A Word in Passing

There are two places in my world where I would wish to be.

The first is a seashore, a mile of firm wet sand beneath my feet, a spray-loaded westerly gale in my face, and white-caps marching in military file upon the rocks. To stand before the might of nature and feel her snatching at my toes: to be for an instant at one with the primal power that speaks to us all, had we the ears to listen, these are the sights and sounds and sense of glory for me.

The second place within my heart is a quiet wood, among placid deciduous trees where tiny sunshine sprays of summer heat slip in between the leaves and birds provide quiet music to a percussion of breeze-stirred leaf and twig. A different perfection this, to sit upon some ancient bench beside a tripping forest stream, watching time drift past me into nothingness.

In either place, alone – for at the last Nature is our one true friend – I would gladly meet my fate. If I could my quietus make from earth to oblivion with such an image imprinted in my soul I would pass through the gate without fear.

When I watch the brief lives of our smaller cohabitants on this planet pass before me, expired in little more than a season, or a year, or ten, I reflect that the one true advantage we have gained over them all is comfort. Churchmen may sanctify life, politicians may play with it, but we normal mortals gain only by having food on our table, a place away from the snow, and the ability to express and resolve pain: and yes, it is right that we should bestow those gifts upon our brother species, and it is charitable to do so, where we have the means, so even when we feel the need to satisfy our carnivorous appetites we afford some dignity to the hordes we kill. If we count ourselves as ‘civilized’ we try to make death quick and painless, for every species but our own.

Somehow we have allowed ourselves to be persuaded by an argument that human life is different to that of the other animals that are forced to co-exist with us; that we are made ‘in the image of God’ and therefore a special case. We have taken the simple truth of death as an ending and made a science of an improbable land beyond it; and from that science derived a plethora of reasons why we should delay and protract our own death in a way that, if we observed it practiced upon an animal, we would denounce as gross cruelty.

I have my views about religion. It has been responsible for the genocide of millions yet we still espouse it in one or other of its forms, whilst I regard it as the greatest perversion of thought to be visited on mankind. Our greatest gift, on the other hand, is not a theoretical, but a real victory over death. We can end life, terminate it without pain. We should feel free to reject the sorrowful protestations of the former and joyfully sanction the latter.

If I wish it, and of course only if I freely wish it, I should be allowed my final hour without pain, dreaming of that seashore, or resting in that wood. Rejecting all peripheral arguments about family pressures and financial complications I should retain that essential right. By simply gaining agreement that medicine is primarily about mercy, at a stroke I would save treatments and bed-space needed for those with hope, rather than wasting them upon my losing battle. The timing would be mine. I would give my relatives peace, and leave my life as I have lived it.

I believe that, given a vote, an overwhelming majority would agree with me, and at last even the great and the good seem to be coming round to acceptance. After all, we take willingly all the other benefits medicine can give us – why not bestow the freedom upon us to use this last one?

Mother’s Day – A Matter of Family Values

In my country, we have Mothering Sunday.   That’s today.

It’s the fourth Sunday in Lent, if anyone is interested in the jigsaw puzzle of the St. John of the ladderChristian calendar, and it remembers St. John of the Ladder, or St. John Climacus (Climacus – climb – ladder; gettit?  Don’t you just love Latin?).  It was once called Laetare Sunday, and is variously still known as Refreshment Sunday or Rose Sunday.  The latter because, apparently, of a golden rose traditionally sent by the Pope to Christian sovereigns.  Why?  Because Wikipedia says so, that’s why.

These days, Christian sovereigns are probably sick of an ever-growing stack of golden roses:  the pot in the royal throne room (the one just beneath the self-portrait of George W. Bush) is likely to be over-brimming with the things.   As for refreshment Sunday, that’s intended to mean refreshment of religious vows, rather than setting up a canteen in the vestry – or so I’m told.  Anyway, moving on.

In secular terms, as our beloved Archbishop is fond of saying, Mothering Sunday has simply become Mother’s Day, and though its origins are different to the American version, the essence of the festival is much the same.

It’s the day the chickens come home to roost.

For our grown-up chickens have a duty that must be fulfilled.  Our door must be visited, flowers must be presented, platitudes offered.

“Sorry, I know it’s not much this year, Mum.  We’re seriously short of money. What with the alterations to the house, the new Jacuzzi and Amanda’s kitchen makeover, there’s not much left to go round.”

“You’ll be planning your budget really carefully, then?”

“Yes.  That’s what the weekend in Florence was all about.  Just sitting down in a nice Trattoria with some wine and talking it over.”

‘I don’t suppose the 5K your father lent you entered your thinking?’  No, that’s a question that remains unasked; more because you fear the answer, than the risk of killing the conversation.

As for ourselves, we are past the age when we have mothers of our own, so Mother’s Day represents no major digression from our usual Sabbath routine.  Were we church-goers it might mean a service in a church where the faithful have made a bit of an effort:  a few flowers, some of what only a Christian congregation can call ‘gaiety’.  As it is, all we have to sacrifice is our sleep.  Rising at the crack of dawn is strongly advisable, because the progeny will be queuing at the end of the road waiting for sunrise.

The first knock comes at seven am.

“Hello Dad – not too early, is it?”

“My, those flowers look nice.”  (The all-night garage always raises its act for Mother’s Day).

The next knock comes at eight-thirty.

“Hello, Mummy, you look a bit pale.  Are you ailing?”

“Lack of sleep, dear.  My, those flowers look nice.”  (Discretion demands you conceal the first bouquet because the second one is likely to be identical).

By ten o’clock the fog of children will have dispersed and life will have returned to normal.   A day of creative flower-arranging beckons while we try to analyze our success-rating with our offspring (tricky, this one:  do we regard the very earliest arrival as the most ardent, or simply the one who wants to get the onerous event over soonest?)  and express our admiration for the innate sense of timing involved.  The earlier visitor will always contrive to be gone before the second arrives, because they do not ‘get on’ with one another.

What then, if anything, does Mothers Day signify – for us, the ex-parents, the holders of the torch everyone is waiting so eagerly for us to put down?  Enjoyment of a traditional family day when those we withstood for eighteen or so childhood years return to haunt us, briefly; or merely another clutter of cards, a few more needlessly sacrificed trees?   Or something in between?   Do the fruits of our loins observe the tradition because they want to, because they feel that need to reconnect to their roots, or rather through a desire to check that we haven’t sold the Ming vase that sits in their half of the will?

It is hard to give answers.  A wise owl on one shoulder might express the opinion 0wl 1owl 2that there are too many days in a year when family is meant to honor its obligations to its adjacent generation, whilst the wise owl on the other might claim that family unity is the cement that binds society together, and therefore cannot be reinforced too much.  (At which point I might remind myself that certain Sicilian families of recent history were very strong on the use of cement in resolving family issues).

My solution?  I accept what I cannot change.  I do not seek the answers.  After all, these shoulders are big enough for two owls:  why put one in a position where it has to peck the eyes out of the other – and which owl would win?

Which of our prodigal children will stay long enough to convince us they are happy to be here? Who will listen rapturously as we regale them with  details of our IBS symptoms, or try to persuade them to join our line-dancing class?  Who might even stay to lunch?

Ah well, tick the diary for another year.  Then cast forward to their next return to the fold – about a week after my birthday, perhaps.

Resolutions

“Time tae greet the New Year, Freddy!”  My friend raised a glass.  “What’re ye havin’?”4565034003_d465a7a7c8

Now Scotsmen have a reputation for meanness.  As generalizations go it is not without some substance, but a curious contrariety tends to occur around about the sixth whisky.  Thereafter, from whiskies seven to fourteen the generosity curve steepens logarithmically.  After fourteen it is hampered by incoherence.  I judged my friend to be at around nine – just entering the spontaneous hugging stage.

“No thank you.  I’ve given up.”   I cannot doubt the pall my words cast upon the assembled party-goers.  Silence fell.  Someone turned off the music.

“Given up the drink? Ye’ll nivver do it, Hin. Ye must be mad!”

He was right, of course.  He is right.  Ninety percent of New Year’s resolutions barely survive to twelfth night, although abstinence from alcohol has a better chance perhaps than stopping smoking, travelling more, losing weight, ceasing to swear, or watching less television.  Why?  Because as a dutiful Scot (well, I do have some ancestry in that direction) I am honor-bound to forgo sobriety entirely between Christmas and Hogmanay.  I therefore float into the latter in a sufficiently inebriated state to survive a Haggis, if someone deems it necessary to feed me one, or even to fully misunderstand why they’re hitting that damn great bell twelve bloody times.  So I can hit the ground running.  I am able to draw upon my reserve tanks until the 3rd January at least without another drop passing my lips.   Thereafter it gets harder.

I discussed the problem with my Scots friend over a Coca-Cola:  not a subject that seemed to interest him unduly but it helped me to take my mind off the fumes from the room, his glass, and him. It also distracted me from ‘Dead March in Saul’ which some wag had unearthed and put on the sound system.

“Can ye no see this is the time o’ year for drinkin’?”

“Is there a time of year for not drinking?”  But he had a point.   We are delving into deep midwinter, when a sallow sun can scarcely raise strength to crank itself over the horizon for seven hours, and the rain only ceases when the snow begins.  The wind is a wild rider, Odin’s cart is heard to creak between the gallows trees and Thor’s hammer cleaves the sky.

All right, I’m getting a little carried away.  We don’t have gallows anymore and those clashing sounds have nothing to do with battle at Valhalla:  Ragnarok is more likely to occur at a football match these days, isn’t it?  But you get the idea.

We are embarking upon three months of dark boredom interspersed with moments of terror.  The ship of night has to carry us all the way through to March with absolutely no motivation for a stroll on deck and with sporadic cringing fear as we listen to the wind deconstructing our roof or watch the river come through the back door.  Can there be a worse time to stop smoking?  Is there any other season which competes with television for our attention less successfully?  Is travel a temptation, given snowdrifts, high wind at the airport, or the discovery that the rain in Spain falls mainly on you?  And yes, even the Riviera can be cold.

Do we wonder then, why abstinence in such conditions proves so hard to maintain?  Party music is playing, glasses are rattling, food – wondrous, odorous food – is nature’s way of fighting the cold, and it looks so good; it tastes so sweet, it tempts, it flirts outrageously, it beckons…taken early, your resolution might survive the Week of the Leftover Turkey, but thereafter?

Twelfth night, then:  outside, the wind is blowing, the window panes are laced with snow.   Inside, there is laughter:  harsh and defensive maybe, a little fearful possibly, but laughter nonetheless.  Inside there is music to drown out the night.   The smiling golden liquid glistens in the bottle, waiting to pour free.

“Will ye no just have a dram o’ this single malt, Freddy?  It must’ae been a fine year, this!”

“No.   Well, I shouldn’t.  I promised not to, you know.   I said, didn’t I?  But then, I suppose just the one wouldn’t hurt.”

“Would it?”