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 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.


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


flash fiction: number eight

January 28, 2014

I keep my head down. There isn’t much getting done but best not to reveal that; not just now. The filing cabinet in her office slams and a cup bangs on a desktop. A sheaf of papers rustles for five, ten, fifteen, twenty seconds. The door is ajar and the faint odour of rage is seeping slowly through the crack, burning my nostrils just a touch, like the first disappointing hint that although the stew is looking all right, the bottom of the pot is crusted black. Her phone goes and she gives it four rings before answering it, although it is at her right hand. Her tone gives nothing away but we exchange a glance.

When she calls my name I am alarmed. What have I forgotten? Now: to be meek or defiant? The moment is too short to decide: best to endure quickly. Kicking the chair back it gives a little squeal, giving voice to the piglet of anxiety in my guts. Ten steps and I am gazing down at her from where she glowers behind her desk. There is a small pool of cold coffee forming a skin on top of a small pile of forms.

Sit, she says.

Close the door there, she says.

She looks at me a few moments too long before speaking. I decide I will go with defiant. I don’t know why she is angry but like an airborne virus it’s making its home in me now.

I went to that meeting today, she says, and I asked you to prepare two folders for me. I got to the meeting and there was only one folder. I asked you to arrange this yesterday before I left. Did you not hear me?

A wave self righteousness approaches my shore. No, I say calmly. You asked for one folder to be prepared, so that is what I did. I wrote it down. When I asked you if you would need copies, you said no.

Do you live in a fantasy world? she asks me. A pause. I wish, I reply. Oh you think you’re funny? she says. Your negligence embarrassed me today. It embarrassed me. It embarrassed this whole company. I’m really growing tired of your carelessness.

I consider my next move.

If I misheard you, I apologise, I say.

She leans in. And another thing she says. She fixes me with a gaze like a razor. It has been noted, she says, by some of the other staff, that you do not write your ‘eights’ correctly.

Wait.

My ‘eights’ I ask? genuinely confused.

Your eights, she says coldly. She is speaking very deliberately. You do your eights like this. She picks up a pen and to my amazement she sketches in the air how anyone would write the number 8: in one swift movement starting at the top, swirling down and then curving back up again to the top.

I am in shock.

In this office, she says to me, we do our eights like this. She raises her hand into the  air and draws two consecutive circles, one on top of the other.

Hang on, I say. It has been noted? By some of the other staff? Which staff?

Another pause. Oh, she says, I couldn’t possibly say.

That’s utter nonsense, I say. Nobody could possibly complain about the way I write my eights. Nobody would. I…I can’t believe what I am hearing.

Au contraire, she says, and I am alarmed by the inexplicably smug tone. Almost everyone in this company has come to me about this. I mean, it’s up to you, she says. If you want to continue doing your eights the way that you do, that is up to you. But that’s simply not how it’s done in this office.

Okay, I say.

If I ask you to do something, you do it in future, do you understand me? she says.

Yes, I say. I get up to leave.

I return to my desk, somewhat bewildered. I stare at my colleagues, working silently. I look at my desk, at my work. I pick up my pen. I draw an eight, in the usual fashion. I draw another; this time, two circles atop each other. I draw another circle, and another and another and another and soon one of the circles trembles and it’s swelling and it opens wide on top of my desk, and I raise my feet and climb inside it and find myself blissfully descending deep, deep down into its dark and fertile warmth where not a single number can reach me.


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: 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: 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.