Saturday 30 July 2011

John Grant

The best lyrics and vocals I have heard in a long time. And, my twin sister is going to see him at The End of Road Festival on THE DAY I go back to school. *mopes*

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Learning from my 8 year old self

Someone ran into the back of my brand new car today. I was annoyed. It will need a new bumper, and I will have to claim on the insurance. I needed to cheer myself up.

In the corner of my parents front room there hangs a macrame hanging basket with beautiful green foliage that drapes towards the floor and gives the whole place a bit of a continental feel. It was made by me. Or, if you ask my twin sister, it was made by her. When we were 8. Whoever made that particular hanging basket, Gemma and I spent much of our childhood making stuff. Clare, our big sister, often looked after us and taught us different crafts. Origami being one, macrame being another. 

After my traumatic moment with the car, I decided I needed a project to focus my attention on something completely different. I am house sitting for my parents. So, I pulled into the garden centre and bought some brightly coloured string. I drove home, took down the plant hanger in the corner and looked at it. Anything my 8 year old self can do, I can do too, right? 

It is funny how your learning comes back to you. I did not know what I was doing when I unravelled the string. But, the smell of jute twine brought the memories right back. I cut eight long lengths, about 5 yards each (too long as it turns out, but I was re-learning), and two shorter lengths. I naturally folded them in half, and made a loop at the top. I wanted to get that hook shape at the top of the basket. My attempts were instinctive, and I had to have a few goes - but I got there in the end! The chinese crown knot at the top of the basket was tricky, I could not figure how to make those square knots. Then, after a few moments of just sitting still with the twine in my hands, it came back. I could see how the collection of cord in my hand was supposed to move and come together. 

Each time I got stuck, I had to go back, mentally, to my eight year old self. I had to sit on Clare's bed in the downstairs room at Kingsley Road. The bed was by the wall next to the radiator, and it faced the fireplace. To my left was the door to the corridor near the kitchen; behind it, the piano. To my right, the french windows onto the driveway. Juniper, our present cat, was playing with the cords. In my mind it was Saoirse, our first cat here in the UK - his name means 'Freedom', or Lucky, the rescue kitten I persuaded my Ma to come home with one day from the RATS shelter.

The twisty bits were easier. I instinctively put the two central cords I was working with between my teeth. The taste of the twine, and the feel of it, helped me know how to move the cord. Once I started on that bit, I knew I would finish my project in under an hour or two.

All this has brought me to one conclusion: the things we teach people when they are young really do stick, and stick hard. I can honestly promise I have not so much looked at macrame since I was 8 years old. But, the moment I felt, smelt and saw the twine, I knew how to form it into a hanging basket. I had seen it done, I had been taught to do it. As a teacher, discovering something like that is frightening. As an RE teacher, it is terrifying.

Monday 25 July 2011

A speech in history

Irish people have always been good with words. This speech by Taoiseach Enda Kenny will go down in history. His words deserve your ears.

Pilgrims dinner

I should write something celebratory here in honour of St. James. The 25th July is his Feast!! 

By all accounts I should be posting a delicious recipe to celebrate. Instead, I want to tell a story. Walking the camino changed the way I look at many things: distances, people, hospitality, effort, pain, reward. I measure distances in the number of days it would take to walk, if is less than a week away, it is not far. I never worry about how long a stroll it is into town, or to the pub or whatever other place I might be headed. I am a people watcher, and love to find quiet corners from which to watch them go on their way: buen camino. There are people whose names I do not know who gave me food and shelter when I most needed it, I will be grateful to them for as long as I live, and I feel I owe others the same - always. Everything is always worth the effort. Often, the more effort it is worth, the more valuable it is. The key thing is to keep going. Pain on the camino shifts about a bit. At first, when you get a pain in your leg, foot, back, head, stomach or whatever, you cannot think about anything else. It absorbs you. When others come along and ask you how you are, the only thing you can say is, 'I have a pain'. Then, some other part of you will begin to ache, and you forget the first pain to think of the next. Eventually, you learn not to think about your aches, but to look out and think of others - to help them soak their feet, bandage their blisters, ease the tension in their back. When that happens, pain begins to go away.  Moments of arrival, when you learn things like that, the kindness of others, the cool of the shade, warm water, hot food, laughter and friendship - these are the rewards of the camino, and they keep coming long after you stop walking.

Anyhow, that story. The first day I arrived in Galicia in 2003 I had a most memorable food experience. I arrived in a small village. There was a cattle market on. The beasts were black and beautiful. The men selling them looked like Kerry men to my eyes, they were small, sunburnt, with caps pulled low over their twinkling blue eyes. They hollered and joked, and shouted prices for their cattle. Clearly, women were a novelty. I went and sat on a wooden bench at a table near where the cattle were being kept. The cows big, black, wet noses poked curiously through a makeshift metal barrier to give me a sniff. A man with a most enormous beer belly approached me and asked me if I would like to eat. I asked what their was. He said: 'Pulpo'. I had never eaten octopus before, and was not that keen on dinner prepared in the cattle market, but you take your chances on the camino. I agreed that I would like to eat. The man went away. When he returned he had a earthenware jug and cup, he poured me a large cup of red wine and left the jug. Then he came back with a loaf of bread held in one great fat hand, and a cleaver in the other: 'Do you want half of this, or the whole?' 'Half, please,' I answered timidly. He put the loaf on the table and chopped it in two with one swoop. There was a mark on the table where his cleaver fell. I looked over to where the octopus was being prepared. There were two big cauldrons over open fires. A short woman with the most enormous breasts was stirring the pot. She had some steps so as she could look into the pots. She looked as though she might topple over at any given moment. In a barrel to the side she had the poor creatures soon to be supper. There was a magical mix of spices being thrown around: paprika, salt, pepper; olive oil a plenty. Dinner came on a round wooden breadboard. It looked 'adventurous', but once I tasted it I knew it was good. I throughly enjoyed my dinner, with my half loaf of bread, a carafe of deep red wine and some beautiful black cows looking on. Pulpo a la Gallega is the signature dish of Galicia, it turns out. I recommend it. After dinner the man with the big belly came and sat at my table. 'Do you like our food, chica?' He asked. 'Yes, very much. Thank you,' I replied. Then, for the first time, he smiled a big big smile. His wife came over and smiled too. And we all laughed while we struggled to make conversation.

Today though, I am not going to make anything special. This is not because I do not want to. I am on my own at the minute, and it is the end of the month. Simplicity is the order of the day, and I do not want to head off and buy fancy ingredients. I made some fabulous daal today, and have the flour to make bread tomorrow. That is going to see me through. James wouldn't mind. I am almost sure, fisherman though he may well have been, he never ate octopus. I am not sure they did that kind of thing near the Sea of Galilee. Simple food made well is life as good as it gets, so I will stick with what I have and be happy with that. After all, the day I ate octopus for the first time, though I thought it was 'exotic', it was simply what people had, and I was grateful for their hospitality.

Who was St. James anyhow? He was the brother of John and, like him, a fisherman. He was one of the witnesses of the Transfiguration, of the raising of Lazarus and one of those who slept in the Garden of Gethsemane - full of wine, after dinner. He was one of the first apostles to be martyred, beheaded by King Herod Agrippa to appease enemies of Christianity. He was buried in Jerusalem, and nothing more is known about him until the ninth century.

The relics of St. James were brought to Spain some time after his martyrdom, perhaps as late as 830CE, and his shrine in Galicia grew until is became the greatest pilgrimage centre in Western Europe. Almost every place I have ever been to has had a Church or street dedicated to St. James, vestiges of ancient pilgrimage routes. In England these routes led to the major ports, often via Canterbury. The Middle Ages were not a static, stay at home time. Everyone must have known someone who had made the pilgrimage. Pilgrims wore the scallop shell as a mark of their destination. Today it is a symbol of pilgrimage more generally, and I have seen it worn in Lourdes, Rome and Walsingham. I always want to ask, 'have you been to Santiago?', but never dare. 1987 saw the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela declared of 'international importance', and work has been going on since to ensure the paths are kept and refugios equipped to offer hospitality to those who undertake the journey today.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Play nice with mice

Juniper (the cat) has brought in three mice this morning, all alive and a bit shocked. I am house sitting, and I think this is my welcome gift. The little fella on the left is too shy to have his picture taken really. Here he is demonstrating his best escape manoeuvre, 'tunnel'. I can see why he gets caught. Currently he is in 'rehab' in a shoe box, until I release him when Juniper is occupied indoors.

I think I need the advice of Martin De Porres to cope with this week. He was nice to mice. Juniper, meanwhile, feels very Cartesian about the whole affair: 'I moused, therefore I cat'.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Nothing goes away

Just to keep me on my toes, an essay I wrote in 2007 or 2008 has reappeared. It is on the theme of Sexual Ethics. You can read it here. I do not have too much to say about it.

The picture is the Ain Sakhri lovers, from Bethlehem 11 000 years ago. They are my all time favourite museum object. I wrote about them here.

I included their picture just to prove that nothing I say is anything new.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

I am running around like a mad thing today, and not doing what I should be doing on such a day as this, which is sitting still, thinking and listening. Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This is a title for the BVM in her role as the Patron of the Carmelite Order. The first Carmelites were hermits who lived on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. They referred to Our Lady as the 'lady of the house', and sought her blessing and protection in all things. I do not know too much else about them.

One thing I do know is that the Carmelites have some great saints. And, today's feast must give a clue to how that happened.

I also know that any feast of the Carmelites is a good excuse to make something sweet in the kitchen.

Back in October I posted a recipe for Pan de Santa Teresa. I cannot think of anything more appropriate for today. Let nothing trouble you. Trust.

Pan de Santa Teresa

3 cups of milk
3 tablespoons of sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 Lemon zest
12 slices of French/Italian uncut bread (can be a little stale)
3 eggs
1 tablespoon cinnamon mixed with 1 tablespoon sugar (for sprinkling)
Olive Oil or butter for frying

Mix together the milk, sugar, cinnamon stick and lemon zest. Gently heat the milk mixture to ensure the flavours mix. Slice the bread into slices about 1/2 inch thick. Place the bread in a large flat dish and cover with the milk. Beat the three eggs and pour them into another large flat dish. Take each slice from the milk and cover it quickly through the egg, then fry until it is brown and crusty. Try not to let the bread get too too soggy in the milk. Sprinkle the fried slices with cinnamon sugar. Enjoy with coffee slowly. This is enough to feed 4 hungry people.


Thursday 14 July 2011

Circles and Triangles

The Andrei Rublev icon given to me on Tuesday amazes me. It contains at least two meta narratives: one of Abraham, Sarah and the Angels at Mamre, and the other of communication between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. For me it also contains countless micro narratives, personal stories, new reflections, ideas and prayers that jump into my mind when I look at it. It is full of shape and colour. Those are the tools Rublev uses to communicate on countless levels. I like that it is full of circles and triangles! And, each geometric shape shows something yet more beautiful. I have drawn on the image here to show you what I mean. These ideas are not new, and they are not my own, Rublev designed his icon to have these shapes and many people before me have commented on them.

The big circle encompasses the three central figures. They seem a confusing bunch at first. Their faces are all identical. Behind each of them is an object, behind the figure on the left is a house, behind the figure in the centre is a tree, and behind the figure on the right is a mountain. They seem to have golden wings. Perhaps then, these figures are the mysterious visitors that call upon Abraham and Sarah under the trees of Mamre in Genesis 18.

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. 
He said, “If I have found favour in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” 
 “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” 
So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” 
Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. 
 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. 
“There, in the tent,” he said.
Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him.  Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing.  So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” 
Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
I am glad Sarah laughed. I would have laughed too. Strangers turning up all dusty and telling you are going to have a child in your old age. Your husband getting all the credit for your hard work in the kitchen. Bloomin' ridiculous. There is a lot in just this story. Something about hospitality, and about life being God given, treasured by people (travelers across the desert would have died were it not for the hospitality of strangers such as Abraham and Sarah). There is something about having faith in the impossible. But, the icon has more.

Each of the figures in the icon have their own circles, a halo which marks them out as individuals. They are dressed distinctly, and have separate gestures. They have individual identities. The figure on the right dresses in the blue of the heavens, but also a vibrant green - the symbol of new life. Behind him is the mountain. Throughout the Bible, mountains are where people meet God - places where heaven touches earth. This figure shows that too, he touches the table, animating the discussion between the figures. This is an image of God the Holy Spirit.

The central figure also wears blue, but he wears it in equal proportion to an earthy brown, the symbol of humanity. He has a golden stripe across his shoulder, representative of Kingship. This is an icon of Christ. He rests two fingers on the table to show his dual nature - fully human, fully divine. Behind him is the tree which gave shelter to the vulnerable visitors of Abraham, but now it has become a symbol of the cross. Christ points towards a cup of wine on the table, a reminder of his passion and representative of the Eucharist.

Finally, the figure on the left. Do you remember the invisibility cloak in Harry Potter? I think I know where she got the idea from. The blue of this figure can only be seen in snatches beneath his ethereal robe. Perhaps I found the reason that God is so elusive? He has an invisibility cloak? God the Father rests his hands on a staff, a symbol of authority. Behind him is a house, a dwelling place for God. "In my Father's house there are many mansions," promises Christ, 'I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2).

Look what has happened to the Angel's wings? They have gone and morphed into posh chairs! Cheeky.

How can one image be so rich? I haven't even started on the triangles. Perhaps I shall mention only one. From the foot of God the Father, going up and across the table, and down to the foot of God the Holy Spirit, a clear triangle can be seen. And, it is pointing towards the viewer, particularly if you imagine you are looking upwards towards the icon. Rublev is making an invitation. The three figures are inclined towards each other, listening and communicating. The viewer must step into the icon to change the triangle into a planisphere. There is a space left:  humanity is invited to listen in, to listen to God. 

Right! Enough! I could go on forever and this is too long. I love Rublev; I love this icon. I always have. It is sometimes called The Old Testament Trinity. It used to hang in the RE office at St. Thomas More School too.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

A gift for my classroom

I was at my new school today, working on a whole school retreat with the theme of' 'changing a culture of violence to a culture of peace'. It was brilliant. I spent the day working with a group of students modelling clay. Other groups around the school were doing drama, rap, music, art, making films, taking photos and all sorts. At the end of the day everyone presented their work. Finally, the leader of the STOMP group, using rhythm to bring people together, got the whole school involved in a BIG SCHOOL STOMP the like of which I have never seen. If you do not know what I am talking about, have a look at the link below.

The man who led this did not speak. He just used rhythm and sign to get over 1000 people to work together to produce something very cool indeed. The sound was awe inspiring. And we were quite good at keeping time too, I thought. There was even syncopation. 

At the end of the day the Bernadine sister I had been working with gave me a beautiful copy of the famous Andrei Rublev icon of the Trinity to bless my classroom. I was very touched. She said teaching at its best is about peaceful communication. I would like to write more about the icon and its symbolism and imagery later, and I will add to this post. But, as I am cooking dinner at the same time as writing this, for the moment, you will have to be content with having a good look at it. It will hang proudly in my new teaching room, and every time I see it I will be reminded of the amazing day I had today.

UPDATE: I wrote about the imagery and symbolism of this icon here.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Codex Calixtinus stolen!

My brother Dan alerted me to this. I can't believe it. The Codex Calixtinus is a 12th Century guidebook for medieval pilgrims following the Way of St. James. It is a practical document that gave advice to those making the journey. It also contained homilies and sermons in honour of St. James. It is simply beautiful. It is rarely on display, and kept secure. It was found to be missing on Wednesday afternoon, 5th July 2011. This YouTube clip is the Kyrie from the Missa Sancta Jacobi contained within the Codex. I am sad about it all, and will sincerely hope that it is returned for the feast of St. James on July 25th.

Sunday 3 July 2011

Just while I am in the mood for reminiscing....

I think the Huttonator is going to be making a return in September.
For the record: That is an axe murderer coming around the door to check to see how willing I am to lie, a camel ('s backside) going through the eye of a needle, the coffee and doughnuts essential to discussing morality with persons in their late teens, and the embarrassing record of the day my shoe broke in class.

The start of a journey...

On this day in 2003 I arrived in Santiago de Compostela, having walked mostly alone, but sometimes with others I met on route, from St. Jean Pied la Port. I was tired and elated. One of the first things you become aware of when you start exploring Santiago - the Cathedral, the shops, the city - is how light you feel. I could have flown, run or danced anywhere, which was quite surprising considering the distance I had come. This amazing lightness has, of course, a practical as well as a spiritual source. For the first time since the 1st June, when I set out across the mountains, I had put my rucsac down, left it in a hotel and set out to look around without it. In addition to that, having come so far looking for something, the feeling of having arrived brought immense relief. I was home at last. The only thing I have experienced that comes close to feeling that light is the first moment you jump to take off when diving from a 10 metre board. It was as if I had no weight. I was pleasantly surprised this morning then, that Matthew recording Jesus' saying 'My yoke is easy, and my burden is light' was the reading of the day. It seemed beautifully fitting somehow.

Completing the journey, in the dim half light of the Cathedral was memorable. As it was a Thursday, there were not as many people as there might have been, but a queue still formed approaching the tomb of St. James. It was silent in that place. The pilgrim mass, celebrated with the huge botafumeiro, would not be until the Sunday. In the meantime, the dark Cathedral was mine to explore, think in and pray in. It was in those days I realised that the journey had only just begun.

I came home from Spain, having been hanging out in Salamanca since the previous November, or thereabouts, and trained to be a teacher. Teaching and education has been my life ever since. I still wear a leather band around my right wrist to remind me that one day, I have to go back. The original was given to me by a pious tramp at the door of the cathedral. He said, in a spanish drawl possibly under the influence of drink or drugs, 'you will never forget this place, and this place will never forget you.' On that point, he was right. He tied the band round my wrist. Over the years, it fell off, but I have periodically bought myself a similar replacement. I have a feeling I'll always be wanting to go back to Santiago.

In celebration of an unforgettable day: Tarta de Santiago

250g / 9oz Butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the tin
8 eggs
500g / 1lb 2oz caster sugar
400g / 14oz plain flour
500g / 1lb 2oz ground almonds
grated rind of 1 lemon
icing sugar to decorate

Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease a large round, loose bottomed cake tin with butter. If it has frilled edges, all the better. Beat the eggs with the sugar in a bowl until they are pale and fluffy, then add the flour, sieved, softened/melted butter and 250ml / 8floz of water. Mix well, then stir in the ground almonds and the lemon rind. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake for about 30 minutes, until cooked through. Insert a wooden cocktail stick into the centre of the cake, it is cooked through if it comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, then turn it out of the tin. Sprinkle with icing sugar. As is traditional, I usually cut the sword symbol of St. James from cardboard.

I love this with milky coffee, or, if later in the day, a glass of deep red wine.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Joyful Jambalaya and a very strange dream

I had the oddest dream. I rarely remember anything about my dreams, but last night's was so vivid and strange that since waking up it has been coming back to me in snatches. For starters, the Sacred Heart chapel from the Oratory morphed itself onto the side of the Priory Church at Blackfriars. Those of you who know those places can figure out how odd that was. Suffice to say the aesthetics and the architecture shouldn't have matched, but somehow it worked. Despite the setting, it wasn't a dream about being in church. There was a big party going on in the chapel, and many people I knew from different walks of life were there laughing, joking, talking and generally having fun. I was wandering in and out of the different groups joining in for a while and listening. Often there were people talking to each other that I would never put together, I shan't go into details because all the people were 'real' so it wouldn't be fair. But everyone was getting on and the place was packed. And the food! The food was Jambalaya. How can you say the word Jambalaya and not feel happy? It is a glorious mix of cultures, french and spanish cuisine combined with deep hearty spices from the caribbean; vegetables, fish, meat and rice all cooked up together in one big open pan. There was wine too. It was Rose, which is odd, because I don't particularly like Rose, but I guess I wasn't choosing and it went really well with the Jambalaya.  There was music playing, but I do not remember what it was, and often it was only the background to the many animated conversations taking place. The person who stood out the most, standing right at the top of the room, chatting away to various others, was Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP. He was wearing his usual white habit, and a huge, diamond shaped, iridescent green ring. The ring quite freaked me out. I couldn't take my eyes off it. I even asked him to take it off, but he shrugged me away and didn't.  Once I had spotted it though, I couldn't concentrate on the party or the food anymore, only the stupid ring. It really bothered me. No matter where I went in the room I could see it.  No one else seemed to mind. I left the party, and wandered through what would be the sacristy out into the main church of Blackfriars. It was empty but I could still hear the party. The light was beaming in through the top windows, as it often does, causing the tabernacle, which was dressed for ordinary time, to sparkle and sparkle....Then I woke up, and I have been haunted by the dream ever since.  I hope Fr. Tim won't mind me mentioning him by name. It is only a dream after all. I certainly hope he doesn't own any diamond shaped iridescent green rings. I do not like them.

By way of therapy to get rid of this dream I shall share the recipe for joyful jambalaya. It is great for parties, and I am sure it would go very well with a chilled Rose, dry, not sweet. 

You need for 4 people:

About 150 - 200g of smoky chorizo, diced
a red pepper and a yellow pepper, deseeded and sliced
1 onion, finely sliced
2 celery sticks, finely sliced on a diagonal
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 red chilli, finely chopped
a few fresh thyme sprigs
1/2 teaspoon paprika
about 200g long grain rice
a can of chopped tomatoes
700ml vegetable or chicken stock, hot
1/2 tabasco, plus extra to serve
200 - 300g tiger prawns, peeled
If it is a party party I get some whole ones too, because they look good and I like watching guests struggle to eat them politely.
4 spring onions (scallions), trimmed and finely sliced
Peas (if you fancy)
Lemon and Lime wedges, to serve

Cook the chorizo in a wide, deep frying pan, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 minutes. Remove and drain on kitchen paper. Add the peppers, onion, celery, garlic, paprika, and chilli to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until softened slightly. Stir in the thyme and rice, cook for 1 minute, then add the tomatoes, stock and Tabasco and bring to the boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer very gently, stirring occasionally, for 12 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Season to taste. Stir in the chorizo, peas, prawns and spring onions and cook briefly until the prawns are cooked. Serve immediately with lime wedges.
Enjoy! And do not get freaked out by your dreams.