The Watch

She was very afraid of dying. ‘I don’t want to die. Him upstairs will get a big stick and shout at me, tell me to go to hell. I’m frightened. I don’t want to be shouted at.’

And I hugged her, bereft of anything theological to say that sounded real, and she snuggled in.

‘Talk to me,’ she whimpered.

‘There was a man who had two sons…’ and I told her the story of the prodigal son and loving father.

‘Will you be with me when I die? Be sure and tell me that story.’

So I did, about an hour ago, now we are waiting for the undertakers.

Jane Millard, Fragments of the Watch (unpublished), quoted in Leaving Alexandria: a memoir of faith and doubt by Richard Holloway, p298. [Jane was a parish priest in Edinburgh at the height of the AIDs epidemic in the 1990s. She kept vigil by the bedside of many dying people from her area, and wrote notes of her thoughts or experiences.]

This touched me.


Chagall’s Faces

ChagallI’m not an expert on Chagall. In fact, I didn’t know anything about him at all, except I wanted to see his pictures, see how they made me think and feel.

First impressions were what a difference the passing of time makes. As a teenager in the 1970s, I think I read every book by Leon Uris on the establishment of the Israeli state, on the holocaust, loads of stuff. I remember feeling very pro-Israeli. These days, with The Wall dividing Palestinians from their own lands, the uprooting of ancient olive groves and the building of illegal settlements, I lean very much towards the Palestinian cause. It made me question who is pulling my strings now?  How do I form these opinions? How reliable are they? From what I read?  Or hear on the news? There is so much information out there but how do you make sense of it? Where could I discuss such matters in a safe space?

The first paintings in the exhibition depicted life in the village in Russia where Chagall was born. You were looking at a newborn child. A handful of villagers were present, just outside the door. The atmosphere was dark,  foreboding. Of what? Did this mean the presence of death too? Or something else I couldn’t connect with?

There was poetry and colour and life too in the next paintings. Have you ever lain in a field after the grass has just been mown? Have you looked up at the clouds in a bright blue sky, breathing in the warm fragrance of a  sunny afternoon? Chagall had too. Images of a samovar, a soldier, an old man took me back to my student days when I’d visited Moscow and Minsk. One day, out of curiosity, I’d boarded a train and taken a journey to the forest outside Moscow. I just wanted to walk round an ordinary Russian village, like the one Chagall grew up in. His home was clearly important to him all his life, though his village was part of the Pale, meaning the movement of Jewish families was controlled.

My favourite image was one called ‘The Dancer’. Now, the dancer is a symbol of life and the colours leapt out at me: yellows, purples, greens, the night stars, blues and latticed reds. I didn’t read too much of the script on the wall next to the painting, just enough to get my bearing. One introduced me to the term, ‘Orphism’, something to do with a theory of using colour. If I could go back to the exhibition, I would spend time sitting in front of the portrait of his brother, David, playing the mandolin. Chagall was very fond of his brother. And I would love to sit and take in the detail of everything that was in the room around him. These are the small details that we take for granted, yet often struggle to recall when life changes, like a child leaving home. Paintings on the wall, ornaments on the shelf…such a loving picture of his family life, of his parents’ and of his grandparents’ generation.

It reminded me of a photograph of me with my son, a toddler. Looking beyond, what was that on the mantelpiece? That book on the shelf..? Remember..why do we do that? Time moves on. So, do we. Chagall left his home town of Vitebsk in today’s Belorussia to travel to Paris and later settle in France. During his lifetime, he lived through two world wars, as so many of his generation did.Or not.

One of his paintings which caught my imagination was called ‘The Awakening.’ Who, what was awakening?  It showed someone waking up. So, it was true on a literal level. but what else? Awakening to what’s happening inside me and making connections to the wider world? Too simplistic, I hear me say…I moved on and backwards.

Chagall was a Russian Jew. Though separated for many years from his village, he had fond memories of the people he grew up with. What struck me in these paintings were the faces. Large, angular, striking, embracing,  they showed the lives of the people from his village – teacher, rabbi, woman dancing, musician. Loving life, I felt, life!

Next, I came upon the striking image of two men sitting one evening at a table in a café. One was a musician, the other, possibly a poet? From their conversation rose a light the top of which you suddenly realised reached at the top the faces of a couple dancing cheek to cheek,so close together.  It would be so easy to pass by and only notice the two men in conversation.

The last few paintings showed a darker side – a village being destroyed in wartime; people fleeing on carts, despairing, fear in their eyes, like pictures on the news from Syria today with over five million refugees and other places too. The world is so small now.

I visited the exhibition without any preconceived notions. I didn’t know anything about Chagall or his paintings. To go back to my first question, he made me think and feel  about important stuff which stays with you. Something touched me at this exhibition. Yet, as time passes, we can quickly forget how it was and still could be again. Perhaps, that was Chagall’s message, ‘Wake up!’?

I wondered what a WEA tutor, teaching, say, a craft subject like creative cupcakes, would make of the exhibition? Would they gain inspiration from the exhibition, which they could take and use in their own classes? Sharing a conversation with a colleague a couple of days later, I thought it might be possible to find something in so stimulating and creative an exhibition. I pictured in my mind’s eye the bright and dark colours again, the natural and electric light, bizarre angles and patterns, textures even. Chagall lived through two world wars in Europe. He was Jewish and his paintings reveal the lives of people from their births to their deaths. My colleague thought for a moment before saying, ‘We use cake so much to mark the stages of our lives as we enter and depart –  birthdays, 18ths and 21st, festivals of all kinds all over the world to funerals. Chagall shared in so many cultures – Jewish, Russian, French, European – giving us so food enough for thought. Ummm, I wonder what you would say? I wonder what your students would say. I wonder…


‘Dad, do something. I said DO SOMETHING! I can’t breathe in this house anymore. You’ve got to do something. Dad? DAD..! Nan and Granddad Bob sit watching tele all day. I can’t take much more, Dad. You’ve got to do something, you’ve got to…right?  Just do something!’

Young Danny turned on his heels and ran out of the room, slamming the door behind him. The walls shook. Dad stretched out a hand toward a couple of 1970s Leicester City subbuteo players, wobbling on the mantelpiece to stop them falling off. ‘You’re right, son’, he said to himself. ‘I’ve got to do something but I don’t know what? This house is too small for all of us. We’ve no money, so we can’t move.’ He sighed, his head teetering on the edge of his shoulders and started to count his chest hairs.

The next day he went to the park with some of his youngest kids and found himself sitting next to an old man on a bench. The old man was watching his grandchildren, playing on the swings. The young dad let out a long breath. ‘What’s the matter?’, the old man asked. He looked back at him. Should he say something? Maybe, it would help? It couldn’t hurt to talk to someone, he thought finally.

‘Oh, it’s everything at home. It’s all getting on top of me. I’ve only got a small house and it has to fit me, my wife and all the kids. We’ve got six of them and then there’s the wife’s parents staying with us as well. You just can’t move without falling over people. And the heat’s unbearable. We just get on each other’s nerves. I had to get out of the house… Something has got to give. I just hope it’s not me.’

The old man looked back at him as he talked. ‘Maybe, I can help you. I had a problem like that once too. This might seem like a strange question but do you keep any animals at home?’ ‘Animals? Erm, yes, we do. We’ve got a cow, a goat and a few chickens.’ ‘Well, then,’ said the old man, ‘go home and let them all into the house. Then, we’ll see what love can do.’ The younger man nearly laughed at him but thought better of it. He went home and did as the old man had asked him.

In the kitchen, the chickens scattered under their feet, flying onto cupboards and work tops. Mum did her best to cook but she couldn’t keep all the droppings out of the cheese omelette they were having for tea. ‘It’s all good protein’, she told herself, serving it out. While in the living room, the goat fought with Nan and GranddadBob for the remote. The goat won easily. The noise from the motocross and formula one cars – Neeeeeaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrr – blared out across the they roared past. Nan and Granddad Bob glared each other and at the goat. They shouted insults across the room but it didn’t do any good. The goat was too big to argue with.

Upstairs, the cow occupied the kids’ bedroom, laying lay across all the beds. Sue sat crosslegged, facing the cow, her back to the wall. She was trying to protect the only thing she had left between her and the cow, her One Direction posters. It was a terrible struggle. Her eyelids drooped and her head nodded. Everyone complained to Dad. The atmosphere in the home stank.

So, next day, Dad went back to the park and sat on the bench next to the old man. ‘Hello, how’s it going?’ ‘It’s bad, really bad, really, really bad. I mean I haven’t slept a wink. It’s much worse than it was. And my kids all hate me. My wife’s not speaking to me and we can’t move for chickens between our toes. The noise is deafening and the smell, ugh, the smell is unbelievable. It’s just not working. There’s got to be something else I can try?’

‘There is,’ said the old man. ‘When you go home, let the chickens out into the back garden and then we’ll see what love can do.’ And that’s what the man did. Straight away, there seemed more room in the kitchen. He and his wife even managed a faint smile at each other, their first in months. Yet the goat was still bossing everybody around in the living room, even headbutting Granddad Bob and the kids for fun. It had discovered Facebook and was spending hours on the computer, talking with all its new goat friends. The kids scowled behind the goat’s back but dared not say anything. Little Jimmy had fallen down the stairs three times already, trying to keep out of its way. Lucky for him, he was made of rubber, so bounced back.

The next day, the man went back to the park and sat down on the bench. ‘Things are a bit better now. The chickens are back outside but the goat is driving us mental. It is taking over our lives. It’s now started coming up with silly hair styles and makes the kids brush them for ages. Everyone’s fed up but what can we do?’ The old man said to him, ‘Go home, let the goat out of the house and see what love can do.’

So, the man went home and turned the goat out into the garden. Straight away, it felt more peaceful, now the goat was no longer bashing into all the doors. But they still had a cow upstairs.

The next morning, the man returned to the park and sat down on the bench, sighing. ‘Things are definitely getting better with the goat and the chickens outside but the cow is turning our lovely home into a barn. There are cow pats everywhere – under the duvets, on the stairs, even in the bath. You name it…and the worst thing is, it spends half the day mooing on our double bed and the rest sitting in the bath. Nobody can get in and the smell…you’ve got to breathe it to believe it. But what else can we do? There must be something. We can’t carry on like this.’ Well, the old man looked at him for a moment before saying, ‘Go home and let the cow out of the house. We’ll see what love can do then.’

The man looked askance at the old man but did as he was told. As soon as he got home, he showed the cow the back door. The atmosphere lightened up straight away. Some of the kids offered to help with the washing up. They even tidied their bedroom without being asked. To his surprise, two of them started looking after the animals before and after school. And in the bedroom, Sue took down her One Direction posters.  In their place, she put a giant one up, proclaiming ‘I love Ermintrude’.

But best of all, Nan and GranddadBob turned off the tele and ditched the remote. They gathered all their grandkids around them in front of the fire and started telling them stories they’d heard when they were growing up from long ago and places far and near. Danny dimmed the lights and snuggled in next to his granddad on the arm of the chair. He loved listening to the stories about kings and queens and warriors and magician and lovers and peacemakers… and they sat rapt with attention in the firelight, taking it all in. Young Danny stared into the fire, shifting only to stirr the coals and that’s how he got his nickname, ‘ Firekeeper’.

The next day, Dad returned to the park and sat down on the bench next to the old man. ‘I can’t thank you enough, old man. With all the animals out of the house, we’re getting on brilliantly. The kids are doing their chores without being asked. They want to do them! And the house feels so calm and peaceful again. We can’t believe how much room there is now. Thank you, old man. Thank you so much. I’m really glad I met you. What a difference you’ve made.’  And the old man smiled back at him, eyes twinkling, remembering.

(adapted from A Goat Too Many, in One Hundred Wisdom Stories from around the World by Margaret Silf, p87)