a good shake

November 2, 2014

Part of my job is visiting churches around the city, taking a little slot in the Sunday service to talk about my work. I like it and I don’t like it. Sometimes I am offered five minutes, squeezed in between the children’s address and the announcements. Sometimes, like today, I am virtually handed the whole service and asked to preach, pray and bless. The good bit is the curiosity of visiting different traditions and seeing how they do things, and (honestly, very rarely) being touched by the teaching or worship. It’s nice to make links and attract new volunteers for my charity. It also helps me to understand this place better, and I recognise how joined-up my life is becoming here when I meet people who ask me if I know so-and-so from x school or y church or z charity and it turns out that the answer is yes.

Then there are the parts I dislike. The husband unit is usually kind enough to accompany me to these services (repayment for all of those years of my tagging along with him) and, from time to time, the church I visit is so overcome to have a theology PhD student/ministry candidate  in their midst that they forget that I am the guest, and they spend my entire visit fawning over him, and I wonder why I am there. These are usually the churches that are unknowingly anti-women. Then there are the ones that are clearly and distinctively anti-women and they make a big song and dance about how whatever message I bring is not a sermon, but a ‘word’ or ‘announcement’, and I watch from the pulpit as they sweat with vague regret about having invited me in the first place. Then there are the bitter old dears who’ve been singing the same hymns for 60 years and don’t like the cut of my jib. It is essential that they say something to let me know that my work (with young offenders) is not their cup of tea. “Oh, I’d just like to give those thugs a good shake!” <insert tinkling wealthy old-lady laugh as she adjusts her poppy brooch> “Oh yes,” I reply, “A good shake is exactly what they need. Forget love, compassion and good humour. Roughing them up will solve their problems!”

They have absolutely no idea how violent they are.

But then there are days like today, you know, where post middle-aged people come with tears in their eyes and say how someone gave them a chance once and it changed everything, or the people who grip your arm and say they’re inspired. Whether the inspiration can last beyond the church doors I don’t know, but hey, time will tell.


the trouble with facticity

July 16, 2014

To the philosophers who got here via google looking up facticity for your essay: move along. This won’t help you.

To the regulars who check in here every day risking almost inevitable disappointment: thanks. I think about blogging a lot, and there are several half-written posts in my drafts folder, but as you know, I rarely can gather my thoughts together effectively.

We are approaching our one year Aberdeeniversary. I realised this a couple of weeks ago with a jolt of shock. Since then I have been telling this fact to everyone who will listen. They seem less amazed by this incredibly speedy passage of time than I am.

Speaking of time’s illusion of rushing speedily onward, the husband unit and I will be celebrating our ten year maritalversary  in two months’ time. Well. That escalated quickly.

We spent the first year of our marriage fighting and cursing the heavens for our horrific mistake. This came off the back of a tough couple of years with family problems and illness. Then, year two rocked up and a switch flicked and we settled into that marital bliss everyone else goes on about. It’s been good ever since (although I admit we did spend the last 24 hours arguing through snot and tears over something that we have been arguing about for the entire duration of our 16 year relationship).

I am hoping that a similar switch is going to flick in my relationship with Aberdeen (nuptial bliss + occasional fallout). I had really hoped that by now I would feel settled and established here: that I would know this city’s corners and sweet spots and how to wriggle myself into them. No such luck. I feel un-anchored and not in the unlimited-wide-open-ocean-anything-could-happen kind of way, but in the I-am-totally-lost way. Freed but limited. I miss my soul friends. I miss not being a foreigner. I miss the visual landscape of my homeplace and many other things besides. I thought the heartsickness would shift and melt and fade but it hasn’t. Part of the problem is my indulgence of the homesick feeling – I am flexing its muscle and making it stronger, maybe. But then I still have these unsolicited disappointments, where I wake up on a Saturday morning and think immediately of meeting a particular friend, or going to brunch with the husband unit in a particular favourite restaurant, and then I remember I can’t because I am not at home. And that there aren’t any friends like that here that I can call on, on a whim, and that there aren’t any brunch places, cos this isn’t that kind of city. And then I feel sad. And then I feel annoyed with myself for how pampered and self-indulgent I am, and that doesn’t cross over into a sensible ability to laugh at myself, but rather into self-loathing and despair.

And all the while God continues to show his hand in providential encounters: guess who is moving to Aberdeen and who is going to become my husband’s new PhD supervisor? Stanley Hauerwas, that’s who. He wrote Living Gently in a Violent World, a book that changed my life. And such is the university culture here that we are going to get not just to meet him and hear him teach but we will be part of the same community, probably even the same local church. The husband unit gets to be schooled by the master: the master that inspired him to study at this level in the first place. Wtf. So again I see another clear purpose in coming here, but I don’t know how to reconcile those wondrous kinds of coincidences with my general feeling of unhappiness. Of course these coincidences centre around the husband unit, but is my contentedness really so utterly centred on me? We all know the trope of the father (or mother for that matter) that works tirelessly at a crappy job for the needs of their family and it’s all worth it because their family is taken care of. Well, essentially that is my role here. Work to take care of my (two person) family. And I am just too selfish for it to be satisfying.

Is my problem that I am addicted to an idea of something that is just honestly unattainable? I used to think I didn’t want much (ha!), but now I see that I actually want so, so much, and that this reality was hidden to me because I had most of what I unconsciously wanted in advance. The appetite I have for the things I think I don’t have is a cavern. I am in existential crisis, man! Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche ain’t got nuthin’ on me, yo. I thought I had discerned what I wanted to do when I grew up: become a prison chaplain. I did a lot of hard work to make that happen. That’s just not possible here. The only prison for a massive radius is 30 miles north of Aberdeen and already has a chaplain. So I am doing something else and like everything else I’ve tried, it just hasn’t satisfied. So I find myself asking – how do I learn to be content? What needs to change, my circumstances or me, or both? What do I add in to my life, what do I take out, what is within my control and what isn’t? Or ought I to accept unhappiness as inevitable? Is everyone as troubled as me by this shit? A lot of the things that I took for granted were actually central to my happiness – a stable church community, close friends, quiet home, easy access to a rich social and cultural life. Those things are gone and can’t be forced here. They might happen at some stage but they are not happening now. That’s the trouble with facticity: the thrownness of our existence. Chucked hither and thither. Go with or resist?

Answers on a postcard plz. (No sympathy, thanks. Obscenely rude jokes an acceptable substitute.)

 


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.

 

 


growing or shrinking

March 11, 2014

A sincere thank you to all who replied to my last post. The responses came in floods – hundreds of views, new followers, texts, emails, phone calls and conversations in person. I was really surprised and touched. Thanks for being friends and well wishers (in that you mean me no particular harm).

One friend who does not identify as a Christian asked me if I was saying that my faith was growing or shrinking. I was really surprised by that question, too.

The answer is complex.

The Christian life is one that pursues sanctification. Sanctification is the process of the pursuit of holiness. Holiness is fucking hard, man, and apparently involves a lot of not using the word fuck. Holiness, and I have encountered it, is beautiful. It is virtue embodied, and it is usually very hard-won, but it is more than just that. It is bright and free and kind, and it delights to spend time worshipping God and in service of his people. It gets angry at the right things and forgives everything else. As I strive to live gently in a violent world (inside a violent body with a violent heart in it) I am striving for sanctification.

I am watching my husband be sanctified. He is better today than he was five and ten years ago. Smarter, kinder, gentler, brighter, gooder. He is unrecognisable from fifteen years ago, where all those virtues were little seeds in him, and now they are young trees that jut out his orifices.

So is my faith growing or shrinking? It’s hard to say. I remain as faithless as ever. I remain weak in virtue and bursting at the seams with self interest. I am regularly seduced by bullshit and the delusion that I can control my life.

What does seem to grow though is my view of God. My view is more generous than it used to be. God seems bigger and wider and that cannot be because he has changed. It’s a question of perspective.

Father Ted can explain it better than I can:

I suppose I am a little closer to him than before. It isn’t that my faith is bigger, it’s that I am allowing the object of my faith to take up more of my landscape. I hope that clears things up a little.


i had to put this somewhere

February 9, 2014

where my bruised reeds at? he says, looking for the walking wounded, the bent-over men and women, the smoldering wicks. where are my people who don’t even know up from down anymore, who can no more suss out what is sustainable than they can solve the problems of the world? where are my people at, he says, the ones who are beating back addictions, dysfunctions, lies that slink in and out around our ears? those are my people, he says, the ones i will not break. they are the ones i will not snuff out.

~ D.L Mayfield: mercy > sacrifice


a little yeast

October 18, 2013

I often find that the best moment for blogging is when I’m supposed to be doing something else. Seeing as I have guests arriving for dinner shortly and I am unprepared, now seems ideal.

So the Ten Series is complete. Thank God says you. And me too: you might have noticed I got stuck there towards the end. It took a great internal shove to get moving again. I lack momentum. Given my mass, you’d imagine there’d be a little more velocity.

I have been recently enjoying a brand new treat: unemployment in a strange city. I’ll be honest: it’s not that different to unemployment at home. Every single person that I meet immediately asks how the job search is going. A smart and funny friend of mine (over at 53 degrees) has been battering through his PhD for the last few years. Eventually he became so sick of the question “How’s the PhD going?” that he had a box of badges (that’s buttons, to Americans) custom-made to read “The PhD is fine”. I’m thinking of getting one that reads “I still have no job” to avoid that bloody conversation with everyone. It’s the first question in the phone calls from home, too. I know it’s because you care, so I appreciate that. I just hate how one-dimensional it makes me and all potential conversations. I guarantee you, if I get a job, you will hear about it.

I took this week “off” from job-searching and spent it instead prioritising time to myself not sucked down the rabbit hole of the internet. I spent lots of time in rubbish cafés, writing letters to friends and prisoners, until I eventually found the perfect café where I know I will go to seek refuge time and again in this city. I was pleased to note that The Coffee House is on Gaelic Lane. I got some long, rambling letters written, but not many. Letters take me hours and hours. If you receive one, please remember that, and also forgive me in slowness in correspondence. The more unhappy I am, the longer it takes me to do anything. Even time taken to dress and think about breakfast seems to stretch out through a morning.

So, I’m pretty unhappy.

The husband unit gave me a quote the other day from Karl Barth:

Radically and basically all sin is simply ingratitude… [The Doctrine of Reconciliation (Church Dogmatics, Vol. 4, Part 1 P 42)]

Something for me to chew on. Ingratitude is a central feature of my psyche: it sits alongside gratitude in classic shoulder-angel versus shoulder-devil style. Seeing as what you focus on magnifies, it would seem prudent therefore to focus on all I am grateful for, and allow that view to grow, rather than attempt to eliminate the ingratitude. A post on gratitude to follow. For now, I got some dough to knead.


the ten series: two songs

October 14, 2013

If I thought choosing four books was hard? Well that ain’t nothin’ on choosing two songs out of all the many songs that have moved me. I don’t know how to make these choices. It would have been much easier to have ten songs and two secrets, although that probably would have been much less interesting for you the reader.

This whole ten-series thing is very ego-centric, so I hope you’ll forgive an indulgence where I talk about two songs that I love that I’ve sang at special moments. Having said that, I did not write the songs so can take absolutely no credit. Your relationship to a song changes when you participate in it rather than just listening. Its story becomes a bit of your story.

1. She Moved Through the Fair

Like many others, this song has been a party piece of mine for years. I have one or two friends who love to hear it and always ask me to sing it, and I love to oblige. I love the vocal trills and the sad storytelling and the lilt and the invitation to everyone present to join in at the key moment – it will not be long, love, til our wedding day. It’s a folk funeral ballad, based on an old poem altered by Padraic Colum, and sung to a traditional medieval tune, popular with travellers, and often mistakenly sung at weddings up and down the country.

One very sad day, a strange funeral day, I somehow found myself on the beautiful stage of the round auditorium of Old Cabell Hall in the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, a thousand seats rising up and around me, singing this song through tears as the faculty bluegrass band strummed behind me. The audience was just a handful friends.

I will never forget that moment as long as I live.

Here is a haunting version by the inimitable Sinead O’Connor.

2. The Trumpet Child, by Over the Rhine

This is an apocalyptic or eschatological song – in other words, a song about the end of the world. Its focus is the child who blows the trumpet that signifies the renewal of all things… in short, the hope of the Christian.

I’ve been asked to sing at over a dozen weddings over the years but this is the one that stands out in my mind. The bride and groom requested it for the church service, and I had the great privilege and pleasure of singing under the direction and guidance of the immensely talented Craig Skene and his band and the hired string quartet. The song itself is a carefully crafted work of art and their performance, and mine I suppose, was such that the whole congregation burst into spontaneous applause at the end (if you’re not a regular at church, applause during liturgy is very unusual). Spine tingling – and a complete privilege to be part of it. Oh to write a song that good!

The actual performance itself was kindly recorded by someone in the third row with their phone, but the phone couldn’t capture it fully and as a result it’s fuzzy and distorted. But here it is in any case; you get the idea.