All are welcome; but some are more welcome than others

There are a lot of different churches out there, with different theologies, priorities and prejudices. One thing that has united every one I’ve ever been a part of, though, has been the desire to see more people walking through their doors. For some it’s all about new faces and new salvation; for others it’s about a long-overdue return to the congregations of the golden years of yore; for still others it’s about getting back those faces that were once familiar but, we fear, are now drifting away into the enticing vacuum of all the other opportunities available to modern families on the average Sunday morning. I have participated in special welcome events, seen advertising online and on billboards, been ushered in by the promise of coffee and doughnuts and ignored other than a silent nod in the general direction of a tattered service sheet or a photocopied explanatory leaflet. What I haven’t seen, in any of these churches, is the Perfect Welcome. I think it probably doesn’t exist. But, as British Quakers walk cheerfully into Quaker Week 2022, culminating in World Quaker Day, I want to think more about some elements of what genuine welcome feels like to me.*

1. There is no golden key. Welcome will not look the same to everyone. We talk about welcoming young families, as though all young families are alike – but of course we know that isn’t the case, any more than all black people, or all women, or all people who wear hearing aids are alike. We have some experiences, some needs, some prejudices in common, but you cannot say that if you have successfully welcomed one family into your community you just need to do the same thing again and it will work for everyone. If only.

2. Let your yay be yay. If you say you welcome people, you really have to welcome them. All of them. Sometimes the person who walks in will be fashionable, friendly, funny, and a ready-made Godsend for every committee you need to liven up. More often, they might be grumpy and listless, or tricky and uncomfortable, or noisy, rude, a bit smelly… The list goes on. As I write this I can picture someone ticking every one of these slightly jarring boxes. As I write this I am aware I tick some of them myself. Do people’s hearts sink when I walk in the room? Do they also think that they wanted new people, but not new people quite like this?

3. Having children’s meeting is great, but it isn’t everything. I am in awe of people who run Sunday Schools, Messy Church, Children’s Meeting, or whatever the child-focused activities are called where you worship. Making the complex both comprehensible and fun is a gift that should never be taken for granted and takes huge amounts of both energy and precision. But having a children’s meeting is not the same thing as welcoming children. Having a children’s community, where they know this building and these people are as much theirs to enjoy as they are everyone else’s, is better. Being flexible and adapting to the children you have is vital. Are some too old for children’s activities, but not yet able to participate in “adult worship”? How can you continue to stretch and sustain them? Are some younger and more wriggly than you think they should be when they’re ready to join the stillness of the adults? Is that something you can accommodate too? Think as well about what you will do with those children and their carers when the children’s group finishes. Will dad be on his own, ignored over coffee because everyone else is chatting inside and doesn’t want to be where the kids are letting off steam in the garden? Will the children be let out before notices so mum never hears other ways to join in the community? Will there be so many disapproving looks and comments about noise and the number of biscuits kids can put away that granny leaves straight away instead of waiting to speak to friends if she has little ones with her? If this is your only experience, if the way you join the community is always as an Adult With Children, I’m afraid it gets pretty wearing pretty quickly.

4. Ask questions. If you don’t know how to involve me, then ask. If you want my kids to feel at home, ask them (not me) what they need. If you want me to come back, ask. Ask what I can give. Don’t assume you are putting too much on me because of the age of my children; but don’t assume you’re not either. I may be missing worship because I am overwhelmed; because other activities with my children clash this week; because actually I just don’t fancy it today. The temptation is to guess which it is and act accordingly, because that’s what it was last week and so that is what it must always be. But we are all different, with different experiences and wants and needs and gifts, and different pressures at different times of our lives, or our days, or our months. Only when we are all welcomed and included and celebrated and listened to equally will we all genuinely be part of this wondrous community of God.

5. Be proud of your treasures, and willing to share them. Confession time: I hate bringing friends to Quaker meetings for the first time. I mean, I struggle with bringing them to The Vicar’s church – what if they ask me why things happen and I don’t know the answer? What if they judge the liturgy or the vestments? What if they hate the music? – but I really, really struggle with introducing people to Quakers. I sit on the edge of my seat, unable to centre down, unable to worship or to pray myself. Someone stands to minister and my heart sinks, because it’s the someone who always says things that then need interpreting to make them less offensive, or the one who always comments on how nice it is to see young people (read: people under 50), or the one who says what a joy it is to have new people there because they may delay the inevitable demise of the Society of Friends. Welcome, and no pressure…

I don’t like bringing new people to Quaker meeting because, although this community means the world to me a lot of the time, I still find it hard to believe that others, without my emotional baggage, would value its treasures. I find it hard to trust that they will see what I see. And that lack of trust makes it less likely, not more likely, that they will find what I am unconsciously hiding.

How can I overcome this reluctance? I don’t have ready answers, or I’d be doing them already. But I can make some guesses. Every Meeting is different, just as every Friend attending is different. And we cannot share what we cannot see and celebrate for what it is. It’s time to put down those apologies and uncertainties. Time to put down the lines about “sorry there aren’t more people here this week”. Time to stop explaining how we only have children’s meeting once a fortnight with an apology and a shrug. What we do have is amazing, and it’s filled with hope. We love it enough to keep coming back, week after week, through the dark times and the stress and the shared lunches and the giggles and the committee meetings and the cleaning the toilets and the worship that reveals the depth of our humanity and the height of our potential. What we have deserves to be shared with pride and joy and maybe [whispers, backed by dramatic music building to a crescendo] maybe, just a little enthusiasm.

But what if they do like it? What if they really like it, and they join in and everything, but they don’t really get it? What if they’re not quite like us and they bring something entirely new and it changes everything? What if we have to change with them? What do we do then? It can be really hard making reasonable adjustments: changing meetings to online to account for someone’s low energy levels; starting them at 8pm to allow for another having to juggle bedtimes as a single parent; always having to plan a long way in advance to allow things to be translated, or very quickly to fit in with changing shift work patterns; explaining the details of what’s going on, every time, rather than relying on the assumption that we all know the backstory because we’ve all been here forever and done all this before. It’s hard. But do you know what’s worse? Not making those adjustments. Sitting in a bubble where everything stays the same and wondering why nothing is growing around us. Sticking to the comfortable and living with yourself, knowing who you drove away. Knowing that if you don’t make those changes and willingly adapt your treasures as new people share them you are really not welcoming them at all. Because real welcome is something that takes all of us, with all of our hearts open; it cannot just be pretty words.

*One thing I have to fight against, writing this, is the same thing I have to fight against whenever I write about Quakers: defining things by what we don’t do, or don’t say, or how I don’t want to be welcomed. (Here’s a more positive view of why I’m a Quaker.) It’s hard, nailing down the positives in a situation you usually only notice when it goes wrong.


I Am The Imposter; Sorry, Cowgirl!

We had an emergency trip to the opticians last week, necessitated by The Cowgirl’s glasses ending up, entirely inexplicably, in two very separate pieces. (Apparently, someone may have trodden on them, and maybe that someone was her, but actually maybe, no, they didn’t. Well covered, darling, well covered.) Other families of glasses-wearing geeks will be all too familiar with the entertainment that ensued. The check-up itself took about 10 minutes, but the combination of taking pictures of eyes, squirming in the middle so having to retake pictures of eyes, choosing frames, checking frames, spelling names wrong and having to start the whole process again, meant that we were actually in the opticians for over an hour, and my masterly plan of treating us all to indulgently warming refreshments between wrapping up the appointment and arriving in a calm, relaxed manner at our weekly swimming lesson were quickly demonstrated to be utterly foolish: we actually screamed into the swimming pool a mere 5 minutes late.

Somewhere in the midst of this, as is normal at such things, I was asked to sign for the NHS voucher that entitles all children under 16 to free eye tests and mostly-free glasses (#ThankYouNHS). And exactly there in the midst of this, I had the same reaction I always do when an adult calls me “mum”. I looked over my shoulder for the person they were really talking to; I hesitated, to give them enough time to call me out; I signed the iPad with a shaking hand and a rote comment about modern technology they must hear 50 times a day, but were still sweet enough to smile at.

I have spent most of my mothering years looking over my shoulder and expecting someone to out me as just pretending to be able, or willing, or responsible enough for this role. I thought that feeling would pass; it didn’t. At first I thought they might say that I wasn’t old enough to be a mother (ironic really when you consider that I had my first child in the UK’s Teenage Pregnancy capital, and that I probably had 10 years on the next oldest person in the ward where I spent my first night with The Palaeontologist). I don’t think that now – a decade of building up grey hairs and sleepless nights has put paid to that – but I still look over my shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop and for anyone – for everyone – to realise that I have no idea what I’m doing here.

Despite having had so long to think about this, it took me until this week and an opticians appointment to put the name Imposters Syndrome to my parenting experience. But through that lens (in a totally undiagnosed fashion) it all makes much more sense. Do I feel like a fraud? Like I have to work 3 times as hard to justify the title I have been given? Like any moment someone will see through the mask and spot I don’t belong there? Like I do not deserve this relationship? All of the above. All of the time. I know it isn’t rational; that I have been there from the beginning and in every moment since, there in the decision-making and the praying and the worrying even when it is not me there in the day to day. I know that there is no-one else my children would want to be there even when they tell me that I’m spoiling their lives and I’m the worst mum ever, as much as when they run to me when I walk in from work and hug me till my ribs hurt after an argument. I know that this is the place I am meant to be and the place I am called to be and the place I want to be. But that still doesn’t stop me feeling like an imposter, like I’m outside looking in and like sometime soon, when I’m least expecting it, everyone else will feel that too.

When The Cowgirl plays Among Us, she always wants to be The Imposter. I once asked her why she would want to be the baddy, the one who everyone else wants to kick into the outer reaches of space and never be contaminated by again? Because, she explained, The Imposter is the one who has the most fun. They can do what they want, and go where they want, and if they manage to kill everyone, they get to win the game. Being on the outside is the thing that gives you control, because it means that you’re not governed by the rules that everyone else has to play by.

Among Us. A bizarre and probably totally inappropriate game for children to be playing, full of challenges and spaceships and stabbing people in the back. Fun, though.

I will probably never feel entirely comfortable in my own skin or in the rules that are set down, in my head or others’ expectations, for people who are Mothers, or who are Vicar’s Wives, or who are struggling to live simply and sustainably in the 21st Century western world, for that matter. But however I feel about those titles, all of those aspects of my life and personality are ones that I have made a conscious choice to add in to the jigsaw that makes me the problematic, overstretched and overworked person that I am. And all of those roles help me see, from the inside out, how life could be better if fewer of us followed all the rules; if we were the rebels, who went through secret passages and found our own ways to success (but who maybe didn’t have the goal of killing everyone else around us. Any metaphor can be stretched too far). They show me what fun can be had by not focussing so much on how others may or may not think about me but accepting my view of myself instead; the good and the bad of it. They remind me that this is my choice and I have earned the right to make that choice, and have the responsibility to live by it. They whisper that I have been doing this for some time now and haven’t killed anyone yet, despite a fair bit of provocation. They demonstrate that, Imposter-ish feeling or not, I’m actually doing all right. And it turns out, that’s a pretty darn good thing to realise.


A few days ago, I was enjoying a quiet natter with my Long-suffering Mother whilst enjoying a nice cup of tea. (I say a quiet natter; she may think it was A Bit of a Rant, but of course, I couldn’t possibly comment.) The subject of the moment was Quakers, and specifically, holding one of the Big Roles within a Quaker Meeting.* As we were talking, I recounted a repeating theme I have heard recently, particularly about Trustees and Trusteeship: “I couldn’t do that if I was working”; “this is a job for someone with more time.” When did these roles become such all-consuming monsters? And how are we ever going to manage to realise our beautifully-expressed vision of genuine inclusivity if we believe that most of our work can only be done by those who are willing and able to cast aside all other interests in their lives to make Quakerism the only thing of significance? (If you want to read more about this vision, incidentally, start with our most recent Epistle. It’s epic.) Do They not realise how outlandishly privileged you have to be to be able to enter the ranks of the Actively Retired? No grandkids – or if you have them, also kids who are well off enough to be able to afford childcare; a job that allowed you enough money to retire before your body forced you into it; good health and good education and a stable living environment – and that’s before you get into the requirements of having a decent computer with a good internet connection and not being afraid to use it…

As I was ranting talking, I made an offhand comment; one I have made many times before. “If I can be Clerk to Trustees whilst also having a pretty intensive job and two small children, it can’t be that bad!” Interrupting my Mother’s likely responses about gluttony in the punishment arena and my deep-seated inability to say no, The Palaeontologist piped up and shut down the conversation with: “I am not a small child.” And she’s absolutely right. She’s not. She’s bloody-minded, bloody irritating, and bloody marvellous, switching between modes in the blink of an eye and a flick of her increasingly expressive eyebrows. I sneezed, sometime in the last couple of years, and totally missed her transition into something that is no longer Small; though certainly not as grown up as she would like either. Some of her changes are heart-rending: my words can no longer fix the problems of the world, and she now realises what I have long suspected: that if I ever had the answers, I don’t any more. Some of her changes are amazing: only someone else who grew up with more books than friends will appreciate the unrivalled bliss of sharing opinions on childhood favourites with an avid reader who is enjoying them for the first time.

It’s not just her that’s changing; I am too. I caught myself thinking “Are they still worrying about that? Goodness, it was a problem even in my day!” About girls’ clothing. About how difficult it is to buy clothing for 4 year old girls that doesn’t look like and feel and fit like it was made for teenagers. As though it has been decades since I bought a pair of boys’ jeans from the local charity shop and cut them down to make shorts because the shops had nothing but hot pants, rather than it just being 5 years ago. As though it has been decades since I had any say at all in what The Palaeontologist chooses to wear. Even in my head, I am no longer that parent of young children. I am already the parent of people starting to tread their own uncertain way outwards into the world, no longer looking to me for support, love and nourishment; though still running back when they need reassurance after all, thank God. I’m no longer that parent of young children; it just took one of those not-so-young-anymore children pointing it out to make me realise it.

Transitioning from one life stage to another is hard. Having Young Children is a handy screen to hide behind, a reason to avoid everything from having regular haircuts to having a social life to having to admit what you can do on your own, what you can no longer do on your own, and what you have no interest in doing on your own. Having Young Children puts you at a certain point in your life and means that you can ignore your own aging as everyone remarks instead on the visible growth of your offshoots; and it means that they are still adorable enough that you can get away without having any of those tough conversations you really don’t want to have, about their choices or your own. Accepting and admitting that you have moved into a new stage – one with far fewer nights feeding on the sofa, fewer cuddles, just as many tears and probably more bruises – means accepting what you have lost, what you want back, what you really hope to gain but might miss altogether. Change is terrifying; a liminal space where things move neither forwards nor backwards, but circle around you in a maelstrom of currents until, all of a sudden, you find yourself standing on a new shore, disoriented and unaware of what point your feet touched solid ground, and still unsure which direction you should take from here. And yet, if you had stopped; if you had fought to go back, or go otherwards, or stay still; if you had stopped, you would have drowned for sure. Change is terrifying; but it is the only choice we have.

*The Big Roles are things like Trustees, Clerks, and Treasurers. Quakers will not be alone in struggling to find volunteers to fill roles within worshipping communities, of course (I sometimes wonder if the struggles of finding Treasurers is really the thing that unites all branches of the Church); but given our lack of paid ministers, and our tradition of holding roles for only a few years before handing them on to someone else within the Meeting, the struggle to find willing victims volunteers is akin to painting the Forth Bridge – never-ending and pretty thankless.

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 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…

Tackling the Mountain of All The Things: when your best is only just good enough

In the first week of the summer holidays, I often get a burst of energy, of Let’s Do This, of tidying fever. I dare to dream impossible dreams, of empty washing baskets and Lego-less carpets. As the weeks pass, the fervour diminishes and the wading through treacle-ness of keeping a family home habitable overcome my enthusiasm, resulting in an enormous sigh of relief when the holidays end and our cleaner (yes, I admitted it) comes back and sorts us out.

This pattern repeated with Lockdown, as the busyness and purpose of the first few days slowly melted into a puddle of sameness and a gradually increasing collection of dust in the corners and Haribo wrappers under the cushions. Now, however, Lockdown is slowly easing, and, like a whale in a long, slow dive, we are coming back up for air and bringing those seeds of energy with us. Seeds of energy coupled with being trapped in a house overwhelmed with Stuff has resulted in plunging into the sorting of children’s toys, clothes, books, drawings, games, letters, shoes and random plastic bits that have been building up around us for as long as we’ve been saying that we’re just not here enough to sort them all out.

The dream result is newly painted walls, black furnishings for The Paleontologist, All The Games for The Cowgirl, and endless empty, hooverable space for me. The reality involves rather a lot more gritted teeth through conversations about the absolute necessity of keeping another half-lost Kinder Egg toy, whilst simultaneously demanding to give away every item of clothing in the wardrobe. My cunning plan to find things to get rid of has worked very well. The part about actually doing the decluttering? Not so much. Here is the pile currently waiting to be removed. If I said this was all of it, would you believe me? (Spoiler alert: you shouldn’t.)

A single bed heaped high with a variety of clothes, books and toys.
Take one spare bed. Cover with 9 years’ worth of outgrown everything. Mix well and abandon to see what grows.

Faced with this mountain to dismantle, now feels like a good time to look again at decluttering strategies. It’s time for a radical approach, preferably one that comes with its own bulldozer. Never mind simplicity, sheer practicality says we must find new homes for things literally tumbling out of every storage crevice in the house. But sustainability says skips and dumps should be a last resort. So I thought I’d round up earlier resorts, to remind myself of the options and stop me hiring that skip. Well, stop me hiring it this week, anyway…

  • Car Boot Sales are a no from me, I’ll warn you now. The idea of getting up that early, and Being Cheerful into the bargain, in order to convince people to buy stuff I still care about a little is something I just couldn’t do, even without the social distancing and non-essential shopping rules currently still in force. Plus, it would probably rain.
  • Giving things to friends has to be my favourite way to declutter. In our early parenthood adventure years, we were given All The Things, a vast amount of which were beautiful, and some of which were, well, not. Not at all. (That’s just Vicarage Life With A Baby, in my experience.) As time went by and those delightful pooing vomiting bundles grew out of their Beautiful Things, it was a genuine joy to pass them on to other pooing vomiting bundles who were just starting out in life (and, yes, we passed on some of the rubbish too, naturally. What’s a little rubbish between friends?) Ironically, though, once the pooing and vomiting diminished and the grass and ketchup stains increased, the clothes swapping machines seemed to dry up too, at least in our household. Not so many Beautiful Things came in. Almost no Beautiful Things went out. We haven’t been able to get rid of our crap share our children’s outgrown outfits in this way for some time now.
  • Freegle is probably the best known sharing-stuff-you-don’t-want-anymore site. It has loads of people, endless offers of hangers and jam jars, and occasional scrums when people offer things that are actually still useful. I don’t know if I’d be more worried that our offcasts would set off a scrum or be ignored along with the blue and red plastic magazine racks, truth be told. Also, the app is clunky and people who say they want things don’t always turn up for them. This makes me a lot more reluctant to put things up there again.
  • Olio is similar in many ways, but I prefer how it makes me feel when I use it. The app is more fun, you can give away food as well as stuff, and in general the people who use it are terribly polite. (Probably due to the fact that it is mostly populated by middle class liberal lefties, it has to be said. Maybe that’s why I feel so at home there?) It is much smaller, though, which means there’s a good chance that the things you put up won’t actually be wanted by anyone close enough to you to make it worth picking them up, in sustainability terms or time and money ones.
  • Giving to charity shops is pretty straightforward (particularly if you just load up a collection bag and leave it outside your front door). Unfortunately, though, plenty of us are willing to give things to charity, but not enough people are willing to buy from them. So the things in charity shops build up, and build up. Sometimes they are shipped out to other countries because they can’t be sold here. Sometimes they are shipped to other countries and shovelled into recycling or rubbish tips once there because they are such bad quality no one would ever want to wear them again. So yes, sparingly, I like decluttering this way; but my current clutter-mountain is not what I would call sparing.
  • Facebook marketplace. I’ve done this once. Never, never again. The familiar platform is great, but you get an insane number of messages and the pressure is awful. My phone never stopped beeping and I started dreading yet another person showing interest. This is not a viable option for a fairly-overwhelmed introvert.
  • eBay is my preferred way of selling on used things, despite paying commission. You can donate some money to charity from the sales if you want to. You can let eBay do all the hassle of sorting out who is going to win things and how they will pay. But, you have to display things in a way that makes people want to buy them. You still occasionally have to talk to the people buying things. And you have to be able to make it to the Post Office regularly, which even without lockdown is rather easier said than done.

Looking at that picture, I feel so guilty. Guilty for buying so many things, some of which have never been worn, bought because they were on sale, or in charity shops themselves, or because they made me hope that one day I would be slim enough to wear them, or because they reminded me of something I used to love that fell apart. I feel guilty that we have so many toys that these can be removed without making a dent in the messiness of the girls’ rooms. I feel guilty that it’s all Still Here, that none of it has been given away already. But the fact is, being sustainable, even in a haphazard, messy way, is hard. It takes time. It takes emotional energy. It takes learning from mistakes and experience and accepting that some of the things you tried made matters worse, not better. It means realising that it is possible to be both part of the problem and part of the solution. It means doing your best, even when that isn’t enough, because it’s all we’ve got. So I’ll keep going with selling things to people who might enjoy them more than we have, giving them to people who would appreciate them, and avoiding Facebook Marketplace like the plague. And when all of this is over, I’ll look smug and tell stories of great daring, about the time I took on a decluttering mountain, and my best, as it turns out, was exactly what was needed.

Image from Pixabay

Sorry Sorry (for making your life a living hell)*

The scene is exhaustingly familiar. Your chest is tight and it’s hard to take a breath, even though you have done nothing more physically taxing than running upstairs, downstairs, and in the children’s chambers, looking for far-flung reading records and misplaced swimming costumes, since the middle of last week. You realise you have two minutes spare so you look for a job to do, your hands flapping aimlessly, your mind unable to process the idea that two minutes without action will not cause it to blink out of existence after all. You are thinking about that meeting you just had that tripled your workload whilst questioning everything you thought you were told to do last week. Everywhere you look there is laundry, washing up, or unsorted children’s drawings, schoolwork, forms to be signed, and there is so much in front of you that you can only see a haze, your mind refusing to process the details or consider starting points for improvement. You nip upstairs to get something and forget what it was you came up for as you are confronted by unfinished decluttering projects, or wellbeing projects, or rubbish that never made it to the wheelie bin, lurking accusingly in the middle of the floor. And, when there is no more room for anything but a soundless explosion and a burgeoning mushroom cloud, the cry goes up from the sofa pushed way too close to the TV: “Mummmmaaay”. “Just a second” is gasped out through clenched teeth. But of course, no quarter is offered, no second’s recovery allowed. The cry goes up again, and again, and before you know it you are also standing too close to the TV, shouting in full dinosaur mode and demonstrating to your offspring how the grown ups do tantrums. Their eyes go round. The Cowgirl starts crying. The Paleontologist starts taking notes. You take a deep breath, and count to ten. Then count to ten again. Then you apologise for shouting. Because grown ups get it wrong as often as children do. We do bad things. We do things with the best of intentions, and as time goes by, it turns out they were bad things too. We tell our children that if they make mistakes and hurt people they must apologise, and then they watch us refusing to follow our own orders.

When did apologising for something become equated with weakness, failure, not trying hard enough? Why is it that, as a nation, we apologise when someone else bumps into us in a public place, but we cannot apologise when we have caused genuine harm?

Is it the fear of complaints, of an institution losing its reputation? Because let’s face it, that will happen whether we apologise or not. The only thing that will change is the grace our acceptance of fault might bestow, or the residual flavour of blame and cowardice that is left in the mouths of those we have let down. I think my hardest act as a teacher was to call a student I had already told had passed her exam. Standard internal checks demonstrated I’d got it wrong. Thankfully, this story had a happy ending, and the student was able to retake, and pass, her qualification. I felt awful: a disappointment who had seriously let a good woman down. But I got the chance, through owning up, through apologising, to make it right. What if I hadn’t done that? Had hidden behind the faceless MISandExams Department, or, even better, the geographically removed exam board? My avoidance would lead her to question the college more, to doubt herself, and cause her to delay her dreams for yet another year. Oh, and she would still have lost her respect for me. How could she not, when I had taught her, invigilated the exam, built a relationship through a long and tiring year, and not looked her in the eye when the time came for bad news?

Because nothing says sorry like cardboard figures dragging roses. Except possibly very cute cardboard figure dragging roses. Picture credit:

Politicians, it seems, never make mistakes. They never change their minds. And if they do, they never acknowledge they have done so. A lot of people would like Boris Johnson to apologise for promoting close physical contact with people with Covid-19, all those years ago when it was still March and lockdown hadn’t started yet. A lot more would like Donald Trump to apologise for the dangerously misguided comments he made about bleach and UV light. Will either of them do so? Of course not. But then again, how can they?

We have all contributed to this culture that considers apologies as a sign of weakness. An apology is made into a meme, which becomes a Nick Clegg-style video, which becomes the epitaph of any political position. Acknowledgement of personal error is lorded over the fallen opponent until the end of time, because an apology is a sign of weakness, and changing your mind is the act of a fool. If someone changes position they are greeted with a rousing chorus of “I told you so,” rather than “Absolutely. We agree. Let’s work together to fix it.” No wonder scientists are treated with such suspicion and confusion in the modern world. To accept that some things are not yet known, to breathe in uncertainty and enjoy finding out new questions, to change your opinion if others find evidence that those initial interpretations were wrong: these things are opposed to the very foundations of our self-belief.

We live in a time where the dark side of capitalism is raising its head with increasing regularity. The gap between the overfed and the starving grows all the time. Continuous global growth, if pursued with historically single-minded determination, will eventually come at the cost of the continuing existence of us all. But in this world of fear and frustration and the non-existence of the apology, people who believe that capitalism is the answer cannot change their minds, and people who oppose it would rather see the world burn than admit the innate worth of those they have classed as their opponents.

Of course, all of this is just my opinion. And there is every chance it’ll turn out that I’m wrong. If I am, I’m sorry. It’s my best opinion at this time. If you disagree, and it turns out you’re right and I’m wrong, I won’t hold it against you. I hope you won’t hold it against me either. Instead, let’s find a way to work together to make things better for us all.

*If you know this song, I expect you to now be dancing around singing to it. Doing just that has got me through more crises at work than I care to remember now. Though admittedly, it was a slightly unusual number to insist we had played at our wedding…