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!

Old school kindness

Last week I went to my tenth Tearfund UK project to do a final day of filming for the epic Ten Keys Project.

We were in Ilford, and we interviewed a man from the council.  I asked him to jot down his job description for me and it took 8 lines of my notebook.  (It wasn’t a large notebook, but still).  I asked him why he’s worked in the Housing Department of Redbridge council for twenty odd years.  And he said, self-deprecatingly, that it was because he was “old school”, meaning that he wanted to work to improve services in his community and make things better.  And stick at it.

We spoke to another guy in the Housing Department, because they were queuing up to praise the project we were filming, known as The Welcome Centre.  He said that there are a bunch of services working with people who are homeless, but what marks out this project is their persistent kindness, no matter how often people fall back into bad choices.  Rough sleepers are a hard group to work with, a fragile and often entrenched community who frequently resist support and certainly have no time for the bureaucracy of council services.

(To access help from the Housing Department you need ID and proof of eviction to get past reception.  It’s hard to get a nice letter from your wife explaining why she threw you out).

The Housing Department couldn’t get these people to come to them, so the department staff went to The Welcome Centre (which was set up by a local church).  They knew that the town’s rough sleepers felt safe and welcome there, so it was the only place they could go and talk to them and find ways to help them.  Having been to both of their buildings I can honestly say that I would choose the Welcome Centre every time as well.

The new Welcome Centre, funded by the government’s ‘Places of Change’ initiative

The project itself was brilliantly inspiring (staffed by some amazing women with fiery compassion and great wisdom) but I keep returning to those two men from the council.  They weren’t especially prepossessing or charismatic, probably just what you might imagine civil servants to look like.  But they were faithful.  They were in it for the long haul. They hadn’t been neutered by the bureaucracy of local government.  They were working away in overheated, decaying, depressing office blocks, amidst ever-increasing cuts, and they were keeping going, eager to find news ways to support people who are hard to help.  And they were championing this brilliant ray of light that is The Welcome Centre, trying to find them funding and to look for news ways to partner with them.

It reminds me David Hare’s play, Skylark, and some impassioned, angry words from the main character, Kyra (with some expletives removed):

You only have to say the words ‘social worker’…’probation officer’… ‘counsellor’… for everyone in this country to sneer.  Do you know what social workers do?  Every day?  They try and clear out society’s drains.  They clear out the rubbish.  They do what no-one else is doing, what no-one else is willing to do.  And for that, oh *****, do we thank them? No, we take our own rotten consciences wipe them all over the social worker’s face, and say, ‘If –‘****! – ‘if I did the job, then of course if I did it…oh no, excuse me, I wouldn’t do it like that…’

I’m not owning up to being that angry on a regular basis, but there’s something ugly about the contempt we show for these kinds of jobs, how quick we are to dismiss, or critique. And there’s something tragic about how society is moving further away from valuing them (kids only want to be glamour models and footballers now, apparently).  I don’t remember ever having the first clue what a social worker did or how you might become one.

So today’s post it talking up the people who work for good in the council.  The people who sit on committees.  The people who work in local government to make things better.  The social workers and support workers.  What honourable work you do.

There’s something to be said for old school kindness.

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.

Confessions of a reluctant city-slicker

I’ve been getting into the blogosphere more recently.  (Currently my favourites are Lulastic, Sarah Bessey, A Beautiful Mess and Godspace if you’d like a recommendation).  But I’m developing a worrying habit.   Somehow I am gravitating more and more towards American or Canadian mothers-of-small-children, living in big houses (by my British standards, I think it’s pretty normal out there) with outside space and animals and a love for home-baking and instagraming.

I’m not sure it’s good for me.

I dream sometimes of space. Storage space to begin with. Just a couple of large cupboards would do it, somewhere to stash the guitars. But then, there’s also a wild fantasy I have of outside space. Maybe a garden where I could grow veggies, and keep chickens if I ever overcame my fear of birds.  It could even include a view of mountains or a lake.  Actual safe space for kids to run and play in. Maybe a tree which I could hang a swing from (if I ever worked out how to make a swing).   Sometimes I get carried away and I fantasise about clean air, and time moving more slowly, and no big distractions but plenty evenings of staying in and laughing and talking. And sitting on the porch (does anyone in England ever sit in their porch? My only experience of English porches in that they’re quite cold and small and glassy).

We’re at the age where lots of friends are leaving London.

We all come here after university, in search of jobs and independence and culture and wanting to be part of something big.  And it is exciting (when it’s not lonely), it’s full and it’s fast-moving.  And then we hit our 30s and suddenly it’s too depressing how expensive houses are, and do you want to drag a buggy up 4 flights of stairs every day, and can you really keep living at this pace, and do you want your kids to go to inner-city schools, and maybe we’ve done London now.  The mass exodus out of the city takes place.

Can you tell I am grieving?

The thing is, I get it, it’s all for healthy reasons.  I want the space and calmness too.  Why would anyone in their right mind chose to live in the biggest city in Europe?  It’s full up. I mean the culture and everything is great, but I could easily take a year off art galleries and theatre trips now.

And it’s getting more lonely in the city.

This week I edited a film that made me remember why we stay.  Here’s a little clip.  It’s our mate Ash Barker who lives in the biggest slum in Bangkok with his family and who has just done a PhD on ministry in slums.

More and more, the inner cities are left to the super-rich and the poor. Who don’t often “mesh well together” (to quote Clueless).  And if the half of the world may well be living in cities by the middle of the century, I think a bunch of us need to stay and find a way to do it well and work for good, and get to know our neighbours, and help make the schools better (or whatever needs some help).  A grand ambition, I’m sure we’ll fail in countless ways, but this is our plan.

A proper Sunday

Yesterday something extraordinary happened.  I had a real Sunday – a proper day off, a laid-back day with our community, where there was time to chat and pray and remember what’s important. I’m really not great at protecting Sundays (or, in fact, any other day) from work and rehearsals and emails, even though I believe there’s something so important about regular rhythms of rest and play.  But yesterday was something special, and somehow in the midst of it we also managed to connect with another, often invisible, community.  And for that I’m grateful.

This is the four of us who got the couch.

Our little fledgling community has been meeting since the start of the year – sometimes 3 of us, sometimes closer to 15.  We live kind of close to each other in South London, and we’re bound together by our faith (and belonging to The Well Community Church) and by our desire to be a force for good in our local neighbourhoods. Usually in tiny ways.

(You might remember we replanted a community herb garden a few months ago)

Yesterday we sat and talked about what we’d been up to in the last little while.  Our Zimbabwean friends Savie and David held a party recently for a couple of lads in their block who’d passed some big exams.  The boys aren’t used to celebrating things like that, but they got about 15 lads round (in the last year or two Savie and David and their two sons have unexpectedly become the gathering point for most of the young lads in their housing block – in and around playing football together), and had a party.  The boys are aged from about 8-15.  Savie also got them to do that version of consequences, where you write down something you like about each person in the room, anonymously, and they all got to take away a list of ten great things about themselves.  It was a completely new experience for them, and they went away beaming.

We were hosted yesterday by Martyn & Naomi and their two beautiful daughters, who both had a series of very important roles to play during the morning.  These included leading a game of name-catch, distributing clipboards, rewarding good ideas with stickers, offering us all cakes and writing notes on the blackboard. With ages ranging from 5 to around 55, it was just beautiful to see everyone find a place to belong.

We had communion: iced bun and fizzy pop, and thanked Jesus for enabling a community where everyone was welcome, and where we could find a home.

But we also talked about how you build community that isn’t just cosy and insular and homogenous.  And we’re still pondering.  But something else we were part of gave me hope.

The husband joined us a little late, after an early morning visit to Feltham Young Offenders Institute, where he and our mate Patrick were speaking at the chapel.  They’ve just started something they’re calling The Invisible Tour.

Andy has recently released an album, and Patrick a book, and they’re doing the usual speaking/singing circuits.  But they were inspired a few months ago to think about the people who will never go to one of those events.  Another friend of Andy’s was on a bus in Peckham, listening to his album, looking at the tired faces around her and wishing there was a way they could hear the songs.  She told Andy her idea and he began to dream.

So much of what Andy & Patrick both write about is hope, the hope of broken things being made whole again, and why should that only be heard by people who go to book launches and folk gigs?   Patrick, who runs youth charity XLP, told Andy the story of a meeting he’d been at where 3 different statutory bodies told him that they had great programmes but couldn’t connect with the young people who really needed their help. They described them as “invisible”. They said that only XLP and the church could connect with the invisible people – they are in the gaps between where services reach. So Andy & Patrick have both set out now to do a tour to invisible people and places: Mental health centres. Young Offenders Institutions. Rehabs, prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals.

Feltham is the largest young offenders institute in Western Europe, housing over 600 15-21 year olds.  Someone in our little community knew a boy there – and it was a sad story of injustice. The chapel, where Andy & Patrick sang and spoke, is one of the few places where the boys come together – most of the time they’re in their own cells because it’s too risky to let them all mix (more than 30 different gangs are represented…).  It couldn’t have been a bigger contrast with our Sunday morning – an institution designed to prevent community – and yet in the midst of it was this holy space to come together and hear stories of hope.

It’s a drop in the ocean, I know. But a good one.

I know that I’m lucky to have this beautiful, growing expression of community to be part of, especially in a big city like London.  But I don’t want to settle for something that’s just nice for me.  We have to keep asking how it becomes sometimes beautiful and possible for people who are often invisible to us.  Especially the ones on our doorsteps.

I heart humdrum

The Edinburgh adventure is over.  I am back at home.  I am back at the office (craving cake).   And it’s really good.

So this week’s blog is an ode to the humdrum of home, and I have collected some photos of my favourite humdrum corners.

Here is husband playing guitar outside our block. Admittedly not a daily occurrence, but one which is quintessentially home-flavoured.

And here is a building I pass every day on my walk to the station, and I’ve always liked it.  I salute you with my wonky photo, green and brick housing block!

This was my desk yesterday on my return to work.  Typically chaotic.

…but look how many things are already crossed off!

And then of course there is nature.  I left my fruit and veg planter in my husband’s hands during my absence, and here is the state of our tomato plant now.  Miraculously still producing tomatoes despite being brown and shrivelled.  Apparently he had no idea I meant watering it *every day*.

It’s really good to feel like you belong somewhere.

I’m reading a beautiful poem of a book at the moment, a gift from a friend, called One Thousand Gifts.  The title refers to the author’s journey (struggle maybe, but only at first) to list a thousand blessings she has received from God.  Things to make her more grateful.

117. Washing the warm eggs

118. Crackle in fireplace

119. Still warm cookies

783. Forgiveness of a sister

882. Toothless smiles

891. Earthy aroma of the woods

I don’t have a list, but I feel very grateful at the moment, and I’m trying to stay that way.  Grateful for late summer sun, for family, for space, for expected babies (not mine!), for my local park (oops, that’s the start of list).

What do you love most about your home?