Sunday, November 19, 2006

Far away thoughts

Finally the winds and rain are sweeping the bulk of the golden brown leaves from the trees around the Square. It's back-ache time again, with so much raking to do after each big storm, or else get overwhelmed. Ten bin bags of leaves to take to the rubbish tip each time, forty kilos or so, three or four trips during November, despite the fact that the lawn contract maintance people put in a weekly visit, weather permitting, and shift lorry loads of leaves from the knee high drifts on the grass in the middle. This month is averagely warmer than the same time last year. I have yet to see my breath making mist as I labour at the leaves this year.

On a few days when the temperature went almost to zero and there was a modicum of frost, I wore my ski jacket. It made me think of Switzerland and memories of much colder days past. Eventually this sentiment drove me to the EasyJet site, to book a flight to Geneva for my winter leave in January. This year I'll have worked six straight months with no more than a four day autumn break, and few regular days off to punctuate the working week - my own fault entirely. With a week's holiday in hand, I'll be able to stay away for nearly three weeks. I need it now really, but have to practice patience. Making the booking is a definite commitment however. Now I have to make some decent plans, to make sure I get to see all the old friends I'd like to during my sojourn, and have time to spend in the Jura and maybe even the Alps, absorbing the scenery which has so deeply touched my inner life over the past twenty years or so.

Living in a city built across a coastal plain means for me a bit of an effort to get to a place where the surrounding chain of hills (100 metres max) is visible. I was brought up in a Welsh Valleys village, where in every direction Psalm 121 "I will lift up mine eyes to the hills." came true. Despite the ravages of coal mining on the environment, we were still surrounded by lovely woodlands and pastures, and had mostly a green hilltop horizon to gaze at. My first discovery of the much vaster scale of mountains in the centre of Western Europe was an experience which brought tears of emotion to my eyes as a young adult, and indeed still does whenever I revisit.

Clare says she feels overwhelmed and diminished by the scale. For me it's the opposite. I was glad to quit the Valleys as a young man since in those days I felt the environment constrained my spirit. When I discovered, some years later the large scale version, it was as if I found somewhere that I could expand to the full, in awe and wonder at the beauty of creation. Soon I understood why so many monasteries and hermitages have been established in places of outstanding natural beauty. The hardships of ascetic life are well balanced by the joys of truly aesthetic environment. Despite all the pleasing architectural marvels, not to mention great award winning parks and gardens of this city in the plain, my experience of it more resembles that of being in a wasteland. Everything, even the naturally beautiful things here, are managed by man. Wilderness places, with or without people, charged with natural beauty, and some of the unpredictable dynamics of nature, speak to me deeply.

These days, we discuss more frequently what we'll do when we retire - another three and a half years or so from now. We can't make up our minds. We'd love to be close to our children and their families, though there's no guarantee we'll all want to live in the same region, even though being close enough to visit each other is important to us all. One way or another, provided I am fit and healthy, I'd like to spend time living again in a mountainous area of outstanding natural beauty, or perhaps several diffrent places in spells over a period of years. Maybe Andalusia, or the Valais, the French Jura, or the Brecon Beacons. With careful budgeting and a simple enough lifestyle it might just be possible. Each region has its distinctive characteristics and culture that can best be savoured by resting a while through the passage of seasons. There's much more to experience than the transient visitor can ever take in. And why do this? To have sufficient time, God willing, to contemplate the beauty of creation to the full, and return praise and glory to its almighty Creator.

Often it seems, in the city, we are too busy and preoccupied to give enough time to the adoration and worship that really belongs to a life that takes seriously relationship with God. I see God's grace and beauty in my neighbour and in the stranger, in all sorts of people every day, but it never feels enough to stop there. I just have to get away, be somewhere with a horizon not man-made before me to draw strength and perspective and a bigger better sense of being human.

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