The Christmas lights are no mistake because on 26th December 1815, Charles Lamb was sitting by the fire, writing to his friend the explorer Thomas Manning who is in China. Since the Universal Postal Union had not yet been organised, indeed the Penny Post was still 25 years in the future, Lamb feels unsure about the fate of his letter …
I don’t know why I have forborne writing so long. But it is such a forlorn hope to send a scrap of paper straggling over wide oceans. And yet I know when you come home, I shall have you sitting before me at our fireside just as if you had never been away. In such an instant does the return of a person dissipate all the weight of imaginary perplexity from distance of time and space! I’ll promise you good oysters.
Lamb was a good letter writer, although he had periods of silence with correspondents including Coleridge and Wordsworth. I can only lay claim to the fits of silence when people might feel neglected by me! I set out to be a better letter writer this last Lent; not altogether successfully. But more letters did get written! Let’s see if I can’t carry on with writing more, after all I don’t have to worry about scraps of paper straggling over wide oceans. Emails arrive in Africa almost before I have typed them!
Who’s hoping for a letter from you?
from The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, 1796-1820, edited by E. V. Lucas.
Does Alfred Lord Tennyson look like a gardener in that velvet jacket and brilliantly laundered shirt? I did wonder. William Allingham went to visit him at his home on the Isle of Wight on this day in 1867 and committed these reflections to his diary.
Farringford. Tennyson and I busied ourselves in the shrubberies, transplanting primroses with spade, knife and wheelbarrow. After dinner T. concocts an experimental punch with whisky and claret — not successful. Talks of Publishers, anon of higher things. He said, ‘I feel myself to be a centre — can’t believe I shall die. Sometimes I have doubts, of a morning. Time and Space appear thus by reason of our boundedness.’
We spoke of Swedenborg, animals, etc., all with the friendliest sympathy and mutual understanding. T. is the most delightful man in the world to converse with, even when he disagrees.
To my inn, where I woke in the dark, bitten, and improvised two lines —
Who in a country inn lies ill at ease
On fozy feathers filled with furious fleas.
On 1 February Allingham had noted:
To step outside the human limitations is not granted even to [a poet]. The secret is kept from one and all of us... A poet's doubts and anxieties are more comforting than a scientist's certainties and equanimities.
At the end of this week a certain garden will feature in our reflections. Let's see if we can't tidy our own patches between now and Easter, or buy in a few pots of bulbs, primroses or pansies to celebrate the new life promised through Easter.
They came slowly along the hospital corridor; she leaning on his arm and balancing the rest of her tiny weight on a sturdy surgical walking stick. At the door to the treatment room they said goodbye and he sat opposite us in the waiting room. A conversation sprang up, helped, perhaps, by our being in a quiet corner.
As he talked to us with the gentle old local accent, he was arranging the things his wife of fifty years would need on her return: shoes, a sip of water, coat and scarf. Ever alert, he went to meet her as the treatment room door opened, and brought her to her seat, helping her to sit down, bending to change her slipper socks for outdoor shoes, making sure she was comfortable. It was her turn to join the conversation.
‘Just chit chat,’ said Mrs T later, ‘but chit chat can be important.’
Indeed. We did not consciously avoid discussing cancer, but talk of the journey home, of the imminent end of her treatment and her husband’s long daily walks took us out of the windowless, plastic-walled waiting room to the world outside. And beyond.
‘Someone above is looking after us through all this’, she said.
Someone down below was the means of that happening for her, and it was beautiful to see. Only later did I realise it was Epiphany, God made manifest. And someone down below was there in that sunless spot for me, as she ever is, in sickness and in health.
In centrally heated, 21st Century England it’s easy to forget how comforting a fire can be. Not to mention how much work one can entail. This little 1880s house once had three hearths downstairs – one for the kitchen which was to heat the servant girl’s room above. The other two bedrooms each had a fireplace. Plenty of work hauling all that coal up and ashes down the stairs. No more of that, but we can relax around the woodburning stove, or once a year, by this thermally inefficient open fire.
In 1806 Mary Lamb was writing to her younger friend, Sarah Stoddard, who had a few major family and personal matters to sort out at some distance from London, before Rowland Hill’s Penny Post made letter writing cheap and reliable.
Do write soon: though I write all about myself, I am thinking all the while of you, and I am uneasy at the length of time it seems since I heard from you … and this second winter makes me think how cold, damp, and forlorn your solitary house will feel to you. I would your feet were perched up again on our fender.
The fender is a low barrier between the fireplace and the floor of the room, often at a good height for warming the toes.
This story made me wonder how often the one who came to bring fire to the earth sat around an open fire with his disciples, how much of his more intimate teaching was given that way. I shall have to re-imagine some of the Gospel passages next time they come up.
Mary Lamb to Sarah Stoddard, 14 March 1806, The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, 1796-1820, edited by E. V. Lucas.
The elderly lady that Arthur and I garden for now lives alone in the house that was her bed and breakfast business. She constantly gave of herself to her family and guests with beautiful food, but now relies on carers to put her meals on the table, because sometimes she forgets important things like eating.
Today we were talking about this experience of giving back to God some of our faculties in old age and being cared for. ‘That is true,’ she said, ‘but we can still sit around the table and enjoy a cup of tea and good company. That is good, thank you for coming to see me.’
Hope! You might well think it’s in short supply these days, with climate change and all the storms, with wars and threats of war, and terror and division. We can only do what we can, where we can. The Irish Chaplaincy was established to do what it can, where it is needed in England. Here comes a Hope-full story. As ever, it is told by Eddie Gilmore.
A conversation on a train station platform reminded me of both the power of stories and the power of hope, and it linked as well with a forthcoming campaign of the Irish Chaplaincy.
Francis, who spent his working life as a clinical psychologist in the NHS, told me excitedly that he was reading my book * and I was equally excited to learn that he had bought not just one but three of them (not all for himself)! “I like how you use narrative,” he explained and he recalled how years ago if he had only a short time to get across the details of a ‘case’ with a senior policy-maker he would usually choose to tell a story about the person in question. This was, in his experience, the most effective means by which change might occur.
When I told Francis about our #storiesofhope campaign to be launched in Lent he remarked, “Hope is about the power to make a difference.” Here is the first of those stories of hope. It is Emma’s story, as told by Breda who features strongly in it, and it is told with Emma’s permission.
A Reason to Live
Our wonderful team is currently supporting a 35-year-old woman who in February 2021 just days after her release from prison was airlifted to hospital and put into a medical coma for 28 days. Emma had a rare but serious bacterial infection that affects the tissue beneath the skin and surrounding muscles and organs which resulted in the amputation of her left leg. Her mother was told that her daughter had a 2% chance of survival and was advised to turn off Life Support. She declined! Initially Emma had no use in both arms but this is slowly improving with intensive therapy at a care home; however she struggles with the use of her right leg as it remains severely damaged. Although Emma’s long-term prognosis isn’t yet fully known, what is certain is that she will need lots of care for many months if not years and will have to endure years of skin graft operations.
Thankfully, the team at the Irish Chaplaincy has been able to support both mother and daughter: practically, by advocating on their behalf to statutory bodies; financially, with small donations for telephone credit, travel assistance as well as essential sundries; emotionally, with visits from two of our caseworkers, who are also available at the end of the telephone anytime for either mother or daughter; and spiritually, through prayer. Additionally, with the help of our friends at Caritas, who when they heard Emma’s story provided a mobility scooter, she is now able to get around better, saying, “I feel like I have my legs back.”
Both mother and daughter are extremely remarkable and humbling; truly inspirational and doing their best to stay positive. They are an absolute pleasure to work with and the essence of our Chaplaincy’s purpose. We would be so very grateful for your thoughts and prayers to help them get through this difficult time and to help us continue in the work we love to do in supporting those most in need. Emma said to one of those who came to visit her: “You’ve given me a reason to live.”
The latest chapter in this story is that with the help of the Irish Chaplaincy Emma has managed to secure suitable accommodation where she can live with her mother after her mother is released from an open prison in a few months’ time. Now Emma not only has a reason to live, she also has her own place to live in!
More such stories of hope are coming soon…
* The link is to our review of Eddie’s book, Looking ahead with Hope; Francis was right, it’s a good read!
The eighteenth century poet Edward Young seems to have been a poor sleeper! Did he lie awake in the dark, composing and memorising his verses to write them out in the morning, or keep a lit candle at his bedside, or fumble with flint and tinder box to strike a light? It’s clear that he did not trust solitary philosophising, but counted on discussion with friends to arrive at truth.
And if you raise an eyebrow at calling this post ‘my vocation today’, go back and read about the humble generosity of books. Writers’ vocation can live on after death, awaiting a new companion when a book is opened. Let’s read what Edward Young has to say to us about flesh and blood friendship and its challenges to see through another’s eyes. Lorenzo is an imaginary friend.
How often we talk’d down the summer’s sun,
And cool’d our passions by the breezy stream!
How often thaw’d and shorten’d winter’s eve,
By conflict kind, that struck out latent truth,
Best found, so sought; to the recluse more coy!
Thoughts disentangle passing o’er the lip;
Clean runs the thread; if not, ’tis thrown away,
Or kept to tie up nonsense for a song.
Know’st thou, Lorenzo! what a friend contains?
As bees mix’d nectar draw from fragrant flowers,
So men from friendship, wisdom and delight;
Twins tied by Nature, if they part, they die.
Hast thou no friend to set thy mind abroach?
Good sense will stagnate. Thoughts shut up, want air,
And spoil, like bales unopen’d to the sun.
Had thought been all, sweet speech had been denied;
Speech, thought’s canal! speech, thought’s criterion too!
Thought in the mine, may come forth gold, or dross;
When coin’d in words, we know its real worth."
From " Night Thoughts" by Edward Young.
The other day I called on a friend who had a few worries on her plate, ‘thoughts shut up’ began to ‘disentangle passing o’er the lip’. We draw wisdom and delight from friendship because of the trust between us, the safe space we can offer each other, the chance to reflect on a bigger picture of whatever is worrying us.
Hi, On Monday, we’re celebrating the start of Fairtrade Fortnight with two unique opportunities to hear directly from Fairtrade farmers taking on the climate crisis.During these two completely free online events, farmers from Kenya, Ghana and Peru will answer your questions live. Check out all the details below, and sign up to join us.
#1: Farmers, the documentary: Film screening and Q & A, 7pm UK time, Monday 21 February Fairtrade coffee farmer Caroline Rono stars in this special cut of ‘Farmers Fighting the Global Crisis’. And for this special online screening, Caroline will be joining us live from Kenya to answer audience questions.Actor, director and Fairtrade Foundation Patron Adjoa Andoh hosts the discussion, which focuses in on the impact of climate change for farmers like Caroline. SIGN UP FOR THIS EVENT
#2: Meet Hugo and Bismark: Fairtrade farmers taking on the climate crisis, 1:30pm UK time, Monday 21 February Hugo, a coffee farmer in Peru, and Bismark, a cocoa farmer from Ghana, both live with the reality of climate change. Every day, they are taking on the climate crisis, working hard to build a sustainable future for their community.In conversation with Fairtrade Foundation CEO Mike Gidney, Bismark and Hugo discuss how choosing Fairtrade supports this vital work. They’ll also be answering your questions live. SIGN UP TO THIS EVENT
We hope you can join us on Monday to celebrate the start of what promises to be an extra special Fairtrade Fortnight. Want to see what else is planned for the Choose The World You Want festival? Check out our festival website – new events, discounts, competitions and stories from Fairtrade farmers are being added all the time.Have a great Fairtrade Fortnight,
Campaigns Team, Fairtrade Foundation
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Some people’s vocation goes on past their own lifetime. Think of what we owe to writers from 3,000 years ago and more. This is part of a conversation between Joy Clarkson of Plough magazine and the writer Alan Jacobs, who is speaking here. The whole conversation can be found here, on the Plough website. It is wide-ranging, we could easily have chosen among many other paragraphs as our appetiser. Today the ongoing work of a writer, perhaps long-dead; tomorrow the work of the visual artist.
There is [a] kind of humble generosity to libraries and books. They’re always ready to accommodate themselves to us. We have so much control over our encounters with books. If a book frustrates us, we can walk away. We can never pick it up again. We can take a book and throw it out the door if we want to. We can put it in the trash or we can just put it on the shelf and come back to it later, or we can just devour the whole thing. At times like that, we feel like we’re so caught up that we’re almost not choosing anymore. But we know at the back of our minds that we really do have some control over all of this and, as a result, it lowers our blood pressure.
And it’s a human connection. A book can be an incredibly powerful conversation partner, but it enables us to deal with ideas in our own way and at our own pace. That’s especially important when the ideas are challenging to us or maybe even offensive to us. We can set a book aside, calm down, and come back to it and think about it and think about what our answer is to it.