International Random Acts of Kindness Day

kindness

Februrary 17th, 2017. Mark the date and be on your guard. Today is the day ‘gestures of kindness’ will be performed in our unsuspecting communities: International Random Acts of Kindness Day is here. The picture above is of course very heart-warming. But my stomach is turning in anticipation of people following up on the official suggestions – I don’t want a stranger to give me a hug, or to tell me how nice I look today. That’s just plain weird. I don’t even want the person in front of me to pay for my groceries. Not surprisingly this idea stems from a cliché on a placemat in California: ‘practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.’ I think what gets to me is the pre-conceivedness of it – shouldn’t we always be on the look out for ways to help a stranger? I guess I’m happy with it if it’s a consistent outlook, and our actions will make a genuine difference to someone. The real danger is that we will just make them cringe.

I have just told Jemima, my eight-year-old about it, and now I wonder if I am being a little harsh. ‘Oh, Mr H did this,’ she replied. ‘He’s the best teacher ever. He paid an old lady’s parking fine. He had some money left so he bought someone a coffee.’ I want to know if this was really in response to a day like this, or if he’s just a nice guy. From what I know of him I think it’s the latter.

Selflessness has to be one of the most admirable traits. The literary character who impressed me the most in my teenage years was Sydney Carton, Dickens’ drunkard-turned-good lawyer in A Tale of Two Cities. He still does, though I’ve encountered a few more to rival him. Perhaps I like him now for his reluctance to people-please early in the novel – he “care[s] for no man on earth and no man on earth cares for [him]”. Yes, I know that’s not at all selfless, and I wouldn’t love him so if he stayed like this. He reminds me that no one is set in their flaws forever. Carton disguises himself as his friend and goes to the guillotine in his place. In a Christ-like resignation he sacrifices all that he is for the happiness of others. We read, ‘They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.’

We like to feel reassured about human nature in real life, too. Last month there was the news story about Alex from Reading whose bicycle was stolen. He wrote a note and taped it to the scene of the crime, and soon a kind woman began crowd-funding for him. You can watch a clip online as the replacement bike is given to him.

Selflessness is not exclusively a human trait, though many scientists argue that animal ‘kindness’ is merely a display of altruism. I like to think that there is some generosity in the equation. Vampire bats give blood to those in their group who haven’t eaten in a few days. Long-tailed tits sometimes rear their siblings children, rather than attempt a new brood of their own. Occasionally we read of a swimmer saved from a shark by a dolphin, or watch a bird revive another bird as I have today. These instances are at their most beautiful when they are not the norm, but prompted by a spontaneous urge that makes us think ‘I want to be like that’. I hope it will never be because an international organization has told us to.

Clip filmed in Saudi Arabia and posted on LiveLeak. Please let me know if this is your footage and I will attribute more fully!

The Secret Life of Sheep

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The other day I witnessed a display of sheep affection. A potato field has been given over to a flock of sheep, and there at the edge two ewes stood nose to muzzle in a lingering moment of closeness. They were in no hurry to move on, clearly enjoying each other’s company. I had to head home, and left the sheep to their togetherness. Perhaps they are there still. Then there was the fun-loving sheep today, running alongside the car and shaking its head with that girl-in-a-shampoo-ad motion. I wondered if it had a brain injury, sadly, or or if it were the ‘wild child’ of the flock.

We like to think of sheep as all the same, assume we know ‘the character of sheep’, that there is nothing more to tell. But these are not the only times I have found sheep betraying their conventional image. No longer are they docile and stupid in my mind, but misunderstood. In fact, I think they have the intelligence to portray themselves as one thing, giving themselves a cover to be something altogether different.

Have you seen the clip of sheep bounding along a line of hay bales? These are no ordinary bales, but between five and seven feet in diameter, and the sheep jump aboard like they are well-practiced – except this time Joe Blogs has his video camera. A momentary slip in the usual sheep-are-trustworthy cover, but then even phones film these days. I think the sheep can be forgiven for not noticing, especially as the bales had been laid out in such a tempting fashion.

My sheep suspicion has led me into a little research and my theories have been confirmed. A report in the National Geographic (2001) tells of the Cambridge Babraham Institute discovery that sheep can identify faces (fifty,to be precise) and remember them for two years or more. I wish they would give me the training. Then there are sheep that tackle mazes. In 1925 Howard S. Liddell wrote up his study, ‘The Behaviour of Sheep and Goats in Learning a Simple Maze’, research that has been tested more recently in Australia. Closer to home, sheep in the Yorkshire Moors have learnt how to roll over metal cattle grids and so avail themselves of the locals’ garden produce. You have to admire them for it.

I wonder if our concept of well-behaved, law abiding sheep comes from the Biblical view of them – ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ – and all those pastoral scenes in which sheep are of course still. How many of us have bothered to watch them long enough to see what they really get up to? They just look so darned innocent, a little vacant, and let’s be honest, dim.

Candlemas

Thursday 2nd February, 2017: ‘The feest of candlemas, or meetynge of candelles’.(1.)

I drive through the little village of Coldred on my way to work, a place that according to Wikipedia holds ‘the county record for the longevity of its inhabitants’. It is claimed this title stretches back as far as 1700. There on the village green is a sign advertising a Candlemas service in the village church. I have never been inside though it’s only a mile or two from home, and old English traditions intrigue me. I even wonder if such observances and the relaxed pace of life could contribute to the suggested health of the village. I slow for the community of ducks that loiter in the middle of the road and make a mental note to return.

Candlemas won’t leave me alone and I begin to search it on the computer before my class arrive. This is one of my adult ed groups, and only last week in a session on the countryside we came across the following quote:
‘If Candlemas day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;’
I show them my search at break-time. ‘If it’s sunny before 11 does it count?’ says Jenni. We all agree that the rain has really set in and winter has to be on its way out.
I continue my research at home and try to find a few recruits at suppertime. ‘Does anyone want to come to a Candlemas service with me tonight?’
‘Candle-what?’
‘When does it start?’
‘7.30.’
‘Sounds way too far up the candle for me,’ says Rupert.
‘I’ll come,’ says Maddy.
‘What, really?’
‘Well you’ll look a bit batty on your own. Like some weird old spinster or something.’
‘Nothing new there then,’ comes a voice.

The rain has stopped when we set out and we pull up on a muddy bank, the car tilting like a fairground ride on the rise. This little church has no car park but my daughter’s health issue means it would be difficult to walk, and unwise anyway as there is no pavement on this road out through the woods. We hear a single bell tolling and walk towards it with a torch, not knowing if it will be round the next bend or not. The old church has a stone bell-cote, the bell always on display and exposed to the elements, though too far from most houses to be heard. The bell is getting louder and there is a break in the hedge. We follow the lichen-covered path to the old door. We pause and glance at each other before I take the handle and stumble down a step. Several heads turn to look at us and smile.

This church can’t have changed much since it was built back in the 11th century. I want to take it all in, though it feels a little nosey. A man stands at the back pulling the bell rope and a lady dressed in a robe volunteers to take over – she sets a fast pace, as quick as CPR I think as we sit behind the local first aid lady known to us. There aren’t many of us – perhaps thirteen – but it doesn’t feel empty as the space is so small. It is how you feel in a light aircraft, shoulder to shoulder and glad of the intimacy, as if it carries with it a sense of privilege.

This church really is beautiful. White candles with pale flames fill every available space. They sit in alcoves, and atop several wrought iron holders that are attached to the walls. They line the pews and windowsills, amid displays of ivy and jam jars brimming with snowdrops. Snowdrops are known as ‘Candlemas bells’, the flower associated with this time of year. Superstition has it that it’s unlucky to bring them into the house before Candlemas, but I can’t think why you would want to pick them anyway. ‘Leave them for other people to enjoy,’ my mum told me on walks when I was small. They are protected by European law, not that this will count for much for long. As I look around I decide this is the perfect old English church. It is not ornate, which doesn’t sit well with me, but rustic, with an atmosphere of purity. The walls are of a simple whitewash and old brown beams line the roof-space.

Soon the service starts. It is Evensong which Maddy has never heard before, and I am out of practice. We bumble our way through it, though we are familiar with many of the prayers and most of the hymns. The lady vicar gives a five-minute address on the meaning of Candlemas. She doesn’t dwell on the old tradition in the Middle Ages of bringing your candles along to be blessed, but tells us instead about how this marks the bringing of Jesus into the temple as an infant, and Mary’s purification rite. Mary would have had a public bath as part of her ceremony, we learn. That’s one rite of passage we are best off without.

I feel sorry that the service is ending and fumble in my purse for an offering, barely able to make out what’s inside. I realize I’m about to pull out a sheet of stamps at the last minute and stop myself. I’m reminded of the detail my search brought up earlier in the day: long ago children would bring in coins for their teacher in competition to become Candlemas king or queen. ‘The king, i.e. he who pays most, reigns for six weeks.’(2.) The teacher was supposed to buy treats for the children with the money. It’s one way to brighten up a dull winter’s day I suppose. Now the dish is held up above head-height at the altar before the congregation are blessed and dismissed.

Maddy and I make our way back down the lichen path. ‘Are they snowdrops?’ I say to her, and we crouch low with the torch. ‘It’s hard to see if it’s rain glimmering at the end of the green tips or something more.’
‘It’s them,’ says Maddy, and as my eyes adjust to the darkness around us I see that she is right. It’s like that first movement in the womb, the knowledge that something is on the way, and it bodes good.

1. 1500: Ortus Voc. in Cath. Angl. 52 (Oxford English Dictionary online.)

2. 1794: J. SINCLAIR Statist. Acct. Scotl. XIII. 211. (Oxford English Dictionary online.)

PAINTING BY MARIANNE STOKES, CANDLEMAS DAY.