Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas Clichés

Some people seem to think Christmas is for children - I'm realising that now I have one. It comes across in the comments people make, the excitement they project onto our first Christmas with a baby.

I understand it to a degree. Christmas, as it's been envisaged in recent times, is primarily child-centric. The Santa Claus and presents are best if you're little. Children bypass the cooking, the shopping, the family politics and everything else that can make the season difficult for adults. It's uncomplicated and magical. A fantasy.

But I don't celebrate that Christmas. The Christmas I celebrate is very much for adults. For grown-ups who stand at the edge of the transition into another year and wonder what on earth is ahead and how we will manage it. For the ones who are aware of the world we live in, the realities of shadow and fear, but resolve to live lives of love with calm, glad hearts anyway.

I celebrate Emmanuel, God with us. The great rescue mission to realign humanity with our best selves, to make us whole in all things and proclaim us loved for better or worse. And I celebrate the second advent, the one we don't talk about much. The Jesus who isn't meek and mild, a helpless babe. The Jesus who is Judge and King, Ancient of Days, returning victor, righting everything eternally.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders. 
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, 
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.

Isaiah 9v6-7

We live in the in-between. The Christmas story is not over yet, and we are not forgotten. It's a hope that is so easy to overlook. But for those of us who see it, our celebration is year-long and better with every passing day.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Body Talk

We have mirrored cabinets in our bathroom. Their height on the wall perfectly positions them to give me a truncated shot of my torso as I step out over the side of the bath. This makes me sad.

I'm not going to lie - I miss my old body. I wish I didn't. I wish I wasn't that superficial and I don't say it out loud very often, and I don't let myself get sucked into all the post-pregnancy body fanaticism that's out there (and believe me, it's out there). I dress well and I'm thankful I can walk / sit / stand / lie-down in comfort again - for a while I wondered whether that was ever coming back. I'm grateful.

I tell myself it's temporary, even though I know some things will never go away. I tell myself it's a small price to pay, and I know that's true. And I count my blessings and pray for people with actual physical challenges, not cosmetic disappointments. But when I'm forced to be honest with myself, when the mirror reminds me of what I currently look like, I do still feel a little twinge. A little bit of self-pity for the sacrifices I have made.

The other day I was listening to some music in the bathroom. Truthfully, I was hiding out for a bit. Under the pretence of cleaning the bathroom and myself, I was going slow, snatching five minutes to refocus and pretending that I couldn't hear the wailing and the attempted soothing going on in the next room. I was listening to some music and the mirror thing happened and the little sad sense of loss came over me. And then I heard these lyrics:

"How wonderful
How glorious
My Saviour's scars

Jesus kept his scars. He is so proud of us and what we cost Him that in His brand new resurrected body - the ultimate upgrade - He kept the scars from the cross. I find that so hard to identify with. I'm so saturated in our culture of external "perfection" and appearances - I really struggle to work out the rationale behind that choice. But I think it maybe has something to do with value. 

My body talks. It tells a story now. If my body was a vintage coat the anecdotes in these imperfections would raise its value. My body has done something wonderful and come out the worse for it. But some scars are valuable reminders. Reminders of where we have been, what we have done, what we have conquered. And of our fragile, finite humanity and the gift we can give of ourselves to others while our time here lasts.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The [Not] To-Do List

I'm normally a big advocate of lists, but right now I'm glorying in the fact that some things are not for today. Profitable things, things that arguably 'should' get done - like dishes, showering, replying to that text. It's always tempting to try and squeeze just one more thing in. But here's the thing I'm realising more forcefully everyday:

How I do things is so much more important than whether or not they get done.

"Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 
so that you may become blameless and pure, 
'children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation'. 
Then you will shine... like stars in the sky..." 
Philippians 2v14-15

If I can't meet that standard, if what I'm about to do is actively going to undermine my attitude and joie de vivre, it's really not worth attempting. There is no point taking on that extra chore or that little unasked for act of kindness if it tips me over the edge. As productive and near perfect as achieving that extra goal might make me seem, it's entirely worthless if the upshot of expending that energy is a sense of depletion and resentment for all the little things that have chipped away at my resources.

There is enough for today. My daily bread has been given to me. When that stops feeling true, that's when I know I need to refocus. That's when I know I need to stop running around trying to 'do' and spend a little time just being. Being comfortable in my own skin. Being at rest with the God who daily carries our burdens and who, with characteristically dark humour, assures us it's pointless taking on more than a day's worth of trouble. Being at play in this great adventure of life that is interesting and challenging and anything but mundane. Being at peace with the chaos, the disordered and the unresolved.

Because tomorrow is another day - a chance to tackle anew all the stuff that crowds in and needs attention.

Tomorrow is another day. And most things really can wait.

Monday, 21 November 2016

On Being Faithful

This video of a little girl attempting multiple times to mount her pony was on my Facebook feed - I watched it and barely gave it a second thought. But today I went looking for it; I dredged it up from the recesses of the internet. Today it means something to me.

I am holding on to the reminder to persevere - to work for the moments of triumph that belong to the people who don't give up. To be faithful. 

This time last year, I whispered a couple of things. In the quiet places of my heart and mind, I dared to say what I truly hoped for - to write more; to be a mother; to be done with being a lawyer. No more Christmas seasons spent working late. No more time-sheets and frantic clients, no more fighting to keep my peace in the snowballing stress of year-end deals.

This year, those things have happened. But I've realised something: we don't arrive. 

It took all my faith and perseverance to live through those things - sticking it out and making difficult things profitable; moving on and taking risks to shape a life more aligned to my values; surrendering in hope to things outside of my control and accepting with gratitude the huge gifts of God's generosity and dreams come true.

I got on the pony. But now for the ride. 

Now I'm realising it will take all my faith and perseverance to create an environment of love and joy and security for innocence to flourish in our bitter, broken world. It takes all my faith and perseverance to relate well to those around me and stay balanced when I'm deprived of sleep, of space and freedom. I need faith and perseverance to keep on writing when I have no time to think and my brain is scrambled and my words don't flow; to push for my creative work to be taken seriously when the rejections keep coming, the bills are real and it's not just me this impacts.

It's easy to be faithful to a dream before it becomes a reality. While it's just an idea in our heads and hearts, it's easy to imagine how much we'd give for it, how committed we'd be if it ever materialised. 

It's harder to begin - to actually start to do something about bringing that dream to life. And it's even harder to continue, day in day out - to resuscitate the vision when it gets waylaid over time; to breathe new commitment into it and celebrate the repetitive drudgery that is an inevitable part of a dream becoming real. It's hard. And therein lies the glory. 

Because to be faithful to the unfinished is an achievement in itself.

"Therefore we do not lose heart. 
Though outwardly we are wasting away, 
inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 
For our light and momentary [struggles] are achieving for us an eternal glory 
that far outweighs them all. 
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen. 
For what is seen is temporary, 
but what is unseen is eternal."

2 Corinthians 4v16-17

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Exhibitions and Expectations

I read "A Life in Full Bloom" - Porter magazine's feature on Georgia O'Keeffe - in the final days of pregnancy, feeling directionless and fraught with contradictions. I'd met new people the day before and been struck by how difficult I'd found it to introduce myself - even more so than usual. I felt so between worlds.

I read about Georgia O'Keeffe, who captured my attention in art class aged sixteen with her wild vibrancy, singular vision and unapologetic sense of self. I read about her express intention to "live a life different from the rest of you" - a seemingly overstated boast in the years she spent as an ordinary art teacher, but vindicated by the eventual trajectory of her experiences.

I read it, and felt encouraged, and vowed that - no matter how impractical or improbable - I would make it to the exhibition of her art at the Tate Modern before its finishing date at the end of October. I would not miss this rare opportunity. I would make a pilgrimage in celebration of someone else's authenticity and genius and, in doing so, keep something of my core self alive in all the transitions.

Now, on the other side, I can safely say this is not going to happen. Not because it's impractical or improbable for us at this stage - although it is. It's not going to happen because it's not a priority.

People say everything changes when you have a baby, but what I didn't appreciate and am only now coming to terms with is the fact that I changed. I have changed. Instantly, unexpectedly, overnight. The way my mind works, the things that come first, the ways I react to the world around me - even the way I dress and move in this poor battered body of mine. 

I still recognise my need to hold onto the person I was - that's why I write these things, come rain or shine, tears or elation. While I can. But it turns out I'm a mother now - whatever that ends up looking like and meaning for me. And that really is life-changing 

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

On Care-taking

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So, I've had a baby. A handful of days ago.

Those sentences are gradually becoming less surreal. Birth is brutal and labour is kind to no-one. Or if it is, I wasn't the exception. Small babies really do just sleep and eat, cry and excrete - all the time, even the calm-natured ones. Everything changes. Nothing changes. All of that is by-the-by. The thing that has really thrown me about this new phase is that I don't know how to pray.

I'm realising that, for pretty much my entire life, so much of my spiritual nourishment has relied on having uninterrupted time to reflect.  Making a herbal tea, sitting down to the listen-talk-listen of out-loud prayer. Reading through bible passages, scrawling in notebooks, ruminating. Prayer functions on lots of levels, but primarily - for me - it's about relationship. It's the place where I get to know God and consequently understand myself more clearly. I've thrived on being able to rummage around in my interior at a leisurely pace, learning and rediscovering and being put right.

I don't know how to do that when my mind is too pre-occupied with someone else to listen to the God who whispers. I don't know how to pray when my thoughts continually wander back to the baby I've tentatively set down to sleep. When I'm listening closely to each squeal, just in case it's the one that signals discomfort or tells me the hiatus is up and it's feeding time again.

But I've realised that maybe this experience can be a different route to knowing something of God. The One described as Heavenly Father and more faithful than a nursing mother. The One whose ears are attentive to our cries and who says "before you call, I will answer".

I will find way to pray in this stage of my life. It's completely unsustainable for me not to. But in the meantime, I'm grateful that I'm still cared for by my Creator in a relationship that transcends words.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

"Porter Asks - Are Heels a Feminist Issue?"

(An Essay Response)

No, is the resounding answer to that question given by Vassi Chamberlain in Issue 16 of Porter Magazine. Chamberlain argues that categorising the question of heel-wearing as a feminist concern exaggerates its importance and conflates the driving forces behind the shoe-wearing habits of women.

I agree - I don't think it's a feminist issue. But, in the context that this particular spat arose, I do think it's an issue. I think it's a diversity issue: a blinkered statement that there is only one way to embody a particular status or aspiration.

I'm not in favour of the total abolition of enforced dress codes. Rules and codes; norms and social definitions - they all have their place in creating coherence and a sense of belonging; it was one of things that fascinated me the most during my jurisprudence studies at Oxford. And by profession, I'm a lawyer (albeit not in practice anymore) - so disdain for the regulation of behaviour is not in my DNA. But sometimes these things overstep the mark. Or more accurately, they define the mark so narrowly that they leave people on the outside looking in and questioning their place, when it should be obvious to the world that something so trivial or irrelevant should not be grounds for exclusion.

Mostly, these exclusions are not deliberate. Mostly, it's just a default assumption in subtle operation. Sometimes, it's framed within a policy. Sometimes, it's just "the way things are".

Like when I write an article and can barely find any stock photos that don't have white people's arms, hands or feet doing whatever activity it is that I want to illustrate. Or when I said to a particular school teacher that I want to go to a particular college and was told not to bother because "it's full of Etonians" i.e. I wouldn't fit in. Or if I am implicitly told by a dress code that professionalism requires heels, even though my height makes them redundant and wearing them would actually undermine my ability to present myself confidently to others.

Let's face it: we all know that whether heels constitute an instrument of oppression is not the most important issue in the world. I am currently in the drawn out yet still relatively painful stages of early labour as I write this, which lends a heightened sense of perspective (read: indifference) to my attitude to all this. I thought the furore around the PwC dress code debacle was over; I didn't think we were still talking about it. Maybe the fact that I am is just evidence of how badly I want any kind of distraction right now.

But maybe distraction is part of the problem with this whole discussion - the fact that it's so easy to preoccupy ourselves with dissecting the narrowest interpretations of complicated issues, rather than face up to the wider whole: the broader inequalities that have real and lasting impact, but no easy answers. Things likes ingrained and unhelpful stereotypes, unconscious bias and institutionalised race/sex/age-isms; escalating on through to denials of a voice and social representation, of legal rights and even acts of intimidation and violence.

I love the concluding lines at the end of Chamberlain's article: "... let's stop pretending this is a feminist issue, let's stop being so judgmental and get on with the business of enjoying ourselves, and feeling comfortable..." But to that I would add "and let's make it possible for others to do the same".

I'm addressing those of us who hold some sway over the definition of what's acceptable in our spheres of influence - whether that's drafting the dress code of a corporation, influencing the aspirations of school children; or curating the range of photos available for adverts and editorials. Whether that's just choosing the words we use to talk about what is or isn't a normal and valued way of being in the world. So I guess I'm addressing all of us - including and especially myself.

Let's all leave a little more room for the people who don't fit within our assumptions, but still deserve a place in the conversation.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

This is 4:00 AM

This is what 4:00 AM can look like.

When you can't sleep and it's impossible to be comfortable and the walls are closing in and it's not socially appropriate to call anyone or wake anyone - there is no emergency here. You may be restless, but nothing is wrong. So stop fretting and self-pitying and raging against the peaceful sleeper next to you. Just stop. Do something else with that energy. It might be 4:00 AM, but so what?

Rediscover how therapeutic it is to sit down and play the piano (with headphones!) - to let a random bunch of notes fall under your fingers and sound so pretty that you contemplate writing them down (but you don't because, let's face it, it's 4:00 AM and you haven't composed anything since you were seventeen).

Rediscover that you can shape your experiences, and just because everyone else says / does / expects / thinks doesn't mean you can't have it be another way. Just because everyone else says 4:00 AM is for sleeping, and you can't, doesn't make this bad. 4:00 AM is for living. So choose life.

"Rejoice in the Lord always. 
I will say it again: rejoice. 
Let your gentleness be evident to all. 
The Lord is near.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation [pray]...

Whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - 
if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - 
think about such things...
And the God of peace will be with you."

Philippians 4v4-8

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Love & Filters

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Love is the ultimate filter.

This is a thought that came to me as something of a epiphany, although I'm not sure it's quite as profound as that suggests. But it's been enough to challenge me - to shake me up a little and make me realise there's so much more to the life I'm called to live than I'm sometimes willing to acknowledge.

It all came from a really basic observation of a routine act, a few weeks ago, in the middle of wedding season. We were waiting for the bride to come into the church - friends reunited, catching up in between those intermittent hushes that happen when someone wrongly senses the arrival is imminent. A friend took a quick picture with her husband on her phone. From the pew behind her, I watched her review it, adjusting it with lightning efficiency - a slight crop, the addition of a particular filter - before uploading it to social media. The whole process took seconds, a few gentle tweaks making it possible to present their best-self to the world.

Listening to the sermon about half an hour later, I realised that's what love does. It shelters us, saving us from having our worst exposed and instead drawing out the good in us - promoting that worthier version of who we are and have the potential to be. Love is aware of all that is unfavourable in us, but  chooses to emphasise the good instead. That's a wonderful thing to experience, to receive.

But it's a costly, demanding thing to give. 

"Love covers over a multitude of sins." It requires a certain tactfulness, a kindly reticence and a giving up of vindication. "Love keeps no record of wrongs." It feels them, but it internalises the cost of those wrongs - it doesn't make the offender pay. "Love believes the best", reaching past irritation and personal perspective to embrace and bear with those little weakness and idiosyncrasies that point to brokenness and imperfection and come from God-only knows where; love tries to understand. 

To be seen through the eyes of love is possibly the most liberating thing we can offer each other. And to see through the eyes of love is an art - the highest, eternal craft. Maybe the hardest thing we can attempt. That's why we celebrate weddings with the fan-fare that we do. But as right as that surely is, as momentous as the choice to get married is, it's only one dimension of the call to love. And, in my experience, probably the easiest. A loving marriage is, in some ways, self-sustaining: assisted by emotion, helped along by reciprocity, mutual self-interest, common giving and receiving; I love and am loved.

Much harder to love in fleeting interactions, or difficult acquaintances, or fringe friendships. It's much harder to try and make the effort to see everyone in their best light, always. Much harder to treat people according to who they can be, not just who they are, to feel your efforts disappear into the ether of a harsh world and not know how or if they will find their way back to you. 

Harder but truer. A little closer to the love God loves us with. A little something of the way of the cross.

It's also hard to see the reality of your small attempts to imitate the heights and depths of real love, and know how far they fall short. 

But that's okay. Because Love sees past that. 

Love is the ultimate filter.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

It's Time...

I just want to mark this moment. 

I've written a few attempts and deleted them all. I don't think it needs lots of words. I just want it to be noted that I recognise this gift of time.

The past. The gift of feeling rooted in memory: driving through London, walking the streets of my hometown - in love with them both for different reasons. The feeling of being full up of everything that has happened until now: the good, the bad, the extraordinary and the mundane - immeasurably enriched by all those experiences, most of which I didn't see coming.

The future. The gift of hopes and expectations - feeling so full of ideas and options and avenues. Things I want to write about, think about, know... Things I want to explore, accumulate, prepare for, release...

The present. The gift of right now. I so rarely recognise it. But I do today. I do. I feel intensely aware of the being and becoming. All that carpe diem stuff that people harp on about until it stops resonating - I suddenly, obsessively feel the impetus of that whole philosophy bearing down on me: I do need to seize the day!

Maybe it's because finishing my last day in the office before maternity leave makes me feel like I'm standing on the edge of unutterable freedom. I've never understood the working week and the joy of leaving it behind for a while literally woke me up in the middle of the nights leading up to this. I am beyond excited.

Maybe it's also because I feel like this baby could come early. Just to catch us out. Just to emphasise how not in control of this whole thing I really am. Even if they don't, there's something of a ticking bomb about these last few weeks of pregnancy. I cannot wrap my mind around this almighty change on the horizon. Surely it shouldn't still be this surreal?!

Or maybe it's because I became militant about making to-do lists to get the house move under control and I haven't quite managed to feel like I can break away from that yet - there's still just so much to do that maximising every minute feels essential, not optional.

On a practical level. But also just in general. In life.

Honestly, sometimes I'm afraid that I'll miss it. I won't be able to catch the wave. I'll run out of time. Or even worse, waste it. 

I've always known that feeling. It's useful. It makes me productive and proactive. And, probably on balance, happy. I love feeling like I've accomplished things - the satisfaction of something done and done well.

But I don't want to be driven. I want to be led.

"I trust in you, LORD. 
I say, 'You are my God. My times are in your hands...'"
Psalm 31v14-15

So I'm acknowledging this moment and reminding myself that I don't have to rush. I'm not racing anyone. And things will happen when they happen. And I will do what I do, and be what I'll be, being confident that the same God who began all these good works in me will carry them on to completion.

And "all shall be well. All shall be well. 
All manner of things shall be well".
(Julian of Norwich) 

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Marmite of Vivienne Westwood

I can't remember exactly when I bought this authorised biography, but I finished reading it about three months ago - ending up even more confused about the enigma of its subject than before I started.

Vivienne Westwood first filtered to the forefront of my consciousness via a 2012 article about her save the rainforest campaign. Sheltered, I know. Obviously, I had heard of her before then, but I hadn't fully appreciated the weight of her fashion gravitas, her pivotal role in shaping the cultural landscape, her on-going activism. I bookmarked her in my mind as someone to come back to and learn from at a later date. 

So this biography, co-authored by the great lady herself, was always going to be on my reading list. I began it with a deferential, rose-tinted appreciation for her aura. Her age made her an especially appealing icon to read a biography about - I assumed I would be exposed to all kinds of life-lessons: little tidbits of wisdom, neatly packaged within anecdotes and bite-sized observations. What I got was an assault of unapologetic brilliance, lurching around an impossibly vibrant and passionate personal landscape - eccentric, inspiring, maybe even egotistical.

There is something wildly unaccountable and contradictory about Dame Vivienne Westwood: anti-establishment, yet embraced by the British honours system; anti-capitalist eco-warrior, yet founder and face of a lucrative global fashion empire; wife and philosopher; movement-maker and Grandmother. And all with a level of confidence and conviction in the right-ness of her views and causes that is both awe-inspiring and a little... irritating...? Even the way she stares out from the cover is challenging to me. Her gaze seems utterly unflinching - self-contained, slightly confrontational, kind.

I read this book cover to cover and I still don't know quite what Vivienne Westwood stands for.

But this week I've had a revelation. For reasons I won't go into, I've felt a little on the outside of 'how I'm supposed to be' - that I don't quite fit the mould, that I'm not quite the right sort of woman. I, too, feel like a contradiction. And I've realised why, for me, Vivienne Westwood is - in fact - a legend.

Dame Vivienne Westwood comes across as someone who has made an art-form of being entirely herself. It seems like she has explored her interests, her beliefs, her abilities and put them all to work, without reference to anyone else's agenda. She has learnt from others, but she stands for herself: as is. She is the common denominator, tying together those disparate attributes, achievements and ideas. 

Take it or leave it. Like it or lump it.

"The challenge is to be yourself 
in a world that is trying to make you like 
everyone else."

E.E Cummings

Vivienne Westwood appears to have mastered that challenge, intuitively, throughout her long and varied life. There is so much to be said for that.

Monday, 11 July 2016

"You Make Me Brave" (Amanda Cook & Bethel Music)

Part of the Lyrical Lifeline Series

I don't know why I so often find myself writing blog posts when I'm exhausted - it's probably not the smartest move. 

I think it's maybe because I get tired of presenting the polish, weary of buying into the idea that image trumps honesty. It might also be because I like to write about encouraging things, and those tend to be the things I reach for when I'm worn out.

Like this song. 

Lots of Bethel and Amanda Cook songs, actually. But tonight, this song in particular. I didn't put it on - it came drifting down the stairs into the kitchen where I was cooking and its timeliness brought tears to my eyes. I am not feeling brave.

I am six months pregnant. I am supported by the best people in the world and I've had an incredible run of it so far; I appreciate the privilege and am beyond, beyond grateful. That's my disclaimer, because I'm not feeling that right now. Right now I am achy, I am terrified by how much and how fast my normally-static body is changing, and labour is starting to look pretty real. I'm wondering why I ever thought I was selfless enough to take this on and am totally overwhelmed at the thought of how much the new person on the other side of this experience is going to need me. Actually need me. Not just hypothetically want to be around me, but genuinely be dependent on me. The introverted, recovering perfectionist part of me struggles with that. That and the madness of moving house.

So I am teary, and not just because I'm tired and hormonal. I'm teary because this song reminds me that this is not about me. It was never going to be about me. I might not feel strong and selfless, but I am called to a life of faith not feelings. I might not feel capable and competent, but I am called to self-abandonment so that doesn't matter anyway.

"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, 
but Christ lives in me. 
The life I now live in the body, 
I live by faith in the Son of God, 
who loved me and gave himself for me."
(Galatians 2v20)

"Ah, Sovereign LORD
you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. 
Nothing is too hard for you."
(Jeremiah 32v7)
And You make me brave.

'Lyrical Lifelines' - songs that save my world

Monday, 4 July 2016

"The Last Gift" - Abdulrazak Gurnah

There was something timely about reading the majority of this book in the week after the Brexit vote: immigration was at the forefront of my mind – a topic of conversation being explored across various media from all sorts of perspectives, ranging from the nuanced to the unsavoury and frankly frightening.
In the middle of that, this book spoke with particular eloquence.

We can’t talk constructively about these big issues without being open to information and challenge. We need factual sources we can trust. But sometimes it seems that what effective public discourse really requires is the ability to step into someone else’s story. Fiction does that. This book does that.
It’s a story I didn’t particularly love. I feel a bit embarrassed that I’m not raving about it, because the cover boasts such high praise and the (Booker prize-shortlisted) author is clearly celebrated for his proficiency. Who am I to argue otherwise?
I didn’t love it because it took me a long, long time to connect with the narrative – to really get to that point of caring about the characters and their dramas.
I’ve puzzled about why that was the case. I think it maybe had something to do with the third person narrative voice and lack of direct dialogue – not experiencing things first-hand but being told about them, recounted through beautiful but slightly arms-length prose. I wonder whether there was also something inherent in the story itself – there is so much alienation between the characters; they aren’t communicating with each other and maybe, as a reader, you’re supposed to feel that sense of being on the outside of things too.
But since finishing I’m asking a bigger question. I’m wondering whether I didn’t relate to the characters because ultimately their lives are not like mine.
It’s a story about people whose personalities and problems are not the same as mine; whose backgrounds shade their present experience in ways I can’t connect to. Their interpretation of the world is almost entirely “other” to mine – even where, on paper, there should arguably be overlap.
Maybe I didn’t love this book because a part of me just likes to surround myself with stories that reinforce my own.
And that just won’t do.
That kind of narrow-mindedness is at best unhelpful, but at worst dangerous. So I’m glad I persevered with this book. I’m glad I put in the time to get under the skin of someone else’s story. And I’m glad that we have the freedom and artists to help us glimpse different dimensions of the life we all share.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Choices and Crossroads

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The UK referendum on our membership of the European Union is happening today. Right now, in fact. Polling stations will be open for another three hours (and counting...). This is it.

The whole idea took me by surprise - it's a question I never expected to be asked in my lifetime. But in other ways, it feels like it's been a long time coming. The arguments have been opaque and the build up has not been pretty. I don't need to go into that. It's already been commented on ad infinitum by people more informed and/or more vocal than me. 

Even so, the humbling thing about a referendum is that my views count just as much as theirs. And theirs weigh in the balance just as validly as mine. 

I worry that we've forgotten that. My concern is not so much for the outcome - the answer to the actual question posed, although I do have views and I do care. But my main concern is that somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost the art of listening well. 

So much of this "discussion" has been patronising or belittling. We've had an abundance of scaremongering. There's been hate speech and smugly self-righteous proclamations. Too often passion has turned to poison. It's felt so fundamentally divisive. The statement I've most agreed with was a comment from an audience member on the BBC's Question Time who said both sides of the debate should be ashamed of how the campaigns have been handled.

But this is a referendum. It's not just about the politicians and the papers. At the end of the day, we are going to have to live with this decision in our families, workplaces and our communities. We are going to have to live with each other. And we are all responsible for what that ends up looking like. The tone from the top might be less than inspirational, but the point and the beauty of a referendum is that we all contribute. 

We've made our choice, but we also have control over our actions and reactions. Even after the votes have been counted, the way we choose to talk to and treat each other will continue to influence the kind of society we end up being. We all have an ongoing voice. 

I want to be mindful to make mine count for reconciliation and progress, whatever outcome is announced in the morning.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Escape or Shape?

Image created by artandwords on
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I'm thinking about the Picasso quote I picked out for the centre of this image: "Everything you can imagine is real." No offence to the great master, but I don't think it holds true. There are plenty of things I could conjure up in my mind that have no connection to the way things actually are - fears, doubts and paranoia, to name a few. 

But I know what the statement is getting at. I think it's reminding us that we can take responsibility for shaping new realities, imagining them into being. I think it's saying that we should aspire to create a positive difference in the world, or at least our spheres of influence.

Is it just me, or is it really hard to know where to begin? 

There are so many intractable issues in society. There's so much to bemoan and be overwhelmed by, it can feel like the only solution is to escape - to run away and begin again somewhere else. I've felt the tug of that temptation a little in the last few weeks: in Amsterdam and Copenhagen and at a corporate social responsibility conference, feeling like all the enlightened thinking and cultural progress is happening elsewhere and I need to jump ship to become part of it. 

For some people, leaving for alternative places will absolutely be the right choice. I am the granddaughter of migrants. I've also known the freedom of creating a better life for myself and my loved ones by walking away from things that weren't working. Before I personally experienced that world, the whole Escape the City movement made me sad: wouldn't it be better to change the system, rather than ducking out altogether? But having worked there and left, I fully understand why people move on - why the very people who would want to reshape the City are the ones who don't stay to do it from the inside. 

We have to pick our battles. We can't do everything. 

But I want to try and do some things. I want to commit to picking little corners of my life to re-align with the things I think I value but maybe don't act on enough: community, equality, sustainability. And maybe, in that context, it doesn't really matter if our approach is to escape or shape. Maybe the thing that really matters is motivation. Am I daring to believe in the possibility of real change? Am I enacting the better reality I hold in my head? Whether I have to be uprooted for that to happen, or whether I need to bed-down and keep pressing for progress where I am, I want to be a little more engaged in that struggle each day.

It's encouraging to know I'm not the only one thinking these things through. Brin has a series of posts exploring her "Better Every Day" motto that planted the seeds of these thoughts back in March. Those seeds have been watered by a talk I heard a few months ago, and another just last week. It's a trend I want to harness by documenting the little steps I take with a new series of "ethics" posts - picking up where my "in the news" label left off in 2013 when I started being more discrete due to my professional commitments. It feels like it's time to step up and speak out again. I want to see good things grow in increments:

"The path of the righteous 
is like the first gleam of dawn,
shining ever brighter till the full light of day." 
 "The ways of right-living people glow with light,
the longer they live, the brighter they shine."

Proverbs 4:18

I can't fix the whole world's problems. But I can't keep running from them either. For me, that just feels like such a depressing and unsatisfactory way to live. 

And I know we're capable of better.

Friday, 27 May 2016

"Room" - Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay

Photo credit: Screenshot of promotional images on IMDb
IMDb profile here

I wept my way through this film. I actually had to leave the screen room to get more tissues, there being no discreet way to wipe that much snot on a sleeve.

I went to see it at one of my local independent cinemas, by myself in the middle of the day, during the month I spent writing, pottering and looking for a new direction/job. And I loved it.

It still feels like an odd thing to say about a film that explores such dark aspects of human actions, but the reviews called it "life affirming" and I really thought that was true. The tag line, "love knows no boundaries", feels trite to me - it sums up the beauty of the film a little too conveniently, a bit too accurately. The film itself is much more nuanced.

But the marketers are right - it's the exploration of love that makes this film extraordinary. It's the depiction of the love between a mother and son (primarily) that is so stunning: creative, devoted, fallible and ordinary. When I watched this film I had a sneaky suspicion that I was pregnant. And it gave me hope, in the most bizarre way.

There are so many voices that weigh into the discussion about the best way to be a mother. Encouraging voices, knowledgeable voices, critical voices, uninformed voices. I'm not trying to detract from the importance of shared experience: it's good to talk and to know that others have been through similar things; it's healthy to have support and not be isolated or cut off. I do want that.

But above all, I want to be brave. I want to be courageous and kind and unafraid. I want to trust myself and enjoy my family and rely on God. I want to bring every ounce of love and ingenuity I have to this great adventure and not feel the need to check in with everyone else's expectations all the time. And I want to believe in my intuition. 

Because it turns out my little hunch was right. I am pregnant. When I watched this film, I got to glimpse the vast possibilities in being a parent. It made me feel more alive with the wonder of that than any other book or advice column or resource I've come across so far.

I think it might be time to add it to my film collection...

Friday, 20 May 2016

Coffee Cup Encouragement

I've been in my job for almost three months, and had copious amounts of the free hot chocolate from the office vending machine. But today I noticed the cups. Today, right when I needed to see it, the little inspirational statements caught my eye. On another day I would probably find them a bit irritating, a bit too... inspirational. But today they say the perfect things at just the right time:

"Legend has it,
Walt Disney was turned down 302 times before he got financing for Disneyland."

"Thomas Edison:
'If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed.
I am not discouraged,
because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.'"

"Dr. Seuss' first book
'To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street'
was rejected by 27 publishers."

"Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime
to a friend.
Despite that, he kept painting and finished over 800 pieces.
His most expensive painting today is valued at $142.7 million."

I know the internet is full of these uplifting titbits of information - they crop up on my Facebook news feed almost daily. What I really want to celebrate is the timeliness of this particular intervention, stumbling across the oxygen of encouragement in a place I would never look to find it. It's transformed my day.

To me, that epitomises the beauty of life. That's cosmic kindness. That's the very face of God.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

"The Heart Speaks in Whispers" (Corinne Bailey Rae)

Part of the 'Lyrical Lifelines' Series

Website screenshot - Purchasing info here

I've been so excited for the release of this album that I pre-ordered it on iTunes - something I've never felt inclined to do before. 

I clearly remember buying Corrine Bailey Rae's first album, not long after it came out in 2006, which would have made me eighteen at the time. I was on a school trip to see "We Will Rock You" at the Dominion Theatre with my A-level German class and our language exchange partners. I got on really well with my partner, but the trip was a chance for her to catch up with friends she hadn't seen all week. I ended up sitting alone on the coach ride into London, pretending to be asleep and feeling so small. It was pretty symptomatic of that stage of life for me: friends with everyone, close to no-one. 

We arrived in London early and were allowed to go shopping. I remember wandering into the HMV store, as it was then, at the intersection of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, hearing her songs playing and buying the CD on impulse. I was so comforted by them! "Put Your Records On" was playing everywhere that summer, and her empathy with teenage insecurity felt utterly liberating. But it was "Seasons Change" that I had on repeat, reminding me to be patient with my circumstances and believe in better things to come.

Fast-forward ten years (plus a second album that I loved for its haunting bravery), and here I am - once again finding that the songs she has written have such timely resonance. "Stop Where You Are" was the first song that I really took on board from the pre-release, feeling slightly chastised by the lines  "Give up all the things you can't control / Still yourself and watch them come and go / Wherever you are you'll find you're home at last" - a timely rebuke against my endless striving and tantrums, trying to manipulate life to my agenda.

Because life is definitely doing its own sweet thing right now. But it is sweet: it's something of a renaissance. And that sense of untameable vision, the unknown and the huge optimism of being on the edge of your best self - it's all echoed in the lyrics on this album, and in the energy and adventure of the musical arrangements. Amplified, actually - these feel like songs where the best things in life are upfront and central, brought into sharp focus for those of us (like me) who constantly forget to notice. These are songs of hope, of passion and sensuality, of reincarnation. It's all the more humbling a triumph in the context of Corinne Bailey Rae's personal circumstances over the last few years. 

For me, Corinne Bailey Rae will always be something of a beautiful and wise older cousin - someone relatable that I can learn from and be spurred on by. Someone whose artistry forever enriches my world. And for that, I have to say thank you.

'Lyrical Lifelines' - songs that save my world

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Sup, "Quiet" and FOMO

I had a flyer for a new app thrust in my hands as I left the tube station near work the other day - sup.

The app (according to its website description) is designed to let you know when your friends are within a perimeter of 5 to 25 minutes' walk away, so that you can "make chance encounters and serendipitous moments with friends happen more often without the creep factor".

The back of the flyer says - "Sam is nearby [waving hand emoticon]" Don't be boring. Say hi!


I'm not saying there's no market for this - obviously there is, otherwise these talented app developers would have put their efforts into something else. But part of me, a big part of me, feels absolutely exhausted at the very idea. The story behind the sup app webpage states that: "we are extremely social beings and feed off the energy of others"

That's exactly what sends me into meltdown. I don't want anyone leeching my energy against my will. I love the idea that we all have something to give to each other, that we contribute a particular blend of attributes that can't be found anywhere else; I'd love to think that my company can be uplifting.

But I also need my space. Am I the only one?

Thankfully, I'm well past the age when I'm afraid of being boring. And although I'd really rather not offend my friends, I also know that the ones who stick are the people who can take it if I turn down an invitation or two (or three) - it's not personal, it's essential. It's essential to me maintaining my joy, my perspective, my sense of self. It essential to me being the kind of person you might actually like to be around.

But I feel for the ones who are still figuring that out about themselves - the people who do suffer from the very real fear of missing out; the ones who haven't learnt how to care for themselves more than they care about how they come across to other people. The ones who can't say "no, leave me alone for a minute - let me catch my breath".

And then I remember Susan Cain. I'm reading her book in my lunch breaks at the moment (behind the curve, I know and don't care): "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking". It is startling and comforting. The book and associated online community give me a little hope that we can learn to co-exist; there really is more than one way to be in the world. 

You can be someone who leaps on this sup app and makes meaningful connections take shape as a consequence. And I can be someone who says, "no thanks - not now; maybe later, I'm thinking something through... I'll share it with you when I'm done. Or not. Depends." And we're both fine. We're all great.
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