New year, new me

Happy New Year from snowy Michigan!

Happy New Year from snowy Michigan!

It’s 2013, people!  Woohoo!  I love a new year, a new creative canvas.  All this American snow makes me feel like everything can be made new.  And this year I am especially excited because this blog is going to be growing and changing in big ways.

First, it has a new home (and a new name):

www.jennyfromtheblock.co.uk

(Thanks J-Lo).

I have loved writing here at “The Good Stuff” and sharing stories from my travels and my neighbourhood.  But I’ve been feeling for a while like I wanted to write about some other things too.  The reason I search out stories that give me hope is for more than just a sense of well-being and optimism.  It’s because they shape how I live.  They give me ideas and inspiration and encouragement to live a different way.  And I’d like to share some of those more practical stories too – not just the successful ones, but also my failures…

I hope to be travelling less this year than I did in my crazy 2012, so sourcing stories from all over the place will be less easy.  The blog will be a place to wrestle with how to live in the middle of the inner city (in our home, affectionately known as “the block”) and be a good neighbour whilst trying not to destroy the planet.  Or:

Attempts to live green and simple in the city.

(That’s the tagline).

So please stay tuned to the new blog (everything from this blog has been transferred handily to the archives), and watch out for some new features on green habits and simple living alongside the stories of hope.

Thank you all for reading and following.  See you at the new site.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Christmas: The American Dream

2012 has been a year of many travels (you may have noticed).  So what more fitting way could there be to end the year, than with my first overseas Christmas? I am in the USA.  Where my brother now lives.

It has been a peaceful, calm, introverted Christmas (in my family we celebrate by eating and reading).  We were all enthralled by my new baby niece who is utterly adorable and completely wonderful.  There was snow on Christmas day, for the first time in 85 years in Arkansas (it even made the UK news, apparently).  My sister-in-law’s dad is a professional chef and so we ate some seriously good food.

With my beautiful niece

With my beautiful niece

But here’s the surprise.  I am used to being in different cultures really regularly, and places where the food, language and customs are completely foreign, and where there are few creature comforts.  And mostly it’s fine. Now here I am in a country which shares so much of our own culture and where every desire for convenience and luxury is fulfilled, and I have found it to be unexpectedly uncomfortable (and I’m not talking about the inflatable mattress we slept on).

I have struggled to work out why.  But I think it’s because the part of US culture I dislike most, is merely a reflection of something I am only too aware lurks in my own heart.  And it’s ugly.

It’s consumerism. The drive to always be buying stuff and to make that activity the means by which we define ourselves/cope/relax/attribute value is something that I battle against on home soil, and in my own soul.  It’s hard not to feel like the struggle is ratcheted up a few notches in suburban USA where civilisation seems almost exclusively to take the form of endless fast-food outlets, super-sized stores and shopping malls.  In the absence of any ‘third spaces’ for people to interact meaningfully, there is only the mall and your home – the place where you buy and the place where you use/display/consume what you buy.

Here, I revolt against this way of living; but at home I know and am ashamed of how easily I embrace it.

I picked up a book from my brother’s shelves over Christmas, called “The Trouble with Paris” and it spelt out the same truth.  The title refers to a girl struggling with depression who moves to Paris because she decides that she just needs a change of scene.   It turns out that “the trouble with Paris” is that hopping on a plane to a new city is just another way of chasing new experiences and avoiding reality.  We have become addicted, the book claims, to the hyped-up version of reality constantly sold to us by the media and the marketeers, and so we devote our time and attention to chasing (buying) a better reality than the one we live.

Well, quite.

At the cowboy superstore

At the cowboy superstore

But then I stumbled across this quotation which made it all hit home:

“We can buy fairtrade and organic, yet still live under the framework of consumerism, running from commitment and community, living for self, chasing experience at the expense of intimacy and connection, and treating others like objects.”

(Yes I buy fairtrade and organic).

Southern US suburban culture might be an easy target for me with its obvious excesses, but a few different shopping habits don’t make me immune from the infection of consumerism or the compulsive quest for a hyper-real life.  I am as addicted as the next person to constant social media news-feeds; new and exciting experiences; allegedly self-improving purchases; pretty, sparkly things…and just look at how much I travel.  Somehow I am reminded of a proverb involving specks of dust and planks of wood.

It’s not that I think I have no right to critique, but it’s always easier to judge something you’re not a part of.  A community you don’t live in.  A culture you don’t shape.  The more painful, more demanding work lies in the neighbourhood where I do live, amidst the consumer options that face me every day.   How can I share with my community, rather than consume as an individual?  How do I become a creator rather than a consumer?

So in the end it all comes back to me not them.  And it comes back to London not Little Rock.   It’s crazy how far you travel sometimes just to discover what’s in your own heart.

In 2013 I’ll be sharing some of my journey to live more simply in the city.  In the new year I’ll tell you all how the blog will be growing and changing… 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: Let’s get naked

Today I am excited to share a guest post from the husband, originally written as a Christmas reflection for a Christian blog called Threads.

I am very good at being ‘almost radical’. I am good at challenging people just enough to make me sound edgy or creative, but not enough to allow any allegations of taking things too far. It cleverly avoids criticism from those who may disagree, which might hurt my still-too-tied-to-my-identity, people-pleasing, wanting-everyone-to-love-me ego.

Sometimes that tactic comes from a good place of wanting to ‘start where people are at’ or be relational, but I have to confess that most of the time it just comes from a fear of being exposed to ridicule and challenge.

We have just celebrated the birth of Jesus. This was not the arrival of a control freak, carefully managing their surroundings for least disruption to their ministry. He arrived helpless to this beautiful, yet broken planet, trusting himself into the hands of imperfect humanity. Thirty-three years after that meek entrance, he would be stripped and naked again. This thought is teaching me something quite profound:

You have to be naked to start a revolution.

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first-born, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2:6-7)

You have to be prepared to be vulnerable, exposed and misunderstood.

You have to be prepared to be mocked, caricatured and offensive.

Jesus’ unpredictable ministry was not the work of someone who had one eye on Jerusalem and one eye on Twitter to see how he was being perceived. They say I’m too obtuse? Let’s tweak that for future public engagements – give them a bit more solid theology. A little too angry? Let’s visit a nursery tomorrow – the tables will be too low to turn over anyway. Not nationalistic enough? Let’s wear some military garb for the next photo opp.

Those who have kicked off radical movements have always run the risk of being written off as lunatics or being ignored because of their lack of a media strategy. They have been prepared to be naked and resource-light in human terms. They have been prepared to look stupid, to be criticised, to be plastered across the press as hopeless dreamers, do-gooders, bigots, or irrelevant.

Don’t get me wrong. I spend a good chunk of my time training believers to engage intelligently in the public square – in the media and in politics. It is hugely important. But in 2012 have we become so media-fixated, hypersensitive to criticism, and less rooted in God that we are paralysed from saying or doing what we are called to?

For Facebook friends, read ‘audience’ and for status update, read ‘press release’. We are becoming our own press officers, managing our public profile and perception. Our brains are becoming increasingly wired to insecurely gauge and seek responses to what we say or do. We edit our status updates and lives to present only the most appealing or acceptable part of ourselves, or what we think we can get away with. And that takes us right back to my disease of almost saying what I actually think. My calculation these days is too often: “How will this affect that person’s or the public’s perception of Christians?”(handily connected to their perception of me) rather than “God, what would you have me do or say?”

We are called to follow Christ, not employed by him to be spin doctors for the kingdom. Jesus didn’t want to be ‘Like’d. He wanted to be obeyed and worshipped.

Here lies Andy Flannagan – he was almost radical. Not an epitaph I want.

Is it time for us to shed the clothes of popularity, respectability and compromise? Is it time to get naked?

I love lunch

I write “I love lunch” optimistically, full of faith and hope because if I’m honest lunch is usually the weakest contender in ‘meal of the day’. (It’s normal to review the day’s meals and compile a leaders board, right?)

Too often I’m out of the house, unprepared, grabbing something on the fly, pacing the streets of Teddington in search of anything that isn’t an overpriced panini.

But I am hopeful, because I have just invested some birthday money in an exciting book: River Cottage Veg Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whatsisface.  Part of my journey on living within limits brings me to the question of food.  Is meat-eating basically a terrible environmental catastrophe in the making?  (Pretty much, at current levels anyway). I posted on Facebook, asking for recommendations of books that might convert me to the green side, and received all kinds of responses.  These ranged from “Don’t do it!” to diet book recommendations (once I worked out people weren’t just calling me a ‘skinny bitch’ – it did seem unlikely), to a handful of ethical reflections and then the practical advice of my friend Dave: “Honestly, get the Hugh Fernley-W book. Skip the theory, and get some good recipes!!”.  And so I did.  And I’m cooking up a storm in the kitchen.

Saying that, I was hoping to write this post earlier, only the night I returned, recipe book in hand, to greet my organic veg delivery and get cracking, I was devastated to discover that the veg had been delivered while my husband was asleep, and so they had been rescued by our faithful next door neighbour Frank, except he had now gone out for the evening.  I was grumpy and there was no vegetarian food to photograph.

But here was today’s lunch:

Ribollita. It’s a kind of hearty soup.

It’s called ribollita and it was great, although perhaps not the most appealing meal to have photographed?

Anyway, we’re now officially veggies from Monday-Friday, and so far I haven’t even eaten meat this weekend.

The other reason to blog about lunch is because of this BRILLIANT new film about a project my friend Rachel helps to run, called LUNCH.  “There are children around this country who are only eating if their school provides them with a meal” she says.  1.2million children in the UK are registered for free school meals, but there is no provision for them in school holidays.  That’s where this nifty and amazing project comes in.  Get involved.

Lunch from Matt Bird on Vimeo.

Return from Oz

I just switched off for a week.  Well done to me (and the husband).

I’m fresh back from holiday, from 7 days of blustery beach walks and lie-ins, leisurely swims and horse-rides, cream teas and Sunday roasts (well, one of each), croquet, table-tennis and a lovely yoga class with the middle-aged ladies of Woolacombe.   I have read books and gazed out of windows and slumbered and journalled.  I have cooked hearty dinners and supped red wine.  I have noticed birds singing (loudly) in the trees around me and I have stopped to look at views.  I have learnt to reverse back along narrow country lanes to the nearest passing point.

This is where we were, looking out towards Baggy Point

If you want to do the same then head straight for the gorgeous Pickwell Manor in North Devon run by some great friends of mine: two families living in community together, trying to live sustainably and generously and to create a space for you to come and unwind.

I’m a big fan of rest, of building big blocks of it into life, of taking your foot off the accelerator and remembering that there is something more to life than ceaseless forwards momentum.  Amazingly, and wonderfully, I find that it all keeps going without me.

Part of what I wanted to do this last week was wrench my attention from the future and sink it back into the now.  I hate how I’m always about the next thing, always planning, organising, keeping things on track, rather than being fully present – and alive, and grateful – in the right now.  I took with me the book Present Perfect by Greg Boyd to help.  I love the imagery he uses from the Wizard of Oz – how we’re always looking for something which we already have:

You’re dreaming about what’s over the rainbow, in some mythical land of Oz, and this is the very thing that’s keeping you from experiencing the love and joy that’s already round you in Kansas.

He’s not telling me my life is already everything I ever want it to be, but that the things that matter most are already mine, so I can stop chasing them.  Phew.

He writes about giving a talk along those lines to a youth group once, only to be challenged by a frustrated parent afraid that their child will never achieve anything unless they are driven; ambitious; feeling a lack that would need to be satisfied by attainment, success, whatever.  A hole.

I don’t want to be driven by a hole in me. I don’t want to believe that the only thing that will drive my children to contribute to the world is their own sense of incompleteness.

What if I have enough, now?  What if I am free, and loved, and worth something now?  Can I believe that, not just on special holy days, but every day?

As I write I’m staying with friends who have a four year old son – a beautiful, exuberant, chatty little man currently making brownies with his mum.  Playing cars with him yesterday uprooted me right out of my planned afternoon activities and what I was counting on accomplishing.  And it was ok.  It reminded me that real rest, and stopping, is only possible when we can let go of that drivenness, that neediness, and be ok just with who we are and where we are.  Which is hard when we’re frankly so flawed and needy. I think it must be hard to get to that place without God (but maybe you have?).

Of course it’s all easier outside of London and all my normal routines, so I’ll get back to you about how it goes when I’m back.

An adventure with limits

As you read this I will be on holiday.  Woo!

The plan for last few months has been that we will jet off to somewhere sunny – catch the last rays of southern Mediterranean sun.  There’s something about the sunshine that just makes me happy. And since we’ve been married we’ve only really holidayed in the UK, and a fair amount of torrential rain has followed us around.

So we earmarked a week in the sun, and I set about seeking out cheap deals.  With a growing sense of unease.

Everything looked so impersonal.  It was like a holiday conveyor belt, nothing that felt real or special.

Then there was the fact that my carbon footprint is already outrageously oversized thanks to the long-haul flights I take for work each year.

But the biggest questions in my mind came from this sense that we fighting against natural, environmental limits.

It is autumn now, and I like autumn a lot.  Why can’t we embrace and enjoy the changing seasons, relish the beauty of England at this time of year, without needing to flee to a different climate?

Working as I do for an organisation with strong convictions and policies when it comes to the environment, I asked some colleagues for their opinions.  Unanimously, they said I should go and enjoy my overseas holiday, despite the environmental costs.  I’m not writing this to name and shame them, they spoke out of love and generosity towards me, encouraging us towards a holiday.  But I couldn’t find anyone to challenge me.

And why this perverse desire to be challenged, even stopped?

For me it plays into a loud debate that has been raging in my head, on and off, for the last couple of years.  And it’s about limits.

A friend of ours in Brazil, a radical, crazy urban farmer called Claudio Oliver, spoke to us some time ago about his belief that we need to reinstate “limits, renunciation and a sense of sacredness” into how we live.

Limits aren’t very sexy.  Although I’ve read tons of articles saying how crucial they are to children – healthy boundaries in childhood get the big thumbs up.  But when it comes to life as an adult they’re seen as cramping our style.  Something to overcome.

And our crazy consumerist culture is always driving us to want more, to leap over the limits of our bank balances, and buy everything we want.  There’s never a reason to say no. Put it on the credit card.  Or riot and steal.

And whatever you want to eat tonight, you can.  Regardless of the time of year, or what we can grow in this country, you can go to a restaurant or a supermarket and get pretty much whatever you want.

It’s luxury.

But I feel like something’s been lost.  Treats, for a start.  I can get anything at any time, so where does specialness come from now?

And where does pushing the limits lead? To debt, obesity, burn-out, stress. To a banking crisis.

When we were booking our holiday I was agonising – what will make me happy?  Our whole culture says – something more, something new.

And the reality is that no holiday can really make me happy.  I’ve worked out enough about the world to realize on its own it can never make me happy.  Happiness comes from somewhere else, from an attitude of wonder and gratitude, an ability to take pleasure in small things, from knowing that I am loved and I belong.

Pushing the limits of our bank balance and our geography and our use of natural resources to grab some sunshine didn’t feel right.  And so we’re off to a beautiful spot in North Devon instead, for a blustery, cosy autumnal break.  (Check out the amazing www.pickwellmanor.co.uk – how gorgeous does it look?!).

Which is all well and good for us, but there are bigger questions, aren’t there?  About the planet and how we don’t engineer our own extinction by continuing to live on, blind to the limits of the natural world.  It’s a question that a lot of people are asking.  A big crowd at Tearfund are wrestling with it right now.

Politicians won’t legislate limits if it means they’ll get voted out at the next opportunity.  And we do need some legislation.  The law can’t do everything, just like abolishing the slave trade hasn’t got rid of slaves.  But it makes certain behaviours unacceptable, unjustifiable.

Legislation won’t come until enough people want it.  And there’s the challenge.  How do we unlearn what constitutes ‘the good life’ in our western bubble, and come to believe in something better?  If we can’t school ourselves, we don’t stand a chance in our communities.

How do we recover an appreciation for limits, which strikes right at the heart of our consumer ideology?  How do we begin to recognize a life with limits as a better, richer, more generous, more human life?

It sounds so hard, but I am a big believer in imagination. Humans are incredibly creative when we’re suddenly having to constrain ourselves within limits. But the hard bit at the start is that none of those limits are enforced yet.  If we’re serious about this (and I really am) we’ll have to begin by enforcing some limits on ourselves, and they’ll probably feel artificial.

The other bit is that’s it’s really hard on your own.  So company will be important.  Is anyone with me?