Taking it personally

This week I have come to Thun in Switzerland, which looks just like the illustration on the front of a Milka bar.  Here in the foothills of the Alps I have been submerged, you might say rebaptised, into the strange world of professional Christian poverty-fighters.

We’re an odd bunch: an eclectic mix of 320ish people, of more than 50 nationalities, gathered daily around tables with our regulation conference bag and some strong Swiss coffee.  The Micah Network.

At the beginning of these events I often look around and wonder “how has this become my world?” (After 8 years, I figure I need to own up to it, to some degree).

But then in amongst the strange lingo, the hodge-podge of language and culture, and the complicated schedule (which really has to run on time or the Swiss get anxious), there are moments of transcendence.

One morning we heard from a Russian former-communist who shared his experience of becoming a Christian and being sent to prison camp in Siberia.  One night his teeth were punched out individually while a Muslim was made to read him the verse in the Bible commanding him to turn the other cheek.  He told us that the ability to love and to forgive does not come naturally, but is a miraculous gift of God.

Compassion, in this man’s mouth, was not pity or soft-heartedness.  It was a costly and painful transplant that stopped the fist of the guard: “Stop LOVING me”.

Another women shared how many years ago her husband had left to look for work in anther country, never to return, and she had so little to offer her children she was on the verge of having to feed them grass.  Her pastor told her that her suffering was brought on by her own sin.

Amazingly she was able to start a small business with other women in her community, and was supported and trained by an international organisation, and years later was able to love and support her pastor’s family when they lost all they had.  She had held nothing against him.

That is compassion that costs us our perceived rights to grudges and retribution, at our hands or anyone else’s.

At its best moments, this conference has not been about my professional work.  It has been a gathering that has spoken of hearts and asked something deeper and more significant that my conscientious efforts from 9-5.

Even today, as I chatted to a wonderful, anarchic Aussie friend, I was struck by the reality that this depth of compassion is never something that can be transmitted fully by an organisation or programme.  It is necessarily personal.

I love the line in the film ‘You’ve Got Mail’ when Meg Ryan’s character criticises the company who put her out of business for saying “it’s not personal, it’s business.” “What’s so wrong with being personal?” she asks. “Whatever else something is, it ought to begin by being personal”.

And maybe it should stay personal too, somehow.

You can probably tell that it’s personal stories that have struck me most deeply this week. They humble me.  And I realise how much they have changed me in the last eight years. This strange group of people have, in that time, re-shaped and anchored the way I see the world. Not just this particular group of conference delegates, but the wider family of which they’re a part.  And my challenge is not to let these people, these truths and experiences, settle slowly like sand on a seabed into a generalised attitude or posture in the world.   It has to become more personal, not less.

Taking Edinburgh home with me (but leaving the rain)

Last night I made a list of the theatre shows I have seen in Edinburgh this month, as this adventure draws to a close.  Tomorrow it is home time.

I’ve counted 19, 11 of which were free.  And I’m going to try and squeeze in one more freebie this afternoon.  I think I have the smallest total of all the dolls, but it is still A LOT. I don’t think I usually see that many in a year.  What a treat.

I’ve been trying to think what I should say about it all.  Is it too much?  Is it economically unjust? Is it self-indulgent?  It feels too soon to be able to have processed any of it.  Instead I’m going to offer you a taste of the best things I am taking away with me, the things that have enriched me this past month:

Ali McGregor has made me want to be a better singer and Camille O’Sullivan convinced me to be braver in telling stories through songs.  Mark Thomas has made me want to work on my articulation and, together with Tony Benn, has stirred back to life certain political convictions.  All the plays I have seen about war (A Solder’s Song, Soldiers’ Wives, Captain Ferguson’s Balloon Warfare) have cemented a visceral hatred of violence and the lack of imagination that drives it. The poet Harry Baker has impressed me by being so young and brilliant and entirely himself.  The three Dutch boys clowning and slapsticking their way through 3 shows a day of Nothing is Really Difficult  have brought joy to my soul with their mad flyering techniques and amazing accents.  The two girls known as RashDash theatre company have resurrected my optimism for emerging theatre, with their raw energy and creativity, and loud commitment to things that matter (this I echo).  Their production of Ugly Sisters (Cinderella told by the underdogs) was a highlight.  I am grateful for the simple beauty of Waiting for Stanley, the adrenalin-party that was Rhythmic Circus, the sustained strength and whimsical intentionality of Mess, and I think I’m going to love the ukulele playing in Formby later.

Those crazy Dutch boys

(I also blogged in more depth about Mark Thomas and Camille O’Sullivan earlier).

So there’s a month of talking up some good theatre.  I’m looking forward to re-engaging with the rest of life now.

On Courage

Performing at the Edinburgh Fringe can be experienced in many different ways.  This is my third time.  It can be a bit of a laugh (usually if you’re young and unburdened by budgets); a glorious cultural adventure; a masochistic, tortuous endurance test; or simply a tiring alternative to burning a few thousand pounds. But I think that in many cases it involves courage.

I went to hear a singer a couple of nights ago called Camille O’Sullivan and I was gobsmacked.

The show wasn’t perfect from end to end but there were moments of totally transcendental beauty as she told stories through songs, and something in me hasn’t been able to forget it.

She has an interesting story.  The Telegraph profiled her recently (apparently I am turning into my parents and sourcing all current information from The Telegraph. This is partly because they just gave our own show 4*s and so I like them).  She used to be an architect, but then following a serious car crash in which she nearly died, she decided to do what she really wanted.  Which was to sing.

She had been “afraid of criticism, afraid of the audience, afraid of putting myself out there, but life is for living, and if you’re scared of something, maybe you should head towards it, because it might be what you need to shake you into being alive.”

I seem to be attracting reflections on courage right now.  A few blogs I follow have been themed in that way.  And frankly the whole experience of being at the Fringe makes me think about it even more.

When you get rubbish reviews or have small audiences and yet 3 weeks stretch ahead of you in which you will keep putting your show in front of people, it is a test of courage.  Yesterday I saw a show called A Soldier’s Song in which a man recounts the true story of his time fighting in the Falklands.  I went because war horrifies me and yet my brother fights in one, and my dad and grandfather before him. It’s a brutal, angry account of war, but what hit hardest are the moments he reflects on the shame he feels coming to terms with what he has been part of.  The man is not a professional actor by trade; he is a writer.  But his courage in standing on a bare set every night, recounting his tale and confessing his fears and doubts, strikes me as one of the more courageous outings at the Fringe.

Doing something for a one off isn’t too scary.  I went to a comedy show the other night and I was late, and the ushers told me that the only way latecomers were admitted was if you walked in, and declared to everybody (including the comedienne), very loudly “Darling, your show was so marvellous last night, I just had to come back.”  And I did it.  1o seconds of embarrassment don’t frighten me.  But continuing to dare to put something personal and hard-fought-for in front of an audience every night for 26 nights…that takes more.  I don’t mean just going through the motions, but continuing to put your heart and soul into something. Because there’s the risk that nothing comes back, or, worse, your offering is rejected, discredited.

Am I a courageous person? It feels like it’s taking courage to be here and do this, to join so actively in the conversation (even though the biggest risk of all is getting totally lost in the scale of this festival, so no-one actually hears you…).  But when I think about the future, I think I have a large capacity to be a scaredy-cat.  Maybe the trick is not to think so far ahead.  Camille said in her recent interview:

“I’m not saying every day is a joy. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing my mind, but then I remember everything is a choice, and this is my choice.”

Here’s to small, brave choices.  And for a treat, here’s Camille singing:

Camille O Sullivan – The Ship Song from Feenish Productions on Vimeo.