Phyllis 101


I had an e-mail this morning from Phyllis, a lovely lady I have met only a few times, the mother of an old friend in California, in reply to my birthday greetings. She has had a very active life as the wife of a sometime missionary to the Navajo, involving relocating many times and bringing up four children, although since her retirement to a quiet Californian suburb things have been less hectic. Her husband died just after their 70th wedding anniversary and she has now been a widow for several years. On 9 February, she celebrated her 101st birthday.

The fact that she is e-mailing at 101 is in itself quite a feat. She writes, among other things:

Yes, it was another milestone for me…. why the Lord keeps me going, only He knows. 

I do have lots of prayer requests asked of me, family and friends, so that keeps me out of mischief….”

I’m sure that this is one of the secrets of longevity, quite apart from genetic and environmental factors. My own mother died three months short of her 101st birthday, and I am convinced that had she been in her own home, where she had a sense of purpose and a raison d’être, she would have survived at least those three months, possibly more, in spite of her physical deterioration which I believe was hastened by being in a care home where she felt useless and isolated.

Phyllis, on the other hand, is still living with one of her sons in her little one-storey house with long-time neighbours and friends not far away. She has had mobility problems for a very long time, but her children and grandchildren visit regularly, take her out and keep her involved in family and Church life. However, the primary factor in her survival, I’m sure, is that her life has a purpose: as an intercessor, she focuses on others.

Unlike many old folk whose attention centres on all their own aches and pains and inability to do what they used to be able to, Phyllis concentrates on bringing others’ troubles before the Lord and handing everything over to Him. I’m sure she sees lots of her prayers answered, and that encourages her to continue in her task, which “keeps her out of mischief”.

I doubt whether Phyllis has read much about the scientific research that has gone into the subject, but she is living evidence for the power of altruism. Long may she continue, and God bless her abundantly!



When I gaze into the sun
Half veiled by a cloud
Mayhap its full
Round shining spreads out into a coloured ring
Like the glory around the throne
Of the Christ figure in Mistra.

When I fly above the clouds
I can also see that glory.
Beneath me, opposite the sun,
The same ring lies in the clouds,
My shadow resting in its centre.

When I fly through rain
While the sun is breaking through the clouds
I see the great rainbow
That I know so well from the Earth,
But now I see it as a full circle.

I flew a lot in my youth
And this truth has stayed with me all my life:
The rainbow is a full circle
And we see only half of it
Because the Earth is too close.

This has stayed with me:
All clouds are brilliant white;
Dark clouds are only clouds in shadow
But above every dark cloud there is light.

Jörg Zink

I have mentioned Jörg Zink before, here and here . This is another of my translations of one of his poems. For more information on Mistra, click here.

We all know about the clouds’ silver linings, but did you know that the rainbow is really a circle and not just an arc? Too often, the things of earth just get in the way and prevent us from seeing so many lovely truths.

Time to Ding-Dong Merrily

One of the things about being an expat is that you sometimes get a very skewed view of matters that you would never have questioned if you had stayed back home. I grew up in Middle England, going around on cold dark December evenings from door to door with my pals singing the old Christmas carols for pennies to the familiar traditional melodies, and never dreamed there could be any alternative (apart from Little Town of Bethlehem to which I knew at least 3 different tunes not including descants). So it was a shock to my true-blue British system to hear Away in a Manger sung by Americans.

“No, no, it goes like this,” I cried, and they gazed at me in amazement.

“Never heard THAT before!” was the response.

Even more incongruous to my ears is the tune that Americans use for It Came upon the Midnight Clear. Our British version thunders from the church organ, and dignified Baroque angels lean gracefully down through the clouds towards the shepherds.

ANGELS main-qimg-4ba9399db7b254d7093b17ec8e365157-c

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The Americans sing the same words but their melody is in three-four time. These are Rococo angels waltzing around, maybe even bouncing up and down on carousel horses; certainly not playing golden harps, more likely keyboards with hurdy-gurdy harmonic effects. Yes, it’s a pretty tune, but I can’t take it seriously. Walt Disney should illustrate this, not Michaelangelo.

And look what our transatlantic cousins have done to Angels from the Realms of Glory. Once again, I prepare my full-throated version and after a couple of bars am stopped in my tracks.

“You’re singing Angels We Have Heard On High.”

“No I’m not. I don’t know that one.”

They sing their versions of the two slightly different carols, and I can see that there must have been a mid-Atlantic storm that shifted some of the notes around. Okay, I’m enriched by learning a new carol, and my Christmas angels are still pretty well Johann Sebastian  Bach rather than Johann Strauss.

They also add to my repertoire with a fourth melody for Little Town of Bethlehem, which is still lying pretty still amid its deep and dreamy streets. No waltzing there. But wait! Why am I being so stuffy about three-four time? Next up is the mediaeval carol In dulci jubilo  (Good Christian Men Rejoice): surely these angels must be skipping and lindyhopping, and I can’t blame the Yanks. Even the Putti must be bouncing about to this! I remember that wonderful jaunty rendering by Mike Oldfield – 1970-something, I think – and have to claim that there are some tunes that are immortal, and can stand up to virtually any treatment. Listen to Bach’s arrangement sung by a choir.

I’m off on a tangent now, looking for the origins of this joyful song. Thank you, Wikipedia! This is a great story. And I have learnt a new word: macaronic.

The original song text, a macaronic alternation of Medieval German and Latin, is thought to have been written by the German mystic Heinrich Seuse  circa 1328. According to folklore, Seuse heard angels sing these words and joined them in a dance of worship. In his biography (or perhaps autobiography), it was written:

Now this same angel came up to the Servant (Suso) brightly, and said that God had sent him down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must cast off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion. Then they drew the Servant by the hand into the dance, and the youth began a joyous song about the infant Jesus …

The tune first appears in Codex 1305, a manuscript in Leipzig University Library dating from c. 1400, although it has been suggested that the melody may have existed in Europe prior to this date. In print, the tune was included in Geistliche Lieder, a 1533 Lutheran hymnal by Joseph Klug. It also appears in Michael Vehe‘s Gesangbuch of 1537. In 1545, another verse was added, possibly by Martin Luther. This was included in Valentin Babst’s Geistliche Lieder, printed in Leipzig. The melody was also popular elsewhere in Europe, and appears in a Swedish/Latin version in the 1582 Finnish songbook Piae Cantiones, a collection of sacred and secular medieval songs.

I have left all the links in this excerpt so that anyone with time to spare can also dig deeper down this rabbit hole.

A blessed and joyous Second Sunday in Advent to you all.

Grief is the price … 

Geneviève was born in Paris, and always emphasised that she was a Parisienne, notwithstanding her blatantly Breton surname. She met her husband, Guy, at a wedding. One of the girls in her office was getting married, so the colleagues put together to buy the bride a bouquet and Geneviève was delegated to deliver it at the reception. As soon as she entered the room, this pretty little blonde caught Guy’s eye. He was a cousin of the bride, feeling bored among his family members, and – as he later told the story – “suddenly the room lit up”.

Immediately he asked his cousin, the bride, who she was and begged that she be invited to stay at the reception. Of course, Geneviève noticed the smart young man in naval officer’s uniform, but as he was surrounded by a gaggle of pretty young women (“like the rooster in a henhouse” she later recalled), she dismissed him as a charming heart-breaker. Everyone knows that sailors have a wife in every port!

However, several dances later, when she had discovered that his harem consisted entirely of cousins and he really was serious and single, she dropped her guard, agreed to a date, and the rest is 60 years of history, with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

For about thirty of those years, Guy was at sea. On his retirement in his early fifties, he swore never to set foot on deck again, and to make up for his many absences by never ever leaving his wife alone. I have rarely known such a devoted couple. I first met them in 1991 when we bought our little house in Brittany, as they were one of the few people who lived there all the year round. We became firm friends, and my first outing on arrival there was always to take them some Swiss chocolates, share a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and exchange our latest news.

Over the last few years, especially while I was looking after my mother, I wasn’t able to make my regular visits to Brittany and so I didn’t see my friends for a long time. In October of last year, I was able to catch up at last and was sorry to hear that Geneviève’s health had deteriorated badly. When I arrived in August this year, I learnt that Geneviève had been in hospital for some time, and Guy was spending his days at her bedside, so I was unable to have any contact with them. Our entire cul-de-sac was following her progress anxiously, and with very heavy hearts. On 4 September, the day before we left for Switzerland, we heard the sad news that Geneviève had died.

Neighbourhood grapevines, even when they spread over several countries, tend to be most efficient when the news is bad. Some of our neighbours in Brittany live in Germany, others in England, and we are in Switzerland, but e-mail gives us instant contact so the devastating news travelled fast. Ten days after losing his only reason for living, Guy took his own life. Whatever we think or feel about that decision, he ended his agony on his own terms. All the same, I can’t imagine the pain their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going through. I hope that they can gain some comfort and solace from their memories and the knowledge that Guy and Geneviève’s long relationship was so happy and fulfilling for them.

An old superstition claims that deaths occur in threes. I’m not superstitious, but on 10 September came the dreadful news that the 18-year-old daughter of some friends here in Switzerland had died in an accident. I have known this young lady all her life: a beautiful, cheerful, lively girl, a loving big sister to her three younger siblings and the joy of her parents’ heart. She was on the verge of her adult life, looking forward to a happy, exciting future, when the tractor she was driving overturned on her, killing her outright.

How do you cope with that as a parent? It is a grief beyond words, beyond the sobs and howls of deepest pain and sorrow, beyond any expression. Time may quieten the crying and weeping, but the wound of such an amputation remains raw. I can think of no anguish greater than losing your child, and have written about it before.  This is a deeply Christian family, now facing a profound test of their faith. They are also surrounded by a very solid network of family and friends, several hundred of whom attended the funeral. This is no time for platitudes. I have no answers, but I pray that they will all stand the test and by the grace of God come through, together and individually, even stronger.

Three deaths. And three different aspects of grief for those left behind. We can’t measure or compare them. An elderly lady who had a good long life is released from her suffering. A broken-hearted man who can’t face a lonely old age without the love of his life takes his fate into his own hands. A happy teenager with her life ahead of her is torn violently away from her family and friends without warning.

Queen Elizabeth reminded us that grief is the price we pay for love. She was quoting from this:

“The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love: it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend that it is not so, is to put on emotional blinkers which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our own lives and unprepared to help others cope with losses in theirs.”
Dr Colin Murray Parkes (Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life) 

An Excuse For A Celebration

It’s that time of year again, though this time the little ghoulies and ghosties will be knocking in vain at my mother’s door in the fearful hope of me pouncing on them (see my posts from previous years). In a way, I’m quite glad to be missing it. Hallowe’en has got out of hand. It’s an oxymoron to wish people “Happy Hallowe’en”: what could possibly be happy about it?

If we really want to celebrate a pagan festival at this time of year, then I suggest we adopt Diwali, which is already a fixture in many parts of the UK. I was rather startled a few years ago in the English Midlands by the fireworks that accompany this festival, thinking someone was going overboard over Guy Fawkes. Then it was explained to me that it was Diwali, and so – naturally -I googled it and discovered from Wikipedia that:

Diwali , Tihar or Deepawali is the Hindu festival of lights native to Nepal and India celebrated every year in autumn in the northern hemisphere (spring in southern hemisphere). It is an official holiday in Fiji, Guyana, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. One of the major festivals of Hinduism, it spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. Its celebration includes millions of lights shining on housetops, outside doors and windows, around temples and other buildings in the communities and countries where it is observed. The festival preparations and rituals typically extend over a five-day period, but the main festival night of Diwali coincides with the darkest, new moon night of the Hindu Lunisolar month Kartika in Bikram Sambat calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, Diwali night falls between mid-October and mid-November.

Before Diwali night, people clean, renovate, and decorate their homes and offices.[ On Diwali night, people dress up in new clothes or their best outfit, light up diyas (lamps and candles) inside and outside their home, participate in family puja (prayers) typically to Lakshmi – the goddess of fertility and prosperity. After puja, fireworks follow, then a family feast including mithai (sweets), and an exchange of gifts between family members and close friends. Deepavali also marks a major shopping period in nations where it is celebrated

The name of festive days as well as the rituals of Diwali vary significantly among Hindus, based on the region of India. In many parts of India, the festivities start with Dhanteras (in Northern and Western part of India), followed by Naraka Chaturdasi on second day, Deepavali on the third day, Diwali Padva dedicated to wife–husband relationship on the fourth day, and festivities end with Bhai Dooj dedicated to sister–brother bond on the fifth day. Dhanteras usually falls eighteen days after Dussehra.”

There’s a lot more to it, and you can read all about it on Wikipedia. Some of my Christian friends will object to me advocating a Hindu custom, but hey, come on! The early Christian church incorporated an awful lot of pagan feasts into their calendar, including Christmas and Hallowe’en itself. Why not replace these, which have both reverted to their pagan roots, by a festival that “spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair”? 

There’s a lot of positive stuff here, including giving your home and workplace a good clean and making a real effort to love your family. Not to mention endorsing shopping – that should be good for the economy, too. And, not least, dressing up to look good, not scary.

I daresay we could bring in a pumpkin or two and bobbing for apples, as a westernising contribution, and maybe tie it all up with Guy Fawkes in the UK. What a great way to integrate communities, all joining in one big happy party with only positive vibes and associations of light, love and hope. What can Christians object to in that?

This year, Diwali started yesterday on 30 October, and so this is the week of festivities and celebrations if you happen to be in an area populated by Hindus, Sikhs or Jains. Happy Diwali!

(Just don’t send off paper lanterns with candles in them
– they can cause untold damage.)

Book Launch

This evening, I’m invited to a “vernissage” – but not for paintings. This is a book launch, and one I am very pleased to be able to attend.

Three years ago, I reported here an exciting and momentous event that changed the lives of five people I know. And in April of last year came the announcement that the incredible story of this family was to be told in book form.

Joséphine book

The book – in German – has now been written and published, and is available online. The German title is Auf der Flucht getrennt and the author is Johanna Krapf.  I am hoping to be allowed to translate this, and that we can find a suitable publisher for the English version of this Odyssey, which reads like the scenario of an Indiana Jones movie. Fingers crossed.

The Christian names of this family are inspiring: Joséphine means “God will increase”, Désiré is the desired one, Patrick is the noble one, Joyeux is joyful and Espoir is hope. They are living up to their names.

Is this the right time to be bringing out stories of refugees? Isn’t the world fed up and tired of hearing about people trying to escape from war, violence and genocide? Perhaps. But this is also a story of hope, faith and love in the midst of indescribable horror and hardship, and it shines a bright beam of optimism into the darkness. It’s an ongoing story, and in some ways this family still has a long way to go before all the trauma of the past can be dealt with. However, as St Paul tells us in Romans 5:3-5: “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us …”



I put my hand in yours.
Please hold it tight.
For my own grasp may weaken as I tire
And stumble on this narrow, stony way,
But though I slip and trip, I will not fall
If you will hold my hand.
Please hold my hand
And guide me through the fog
As well as through the bright and sunny days
When I’m thinking I can manage on my own.
Please hold it tight.
I put my hand in yours
And leave it there.
I trust in you.