reflections on having a permanent job

May 24, 2014

For over six years in the midst of the Irish recession I struggled and strived when it came to work. Short, badly paid contracts, long bouts of unemployment, course after course, thousands of unanswered job applications. Occasional interviews where confused executives asked why such a well educated person was applying to be a secretary. Pleading with restaurant owners for a waitress position, only to be told I “would never stay”; dropping my CV into MacDonalds, Tesco and local cleaning companies. All to no avail. Crying, depression, despair, hopelessness. Anger.

Now, I have a secure job that almost certainly will, later, lead to another secure job, and instead of the job being the thing that I want it to be, it simply is the thing that it is.

Having a meaningful job, due to the not-having, became something that lost all proper perspective for me. It seemed so impossible and so out of reach. Others around me suffered the same fate but they floated to the back of my consciousness, while my employed and career-focused friends were right there at the fore, living lives of purpose and meaning and enjoying the fruits of their labours. It became the holy grail for me: the promised land. It became the answer to my sense of desperate unfulfilment.

And now, for the precise reason that I packed up and left the country of my birth, I have the elusive job, and suddenly it’s possible and within reach, and I am living the possibility and touching it, and it’s not the holy grail and nor is it fulfilling. It is a job, that is worthwhile, and I do it, and I feel tired after it, and I get the Sunday night dread, and we still count every penny each month to make the rent (while, admittedly, padding the fund for The Grand Summer Holiday – something not enjoyed in a few years).

Undoubtedly I am far less unhappy than before. But, you know, the job is being put back in its place. Where it should have remained all along, instead of becoming bloated with years of swollen anxieties about paying the bills and having worth as a human being.

It is terribly wrong when a person cannot find labour to fund their living. It is morally wrong when a society has been so ordered that their search becomes pointless. It corrodes a bit of that person: it really rots your interior life. I had times where I almost gave up looking and resigned myself to staying on the dole forever. Shortly before landing this job, I suggested to my husband that I simply stop looking. I felt I was approaching a nervous breakdown due to the unflagging disappointments and perhaps needed to allow myself to become a housewife. Have some children and keep a house. He said that was okay by him – he’d watched me suffer and fail for a long time. But then I remembered that we have moved to another country so that he can do something that requires someone else to be working. And so I kept seeking. And lo I did find. But as for those who have stopped seeking? I understand why. I do, and deeply. Looking for a job in the midst of a recession is like spending every waking hour scouring the floor, walls and ceiling of a pitch black tunnel for treasure, all the while knowing that there’s only enough treasure hidden in this tunnel for one tenth of those who are looking for it. It’s tedious, lonely and exhausting beyond compare. And you begin to despise yourself. What is wrong with me? you ask, over and over, year after year. Nothing, say your family and friends. You’re great! I’d give you a job if I had one!

As usual I am not sure what my point is. I wish I could wind my reflections into neat little packages, but I never can. I think I have said what I came here to say. It is good to have a job. It is bad to not have a job. But having a job is just having a job. It isn’t changing the world and it doesn’t address your deepest self, whose worth comes from somewhere else. So, you know. Remember that.



the best imitation of myself

February 18, 2014

I realised quickly after moving to Aberdeen that I have a severe problem with trusting God.

That might sound very twee or commonplace but it really isn’t supposed to. Christians are always bleating about trusting God: ‘dependence on God’, ‘having faith’ and many other generic terms of Evangelicalese. I’ve always felt that I could do with having a bit more trust in God, sure, who couldn’t? But that all things considered, I was probably quite good at trusting.

Not so.

It turns out I don’t trust him at all. I strive very hard and put as many things in place as I possibly can to create a sense of safety. I have Plan B in place for when Plan A fails, and Plan C for when Plan B fails, and lots of alcohol for when Plan C fails. Then I have a cry and a bit of a meltdown and lather, rinse, repeat. Not so much trust as survival and a fragile self-belief.

When I moved here I gradually sank into a depression. I struggled to get out of bed. Once up I struggled to shower and get dressed. Once dressed I struggled to prepare meals or take a walk. I applied for job after job in my pyjamas on the couch. I went to volunteering, only just about managing to get myself washed and dressed for that weekly appointment, staying glued to the computer until the very last possible minute. Despite all this time on the computer, I would procrastinate replying to emails and text messages – duties that sat like lumps of raw dough in the pit of my stomach – because I could not bear to verbalise the staleness of my days to my friends at home.

To be honest, that has pretty much been the on-off pattern of the last six years, since I first lost my job at the start of the Irish recession. So nothing particularly new.

What was new however was being stripped of a support system. No friends, no church, no family, no nothing. The cultural wasteland that is this oil-drenched city couldn’t even offer me the consolation of coffee shops, museums to be explored, artisan markets etc. Being stripped of everything that usually acted as consolation to me for the pain of having no clear purpose and no good ‘job of work’ to do, became excruciating, and I began to feel desperate.

One day I spoke to one of my friends on the phone about this for a long time. Well, really, she did all the talking. She called. For me it was like therapy: I would gladly have paid a hundred pounds for it. For about an hour she just exhorted me to cry out to God for a ‘lifeline’. I said very little, tears and snot rolling down my face and splashing onto my dirty hooded sweatshirt as I sat curled on the sofa listening to her. She pleaded with me to do business with God: to ask him for what I wanted, to trust that he would provide. When our conversation finally ended, it was like the last drop of a hot toddy sliding down my throat and then I felt a terrible emptiness. She sent me a message within minutes with a scripted prayer that she had written for me: talk about interceding. She told me to read aloud the words if I just could not pray for myself. She sensed my stuckness and that I needed a bit of mothering. She understood my inability to ask God for what I needed when I knew all along that while he could give it, he might not. That’s so much worse than not being able to give. I realised in this inability to approach God once and for all that it was because I do not trust him at all.

So where is this going? Do you think I began to trust him? No, that would have been too simple. Instead of beginning to trust, I began to feel really, really angry with him instead. Good.

In my life, as in the life of so many people, amongst the flowers, lots of bad and painful things have happened to me and around me. Some unbearable things have happened. There have been dreadful losses and unsolvable problems. In all of my struggles I have never felt genuinely angry with God. 

Until now.

And wow the rage was strong. I had a good long, protracted rant and rave at him. To use an Irish expression, I fucked God out of it from a height.  One night in the middle of my burning rage a person I barely knew came over for dinner and I burst into tears at the table and interrupted her to demand why God revealed himself over and over in her life, miraculously answering prayers and for me he can’t be bothered. It was the most embarrassing dinner ever.

And then for some reason, to my outraged and utter surprise, he started to respond to me, in multiple and layered ways.

Not to disappoint but that is definitely a tale for another day.

And it occurred to me, in seeing these responses from God, responses I had asked for and longed for and hoped for and almost always failed to ask for, it occurred to she who can not and does not trust the God she has purported to follow for the last fifteen years, a God that she has torn her life apart for in the quest of the following – it occurred to her, to me, that all he is asking for is the actual, real me to be stripped bare before him instead of half-heartedly offering him the version of myself that I can tolerate.

Now, I’m not suggesting that I am being rewarded for fucking God out of it from a height. I’m just telling you a story.

Sometimes I feel that the city I am living in has to be one of the worst in Europe. So much money and so much poverty. So much ugliness and darkness. Such a booming sex industry while little cottage industries fail. So much vomit on the streets at night. So many alcoholics and heroin addicts and crying mothers because their children are not with them. It could swallow you up. And here I am in it hearing from God and feeling new things: things like excitement mingled with fear, and determination mingled with hope. I’ll be honest: I don’t really know what I am talking about at all. All I know is that I got really real with God and suddenly he is getting really real with me. Maybe it will all tumble down tomorrow, maybe not. But here it is. And here I am. And here’s I Am.

and so it has come to this

September 13, 2013

Well, this is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve sat down in the last month to try and write an update here on living gently, and failed. And it’s now that I’ve set myself a twenty minute window before I *have* to get to bed that I’ve decided I’ll take a leaf out of the book of mimi smartypants who does a weekly No Delete Thursday and have myself a little No Delete Friday right here right now. Celebrity Big Brother is on in behind me, providing plenty of satisfyingly inane background noise.

So we’ve moved from Ireland to Scotland. This is week six. I can hardly believe how quickly the time has gone. I am, as I expected I would be, quite homesick. Homesickness, I’ve found, has very little to do with how good or bad the destination is, and all to do with what you have left behind.  It is also a bit of a catch-all word for a shit-ton of conflicting emotions. Nobody told me that sometimes, a symptom of homesickness is feeling REALLY ANGRY at mild to moderate inconveniences. And it’s not about the inconveniences themselves: I am unemployed (agaaaaaiiinnnnn) and so have plenty of time on my hands for standing in lines for bureaucratic rubbish. It’s about how each of the little inconveniences (like standing in line in the job centre only to be told you have to ring to get your national insurance number, then ringing the place in which you are currently standing, then waiting on hold on the line to make an appointment for a national insurance number, then waiting a week for your appointment date, then turning up only for your appointment time being ignored, then waiting weeks for the number to arrive in the post) – it’s about how each of those little inconveniences isolate you and highlight your status as stranger, as inconvenience, as someone of whom the locals should be suspicious. And it’s just a small thing, but Aberdonians don’t smile all that much – at least not the one in service industries. I wouldn’t have described myself as chirpy or (God forbid) bubbly, but it turns out I approach most people with a big gormless smile on my face that quickly slides off as my plebeian status becomes apparent. People are generally helpful, but they do not grin in the way that Irish people do. But then sometimes, I can’t even trust my own perception of things, as perhaps as soon as I landed on the bonny shores I immediately slapped a giant pair of rose tinted spectacles onto my big gombeen face? In any case, things appear skewed vastly in favour of home at the moment, in spite of the many clear pluses here, and I am a walking ball of stress and rage and occasional contentedness.

Charlotte, in spite of her farting and alcohol-induced bed-wetting, has won (I know you were itching for the result), and now it’s time for my leaba. I’ll return. G’nite, dear ones.

i work in the dole office

December 13, 2012

Me: Hello, how can I help you?

Him: (Slowly removes coat, hat and scarf, sits down on chair and crosses legs. I am filled with a sense of foreboding.) Hello. I have a problem with my household benefits.

(Household benefits is a small amount of money given to the long-term unemployed towards phone, tv costs etc. It is not my area and he is not in the correct office, but I will listen to the problem and see what I can do.) 

Me: Ok. Let’s have a look here. What is your PPS number?

Him: (Spends several minutes trying to locate it. As this is rush hour, the queue behind him begins to lengthen.) 1234567Z

Me: Ok. Tom. What seems to be the problem?

Him: Well, on the fifth of October I closed my telephone account with Eircom. I don’t use the phone anymore. It’s just of no use to me. I have a mobile phone for emergencies. And today they sent me this. (Slides a bill for €8.03 across the counter to me, dated November 11th.)

Me: Ok.


Me: What can I do for you?

Him: Well, can you sort this out or not?

Me: What do you mean?

Him: (Getting irate) I closed this account!!

Me: Tom this is the social welfare office. I can’t do anything about your Eircom bill. You need to contact Eircom and tell them that you have closed your account and they have issued a bill to you in error.

Him: They sent me down from upstairs! (Upstairs is the maintenance section for open claims. I work in the new claims section.) They said you would sort this out for me!

Me: I’m sorry, they must have misunderstood your query. As I said, you will need to contact Eircom yourself and tell them that you have closed your account and they have issued a bill to you in error.

Him: How am I supposed to do that?

Me: (Examining the bill) You need to ring this number here.

Him: (Looking at me like I am a moron) …I don’t have a phone!

Me: You are welcome to use our phones over here (I gesture to the public phone area). They are free for public use: just dial 3 for an outside line.

Him: Why can’t you ring them for me?

Me: Tom, this is the social welfare office. We did not send you the bill. You must contact the people who sent you the bill. I cannot ring Eircom and sit on hold on your behalf. This has nothing to do with me or this office. This is a private matter between you and your phone provider.

Him: Fine! (He storms off, leaving his coat, hat and scarf on the chair. I decide to continue calling other customers in spite of his marking his territory.)

(3 minutes later)

Him: I couldn’t get through. (Sits down at my desk again.)

Me: Tom I don’t know what to say. You just have to keep trying.

Him: Well, I can’t get through.

Me: (Beginning to lose it slightly) I understand that you are frustrated about being issued a bill that you were not expecting but it is up to you to contact Eircom to resolve this.

Him: But I can’t get through.

Me: Perhaps you could write them a letter of complaint and enclose a copy of the bill. Would you like me to copy the bill for you?

Him: Yes, ok.

(I go to copy the bill. There are now six other customers waiting. To my horror, neither of the photocopiers is working. About to do my nut, I have the brainwave of using the fax to make a copy. I return to my desk.)

Me: There you are.

Him: Thanks.


Me: So you should write to them and enclose that copy of the bill Tom.

Him: What is the address?

(Trying not to snatch it or explode, I examine the bill. There is no address listed. I begin to hate Eircom almost as much as I hate this encounter. I google for an address for Eircom customer complaints, eventually find one and write it down. I also find another helpline number listed, which I write out for Tom.)

Me: There you are.

Him: Ok. Thanks. (Spends several long minutes putting on his coat and hat and gloves while I, and the other customers, look on in utter disbelief. He leaves and my brain explodes all over the dole office, leaving chunks of fudgey grey matter on every surface.)

a short note on violence and non-violence

August 21, 2012

I have kicked and struggled my way towards accepting pacifism. It is not a rational position, although one reaches it rationally. It is fundamentally a spiritual proposition rather than intellectual one. But, I am digressing already.

When I was a child, I had a vulnerable older brother who was bullied physically and verbally a lot. Possibly as a result of this, my parents taught me from my pre-school days that if anyone were to hit me, I was to hit them back twice as hard. The twice as hard bit was important. This strategy worked extremely well for me and I rarely had any trouble.

It was a morally wrong way to live.

This morning I was walking to work when a crowd of still-drunk male teenagers began to approach on the horizon. They were wearing tuxedoes. It is the wrong time of year for debs balls, so I can only assume it was a post-Leaving Cert result graduation party. It was just before 8 in the morning and the party clearly was not yet over. One of them had a stack of free Metro newspapers in his hands (stolen, I suspect, from the friendly woman at the train station who dispenses them every morning). At a distance of about twenty feet, he called out to offer me one. I politely refused (ah the Metro, the great leveller, that I never read). He began to insist and as we drew level, he changed his course and began to actually follow me, continuing an unrelenting stream of slightly sinister Mrs. Doyle-like shenanigans. I lost patience, stopped, turned to look him in the face and said loudly and clearly, “FUCK. OFF.” He did so. Result.

And this is why non-violence is at even the smallest level is difficult. It is, temporarily at least, effective.

Doesn’t stop it being wrong, though.

why i hate talk of ‘leadership’

August 19, 2012

In the odd subculture of Irish evangelicalism, the buzzword of the minute is leadership. Its buzz, sadly, is lingering long. The reason the church is in decline? The answer’s not sin, or hypocrisy, or apathy, or lack of discipleship, or obsession with cool, or rampant materialism and greed. It’s all down to a lack of leadership apparently. There are regular conferences on how to encourage church members into leadership, on ‘leadership development’ and on how to manipulate young people into becoming leaders in their communities. The church takes advice on this topic from literally anywhere that will offer it, but seems to be a bitch (in particular) to the business and corporate world, imagining perhaps that if the church can imitate the success of ‘big business’ then it might gain a little cultural cache or social capital.

If you want the church to be respected by the world around it then you’ve lost the plot entirely.

Frankly I consider all this talk of leadership to be bullshit. The church worships a God whose leadership was demonstrated in his willingness to wash the feet of others, eat with prostitutes and ultimately hang on a tree, battered and bloody, begging for an alternative. His leadership was demonstrated in his willingness to place last. His leadership was demonstrated in self-denial, teaching and rich relationships.

Being a human being means that life will be dirty, messy, sad, hard and yes, complicated. Being a Christian does not need to be complicated.  Being a Christian means that in the middle of all the absolute shit, you relentlessly love God and love others, and everything else can go to hell.

Don’t get sucked into conversations about ‘vision’ and ‘strategy’ and any context where your church is referred to as an ‘organization’. Instead get sucked into permanent relationships with saints who will challenge you by their integrity and love you by their presence. Get sucked into the scriptures. Get sucked into repentance, humility and allowing your decisions about your money and career to scare the crap out of you. Get sucked into coming last and if you just can’t help but win everything, at least share your winnings with the losers.

living gently?

April 16, 2012

What does it mean to live gently, really?

I was absolutely staggered yesterday to read that for every one American soldier that dies in battle this year, a further twenty-five veterans will commit suicide. What?

I am stunned. I am horrified. I could actually cry. Scrap that: I should cry. So should you.

Because there seems to be no talking to those who are pro-military. There seems to be no convincing the empire of the United Kingdom and the United States that war is utterly dehumanising; that war and armies and “support our troops” rhetoric and wearing poppies creates space for us to be the exact opposite of that which we were meant to be as human beings. What will it take? Will this be enough? I doubt that one soldier will leave the army as a result of this statistic.

I am an evangelical Christian – an adult convert. Evangelical means “of or according to the teaching of the Gospels or the Christian religion”. The hallmarks of evangelicalism are a commitment to scripture and orthodox Christian tradition. I worship in an Irish Presbyterian church. The vast majority of Presbyterian churches in Ireland are evangelical.

The evangelical church in the United States is at about 26.3%, or almost 83 million people strong. You would be hard pressed to find many communities amongst that number who are anti-war. Pacifist voices are silenced and pacifist theologians are slandered. We are all familiar with the propaganda machine that talks incessantly about wars on terror and fighting for freedom. We have heard the love-songs to the flag. The United States and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom are nations in love with an idea which when lived out results in 25 times more casualties off the battlefield than on, at their own hands, because so mutilated is their humanity that they can no longer live with themselves.

Let’s pretend that the primary purpose of a soldier isn’t to be a state-sponsored killing machine. Let’s forget for a moment about the untold misery inflicted by our western militaries on other nations. And let’s temporarily suspend the arrogance of western democracies. Let’s push under the carpet the atrocities carried out by soldiers in every war in every age. Let’s forget rape as a weapon of war and gas that melts your face off before you die. Let’s set aside the fact that Guantanamo Bay is still alive and kicking, and it’s still holding people without charge, and it’s torturing and starving them and sexually humiliating them and stealing them from their towns in the middle of the night and leaving their communities devastated. Let’s just put that to one side for now.

And let’s examine what it is doing to the American soldiers themselves and their communities. This culture is a trap. If someone you adore is in the army then all of a sudden you find yourself in the position of needing to be in favour of your side being the brute force that wins, because the alternative is that your son or husband is dead. And if fundamentally you view yourself as a good person who works hard and loves his family, then it just Does Not Compute that being a soldier might be morally wrong and arguably completely at odds with the Gospel. It doesn’t matter that you are a Christian. It doesn’t matter that the bible says any of the following:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. – Paul speaking in his letter to the Romans 12:14

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. – Paul speaking in his letter to the Romans 12: 17-18

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Paul speaking in his letter to the Romans 12:20-21 quoting Deut. 32:35

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. – Jesus speaking, as recorded by Matthew 5:43-45

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. – Jesus speaking, as recorded by Luke 6:35

It only matters that our side wins, because that means getting our loved ones back.

The following statements have been said to my face by evangelical Christians regarding violence and war:

“I have the right to feel safe.”

“The army was good for [him]; before he joined the military he just played video games all day.”

“Anyone who does not support the troops hates America.”

“Pacifism is the response of pussies.”

I could go on. I despair.

Your soldiers are dying. They are dying at their own hands because they are subscribing wholesale to an ideology that kills their humanity by being an essentially destructive force that shapes their very being. Please, Christians at least, stop being soldiers. Please end the pro-war rhetoric and take up the cross and follow Jesus. He has shown us what it is to live gently. When one of his closest friends, Peter, tries to defend him with violence, the response of Jesus is to reprimand his friend and heal his enemy. Can you hear me? Can you hear me?

I am angry at the violence in the world. I am angry at the violence in my own heart. Why do you think I love the prisoners so much? Because I am angry about what has been done to them. Because I am angry about what they have done. I am so angry that I am going to pour every bit of love I’ve got into them because the only thing that drives out darkness is light. Hello? Is anybody there? It is time to stop dying. For fuck’s sake. For Christ’s sake. Let’s all just fucking live.