I’m not ready yet.

I don’t get all this talk of returning to normal. The excitement, the anticipation, the clear expectations other seem to have: where do they come from? Where did they get the time and the space and the hope to feel these feelings?

A colourful line of cloth facemasks drying on the washing line.
Facemasks courtesy of the generosity of parishioners and the brilliance of Grimes Emporium…

There are things that I am looking forward to, of course. Teaching all day without needing a mask is one. Having the option of different ways to exhaust our children’s energy and enthusiasm – trampoline parks, museums, occupied play areas – is another. Seeing new places, where they speak new languages, eat interesting food and reliably have sun, is definitely a third. But these things, tempting though they are, are not enough to make me feel ready for an open and unrestricted return to the world.

I can’t remember Life Before. I know that sounds overly dramatic, and of course it’s not entirely, literally, true, but it is an emotional truth. Every drop of my essence in what feels like forever has been focused purely on survival. Not surviving The Plague – that, weird though it probably seems, hasn’t touched my nerve centres. If we get it we get it and we deal with it then; and so far, praise God, we haven’t had to face it. So what has drained me of my memory, my energy? What have I been surviving? The endless monotony of everything being required with no remission and no relief. Knowing that if it is not done by me it will not be done at all, and knowing that It Not Happening will harm all those around me more than I am willing to risk. Knowing there is no respite at home; no comprehension at work; and no stopping in sight. I try to list specifics for those not in this boat. They smile faintly and nod: they are in this storm with me, after all, and don’t I know how lucky, how privileged I am, to have a home, and a job, and physical contact with those I love? So I add guilt to my list of everything I am surviving, because I do know these things, and I do recognise my privilege, and that just makes it more impossible to put into words why this has been So Damn Hard.

Lockdown, locking in our minds as well as our bodies, has become so familiar it feels gloriously safe. It reduces the number of decisions that need to be made to the extent that even my brain-fogged mind can handle them. It gives an easy answer to every request I don’t agree with: another plastic toy, you say? Sorry, no non-essential shopping. Hug from an acquaintance, from a student, from someone who seems to think personal space just doesn’t apply to them? Not a chance. (Oh, the inexpressible relief of finally having my rejection of these cultural intimacies understood and accepted with a single look.) Feeling lonely, swamped by awareness of how little we see others outside our nuclear family; or colleagues, in work time? Everyone else is noticing the same, so we get to feel more unified with our Facebook connections in our mutual isolation than we ever did in free life.

Beyond my immediate, introverted concerns lies a world that feels no more ready than I do for the restarting that will be required. I have heard mutterings recently that this is the ideal time for a comprehensive overhauling of our social and educational system, refocusing on the skills needed in the 21st century, not on rote recitation of facts needed in the 19th. Why did schools not act on this when they returned in March? goes the cry. And my heart screams in fury – do they really need to ask why? Do they not see, these faceless criticisers, just how much creative energy would be needed to pull hope and joy back into our curricula? How much optimism and faith are needed to make the world again from scratch?

I am not ready, nor am I willing, to return to a world where the main impetus of all our joint creativity and passion is focused on getting back to where we left off as fast as we can. There was too much wrong with that system. It was based on inequality; on exploitation; on the assumption that there are some people who deserve good things and others who don’t, and that’s just the way the world works, so don’t waste your energy trying to change it. That system is broken. It has been broken morally since the start, and it has been broken practically by a pandemic that shattered everything and everyone it touched.

But what can replace it? Big dreams need big hearts; big minds; big imaginations. They cannot be served by hearts that have been surrounded by walls to keep them safe and spaces that are now too filled with the jagged emptiness of fear and uncertainty to easily cross again. They cannot be created by minds that are hollow with an overload of minute details, choices made day after day after day after day that became, overnight, a possible cause of life and death. They cannot be seen in imaginations that have been reduced by such long habit to the size of these four walls, by the sound of these four voices. They cannot be spun from nothingness, and that is all I have right now.

I am not ready. I need a break. Just for a minute, for a breath, for a chance, just one, tiny, break. Give me some time when the sun is shining and there is no fear, no racing motion, no dramatic need. Then I will come back stronger, steel and resilience forged in isolation having a chance to expand into the armour of change. Then, maybe, just maybe, I will be ready. But I am not ready yet.

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To every thing there is a season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing to fear but fear itself?

Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. 

Franklin D Roosevelt, in his 1st inaugural address, 1933

I wonder how the people who first heard this line felt when they heard it, before it became one of those overly misquoted sayings you hear but don’t really listen to. Listen to it carefully and it is ridiculous. And powerful. And baffling. It’s saying that really, we have nothing to fear: once you unmask your fears and find nothing behind them, then you are no longer afraid, just like a child who sees monsters hiding in the cupboards until she screams for her parents, and they, turning on the lights, reveal nothing but an empty dressing gown hanging on a wardrobe door. Reveal the shadow-filled dressing gown for what it is, and the child is free. Recognise terror as the makings of our own imaginings and it can no longer control us.

Franklin D Roosevelt with his wife. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia, fount of all knowledge.

The appeal of having nothing to fear is as old as the sensation itself, embedded in Psalms, poetry and Disney ballads alike; sung in the voices of angels and crooned in the whispered prayers of mothers leaning over their suckling babies and speaking mostly to themselves. It is immortalised in self-help manuals and spoken by monsters showing glimmers of humanity as only Shakespeare can pull off. It is as old as time and as fresh as the adrenaline you try to ignore as it pumps through your veins, your instincts screaming at you to fight or flee.

There is just so much to be afraid of. There will have been other times in history when simply stepping out of the front door could be seen as risking your life. There will be other times in the future, I hope, that the welfare of one is dependent on the kindness and care of all. But knowing there are other times it has felt like this does not diminish its impact now. Back in the heady early days of lockdown, when the world was a more innocent place, when we believed that two kilos of coffee would see us through, and we still thought Specsavers was the best place to go to test our eyesight, it felt like once we got through the peak, we would put fear behind us. Oh, how wrong we were. About all of those things, as it turns out. Now, as lockdown starts to ease, the fear is increasing in inverse proportion. Fear of taking part has running battles with fear of missing out. Fear of the unknown merges into fear of the over-familiar. Everyone I love is going to die meshes in with Lockdown is pointless and is Coronavirus so bad anyway? Are we over-reacting? Are we under-reacting? Are we doing both at the same time? We have been afraid for so long now that it is no longer possible to tell the difference between fear and frustration, between boredom and common sense.

Fear of a virus that lurks in the lungs of our loved ones, that tricks you into complacency and then lashes out with a summons to a ventilator, an ICU, a mortuary; that has become part of the New Normal, accepted and mocked in bizarrely equal measure. The reaction has been relatively unanimous worldwide, and utterly unimaginable even 9 months ago. Could we feel similar fear, have similar unanimous actions for other things? Could we react similarly in order to fight deaths by gunshot, maybe – which kill 400,000 people worldwide each year in “unlawful” killings alone? Does that not warrant worldwide unified action? What about the climate crisis? The WHO estimates that this will cause 250,000 additional deaths per year from around 2030 onwards; that feels like something it would be nice to avoid, something we should probably be worried about. Every decade, the changing climate will kill 5 times as many people as Covid-19. It may not have the immediate fear factor of an uncontrolled global pandemic, but its creepingly insidious nature looms like the shadow that is so familiar we have grown to ignore it, the volcano that may be theoretically alarming, with its grumblings and smoke-belching,  but will never be taken seriously because people have been whinging on about it for so long now. Fear can become so normal that you pretend it no longer exists, and flood to the beaches because the Prime Minister said it’s safe now, or fly away on holiday because anything is better than staying within these four walls for another day, or insist on everything being wrapped in throwaway plastic or bought new from the shops because we were wondering if we’d ever be able to do that again, or because our short-term terror overwhelms our long-running fear every time.

My fear of the virus is present but not strong. I am more worried about the repercussions a badly-managed lockdown will have on society. I am very afraid of the meltdown that climate change will precipitate in that same society, as everything we thought we knew is gradually eroded, crumbling like a scenic cliff-edge village into the inevitably rising sea. But the fear that overwhelms everything else in my subconscious is the fear that, after all this pain, and loneliness, and fear, that after all this, nothing at all will change. I have been saying throughout lockdown that I don’t know which I fear more: everything changing, or everything remaining the same. (I know I must have said it before as it made it into The Vicar’s sermon last week, and he only ever listens if I say the same thing 150 a few times…) My statement isn’t true anymore. I know where I stand now. I know what I fear, far more than fear itself. I fear losing everything to a global crisis we could all see coming and did too little to prevent, as much as I fear losing the insights into my own heart I have won through blood, sweat and blog posts over the last few gruelling and gloomy months. We could do something about changing the world if we wanted to – 2020 has punched us in the global solar plexus, winding us all with a single blow, demonstrating how interconnected the world is, how brutality in one continent influences policy in another, how we can only look on in awe at Mongolia whilst we pity the United States, how crises will only stay defeated if we stop passing them off as someone else’s fault. The thing I fear most is that despite everything we are not going to listen to 2020’s claxon call. That we might change for a while, but that over time, we will forget. We will forget the carers we clapped for, the lives we knelt for, the change we yearned for. We will forget what we hope for in the rush to return to what we think we have been waiting for. And by the time we stop for long enough to remember, it will be too late. The world will have returned to normal. Fear will no longer be an everyday bedfellow. It will fly away, holding tight to the hand of hope, and the only way we will ever see it again will be to take the second star on the right and keep going until morning.

We are all interconnected, after all, and all breathe each other’s air. Montage courtesy of Pixabay.

Because sometimes, fear is a good thing. Fear can lead to life-saving lifestyle choices. Fear can lead to acts of courage that seem like a dream when you relive them in endless retellings, as fear becomes bravery and fact becomes legend. Fear can lead to sacrifice and blessings beyond measure, because fear can be just the other face of hope. It is when we are most afraid that we draw most on hope: hope of finally having a forever family when you feared children would never be in your future; hope of surviving an earthquake when buried deep beneath the rubble; hope of a new life free from fear when you lead your children into a rubber dinghy and pray you will make it across the ocean. Hope is what keeps us all alive. Hope is what we need now more than ever. And if we sacrifice fear to complacency and mystery to the mundane, will we ever be able to pay the price?

Show us our darkness: A story of whiteness and privilege in the UK

You know those things you do even though you’re not sure they’re a good idea? This post is one of those. If you’re tired of hearing yet another white person talking about #BlackLivesMatter, don’t read on. This post is about my (white) thoughts, my (privileged) experiences, my fragility. It’s another white person making BLM all about them. If that’s not something you need right now, I totally get that.

So why am I writing this post, given my own ambivalence towards it, and the volatility of the subject? I’m doing it because the thing that has changed my understanding of this topic has been the first hand stories, heartbreaking and brutally honest, poured out, wept over, cursed and sworn at. Reading other people’s stories has helped me see what is really happening, hidden from my own viewpoint most of the time. I am writing this with the hope that my honesty can equal that of those other writers, that I can follow in their footsteps and lay down my tiny brick along this new way we are forging together.

A white girl, tear falling down her cheek, draws one half of a heart with a pencil. A girl in a hijab, also crying, draws the other half of the same heart with the same kind of pencil. The heart is unfinished.
An image that has spoken to my experience many times in the years since I first saw it, and that speaks to my experience again today.

I am not trying to speak for others, though the experience and stories of others has become a part of mine too, and will shape my own narrative. I am also going to try really hard not to whitesplain anything. And I’m pretty likely to get that wrong sometimes. If you have a better way to say these things, please share it. This is a learning piece for me; I do not understand this topic well. I am not familiar, or comfortable, with much of this language. But I want to learn, and I hope that, at least, will count for a little.

Going to Africa

A question frequently asked about privilege is “Have you ever been the only one who looks like you in a public space?” If you are black, Asian or minority ethnic in a white-majority country, you are often the only person who looks like you in a room, and this can feel threatening. My own answer to this question is also yes. I have been alone in that way. This first became true when I spent several months in Kenya. This was also what made me very aware of my own skin for the first time (I was in my 20s, so there’s privilege straight away). But this way round, I did not feel threatened. I felt uncomfortable in my white skin maybe twice in three months, when walking through unfamiliar villages, or crossing the Likoni ferry. Most of the time, when I was uncomfortable, it was because I was treated far, far too well, by people who knew nothing about me but the colour of my skin.

I went to the home of a colleague one afternoon, to help him with a piece of writing he had to do. As we were working, his very new wife came in, looked at me, and said “It’s true then.” I was ready for all sorts of accusations – who wouldn’t be, after that? Instead she said “They said I would be nothing. But here I am, married, and a white person is drinking tea in my house.” That’s what it took to have made it, in her mind. That comment was joined by others. We were called angels by children trying to touch out skirts. I was informed that in the queue to enter Heaven, rightly, the white people would go first. When just looking at me made a child cry (well, I have that reaction in plenty of other places too, but this was more extreme than normal) everyone hastened to make sure I was not upset by this. Even when asked how it could be possible to drink with noses as long as ours (possibly the best question I have ever been asked in my life 😂), it was asked with curiosity, shyness, and no judgement.

Living in Birmingham

Several years later, in a new phase of life, we lived in Birmingham and we learned A Lot. We were there, living in a vicarage, when Fox News (wrongly, clearly), pointed to Birmingham as somewhere that white people, and Christians, feared to go. Oops. We lived in an area where most middle class people, of any ethnicity, came in and did charity work during the day, then left at night before it got rough. There were stabbings in the park just beyond our back fence. We frequently found used needles and used condoms on our walk, just up the side of the church, to worship on a Sunday morning. I was mistaken for the local prostitute (she was also white, I’m told, and neither of us covered our hair). I took my children to an event of 200 people and we were the only ones there who looked like us. There were mutters, sideways looks, and a circle of space around us as if our whiteness might be catching. There were times in this stage of my life that I was treated differently, and treated as less than I had been before, based solely on the colour of my skin and the visibility of my hair. There were times, at this stage of my life, that I felt afraid.

And yet. I could get out of this place, go to church, go to Meeting, shop in the reinvigorated city centre, or visit the other side of town, and find plenty of other people who looked and thought and spoke like me. When the police knocked on our door (which they did quite a lot), it was to check we were OK, not check up on what we’d been doing. When The Paleontologist started school, she was one of only two white kids in the whole school, sure; but there were a lot more adults who looked like her around than there were who looked like the other children, so she never lacked understanding from her teachers or positive role models.

My life as a teacher

Time moved on again, as it has a habit of doing. We moved to a new parish and a new life, which for me meant becoming a teacher. Once again, I find myself the only person of my skin colour in a room. But I’m the one at the front, the one with the power in this room. I do not feel afraid. I find myself hearing my students’ stories and their jokes, laughing with them as they bash their weaves and, rolling their eyes, explain “it’s an African thing”. Laugh as though I’ve been there, as though I’ve also felt the need to cover the hair I was born with with something artificial and itchy to fit in with others’ expectations, just because I’ve been there so often when it’s happened that it’s started to feel like my story too. I enjoy the surprise when I say I’ve eaten ugali; I include pictures and names that look and sound like the students in the room; I celebrate Black History Month and try to ignore the knowledge that I am whitesplaining this to at least half the students in the room, as I speak about histories that have gone unwritten and wrongs that have gone unrighted, and I pick very carefully who I will make eye contact with as I’m talking. I tell students that they should give me the name they want to be called, not the one they think will be easy for me to say; but I don’t say this to everyone, and not everyone laughs. I teach about prejudice and am horrified when a student describes being asked not to work with particular patients as “criticism”, not the racism it is; and then I talk down a complaint made by the same student against me, justifying to myself that I am not talking her down because she’s black, but because she’s just really, really annoying. (This is honestly true. I’ve only lost my temper in front of a whole class once, and it was because this student deliberately destroyed an activity planned to benefit the whole community. That doesn’t change the fact that, after telling her she should speak out against injustice, I then silenced her, and won, to protect my own reputation.)

I am not saying this to say “Look at what I’ve done, look how good I am”. Neither am I saying it to rend my clothes and say how bad I am. I’ve done some things I’m proud of and some things I’m not. I’ve done some things I would change if I could, and others I would leave just as they are. We are all complex, more than our skin colour, more than what others make us or want us to be. This situation is more than a hashtag, more than a headline, more than slogans that can be shouted in a crowd. I have no answers. But I pray that, as in worship, sharing our stories can show us our darkness and bring us to new life. We all need to own our darkness. We all need new life. And we all need to get there together.

In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.
Wangari Maathai. Amazing on so many levels.

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: https://pixabay.com/users/Alexas_Fotos-686414/

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…

Bloody-minded selfishness: why I will be voting this week

“Of course, as a woman, I have to vote. Because of the suffragettes.” Nothing like Radio 4 to get me cross on the drive home after a looong day/week/decade. It’s something that’s said a lot. Women died so that you could vote, so vote you must. And they are right, on many levels. Some women did die. Many others were tortured, ostracised, tormented. Women marched and wept and slept in broom cupboards so that I could vote. But that was their choice, and they fought so hard so that I, and my daughters, would have our own choice. Their actions are not the reason I am going to vote this week.

“I don’t know anything about any of this. It doesn’t mean anything to me.” One of my students said this when I told them we were talking politics this week. And she’s right – she proved in that lesson that she did not watch the news, or think about the election, or understand the different actions and reactions that divide our nation at present. And yet, she is an intelligent woman with a passion to go further. One who has very firm views on the health service and on social care, working as she does within the health sector. She is passionate to see her children given more chances than she feels she deserves. She, and so many people like her, think of politics as something that is done to them, that disempowers them, something they have no control over, no say in, no stake in. Although I work to help them, and pray for them, I am not one of them, and I will not use my voice or my vote to speak, unsolicited and unchecked, on their behalf. It is not for them that I am going to vote this week.

“As a mum I care more about the future of this country, of the world.” If hopefuls to be the next prime minister could say that, should I say it too? Yes, absolutely, I care that I can expect a worse quality of life than my parents did, and I care that it will be worse still for my children. I care that their future is being ripped away from them before they are old enough to understand what they are losing, by shadowy figures who speak golden words and show in their actions that they believe none of their own propaganda. But that is still not why I am voting this week.

I am not voting as a woman, weighted down by the oppression of women in history. I am not voting as a teacher, accustomed to trying to give voice to those who have been silenced by stifled dreams and stunted expectations. I am not voting as a mother, staring into a void and trying to give my children the skills they will need to thrive in a world of unimaginable possibility and overwhelming fear. No. I am voting as myself. I am curious. I am ashamed. I am despairing of the hope I have been teaching for years, the lines I have used, the expectations of honesty and goodness and hard working bravery that I have credited those in control of all our lives with. I cannot remember a time I have been more angry with the establishment authorities, and more despairing of those who would tear them down. So I will go, with bloody-minded fury, to vote on my own behalf. I urge you to do the same. Because without shouting about it, now of all times, how will I ever be able to shout at the radio again, without also screaming at the mirror?

A painting of the three furies screaming as they surround a man with his hands over his ears. One points to the woman behind him, killed with his knife.
I’m not saying they’re anything to aspire to, really I’m not, but the Furies were known to get a bit put out by “men who had sworn a false oath”, among other things…

By William-Adolphe Bouguereau – https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/orestes-pursued-by-the-furies/SQE-jakW_S49YA, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81006118

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. https://pixabay.com/images/id-3440450/

*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.

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?

Why I wish I could break the rules

A long time ago, in a life-stage far far away, I did something unbelievable. The kind of thing that, looking back even a few days later, I couldn’t believe I really did. One Friday afternoon in sixth form, a group of us decided to leave school early and head down to Glastonbury Festival. We had tents and sleeping bags (well, most of us did. If I remember rightly, one individual named very aptly after a capricious Shakespearean character decided all he needed was a change of socks. Probably best not to ask, really.) We did not have tickets. Crowded into the back of a car, a bit terrified and very excited, listening to Britney Spears and laughing at how terrible the music was, was probably the closest I ever came to feeling like I had a part in the action. 

We parked up and started off in the direction of the fences, which suddenly looked rather more official than they had in my head. Close to the car park were a few scary-looking individuals who had cut holes already, and were charging a nominal fee – sometimes rather aggressively – to get through. We walked on. None of that nonsense for us, they said, though at that point my heart was pounding like mad, imagining that all these eighteen year old lads would be literally jumping over the fence, leaving unhealthy and unfit me on the other side, unable to get in, unable to leave. As was the case far more often than I realised, I suspect, I had underestimated the leaders of the crew. They kept going until we found a gap we could all squeeze through.

You are probably wondering why I am admitting to this now. The truth is, that is just about the only time in my life when I have not only broken the rules, but also refused to feel guilty about it. (Not long after this, the same classmates and I had the choice of jumping a queue or missing the Vatican Museum. We jumped the queue. I still feel guilty about it now.) Even when the news broke, shortly after our return, that so many people had broken in to Glastonbury that they were cancelling the whole festival the following year, we still felt proud rather than ashamed. Proud, and just a tad smug. 

A gorgeous image of the beauty and chaos of such a huge gathering of people.
By jaswooduk from UK – Glastonbury 2011, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18498961

Breaking the rules is absolutely not something I do. Even my acts of teenage rebellion were all within the stereotypes. We not only got our parents’ permission for the Glastonbury trip, for example, we also got our teachers’ permission to leave early (though there is a very good chance we didn’t tell either group we didn’t exactly have tickets…) When I started smoking – sorry, Mum, but I realise now you’re not daft and probably knew the whole time – it was an act of rebellion against my parents, my teachers, my goody-goody reputation; but I waited until I was legal before I started, and always used money I had earned myself to buy them, not money from my parents.

Breaking the rules genuinely makes me shake. Even bending the expectations fills me with quiverings. I seem to have passed this on to The Paleontologist too, unfortunately. When she was much younger and we were living somewhere very different, I took her to the local Eid celebration. It was the kind of party that had 20000 people attending, and its own funfair, so I was expecting her to be in her element. Instead, as we walked the familiar route to the local park that had been transformed into a place for prayers and celebration, her feet got slower and slower until eventually she stopped altogether. “What if they don’t want us there?” she whispered. “What if people like us aren’t allowed?”

I watch people who break the rules with a mixture of awe and horror. Extinction Rebellion have achieved amazing headlines, but my gut rebels at the idea of praising their methods. Greta Thunburg I’m happier with; strikes fit better within the language of revolt from my staunch Labour-supporting upbringing. But do we have to break the rules to be noticed? Does that mean that those of us who feel unable, morally or practically, to take that kind of action have no part to play at all? 

And it turns out that being congenitally incapable of breaking the rules has even deeper consequences than feeling unable to take full part in movements fighting for the things I most believe in. Breaking the rules should be a deliberate act, knowing what those rules are and rebelling against them. Middle class adulting in modern society means following a set of abstract and unwritten rules and keeping yourself and your loved ones within them, accepting the inevitable fallout when you step over a boundary no one ever told you was there. There are rules that deserve nothing less than annihilation; and yet, breaking the rules has consequences, not just for me, but for those dependent on me. And I can’t take that risk. So I struggle on, trying to work them out, only aware of them as they lie in ruins behind me. Have a home. Your own home. Keep that home tidy enough for a photoshoot at all times. Apologise profusely for the way your home looks if anyone pops in unexpectedly, even if it is spotless. Record everything – if a day out isn’t on social media, it didn’t really happen, right? – but whatever you do don’t go getting all self-obsessed. Value all things by their economic worth, whilst also bemoaning that stay at home parents are not treated with the respect they deserve. Recycle everything possible. Talk a lot about climate catastrophe. Own two cars. Go on holiday. Drink plant-based alternatives to milk.

What happens when you can’t keep to the rules? They are so many, so varied, so hidden under layers and layers of obscurity and obfuscation that even in trying to stick to the rules you end up shattering a lot of them. In fact, I’m fairly sure that one of the cardinal rules is to never acknowledge their presence. Some have never seen the rules in action, never understood what is expected and what you are expected to ignore. Many don’t know the rules, have never been shown them, have lived among people with different guidelines and spend every interaction expecting to be called out as a fraud. Some know the rules intimately, using them to their own advantage, manipulating the system to create a world that no one quite knows how to challenge. We have created a system so intricate, so all consuming, so woven into the mesh of our society, our economic system, our values, that we are no longer able to tell apart the rules that do good from the rules that do harm.

There are some rules – morality, decency, love – that deserve to be followed with the rigidity I use when waiting for the green man before crossing the road. Somehow, though, these rules seem to be the ones most neglected within the structures and confines of our everyday lives. Some need to be broken in emergencies. And some deserve to be wiped off the face of the world for all eternity. Particularly the one that says your worth as a person (and especially as a woman) is somehow inherently linked to your ability to keep up with the washing up. I really don’t like that one.

Saying it like this makes it sound so easy. Follow the good rules. Ignore the mediocre ones. Send the bad ones into oblivion. Trouble is, it’s really not always obvious which is which. And the likelihood is, some rules are life-giving for one person and a prison for another. One of my students, for example, the thing she is most proud of is keeping her house spotless. It gives her self-worth in a life that has consistently stripped it away, in a society that would cast her to the bottom of every heap going. How can I say it’s a bad rule that makes me feel terrible, when it gives her acceptance?

Some people see Christianity as full of endless rules. But Jesus didn’t just break the rules. He turned them upside down and ripped them apart from the inside out. He set down a way of life that is still more radical than anything we imagine today, and made it sound so easy to follow – just take your eyes off the rules, and follow love instead. Like every religion, one interpretation tends to dominate media consciousness, and it is never the whole picture. For me it is not about rules. There is one clear commandment, set in three parts (God does love threes…): Love your God, love others, love yourself. Do that and everything will be OK. It broke the rules then, it breaks them now. It seems to me that, thousands of years later, this is still the best advice we have. If we followed these rules, wouldn’t it be marvellous to be able to shelve the rest?

Leaders should be made of stardust.

Many years ago, in a marquee somewhere in the South of England, I listened to Jocelyn Bell speaking about her work, and the magic of the universe. At the time, I had no real idea what an astonishing woman she is, and how lucky we were to have her speaking to our Quaker community. Now, I love that she is a hero of The Paleontologist’s, and magic in her own right as she lives her faith through her work.

After she spoke, she joined us in worship. I remember others sharing feelings of awe and insecurity in the face of the vastness of the universe, and I certainly felt that too. For me, though, that feeling was tempered by another that was somehow both complementary and, simultaneously, in direct opposition. It was not a recognition of overwhelming stellar entities, but rather of the incredible nature of the minute particles that group together to make them. Those particles that also make us, and everything else around us. We are eternally interlinked with mosquitos, with mountain ranges, with far-flung galaxies, and we are all unable to be anything at all unless all those miniscule dust specks work together in harmony.*

Over the years, I have been part of a lot of rants discussions about leadership, particularly in politics. I’m not going to lie, a lot of them have involved Jeremy Corbyn, and whether he has an effective leadership style. I know he has been slated in the press for being a weak leader, but as someone who thinks very little of command and control leadership, I tend to think that kind of slating is a good thing. In my not-even-slightly-humble opinion, the idea of imposing your own will on your followers is not leadership at all, it is dictatorship, and there are very few situations where it is ever going to bring out the best in a situation.

Good leadership to me might be better described as leadership by consent. A real leader – let’s call him Jed – is someone who is respected by his team, who collectively understand the direction they are travelling in. He encourages everyone to have a voice, before pulling together the best ideas, accepting he may not have got it right first time, and putting together a plan that everyone has faith in. Jed looks for the best in everyone, whether they have put themselves forward or not, and gives them opportunities to grow in themselves and try out new ideas, giving more and more people the skills and experiences vital to being able to lead well.

As I said, I had hoped Jeremy Corbyn might end up being a leader like this, which would certainly have been a breath of fresh air in the smog of British politics, then and now, as well as advertising on a huge stage that there are other ways of doing leadership, especially somewhere like Westminster. I hoped for a politician who could set aside ideas of personal grandeur and old allegiances and find ways of building consensus among those who, ultimately, are all there to serve their country and their constituents. Jeremy Corbyn has done some wonderful things, before and after his unexpected rise to prominence, but pulling people together to form a collective movement for positive change is sadly not something he can claim to have achieved.

Daily life in my household is universally frazzled, as I may have just hinted at before. The school run is consistently accompanied by a discordant symphony of shrieks, dinosaur roars and grumbles, and is always done in the car, so that we can scootch off after generously donating our chaos-makers to their breakfast club, and still get to work in time to not be horrifically late; or scoop them up, yawns, chatterings and all, with just enough time for tea and bed. This afternoon was rather beautifully different. It was a glorious day, so I decided to do the utterly unthinkable, leave work a little early (and the sky didn’t fall on my head. Miracle!) and walk round to pick the children up from school. Double bonus, I got to stop off and vote on my way, and even had time for a chat with the Guardians of the Big Black Box.

On our way home, staggering behind my super speedy offspring, laden down with bookbags, violin and PE kit (there is always some truth at the bottom of every stereotype) as they scooted away with quicksilver grace, I watched them repeatedly stop, bend over, shake their heads, move on. We got to the traffic lights and I got close enough to hear The Cowgirl muttering to herself at one of these stops, bent double with a squashed plastic water bottle in her hand. “I need to talk to all my class about this. We need to do a litter pick At Once. We need to all Work Together or it will get Worse and Worse.” (I promise, you really can hear the capital letters as she speaks.) Her face was scrunched with concentration, and determination and anger radiated from her in equal measure.

What a difference there would be if that was the reaction we all had in similar situations. This is bad leads to something must be done often enough. But she went so much further than that. She went on to I must do something about this, and then, even better, and I must ask other people to help me.

A lifetime ago, in a marquee in the middle of a field, I first realised the beauty and power of an infinite number of interlinking particles working together in a harmonious single unit. Walking home from school, The Cowgirl demonstrated that she has learned the same lesson, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t go along with it. Maybe it is time for us all to find a new kind of leader. She is unlikely to be someone who speaks loudest. She may not be someone who speaks at all. But she will understand that this world only works when we all act together, and she will live her life in the knowledge that we are all made with stardust.

*Yes, I know. My science is a little shaky, but I’m going for a metaphor here, people…

Rocks form an arch framing a silhouette. The sky is crowded with stars. Image by skeeze, on Pixabay.