Where Memories Go – book Review

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This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. That’s not to say it isn’t good, it is.  But it is also pretty unrelentingly sad.

Sally Magnusson, daughter of the well-known writer and TV personality,  Magnus Magnusson, writes both her mother’s life story and the story of the mother’s descent into dementia. Along the way, she also writes an account of what is currently known about dementia and Alzheimer’s as well as offering a critique of the care options available.

It was incredibly moving and there was so much I recognised as my own mother has dementia but she is not yet as bad as Mamie became before she died. You’d think it would be obvious that I’d find it hard to read but it caught me off-guard. Sally writes so movingly, I found myself experiencing my own sense of sadness and loss, vicariously through her and this made me realise that, for the most part (and for very good reasons),  I don’t regularly examine or even allow myself to experience my sadness over mum’s decline.

This might sound unfeeling but I’d be not much practical use to my mum as a sobbing wreck so mostly we just get on with stuff and I don’t dwell too much on how much she is drifting away from the person she was and how much I miss the mum she was to me.  I’m sure these psychological birds will come home to roost at some point, I will have to grieve sometime.

So this book snuck in under my radar. I admit I only skimmed the final few chapters, I couldn’t bear to read what might lie ahead for us. But I read enough to know how Mamie died and what choices the family made about her care. Sally is brilliant at explaining the complex dynamics at work over every decision but if I had one criticism of the book it would be this:  I felt they had it easier than many people. I know it’s unfair to compare one family’s hardship against another family’s but there were a number of factors for the Magnusson family that, in my view, made it ‘easier’ than for others. They had the choice to keep her at home within the family and whilst that is harder (but only in some ways) than putting a loved one into care, at least they had the power to make that choice.  Many people do not. And it is also very hard to put a loved one into care and then worry incessantly about whether they are safe, settled and as well-cared as you’d like them be. Secondly there were four siblings to share the load which had to help. Undeniably they all had their own major life issues going on concurrently but don’t we all?  I don’t know if Sally was just being extremely generous to her siblings (and who is to say, she may have been) but their story seems devoid of the rancour and fall out that can so easily occur when the care of an elderly parent falls unevenly on one or more sibling.  I felt at times like I’d been given a insider pass to a rather glorious, golden, almost Dickensian extended family full of songs, japes and jolly traditions.

I don’t mean to be unkind, I’m sure the Magnusson family are every bit as lovely as she described them but the point I am making is that in many families dementia can be the final straw on already strained relationships. Not everyone inhabits a golden world where marriages are in tact, siblings are in harmony and  where elderly but competent spinster aunts can ‘live in’ long-term (and what a long extra period of care than gave them). Plus not everyone can keep their loved one in their own home. The slight sense that any other choice would be disloyal or unloving left me feeling uneasy.

Decisions taken on behalf of vulnerable people are never straight-forward or easy. There is no better way through only the ‘best way through’ for each individual case and when relatives are doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt then it’s not for us to make a judgement. Dementia is hard enough without adding any sense of failure to someone’s already burdened shoulders.

Would I recommend it? It depends what you are looking for. If you are looking for a scientific account, it’s not fully that. If you are looking for tips and suggestions for living well with dementia, it’s not either.If you like reading about other people’s  lives then this is for you. If you want someone help you understand just how sad and devastating it is lose someone you love to dementia, then this is book for you (even if you already know that from insider experience) It’s not upbeat and cheerful but it is very interesting and very well written.

 

 

 

Through the Bible in … Three Years!

Okay, Okay I know reading through the Bible in one year is the gold standard for mega super Christian keenies but I’m a slow reader.

Actually that’s not true. However, I have recognised the fact that in my private devotions I like to do more than simply read: I like to mull, underline, highlight, make notes. I also like  to pray, sit in silence, knit (meditatively of course!), I might even sing. So, as I don’t have all day (Bobby is waiting downstairs for his early morning walk) reading four or five chapters a day simply won’t fit. 

Plus it felt SO disheartening if you got behind. Miss a day and you had eight chapters to read in one sitting!

I have found a three year reading plan that is just one chapter a day for three years. Whoo hoo! One chapter feels so delightfully acheivable I have even started reading a commentary alongside, which is doubly beneficial:  not only do I understand more of what I’m reading, I no longer feel guilty about all those unread commentaries on my shelf. (Not that I actually own a seperate commentary for every book in the Bible but I know someone who does…)

A couple of other things have helped launch me on this journey:

  • now I’m older I realise that 3 years is not such  a very long time. It would have felt like an eternity in my twenties.  Now I am older, the penny has dropped that it would be  better to actually succeed in this task and take three years to do it, rather than regularly starting and predictably failing to acheive the one year gallop.
  • I have three significant years ahead of me. In one year’s time, I expect to be ordained deacon, the year after that ordained priest and then the year after that I shall complete my training and be deemed ready to be let loose on the wider Anglican communion. It would feel good to know at that point that  my personal journey had also been from cover to cover.
  • Having the role of a  trainee vicar can give rise to Biblical indigestion: at college every chapel service will have a Psalm, and Old Testament and  New Testament reading and even in parish I am reading or hearing or working on several passages each week. Trying to pack in another 4 chapters every day feels like over-load. Whereas I approach my one chapter a day as if it were a treat: ‘this one’s just for me’,  like a delicious cappucino with a cookie on the side!
  • Finally, but very significantly, I bought a yummy new Bible. Only people who share my stationary fetish will understand the use of the word yummy. (If you can’t pass a stationary shop in the ‘back to school’ season without craving lovely new pens or fresh notebooks, the chances are you share my passion: I am addicted to push up pencils with built in erasers, which is pretty tame as vices go) Anyway, back to my new Bible: it’s called The Notetakers Bible and it is a wide margin edition of the NRSV an edition put out by Oxford University Press in 2009. The lined margins (I would have preferred not lined but you can’t have everything) means there is lots of space for all my scribblings. The text comes in a single column, the pages are smooth and smell lovely and the whole tome is satisfyingly weighty and beautifully bound. I treated myself to the Deluxe edition which has a lovely tactile, fabric cover.

 I found the 3 year reading plan in a book called Good News Bible Book of Facts (compiled by Martin Manser) published 1998 by Marshall Pickering, first published in 1990 called The Amazing Book of Bible Facts, it’s a very useful and fun little book, goodness only knows if it’s still in print, try Amazon Marketplace?  You could just read one chapter a day and it would more or less work out at 3 years but the benefit of  this plan is that it takes you back and forth between Old and New Testament, helping cut down on the ‘laws and lists’ fatigue induced by certain sections of the Old Testament.

‘Sex Life in Marriage’ 1948

A friend recently gave me a second hand book she knew I’d find interesting:

Sex Life in Marriage by Dr G Richard, a swiss academic, published in 1948, selling at the time for the princely sum of  2 and 6 ( could some one please tell me what that means in real money?)

Having written my own book on the subject of sex (Who Stole your Sex Life?  Kingsway 2007 £8.99, whoops, probably alot more than 2 and 6) I was fascinated to read what advice the good doctor gave all those years ago.

The subtitle is ‘An Aid to the Solution and Adjustment of Fundamental Problems of Married Life’. So sex is fundamental. Good, at least we are agreed on that. It is an unspoken assumption of the book that sex does NOT happen outside of marriage so he spends alot of time talking about the first experience. (His view is that it’s a father’s job to tell their sons how to get through their wedding night. Like that ever happened!*)

In the 84 pages much space is given to the issue of ‘frigidity’ in women and very little space to the problem of ‘impotence’ in men.  Frigidity is a wonderfully old fashioned word, the connotations of which would be lost on my husband. For him the word would be an explanation for the fact that my feet are always cold in bed, the idea of metaphorical ‘cold feet’ would be completely lost on him! Personally I find that in order to talk successfully about sex you do need to spell things out a little more clearly which does require the use of technical terms.

Dr Richard clearly struggled with technical terms.  He couldn’t quite bring himself to ‘name the parts’ (you know the parts I mean, if I name them the chances are this blog post will get blocked) He didn’t have any such problem but he still couldn’t use one single proper noun in the whole 8 pages given over to ‘technique’.  In other words he doesn’t  tell you which bit does what, why or how. Bit of a problem that, given that in 1948 ignorance about body parts was endemic.  So in terms of a manual, it’s not that helpful. Everything is suggested by allusion,  the word o***** (fill the the blank in your head please) is allowed but how you acheive it is slightly mysterious, it has something do with reaching a state of complete relaxation (which bodes well for sitting out in the sun later this afternoon!!!). And as for what ‘it’ is – he resorts to six lines of poetry from a dead Roman poet. Hmm, like that’ll help!

All of which makes me grateful for the freedom we have to speak/learn/write (filters permitting) about something that is so fundamental to being human. In my book I postulated that ‘for all the freedom of information, all the educational material…even given the non-judgemental attitudes, there is no evidence to suggest that people are any more secure about themselves as sexual beings’. Now I’ve read Sex in Marriage, 1948, I may need to revise that view.

*Whilst researching my book I did ask women for the best advice passed on to them by their mothers – the best one I uncovered was  ‘keep a glass of water by your bed – it’s thirsty work’. Goodness, it sounds worse than being ‘sent down pit!’

The Power of Sex – Reflections on ‘An Education’

Spoiler alert! If you think you may yet see the film or read the book then don’t read this blog post! If you have seen the film, please add your thoughts to mine…

Carey Mulligan shines in the central role in An Education. Set in the early 1960’s the story is centres on a wide-eyed innocent (but not naive) 16 year old Jenny who is struggling with the conventions of the day and the expectations of her parents. She is aiming for Oxford but is not entirely sure why when her world is turned upside down by a relationship with an older man, David, whose friends and lifestyle seem overwhelmingly glamorous.

Jenny is full of joy and curiosity,  such an endearing blend of courage, self-confidence and innocence that even in her moments of fool-hardy rebellion against ‘the system’ you can’t help cheering her on and thinking that she might have a point. Perhaps there is more to life than ‘an education’.  In the end though, even though she seems magnificently in control of her choices, she is cruelly manipulated. These days almost every film contains a sex scene even if it’s just a hint that sex has taken place and this film is no exception, although it is not explicit in terms of what you see (the film is a 12) it is explicit over her feelings and expectations. I found it achingly sad. It’s poignancy lingered over me for several days. Eventually I figured out why: rarely does a modern film do justice to the power of sex but  I think this film does.

It also raises interesting questions as to who is to blame when all this boldness of youth is crushed against the realities of a grown up world. The innocent parties, Jenny and parents, come across as either  head-strong or endearingly stupid.  Her father is pathetically impressed by a fancy car and man who can find his way into London to attend classical concerts. Her teachers try to warn her but were so offensive in their appeal it’s not hard to see why she doesn’t listen to them. David, clearly the baddie, is  ambiguously portrayed as tender and generous.  Maybe the only person to blame is Jenny herself? Perhaps the story teller’s point is that we all make our own mistakes and those mistakes either make us or break us.

So is having sex outside of marriage always a mistake?

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is set in the same era. It focusses entirely on the wedding night of Florence and Edward, both virgins. Neither of them have had the benefit of sex education, both of them are far too terrified to talk about ‘it’ before-hand and the whole agonising night of fear, misunderstanding and disaster leaves, even morally straight-laced vicar types like me, contemplating the benefits of promiscuity and shouting ‘Oh for goodness sake, just get on with it!’

In another recent film based on a true story The Blind Side the foster mother of the black teenager tells him when he gets to college that ‘if  you get a girl pregnant out of wedlock I will personally come up here and chop off your penis’. As a ‘Bible Belt, Christian, Republican’ you get the feeling she means it but even so it isn’t a prohibition against sex per se so much as a warning against ill-advised procreation.

These examples don’t help me answer my question: is having sex outside of marriage always a mistake? Should we just take it for granted that unmarried people will have sex without making any judgements about whether that is a good thing or a bad thing? I’m drafting this blog post in London where every underground escalator has at least one abortion clinic advert. A tidy solution to a tiny problem? or an indication of  immense heart-break?

It’s hard to find positive portrayals of healthy married sex in films. Julie and Julia shows a delightfully passionate marriage between Julia Childs and her diminutive diplomat husband. But for a really positive take on the benefits of abstinence you have to go back to the 19th century. I’m sure the words sexual intercourse do not feature in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but the whole plot hinges on the power of sex.  Lydia elopes with ‘Wicked Mr Wickham’ and her wanton licentious behaviour damages by extension the reputation of all her sisters. I watched the final episode in the BBC dramatisation recently and was struck by the closing scenes. Lizzie and Jane, the two virtuous sisters stand at the altar with Darcy and Bingley their respective husbands to be and, while the story so far is reviewed, we are treated to almost the entire preface of the 1662 Marriage ceremony:

DEARLY beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony… an estate which is … honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites. We are then given the three reasons for marriage: First, It was ordained for the procreation of children. Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication. Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other…

Forgive me for sounding old-fashioned but aren’t we meant to feel that it’s rather wonderful, these chaste lovers sharing their first kiss in the carriage that drives them away from their own wedding?

Contrast that to a survey mentioned in today’s Metro: American university students apparently have two one-night stands for every date they go on and these liaisons, usually under the influence of heavy alcohol use, are ‘the standard way young people interact with one another’.  Surely that reduces sex to being a soulless shadow of all it can be?

If we create a scale of sexual activity with  Lizzie Bennett and Mr Darcy at the top then this cross-section of the American student population surely comes somewhere near the bottom? My big question is ‘where on that scale is the moral line drawn?’ Above such a line we have sex that builds society and benefits individuals and below that line we have  a potentially destructive force.  Some would deny that such a line exists and say we have no right to judge.  The huge majority of ‘decent’ people I know would put serial monogamy above the line regardless of their marital status. The challenge for Christians is that God does draw the line at the public commitment of matrimony. Promises to ‘love, cherish and obey’ come before leaps under the sheets. 

And it’s not because Christians are joy killers who are scared of sex. Quite the reverse, it’s because the Christian faith/God/the Bible expresses such a high view of the power of sex that  the sanctity of marriage is declared to be the ideal safety zone for the powerfully dynamic gift of sex. Now we should feel neither smug nor dejected depending on whether our own behaviour puts us above or below the line.  Heaven knows, the vast majority of us fall well below the line on virtually all of God’s standards, that’s the whole point about forgiveness: it’s essential!   The point is whether or not we believe the line to be there? If it is, then our mistakes, if that’s what they are, don’t have to break us, in God’s amazing grace they can make us.

Twilight

Twilight tells the story of  clumsy, awkward 17 year old, Bella, who falls passionately in love with a gorgeous young man, Edward, who just happens to be a vampire. It is a hugely successful series of novels and film, with millions of fans, grossing millions of dollars.

 I’ve been wondering about its appeal. Fans of the series are often obsessed, reading the books over and over.  Some Christians think the book is dangerous with its occult undertones, others think it’s highly moral, preaching a ‘no sex before marriage’ message. My view is that it’s neither good nor bad. It’s just a story but it’s a very compelling story so I’ve been asking myself what is it that makes it so compelling?  What does its huge success tell us about  the generation of women and girls who have embraced it?  A friend of mine suggested that it works because it fulfills a ‘deep longing’.

 A deep longing for what? A longing to be loved, to be known, cared for, intimately understood, accepted, adored and desired.  We all have or have had a longing for someone to love us in such a way: someone who would be amazingly strong, totally obsessed with our welfare and completely attentive to our every need. Those with a heightened awareness of this longing are far more likely to ‘get’ this film, than those who either have satisfying personal relationships or have settled for an easier substitute (shopping? eating?).

 But is this longing unreasonable? Is it just a teenage fantasy we all once held but now we are ‘grown ups’ we have adjusted to the fact that life isn’t like that.  Actually I think it is a reasonable longing and it is one many of us have either forgotten or buried it  beneath disappointment or replaced it with more easily achieved goals.

 Stephanie Mayer, the author of Twilight, and I agree about one thing: no other human being can ever fulfill this kind of longing. Only a supernatural being is capable of delivering our deepest desires. For Stephanie, the supernatural being in question is a vampire.

 Edward is incredibly strong and powerful as well as stunningly gorgeous to look at. His relationship with Bella begins with the act of saving her from being crushed by a truck. He literally races to her side, putting himself between her and the oncoming vehicle.

From his many other appealing qualities, she adores the fact that he can lift her like a feather and carry her effortlessly. Oh how deeply that fantasy appeals to women conflicted over their weight!  He throws her over his shoulder and carries her to places she could never have reached without a great deal of stumbling and effort.  He is obsessed with keeping her safe, he is protective and vigilant. For several months without her knowledge he keeps watch over her while she sleeps. In short he adores her and one of the tensions running through the books is the tantalizing possibility that one day he might transform Bella into a beautiful, graceful, eternal being like himself. Laying aside ice-cold skin and a proclivity for eating flesh, he is in all respects the lover we all desire.

To be loved so utterly and completely – is that unreasonable? Unattainable? I don’t think  so. I believe we were created by a God who left within us a knowledge that we were meant to be loved in this way. That’s why we long for it. It’s not unreasonable but it does feel unattainable.

 Maybe that is because we have forgotten that the God who made us is also obsessed with us. It was Catherine of Sienna who called God a ‘Divine Madman’ ‘drunk with love, crazy with love’. He has not left us alone in the world but came in human form to throw himself in between me and all the forces of death, hell and destruction that threatened me. He is strong, he is powerful. He watches over me by day and by night ‘he neither slumbers nor sleeps, he will not let my foot slip, he is my shade (Psalm 121), he watches over me while I sleep (Psalm 139).  He has immense strength and supernatural power which is always for me and never against me (Romans 8). He also promises that one day he will transform me into an eternal being of grace and beauty.

 We shy away from linking our romantic longings to God. Perhaps we are afraid of trivialising God or appearing too sentimental and matey in an undignified ‘Jesus is my home boy’ kind of way. But God does not shy away from using the language of romance and intimacy with us. He describes himself as ‘the bridegroom’ and we are his bride. He invites us to ‘remain in his love’. The idea of sexual union is actually used as the highest metaphor for the way that God loves us. ‘Husbands should love their wives… as Christ does the church’ a ‘profound mystery’ says Paul (Ephesians 5). Whatever that means, it clearly indicates that what God expects from this relationship is a level of intimacy we find hard to conceive.

I was made to be loved. I don’t have to settle for anything less than being loved completely by God.  Impossibly beautiful but completely fictional vampires are not the answer to my deepest longings. There is a supernatural being who is real and much closer to us than we realise. He waits for me to turn, to recognise his presence and to open my heart to his love.

 There is a moment in the book when Bella wakes up with a kind of creed on her lips.

About three things I was absolutely positive. First Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him and I didn’t know how dominant that part might be, that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him’.

 My version of Bella’s creed is thus: About three things I am absolutely positive. First Jesus is God himself. Second that there is no part of him that he held back when he poured out his life blood on my behalf. And third he is unconditionally, irrevocably and unreservedly in love with me. 

‘How to Feel Good Naked’ By Sheila Bridge published TODAY!!

My book How to Feel Good Naked – Learning to Love the Body You’ve Got’ is finally published today. The publisher is Lion Hudson and you can buy it from their website, or on Amazon or from any mainstream publisher, price £8.99. It will be published in a few months time in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.

It’s about about all the pressures women are under to look good and what creates those pressures. It takes a look at the worlds of diet, fitness and self-enhancement asking the question what works and what’s a waste of time.

The under-lying theme of the book is that your value does not lie in your appearance. You are so much more than that! You are valued because you are loved and by the end of the book I point to the most infallible source of love that I know, available to all.

More info and chapter summaries on my website: http://www.sheilabridge.com

Would love to hear from you if you’ve read it!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

is the title of a book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Published by Bloomsbury in paperback in 2009. I’d just like to say it’s FAB. Really joyous and uplifting and wonderful characters that seem so alive they almost walk off the pages. The story is set in Guernsey after the second world war and tells the story of the occupation. It is written as a series of letters.  Rarely does a book make me cry and laugh, some parts were so moving and others simply hilarious. So sad to finish reading it, I would have liked it to have gone on and on. I totally recommend it.