This poem by Christina Rossetti ought to be set to music; perhaps it has been. These bluebells – they come in white as well – are full of fresh scent, worth getting on one’s knees for, and a word of thanks for the gift might not go amiss. I loved the sound of the sea in the treetops when I was little, but the woods were ‘lovely, dark and deep’ and closer by than the sea.
Gone were but the Winter,
Come were but the Spring,
I would go to a covert
Where the birds sing;
Where in the white-thorn
Singeth a thrush,
And a robin sings
In the holly-bush.
Full of fresh scents
Are the budding boughs,
Arching high over
A cool green house:
Full of sweet scents,
And whispering air
Which sayeth softly:
"We spread no snare;
"Here dwell in safety,
Here dwell alone,
With a clear stream
And a mossy stone.
"Here the sun shineth
Here is heard an echo
Of the far sea,
Though far off it be."
Having just a fortnight before been looking out at snow in the garden, I was thrilled to have the first days of sitting outside in the sun with a cup of tea.
After a couple of busy months with work I’d decided to treat myself to a Friday off at the end of February. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I vaguely thought I might have a lie-in and listen to ‘Desert Island Discs’ in bed. But when I woke at my usual early hour and looked out of the window I was greeted by the radiant sight of a clear and perfectly round moon on its way down behind the distant trees. From the other side of the house I beheld a deep red sky with the sun beginning to rise. This was no morning for lying in bed. I dressed quickly and went into the street to find that nature had completed its stunning spectacle with a frost, whose delicate shapes I always love to see on the cars. With the birds in full voice it was all quite magical.
Being able to eat my breakfast later on at the bottom of the garden in full sunshine was a total joy. I’ve created a sort of spring bulb lawn near the shed, and was in an ideal vantage point to bask in the glory of clumps of snowdrops, yellow crocuses, purple crocuses and mini daffodils. The sunshine was also creating a beautiful sparkling sheen of water drops on the tips of the just beginning to grow grass. I knew what I had to do that day. I was going to postpone the one or two practical jobs in the house I’d thought I might do and instead get on my bike. There’s a long cycle I did many times last year in the spring and summer that takes me out of Canterbury through various woods to the coast at Herne Bay, then along the seafront to Whitstable. It was the first time this year to follow what had become for me quite a sacred course. It was lunchtime when I got to Whitstable and I stopped at ‘V C Jones’, the chip shop where I often went last year with my youngest Sean son when we were out on our rides. I phoned my order in from outside, as has been the procedure in these days! Disappeared now are the words that were chalked last summer in large colourful letters on the pavement outside V C Jones, ‘As Sting sang, Don’t stand So Close to Me’!
I picked up my scampi and chips and went and found a spot on the beach in full glorious sunshine with my back resting against a groyne. I ate slowly and happily, then took a luxurious siesta on the warm pebbles, followed by a little paddle. The sea was very cold but it felt good, also walking in bare feet on the stones and some isolated strips of sand.
The season of Lent is commonly associated with fasting and abstinence. The word itself comes from the Old English ‘lencten’ which means spring season; and it may also be derived from the Old Germanic ‘lango’, long, and be related to the lengthening of the days which occurs most noticeably and wonderfully at this time.
After a year in which many have died of Covid-19, to simply be alive can feel like a bonus. On a day when I could see and hear and smell the annual miracle of new life springing up so spectacularly all around me, it seemed a particular gift.
The Jesuit Gerry Hughes used to say that he imagined God asking him just one question when he died: “Did you enjoy my creation?” At the start of the spring season it’s difficult not to.
I have to say that by no means all of Emily Dickinson’s verse speaks to me; this deceptively simple poem does, though I’m reluctant to analyse it too much and lose it. But ‘docile as a boy’? Sometimes a boy is docile and easily led and the sea can be docile, sometimes. ‘Along appointed sands’, as here in Margate, seen from another poet’s perch, the shelter where Eliot wrote. ‘Obedient to the least command’ does not sound like a statement of fact, more a statement of intent: from a storm-tossed Kent, I pray that the Good Shepherd will lead us beside quiet waters this year of Our Lord 2021.
The moon is distant from the sea, And yet with amber hands She leads him, docile as a boy, Along appointed sands.
He never misses a degree; Obedient to her eye, He comes just so far toward the town, Just so far goes away.
Oh, Signor, thine the amber hand, And mine the distant sea, — Obedient to the least command Thine eyes impose on me.”
Series 2, Love XIII from Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete
I shall delight to hear the ocean roar, or see the stars twinkle, in the company of men to whom Nature does not spread her volumes or utter her voice in vain. Samuel Johnson, in Boswell.
Dr Samuel Johnson had finally seen his Dictionary through the presses, and was about to go back to Lichfield to see his elderly mother. He would then have time for a holiday: this is part of his reply to an invitation to visit friends in Lincolnshire. At the time of posting we did not know if our August holiday would happen, but we can always reach the coast in a few minutes from home.Enjoy August, home or away, and thank God for friends and family.
(from “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell, George Birkbeck Norman Hill)
We pray for all those who work and live from the sea, among them sailors, fishermen and their families.
When he prepared tis month’s prayer intention, Pope Francis cannot have foreseen the hundreds of seafarers who could not get home when their cruise ships were quarantined off shore, passengers gone, wages unpaid, flights home non-existent, welcome on dry land not forthcoming, family contacts eventually by mobile phone, thanks to port chaplains.
But we can pray for them, and for all the sailors and lorry drivers who ferry food and goods around the world and across the Channel, and all those in peril on the sea.
Downstairs in a pandemonium of claws then out into the spring sunshine. T had hardly noticed the weather, being absorbed in collating a report on Random Acts of Kindness between Earthly Species. The chihuahuas had contributed to the field-work, or rather park-work, that lay behind this thesis. They maintained, from a canine perspective, that when a dog looked at a human eye-to-eye, with tongue at half-mast in what some people called a smile, it was the dog initiating the exchange of kindness, not the human who scratched the dog between the ears or under the chin.
It was well drilled into the chihuahuas that they did not enter Peter’s Fish Factory. ‘After all’, said T, ‘You never went near the kitchen in Ossyria.’ ‘As if anyone ever would!’ retorted Alfie. ‘I never knew where they were, and I never wanted to.’ He broke off as T entered the shop, then turned to Ajax. ‘Well done, getting him out of the apartment. He’s spent too long on that report that will never be read. Even if it gets back to Ossyria, it will be suppressed. Random Acts of Kindness would upset the whole system. What’s the point of them in the best of all possible worlds?’
‘Best of all possible worlds? I don’t quite believe that any more.’ Ajax would have said more, but T had come out of Peter’s carrying a big paper bag with a blue fish printed on the side. ‘Beach steps or Winter Gardens?’ asked T. ‘Gardens’, came the reply. Aggressive, hungry gulls were intimidating to lowly chihuahuas, and there was more cover in the gardens. If necessary, a dog could hide under a bench, though not too close to another dog who might fancy the same morsel, or receive a larger whitebait.
The Ossyrian virtues of docility and self-sufficiency had worn thin during the trio’s extended stay on earth. Self-sufficiency, Alfie the Chihuahua reflected, was always an illusion. Back home he had stayed in his pod like a good citizen, accepting without complaint the ten day week’s rota of meals as they arrived through the serving hatch, but with little enthusiasm except on Ninthdays when there was a dish he could actually taste. He was reminded of this flavour when he ate a bagful of cheese and onion crisps, but he very soon realised that the crisps had more taste than ‘Welpow Pie’, and furthermore, that Cheddar cheese was much nicer than the crisps, if bad for a dog’s digestion. A sore tummy once in a while was a price worth paying for getting away from endless grey mush. Alfie, despite being no more than 5% of his Ossyrian stature and weight, was happier living as an earthly dog, even with that annoying Ajax.
Neither of them showed much docility towards the other, T felt. Before the Ossyrian apocalypse he had hunted and eaten many a mongoose-like creature. In a bad light he could almost imagine that a chihuahua was … but he would not let his mind wander too far down that alley, if only because they would read his thoughts.
‘I’m hungry. What about a walk to Peter’s Fish Factory, T?’ projected Ajax. T shuddered; that was a close call! Next time he felt murderous one of them might read his thoughts more clearly. But a walk along the beach promised to be a positive distraction from snarling and knocking into the furniture. ‘I must buy Mature Doggy Megabytz next time’, he promised himself.
We rejoin the alien chihuahuas and Mr T after quite a time when they were collecting data on humanity as seen in Margate, a seaside town in England.The covid lockdown is underway.
The chihuahuas were going cabin crazy, which was a sign of how the last three years had changed them from post-apocalyptic hermits on their home planet of Ossyria to hyperintelligent pseudocanines on Earth. The long Margate horizons, the ever changing sunsets, fish and chips and the joys of chasing the parrots that always got away; these had all got under their skins. A day in Margate, said Ajax, is better than a thousand on Ossyria.
But now they were stuck indoors most of the day due to the corvid19 outbreak. A bit too reminiscent of the latter days of Ossyria. Except that here there was an edge of uncertainty that did not trouble anyone in Ossyria, where life was almost eternal but safe in the pods and, looking back, very boring. Now the chihuahuas could feel the humans’ fear on the street. And neither they nor ‘T’, their director who was disguised as a human, knew how a transformed Ossyrian body would react to the virus if it came their way.
‘I could cut up my blue shirt and sew up some masks,’ said T who travelled around earth in human form but mostly stayed near Margate.
Alfie replied,‘No mask for me, thank you, T; I want to smell things as I go along, not have them drowned out by the smell of washing powder on the cloth.’ And Ajax agreed, or at least he said, ‘I was just going to say that!’ And they were soon rolling about the floor, snapping and snarling. T sighed. ‘No more Superstud Doggynutz for you two.’ An empty threat; the biscuits were delivered every fortnight with his groceries, which he now had to collect from the front doorstep while the driver kept his distance. It was pups’ play for the doglets to distract him when he was checking the shopping list spreadsheet.
An Estonian friend’s news from home: Tallinn is unnaturally quiet, few people on the streets, but the forests and beaches are full of people enjoying unexpectedly not being in town. Let’s hope and pray they stay safe.
No sooner had I written that paragraph than I read that in France, the Prefects of Departements around the coast are closing all the beaches to the public.