Posted by: christinelaennec | July 12, 2017

Scottish Plainsong Choir: Vespers at Glasgow Cathedral

Glasgow Cathedral on the right, the bridge leading across to the hill where the Necropolis is situated.

Thanks for the many kind compliments about my Iona posts.  I’m so glad you enjoyed them.  A few of you were hoping you could hear the music we were singing.  There’s now a video on YouTube of the Scottish Plainsong Choir singing Vespers at Glasgow Cathedral in August 2016, here.  (I wasn’t able to participate in that particular event.)

The video is half-an-hour long so if you like medieval chant that will give you a good dose, and if you are a fan of Glasgow Cathedral you can enjoy seeing a service there.  The minister is the Rev Dr. Laurence Whitley.

If plainsong and liturgy isn’t really your thing, I will be back in a few weeks with a post or two about a place I will be discovering pretty much for the first time.  One clue:  it’s an island!

I hope you’re all enjoying your summer.

 

Posted by: christinelaennec | June 25, 2017

Vespers in Iona Abbey (Celebrating St. Columba, part III)

This is the third post of a series about the wonderful weekend I spent on the Isle of Iona, singing with the Scottish Plainsong Choir.  On Sunday morning we awoke to more rain tapping at the window.  I was glad that I’d brought a sturdy pair of black shoes for my concert wear, since I had to forego my hiking boots that day.  However, soon after breakfast, the sun appeared!  Most of us walked up to the Abbey to take part in the morning service, although my roommate opted for hiking to the north of the island.  Our main singing event was Vespers at 3, and morning service was optional.

The garden of the St. Columba Hotel looked very inviting in the sun.  You can still see the raindrops on the sycamore leaves near the gate!

Garden of the St. Columba Hotel, Isle of Iona.

We had sung in an informal performance the previous day, but this was the first time I had been to a service in the Abbey, and I was very curious to see what it would be like.  The services are organised by members of the Iona Community, which is an international and ecumenical movement founded in 1938 by George MacLeod, who was the minister at Govan Old church in Glasgow.  I can’t say I fully understand how the Iona Community and Historic Environment Scotland work together, but clearly they do.  I was pleased to see that, while visitors must pay to visit the Abbey, they may join in services there without paying.

Iona Abbey and one of the large carved crosses.

The oldest parts of the Abbey date from the 13th century.  In the photo below you can see how long and narrow the sanctuary is.  At the very far end, below the window blazing with morning light from the east, is the red curtain behind the marble communion table.  Between the two arches are the choir stalls, two rows on either side.  (The quiet chapel is off to the right behind the choir stalls.)  The small door, where you see someone in red, leads to the cloisters.

Iona Abbey, from just inside the front door.  Preparing for morning service with Communion.

Before the service, we warmed up and rehearsed in the Chapter House, which is off the cloisters:

The Cloisters, Iona Abbey. The steps lead down to the door of the Chapter House.

I found the service very interesting.  For one thing, all the leaders were female.  The sermon was given by a Methodist minister from England, and Communion was officiated by another female clergymember.  There were a lot of young people there, I presume staying with the Iona Community, perhaps on retreat.  Dress was informal: most people helping serve Communion were in jeans.  (I regretted not having brought my thermal vest to Iona with me – I’ve spent enough time on the Western Isles, and indeed in ancient cathedrals, to have known better!)  Our contribution to the service was singing Aurora Rutilat, a hymn in honour of St. Columba.  The common cup and large chunks of bread were used to serve Communion.  I believe the sanctuary was pretty full.  It was a very special experience for me.  I’ve been reading Henri Nouwen’s letters, and he wrote a lot about the importance of the mystery of the incarnation.  Also I’ve been reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: an Intimate History – excellent – and that has also been making me think about how miraculous our bodies and all of life is, with these miles of codes inside our cells.   I felt very moved.

After the service, we quickly made our way to the Catholic House of Prayer for our final rehearsal prior to 3 pm Vespers.  I loved singing the unison chants while looking at the boats in the Sound of Iona beyond!  Then we had another delicious meal, at which point I left all but jacket, music, pencil and water in my room – so I have no photos from the afternoon.  The morning photos give you a good idea – just imagine rain and clouds!

Do you see the swallow flying past? They were whizzing around the central courtyard of the cloisters in the morning.

The Vespers service was in honour of St. Columba, whose feast day is June 9th, two days previous.  Columba came from Ireland to the Isle of Iona in about 563; there he founded a monastic community, from which later emerged the Benedictine abbey.  In those days, and still continuing in some monastic communities today, one of the most important functions the monks performed was to sing the Divine Office (the Liturgy of the Hours) throughout the day and night.  The Office of Vespers was an early evening service.  In the course of a week, the monks and nuns would sing through all 150 Psalms.

We lined up in the Cloisters (choreography is one of the most difficult aspects of singing in a choir, for me!).  Before going through the open door into the sanctuary, we sang a short hymn in Latin standing there.  The acoustics in the place are so fantastic that I imagine people in the sanctuary would have heard us pretty well.  I personally love hearing a choir begin singing from elsewhere – it forces me to listen carefully, and of course the quality of “disembodied” a cappella singing is very special.  Then we processed while singing the first hymn with the congregation, a traditional Irish tune set to words by St. Columba (“O God Thou Art the Father”).  It’s a bit of a trick to walk over uneven stones and down steps, while holding a folder of music in your hand, and not walking (or singing) too fast or two slowly.  We all managed it.

Sculpture in the cloisters courtyard, Iona Abbey.

The candles were lit throughout the Abbey, and the rain had come on, so it was very atmospheric.  The service consisted of the Scottish Plainsong Choir singing Psalms from the medieval Inchcolm Antiphoner (in Latin and English) as well as Latin hymns in honour of St. Columba, the Holy Spirit, and Mary.  The professional group Canty also sang Responsories.  Hearing their voices in that space was breathtaking.  There was a short reflection, in which the minister said that the chants would have been completely familiar to the early monks in Iona, and that he imagined the stones of the Abbey were very pleased to hear this kind of singing once again.  That gave me a little shiver!  We sang the Pater Noster (Our Father – the Lord’s Prayer) as part of the prayers offered.  The service finished with us processing back out to the cloisters while singing another hymn of St. Columba’s words set to a traditional Irish tune (“Christ is the World’s Redeemer”).

There was such an attentive hush as we sang the last notes standing in the Cloisters, all of us looking at our conductor for the final cut-off.  We got a big smile from him, which was great as well.  People who are encouraging can get a lot from others!

Some folks were headed back to the mainland that evening, but many of us stayed on and travelled the next day.  Before our final group meal, a couple of friends and I walked out to a beautiful beach.  On the map it’s called “Camus Cul an t-Saimh” but my Gaelic professor tells me it should be the older form “Camus Cul an Taibh”:  The Bay at the Back of the Open Sea.  To modern eyes, Iona seems very remote.  But in former times, when the sea was the highway, Iona was at the centre of Celtic Christianity (which straddled modern-day Scotland and Ireland, and extended as far as what is now the Northeast of England).  Some believe that the Book of Kells was made or begun in Iona.  In any case, when Columba established his monastic community there, Iona was not peripheral, but central.

“Camus Cul an Taibh” on the West side of Iona.

The last part of my Iona weekend seemed to have animals as a theme!  At the beach, we watched a duck with her three ducklings in the surf:

Three ducklings and their mother in the sea. Eider ducks, possibly?

In the morning, as a group of us waited for the ferry, a very friendly cat came to say hello.  She seemed to be waiting for someone coming over from Fionnphort, as when the ferry was approaching, she stood on the slipway and meowed very pointedly at it!

Friendly cat on the ferry slipway, Isle of Iona.

Back we travelled across Mull, and by ferry to Oban:

Oban, June 2017.

I was amused by this shop, and my lovely travelling companion told me that a “pokey hat” is a Scottish expression for an (ice cream) cone:

Ice cream shop in Oban.

We had a few hours there, and I really enjoyed getting to know her a bit better over lunch.  The last leg of our journey was by train.  As we waited for the train to be ready to board, a mallard landed amongst us.  A young man told us that a pair of mallards had nested nearby, and that the people at the station were feeding them and giving them water.  Mama duck was nowhere to be seen.  Daddy duck had some water from the bowl and flew off again, nearly missing our heads!

Daddy duck, Oban Rail Station.

The train journey was beautiful.  Here is a peek down Loch Lomond, taken near Ardlui:

Loch Lomond, June 2017.

Unlike James James Morrison Morrison Wetherby George Dupree’s mother, I was back in time for tea.  Michael and the Dafter had survived perfectly well without me for four days, and I felt so very much stronger and lighter having had a good break.  It was such a wonderful thing to be able to do!

Posted by: christinelaennec | June 22, 2017

Singing in Iona Abbey (Celebrating St. Columba, part II)

So to continue my story of a wonderful trip to Iona with the Scottish Plainsong Choir, most of us were awakened on our first night by the wind and rain.  At breakfast, those who had walked down from the youth hostel were absolutely sodden.  I was very grateful that we didn’t have to wear concert dress that day, and I was so glad of my sturdy hiking boots and my serious raincoat.

Our first rehearsal was at Iona Abbey:

Iona Abbey in the rain. Isle of Iona, June 2017.

I had never been inside before, and was entranced by its beauty and by its acoustics.  At 11:00 we took part in an informal performance by the group Canty.  It was pretty amazing to hear professionals singing medieval chant in that space!  Our own contribution was “Aurora Rutilat,” a piece the Scottish Plainsong Choir has sung quite often, and so we didn’t disgrace ourselves.  Some members of the audience came all the way down to sit in the choir stalls next to us, and they were pretty enraptured by the experience.  There were many lit candles, above the choir stalls and by the Communion Table.  After the performance, a woman came and put them out by waving a piece of paper.  You can see her on the bottom right of the photo below:

Inside Iona Abbey.

While we had been singing, the sun had come out, and you would never have guessed at the soaking horizontal rain that had been battering the island since about 3 am:

Iona Abbey in the sun.

We could please ourselves for lunch, so my lovely roommate and I opted for fish at the St. Columba Hotel.  We loved sitting by the window and watching the weather change.  One minute you could see Fionnphort, across the Sound of Iona, clear as a bell.  A few moments later, all was obscured by mist and low rain.  That would pass, and Fionnphort reappeared.  That hide-and-seek weather pattern happened about three times in an hour and a half.

View from our table at the St. Columba Hotel, Isle of Iona.  Iona Abbey on the left of the photo.  The Isle of Mull across the Sound of Iona.

We spent the afternoon rehearsing in the Parish Church, with a generous tea break.  The windows of the church were pelted by rain at regular intervals.  Then it was back to the Abbey for another rehearsal, and the sun was obligingly out as we walked over.  We finished our rehearsal at 7:30 pm and had a chance to look around the Abbey briefly.  I was very interested in the ferns allowed to grow in the masonry:

Inside Iona Abbey: ferns in the walls near the Communion Table.

It may surprise you to know (as it did me) that there was a marble quarry on this tiny island!  The Communion Table at the Abbey is made from the greeny stone.  You can see how highly polished it is, from the reflection of the bronze plate and curious visitor:

Communion table made from Iona marble. Iona Abbey.

At twenty to eight in the evening, the sunlight was still strong:

Quiet side chapel, Iona Abbey.

And in minutes, the rain came again:

View from side chapel window, Iona Abbey: rain’s on again!

Beautiful verse and beautiful embroidery.  “Iona of my heart, Iona of my love / Instead of monks’ voices will be lowing of cattle. / But ‘ere the world ends / Iona shall be as it was.”

Needlepoint cushion, Iona Abbey.

And by ten to eight it had cleared again. I like the shadows made by the bright evening sun, shining from the West:

Cross in front of Iona Abbey: rain’s off again!

We all came together for another delicious meal, and a good laugh.  We’d really enjoyed our day.  After dinner I roped a couple of friends into going for a walk with me.  At 9:30 pm, the sky was graced with multiple rainbows:

Evening walk on Iona: looking across to Fionnphort on the Isle of Mull.

Rainbows on Iona.

Sheep parliament? Isle of Iona.

We were very amused by the sheep all sitting along the top of this rocky outcrop!  I had been able to get some intermittent texts and emails (phone signal and WiFi on Iona being quite patchy), so I knew that Michael and the Dafter were doing very well, and although it’s nice to get away from it all, it’s also very nice to know that the “all” you are away from is fine!  It was still very light when I got back to my room at nearly 10:30, but I slept very well indeed that night, having sung, eaten and explored to my heart’s delight.

The next day, Sunday, was the event we’d been preparing for – but I’ll tell you about that in my next (and final) post about my trip to Iona.

Posted by: christinelaennec | June 18, 2017

Celebrating St. Columba on the Isle of Iona (Part I)

I recently had a very special experience:  I sang with the Scottish Plainsong Choir in Iona Abbey.  As you might know, St. Columba was an early Christian religious leader, who established a Christian community on the Isle of Iona:  a small island, off of a larger island, off the West Coast of Scotland.  He is believed to have come to Iona in the year 563.  Legend has it that he and his followers came there from Ireland in small boats called coracles.  He was greatly revered and later became a saint.  His feast day is June 9th.

On St. Columba’s feast day, members of the Scottish Plainsong Choir travelled to Iona from many different parts of Scotland, as well as a few from England and Northern Ireland.  My own journey began, with a few choir friends, just after 8 am when we took the train, through low mist and rain, to Oban.  From there we had an hour-long ferry trip across to the Isle of Mull.  Then an hour-and-twenty-minute bus ride across Mull on a single-track road with passing places.  The rain began to lift about halfway across Mull.  When we arrived in Fionnphort, to take the ten-minute ferry ride across the Sound of Iona, it had turned into a spectacular summer’s day!

Fionnphort on the Isle of Mull, with Iona across the Sound of Iona. June 2017.

In the photo above, you can just see Iona Abbey to the left of the outcrop of rock along the horizon.  As I walked down to the ferry, the reddish rocks beyond the beach reminded me of something – and then I realised I was thinking of Samuel Peploe’s and Francis Cadell’s paintings from nearly 100 years ago.

The colour of the water was a beautiful green:

The Isle of Iona from the ferry.

Before we knew it, we’d reached Iona.  The view back across was just as lovely:

Looking back across to Mull from Iona.

Once I’d found where I was staying, I dashed back out, knowing that we had a very full programme and that the chance to enjoy the island in such stunning weather might not come again!

Flag irises everywhere: Mull in the distance across the Sound of Iona.

There were flag irises all over, and butterflies and birds everywhere.  I was most impressed by the gardens!

The Argyll Hotel’s organic garden, Isle of Iona. June 2017.

Iona Abbey in the distance, the St. Columba Hotel on the left, and more beautiful gardens. Isle of Iona, June 2017.

The Abbey is run by Historic Environment Scotland, and apart from attending services, you have to pay to gain entry.  Just next door, however, is a small chapel that is open to all, St. Oran’s Chapel:

Iona Abbey on the left; St. Oran’s Chapel on the right.

It is a beautiful little sanctuary:

St. Oran’s Chapel, Isle of Iona.

I like the intricate carvings, with the Viking longboat on the top of one of the slabs:

Carved stones (presumably grave slabs?) in St. Oran’s Chapel, Isle of Iona.

Also run by Historical Environment Scotland is the Nunnery (In Gaelic, the House of the Old Women in Black of Iona.)  It was founded in about 1200, and flourished for 350 years or so.  The photo below shows what is left of the cloisters.  I believe that the mown grass path on the right of the photo would have been covered, and that the other side of the low wall was the garden at the heart of the nunnery.  I wonder if any of the rather wild plants there now are distant cousins of what the nuns grew in their cloisters garden?

Taigh Cailleachan-Dubha I / Nunnery, Isle of Iona.

There were so many birds singing as I wandered around, including a very tuneful thrush in the nunnery.  As I walked back to my room, I saw the very sweet Post Office, which also had a bird chirping on its sign:

Sparrow on the Post Office sign, Isle of Iona.

The post office is down a small path, and has a magnificent postbox from the reign of Queen Victoria (signified by the “V R” initials on the front).

A Victorian postbox on the Isle of Iona.

It was soon time for our dinner – delicious – and then our first rehearsal of medieval chanted psalms and hymns, in Latin and English.  After rehearsal, about 9:15, I managed another wee walk to admire the sunset:

Sunset with mist creeping over the Isle of Mull in the distance.

Sun setting behind Iona Abbey.

The woman I was sharing a room with was someone I’d met at the weekend in Cumbrae last summer, and we got on wonderfully well.  We’d both had a long day of travelling and then rehearsals, and were glad of our comfy beds.  And we were both awakened in the night by the sound of lashing wind and rain against the window.  But I will tell you about that in my next post!

Posted by: christinelaennec | June 8, 2017

Summer!

Hello everyone!  Thank you so much for your lovely messages of consolation and concern.  We miss Tilly very much, but feel her presence with us still.  I’m pleased to tell you that after a gruelling ten months, the Dafter has finished her college course.  She managed another “battery” of exams (two 2-hour exams on one day with only 20 minutes’ break) and she has finished all her assessments.  The course was far more difficult than it might have been due to certain key individuals not really believing that the Dafter is as ill as she actually is.  This, of course, is the fate of many with ME.  It is hard to bear and takes a great deal of precious energy for everyone!  However, that is behind us now and hopefully next year will be easier.  She is exhausted and has had two collapses in the past three days, which is something we haven’t seen for a while, but hopefully her efforts won’t result in a real setback.

We had some beautiful weather in May, and I was able to take the Dafter to the beach one warm afternoon.  (Warm in Scotland being in the high 60s / low 70s.  It even got up to a scorching 25C / 77 F one day, but we survived.  We had to give the rats a bath to help them cool off, though.)

The Dafter at the beach, with seagull flying past!

The garden survived the heat pretty well, although I was unable to get calendulas planted, and apart from ones in copper-tape-edged tubs, none of my poppy seedlings survived.  My nigellas are not up to much at all, so it may be quite a plain July and August this year.  But the perennials have been happy:

Peony “Kansas” with bee.

The lilac I planted three and a half years ago bloomed for the very first time!  The scent was just fantastic.

First blooms on the lilac.  “Krasavitska Moskvy”.

Our Son has been having some challenges that we have been helping him with as best we can.  As is often said, you never stop being a parent.  But we are so proud of how both our children are dealing with the cards that life has dealt them!

On one of the warm days, I was able to go for a walk in the West End of Glasgow.  Driving along the narrow streets of Partickhill is not recommended, but walking is a delight:

House in Partickhill, Glasgow. June 2017.

Public walkway in Partickhill, Glasgow.

As its name implies, Partickhill is a hill above the bustling neighbourhood of Partick.  This neighbourhood was where many Highlanders came to live in the 19th and 20th centuries.  I would not want to equate whisky-drinking with people from the Highlands, but this old ad had no compunction about doing so:

An old advertisment for whisky, Partick, Glasgow.

I have had a bit of time to read lately.  I’ve been enjoying the two books below.  The correspondence of Henri Nouwen is something to savour slowly.  He was a Catholic priest from the Netherlands who taught at Yale and Harvard, worked amongst the poor in South America, and ultimately found a home in the L’Arche community of disabled people founded by Jean Vanier.  He such a loving and expressive friend, and his letters have been very well edited to bring out various aspects of his evolving thought about God, relationships, truth and justice.

The book about the history of The Gene I picked up from the library, partly because I have a policy that if there’s a book I find remotely interesting I check it out, to try to save our library from closing, and mostly because I wanted to try to understand genetics a bit more, in order to understand current ME research better.  I am absolutely not a scientist, but this book has been a very compelling read.  It weaves together the author’s own family history with an engaging history of scientific understanding of heredity and genetics.  I have been reminded that societal worries about immigration and racial purity go very far back into the colonial past.  The author certainly brings out the fact that many of the people who contributed to our understanding of the gene were unusual –  Darwin, Mendel and Galton all failed to pass important exams.  Ronald Fisher was blind.  The eugenics people who believed in purifying the population might well have said they were defective.

June reading

I’ve also been knitting, as always.  Here are a few things I made in the spring.  An Easter hat for the Dafter, which rather to my surprise she just loves:

Easter hat for the Dafter. “Hyzenthlay Rabbit Ears Beanie” by Sheila Toy Stromberg.  (I did offer to shorten the hat, but the Dafter likes the upturned ribbing!)

And I finally finished my travel knitting for this past winter: “Come What May” by Susan B. Anderson.

Come What May shawl, May 2017.

I used a gradient silky yarn by the Yarn Kitchen, and enjoyed the beaded cast-off.  Because I wanted to use every last drop of the purply end of the skein, I improvised a crochet picot edging.  Details on Ravelry here.

Shawl edging (with improvised crochet picot).  I just happened to have these beads already, and they are perfect!

Finally, my Bohus cardigan is ongoing.  I finished the yoke, which is very pleasing to me because of the unusual patterning including purl stitches:

Yoke of Bohus cardigan completed.

Now I am knitting the rest of the body.  The yoke came out at 7 3/4″ rather than the prescribed 6 3/4″, but I couldn’t bear to rip any of it out.  So I guess the armholes will be an inch lower, but hopefully it won’t make too much of a difference.

Bohus cardigan back, with armhole shaping.

Stockinette stitch is very soothing!

I am deeply tired, but also hugely relieved that the Dafter has managed to complete one more Higher.  She has missed so much schooling because of her ME, but she is a delight to talk to and certainly has good critical thinking skills.  Michael’s desperately overworked academic year is a few weeks from finishing, when his workload will shift back to something far more manageable.  I need now to focus on my own health and recuperation.  Some days I am so shattered that I fall asleep just for 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there – most unusual for me.  However, I am soon going on a singing adventure that I hope to be able to share with you here.

Happy June to you all!

Posted by: christinelaennec | April 25, 2017

Farewell to Tilly

Two days ago, we had to say goodbye to our darling Tilly.  She made it a lot longer than predicted, and right until her last day she wanted to be with us, and wanted to be part of the world.

Tilly in Aberdeen, February 2013.

We found her at Mrs. Murray’s Cat and Dog home in February 2006, after I had a strong hunch that our new cat was waiting for us.  She had been lost and wandering the snowy streets of Aberdeen, and no-one had come for her in a week.  The day we arrived was the first day she was up for adoption.

She was a wonderful companion.  She liked to be nearby us, although not right on top of us like other cats we’ve had.  She made us laugh, and gave us comfort.  When she arrived, she didn’t purr, and I decided that she would be far happier if she knew how to purr, so I would “purr” into her fur every day for a few minutes.  She began making a funny noise as if she had sinus problems, and this then developed into a purr you could feel but not hear.  In her last years, she could occasionally purr so loudly you could hear it across the room.  She developed a variety of meows.  She favoured a very brippy meow, but when she felt entitled to something – if her meal was very late, or there was no obvious reason why we weren’t letting her outside – she would “Yip!” at us.  She also had a curious knack for asking to have milk when we were making morning coffee – but never, ever when we were having tea.

At first she was unwilling to come on anyone’s lap.  Eventually, with coaxing, she would come on my lap.  But only onto my lap, and only if I was sitting in my usual knitting spot, with either a skirt on or a blanket on my legs.  She was amazingly uninterested in my knitting, and as long as the wool didn’t actually come across her face, she completely ignored whatever I was working on.  I was so grateful that we managed never to have to put her into a cattery, even during our move to Glasgow, because I felt sure she would think she was without a family once again.

Tilly in Glasgow, October 2013.

Fourteen years ago, we lost a beloved cat who had come with us to Scotland from the States along with his brother.  He died on this day, age 17.  I wrote a poem about him, and I think it could be about Tilly as well:

25 April

On this day
the trees in their pink party dresses
proclaim:  new life!  new life!

On this day
the birds chattering to each other
sing out:  new life!  new life!

On this day
each flower is a coloured banner
waving:  new life!  new life!

And on this day,
while the youngsters shout,
you are ebbing away.

It is left to me
to murmur gently:  old life, old life,
you have been good and true
to the end.

Tilly, thank you for all you have given to our family.  We are heartbroken to lose you.  But the love that we shared together with you will live on.

Posted by: christinelaennec | February 19, 2017

Five and a half years of ME/CFS: Dafter update

Hello!  No, I haven’t slipped off the edge of the earth.  Time has flown since New Year, what with various bugs afflicting us, supporting the Dafter to keep going at college, Michael being absolutely snowed under with work, me continuing to get our US ex-pat tax paperwork sorted, my volunteer work as church music librarian, and singing in choirs.  In addition, since Christmas I have been serving on an advisory board for a potential study into M.E.  I have spent every spare minute studying material, and being in touch with some very talented people who are as passionate as I am about finding out what this mysterious illness is, and how to cure it if possible.

February 2017

February 2017: flowers for our 29th wedding anniversary!

Another recent event is that the Dafter turned 19.  This was a very hard birthday for her.  Five years ago almost to this day, we sat in a paediatrician’s office.  She said that since the Dafter had been ill for six months, unless blood tests revealed another cause, she would diagnose M.E.  She said, “Every year I see two or three cases, mostly girls.  It’s usually 4 to 5 years to full recovery.”

I remember waiting with the Dafter for Michael to bring the car around, wondering if she would manage to walk across to it.  We were both stunned.  “You mean I’m going to feel this bad til I’m 19?!” the Dafter said.  “No, no,” I reassured.  “You’ll feel a lot better by the time you’re 19.”  But we couldn’t have known how much worse she would become; we couldn’t have imagined the two and a half years of lying nearly-paralysed in bed; the isolation and loneliness; the painfully slow and part-time return to education and life.

The Dafter with her final piece for her Higher Art portfolio. This is part of a study of rainbow colours on her face. Done in pencil and paint.

January 2017. The Dafter with her final Expressive piece for her Higher Art portfolio. This is part of a study of rainbow colours on her face. Done in pencil and paint.

Now at 19 the Dafter is better than that day five years ago, but she is far from being well.  So she has gone through quite a grieving process, with me by her side.  We have to accept that she will never have been well during her teenage years.  However, she is making progress, and I still believe she will make a full recovery.

It is also a blessing that the Dafter isn't wheelchair-bound, because she could come into the strands of hanging lights with other people. Such fun!

At the Enchanted Forest, October 2016.

The pattern of the days and of the week

The Dafter goes to college [for US readers, a bit like a community college] three days a week.  She’s now able to attend for three and a half hours, sometimes four hours.  Although she misses at least two hours of class time every day, she has managed to keep up with the course.  And sometimes she has a bit of energy left over to do something else during the day other than rest in bed.  She still needs rest days where she does very little besides rest in bed.  But this is only about once a week, sometimes even less.  Days when she doesn’t have college, we have other routines that involve getting out of the house every day that it’s possible.

She still is too unwell to take public transport on a regular basis.  I (or Michael) take her places in the car, to save her energy for whatever she is going to do.  Occasionally now she can take a taxi.  However, having to leave at a fixed time is very stressful because she still can’t quite be sure how long it will take for her to be ready.  She can’t rely on her body functioning a particular way from day to day.  So a big part of my job as her carer is to be available to leave when she is ready, and to go get her at a moment’s notice.  But providing her with this support is allowing her to heal.  She will eventually be able to be more independent.

Last winter she discovered that she could delay the plummeting of her energy if she closed her eyes and deeply rested in the car while I drove.  She hadn’t been able to rest deeply in this way before discovering that the motion of the car made it possible. We went for “rest drives” nearly every afternoon, and they were a big help.  But this winter she has not needed rest drives nearly so often.  She seems to be able, most of the time, to recover a bit of energy by doing something restful in bed.  Sometimes we still go for a drive, but she can now rest while enjoying the view and maybe taking photos.  A year ago that level of activity might have drained her.

The Dafter in Gourock, January 2017.

The Dafter in Gourock, January 2017.

Physical strength

The Dafter is now able to walk a bit further than just from the car to her class at college and back.  She is sometimes able to walk ten minutes each way with her classmates to a nearby supermarket at lunchtime.  And when we get home from college, it’s no longer a struggle to get her from the car, up the stairs and into her bed.  Sometimes after college she comes into the kitchen to get her own snack before going upstairs.

She still needs the wheelchair sometimes, for example to go on a shopping trip, or to travel.  We think of the wheelchair as our friend, because it makes so much possible that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.  It’s a bit like a blender:  you may not use it every day, but when you need it, nothing else will do.

A recent development is that she sometimes feels the need to stretch her muscles, and go for a short walk.  She is still in pain almost all the time.  But sometimes now the pain comes from not having moved, rather than just the constant M.E. pain.  We still give her regular massages and foot massages – a foot massage can help her get to the shower in the evening, for example.

Collapses are changing

For years the Dafter has had what we call “collapses”:  sudden and total loss of power in her body, inability to speak, great pain, but complete awareness.  A few years ago I counted that she’d had 80 collapses in six months (about every other day), each lasting half an hour to 45 minutes.  Over this past winter, the collapses have become much less frequent and have changed in nature.  She can feel them coming on, and we’ve discovered that if we vigorously massage her straight away, she doesn’t lose power completely.  We can head them off in this way.  She still is in great pain, but it passes fairly quickly.  And this only happens a few times a month, almost always when she is particularly tired out.

Mornings

Waking and getting up remain something she needs help with.  She needs nine to ten hours of sleep a night, and even then needs a friendly pestering presence to fully waken and manage to get up and out of bed.  However, whereas two years ago she could not do anything out of the house before 1 pm, now she is almost always able to leave by mid-morning.  On weekends she sometimes wakes naturally, which is a new development and a lovely one.

Bedtime

Getting to bed at the end of the day remains an anxious time for her.  While she is fairly happy to rest in bed during the day – we have a system of duvets and pillows that prop her up at the non-sleeping end of her bed – the thought of going to sleep for the night is still a bit frightening.  I think this is because when she was very ill, she was often afraid that she was going to die before the morning.  I help her at bedtime, and although it can take quite some time, she manages to be calm and ready to sleep.

Immunity

The Dafter has successfully fought off three different “just a viruses” over the past two and a half months: a tummy bug, a bad cold, and a bug involving asthma-like wheezing and requiring an inhaler.  She and I have spent a few long nights recently.  However, she has managed to keep going to a greater extent than in previous winters, and her immunity seems to be a bit stronger.

"Suffer the little children to come unto me". 1950s stained glass church window.

“Suffer little children to come unto me”. 1950s stained glass church window.

Concentration:  progress

The fact that she is able to focus for three and a half hours at college is an advance on last year, when she managed an hour and 40 minutes of concentration at a time.  She has had a number of assessments this academic year, and her memory has been serving her well.  She’s passed all her assessments so far.  Just the fact of doing so many has been a big accomplishment, seeing as in the previous five years she had only taken a few short tests, one prelim exam and one full exam.

For most of the past five and a half years of illness, she’s been unable to read extended texts, or to listen to audiobooks.  In June 2015, she discovered she could watch films again – that was a big step.  But text remained too challenging.  (This is why she has never yet been able to study English at high school level.)  However, over the Christmas break, I tried yet again to read aloud to her.  And this time, she was able to follow!  I’ve read one book (Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which she enjoyed) and we have started another.  As long as she can paint while I read, she can focus and follow the story.  This is a major development.

Social life

It is still the case that very few of the Dafter’s friends have an understanding of the reality of her illness.  This is partly because they don’t see her when she is resting and unwell (which is much of her time), and partly because when she is well enough to socialise, she is so thrilled to be with other people that she seems very well and energetic.  It is hard enough to grow up and work out who you want to be friends with, when you have full health.  The Dafter has had many fewer opportunities than most her age to make friends and be with people in the past five and a half years.  However, she now has quite a few friends of various ages and interests.

Having a day with no particular plan is no longer a major worry to me.  Often now, the Dafter can find someone to do something with, if she feels like it.  She was able to go out to celebrate her birthday, and she had an absolutely wonderful time dancing at a club.  Needless to say, she spent two days in bed afterwards, but it gave her a happiness that no amount of careful pacing could ever give.

Emotional progress

The past few weeks have been challenging not only because she turned 19 – when according to the paediatrician, she should have been fully well – but because her college work has included learning to write and speak in Gaelic about “how to be healthy”.  The Dafter can no longer remember what it feels like to be well.  With my help, she managed to write an essay in Gaelic about her health, why she cannot go to the gym or the swimming pool, why her food sensitivities mean that she can rarely eat at a restaurant.  One of the prompts was, “What do you do when you need to lose weight?”  Her answer was, “When I need to lose weight, I look in the mirror and decide that I am beautiful just the way I am.”  The effort of speaking and writing about the full reality of her illness took a lot out of the Dafter, and it took me a great deal of work (not for the first time this academic year) to support her and encourage her not to drop the course.

However, she persevered.  The tutor was supportive – she doesn’t set the syllabus, and this topic may be on the exam in May.  She told the Dafter that most 19-year-olds would have much less to say about their health.  In the speaking assessment, she asked the Dafter how long she’d been ill, and was sincerely interested and probably impressed with what the Dafter has come through.

The Dafter still loves her rats very much, although she is not always well enough to take them out of their cage for long (Michael and I do that, with the help of their wee sling).  She has had some tender times with Tilly, who is still with us.  Pets are such an important emotional support.

Tilly, February 19, 2017. She has several tumours down her tummy, eats more, and walks a bit more slowly, but seems very happy and very purry with us.

Tilly, February 19, 2017. She has several tumours down her tummy, eats more, and walks a bit more slowly, but seems very happy and very purry with us.

Special moments

It sounds like nothing, but a few weeks ago while I was making her packed lunch, I nearly burst into tears of joy when the Dafter appeared in the kitchen, to ask me if I thought her outfit was okay.  It is such a normal thing for most people, but it was really amazing that she had got dressed by herself – this is increasingly the case nowadays – and had the energy to come all the way downstairs, and get back upstairs, with the idea of potentially changing her clothes after that. (The outfit was fine.)

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. February 2017.

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. February 2017.

A few days ago, I picked her up from college after she had had her speaking assessment (on the topic of health).  The Dafter was tired, but relieved and pleased that it was behind her and she’d managed it.  I asked if she wanted to do something before going home.  She asked if we could go to Kelvingrove Museum – and we did!  She remarked:  “This is the first time I’ve been here on foot,” meaning without using the wheelchair.  She really enjoyed seeing the (stuffed) animals and displays about dinosaurs. Michael, most unusually, was able to join us as well.  We had a snack all together, and got into a conversation about palindromes.  The Dafter found some funny palindromic sentences on her phone, and was reading them out to us.

I was so very, very happy.  To anyone else we looked like just a normal family, I suppose.  But the fact that she had managed a difficult assessment that morning, AND walked around the museum for over half an hour under her own steam, AND that she could sit there giggling with us about sentences such as “Red roses run no risk, sir, on nurses order” – it struck me as really amazing and wonderful.

I want to thank the many regular readers who have followed our journey thus far, and left so many supportive and helpful comments here.  I have a little collection of them printed out, and some are engraved on my heart.  They are very precious to me.

If anyone is reading this because their child has been diagnosed with ME, I’m sorry that it can turn out to be a very long road. But never give up hope!  Try to find other people dealing with the condition.  (In the UK, the Association of Young People with ME can provide some help for those under 25 who have ME. – Edited on March 16 2017:  AYME is closing at the beginning of next month.  Action for ME will open a Children’s Services Team.) You will find that life can still have deep meaning and joy, and your child will no doubt develop great strength and empathy on the path to healing.

[Edited to add:  There is an informative video of a presentation by Mark Van Ness in 2014 showing that exercise can be harmful in the early stages of ME:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_cnva7zyKM&feature=youtu.be]

 

Posted by: christinelaennec | January 1, 2017

Happy New Year 2017!

Happy New Year to you!  I have quoted Minnie Haskin’s poem before, but can’t find where, and so I will do so again today:

“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,

‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’

And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.’ ”

Sunrise in Aberdeen, Nov. 2010.

Sunrise in Aberdeen, Nov. 2010.

 

As our minister said in church this morning, we start this new year with some trepidation, but also with faith and hope.  I hope that 2017 brings you peace, good health, happiness, and the sense that whatever challenges may come, we will get through them together.

Posted by: christinelaennec | December 23, 2016

What Christmas Still Means to Me

Two years ago, I wrote about “What Christmas Means to Me”.  The heartbreaking news stories this year are different, but my feelings about celebrating Christmas when there is suffering are the same.  So here is that wee essay once again, in case you’re interested.

Christmas tree with a "herald angel".

Christmas tree with a “herald angel”.

Thank you all for your kind comments, and I’m glad if I gave you a laugh with my Christmas cookies!   Thank you especially to all those who have written words of comfort about this being the first Christmas after the death of my father.  I so much appreciate your thoughts.

For a few years now, I have wished I could write a post about what Christmas means to me, and each year I have felt inadequate to do so.  This year is no different, but especially given what happened in Glasgow city centre day before yesterday (an out-of-control 50-ton bin lorry killed six people and injured at least six others), I thought I would give it a go anyway.

Many people have commented on how particularly tragic it is that such a thing happened at Christmas-time, which is supposed to be a time of joy and festivity.  I can only imagine how desperately awful it will be for those families who will have unopened presents under the tree and an empty place at the table tomorrow – if they can manage to celebrate Christmas at all.  In France, innocent people out enjoying the season have been killed and injured not by a freak accident, but seemingly by those intent on harm.  It’s not long since Sydney, Australia suffered death and destruction at the hands of one individual.

Do these events negate Christmas?  What does Christmas mean, beyond presents and food and parties (at least for many of us)?

I have always loved the magic of Christmas.  As a child, I both knew that Santa wasn’t real – my parents didn’t really encourage us to believe – but I would stay up wondering if maybe I might hear the sound of hooves on the roof.  Then as now, I was a believer.  I am still quite prepared to think that fairies may live in the garden, and with Lewis Carroll, I wonder if the question we ought to ask isn’t:  “But do fairies believe in the existence of humans?”  In my very full and interesting life I have experienced amazing coincidences, inexplicable help, signs and wonders.  I love midnight on Christmas Eve, a magical moment when legend has it animals can talk.  Animals seem to me to have a far better understanding of the divine than us humans.  And I love the story of a God who created this incredible universe – what keeps the planets going in their courses, and not just falling out of the sky? – coming to earth in the form of a helpless baby.

What I celebrate at Christmas is that God is with us.  I believe in a loving God who is closer to us than our own breath, in whom we “live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  I believe that God can never leave us.  God is “the Love beyond which we cannot fall,” to quote the Rev. Bob Brown at South Holburn Parish Church.  And God is with us not just on one day of the year, or when there are twinkly lights and lots of chocolate.  God was in George Square when those Christmas shoppers suddenly lost their lives.  God was right there (and angels, I believe) as events unfolded.  God was present in the many passers-by who ran towards the scene, covering bodies with coats, comforting the traumatised.  Over and over, the innate goodness that is in people is demonstrated at such times of crisis.

Why did God not stop this and other tragedies happening in the first place?  I don’t have the answer to that.  In his book Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Rabbi Kuschner concludes that God isn’t always able to stop accidents, illness and suffering generally.  Whatever the case may be, the Christmas story itself takes place in a world of suffering, of military rule and great injustices.  Jesus’ birth did not erase these problems.  But, if you believe that he was the Christ consciousness, God incarnate – a bit of a stretch for many, and I accept that! – then the story is one of God taking physical form amongst us, and suffering in all the ways humans do.

Until I was lucky enough to hold my own baby in my arms, I didn’t appreciate as much as I do now the idea of Love incarnate in a tiny baby.  Babies are (often!) so peaceful, and so utterly trusting.  Charles Dickens wrote, “It is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.”  Indeed there can be moments when any baby seems to be the incarnation of unconditional love.  We can learn a lot from them.  The other thing I like about the Christmas story is the completely absurd idea of God taking the form of a baby.  This reminds me that God is to be found in the most unlikely places, if we care to look.

Christmas for me is also about light conquering darkness.  A single flame can conquer the darkness in an entire room.  I believe that ultimately, good will always overcome evil.  And Christmas comes at an excellent time of year to be reminded of that.   The early Christian church very cleverly adapted existing pagan practices, and it is no accident that we celebrate Christmas just a few days after the Winter Solstice, which had been marked by fire ceremonies of various kinds.  We need to be reminded that the sun hasn’t left us forever, that although the earth seems dead and barren, the force of new life is there, even if we can’t see it yet.  We may have to wait (as Christians do through Advent) but life and light will gather force and come back into our lives.  We need to have “faith in things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).

The most important of all Things Unseen, it seems to me, is love.  Christmas points me towards the tremendous power of love in our lives.  Years ago my Grampa, one of the best men I will ever have the privilege to know, told me, “With love, you can do anything”.  I held this to my heart during the very difficult, indeed precarious, years of raising Our Son.  At one point I began to wonder if perhaps Grampa had been wrong, if maybe there were some things in life that even love could not help.  I also began to understand that love can take many forms, and sometimes it doesn’t feel at all cosy.  The most loving thing we did for Our Son was to battle to get him into the best residential school in Scotland.  Some people considered we were monsters.  However, he was very happy there, we continued to love and battle, and in the end I am glad to say that he is doing very well.  I realise that even with prayer and love, things do not always turn out so well.  But for me, that does not mean love isn’t the greatest unseen force in the world.

Christmas reminds me also that we must actively look for the light – beginning with believing in its possibility.  Like the Wise Men, we have to follow the star and have hope, rather than sink into cynicism and give up.  One of my favourite lines in a Christmas carol is from O Little Town of Bethlehem: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight”.  We humans do have a lot of fears, and also hopes.  God is where these fears and hopes meet.  Christmas isn’t about non-stop happiness and joy, it’s about our human vulnerability, symbolised by a helpless baby and two parents who had to settle for the stable.

At Christmas time, one does often experience more cheer and goodwill than at other times of year.  I enjoy living in a society where many people around me are similarly focussed and the holiday is a shared celebration, even if each individual has a different understanding of it.  I’ll finish with another quote from Dickens: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”  To me this is a reminder that on every day I should try to be a bit more generous, more forgiving, and have a bit more goodwill than I might otherwise.  Of course I fail to live up to this ideal!  But it’s good to have.

I wish you all peace, light, hope and joy at Christmas-time.

Posted by: christinelaennec | December 20, 2016

Christmas preparations 2016

Things have been busy, but in a good way.  Let me show you in photos:

The rats helping me write my Christmas cards.

The rats helping me write my Christmas cards.

The mantlepiece.

The mantlepiece.

Angels

Angels

The Christmas tree!

The Christmas tree!

Each ornament has loving associations.

Each ornament has loving associations.

I made this salt-dough paw-print ornament 20 years ago when my beloved many-toed cat Tinker was dying.

I made this salt-dough paw-print ornament 20 years ago when my beloved many-toed cat Tinker was dying.  He had 7 toes on each front paw, but the two small ones were too small to make a dent in the dough.  I remember the feeling of holding his paws to this day!

The Dafter helps me show you an amazing hedge in Hyndland, Glasgow.

The Dafter helps me show you an amazing hedge in Hyndland, Glasgow.

Palm trees in Hyndland.

Palm trees in Hyndland.

The three of us did a bit of Christmas shopping in Hyndland. The Dafter was able to walk a few blocks, and shop with her Dad for me, but then ran out of steam. But it's the first time we've managed that family tradition since December 2010!

The three of us did a bit of Christmas shopping in Glasgow’s West End. The Dafter was able to walk a few blocks, and shop with her Dad for my present, but then ran out of steam. But it’s the first time we’ve managed that family tradition since December 2010!

The entire pillar box was full of Christmas cards!

The entire pillar box was full to the top with Christmas cards!

Tilly's tumours have come back, but she has been happy - and decided to pose for her photo one morning.

Tilly’s tumours have come back, but she has been happy – and decided to pose for her photo one morning.

Helping with my baking. (Don't worry I didn't let her lick the spoon.)

Helping with my baking. (Don’t worry, I didn’t let her lick the spoon.)

I treated myself to this Christmas cactus from the local florist.

I treated myself to this Christmas cactus from the local florist.

Made some pomanders!

Made some pomanders!

And I made a new Christmas cookie, Citrus Cardamom Pinwheels. I found the recipe on the Old Farmer's Almanac website. Not a quick project, but really yummy!

And I made a new Christmas cookie: Cranberry, Cardamom and Citrus Pinwheels. I found the recipe on the Old Farmer’s Almanac website here. Not a quick project, but really yummy!

The Christmas Rose.

The Christmas Rose.

The Dafter has finished her semester now, and was able to take her assessments.  As you see, she was able to do a spot of Christmas shopping In Real Life with us.  I’ll give you an update on her in the New Year.

I have a lot of singing coming up this week!  Michael will soon be on a well-deserved break, so I will be able to do some caroling in hospitals and the care home.  On Sunday one of the choirs I sang in performed in a Nine Lessons and Carols service.  Among other things, we sang Philip Stopford’s A Christmas Blessing.  I think it’s a beautiful piece.  You can have a listen here.  (Not to us singing it, though – I wish we were this good!)  We also sang a new carol, Can It Be True? by Jacqueline Burley.  You might hear it on Radio 3 over the holidays.  It’s set to the words of a poem by Susan Hill.  I think you can download it here, if you’re interested.  Michael was able to come to our performance, and he said he really liked the piece, because it made him feel the wonder of Christmas was fresh and new.

I wish the same for all of you!

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