Everything is connected

One of my all-time favourite films is V For Vendetta. Apart from the obvious moments (after all, right now, is there anyone who would object to Westminster being blown sky high, particularly if empty at the time…) one scene that really resonates is a montage where investigator Eric Finch says “I suddenly had this feeling that everything was connected. It’s like I could see the whole thing, one long chain of events… It was like a perfect pattern, laid out in front of me. And I realised we’re all part of it, and all trapped by it.” His companion, of course, asks if that meant he knew what would happen next, and with typical bluntness gets the response “No, it was a feeling. But I can guess…” And tragedy plays out, giving the film the chance to leave those horrors in maybe-land: did they happen? Did they not? Can the girl with glasses be saved?

“V for Vendetta” by Marko Manev is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

We live in a time when every problem is treated as though it stands alone, and every individual is trained to see themselves as an island, with, if they are lucky, causeways connecting them to others, appearing and disappearing with the tides, with never a hint of where the mainland might be found. If you are ill, you get tablets. Tablets for blood pressure; for cholesterol; for headaches; for coughs, colds and not being quite at your best; for anxiety; for depression. Tablets for each individual symptom, as though all of these things are somehow caused separately, interacting independently with the body they have found a home in. Sorting out your work-life balance is a task for every individual, who is then held personally to blame if we get lost in the middle of a perfect storm of demands and expectations and can’t do it by ourselves. Saving the world means cutting your personal carbon footprint, giving up plastic around the home, individual action and sacrifice. The question is always: what are you doing? You as an individual; a family household; maybe, at best, as a town.

Seeing individuals as worthy of value and respect, with God dwelling within them, whatever they have done or thought, however they look and regardless of the capacity for good or evil weighing down their actions, is a gift and a curse and a thing we should all be aiming for. Seeing the individual as the height of all our ambitions, personal glory over a community rising together, has caused lives to fall apart, an ever-widening gap between the rich and the desperate, and Boris Johnson moving into number 10. How much further does this road have left before it splits into so many individual footpaths, some smooth and wide, some rocky and overgrown with nettles, but all leading inexorably into the wilderness of isolation, getting further and further apart, until we can no longer see, smell, hear, any other living things around us?

Talking to students has made me realise how unhealthy expectations in this country can be. One told me that she works so hard that she buys clothes and doesn’t have the time or the energy to wear them. They lie in the bags they came in at the bottom of the wardrobe until, packing for an extended journey home, they resurface, bringing with them the hope they first entered the home with; hope that will now be enjoyed elsewhere, because there is no time for it here. It is so different, she said, in the country she was born in. People there value and enjoy their possessions, their friends, their time. For someone who barely has the energy to brush her teeth at the end of some days, I confess, that sounds like an idyll beyond price.

How have we come to value ourselves and each other so little? Why do we value money so much more than time? During my first year as a teacher, I got used to a day that left the house running for school at 8am and didn’t finish until the next day’s lessons were just about thrown together, usually at about 11pm. I put up with the hours, the expectations, the lack of any life outside the walls I had prepared for myself. I boasted about how bad it was, as we outdid each other with stress levels and caffeine intake around the staff room kettle. But why? The expectation is that in order to have a job with meaning, with satisfaction, that changes things, however small, you put up with what is thrown at you. And acting alone, my choices are suck it up or sack it off, give up, do something else. But what if we all stood together? Not just my union (though we are working on that one); not just those working in the public services; all of us, walking together saying we, and our lives, and the planet are all worth more than mindless, individual busyness?

More time means more ability to slow down, to make from scratch, to take care and do, buy, say the right thing, not the easy thing. To have a sense of achievement from that. To tell someone else about it, and work together so that they can do it too. More life in that notorious balance means more opportunities for joy. And more joy means less greed; less need for eternal, all-consuming growth; more options.

Living within our means is a phrase that has been used for the good, the bad, and the blatantly discriminatory within society over the last decade or so. But when it is used, it is always used to talk about living within our financial means. What would it be like to live within all our means? To live lives where we use the time, the emotion, the energy we have to live our best lives; where nothing is asked of us that we cannot freely give? What would it be like to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and know that we are enough?

It is the summer holidays: traditionally the point that teachers look at their lives and try and sort out all their problems at once, now that they suddenly have space to breathe. I find myself looking at the chaos I create around myself and wondering what we would have to do as a family to live within our time-means. What would we as a country have to change in order to do the same?


Challenge 2019: we’re halfway there (on a wing and a prayer)

I know I say this every year, but seriously, how is it July already? As ever, time is not merely marching on but racing by, blue lights flashing and siren fading into the distance as it leaves us all on the pavement, gawking after it and wondering what it will find when it gets to wherever it is headed. However, as it is undeniably July, and even the weather has now caught up with the general principle that it’s time to grow up and act appropriately, I thought I would take this opportunity to glance into an under-used side room and dust off my Not-a-New-Year-Resolution. The beating heart of this collection of Things to Try and See If They Work is the intention of testing out in real life ways to live more sustainably; to shift the focus of what we as a family are doing away from excessive consumption or environmental fire fighting, and into a way of living a happy, meaningful, love-driven life that makes the most of what we have, allows us to have what we need, and helps in however small a way to show that life is about so much more than consumerism and out-living our mental, emotional and physical means. Good thing I didn’t aim for anything difficult, really, isn’t it…!

As was almost entirely predictable, my goals started off well and dwindled into dust around Easter time:

  • Challenge January: Not buying anything non-essential. Doing this for a month did make me more aware of what I buy, particularly the impulse buys. Do I still love buying new things? Yes, I really do. The change that has stuck is that I have rediscovered the joys of charity shops and used items on eBay, at least reducing the impact of making new clothes in the first place. Halfway there it is…
  • Challenge February: Gentle decluttering in a big way. So the tidying up happened. I’m not about to say that it spread to the rest of the house, or anything absurd like that, but at least some of the bigger improvements made that month are still just about noticeable now. It also helped me to consider which of the many things that I keep out of habit I actually need or actually like, what might be useful in future, and what would be better finding a new home where it has a chance of being loved; or, failing that, at least getting out of this home where it will never be more than a burden.
  • Challenge March: Fixing everything uncovered in the process of Challenge February. There have been some good successes here. A couple of skirts, some bags and coats, and several bras are all on the list of things that are no longer abandoned in a mending pile, out of sight and mind and will. Excitingly, this mindset of just do it has sneaked into everyday life: I found myself grabbing a needle before the school run a few days ago, quite happy to do an emergency button refastening then and there. Unfortunately, we are breaking/tearing/growing out of clothes so quickly, the reducing the mending pile goal itself hasn’t actually happened at all.

Then we sank into the depths of Lent. Challenge April existed only in my head, and May and June didn’t even make it that far. There is an unavoidable lesson there. Writing a promise down, making it public, having witnesses: these are things that help us to stick to the commitments we have made. Marriage, manifestos, Slimming World – part of the thing they all have in common is the idea of asking people we care about to hold us to our best intentions. Or at least, they should do, and we should be taking up that responsibility. Maybe that’s where politics has been going so wrong recently? But that’s a rant for a different post…

Challenge July certainly needs to be written down, then. It’s time to get back on the horse. To learn from what I’ve done so far and find ways to keep getting better. So here is my plan. This month, I am going to challenge myself to create a warm, welcoming, organised and functional hallway. No longer will it be a dumping ground of bags, shoes, gloves, sunglasses, drawings, takeaway menus (bless them, do they not realise we always use Just Eat anyway?), musical instruments, wellies, pipe cleaners, clerical collars… We are all guilty of coming in and crashing at once, layers and bags and lunch boxes falling behind us like a trail of crumbs, showing every step we have taken until we are found flat out on the sofa watching other people being energetic on iPlayer.

Given the level of chaos routinely to be found in our hallway, deciding to tackle it in itself is quite an undertaking. But it’s July, which means I’m not teaching much, and so I am reaching beyond the sensible, the brave, the wise, and finding myself halfway between the sublime and the ridiculous. I am going to do my level best to create that homely, warm, inviting and functional hallway space without buying anything. At all. Everything will be repurposed or upcycled from things already in the house. Pinterest, of course, is full of ideas to start with (though I’d be very happy to hear others too!) I’m thinking smashed up CDs, cloth-covered cardboard boxes, and wall hangings made from discarded jeans, and that’s just for starters. Who knows where this will end?

So far, I have emptied a few of the bags that have been lining the stairs for a little while now. (By little while, I mean that I found an old-style £1 coin in the bottom of one of them.) I have made plans and schemes and got excitable. I have worked out that using things from around the house frees two birds with one key, reducing the clutter around the rest of the building and also creating a more happy space in part of it. On paper, it’s all good. What happens when that paper is glued onto an old pizza box and turned into storage for sunglasses, plastic giveaways and treasured works of love and glitter is yet to be seen.

A tower of Very Important Things that need to be sorted including papers, bags for life and PE kits. Next to them is the mountain of things that I happen to have lying around my house anyway that I can use to create a more enjoyable space. And I thought there would never be any advantages to being a hoarder…