voices in the wilderness

So this is it. Lockdown. And how are we finding it so far? Incredibly difficult, I suspect. Not taking away from those people who have health concerns or who are otherwise high risk, I can’t imagine how hard that must be. But for a great majority of us we are facing a different challenge. We know rationally that we are probably not in any great danger, yet some-how we are still lying awake at night, at least some of the time. We are still feeling fear.

I had a friend whose child went through a phase of asking what her second favourite of various things was. Children do this a lot, they expect you to have a favourite colour or a favourite number, which most of us don’t beyond the age of about eight. A second favourite is an even bigger challenge. ‘What’s your second favourite magnet?’ She was asked. Then, more challenging still in the presence of her husband, ‘who was your second favourite boyfriend?’.

But apparently, what most of us do have, hard-wired, is a second biggest fear. Our first biggest being death, pretty obviously. Our second? Public speaking, apparently. Or anything that leads to embarrassment or shame. What is at the route of this is loss of identity, and it stems from a very ancient time within ourselves when this would have amounted to death anyway. Because it would have meant expulsion from the tribe, isolation. Which would have inevitably meant death. So, we are facing our two biggest fears, which is essentially one fear, and we are facing them largely alone.

Except we are not alone, we never are when we are in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place we go to hear two voices in particular. Some of us might be slightly familiar with it at this time of year, but this feels like Lent SUPER, or Lent MAX. Extreme Lent, if you will. Robbed of all those things that normally make up our lives and our sense of who it is we are, stripped bare of our identity, we are so vulnerable to who we listen to. Because someone will always want to step in and tell you who you are, or tell you what the answers are.

I read somewhere else that the three temptations, the three lies the devil tells in the wilderness, are that you are what you have, you are what you do, and you are what other people think of you. You are what you have, as in, turn these stones to bread or have enough toilet roll. You are what you do, as in, save yourself, or magically get this whole situation right and save yourself of your family. You are what others think of you, as in, the whole world will worship you, or admire your clever Pandemic opinions on social media or your touching rendition of a Leonard Cohen song from your balcony. All empty promises, feeling ever more empty as the supermarket shelves empty, and one more meeting is cancelled everyday, and those likes and hits just can’t take the place of hugs and smiles.

But you will indeed be tempted to jump at it because the feeling is just so damn unpleasant isn’t it? The unravelling. I know that at the start of this lent, before I knew we were going to be in a global pandemic situation -cause lets face it, no-one expects a global pandemic situation – I found myself thinking that I had already been in lent for about two years. For various reasons I had been in a prolonged period of feeling like I didn’t know who I was, or rather, so much of what I thought made up my identity. And I found it written, in one of my prayer journals, simply It Feels Like Dying.

Which in a way it is, it was. And one way or another, whatever we believe, we are all people of the resurrection. We see dying and renewal all around us all the time. Cycles of withering, and decay and growth and hope. Not without painful and difficult bits, but inevitable and constant. Sometimes we must face physical death but much, much more often we must face the death of bits of ourselves, shed snake-like skins, prune wilted blossoms, some of which fall away easily to the wind, but many others kick and scream and cleave to us all the way.

Because there is another voice in the wilderness, whatever you want to call it. I believe it is promised to us, the voice that indeed lead us there to speak tenderly to us. Saying you, only you. There is part of you that is eternal once all the rest of this has passed away. And that is the part of you that I love beyond your imagining.

And so my hope for you in this difficult time is that you hear even the smallest echo of that voice, just a glimpse of the face that loves you amidst all of this. Those of us who are lucky enough to have people around us who love us might catch it in the eyes and words of other people. People who long to be close to the real us if we would only let them. Now is the time to let them. But more than that, I hope you find what only comes in the deep silence you find when you fall off the edge of everything else. That is, the truth of your own astonishing preciousness. The lies you have been listening to your whole life about who you are and what you are worth probably won’t be vanquished without much tears, mess and swearing, but I wish you the joy and the peace and the freedom of discovering yourself on the other side of it all, unravelled but strangely whole, and completely beloved.

following the star…

We are having a large star put up on our roof today. On our street everyone really goes to town with their decorations but we have never joined in before. The Other Half of Our Street takes it all very seriously, with a big co-ordinated effort and white lights only, whereas for the riff-raff on Our Half Of The Street, anything goes. Its like Fairy-light Fight-club. But our plain white star is quite restrained.

I feel quite emotional about it. It feels, well, hopeful. And hope is tricky isn’t it? I am aware that as a woman of faith, I always have hope. But its a deeper, darker kind of hope. Not a its-all-going-to-be-ok hope. Not a guided-every-step-of-the-way hope. I suppose following a star must have actually  been pretty bleak. I mean, if you actually wandered towards a real star, it would be very dark and you wouldn’t have a clue where you were going, just a distant glimmer. Maybe that’s what this time of year is all about.

I have written before about how Christmas represents the hope that everything really can be different. That power can be born in the vulnerable, a king in a manger, a young woman believed. And while that can be true, this year I am painfully aware that it isn’t always. The angry child inside me, inside so many of us I am sure, stamps her feet and shouts “why isn’t it better?”, “why can’t someone fix this”, “surely if people knew the truth then all of this would get sorted out?”. But the adult knows that the child on the waiting room floor, the people waiting for universal credit, the woman whose house has been destroyed to build another pipeline, all these people want someone to fix it for them. Deeply, deeply shitty things happen all the time and no-one puts it right.

Especially not God. God can do solutions, he can do everything, but he doesn’t always. People of exceptional faith seem better at dealing with this. Look at Mary. She had it really rough, but, knowing that she was going to get the only soundbite that would come from a poor woman for pretty much centuries, she managed to fire out some belting lines about how God sends the rich away empty and destroys the might of princes. Facing a pregnancy that was going to look illegitimate, a future of all kinds of persecution, and eventually having to watch her son die in brutal and humiliating circumstances, her hope was still perfect. Based, probably, on the knowledge of her son as God-is-with-us. With us and in us, as in everything.

Because I have come to understand recently that God is in the storm and not just the voice that calms it. In the water as well as the walking on water. A few weeks ago we listened to Haydn’s creation in the church. I thought it would be floaty and serene but it wasn’t, it was turbulent. The music was crashy and angry in places, and the wind howled around the building at the same time. And in that slightly jarring and uncomfortable place I found a new peace. The peace of knowing that God could be in my own darkness as well as my good bits, in pain as well as healing, in anger as well as kindness, when anger is wounded love, and God is love.

He is, of course, in everything apart from lies. That’s the one place He Simply Cannot Be. Which is rotten when we are all so surrounded by lies at the moment aren’t we? And its inevitable. Because wherever there are people who can’t accept their vulnerability, who can’t look in the mirror and see their wounds and own them as part of their God given loveliness, we will have to have lies to cover it up. We will have to shunt the misery down onto those more vulnerable. We will have to have power that only exists by making others powerless.

So maybe that’s what the hope of Christmas is. That we can enter that stable, and see the child lying in straw, and the child lying in coats, as totally vulnerable, but totally visible. And know that when we speak the truth, and keep our eyes on those in most need, those with the least armour, we will set our selves up for things to not always end well in the world’s terms. But that the worlds terms are not, ultimately, all there is. We can lift our eyes to the stars. And we can cry out. Knowing not only that we are heard, but that God is as much the cry as the one we cry to, because it was him who put the cry there in each of us as surely as he planted each star.


On Holy and patient toasters…

I have been alone in the presbytery for a lot of the summer, between priests, as I inadvertently managed to tell a telephone salesman.
“Mummy, when Fr Martin is away, are you the priest?” My daughter asked me.

“Is that because you and Fr Martin aren’t married?”
Oh Gosh. I thought. Really not the case. “Erm…no. Mummy can’t be a priest because she’s a woman. And Fr Martin isn’t allowed to marry anyone”. Bloody hell, I thought. Our religion makes no sense at all.

Read the full article here

families at Mass together…

“We went to a rubbish church when we were in [English town redacted],” my seven-year-old son is telling my eight-year-old daughter. “Zero points out of 10.”
Blimey, I thought. My son is notoriously not a massive Mass fan, and has been known to etch-a-sketch ‘church is boring’ by halfway through the Kyrie, but by anybody’s standards, scoring zero is harsh.
“What score does Mass at our church get?” I asked.
He thought for a moment: “Five.”
I’ll take that, I thought, but there is plenty of room for improvement. I kept the thought in mind as I prepared for a ‘family Mass’ at our church.

Read the full article in the Scottish Catholic Observer here

Seeing Jesus and listening to George Michael…

I saw Jesus on my street the other day… Well, sort of.
Not like that time when I saw Prince William in Newington. Or Neil Tennant on platform six of Leeds train station. I didn’t see Jesus quite like I saw those two. But I saw him. And he stayed for a while and rolled a cigarette on the bonnet of a car, just opposite my window. Which seemed a bit out of character but who am I to judge?

It reminds me a bit of the warden when I was in halls of residence who wouldn’t let me get into trouble for anything because he harboured some strange belief that I was an angel. I never liked to burst his bubble that real angels probably don’t disable their fire alarms so that they can sit and smoke cigars while they listen to Bob Dylan, so perhaps I should have been eligible for the fine or reprimand after all…

On loss…

We are incredibly good at dealing with death in the Catholic Church, but what of other losses we live with? Loss of health, identity, homeland, youth.
What about those things that are painful in a messy, undefineable way? Relationships that failed for reasons we don’t understand, people who walked out of our lives deliberately, not taken by death.
Or, people who are still with us bodily, but the persons we loved left some time ago. After all, we are living longer but dying slower, people can leave us in cruel increments rather than all at once.

Read the full article on the Scottish Catholic Observer here

On broken tellies and the resurrection…

…So, back to those tellies, we broke the first one drawing the curtains. Knocked it right over and the screen smashed. So come Easter Monday, facing a rainy day of school holidays, I went to John Lewis to purchase a new one. Came back all pleased with myself, all hunter gatherer and provider, then KNOCKED THAT ONE OVER AND SMASHED IT TOO. And it felt like no greater depth of despair could have been plumbed. I completely fell to pieces with it. I am rubbish. I am a terrible person. I can’t do anything right.

read the full article here


Shedding a little light…

There is a service at our church in a couple of days. It is for people who have been abused while in the care of the church. It’s a bit controversial really. Might make people uncomfortable. But I tend to think that Jesus had a habit of making people uncomfortable from time to time. And we would all be in a very different situation if He had shied away from the painful bits.

And I think it’s important, really. Because sometimes not mentioning things is damaging. Secrets are damaging, in all kinds of ways. And silence can be healing, but it has to be the right kind of silence. I think that sometimes when you make people keep quiet about something, you are telling them its their fault. You are telling them they have something to be ashamed of. You might think that some things ought to be private. But people who have been abused don’t always have the luxury of knowing the difference between what is private and what is secret. That was taken from them. I think we need to honour them by giving them the right to choose what they make visible, what they make heard, even if its anonymously or collectively.

It wasn’t anything to do with any church or institution, but I myself was abused at the age of fourteen. As I type the words I check and find that no, the sky has not fallen in. Yes, the world is still spinning on its axis.  I type it again, because it has cost me hundreds or thousands of pounds in therapy to be able to do so and I want to get my money’s worth: I was abused. It wasn’t, comparatively speaking, such a traumatic experience.  At the time, I just thought I had a much older, charming boyfriend who I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about. I only started to question it a couple of years ago, when he went to prison for abusing other girls, some of them even younger than me.

Even then, I fought the realisation hard. I read recently that, after death, the second thing we are programmed to fear most of all is loss of identity. To come to terms with abuse is to face this fear. Not simply because – as with all assaults on person-hood and acts of violence- we are challenged to accept the identity of victim or survivor, to cast ourselves in light in which we would massively prefer not to be seen. But because abusers and groomers take control of your identity. You are special and beautiful because they tell you. You don’t know who you would be without them. I genuinely believe that this can be a huge part of why people keep quiet for so long. To strip yourself of the identity passed to you as a young person or a child is terrifying.

I do sometimes wonder if I would have been better not knowing. But over time I have come to realise that the cost of keeping secrets, which I was compelled to do, is huge. Once you start holding things in you can’t really stop, and you end up spending a lot of life feeling either angry or lonely or both. Or you just disconnect altogether, by whatever means suits you best, whatever your particular poison is. And a world that you have always known to be dishonest will always be an unsafe place.

Perhaps most seriously for me, I had always thought that I had grown up because of what happened to me when I was small, that was the basis of my adulthood. But that isn’t really growing up at all. So I have ended up as an impostor, angrily looking around for a real grown up to help me out at every turn. Which is particularly difficult when you have kids yourself. Raising two babies is difficult for anyone. But it is really, really hard for a child.

Of course, I can only speak for myself. I am well aware that there are untold numbers of people who have suffered much, much worse than me. I can only express what I need, not imagine what they might. I have a strong sense that I need to speak out about my experience whenever I want because I have done nothing wrong. What would help me most of all is a simple “that’s shit. It shouldn’t have happened. We want you to know we don’t think any the worse of you for it”. And perhaps, most crucially, “you don’t have to hold this in anymore for fear of making other people uncomfortable”.

It occurs to me that might not be a bad starting point for how to respond to other survivors, just in case the same would be helpful for them. I feel deeply, deeply blessed to be able to share these thoughts with a community, and with so many people who love me. I will stand and sing and light candles on Sunday for all those who I know are not so fortunate. Saying “this is shit, and it shouldn’t have happened, and whatever we can do to stop you having to hold this, we will.”

An open letter to a boy I once snogged following Brexit

Dear Paul,

I hope you don’t mind me writing to you, although I appreciate this might seem weird. I thought about writing to you last night, after I saw on your Facebook that you were excited about voting leave, and worried about your vote being changed because you had voted with a pencil. I think you were probably joking about that bit though. But I sort of wanted to see what the results were.

We were at school together from the age of about nine I think. We had the same surname, but we are not related. You have a sister with exactly the same name as my sister, if I remember right. We weren’t in many of the same classes I don’t think, but I remember sitting near you on the bus on our first school trip to France. I remember doing art GCSE together too, and that once my bra pinged open and you fastened it back up from me. It was one with three or four hooks, I think, and you said you didn’t see many like this anymore, and then Mrs Green walked in and told us both off. And I believed we snogged once, on a night out at the Queens Hall and then again in a kebab shop afterwards. You probably don’t know that I hunted you out that night. I had just had a big break up and I remember saying to my friends that I quite fancied seeing if I could get off with you. And I was pleased to find I could!

Anyway that’s my embarrassing confession of my chest, back to the reason I am writing. I don’t know much about you, what you do now as a job or where you live. I don’t know what your politics are and what papers you read so I don’t want to make any judgements. But I thought I would tell you a bit about what I have done since we left school and why I ended up thinking so differently about such a big issue from you.

I came up to Edinburgh after I left home for university. It was much further away from Bradford than I thought, I was a bit shocked when my mum’s car left Newcastle and I saw a sign saying there was two hundred miles to go. I came to study History. It was hard at first. You remember how I always came pretty much top in everything at school but it wasn’t the same at uni. You had to do all this work that nobody told you how to do and there was no-one to help you. And I was homesick, but there were loads of people who had travelled loads or left home years ago and they were all really confident. But I got the hang of it in the end.

I started studying Russian language too, just because I thought it would make me sexy and interesting I think (it didn’t). That was harder than I thought as well, you had to learn a whole new alphabet and everything. Then I had a couple of bad relationships and decided to move to Siberia, as you do. One guy had taken a knife and destroyed pretty much every piece of property I owned. Which was rough but it sorted of made me realise how much stuff I didn’t need. And then when I lived in Russia I lived pretty simply. Everyone out there lived in tiny flats and had no money (although I am sure its very different now), it sort of changed my standards a bit, made me believe in, well, not having that much stuff.

Anyway after uni I just kept studying. I did a masters and then started a PhD. I did a lot of work on how the media works, how the newspapers give out messages. For example, if there is a story about a family whose house is burnt down, you might get a picture of the family and the caption underneath might say something like “peter Andrews with his wife and dog outside their family home. The dog’s name is Bernie”. As in, the wife doesn’t matter at all. (women don’t matter at all). Or if they print a story saying how bad it is that people in a certain postcode can’t have a certain cancer drug, you never ask why people who develop cancer drugs should be charging so much money for them, you blame someone else. So again, all this made me question things a bit more.

Then I met a man who I went on to marry. He was really posh. I mean really posh. I went to parties with all his parents’ friends and they would say things like “I think you are very brave for being here”. Can you believe that? Like I was brave for just for feeling like I was perfectly good enough to go to their stupid party?

It is very weird becoming part of a family like that. My kids are pencilled in on a family tree that goes back to about the year 1400. And my husband’s family are very small scale posh people as these things go. There are so many more of these people than you think. Because these people even exist that’s what puts the property prices up for everybody else. And because they are the landlords they put all the rents up too.

So anyway the reason I am telling you this is because, while there are lots of lovely posh and rich people, I believe that this inquality is ridiculous. And often these people don’t mix in so you don’t know about them.  Maybe, just maybe, it would be fair enough if these people had earned their money but they didn’t. And I genuinely believe that the fact we are always ruled by people who didn’t earn their money is the biggest problem we have. But because they control everything, and they control the government and the newspapers. And they can take risks because they don’t have to face the consequences. Too often, life is all just one big game for people who have never and will never need to worry about how they are going to pay for new shoes for their kids.

And its not even, I don’t think, because they are greedy and they want to keep all of their money. Some of it’s a bit more weird than that. For a couple of years I got involved working with a load of even more posh people. I wanted to campaign to stop children being sent to boarding school. I had never thought about this before, but loads of people are still sending their kids away to school when they are seven or eight, sometimes younger and it totally messes them up. Some of them still turn out really nice but some of them don’t.

If you think about it, they go away when they are seven and they have to not cry else they will get the shit beaten out of them. So if they are not careful they just become completely programmed to make sure whatever happens, its always someone else getting the shit beaten out of them always someone else getting their head flushed down the loo. So I want to say to you, because you might not have thought about this, you make sure that’s not what Boris Johnson is doing to you.

Anyway some of the people I was working with turned out to be real bastards and that’s what made me realise that for some people, and I do feel sorry for them, power is a thing in itself. If at some point in their life people have felt like they have no power they will do everything they can to feel powerful an often the best way to do that is to take someone elses power away. And I think that happens a lot in politics. Make them need you and then say no. To benefits. To job opportunities. To asylum. But they are very good at covering themselves up too, so I suppose I just want to warn you, just make sure that its not you and your family they come for. Or that you are persuaded someone else is to  blame.

Like I say, I don’t know your politics, but you are a nice guy and I worry that you might be having the piss taken out of you. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, they don’t give a shit about you or your family. They want to keep you down and they want you to be racist and sexist and blame immigrants and women for the things you don’t like about your life and your country so they can shaft you and you won’t notice.

So what I wanted to say is this. I am happy for you that you have got a result that you wanted. But now, please, please, make sure you do everything you can to really get what you wanted out of it. If you want the best for your kids fight for them to be able to have everything they dreamed of, the best education, the best healthcare, a nice, kind, loving world to grow up in. And hold to account those people who govern you, and make sure they keep their promises. We voted differently, but I hope this can be the start of different people working together and communicating, who basically want the same things.

Lots of love,

Sally xx

12.12.15: red lines

protest“Can an umbrella  be seen as a weapon?” asks a man to a microphone, and its clear that this is going to be one of the more unusual question-and-answer sessions I have been to. “If you get arrested for carrying an umbrella it’s a good story” comes the reply, and I am aware that I am after a good story but I don’t fancy that much.  “But seriously, we have ordered five hundred special non-violent umbrellas without spikes on the top.” I start to whoop and clap, because I like this, and the vibe is getting to me. I have been sat on the floor now for an hour or so with three thousand other people listening to briefings for the Red Lines demonstration and all the incredibly cool men with jaunty hats and trendy facial hair who say things like ‘comrades’ and tell us which lawyers to call if we are arrested are causing my usually cautious internal monologue has taken on a whole new tone: I hear it say things like ‘wow, shit just got serious man’.

The next question comes from a lady who does not want to leave her pram and come to the microphone, but then decides that her pram will be safe with the nice beardy gentlemen nearby for a moment. “Is a baby a person for the purpose of this, can they be part of a political protest?” . I clap again, because I’m loving it now. I know that she is asking because, as we have been repeatedly reminded, France is in a state of emergency, and that means no more than two people can gather together with a political message. For this reason we have been told to descend on a top secret location in pairs, with our non-spikey umbrellas and red flowers. “That’s very interesting” comes the reply, ” can a baby be a political entity? Perhaps in times like this children are more political than ever”.

Nonetheless, the lady is told to take her baby only to the later demonstration at the Eifel Tower which has been approved by the police. Again, inner monologue says ‘shit just got real’. We are told that while at this stage the red line protest was still considered illegal, but the organisers had committed to disband and de-escalate if thre was any trouble. A lady told us about a de-escalation technique which involved forming lines of cuddling and kissing. I mused as to whether in a conflict situation I would be prepared to take on e for the team and snog some hot French men, and decided that in the interest of climate justice and world peace I might just. “If it all goes tits up we’ll know where to find Sal then”, said one of my colleagues.

I had not expected to be quite as involved as all this, to be honest. I opted to come to Paris several weeks ago, certainly long before November the 13th. A group of us all wanted to come from two environmental charities in Leith: Leith Community Crops in Pots and the Himalayan centre for Arts and Culture. I thought I would be wandering round with some pictures of bumble bees and then sitting in a quiet corner somewhere drinking pastis and writing blogs. When the tragic events of a month ago unfolded I watched in horror like everyone else, and also found myself anxious, thinking I would definitely be keeping more to the pastis-and-laptop end of the activity spectrum if I came out here. But two nights ago I sat on the floor with another three thousand people and something else changed. We listened to Naomi Klein and a whole host of other amazing speakers and I found myself moved to tears at times, and ready for a different kind of action.

The first moving talk came from Nick Dearden of Attac Uk, who was reporting to us on the progress of the COP21 talks so far. He spoke of how there were diplomatic games at play whereby rich polluting nations are labelling themselves ‘ambitious’ in meeting climate targets and blaming rising emissions levels on BRIC countries. He also explained that in order for those countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change ( and the ones who aren’t causing it) to even have their demands brought to the table they must agree to never seek compensation from richer polluting nations for the damage they will suffer due to environmental disasters caused by climate change in the coming years. All this spoke to me of not simply injustice, but bullying and abuse, and we were later reminded by another speaker that climate change is all about power and control.

This thought was also emphasised in Naomi Klein’s speech. She explained that the climate talks of the COP21 had already failed before they begun because the US has stated that they could not be legally binding: whatever the outcome there is no chance that polluting nations can actually be held accountable. Klein also spoke to us of an unfortunate moment, an incident of bad timing, when the first climate talks began at the same time as the first trade agreements. She explained the toxic relationship between these two movements, that the latter secures the certain failure of the former because it entrenches the idea the trade will always trump climate.  She pointed out that this was also the time when Fukayama stated that history was over: this was 1989.

I was seven in 1989, many of the people sitting around me on the floor of the Climate Challenge zone presumably weren’t even born. We are a people who have, according to Fukayama, grown up outside of history. This had a certain resonance for me,  struck by how I had come to believe in the inevitability of things being as they simply because that is how they always have been. Here in this room, when we were told ‘we are going to do some civil  disobedience’, suddenly it seemed that it may not be so. Perhaps we were dazzled by foghorns and red umbrellas and super-cool blokes with jaunty red hats calling us ‘comrades’, but there is a sense that we may be opting back in to history. And at a very necessary time. At the Friends of hanger on the east of the city I was struck by a message from the Outer Hebrides pinned to a notice board which read “the people of the future will judge this generation by its response to climate change, nothing else will matter.” I feel ready to risk a bit of tear gas.

Civil disobedience is all about the body, we are told. This interests me, because I tend to think everything is all about the body. At the community croft from which me and my co-protesters have  travelled, I have learned that I can use my body to dig, to grow food and harvest it, to provide nourishment for my children in the same way I did with my body when they were babies and before they were born. I have come to value my own agency through the work of my own hands and a connection to something other than computer screens or my depleted bank balance, and steadily believe I might have a voice, however small. I could place my body in a protest, and I could remove it (hopefully) when I didn’t want to be there anymore: I could make a statement with my very  personhood.  And so, this morning I found myself and my small disobedient body with red tights, red lipstick and a red umbrella on the rue de la grande armee, with fifteen thousand other people, observing a two minute silence to all those unknown lost and unknown  who-will-be-lost in “the war on poverty that is climate change”. I don’t know if we were making history, or reclaiming it, but we were having a go.