in and I followed the conversation closely. It turns out that Johnny Cash always wore black in recognition of the suffering of humanity, and his belief in Jesus. 

I then reigned-in my critical faculties and listened to the 'Man In Black' song. I was deeply, deeply moved. Not by the Country and Western dum-de-dum, but by the powerful spirituality and gentle, authentic activism in evidence in Johnny's lyrics.

I have a Christian faith, of sorts, but am very wary of speaking about Jesus, because I can't bear to associate myself with groups who use the Name to propagate hate crimes. I do not wish to be counted with these people, so I have left the floor. 

Case in point: I am horrified by the growing anti-Gay persecution in Africa, encouraged and sponsored, I have learned, by ultra-conservative Western  'Christian' groups who have the sick, sick, idea that the Prince of Peace would be served by this. This is getting close to my heart. Time to take a step back.

Just in case you are under any illusion that I am in any way better than the believers who are out to kill gay people, I will confess that I am guilty of a being a gossip. There are other things I'm guilty of, but gossiping is more likely to be a mortal sin that you relate to than some of my more colourful backslides.

The thing is, gossiping appears in St Paul's list of things you'd better not do, right alongside fornication. Of any kind. So why, I wonder do we not have  African states, spurred on by evangelical whackos, legislating prison and execution for gossips? 

Stupid question. 

The Christ, whom Johnny Cash had more than a passing knowledge of, knew how easily we, the people, will fasten on to what we perceive to be other people's failings, rather than deal with our own. As if executing someone else, will make it easier to deal with the unsettling state of our own consciences. His solution, "Love one another. As I have loved you." WE are the ones to bare  our backs to whips for the sake of the dignity of others, and then be hung out to dry. WE have no mandate to do THIS to anyone else. How could such an obvious intent be so horribly twisted?

Time to draw this to a close. I doubt that I shall take to wearing black, but I have gained a deep respect for the man who did. 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

An Antipathy to Human Resources

Back in Starbucks again, fearing it might become a habit. I added a cinnamon swirl to the bucket of coffe and an 'i'. I have an excuse - the motorey thinagabob that makes the steering work on the car has had a fit of the vapours, and has been sent away for an operation. So it was the Early Bus again, and a long wait.

I have an idea for a screenplay. It's not necessarily a GOOD idea, but one that I might make use of. Trouble is, being a poet, I've never written a screenplay before, so I reckon to start out by studying the craft. 

A few years ago, I essayed Creative Writing with The Open University, which made a nice change from the science and education units I pursued when relevant. In an excess of enthusiasm, I bought the follow-up Course Handbook, and when the same enthusiasm waned, I put it on the bottom of the book-heap and took up walking instead. But NOW the enthusiasm  has reasserted itself, and I am working my way through the exercises. It's not easy. 

I am minded to ask The Bucks to turn down the music so that I can eavesdrop on the conversations around me (current research), but after the fourth reference to Human Resources I am more inclined to ask them to turn it up. 

This isn't working, I type to myself, I may have to invent the conversations to make them more interesting. Oh! Look! Arnold Swarzenegger and Machiavelli have just walked in. THIS is more like it... . 

Monday, 24 February 2014

Smacked in the 'i'.

"Gimme the largest cappuccino!" I ask, refusing to say aloud the pretentious name it has been graced with. I was inclined to say, "Uno capaccino, venti por favor,"  but  that's not Italian and I MUST resist the temptation of going over the top. Give me under the bottom any day! (OMG, I've done it again!)

I wouldn't say I never come to one of these fancy coffee shops. Indeed, I had bought for me, one of these frothy things, in the original Starbucks in Pike Place Market, Seattle. Frankly, I think the Taj Mahal ranks higher. I rarely indulge, but that's not Starbucks fault. I'm just not a coffee drinker, and the tea here doesn't suit me. I suspect the water's not hot enough. 

I am here because my husband has the car to take Fr Brian to the station for the 1240 to London Paddington, and the most convenient bus (the one that picks me up and drops me off from outside my home - the 678 Gloucester To Newent Community Bus) leaves at 0718. As a consequence, I have 90 minutes to fill before the Salvation Army opens its doors to the Lunch Volunteers. 

So I am here with a bucket-full of coffee, free wifi, and a copy of the 'i'. (A comic-sized version of the left-leaning newspaper, ' The Independent'. )So given that I am about to immerse myself in the lives of our underclass, here's what hits me in the 'I'.

Ministers to scrap 'crucial safety net' for vulnerable families.

Wow! I thought our government, wedded as it is the empowerment and enrichment of the overclass, would have seen that off long ago! Way to go LibDems!!! 

Mother: Please help my son on Death Row

Come on USA! Join the civilised nations! 

'Prosecute blue-chip firms that spy on us'

I'm sorry? This isn't news. Blue-chip firms obviously never do anything illegal. They have lawyers who will prove this, as eny fule no.

Swearing fans delay screening of match

Bloody Hell!

Last Sound of Music family member dies

So long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersen, Goodbye...

Undecideds edge towards keeping Union after warning over pound

PLEASE stick with us Scotland. Without you, the Tories have us for ever. Or WORSE, UKIP. God help us.

Cavalli stops dressing actresses for red carpet.

Oh Lord! This means I shall have to go naked to the Oscars!

I am laughing so much, I am in danger of attracting attention. And before I alienate any more of my readership, I'd better stop right there.

If you have enjoyed reading this, buy a Big Issue at the next opportunity. Please. 

(Or even if you haven't! ;)

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Let them eat ... ?

My brother Mervyn hit a spot of bother last year, when criminal activity emptied his bank account. Merv earns a low wage in light engineering: in addition to his wage, he receives some support for raising his step-son, and housing benefit. He still has to pay some rent though, and waking up to find he couldn't pay it came as a shock, especially when non- payment threatened to become an eviction issue.

So here's the choice. Become homeless, or eat. 

Merv could have asked me to sub. him, but he wouldn't. He asked his Social Worker for help. Steve, the Social Worker, is a caring and savvy guy, and he had a ready answer."Go to the Food Bank in Great Western Rd." Merv, being over, 55 could get vouchers from Help The Aged. ( No, you can't, I assure you, just walk in and scrounge, despite what you may have heard from the right wing nasties. You have to apply to a recognised agency and be assessed. You may receive a maximum of three vouchers.) 

I am telling this story to illustrate that anyone can find themselves with an empty cupboard, mouths to feed,  and no other means to do so than turn to charities for help. 

I have read accounts of yesterday's Parliamentry debate, and I am not impressed. Though I have long since stopped blaming politicians for behaving like politicians, I do become exasperated when the lobbing match degrades the debate and demeans the participants. Most of the time, then. ( Is it any wonder the electorate is turned off?) 

The problem will be worsened  in April when under-25's lose their housing benefit. (In order to 'nudge' them into moving back in with their parents, I expect, because that's what happens in La-La land.) I recently spoke with a case worker with the agency responsible for housing the homeless in Gloucester, and she is preparing for a crisis, as the agency is already under-funded and over-committed.

The good news is that the research undertaken by the University of Warwick, and sponsored by DEFRA  on 'Food Aid in the UK' has finally been published. 

The report is 81 pages long, and may be found here:

You might want to skip to the conclusions, which finds - no surprise to the those who know more than some government supporters want to -  my brother is a typical user of the Food Bank. The idle scrounger doesn't even get a mention.... 

Monday, 17 February 2014

Miracles For All

IThe weekend spent practising how to do Mindfulness was a bit of an eye-opener.

My husband , when asked (generally by me) how he would describe what I'm like, will reply, "Complex." I am apt to give him a sideways glance at this, in order to ascertain whether this is criticism or not. I believe him to be sidestepping the issue, and that "complex" is  the closest to criticism that he feels he can get,  without drawing down wrath. 

"Muddled" would probably be closer to the mark, and I would bet my second best bed that many people also fall into this category. I don't know what's going on in the world half the time, and am usually loath to find out, in case I don't agree with it. So let's go looking for Truth. 

One of the oddest books I have ever come across is 'A Course In Miracles.' It was written by a psychologist who asked God for Enlightnment and wrote down what ensued. A rather similar process as  to how I go about writing this blog, only without asking God. 

The Course in Miracles sets out, in more than 300 daily lessons, to teach you how to transform your worldview and become a better person. Let me give you a taste:

Lesson 1

Nothing I see in this room [on this street, from this window, in this place] means anything.
Now look slowly around you, and practice applying this idea very specifically to whatever you see:
This table does not mean anything.
This chair does not mean anything.
This hand does not mean anything
This foot does not mean anything.
This pen does not mean anything.
One goes from here, through 365 daily exercises, to knowing  that one is sinless, and that one is also the Son of God. I am pretty sure that this book led to my complete Enlightenment, as summed up in my signature tenet-of-faith, "You can believe what you like and get away with it." 

Mind you, In my opinion, you can believe far worse things than the sum of A Course in Miracles. Most, if not all, mainstream faith traditions, for example, especially the bits that encourage us to abuse and kill one another.

I gave up coursing through the miracles because I couldn't be doing with repeating things. It made me feel silly. I shall feel even sillier, naturally, if I get denied the delights of Paradise because I hadn't the staying power to endure a bit of chanting, but I have weighed the odds and decided to chance it. 

However, What ACIM DID do for me was to force me to think about what I think about the nature of reality. After all, the most that can be experienced at any one moment, is what is right there IN that moment, which is therefore, to all intents and purposes, all there IS. See? One suspects that God is supposed to hold everything all together having every moment in his consciousness, but that's just guessing. 

So I dumped ACIM and went on a Mindfulness course instead. 

I rather like being Mindful. To do this, you hold your attention fully in the moment. No cheating! The present is a beautiful place: here you are fully sentient, totally aware and gloriously awash with the input from your senses. 

I got to practice in silence for a bit, then went about gardening and polishing the Centre's piano, Mindfully. 

When I remember to stay mindful, I experience what is before me in all its fullness. I am not allowing my attention to wander. I no longer attempt to mentally multi-task. It's fun. It's worth giving it a go. 

So the next time my husband is asked what I'm like, I rather hope he'll reply, "Mindful". I expect I shall have to coach him first though... . 

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Saving The Planet

Actually, it's not the planet that worries me. It will slough off this pesky monkey-species with a sigh of relief. It's the survival of the monkey that has me exercised.

I have been following the Keystone Pipeline debate with off-hand interest. It's a good dirty political fight : Green versus Black... For those who may wonder what on earth I'm talking about, let me explain. There is a filthy black sludge beneath Alberta, Canada, that can, with a lot of effort and added toxins, and a pipeline from Alberta to ports in the Southern USA, be turned into useable petroleum products and a significant profit for the stake-holders. Not against profit, don't get me wrong, just for a planet my descendants can inhabit.

I listen to American Public Radio, you know this, and I heard the most incredible interview with a body from the US State Department. This  person is tasked with working out the carbon-cost of the Keystone Pipeline, because President Obama has pledged to veto it if it's construction will lead to greater greenhouse emissions. 

Well, he says, the pipeline will not lead to increased carbon in the atmosphere because the stuff will be dug up, processed and transported, anyway, so we may as well have a piece of the action. It's the economy stupid. Look, he suggests, at what's happening in the EU, Australia and Japan. When the economy takes a hit, the greening of energy supply  goes by the board. 

That's a paraphrase, naturally, but is unanswerable. We're fucked. 

Time to stop prophesying that the rain is coming. Time to build an ark. What's the cost of gopher wood these days? 

Friday, 7 February 2014

Peering Into The Dark

The singing bowl rings and five of us do whatever we do to slip into silence.

I imagine myself, arms outstretched, yelling ""Here I am!" And God plops down beside me and says, "There's no need to shout. I missed you. Where have you been?" "Busy." I reply,  knowing he knows. 

There IS no dialogue, of course, no words. That's just how it FEELS. 

For years I used to struggle to find the core. Holy people meditate for hours, I squirm after twenty minutes. I guess not being numbered among the holy, let's me off the hook. I have learned the trick of it now, this entering into liminal space, which is another way of saying " going out on the edge". It's not a question of fighting against the constant noise in my head, the ever-present demands of the ego and the distractions of the whatever-it-is that's happening around and about - it's not paying attention to it.

It's that simple. Like not paying attention in class. You know that something's going on up front, but you have chosen to place yourself elsewhere. 

Where? That's the nub of it. Where in those twenty minutes, am I? 

I think it's more a question of "Who?"

Everything slips away. I am aware only of my breath, which falls and rises, and I am still. 

"My house being all stilled." Is how St John of the Cross described it. I read that so many, many years ago, and could not comprehend it, but was deeply, deeply attracted to the very idea of an end to striving, an end to trying make sense of a chaotic world, of  just being still.

In the warm, dark brightness beyond the material world, I AM. I realise in an instant that I am loved, so deeply. I know that I have nothing to prove, nowhere to go, nothing to achieve, no-one to impress: I am complete. 

This is spirituality at it's most profound.

Thomas Merton describes religion as the "finger pointing to the moon." That's all. Much of the trappings and ceremonials, priestcraft and busying about imposing rules, completely misses the point. These are not IT. Stay with this, ignore the sign posts, choose to judge, or hate, or dominate, and you'll never know how wonderful and complete and loved you are. 

And you'll have NOTHING to give to anyone else.

After our twenty minutes elsewhere, the five of us talk quietly about where we are, and where we've been. Two of the group are priests. One a theologian, which matters not at all here. One of the priests manages to put into words what I feel. 

"There is much in my religion that I can no longer teach. It's not about following the rules, it's about accepting that God is at the centre of everything.  Waiting."

Cape Town

View from Cape Town Hollow Hotel, Queen Victoria Rd., and right next to the French Embassy.

In the foreground, the Musem and Planetarium, to the right, The Company Gardens (17C: Dutch East Indies. Vegetables were grown here for the Company ships.)

The rest are all about Table Mountain:

Mountains accessible by cable car are my favourite kind. This will dismay some of you, I know, but I do USUALLY take the option of walking down... .

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Van Standen Nature Reserve... .


I will drape myself over the bonnet for a photo-shoot, before handing it back!

The rest is flowers - proteas and sugar-bush mostly. Boys, you are excused. 

Saturday, 1 February 2014

On Location

The Mlombile  Kraal

This Mrs Nomtambani Mlombile , 'Mama Alice'. She is eighty-one years old, and STILL insists on bringing us water at the break of day. Others help her with her stock and the housekeeping these days. But she still holds the keys! She has built a double garage ('for my guests'), installed another cistern to catch the summer rains, and even contrived running water! The toilet is a little erratic, so the bucket and pit latrine still have a place in the scheme of things. 


There are two stories. The traditional life - one of abject poverty and subsistence living: women in blankets setting up a shabby stall to sell a few oranges, and chickens sold from crates; in the same block, a brand new Shopping Mall. This might not be Cribb's Causeway, but it's a Great Leap Forward. (How's THAT for irony?)


A Delegation Of Anglicans

There's an amazing fluidity to rural living here in Africa, that can be a little disconcerting if you're not used to it. "Leave you watch behind and bring a book" would be my advice.

Mama is up and about by 4am and has knocked us up at 4:09. "It's OK, Mama, there's plenty of time! I mutter sleepily. We are to leave for Kokstad at 6am. Ablutions in the Kraal are fairly rudimentary ,as one doesn't linger in the pit latrine, and all else is accomplished with an enamel bowl and a bar of soap, so I wasn't going to shift until 5:30 at the earliest. 

It is now 0705. We duly left at 0600 for the five minute drive down the N2 to the town of Qumbu from whence the delegation of Anglicans, of which Mama Alice is one, are leaving for a very important conference on the future of the diocese. It's pointless asking at what time we're going to set off. Our part is to convey Mamas Alice and Iva, following the delegates in the minibus.

Alarmingly, if you're accustomed to knowing where you're  headed, know one seems to know where this conference IS precisely. Apparently we are to be notified by 'phone - at some point. There is nothing unusual about this, the delay is almost certainly due to the late arrival of a delegate from a distant location who has had to hitch a lift, and the uncertaintity as to the venue equally explainable - perhaps he's the guy that knows.

So we wait. 

Yesterday was HOT. 35C. Even the gale blowing off the ocean did little to quell the effect. Because Pt St. John's is the equivalent to Carson City during the reign of Billy The Kid. (A SLIGHT exaggeration), we decided to leave the car and all our belongings , at the hotel, and walk into town. We had a date, having promised to meet Zawlibhanzi in town at the furniture store where he works. He had often regailed  his workmates with his stories about his trip to the UK IN 2005, and now he wanted to present us to them, as evidence that his travellers tales were actually true...

Trouble was, both of us had left it to the other to ascertain exactly where the furniture store was. Port St John's is a small town, seven streets at the most, so I doubt either of us anticipated a problem. As it turns out, every street had at least two shops selling furnishings of one sort or another, so it became immediately apparent that finding Zwalibhanzi was not going to be quite as straightforward as we had hoped.  

I remembered a casual remark about a perpetual 'Sale Now On' banner, and Ray recalled mention of a red roof, so we weren't completely clueless. That neither coincided,wasn't helpful. Being a dutiful wife, I felt it necessary to point out HIS shortcomings on the directions issue, whilst, unsuccessfully, attempting to relieve myself of all responsibility. 

Trouble is, we were not exactly inconspicuous.... Curious eyes followed this odd, elderly, white couple attempting in mangled Xhosa to ask for 'Mr Cingo'. Some shook their heads warily, one directed us to the back of the store ( wrong one) where  I shouted, gaily, 'Come out wherever you are!' and was politely escorted from the premises. That was embarrassing. 

I'm glad we persevered. Five shops into the search, a smiling Zwalibhanzi appeared. We were duly introduced to his bemused colleagues, had a good laugh about the hunt, hugs all round and departed. 

A short stop at Second Beach for a swim. Or not. I read the ' High Risk' warning and decided that death-by-shark is not my preferred exit strategy.

 I love Second Beach. I first came here in 2002 with the Eastern Cape contingent of Global Teachers. We were accommodated in 'Lily  Lodge' which is right on the shore. We arrived after dark, and immediately threw ourselves on our backs on the sand to gaze at the most incredible light show above us. 

THAT's the Milky Way! I overheard a colleague explain to another who'd never noticed it before... . 

I am having a private bet. Will we leave before 8am? It's 0748 and my money's against.

Fortunately, I have another book to start, and it has 627 pages. 

Second Beach


We left the Church at 0759, so I was conceding the bet. Now, at 0816, parked a minute away, outside a store in town, I've revised my decision. I do not consider myself departed. Kokstad is still two hours away. 

The plan appears to be, wait two hours before leaving, then drive like a bat out of hell in a vain attempt to arrive on time.

The unforeseen must always be expected. We have arrived in Kokstad, minus the rest of the delegation, who,contrived to leave us behind shortly after Qumbu. We were stuck behind a lorry on an incline, and that was that. We might have expected that the bus driver would wait for us, but he was in a bad mood. And the cause, in part, for the delay, having refused to budge before everyone stumped an extra R10.

We found the Conference, through the intervention of St Bede. The Mamas went off to praise God and put the world to rights, and I shopped. Ray rode shotgun.

An Unexpected Party

Living in the village is always an adventure.  Two years ago, we decided not to attend Alice's 80th birthday celebration, because we thought we would be a distraction. Instead we intended to celebrate yesterday, which was also Ray's 65th. We had a plan. We would celebrate both at the Steers Restuarant at the Ultra City Petrol Station, Mthatha, which was the location of Alice's jamboree, and her idea of fine dining.

Naturally, nothing went to plan.

First thing, on the big day, Alice wanted a lift to Qumbu, where it seems we spent the vast majority of our time, during our visit, waiting about for one reason or another. Alice purchased cake, coke, and two live chickens. I had inadvertently photographed them earlier in the expedition, and here they are, crumpled into a small cardboard box and bundled into the boot. They were for the pot. 

I did not record their swift dispatch with Nomvulu's knife, nor was I present at the evisceration and plucking events. I know there is a school of thought that iterates that if you cannot dispatch your meat, you shouldn't eat it - but I say, "Bollocks!",  to that, what was the Twentieth Century for, for heavens sake? 

Alice expressed a wish to present us with one of the fowl to take away with us. Ray grandly made a present of it back to  the community, as, he explained, after eight hours in the car at 32C, it would be a health hazard when we arrived back in Port Alfred. His offer was accepted with grateful thanks. 

Nomvulu, who is a niece, I believe, though my grasp of relationships are always a bit hit and miss, stewed Chicken A, and served it up with rice, butternut squash, carrots and potatoes, just three hours after our Steers experience. I had to be firm. Having lifted the lid and seen every part of the bird,, including its comb and feet, I knew there was no way I could it eat it, then, or ever. It was wrong of me, and I'm sorry, but I just couldn't.

Time passed, and Ray and I began to wonder when we were having the party. I began to make noises. "Tomorrow!" Mama insisted. Apparently, she'd some relatives afoot, who couldn't make today. 

"No', I insisted. "Today is Ray's birthday, and today we will celebrate - with everyone here..". (There were ten assorted friends and relations living here and there on the Kraal). I went out, cut one of the THREE large cakes Mama had acquired from the SuperSpar  in Qumbu opened the bottle of sparkly and started the merriment. 

It went well. Cake and coke being a special treat hereabouts.

Five-fifteen in the morning, and Mama is up. She had slept in the room next to ours in the same 'flat' and had to walk through our room to get about. Heaven's knows what she gets up to, but it's useless to try to inveigle her into a lie-in. When she's up, we are too. 

By eight o'clock she was going from kraal to kraal in the village inviting people to hers. By eight-thirty, she had summoned in excess of twenty children and about four adults to a party, which, all of a sudden, I was expected to organise! 

"I know how much you love children!" Alice smiles, innocently. "Not THIS bloody much." I mutter out of heariing. 

The complication is that the children have no grasp of English at all. I can say, "Hello" and "How are you?" In Xhosa, but twenty-odd rather bewildered and vaguely mutinous under-thirteens aren't overly impressed with that.

We got them seated, and I stuffed them into affability with cake, sweets and coca-cola, we all,sang, "Happy Birthday", and before I had to resort to "Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes (Knees and Toes)", Mama shoeed them off the premises with little ceremony, and  the party was over. 

None of us will ever forget it.