Saturday, 30 January 2010

To everything there is a season

 photo by Nathan Rogers
Today I received a card from one of the students I talked to on Thursday.  It's a photo of a small wave breaking over grey rock and coarse sand (not the picture above), and has printed in white over the sand, 'With the ebb of the tide, With the turn of the season, Grant us peace'.  I really like that.  It's a reminder that life has its tides and its seasons - and actually accepting that, flowing with it, is a better road to happiness and peace than denying it and desperately trying to control it.  I seem to remember that was the point King Knut was trying to make.

One question I was asked by another student was what I thought about assisted suicide.  Part of my answer was quoting Norman's comment on this blog, when I wrote about Margot McDonald's bill: 'interesting thoughts Michael. Does the individual have the right to decide when it's time? When is the right time? Is that person down and depressed at that moment? I personally live day by day, and expect that you have down days. In the final analysis it comes down to the individual's personal choice, and that by nature has to be selfish.'  Norman has MND like me, and we're part of the same group.  I was very struck by his last sentence.  I don't  think I've come across that so clearly so honestly expressed before. 

I'm grateful to Stephen for this link to an article in Friday's Guardian by the novelist, M R Hall, headlined: 'Life is sacred - don't downgrade it.' 'In our reaction to the Gilderdale case, it's easy to forget that suffering and self-sacrifice are part of a truly humane society....'  Unsurprisingly it aroused howls of protest from web-commenters who couldn't be bothered apparently to engage with the meat of his argument.  But I think it's worth engaging with properly - i e don't just read the extract below! (  I thought his comments on the trial judge particularly potent:
'The calls for reform following the Inglis and Gilderdale cases perfectly exemplify how emotional responses to individual circumstances can lead directly to moral collapse. When even a high court judge questions whether a mother who injects air into the veins of her daughter should be prosecuted for attempting to murder, we know that the relativism has usurped principle as the basis of our law. Mr Justice Bean has allowed himself to become sentimental; he is the kind of well-meaning individual who, under Evan Harris's regime, might find himself appointed to a panel that would determine whether a euthanasia-seeker had insufficient quality of life to be expected to endure; he is the kind of man who cannot see that suffering and the involuntary self-sacrifice of carers is a necessary part of a truly humane society; he is the kind of man whose weakness in the face of challenging absolute principles is too easily disguised as compassion.'

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Back to work

I've spent quite a bit of time this week preparing a power point presentation for a talk I gave this afternoon. Tess Ward, the chaplain at the Nuffield Hospital in Oxford, had invited me to take part in an afternoon for wannabe vicars about disability and terminal illness.  The Nuffield is transformed since we lived in Oxford - presumably a result of public/private money being poured in...
But I must say the parking is a lot better; and the facilities are nice.  There were twenty students there from the three Anglican training colleges in Oxford.  We met in the OT kitchen.  I thought I'd better start with a joke, and happily a friend of Jane, Sally, had sent me just the story I needed:                                                                                                                                        "A vicar entered his donkey in a race and it won. The vicar was so pleased with the donkey that he entered it in the race again, and it won again. The local paper read: VICAR'S ASS OUT IN FRONT.   The Bishop was so upset with this kind of publicity that he ordered the vicar not to enter the donkey in another race. The next day, the local paper headline read: BISHOP SCRATCHES VICAR'S ASS.

 "This was too much for the bishop, so he ordered the vicar to get rid of the donkey. The vicar decided to give it to a nun in a nearby convent. The local paper, hearing of the news, posted the following headline the next day: NUN HAS BEST ASS IN TOWN.  The bishop fainted. He informed the nun that she would have to get rid of the donkey.  So she sold it to a farmer for £10.  The next day the paper read: NUN SELLS ASS FOR £10.
  "This was too much for the bishop, and so he order the nun to buy back the donkey and lead it to the common so it could run wild.  The next day the newspaper headlines read: NUN ANNOUNCES HER ASS IS WILD AND FREE.
  "The bishop was buried the next day."
The moral is actually very relevant for would-be vicars, as the pressure to please various parties in your church is huge: "The moral of the story is... being concerned about public opinion can bring you much grief and misery... even shorten your life. So be yourself and enjoy life. Stop worrying about everyone else's ass and you'll be a lot happier and live longer!"                                                                    
I put the story on the screen, having warned people about my tendency to guffaw or weep.  There was no way I could have told the story.  As it was, of course, I did cry in my talk, but they didn't seem to mind too much.  At least they saw MND in action and quite a number said it had been helpful.  I found Rachael Marsden's talk about the psychology of loss helpful.  She's the specialist MND nurse and coordinator of the Oxford MND Centre.  She talked about the acceptance phase of loss, and said being 'void of emotion' was characteristic.  I've occasionally wondered why I sometimes feel like that.  One of the students gave us a verse, which I looked up when we got home.  Then I remembered why I used to enjoy my job! 
Zephaniah 3.17                                                                                                                                         The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.                                                                                                                                                                                             

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Visiting Charles and Mandy

I enjoyed yesterday.  We were invited to Charles' (see 'My Donkeybody', the book) 70th birthday party.  That was nice - only they live in a former watermill and their main room is upstairs.  Not a broad gently sweeping staircase, but quite narrow steep spiral stairs....  When it was a working mill there was a sack-hoist outside, but for some reason it was ruled out.  I think there are some vital parts missing.  So needs must.  Ben, their son, used to work with the disabled.  So I linked my hands (not to pray, I'm afraid), Ben seized me from behind, Richard, their son-in-law, look my legs - and up, up and away, I was flying, soon to be dumped in an armchair upstairs!  Easy, when you know how.  Going down when I could see the drop I felt a bit less nonchalant, but they managed that manoeuvre with equal aplomb.  No doubt, health and safety would have had the heeby-jeebies, but I knew I was in good hands.

In between the two operations, I did a lot of listening and, for me, a lot of talking.  Many of the people there knew us and so could interpret my gobbledygook.  So what with friends, good food and companionship, we spent a very happy afternoon.  We didn't need any more food when we got home.
So Jane honed some of her newly acquired computer skills, while I wrote yesterday's blog.  Then we watched 'Millions', which is a fun film.  And so, as Pepys would say, to bed.

There are some thought-provoking comments on my blog yesterday.  I do like being challenged about my thoughts.  So thanks.

Perhaps this observation may provoke some reaction... but I did think David Cameron was plain wrong to cite the sadistic attack by two youngsters in the Doncaster area as evidence of the 'broken society'.  It shouldn't be too difficult to work out that the incident is news because it is so UNTYPICAL.  It may well be that we are witnessing a break-down of family life and societal values - but this isn't evidence for it, any more than the Jamie Bulger case, quoted years ago by Tony Blair, was.  Our society isn't awash with damaged sadistic young people.  I suspect most families make a reasonable fist of things.  Not that there aren't many that need help.  But rather than make too easy political points, we really need to address the issues Michael Sandel addressed in his Reith lectures about establishing a new citizenship based on agreed values.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

More thoughts on euthanasia

On Thursday the news was full of MSP Margot MacDonald's Bill for the Scottish Parliament to legalise assisted suicide:  a Friends at the End spokeswoman admitted that palliative care could control the pain and symptoms of terminal illnesses (such as Parkinson's, which Margot MacDonald has herself) but it was the indignity of dependence that was intolerable.  Being me, I took to my laptop and wrote to Radio 5: 

'I have Motor Neurone Disease - Primary Lateral Sclerosis to be precise, which is a slowly developing form.  I don't want to take my own life, even though I know it might get 'intolerable' and even though I'm already entirely dependent on my wife - from getting up to going to bed, including getting to the loo, getting my food etc.  However I do not believe that being dependent means a lack of dignity.  I think all human life has worth and dignity including babies, the disabled, the very old and the terminally ill like me. 

'Ms Macdonald talks about her right to choose when to die, as do many of her view.  The fact however is that rights do not exist in a vacuum.  With rights come responsibilities.  Our choices do affect others.  

•The choice to take one's own life affects one's family and friends, whether it's in helping with the act or in dealing with the feelings of loss and guilt afterwards ('If only I'd shown I cared more...').  
•It affects the medical and caring professions, whose raison d'être is to preserve life.  To demand they compromise their vocation for my purposes is too high a cost.  That does not mean expecting them 'officiously to keep alive'.  There's a categorical difference between mitigating pain and symptoms and deliberately terminating life. 
•It affects others who are vulnerable, as it puts physician-assisted death on the menu of possible 'treatments' for disability, degenerative illness and even extreme old age.  

'We need instead to assert loudly and repeatedly that being fed with a spoon, being dressed and, yes, having your nappy changed is NOT undignified - whatever your age.  And we need to say that those who do the feeding, dressing and bottom-wiping are showing the best and most costly of human qualities, love and real compassion. We need to be society which honours them and their actions.  

'I have no illusions my own dying will be easy, but, personally, I want to pass on a truly compassionate and humane society to my children and grandchildren.  Legalising an easy exit might be an attractive option for myself and others like me, but I care even more about the sort of world I’d leave behind.  I’d like it to be one where no one is disposable and every life is valuable.'  

My email wasn't read out, but to give the BBC their due they did telephone and decided that my voice too slow and slurred for a quick interview - which was a shame as all the personal 'stories' were on the other side.  I really think we do need to affirm the dignity of interdependence.  Our cult of independence is profoundly harmful and unnatural.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

White and wet

Well, blow me down!  If it's not snowing again - in fact it's been coming down since 7 this morning.  Fortunately it's settling on the grass but not the roads, which means getting round should be be all right still.  It's clearly not going to last - about which I must say I'm not sorry.  'I grow old, I grow old.  I shall wear my trousers rolled'....  Sad how the enchantment wears off!

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Life is life

On Sunday I went out for the first time for four weeks, what with my festive infection and the subsequent 'deep freeze'.  It was almost a springlike day, and so like a hedgehog I came out of hibernation and, with Jane, headed for church (the building) in my electric wheelchair.  Fresh air tastes good.  And so does bread and wine in communion.  It was great returning to a more normal routine.

Stephen who called in during the afternoon mentioned an article by Charlotte Raven in the weekend Guardian (  Its headline is 'Should I take my own life?'  After her father died of Huntington's Disease (a peculiarly nasty terminal disease) and she had had her first baby, she had a test which confirmed that she would get it too.  She decided she'd choose to commit suicide (for example at Dingitas), assembling an array of arguments to support her decision.  Then she went to a part of Venezuala where there is a high concentration of HD, and, although she was faced with the stark reality of what she would have to face if the disease ran its full course, she experienced a quite unexpected reversal of perception.  'I had never thought of suicide as violent or vile, and no wonder – our preferred methods are designed to obscure this painful reality. Suicide consumers have been sold a chimera of a " peaceful" end.'  She goes to a clinic for Huntington's sufferers and ends up in the arms of a nurse.  The article concludes: 'Registering the discomfort of existence, I felt a great wave of self-pity, the first since my diagnosis. I felt worthy of being cherished and knew I'd do whatever it took to survive....  Back home, I told my husband he was right.  The case for carrying on can't be argued.  Suicide is rhetoric.  Life is life.'  It's a long article, but every word is worth reading.

To add to my joy, yesterday dawned sunny and even warmer.  So we celebrated and went to collect a late mystery Christmas present from Rachel.  She'd told us it was awaiting collection at Aston Pottery (which is south of Witney).  There's also a rather nice gift shop and café there, and we decided the drive there would be a pleasant start to the week.  And so it proved.  There was some flooding around the Thames.  In fact The Maybush was almost on an island.  Some trees even had a greenish sheen, an early sign of spring.


So we picked up our present, and then went to have a coffee and brownie.  Very nice.  There were still traces of snow left where it had slid off the roof and where, the owner told us, the children of the village had built a large snowman.  Refreshed, we wandered back through the gift shop - which is quality, and incredibly tastefully set out.  I fell in love with a couple of cushions which I coveted for the sofa we've just ordered....  However they were rather pricey, and good sense prevailed at last with a bit of encouragement from Jane!  Here's some of our Aston pottery ware, including the new butter dish.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Perspective shift

The snow's all gone here.  The grass is green; roofs brown and grey; the cars have lost their white cushions...  Last week my friend Jerry commented on Facebook, 'Watching news coverage of the Haitian disaster - Puts our own snow woes into perspective eh? - Those people have it hard enough as it is without this disaster.'  I watched the DEC appeal yesterday and found some of hoary old 'Charity begins at home' excuses for doing nothing trotted out on a radio phone-in hard to bear.  I heard an interview with a Haitian woman who said she was praying a lot.  So she was asked whether the disaster hadn't shaken her faith, 'Not at all,' she said. 'The Bible told us these things would happen.'  

There's been a bit of discussion on the radio trying to understand the implications for belief in God of the earthquake.  Giles Fraser on Thursday's Thought for the Day talked about Leibniz's 'theodicy' and Voltaire's scathing caricature of Dr Pangloss who justifies God at any cost, after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  Mr Fraser declined to get involved in a debate, preferring just to pray.  

I came across an article 'Where was God in the earthquake?' by Craig Ulfman, which included this:
'Theologian David Bentley Hart offers the best answer I know in his book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?  He wrote it upon reflecting on the great tsunami that struck Asia in 2004.  Hart reminds us that "we are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ.  For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers.  And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God."

'As we participate vicariously in the tormented tears of young girls, lost and alone in the Haitian darkness, as our hearts pour out tears for the thousands of sons and daughters and mothers and fathers who have died so suddenly and shockingly, and as we turn to our task of being the loving and living hands of Christ (my italics) in response to this tragedy,  let us never forget the urgent truth about God that it is our vocation to proclaim: God does not will our sickness or our death; God does not will that evil be done; God has conquered evil and death through the Cross.  This is the meaning of the empty tomb. This is our Easter faith.  As Hart says so well, "Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation.  Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, the forces - whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance - that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with perfect hatred."

'Where, then, is God in the earthquake? Hart puts it well: "As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God but the face of his enemy.... for [ours] is a faith that set us free from optimism long ago and taught us hope instead....rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, [God] will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes - and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, 'Behold, I make all things new.'"' (  Yes, I like the distinction, not baseless optimism but well founded hope.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Not too impressed

Yesterday I watched the live streaming from the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq War and I must say I wasn't overimpressed with Alistair Campbell.  He certainly performed well - the range of ennui, indignation and 'sincerity'.  But I'm not sure he inspired trust, with his gestures including praying hands.  I was struck by his selective memory (or 'forgettory' as my dad used to say).  He conveniently couldn't 'honestly' remember some events, while he could be quite clear over details in the same period.  Hmm!

And tomorrow the third and last cricket test match begins in South Africa.  South Africa have to win if they're not to lose the series.  Actually I'm not sure if England's last performance with their slow over rate, treading on the ball and scratching it (I gather) was entirely honourable.  But more annoying, I found, were Geoffrey Boycott's comments.  It's ironic hearing the world's slowest batsman going on about the over rate.  And he just isn't funny, although he thinks he is - unlike most of his still extremely polite colleagues.  With Michael Vaughan on the commentary team the BBC have a perfectly good and expert replacement.  Boycott's had a good innings.  Time for him to leave the crease and retire, and be content with his pension - and British winters.

To lighten the tone, and to remind our cricketers what they're missing, here's a photo our friend Jan took at the weekend near her home in Buckinghamshire.  Beautiful.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Nature notes

The snow and freezing weather have forced birds to leave their comfort zones.  This morning a red kite headed straight for our bedroom window and swerved over our roof, presumably on the look-out for some bits of carrion.  I'm afraid s/he would be disappointed in the estate.  People tend not to leave half-eaten fish and chips around.  And as I sit here this afternoon a flock of redwings and fieldfares have taken up residence in the silver birch behind the dogs in the previous picture.  Jane had seen them in the fields when walking during the week, but this is the first time I've seen them here.  Quite what brings them here I'm not sure, unless our neighbours have rowan or some shrubs with berries - but I'd have thought they'd have stripped them by now.  (Below is Archibald Thorburn's lithograph with a fieldfare at the top and redwing below.  I think this used to be in my first bird book, The Observer's Book of Birds.)

Meanwhile in our garden as well as our regular blackbirds, collar doves and sparrows we're being visited by a robin (Might it be Romeo back?), some goldfinches, a great tit exploring the nesting box (A bit early?) and for the first time a blackcap.  For a few days Jane broke the ice in the pond so that they could get to the water to drink.  Now she's taken to putting water out for them, so that goldfish can survive under the ice.

I have mixed feelings about the snow.  It certainly transforms the landscape and is incredibly beautiful.  On Friday morning I was looking at the sun catching the crystals making them glisten with a bluish light and reflecting on the amazing fact that each flake is unique and a different shape from all the others.  A bit different from our mass production!  I wondered why.  I remember a philosophy lecture I heard in Cambridge from the brilliant Professor MacKinnon in which he talked about 'the infinite variety of creation'.  I seem to remember there's a word for it in Greek for which we don't have an exact equivalent, poikilos (ποικίλος).  We should be singing the ancient poem, known as the Song of the Three Holy Children, or the Benedicite:
'O ye Winter and Summer, bless ye the Lord: 
O ye Dews and Frosts, bless ye the Lord:
O ye Frost and Cold, bless ye the Lord:
O ye Ice and Snow, bless ye the Lord: / praise him, and magnify him for ever.'  And then there's the enormous fun that children (and adults) have in it.  So in one way I'll be sorry when it melts.  

But Jean, our MNDA group coordinator, was right too when she wrote to me: 'It has been lovely to look out on such a wonderful scene and I am grateful I haven’t had to try venturing forth, with the family taking that on. I did miss being able to go tobogganing with my student children, but they would probably say I’d be a liability whether with MND or not!! I do feel for those who live alone. It must be so difficult, trying to manage and, if carers can’t get in, the situation could become quite serious.'

Which I think puts in perspective the rather peevish interview by Sarah Montague with Hilary Benn on the Today Programme last week.  Rather unreasonably, I thought, she was berating him in the rather aggressive way she has for not foreseeing the severity of the winter and there not being enough salt and grit for the roads - and businesses were losing money etc etc.  She sometimes reminds me of Mark Antony's wife, 'shrill tongued Fulvia', when she's trying to do a Humphrys.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Snow business

Happy Epiphany!  Today's the Feast of the Three Kings.  In places like Spain, this is the big day for celebrating Christmas - the time for presents etc.

Here, however, it's very quiet today.  A blanket of snow is surrounding us; so there's barely no traffic movement around us, but a lot of adults and children coming and going all wrapped up, with toboggans and snowballs.  This is the view from my chair:

I muse that it's very gemütlich - from this side of double-glazing with the central heating on.  But not so much fun when you're on the streets.  I received this link from The Mustard Tree via Facebook a couple of days ago: .  The Mustard Tree is a charity in central Manchester, which works with the homeless, ex-addicts, ex-cons and asylum seekers.  It's where 'our Paul' works.  Recommended viewing.

Charles and Mandy were round for lunch today and mentioned the discussion on Newsnight last night about the British reaction to the snow, which included a psychology professor, the Times weather correspondent  and the Bishop of Reading.  I loved Jeremy Paxman's expression when the bishop said that we might be cavemen but we're also potentially angels.  (You can see the discussion about 12 minutes from the end of the programme, BBC2 5.1.10, on iPlayer - 'making the unmissable unmissable').  I think they were talking about how circumstances (like blizzards) can bring out the best in people.  Anyway, it's nice to know that at least one bishop will have been zooming downhill on a sledge today.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Et al

I realise my last blog was all about me.  I apologise.  What vanity.

So let me wish YOU a happy and prosperous 2010.  And let me tell you about some of our visitors over the past few days, to wit the Manchester mob and the Three Wise Men and their wives.  (You read it here first - the wise men were married.)  As you can see, the Manchester mob (above) are very creative, as well as lovely.  The godfather is characteristically camera-shy!  Faith (with her mother) was suffering with the same bug as me, and so was quite miserable.

Then last Saturday my three brothers and their wives came for lunch.  I've mentioned them before; they all have doctorates and are quite distinguished in their fields, and all married Cambridge graduates.  But for all that I'm fond of them all.  Below are the two theologian brothers deep in frivolous conversation.

Having family is fun, I must say.  And now we are back to 'normality', on our onesome, trying to ignore the politicians' phoney election campaign.  Give us a break, Gordie, Dave and Nick, please.  It's been nice having some days of peace and goodwill.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

I'm dreaming...

As my father might have said, 'Well, that was a snorter!' It's not quite over yet, but I have to report that the cold which brewing when I last blogged turned out to be the full works.  I won't go in to the gory details, but suffice it to say that we called out the emergency doctor on Christmas Day - and of course didn't get to church for the first time ever, as far as I remember.  A bit different from last year!  And the rest of the day I dozed in my chair in a semi-comatose state - not even Her Majesty's speech roused me (though I'm told she wasn't at her most inspirational).  I did deign to join the rather good evening meal - another break with tradition, as the turkey only flew in on Christmas morning, courtesy of Jane's parents.  Sadly for the children round here we didn't have a white Christmas, though it was cold enough.

Things improved thereafter, though the cough continued for some days, waking up the household at night. Eventually the coughing apparently managed to pull a muscle at the base of my spine; so I'm now shuffling around with a bit of a limp.  Still the fortnight has had some bright spots: like seeing all the family, whom I do like, and reading The Italian Chapel, which is an amazing story I didn't know at all, and, most unexpectedly of all, sleeping peacefully through the New Year, undisturbed by bells and fireworks and barking dogs.  That is THE way to see in the New Year.

One disturbing feature of the whole episode is how my own miserable condition dominated my horizon. I simply didn't feel like celebrating Jesus' birth.  I was grateful for some reminders on radio of the greatest moment of history, but they were like unbidden ships passing in the night with their green and red lights on.  I used to preach sermons about sin, and used to say the middle letter of sin is I, and sin is self-centredness - when we put I at the centre.  Hmm!  Obviously it dies hard.  'Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more' - which is good to know.