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.)

 


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.


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.


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.


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.