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… 









The world just got a bit more wonderful

…because today my niece was born, and this post is written to her.

To my brand new niece,

I am writing this while your mother is in labour, bringing you into the world.  She and your father are an ocean away from me in England, from the rest of our family, and I so wish I could be with you, I wish that in the first few hours of your life I could hold you and kiss you and sing and whisper prayers over you.  But that will have to wait a few weeks.  For now I have only words on a page, but they are infused with my love and my imagination and I hope you will read them one day and know that I sat in eager, quiet, excited anticipation at the moment you came out into the open.

Welcome to our quirky family. (I’m speaking for the Groves rather than the Woogs here).  You are the beginning of a new generation, my parents’ first grandchild.  I can hardly believe that my little brother has become your dad, but I feel so sure that he will be a kind and wise and wonderful dad.  He’s big and strong, but such a softie underneath.

It might seem strange that I am writing to you before I know you, before we become proper friends, but I have been thinking a lot over this last year or two about family, about our family, about what there is to celebrate in our story, and what I hope will be left behind with past generations.  And I know you will discover so much of this for yourself, but I want to tell you what I’ve seen, I want to give you eyes to recognise the goodness, and I want you and your siblings and cousins to be the best incarnation of us yet.

It will be many years before you read and understand this letter, so if I’m honest I guess I’m also writing it to all of us, and to me, to remind me what I love about our family.

We are made up of soldiers and nurses (as your parents exemplify – at this point in their lives at any rate), of teachers and train drivers – practical people – but there is a rogue artistic thread that winds its way through us too.  Your great grandmother, Pat, a wry, elegant, resourceful army wife only gave way to her creative leanings late in life and became a painter (although she had dabbled in lampshade-covering earlier).  She taught me to draw, and to make fudge, and almost to the very end of her life, kept painting.  To reach the end of your life on earth, this complex and heart-breaking planet, with the desire to create and to participate still intact, is a glorious triumph of hope.  Too many of us retreat into criticism, cynicism, spectating.  I pray that hope and creativity will course through your veins to the very end, and that they will never be defeated by the pain you will encounter.

Our family laughs a lot and I love that.  There is always joy and silliness, and we never stay cross long as a result. At our worst moments we use humour to defend ourselves and hit out at each other unkindly, to get attention or to deflect it, and we wound people.  We go too far. That is the side that I hope you only observe and never join in with.  I hope we’re getting better.

You are the next in a line of strong and beautiful women (oh it’s so true on both sides of your family); we have fire in our bellies and will fight our way anywhere we feel called.  May there be fewer fights in your way than there were in ours.  And may you revel in your God-given strength and never feel you have to prove it.

And now some small kernels of wisdom I have accrued in 32 years of life in our strange family:  Trust people, even after you get hurt.  Listen out for God speaking to you and believe Him over what we tell you.  Tell people you love them and tell them why, tell them more than you think they should need to hear it.  And savour all the good food and drink.

Amelie May (yes, as I have written this letter you have been born and been named) you are so welcome, and you are so loved.  I am counting down the time to meeting you and I hope we will always be good friends.

With love from your old aunt,

Jenny x

PS Mum (your granny) always swore she didn’t want to be a grandmother, but she has been besotted with you since before you were born.

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.

A film showing there is more to Buxton than the water

To break up the theatrical reflections, here’s a little film I made a month or so ago about some beautiful, wonderful people I met who run a project in Buxton.  Before I went, I knew nothing about Buxton except the water they bottle. Now I am planning my next trip… The couple who lead it have live in their main care home with their family for more than a decade, totally sharing their lives with the people they’re trying to serve.  So inspiring. Enjoy.

(You can find out more in my other blog about my visit here)

Good News Family Care from Integral Mission on Vimeo.

Who else has made you who you are?

So here I am at the Edinburgh Fringe.  The topic of my first Edinburgh blog is confronting who and what has come before you in your family histories, and how that has made you who you are.  It’s what our show tries to ask you to do, and I found another amazing show doing the same kind of thing that I want to tell you about.

[If you hadn’t guessed already, it’s likely that my August posts will have more of a theatrical flavour than is usual in a single month, although there are some other films on the way that will burst you (and me) out of the Edinburgh bubble.]

I have been sick, which is a terrible way to begin the fringe, as you need an enormous dollop of energy just to keep doing your show every day, let alone flyering the general public for hours, or taking in anyone else’s artistic endeavours. But yesterday I made it out of the flat and actually saw *another show* which was just beautiful, so I need to tell you about it.

Mark Thomas is an alternative comedian best known for his political campaigns – for example he has written a book and done stand-up shows exposing Coca Cola’s involvement in the arms trade.  I like his blend of humour, heart and justice-seeking.  So I was a little surprised to find he was doing a show up here called Bravo Figaro, about opera.  It turns out the piece is really about his dad – a violent, Methodist-Thatcherite workaholic builder known for his colourful language – and his surprising passion for a traditionally upper-class art-form.

He is brilliant storyteller in so many ways.  Technically, he’s a pro: I was in awe of his articulation.  But more than that, there is such a powerful combination of honesty, humour, and real clarity about the story he wants to tell you. That’s one of the my favourite things about the show actually – he felt like he really wanted to tell me this story, like it mattered.  But how do you tell a personal story for 70 minutes and not make it feel self-indulgent?  You give people opportunities to laugh at you.  You give them a wider context so they can connect with your very personal story.  You give them quirky details.  And you chose very carefully the magical moments when things become quiet and important.  (It worked, I cried).

Mark Thomas was very clear that this is not a story about redemption and healing and forgiveness – they might be part of the bigger story or they might not.  This story is about a gift, a beautiful and unique gift that he was able to give to his dad at a point in his dad’s life when he had almost ceased to be contactable.  His dad developed Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and was increasingly unable to respond to the outside world or to control his own muscles.  During the show we hear his dad’s real, barely articulated voice for ourselves, as recorded by Mark Thomas a years ago.   And yet it is into the context of increasing alienation in terms of their human relationships that something truthful and beautiful and pure is given as a gift which stirs life and connection.

It wasn’t wholly intentional that the first show I saw in Edinburgh was so close in theme to our own show, which is also about family stories, ancestors who have gone before us.  But maybe it meant that Mark Thomas’ show landed with particular force for the four of us (it was a group outing).

I think that in different ways both shows are probing something deep and important. If we let them, they make us ask questions about what has gone before us, and what is has deposited in us – for good and for bad. For me this has been part the personal journey I’ve gone on (and I think the other girls have gone in) in creating our show. It’s not about neat endings and full reconciliation, but the honesty of confronting what came first and what its legacy has been.  Then, from that place we are able to choose our response, to choose how to live. Mark Thomas’ act of generosity towards his father is not given from a place of blindness to his dad’s brutality; it is not offered as a symmetrical or reciprocal gesture.  But the beauty of it lies in the fact that it is instead a generous choice to celebrate something unique and wonderful; to draw a line after the bad and perpetuate what was special.

What are the good things you want to carry forward from your family history?