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:

Advertisements

Old school kindness

Last week I went to my tenth Tearfund UK project to do a final day of filming for the epic Ten Keys Project.

We were in Ilford, and we interviewed a man from the council.  I asked him to jot down his job description for me and it took 8 lines of my notebook.  (It wasn’t a large notebook, but still).  I asked him why he’s worked in the Housing Department of Redbridge council for twenty odd years.  And he said, self-deprecatingly, that it was because he was “old school”, meaning that he wanted to work to improve services in his community and make things better.  And stick at it.

We spoke to another guy in the Housing Department, because they were queuing up to praise the project we were filming, known as The Welcome Centre.  He said that there are a bunch of services working with people who are homeless, but what marks out this project is their persistent kindness, no matter how often people fall back into bad choices.  Rough sleepers are a hard group to work with, a fragile and often entrenched community who frequently resist support and certainly have no time for the bureaucracy of council services.

(To access help from the Housing Department you need ID and proof of eviction to get past reception.  It’s hard to get a nice letter from your wife explaining why she threw you out).

The Housing Department couldn’t get these people to come to them, so the department staff went to The Welcome Centre (which was set up by a local church).  They knew that the town’s rough sleepers felt safe and welcome there, so it was the only place they could go and talk to them and find ways to help them.  Having been to both of their buildings I can honestly say that I would choose the Welcome Centre every time as well.

The new Welcome Centre, funded by the government’s ‘Places of Change’ initiative

The project itself was brilliantly inspiring (staffed by some amazing women with fiery compassion and great wisdom) but I keep returning to those two men from the council.  They weren’t especially prepossessing or charismatic, probably just what you might imagine civil servants to look like.  But they were faithful.  They were in it for the long haul. They hadn’t been neutered by the bureaucracy of local government.  They were working away in overheated, decaying, depressing office blocks, amidst ever-increasing cuts, and they were keeping going, eager to find news ways to support people who are hard to help.  And they were championing this brilliant ray of light that is The Welcome Centre, trying to find them funding and to look for news ways to partner with them.

It reminds me David Hare’s play, Skylark, and some impassioned, angry words from the main character, Kyra (with some expletives removed):

You only have to say the words ‘social worker’…’probation officer’… ‘counsellor’… for everyone in this country to sneer.  Do you know what social workers do?  Every day?  They try and clear out society’s drains.  They clear out the rubbish.  They do what no-one else is doing, what no-one else is willing to do.  And for that, oh *****, do we thank them? No, we take our own rotten consciences wipe them all over the social worker’s face, and say, ‘If –‘****! – ‘if I did the job, then of course if I did it…oh no, excuse me, I wouldn’t do it like that…’

I’m not owning up to being that angry on a regular basis, but there’s something ugly about the contempt we show for these kinds of jobs, how quick we are to dismiss, or critique. And there’s something tragic about how society is moving further away from valuing them (kids only want to be glamour models and footballers now, apparently).  I don’t remember ever having the first clue what a social worker did or how you might become one.

So today’s post it talking up the people who work for good in the council.  The people who sit on committees.  The people who work in local government to make things better.  The social workers and support workers.  What honourable work you do.

There’s something to be said for old school kindness.

I love lunch

I write “I love lunch” optimistically, full of faith and hope because if I’m honest lunch is usually the weakest contender in ‘meal of the day’. (It’s normal to review the day’s meals and compile a leaders board, right?)

Too often I’m out of the house, unprepared, grabbing something on the fly, pacing the streets of Teddington in search of anything that isn’t an overpriced panini.

But I am hopeful, because I have just invested some birthday money in an exciting book: River Cottage Veg Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whatsisface.  Part of my journey on living within limits brings me to the question of food.  Is meat-eating basically a terrible environmental catastrophe in the making?  (Pretty much, at current levels anyway). I posted on Facebook, asking for recommendations of books that might convert me to the green side, and received all kinds of responses.  These ranged from “Don’t do it!” to diet book recommendations (once I worked out people weren’t just calling me a ‘skinny bitch’ – it did seem unlikely), to a handful of ethical reflections and then the practical advice of my friend Dave: “Honestly, get the Hugh Fernley-W book. Skip the theory, and get some good recipes!!”.  And so I did.  And I’m cooking up a storm in the kitchen.

Saying that, I was hoping to write this post earlier, only the night I returned, recipe book in hand, to greet my organic veg delivery and get cracking, I was devastated to discover that the veg had been delivered while my husband was asleep, and so they had been rescued by our faithful next door neighbour Frank, except he had now gone out for the evening.  I was grumpy and there was no vegetarian food to photograph.

But here was today’s lunch:

Ribollita. It’s a kind of hearty soup.

It’s called ribollita and it was great, although perhaps not the most appealing meal to have photographed?

Anyway, we’re now officially veggies from Monday-Friday, and so far I haven’t even eaten meat this weekend.

The other reason to blog about lunch is because of this BRILLIANT new film about a project my friend Rachel helps to run, called LUNCH.  “There are children around this country who are only eating if their school provides them with a meal” she says.  1.2million children in the UK are registered for free school meals, but there is no provision for them in school holidays.  That’s where this nifty and amazing project comes in.  Get involved.

Lunch from Matt Bird on Vimeo.

Hope on the final frontier (the wild west of England)

I decided not to come back to London (despite all my protestations in favour city living).  Well, not for a few more days.

In fact, after leaving Devon, I moved further west and was ensconced for 48 hours in luscious Cornwall.

Cornwall, to me, is clotted cream and ice-cream and the Eden Project and the beach.  It’s best known and loved for holidays.  One of my friends and colleagues grew up by the beautiful beaches of Hayle (we actually holidayed at her family home last year which was idyllic) and she would love to live there still.  Only there is hardly any work.  Cornwall is one of the most deprived regions in Europe.  It even qualifies for poverty-related grants from the EU.

I went to hear stories from two great groups of people running projects in the region that are trying to push against the tide of increasing deprivation.  It’s a rough battle right now, with so many cuts.  We started out in Camborne, hosted by the seemingly indomitable vicar of the parish church, Mike Firbank.  He rocked up five years ago and started talking about how the church should be helping the community out.

On location with my photographer…(so glamorous)

Shortly afterwards a congregation member was in town for a meeting and nipped into the local public toilets.  He found a group of men huddled around the hand-driers, trying to keep warm, nowhere else to go.

Shocked and heart-sore, he knocked on the vicar’s door.  They talked.  And on Christmas Eve they opened the church hall for a Christmas dinner for anyone with nowhere to go.  And the doors have never really shut since then.

They called themselves DISC, which stands for Drop In and Share Centre, and it’s a simple idea.  They run a drop in centre when anyone is welcome – those often excluded elsewhere by nature of their addictions and behaviour, or those who are just a little lonely. When people arrive they’re offered a cup of tea and a chat, and some help if they want it.  They don’t prescribe specific kinds of problems they will solve, or promise to know what the answer is.  But they will try, and they will search out people who have more expertise and experience than they might.

It’s a safe, stable place.  A shelter, a rock, a hiding place.  Somewhere you can trust.  The staff’s stories are of long, difficult journeys taken with people, of disappointments and heart-breaking relapses and of beautiful steps towards change and hope.

One of the things they run is a foodbank.  They provide emergency food as a stop-gap for families who find themselves suddenly in the lurch.  Their benefits don’t come through, or change, and there is no income for a few weeks.  It’s inscrutable how one of the richest countries in the world can still leave its own people starving.  And just recently working families have starting turning up at the foodbank because they just can’t afford to feed their kids.  It doesn’t bode well for the year ahead, and Mike reckons the worst is yet to come.

DISC are suffering from all the cuts.  They’re having to scale back, even as the needs are getting more critical.  I want to turn it around, I want the church across this country to step in and step up and join in, even as I know that so many of them are on their own journeys deeper into all of this already.  I want to shake the bureaucrats making the cuts and make them see what it’s doing to people.

I ask Lorna, the Centre Manager, how they keep going, and keep hoping that things will improve.  She shakes her head.  We see train crashes, she says, we see them all the time.  We see people in crisis.  But we’re there at the other side of it too.  The crash isn’t the end of the story; we’re there to see every tiny step forward that they take afterwards.  And that’s where hope becomes something real.

And to put it in their own words, here’s a short video they made of Mike introducing their work:

Return from Oz

I just switched off for a week.  Well done to me (and the husband).

I’m fresh back from holiday, from 7 days of blustery beach walks and lie-ins, leisurely swims and horse-rides, cream teas and Sunday roasts (well, one of each), croquet, table-tennis and a lovely yoga class with the middle-aged ladies of Woolacombe.   I have read books and gazed out of windows and slumbered and journalled.  I have cooked hearty dinners and supped red wine.  I have noticed birds singing (loudly) in the trees around me and I have stopped to look at views.  I have learnt to reverse back along narrow country lanes to the nearest passing point.

This is where we were, looking out towards Baggy Point

If you want to do the same then head straight for the gorgeous Pickwell Manor in North Devon run by some great friends of mine: two families living in community together, trying to live sustainably and generously and to create a space for you to come and unwind.

I’m a big fan of rest, of building big blocks of it into life, of taking your foot off the accelerator and remembering that there is something more to life than ceaseless forwards momentum.  Amazingly, and wonderfully, I find that it all keeps going without me.

Part of what I wanted to do this last week was wrench my attention from the future and sink it back into the now.  I hate how I’m always about the next thing, always planning, organising, keeping things on track, rather than being fully present – and alive, and grateful – in the right now.  I took with me the book Present Perfect by Greg Boyd to help.  I love the imagery he uses from the Wizard of Oz – how we’re always looking for something which we already have:

You’re dreaming about what’s over the rainbow, in some mythical land of Oz, and this is the very thing that’s keeping you from experiencing the love and joy that’s already round you in Kansas.

He’s not telling me my life is already everything I ever want it to be, but that the things that matter most are already mine, so I can stop chasing them.  Phew.

He writes about giving a talk along those lines to a youth group once, only to be challenged by a frustrated parent afraid that their child will never achieve anything unless they are driven; ambitious; feeling a lack that would need to be satisfied by attainment, success, whatever.  A hole.

I don’t want to be driven by a hole in me. I don’t want to believe that the only thing that will drive my children to contribute to the world is their own sense of incompleteness.

What if I have enough, now?  What if I am free, and loved, and worth something now?  Can I believe that, not just on special holy days, but every day?

As I write I’m staying with friends who have a four year old son – a beautiful, exuberant, chatty little man currently making brownies with his mum.  Playing cars with him yesterday uprooted me right out of my planned afternoon activities and what I was counting on accomplishing.  And it was ok.  It reminded me that real rest, and stopping, is only possible when we can let go of that drivenness, that neediness, and be ok just with who we are and where we are.  Which is hard when we’re frankly so flawed and needy. I think it must be hard to get to that place without God (but maybe you have?).

Of course it’s all easier outside of London and all my normal routines, so I’ll get back to you about how it goes when I’m back.

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.

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?

Taking Edinburgh home with me (but leaving the rain)

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

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

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

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

Those crazy Dutch boys

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

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

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.

On Courage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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