Soft times are going: being part of the change

“It isn’t so much that hard times are coming; the change observed is mostly soft time going.”

A week ago today, millions of people went out on the streets, chalking their hopes and furies onto walls; pavements; each other. It was one moment in an evolutionary story. It was a chance for weary prophets to draw in breath, feasting upon the energy and optimism of those not yet broken by the inertia of others who will not care. It may be a turning point; it may be another marker on a chaotic scattergram of things the youth of the 21st century choose to care about; it may be seen as mass hysteria if we discover that the dramatically changing climate is not, in fact, in any way affected by our presence on this world, and it is just humanity showing off its crazy-huge ego once again.

I couldn’t be part of that striking moment, which to me is an unexpected diamond in the string of plastic beads that thread together the realisation that doing something to reduce humanity’s negative impact on the world around us is a no-brainer. To make my contribution, I spent 7 days keeping track of the actions I take, trying to consider their greater impact. As any fluctuating participator in dietary fads and avoidance tactics such as myself will be able to tell you, nothing holds you to account quite like writing down what you are doing – both the positives and the wrappers you’d rather hide behind the back of the sofa. Even better, telling other people about it allows shared stories and mutual re-invigoration. So here’s what I’ve been doing, diesel-car driving and all. How about you? What’s your story?

Day 1: Saturday dawned bright, sunny, and a perfect start to a renewed way of looking at things. Full of enthusiasm and with a family day ahead of me, there were plenty of wins today. We went to the library (got to love a guilt-free book fest), hung the washing on the line to dry, put together a bag of clothes to donate to charity, watered the plants using water from the butt left behind by our predecessors (which obviously meant that it started raining about 15 minutes later). It was not a day without its downsides, though. These would become the features that, on good days, bad days and just a bit meh days, would form a constant muttering behind me, the monotonous burble of “actually, never mind the rest of it, are you ever going to do anything about us?” Overusing my lovely diesel car, moving slightly too fast, trying to combine tasks into single trips but consequently driving round and round and round and round, depressingly frequently in rush hour traffic jams full of everyone else in the same town also trying to fit errands and clubs and emergency shopping into the 15 minutes of unscheduled time they have squeezed in that week. Energy-boosting, energy-crashing, pre-packaged, plastic-wrapped snacks eaten when not hungry because it feels the only way to get from home time to bed time. Tumble-drying school uniforms and only checking the labels afterwards because frankly, even on good weeks I don’t have the energy for 15 rounds with The Cowgirl when I have the temerity to suggest that, in a lack-of-washing emergency situation, it might not be the end of the world if she wears a skirt instead of trousers.

Day 2 arrived and saw me waving the flag for multitasking vicars’ wives everywhere, as I represented the college I work for at a civic service in my husband’s church. (Getting TOIL for going to a service I was going to attend anyway, you say? That is what I call winning at life.) My positive actions for the day started with a rather lovely outfit, if I do say so myself, bought second hand and already worn by someone else from eBay, with accidentally matching shoes. Later, we looked at food as a family, and made a set of lolly sticks to try to balance the variety I need to keep some kind of sanity around cooking dinner with The Paleontologist’s need to be the boss of Everything In The World. They should also be a way of cutting down food waste, avoiding too much of today’s negative action: having to throw away a loaf of bread that had been sneakily lurking behind some gorgeous flowers gifted to us by a parishioner, and was now mouldy beyond salvation or freezing potential.

Other highlights of the week (by which I mean other actions playing on repeat because that is what life is like on the days I’m at work) included walking between different teaching sites and eating leftovers for lunch instead of taking trips to Aldi. They also included this week’s champion success story: taking my winter coat to have its zip changed. To put this into context, I sewed up the scuppered zip as a temporary fix the night before catching the train to Paris for our tenth wedding anniversary. My colleagues have been mocking me for the year and a half since then that I’ve spent struggling to get it on over my head. This gold-medal-winning moment happened as a result of seeking concrete actions to put in this post. The act of observing and recording genuinely did change my behaviour. Please don’t ever let OFSTED hear me say that.

Over the week, I tried harder with some things, and noticed my own hypocrisy with others. As a lifelong vegetarian who has been resisting giving up dairy with the passion many meaties show in the face of giving up bacon sandwiches, this is not an unfamiliar feeling. This is a process, for all of us. I’m not ready to give up my car yet, and neither is my local transport system. Reducing food waste, on the other hand – that is something we definitely can do. And let’s face it, with the utter unknown of Brexit just round the corner, wasting less food and working better with whatever we happen to have in the house might just become something we all need to go back to being better at. Chaotic uncertainty does have a way of making us appreciate what we used to have. Let’s just hope we all get there before we reach the point that no one will have anything any more.


Re-finding wonder: peer pressure and climate catastrophe are not the end of the story

Is it just me, or is it pretty much impossible to teach your own children anything?

A couple of years ago, when The Cowgirl was still at nursery, she came home one day and started a conversation that I genuinely believed I was never going to have to have.

Cowgirl: I can’t be a doctor. I’m a girl, so I can be a nurse.

Me: ??? ? ???

Cowgirl: Only boys are doctors.

Me: But, but, but, your Godmother is a doctor, remember?

Cowgirl [scrunching up her face in concentration]: Oh. Yes. [Suddenly her brow clears.] She’s got short hair. [Sits back in satisfaction at having won that one good and proper.]

So there we go. Girls can only do things like being doctors if they have hoodwinked everyone into believing they are actually boys, by having short hair.* But how did The Cowgirl imbibe this view of the world? We’d read books that had strong female heroines; talked about all the great things girls had done (and occasionally touched on some of the rather fun things boys had done too); made it clear at every opportunity that had come up – and created some where it hadn’t come up – that any job is for any one, be they male, female, or non-binary. We avoided gendered clothes wherever possible (no Girls Can Be Princesses and Boys Can Be Anything here). And still, here we were, finding all this undone by outdated cultural stereotypes inadvertantly introduced that day in an environment that we had chosen, but could not control.

This was not the last time that this happened, it will come as no surprise to hear. Wanting to have exactly the same snack, backpack, shoes, hairstyle, toys, holidays, car, skin colour, as their friends is a regular conversation around the dinner table (though that might partly be because the number of their friends who have been to Disney World, Florida is growing every year). Fads come and go, and everything I do to celebrate or deny them seems to fall on deaf ears. Every day, they come home full of the importance of combatting climate change (hooray); wanting to wear make up to school (boo); wanting to join a sports group (hooray); wanting to never read a book again (boo). Then the next day, the wind changes, somebody sneezes, and that determination is out of the window and its opposite is now true. Not only that, it always has been true, and it clearly always will be true. Seriously, anyone who thinks that 1984 is a novel that came up with new and horrific ways that people can be brainwashed into believing things entirely contradictory to their previous opinions has been away from primary school playgrounds for far too long.

So how, then, am I to encourage my children to do the things that lead them to a stronger relationship with the world, with other people, with God? One such relationship is to “rejoice in the glory of God’s continuing creation” (an ideal Quakers link closely with care for and stewardship of the world and all the life dependent on it). Can that become something that is relevant to their experience, link with their daily lives, their own beliefs and expectations of the world, and yet still take them by surprise and fill them with awe and wonder? My own view of the glory of creation is very traditional: that inward breath when you drive round a corner and the sun is setting into the sea in front of you; the sweep of a line of mountains marching into nothingness; the infinite gentleness of a butterfly landing on a dandelion flower. The peace and overwhelming presence of nature is where I see God most clearly, and find it easiest to settle into joy.

Sunset over Dubrovnik, lights shining across the town. Cable car wires disect the picture; islands disappear into the ocean and the clouds. A moment that still makes me suck in my breath at its absolute perfection.

As I have said, my children are not like me. And the world that they inherit will not be the world that I grew up in. Most scientists agree that our view towards the world and the elements will change, as they fight back and become something to fear, to hide from, that bring destruction in their wake. Moments of peace and enjoying the presence of entirely oblivious butterflies, dragonflies, bees as they busy around us might become something I will talk about, and my children will have to grope into the distant reaches of their memories to recall at all. Travelling to foreign lands where the air is thinner and God lies in every stone and corner should become something that is done once in a lifetime, not the expectation of every summer holiday. So where, in all of this, will my children find the glory of God’s creation?

It seems that I need to change my interpretation of continuing creation. It cannot be something static, something permanent, something that has always spoken to me in the past; it lives and breathes and shifts around us, through us, with us as we are all continuing to form new relationships. It is within technology, within people, within buildings and structures and artwork and abandoned empty spaces, just as much as it is within the grand old bones that make up this planet. It will be a challenge for me to find things within this brave new world to rejoice in, as I say goodbye to the things that seemed easy and seek to look harder and deeper and question the assumptions that I have been making all along.

Maybe, in fact, I need to ask my children to help me with this one.

*(I would like to clarify at this point, just in case she’s reading this for the record, that no-one could ever mistake this magical Godmother for anything other than the fabulous, beautiful woman that she is…)

What the hell are we doing here?

I have steered clear of talking about politics here. Well, a bit, anyway. This is partly because simplicity is the polar opposite of any form of current affairs (though messy has certainly come into its own), and partly because when I think about politics at the moment it gives me that clenched up feeling in your throat that you get when you’re arguing about something you really care about with someone who just won’t listen.

This morning, I accepted that I couldn’t ignore that lump in my throat and keep on trying to breathe through it. Why? Because the start of the teaching year is just around the corner, and so, possibly/probably/definitely/never in a million years (delete as appropriate) is a General Election.

A mobile polling station in an area with no community buildings. With nicer weather than the next election, I suspect.

As anyone who has ever been in a classroom with me for more than 10 minutes will know, I quite like talking about politics. In fact, make that anyone who has spent 10 minutes with me in any situation at all. (Overhead yesterday was The Cowgirl, the roll of her eyes evident through her voice, muttering “Not boring Brexit again…” Sometimes struggles to work out which way round her trousers go, but already knows about Europe.) We have discussed Brexit, immigration, budgets, whether education should be free, climate change, the NHS, and so many other things besides. Sometimes they come up naturally. Sometimes they are shoe-horned in to tick a box (you want me to talk more about British Values? Well…) Sometimes they are deliberately planned because I think it really is so much more important than a bit more on how to pass an exam.

One thing that falls clearly into that category is teaching students about elections. I first taught a lesson about voting back in my first year as a trainee teacher, and agonised over it for hours. I have honed it, shaped it, vastly improved it, and used it again for every election since. I teach adults. They need to know not only that they can vote, but how voting works, and how to choose who to vote for.

And that is the key problem I am having now. The first part of the lesson is very straightforward. Take my usual rant about why everyone should vote, tone it down, remember not to do it with a large glass of gin in one hand, tone it down again, and job done. Then things get harder. Normally, at this point, I would go into a variety of things that should probably be obvious, but, apparently, are not. My students leave either bored out of their minds or fired up with new-found enthusiasm, and I can sit back and know I have done my bit for democracy, compose Facebook updates detailing the most interesting things to come out of the lessons, and feel delightfully smug.

Not this time, I suspect. My usual list of What Students Probably Don’t Know runs into neck-deep quicksand by about minute ten:

  • You do not vote for a party; you vote for a candidate. Well, I suppose that is still true. More so than normal if yours is one of the more than 30 MPs to have changed party this year. (I admit, that figure is based on Wikipedia, which lists every shift in allegiance, expulsion due to scandal and bigotry, re-admission, and re-expulsion in dizzying detail.)
  • We do not elect our Prime Minister. So far, so accurate, of course. This has caused seismic incredulity every time, even in the days when we had a conventinal Prime Minister. The obvious question is always How are they chosen then? Um. He’s the one who can command a majority? On the day even his brother abandoned his party, I don’t think that works. He’s the leader of the largest party? By this time next week I’m half expecting the Tories to have been overtaken in number by the Lib Dems. He’s the one who has the confidence of the House? When it is both publicly acceptable and not even questioned to say that Boris Johnson will change his mind as soon as it suits him, I doubt he has the confidence of his own reflection, never mind Parliament. Well, never mind. We always knew Boris would break the mold. Let’s move on.
  • Choose who you will vote for by what matters most to you. In a world with so many demands crushing in from every direction, who is going to be our R2D2 and stop the walls before they kill us? Climate catastrophe lurks in every shadow, questioning every choice available. The NHS is in crisis. Education is making our children less equipped for daily life as it overwhelms their resilience and their ability to make independent choices. Brexit hovers over us like that spaceship in Independence Day, and none of us really know which worldwide icon it will consume next. Given all these paralysing priorities, I’m not convinced it’s fair to put anyone in the position where they have to decide on the spot what is most important to their lives. I certainly can’t ask them to defend their choices to people they have only just met.
  • Find out what each party stands for. Quakers seek that of God in every individual; here, I seek that of God in every party. I have to provide materials on each one for my students, as none of the parties produce their manifestos in a way that can be understood by low-level readers who are also politically inexperienced.* I attempt to read them, summarise them without bias, make up my own too. It does, however, require manifestos. Or at least, it requires people to say things and then stick to them for at least as long as it takes to teach one lesson. This taxes my time, my neutrality and my patience with current affairs at the best of times. These are not the best of times.

It feels more important than ever to teach about the next election, precisely because it is so unpredictable, so unusual, so contradictory. We need to teach each other, our children, ourselves. We all bear responsibility for getting into the unfathomable fiasco facing us now. What do we do now to take responsibility to get out of it again?

Thunderstorm, courtesy of Pixabay. Amazing colours surround us as nature crashes down on our heads.

*You can get easy read versions, but they still run to about 50 pages and tend to be even more biased than the standard ones. She says, with no bitterness at all.