Polly Crossman Illustration of leaves and a pot of jam
Illustration: Polly Crossman

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A poem about faith and jam, because maybe they’re connected, after all

So many of the small, wonderful things in life seem to be almost miraculous. And If God Made Jam by Sarah Lindsay understands that, says Ella Risbridger

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By Ella Risbridger on

I have found myself, this week, thinking a lot about marmalade. I don’t really eat much marmalade, and have never made it, and yet there is something in me that feels moved to buy Seville oranges and a pound of sugar and have a go anyway.

There’s something that seems, to me, like magic about making preserves. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never done it, or perhaps it’s something to do with the transformation of dull, transient fruit into everlasting glass jars full of jewel tones; whatever the reason, it seems to me like magic, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

I have not made any marmalade this week, despite the urge; I have never made any jam. But I have, instead, bought a jar of each, and read a lot of poems about them, and of those poems this one is my favourite.

It’s called If God Made Jam, by Sarah Lindsay, and it really is, rather unexpectedly, a poem about God. Making jam. Sort of.

I mean, it’s a poem about women and crusty bread, and the joy of being spared the news / that lay in her grass and is too wet to read. It has a good joke borrowed from an Anne Of Green Gables sequel. It has the most vivid description of biting into a jammy raspberry that I think I’ve ever read. Each pip released a Gloria when it / cracked between your teeth, Lindsay writes, and isn’t that just the delightful, satisfied feeling of it?

So, it is a poem about jam, but it is also a poem about God.

I will admit this now: I don’t really know what to do with poems about God. So much great art is about God that it’s a bit odd, as an atheist, to try and get your head around it – why do I like choral music and flying buttresses and this poem so much? What can it mean to me in the absence of faith?

I’m always muddling through when it comes to talking about this sort of stuff. I don’t know anything about gods, I don’t know the right words or what it might be like to believe. I get all my ideas about God second-hand, through Victorian children’s books (like Anne Of Green Gables, where God tends to come as default) and poems like these.

There is so much about the world and oneself, inevitably, that one takes for granted, and I think what I love about this poem is the way that these small miracles are given their due

So, I am unqualified to talk about God, and yet something in this poem (and in so many other great bits of art) keeps bringing me back.

I think it might be because, often, when poets talk about God, it seems that what they are really talking about, in practical terms at least, is gratitude.

“The smell of the sea… the taste of a ripe plum or bread fresh from the oven, the feel of warm cat’s fur, or the body of a lover – these are all forms of thanksgiving prayer,” runs a Quaker text that I have always loved. I might not be religious, but I am grateful: I always want to give thanks for things. And, more often than not, the things I am grateful for are the small things.

So many of the small things in my life – raspberry cake, the Gloria of the pips, rhubarb jam on toast, a cup of tea, a friend – seem to me to be kind of miraculous, whether or not I have a God to thank for those tiny miracles. Aunt Lydia, in the poem, flexed her stiff hands and found them able, and I think that “finding yourself able” is a kind of small miracle, too.

There is so much about the world and oneself, inevitably, that one takes for granted, and I think what I love about this poem is the way that these small miracles are given their due. It still counts if people figure among / the instruments that have been put to use, Lindsay writes, and I love that – it still counts!

The fruit wouldn’t have to be so divine, she says, maybe as you don’t have to be divine to make small miracles happen around you every day. It still counts: your own personal miracles still count! The miracles that people work every day are treated properly as the unlikely and wonderful things they are; all the effort and time and love that goes into a piece of jammy toast is here afforded proper due.

I feel like this column is always circling, week by week, around gratitude: around being amazed and awed by the tiny pieces of your life. I think it’s because I don’t know any other way to be. The world is so strange and enormous I can’t even begin to contemplate it properly, let alone think about God or faith or anything beyond us; all I can do is notice these tiny things and be as glad about those bits as I possibly can.

I have faith in those things: I have faith in jammy toast and sharing bread and not reading the news. I have faith in small domestic magics, and royal-red jar’s, and stories about Aunt Lydia and Cousin Bobby. I always want to hear about people – your people – because I think, when you get right down to it, that’s where my faith lies.

I have faith in people – I think, really, most people are trying their best to make things good; most people are trying to make their stiff hands ... able; to share their bread; to bring both their bread and a willingness to work. And what else could we need?

@missellabell

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Illustration: Polly Crossman
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