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):

(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… 









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.

In praise of anchors

This week life has become small and quiet again.  I’m loving the rhythms of home.  And yet my mind races away to big questions.

There are decisions to be taken about the future which feel difficult. And as I think ahead I realise how bound I feel by other people’s expectations (my mother would be astounded to learn this as in her mind I have abandoned all of hers); and also by my own. How tightly should I keep hold of the things I dreamt and imagined for myself? Is that tenacity or closed-mindedness? I get lost trying to figure out which version of the future I am trying to walk towards, and if it matters.

I spoke to a friend this week, a wise and influential mentor, who by many standards has an impressive list of achievements under his belt. I asked him how he lives with so many pressures and expectations and navigates a way through. I was surprised by his answer.  He said he really doesn’t live under the weight of anyone’s expectations, and doesn’t have any kind of master plan or grand ambitions for the future.  He has two children with a disability and he loves how they have taught him to live in the present.   He has angled his heart towards an experience of life in which he knows he is loved by God.  Before anything. And then, I guess, there’s less left to prove to anyone else.

It’s a hard thing to hold onto. That knowing that you’re loved and you belong to God. I crowd it out regularly, and yet when I reach for it, it is a failsafe anchor.

I remembered how I’d been inspired last year on holiday by these words from Henri Nouwen:

If I believe that the first commandment is to love God with my whole heart, mind and soul, then I should at least be able to spend one hour a day with nobody else but God.  The question as to whether it is helpful, useful, practical or fruitful is completely irrelevant since the only reason to love is love itself.  Everything else is secondary.

The timing question doesn’t seem as important as the priority one.

I learnt very early on in marriage that my husband doesn’t love being landed only with the dregs of my time and energy after I’ve spent most of it elsewhere.

And yet. That’s what I do to God.  And the version of life where I run around keeping other people happy and trying to prove myself leaves me joyless and spent.

I need anchoring. In a (corner of the) world where I am spoilt with choices and opportunities, but where the needs and injustices are relentless and overwhelming, I need to be rooted in something bigger and deeper and stronger.

What anchors you?

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?

Loving Green Pastures

On this strange day of extreme weather – bright sunshine/hailstones alternating, at least in Woking – I have met some brilliant people with an extreme response to homelessness.

Pastor Pete

Pastor Pete (a dead ringer for Santa) says his family had always taken in people who were in dire straits throughout his many years as a pastor (he says this as if it’s normal and everyone does it).  So when he moved to Southport, aged 57, it was no surprise that he was moved to practical action when confronted by the rough sleepers living under the pier and on the golf course.  He and his wife converted their garage into a small flat where 3 people could sleep.  They bought a caravan to house another four, and invited their new friends to take over their spare rooms.  They overflowed onto the church floor.  It was messy but it seemed to be working.

But the environmental officer from the local council was less than impressed with their health and safety standards and said it had to stop.

So then their friendly local council Chief Exec invited them in to talk about bidding for some European funding for regeneration which would benefit those who were homeless.  Pastor Pete and his crew helped them out and the council won £9m, £900,000 of which was earmarked for homeless services.  But somehow none of the money ended up benefiting the ‘roofless’ contingent – the ones most in need of help.

Pastor Pete was discouraged and was blunt with God.  Then one morning soon after, he and some friends were meeting for their daily prayer and Bible study, and read the story of the Good Samaritan.  Pastor Pete was struck for the first time by the fact that the Samaritan took complete responsibility for someone he barely knew.  He felt that God was saying to him “I never asked you to go and beg from the government. I’m asking you to take responsibility.”

Pastor Pete had saved £6000 for a small pension.  Another lady from the church mortgaged her house to release £24,000, and Pete’s son committed £100 a month from his wages.  With that they bought a flat for some of the rough sleepers.  And that was where it all started.

Today they own properties across Southport and around the UK, working with 29 partners and housing over 400 people. Long-term “rooflessness” no longer exists in Southport. They worked exclusively in Southport for five years and then someone from The Times wrote an article about them called ‘God’s Estate Agent’.  From then on calls flooded in, as churches and charities wanted to meet them and find out more.  Shortly after that, a prison chaplain from Stoke with a passion for helping support ex-offenders when they got out of jail asked Pete and his team if they’d buy them a couple of houses.  So they did.

I find it totally overwhelming that these people are so bold, full of faith and generous with the little they have.  How incredible that they just go around buying houses for projects who want to house the homeless (I should say that do it in a responsible way, and give a lot of relational support).  And they’ve accrued some serious nouse.  They have a sound financial model that makes them sustainable and means they’re not dependent on government.  They invite people with money to invest it with them for a 5% return, which helps them raise house deposits.  Then the mortgage is repaid through the housing benefit payments which the tenants or clients receive. (Their website probably explains it better).

I loved meeting Pastor Pete – he was brimming over with amazing stories, and had a string of brilliant quotations from “The Book” which clearly act as landing lights for him in all the challenges of working with people in chaotic circumstances.  Although their name, Green Pastures (from psalm 23), wasn’t his idea. “I hate naming things,” he says.  “When we had a shop we called it ‘shop’.”

If you have some money you’re saving I would heartily recommend investing it with these guys…You can find out more here.

A tale of two Scrabble players

I am spending International Women’s day with the oldest woman I know. Mrs F (that’s not a code name, it’s what I’ve always called her) is 92 (she’s pretty comfortable with you knowing that). I have known her and loved her all my life. She lives in Eastbourne and her daughter is my (very wonderful) godmother. She is an amazing gardener and cook, and whenever we visit we eat whatever has been growing in the garden. She enjoys the Telegraph crossword, plays a daily game of Scrabble, and she likes to argue about politics with my husband, Andy.

When I saw her today I told her it was International Women’s Day and I asked her if she thought the world had got better or worse for women in her lifetime. She thought about her own life in the south of England and said she thought women in the UK were much better off financially today and had more freedom but she didn’t think they were happier. “We had so much fun when we were younger. We had nothing, but we worried much less.” In her mind, British women today are stressed, anxious and time-poor, for all their progress. “And those models in the magazines. They never look happy.” She is also concerned that today’s women don’t know how to cook proper nutritious meals.

I asked her how hopeful she feels about the world her three great-grand-daughters are inheriting, and she’s optimistic. Their education is opening doors that she never dreamed of going through. She prays for them.

Once a week I have a Scrabble-playing, tea-drinking date with another friend called Maire. Maire is a year younger than the queen (I like to remind her of this when she feels especially old). She thinks the world has totally changed in her lifetime and mostly, for the worse (although she’s generally in favour of the improvements in human rights, and indoor toilets). To quote her, she’s pretty sure that “the world is going to hell in a handcart” (figuratively, because she’s adamant that there’s no afterlife).

Maire has very little hope for the world – and she can cite some compelling evidence: the raping of the environment and unsustainability of our lifestyles; the breakdown of family in her city and neighbourhood which she connects with the aggression and lawlessness of local young people; chronic and incessant conflict around the globe. Her life has been interesting and cultured, but today she feels she has no reason to live. She has no close family; she is housebound and disabled; everyone she loved most in life has died.

It might seem strange that on International Women’s Day my thoughts go to these two women before the millions of other women experiencing the painful consequences of inequality around the world today – be it through abuse, exploitation, lack of education or access to food, water or medicine. But they bring home very personally to me how hope and change and progress aren’t just about what happens on the outside of us. There’s a constant and dynamic interplay between our circumstances and our beliefs about ourselves and the world. It’s possible to have hope in the bleakest of circumstances (as some Holocaust survivors have demonstrated); it’s equally possible to feel oppressed and despairing in the context of seeming freedom and plenty.

I think one of the reasons Mrs F feels ok about the world and the future is that she has invested (and is investing) something in it. Through her family, through her relationships, through her prayers. That’s not meant as a judgment of Maire, because she’s had much less opportunity to do that. When the world is increasingly remote, threatening and lonely and you feel powerless to do anything about it, when you don’t believe in an ultimate purpose or direction in life, it’s hard to find much foundation for hope.

So what am I going to invest in this question of women’s place in the future of the world? It’s actually not just a question about women – the world will be better for everyone if there is equality of opportunity and respect afforded to men, women and anyone in between. The staggering statistics for domestic abuse and gender violence around the world alone overwhelm and horrify me. But that’s not the whole story. My view of the world is never composed solely of the physical realities. It’s always shaped by what I believe to be possible. And I know things have changed for women in this country so I’m gunning for them to change some more, for everyone’s sake.

Here’s whose work I’ll be supporting: Restored.

And coming soon: a little film about an amazing woman I met in Argentina who works with victims of domestic abuse.

That Christmas story

Yes, it’s my favourite time of year, and we’re about to celebrate my favourite story, ever.

It’s not that I have spectacular Christmas memories from growing up (although I did get a brilliant puppet theatre one year).  Christmas was usually quiet in our house. I remember a typical Christmas afternoon when I was 16:  dad was upstairs sleeping off lunch; mum (a nurse) was also upstairs sleeping after working a night shift at the hospital; my brother Doug. then about 13, was also sleeping – he’d been too excited to sleep the night before.  And I was alone in the dark, watching Casablanca.

In other years when the family stayed awake, everyone generally read their new books in the afternoon.

Not exactly a wild party, or even a deeply religious occasion.  But the thing about my Christmases growing up is that there was always lots of space to pause and to think (although obviously I longed for a crazy sociable whirlwind of a Christmas with hundreds of people and lots of games).  Every Christmas Eve I went to midnight mass in the local Anglican church, generally with my little brother and my friends Jade & Howard.  We would sit in the cold, listening to the story told all over again, and I was amazed every time.

I was single then, and my favourite moment of all was when I would get home in the early hours and sit alone in bed, thinking about the story, writing in my journal, and talking to God. There was always something in the story that seemed especially alive or important, and in the quiet and the dark, it all felt mysterious, wonderful, and possible. That God would do something as ludicrous as being born as a baby.  And that this wild and beautiful story had something to do with me.  Those moments felt alive with hope and kindness.

The year I got engaged I spent Christmas with my fiance’s family in Northern Ireland and it was a very different experience.  For a start, nobody went to sleep in the daytime (actually, I think I might have nodded off…).  It was wonderful – and as sociable as I had always wanted, full of kids and chaos.  And because of that there was suddenly a lot less space to be on my own and reflect – I hadn’t thought for a moment that I would miss that, and I didn’t do anything to try to find that space.  It was a very special Christmas,  but I came home feeling like I’d missed something.  Not because it wasn’t there, but because I hadn’t made space for it in my time and imagination. Somehow I’d lost hold of the story which was what made it all mean something more.  And, short of returning to my single life and my parents’ house, I wondered what I could possibly do to hold onto the story more tightly…

I came home and did something a bit weird. I wrote some liturgy.  It was just my way of trying to create moments in the day when everyone could come together and remember bits of the story and maybe even why they matter.

So, I offer it here as a Christmas gift, in case you’d like a way to enter into the story a bit more this year:


Happy Christmas!

party time in doddington grove

Having finally, and with much help, bought the flat we’ve been living in for two or three years (or rather a very small percentage of it), we decided last week to throw a party for our neighbours.

Past experience of neighbourhood parties has been mixed.  Our experience is limited to the few attempts we have made over the last 2 1/2 years, although we did get to go to our Ecuadorian neighbour’s birthday party recently which was FAB.  Great cake. We hosted Christmas drinks last year and two households made an appearance: our most loyal friends in the block.  To be honest, whatever we do, we can count on our amazing next door neighbour Frank who has been here for more than 50 years, and our neighbours Dawn and Clifford.  Everybody else declined to join us.

Early on someone suggested that it was fairly intimidating to come into a flat full of people that you don’t know but who live next to you, and we do have many nationalities in this little block who don’t always rub together nicely (especially if someone’s dog always pees outside your front door)…so we decided to start inviting people over one at a time…before we started throwing anymore parties.

Last summer, encouraged by lots of fun neighbourly dinners, we decided to hold a block bbq and get everyone together (and we invited a few friends from church so that we weren’t just standing alone in the car park…). After handing out home-made invites and hearing enthusiastic response we were more than a little confused when none of our regular friends from the block came along (EXCEPT the wonderful Frank, Dawn and Clifford).  But then weirdly all kinds of people we’d never met before pitched up, including a small group (hoard? host? gaggle?) of wonderful Nigerian mums I had never met, who established themselves in the car park and were still there when we’d packed up, sitting on our dining room chairs.

hubby cooking ENORMOUS Zimbabwean sausage on bbq

There’s been quite a turn-over in the block in the last year, but we’ve been trying to get to know the folk on our floor at least (currently Polish, Ghanaian, British, West Indian, Nigerian, Ugandan and Ecuadorian), so once again we (well, mainly Andy) enthusiastically presented home-made invites and encouraged them to come along.  And we invited a few other friends to bolster the numbers.

So, 7.30 on the dot and two large families arrive, and within half an hour we’re wondering where to put everyone.  AMAZING!  And people actually met and talked to each other.  I even found out one of my neighbours specialises in music and entertainment law and is therefore perfectly placed to advise The Ruby Dolls on our current copyright conundrums. Helpful!

It’s feeling more and more like home here, and like maybe a good story is starting….