Sunday 20 December 2015

Prophetic Passing of the Years

'Prepare the way of the Lord' cried John the Baptist in the wilderness. Get ready! The time is coming! How many of us find that Christmas creeps up every year?  We do not see it coming, and no matter how early the shops play their inane choruses of 'jingle bells', we are surprised when we reach 'the weekend before Christmas'.

Yet, there is a meta narrative which is yet more hidden, which creeps more stealthily upon us. I read back the blog posts I have made in these last years. In 2012 I dreamed the crib would come to life, and magic, hopeful things might come to pass if only I had the courage to 'hold on' to the tiny forceful grip of the Christ child lying vulnerable in his straw filled crib. My treasured time then was the quiet I spent with loved ones, time when all the festivities had passed and peace been allowed to drift slowly in. 2013 brought the reflection that 'so many things last because of love': a hazelnut cradled a palm precious because love made it so, and made it something that would exist into eternity. I was making freezer meals for my parents that night, because they were under the weather. Later in the same year 'a weary world rejoiced' in the coming of Christmas. My dearest Dad was going to spent the feast in hospital, and I was going to sit with him and my Ma, crocheting a blanket. I remember doing just that. A day of talking quietly on the wards, cheering Ma and Da along as best I could. In the New Year I had the honour to get engaged to the most wonderful, amazing human being ever to have come into my life. We were married in August 2014. The following Christmas tremendous peace came with Christmas. Ma and Da came to our house, and together we celebrated a beautiful, gentle time together. I can still clearly recall Da saying, 'I'm just going to sit here and glow for a while', after he had enjoyed a hearty feast and polishing off an fairly substantial Irish Coffee.

And so, we come to 2015. The best and worst of years. Dad passed away in April, and I miss him each and every day. My son, Bertie, named Robert after his kind and gentle grandfather, was born in November. This year my husband and I have the great privilege of celebrating our first Christmas as a little family; the Christmas cards which decorate one wall are matched by the 'Baby Boy' cards which decorate another. Yet, what joy and peace fill Christmas Day this year will be tinged with the bitter sweet realization that I have loved and lost. It was my dearest wish that Da would meet my first born child.

To date, it is the second word of that realization that has dominated my thoughts. I have lost. But, Christmas, and the peace that it brings in its' quiet moments, the staring at the twinkling lights in the small hours, the visitation to the crib, the family time, the carols humming from the radio, I hope might bring to the fore the first word: I have loved.  

Grief makes you weary, it is true. But, what have I to rejoice in? A beautiful son carrying his grandfathers' name. It is the grace given to me, my husband, my brothers, sisters, mother, all relatives, to show this precious child the gift of love. The gift I learnt in the gentleness, patience, charity, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness and modesty of my Da. So many things last because of love.

This year we will celebrate Christmas Day at our home with the parents of my husband. Bertie is their first grandchild and they delight in him. They too have suffered grief this year, mourning the passing of Peggy, my husband's maternal grandmother. Hope and comfort has also come to them in the new life love has brought.

All of this makes sense of one little line in a famous carol. Whether I think about faith, and the Christ child in the crib, or about home and my son in his cot, the secret of the season is writ clear, even, nay especially, in the mid-winter of grief:


What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him -
Give my heart.

To briefly return to the beginning. Was I ready for any of this? Prepared? No. It snuck up on me. Just like Christmas always does.

PS: I used to write about food! I have got rather carried away here. But, if you have made it this far, you should know, I am making this for Christmas Eve. Delicious. Then we are going to Midnight Mass with Bertie. You may wish us luck now......

Sunday 4 October 2015

Ways of Seeing

Time flies when you aren't paying attention. At least, that's the way I feel about it. Nothing much has changed since I last wrote. Perhaps that is why I write less these days.

Last Saturday, 26th September 2015, we laid my Da's ashes to rest in the garden of St. Thomas More and St John Fisher Catholic Church, Burford. The time of year was fitting somehow, Michaelmas - the feast of All Saints. It is the name of the house to which Ma and Da moved when they retired to the Cotwolds. Graham and I stayed with Ma on Saturday night. We lit the fire and sat and talked. We looked through old photograph albums.

After Mass on Sunday, and a long delicious roast lunch, we left with two presents, both significant to me. The first was a massive bunch of Michaelmas daisies from the garden. The michaelmas was in flower when Ma and Da moved to their cottage in the country. It has always grown in the garden. Da loved it. He loved the garden and was just waiting and waiting for the sun to come out and shine again when he went and passed away in April. 

The second gift is a loan. It is Da's camera. I am not sure where he got it, as it would have been an expensive piece of kit in it's day and it would have been unlike him to go out and buy something so flash. It is a Canon 3000n SLR. Da loved to take photographs. It is passion he has passed on to some of my siblings: they take beautiful images, and regularly document family events and daily life. Looking through the old albums it is clear that Da had an excellent eye for a photograph too. He always caught the right moment, captured the smiles. He took photos in the same way as he painted. When you look at his painting you see all the colours of the rainbow, each shade of green and each cloud in the sky given due respect and brought to life in watercolour. Look in his paint box though and you'd see a few screwed up tubes of old paint. In my whole life I only ever remember him buying one tube of paint. He made the colours happen by mixing them on an ancient old palate, and he could paint any colour. Da's attitude to cameras and photos seemed to be similar. I don't remember him ever spending fortunes on photographic equipment. He loved this Canon 3000n though. I remember him wanting to have the camera all fixed up for when Graham and I married. He had a man put a film in it. I don't quite know what happened to it. Somehow the film was corrupted and when he had it developed there was nothing on it. He was sad about that. Now I look back and think I should have given him more help to make sure it worked properly.

And so, second chances come along. Yesterday Graham and I took the Canon 3000n to a shop and bought it new batteries and new film. We polished it and cleaned it. I downloaded the instruction manual from the internet and read it carefully. This morning we took the camera for a walk and took 6 pictures. We are learning, we are experimenting. Hopefully we will document the arrival of our own little one come November. We will take the film to be developed, choose the best shots and pop them in a brand new family album. I know when I was thinking about which pictures to take I was thinking about how Da would have seen the world. How he would have seen what we saw. He would have loved the cows, and he would have seen the happiness and love between Graham, our unborn baby and I. Hopefully, when the shutter clicked, we will have captured some of that. But, because this is a film camera, we will have to wait and see! There are another 30 pictures still to see, choose, consider and take before we can see the fruits of our labours.

I love having Da's camera. I've always wanted to take beautiful pictures. I don't know yet if I have any talent for it, but I'd like Graham and I to give it a go. I like the idea of using film. I want to wait to see what turns out. I am looking forward to the day we take the film to be developed, the excitement of walking home with the prints, the artistry of choosing the best pictures for an album that will forever be our window on the world. Maybe one day far in the future, our children will remember us, looking through the images we select. Maybe we'll be able to share how we see the world. And I'll know it was because Da, as he brought up his family, paid attention to how he saw the world and how he wanted us to see it too.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

I stopped, the world carried on

My Da, Bob Hutton, died on 22nd April. It came as the most terrible shock I have ever experienced. I still cannot think or talk about it without crying. I think about it as the day I stopped and the world kept moving. 

There is much to be grateful for. Just two days before he was taken into hospital I told him I was going to have a baby, due in November. He grinned a big grin. My Ma jumped up and down, and looking at her laughing he said. 'I never saw you do so much jumping!'. He kept smiling for the rest of the day. The next day we went for a short walk around the green. I held his arm, and he apologised for being slow. I told him not to, and we talked of everything and nothing as we wandered. He had fish and chips for lunch on the day he went into hospital. my brother and his family were visiting. He knew he wasn't well, but did not say anything. He went to bed in the afternoon for a snooze (unheard of). Later that night I would call an ambulance for him, and sit by his side, with my Ma, in intensive care. None of us thought it would be his last hospital visit. He had nine lives you see, and we had been to this place many times before. But, soon he lost consciousness, and two weeks later passed away.

Shortly after he died, I do not know how long, they read that list of the fruits of the Holy Spirit in Church: charity, joy, peacepatiencekindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control. I knew then it was a description of Da. He lived each of those gifts out every day of his life. He lived them when he went to work, he lived them when he came home, he lived them bringing up six children, he lived them laughing with friends. My Da always had time to listen to everyone. He never made assumptions, never generalised, never grouped people together with labels. Whenever anyone came to the house, even if they did look different (men with long hair, thousands of piercings, tattoos, alternative lifestyles, from far away, employed, unemployed) he would entertain, tell stories, laugh, joke and above all listen with gentleness to their story.

I am almost 6 months pregnant now, and still I feel that time has stopped still, that I am stuck and cannot move on. The one person I hold onto is my beautiful husband, who loves me, dare I say it (?), as much as my dear Da loves me. Ma came round today. Talking of Da she said, 'He always loved me so much. I was an angel in his sight, and everything I did was right. Unconditional his love was. Unconditional. The only thing I can do is have his pictures framed and hung. That reminds me of the way he saw the world.' We talked about how Da always spoke with gentleness to strangers, welcomed people, and thought about those he saw in the news as if he were among them. We agreed that was the way we would like to be, to try to be, just to honour his memory.

I've not thought much about the fact that myself and my husband are expecting a baby. Well, that's not entirely true. I have thought lots about practical things: money, buggies, car seats, nappies, maternity leave, work, child care. But, I have not thought much about the example I would like to set for our child, the model I would like them to have. I have been too caught up in work, on a treadmill that seemed as though it would never end. I wanted it that way, really. If I was busy I could not think about Da, I could imagine he was still at home with Ma and I just hadn't seen him in a while. But, you can't do that forever, and even if you try every now and then it brings you back with a horrid shock.

When I think about Da I realise I would like to show them the world as he saw it: full of beautiful landscapes to admire in wonder, people to love unconditionally with kindness and gentleness, patience to wait for all that is good in yourself and in others, generosity of spirit to listen to all those who pass your way, especially those who are different, faithfulness to God and to family, modesty to learn from life's experience, time to be awed by little things, like spiders webs and dickie-birds, and self control to be able to enjoy all things. If I could teach my child to see and live all that in the world I would be proud not only of him or her, but of my Da who taught me that was the best way to be; and, to have the determination to keep on working at it, especially when it seems hard.

Only my husband asked me how I was after Da died. Everyone else asked after my Ma. That is right and proper, as it is the job of us children to look after Ma now Da is not there. Now, people rarely ask how any of us are. For the record, I am not over it, and neither is my Ma, nor I imagine are any of my siblings. But, Da's legacy to us is strength shown through gentleness, and it is with those gifts that we will carry on. And maybe one day we'll catch the world up and join in again.

Saturday 21 March 2015

Veggie Feast Fasting

I have thoroughly enjoyed Lent this year. Mr Cloister and I have been spurning meat most days, and working our way through Hugh Fearnley Wittingstall's Veg Everyday and Sally Butcher's Veggistan - a vegetable lovers tour of the Middle East. We have cooked up some delicious new things; each evening is an adventure for the taste buds. The books are excellent inspiration, the first I bought in Oxfam for £5, the second was a generous gift from best friends of mine. Both are invaluable for creativity in the kitchen. I recommend seeking them out! Veggistan has a website, HFW has been around so long he is in the charity shops.

I have made up some new stuff too.

So far:

Chachouka -  a spicy North African Stew made with red peppers and tomatoes, baked eggs over the top. We had it with HFW's magic flat breads.

Cauliflower and Chickpea Curry - Sadly, this one belies the fact that HFW does not test every single one of his recipes. He adds water where it is not necessary at all! However, the concept is excellent, and made in the traditional way - frying onions and spices first, adding tomatoes and vegetables and slow cooking, is delicious.

Squash and Fennel Lasagne - HFW prepared the bechamel with celery, onion and bay - then discarded the beautiful ingredients! We cannot conscience such wastefulness! So I fried the the celery and onions with the fennel and made the bechamel with the bay.

Mushroom Stoup - Totally delicious mushroom stew made with porcini mushroom and flat field mushrooms, flavoured with dill. I hadn't had dumplings in years, and these were amazing.

Afghan Hotpot - From Veggistan this one - A lovely sweet gloopy stew to celebrate carrots and yellow split peas. We actually made it with one carrot and the parsnips from the fridge. It was great. I am reassured that you can make the same dish with pumpkin! The basic ingredients are onions, garlic, chilli, ginger, cumin, tumeric, coriander, cloves, tomato paste, tomatoes, white wine vinegar, vegetable stock, carrots and yellow spilt peas. Served with fresh flat breads.

Prawns and Parsley - Okay, I made this one up, but it turned out well. I cooked tagliatelli in a pot with half a fresh fish stock cube. Fried garlic and red chilli in olive oil and butter, added white wine, lemon juice and prawns, then basil pesto. Loads of fresh parsley at the last minute. Garnish with black pepper and parmesan.

Onion and Courgette Quiche - Again, made up. Easy really. Fry onions, and garic in butter with fresh thyme leaves. Roll out short crust pastry to fit pie dish. Whisk up 6 eggs with a splash of fresh double cream. Pour in the fried vegetable mixture to the pastry, add eggs, garnish with dried thyme, and artistic left over pastry strips. Bake for 25 mins at about 180 - 200C. I made a variation of this with leek fried in butter with thyme. I had tallegio cheese and scattered it over the top of the cooked leeks before adding the eggs. Both dishes were scrumptious.

Butternut Squash Pasta - Made up again, but it has turned into rather a favourite. Bake a butternut squash with butter and fresh thyme for 1 hour (ish). When it is cooked, fry onions, garlic,  thyme leaves and chilli in butter and olive oil. When translucent add a tablespoon or two of plain flour and a pint of vegetable stock to make a thick sauce. Peel the baked squash, chop it roughly and add to the pan. Cook paste of your choice. Add cream to the sauce if you feel. Add pasta to the sauce, stir all together, garnish with thyme, pepper and parmesan.

Black Eyed Bean and Lemon Hotpot - This was an eye opener and no mistake. Based on a blend of Greek lemon lemonato sauce and Persian casserole wizardry, Veggistan amazed me. Celery, carrots, lemon, dill, basil, tumeric, black eyed beans, potatoes - all flavour and warming, packing comfort and a punch. Life changing. Served with flatbread.

Pinto Bean Chilli and fresh Guacamole - From HFW. He did his track of wanting to add water when it is not needed agin, but was duly ignored. A delicious, flavoursome and comforting meal. Mr Cloister told me he didn't really like guacamole before we began. He loved it by the time we finished. I made that, of course, to my own, time honoured, recipe. Two avacadoes, two tomatoes, half a red onion (rest in the chilli), one garlic clove, cumin, paprika, squeeze of a lemon, salt and pepper. Mash it up a bit, Blend. Serve.

Vegetable Pastries - These were made up, but proved a good lunch too. Roasted parsnips, onions, potato. Fried onion in butter, with thyme. Mix together with cheddar. Fill puff pastry rounds and form traditional pasty shape. Bake for 25 - 30 mins. Serve with bake beans or salad.

That's the journey to date. I have chosen three new things for this week, and learning through Lent has never been more enjoyable. Fasting from meat, buying fresh vegetables from the local farm shop, not throwing anything away, and avoiding as much as possible any supermarket.

Oh! We planted the first veg in the garden too! Tom Thumb and Bingo peas, and Robin Hood broad beans. I drew a plan for our tiny little space. There is a 'walled garden' viz. 6 pots lined up on the wall in front of the fence; a 'herb garden' - pots of delicious things on old apple crates, a'hanging garden' - stuff growing from macrame pot hangers, a 'vegetable patch' - 4 broad bean plants, and about 3m of lawn, 2m of path and room for the tiniest table and chairs money can buy. It is going to be our patch of paradise.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Stations of the Cross from the archive

(Click on The World Is My Cloister to return home)

Renewal and Transformation

I cannot quite believe we are here already. The beginning of Lent is always special to me, I long for it and look forward to it. Some may say this is odd, but I have always been that way. I rarely make 'New Year's Resolutions', foreseeing that they will be broken before dark January is past. But, Lent is a time of renewal when deeper changes are more likely to occur. 

The coldness of early spring will transform - bitter wind, sleet, warmth in the sunshine, cold in the shadows. Hopefully, by Easter the sun will shine more often than not, and the rain, when it comes, will fall soft and warm upon the fields. Life will peak through the soil, and bloom in warm corners of the gardens and streets. Renewal at Lent is a natural process, in tune with the seasons, 

I can't say I started Lent well this year. Sure, I got up and went to Mass - listened to the Prophet Joel declare 'rend your heart, not your garments', received the blessed ashes with the call, 'Repent and believe the Good News', but none of it sank in that day. I was busy - just going through the motions. We were packing to go and visit my parents, then his. I was going to cook moules frites for my parents - something which met the rubric of fast and abstinence, but had a celebratory feel for the meeting of loved ones. 

Since then though, Lent has been slowly sinking in. I have been thinking carefully about how to renew and begin again my relationship with God, with my faith, with those around me and with those in need. I have asked myself, 'what is the Good News to be shared?' I can't answer the question, but there are glimpses sometimes, fragments of light that shine and glimmer in the corner of my eye.

The best things in life are simple. This Lent I will more consciously focus on rejecting the materialism I see all around me - the truth of commercialism is that the things we think we need, we do not. Living more simply has become a constant echo in my prayer these days - I recall Oscar Romero's phrase - Aspire not to have more, but to be more. With this in mind I will return to vegetarianism three days a week, a reminder that there are many things we have that are unnecessary.

We have all the time in the world, time enough for life to unfold all the precious things that love has in store. These words keep coming back to me. They were sung, of course, by Louis Armstrong. I remember them from the day I was married. Now, thy repeat like a mantra I should pay attention to. It is all too easy to let the business of this life carry you along. Before the break for half term put a stop to my gallop I was flat out rushing around. Lent reminds me that there is no need for all that. We really do have all the time in the world. Making time for prayer, and time with loved ones are both vital. This Lent I intend to make sure I do both.

CAFOD have their Fast Day this coming Friday. For every pound donated the government will also donate a pound. We will keep this Fast Day in school, serving simple soup and a roll in the canteen at lunch time and asking each student or member of staff to give as much as they can in return for it. I hope that we will raise more than £1000. Again this is a reminder of the call for us to live sustainably ourselves, and care for those with less. 

Admiring the simple things in life has led me to be inventive in the kitchen and garden again. I have been making things for the bath. This time I have made a 'bath melt', full of moisture to make your skin soft. These little melts are made of natural products, and they are inexpensive to make. Now I am gaining more confidence with these types of products I am thinking I could hold a fundraising stall soon, and combine a passion for natural goodness with helping others.

Lavender Tea Bath Melts
Makes 45 bath melts

150g Shea Butter
150g Cocoa Butter
1 sachet of Clipper Sleep Easy Lavender Tea
Dried Lavender Flowers
Lavender Essential Oil
Rosemary Essential Oil
Silicon ice cube moulds (mine were the shape of ladybirds, dragonflies, butterflies and bees)

Place a ceramic basin over a simmering pan of water. Place the two butters into the basin and gently stir them until they are completely melted. Remove from the heat. Cut open the lavender tea bag, and empty its contents into the butter. Add a table spoon of dried lavender flowers. Add 10 drops of Lavender Oil, and 5 drops of Rosemary oil. Stir the mixture. 

Place the silicon moulds on a solid flat tray that fits neatly onto a freezer shelf. Gently pour the mixture into the silicon moulds. Place the tray with the filled moulds into the freezer and cool them for about 30 - 40 minutes. Once set, turn the bath melts out. They can be stored in a kilner jam jar, or some such.

If you use moulds the size of a normal ice cube tray, when running a warm bath place one of these under the tap. The result is a moisturising clear bath, scented with lavender and rosemary. My moulds were larger, so I use just a quarter at a time.

Thursday 1 January 2015

Choose a Patron 2015

Ordinarily I would listen to Ave Maria by Gonoud, Schubert or some such today. I love the fact that the first day of the year is devoted to the Mother of God. It is a reminder that salvation began its path on earth through the fiat of a young woman faithful enough to agree to God's plan for her life. Today, however, I am not at home, but with my husband's family in Yorkshire. He and I are taking care of his elderly grandmother whilst his parents are away. We went for a walk in Yorkshire Sculpture Park this morning, and now, as the wind rises and the rain slants horizontally across the valley, I am going to settle down to some crochet.

However, today is a day to think about direction in life: it is time to take the challenge of choosing a Patron Saint for 2015.

Choosing a Patron Saint for the year used to be a custom amongst religious communities for New Year's Day, and perhaps, in places it still is.  Modernity has caught up with this ancient practise by means of a Patron Saint Generator by Jennifer Fulweiler. 

St Faustina, of Divine Mercy fame, shows that this custom was alive and well in the 1930's with an excerpt from her diary:

“There is a custom among us of drawing by lot, on New Year’s Day, special Patrons for ourselves for the whole year. In the morning, during meditation, there arose within me a secret desire that the Eucharistic Jesus be my special Patron for this year also, as in the past. But, hiding this desire from my Beloved, I spoke to Him about everything else but that. When we came to refectory for breakfast, we blessed ourselves and began drawing our patrons. When I approached the holy cards on which the names of the patrons were written, without hesitation I took one, but I didn’t read the name immediately as I wanted to mortify myself for a few minutes. Suddenly, I heard a voice in my soul: ‘I am your patron. Read.’ I looked at once at the inscription and read, ‘Patron for the Year 1935 – the Most Blessed Eucharist.’ My heart leapt with joy, and I slipped quietly away from the sisters and went for a short visit before the Blessed Sacrament,where I poured out my heart. But Jesus sweetly admonished me that I should be at that moment together with the sisters. I went immediately in obedience to the rule.”

Excerpt from “Divine Mercy in My Soul, the Diary of St. Faustina”

It appears that I forgot to pick a Patron for the Year 2014, I must have been preoccupied - Mr Cloister proposed on New Years' Day. My Patron for 2013 was St. John of God - the one who would do good on impulse. This year, 2015, my Patron will be Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati , a Dominican devoted to the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Catherine of Sienna, one who supported the poor and Catholic Social Teaching, opposing Facism and all other political systems that oppressed the weak. I am sure to read more about him as the Year goes on, but that is a good start - I will let you know what other adventures his intercession brings!

Do you dare or care to find a Patron for 2015?  Just click here: Patron Saint Generator. :-)