Reasons to Be Cheerful Part 2: Sunflowers

Sunflower
Good mornin’
You sure do make it like a sunny time

Neil Diamond

Returning from holiday last weekend we were delighted to discover that our sunflowers had decided to flower. We’ve had a few disappointing years with sunflowers so this was a delight as you can hopefully see.

Sunflowers are one of my favourite plants – partly because I look being able to look at a plant that is the same height as me, and partly because yellow is probably my favourite colour – I also love daffodils for this reason.  Yellow is such a feel-good colour. 

Sunflowers are also a mathematical marvel – the pattern of seeds within a sunflower follows the Fibonacci sequence and also the Golden Ratio.

Anyway, here are some random facts about sunflowers (mainly courtesy of www.goodhousekeeping.com)

1 – The sunflower originated in North and South America and were cultivated for their edible seeds as early as 1000 BC.  The petals were used as cattle food.  They were first brought to Europe by Spanish sailors in 1530.

2 – Each sunflower is actually hundreds of tiny flowers; the yellow petals and fuzzy brown centres comprise up to 2,000 seperate flowers.

3 – Each sunflower can contain as many as 1,000 to 2,000 seeds.

4 – There are about 70 different species of sunflower.

5 – The French word for sunflower is ‘tournesol’ which means ‘turns with the sun’ referring to the ways in which sunflowers always seem to turn their face to the sun.  Of course those in our garden are doing the exact opposite.

6 – The tallest sunflower on record was over 30 feet tall.

7 – Sunflowers are actually good at absorbing toxins.  Millions were plan in Japan after the reactors in the Fukushima nuclear power plant were destroyed by the tsunami in 2011.

8 – The Incas worshipped the flowers as a symbol of their sun god.

9 – The series of still-lives with sunflowers which Vincent van Gogh painted in 1887 and 1889 are amongst the world’s most famous works of art.

Reasons To Be Cheerful …

Regulars to my blog (which has been pretty irregular recently, sorry about that!), will know that I have a bit of a thing about lament.  In a world where awful events happen – Afghanistan and Haiti being two of the more recent examples – it seems like lament is not just essential but is a truly human and humane response to a broken world.  Perhaps that is what Jesus is getting at when he says, “Blessed are those who mourn …

And yet, lament cannot be our only response to the world we live in – that path leads to despair, cynicism and hopelessness …  Which leads me onto Ian Dury.  Dury rose to fame during the late 1970s as part of the burgeoning new wave/punk movement.  Aided by his backing band, The Blockheads, he had three top 10 singles and a number of other hits.    His third and final top-ten single was Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3 (I’ve always wondered what happened to Parts 1 and 2).  The song is basically a list of reasons to be cheerful – a checklist of gratitude if you like.  It is an eclectic, highly personal and idiosyncratic list which begins:

Summer, Buddy Holly, the working folly
Good golly Miss Molly and boats
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet
Jump back in the alley and nanny goats

Time and again, over the last month or so, I have found this song appearing unbidden in my thoughts inviting me to reflect on the reasons to be cheerful in my own life. 

So I should start with Ian Dury who I admire for his off-beat sense-of-humour, his word play, and his commitment to disability rights.  Dury is one of the few popular musical artists to explore issues of disability both as they affected him (for those of you who don’t know, Dury contracted polio at the age of seven resulted in the paralysis and withering of his left leg, shoulder and arm), but also within a wider social context – do listen to his 1981 protest song Spasticus Autisticus.

While I am at it, another reason to be cheerful is Davey Payne’s dreamy saxaphone solo about 2’30 in.

In preparing for this post, I discovered that there is a memorial bench for Ian located in Richmond Park.  Another reason to be cheerful and a good excuse to visit Richmond Park again!

Crowded Table

Today is my birthday and it is fair to say that the celebrations largely involved food. The day began with when my younger daughter and her boyfriend popped round for brunch in the garden (cold but it was great to be together). An after stroll was followed by birthday cake and then a film (Arrival – it was good) followed by a takeaway. The food on each occasion was lovely, but the important bit was the companions it was shared with.

The word companion comes from ‘panis,’ the Latin word for bread. Originally, the word was used to describe someone with whom you shared a meal, the ones you ate with, the ones you broke bread with, the ones you shared a table with.

Speaking to friends and colleagues, high on most people’s agendas as we emerge from lockdown is to eat and drink with friends, be that a cup of tea and a cake, a beer and a burger, or a celebratory meal. Eating together is one of the key ways we express friendship and community, it is often the glue that holds groups together.

As a follower of Jesus, I am struck by how important table fellowship was to his life and ministry.  His detractors call him a glutton and a drunkard, and although that is probably an exaggeration, the truth remains that it was important for Jesus to share food with people.  He’s like a companion who sits at table with us, who laughs and cries with us, who listens to us, who shares with us, and who invites us to be transformed, to grow, to be more fully human … He’s a glutton for friendship, he’s drunk on grace.

One of my favourite songs of the past twelve months was released by the Highwomen, a collaboration between four talented country singers – Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires – and written with Lori McKenna who has appeared in this blog before.

The song is about that longing for community, for a place where everyone has a chance to share bread together. The chorus goes like this:

I want a house with a crowded table
And a place by the fire for everyone
Let us take on the world while we’re young and able
And bring us back together when the day is done.

As I listen to these words, there are all sorts of connections – I think about important celebratory meals that I have shared with friends and family, I think about all those times when the table seemed too small, I think about communion, I think about my longing for connections, for ‘companions on the way.

Ironically, I also think about the proposed European Super League that has vexed so many football fans over the past couple of weeks. For those of you who are unfamiliar with that proposal, essentially the richest and so-called biggest clubs in England, Italy and Spain decided that they didn’t want to dine at the same table as the Burnleys and Crystal Palaces of the world. They wanted to feast in isolation. Too often that is the way of the world, the rich feast in opulent splendour, congratulating themselves, whilst the poor are forced to scavenge for the scraps that fall from the rich man’s table. Such practices are anathema to the vision of this song, and dare I say it to Jesus’ own practices. As such, they become a sign of death, not of life.

The vision of this song is captured in the final stanza of the song. It is a vision of a table where all are welcome, all are included and everyone belongs – we belong because of our shared humanity, because we are all a little broken.

The door is always open
Your picture’s on my wall
Everyone’s a little broken
And everyone belongs
Yeah, everyone belongs.

Couch to 5k

Growing up in the late 70s, playing sport was how I negotiated the first half of my teenage years. Back in the day when sport still most took was organised by schools rather than clubs, I took every opportunity – football, rugby, basketball (despite being very short), cross-country, cricket, athletics (in a Bob Beamon-esque leap, I once broke the school long jump record), I tried them all. I wasn’t particularly talented, but what I lacked in skill I made up for in enthusiasm and effort. Although I still remember scoring a screamer from right back in our derby match against the other team in my town; having said that we had already scored four or five without reply at that point! In those days, training largely consisted of playing. I can’t remember much in terms of warming up or building fitness. I do remember the occasion when I ran 20 miles in under 3.5 hours (iIt was a sponsored walk and I just turned up and ran), so I guess I probably was fairly fit.

When I went to sixth-form fifteen miles away, I pretty much gave up on participating in sport – I didn’t have the skill or the physique. I still walked a bit and cycled from A to B but did nothing else. Over the course of time, I did less and less activity and put on more and more and more weight. Working from home for many years meant that some days the furthest I would walk was from the front-door to the car.

At the beginning of 2019, I decided I needed to do more exercise and so targetted 10k steps a day. You can read more about that here. But at the start of 2021 I felt like I needed to push myself a bit more, which is where Couch to 5k comes in. Couch to 5k is a running plan for absolute beginners. The plan covers 9 weeks, with three runs per week, with the intensity and length of run gradually increasing over the time.

The plan involves 3 runs a week, with a day of rest in between. So on 2nd January, I set off for my first session and regretted it almost immediately! Week One involved alternating 60 seconds of running, with 90 seconds of walking, for a total of 20 minutes. By the time I was 15 minutes through I was gasping for breath and wondering what have I got myself into. My mantra at the time was ‘Trust the Process.’ And that is what I have done, in fact the only tweak was to run four times a week. In the early weeks that was to give myself a bit more time to build up stamina, latterly I have just moved onto the next week a day earlier. I have not missed a single run even when the local area was under snow for a week. In fact, the snow week may have been the week I finally cracked it.

And today, I finally ran for 30 minutes without stopping. Couch to 5k is actually something of a misnomer as the target is actually to run for half an hour and my pace is not particularly fast so I’m somewhere around 4.5k. But then again, I am carrying far more timber than I did when I was a teenager.

Do I enjoy running? Not particularly, at the moment I am still at my limit and each run feels like a struggle to get through. Hopefully that will change. What have I learned? That my local area is incredibly hilly – there are very few flat runs. I’m not sure that self-discipline is a strength, but maybe I can do something about that.

Anyway, yesterday I finally ordered some running gear – a fleece/jacket, jeans and my day-to-day trainers are probably not the ideal equipment. I did look at running gear when I started but didn’t expect to finish the course. Maybe, there is more life in the old dog than I realised.

And today’s music? Well, early on I tried to motivate myself by playing club classics from my youth in an attempt to reach back to a faded glory. More recently I have listened to Fantasy Football Podcasts. Anyone, the first 20 minute run was scheduled at the end of Week 5. I was about 15 minutes in, running up hill and ready to stop when this started to play. I did it and made it to the end.

Joy Will Find Away

Last Sunday in church, we showed a video of pictures capturing signs of Spring locally. The irony of showing that video whilst it was snowing was not lost on anyone. As I mentioned yesterday, a week later and the snow is still with us although fast disappearing. The good news is that our local daffodils were not going to let the snow stop them in their mission to turn the world yellow as these photos show.

These images reminded me of one of my favourite Bruce Cockburn tracks (of which there are many!) – Joy Will Find A Way (A Song About Dying).

Make me a bed of fond memories
Make me to lie down with a smile
Everything that rises afterward falls
But all that dies has first to live.


As longing becomes love
As night turns to day
Everything changes
Joy will find a way

Death will come, yet joy endures, like love endures.

These are difficult times and yet like a daffodil in the snow, joy will find a way along with its sisters – faith, hope and love.

50 Words for Snow

In my second year of University, I lived in a very, very cold student house. I remember one morning waking up and emerging from my sleeping bag/duvet combination to discover that the snow which had been on my boots when I went to bed was still there – I’d been sleeping in sub-zero temperatures all night. It was a cold winter and my flatmates and myself used to have a competition to come up with a different adjective each morning to describe the bitter temperatures that we were experiencing in our accomodation.

Bessels Green on Sunday with obligatory empty benches.

The temperatures this week in my part of Kent have stayed below zero all week and much of the area has been under snow all week. My wife loves the snow and has taken every opportunity to feel the texture of snow beneath her boots. Apart from that however it has been a week for hunkering down in our nice warm house and giving thanks for the fact that we have heating.

So what music to play for a snowy vista? Well, I have been thoroughly enjoying the new Deacon Blue album Riding On The Tide of Love. Regular readers of this blog will know that Ricky Ross is one of my favourite song-writers and this album finds him on top form. In fact, the whole band sounds great and I’m loving the different ways the album explores the interaction between Ricky and Lorraine’s voice. Given all that I have written so far, it is probably unsurprising that the track that has caught most caught my attention on the first couple of plays is She Loved The Snow.

Another album that has accompanied me through this week is Kate Bush‘s 2011 offering 50 Words for Snow. The album comprises seven songs “set against a backdrop of falling snow,” which makes it perfect listening for a snowy day. The title comes from the myth that Eskimo’s have 50 words for snow and the title track itself contains 50 synonyms for snow which emerge from Bush’s vivid imagination and which are bought to life by Stephen Fry’s narration. My favourites include “blackbird braille (4) … whirlissimo (25) … icyskidski (27) … whippoccino (31) … sorbetdeluge (34) … meringuerpeaks (41) … crème-bouffant (41) … badfortrains (44) … blown from polar fur (47)”

The good news is that the Finnish Sami language actually has over 200 words for snow,ice and winter weather. There’s a challenge for you Kate …

Despite the sub-freezing temperatures here and the freezing wind-chill, the beautiful sun has been gradually melting the snow and I am left to reflect that something so transient is also so beautiful and varied (each snow flake being different) that it inspires so many different words! Ours truly is a world of wonders.

Yellow

Yellow is my favourite colour and each week at this time of year, my wonderful wife buys me a bunch of daffodils – my favourite flower. Daffodils bring a burst of glorious yellow lightness which both brightens up the dullness of this time of year and speaks of the promise that spring is just around the corner.

This week the first daffodils arrived and they have bought much joy.

In the morning sun this morning, the whole bunch were dazzlingly yellow, almost too bright to photograph.

Ward Thomas are twin sisters from God’s own country (Hampshire) who make some gorgeous country-pop music with the most beautiful and delicate harmonies. I remember the first time I saw them live, they began the show with an unaccompanied song and their exquisite harmonies held the crowd in rapt attention – a burst of yellowness. I was delighted to discover that they had recently covered Coldplay‘s song ‘yellow.’

I am constantly amazed at the fragile beauty of the daffodil which is here today and gone tomorrow [confession when Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 to ‘consider the lilies of the field,’ I think of daffodils] and Ward Thomas with their burst of yellowy-beauty remind me of the fragile beauty that the human voice can produce.

Cross-Generational Friendship: Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

For much of the weekend, it felt like the background noise in our home was Radio 2’s music theatre. My appreciation of music theatre comes from the three women in my life, both my daughter’s were early adopters in their teens and I have fond memories of trips to see a variety of productions. The most recent was Fiddler on the Roof eighteen months ago now. Hopefully before the year is out, it may be possible to return although I suspect it will be 2022.

A few years ago now, Dramatic One (my youngest daughter) and I went to see Anything Goes at the Wimbledon Theatre. It was a great night and here are Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga singing Cole Porter’s wonderful title track.

Why did I choose this version? Well mainly because I was enormously touched by an article I read earlier today about Tony Bennett’s battle with Alzheimer’s and his friendship with Lady Gaga and this whole performance shows the wonderful chemistry and the mutual respect that they share.

The article is well worth a read, it is both sad but also beautifully life-affirming. This description of the recording process for their new album was particularly moving.

Tony was a considerably more muted presence during the recording of the new album with Gaga. In raw documentary footage of the sessions, he speaks rarely, and when he does his words are halting; at times, he seems lost and bewildered. Gaga, clearly aware of his condition, keeps her utterances short and simple (as is recommended by experts in the disease when talking to Alzheimer’s patients). “You sound so good, Tony,” she tells him at one point. “Thanks,” is his one-word response. She says that she thinks “all the time” about their 2015 tour. Tony looks at her wordlessly. “Wasn’t that fun every night?” she prompts him. “Yeah,” he says, uncertainly. The pain and sadness in Gaga’s face is clear at such moments — but never more so than in an extraordinarily moving sequence in which Tony (a man she calls “an incredible mentor, and friend, and father figure”) sings a solo passage of a love song. Gaga looks on, from behind her mic, her smile breaking into a quiver, her eyes brimming, before she puts her hands over her face and sobs. (John Colapinto)

Source: https://www.aarp.org/entertainment/celebrities/info-2021/tony-bennett-alzheimers.html

One of the things that I love about church is the way it fosters cross-generational friendships. I still treasure a memory from nearly 30 years ago when the young daughter of a friend (she was probably six or seven years) invited mainly adults to her birthday party. When asked why, she said, “they’re my friends.” I am so grateful that my children grew up in an environment where they had adults who treated them with honour and respect and who took a genuine interest in them. So often the world puts the young and the old in their own boxes but these two groups have so much to teach each other. I remember a time from my early 20s when Eileen in her 80s invited me to tea once a month (and what’s more she generally fed my sausages). Happy memories – I learned so much from Eileen.

Anyway, to finish, another wonderful performance from Tony and Gaga, this time taken from the 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical Babes in Arms.

3,862,558 Steps

Happy New Year everyone.

A couple of years ago, I decided I needed to do more exercise (walking, you understand). In the past, the nature of my work and lifestyle has meant that I had become very sedentary. As part of the process, I decided I needed a fitbit to help me keep track of my step count.

Then at the start of 2019, I decided to set myself some targets and properly monitor my step-count. I repeated the process this year. I am pleased to announce that in 2020 I completed 3,862,558 steps (just over 10,550 steps a day and marginally above my modest target of 10,500 steps a day). One of the things that pleased me most was my consistency. I passed 10k steps on 258 days but had no monster days – my highest daily total was 18,640 compared with a couple of days over 30k in 2019. [Apologies if my love of figures is overflowing a bit].

Anyway, I went to bed feeling quite proud of myself, but then when I woke up this morning, I found myself thinking ‘you mean I’ve got to do it all again?’ Well yes, and possibly a bit more.

My favourite album of 2020 was Re-Unions by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. There is a song on that album called It gets easier which catalogues his on-going struggle as an alcoholic to stay off the booze.

Last night I dreamed that I’d been drinking
Same dream I have ’bout twice a week
I had one glass of wine
I woke up feeling fine
And that’s how I knew it was a dream

And then you get to the chorus and ultimately to the climax of the song.

It gets easier, but it never gets easy
It never gets easy
It never gets easy

Without wishing to minimise Isbell’s experience and struggle (I cannot imagine what it is like to struggle with addiction), there is an echo of his experience in most of our lives. New Year is traditionally a time for resolutions and I have made a couple this year but I know that I do not have a good record in this respect – ingrained habits and patterns of behaviour (not all of which are healthy), laziness, and so on are very powerful adversaries, as well as my ability to convince myself to take the path of least resistance.

So this morning, I give thanks for my fitbit. You see my fitbit has become a spiritual aid in that it gives me accountability – the figures are there on the display (and then in the spreadsheet). I cannot fiddle the fixtures or manipulate them or ignore them – they hold me accountable to my stated goal. And I, like all of us, need accountability.

And so I go again – 5k steps on an early morning walk to not see the sunrise is a good start (even if I did succumb to a wonderful sausage roll at the village pub).