A handful of hope

This post is bringing you a little round-up of the things that have inspired me this past week, the things that reassure me that there is good in the world still. I’m about to head off to Burkina Faso to make a short film about how churches are working with their local communities to bring positive change.  I hope I’ll return with some good stories, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be offline all week. So in the meantime…

This is a short film about the power of writing handwritten letters, and, more than that, the hunger we have for people to be present with us when things are tough, however that is transmitted…(actually see comments below for the link).

You might remember I wrote a post a few months ago about Knocknagoney, on the edge of Belfast.  It’s a loyalist community and had one of the highest crime rates in Northern Ireland, but since the church started bringing the different community groups together things have totally changed (and crime figures have dropped).  This article talks about the film we made and the impact it’s having, and there’s also a link to the film.

This week we said goodbye at work to an amazing colleague who’s been at Tearfund more than a decade.  She recently adopted two sisters who were 4 and 5 and after a year of parental leave has decided not to come back to her demanding job. I keep returning to what a brave and beautiful thing she has done, for all the sleeplessness she is enduring and the past trauma she is helping her girls to work through. My friend Kelley wrote a beautiful reflection recently entitled Tread Softly on my Adoption which feels important.

And finally I came across a brilliant project through a friend who’s involved, called Scene & Heard.  They mentor kids at schools in Somers Town in London and help them to write plays which professionally actors then perform.  Have a look:

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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?

A story of shopping

Shopping is the last thing I thought I would ever write about on this blog because our obsession with consumption does not strike me as a great cause for hope in the world.  But today I am thrilled to be joining Lulastic’s…

I am a huge fan of charity shops because they provide a brilliant alternative economy when it comes to shopping.

Have you seen (or read) The Story of Stuff?  It’s an amazing and terrifying account of the world produces stuff (plastics, electronics, anything coming out of a factory really) and the effects this production has on the environment, and then the way we think we can throw things away without consequences.  They are also great at flagging up stories of hope and change (especially in their book), so it’s not all doom and gloom.  But I thought that joining in the charity shop blog hop this week would be a great way to talk about one way of opting out of the endless chain of buy-discard-buy-discard made possible by today’s super-cheap clothes shopping.

The host of this bloghop, Lulastic, is a paragon of resourcefulness and thriftiness so I am pleased to be able to talk up her alternative shopping ethos and share a little about my own charity shop journey.

I was doing a talk in a church a while ago about how, as Christians, we don’t just do things like buy fairtrade chocolate because we think our individual participation will necessarily change the world (although lots of small actions can and do) but also because it’s an issue of integrity, of trying to live in a way Jesus might.  And I talked about buying clothes, seeing as the whole sweat-shop issue is a hot topic.  I know there is a huge campaigning job to be done about employment policies, and that everyone opting out of the clothing economy might not bring about the change we want, but I can’t bring myself to believe that Jesus would buy his clothes from companies who essentially use slave labour to make them, or who employ children.  So I decided there and then, in the middle of the talk, that I’d stop.  I’d just buy from ethical companies or charity shops.

The joy for me is that I work in beautiful, leafy Teddington (it’s about half an hour out of London to the south west) and there are simply heaps of charity shops lining its streets full of beautiful, hardly worn clothes.  This is probably related to how much it costs to live in Teddington, meaning its residents are fairly well-off and regularly donate their barely-worn items to such shops.  And here is my regular little tour, and my top buys! (All shops can be found on the small stretch of Broad Street that runs between Church Rd and Stanley Rd).

If you start at Tearfund and turn left onto Broad St the first one you come to is the newly opened Barnados Children’s charity shop. Just yesterday I went in to find a present for my friend Ruth’s newborn little girl, and look what I came out with, for less than a tenner in total!:

Then there’s the traditional Oxfam which has been there forever.  Not so great for clothes, but totally brilliant for all your ethical toiletries and cleaning products:

The best place for dresses is definitely Fara, which also looks as if it may have had a Mary portas-style make-over as it’s streets ahead of the others in layout.  Just look at all those nice dresses (Note to husband: I did not buy any this week).
Further on down is the Princess Alice hospice where I have bought many a stripey top, some fab Boden stuff, and these gorgeous yellow teacups which we used for a German teacup dance in The Ruby Dolls’ first show, and which I have now approrpiated for my home:
And then finally there is Cancer Research which can be a little random, but not long ago I bought heaps of this fabric for about £2 which I have since made into all kinds of things, including this little curtain screen.  And old discarded duvet covers have also become head scarves and cushion covers.  Genius!
So there is a little taste of my shopping life and how I am joining the mini-revolution against waste and the injustices of the garment trade.

When it’s easy to love South London

How I love South London when the sun shines and neighbours do stuff together.

This Sunday I helped plant a community herb garden on an estate near London Bridge.

We have this thing at our church that means we don’t always just meet in a big hall on a Sunday morning to sing songs.  Once or twice a month we meet in local neighbourhoods in smaller communities and look for practical ways of expressing love towards the people who live around us.  And this Sunday our friends Martin and Naomi and their two gorgeous daughters decided to get us replanting their housing estate’s fledgling herb garden along with their neighbours.

The kids were very enthusiastic, especially when it came to making a mud pie....

I know very little about gardening, but I can operate a spade, and this is mainly what I did.  We set out – Martin & Naomi’s family, Andy and I, and our Turkish friend Baci – and over the course of the next hour several of the neighbours rocked up to help.  There was 4 year old Aldous (very enthusiastic with the watering can) who announced the gardening was “more fun than the wii, and not the wee that comes out of your willy”.

Within about an hour and a half we’d taken the plants out, thrown away the ones we weren’t keeping, tilled and aired the soil, replanted old and new herbs, covered the ground with stones (apparently this is important) and made labels out of lolly sticks so we knew what everything was.  Then we even found some chipboard to make a sign from, so the neighbours know they can help themselves.

A dance of joy over the completed herb garden...

And the sun shone the whole time! And afterwards we had homemade scones and jam!

This is when it’s easy to love South London. We’re already plotting some more rogue gardening, and I’ve spotted some brilliant free gardening lessons at my local garden farm.  Genius!

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Footnote: It’s less easy to love South London when your neighbours get burgled, which also happened this week.

 

rice and beans

This week Tearfund is inviting you and me to live off rice and beans for five days, to help us understand poverty issues more deeply and personally.  And then to give the money we save to support their work.

I raised my eyebrows when I heard. How entirely unappealing.  A number of staff members signed up, and I mentioned it to Andy.

“Tearfund are doing this thing next week where you only eat rice and beans, and really small portions, for five days.

A pause.

“Okay, let’s do it,” he says.

Horror.

“I wasn’t offering to do it!” I cry. “I was just keeping you informed.”

He clearly doesn’t understand what a week of rice and beans will do to me. I love food, I have a deep and emotional relationship with my food. I dream about good dinners and weekend brunches.

And it’s not like I’ve never had to eat rice and beans. You never know what you’ll be able to eat when you travel, and rice and beans has often been on the menu. But to eat them by choice in the midst of the abundance of London cuisine, without recourse to snacks I may have packed in my suitcase? That actually feels really hard.

At the same time, I love bold and radical decisions; I love that Tearfund is suggesting something so full-on, something that is such an affront to my lifestyle. I read a blog this morning by Mark Powley that made a powerful case for a wake-up call from the anaesthesia of our comfortable western lifestyle.  It’s going to be proper hard and I hate that.

But I’ve opted in.  And I can’t answer for my grumpiness later in the week.

I had a small portion of porridge (with water! and no syrup!) for breakfast and I’m really hungry. But here’s hoping it brings home something a bit more important.

How not to go broke in year one of parenting

Let me be clear – I have not been secretly parenting for a year, nor will I be in the next year (secretly or otherwise).  But, I just read this great post from my friend Lucy (Lulastic & the Hippyshake), which mentioned how the average spend on a baby in the first year of their life is £9000 – which is NUTS.  She shared how she has totally rejected the ‘buy lots of new stuff’ approach, and frankly, I am re-posting it because it gives me hope!  There’s a chunk of it below and you can read the rest by clicking on the link at the bottom. I love finding anyone with the imagination to live differently in this world, and I am inspired by loads of her parenting ideas.  So here’s to thrifty baby-raising!:

OLD SOLDIERS & THINGS IN JARS

It is due to a mixture of cheapskateness and environmental consciousness that I have yet to buy Ramona a single new toy. She does have some new things, bought for her by loving friends and family, but only a handful. All the rest have come from charity shops, around the home and the side of the road. When I see the jawdropping cost of toys in real shops I am not surprised that the average spend on a kid in their first year of life is £9000. When you really needn’t spend a penny.

The BEST kind of toy for me is one that she, er, likes (such a loving mother) but also one that is nice to look at. Give me wood and old over plastic any day. (I know, I know it’s not about me.)

We have found some absolutely beaut things over the last few months and fortunately these are also some of Ramona’s favourite toys. I think she loves the pure simplicity of them. Here are a few:

Abacus- 50p from charity shop in Essex

Rainbow thing- £1 from car boot sale

Big Soldier – £5 from OXfam in Streatham

Soldier train – £5 from Kids Fara in Pimlico

This is my fave of Ramona’s toys- he actually plays his xylophone as he is pulled along!Puh, who needs an Ipad?

He was £5 from a charity shop. (Steep I know, but a musical duck!)

HOMEMADE TOYS

I am surprised at how often Ramona spurns her fanciest toys in order to play with some thing that is, frankly, rubbish. The main reason I think she does this is because that something is fitting perfectly with her stage of development. When we flew home from NZ last month I packed an entire pull along suitcase with the coolest little toys. She spent most of the time just posting pegs and other small items into a drink bottle. She was intent on it – posting them in, tipping them out, posting them in again.

To read the rest of the blog, click here.

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….

A fairytale of wild hope

This week I encountered a beautiful story from Germany.  It’s the story of a girl whose father somewhat unthinkingly bargains her away to the devil in return for riches (stay with me…).  The devil tries to take her away with him, only she’s too clean.  So he covers her in dirt. But she cries and her tears are so pure they make her hands clean again. So her hands are cut off.

Still exasperated, the devil lets her go for a while, convinced that her clean soul won’t stay clean for long and that the world will corrupt her.  But it somehow proves untrue.  The angels feed her in the wilderness, and then she wins the love of a king, they have a child, the king goes off to war and she is cast off into the wilderness again; but still she stays true and good.  Out in the wilderness there is a beautiful miracle: her hands grow back. Then after many years she is reunited with her husband the king. And the devil is well and truly defeated.

(the show is about to tour England if you want to catch it...)

It comes from the Brothers Grimm originally, I think, but I saw it on stage this week in a beautiful, hilarious and wonderful production by Kneehigh theatre called The Wild Bride.  The director, Emma Rice, had created an adaptation of it in Hungary some years ago, which she remembers as being full of flowers and prettiness and kid leather (!).  When she returned to it she realized she had missed the story’s heart, and so this one has the blues, it has dirt, it has brutality.  But most of all, in the midst of the blues, it has hope.

There’s hope in people: in the girl whose soul is good and stays good despite all she is made to suffer.  And in the man who chooses her, loves her and waits for her.  And there’s hope in some dimension that we cannot see or explain – played out in the provision of food in the wilderness, in the miracle of the girl’s hands growing back, and the defeat of the devil. It’s a fable and a fairytale, but like the best stories, articulates something true and intrinsically human.  Like the importance of integrity and goodness, the power of love and the rewards of sticking it out.  And at the heart of it is the belief that it matters profoundly what kind of person you are.

I saw it with a close friend and we were buzzing afterwards.  She’s also part of The Ruby Dolls, our fledgling theatre company, and we weren’t just exhilarated by the content of the thing, but the way it was told: With enormous energy and love of the story, with humour and truthfulness, with song, movement, puppetry, poetry and regional accents. I was only half joking when I wrote on facebook: ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up.’ That is exactly what we want to do – to tell stories we believe in, in an irresistibly creative, joyous, and meaningful way.

I know there is plenty of meaningful art in the world which is dark and despairing, but for me there is something weirdly paradoxical about that kind of thing.  The process of creating something is an intrinsically hopeful act – it’s daring to put something new into the world, to continue the journey, to keep connecting and contributing.  My Granny became a painter in later life and she taught me to draw.  I treasure the knowledge that even in her final years she had enough hope for the world to keep creating. Despairing art seems to me to contradict itself and it leaves me cold.

As long as I have any hope for anything, I’ll keep creating.