Blessings #168 – Listening

I’m part of the headphones generation. I rarely travel anywhere without a set of them somewhere about my person. I have multiple pairs of them, there’s the ones I wear when I want to cancel out the rest of the world, there’s another pair I wear when it’s important to hear some level of background noise. When I work from home there’s nearly always music playing.

All of this noise – but I’m not really listening.

Recently I’ve been trying to learn how to listen, really listen.

Listen to the humming sound that my home makes when no-one is home. Hearing the central heating awaken and go back to sleep. There’s always a click from the radiator in the kitchen a few seconds after it starts up.

Listen to the rustling sound that the hawthorn hedge at the bottom of my garden makes when it’s windy. And when it’s really windy the sound of next-doors silver birch rubbing against the fence between the two gardens.

Listen to my breathing (panting) as I cycle to work. Hearing how it changes from street to street and hill to hill.

Listen to the different tone of my footsteps as I walk around the woods. Squelch, squelch, tramp, tramp, squelch (at the moment).

Listen to the rhythm of my fingers on the keyboard as I type. And the click of the mouse as I run it around the desk.

It’s amazing what you can hear when you listen. I’ve been trying to savour this mundane sounds.

I have to be honest though, the sounds of the washing machine still drives me mad.

If listening sounds like a terribly dull thing to you perhaps this talk will inspire and challenge you:

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

Blessings #145 – Tree Skeletons

I love this time of year when the trees have dropped their leaves and have exposed their skeletons.

Preston SunsetIf you look through my photostream on Flickr you’ll find a multitude of pictures  that either have them as the central feature or use them to frame the scene. I’ve created a set for them just to see how many there are.

I think it’s the intricacy that they expose from trunk to bow from bow to branch and from branch to stick and twig. Each one of them constructed in a unique and fascinating way. In the summer you can only really see the leaves on the outside, while these are also wonderful, there’s something fascinating about seeing the skeleton.

Sometimes I look at a particular tree and  ponder the reason that made a particular branch take the route that it’s taken. Whatever caused it to bend and climb in that particular way? Why did that bow shoot off in that direction?

Levens SnowAt other time I wonder about the people who’ve climbed a particular set of bows. I think about the history that this skeleton has seen. I image which route would be best to scale the heights. Every now and then I decide that it’s time to climb myself.

These skeletons are also the promise of a season yet to come. They may be skeletons now, but soon a story of new life will start to unfold. These woody branches will soon be heavy laden with leaves and even fruit. The birds will become more active and build their nests. Eggs will be laid and chicks fledged. As time goes on, of course they will be returned to there skeletal state.

These trees go through a cycle and they know what to be doing in which season. You don’t see a tree full of leaves in the winter, and a skeletal tree in the summer is a dead tree. The trees seem quite comfortable with this, they aren’t constantly trying to fight the elements like we do. They know the rhythm of the seasons and how to live within it.

For everything there is a season,
     a time for every activity under heaven.

This little video does a wonderful job of showing the cycle of the seasons.

Count Your Blessings #144 – McVitie’s Chocolate Digestives

Just saying the words makes me salivate – McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive. Not just “Chocolate Digestive” but “McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive”.

From Red to WhiteLots of other people do chocolate digestives but there is only one chocolate digestive worthy of the name McVitie’s.

Every super-market that I go into has a generic version of the chocolate digestive, but none of them quite make the grade. They’re just biscuits, there’s something about a McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive that lifts it above the others.

Sitting in my home office look out as the rain gently washes the snow into a grey mush of sludge and ice my heart is warmed by a cup of coffee and a McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive. There is something wonderfully homely about the taste of a McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive. I’ve eaten them all of my life and I suppose that the smell, the taste, even the look of them connects me with periods in my life long since forgotten.

I know that some people regard a dunked chocolate digestive as the pinnacle of culinary excellence, but I’m a purest, if something is delightful on its own, why add to it.

Sue makes a wonderful Bonoffee Pie with chocolate digestives as the base. Wonderful as this is, there’s something in me that feels that this is a waste of perfectly good biscuits.

McVitie’s Chocolate Digestives – a British tradition that we should be proud of and a blessing I am privileged to be able to participate in.

The only problem is – one never seems to be enough.

Count Your Blessings #138 – Buttercups and Dandelions

As spring moves into summer here in Lancashire we get two glorious golden shows in the fields and meadows around. Dandilion

First it’s the turn of the Dandelion popping up almost overnight, bursting into bloom for a few days, transforming into balls of seeds that explode into a passing breeze.

The Dandelion is followed by the Buttercup. A different golden glow spreading across the open fields thousands upon thousands of them.

I remember the times as a child when we used to pick the Buttercups and hold them under our chins to see if we loved  butter. We never noticed that the result was always the same. We used to blow the Dandelion heads pretending to tell the time – blow, one o’clock, blow, two o’clock.

Later on the buttercups are joined in the fields by the tall grasses and they dance together in the passing wind. In teams they sway from side to side making patterns in the meadow their heads swaying around like a merry drunk.

Out in the open countryside these bringers of spring and summer colour are gloriously at home and in their place.

In my garden it’s a different matter, here they are not fabulous meadow flowers, here they are weeds.

My garden isn’t a meadow, my garden is my garden. This is not the place for the Dandelion or the Buttercup, but that doesn’t stop them trying. The Dandelion still thinks that the gap between the paving is a good place to grow, the Buttercup feels that same about my lawn. Here they don’t grow to anything like their full potential, here in my garden they are mutants stood on or cut down. They are disfigured by the restrictions that I place upon them, or the environment that they have chosen. The only thing that can be done with them is to cut them out and remove them.

The plants are exactly the same – it’s the place that has changed.

So many times in my own life I’ve been in the wrong place, sometimes physically, but also mentally and spiritually. I’ve been in the place of restriction or the place where I have been cut down. I’ve placed myself in a garden when I should have been in the open fields.

We aren’t plants growing wherever the seed landed, we have the blessing of choice. We can choose where we are going to grow and if we make the wrong choice we can change to another place. Sometimes we need the help of a higher power to move us, but the choice is ours to make.

In some areas of my life I currently feel like I have moved into a place of restriction and I need to do something about it. There’s no point in me sitting here complaining about it I need to do something, I can make the change.

Other areas of my life feel like they were made for me and the remarkable thing is that many of these places are not the places I would have chosen if it weren’t for the lessons that I learnt in the places of constraint. So even in that place there are lessons to be learnt.

The Dandelion and the Buttercup are both wonderful flowers but they need to be in their place, and so do we.

Count Your Blessings #33 – The Smell of Burning Wood

Lancaster Canal

Over the weekend Sue, Emily and myself (Jonathan was away on a youth weekend) went for a walk along the Lancaster Canal. It was one of those Sunday afternoon walks, which for us means – short.

While we were walking a barge passed us. I love to see barges. This one had something extra though. He was burning his log stove.

The smell of burning wood always brings memories flooding back. All sorts of memories.

When I was young we had a real fire at home. It was really a coal fire, but it burnt wood just as well. We had central heating so we didn’t need to light it for the warmth, we lit it for the experience.

Lighting the fire always bought with it a sense of achievement, because everything that we burnt we had worked to gather.

People around us knew that we burnt wood (because they could smell too) so every time they were doing something with a tree in their garden they knew that if they asked us we would come and do it for them on the condition that we took the wood. This was in the days before the health and safety people really took a hold on our society. We didn’t use chain saws, we used a bow-saw. Sometimes this was a one man operation but often required two of us; one on either end and loads of teamwork. My Dad also understood the theory of pivots. Most people wanted the tree out – roots and all. Having first attached a rope to the top of the trunk we would often chop off the branches of a tree; leaving the main trunk. We would then proceeded to dig the tree out pulling on the rope to make sure that it fell the right way. Every now and then one of us (usually Stephen, my brother, or me) would climb up the trunk to provide a bit more leverage. I remember Stephen being up one particular tree when there was an almighty crack and the tree came down with a thud. We both learnt when to jump. In modern speak we would call these occasions male-bonding times; we were just having fun.

When I was a child the popular Sunday afternoon activity was to go walking along the East Yorkshire coastline. We would often use this as an opportunity to collect drift wood. Drift wood burns in a different way to other woods because it contains loads of salt; this makes it cackle and hiss, but it also makes it glow blue and violet. One time I remember us biting off a bit more than we could chew and carry this huge log between us for what seemed like miles only to find that we couldn’t fit it (and us) in the car. There’s only so much you can get in a Morris Marina.

Saturday’s were reserved for a different type of fun – the allotments. We had two. For some reason which I have never understood (because you don’t ask those questions when you are younger) there were at opposite ends of Beverley; where I was bought up. You can’t have an allotment without having a fire. There is always something to burn. Even if there wasn’t we would make sure that there soon was. In the Autumn a fire wasn’t just fun, it was essential I remember sitting in front of it trying to warm my hands up so that I could feel them again. An Autumn fire brings another delight – fire baked potatoes. There really is nothing like the smoky, nutty taste of a potato straight of the embers.

We have a chiminea in the garden these days which burns reconstituted wood because it’s too smoky with real wood. It doesn’t quite smell the same but the memories are still as powerful.

The joy of a wood fire seems to have passed down the generations too. Jonathan always has a story to tell about the fire whenever he returns from Scout Camp.

Smell is a powerful sense. The way that it connects together memories is a real blessing.