White Pebble



An empty beach on a winter’s day, calm and clear; gulls, almost motionless, are floating overhead on the wind. The sea is grey silk and there are high wispy clouds in the sky like the day when you were born.

At the end of a breakwater the tide has hollowed a small pool in the sand and a perfect milk white pebble lies in the shallow water, shifted gently by tiny waves at the ebb tide.  It seems to be waiting for me and when I pick it up, it sits in my palm, very smooth and quiet. Not as round as an egg nor as flat as a skimming stone. Substantial but not heavy.

I slip it into my pocket and run my fingers over it. I can tell there are no blemishes or bumps. An exquisite oval. I do not need diamonds or emeralds. This soft hard piece of the universe formed millions of years ago, is temporarily in my keeping; one day I shall have to give it back. A week later when I’m out on a chilly walk with my dog Willow I put my hands into my pockets to warm them and there it is again. When I close my fingers together over it, it fills the space completely. Somehow it comforts, reassures.

And for the next two months I find it nestling there each time I wear that jacket until one February day I am no longer content just to hold it and feel it like a secret lover, I must look at it as well, introduce it to my home life. I put it with other smaller stones in a bowl of water where scented white narcissus are flowering. A long time ago when I lived in North America I learned this way of growing bulbs indoors, to charm the long winter months with beauty.

These bulbs are destined to be planted outside when the flowers have faded so the stone is moved to a window sill in a group with three others, a black one is a son, a large brown one, the father and a small beige one is a daughter. Mine is the white mother.

A stone family.


Church Music for Easter

Church Music for Easter         27 March 2013

When I leave the house this evening I call out ‘I’m just going to choir practice’ and I hear myself as if down the years because  I sang in the church choir in the village where I lived as a girl.  I learnt to read plain chant with its strange notation, singing the Psalms, the Magnificat.  We wore dark cassocks with white surplices and stiff pleated ruffs, which from time to time had to be taken home for washing, starching and ironing.

In 1944 a flying bomb, that people called ‘doodlebugs’ had exploded in the churchyard and destroyed part of the church and its fine stained glass windows. Restoration was slow in the post-war years and so it was not until 1957 a Bishop came to reconsecrate the building, knocking ceremoniously on the west door with his hefty crosier. Local people were so pleased to have their church back in use and as our house was nearby, I felt drawn to singing there; Evensong and lights shining out into dark churchyard; the Nunc Dimittis – ‘Lord now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace: according to Thy word’. Cold wooden choir stalls and hurrying to put on our cassocks in the vestry; piles of hymn books; singing for country weddings; mossy gravestones in the long grass.

This evening we are preparing for a Good Friday concert, rehearsing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in a similar church – Norman, eleventh century. We start by practising the great devotional hymns – the Chorales – which the congregation will sing with us on Friday as the worshippers in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig would have done three hundred years ago in Bach’s time. Huge waves of sound escape from the building; passers-by come in tonight to listen for a few minutes. The pianist is so accomplished that sometimes listening to her playing, I almost forget my cues.

Singing is so life-affirming. Calling and ‘hallooing’ were surely the earliest ways of communicating that our distant ancestors used, long before speech sounds as we now know them. In forests and across plains, calling carries a long way, useful for identifying where others are, sharing information about sources of food and warning of dangers.  When we listen to gibbons – our primate cousins – singing their sweet songs to beguile their mates, it is a moving experience because it is somehow familiar, like a very distant memory. There is also a special tone we use for speaking to our babies known as ‘infant-directed speech’ which has a soft sing-song quality to it; it is not the words we use but the comforting loving sounds that are important.

One Wednesday night during Lent, on the same evening that Pope Francis was chosen – somehow appropriate – I had arranged to go to a candlelit service in a tiny chapel in the crypt of a great school chapel where Compline was to be sung.  This is the last of the eight Offices of the monastic day which starts with Matins and Lauds and ends with Vespers and Compline – from the Latin word ‘completus’ meaning ‘finished’, ‘complete’.

The priest and a small choir file in carrying candles.  A simple service giving thanks for the day just ended and praying for safe passage through the night; plain chant in the near dark and when it is over we climb the steps and melt away into the late evening, maintaining our inner silence. Departing in peace.

Green Mountain State

Green Mountain State      10 March 2013

After the long, hard enclosing winter our dear neighbour in Montreal used to say she knew that Spring was coming when the sun climbed high enough to reach through the window and shine into her kitchen again.

Spring is coming to Sussex with faltering steps; slow, uneven. A few sunny days, unusually warm, are swiftly followed by a cold damp period.  Robins are nesting in the ivy by the front door; private little birds that swoop away rapidly or flutter unobtrusively to the ground like dry beech leaves if we should happen to meet, coming or going.

There are already minute green buds sprouting on the Spirea bush that grew several years ago from a bunch of cuttings pushed into the earth as sticks to prop up sweet pea seedlings. Unexpected bonus! Two small Acer trees in the garden – Japanese maples – have buds too; tawny red. Under a huge old tree in the Park there is a carpet of fringed yellow aconites. Sap is rising everywhere.

At the end of winter in Vermont when the sap was beginning to rise, we went out into the forest to learn how it is collected from the sugar maples – Acer saccharum – and made into syrup, just as the early settlers were taught by the First Nation peoples.  A V-shaped incision is made into the bark and a spout hammered in – a wounding – so that the watery sap weeps into a can hanging below. Collected from the still snowy forest and taken to a ‘sugar shack’ – a small processing shed in a clearing, it would be slowly boiled until it became delicate, smoky syrup. It takes up to forty litres of sap to make one litre of syrup so there are clouds of steamy vapour billowing around the shack. Nowadays many trees are connected directly to a ‘collecting facility’ with long metres of plastic tubing.

We were staying with friends in their farmhouse, deep snow outside pushing against the doors; the sound of running water could be heard in every room, all day and all night long, gurgling and bubbling. The water supply for the isolated house came from a spring higher up on the mountainside and trickled through the house in a flexible plastic pipe. It had to keep running ceaselessly so that it didn’t freeze up. Occasionally conversation and activities would stop so we could listen attentively to check; in bed at night, when all was still, the house was full of its music.

One day in early spring, we trek through the woods, our hosts keen to show us a beaver’s dam which they are delighted about. In the nineteenth century the animals were hunted to near extinction and have been re-established here quite recently but I am shocked when we reach it; a grey waste land, like a monstrous war zone; everything is dead. A vast number of blighted trees lie fallen, relentlessly gnawed down in haphazard heaps, sad and ugly. In just a few months beavers construct a barrier of tree trunks, mud and brushwood across the river to form a wide lake in the valley. This is their natural habitat and the variety of wildlife has greatly increased because of it; plants, birds and fish but they are invisible to my untutored eye.

A huge lumbering moose crashes from the forest to cross a remote road, going who knows where. There are old covered bridges, rustic and ramshackle, the half-light mysterious under its roof; the floor thick wooden planks with water rushing fast underneath, sparkling as we peer through the gaps. Seventy miles further south, the New England poet Robert Frost, taught at Middlebury College during the summers and autumns, from 1921 to 1963, living in a simple farmhouse nearby and sometimes staying in a cabin even closer to the woods. For forty two years. I understand why.

Vermont. Green Mountain State.

Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven            13 March 2013

Memories. It’s ten o’clock on a summer morning with the sun still burning off the mist in the valley. I am a guest, a girl mother, with little to do all through the long days except play with my two very young children in the uncut grass of the neglected meadow, full of seeds and wild flowers.

Across an old rutted track and down into the meadow below the house, we three wander slowly with a bear, a ‘Raggedy Ann’ doll and an old blanket to sit on. The wooden Vermont farmhouse behind us is more than a hundred years old, the garden gone wild, abandoned by its settler family and adopted now by academics with holiday plans, seeking halcyon weeks in summer. My husband – clever difficult man – is here to engage in deep philosophical problems with colleagues. Epistemology and the Meaning of Meaning. I feel as though I am part of the child group and the others are the adults. They talk and think, puzzled and fractious and unquiet. I don’t want to enter their intellectual discussions. I just want to be alive in the moment.

The children sit among the tall grasses, warm in the sun; calmly happy, serenely watching beetles and bugs and spiders live their lives for a few moments. It is as though this could be any time in the last three hundred years; we, in our cotton clothes and sunbonnets, except then there would have been work for everyone;  I feel idle. The younger child, unsteady, totters about for a few steps and plumps down on his bottom, laughing. We all laugh with delight, and fall back too and roll about, carefree. Then we sit up looking for flowers in the grass that is taller than we are. Crisp dry grasshoppers jump in arching leaps; some birds – jays or woodpeckers perhaps – call harshly from the woods on the edge of the field.

A river borders the meadow and beyond it is the forest, dark and green and worrying; ridge after ridge of mountains growing pale into the distance, like a Chinese painting. Oh! The lurking woods keep a respectful distance but there’s something faintly menacing about them as though they would move a bit closer if you weren’t looking, like a giant game of Grandmother’s Footsteps, creeping up to stare curiously inside the buildings. The forest left to itself again, is coming back with slender ‘second growth’ saplings reaching for sunlight.

This land belongs to trees, sugar maples and birches, hemlock trees and cedars, millions and countless millions of them. Early settlers had snatched their homesteads and barns and meadows out of the forests for farms so that by the end of the Second World War there were over eleven thousand dairy farms in Vermont but now there are less than one thousand. In the 1970s when we were staying there, strict government regulations in dairy farming hygiene had resulted in the closure of all twenty farms in this valley. Even if they formed co-operatives, the hard-pressed farmers were unable to afford the necessary cooling equipment. Now they are all gone. I recently came across a 1918 publication about the soil and rock types of Windsor County, Vermont which also records the decline of farming even then; a hard life in these mountains; so many disappointments, deserted farms.

The days are long and uneventful; we live in such privileged contentment. One morning we hear the noise of an engine resounding in the mountains long before we can see any vehicle. Then far away, a cloud of dust billows along the road enveloping a truck which jolts and bounces in the ruts like a great clown, dancing – it’s coming along our road; the only vehicle to pass this way for nearly a week.  A flat-bed truck of no particular colour except the dusty earth, perhaps an ex-army vehicle built for rugged terrain comes hurtling along like a ferocious predator – its cabin rounded and bulbous – the driver almost invisible, shielded by the dust, like an alien hidden from view. Slowly we stand up and watch it go by in total silence, as if we are amazed to see it.

Sunlit days in the open air; days of innocence where minutes stretch for hours and are filled with peace; the mornings move slowly into afternoon; pearly evenings into children’s bedtime in quiet wooden bedrooms; rustic simplicity. In all my life since then, I have never known days seem to last so long. These are the ‘Days of Heaven’.



Ice on the inside of the windows

Ice on the inside of the windows        26 February 2013


Another early afternoon walk around the neighbourhood with Willow; it’s very cold and I really don’t want to go out – it’s a ‘duty walk’, exercise for Willow and for me. Brrrr.  Although I’m wearing several layers of clothes, scarf, gloves and a soft furry beret when we come back after thirty minutes, I’m chilled to the bone, feeling so cold that I have to hug a hot water bottle and curl up under my duvet to get warm again.


A long time ago when I was a child we had ‘stone’ hot water bottles at home, with rubber washers on the stone stoppers. They broke if they were dropped but I still have two of them as ornaments in my ‘winter garden’. I’m reluctant to dispose of them because although they were hard, uncomfortable bedfellows, they are quaint reminders of very welcome warmth on winter nights. To prevent them from burning our skin and to keep their heat for longer we would wrap them in an old jumper and push them down to the bottom of the bed to warm our feet. I would put my night clothes on them first, if I possibly could.


I remember that once, our busy mother, had a domestic mishap when she was hurrying to air a bed for a fussy aunt who coming to stay. She pushed a second hot water bottle too vigorously into the bed and smashed the two of them together, soaking the bedlinen. We also had a copper warming pan with a polished wooden handle hanging by the fireplace which occasionally my father would fill with hot embers and – holding it horizontally – would carry it very carefully upstairs. My mother would bustle round him, like an anxious hen. It seemed a crazy adventure, placing hot coals on a bed! 


In those days, before most homes had central heating and the idea of insulation was almost unknown, our bedrooms were often cold in winter. We lived in a draughty Tudor house with flagstone floors downstairs and wide gaps between the floorboards upstairs. When it was windy, draughts would lift up the thin linoleum slightly and rattle it down again. Our iron bedsteads with their sheets and blankets and paisley-patterned eiderdowns were high off the floor and as it was chilly underfoot, we had bedside rugs too. On freezing mornings we would pull our neatly folded underclothes into bed and get dressed under the covers.


We used to get chilblains on our fingers and toes, caused by rapid changes of extreme temperatures and had to put iodine ointment on them in an attempt to relieve the acute itching. Such a contrast with today’s centrally heated houses, slim radiators, thermostatic and remote control programmers; soft light duvets and attractive thermal clothing. In those far-off days our bedrooms were so cold that when we drew back the curtains in the morning, intricate patterns had appeared on the panes overnight; crystal fronds and ferns and swirling leaves.


Ice on the inside of the windows.  

Shining Eyes

Shining Eyes.       24 February 2013


This morning I’m visiting a friend in the country whose terrier puppies are now ready to go to their new homes. I want to see them before they set off, launched confidently into the world. They greet everyone with enthusiasm, tails wagging, bright eyes, plump little bodies wriggling. They’re going to be a great success; very amusing, suddenly collapsing in a heap – lying on each other they fall asleep on a rug – but they soon wake up, alert in an instant, ready to play again, climbing over and nipping each other with their white needle teeth. While I’m sitting in an armchair three of the puppies explore me, charming me with their winning ways.


I’ve left Willow at home, thinking she might be wearied by their inexhaustible energy and when I return she is immediately aware of their smell of course, sniffing me nosily and very attentive, watching me closely as I prepare lunch – hers and mine. Her tail, tirelessly wagging as if to encourage me to feed her soon, makes a rhythmic drumming against a kitchen cabinet door and makes me laugh as she gazes up at me intently with clear eyes.


This reminds me to check out a link I’ve been sent – a TED lecture by the pianist and conductor, Ben Zander, entitled ‘Shining Eyes’ about making an effort to engage positively with life, in contrast with a reluctance to respond or a dull gaze of passivity. Willow and the puppies are among the world’s optimists.



Story:  a man has two teenage sons, one always optimistic, the other, pessimistic. Their father wants to teach them that Life is more balanced than either boy thinks, so he announces a surprise for them both. To show the optimist that not everything in life is pleasant, a huge pile of manure for him to shift is dumped on the drive;  to show the other boy that delightful things can happen unexpectedly, a box marked ‘Fragile – Electronic Equipment’ is delivered by courier.


Seeing the dung outside for his brother, the pessimist is unable to accept his good fortune –“Why would he give me an expensive present and my brother, a pile of manure? It must be a joke.”  He soon realises his mistake when he pushes the unopened box angrily to the floor, spilling and damaging its contents. “I was right. Nothing good happens to me.”


The optimist, having seen the words ‘Electronic Equipment’ on his brother’s present, immediately starts to distribute the manure round the garden, thinking to himself “Father must have put something similar for me, under here.” When he finds nothing underneath, sustained by his natural good humour, he is undeterred.


‘A sunny disposition is worth more than a fortune’: Andrew Carnegie. 


It has been frosty for three days now with bitingly cold winds from the east. This evening there are small flurries of snow as I take Willow out. In the dark I’m aware of an almost silent rush of movement and sweep the beam from my torch across a lawn and into the shrubbery. In the blackness three pairs of eyes gleam in its light. Foxes are watching us, unblinking, motionless; then I see one of them slowly turn its head away to look at something else, like a supercilious teenager, indifferent to our presence. 


Shining eyes are everywhere.

One for Sorrow

‘One for Sorrow’          17 February 2013


Our mother was quite superstitious and had lots of little sayings about the natural world and its phenomena. In general she loved birds and would put food out for them all winter long but she didn’t like magpies because they steal eggs from smaller birds’ nests. Whenever she saw one she would quickly repeat three times “The dove of heaven is the bird of my choice” as a sort of spell against their perceived evil ways. She also taught us a counting rhyme about them: ‘One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy; five for silver, six for gold. Seven for a secret that’s never been told’. Curious folklore.  


Yesterday afternoon when I was resting, I heard a dreadful sound coming from the oak tree at the end of our short drive. Even without getting up, I could see the wild flapping of crows’ black ragged wings; big birds – and so many of them – settling on the branches and flying off again; circling and re-settling and all the while making a horrible din. Gathering and flying and settling; I thought they were coming in to roost and went on dozing.


Later as dusk came, I went downstairs to draw the curtains for evening. Everything was quiet but looking out I saw something lying, dark and motionless on the drive; I thought I must have dropped a glove returning from my walk with Willow. But it was too large for that; I suddenly realised what it must be. I took a bag out with me to wrap it in and found a magpie, recently dead, harried by the threatening crows.


‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’; useless to console myself with Tennyson in this case because the bird was unmarked; its eyes closed; its fine plumage a deep silky blue and the startling white, unblemished. Terrified to death by the sinister combined will of other birds, the magpie seemed to have accepted its fate, its wings neatly folded round its body before it fell.


There it lies now, waiting for the scavenging night foxes, soft breast feathers ruffling a little in the wind. I cannot leave it. I pick it up, its body heavy, solid in my hand, its tail feathers too long for the bag I hold. 


A parliament of owls; a gaggle of geese; a murder of crows. Collective nouns.

I feel strangely unsettled, disturbed by the incident.