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.

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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.)

 


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.


the ten series: one picture

October 15, 2013

noodlehead

Who is this fine, strapping young lad you might ask?

Look: I don’t care what anyone says – there is no way you could tell this guy has a hairpiece made of noodles that turned out badly when someone was cooking them one night for dinner. Nope. 100% all natural hair.


the ten series: three films

October 13, 2013

In the same way that a retweet isn’t an endorsement, featuring in this post is not necessarily a recommendation.  Three memorable ones of the hundreds and hundreds:

1. The Exorcist. When I was fifteen this movie was re-released in the cinema in Ireland. I was absolutely desperate to see it. As a kid I was quite afraid of my parents so did not tend to step out of line or do naughty things very often. On this occasion, however, myself and my buddy S broke all the rules by sneaking out of her parents house at night while they were out and we were supposed to be in, to take the 66 bus into Dublin city centre and watch this movie in the Savoy cinema on O’Connell Street. Well. We were rightly shitting ourselves. It was a horrifying ordeal that was only partly enjoyable at the time and not at all enjoyable later on. We screamed and clutched at each other and trembled all the way home. I had flashbacks for years!

2. Dancer in the Dark. I have always loved Bjork and found her a bit mad and mesmerising. When I saw her in this movie I was simultaneously transfixed and all at once filled with dread at the appalling injustice suffered by her character Selma, who is charged with a horrific crime that she was not responsible for and sentenced accordingly. I sat on the floor of the living room of my rented student accommodation at the time and cried for a good twenty minutes after it was over. I think that was the beginning of me choosing my movies more carefully. Not that I wish that I had not seen it, but the misery of it stayed with me for a long time after I stopped crying. It showed me my own sensitivity and I have not been as willing to watch just any old thing since then. I am more discerning because it’s just not practical to go into mourning after watching a movie and find yourself not fully able to do your job or string a coherent sentence together.

3. High Fidelity. Based on the novel by Nick Hornby, but immeasurably improved by being set in the US instead of in the UK, I include this movie because it is a tonic on a sad day, and there are quite a few of those. Everyone should watch it at least once.


the ten series: seven wants

September 16, 2013

1. To not want so much. When I was a teenager and I first opened a copy of the New Testament for myself, I remember reading the letters of one of the authors – a guy called Paul of Tarsus – who was writing to a community of Christians in Phillipi; friends of his. He was in prison at the time and bound in chains, for the crime of heresy – teaching something different to the law, and bringing filthy Greeks into the Jewish temple. He didn’t strike me as fanatical or delusional, and yet despite his chains he communicated this intense joy and peace. Reading it almost stung me. I am petulant, dissatisfied and selfish and I live in freedom and luxury. Since then I have wanted to know that peace, regardless of circumstances. I have tasted it occasionally, but I’m after a permanent fix if anyone can help me out.

2. To work in a paid position as a prison chaplain or to be able to work full time in a prison on a voluntary basis and be funded by a rich husband. I suppose what I want is to be able to do this work that I enjoy and feel that I am good at and that I feel is crucial to society and still be able to pay rent and bills. Failing this I want good, meaningful work of any kind that stretches me a little. I would also love to have a period of time free from money worries and be in a position to be financially generous to others.

3. To put this endless saga of not being able to drive properly behind me. HALP.

4. To have full health and recovery from Eating Distress. This is a complex condition that has gripped me for many years and from which I am almost fully recovered, but not yet completely free. Recovery takes a lot of time, work and commitment and in difficult times it is often the first thing to slide.

5. To improve in my ability to self-care. This is linked with the previous want but not exclusive to it. I have become more aware of my values and emotional, spiritual and mental health needs, but this does not always lead to positive action. I’d like to develop healthier, happier routines that are fulfilling and don’t involve four consecutive hours sitting at a computer hitting refresh on Twitter. I’d also like to become better at playing the guitar (I would consider playing the guitar to be self-care) and take up yoga. In fact I have taken steps towards both of these things only this week.

6. To become one of those wise old ladies that everyone looks up to for home-spun advice and tea and sympathy. That I want to become this kind of excludes me from ever achieving it. Sigh.

7. To become a better student. Despite having a load of pointless letters after my name I have kicked and screamed my way unwillingly through rivers of assignments and exams and assessments. I am a lazy-ass shortcut student who would rather read the cliffnotes than the actual textbook. What I am really saying is that I would like to learn the virtue of self-discipline. I am not a natural academic but really, who is? It’s 5% talent, 95% hard work. Ah feck it, this is boring. Let’s just play Hungry Hungry Hippos.


the ten series: eight fears

September 16, 2013

I don’t know why in this series fears get eight slots. Seems a bit neurotic. I’m not quite sure that I have eight fears. I presume there are some deep-seated fears that I shouldn’t put on the blog and instead explore in therapy, curled up on a crying chair surrounded by wads of balled-up tissue, with hair in my mouth and a river of snot to my chin. RIGHT LET’S GO

eight fears

1. That I am ‘too much’ or ‘too intense’ for people and that this means that ultimately I am a novelty rather than someone you really like to be around. There are only a few soul friends where this doesn’t worry me.

2. Slugs, snails and soft-bodied creatures. I don’t mind creepy-crawlies, but anything soft and slimy gives me the willies. I have been known to walk home in the dark on a wet night on tip-toe, shining the light from my phone onto my path. Stepping on them sends a shiver through me that lasts for hours. Anything without a spine definitely cannot be trusted. Take jelly fish for example (barf). Ah I can’t even talk about them. They’re too disgusting.

3. That my husband will die. It struck approximately one week after I married him. This is a stupid and pointless fear, because he definitely will die. And so will I. I suppose I fear the impending reality. On some level I think that I would rather die first, to never have to endure losing him. But then I think of how badly he would take it if I died, and I don’t want to put him through that. It is funny how as soon as you find yourself in a deep and loving relationship (not necessarily romantic, either) you suddenly develop this grip on the person as a reaction to the fragility of our existence. I went through a phase (which I think most children do) of deeply fearing the deaths of my parents. It’s incredible how this particular fear can hold us captive. It is the one fear that exposes how out of control everything is: how futile our attempts to hang onto anything are.

4. Small spaces. I have claustraphobia, for realz. It’s not an active part of my psyche so whenever it strikes I am invariably shocked as well as terrified. My most recent bout hit when I visited a museum in Aberdeen where you have to climb a narrow, winding concrete stairwell, built a few centuries ago, to get to the exhibit. UM, NO. About six steps up my brain shouted NO, WE’RE LEAVING NOW. GO GO GO. I had to turn back and leave immediately. I was disappointed because I really wanted to see the exhibit but if I had pushed on through I might have wet myself by the time I’d reached the top, and then had to endure tremors while wandering around but thinking about the descent. Another time that it struck when I wasn’t expecting (and now I think about it, it might have been the first time ever that it struck) was when I was on a primary school tour in a country park and we had to crawl through underground mud tunnels as part of some orienteering track. I had a massive freakout, underground, in a mud tunnel. Yeah.

5. Mountains. There is nothing you can make me do to climb mountains. I will most definitely be the person in the group who breaks their ankle or topples backwards to their grisly death. I don’t mind a friendly little hill. I don’t mind sloping trails in a forest park. But you will never ever get me on a mountain hike where there is even the remotest chance of losing balance and smashing my head open. To be honest with you, it’s not even so much a fear of injury. It’s fear of the humiliation of having to be looked after by the rest of the group and carried back to safety. DEAR GOD NO.

6. That my lack of a proper career will never end and I will be doomed to bouts of unemployment followed by stints temping in stuffy offices until the day I die. This one keeps me awake at night.

7. Being the minister’s wife. My husband worked for six years in a church and is now taking an academic break before going back to full time work in a church community as a minister. This fear of being The Little Woman (ha) has many layers. My husband outshines me in many ways. That is very difficult for my pride. He works harder, is more impressive, achieves more highly. He gets prizes, scholarships, job offers. I get the unemployment line, or so it feels. The church is a misogynistic place. My husband is a feminist and our home is an equal place. We both encompass qualities of the masculine and feminine. But I find myself constantly attending events where Husband-Unit is the keynote speaker and I am the silent wife in the background. I have met colleagues of his, repeatedly, who cannot hold onto my name. I am used to him having fans and followers who tack me on as an addition. This would be less grating if I had something of my own, but despite all my education, striving and very best efforts, I remain The Minister’s Wife. Even moving here to Aberdeen, I was shocked to find that 95% of the PhD students in his department are male, and that their wives and partners have started a women’s social group thing. I just can’t attend something where my identity is as an addendum to someone else’s.

8. Driving. I smashed the car into the garden wall and caused thousands of euros worth of damage that has sent our premiums through the roof. I fear killing someone, wrecking things, causing a massive pile-up. This is a saga that goes on and on in my quest to get my licence. I feel like as soon as I get that goddam licence I am hanging it up and never driving again. That part is the biggest fantasy of all, as there’s no way I’m throwing a pile of kids into a cart at the back of a pushbike and using that to get us from a to b. I’m even worse on a bike than behind the wheel!

Oh, have we run out of room? Turns out I could have kept going indefinitely.