In Search of Bluebells


One of the constant delights for me about living in England are the hidden treasures one can regularly discover here.  There are no blaring billboards to direct you every five miles as to where they are, so I often get lost in pursuit of them.  But I don’t mind getting lost because that’s often when I discover such treasures.

It usually involves a sudden twist in the path, and there it is–something that catches your breath, makes you gasp out loud, “Oh, look!”  It often happens in a garden with an unexpected herbaceous border bursting gloriously full of colour as you come around a high hedge.  Or else, it’s a stunning vista, discovered by taking an untrodden path instead of the main road.  Sometimes, it’s just a moment when you are looking up at the sky perhaps, and a swan comes gliding in over the river, the water tinged with gold from the sun on a silky summer evening that seems eternal.

This week I discovered bluebells in Gransden Wood, not far from Cambridge.  I had heard of this spring phenomenon and seen many pictures of them.  After living in this country for over twenty years, I had never seen them.  But then, I didn’t go looking.  My friend Caro suggested the walk and I eagerly agreed.  The best discoveries are always made either alone or with just one other person, never a crowd.  She took me along a country path until we reached one of those nearly invisible passageways at the edge of the woods that only local people use.  In an instant, we were in fairyland.  Swathes of bluebells stretched across the woodland floor for as far as we could see.  It wasn’t just a patch here and there.  It was an entire sea of blue and green undulating waves throughout the trees.  So much beauty and majesty, and we had it all to ourselves!  Or, so we thought.

Suddenly, out of the blue, quite literally, a big wet dog bounded towards us.  Like most bounding wet dogs headed your way, the intention is to eagerly shower you with a vigorous shake and greet.

“Whoa!  Somebody’s been in the water,” I said, preparing to dive off into the bluebells.

“So have I!” answered the smiling boy in dark glasses who was following him with a long white stick.  He was blind and was accompanied by his mother.  The dog didn’t shake after all, but on hearing the boy’s voice, obediently stopped and waited for him.

It was an extraordinary encounter, this heavenly vision of blue all around us, and a young boy’s inability to see it.  Yet, the joy on his face was unmistakable.  He was experiencing what was hidden from him in other ways.  He could still feel the warmth of the sun filtering through the tree canopy and the wetness of his dog from playing in the stream.  He could no doubt hear the woodland birds calling to each other and smell the spring scent of earth and wildflower.

How much remains hidden from us just because we can’t see a thing clearly?  We can’t see beyond our troubles and difficulties, and so we give up on joy altogether.

Today is Good Friday and I am struck by the “hiddenness” of Easter Sunday from Jesus’ disciples.  Jesus’ body was hidden and sealed away in a garden tomb while the disciples themselves hid away in despair in a locked room.  As far as they were concerned, it was over.  The joy of what they had in Christ was gone and there was no future.  Even when the seal was broken and the tomb nothing but an empty, gaping hole, nobody knew what to think because nobody was looking, nobody had listened.

What does your heart search for?  Like the disciples, I search too much for what I’ve lost and what is past.  I need this “hidden” message of Easter–“Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!”

The hidden joys of nature continually point me towards resurrection.  Keep looking…

“I once was lost, but now am found;

Was blind, but now I see.”


From LaLaLand to LammasLand

img_0411Have you ever had the same bewildering, heartstopping LaLaLand moment when you thought your life was about one script, only to find it was about another?  The disastrous finale to this year’s Oscar night just gave me another reason to love LaLaLand.  It’s a film about dreams, after all, those that come true and those that don’t.  It doesn’t matter that it didn’t win Best Picture in the end; it’s a film that outshines, regardless, and will become a classic everyone remembers.

Here in EngLand, the Brits somehow don’t get LaLaLand.  They think it’s overrated and don’t understand what all the hype is about.  One reviewer called it “banal.”  Banal?  I guess they didn’t grow up on the LA freeway like I did and think turning all that traffic into  a song and dance number was the most joyous opening scene in movie history.  Was I the only one out there who wanted to get up on my seat and dance on top of the cars with them? (I even applauded at the end and said out loud, “Yes!” to a packed cinema—oooh!)  I suppose they never went to the planetarium at Griffith’s Observatory as a schoolchild, either, and sat gazing up at a curved ceiling full of stars.  Maybe they didn’t have a grandmother like mine who took me to old movie houses on the LA city bus just because it was a different kind of thing to do.

I had a magical LA childhood, and that is the nostalgic pull of LaLaLand for me.  Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music were my LaLaLand and I dreamed of Julie Andrews and becoming part of the magic (even though I couldn’t sing).   My grandmother even arranged for me to meet a Hollywood agent who suggested I come back when my teeth were sorted out.  My front teeth came in crooked which meant braces, and then we moved to Michigan.  Bye bye, LaLaLand.

But I moved back, and so did my dream.  I pursued it, the endless auditions and casting calls in which I was just another face in the crowd.  The magic didn’t last, though, and neither did my dream.  It’s not the lost dream that haunts me, but the lost magic.  In LaLaLand, the bright, vivid colours, songs and dancing among the stars are not a response to dreams being fulfilled, but to falling in love while in pursuit of them.  As soon as the lovers in the story go their separate ways, the colours fade.  By the end, she is dressed in black, the color of mourning.  Her dreams of success, although now fulfilled, re-emerge in a brilliantly colourful alternative dream sequence with the love she gave up and lost.  The magic was never in the dream, but in discovering love.

Certain people create magic in our lives just because of how they love us.  My grandparents were such people.  My Southern grandmother with her “Hey Sugah!” accent took me to the movies on a bus and made it an adventure.  My Wisconsin grandfather and I made up stories together.  He smelled of cigars and rural manhood, a past world that only ever existed when I was sitting on his lap and learning where stories came from.  We all need and long for that kind of magic, not just when we are very young, but throughout our entire lives.  It’s why we go to the movies, after all.  We never outgrow the love of stories that color our world and take us somewhere beyond the ceiling of stars.

I left LA a second time in search of a new script for my life.  It eventually took me to ZuluLand and now I live near a place called LammasLand.  It’s a green country park in the middle of Cambridge in which cows sometimes graze next to the River Cam.  There’s a huge children’s playground along with an equally vast paddling pool which is a major attraction during the summer months.  My children grew up playing there along with frequent picnics.  It’s the first place we go with any visiting friends who have small children.

Now, of course, our LammasLand children have ironically flown off to LaLaLand to seek their dreams.  What stories will further script their lives remains to be seen.  I find myself dreaming of beach walking in winter, the coastal drive to Santa Barbara, blue skies and strawberry fields, horseback riding in dusty foothills washed emerald green overnight by rain, and I long for home.  LammasLand is a long way from LaLaLand.  It was never part of the script, but that is the story of my life.  I look back more and more at where I came from and can only be grateful for the journey.  Who knows where it will lead next?  The magic of stories will always be important for me.  I will always be a LaLaLand girl.


Carols by Candlelight

When that silvery solo voice fills the chapel with “Once in Royal David’s City…,” my Christmas truly has begun.  I’ve been shopping and decorating and menu planning for weeks, but none of that fills my heart and soul with joy in the same way as the candlelight carol service in this country.

I grew up in a big California church with big programs.  Christmas was an extravaganza that was planned all year long.  It featured a singing Christmas tree, theatrical costumes, and marching toy soldiers.  Somewhere in there, we were meant to be overawed by the “real meaning” of Christmas.

In contrast to singing Christmas trees were my school Christmas pageants.  They were more the real deal.  I look back on these with much fondness.  I loved the rehearsing and preparation for this annual event.  Because I went to a Baptist day school, important programs like the Christmas pageant were always held in the main church sanctuary.  As a child, this was an immense and awe-inspiring building to me.  The baptistry soared high above the choir, and every year, three sixth-grade girls (never boys!) were chosen to proclaim the good news as angels from this lofty pinnacle.  It was indeed the pinnacle of honour to be selected and as a sixth grader, I was one of the chosen.  It meant I got to wear a white robe and enormous, sparkling wings.  We were a dazzling sight up there in the baptistry, heady stuff for three 11-year old girls.

In one of our final dress rehearsals,  we were waiting for our cue in a small side room next to the baptristy.  Back in those days, we were just sent up there without any supervision.  Imagine!  There was a window in that room that opened onto the roof of the sanctuary, and as this was an irresistible opportunity, we three angels climbed out and began running around and flapping our wings at the traffic down below.  Car horns honked and people stared up at us as we joyfully shouted, “Glory to God in the highest!  Peace on earth, goodwill to men!”

It was exhilarating until Mrs. Kenison suddenly appeared at the window.  We were doomed!  She nearly demoted us to the choir, but thankfully, we got to keep our angel status.  Somehow, that rooftop experience liberated our hearts and voices so that we proclaimed the glory of God like never before.

There was nothing restrained about that first Christmas carol.  The angels must have sung with wild abandon to those awestruck shepherds huddled around a campfire on a darkened hillside.  The windows of heaven were flung open, and yet they were its only audience.  All of Israel was looking for the spectacle of a coming king, but they missed it because of what they weren’t looking for.

Americans tend to look for the entertainment value of big church Christmas programs; in England, it’s about beauty.  Ancient churches and cathedrals are never more beautiful than they are at Christmas time, resounding with the music of pipe organs and choristers surrounded by the glow of candlelight.  Nowhere in the world is this beauty more perfected than on Christmas Eve in King’s College Chapel.  It was here that the tradition of the “Nine Lessons and Carols” began in 1918, just after the horrors of the Great War had finally ended.  It has since been adopted by churches across England and the world as the standard for all Anglican carol services.

The first carol is always “Once in Royal David’s City”with the first verse sung as a solo by a chorister as he comes down the aisle.  The congregation stands and responds by joining in on the second verse.  The program then follows readings from Scripture that chart God’s plan for salvation from Adam’s fall in Genesis to the prophecies of the Old Testament through to the birth of Jesus Christ.  Each reading is followed by a carol sung by either the choir and/or congregation, culminating in the final “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

I am never unmoved by this Christmas service which I have attended at various churches and chapels here in the UK.  There is beauty and glory in abundance, but there is also simplicity in its order.  It is a collaborative celebration where the congregation is there to participate, not just spectate.  It is a journey we are all invited to take back to Bethlehem through long, dark nights of history, war, and doubt.  We are invited to wonder and consider why this celebration of the Christmas story still draws us.

For me, the draw of the Nine Lessons and Carols is the liberation of joy that comes through that first congregational response to the solo verse of “Once in Royal David’s City.”  I am reminded once again of what Christmas is meant to be, a response to God’s solo gift “in a lowly cattle shed.”  The carol is uniquely English, based on a children’s poem.  We are reminded through the following verses of the weakness of childhood, and by singing it with a child, admit to our own ongoing weakness and need of a Saviour.  By the outgoing carol, however, I have taken the journey from darkness into light and I am once again out on the rooftop, where angels should be, praising God and singing,

“With angelic hosts proclaim

Christ is born in Bethlehem

Hark! the herald angels sing,

‘Glory to the newborn King!'”

Cambridge in November– Take an Art Tour and Make a Book

History, anyone?   Sixteenth-century choirboys…Anne Boleyn’s initials…mysterious walled gardens and long, winding passageways…this is the Cambridge, England I love.  One of the joys of living here is in being surrounded by the slow-moving past in a very fast-paced modern world.  There is the 800-year old university, of course, whose many colleges and iconic King’s Chapel create the focus of all that history and traditional past.

But there is also the Fitzwilliam, one of Britain’s finest art museums, whose rare treasures offer many interesting opportunities to travel back in time and an excellent way to spend a cold, dreary November day.  Art historian Sarah Burles is just the right lady to take you there.  She is the director of Cambridge Art Tours which are designed to introduce you to the Fitz’s wide variety of world class collections and exhibits.  But some of Sarah’s art tours may also take you outside the Museum.  I have had the chance to explore some of the architectural and archaeological wonders around Cambridge, and on my recent Art of the Book tour, engaged in medieval book binding at Cambridge Artworks before viewing the stunning exhibit on Illuminated Manuscripts currently on show at the Fitzwilliam.

Now, even though I have an undying love of books, signing up for a medieval book binding class on its own is probably not something I would ever do.  I am pretty hopeless when it comes to sewing anything.  The thought of punching holes in leather, messing with pots of glue, and trying to stitch it all together with sheafs of paper takes me back to those abysmal craft sessions at summer camp.  I try to write books, not make them.  But throw in an intriguing mix of monks, nuns, and artists laboriously creating manuscripts of unequalled detail and colour by hand, and you’ve got me hooked.  A story starts playing in my head and I get to be one of the characters.

So, fortified by cups of tea, I begin my journey back into the days before the printing press by taking up my needle, and promptly stabbing my thumb.  Blood smudges my neatly folded paper.  I have just transgressed the first rule of medieval book binding apprenticeship–never prick your fingers over a one-off manuscript that someone has nearly gone blind copying and painting by hand.

Never mind, I’m not fired!  My excellent mentor, Edel Hopkin, comes swiftly to my aid with a 21st century plaster (band aid) and I learn that good old medieval spit will rub out any bloodstain (sort of).

Once I get a rhythm going with stitching the paper to the spine of the leather cover, however, I find I am actually enjoying this hands-on approach to history.  Sarah and Edel make a brilliant team.  Edel is a qualified instructor in the art of book binding and often teaches school groups.  She guides us expertly through the process of binding our little books from start to finish.  We are sitting around a table in a well lit room with an electric heater.  I try to imagine doing this kind of work with only natural or candle light and somehow keep my hands warm and steady in a freezing cold medieval workshop.

If I had to do this kind of work continually, I would hope practice makes perfect.  As it is, my stitching on the spine is hardly straight.  There is a blood and spit stain on the paper.  But it is my book which I made, and I am somewhat proud of my little wonky, blood-stained achievement.  I am no artist, but my son is.  I am going to drop it in his Christmas stocking and ask him to fill it with beautiful pictures.

When we finally come face to face with the medieval manuscripts back at the Fitzwilliam, I am already part of their world.  “Painstaking” only begins to describe the detail, the hours of labor, the clarity and perfection of colour.  We moderns live such distracted lives.  In these manuscripts, the glory is in their focus.  They are paper cathedrals in which entire lives were devoted to their creation.

I am challenged in my own writing of books.  Thank goodness, I don’t have to copy words by hand.  But there is a lot of wonky stitching that goes on; layers and layers of it.  At times, I can’t help but wonder if it’s worth it, if I can keep focused enough to press on despite the blood and spit.

Life is like that.  We are the apprentices, in need of a Master Artist and Craftsman to bind us together and fill our empty pages with colour and light.  The medievalists had a great hunger for spiritual beauty and redemption.  It’s what drove them to create what they did, and the power of their work still resonates through the noise and din of our 21st century.

Colour:  the Art and Science of Medieval Manuscripts  is on display at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge through the 2nd January 2017.