Be loving; be loved

You talk about love as though it is easy, all sunshine and roses, fair trade chocolates in plastic-free packaging winking next to a card filled with personal memories and insightfully humourous anecdotes delivered on the right day and everything. You finish the story at the point when the lovers, having overcome fear, prejudice, jealousy or all three, link hands and lips and hearts and destinies and promise that this is it, as though that really is the end of the story, and not just the end of the first chapter. Love is the beautiful ideal, the point of keeping going, the escape from reality. Reminding us all of just how hard love is doesn’t sell; but it is the only way to comprehend what it really is.

Love is drinking too much and suddenly getting serious and saying all the beautiful things to your partner that you always forget to say when sober. It is composing music just for them, while they sit sulking downstairs because it is Valentine’s Day, again, and they think they have been forgotten, again. It is taking out the bins because they’ve had a bad day, and leaving the cushions all over the floor because they need to cuddle up and be held, and cooking spaghetti bolognese yet again because they like it, even though you really don’t. It is not being able to stop smiling when The One sends you a message and everyone in the room with you can tell straight away who it’s from, and not just because you’ve given them their own ring tone. It is wanting to be the person you see reflected in their eyes and being honest enough together to see how you both fall short of that, so much of the time.

Love is the hurt silence when they have, once again, utterly failed to listen to your desperate pleas to not have to do everything alone on school day mornings. It is the teasing that feels more like nagging than like fun. It is the darkness and the solitude of breaking your own promises and going to bed angry, after all. It is there in your sacrifices and there in your tears. It is the mindnumbing boredom of Yet Another Day of everything being exactly the same.

Love is bubbling up with your neighbours, instead of your own family, because you heard their screams before he left, and you know they will need you to get through this. Love is taking your baby sister’s kids to school as well as your own because it’s been raining all week and the blinding agony of her sickled cells means she won’t make it as far as the playground, never mind getting back again, and if that means you running late all day, well, that’s just what it means. Love is putting a plastic ring in a stolen envelope covered in felt-tipped red hearts, handed over surreptitiously because her mum says girls can’t marry girls and what will she do when she sees the ring? Love is hanging around your mother every week as she groans at her computer before you connect her to the world and she can continue to learn to spell her home town, her job title, the name she gave to you with so much hope all those years ago.

Love is the hitch in your mother’s step that you see as precious, that sets her apart from all the others, recognisable even without your inch-thick glasses on. Love is thinking she can do everything, and only realising when it’s your own turn to be The All-Fixable just how terrifying that unquestioning faith must have been. Love is your mindnumbing screams when you hear the words Terminal Cancer, and your hands when you sit at his bedside and pray for the end of his pain, knowing as you do that must also mean the end of his life. Love is still missing him decades later, and decades later still when roles reverse and the cared for become the carers.

Love is crossing oceans in dinghies and putting up with excrement being pushed through your letter box and learning new languages and giving up your dreams, all for the sake of your children. Love is the alien feeling of another soul growing in your belly, and it is the echoing silence of the moment you unconsciously caress that overstretched belly and touch nothing but empty space. Love is catching her vomit in your hands to save yet another set of sheets, and love is that first “I love you too” that is sleepily murmured with actual conviction, not just as words other people say.

Love is that friend who phones you when they’re bored because you make them laugh, and the rush of joy you feel when they do. Love is knowing that you can meet up again after two years apart and it will feel like it was only yesterday that you spent hours leaning in the doorways of your student bedrooms, never quite finishing everything you had to say to each other. Love is acceptance and pride and respect. Love sees your worth more than you ever will. Love tells the future Mr Friend, on first meeting him, that if he ever hurts her you will cut out his heart with a spoon.*

Love is recycling everything you can whilst knowing it will never be enough. Love is trying to live simply whilst caving all too often for one more pair of boots. Love is talking about the future and it is living and dreaming in the present. Love is saying “yes, and” when you really want to scream “no, never”; and it’s rolling up your sleeves and making good on your promises once you do, because some things are bigger and bolder and better than you are on your own.

Love is all these things, and a million more moments as well. And yes, sometimes love can even be sunshine, and flowers, and fair trade chocolates wrapped in plastic-free packaging, with a handmade card.

*I am sorry about that, incidentally. A little too much wine and a lot too much Alan Rickman going on there. I meant every word of it, though, and I still do.

Lockdown: it’s harder, this time.

It was easier, a year ago, to put everything on hold. We could see it coming, the tidal wave that made the world stand still, locked together in horror and determination. We believed we could do whatever it took. Politicians made promises, and hope triumphed over experience as we chose to believe that, this time, they really meant them. We stood together and we clapped and we sang. Shops shut themselves, and hotels opened, taking in the homeless and the shielders and the key workers alike. Schools, work, even the Queen told us to focus only on getting through this, nothing more, nothing less, because one day soon, life would go back to what we most wanted it to be. Hope shone in rainbows and warmth leapfrogged from garden to garden. Zoom was a novelty; online church felt all-inclusive; we made new connections and looked for the good in a world that had crashed into chaos. We recognised a circuit-breaker to cure us not only of coronavirus but of busyness, overconsumption, and dissociation from the world around us. And for those who walked to Hell and back in those early days, who saw no light, no joy, no peace? There was still the knowledge that this would pass. In a few short weeks, waiting at the end of that passing would be human contact, long summer days, and a world that was no longer burning.

Text on a purple background. Text reads "World: There's no way we can shut down everything to lower emissions and slow climate change. Mother Nature: Hold my beer."

It was easier, three months ago. Christmas was just around the corner, and with it came neighbourhoods full of light and the conviction that the economy would never be kept shut through December. The promised release from the rules, a hiatus of joy and sharing within the bleakness of midwinter and the gathering shadows, was a beacon before us. Speaking for my own bubble, the second lockdown passed unmarked and un-cared-for, as schools, colleges, and churches remained open, and our lives continued to crawl along in our now-familiar New Normal.

It is harder this time. We are once more locked in our houses, but this time there is no respite allowed. The world cannot stop; not again, not for anything. We can no longer draw in a collective breath, but can only let out a collective scream. Lessons must be taught and learned, productivity must be maintained. A daily dose of five hours of video calls is no longer even noteworthy, and the hope embodied in PE With Joe or science experiments with balloons and washing up liquid are things of distant memory, out of reach of both our energy and our time. Our houses have had a year building up the residue of continuous indwelling, with no intensive cleaning for the visits of guests or the judgement of relatives. Ten months of furlough or unpaid self-isolation have reduced disposable income to a dream of bygone generations. The walls are pressing in with the weight of the things we cannot give away, or replace, or continue, for fear of the consequences. We cannot wait more, and yet, we must. We cannot do more, and yet, we must. We cannot keep going, and yet, we must. And why? Because we no longer believe that this is as bad as it gets. One day, my fear whispers in the dead of night, will I look back on this present time and say it was still easier than it is at that distant, as yet unimaginable moment?

Darkness. At the bottom, just emerging from shadow, is a woman's chin and downturned lips.
Picture courtesy of Pixabay

This, too, will pass. Glimmers of vaccine-illuminated hope shine through the darkness of these January skies. This life will, one day, be a memory that shows we are stronger than we ever thought might be possible. But if that day seems too far away to touch or believe in; if you too are finding it so much harder this time, remember this: you are not alone.

The countdown to a simpler Christmas. Week 3 (and a bit): More beauty, less of a beast

My Fabulous Mother was fond of recounting, when I was growing up, her Greatest Success as a counsellor (though, now I think more about both counselling and confidentiality, I suspect this might actually have been her Greatest Success that was Also Appropriate to Share with her Children). This success occurred as follows. At around this time of year, or maybe a little earlier, one very overworked and underappreciated client spent some of her session ranting about sprouts. “I don’t know why I bother! They’re so much hassle, and nobody even likes them!” Mother, looking her directly in the eye with her head tilted just a little to one side (yes, I’ve been the recipient of a few of Those Looks myself) suggested calmly “Well, don’t do them then.” And with those five words, Christmas tradition and a source of major angst were both knocked down like the flimsy Ikea-bought gingerbread house they were.*

A gingerbread box with smarties covering it.
It is a good thing Ikea’s furniture is significantly better than their gingerbread houses. This deserted shack was all that could be salvaged from this year’s purchase. Still tasted good, though…

The Internet has been teeming with similar stories recently, as household after household have their bubbles popped and now face Christmas alone. Suddenly it is OK to look at what you would like to eat, rather than what you’ve always eaten in the past, or what you feel is expected. Pigs in blankets? Eat the whole pack! Nothing but eggnog? Well, at least it’s full of protein! All the trimmings but none of the turkey? Can’t say anyone would blame you! But these traditions, and stresses, and plans are all there for the sake of the people we love most in the world – or at least, are most closely related to. And the people we will be spending it with this year, if we’re not spending it alone, are one fraction of that same group – the people we love most in the world. So if we’re not doing all the franticness and faffiness for ourselves or the people we love most, who are we doing it for?

One clichéd beast is that it is all for the children. We must do everything, be everywhere, take part in every activity and contribute to every appeal because if we don’t, their Christmas will be less than it could have been. For those of you without primary school aged children, let me give a flavour of what I mean here. Even in these Covid-riddled times, with no End of Term disco or Christmas play/activity afternoon/assembly to squeeze in, we still had: a Zoomed introduction to Year 2 SATS; Viking Day (Muuum, I was the only one with a homemade costume! It was the Worst Day Ever!); Wedding Day (to celebrate Christian traditions. Because no other Christian traditions spring to mind at this time of year…); Christmas Party Day; Christmas Jumper & Santa Run Day (don’t forget the donation, just a quick dash into a supermarket as we have no doodle-free colouring books or un-nibbled mince pies in the house, naturally…); Christmas lunch (which had to be reordered separately to all their other school dinners, which was probably handy as it was about the only school dinner I actually managed to order in advance); breakfast with Santa (via Zoom, and only for The Cowgirl. The Paleontologist was furious when she found out, not because she missed a Zoom call with Santa, but because she missed waffles for breakfast); and finally, to top it all off, the flu inoculations, with a likely side effect of fever. Good thing a temperature isn’t something to be worried about, really. Oh, wait…

Christmas for The Children goes beyond school nightmares activities, of course. It seeps into everything, becoming indistinguishable from actions to appease my own Ghost of Christmas Past. These things that made Christmas magical for me, I try to recreate so that my children can also feel that magic. The beauty, the candlelight and singing and tranquility my parents somehow pulled off? Those are the things I would love my kids to look back on and smile at in years to come, as they still have that effect on me. But fighting to recreate a half-remembered and thoroughly idealised holiday that fits neither the temperaments not the needs of this household, in this time, in this place, destroys the beauty of my memories by trying to cram them into a stress-shaped handmade golden star gently spinning in the frantic storm of my passing.

One way to make Christmas a thing of beauty is to make it all for God. The carol services and soaring soprano descants and the infant Jesus being borne to the crib at Midnight Mass are things of beauty, of mystery, of joy and worship and wonder. There is peace on the face of every one of those faithful worshippers, who have struggled more than ever this year, and now laugh in relief as they wish everyone love and joy and go home to sleep for a week. There is beauty in the people who come to church every year, in those who come every week, in those who come every day. There is beauty in the reaffirmation of faith and the deepening of commitments, making church-going just a little bit more normal, just for one day. There is soaring beauty and joy there. And there is such a beast to: the beast of expectations, of seeing the finished result of a service and imagining it was as easy to put together as it was to participate in; of settling in to the familiar and forgetting that even the familiar must be practiced and reworked and takes more effort than dragging a wheelie bin through a hedge backwards, just as those secular reworkings of cooking the dinner and decorating the house and searching, again, for the list of addresses you swore last year you would put back in a safe place takes time, and energy, and emotion. And through it all you have cancelled dreams and last minute positive Covid tests and phone calls from people expecting decisions it is not yet possible to make. For me, some of the greatest beauty in the season is held in the familiar worship, recreated anew every year; and some of the greatest beastliness can be found in what it takes to make that worship possible.

Maybe Christmas is for Good? Anyone with as bad a taste in cheesy heartwarming films as I have will have seen many, many different incarnations of the story (probably) initiated by A Christmas Carol, where someone who thinks only about money discovers the error of his (and it does seem to usually be his) ways, discovers the Magic of Christmas, and opens his heart to joy. In Nativity that joy means accepting the past and embracing self-belief. In A Muppet Christmas Carol it means supporting local businesses and realising that money can be used for good as well as ill. In Love Actually it means acknowledging and embracing those around us who get us through, even though this hurts sometimes. In A Christmas Story it means doing your best to fulfil your children’s dreams, even if they break their hearts (or their glasses) in the process. In Christmas Vacation it means destroying everything around you in order to discover that the things that really matter are not the lights, or the eggnog, or even the Christmas Bonus, but are rather the people you share those horrific, hilarious moments with. And the list could, of course, go on, and on, and on. People with their priorities misplaced get them corrected by the magic in the air and the movements of Father Christmas, and renew all our faith in ourselves, humanity, and the world. These are tales that place goodness at the heart of Christmas, and yet in themselves create impossible expectations and unliveable ideals that contribute, in part, to the reason that this season causes more divorces than any other in the year.

Christmas is about individual traditions and collective memories. It means working to help those who are lost or abandoned by others or the system; it means finding beauty and hope in lights in your neighborhood or the local parks; it means worshipping and glorying in individual acts or communal praise; it means finding the perfect gift that will be used and treasured and remembered for years to come; but it doesn’t mean all of these things, all together, all of the time, for every person. It is not about outdoing others, or overdoing excess, or doing every single thing that makes your memories sing every single year. I hope that this year, for all the darkness many will face in the days ahead; for all the food that will be thrown away in one house while next door starve with no access to fresh supplies; for all the people who tore their families apart working out their original Christmas bubbles and cannot see anyone at all now to fix the deep-running pain; I hope for all the hurt we have faced this year, it may just give us the chance to re-find the beauty and magic of Christmas in a way we haven’t had for decades before this. And, in the very, very long run, I hope that will be one of the real blessings of 2020.

A garland on a staircase which has actually been hoovered! Wrapped around the banisters are Christmas lights; in the corner is a washing basket and a bookcase.
A handmade garland; reusable advent calendar, Christmas lights on the stairs. This is what my home looks like all year round in my dreams.

*I also very happily followed this advice in my own cooking until my Mother-in-law, who is equally marvellous but has a couple of significant blind spots in the area of Green Vegetables, introduced The Paleontologist to sprouts a few years ago. In doing so she accidentally discovered the one, lightly-steamed-with-no-added-flavour or-they-don’t-count, green vegetable she is not only willing, but eager, to eat…

The countdown to a simpler Christmas. Week 2: eating, drinking and being merry

Food and I have a complicated relationship, as I may have mentioned just once or twice before. That relationship goes even more haywire at this time of year, as it does for so many other people – and so many other relationships, come to that. When so much emphasis is placed on consumption in general, and the consumption of food to distress in particular, how can we change food and drink and merriment to keep the fun and add in a healthy measure of simplicity?

The first Christmas after The Vicar and I were married was bloody awful memorable, to say the least. The Christmas traditions of my household were birthed in grief, distraction and anger. My side of the family were facing our first Christmas after the death of my father. The Vicar’s side were bearing his brother being on active service overseas, at a time that the media delighted in reminding us all of the danger faced in those long-lasting desert conflicts. Parents were facing handing over control of Christmas to their children, still young enough that the most common question either of us faced was whether we’d be “going home for Christmas.” Mix all of this together, season with the pressures of being a clergy household at a rather busy time of year, spice up with a slightly overbearing and very clear on the Right Way To Do Things grandmother, and you had a recipe that was always fairly likely to send us all over the edge.

The thing that kept me focussed, excited, feeling festive in those dark and dreary days, was food. Planning it, preparing it, sharing it. It started with buying the BBC’s Vegetarian Christmas magazine, pouring over its suggestions on the top deck of a steamed-up bus dragging its way past still-unfamiliar buildings to the not-yet-quite-home village we were living and worshipping in. It grew to become my sanctuary. Food preparation became my escape from people when I couldn’t face any more interaction. Everyone but The Vicar was unequivocally and unconditionally banned from entering the kitchen for any reason at all, on pain of having their eardrums blown. I demonstrated, to myself and all others around me, that Of Course I Was Coping, thank you very much – because would someone who wasn’t coping be able to produce a spread like this?

A table full of all kinds of food - some home made, some shop bought,
The tradition of a Christmas Eve buffet in this household developed over some years, and now forms the basis of All Food Eaten for the following week at least.

From those roots grew something beautiful, yet something that controlled me as much as I controlled it. I love cooking. I love sharing the food I have made, nurturing and nourishing and showing the love I can’t express through the hospitality I can. I love the creativity of trying new recipes and the generosity of planning a menu based on the diets and personal preferences of those I am caring for. But underlying that hope and love is still the conviction that if the food isn’t right and the booze isn’t free flowing, our guests will not feel loved, I will not feel in control, and the snowflake-and-robin-filled house of cards will come crashing down around my ears.

I am not alone in showing love, joy, one-upmanship and control in the creation of a perfectly crafted fortnight of food and drink that is available at any point; of snacks and treats to binge on until nobody can move without groaning. Sharing food is a way of sharing the things we cannot say. Back in the days when we were allowed to share more than thermometers and fear, my full time students would produce a communal Christmas buffet on the last day of term. As (almost exclusively) mothers themselves, bringing in food kicked them into autopilot and allowed them to revel in generosity. They would get up at 4am to start preparing a spread that would bring tears to my eyes. Overflowing heaps of white bread and cheese sandwiches met vast vats of curry and rice. Over shared food came shared music and a breaking down of divisions that had grown deeper and harder as the term had progressed. The shared need of both seeking sustenance and seeking to provide for others showed similarities across boundaries and life experiences that could not be seen in the rigidity of classroom exercises and the now-familiar patterns of who would succeed, who would step forward, who would retire behind uncertainty or sullen non-communication.

A buffet in a classroom - lots of homemade food in the foreground, and a smartboard and images of authors on cupboard doors in the background.
Taking pride in sharing food and experiences – the spread put on by my students a couple of years ago, that fed not only everyone in the room, but also everyone in the staffroom with the leftovers…

Eating food we do not need is as much a waste as throwing food away before it can be consumed. But it is also a joy, a way of opening up that is not achieved through sharing space and spoken experiences alone. In a year that we are all cutting back, cutting down, simplifying, questioning, how do we prune away the unwanted and the dead wood without cutting away the heart altogether? For me, the answer is not in the food and the drink, but in the honesty and openness of admitting what they represent. Sharing, hope and joy are all things I want more of, not less; and if that means cooking a little too much and ending up with a tummy that sends me to sleep in the middle of the afternoon, then that is what I will live with. But fear of rejection, lack of control, needing to prove myself and my place in the world? Those are things I need to leave aside; those are things that will not be granted by feeding the five thousand, however hard I try; and they are not things that are worth killing the planet for.

The countdown to a simpler Christmas. Week 1: Advent

In my mind and in my fantasies, Advent is a time for making memories, dancing from one perfect moment to another with well-fitting coats and knitted scarves and big smiles as we visit Santa, pick greenery, sing carols and romp together in the snow. The house is clean and shiny from top to bottom; all the de-cluttering jobs that have been nagging at me all year are miraculously tidied up into other people’s welcoming arms; and warmth, fairy lights and the smell of cinnamon and homemade sugar-filled treats fill the air. Presents are handmade and meaningful; cards are written with love and actually posted; decorations are natural, zero waste and beautiful; and the air is pregnant with expectation and spiritual growth.

What Advent actually is, in this household at least, is exhaustion. It is cold. It is hectic. It is children with runny noses and adults who rely on their voices for work but are losing them anyway, and an endless, nagging feeling of not being on top of things. It is hyperactivity and the screeching of “Fiiiiive goooooold riiiiiings” from every room. It is The Palaeontologist screaming in frustration because she used up all her energy five weeks ago and hasn’t worked out how to build up more. It is Zoom calls about upcoming SATS and last minute letters about Viking days at school and realising you have no suitable clothes for the end of term celebration because your children have grown two sizes since they last went to a party. It is waiting not for the birth of Jesus but for clarity over government rules and regulations, The Vicar writing and revising what church services will be possible and how, everyone bending their minds around who will feel safe enough to meet together over the Christmas week, and what the consequences of any actions we take might be.

My reality is overload. My ideal is overly saccharine. Neither of them have any connection to simplicity. And Advent is a season whose heart cries out for simplicity. It is a time when we remember waiting. It is a time that was first filled with the praying, and preparation, and solitude, and weariness, and fear, and uncertainty of a pregnancy and birth that would change the world. It is a time of hoping against all expectations that this year it will be different. It is a time that first ended in a dirty, crowded, love-filled overflow to an inn that was more welcoming than it had space to be. How might it be possible, in an era of moments engineered for the perfect social media shot and endless comparisons across the playground, to bring that simplicity into my own Advent rituals?

One way is resisting some of the many and increasing customs of Advent itself. Advent calendars are shared and re-used every year in this household, and contain acts of kindness and, this year, the Christmas story as well as chocolates (because let’s face it, without chocolate would anyone get as far as looking for the lovingly recycled messages to act on every day? Plus, that boost of sugar before getting out of bed in the morning is apparently exactly what they need to drag themselves into their school uniforms in these final, closing days of a term that has lasted at least two decades.) We avoid Christmas Eve boxes (easy enough when Christmas Eve is a work night, and a busy one at that) and buy Christmas Jumpers – an absolute necessity for any primary school child in modern Britain – second hand, and re-gift them after they are outgrown (or try to – currently, I confess, I have a large and growing pile of them I never remember to give away at the right time of year). And I flatly refuse, with everything that is in me, for the sake of my little remaining sanity and well-being, to do Elf on the Shelf.

Notes for an advent calendar, with quotes from the Christmas story and acts of kindness. They are surrounded by chocolate and lying on top of pieces of Christmas wrapping paper.
Acts of kindness written on recycled Christmas wrapping paper. Two chocolates for every action (anything to avoid another squabbling match); one action for every Advent calendar compartment.

These moves are not enough to satisfy my hope of simplicity. Noise and lights and already-decorated Christmas trees still surround me at all times. The underlying fear that presents will not get bought has started to seep into my nightmares. The alternating fears that when my children look back on Advent, they will either remember nothing but chocolate and Christmas films; or that they will remember nothing good at all, make me seek out more to do and more ways, new ways, different ways to fit in with the expectations of those they are surrounded by and Make Memories by doing, spending, acting.

There is no perfect medium in this one. The things that would be my ideal would not be the ideals of my family. The days are long gone, if they ever existed at all, when I could work towards making my own perfect Christmas and simply expect others to enjoy it too. And that is a good thing. Not only because my perfect Christmas was unachievable, but also because, in moving away from my own ideals and accepting that maybe other people’s ideas have equal value, I have also moved away from thinking only about perfection, about service by martyring myself in a quest for everything to look like a Disney set, and started noticing the moments when we get it right, together; even when that means letting The Cowgirl “help” with making the Christmas cake, turning a 15 minute mixing job into an hour-long blow by blow account of every moment of her school day, interspersed with us both swiping tastes of the uncooked cake batter, loaded with brandy-soaked dried fruit, whenever we thought we could get away with it. I still want to try to read more of the Bible and less of escapist novels downloaded because they were free on Kobo. I also want my children to help me to make new family traditions, which are likely to involve a lot more mud, shrieking, and screen time (quite possibly simultaneously), than I would ever volunteer for. I still want quiet times and times of prayer and times when I intensively clean away a year’s worth of dust and grime and make our living space feel more like a home and less like a haunted house, wrapped in spiders webs and clogged with cat fur. And I also want to do one thing, every day, just for fun. Simplicity can be about what we choose not to do, not to buy, not to eat; it is also about living here, and now, and enjoying what is here and now, rather than focussing always on the future. And focussing on the here and now can be as much a part of waiting and preparation as anything else.

Simple figures of a pregnant Mary and a caring Joseph, on a wooden tabletop, with a homemade Christmas decoration in the background.

Privilege, 2020 style.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are unaware of their privilege until someone who does not share it points it out to them.* 2020 has introduced new ways of showing the same old privileges, over, and over, and over again. Sometimes I have re-met privileges I share, that others have highlighted to me; at other times privileges I lack frustrate me beyond reason until I manage to sit down and work out why I am so angry with people I know, love, respect. Here are some of the things I have learned, for those who cannot simply leave their homes and talk to others about their experiences; those who do not come into contact with the people these stories belong to every day; and those who really don’t want to hear what I have to say, buy frankly need to anyway.

An open ocean. In the background is a 3 masted sailing ship; in the foreground is an origami ship made from newspaper.
Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

Privilege 1: having a car

One of my adult students phoned into college last week. She had developed a temperature over the weekend and was feeling unusually fatigued, so she did exactly as she should, shut herself away, and sorted out a coronavirus test. As she spoke, my mind was spinning Catherine-wheels of panic; this was a conversation I’ve known for a while was inevitable, but it’s never one you’re ready for first time round. What followed was three separate conversations checking facts, experiences and regulations to work through what we had to do next. And in those three conversations, every one of them started out not with praise for the student’s actions, or relief at her social responsibility (though those did follow later). Instead the first response was to curse. Why on earth had she chosen to get a postal test, when drive-thru testing is so much faster? And then it hit. This student spent a week cut off from study, her source of income, much good will, and the ability to leave her home and see her children; all when someone with their own vehicle would have been able to take the test, get the negative result, and be be released after only a couple of days.

Having a car you can use whenever you need it means avoiding personal risk by being able to commute without allowing random strangers who happen to be on the same bus as you into your personal bubble. It means having the flexibility to work that extra half an hour, instead of having to scream out of the office exactly on time or risk missing the last bus that will get you to nursery for pick-up, with the threat of a £5-per-5-minutes-late fine setting fire to your legs and your lungs as you run the last 100 meters. It means being able to deal with the third timetable change to your college course in as many weeks, and being able to accept blended learning that leaves you with an hour to get from your computer screen to your in-person lesson; and avoiding the accusation of lack of commitment if you are unable to make that journey work in any other way. Those of us who are ecologically minded and have averting the climate catastrophe at the top of our agendas speak about the importance of giving up cars; but we need to remember, this year of all years, just how much privilege we are showing not simply with the luxury of having a car in the first place, but also with having the security and confidence to be able to give that luxury up.

Privilege 2: not having to wear a mask

When discussing reopening our Quaker Meeting House for Meeting for Worship, back when that was possible and before Lockdown 2.0, it was commented that many Friends may not feel comfortable worshipping in person because an hour was a long time to wear a facemask. I found the comment entirely understandable and quite infuriating simultaneously. Yes, it’s true, an hour is a long time to wear a mask, particularly before you have built up a tolerance to them. But who falls into the category of people who can choose how long they have to wear a mask for? Choose, that is, rather than not wearing one because they do not feel safe enough to leave the house, or because they’re not lucky enough to have a reason to draw them out, or because they have a health condition that might make them more at risk of the virus whilst simultaneously preventing them from protecting themselves with a face covering? Those who can choose are financially secure enough to be retired; or senior enough to have their own private offices; or well-educated enough to be able to avoid working as cleaners, as waiters, as taxi drivers, as care workers. They have the privilege to choose whether they go somewhere that necessitates a mask or not; the rest of us don one every morning or face disciplinaries, dismissal, and the virtual, overcrowded dole queue.

Privilege 3: having a secure job

Having a job, particularly if it is on a permanent, non-zero-hours, non-furloughed contract; having a job where you can call in sick or self-isolating and still be paid; having a job that will accept it when you call in sick if your sickness is linked to stress, mental health, or a long-term condition; this is a privilege many would give up all dreams for their future to possess. Not being able to plan for when you can study, when you can work, when you will be locked down and when your kids will be sent home with half an hour’s notice means many are unwilling to follow through on long-held commitments and passions for fear of having to set them aside once again; and the pain of doing that, after so much other pain this year, is just too much. Fear of losing such a job means not rocking the boat, not asking for an evening off to work on your literacy and finally get the qualifications to get out of there, not saying no to shifts when they are offered even if you have made it clear that you are utterly unable to work at particular times and days (another Sunday you can’t work? You say it’s because of church, but if you put that before your shift here, I just don’t feel you are best suited to the weekday hours I have on offer next month…) And having the knowledge, the power, the confidence to stand up and cry discrimination and willingly take the consequences? That remains the sign of privilege it has always been.

Privilege 4: having time

Time. That beautiful, ephemeral gift that lurks in the back of every busy mind; the gift I have asked for at birthdays and Christmases since having children; that thing that only those who never have it really understand. Having time may not seem like a privilege; indeed, for many during lockdown it may seem like a curse. But from where I’m standing? Here’s why I call it privilege.

Having time and the capacity to use it as you choose means being able to hold down a job that operates on the assumption that you will take work home with you and complete it after hours: something impossible if your time or your living space is not your own. Having time means that when you are offered an extra shift at the job you enjoy you can take it, rather than having to turn it down to race to your second job where they expected you half an hour ago, or because, due to lockdown restrictions, you can no longer ask a neighbour to drop your kids home instead of being there yourself in the correct 10 minute pick-up window. Having time means you can work with your children to complete their homework, fill gaps left by home-schooling and weeks of lockdown, help them grow, show them what is urgent and important and valuable in life and give them the best possibilities for their own futures. Having time means you can laugh, and play, and exercise, and slow down and notice the sunset instead of running with blinkers on to the next task. And so, having time means better mental health; better physical health; a more secure financial footing; more control and more choices.

Sunset over trees; the clouds are orange and gold and fill the sky.

There are those who speak of the beauty of Lockdown, of the hope inherent in slowing down, as though that is a universal characteristic of this year. There are those who speak of boredom, and I find myself desperately jealous of the thing that is slowly killing them. There are those who speak of productivity, of creativity, of finished to do lists and totally read bookshelves, and I am so glad that I can read their thoughts and their joys, for all it’s through a haze of frustrated tears, because their voice reminds me of a story that is not mine, another picture to put in opposition to the one leaking through the bricks and pores of my everyday life. One storm it may be; but while the angle of the waves and the size of our rafts are so infinitely different, while we can, we need to all shout our stories, our fears and our triumphs to those on other boats.

* Before the men reading this get infuriated with me, I am, of course, using “men” as a generic term to refer to all humanity…

Telling tales: trust me, I’m a Vicar’s Wife

Picture the familiar scene: it was early evening, and the phone rang. Except when I say it rang, I really mean it; in fact, it barely stopped ringing. The first call interrupted bedtime, tears and desperation whispered through the crackling conversation. The last came two hours later, screeching with fury and disgust. In the intervening time, in repeated calls never more than ten minutes apart, we had been on a journey of worry, confusion, growing terror, bafflement, suspicion, anger. The Vicar took the abuse, made the tough choices, fielded the follow-up call from the police at a quarter to midnight; essentially, he continued doing his day job until the early hours of the morning – so no change there. And it all happened within our home: the calls came through on our personal number, breaking into our family space; we talked through what we knew and what we didn’t whilst unloading the dishwasher; we worked through the personal and professional implications of the increasingly frantic demands and the demands of our overflowing laundry basket simultaneously. The calls were interrupted by screams from The Paleontologist (I haven’t done my homework! I’ve broken a nail! Why does everyone keep calling at this time of night!) and made me restart a treadmill run 4 times – and my motivation is really not up to keeping going after that many false starts. And at the end of it all? Nothing. Was it all a scam, or a woman desperate for protection? What would happen now? Did we act to protect ourselves, our family, and others, or did God come knocking in the guise of a stranger and we slammed the door in his face?

This not knowing the end of the story is something they don’t prepare you for when you are promising For Worse as well as For Better to someone wearing a clerical collar. It’s part of Quite a List. They don’t tell you that you will look like a student every week, buying Pot Noodles and microwave rice to give away on your own doorstop. They don’t tell you that others will consider your home as much theirs as it is yours; and that you will do the same, feeling mortified as every Midnight Blue acrylic stain on the beige carpet and scribble along the bedroom ceiling reduces the worth of the property gifted into your care by an institution already in financial crisis. They don’t tell you that some faces and stories and voices will stay with you forever, and others will blur into a featureless amalgam, and you’ll never know which is worse. They don’t tell you that you will feel forsaken by a church, and even a God, who own your husband and your home and give nothing but pain and uncertainty in return. They don’t tell you how hard it will be to walk out of a domestic argument and into your husband’s workplace and keep smiling because, whether you’ve chosen it or not, it’s now your workplace too.

They don’t tell you about Life in Limbo either. Where do I stand, and what is my place? I am not part of the Clergy Club, but neither am I fully part of the congregation. I am held accountable for the actions of the vicar, assumed to know by osmosis all his comings and goings (if only they knew. It takes me a bottle of wine and a clear evening just to sort out which of us has evening meetings when, and to make sure we’re not about to make The Cowgirl responsible for sorting out food for both herself and her far-less-grounded older sister). I bleed for the mistakes but have no place in the successes. My stomach crushes where my heart should be with every live-stream stutter, every microphone failure, every low attendance or argument at the church doors; and yet, I have no place in rectifying these things, no outlet for my anxiousness.

They don’t tell you about the double takes when you kiss a man in a cassock and clerical collar, or the abuse shouted at him on the street because of how he is dressed. They don’t tell you how often you will be told the same joke about having more tea, and how often you will try not to look jaded as you respond that you’ve always preferred gin, thank you. They won’t tell you about the comments that at least you’ve got God on your side (without ever asking about your own faith) or mention the all too familiar look of terror once you are outed to new acquaintances, and they run through everything they have said since you entered the room, muttering “Oh God, did I swear?”, too flummoxed to notice the irony.

“Shall I put the kettle on?” Still from Keeping Mum; the film that explains in great detail why every Vicar’s Wife needs access to a pond.

They don’t tell you that if your spouse gets a promotion you move home, move your own career, move doctors surgeries and swimming lessons and schools and hairdressers and supermarkets you can navigate with both eyes on your children and only 5 minutes to grab what you need. And they don’t tell you that when you arrive, you will be greeted by hampers and flowers and the welcome of a whole new family. They don’t tell you your children will gain a whole congregation-worth of doting uncles and grandmothers who drop everything to sew dinosaur facemasks at a moment’s notice, or break Lockdown to bring you Easter chocolate, who show you the trick of opening a door whilst pushing a pram through the snow, who put pictures of your children on the same wall as those of their own grandchildren, smiling in sunshine from half a world away. They don’t tell you that you will be guests of honour at the opening of new Chinese restaurants; meet authors and pop stars and all the local gentry; be invited to weddings and funerals and enough parties to scupper any hopes of keeping a simple wardrobe; be given wine that sells at 3-digit prices and bottles of Lambrini with equal joy and equal sacrifice. They don’t tell you that you will be welcomed into the homes of new mothers and old widowers, shown hearts and souls and senses of humour that crush stereotypes and fill the world with hope. They don’t tell you how many people will come into your heart and how many of them you will have to say goodbye to, and just how much you will miss them when you’re gone.

They don’t tell you any of this because, of course, there is no they. There is no Vicar’s Wife Academy, especially if, like me, you married someone already trained and ordained. There is nothing but an amazing, unspoken fellowship of men and women sharing tales and tears and knowing laughter, up and down the country and all around the world, as we do our best to be ourselves in what has turned out to be a life more baffling, and beautiful, and exhausting than I had ever anticipated. God has put an astonishing array of opportunities and challenges at my feet. Sometimes I have stepped up to them. Sometimes I have stumbled. Sometimes I have avoided them altogether and pretended that doing so was perfectly reasonable, the obvious thing to do. And always, I pray I can do justice to the power and the hope and the jaw-dropping joy that is the always-unexpected daily grind of life as a Vicar’s Wife.

Flowers that still make me smile years after they welcomed us into this parish.

To every thing there is a season

Some things in life are uncontrollable and unquestionable. Night will follow day. Feathers are lighter than bricks. If you are poor you are much more likely to suffer during times of flood, fire, pestilence and broken election promises. And the first of September means that the slow pace of a sleepy summer is about to be smashed by the mind-boggling vagaries of a new academic year.

Discussions ebb and flow around how that last can be combatted – how teachers ought to reduce their own workloads, how the focus of Ofsted inspections might include wellbeing (oh, the irony), how the summer holidays should be shorter. I can safely say that my initial reaction to that idea can best be summarised by viewing Munch’s The Scream; whether I admit it to outsiders or not, the possibility of an unbroken stretch of planning time with the lazy luxury of indulging my imagination rather than being constrained to using only what can be found on teaching websites or Ecosia in the first 15 minutes of searching is one of the few things that prepare me for the jaw-clenching emotional battering that is currently the autumnal lot of a teacher.

But like most initial reactions, mine doesn’t hold up to reasoning or scrutiny. Less time off in the summer might be balanced by more time off through the year, which just may avert having to spend every school holiday curled in the foetal position and only moving to find more wine. Less time off in the summer would mean fewer colour-coded spreadsheets detailing how every favour going has been called in to allow working parents to afford to keep their children safe and entertained and fed for 6 consecutive weeks. Less time off should mean less time for those same kids to forget everything they have been taught, thus avoiding the need to cover the same topic again in entirely new ways at the start of the next year. Less time off could even ease the emotional pressures of going back after so much growing and changing and boredom and shifting sands, and allow those children (and adults) made anxious by new starts to walk back in through the school gates with equanimity.

Changing the length of the summer holidays. A quick win that would genuinely benefit the economically deprived more than the well-off; but that’s OK, because it would benefit the economy too. So why haven’t we done it? If we were ever going to take this step, this year was the year to do it. Life was already stopped short. Children had managed to squeeze a lifetime of braincell-destroying emotionally stunted drivel Power Rangers and Richie Rich into three months of Lockdown, and even they were starting to get bored of the same people doing the same jokes with the same canned laughter day, after day, after day. Returning to the classroom in August could have solved so much. What better time, then, to change the unchangeable and attempt the impossible?

By Edvard Munch – National Gallery of Norway, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69541493

It couldn’t happen. Not right now. It is just too big. Too different. Too hard. Too creative. Too dramatic. Too united. Far, far too scary. Too many of us are still frozen, shell-shocked by the battering we have taken in the last few months. Head teachers ordered schools to be locked and children turned away at the gates, mere days after insisting fines would follow any absence from the premises. Bishops ordered churches to be shut and people locked out of the houses of God. Parents forbade family to see the grandchildren that made their now-threatened lives worth enjoying. Those we most trusted to respect our institutions, our loved ones, our ideals and truths, were the ones who stopped us from accessing them and left us to cry alone in the night. It may have been the right choice, the moral choice, the only choice; but its consequence is still that we are now left standing, slack-jawed and staring, unsure where to go or what to say or who to trust. Every household drew up its drawbridge and filled the moat with crocodiles, reminded at all times that contact with anyone outside those gossamer thin, MDF walls could carry the disease that would decimate those living within. That mistrust could not be fully overcome as the collective clapping of March descended into enforced community judgement time in May, as the pubs re-opened, or with the invitation to return to city centre offices. It will not be overcome by the calendar turning from August to September either.

This lesson is fundamental for those of you raising the cry for revolution, for immediate and dramatic action, for every one of us still cowering in the half-light of uncertainty to get up, get out and get on with it. This is true for the arch-conservatives and arch-radicals alike, united as you are by the desire to move beyond Lockdown and into whatever comes next. It may be overthrowing the government and celebrating the world doing a U-turn on its axis and accepting the emergency that is the climate crisis. It might be the pressing need to drive the economy back into never-ending, never-tiring growth as the means to draw the world’s poor, unprivileged, desperate-to-be-educated peoples into the same glorious bubble as the Western world. Wherever you are and whatever led you there, do not attempt to force action on those of us who are still a long way off. Go easy on us. For you this may be a time of infinite possibility, or of a need to act that is so strong it fills your mouth with adrenaline and your guts with nervous energy. I love that there are people with energy and hope in the world, because it reminds me that one day, I will be there too, walking beside you, shouting in time with you, working in harmony with you. But I am not there yet. I am still in that place where the one way systems and beautifully individualistic face coverings and starkly divided classrooms make a space that was once more familiar than my own home feel alien, and threatening, and unsafe. I am still in a time that is neither ready to reap nor to sow, to heal nor to die, to build up nor to break down. I am in the time between times; the pause between breathing in and breathing out; the moment on a pendulum when everything is changing direction and, at exactly the same time, everything is utterly still. The time will change soon. You can taste it in the water and feel it in the air. It is coming. Have patience. We do care and we will shake off the lead-lined inertia holding us down, and when we do, we, too will dance.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance

Fighting will not solve anything: a pacifist’s view of obesity

The UK Government appear to have noticed recently that there might be quite a lot of fat people in this country. This is a problem because one of the impacts obesity can have is making you more likely to suffer complications from Coronavirus. Therefore, it is now your moral duty to Lose Weight For Lizzie, England and Saint George! This sudden awakening has prompted ridicule, fear, anger, and frustration: partly because the headlines are very, very wrong; and partly because they are probably right.

Why are they wrong? The easy answer is that there is no easy answer to this complex situation. Just as there is no single way to exercise, worship God or decorate a home, there is no single reason that people are obese. There are many medications and health conditions that can result in weight gain; there are societal and cultural implications; there are lifestyle factors and financial involvement. To suggest that all of these can be overcome by stopping junk food adverts for children and providing bike maintenance is, to put it mildly, utterly missing the point. Instead, it is taking a cheap shot at a group that we as a country are already conditioned to demonise: an easy target for a quick headline, and don’t worry if it all goes wrong, it isn’t your fault these people are too lazy to help themselves.

Me on our last wedding anniversary. BMI: definitely in the red.

I am obese. I haven’t always been; for many years I was solidly overweight, unable to drop down into healthy, but equally able to keep my BMI below that scary red “you will die and it will all be your own fault” zone on the charts. I’m tall and in proportion with myself, so even health professionals didn’t always realise I had a problem. They used to look surprised and change tack abruptly when I stepped on the scales, looking slightly embarrassed and talking about the problems of “carrying a little extra” – like I’d just picked up one too many books at the library. I have most of a lifetime’s experience of hating the “little extra” I have grown used to carrying; but speaking about it as something separate to me, something inconvenient that can be put down as soon as possible and forgotten about, won’t help. These rolls of fat are as much a part of me as my greying hair, my automatic smile, my heart and my pancreas and my memories. They may stop me doing some things (fitting into old clothes and choosing the right sizes in charity shops, for example, or touching the floor instead of my toes) but so do my memories. So does my fear. So, for that matter, do my job and my family and my finances and all the other pressures that hold me here, for worse and for better.

Given all this, then, how can any of the current headlines about obesity be in any way right? Because, although the message is clumsy and temporary and turning a process of love into a glorification of violence, it is a message with truth at its heart. I do want to lead a more sustainable life, and that means changing the things that have helped to keep me, at least, obese. I don’t like buying more food than we need, and one reason for buying too much is because we are eating too much (or sometimes that we’re buying treats for our kids to get them through the craziest, scariest months of their lives so far and then eating them ourselves to get us through those crazy, scary months instead, and end up buying more). Food with fewer ingredients and less processing is in general more sustainable, likely to be produced more locally, is more linked to natural diets and more likely to keep us full for longer: better for the planet, better for our bodies, better for our minds. Making food at home and bringing it to work and picnics means less plastic, less food waste, less chocolate mysteriously finding it’s way into my shopping basket, my handbag, my bulging waistline. It’s not all about food, either. Sustainable school runs would mean scooting, cycling, starting a walking bus around our estate; not driving to school slightly over the speed limit, late and knowing that that will mean sitting in traffic as I continue on to work. Sustainable days would be activities that build relationships and boost oxytocin, having fun playing together, exploring together, working together; not only shopping, eating, watching TV together.

It sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? A lifestyle that is healthy, happy and reduces the risk of dying horribly while people explain to you how you could have avoided this if you had just taken a little more responsibility for your own choices. Why would anyone not choose that option? So why is it, then, that I, and so many like me, are still obese?

I don’t have the answers here. If I did, I’d be out there marketing how easy it is to do this: if I can, anyone can! Instead, all I can do is share the things I have learned so far. One is that blaming people who are overweight is about as helpful as a chocolate teapot, and likely to be swallowed just as easily. There are a few people who have made conscious choices to eat food that makes them fat. There aren’t many of them, and they’re not going to be paying attention to the advice given out by the government in contradiction of their life choices, so let’s not get caught up in that. Let’s assume instead that excess weight is usually the result of other influences, not a goal in itself.

Sometimes it is lack of knowledge and education. Knowing that things with high calories are bad but never having been told why can lead to choices like eating Quavers instead of nuts or unlabelled, un-traffic-lighted carrot sticks as a snack. Never having eaten freshly cooked food can mean it is overwhelming to think about cooking yourself. Local council regulations that say that a microwave is essential in a kitchen but an oven is not can prevent many people from ever having the option of eating healthy food. Educating, discussing choices, changing priorities can change these things, but they will not change everything.

Living healthy also means living slow; dreaming slow; cooking, eating, shopping slow. It means having time to plan your shopping, to cook from scratch, to eat slowly enough to know when you are full and have time to stop eating. It means having time to walk or cycle, not drive in a race to squeeze everything in. It means having time to think and reflect and reject, not just react.

Changing shape means changing priorities. It means looking at where your energies are currently pointing and being able, and willing, to change direction if you need to. It may mean putting less energy into working and less value into financial gains. It may mean laying down commitments, hobbies, roles at church or, you know, Quaker Trusteeship (looking closely in the mirror) in order to have the headspace and diary freedom to be more active. It may mean letting go of good things as well as bad. And it may be – for me, it is – that these are not sacrifices that feel right at the moment. I’ve worked hard to get my priorities where they are now, balancing self and work and family and faith. It’s a nerve-wracking balancing act as it is, and if I add anything more in, however healthy that may be, the whole crazy caboodle will come crashing down in ruins.

If we’re agreed that headline-grabbing contradictions are not going to win the good fight and free us from obesity, what will? It has to be an entire lifestyle shift. A celebration of each of us as we are, without the blame and condemnation that lead so many into disordered eating. A commitment to ourselves and our finite energy and time, that lets us say no when we can fit no more into a day, that allows decent sleep patterns and prioritising care for ourselves and for others. A commitment to model good practise in cutting off the stresses and strains of work when we need to. If the government wants to fight this, let’s see real action. Let’s see legislation that encourages employers to allow their employees to take mental health days off. Let’s see rewards in the workplace for volunteering, so that you don’t have to sacrifice yourself in order to both do good for others and earn enough money to put healthy food on the table. Let’s see town planning that builds exercise into daily tasks; that put fun into routine activities; that makes love and loyalty more rewarded than individualism and self-promotion. Let’s celebrate who we are and how we look just as we are. And you know what? When we stop interfering and just let them get on with the process of living a good life, it’s possible that our bodies will end up sorting themselves out.

A normal city street with people walking and buildings in the background. In the bottom right are two people, waiting for a bus, swinging happily on the bus stop swings.
Bus stop swings in Montreal, Canada – activity and joy in the everyday

Present absences

Thumb idly scrolling, alarm clock snoozing for the seventh time, my day is starting with a whimper and a sigh. I tell myself to move before my back locks completely, but even while I am telling myself sternly to get up and get going, I scroll on. On through posts that I ignore – plenty of them, rightly or wrongly; posts that make me laugh – sadly few of them; posts that make me angry; posts that make me hurt. There are a lot of those, and they lurk behind my eyelids for the rest of the day, popping out of my subconscious and into my internal monologues whenever I stop for long enough to take a breath.

What is it that makes me hurt? It’s not the crisis after incompetence after tragedy typhooning through the world, though that does me no credit, I know. Those are the posts that make me angry, and my responses are either avoidance or self-destruction, as they consume my mind in a blinding supernova of rage. No, the things that make me hurt are the day by day moments that are so much more creative, more joyful, more full than my days are. Is it jealousy? Probably, in part, if jealousy starts with your throat and your eyes and your hope and moves on to your tummy, inching its way by repetition to your heart. I know those are the good moments, the islands in the storm for others, just as they are when I post the same. And yet, that litany of pictures, of family adventures, positive Lockdowns, weight loss, planning a holiday, making a difference, speaking out, being brave, achieving goals, taking a risk and getting it wrong, and just plain living – that cumulative scrolling makes my heart ache and saps my will.

This is not a post bewailing social media. Of course people should share their joys, their sorrows, their hopes and failures, if that is what they want to do. Indeed, for those of us who are congenitally incapable of maintaining relationships over a distance, Facebook is a marvel and a delight for much of the time. But when the presence of something is an expected norm, unquestioned and unquestioning, how do you share its absence?

I was one of the first in my friendship group to have children, so I won’t speak like I’m an authority on what it feels like to have none when your body and your mind and your soul are tearing you apart with longing. People I love have shared their experiences with me – of the fear and the pain and the praying, the debt and the hope and the impossible choices, but it is not something I can directly speak to. At the other end of life’s glorious spectrum, I have lost a parent when most of my peers were still living with theirs. I know that moment of jarring reminder when someone asks “Where do your parents live?” I have seen the dawning horror on their faces as the conversation progresses. I answer about my Mum, and they ask whether Dad will be joining us too.* Now my Dad died many years ago, so, although it still makes me sad to think of all he is missing and of all the things I can’t share with him, mention of those things no longer makes me cry. So if I’m asked, I answer the question. To be honest, I usually answer it bluntly. And then the person I am speaking to is left with no idea, at all, of what to say next. Because how do you respond when someone tells you that they are outside the box you expect them to be in and, no matter how much you want them to, they will never go quietly back to being normal?

Normal. Isn’t that an awful term? As though there is something we all started out as, and any deviation from that is somehow an error. But if normal is white, cis-gender, heterosexual, in a stable relationship, with children, able-bodied and neurotypical, with no mental health concerns and no traumatic events in their past – if that is normal, then normal is an awfully small collective. And where does that leave the rest of us?

It leaves us living with absence. It may be small. It may be life-changing or hope-destroying. It may be dictated by circumstances or forced upon you by another’s actions. But let’s not forget that it may also be a blindingly positive, proactive choice. How do you celebrate small, with the things you did not buy, the waste you did not create, the plastic you did not use? Or celebrate big, with the choices you made to not follow that expected path and the joys it has given you in the execution of your own vision? Living a more sustainable life, materially and emotionally, is as much about positive absences as it is about the presence of future-looking actions. It is about the counter-cultural refusal to cash into a society that tells you that the way to protect our communities is to buy and to fly and to keep on moving, spending, updating. It is the rejection of the message that if you buy this or avoid eating that or go there, you will be full and have no absences, because they are bad and must always be hidden from view. 

Epidauros II by Barbara Hepworth. Negative space can be extraordinarily beautiful.

Absence is as real as presence in our lives. Sometimes it is more real than the furniture around us and the lives outside our windows that all look so very, very different to our own. It can be a fury-filled growl of silence and frustration; a blank canvas of waiting for something to happen; an exciting and life-giving explosion of self over expectation. If we could share those moments of absence without fear, or pain, or judgement, or apology; if we knew the whole of our selves could be seen, how could the world not be a better place?

*As a side note, please don’t do that. Don’t repeat language someone else has changed. It wasn’t an accident. They heard what you said and they changed it deliberately. If you ask about someone’s wife and in their response they use the word partner, or husband, or reply about themselves in the singular, that’s what you need to use too for the rest of your conversation.