Strange and stormy days

Photo by Mario Caruso on Unsplash

Photo by Mario Caruso on Unsplash

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us’ 

I wrote this quote out on a Post-it note a few years ago, and stuck it up in my kitchen. 

I wanted Tolkien’s words from The Fellowship of the Ring to inspire me to live well while I was digging around at the back of the fridge or de-lousing the dog. 

I hoped they would remind me to make my days count. 

It was only recently that I realised I’d taken the quote out of context – and shorn it of its significance. 

These words are part of something much bigger.  

They’re spoken by Gandalf to the hobbit Frodo, after he has expressed regret at living in times of growing threat and turbulence: 

‘“I wish it need not have happened in my time”, said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. 

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”’

It turns out the wizard’s words aren’t a motivational sound bite. 

They are a generational call to rise to the challenge of the times we’ve been given – however tumultuous they may be.

Realising this was like flicking a switch. With it came the jolting recognition that I too shared Frodo’s wish to live in less stormy times. 

The waves around us are whipping up. Division and distrust are deepening as the crises we face loom ever larger – climate emergency, chronic inequality, international tension, domestic strain. Meanwhile, volatile leaders loose the nations they govern from the moorings of trust, cohesion – even the rule of law. 

Tolkien’s words, written during the build-up to the Second World War, seem so much more sharply, soberingly relevant than they did when I copied them out five years ago. 

They raise a pressing question – what should we decide to do with the time that has been given us? 

I have a suggestion.

It came out of nowhere, as I was reading a book in the sunshine this summer – and it hasn’t gone away.

The book was The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. 

In it, he writes about Ynys Enlli, a wild Welsh island that Celtic pilgrims made their unlikely home 15 centuries ago.

Macfarlane retraced the journey they would have taken, through dangerous tides, high winds and seething waters.  

Despite travelling in a twenty-first century yacht with an experienced crew, he admits to finding the journey frightening. 

He contrasts his experience with the courage of the Celts in their coracles. These small, simple boats were made from oxhide, wood, wicker and tallow, and were, in Macfarlane’s words, ‘designed, in their lightness and their shallow draft, to slide over the currents and the tide-rips, to slip up and over waves.’

I read a lot of words and forget far too many. But these rang out from the page.

We can’t navigate the world’s waves when we’re weighed down. 

To make it through days of storms we need to be light and lean. 

Celtic Christians fanned out to the edges of the isles, to the places lashed by the highest winds and waves. They left behind comfort, status and wealth – or at least the prospect and pursuit of it. 

And the inhospitable locations they sought out became places of simple and inclusive hospitality. 

I’ve been increasingly drawn to stories of their lives and lifestyle.

Light, agile, quick, kind, free – their approach stands in contrast to many of us struggling under the weight of twenty-first century attitudes and practices. 

It’s all too easy to start the day heavy, already knocked off course by a glance at the morning headlines or whatever new outrage is trending.

We can end up laden and leaden – with physical clutter, mental strain, offence, fear, unrealistic expectations – and disappointment with others and ourselves. 

Given the days we have to live in, it seems time to start seriously letting go of the things that don’t matter, that distract or divide us – and getting to work with the resources we have to hand. 

The Celts had wood and wicker – and courage, vision and direction. 

Today, there seems little point in staying on the shore and shouting into the wind. 

Far better, surely, to seek to live light, lean, quick and free. To steer a course like the Celtic peregrini – and rise to the waves and refuse to be overcome.



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Scratching beneath the surface: an Oxford observation

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Distinguished colleges built centuries ago in distinctive honey-coloured stone line the streets of the city I call home. Behind their walls clever people read, think, talk and dine in style from world-class wine cellars. 

On the pavements outside, damp duvets, cardboard and food packaging pile up in doorways, marking the spaces where some of the city’s other residents live and die

Oxford is a place defined by contrast. This kind of inequality isn’t just a source of anger or embarrassment, depending on your point of view. It’s bad for all of us.

A few years ago*, an Oxford academic attracted the attention of the Inland Revenue. A fellow of Lincoln College, he enjoyed the comfort, status – and brandy – his position afforded. But an encounter with a cleaner disturbed him, triggering a chain of events that led to his investigation by the authorities. 

One icy day, a domestic assistant came to his room. Financial constraint meant she was wearing only a single layer of thin clothing. He was moved, and wanted to help relieve her situation, but the recent purchase of pictures for his college room meant he had nothing to give her.

The experience changed him, his spending habits – and arguably those of people across centuries and countries since who heard what he did and followed his example.  

His name was John Wesley, and his response was to set and stick to a limit on his yearly spending. In the first year of this practice, his income was £30 and his expenditure £28. The following year his income doubled to £60 but he kept his expenditure at £28. The year after, his income rose to £90, but he spent only £28, giving away more than double the amount he chose to live on. 

This pattern continued throughout his life. It even landed him in trouble with the tax commissioners, who became suspicious that a man of his means had so little silver to report on his annual return. 

He replied, ‘I have two silver spoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the [silver] plate I have at present, and I shall not buy any more while so many round me want bread.

Lived Wesley’s way, increases in income lead to a rise in the standard of giving, rather than the standard of living. 

Inequality is complex and requires concerted, structural change – and much more time and expertise to analyse than I have here. But something I do know about, as a former fundraiser, is the impact of people who have chosen to walk the same journey of generosity as Wesley. 

I’ve never forgotten the student who gave away her entire inheritance – enough money to buy a house outright. 

Or the man who loved to confuse his colleagues, busy investing their bonuses in properties and yachts. When asked how he was going to spend his, he smiled and stayed silent, never letting on that every month he quietly gave away a third of his earnings to alleviate other people’s poverty.

Or the couple who responded to a genocide by cancelling the holiday of a lifetime and giving the money released to the relief effort.

If promotions and pay rises come, they normally lead to an increase in expectation, a transition to a more expensive brand, and a different lot of Joneses to keep up with. That’s why some of those with the highest incomes live in overdraft, convinced they still don’t quite have ‘enough’. That’s a word that interests me, and an idea I’ve written about here

But what if a person who gets richer makes a deliberately different choice? What if they refuse to upgrade the restaurant they eat in, but instead increase the amount they tip, and the number of people they invite along?

Life’s too wild and good to be shaped solely by what we happen to earn or what ideas and ideals influencers have successfully sold us. 

We get so busy capturing and curating our lives, searching for the right angle and applying the right filter. 

But what if the real adventure isn’t on show, but happening in secret?

Under the radar, there are people among us living lives of subversive, extravagant, radical generosity. Their actions are driven by a belief in the profound value of the ‘other’, and a desire to bridge the gaps and gulfs between us. 

From what I’ve observed, there’s little more beautiful.






* actually more than 250 years (but that’s weirdly recent for Oxford)

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Tidings of comfort

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A few months ago, I moved from the edge of a city to the heart of a village. The house I now call home is old and (sometimes painfully) low-ceilinged – and has witnessed well over 300 Christmases.

As it approaches, I’ve been thinking about the people who’ve woken up on Christmas morning here before, crossed the road to the same ancient church, and drawn a seat to the same fireplace.

Some years will have seen loud and happy gatherings, the house filled with the smell of cinnamon and cloves and the sound of wassailing (high on my personal to-do list this year). 

Other years may have seen the house frozen in grief, hunkered down, its inhabitants trying to find their way through short, dark days.

These layers of experience have brought to mind a different but related layering – the shades of meaning that have attached themselves to the word ‘comfort’. It’s an idea closely associated with the light and warmth of midwinter Christmas. It’s celebrated by a carol popular when the house was new – God rest you merry, gentlemen – with its ‘tidings of comfort and joy’. 

But the word’s meaning has shifted starkly through time. Its original sense was muscular: the bringing of strength and the giving of solace to those in distress. 

Fast-forward a few centuries and it’s now widely understood as the absence of friction or challenge. Comfort zone, comfort fit…

While comfort in a trouser may be deeply desirable, the change in the weighting of the word exposes an uncomfortable truth. 

What was a brave and kind movement outward, towards another person, has been turned inward, towards the meeting of an individual’s never-quite-satisfied needs. 

That shift traces a pattern playing out in our twenty-first century lives. Consumerism, individualism and chronic busyness have distracted and diverted us away from deep connection with each other.  

Growing distrust is being exploited by those who seek influence or advantage from it. What someone stands for has become more important than who they stand by.

This year has brought political instability, spiralling poverty and loneliness, and gaping division between countries and across communities.

It’s surely time to reclaim the old and good and true sense of the word ‘comfort’. To stop, be still, look around and find ways to give strength, to bring solace and to alleviate the distress of the people whose ground and air we share.

The old that is strong does not wither, / Deep roots are not reached by the frost.’ 

J R R Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 


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Seven things I’m learning from… my dog 

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While many people identify strongly as either a cat or a dog person, for most of my life I’ve been more of a guinea pig person.

But a little while ago something unexpected happened.

My family had been lobbying for a dog for years. This involved repeated verbal requests, PowerPoint presentations on the benefits of dog-ownership, the appearance of a dog on Christmas and birthday lists, and the planting of propaganda in my work files. 

I resisted resolutely and happily, safe in the knowledge that dogs:

  • smell
  • slaver
  • are unsophisticated and indiscriminate in their affections 
  • take up time and space
  • smell

Then a few things shifted. I started working from home, quality time with the guinea pigs a perk. My children grew older and more persuasive. A friend’s dog came for a mini-break at our house and no rip opened up in the space-time continuum. 

On the day I begrudgingly began to consider the possibility of starting to think about maybe getting a dog, the first item in my Facebook feed was a film clip with the title ‘You really should get your children a dog.’

The snowball of Mitchell enthusiasm that had been careering down the mountainside smashed straight into me. A few days later, we went to meet the dog I never thought we would have.

She’s a small black spaniel with the speed of a greyhound and the energy and focus of a highly caffeinated toddler. Released from her lead, she rockets across a field like a missile. Fortunately, she alternates this with curling into the shape of a bagel, sighing and sleeping for long periods of time. Anyone who comes through the door is met with a gift (whatever she can find nearby – often the fragrant towel we use to wipe her paws) and a bendy-bodied dance of quivering excitement. 

In short, I am utterly in love with her. 

My family laugh openly at my metamorphosis from non-dog person to dog fan to my core. While the speed and comprehensiveness of this volte-face is embarrassing, the benefits it has brought far outweigh any desire I have to maintain a sense of sophisticated dog-sceptic complexity.

Named for my brave and decorated great-great-uncle George, she has fast become a profoundly valued member of the family. Her vocabulary may be limited, but she’s already taught me some invaluable lessons:

1. Never say never. Life is too short and interesting to be inflexible. Sometimes it’s time to review how rigidly we define ourselves, and to question a tendency to say ‘no’ to something just because we always have. 

2. Revel in the moment. Sometimes I wish she might revel just a little less in a particularly fetid ditch, but unleash her in a stretch of green and you can almost see the joy course through her veins. She is entirely alive in the moment. She doesn’t miss what’s in front of her because she’s chewing over a comment from yesterday or fretting about a deadline. 

3. Be wholehearted. She knows what she loves: unpleasant smells, birds, her people, and snacks – and nothing can distract her. Her focus is extreme, and her loyalties undivided. She’s never too busy to notice a new person, never anything less than ridiculously excited to see us, even if we’ve just been in another room. 

4. Find some wild. I have no choice but to put the list-making, task-juggling and plate-dropping on hold – whatever the weather – to accompany her on a walk each day. Some years I’ve had my head down and pretty much missed the heady, blowsy generosity of May and June. But now I notice the turn of the seasons and the shape of the sky. There’s wonder worked into the sap and marrow and sinew of the world around us, and my daily walk with Georgie is nothing short of sacred space. 

5. Work within constraints. Her existence imposes limits on us. She’s inconvenient. But constraints can be rich soil for creativity. When we explore a city we walk in its green spaces more than we ever used to, eat outside or in more relaxed, embracing places, and enjoy a slower, wider view than we did in pre-dog days.

6. Luxuriate in rest. When she’s not running full pelt, she’s curled into a snoring ball, or flopped flat-out wherever she stopped. We can so often feel too distracted or guilty to slow down properly. But sometimes wholesale surrender to rest is what exhausted minds and bodies need.

7. Connect. Like so many other dogs, she is a bridge of connection in our community. Old people stop to pat her, sometimes misty-eyed as they remember a dog they loved long ago. Children ask if they can say hello. She creates endless opportunities for walking and talking with the people I love, time that might otherwise have slipped too quickly away. 

Life with a dog is certainly not without its challenges. She may eat plastic, trample plants, steal shoes, spread dirt, and be capable of making some of the most evil odours known to humanity.

But to me, she mainly smells of sunshine and biscuit – and I wouldn’t have her any other way.

 

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First draft fragment

(Ashley Rowe, Unsplash)

(Ashley Rowe, Unsplash)

In a world of ever-increasing complexity and choice, it can be quite helpful to be told what to do sometimes. 

That’s why I’m not the only one drawn to lists like ‘5 tips to reduce plastic’, ‘7 ways to be effortlessly cool’ and ‘9 things to do with a waffle iron’.

One piece of advice I’ve been thinking and writing about recently has a slightly older release date. It’s found in a book, Leviticus, written at least twenty-five centuries ago:

‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.’

It’s just one of a number of disarmingly generous instructions, which also include: 

  • If you forget a sheaf when you’re harvesting, don’t go back for it 
  • When you beat the olives from your olive trees, just do it once. Leave whatever’s left for foreigners, orphans and widows
  • Once every seven years, in the year of jubilee, cancel any debts owed to you 
  • Don’t store up any harvest that your land produces naturally during this time. It isn’t for you. Give it to the slaves, servants and foreigners, and also let your livestock and wild animals enjoy it.  

I find this ancient life advice deeply moving and highly compelling, but I’ve also been unsure what it might mean in twenty-first century practice. I’ve wrestled with what leaving the edges of my field for those in need might look like in a suburban semi with a garden full of dandelions. 

How should this guidance be reflected in my bank statement or calendar or shopping habits? Maybe it means buying more ethically-sourced products or volunteering with a local project. These activities have value but they seem piecemeal in comparison with the bold beauty of the leave-the-edges-of-your-field model.

Then it occurred to me.

I think it might be all about margin.

From the earliest age, we learn to fight our corner, to protect what we’ve gained and to grow it, to compare what we have with others. We’re told to live life to the max, to supersize it, to get ahead and stay ahead. Then, because we worry about not being or having enough, we hoard and hold back, just in case our resources run out in an unknown tomorrow. 

But if we look more closely at that Middle Eastern field, its unharvested edges mark out a margin – a border, set aside for those who truly don’t have enough, who have more needs than they have provision. 

It’s a strip of holy, jubilee ground. 

It is the sign of a person saying ‘Enough – this is as far as I will harvest and no further’ so that others may have enough.

It says to those who are hungry ‘This was grown for you.’ 

It says to those who feel excluded ‘You are included.’

In today’s world of greed and gain, loneliness and lack, we can choose to say ‘Enough and no more’. We can set an intentional limit on our accumulating and busy-ness and reckless spending of finite resources – and there will enough for those who have need of it.

If we refuse to give our attention away cheaply to a thousand glittery things we won’t be blind to the person right in front of us who feels unseen.

If our home isn’t rammed full of stuff there will be physical and mental space for the person who needs a bed for the night.

If we resist spending all our money every month there will be enough to quietly help someone on hard times.

If we set and stick to boundaries of rest we’ll have strength to draw on when we need to be strong for someone else. We'll be less likely to be depleted and exhausted and brittle. 

There will be enough. 

This is not something I have even begun to approach achieving, but it is something I've seen and not been able to look away from. 

It’s why I’ve been writing in any gaps I can find for the last year and a half. It’s the subject of the book that has emerged, provisionally titled ‘Enough’, and this is a first draft fragment.

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Song for my sisters

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This is a photo of my twin sisters, Abi and Elisabeth, and me in our grandparents’ garden in Halifax. I’m still quite startled by the kilt and clogs combination I wore that day.

It was spring 1977. The Queen was limbering up for her silver jubilee celebrations, social unrest was simmering, and punk was just about to explode.

Six months later, my family was hit by a tidal wave of shock and grief when 18-month-old Elisabeth went into hospital for heart surgery, and did not return. 

As I wrote in a previous post, the story of that time is not for telling now.

But maybe, like me, you are familiar with pain and loss.

For us, it was compounded by a letter that arrived from the hospital years later. Staff wrote to inform my parents that, after her death, a decision had been made to remove and retain some of their daughter’s organs, which remained in their possession.

It took some time to process this news. We carried it in our hearts as the family changed and grew with weddings and the birth of new people.

This October marked 40 years since Elisabeth’s death, and my parents made the courageous decision to hold a committal service. They wrote a short piece for the vicar to read, and the girl I see in it is one with whom I so dearly wish I had grown up. 

My memories are vivid but patchy; theirs have broadened and deepened the brush strokes, and the person who emerges is sensitive, funny, and demonstrative with her affections. One who loved dancing and ice cream and horses, and ran back to give Abi a kiss the day she left for hospital. 

The committal took place a few days ago. Because I am a follower of Christ I’ve sought him out in prayer – by myself, and with others. 

Faith can be such a divisive topic. It’s seen by many as something outgrown by progress, a crutch for the weak, a source of embarrassment.

I can only write from experience. 

I went to pray with a friend a few days before the service, aching with grief. But I found myself met by love, and I knew the comfort of containment by it.

There’s a verse in the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 33:27), which says: ‘The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ 

The committal took place in a snow-covered crematorium. Sometimes life hurts and pain runs deep. But on that raw, cold day we felt held by a love somehow wider and deeper still. 

Christmas is now just days away, when those who have been watching for it celebrate the light that breaks out in the darkness. 

Sometimes it dazzles, and sometimes it’s just a glimmer, but it leaves us changed. 

Award-winning grime artist Stormzy and I might not appear to have much in common, but we’ve both seen it, and it’s made us both sing.

Happy Christmas. 

 

 

 

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In praise of Port Meadow

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Not far from my home is a wide, flat meadow. A river – lined with houseboats and spanned by a rainbow bridge – winds through it, and cattle and wild ponies graze it. 

For over a thousand years it has belonged to the people of Oxford, a gift from King Alfred the Great in gratitude for their help defending the kingdom from attack.  

Instead of being enclosed, ploughed or divided up, it has been shared for the last eleven centuries by the people of the city: those who built the spires and those who studied under them, college cleaners and lecturers, prime ministers, poets, factory workers and shop assistants. 

My children have grown up going to what they briefly thought was ‘Pork Meadow’ in all seasons – to crack the ice in the puddles and lie in the buttercups and pick blackberries with scratched purple fingers. They lost wellies in the mud there, flew kites and rode bikes, spent hours braiding the ponies’ shaggy manes, and played baseball like only British people can. 

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As teenagers, it's the place they’ve chosen to celebrate the end of exams, with chips on a jetty and wild-swimming with friends. It's where they've lost the dog too many times to count – only to have her presence revealed half a mile away by flocks of birds squawking suddenly into the air. It's where we’ve walked amongst the hawthorn blossom and meadowsweet in long, light summer evenings that seemed like they would never end. 

The leaves on the meadow are turning yellow and rust red, and starting to fall as the wind gusts. Like the river, time moves on more quietly and quickly than we realise. 

Each visit to Port Meadow reminds me how important it is to be present to the moment in a world full of fleeting and outrageous beauty.

It also reminds me that when you love a person or a place, you should do it fiercely and faithfully – and with everything you have.

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Earth’s crammed with heaven / And every common bush afire with God

- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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Postcard from Paris

Photo by Rob Potvin on Unsplash

Photo by Rob Potvin on Unsplash

Paris and me, we have history.

On a sixth-form trip, walking with friends down the Champs Elysées in the spring sunshine, it seemed Rimbaud had written his poem for us: ‘On n’est pas sérieux, quand on a dix-sept ans / Et qu’on a des tilleuls verts sur la promenade’ (‘No one’s serious at seventeen / When lime trees line the promenade’). I’d never seen anywhere so beautiful or so alive.

The next time I visited I was studying French at university, and I arrived with a boyfriend – who dumped me without ceremony on the first day of our holiday. I made an excuse about making a phone call and left him for hours as the city welcomed me back. I walked until I was lost and re-found my sense of self.

I returned a few years later with another boy, and we fell for Paris together. On the next visit there were three of us. Our daughter was three weeks old and neither she nor I had a clue what we were doing. Sleep-starved, dazed and hormonal, I walked the boulevards with my arms wrapped round her while her dad worked, and began to see how life could begin again.

Well-loved friends moved to the city and – purely for the sake of loyalty – we went to see them often, and Paris became a city of playgrounds and boat rides and parks with wild strawberries where our children tried out their first (tiny) rollercoaster.

That first daughter is about to leave home in a few weeks, and we’ve brought her and her younger sister back to Paris, while their brother cycles the tree-lined roads of the south for a few days. 

Paris has been a place to which I always return, a distant constant when the rest of life has whirled and swirled around me. She’s a city of contradictions: elegant and seedy, grand and intimate, full of light and shadows, grime and glory. Her streets are alive with creativity, with the ghosts of philosophers and artists and writers I once studied, and loved for their humanity and wisdom. One of her bridges buckled recently under the weight of locks bearing lovers’ initials attached to them. She’s the city of love and longing, and she always has been. 

But this visit she’s shown a different side. 

We drove in from the north, scanning for that moment when the Eiffel Tower first comes into view. 

The road took us through a strobing tunnel to Porte de la Chapelle, and a makeshift camp of hundreds of tents under a flyover, where people walked, stood and sat at the edge of the dual carriageway. 

A woman with a cardboard sign asking for help weaved between closed car windows towards us. A boy washed the windscreen and came to the window for payment. We gave him 5 Euros but he leant in and demanded 10, then grabbed the wing mirror, threatening to tear it off if we didn’t give more. 

Groups of men stood in huddles, just yards from police and soldiers with boys’ faces, body armour and machine guns.

We googled ‘Porte de la Chapelle’ and read about the repeated rounding-up and removal of those seeking sanctuary in the city, including dozens of unaccompanied children. The issues are clearly messy and confusing, complex and nuanced. Around a hundred migrants arrive each day in the area, and the conditions they live in are unsustainable and insanitary. Criminal networks are quick to exploit the needs and vulnerability of the newcomers, and women who live nearby have found themselves harassed and endangered. The place is tense and brutal, and ugly.  

As Europeans we have raised our eyebrows at the words beneath the statue France gifted to the American people on their independence, ‘Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses...’, and what seems to be the current US administration’s betrayal of its country’s dearest values.

But those masses are also here, in Paris, and the government's response is to keep them at the end of a gun, to don hazard suits to sift through the debris of broken lives after another dawn round-up.

These Eritreans and Sudanese, Syrians and Afghans cannot simply be defined and dismissed as members of the wrong club, who lost the birth lottery and are now cluttering up the streets. 

They are people – with the guts to get out of a war zone, to seek a way out of endless violence, poverty and fear, to reach the city that champions freedom, equality and brotherhood. 

But the clarion call of the republic, emblazoned across every hotel de ville in the land, rings cracked and hollow in Porte de la Chapelle.

An evening walk took us into the heart of the city, past a family on a mattress, a boy covered in burns and a mother holding out a cup for coins.

I know that the first family I saw sitting together on a mattress at the side of the road tore at my heart, and that within a couple of days I was speeding up to get past them. I know that in the four days of our stay I saw no one stop to give money, or food, or exchange words. I know that they will have watched my family walk past awkwardly on the other side of the road, our younger daughter asking why the story of the Good Samaritan plays out differently on a Parisian avenue. 

I am bitterly aware that I don’t have answers. But the questions are howling round the boulevards and bridges, the parks and squares of Paris, and they demand a response that is concerted and compassionate, not ill-conceived, populist or panic-prompted.

The Musée d’Orsay houses the paintings of Van Gogh, a broken, impoverished foreigner, overlooked and undervalued his whole life through, whose works now draw millions from across all the countries of the world. Where life left him in despair he saw stars that lit the midnight blue and light it still for those who come. 

If only Paris, city of light, would now choose to extend her promise of liberté, égalité and fraternité to those who are huddled, and bruised, and grieving, and far from home, just like he once was. 

 

https://helprefugees.org.uk/

http://sanctuaryhosting.org/

http://safepassage.org.uk/

http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Refugee-support

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The Song of Digby and of Jane

At Birmingham University’s freshers’ week in 1967, a quietly classy Yorkshire girl called Jane met Digby, a shaggy-haired boy from the outskirts of Manchester.

For reasons that remain unclear, in an effort to impress he told her that he was part-Aborigine. 

Despite this unusual strategy, they fell in love. 

The story of their relationship is not mine to tell, but it led to a wedding day four years later, and hands that have held each other for half a century now. 

Digby took some time out from his studies so they spent a time apart and finished their degrees in different years. Their first daughter appears as a carefully-held bundle in grainy, light-flooded ciné film footage at Digby’s graduation. That bundle was me. 

Years followed of brave knitwear choices, bad haircuts, tins-full of homemade cake and holidays in anoraks in a static caravan (I’ve never known excitement in the pit of my stomach like I felt when my sister and I watched the car being loaded with provisions for the summer and the long journey to the wild north).

They trained as teachers and taught in schools in inner-city Birmingham, and on troubled estates. Digby was working at a school in Handsworth when tensions boiled over into rioting. We watched the footage of burning cars on the TV news as we waited for his return, no hope of a call from a mobile to reassure us. 

Like anyone, they knew frustrations and breakthroughs in these years – and searing grief and quiet comfort, stress, strain and everyday happinesses. This, again, is too deep and private a song to sing here; it’s music for a different place, high on a mountain at the end of time. 

Suffice it to say, their lives – like yours and mine – were ordinary and extraordinary. 

They built a family and a home; they taught their own and many other people’s children to love learning and to know themselves to be of value.

After a lifetime of hard work and obligations, retirement is often presented as the holy grail of self-reward. Rest, treats, travel and comfortable trousers await us if we only save and plan and jump successfully through the final hoop.

Digby and Jane retired a few years ago, and they have enjoyed spending time with their grandchildren and getting discount at the cinema in the middle of the week.

But as I’ve watched I’ve seen something else at work. 

As students they were introduced to an ancient book and an ageless love which has been their stay through the decades since. It teaches care for the underdog, the overlooked and the stranger, and it has defined the way they live.  

They are private people. I remember how personally they took it when, on an empty beach in driving rain, the only other people unhinged enough to brave the elements chose to pitch their spot near ours – for solidarity, maybe, or simply to minimise the risk of being swept into the sea. They find it hard to share their beloved Lake District with the other people who keep going there and spoiling its peace.

But despite this, their retirement has not been a time of retraction and withdrawal. Their lives have instead opened wider and more generously, bringing people on the edge closer in to the warmth.

Digby still sees Ed, the friend he made at one school in the late 1970s. They talk on the phone and meet up to play pool and chat. The school was a special school for children with disabilities and learning difficulties. But Ed wasn’t a colleague – he was a pupil, and their friendship has flourished for over 40 years.

They live on a leafy road where people have long been civil and smiled and waved at their neighbours, but few have known each other well. The last few years have seen them nurture a thriving Street Association, bringing a once disparate community together into each other’s houses, into the local hall for quizzes and cake and tea, and out – together – to dig through the dusty grounds of the brain-injury unit at the end of the road, where they planted flowers to brighten the view and scent the air for those recuperating inside. 

One of their neighbours has lived reclusively for years behind a growing thicket of brambles. Gently and slowly they have built trust and connection with her. After leaving a note to invite her to a talk they thought she might find interesting, thinking it highly unlikely that she would respond, they found her waiting at the end of her drive for a lift. She now comes out to join the neighbours when they meet, and finds a welcome there.

On Friday nights at midnight, when I’m asleep on my sofa, they head off to Broad Street, the home of many of Birmingham’s busiest nightclubs, bars and restaurants. They put on their City Pastor jackets and earpieces and walk the streets in the darkness. For the next few hours they look out for people who have lost their phones, their keys, their friends or their way. 

They stop to talk, to hand out flip-flops, silver space blankets, to receive a drunken kiss or hug, to point someone in the right direction. Their visible presence is designed to dissuade those who might take advantage of people who are drunk or high, vulnerable or in despair. 

A taxi driver, accompanied by his friend, was insistent that two young women who had not been looking for a lift get into his cab. They intervened, asked the women where they were heading and saw them to safety and away from who knows what.

I am so proud of how, even on dark and inhospitable nights, they leave comfort behind to reclaim a place of safety and kindness for those who find themselves in harder, colder places.

It’s fifty years since they met, but their love still has a youth about it – a freshness and a hopefulness and an aliveness – that is perhaps best captured by Bob Dylan, the voice of their generation (and soundtrack of my childhood Sunday afternoons):

‘May your hands always be busy 

May your feet always be swift

May you have a strong foundation 

When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful 

And may your song always be sung

May you stay forever young

Forever young, forever young 

May you stay forever young.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Five ways to get through dark days

Fight Trump.jpg

It is strange now to think that we once called 2016 callous for stealing David Bowie and Victoria Wood from us.

Looking back, it becomes apparent that the year stole so much more than that, with the killing of Jo Cox, the fall-out of the Brexit vote, the mowing down of 86 people on a warm Nice night, mass drownings in the Mediterranean, protracted conflict in Syria and Yemen, drought and hunger across the Horn of Africa. 

Many of us watched with mouths hanging open as the year closed with the election of a former reality TV host to the White House, the rise of an emboldened far right and a spike in hate crime, division, and distrust.

Destabilising forces are at play, including a sustained and cynical undermining of the free press. While fictitious news is disseminated on an industrial scale, powerful people choose to describe genuine reporting as ‘fake’. It’s staggering to think that ‘MSM’ – mainstream media – is now a pejorative term.

Meanwhile, we find ourselves retreating into bubbles – intentionally or not. 

Algorithms construct echo chambers for us on social media that we narrow further as we unfriend or mute those whose views we don’t share. 

Ads and suggestions for the next thing we should watch or listen to or buy are minutely tailored to our online profile. When profit is the only driver this can leave people exposed and vulnerable. An MIT Technology Review article in May this year reported evidence of Facebook’s use of sensitive user data to target particular ads at teenagers experiencing feelings of worthlessness. 

Our moorings are creaking as the connections between us weaken and our reference points blur. Divided and dazed, it becomes hard to see the way forward.

But it’s worth drawing strength from the fact that many before us have lived through dark days and found their way through them. 

John Woolman was a Quaker tradesman in slave-owning colonial America. His sensitivity to what he called ‘the operations of Divine Love’ led him to become an advocate for the abolition of slavery and a refusal to benefit from consumer goods produced by slave labour and unjust trade practices.

In November 1758 he stayed in the home of Thomas Woodward after speaking at a Quaker meeting. When he learned that the household servants were slaves his response was neither to openly confront his host, nor to turn a blind eye. 

Instead, during the night he rose and wrote a note to his hosts explaining why he could not accept their hospitality, went to the slaves’ quarters to pay them for their service, and made his way out into the night.

In the morning, the note was found and, deaf to his wife’s objections, Thomas Woodward set every slave free.

There’s a star in the constellation Ursa Minor called Polaris – also known as the lodestar or north star – which remains in a fixed position throughout the night. For centuries it has given travellers the means by which to navigate in the darkness.

John Woolman had found his north star. In days when people openly traded in humans, it gave him courage and conviction when it was only too easy to compromise or be passively complicit.

Actions like Woolman’s that are kind and bold and good – and have the power to reverse vicious circles – are vital in these fragile, volatile days. 

They’re evident in the open-hearted responses of the people of Manchester and London who opened their homes to those affected by the recent attacks, drove them home, worked round the clock to give medical care. In the actions of those who took the time to lift a girl in a wheelchair to safety as people fled from the Manchester Arena, and in the man who pledged to return to the restaurant he was eating in on the night of the London Bridge attack to pay his bill and tip those who served him. Under fire they knew what they held dear.

But, away from the headlines, we make a thousand tiny decisions each day that mould and define the world we live in. How do we find and stay true to our north star in the face of fear and fragmentation?

Here are five ideas that come to mind:

1. Lift your head up. You can’t see the way with your head down. Leave your phone behind and go somewhere you can see for a long way. Intersperse noise and busyness and 24/7 media consumption with the ancient rhythms of rest, reflection, and refuge in the world’s wildness to reclaim a sense of perspective.

2. Actively seek what’s true. Hunt it out in the midst of all that is distracting, shifting, immediately appealing or absorbing. When you find it, let it shape your choices, words, and actions. 

3. Be willing to go against the flow, against the grain. Ask questions. Don’t operate on autopilot. We need intentionally to check our reference points against the constancy of our north star to make sure we’re not being blown off course by the influences around us. 

4. Defuse. Woolman chose not to shame his hosts but to convict them. In Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, Jewish prisoners were forced to work in arms factories manufacturing bombs to be used against the Allies. Elmer Bendiner, the navigator of a B-17 bomber, tells the story of his bewildered gratitude at emerging unharmed from an attack by German anti-aircraft guns in which shells pierced his plane’s gas tanks but failed to explode. When the shells were sent for defusing they were found to have no charge. Eleven were empty; one contained a carefully-rolled piece of paper with a message in Czech that read, ‘This is all we can do for you now.’

5. Break out of your bubble by joining in and reaching out. Find places and events that you wouldn’t normally go to, where people are different from you. Support what other people are doing, like The Great Get-Together on 16-18 June inspired by Jo Cox’s belief that ‘We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.’ Lend your presence and your support. Build bridges not walls.

Darkness is disorientating but light is always more powerful. Martin Luther King said ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’. Let’s keep our eyes fixed on it. 

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Why your creativity counts

On a spur-of-the-moment day trip to Barcelona, my family and I arrived at the gates of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia only 15 minutes before closing time. Five tickets for such a fleeting visit seemed too extravagant to every adult, budget-juggling fibre in us, but we silenced the sensibleness and paid to enter.

It was the right decision. 

What we found was not the cold stone splendour of a Norman cathedral, but a vast white space full of light and soaring height. It’s a place of illumination and intimate grandeur, and a purity that left my heart raw as if it had been scraped and scoured very tenderly clean.

Ninety years after his death, Gaudi’s masterpiece is still under construction. The act of creation he set in motion is still alive and unfurling.

It has the power to leave visitors changed as they walk back out into the Spanish heat, tacitly challenged to live with a little more boldness and wonder.

Humans are by nature creative. Children are prolific creators, as any parent trying to manage piles of loo roll models and paintings and pasta collages will testify.

But adulthood can often signal the waning of our creativity. Untended, it dwindles as we focus on earning a living, building a CV, paying the bills. We become too pressured and distracted to carve out space, too neglectful of the latent spark in us to strike it and see what might happen. 

Instead, consumption trumps creativity. 

A small number of people are paid millions to make art, design clothes, sing to packed stadiums, cook Michelin-starred food, and then license their products so we can catch their cleverness and keep it in our cupboards. We become passive consumers rather than the conceivers and creators and connectors that I believe we’re meant to be.

But to create – whatever that might look like – is to take part in an act of profound resistance.

Like Gaudi’s masterpiece, it lets the light in.

Here are three stories that illustrate why we need, now more than ever, to silence our inner critic and launch out on some creative adventures.

Claire

For the last six months I’ve been working with a charity called Community Albums, whose team of award-winning professional musicians help people who have known little but discrimination and exclusion to find and use their voices. A couple of years ago they worked with Claire. Struggling with anorexia and personality disorder, she initially found it difficult even to make eye contact.

With skill and kindness, the team helped her to find the words and music she needed to express herself, and she went on to write and perform a song called ‘I Am Claire’, which ends with the lines: ‘I am stronger than I think I am. I am more than my illness. Anorexia, you will not define me. I am Claire.’ Her act of courageous creativity has since won her a wide audience and she now blogs regularly for the Huffington Post, using her newfound voice to help bridge the gulfs that so often open up around people dealing with poor mental health. 

Jane

My friend Jane has a demanding job in child protection, and her work takes her between the UK and India. Together with another friend, Rosie, we meet every few months to share projects and pieces we’ve been working on – written, painted or even sometimes cooked.

A little while ago, Jane read a poem she’d written, telling us as she started that it really wasn’t much good. As she read, time slowed and when she came to the last line we asked her immediately to read it again. Jane’s work means that she knows how broken 'broken' can be. But in a Delhi shelter that is home to children already far too well acquainted with grief and pain, she noticed and captured a force at work that was more muscular and more gentle than anything else she saw there:

 

Boys Shelter in Delhi

There is light in this place

Immutable in dim surrounds

It illuminates the faces of the boys 

And floods the space with gentleness

Dark walls cannot keep it out

It slides under the doors 

And pours through the ancient locks 

Expanding to the corners of every story

Of each priceless life

 

– Jane Travis 

 

Abel

Abel Meeropol was a Jewish schoolteacher in New York in the 1930s. After seeing a photograph of the lynchings of two black men he wrote a poem called ‘Strange Fruit’ in which he described the ‘Pastoral scene of the gallant South, / The bulging eyes and twisted mouth’ of humans hanging like strange, bitter fruit in American trees.

He showed his poem to jazz singer Billie Holiday and they worked together to set it to music. Once heard, Holiday’s song is not forgotten, haunting its listeners long after the silence sets in. Meeropol’s act of creation sparked into life a work voted the song of the twentieth century, which gave voice to a depth of despair, disgust, resilience and protest that shames the perpetrators of the violence it describes more devastatingly than a judge’s report ever could. 

But without the schoolteacher’s poem, the jazz singer’s song would not exist.

Our creations have value in their own right, but they don’t exist in isolation. They are part of something bigger, and the life in them can set off chain reactions that disappear off in directions we may never know. In Lucy Winkett’s book ‘Our Sound is our Wound’ (Continuum Books, 2010) she writes,

There will be times when we are asked to rest, be silent, to allow another voice to be heard. But if we don’t sing or play the part we have uniquely been given, someone else will miss their cue.’

Practising creativity helps us to question, imagine, and grow, and makes space for what is not yet but could soon be.

In days like these we can be silent and passive. Or we can choose to act, to create, to trigger who knows what or who – and let the light come streaming in.

 

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The human cost of fast fashion

My mum once knitted me a scarf as a present, and sewed on to it buttons from the clothes of my childhood. Just a glimpse of the red metal button from one corduroy pinafore (mm-hmm) brought back the taste of fishfingers and ketchup and the Diff’rent Strokes theme tune.

A few years after my pinafore period I started wearing a cardigan that my mum had made for herself when I was very little. It was soft and a rusty shade of fox. I wore it constantly as a sixth former until it was mysteriously ‘lost’ during a washing cycle. I have never forgotten it. It may have looked less than delicious to others but to me it communicated comfort, and a sense of being held. 

More recently a black sweater with a tiny criss-cross patterning in the weave won a place in my affections. I liked the shape and simplicity of it and wore it until it started to fall apart at the seams so I stitched it up (a sign of true affection as, due to an early scarring experience with a needlework teacher, this is not something I often do). After spilling a splash of bleach on it I had to colour the marks with a black sharpie whenever I wore it. Eventually we reached the point in our relationship when I knew we needed to say goodbye, but it took me a long time to act on that knowledge. 

Some clothes find a way into your heart – because of how perfectly they fit, or feel on your skin, or because of good things that have happened when you wore them. 

But the fashion industry that produces them needs us to see clothes differently, or the trajectory of its profits will start to slacken. It requires us to be consumers rather than friends of our clothes: to eat, digest and excrete vast quantities of clothes to keep its momentum going.

In order to make this possible, a high proportion of clothes are sold at relatively low cost to the consumer, so many people don’t need to think twice before making a new purchase. When I was a student, I paid £45 for a new pair of Levis. Today I can buy a pair of jeans for £10, and be pretty sure that:

- when I’ve had enough of them I can throw them out and buy another pair for the cost of a single cinema ticket

- the person who made them will be paid less than 40p for their work, maybe much less

- because the supply chain is global, I won’t need to see that person and confront the reality of how they live

As well as skimping on wages paid to workers, some clothing companies choose to use only a narrow range of cheap dyes to allow production of high-turnover fashion at bargain prices. But surely skimping on colour is like putting on an exhibition of beautiful pieces of art and then switching off the lights to keep electricity costs down? 

Clothes are meant to be fun, to be useful, beautiful, and interesting. Mid-century dramas are alive with the zing of the dresses of the 1950s and 60s, their prints and patterns, the scarves and sunglasses and lipstick. But when I go into some high street shops I see cheap clothes made hastily with poor quality fabric and dingy colours that run out of the washing machine into the drains by the third wash.

We are missing the point.

But, sadly, it’s not quite as innocent as that. We’re not just missing out; we’re involved in something much darker in our lunch hour, as we pop into the nearest shop for a quick fashion fix.

I read a book about slavery a little while ago, and the depths of the cruelty detailed in it still haunt me. What became clear through its pages was that, but for a few dissenters, an entire society contentedly fed its children on the proceeds of torture. Generations of British people who in many other ways lived useful and kind lives had explicit or implicit involvement in perhaps the most horrifying system humanity has ever devised. Most of them turned their gaze from the true source of their wealth so they could freely enjoy its benefits – even, in the case of one elegant walking party, speeding up as they strolled past a slave ship on the seafront, to avoid the stench of death it belched and find more bearable air. 

Thinking about that blinkered generation made me wonder what we might be busy turning a blind eye to now. Is there anything that our children and their children will look back on in disbelief and ask, ‘How could you silently sanction that?’

The more I learn about it, the more it seems that one of our most significant blind spots may be the way we buy our clothes.

Most of us are aware that many of the people who make our clothes in Bangladesh and Vietnam and other far-off places get a raw deal. We don’t like it, but judging which brands are more trustworthy than others can be complicated, and life is busy, and we need clothes to wear, and so we end up perpetuating a system that condemns living, breathing, crying, laughing, dreaming, feeling people to death: either a non-life of deadening poverty and appalling conditions, or swift extinction in a factory fire or collapse. 1,134 people were killed in one day alone when the Rana Plaza complex collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but they were garment workers rather than western tourists, so it doesn’t seem to live in our collective consciousness like other, more famous tragedies do.

There are a number of reasons why working out what to do about our clothes shopping habits is less than straightforward. Here are four:

  1. Paying a higher price for your clothes does not guarantee that they’ve been made more fairly. It’s safe to assume that the making of a very cheap piece of clothing has involved exploitation at some point because maths is maths is maths. On average, four per cent of the price of an item goes to pay people in the country of manufacture, and 96 per cent to people in the country of sale. But a higher price tag certainly doesn’t mean a fairer wage for makers. Hermes and Chanel, for example, rank at the very bottom of the Fashion Transparency Index.
  2. Digging deeper to see which brands we can trust seems to reveal prime alternative facts territory. Fashion supply chains are long and very complex. Many brands don’t know exactly where or how their clothes are made; others do and choose to avert a profit-focused eye. H&M, for example, has won accolades for its efforts to institute a living wage for garment workers, but it's also the same company that runs supplying factories in Myanmar in which 14 year-old girls work 15-hour days. A Clean Clothes Campaign report found that over half of H&M’s strategic suppliers still lack adequate fire exits. The industry is opaque, and knowing who to trust is a challenge.
  3. Some wonder whether boycotting brands that allow exploitation of their workforces will hit the poor hardest: ‘If I stop buying these clothes will the people who make them be left with even less to live on?’ But surely propping up an unfair system because you worry about the fragility of the alternative will not give that fairer alternative the opportunity it needs to prove itself.
  4. Our phones flash with another notification and our attention moves on, and grappling with complexity gets dropped in favour of the next quick digital hit.

I grew up in Birmingham on Bournville land, developed by the Cadbury family to provide a healthy environment for the workers at their chocolate factory. The verges are wide, the houses built with thought and care, and the minimum number of fruit-trees in the gardens once stipulated by by-law. The old Cadbury kindness has seeped into the soil and I grew up knowing that business could be enlightened and successful, and intentionally and proactively good.

Fortunately, people with creativity, imagination and determination are still working to tackle exploitation and injustice. If we in turn seek out what they’re doing and vote with our bank cards, we can demonstrate to fashion industry decision-makers that respect for human life and dignity can turn a good profit. 

One of these people happens to live in the street next to mine. My neighbour Maria is a garment industry professional who runs a charitable organisation which helps people living in difficult situations to develop their dressmaking skills and generate an income.

In response to an invitation from a contact working with disadvantaged women in Mozambique, she has designed a dress and business model that is innovative and inspired. 

Photo: Laura Simmons. Models: Ruth Miller and Hannah Omar

Photo: Laura Simmons. Models: Ruth Miller and Hannah Omar

Into the very design of the dress are worked principles created to benefit the wearer, the maker, the seller and the environment. The same dress is designed to fit anyone, from size 6 to 26, and is made without zips, buttons or additional parts that may be harder to source in some parts of the world. It can be made on a manual sewing machine, if electricity is unreliable or simply not available.

  • The wearer gets to own a beautiful dress that has been made well and fairly, with 30 per cent of the price tag going to the maker.
  • The maker saves money on a pattern designed to minimise waste that does not require anything other than fabric and thread for its production.
  • The seller can be confident that any dress they order will fit any prospective customer. There is no longer a need to order a range of different sizes, or worry about stock that won’t shift.
  • The environment is protected as air miles, fabric waste, and turnover are reduced.

Fittingly, the dress is being launched on Fashion Revolution Day, 24th April, and will be on sale at Indigo, Oxford. 

While the current focus may be local, however, the vision stretches far. 

The plan is to use sales of dresses in Oxford to finance its extension internationally. The patented dress template and accompanying instructions can be used for a £1 license fee per year, making the product a tried, tested and inexpensive way for a dressmaker anywhere in the world to be paid fairly for a high quality, lasting product.

After all, it’s only fitting that a dress should be fun and beautiful, and something that increases rather than reduces the sum total of joy in this world.

 

****************************************************************************

 

Find out more about Maria’s Dorcas dress here.

On Monday 24th April, you are warmly invited to come and find out #WhoMadeYourClothes and meet Maria, Bahar and others involved in the project at the dress launch, from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. at Indigo, 62 Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1JB.

Dresses will also be available from 24th April at Live Lagom, 6 Gabriel’s Wharf, Upper Ground, South Bank, London, SE1 9PP. 

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Sunday morning song

 

Like most of the people on the planet, my eyes and thoughts have been focused on events in Washington over the last few days, and I’ve found it hard to look away. 

To be frank, I’ve found the bombast and bluster and breathtaking dishonesty stifling.

But seeing banners unfurl with the call to #buildbridgesnotwalls has been like breathing again. 

Sharing stories is one of the best ways of building bridges I know. As I’ve written before, stories can stop us from feeling alone, remind us that we’re part of something bigger, give us a sense of our shared humanity. They can forge connection, expand horizons, deepen empathy and dissolve division.

So, in that spirit, I want to tell a very short story of something I watched unfold at my church on a Sunday morning a few months ago. 

It’s a story from the shadows, short and bitter and sweet.

A man I'll call Pete came into our church a little while ago. I didn’t notice him until I heard shouting and looked up to see him – behind the glass doors of the entrance hall – raising angry arms and voice to a member of the welcome team.

He was incoherent and distressed. Slowly but deliberately a number of men rose from their seats and walked over as one to give support.

My husband was one of them. Through the glass, I watched his open, generous body language as he calmed Pete and reassured him, shook his hand and made him coffee. I saw Pete pointing upwards and staggering backwards, and heard him shout again. But he quietened; the group of men stood and talked, and peace returned.

At the end of the service I went to find my husband, who had stayed out in the entrance hall. Pete was drunk; few of his words made any sense, and the stench of urine was strong and stale and sour. He shook my husband’s hand, and went falteringly out of the church, helped by a friend who had come for him.

My husband told me that he is an ex-soldier who has been battling drink and wants to stop, but has so far been unable. He told me that they talked about the drink and the army and the pain and all the while he kept repeating the same sentence:

“There’s only one man I love.”

And each time, he pointed upwards.

Pete is a man of sorrows. He’s despised and rejected by many who pass him by on the city streets. He is well acquainted with grief.

He’s also a man in love.

The ground is holy. I take off my shoes.

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The camping trip that changed America

Photo by Martin Jernberg on Unsplash

Photo by Martin Jernberg on Unsplash

Words carry.

When words ring true they can travel far. 

There was once a man who loved the mountains, and the words he chose to articulate this won him the friendship of a President and the gratitude of a nation. 

In 1849, 11-year-old John Muir moved from Scotland to the US with his mother, six siblings and a fierce, firebrand father. As a young boy he had explored the coast and countryside of East Lothian, and he loved the wildness of his new American home. He walked its wildernesses with a book of Robert Burns’s poems in his pocket.  

He enrolled at university, where he studied aspects of chemistry, geology and botany but never graduated. His career was fitful, taking him from sawmill to factory to shepherd’s hut.

Leaving a promising position as a supervisor, he took a thousand mile walk from Kentucky to Florida. He later sailed to California, where he walked from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada. On his first visit to Yosemite, he wrote of being ‘overwhelmed by the landscape, scrambling down steep cliff faces to get a closer look at the waterfalls, whooping and howling at the vistas’.

Drawing on his eclectic studies, he developed the then outlandish-sounding theory that the valley had been carved by glaciers. His approach was scientific and his connection profoundly spiritual: he believed that the nature he loved was lit by the glory of God. 

Although he wrestled with the process, taking time to draft and re-draft, revise and whittle away at his words, he wrote prodigiously: poetry, letters, accounts of his discoveries, and articles for national magazines. Writing was a heavy task for him, one he felt could scarcely begin to capture the wonder of the world that intoxicated his senses. 

But it was a world under increasing threat from those who saw only profit in it, and so he wrote on. As the volume of his words grew, visitors came to see him – including his hero Ralph Waldo Emerson, who offered him a teaching position at Harvard. Muir decided to decline, declaring that he would never for a moment think of ‘giving up God’s big show for a mere profship.’

His words eventually reached the White House, and the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. The President came to meet the poet in the mountains, and the two men went to camp in the back-country, sleeping under the stars and waking to a dusting of snow. Roosevelt never forgot it, recalling the experience as ‘like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.’

During the trip, Muir spoke of the state’s mismanagement of the valley and its consequent degradation, and urged Roosevelt to protect it with national park status. 

The President listened, and then oversaw the most significant expansion of national park land across the United States, protecting swathes of wilderness for posterity. What might have been ripped apart by saws and shredders and excavators was instead set aside for exploration and adventure and peace. 

Muir never became a professor or politician or professional administrator. But he wrote about what he loved – and it changed the world around him. 

Our voices matter. Our words can carry. 

Dig your words deep out of the fibre of your being. Write them, whisper them, speak them, shout them. You never know who might be listening.

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Everyone was a bird

This is a guest post from 17 year-old writer and novice theatre critic Phoebe Mitchell (who also just happens to be my daughter).

 

I recently went to see ‘Furious Folly’, a dramatic piece influenced by the Dadaist movement of the early 20th century. It was performed outdoors, in the cooling twilight as day turned to night – an evening of unexpected horror, discomfort, and uncertainty. I was utterly absorbed.

On arrival we were ushered through gates for a short walk amongst the Oxford spires. The walk was dreamy and otherworldly.

The tranquil setting was soon forgotten.

As we entered the setting of the drama – a sports field – each member of the audience was handed a green or brown toy soldier by a figure clad in dark overalls, their face obscured by a hood. Each soldier had been mangled and maimed, leaving each figure twisted, incomplete, contorted.

People given green soldiers were directed to the left; those given brown to the right. Our party was divided and a sense of foreboding took root in us all, an inexplicable apprehension. 

Loudspeakers spewed jazz music with crackles, warnings without conviction, words without soul or meaning. The audience waited, hushed and silent, as if afraid to speak – afraid to draw attention to themselves.

The figures in dark overalls lined the barriers, reticent and mute, speaking brusquely only when addressed. After some time they released the rope and the audience were guided into what had initially seemed to be the scene for the drama. 

The audience had become the participants: we were no longer safe, but vulnerable and exposed. The fourth wall of drama was destroyed and our ability simply to observe the action was eliminated, stripped from us. We were facing those with the brown toy soldiers; people who, five minutes ago, had been friends, family, neighbours now became other.

Between us was a strip of land with four watchtowers at the corners. A woman clothed in grimy white endlessly circled a tree, whispering, “never again, never again, never again”. She was broken; her back strained forwards; her face was grey and anonymous. A man with a gun marched up and down, arbitrarily taking aim at people on both sides.

The sound of a trumpet was interrupted by the jarring crack of gunshot. The fence separating us from the enemy opened and we streamed in to meet in the centre of no man’s land. 

The unspoken hostility that had permeated the sports pitch was gone – its existence and subsequent dissipation were both unexpected.

As we stood there, gunshots fired incessantly; fireworks shot off – no longer a symbol of celebration but of war. Actors mounted the four watchtowers and screamed. Their howls assaulted me. Their words were isolated, disjointed, spoken without the comfort of grammar and sentences. 

Their cries hollowed me out.

All the while, mechanical birds whirred and sang in cages which were hanging in the trees. Their voices, at first comforting, became hideous, shrill.

The performance left me changed. Through the muddle of broken sound and meaning, the actors were able to convey the sheer and utter horror of war. The production captured the absurdity of conflict and battle, and related to the audience the beauty, permanence and crucial importance of remembering our common humanity. 

As Sassoon wrote, we are all birds, the song we sing is wordless, and the singing will never be done.

Forgetting our connection to each other can come at a terrible cost.

 

Everyone Sang – Siegfried Sassoon

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

 

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away… O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

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