In which Ruth sleeps in a library

The problem about living next door to the church is that there is a lot of coming and going, people asking for food and money, choirs singing, children running around, phones ringing and it can make it difficult to concentrate. Don’t get me wrong – normally I love the sounds and the busyness but when you are trying to do some writing it can be distracting. So it seemed sensible for part of my sabbatical to come away somewhere quiet for the writing part. I’ve chosen the pieces of art I want to use in my Images of Lent project but now I have to write the meditations to go with them. (And if anyone has a good title for this book/blog thing I’m doing, please let me know.)

venue-hireSo after three train journeys and a taxi ride I arrived at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden (pronounced Harden) in North Wales. It is a beautiful building in a little village near Chester with the library taking up one end of it, and the rest being meeting rooms, lounge, dining room (where non-residents often come for lunch) and then the bedrooms upstairs on two levels. There are books everywhere! Heaven must be like this. Of course there is Gladstone’s own collection of books most of which are annotated in his own hand and makes for interesting browsing, but there is also an up-to-date section on Theology, History, Arts, Fiction etc.

After settling in to my room (small, trendy, Shaker-style with radio) I had a sumptuous home-made dinner and found the lounge where folk lounged around, as you do in a lounge, on comfy squishy leather chairs and sofas, reading and blethering. Over a week later I have learned there is an order for conversations with strangers. It goes like this:reading-rooms-web

  1. How long are you here for?
  2. Are you here to read or write?
  3. What are you reading?
  4. What are you writing?
  5. Have you been before?
  6. Yes, isn’t it lovely and how much weight have you put on?

People come and go, some only staying for one night, some for two or three (often a gift from children – hint, hint) and some for an intensive week. At the moment I’m the only one here for longer (12 days) although an American family have just left who come for a month every year. Everyone has a different story and it has been interesting hearing the reasons for their visit. The library is open until 10pm and you can ‘book’ your own desk by leaving your stuff on it so that’s handy. I am now tucked into a cubby hole between Feminist Theology and Theology and Culture which feels like a good place to be. Nice to have a browse when inspiration has dried up. There is an extensive section on fiction in the stacks but the lounge also has a considerable selection of fiction too and that was a bit like looking at my own bookshelves at home. But I’ve also found some new ones and some from my wishlist so I’ve enjoyed reading them when having a break from the project.

chapelThe day begins with a Eucharist at 8am in the chapel (Mon-Fri) sometimes taken by the Warden Peter Francis and sometimes by John, resident Chaplain. Then breakfast and a blether and discussion on what we plan for the day. Then into the library to whirr up our laptops and start the day. The only sounds then are footsteps, sighs, yawns, coughs, the occasional whistling hearing-aid and whispered enquiries. (And if that’s all too much noise for you then there are earplugs on the desk.) The librarians are young folk who are doing internships and they have all been lovely and helpful.

My project was to find 40 paintings for each day in Lent and to write a meditation to go with it. This writing part is taking longer than I anticipated and I’m finding I usually only manage two each day. But this is fine and there is plenty time to read either about art, theology or some fiction. And then there are the conversations. Although so far I have noticed that most people who come to libraries do tend to be somewhere on the introvert spectrum and are quite happy not to say a word other than a soft ‘Good Morning.’ They must all pray at meal times that I’m not going to bounce up and say ‘do you mind if I join you?’ I do feel a bit like Tigger here.

A walk into the village takes just a few minutes and there is the Post Office, the chemist, a coffee shop, beautician, handbag shop (never been open yet), tailor and dress shop. It’s all happening in Hawarden. But you can get a bus into Chester and I have done that. (It was lovely and busy and there were lots of shops and a cathedral AND a cathedral shop (my favourite) – bliss!)

Aha! I smell the scones so it must be coffee time. Speak later…

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In which Ruth goes to America in search of art (part one)

DAY 1

You never know who you are going to meet at airports. You can be on the other side of the world and it somehow doesn’t seem strange to bump into your nextdoor neighbour. So when G and I were queuing up to board our flight to New York it wasn’t unusual to bump into Fr Tim Morris on his way to the same place. Small world, eh? It was a bumpy flight in bits but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of Into The Woods, some reading and some dozing. Then, as if by magic, we arrived in New York at lunchtime, having left at 9.20am. That time difference really messes with your head.  Getting through Security took some time and was rather intimidating but we finally made it to the bag carousel. G went off to the loo and left me to find our suitcases which drew the attention of a rather cute sniffer dog and a rather not-so-cute police officer. As my life flashed before me and I wondered how I’d cope in San Quentin and was the uniform purple or lilac at a push, she asked in a rather unfriendly tone whether we had brought any nasty, poisonous food to her beautiful country. Well, she didn’t exactly say that, but that was the implication. And yes, G had indeed brought in half a baguette with ham and cheese. I was not allowed to touch his bag, or her dog, or speak until he returned which seemed to take forever. Meanwhile every other passenger smirked their way out into the open air. On G’s return we had to go through Security all over again and he had to put the offending baguette in a bin ready to be nuked as soon as our backs were turned.

Our accommodation throughout our stay in the USA was through AirBNB so we never quite knew what we were going to find. In New York we were actually staying across the River Hudson in Weehawken, New Jersey in a large mansion, but in the basement. Our hosts were from Goa but had lived in the States for over 40 years and had filled the fridge with all sorts of goodies for us and chatted about what we could do and see and where to get the bus into Manhatten (10 mins). At the end of the road we have the most wonderful view of the Manhatten skyline, a magnolia tree in the front garden, and peace and quiet so nothing really to complain about.

Dumped our bags, hopped on the bus and reached 42nd St in just a few minutes. First stop was BB King’s Blues Club for popcorn shrimps (enormous portion) and a drink with the friendliest bartender who offered to charge my phone and offered lots of advice. Then we did Times Square, nearly getting run over several times (must look the other way when crossing the road) and walked to 5th Ave and the Rockefeller Centre. By then I was exhausted – 8pm there but my legs are convinced they should be tucked up in bed. “Honey, I LOVE your purple hair!”  “Aw gee look at your hair, its so cute!”  “Love that hair – it matches your whole outfit!” And if I had a dollar for every time someone called that out to me, I could afford to go back tomorrow.

Crawled home to bed. All those workouts in the gym have not prepared me at all for this marathon of walking.

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DAY 2

An interesting night of wakefulness and strange noises and excitement so up early and we were out at the bus stop at 8.50am. Applebees on 42nd St for breakfast of pancakes, maple syrup, bacon, eggs and potatoes. Enough food to feed both of us! No kettles in American homes so had to stock up on decaff coffee while I was out. We had a 3-day ticket for the Hop-on Hop-off buses and a New York Pass for 5 days which got us into all the main attractions free and it was really worthwhile. So we hopped on the bus and did the Theater District, the Garment District, Empire State Bulding, Chelsea, West Village, Soho, Tribeca, and the Financial District where we got off. It was hot and sunny and we were feelin’ goooood.

Walked to the 9/11 Memorial where there was still work going on but we gasped at Freedom Tower and the wonderful water memorial with names carved all round it. Met some nice police officers who allowed me to have my photo taken with them. (I’ve watched the programmes so I felt I knew them well enough to ask.) That whole area is very strange because it is really busy but everyone speaks in hushed tones. Yes the carhorns are tooting in the distance and the sirens are going but in that square it is strangely calm. The Museum was quite incredible, cool and moving. Really interesting displays and memories and not ghoulish or tacky as I’d feared. Some things stick in my mind… mangled metal, fire engines worn out, comments and words and people, what colour of blue was the sky that day? and a whole host of shades of blue paper filling a wall.

After that we popped in to Trinity Church, Wall Street, one of the wealthiest Episcopal churches in the world. I was surprised at how traditional it was. In the Sacrament Chapel there was a woman weeping, candles burning, Jesus and me. I hadn’t found anywhere at the 9/11 site where you could light a candle or say a prayer so I did that there.  We found a wonderful bronze statue dedicated to 9/11 – a woman holding up her hands and stopping two planes, like stigmata.

Pizza in the sun for lunch – a slice the size of a whole pizza.

Back on the bus and off to Chinatown where the rain fell down. And did it ever! We were handed out yellow ponchos but G was too cool to wear it. I am off the age where I don’t care what I look like so on it went and the hood went up and I didn’t care that I looked like a demented duck. When the thunder and lightning began G gave in and casually shrugged it on. And we got soaked through Little Italy, Greenwich Village, Broadway, 5th Ave, and back to Rockefeller Centre where we got off for shelter. Had to buy a lovely Monet umbrella in the Met Gallery Shop and G lusted in the Lego Store before we tried to go up The Rock but because of the lightning they wouldn’t let us. We didn’t argue. There was nothing for it but to go to Macy’s. Not cheap but everyone in the world seemed to be buying designer handbags.

Walked back to Times Square for the bus, cold and wet and very tired. Dinner at Ruby Tuesdays with a Marguerita. Left about half of it. When there’s so many people begging on the streets, why do they give such huge portions of food?

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Day 3

Freezing cold today. Up and out early and breakfast in a deli. Needed something healthy so had bananas on my pancakes this morning. Of course there were about 6 massive pancakes and butter and maple syrup and Nutella to go with my fruit but I’m now getting the hang of it. I did draw the line at omelette on a croissant though.

On the bus again with a great guide who sang us songs from the musicals as we went through the West Side (Mariaaaa, I’ve just met a girl called Mariaaaa!) “Oh you’re from Scotland! Do you know Susan Boyle?!”  We were sorry to get off but the cathedral of St John the Divine was calling. It’s a huge place, empty and chairs in only about 1/4 of it. No flowers or Easter gardens. There was a modern installation inspired by Dali’s St John of the Cross and some very modern Stations of the Cross. Said a prayer for my little flock.

Then round Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I think it would take a month to see everything in it, it is so immense. We did European Art, Modern Art, American Art and that took over 3 hours and we were fairly romping through most of it. I fell in love with a painting called St Joan of Arc. G learned that he really doesn’t like modern art. “I could do that.”  Hobbling with sore foot now and begged to go home at 6pm while G went to look at the Comic Shop. Toe seems to be infected and the news says there’s a rabid coyote on the loose in New Jersey. Time for bed says Zebedee.

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Day 4

The temperature has plumetted and there is news of snow on the hills. It will be like our summer, they’d said before we came. And I packed accordingly. Have now worn the same lilac hoody for days now and am wishing I had brought my gloves. G wanted to shop so today was allocated a no-art day but a trip to Woodbury Common – the designer outlet village. Everyone was getting on the bus with suitcases which seemed strange but then we discovered that they literally wheeled them around and filled them with designer goodies! I was forced to buy cheap Ugg boots and a North Face jacket because it was snowing by then.

Day 5

Breakfast at Evergreen Diner: football on TV, packed full of people going to work, just how you imagine a diner should be. Tried Cinnamon Toast this morning and it was delish. More maple syrup and way too much but I struggled my way through it. Infected foot is so sore I refuse to walk and we hopped in a cab to the Museum of Modern Art. A morning of Picasso, Van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin, Warhol etc along with some very weird stuff. I’ve never really got modern art before but I found myself liking some of it very much. G didn’t. There was an exhibition of black American art which was good.

Then down to Pier 78 for a boat tour round Manhatten Island which gave great views of the city. Got off at Pier 11 and wandered round the financial district and watched some hip-hoppers doing their thing. Went up Empire State Building and did the Skyride – a simulated ride over the top of NYC where we screamed. Well one has to, doesn’t one? Looking down on the city was quite incredible but the concrete is starting to pale a little. Found myself hankering after some mountains and green fields. What is happening to me?!

Wandered through the posh part of town where there were lots of spooky tulips in beds. Had to have some Dunkin Donuts to make me feel better. Exhausted, foot sore, and don’t know how I’m going to carry on. Melodramatic? Moi?

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to be continued…

The Sabbatical begins

It seems such a long time ago. Months, maybe a year or more? Certainly the notion of a sabbatical has been bubbling away for ages and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the time. For ages I’ve wanted to put together a Lent book/blog with 40 paintings or pieces of art along with a wee meditation. I’m a visual person, you see. Yes, I love words but especially if they paint pictures. And I love art. So my plan was always to visit lots of art galleries and rummage through all my saved pics and postcards for 40 images that I could use as a guide for Lent. Something that I never have time to do when daily ministry gets in the way: the phone calls, the visiting, the liturgy, the meetings, the prayers… all the things that make up my life. So about a year I spoke to the Bishop and started making the plans, applying for grants, speaking to arty people for advice.jozef-israels-peasant-woman-by-a-hearth

I’d thought perhaps a trip to Florence and the Uffizi and perhaps Paris or Amsterdam. But the advice I was given was to go to New York and Washington. Now I shall share with you that the USA has never held any appeal for me. Nothing against them but its just not a country that I needed to visit. Give me Italy any time. But one friend after another told me how much I would love New York. And they have a great collection of art, especially Dutch and Renaissance which are probably my favourites. Gradually the excitement grew and now that Lent and Holy Week are over I am fairly bursting with alleluias and anticipation. I spoke to Son #2 about New York some time ago because he’s been twice and now he’s coming with me too which will be lovely. That will help me find our apartment again, my sense of direction not being great. Then when we looked at the map and found out that Philadelphia is in between NYC and Washington we thought we might have a few days there too.

This week is for planning and packing. Then next week we fly to NYC then Philly and Washington, traipsing round art galleries and museums and looking at lovely paintings. Huge joy! After I get back I shall head south to Gladstone’s Library to do some writing and choosing the art I love best. Perhaps there might even be a trip to Amsterdam too. Then 12 weeks from now I shall be back at work once more. 12 weeks!

I have some lovely clergy friends who are looking after my wee flock while I’m away, and I know my wonderful ministry team will take care of each other. And it will be good for them too – having a break from my preaching and nonsense. Of course, there’s always the risk that they won’t want me back…

sabbatical1Thanks also to the Alistair Haggart Bursary Fund, the Sons of the Clergy and my own diocese for grants, and my lovely flock and friends who have been so generous with gifts enabling this trip of a lifetime. I’ll be blogging, tweeting and FBing as I go so look out for those. Now back to the lists…

New Year Revolutions 2015

Jumping on the blogging bandwagon of making some New Year resolutions (though Revolutions sounds more fun) for 2015. You should know that I am not very good at keeping them, however. Last year, or was it the year before, I made a resolution not to buy any more books until I’d read the all the unread ones I have. That lasted until May. And I still have a 6ft bookcase outside my study which is positively bulging with unread books. So that brings me to my first revolution:

books and coffeeReading
This year I shall put in my diary some time for reading. For the past few months it has taken me 4 weeks to read our book group offering and occasionally I can fit in another one but I read two pages in bed and fall asleep. As for reading theology and books to feed sermons… pathetic!  So this year I shall put some time blocked out in my diary and not feel guilty at all about reading. Which leads me neatly on to my next one…

Sabbatical
From 14 April to 14 July I shall be taking my first Sabbatical. 12 weeks of time away from the parish to restore, refresh and renew myself and ministry. For years I’ve wanted to put together a Lent Book/Blog using a piece of art each day with a meditation. I am a visual person and really look forward to gazing at lovely paintings and matching them with meditations for the 40 days of Lent. I’ve taken some advice and have been told New York and Washington are the places to go to see great art so that’s where I’m headed. Then perhaps some time in Gladstone’s Library for putting it all together. My Bishop tells me there must be some rest in there too and I’m not arguing with that. Of course this is all dependent on getting some Grants to help finance it so if you know of anyone who can help…

Health and Fitness
I know! Can you believe I even have considered including this? Last year was not a great year for health but was much improved when I was sent for Pulmonary Rehab at the hospital. 6 weeks of exercise and diet left me feeling so much better and my plan is to carry on with that in the new year. I’ve been referred to the local gym and some lycra may even be purchased. Steady, Ruth! I also have liver disease (of the non-alcoholic kind, she quickly added) and was given a scary warning about losing weight (not before time, I may add) so I need to continue to eat cottage cheese and resist all cakes and biscuits on church premises. I will need your help in this, so if you see me reaching for a wee slice of malteser cake you have permission to smack my hand.

Miscellaneous
I’d like to say I will spend more time keeping my study tidy and organising it better, spending more time visiting family and friends, learning how to crochet, avoiding wasting time on stupid computer games, spending less money on purple Purple-Leather-Handbaghandbags (how many purple handbags does one woman need? really?), making time for mutual support with clergy friends, tidying up my computer files which have been desperately needing doing since I got new computer and can’t find anything, blogging more on topical issues, not leaving my tax return till the last minute, etc etc. I’d like to do all these things but suspect they are an annual hope which take more effort than I’ve ever given. Maybe this year… Oh, and stopping smoking again. Yeh that.