Monday, December 19, 2016

Midnight Special and a farewell to 2016

Some of the better stuff I've learned from this rather disappointing year were blended and encapsulated beautifully in the excellent Midnight Special.

This sci-fi film received mixed reviews last year. It follows a supernaturally and dangerously gifted boy, adopted by a cult and rescued by parents who have an alternative vision for his future that frustrates doomsday believers and war-mongering governments.

Tension is maintained by superb acting and an unsettling chase to the end, when a world within and beyond our own is dramatically revealed to claim the child. It is a tale of learning to let go of the very thing that seems to offer hope and power, in order to let it survive.

This year, our government led us into a disastrous referendum simply in order to grasp at straws of temporary power. Our media and other opportunists used this as an excuse to manipulate the most vulnerable simply for the kick of holding sway (and profit). The results are terrifying. Closer to home, churches prioritise empire and legalism over the sanctity of human freedom; I grasp at opportunities for influence and admiration with scant regard for the wellbeing of others.

It is so important not to obsess over and cling to everything we can get. Our lives are peppered with beautiful, breathtaking moments and people and powers and pleasures and it is understandable we want to capture them. But when we try, they are destroyed or they become destructive addictions.

Life can be a terrifying journey of letting go of the things we thought we needed to survive. Advent is a great reminder of this. It focuses on a tiny baby, born in poverty, whose journey to adulthood comprised steps of courageous surrender and whose ending was self-sacrifice; it focuses on the possibility of living an authentic, beautiful and eternally-significant human life.

It's understandable to respond to 2016 by fearfully grabbing as much as we can to guarantee a better 2017. May Advent and Midnight Special show me a better way.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Waiting room.

Advent gets swallowed up by Christmas, which wastes lots of the lovely stuff we could get out of early December.

It's a conversational favourite, isn't it, how November and December - and earlier - are nibbled out of our hands by manic shops and beautifully deceptive adverts; school nativities; summertime populating of the holiday calendar?

It is too easy to criticise these superficialities, to have a dig at Other People who indulge in or force us to indulge in ever-earlier shopping, planning and decorating. Really, we are all guilty of coveting a future Christmas; of stunted courage and imagination. We while away the cold, dark, wet days of the present with our plans for a perfect future that never arrives quite right. And is sometimes dreadfully disappointing.

My chosen Advent book emphasises the nobility of a waiting state of mind, describing the best kind of life as one of a 'chosen unfulfilment'. This sounds (unappealingly) abstract but it is easy to apply.

In my case, one way I fail to wait is in my relationships. I am always managing them towards something different and better. I allow myself to be consumed with irritation at a loved one because they fail to behave right, enjoy my hospitality 'properly', treat me with indulgence or act healthy and happy at my convenience. I hurry selected friendships along, failing to make space for the 'I'm not quite sure about you yet' phase. I try to manufacture Christmas perfection in my relationships. So, I am always disappointed.

For you, this may not be an issue - but I'm sure different forms of management, control and 'rush' towards an ever-evasive future will be relevant.

Advent is a rich resource because it is the seasonal symbol of the mortal 'present'. It gives us special opportunity to think about the incompletion, the 'not yet' of our moment. To consider how we waste our lives by forcing them to become a Future we can never control or even reach. To consider how to live hopefully but not imperiously.

Savour it, if you can.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Knowing me, knowing you.

Several close acquaintances and I have been getting into the Enneagram. It's not hard to find out about, using a respected introduction.

The Enneagram is a personality profiling tool, comparable to Myers Briggs but more profound, nuanced, relational and spiritual (privileging no particular religion).

No wonder, then, that it hits the spot for many of today's pop-psychology-literate sojourners, disillusioned with tribal religion, interested in finding themselves, yearning for deep connection.

There are nine 'types' on the Enneagram wheel, each with depths to be plumbed. Personalities, we learn, are essential and morally neutral. Shaped by our earliest and childhood experiences, they are a skin, important, strong but flexible, not our deepest self.

Personality-assessment tools can be written off as a waste of time, encouraging self-absorption in an already narcissistic generation. Or else accused of encouraging individuals to use their 'type' as an excuse for laziness and immorality. It depends how they're used - they are only tools, after all. With the Enneagram, you can learn to at once accept yourself and recognise the traps your personality sets for you, becoming healthier and able to give much more.

Seeing your personality clearly for what it is, as something you can mould but not totally discard or change, something you can use rather than be controlled by, is proving helpful for me. It took me quite a few goes of the Enneagram questions, alongside other inner work, to even answer them honestly. It turns out I really didn't want to admit to being the Achiever, ....but I'm finally ready to own it!

I can only speak for myself, but in that case working through what being an Achiever means (in Enneagram terms, rather than meaning I achieve lots, well!) has helped enormously in a few short weeks:
1) I see that it is ok to want to achieve things and be admired. I had dedicated much energy to repressing that desire, believing it to be 'wrong' and arrogant, burdening myself hugely in the process
2) I see that I go into situations needing attention and praise, so I am alert to, rather than in denial of, the less healthy ways I might try to get it
3) I am so relieved to have articulated as 'normal' a feeling I have always assumed to be a sign of inauthenticity: for an Achiever, given the extent to which "they have adapted their lives to the expectations of others, [when] the question arises, “Well, then, what do I want?” They often simply did not know".

Believing I'm ok (1) and knowing my weaknesses (2) means that I am closer to believing I already have, or am, what I want (3). So I can stop exhausting myself, flapping about in an attempt to find it somewhere else all the time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A life well spent (dedicated to Jo Cox MP)

In Awake My Soul , Mumford and Sons tell us that where we invest our love, we invest our life. This is poetic not precise but it chimes with the disconnect I see in hivemind between input and output. Sometimes, I think we would rather deny any relationship between the two.

As part of today's Western culture, I am steeped in the Protestant Work Ethic. Theologically speaking, this says visible, attritional effort is a 'sign' that a person is among God's elect. We must 'consider the ant' and get busy. Not to achieve anything - only God can do that - but in obedience to the bible / our parents / some other inscrutable external authority.

Accordingly, my youthful busyness was divorced from efficiency or productivity. In fact, until the age of about 35, I played cello (for example) because I thought I should. The idea that practising scales might fuel improvement or musical beauty and pleasure was either absent or suspect. Scales. Were. My. Responsibility. The person who looks busyest and gets least reward is the hero, in this tale.

Marriage is a battleground for reality and fantasy, a victim of our failure to invest in the things we expect to pay us back. We behave as if a good relationship will simply occur because in our dreams it materialises thus. Once marriage lands on our laps, we like to think it will sit there contentedly marinading while we pour our energies into having babies, pursuing careers, picture-perfect homes and social lives and whatever else gets us going. Unlikely.

In a different manner, we like to deceive ourselves about the connection between work and money. Clearly, this is more a chaotic than an orderly relationship. And yet, the rich will rarely thank luck, fate or God. Usually, hard work and suffering are credited. Even though hundreds of millions of the overworked live in slums, by accident of birth and a million of our countryfolk depend on food banks. We wealthy love to boast of long office hours and diminished bank accounts, with no acceptance that this is our choice - no time spent figuring out what work we actually need to do to have enough.

And then, we have a Western world embracing Brexit and Trump. Whatever it is Donald poured his life's energies into, it wasn't getting qualified to be a world leader. The dismissal of opinions from anybody with the professional and academic heritage to grasp what Leave would mean was a key tactic of the winning campaign. We are worryingly prone to being conned into making the wrong investment. We scoff at real work, credentials or ability and spend our life's savings on pride and presentation skills.

Mere mortals cannot control the results of our choices - but we can control our choices. Often there is a clear link between input and output (don't pour too many of your personal resources into arpeggios without enjoying their fruits!) Where the link is more elusive, we can at least invest in the things that matter, whether that's social justice or our partner or amateur dramatics. That way, whatever the returns on our investment, our life and love will have been well spent.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Fight or flight. (Or listen to Gandalf.)

Trump, Brexit, a Syrian asylum seeker and school applications have me thinking about resilience. How best do we make ourselves, our families and our societies resilient to the 'thousand Natural shocks' of human life?

I sympathise with Hamlet's desire for annihilation.... but as most of us will never choose suicide, we don't get to decide what events our lives contain. "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us", as Gandalf says to Frodo so beautifully.

Hamlet and Frodo personify the conflict between natural desires to 1) hide away, retreat, even die, rather than fight and 2) approach the foe and wrestle with it. This is not a simple or once and for all choice - it is nuanced, endless. Many times we will be called upon to decide whether and how to stand against or to capitulate; to speak up or remain silent; to act or wait.

Resilience, then, is the ability to keep making that 'fight or flight' choice well. In ways that promote life and defend it against 'shocks'.

I mention school applications with tongue in cheek. But young children are ill-affected by today's pressurised early education system and I can determine a little of how my own three-year-olds engage with it. Full-blown resistance might mean campaigning, home educating, delaying school, abstaining from tests. I'm shooting for resilience by accepting the 'normal' system so they can learn to cope with it (capitulating) and hoping to keep the home environment untouched by its pressures (standing against).

When it comes to the political landscape - not unrelated - our easy options are to grumble or deny reality. As individuals, we can do nothing about the new leader of the free world. To a certain extent, we must simply wait and see how all this plays out. But there are plenty of ways to act, too. Some of these are explicitly political. (At the very least, we must vote every time we have chance). We can also build resilience to the hatred, scapegoating and false sense of entitlement that fire destructive politics with hospitality, simplicity of lifestyle, rest, spiritual practices, honest conversation, generosity, time spent outdoors, good consumer choices. I could go on.

I won't say much about the Syrian asylum seeker. It's not a close relationship and I'm prone to fantasy. What I see is someone separated from a family and traumatised homeland, transplanted into a vastly diminished quality of life, dependent on others to determine his future. And an acceptance, positivity and openness that show how, even in those dreaded moments of enforced victimhood, we can be resilient in ways that bless others.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Consider the lillies. Or scabs.

What does it mean to worry?

A couple of decades ago, my worrying was exaggerated fear of bad stuff happening. It has morphed. My 38-year-old self rather allows her thoughts to hover in bad places. It's like the internal 'worrying' of a wound - fiddling, picking, fixating. Suffocating time's natural capacity to heal.

Someone who worries about money might be fixated on getting more. Or on spending less. Or on how to manage what they have. The latter might seem good husbandry. Maybe it is, if you'd answer the question "what's the most important thing in your life?" with "money". Otherwise, no, it's not good to allow so much of your mind to be occupied by something you don't want to care about. (Not bothered by money? Try replacing it here with 'career' or 'what other people think of you' or wherever you invest a lot of brain time.)

Parental worrying is a competitive sport. Who worries better, the parents that drive their kids everywhere, shower them with gifts, monitor their homework and fill every minute with fun? Or the ones that loudly reject this, enforcing counter-cultural, frugal, free-range lifestyles? Maybe the better way is not to sweat it. I don't want to liken my kids to scabs but ..... they're probably going to drop off my knee in less of a mess if I haven't fretted over them too much.

I'm not advocating neglect. Worrying About and Neglecting are not opposites. In fact, they are related. It's a widespread falsehood that the mother who worries more about her finances or the father who fixates on his kids' chances of survival is more attentive. Neglect is a failure to act on the needs of the here and now. Worrying is also a failure to attend to the present moment. Going back to our little wound, worrying is a horror of past hurts and / or an impatience for future improvement. It completely misses the truth of the matter - your body is best left alone right now.

Jesus' Do Not Worry speech helped me out loads when I was about 15. My understanding of its meaning has changed but, today, I find it just as helpful. We humans cannot cast off the tendency and temptation to worry, so the advice is never dated. And it is almost always possible, in a given situation, to worry less and therefore be happier. How? By fully focusing on the present.

I'd say the signs a battle is being won against worry are gratitude and generosity. I'm not very good at those. I'm not very good at being present. But I'm trying not to fret about it.

Monday, October 31, 2016


There was a great tweet doing the rounds recently: 'We no longer listen in order to understand; we listen in order to reply'.

I think it arose from the writer's consideration of polarised debates (on Brexit, gay rights in church, Corbyn, etc etc). And the more I reflect on it, the truer I think it is.

I've been volunteering for a small organisation that creates safe spaces for facilitated conversation in neighbourhoods where people feel threatened, typically by immigration. There is no agenda other than to enable and listen to hear honest, personal storytelling. It's incredibly powerful because, when people are carefully listened to without fearful reaction, they have space to hear their own voice more clearly.

I've become more and more interested in silent prayer and the idea of spiritual accompaniment, where the subject is faced with (uncomfortable) space and silence and can therefore undergo quite radical inner change. To really listen, or be listened to, is demanding and challenging.

I've noticed how many churches and Christian organisations organise themselves around an agenda. (It might be called a mission statement. It's usually an agenda.) In practice, this often means only voices that fit the plan are tolerated. Dissidents are suspect, marginalised and excluded. Gifts are turned down.

It's easy to decide we have a personal contact 'figured out' when, really, all we know is our belittling fantasy of them: "Oh, of course, Sue is an only child so she's bound to find it hard to compromise."

To a certain extent, this is inevitable and harmless. But I think warning signs should go off if:
  • you haven't actually spoken to Sue about this opinion you hold
  • you mainly encounter Sue online
  • you haven't had an update from Sue on this issue for a while
  • you have a vested interest in explaining Sue's life in this way.
Actually, this example sums up the problem quite neatly. Listening means engaging with people and the world as it actually is. Too often we hear and reply according to our particular brand of fantasy about the world and other people. Liberals are elitists. Brexiteers are stupid. Tom is selfish. Muslims are dangerous. Catholics are superstitious. Etc.

The world is pretty great, if you stop to listen to it.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Born Free?

Freedom is something human beings have to fight for every day. Sometimes, the threatened enslavement is blatant. Other times, it's subtle. I've been thinking about some particular types of ownership I, and my 'empowered' generation and culture, need to resist.

Social media aims to possess. I was very struck by a comment made to me by a digital communications professional: "For Twitter, any moment you're not using Twitter is a failure."

It's true, of course. Even if yours are healthy, controlled, sociable tweets, you are engaged in a constant battle to ensure you use the platform on your own terms, not Twitter's, not Tesco's and not that aiming-for-1000-followers 'friend'. Depending on your personality type, this might be a fun and energising negotiation. For others, it's exhausting.

Advertising and consumerism batter us. Perhaps our generation is the first to have to filter the PR from the reality quite so assiduously. We opt out of the marketing clause in EVERYTHING and still cannot escape its tentacles.

(Of course, even more important than resisting victimhood is resisting becoming perpetrators. I hope I am learning to pay better attention to acquaintances new and old, lest I see them primarily as resources, using texts and facebook to win them over, filling my empty diary spaces and projects with them, quite carelessly and egotistically.)

Even the things we want to be a part of must be watched for attempts to colonise. I am a committed Labour party member and donor to various charities - and I unsubscribe from all their email communications.

I see how difficult it is for the charities I support and the churches I attend to avoid treating me as a resource to be fully tapped. Competitor mode seems the only option, these days. And, in the fight to survive, more dedication from more people is the route to power and wealth.

For me, the Twitter observation above is helpful. Twitter has no right to decide whether I have failed in some way. I cannot think of any person or organisation that has such a right (unless we speak of the Divine).

So, in our age of mass-communication, who can be trusted to respect your freedom? Nobody whose invitation to attend more, give more, do more or change yourself carries with it a hint you will be less, you will fail, if you do not comply. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Give and take

A friend told me everyone must work out whether they're a giver or a taker, and confidently own that identity. Or something to that effect. (Spoiler: this is not a post about sex.)

In Acts, the apostle Paul (mis)quotes Jesus: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'.

Paul's words may be an oft-needed challenge to selfish living. But we have no record of Jesus saying them and they invite the misinterpretation that the person with something to give is superior.

My response to my friend might be: who do you think confidently owns the identity 'Taker'? Isn't the answer: "nobody"? In which case, who do we self-declared givers label as the unaware Needy among us?

We do tend to flatten other people by categorising them in this way. As either victim or potential hero / villain.

A single friend recounted how she was approached at a wedding, where she was having a good time but happened to be a bit older than the bride, and pityingly told: "This must be SO hard for you.". Bam. Victimised and disempowered by a statement.

In some marriages, there is a tendency for one spouse (more often, the man) to see themselves as the carrier of the relationship, the sponge, tasked with looking after the more vulnerable partner, absorbing their weaknesses, keeping the show on the road.

In choosing friends, some will shun those who present themselves as weak. Who choose to use statements like: "I find that too hard"; "My life isn't fair"; "I've had such a bad experience". Others actively seek this out, threatened by the 'boasting' of those who choose to present themselves as strong. (And isn't the difference is as much presentation as fact?)

On the one hand, I think we all need to be both giver and receiver. At different times and in different roles. We need to know our ability to determine the future and influence the world with our offerings. And we need to accept that others affect those things, too.

On the other, it's clear some people just do have more to contribute than others. Are 'favoured', perhaps, in biblical terms. This often breeds pride and resentment, which reveals how much we let ourselves believe that those who contribute more are worth more. Or, conversely, are less deserving of care.

Thus far, in my life, I've mainly been perceived as a Giver and I think I present that way. Which I know puts some people off and attracts others. In my marriage, I find it essential to be both.  And at certain times (eg, as a new mum in Canada) I have been able to offer very little, while taking much.

But isn't the whole thing a false dichotomy? A giver cannot exist without a receiver. So, the more I have to give, the more I need others to take it. It is no indication of my greater or lesser value. If someone decides to deny me the opportunity to be a friend, an influencer, a helper, I am stuck. Forced to bury my talents in the ground.

The giver needs the taker, arguably more than the other way around. And neither can exist without the other because it is in relationship that they come to be.

Not long before my conversation with my friend, I'd heard that the essence of church is the meeting of needs. Christ is not in the need itself, the needy person nor the giver. But he is incarnate in the moment they come together, in their acceptance of and gratitude for one another.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Me versus Movie

Feeling rather battered after our weekend's movie menu.

The Revenant followed by Room is an intense and demanding pairing, even for the most worldly critic. I was a quivering wreck by bedtime Sunday.

Be thankful for small mercies: I didn't catch The Revenant on the big screen.

My advice? If you want to become a bit more determined in your endeavour to avoid bear attacks, you really should see it. I am almost evangelistic now on the topic of bear danger. Even if you're Leonardo DiCaprio, you really must avoid bears. If you are unfortunate enough to encounter a bear and it has its way with you, your next best option is to die quickly.

If you fail on both these counts, it will be easier for the rest of us if you live out your last days off camera.

Similarly, if you are abducted at 17, locked in a shed for 7 years and raped repeatedly, you ought to give serious thought to the impact on viewers of any screen rendition.

Battered though I may be, these are fabulous films. My body did not relax once during Revenant, so totally gripped by its breathtaking might was I. Room tells a tale of life, love and redemption strong enough to take on evil, enslavement and hatred. It is the story of a world-conquering bond between a mother and child.

If you want to spar gently with your movie, these are not for you. If you're up for a life-affirming, sweaty, bloody, snotty, juggernaut of a fist fight with a film, you won't be sorry you picked 'em. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Multiple choice religion

Can an individual improve themselves over time in any fundamental sense? Or is the human journey rather one of self-acceptance? 

Christians get themselves in a lather about the faith / works debate. You can make the bible 'prove' either that we are depraved and utterly reliant on God to fix us - Answer B = accept. Or that we play an active part in fixing our world and ourselves - Answer A = improve.

I'm not particularly interested in the debate for its own sake. But I don't want to smooth it over with platitudes either, as many try to do. The tension it addresses impacts my actual life.

It was, some years ago, a great release for me to encounter thinkers (Rohr, McLaren, Brueggemann, Keating et al) who emphasise Answer A. They focus on how the God of Christian scripture needs human partners to complete his work and the ways they alter it; how the serious pursuit of difficult practices like solitude, meditation, tithing and confession make deep and lasting change; how great is our human potential to improve our world.

This freed me from overbearing religious leaders from both conservative and liberal camps making me feel crappy. The right telling me I'm impotent, worthless, a sex-crazed victim of myself. The liberals denouncing me as strident, intimidating, self-promoting, suspect. To hear of my essential goodness, my image-of-godness, my capacity to make myself more and better, the world-changing potential contained in every mortal minute of my life.... well, it might out of context seem like God-denial. But in fact it has brought me nearer heaven.

That said, one of my favourite public figures in Christianity today is Nadia Bolz Weber. Despite the criticism she gets for swearing and embracing LGBT people (yeah....), she is pretty conservative, theologically. Appropriately for a Lutheran, she argues only God can fix us. 

She would say (and did, during a recent Q&A in Sheffield) that no, a person cannot improve themselves. Prayer, scriptural study, hard work and spiritual practices may be helpful in coping with the day-to-day. But they do not alter our essential, sinful, state as only God's forgiveness can. Answer B = accept.

Nadia is focused on loving people, using her celebrity to confess her own flaws, standing up fiercely for the judged and being deeply committed to forgiveness in community. So her 'YOU ARE A SINNER, ACCEPT IT!' is really ok to hear - in a way it isn't from almost everyone else with a microphone.

Which reveals a paradox and proves it's not the words that matter. It's what's inside the heart of the speaker and the listener.

I think that very many beleaguered and battered Christians in our nation really need to be reassured about their potential and brilliance for a while. But the pendulum can always swing the other way, making us overreach ourselves.

For me, the answer, as with so many of life and scripture's contradictions, is sometimes A and sometimes B. And often a little bit of both.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Lost Boys (sic)

In Lost Icons, childhood is one of the things of which Rowan Williams says our society is bereft.

Perhaps we can build on that, and say we are losing out on children.

Of course, the critters are still around. Lower fertility rates and older parents there may be, but births abound. I'm talking about the ways that, in treating our little ones as commodities and not people, we actually lose contact with them.

Weddings are a good example. I understand the difficulty of the invite list. I really do. But what is it with this trend for the blanket 'no children' rule? 

These events are more about achieving the perfect party than welcoming a couple into a community, of which children are part. It's kind of understandable that if you're spending the average and absolutely terrifying £30,000 on your do, you don't want mucky paws and screeching to 'spoil' it.

And don't we love to escape our role as parents? If I'm dancing and drinking away a reception, a 7pm bedtime will drag me back to the reality that my identity is now bound up with caregiving - I'm trying to forget that, thanks!

Churches also struggle with the kids. They disrupt a carefully planned sermon or gentle, candlelit reflection. And yet our flagging denominations want to grab and keep young families. Tricky.

The response is often to spend money on a youth minister and flashy resources. Make sure the littles are entertained and hidden away in other rooms. Roll them out for a rehearsed but oh-so-cute show and tell every now and then.

Again, I understand the difficulty of balancing order in worship with the needs of particular individuals. I also understand the fear of dwindling congregations (though I do wonder what we have to fear if we really believe our faith is true?) But surely the starting point should be togetherness and tolerance, not management and spending? Otherwise, how on earth will the loudly disabled or uncontrolled mourner ever feel welcome?

Children make us face up to how demanding, unmanageable, needy, poorly-inhibited, inconvenient and totally-lacking-any-spending-power-for-anything-that-lasts we really are. They remind us of our age and our eternal youth, our limitations and our capacity, our responsibilities and our essential freedom.

And that is precisely why we need to have them around as much as possible.

Monday, August 29, 2016


As with most things, a person probably gathers many of their holiday preferences from their childhood. In a spirit of rebellion against or fondness for what the parents forced on them.

But, again, as with most things, watching toddlers is an interesting reference point. How does a person react to holidays at a tender age, before the parental influence has had chance to steep?

This summer, I've watched the twins' response to being away.

They enjoy a break from the usual routine and location: it excites them and they are happy to experience the new. They love company. But they are always excited to get home again, relishing romping around their territory and rediscovering their toys. When we're away, they get much more tired than they do at home - a daily nap is essential. Which is a little bit curious.

Or perhaps not so curious. On reflection, I see all these patterns in myself.

For me, a holiday is not being abroad, sunshine or luxury. It's just an escape from the usual pattern of events, places and experiences. That might be a weekend on a friend's floor, a wet fortnight self catering or a week on a Spanish beach. After too many months at home, my every day life starts to feel like a prison cell: I need to get away.

The removal of the familiar, though, is tiring as well as rejuvenating. I'm less in control of how the day will pan out. Even if I'm being looked after attentively, I'm a stranger to the environment or the requisite interactions, so there's a level of stress about making life happen. I, also, try to nap, usually nod off more quickly at night and lie in longer if given the opportunity.

When I get home, even if I've had a fabulous time, I'm pleased to get back into the daily run of things. I realise that I rather like the life I have organised and the arrangements I have made to sustain it. I enjoy being back in the driving seat.

Maybe other people are completely different. Maybe my children have simply inherited my preferences genetically. But I suspect that, if we're very mindful of what actually happens to us when we don't get enough holiday, when we are away from home and when we return, many of us will notice important things about our need for work, rest and play.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Body building

One of the many beautiful things about young children is the union of their bodies and minds.

We learn to be ashamed of our physical selves. This is the figleaf moment - the loss of an innocence that accepts the body as myself. Before this severance, a toddler's arms will swoop, their legs bend and flex spontaneously as they walk or sit. Mind and body work together, in harmony. It's lovely.

We Western, capitalist, post-Christendom adults don't really attempt to recover from the loss of this union. We celebrate our competence at remaining stuck inside our minds, cut off from our bodies.

Many of us are anxious and stressed because we ignore or have forgotten how to recognise physical signs of weariness and intolerance. We exercise and diet to annihilate or mould ourselves rather than to live. We are obsessed with sex but our failure at, abuse and neglect of physical intimacy is often a major cause of marriage breakups.

Many of our Christian churches and denominations have lost the bodily aspect of faith and worship. Discussion, extempore prayer, long, directive sermons and performance-based music have replaced liturgy, chant, ritual, hospitality, meditation and sensory experience. The mind of the leader dominates.

This is a shame. There are good reasons for repetitive spiritual practices like yoga, tai chi, bending to a prayer mat at set times, repeating mantras, stillness and silence, ritualised meals. Many of these, or similar habits, are part of Christianity's heritage too.

Like it or not, your body is a much better indicator of who you are than your thoughts. It needs to be respected. Your heart beats and keeps you alive without any help from your will. If you are Christian, you can be confident that human flesh is a temple of the holy spirit, whether or not the individual can articulate that. People are always and forever made of God's earth and breath, whether they feel themselves to be spiritual or not. We are children of God, whatever we think and profess about that fact. Incarnation (carne - flesh) is the way God lives with us.

If I want to try to rediscover my real self in my practice of faith, this will involve a rediscovery of my body and a recovery from my addiction to thoughts and words. A more ritualistic and 'religious' approach, with liturgy rather than debate, contemplative practice and physical work to unite mind and body, radical community engagement to frustrate my mind's ongoing attempt to control my world.

Jesus doesn't say much about professing a faith in him. But he does say we won't enter the kingdom of heaven unless we become like children. Take time to watch some at play and consider how that might be done.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Up close and personal

I felt smug in a parenting course once. The advice was to place squabbling children CLOSER together, not separate them.

I felt smug because my children share a bedroom despite us having one spare; they are left to fight their own battles (within reason); they share the toys and negotiate 'who holds what right now' themselves.

Of course, I have no right to be smug. I am a (very flawed) parent of squabbling children. And I am one of those children. I fail to apply the lesson to myself.

We all need to get in each others' faces more. If we avoid proximity, we avoid squabbles and intimacy. We 'unlearn' community.

Both parents might choose to work simply to afford the best home possible. If not, one might endure long, stressful hours, for money and status. 'In your face' time as a couple and family is lost - there certainly isn't much left for outsiders.

We form our views in isolation or with the like-minded. We look at our screens, facebook feeds, newspapers and, more rarely, chat with people who agree. Even in churches and such, where you might expect to see obvious difference worked through, there is a great fear of disagreement.

Hospitality has become a skill rather than the norm. You are only invited in on my terms. I decline invitations that don't appeal, making up the reason why. Friends punctuate our individualistic lives, rather than people communal ones. Gone are the days of dropping in unannounced for a cuppa. Of feeling bored in someone else's company.

We hide everything we're ashamed of. Mess. Ragged eyebrows. Tiredness and irritability. Microwave meals. Tears. Rows. Cigarettes. Chaos. Incompetence. We arrange 'dates' for times and places where we feel confident. We schedule in expensive, time-consuming haircuts and gym sessions to stave off image anxiety. We walk away from challenging conversations. We shun unexpected or long-term guests.

Parents (while we're under their roof), children (again, while at home) and spouse might see us warts and all. But, increasingly, work, obsessive domestic management, full diaries and screens-for-relaxation mean even they fail to get to know us properly. Or lose sight of us.

I have no idea how we fix all this. It's hard. I try to be authentic online. (Yes, I can be smug. Yes, the blog proves I like the sound of my own voice too much. That's me. You can reject it if you like!) I think obtaining less than the potential money, stuff, house and screentime are freeing. Time spent figuring out who we are and trying to accept and be that is worthwhile. Practising and receiving imperfect hospitality is helpful.

I am scared of my flaws. I am scared of squabbling. I'm pretty sure I overcome that by letting people close enough to witness both.

Monday, August 01, 2016

A game of two halves

That mortal life is a story of two chapters is a theory I've come across several times in psychological and spiritual writings.

My current guru, Daniel O Leary, believes we usually enter the second stage of life between the ages of 35 and 55. (Some, like Jesus, are ahead of the game.) The midlife transition is often marked by a crisis of some sort: a prolonged and intense period of reflection on our value, output, relationships and choices to date.

At best, during the first half of this life, we struggle fiercely and tirelessly to discover our identity. During the second, we are less vivacious but more free and authentic - perhaps even productive - because we are secure in our discovered identity.

The tragedy is that most people don't do this 'best', which can only happen in the context of love. The good news is that it is never too late to discover you are loved and redeem things.

Sadly, I don't think that we as a society, or as churches, are good at helping people navigate this two-part journey.

During the first half of life, we demand productivity and load on responsibility that prevents young souls finding out who they are. We do this to impose a 'good' identity onto our young charges, rather than allowing them to discover it. Many children and young people are anxious and stressed by the 'normal' abuses of pressurised school life, media, consumerism, dogmatic Sunday teaching and other forms of adult control / protection (depending on your perspective!) 

So, entering the second half, abandoned by some of those controlling / protective influences, we remain 'undiscovered', never having had the space to process our pain, fight our demons or find ourselves. We look like grown ups but are immature and unformed. We are powerful, angry children. We cope with the ageing process in cynicism, bitterness, fatigue, withdrawal.

Those who do grow up well, unsurprisingly, are often misunderstood, dismissed and resented. (Again, see Jesus).

I think I've entered my second half. Probably. Maybe. Lots of demons still to fight. Not least the one who tempts me to stagnate, to fight my children's battles instead of focussing on my own.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

This Idiot's Guide to Casting off Burdens

A current toddler library favourite is The Snorgh and the Sailor - all about the joys and discomforts of realising you are living half a life. The Snorgh thinks he's content in a solitary, repetitive existence until a stranger tells him an exciting story. After that, there's no escaping the dissatisfaction.

Is the stranger helping or doing him a disservice?

In Exodus, Moses leads the Israelites out of cruel enslavement in Egypt. Once they get clear of it, they long to have it back. At least in bondage, somebody told them what to do and where to go.

It can be hard to tell which are our crosses and which are our heavy yokes. We are invited to carry the one and cast off the other in our search for truth and freedom. But first we have to decide which is which.

Currently disillusioned with my political party's leader and oft-times hurt by church leaders' love of control and power, here are a few ideas:

Freedom is only found in community
A free community knows equal, multilateral relationships and is not in thrall to an elite or (worse) an individual leader
Freedom is more often found in change than in consolidating the status quo
Freedom avoids celebrity worship

Freedom is comfortable with difficult strangers ......
..... especially those telling unsettling stories.
Freedom has no truck with 'should'.
Freedom will look just as good to one person as it does to the other - there are no a priori winners or losers
Freedom beats safety every time - though usually the latter is blindingly tempting.

Perhaps we can never be 100% sure whether our choices will set us free. When I'm at a total loss to know, I'd like to err on the side of doing what makes me feel most vulnerable.

Monday, July 18, 2016


Just now I am reading Flaubert's Parrot.

The novel is partly about how every communication is subjective. For example, a dating profile will always reveal a stereotype and not a person - 'They aren't lying .... but they don't tell the truth'. You are forced, in choosing to put your experience or self into words, to be false. Because language is at best a partial form of truth.

I tend to like a person in reality but find their facebook persona dreadfully irritating. Whether they present as a political campaigner, sharer of woes, advocater of positivity, a great wit, silent observer, perpetuator of selfies, memes and daily minutiae, I become dismissive much too easily. And no doubt it happens the other way around. (Or maybe I'm just particularly judgemental.....)

With the blog, I fret about the fact it only ever expresses tiny and necessarily skewed perspectives from my thought life. It isn't a summary of who I am - though in publishing it I become vulnerable to that misinterpretation.

In our society, we are less and less exposed to necessary personal interactions. We can even shop without a single conversation, if we wish. Recent political events show how bad we are at having conversations.

In our churches, increasingly and in worryingly similar vein, words are given priority over relationships. Want an evangelical church? Want a liberal church? Want an organ? Want social action? Open your laptop, check the websites, see which ones provide the items on your shopping list, then go along and compare the reality unfavourably with the sales pitch. Whatever happened to people defining the place?

Churches - and neighbourhoods - are stronger when they discover their ever-changing identity in real relationships. The more we try to fence ourselves of from reality-altering interactions, using words, the more false and fragile our identities become and the less genuinely truthful we are able to be.

In communicating, we need to remember the limits of written words. Pop next door. Chat openly with someone you know voted differently to you in the EU referendum. Scrap or abbreviate your statements of faith and policies.

And, in listening, let's remember every statement someone else makes is only a partial or even false utterance. That sounds a bit negative - but, actually, don't we do ourselves a favour if we  approach facebook updates, blogs, headlines and church websites as we might a dating profile? Let's look at them with a twinkle in our eye, assuming they are at least a little bit false......

.....but also assuming that there's someone real behind them who we'd really like to meet.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Blokes and Brexit

Well. We are having a bit of a time of it, wouldn't you say?

The shameful, nasty Brexit campaigns (both sides behaved badly. Farage, The Express, The Daily Mail and The Sun were, as usual, vile). The heartbreaking assassination of Jo Cox. And now the fallout from the Leave result: Labour and Conservatives falling apart; other European nations, as well as friends further afield, shaking their heads and wringing their hands.

What angers me most about the news post-referendum is how quickly it revealed that those who worked so hard to manipulate us to vote with them did so for the fun of it. For the thrill. So that they can guffaw over their next pint about how they got the nation to eat out of their hands (having left someone else to clear up the mess.) About how the other bloke with the smaller penis is now crying into his cornflakes.

And it was all blokes. This episode has been about powerful men dealing with powerful men. Looking to appear stronger. Boosting their egos. Trying to be Alpha. Playing with the little people they love to control.

The only high profile female to feature in this sorry chapter did not seek her fame. She just died while doing her job very, very well.

Of course, women can behave equally badly. But they haven't been doing so in evidence this time. Cameron, Johnson, Gove, Farage, Dacre, Murdoch and Desmond et al. played their petty little machismo games. They scoffed and backslapped and competed, and then pretty spectacularly buggered off, completely unconcerned with the little people they had trampled on. Posh / The Riot Club - by Laura Wade who happens to be a lady - says it all really.

And now we find that the only political leader who looks remotely credible is Nicola Sturgeon. And she'll be stuck behind an international border before long.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Toddler timekeeping

There's a bit of a tendency to panic in the face of children's mindfulness.

Very often, I try to rush my two through an experience because I'm rendered quite rabbit-in-the-headlights bored and claustrophobic by sitting still in a moment. Breakfast. Dressing. Walking to the library. There will typically be no good reason to hasten the toddler-extended experience of these things, other than the anxious sensation in my gut that it's wrong to dawdle.

Why does it matter if we spend an hour eating a bowl of cereal? We're lucky enough to have few appointments that need keeping these days. I have much more to learn from their being engrossed than they do from my impatience.

Last Christmas, I really regretted rushing us through Advent. The world around us makes it difficult enough to wait for December 25th, but often we embrace its hurry. On December 1st, we're talking about presents and putting up trees and asking them if they're excited about Santa and simply wishing the month away.

Children can't cope with this rush and yet we determined adults force them to endure it. In my opinion, the older they get before they start to buy into it, the better. Let them live one chew, one minute and one day at a time. I suspect they'll enjoy Christmas Day a lot more if its promise hasn't whipped them up to fever pitch by the time it arrives. This year I'm going to try really hard not to speak to them in anticipation of Christmas until a couple of days before it hits.

I try not to talk with them about much beyond tomorrow. In my analysis, at three, they get confused by much mention of things much farther off. I hope to let them lead the way and let me know when their grasp of the future is getting stronger. We won't be able to fight it forever, I know.

One of the biggest disservices we can do ourselves is to constantly focus on tomorrow, to constantly worry about today's lack of productivity. I'm so thankful I have some toddlers in my life at the moment to show me a better way.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Best foot forward?

I have stumbled across a super book called Travelling Light. Increasingly, Catholics are providing my spiritual succour. Curve ball.

It provides a meditation or Breather for every day of the month, to use over and over again as the year passes.

Today's - Transform the Negative Cycle - tackled dealing with evil. Which we all do every single day. The world and most of its people either deny the presence of evil or, when hit by it, throw it back at someone else. (See Katie Hopkins.)

The aim of a faithful life is to learn to absorb the negative, swallowing its deadly impact into ourselves, so that it can be reborn. 

I love this. But it was the second point that struck me most: we can only do this 'swallowing' to the extent we are ready. If we take Christ as our example, we read that even he repeatedly avoided charged situations until he felt his 'time had come'.

We need to know ourselves well enough to see when to ingest the poison and when to refuse the cup offered by that deathly person, situation or place. Reconciliation and redemption may always be our best hope ..... but sometimes, we must wait for somebody else to usher them in.

I find this terrifically helpful when considering whether to step up with courage or wait and perhaps retreat. And that, I think, is the ever-present feature in my life's succession of choices!

How do I react when someone says something bitter, ignorant or hateful? Speak or let it go? How do I deal with the resurfacing of irritations with people I know? Address them or let them slide? Should I pursue challenging avenues of activity that may compromise my equilibrium, or let them pass? Am I called to remain with organisations or people whom I naturally oppose or walk away from them?

No doubt the road ahead will always be a mystery. But perhaps it is not too much to hope for that, with each milestone, I will be less of a stranger to myself and better able to choose between a rest and a few extra miles.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

You show me yours.....

My thoughts turn to confession.

Ha! No. Not here, I won't....

I decided to re-read Foucault's Will to Knowledge. He examines the link between power and confession, particularly where this relates to sexuality and its analysis.

The elicitation of confession is a way of gaining power for the listener, as much as empowering the confessor. (And let us not deceive ourselves by claiming the practice of extracting confessions has dwindled alongside the power of the Catholic church.)

In our own relationships, we often try to obtain truth or answers from someone else in a way that gives us power. Question after question fired at an acquaintance whose natural silence makes us edgy. Probing away at a personal crisis we find intriguing. Aggressively insisting someone explain a 'faulty' opinion.

We also run away from others' honest offerings when they are unsettling. Or we decide to tell the truth at moments that win us favour and control. Or we refuse to reveal ourselves in speech altogether as a method of self-protection.

Confession is a cultural practice reliant on speech, of course, in keeping with our Western, Protestant word-obsession. This places at a disadvantage people with less verbal power. Not just the shy but the child, the poorly educated, the foreigner, the uninitiated. Indeed, if we are not careful, we start to assume there is nothing really worth knowing about the severely disabled person, the non-English speaker, etc. Or that it is our right as the 'articulate' to instruct them.

We must be cautious about seeking or giving out personal information. Not just online or to marketeers but in our personal lives. Parents can seek too much honesty from children who need privacy and freedom. Churches can insist on certain kinds of self-revelation, definition and confession that are more about control than love. Friends can play games with others' confession by digging out, circulating, hiding or forcing personal stories down others' throats.

Perhaps there is only one relationship where we are right to aim for full spoken revelation of ourselves and that is marriage. Here, we try to be one not two. We are not in a relationship of power but one of equality. And any confession is accompanied by a lived intimacy that reveals much more of the 'truth' of who we are.

Elsewhere, as I've learned from Foucault, beware those asking you to confess!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Fro-ing and To-ing.

"Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything you need to know."

I love this famous instruction from a desert father to a young monk. It seems more true for me with every passing year.

Retreat and solitude. On the one hand, these bolster us against the lies of the world. On the other, they teach us how strong and self-sufficient we are.

When we went to Canada, contrary to expectation, I found being removed from all the trappings of 'normal' life very helpful. Because I simply couldn't meet obligations to see friends or family, communicate with them, allow them to help, etc, the extent to which I should do so never bothered me. I didn't need to decide how and when to get 'back into' my usual run of activities after giving birth. Even the decision about a return to work was removed. I could focus 100% on learning to be a mum, largely (thanks, snow!) within four walls. It was very affirming to have that freedom. And see that I could handle the relative quiet, solitude and intensity.

And leaping from the ridiculous to the sublime ..... Jesus famously went into the wilderness for a long period before he entered society as a rabbi. And there, in solitude and desert, he saw that he did indeed have the strength to fight the demons that would assail him throughout his life. (The temptation to take the easy path, to seek his own glory, to exploit God's goodness.)

Usually, our escape is only meaningful because of its impact on our return. I didn't want to stay in Canada and I want to re-establish myself as an actor in the world. Jesus did not stay in the desert (though it is interesting to compare the number of years he spent incognito with the fruitful number spent in the public eye.)

I have heard friends say - perhaps shockingly - that it is hard to let go of a period of difficulty or illness. Within its grip, you have good reason to turn your back on the demands of the world. You are able to be victim rather than agent. If you become 'whole' again, all those expectations and demands bombard you once again. Surely this is why Jesus always has to ask 'Do you want to be healed?' Do you want to be forgiven? Because if that happens, life will get more complicated. It's easier to cling to the notion that we are weak than accept the responsibility of being strong.

So, please go to your cell and learn who you are. And then come out and show the rest of us.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Ready, steady - argue!!!

One of the things I very much enjoy about visiting other cultures are opportunities to watch people have a good old row with style and grace. Nations I've visited in mainland Europe, Latin America and Africa all demonstrate an ability to disagree and debate without it causing offence in a way we Brits are incapable of.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently for three reasons.

1) I applied for a job with an organisation that aims to build up communities' resilience to intolerance - principally, as far as I can tell, intolerance of immigrants and muslims - the sort whipped up by the Daily Mail or far-right political groups. They work to create 'safe spaces' where people can come together and discuss their real and possibly 'unacceptable' feelings about these issues without judgement.

The organisation struggles to communicate about its work (it has no website, for example) because, as soon as you begin to put what they do into written or recorded words, you lose the essence of its conversational nature and push it onto inflammatory territory. 

2) I was sent the report from a major international Anglican event I worked on in 2008 and was reminded of the Indaba at its heart. This Zulu word refers to a type of communal discernment achieved by open and respectful small group conversation. Indaba was used to provide delegates with an alternative to taking sides on controversial issues (such as gay bishops.)

The conference was criticised for not publishing formal resolutions on matters such as homosexuality in the Anglican Communion. For me, this was a wise move. Any written expression would inevitably have polarised rather than united.

3) In my own church, I learn that all people who serve there in a teaching capacity must sign up to a list of faith statements with which many Christians, including myself, are uncomfortable.

It seems to me that here a written law is being expected to do the job of genuine relationship, conversation and grace. It is looked to for the creation of unity and clarity when, in fact, all it can do is divide people from one another.

It's always hard to figure out how best to disagree with people. I get it wrong all the time! But if we are to build strong relationships and communities in the face of polarising media, rampant individualism, consumerism and fear of Others, we must learn to remain together through conversations that involve disagreement.

Come on team GB - get arguing!!

Monday, May 09, 2016

I'm so BUSY my head is spinning .......

I've never really understood the 'self-denial = moral superiority' thing. In any of its forms. And I particularly dislike the Western obsession with the 'oh, so busy' form of self-denial.

"I simply don't have time to watch TV" ; "I was at work until 10pm last night and in again at 3am. It's just what I have to do" ; "It is everso draining - but I don't want them to miss out on swimming, dancing, football, piano, tuition, scouts, cycing proficiency, parties or Sunday school, so I spend 32 days a month driving them to and fro in the car" ; "I make myself so busy I have to vomit on the hour, every hour, just to unwind. It's so worth it."

How often does someone say: "I'm not at all busy. I avoid busyness like the plague. I try to sleep and relax as much as possible. I work as little as I can afford to."  Never! We'd probably lynch them if they dared. Lazy! Irresponsible! Leeches!

I'm being flippant. Of course, I am a victim of this 'busy, busy' mentality myself. Our culture and many of its workplaces drive us hard to overwork, overspend, feel dissatisfied and resent anyone who doesn't.

The question is, in truth, which other people are you helping by being too busy? In most cases, none. Certainly not your spouse or family, if you have them. They need your attention and wellbeing much more than they do your earnings, success or productivity.

It's a myth that your busyness is good for the world. If it's making you happy, great. But it doesn't make you one jot better than the person who does a little bit less than you do. And if it's not making you happy, as James once wisely said, "Oh, sit down!"

Monday, May 02, 2016

Keeping your ship afloat.

How to strike a balance between idealism and pragmatism? It's tricky. Maybe it's one of those life things where you must figure out which way you lean, then ensure you have plenty of shipmates who lean differently. Who will prevent you, the idealist, from capsizing into "fantasism" and you, the pragmatist, into cynicism.

I forever veer towards idealism.

When the Labour leader vote came around, I went for Corbyn. I can see he will probably never unite the party or be prime minister or do half the stuff he'd like to. But it felt too compromising and tactical to do anything other than stand with his lovely lefty rhetoric and ideals. I'm pretty glad lots of people are more worldy wise than me on this ... but I'm also pretty glad we've got him as leader for a bit.

Closer to home, I've been reading about 'affair-proof'ing marriage. (No, no trouble in Camp Potts!) It is pragmatic in the extreme. Cursory summation: never mind rights or wrongs; behave in the way that makes your spouse love and stay with you.

A lot of it rankles. But I have more patience with pragmatism here than in politics. I think that, in marriage, idealism easily slips into fantasy. You think your husband should adore the ground you walk on? That guy is more fantasy than ideal. You want a wife who excites and admires you every day? No real woman can sustain that. You believe your spouse will stick to his / her vows because it's the right thing to do? Few people can do that without a LOT of help and hard work. Let's work with the reality and not our ideals.

Why is it easier for me to accept pragmatic advice about marriage? No doubt partly because I have dedicated more time to thinking about how to make a marriage work and am better equipped to hold realities and ideals in tension.

And yet, I'm kind of happy with my different stances. As I see it, there's way too much cynicism in politics and way too much "fantasism" in marriage. If I can veer away from those extremes, I'll be happy. And there are worse things to shoot for, on these turbulent waters, than my own happiness.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Enough said.

I have spoken and written way too much in my life and it only gets worse as I get older. (Sorry, everyone.)

Despite this online evidence to the contrary, words really get on my nerves. I mean, isn't it lovely to meet a person who listens more than they speak?

Our reception of language is often fixed and inflexible, so words are used to judge. Do you ever worry a LOT that someone will misinterpret what you have said? Boy, I do. Surely this is because I know my own tendency to judge others by what they say, rather than seek to understand the spirit in which they said it.

I used to have a deep suspicion of anyone who owned up to being, for example, 'proud' or 'drunk'. (I know). Such prejudice lasted long into my twenties. Then, at some point, I opened my eyes and realised that 'proud' for most people simply means happy. And 'drunk' could be anything from blacking out in a pool of vomit to having a delightful, tipsy chat with your mates. Oh the joy of being drunkenly proud of my children!

Often, social speech irritates me because I take it too literally. I hate bragging. My more tolerant husband has pointed out to me that people who brag usually just want to be liked. I try to see that. I have loosened up enough to know that banter is social glue, not frivolous disrespect. Sometimes I even manage to enjoy that, too.

Words in church are a big problem for me. Give me a ten-minute homily and silent prayer and an ancient hymn with words at least good enough to have stood the test of time any day. Oh and please, please, please save me from policies, doctrinal checklists, statements of faith and vision-writing exercises.

The bible is chock-full of losers, contradictions, mistakes, weirdness, metaphor and poetry. And it isn't even the Word of God - that role was reserved for a real, live person (who didn't go in much for sermonising).

And now, having proven myself to be a total hypocrite, I'll shut up.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Fantastic Mr God.

I'm pretty cheesed off with kiddie bibles.

Here we have a collection of moving, enticing, profound stories. But somehow, every interpretation for children (well, let's be honest, quite a lot of the interpretations PERIOD) makes the whole thing pedestrian, dull and manipulative.

Serpents in paradise. Noah and his ark. Jonah and the Whale. Tent pegs hammered through temples. Wives turning into salt. Vixens who cut men's hair and thus emasculate them. Magically profound parables that apply to any era, defying and slitherly superceding any amount of sermonising. Apocalyptic brushstrokes of terror and wonder. Fantastic!

And there's the word that interests me. Fantasy. We enlightened Western Christians need to stop fearing it.

People fantasise. They need to let their imaginations run free reign and they need to be exposed to stories without instructions. Perhaps this is how we grow up. We live in reality, we take refuge in fantasy and slowly we learn to distinguish, play and work between the two.

If you take a pretty amoral, factually dubious story and domesticate it in order to instruct a child - or anyone - in correct doctrine or character development, you do them a huge disservice. Let the kid spring off from the story and find her own way!

For example, take Cain and Abel, those famous first brothers in Genesis. Cain kills Abel because the Lord looks favourably on Abel's sacrifice and not on Cain's.

Every sermon about or analysis of this (until Brueggemann's, which I read gratefully last year) that I can remember suggested Cain's offering to God was mean and paltry. It revealed his inferior moral character and faith. That's why The Lord didn't like it. Neat. What a bad guy Cain was!

But look at the text. There is no such indication. God simply favoured one over the other. Inexplicably. What an unjust God!

It's safer to attribute predicatable moral rules to God, but this story and the 'Lord' it attempts to reveal lie beyond our moral schemes. They frustrate our attempts to rule and understand the world.

God is fantastic as well as good. Deal with it. Figure the damn thing out. And let your children do the same.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Idling away the years.....

My current read is a treasure.

I found it hidden in the most unexpected place. On those shelves in the library that normally crush the joy from me. Those foreboding shelves that lean in on the children's area.

The Parenting Shelves.

Gina Ford. What To Expect. Wonder Weeks. How Baby Led Weaning Makes Kids Poo Gold. How I Sleep Trained Three-Day-Old Quadruplets in 40 Seconds. Perfection in Toddlerhood. The Supremacy of the Stay at Home Mum. The Moral Uprightness of the Working Mum. Etc.

Drawn to these evil shelves like a moth to a flame, I spotted The Idle Parent. Promising. And - Yes! - herein I find a published voice to back up my belief that the key ingredients of being The Best Mum are more sleep and pleasurable hours for me.(And the rest of the family, of course!)

Philosophical rather than ideological, writer Tom Hodgkinson advocates freeing ourselves from all expectations of 'parenting'. Instead, learn to enjoy your life and your children. Work as little as you can afford to! Have siestas! Play with sticks! Say No! Don't buy stuff! Don't worry about morals and manners! Enjoy your meals! Socialise with adult friends and leave the kids in the garden to eat soil!

It brings to mind my friends Keith and Jenni who blessed me greatly during my pregnancy by humbly enjoying, rather than ostentatiously striving at, family life.

I forget to enjoy it very frequently. I try to control the children. I shout. I create and then resent their dependence. I convince myself to complete totally pointless, status-anxiety-fuelled household tasks and get stressed when the toddlers find this boring. I have angst about getting back to paid work. I have guilt about everything.

But now, I have the Idle Parent Manifesto to keep me on track. An abridged version:

We reject the idea that parenting requires hard work.
We pledge to leave our children alone.
We read them fantastic stories without morals.
We drink alcohol.
We don't waste money on family days out and holidays.
We lie in bed for as long as possible.
We try not to interfere.
We work as little as possible.
Time is more important than money.
Down with School.
We fill the house with music and merriment.
We embrace responsibility.

Thank you. And, breathe......

Monday, March 14, 2016

A story shared.

Nobody ever came close (in biology, sex education, church marriage preparation or conversation of any kind) to warning me ahead of time that one in six couples in the UK struggle to conceive and one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage.

I used to be cross about this, thinking that a person has a duty to be honest and speak out their sad stories. I remain convinced that it's a good thing to do, if you can. But I realise now that it's wrong to demand or expect personal and painful storytelling from an Other. Such vulnerability is risky and can only be received as a gift

And there are good reasons for the silence, including grief and a desire to protect. I mean, it's hard even to write a blog post about it, aware as I am of many family and friends living with the struggle.

A less risky way of sharing your story is to soak in a founding myth, pouring into its depths your own personal exerience and grief.

I remember finding new delight in the bible as we hoped to conceive. Not in some pious or assinine 'Just. Have. Faith' way but because I suddenly saw how vivid was its preoccupation with barren women like me. Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, Rachel, Michal and so on. I saw that my story, however it was going to end, was one with eternal echoes and significance and I felt I was sharing it with ancient others.

Today, re-reading fairy tales, I again discover these sadnesses everywhere. In Rapunzel's despairing mother and the witch who steals her, in the macabre Gingerbread Man, in stories of children who appear unconventionally, like Thumbelina, in many versions of Sleeping Beauty. This stuff matters and it's everywhere.

So, to all those sad for the loss and lack of children, I wish a healing story fit to receive your own.

Thursday, March 03, 2016


I rather hate cliques.

Having had 15 homes (11 towns; 3 countries) in 37 years, this is partly because I know what it is to be an outsider. I have needed to break into existing social networks.

For me, local friendship is vital. I prioritise the people I see every week, however recently I started seeing them. And I am aware of the excluded to excess - I am so conscious of the person who has nobody to talk to that I can't focus on the person I'm talking to. I end up being pals with people I don't like. This is partly arrogance - I need to let go my belief that everybody's inclusion depends on me!

As a lifelong churchgoer and child of the manse, I am used to interacting with unrelated people of different ages, intellects, social backgrounds and to strangers invading my home for meals, meetings and such.

Most of my friends are not cliquey, unsurprisingly. But many individuals and groups I encounter seem incapable of welcoming the stranger in their midst. Here are two reasons why.

1) They think being friendly is the be all and end all.

It is very important. But your methods of organisation can be exclusive and this is particularly unfortunate when the organisation is a church.

It feels good to believe you're too busy doing your job or thinking about higher things to bother with small fry like internal communication and administration. But it is often these things that make newcomers into friends. They enable a stranger to navigate your traditions.

2) They are over-friendly.

The proliferation of small talk and over-busyness in Western society mean we rarely sit and feel awkward with a person we don't know.

A stranger is strange. It takes time to get to know them. In a profound sense, we never really know them. It is tempting to avoid the hard work of forming intimacy by pretending you're already there.

People are very exciting. They are inconvenient. They should not be domesticated. They may not want to answer your questions all at once. Be kind. Be interested.

And don't be bloody cliquey. Or I'll have ya.

Monday, February 22, 2016

A problem shared is a problem doubled

You may think the average man suffers more stress because he bottles up his feelings, while his lady friend processes and diminishes her angst in conversation.

I read an article recently that questioned this (shameface: I can't remember where!) It suggested that, while the above may be true sometimes, women can also aggravate and heighten anxiety by talking about their worries or even potential worries all the time. No distract-yourself, beer-drinking, football talk for us, thanks!

Which brought to mind one anxiety that, despite my best evasive strategies, keeps hurling itself at me.

If you're a mum, you simply cannot avoid getting drawn into finger-nail-extracting conversations about schools.

When the twins were one, and we'd just moved back to Britain, a complete stranger (female) approached me in Tesco. Within a few sentences of small talk she had told me I had to get them into one of two primary schools in Sheffield or they were done for. Seriously. In a city of 550,000. I nearly smacked her.

Since then, I have been asked about the schools in our new Sheffield suburb so many times I almost wrote out answers on notecards so I didn't have to say anything any more. Recently, I tried to ask a mum who takes her son to our closest primary a simple question about catchment boundaries. She assumed I was worried about results and launched into a great exposition on league tables. Get me out of here!!!!!!!

Quite honestly, this is one of many areas of chit chat that make me long to be a man and withdraw to my cave. As long as the closest school to my house will keep my children safe, burden them minimally with tests or results and think a bit about who they are as individuals, I'm happy.

But I'm forced to get unhappy. By my fellow mothers. All the time. So I worry more than I would naturally incline to about the whole thing and chew my cheeks off with irritation at the people who should be my partners in crime. And I haven't even started on my moral and political issues with our individualistic and competitive approach to education.


Anyone for a pint?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Til Death us do Part

At 37, I find few of my friends are getting together, getting married, buying houses and having babies. But some of them are getting divorced. Or going through experiences that could lead them there.

It's upsetting. In addition to lots of thinking and talking with my friends, I've been rereading the Church of England wedding vows .

Here are a few thoughts my conversations and reading have provoked:
1) Marriage is a community affair.....
During a wedding, everybody vows to "support and uphold" the couple. The public nature of the marriage is emphasised, as is the gravity of taking any action that threatens it.

A genuine community will make an effort to support couples; create space for honest, vulnerable conversation about marriage. How often do we share with others anything of our joys and struggles as a couple? Or dare to let friends know we are concerned about or proud of their marriages? It's harder to do this when we live at a distance - but still possible, either by keeping in touch or forming new support networks or both.

And this "marriage threatening action" isn't just about affairs. How often do we gleefully seek out, nourish and sustain another couple's story of conflict, for example?

2) ... but for the married individual, everything (including anticipated and realised offspring) must play second fiddle to Mr or Mrs.

Again, let's get over the obession with sex. Yes, 'forsaking all others' means not sleeping around. But often infidelity ends a long road of heartache.

Confide in your spouse, not your best, newest or oldest friend. Let go that great career, social opportunity or perfectly contented baby if it makes you forget the wellbeing of your partner or compromises the amount of time you have to be intimate with them. Defend and admire one another in public, even when there is opportunity to appear the 'better half' by attacking, mocking or letting them stand alone. Resolve the conflicts that parenting exhaustion bring into your relationship.

3) Marriage is not intuitive.

Why would anyone bother with vows that came naturally? We repeat these words in such solemn fashion because most of us will find it difficult to be faithful, to love in times of poverty or sickness, to share our souls and our bodies.

You can learn to be more and better married every day but for the majority, it's a job of work.

4) The churches have a lot to offer from their understanding of the sanctity of marriage: sadly, they often emphasise the wrong stuff.

For a church community, and any genuine community, marriage is sacred. (That is not to say a divorced or separated person is to be looked down upon - absolutely not. We have all fallen short if a couple we know and love is 'put asunder'.) In most cases, we refuse to accept its over until the fat lady sings. We fight tooth and nail to preserve it, where possible.

It isn't sacred because it's heterosexual. Or because you didn't have sex with someone else (or even your spouse to be) before you entered into it. Or because you got married in church. Or because you never had an affair or broke your vows.

A marriage is sacred because it is good - Godly - for people. For both parties in the marriage and for everybody else it touches, perhaps especially those on their own. A marriage that functions well builds up the wider community. And a marriage that breaks, be that officially or secretly, causes great hurt beyond its partners.

I'm going to do my best to be a good wife and a good friend to every other marriage on my radar. At least until I reach the next stage in life when all my friends are dying off. By then, I might be too depressed to be of any use. Said Eeyore.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Practice makes perfect

Would you rather hear "You're brilliant at ...." or "You work so hard at ...."?

I bet, instinctively, you prefer the former. I do too. Let's be honest, the hard work observation is often a euphemism for 'You're not good at ....". Shame.

Our society has, for the most part, lost its appreciation for practice and long-term effort, favouring the instant gratification gained from a 'natural' talent. We admire overnight pop idols and talent-spotted models, not veteran politicians, social workers, foster carers and relatives.

Practice is for some reason considered the domain of the elite. It is vital for musicians and sportsmen. But it applies to the simplest of things. Everyone can use it to their advantage. If you practice smiling, you feel happier. If you force a yawn, you grow sleepy.

We don't get good at being parents, spouses, friends, honest, caring, disciplined etc by magic, genetics or reading lots of books. We get there by practicing.

Now, Gladwell's rule says it takes approximately 10,000 hours to gain true expertise. Does the new parent despair of raising a well-adjusted child? No. Partly because I think you can inherit the practice done by others - get it in your blood, so to speak. A child treated kindly (by someone - not necessarily their parents)  will usually be kinder. It is likely their benefactors were able to be kind for the same reason.

Our job is to carry on putting in the parenting practice in our time. It will benefit our children for much longer than the 18 years they're under our rooves.

Consider the difference between practice and rehearsal. If you're a musician, practice means going over the difficult bits time and time again, doing scales and exercises (boring!), altering your technique - ideally, with a guide. Rehearsal means running through a performance.

It is interesting to apply this idea to our relationships and character development. If you are trying to build a deep bond with someone or to change yourself for the better, you constantly need to consider your behaviour, spot the bits you don't do well and strive to improve - ideally, again, with a guide. Hammering out the same old reactions and conversations time and time again, in the hope they'll work eventually, is at best frustrating and at worst destructive.

Finally, I notice two extremes in relation to the 'practice makes perfect' mantra. Some people, more typically men, will adopt it wholeheartedly. They believe they can get to the top. They idolise excellence and the progress they can make, stamping on all kinds of little people along the way. Others, more typically women, will happily rehearse the same old ditties but do not have the confidence or bravery to practice sacrificially, in the belief they can improve and become excellent.

The way we practice is not for our benefit alone but for the benefit of the communities in which we live. We should not fear becoming excellent. Neither should we forget that our excellence is not for us - but rather for the world in which we live.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Brain trouble

We humans have sacrificed a lot for the sake of our enormous brains.

If you want to be puritanical in your reading of Genesis' creation stories, you might say we gave up our very intimacy with God in order to be cleverer. Wow!

A bit of introductory reading on Mindfulness will explain how todays' overactive minds cause us much stress and anxiety. We cannot prevent ourselves from thinking, even when more thinking worsens our plight. Ever worried your night away replaying the same fantasy loop about what will happen tomorrow? Exactly.

Need a more visceral example? Look at childbirth. See that ginormous skull pushing its way out of that vagina? See the emerging little blob of humanity that is incapable even of supporting it's great noggin on its tiny neck, let alone keeping itself alive? That is a whole lot of risk to accept for the sake of a disproportionately-sized brain.

I'm not suggesting we should shrink our brains. But somehow, we need to fight the temptation to let our minds drive our lives ALL THE TIME. Can we escape our addiction to thinking by letting our bodies and spirits take over every now and again?

This is in part about rediscovering the joys of the right brain, which the Western world has been belittling for decades if not centuries. My brain switches stations when I play music with a group, focusing entirely on bodily repetition and exercise in a creative, community context. Exercise, also, is brilliant. (Research suggests it works best when done out of doors.) When exerting yourself physically, your body requires your focus. Your mind can then drift into creative space.

Sex, too, is good. Too often in contemporary culture, the mind in isolation drives sexuality, via porn or individualistic fantasies. The bodily act made in communion with a real person is much better for us.

Silent prayer (or meditation, for the non-religious) can also be profoundly helpful. Much western spirituality is about ego-driven speech and agenda-driven activity. Oh, for more silence in church! I can escape my ego, plans, fears and unreliable impulses by letting go of what I think I know and letting something bigger get a foothold.

We will all be healthier if we create situations where our bodies and souls are not in thrall to our left brain. It's hard work but it's rewarding. And better than cutting your massive head off and throwing it away, as I think Jesus advocated. Right?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Boxing The Babadook

If you haven't seen The Babadook, you should.

(I mean, it's scary. You'll be scared. Bear that in mind. But watch it. There is a place in the world for scary movies.)

A little boy finds a spooky black book. His Mother ill-advisedly reads him the book. The evil Babadook character whose name she speaks becomes real. Thereafter, the more she tries to get rid of it (hiding the book; burning the book; giving her son tranquillisers to tackle his nightmares) the stronger its presence becomes. Eventually, it posesses the Mother completely and they are brought to a nail-biting, night-time finale.

It is an excellent horror movie. It is also a moving, intelligent and true tale about what happens when we try to repress the shadows in our lives.

The Babadook is the dark, hidden emotion in this little family's life. It grows in power because the mother tries to deny and destroy it. It cannot be destroyed. In the end, the only way to diminish its hold is to accept, integrate and let it live.

We all have darker elements of ourselves that must be faced up to. In the film, the hidden darkness is some fairly serious trauma. But even the most well-adjusted person has created little false selves to cope with the cruelties and vicissitudes of life; has painful memories; has flaws. You can go through your entire life believing that the desireable 'self' you present to the world is all there is. You can exhaust yourself fighting your shadows, flailing hopelessly. You can live with the lights off, drowning in the darkness but keeping the shadow at bay. But this is all folly.

The healthier way to mature is to continually undertake the difficult but fruitful work of what Richard Rohr calls shadow boxing. That is, sparring with your darker side. Your False Self. (A much better description of what many bible translations label 'Flesh'). It is there. It can be faced up to. It cannot be destroyed completely. But it can be worked with and exploited to make you fitter and truer.

So, keep an eye out for The Babadook. And if you see it, bring it in for tea, cake and boxing.

Monday, January 11, 2016

One Man in his Time Plays Many Parts

Have you noticed that adults' habits are usually credited to their personality, whereas those of children are labelled 'behaviour'?

Behaviour is something we see as changeable; personality usually not.

Common sense dictates that the older we are, the harder we find it to change. And of course, a person should gain more control over their impulses as they mature.

But, it seems most of our personality is actually determined by our genes, at birth, so even the youngest children are 'fixed' to a significant extent. And adults can respond and adapt in face of even great trauma and upheaval. They are not a slave to their very Self and history, however many years they have walked the earth.

My two-year-old son is much more of a daydreamer than his twin sister. It can be a battle to Get Things Done, with him. Socks, for example. Buggy boarding. But it is quite clear to me that this is about his personality, not his behaviour. If I strive to alter it, I cause everybody stress (especially him).

And when I dimiss out of hand another adult as grumpy, superficial, self-absorbed, I forget that they may be tired, hungry, sad, insecure and for any number of reasons, quite capable of behaving very differently tomorrow or next year.

I like personality tests and think it's important to be able to assess myself, critically. I also like considering ways I can better my childrens' behaviour. But I think it's wrong to view my Self as a fixed and unchanging thing. And I realise the only real power I have over my children is the power to overburden them.

I will try to carefully and respectfully listen to who people are, whatever their age. And allow for the fact we are all changing and perfecting, every single day of our lives, however many days we believe we have left.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Neither slave nor free.

So, I got around to thinking about the problem of the Master / Slave dialectic in relation to church life.

Probably originating with Hegel (at some point when I've become a higher being I'll try to understand what he wrote.....), Master / Slave ideas have been hugely influential.

In summary: people find it easier and even essential to become either a master or a slave when encountering an Other. Ultimately, this gets things all rotten. Slave is downtrodden. Master is isolated. Slave despises and inwardly turns against Master, who in turn gets dependent on slave. Messy. You can see how this might work in employer / employee relations but it's not hard to see in marriages, friendships, family dynamics, EVERYWHERE!

In church life, I came up with various examples. We might look to our leaders to give us answers and manage our spiritual lives. Or read the bible looking for 'infallible' instruction. Sometimes, we claim some have less right to power (women; homosexuals). We may even talk about an all-powerful Father who sacrificed a compliant Son. Our prayers can sound as if they are addressed to a cosmic genie of the lamp.

I know that coming up with these grand accusations is easy to do and not really the point. In perhaps the most important sense, I am the church. Therefore, in keeping with new yearly resolve, I shall endeavour to do my part and struggle against this stuff, refusing the bushel and expecting to be surprised by others' light. Because if there is one place we should fight for the right to relate to each other as equals, surely it's in church?

[Soapbox vacated.]