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.

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.

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….