There is an emanation from the heart

which cannot be described,

but is immediately felt and puts

the stranger at his ease.

~Washington Irving

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.
It turns what we have into enough...

.........and more.

It turns denial into acceptance,
chaos to order, confusion to clarity.

It can turn a meal into a feast,

a house into a home,

a stranger into a friend.

~Melody Beattie

Don't be satisfied with stories,

how things have gone with others.

Unfold your own myth.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Courage Dear Heart

Some believe it is only great power that
can hold evil in check, but that is not what
I have found. It is the small everyday deeds
of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.
Small acts of kindness and love.
Why Bilbo Baggins?
Perhaps because I am afraid,
and he gives me courage.
~JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit

Over Christmas this year, we had our 5th annual marathon viewing of all three Lord of the Rings, extended versions naturally. Add in three extended versions of The Hobbit, and it made for 24 hours of PJ-wearing, popcorn-munching, viewing pleasure. We did stop to sleep, shower, eat turkey and go to London, but we spent a lot of our holiday traversing Middle Earth.

At the end of the final movie in the Lord of the Rings series, The Return of the King, the elves set sail on the last ship out of Middle Earth, toward the west, where all 'turns to silver glass'. After all of the events in 2016, I wanted to run after them and shout, take me with you!!, but I live on this earth, not middle earth, and there's no escaping with the elves.

Over Christmas and all through the autumn, the pictures coming out of Aleppo, the plight of the refugees in Europe and the political rhetoric back home in the U.S. were all chilling. As strong as the impulse is to put our heads in the sand and ignore it all, I believe we cannot. We can't put love and prayers and support, and especially action, into what we don't even know about. But it's overwhelming all the same.

Until he extends the circle of his
compassion to all living things,
man will not himself find peace.
~Albert Schwietzer

Everywhere we look in our world it seems there's discord, disunity, disharmony. The prefix 'dis' is Latin for apart, or asunder, a reversing force; and it's a force that is feeding wars, hunger, and whole movements of populations. As 2016 dissolves into 2017 and even more discord, there are people who think the coming months will make a superpower great again, and then there are those who think we're being ushered into a dystopian age the likes of which we've not seen before. The truth of those two belief systems might lie somewhere in the middle, but wherever the truth lies, these beliefs are crashing into one another, creating the rockiest ride our planet has seen in a long while.

Courage is the first of all
human qualities because
it guarantees all others.
~Winston Churchill

The bed where Winston Churchill
was born, at Blenheim Palace,

When Winston Churchill was
asked to cut arts funding in
favour of the war effort,
he simply asked,
Then what are we fighting for?

Apparently this quote has been widely
attributed to Winston Churchill but
it isn't something he actually ever
said or wrote. He did write something
though, which echoes this ideal.....

The arts are essential to any complete
national life. The State owes it to
itself to sustain and encourage them….
Ill fares the race which fails to
salute the arts with the reverence
and delight which are their due.

What I do know for sure is that we've been here before. So many times before. And that's what I try to remember every day. What helps me keep the present in perspective is to widen the lens of time, like looking through a camera and taking in the entire scene, rather than one small piece of it. When looking at the present world, if you also look at history/herstory/ourstory, the lens widens instantly. Once you widen the lens of time, it photographs a larger picture beyond wars, disunity, and the follies of man. Seeing a wide canvas you can also see the good that survived, the hope that propelled people onward, and all the learning and love and artistry that never, ever stopped.

Oxford is a city reaching back to the
9th C,  is steeped in history. It
paints a canvas a thousand years wide.

Oxford (or oxen-ford) was a Saxon
and then a Norman town until 1167,
when students first arrived and it
became a centre of learning.

*The Saxon period in England was
from 410AD to 1066AD, when the
Normans conquered Saxon England.

Even though I've always looked at the world via a larger canvas, I'm grateful for the gift of living in Oxford and Great Britain; its history helps give me perspective on the world. Living in Britain, we're surrounded by a millennia, and more, of history; we can breathe it in and revel in it--and I do, every day.

Instead of keeping a focus on just the present, widening the lens to 200, 500, or 1,000 years ago, gives depth and meaning to events taking place right now, in 2017. It also gives hope, because it shows that people made it through the discord of their age, they survived institutions and systems being pulled asunder. They survived tyrants and plagues, wars and unrest. And more than that, people thrived! All of us alive today are a testament to that.

We make our lives out
of chaos and hope. 
And love. 
(Nathan, Hanson, Reichs, Hawley)

Below, the Divinity School,
completed in 1488.
From the 15th C, while wars
waged and disease decimated
outside of the University walls,
Oxford students studied logic,
reason, science, philosophy
and rhetoric here.
They kept the candle of knowledge
burning brightly for all of us to inherit.

When I widen the lens of how I perceive the world to include a broader history, I don't have to go very far. All I have to do is something as simple as looking down at our bedroom floor. Sometimes I curse it because it not only slopes, it also waves up and down. Every piece of furniture is propped up on one or two of the legs, just to keep it from toppling over. But it's made from an ancient oak tree and is 500 years old--the same age as the floor in Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford. If our bedroom floor can survive 500 years of this crazy planet, and it's even crazier people, surely we can.

The floor on the left is in the bedroom where
Shakespeare was born, and on the right our
bedroom floor. Every time I see Will's floor
I feel very, very lucky to be able to walk on
our own floor (as crooked as it is)
and all that history--in my bare feet.

in Stratford, Warwickshire.
Visiting it is a wonder, not only
because of its great age, but because
it brings home the fact that a man,
born in its simple surroundings
nearly 500 years ago, wrote plays
and sonnets that are just as
meaningful today, if not more so.
That someone from 1595 can
reach out to us in 2017, is the kind
of hope I feed on every day.

Our house has survived the 16th and 17th centuries, when civil war plagued England, religion became a weapon, and both Catholics and Protestants were martyred for their faith. Five bishops were burned at the stake at the east end of our street. We also have something called a "priest hole" in our house, where a Catholic priest would hide from soldiers during the Reformation and the upheaval of Catholicism in England. When it became illegal to practice the Catholic faith, household priests were regularly rounded up and jailed, or worse. When you look back into history and see religion being used as a weapon, just like it is today, you see that it's nothing new.

Not only were the Catholic bishops martyred
at the end of our street, it was also on my
birthday. Even my birthday helps put
the present into focus.

Our house has hidden people
in fear for their lives--
and even one who lost his life. 
That gives me daily perspective.

When our kitchen was built in the mid-1800's, the story on the street is that they found a skeleton hidden behind a wall. It was thought to be a member of the Royalist army during England's Civil War (17th C.), when Oxford University was a Royalist stronghold. The townspeople were mostly Parliamentarians supporting Oliver Cromwell and it appears one of them stuck a sword in our cavalier and then walled him up for good measure. That's history for you--and it helps make things today seem not quite so bad (not always, but sometimes).

The brick, Victorian addition to our
16th century house, and hopefully there aren't
any more skeletons hiding in the walls.

Supposedly our cavalier is now ensconced in a box in the Natural History museum a few blocks from us. I'd be lying if I said I've never seen shadows and heard strange things where he was walled up, but not for awhile, so hopefully he's at peace. That's the kind of upheaval and discord that has gone on where we live, on the streets where we walk, in the house we call home. But people from that time carried on. They went on to love, marry, have children, celebrate birthdays, enjoy a warm fire and a meal together, create music, create art, create life. War has never stopped those things. As much as they've tried, tyrants cannot touch the eternal things that make us human.

Do not be daunted by the enormity
of the world's grief. Do justly now.
Love mercy now. Walk humbly now.
You are not obligated to complete the
work, but neither are you free to
abandon it.
~The Talmud

I have another way to reach back (much nicer than skeletons), and link the past with the present. The author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien, once lived on our street with his wife and children at No. 99 Holywell Street. When we first moved into our house, our neighbour told us a wonderful little story that I've never forgotten. Tolkien used to give hand-made birthday cards to the neighbourhood children. He'd compose little verses and fill the cards with the elves and hobbits and wizards he loved to draw. Ever since then, I've had daydreams of finding a shoe-box full of those cards, and have even looked under a floorboard or two, but no luck. I do feel lucky though to have such a strong Tolkien connection where we live. Every day I see some of the things that inspired him and his writing is a part of our landscape.

The University Parks, Oxford......

.....perhaps home to Tolkien's Ents. In
Middle Earth, Ents were a race of
beings resembling trees. Their name
comes from the Saxon word for giant.

Below, the Ents of the University Parks.

Tolkien wasn't just inspired in Oxford, he was also changed by war. He survived the horrors of the WWI trenches and was able to return to Oxford to raise a family, to teach, and to write books. The books telling his tales of Middle Earth have transfixed millions of people over the years, and they sure have made our own Christmas holiday even better. With a widened lens, it's easy to see that the horrific lessons Tolkien learned in the trenches were transformed into a great wisdom, into words like, "There is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for." And, "The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater." 

War is a horrific teacher but it has produced some legendary human beings......or as Elizabeth Gilbert says, "Without Voldemort, Harry Potter is a very ordinary little boy.

No. 99 Holywell Street,
where JRR Tolkien lived
for a time with his family.

In the days after the American election in November, when name-calling, side-taking, and people refusing to simply and quietly discuss things became the norm, my head (like so many others) was spinning. It was a cacophony of snowflakes, libs, conservatives, witch-hunts, blame-shifting, and emotional rants. Emotion had replaced logic, diatribe and rhetoric replaced reason, and feelings replaced facts. It felt like another even darker Dark Ages was descending. To still my mind and calm the dizzying nerves, I would walk through the Bodleian Library's Old Schools Quad every day.

The Old Schools Quad 
and Bodleian Library
in late November, when
Oxford was preparing
for it's thousandth

I'd stand in front of the doors of learning,
one by one, while picturing the students from
centuries ago, going into their lectures,
their discussions spoken in Latin or French,
like shining crows in their long, black
academic gowns--and it gave me hope.

We seem to have an eternal pull toward
knowledge and the expansion of our minds,
and no place represents that better than
Oxford. That pull we have toward greatness
has never been permanently broken. No
matter what has transpired in history, we still
spiral upward, toward greater understanding.

The ink of the scholar is more
sacred than the blood of the martyr.

Education is the movement
from darkness to light. 
~Allan Bloom

Education is the
transmission of civilization. 
~Ariel and Will Durant

Even with all of the sweeping history and movement of mankind through time, there is more we have to do to keep perspective beyond widening the lens, or looking at the 'macro-world'. We also need to narrow the lens down to our micro-world, down into the daily lives of the very real and very human people we share our individual world with. 

Gaining perspective becomes about having the ability to toggle back and forth between the macro and the micro, the wide and the narrow lens, because it's in the middle where we run into trouble. This is where all of our modern world gets jumbled into one big basket--popular culture, social media, ongoing wars, babies being born and babies being bombed, animals being loved and cared for, along with animals becoming extinct. What a cacophony the middle is.

Nothing represents the middle world
(not to be confused with Tolkien's
Middle Earth) more than Black Friday,
which tragically migrated to the UK.

I only spend as much time as I absolutely have to in the middle world. Just enough to take a pulse, get some vital signs, do a quick assessment (once a nurse, always a nurse). Then I slowly back out the door, go out to our garden, talk to our chickens, go for a walk, or make our home beautiful for our guests.

If I'm not trying to keep a wider vision of the world, I'm focusing on the immediate world around me--but always toggling back and forth. I find meaning and wisdom in the wider lens, but in the narrow/micro view, I find peace, grace, sustenance, happiness and laughter. It's where the little acts of kindness live, where Gandalf's "small, everyday deeds" are, where the tender mercies are found, and where our hearts connect to other hearts and souls. It's where hope, faith and love live.

Nature gives succour and
sustenance like nothing else.

"Hope" is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all....
~Emily Dickinson, c.1861

Peace I leave with you;
my peace I give you.
I do not give to you as
the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be
troubled and do not be afraid.
~John 14:27

They will have no fear of bad news;
their hearts are steadfast,
trusting in the Lord.
~Psalm 112:7

O, money can't buy the delights of the glen,
Nor Poetry sing all its charms:
There's a solace and calm ne'er
described by the pen
When we're folded within Nature's arms! 
~James Rigg, "Nutting Time," 
Wild Flower Lyrics and Other Poems, 1897

I believe that living happily, peacefully, and joyfully in our world today takes a deep maturity and a strong sense of self as we relate to others. It also takes the ability to adjust our stance as though we're on a rocking ship, as events and history unfold around us at an alarmingly fast rate. It takes courage to toggle back and forth from the different perspectives. Courage to really see and face the world as it is, courage to learn the lessons of history, and mostly courage to reach out a hand to someone else so that no one is left behind. I also believe that if there's one thing humans have in spades, it's courage. We are living, breathing, laughing, singing, creating proof of that. As we move deeper into 2017, I'll quote my/our beloved lion Aslan, Courage dear heart.

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;

Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Christmas in Oxford

Christmas is a season for
kindling the fire for
hospitality in the hall,
the genial flame of
charity in the heart.
~Washington Irving

Illuminated bicycles fly high
over Oxford's High Street.

Oxmas Week
Christmas begins a little early in Oxford, usually by the third week of November, when the students are preparing for the end the Michaelmas Term and soon to be heading home for the Christmas holiday. The last week of the autumn term is also called "Oxmas Week", when the students condense all of their holiday merry-making into one week. Advent carol services and special Christmas dinners are repeated thirty-eight times over in each of the colleges that make up Oxford University. Christmas trees suddenly are everywhere--college quads, dining halls, junior common rooms, and the Bodleian Library.

To top it off, even the most academic and serious students will wear a Christmas jumper, each more colourful and outrageous than the next. The ironic wearing of the hideous Christmas jumper has found its spiritual home in Oxford.

It's difficult not to become infected with the spirit of Oxmas week--which is fine by me. These are traditions and customs that go back centuries and they spill out onto all of Oxford. For me, Christmas used to begin with Thanksgiving in the U.S., but now it begins with Oxmas week.

The earth has grown old
with its burden of care, 
But at Christmas it
always is young.... 
~Phillips Brooks

A Christmas tree lights the
quad of Magdalen College.

The tree lighting the main
entrance of Trinity College,

A beautiful moment just
before a carol service
was about to begin in
the chapel of New College.

The public is welcome at
most of the carol services
in the college chapels.

The Oxford 
Christmas Light Festival

Oxford's public Christmas celebrations begin at the end of November with a Christmas Light Festival. This year it was held from the 25th to the 28th of November. If you're planning a trip to Oxford next year, why not make it a Christmas holiday visit? Click on any of the links provided below to find out more. 

2013 Parade of Lights, 
High Street, Oxford
More information at: 

Oxford's Christmas Market

Broad street hosts over 75 stalls, 
selling hot drinks, festive food, gifts, arts, 
and crafts. There's also a Victorian 
carousel and a children's area
with Santa and his reindeer in
residence at certain times.

This year's schedule was:

Thursday-Saturday - 10am to 8pm
Sunday-Wednesday - 10am to 7pm
Sunday, Dec. 18th - 10am to 6pm

Broad Street


Oxford Christmas Market

The German inspired wooden huts line Broad Street, decorated with greens and lights. Every few feet there is mulled wine or cider, and good things to eat. I love that I can walk home from the grocery store or bank, and stop for a mulled wine on a chilly winter afternoon, just as the sun sets. There are handmade gifts, vintage wares and Christmas decorations. For shopping small and shopping local, a Christmas market is the perfect place.

This is the 'Jack' ornament I bought
from the market hut below. It's a
perfect likeness, so he had to
come home with me.

I don't think it's possible to walk through
a Christmas market and not feel full of
good cheer and hope for mankind.

Whatever else be lost among the years,
Let us keep Christmas still a shining
thing; Whatever doubts assail us, or
what fears, Let us hold close one day,
remembering Its poignant meaning
for the hearts of men. Let us get back
our childlike faith again. 
~Grace Noll Crowell

There are warming wool hats....

....and bright baubles full
of Christmas cheer.

There's a bustling, festive
spirit, all surrounded by
Oxford's timeless beauty.

Oxford's Covered Market

The Covered Market in Oxford, which is between Market Street & the High Street, and Cornmarket & Turl Street, has been serving Oxford continually since 1774. It still houses the butcher, the baker and even the candlestick maker, but florists, a cake shop, cafes, jewellery and charity shops have been added. Christmas is the best time of the year in the Covered Market.

A post-box for mailing letters to
Father Christmas, with the scent
of fresh Christmas trees in the air.

By the time Christmas rolls around,
the rafters are filled with turkey, duck
and geese; while venison and boar
hang by the butcher shop doors. 
Sometimes I have to pinch myself to
make sure I haven't travelled back
in time--to the time of Dickens,
Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.

"Do you know the Poulterer's, in the next street but one, at the
corner?" Scrooge inquired. 
"I should hope I did," replied the lad. 
"An intelligent boy!" said Scrooge. "A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they've sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? Not the little prize Turkey; the big one?" 
"What, the one as big as me?" returned the boy. 
"What a delightful boy!" said Scrooge. "It's a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!" 
"It's hanging there now," replied the boy. 
"Is it?" said Scrooge. "Go and buy it."
         ~Charles Dickens, 'A Christmas Carol'

The Cake Shop window starts filling up with
festive cakes by mid-November. Whenever
I walk by the shop, there are lots of noses,
young and old, pressed up against the glass.

Out and About in Oxford

One of the very best things about Britain
are the pubs and Oxford's pubs are as they
should be--ancient, reminiscent of another
 time, full of good cheer. A warming drink,
a good conversation, and soft lamplight
make a pub irresistible to walk past--
especially on a cold December evening.

The White Horse Pub,
Broad Street, Oxford

A cup of ale,
A merry tale
Of days of olden time, 
And Christmas good cheer 
To wind up the year 
With glad frolic, 
and fun, and glee. 
~Henry James Slack (1818–1896) 
"Winter's Song,"

Everywhere you look, from November
right through to January, there are posters
for the sublime music of Christmas. Nearly
every night there are carol concerts, Advent 
services, symphonies and the most sublime
of all, Handel's Messiah.

Walking home, even just from
grocery shopping, are sights
 like this--Trinity College
lighting up the evening,
when it's dark by 4pm.

In the right light,
at the right time,
everything is extraordinary. 
 ~Aaron Rosek

If you're lucky enough to visit Oxford
during the time of the December
Full Cold Moon,
its light will guide you home.

The moon over our neighbour New College 
and Holywell Street; and rising above
The University Church of St. Mary.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men
From heavens all gracious King!"
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.
~Words by Edmund Hamilton Sears in 1849
Music by Richard Storrs Willis in 1859

There's so much more to an Oxford Christmas, enough to fill a book one day perhaps. There's the Christmas morning service at Christ Church Cathedral, there's the Oxford City carol-sing-along, led by the Lord Mayor at the town hall, there are the lights that hang over all the shoppers on Cornmarket, the High, and Queen Street. Then there's the Christmas panto at the Oxford Playhouse. This year's panto is 'Cinderella', and we have tickets for Friday night. We'll go to afternoon tea at the Randolph Hotel first and then walk down the block to the playhouse.

Maybe for me, that describes Christmas in Oxford best of all. It's walking through the Christmas market or the Covered Market, walking home under the full moon, Christmas music in college chapels or the Sheldonian Theatre, pubs with hot drinks and warm smiles, a special Christmas tea at the Randolph Hotel, Christmas shopping in small shops and local stores, and then carrying it all home surrounded by Oxford's beauty. 

It's a Christmas of a different sort. No malls, no traffic, no rushing, no big gift buying (since we have to carry everything home)--it's almost a Christmas from another time, but not just because of where we live. It's also the Christmas of our choosing. You don't have to fly thousands of miles to experience this--it's something you can choose. It's looking for small & meaningful gifts, it's focusing on good food and good times with loved ones, it's choosing to stop and breathe while listening to Christmas music. In essence, it's taking Christmas one breath at a time--and that can belong to anyone.

Christmas is not as much
about opening our presents
as opening our hearts.
~J.L.W. Brooks

Merry Christmas from Oxford.
Stuart and I hope to see you
in the city of dreaming spires
in the New Year~2017.