Friday, 18 December 2015

Christ, and M and S

I recently attended the spectacular annual carol service at Holy Trinity Brompton, in London. Nicky Gumbel, the vicar there, joked that if we took the Christ out of Christmas, we would only be left with M&S. We all laughed; because it was a good joke, but also because not only was it true, but it was becoming a reality for more and more of this nation. Some weeks ago, an ad to advertise a new Anglican website was blocked as it showed people from various walks of life reciting the Lord's prayer. There was quite a strong reaction from the public. Some thought that this was the right form of action, others thought it was further erosion of free speech; even the vociferous critic of Christianity Richard Dawkins thought it was ridiculous to ban the ad, stating, “I still strongly object to suppressing the ads on the grounds that they might ‘offend’ people. If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.”

Christians are becoming more concerned by the reaction of the culture around them as it is often condemning. More and more, political correctness seems to be the new form of worship in this country, and while it is very important to protect minorities and the vulnerable, this very quickly turns to vilification of the 'other', with the other becoming the other if you follow my irony train. There should never be any vilification of the other, but sadly, there too often is. There is a Dr Seuss story called the Sneetches that illustrates this point very well. It should be required international reading. In my experience, and as a writer, I find most journalists and writers of literature I have met are liberals who are intolerant of anything they deem to be ‘religious,’ which flies in the face of their own liberalism, a tenet of which is tolerance towards those of difference and freedom of press, speech and religion. Most have little understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. The term Christian is very loaded – mostly with misapprehension. For starters, there is a tacit understanding that if you are a Christian you must be thick. I won't get into main course or pudding here, but suffice to say there is too much gravy and cream of the wrong order inadvertently piled on top of the meat of the thing. Grasp of irony in this area, there is not. In these circles, it usually doesn't even cross people’s minds that you might be a person of faith - it does lead to some interesting conversations.

Whatever one's perspective, it does feel sad to me, that in a country built on Christian values, an ad that shows the comforting aspect of reciting the Lord's prayer in a traditionally and once free Christian country can cause such offence, particularly when so many could doubtless do with a little comfort, if not from belief in Christ, then at the very least inclining towards the notion of transcendence at a time in our history when it seems that so much evil abounds; though, of course, I am aware that for a vast majority of this country, the word 'Christian,' does not evoke a positive reaction, and there is some blame that the Christian public must own for that and I put my hand up too. Many of us are following the difficult path of Christ, many of us, even those of us in the church, are stumbling about, but ever hopeful, we keep at it!

For many, Christmas is not a happy time, because it brings back unhappy memories of the past, given how loaded with significance it all is in terms of family. There are families who have and are experiencing breakdown. Bitterness sets in when forgiveness cannot flow and it blights people’s lives if left unchecked. Sometimes there needs to be separation when past trauma continues to be inflicted, one way or another on an individual or individuals. The psychologist Dr Joshua Coleman, a specialist in family estrangement believes family estrangement is very much on the rise and points to 'individualism,' as the main cause. "Half a century ago, we saw a gradual shift away from the traditional institutions which were expected to make us happy such as the church and the family, towards the individual's rights, needs and feelings. The rise in divorce is one example - people no longer felt the need to stay married out of duty. You stay married if it makes you happy, if it fulfils your needs. If it doesn't you leave. With the family, it's similar. People find it easier to walk away because it does not make them happy"

But there is hope. The message of Christ is one of love, forgiveness and grace. The church is the family of God and is or should be an inclusive environment where the broken hearted can find solace and healing. The church needs to be a place where those that have been rejected and even despised by their own families can find acceptance.  As people are not perfect, the church is not perfect but we must embrace each other and be open and honest with one another 'bearing each other's burdens' as the bible puts it, in order for healing and restoration to flourish. The wonder of the Christian life is that once adopted and accepted, it is powered by the mystery of the relationship of the indwelling Holy Spirit, something that may well sound giddy bonkers to those that have not experienced it, given that it is indeed experiential. Imagine trying to push a train up a hill with only manpower; a train operates so much better with steam or electricity - so it is with the human engagement with the Holy Spirit; and it can be utterly transforming and life-changing.

Gift giving and celebrating with family and friends is valuable, as is the feast; these traditions are part of what remind us of who we are in terms of our humanity and our connections to one another; but this Christmas, let's remember the event that inspired it: the Christ part, the love part, the acceptance of those who have had a different experience, or point of view part, the reaching out in grace and mercy part, the inclusive part; all mighty parts of the magnificent whole that Christ came to give us. 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Roots and Rootlessness

The kids are playing outside in the mud and traipsing it through the house now and again. The sun is shining and it's a beautiful autumn day. Car is packed for the trip to Cheltenham to visit the parents who recently moved into my great grandmother's house. There are photographs of my mother there as a child, when there were still orchards and possibly a fox. My mother relates a story of being taken to feed the chickens and her grandmother shooing her away because there was a small viper.

As a child we lived in a lot of houses in a lot of towns and cities in Zimbabwe and South Africa. My grandmother's house in Borrowdale, Harare, was a home when we were growing up as we stayed there so often as children. When they left and moved into a townhouse some of my roots were pulled up and maybe some tendrils were left in the soil. When we left my last home in Zimbabwe, it was as if I buried my heart in the garden. It took me at least two years to summon it back as I mourned and mourned for house and land and country.

I moved to London at seventeen and lived in posh houses, squats and flats. My firstborn and I lived for sixteen years in a flat in central London where he still is and I am some of the time. We now have a family home in Wales, a small bungalow stuffed with memories and photographs in the loft: this is my husband's grandmother's house.

Thank you God; for grandmothers, for continuity and for life that goes on. As believers our home is always elsewhere, but tracing history, and memories, and a sense of coming home, will always be.

Monday, 26 October 2015

3 Novels

I thought I would share with you my thoughts on three novels I have recently read. In doing so, I shall share them with me in order to trigger my own recollections since they are so easily forgotten, except in the case of a few, such as Stoner - unforgettable, or now, I think I can safely say, Gilead.

The Fever Tree took a while to get into, I was worried it was too Mills and Boon and almost put it down, muttering as I did about commercial novels and I would have cut the ship narrative at the start considerably, but once it got to South-Africa, some hundred and fifty pages (as I recall) in it became powerfully evocative in terms of prose and the way it captured the SA landscape. It looked at true love as opposed to attraction and choices made/opportunities almost missed and lessons learnt. In the end, it brought to mind some colonial classics: Story of An African Farm, My Brilliant Career, in terms of haunting landscapes that 'speak.'

Fair Play by Tove Jansson looks at the relationship between two women artists and how they make art and life together on a remote island and in Helsinki. Tove's work is like looking through a calm clear sea and discovering more and more exquisite fish the deeper you look. Eccentric characters enter and exit, adding to the appeal of the book, but they become most interesting in terms of Jonna and Mari's comments about them - in their presence. A wonderful book about adventures taken and captured on 8mm film, love, and art; nuances and habits appreciated, picked up on, argued over or not. And of endings. Labora et amare.

Gilead by Marillyne Robinson is a masterpiece. It is flawless in terms of prose, narrative pace and all that it speaks of: life, religion and love. What I particularly liked was the way Robinson portrayed faith in all it's complexity. The generous, yet often conflicted spirit of her protagonist, the dying John Ames, who records for his young son the details of everyday life, often seemingly mundane, but just as often illuminated by a sense of the miraculous, is wondrous. Through the stories of his father and grandfather (preachers as well), a family history unfolds and with it troubling scenes regarding race, poverty and murder. It is a reminder of America's past and perhaps a warning to it's future - a novel with soul and spirit. A classic.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Cleaning Out My Closet

In line with my desire to live more lightly in various ways, I have been cleaning out my closet, literally, though the Eminem song Where's my snare? Is playing in my head. My entire vintage wardrobe, along with several Vivienne Westwood numbers has been snapped up by anonymous bidders. They were very snap happy for Viv. There have been mishaps. I sent my flowery Doctor Martens to someone who was expecting a camel coloured wool coat and vice verse. That took some time and expense to unravel, and unravel I almost did as I messaged back and forth praying that each disgruntled punter would play ball, or boot as the case was. Happily each agreed to send to the other. Thus my past has been passed around the UK, and, in the case of a seventies halter-neck dress, last worn to a music industry party during the rise of Oasis - to the US.

Each item of clothing that has been packaged and sent had a story behind it. The 60's and 70's dresses worn to gigs and parties or on stage during my fleeting singing career in 90's Camden. Or the designer stuff I have from my modelling days prior to that. Before that, I had been collecting vintage clothes since I was a teenager. I used to go to Diagonal Street in Johannesburg and rummage through piles of clothes in basements until I emerged with winkle pickers and sixties suits that I would take in on my mother's sewing machine and later wear to the clubs I was way to young to be at. If those clothes could speak...and they do, imbued as they are with memory. Who will wear them now? I have been surprised at how hard they were to actually give up, even though I had determined to.

Which isn't to say that my glad rags were all bad news. Oh the fun we had! It's just that for me it is important not to dwell on the past but to live fully in the present. We do have photographs after all, though those can sometimes be fraught too. My father passed away nearly two years ago. He was not around when we were growing up. I only met him when I was twenty-one and thereafter on only a few occasions. After he died, my sister and I went to collect his things, including a large box of his photographs many of which were taken in nightclubs and parties in his heyday as a singer and actor and general charmer.  I haven't been through the photographs yet as there was an exhibition that they were needed for and they were only recently returned. I intend to and want to, but the box has a mark of the Pandora about it. I have often found nostalgia a tricky emotion to manage given my peripatetic and sometimes fraught childhood. The clothes that speak of the many lives I have lived, the photographs speak of what was and what might have been. The clothes have travelled on to adorn other lives. The photographs have arrived from Portugal, and what a route they have taken, those potent squares of reminder.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Smiling abreast

September is here and I see I have not blogged for two months. Much has happened. My right breast had a smile cut into it below the right nipple whilst various bits and pieces were extracted and I have been told to recuperate: "You won't feel right for several months, I had to do some restructuring," my consultant told me cheerfully when I went for the follow up - she has been excellent (and frank, Miss Franks even) in all her ways. That would account for the pain - mostly manageable but occasionally stabbing - a fleshly reminder of my composition. I am well and do not need to return, but my heart is with those frightened faces I saw in the waiting room and with my stepmum-in-law who is in the hospice: her breast did not give news to smile about. My own dear mother has not received good news about her health either. And so we pray and consider what we are made of.

If we believe that we are more than bodies, our bodies are temples that house the spirit and the soul: mind, will, emotions, personality. Should we not believe in the spirit, then perhaps the body takes on yet a deeper, perhaps even spiritual (to many) significance. To all, the body is a marvel and a wonder and in my view, a testament to a great and deeply profound creator. Yet the body remains a mystery, and we are slaves to it's mercurial moods and delicate balances. I read that there are as many neurons in the brain as there are stars in the Milky Way and that my intestines are a veritable motorway of (who knew?) functioning neurons, and I am boggled.

I am awestruck by the ability of the body to adapt and compensate for itself. A friend who has had two dreadful car accidents was describing to me how he could no longer use his ankle and so the bones of his foot had adapted as hinges instead. The has a remarkable ability to heal itself. Even if half of the organ is removed, it can grow back. Consider plasticity. Neurons can change their function based on information they receive via the senses from the outside world. In the case of deafness, for instance, neurons normally utilised for hearing can be diverted to the eyes, to helping deaf people to 'see' more.

Oliver Sacks died the day before yesterday and I have been reading some of his writing on the body - unparalleled work, in my limited experience, in that it is so literary and somehow transcendent - his writing on marijuana experimenting is at any rate! I have been as grateful, of late, as a weary Mormon pilgrim happening upon ephedrine containing roadside herb, for my prescribed narcotics. Solpadol has certainly taken the sharp edge off the blade these past few weeks, though I am mindful that this too must end and I shall rely on this amazing thing I dwell in to continue to heal itself - as the current dull ache I now feel reassures me somehow.

Today I am grateful to my body and my health. Oh and it's my eighth wedding anniversary. I am profoundly grateful for my husband and for the three little ones we now have in addition to my first born. We do not have ourselves, or each other, certainly not in these current forms, for long; but what a marvel it is, that we exist, that we, in some ways, like the liver, regenerate; and that we, like our creator, get to create in turn. What a fabulous event life is. And how precious.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Christianity is all about dying - in order to live

July is here, American Independence Day is looming and the American supreme courts ruling on same sex marriages has just been passed. I have been reading some of the pieces in the NY Times in the light of this.

According to one article, Christianity is dying in America Apparently, American Christians feel estranged from mainstream culture, and one commentator is quoted as stating Christianity needs to go back underground. In the UK, Christians often shy away from mainstream culture and from entering the political debate. Strong opinions often make Christians (certainly in the independent churches I frequent) panic like frightened sheep and they shy away from robust debate regarding church or state. State-wise, this is understandable, given their views, sandal and sock like, are not fashionable, (though I have noticed a lurch to the left, amongst Christians lately). Christianity dying culturally, will not deter Christians from practising their faith, nor drive it to ground, though it may drive them underground - a place where Christianity has historically flourished. Christianity proliferates in countries such as China where just such a state exists. From what I understand, Christians are dying noble and heroic deaths for their faith in its ancient lands.

Image problem aside, I have often wondered why Christianity in the UK is so unattractive to many, given who Jesus is. The teachings on sex are a real problem, but is mankind not so much more than this? It is sad that Christianity has been reduced to its sex laws and all the other, far greater, dare I say eternal teaching has been subsumed by this. Christians need to bring deeper Christian values, and their finer Christian acts (sowing financially and ministering to the lost and broken) into mainstream culture in order to help transform communities for the common good; as they bring these acts of love into the wider arena, they will be seen and heard for who they are rather than what they variously believe, and social engagement via social justice will become easier. Personally, I am looking at ways of doing this myself, rather than keeping my two sides: Writer and Christian, separate, and for a while now my writing has been moving in this direction. Plug alert: To this end, come and see my play The Call, on the 18 July, at Unveiling.

Representationally, Christians often come across as gullible, clueless (perhaps because so many don't actually read, much less put the bible into practice, they listen to interpretations of it via sermons that are often flawed opinion pieces. As for the patriarchal structure of the church, don't even get me started. Suffice to say I am a Jesus feminist. In the charismatic/pentecostal/non-orthodox churches there are a lot of personal ministries, often run by people who have narcissistic personalities, many of whom are dodgy; and from what I can tell, this sort of thing is rife in the US too. There are very few actual followers (as in doing the things Jesus did) in the UK Christian world that I have encountered and apologies to all of you out there who are better Christians than myself, I am an active member of the church, and I don't exclude myself in all that I say. Dying to oneself (such a challenge for the selfie generation!), in the selfish sense and suffering and sacrifice: two states that usher in the power of God are often missed out in the Christianity of the west, which isn't to say Christians don't suffer in life as everyone else does, I speak of making intentional sacrifices for other people in the light of ones faith and often suffering as a result.

Christianity has a real image problem. Comfortable Christianity does not wash with the public as it is not authentic, in terms of what Christianity is, it lacks power and frankly just comes across as embarrassing right-wing guff. If more of us in the west, lived as authentic Christians, in solidarity with the many, (often abroad) in suffering countries who do, we might improve our image through action. It needs to get back to basics: back to Jesus, because Jesus was really cool, really revolutionary, and authentic. He was who he said he was: God the son. He was not defensive, he knew his bible (the Jewish scriptures) and he knew his God and acted accordingly (God the father). He did not make it up as he went along, and as Christians, neither should we; we need to continue to stand on the scriptures, while reaching out through dialogue, not by retreating in the light of recent laws here in the UK and the US. Christianity is bigger than this! Christian democracy paved the way for these laws for God's sake (and I mean for God's sake!).

We would do well to remember the words of Jesus in summing up the greatest commandment: 37And He said to him, “ ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38“This is the great and foremost commandment. 39“The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40“On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

We really must love our neighbour, with all her (and his) differences as ourself. We have to be able to disagree on personal beliefs and still 'remain in love,' as the bible teaches. Whether we are to be driven underground or to remain above ground, Christians need to be brave enough to interact with the culture and not huddle in Sunday clubs. People need to get to know authentic Christians who love everyone despite oppositional beliefs. Love flourishes in difficult spaces. Jesus's primary message was one of love - and he didn't just love the like-minded: He dug the dodgy, the outcast - and women.

Just one more point:

Sexual preferences and beliefs thereof aside, it seems only right that people should be able to share mortgages, and assets with the partner of their choosing, and everyone should be equal in the eyes of the law. Getting married in a church when you do not adhere to what the bible says is another matter. I would not want to get married in a mosque, given their teachings on same sex marriage and women, so I have no idea why a gay couple should want to marry in church, given the bible's teaching on same sex marriage. Here is a balanced and elegantly written opinion piece on the dignity of singleness and having other people take the role of marriage partner.

Disclaimer: I do love the church and my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Motto: We need more public debate and less hate.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Excess Baggage

I have been pondering the excesses of modern life, partly triggered by this article: Yes, I still read the Guardian despite their fascist views regarding anyone who is vaguely right handed. I maintain that it is always best to read left to right in order to achieve balance. If you start on the left and have any sense, you will arrive at a full stop after arriving at the right (wink). But I swore I would no longer allude to the elections, so I won't. Actually, I think I am currently a Conservative Socialist and should start my own party, without the champagne. I am currently conservative as I blued it this election, based on policies and track record, but socialist in that I care very much about issues that affect us all and believe in a democratic society committed to equality in terms of education (bring back proper grammar schools now!), healthcare, childcare and healthy food. I am not kidding myself that there will ever be equal opportunities for all, but we need government with a long term commitment to enfranchisement. I also believe very much in entrepreneurship at and across all levels of society - I believe in individual progress and that people should be properly remunerated for being in the workforce that aids us all. I have now put my soapbox under my feet. Back to the excess baggage. I think unsold food should be given to charity, though I am sure this requires a legal minefield, but how can we, as individuals, stop being so wasteful? I have decided to put my money where my mouth is.

There are a number of areas I will be tackling, and like the French, I am starting with food. Hubster and I identified a key area of wastage last night when we made a new household budget. We seem to be spending far too much on food. I thought I was a canny shopper, a bargain hunter, a vintage vixen, a frugal fox. But apparently I am not. Hubster waved the bank statement evidence at me like Charlie with his golden ticket.

Suitably shamed, this is my aim for this week: I am not buying any more food (apart from milk and veg when we run out) until all the cupboards are bare. I have also been stripping my wardrobe (even my prized vintage collection is going!) and aiming to give away at least one bag of 'excess baggage' a week. This week, I have several large bags of clothes and toys (the kids are getting in on this - we are discussing these issues in homeschool). In weeks to come there will be food donations - and ouch, owie, einar painar...books.
Here's a scarf I knitted earlier in the spirit of this blog - and grannies.
I'll let you know how I get on.