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’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.

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…

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.

Will lockdown today shape the privilege of tomorrow?

I have a love-hate relationship with my phone at present (she says, whinging on about screen-time whilst re-editing a blog post). I have done better at leaving it in rooms where I am not than I have done for years, accepting the cost of fewer memory-making photos as worth it for a less-conflicted attention span. At the same time, it is the only thing that reminds me that a world beyond my walls and garden fences actually exists, and is kind of struggling right now.

Yesterday, I was hiding under the dining room table and catching up with Facebook, and came across the piece by Altogether Mostly which has rightly gone viral.* The post redraws the lines of our time and our priorities, pointing out what many of us feel instinctively is true: that missing a few days, or even a few months, from school will be far less damaging than the lessons our children will learn in this time of global shutdown. To take responsibility for filling their own time. The realities of what it takes to run a home, and how even adults don’t think it’s fair when they have to do the same, really boring, housework every day. That genuine relationships are bloody hard, particularly if you can’t just get away from them for a few hours until your head calms down. That it’s not always possible, and it’s very rarely the answer, to just buy another one or a different one or a bigger one. That Daddy cooks as well as Mummy does and makes far more child-friendly food (particularly if you live in a house with a Daddy who suddenly doesn’t have evening meetings every night, and who shares his daughters’ belief that lentils are the only food that will be readily available in Hell). That those who are really essential are not the people who are paid the most, but are the ones we draw rainbows for. That grown ups are better at Scribble Head and “Made you Look” than children are, but these are skills that can be mastered with extensive practice. That it is possible, even when it’s hard, to be still, and listen, and hear a something that is beyond the everyday noise that streams forth for every other minute of the day.

A lifetime ago, in a galaxy far far away, Star Wars (Episode IV) was the first film I have any memory of watching (whilst hiding behind the coats at the entrance of Darth Vader). One of the unexpected joys of Lockdown has been watching through the saga with my own children (who built themselves mountains of cushions to hide behind at the entrance of any of the Darths). Lockdown, once we settled into it, has not lead to the doom and gloom feared, in this house at least. Life has felt more relaxed; there is more time for sitting in the garden and for saying Yes (whilst hiding behind the coats at some of the consequences); more laughter, and more laughter together; less pressure of expectations and comparisons and school hours and rush hour traffic jams.

Being in lockdown makes it even harder than normal to remember that the experiences of those outside this sun-drenched dreamy bubble are carrying on in a way that is utterly different, and far less privileged, than ours; and that those who have nothing to say that fits within the all-pervasive artificial filters of social media are being silenced by default. The golden-tinged experience of lockdown dreamed of by Absolutely Mostly may be how it is for my kids – on my good days, on their good days. It won’t be how it is for kids of NHS staff, separated by fear and exhaustion from the people who care for everyone else and, as a result, are unable to care as fully for the ones they themselves love the most. It won’t be how it is for the kids of the key workers – the delivery drivers, checkout assistants, refuse collectors – who are keeping us alive and healthy but are applauded only as an afterthought. It won’t be the case for kids whose parents are breaking down or breaking up or forcing themselves to stay together, overcome by unbearable hopes or unfightable fears. It won’t be the experience of the kids who would do anything to avoid the inescapable attention of their carers, or their siblings; or of those trapped within the temporary security of a bedsit, a room in a B&B, a refuge where nothing is familiar and the sounds of strangers echo on every side.

It is an amazing ideal that somehow this experience will make our children stronger, happier, the leaders of the future. It gives hope that there is a purpose in all this; that, like in Star Wars, we’ve got some rubbish to get through and some of our comrades won’t make it, and that will hurt – but ultimately, good will overcome evil, a plucky band of all-powerful goodies will make everything OK again, and it will all have been worth it. But who, in this scenario, is the Empire? It isn’t Covid-19. That, confounding the overarching narrative of the day, is not the evil to be overcome but is, in truth, the thing that is allowing us to fight back. The thing that is constraining and tormenting us is a darkness that has been present in our lives for much longer. It is, as Luke Skywalker discovered, a more intimate, personal darkness that hides behind masks of our own making and forces us to live lives we never chose or wanted. We have no one but ourselves to blame for the lives we are not missing, now that we have been forced to leave them at the front door and wish they were not there, waiting to catch us up in their shadows, when we walk that way again. We have no one to blame but ourselves. So, when this is all over, what are we going to do about it? And how will we make sure that it is something that, unlike our current experiences, genuinely does not discriminate; something that we can all overcome, together?

Still from The Empire Strikes Back, interpreted as I want to, with no reference to the official line. And no reference to Episode IX either, please, as we couldn’t get a babysitter and so haven’t seen it yet (sob).

*At the end of all this, incidentally, I think there needs to be a petition to get the inventors of Sleeping Lions and Hide and Seek onto the next Honours List. Absolutely genius, both of them.

Learning a new language: privilege, self-examination and hope

Privilege is a word that has only fairly recently become part of my vocabulary. About time too, but that leaves me, like many others, feeling like I’m playing catch-up, with guilt making me question all the benefits I have gained – am still gaining – without ever consciously asking for those advantages.

When we talk about privilege, are we talking about things that make us feel proud? Feel loved? Feel lucky? Or are we talking about things that give us an unearned advantage in life, purely based on something we have little control over – our gender, our race, our physical ability?

The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.

Joseph Campbell

The problem with language, glorious though it is in ever so many ways, is that here we are talking about both; and sometimes what we are talking about is equally part of both meanings. This post is my attempt to process things that are still new, confusing, and sometimes seem contradictory to me. If I get it horrifically wrong, please do correct me. Nicely, if possible, but if not I’ll try to understand.

In the process of writing this post, I also accepted what should probably have been self-evident: privilege is not an individual thing. In a culture dominated by individualism, this is a topic that, like faith, football and community action, can only really make sense when it is not practised alone.

One of the things I value about Quakers is their ability to ask open questions that expose more possibilities than they expect answers. One of the things we sometimes fall short on is remembering to talk about the myriad ways in which these questions might be answered. One such set of questions was asked at the most recent Yearly Meeting. I found them both helpful and challenging, and though I appreciate why they were not answered at the time, I look forward to hearing where other people might be on many of these issues, as Britain Yearly Meeting continues to explore, deepen, and act on these ideas over the next few years.

If I was to answer those questions now – well, some of them; I can’t remember them all – here is what I would say.

Q: Have you ever been the only person in a room with your skin colour?
A: Yes. But that doesn’t mean I understand, in my tummy and through my own experiences, what it is to be isolated and categorised purely on the colour of my skin. My own experiences of this are themselves steeped in the privilege that surrounds me, that made these experiences possible in the first place, and underlined by the worldwide impact of Britain’s colonial past:

  1. About 2 months into a transformatory period of volunteering, on the coast of Kenya, I was invited to the home of one of the staff, to talk about writing essays and to meet his new wife. I was the only white person not only in that home, but in the whole village, at that moment at least; and I was feted as a result to an extent I found deeply uncomfortable. Noticed, yes; judged or sidelined, definitely not.
  2. A few years later, the dire conditions in the refugee camps near Calais hit the headline news. I was invited to a fundraiser for the people living in The Jungle. It had a bouncy castle, a Frozen tribute act, and candy floss. I had two daughters who were under 5. Obviously, we were there in a flash. So were around a thousand other people. And for some time (until my husband, far better known in the area, arrived) there were only five white people in the room: Elsa and Anna on the stage, my daughters, and me. Some people looked at us in distaste. Some people looked with anger. Some people said nice things. Under it all was a palpable feeling of what are you doing taking over even this space, that is meant to be ours?
  3. Now, I am frequently the only person with my skin colour in a room. But I am at the front, the focal point of the room, and my language and experience shapes every lesson. My students – adults and often older than I am – are uncomfortable treating me as informally as I ask them to. One student was amazed when I wiped the board myself, instead of asking her – my senior, and someone who had also been on her feet at work all day – to do it for me. This unequal position is not due solely to my skin colour – they would have equal respect for any other teacher – but still, even when the only person of ethnicity in a room, my privilege is never left at the door.

Q: Did you grow up in a house with more than 50 books?
A: Yes. Oh, yes! I grew up in a house that probably had 50 books in every room. I live in a house now that definitely has 50 books in every room. It doesn’t feel like a home without them. But what does that mean in terms of privilege? Not that I grew up in a wealthy home. Although we never went hungry, as children, we weren’t well off either. I learned the meaning of “frugal” pretty early on, and in a supermarket at that. So being surrounded by books isn’t the same thing as wealth. Is it the same as being middle class? Again, no. Growing up, the books were my parents’. Although my father was middle class, my mother was proudly not. Her parents, who worked hard with their hands, in trades that might now be artisan but back then were not, instilled in her the belief that the education she could have and they did not was the best way to change her world, not by leaving behind her roots, but by being the best she could without anyone saying otherwise.

And yet, if privilege means unearned advantages, to me, coming from the household that I did gave me privilege. My parents read to me as a child: in Dad’s case, the whole of the Lord of the Rings. With the voices. They helped me with homework – and between them and my terribly smart, depressingly laid back, older brother, I had help with every subject up to A Level maths. My parents never said that reading was for losers, and didn’t have to hide their own fear or uncertainty behind making it sound dull. They never suggested that I couldn’t do science or maths because I am female – in fact, quite the opposite. University was an expectation and the household timetable was organised around enabling that. And now, a qualified teacher with a mountain of debt and the option of working in a variety of fields I care about, I know just how many doors are opened to me not because I am smart, not because I sound posh, but because I have good GCSEs, and a few letters after my name. Did I work for them? Yes – some a lot more than others. Did I get there purely on my own merit? No. No more than Jacob Rees-Mogg or Donald Trump are self-made men.

Q: Can you publicly display affection to your partner without fear of the reaction?
A: As a heterosexual, happily married, cis woman, yes, I can. I do not fear that people will hurl abuse – or worse – at either of us. They will not mutter, stare, or even notice us. Unless, that is, my husband is in work clothes. As an Anglican priest, he spends much of his time in a cassock. Which means that I have walked through shopping centres; held hands with; even kissed a man in a cassock in public (though maybe not quite as often as he might want me to…) And that means that I have been stared at. I have heard people questioning around us, full of judgement and negativity. I have heard people shout abuse and accusations of paedophilia at the man I love and not had the courage to do anything back. We are Christians, in a culturally Christian country, and with that comes a lot of things that make life easier. But living in a society that sees you living out your faith as an outmoded throwback at best, and an active participant in a horrific period of failing within a worshipping community that should always have been better than that, guilty by association, at worst; that is not the normal picture we paint when speaking of privilege.

Q: Have you ever been blamed for your own illness? (They didn’t actually ask that. I think maybe they should have done.)
A: As I have said before, I am overweight. I have always been “big boned”, but being tall helps it to not dominate people’s first impressions of me. But recently, I transitioned from that to someone who has high cholesterol. This, apparently, is the point that you start being a thing, instead of a person. Someone who gets told that you should “think about eating 5 a day” to make yourself healthier. No one asks what I’m already doing. No one checks why it’s hard. The assumption is that I am this way because I am lazy or ignorant of how to look after myself. End of story.

Is being thin a privilege? I don’t know. Does it open doors? Yes. Does it change how others see you, well before you open your mouth? Yes. But is it unearned? For some people, maybe, but for others, no. They have worked hard for the bodies they have, and have to continue doing so to keep them that way.

There are some things, protected characteristics that clearly carry with them discrimination and privilege. But this is not a straightforward subject. There are grey areas, uncertainties, confusion. I do not yet have all the language I need to discuss and learn from others’ experiences, and my own. What I can say is that no one is only privileged (well, almost no one, anyway). For those of us who have benefited more from privilege over the years, though, it is time to step up to the mark, own our own lives, and roll up our sleeves to start serving those who have not had as many open doors and step ups as they deserve. Not because we need to, but because we want to. Not because of fear, but because of hope. Not because of guilt, but because of love.

Picture from Pixabay:

An Ode to Further Education: the good, the bad, and the utterly impossible

21st century life makes it very easy for us to make bubbles around ourselves without even realising it. Facebook shows us posts we are already likely to agree with. We make time to talk to the people whose views make us happy, and the others fall by the wayside – something that is all to easy without ever noticing in the crazy busyness of life.

Bursting that bubble means leaving that comfort zone a little bit. Doesn’t have to be far. Church is one way of doing that, as you worship together next to people of different ages, languages, life experiences. Further Education is another way. You walk into a classroom intending to improve your maths, and you find yourself sitting next to someone with a swastika tattooed on his arm. Or someone who voted Remain when you voted Leave. Or someone passionate about averting climate disaster when you think the whole thing is depressingly talked about too much already, and really, what does it have to do with you?

Being a Further Education teacher hasn’t just burst the bubble I live in. It’s sent it spiralling into the nether regions of outer space. It’s changed a lot of other things about me too, of course – I used to have less grey hair, a recognisable waistline, and the ability to stay awake past 9pm, for starters. But balancing out all those things is the moment you get it right, find the right question, and everyone in the room learns something they used to disagree with.

The class you end up in within adult education is not based on age, and is not always based on previous education level. If I’m honest, quite often occasionally it’s impossible to find any logic in it at all, however hard we all try. Fully qualified and experienced nurses from other countries can be in the same classroom as people who could never progress at school because dyslexia was not a recognised thing 50 years ago, and they were just called stupid and put in a corner. They are joined by those sent by the job centre to demonstrate they are improving their employability skills, who sit next to those whose English needs improvement and who can’t afford the time and money needed for an ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) course.

An adult education classroom, for those who have never entered one, is a place frankly unlike anything else in this world. It is populated with a cast that soap operas would reject as being too extreme to be believable. As a teacher of Functional English and Maths, I think we see both the absolute best and the diabolically appalling depths of humanity, often on the same day. In my classroom, I have had refugees from Sudan and asylum seekers from Syria. I have had drug dealers and people who will do anything to cheat the benefits system. I have had women who have picked up their children, whilst still teenagers themselves, and moved to a whole new country to avoid domestic abuse. I have had men who were knocked down by cars or circumstances as children, and became unable to recognise words like “and” or “me”. I have seen hundreds of adults walk through the door with a driving ambition to be midwives and paramedics, human rights lawyers and politicians, to learn to read their children bedtime stories or fill in a form at the doctor’s without asking for help, to make their children, their spouses, their parents, finally, proud of them.

There are as many starting points as there are different ways of spelling the sounds we use in English. (If that’s too technical, make a guess of how many it is. Double it. Add another ten. Then double that if you want to include the ones that logically we should use, but we don’t.)* They all want different things at the end, too. The thing is, they have all chosen to walk back into education for their own reasons, and to them, it doesn’t matter whether they are sitting their GCSEs or this is the first time they have ever taken an exam, and they are facing Entry 1. To them, they are all significant, and terrifying, and something to put all over Facebook and boast about at the pub if they go well. As a teacher, I have been guilty of being blasé about exams, and it sometimes takes me aback how much my students have not.

The media is full of stories about the tests that are faced by children throughout their schooling. It speaks less about the tests facing those in lifelong learning – but then that’s not really surprising, as it speaks less about lifelong learning in any context. But the thing about our education system, as anyone who works in it knows, is that it is all about results – because getting results is the only way to get funding. And so, my adults have to take exams. Now, exams every now and then are perfectly reasonable. Having a fairly consistent set of exams at the end of your journey through school, for example, is actually quite useful for the Rest of Your Life. Particularly if you are lucky enough to have passed those exams. But for adults, that is not what we are talking about. They have an exam at the end of every single year. If they pass (and thankfully, many of them do pass), they get to go up to the next level, and the next set of exams. If they don’t pass, they get to take another exam. And another. And another. Until either they pass or their teacher manages to convince management that they should be allowed a break, and they retreat, bruised and battered and licking their wounds, until the next year starts and the cycle begins again.

I have become an expert on stress. The stress of finding out that their dreams of university are several years away yet. The stress of taking exams – familiar to so many at this time of year, punctuated for my students with questions like “what if my children’s school rings while I’m in the exam?” The stress of failing, and the stress of passing and being scared about moving up to the next level. I see the stress of teachers, forced to force students through exams we all know they should not be taking. I see managers stressed by trying to balance the impossible, meet all the needs of the community and the college with ever shrinking budgets and constantly diminishing freedom. I see colleagues at the start and the end of their careers, drowning alike by the desire, and the absolute impossibility, of fixing everyone who walks through our doors.

FE doesn’t get talked about much. I’d never been into an FE college before I started teaching in one. But if we are serious about making this country a better one to live in, work in, learn in and progress in, we cannot ignore this sector. Adults learn here to hold their heads high and know how to help their children with their homework. They talk to people of different ages, from different cultures, with utterly opposing views on work, Brexit, sexuality, food, capital punishment – you name it, it is found somewhere in an adult education classroom. Sometimes they learn something. Sometimes they don’t. But they are always changed by the experience.

*OK, I’ll put you out of your misery. It’s about 150 different combinations, to make the 42 sounds we regularly use. Out of 26 letters. It really is unfair when you look at it like that.

Choose life*

Can anything really be freely chosen if it is introduced to you at gunpoint?

Quakers have a series of Advices and Queries. They are phrased very gently, whilst pointing out in no uncertain terms that it is probably worth re-evaluating at least some of the fundamental principles by which you have chosen to live your life. If books could speak, they would be heaving a heavy sigh and murmuring “I’m not angry, just disappointed…”

Part of Advice number 41 says this:

Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford.

Weaving into my mind like bindweed – beautiful, clingy and impossible to get rid of – is this question: Is it actually possible to freely choose a simple lifestyle?

It is possible to live a simple lifestyle in order to reduce your personal impact on the environment. But if you are compelled by the driving terror of global catastrophe, is that really a free choice?

You can do it as a way of living within your means, on a limited budget. But when I think about that, I think about counting coppers out of a jar to buy bread, and borrowing from friends to be able to call the bank and find out why I had no access to any money at all. I am very lucky, and have only been that desperate once. It might have been living simply, but it was not even close to a choice.

You can stand as counter-cultural, deliberately rejecting what is seen as of most value to the modern British mindset; refusing to buy into societal norms, rejecting capitalism with acts of rebellion. But if you define yourself by what you don’t participate in, can that be either a free and personal choice, or a source of strength?

Maybe the real question is what am I thinking when I talk about a simple life? Whenever I think about it, I mostly think about how my life is the complete opposite of simplicity. I think about the chaos of everyday routine, pushing the whole family out of the door Every Single Day before any of us really wants to even be out of bed (except The Paleontologist, that is. It seems that being willing to get out of bed as early as possible is another of those things that skips a generation. It missed her father out by a country mile and landed straight on her. Unfortunately, she inherited the full measure from her Grandad, leaving none at all for her sister.) I think about balancing homework, cooking, phonics, play time and downtime in the witching hour between getting home from After-school Club and sitting down to eat. I think about the school holiday we have just had, balancing church commitments, family time, lesson planning and jobs that never get done in term time, leaving us all more tired at the end than we were at the beginning (and with the washing baskets just as full. How is that even a physical possibility?)

Given all this, I am clearly the perfect person to talk about freely choosing a simple life… I often say, when justifying being a family with two cars, that it is necessary for us to have two cars in order to meet all our obligations. What I actually mean is that we need two cars in order to live the life we have chosen. Could we both get to work without them? No, not with the public transport we have here. Could we move closer to the area we both work in? No, not when the Church chooses where we live. Could we form local connections to help pick up our children so that we can lift share more? Um, yes, but I may have already mentioned that I’d rather chew my own arm off than ask for favours I might not be able to repay. Could we change our work patterns to avoid the necessity of two cars? Yes; but only by one of us leaving a vocation we have both sacrificed a lot to pursue. And we just don’t want to do that.

Given the fact that so many people live lives balanced between chaos and breaking point, how can we picture what a simple lifestyle would even look like?

The need to be better – better than Them, better than ourselves last year, better than our wildest imaginings – drives many of us to never just be. We must always be doing something, because we must always prove, to ourselves and the world, that this is the best moment ever. It is drummed into us from the days of Paw Patrol onwards that that is what is required for a day to be worth living, or recording, or remembering. It is, of course, an entirely unachievable ambition, though the pursuit of it can lead to beautiful moments, as well as the inevitable meltdowns that come when, for instance, this year’s Easter Egg Hunt was not quite up to last year’s standard…

The only way that a simple lifestyle as an achievable desire makes sense to me is to think about what I want to be choosing, not what I would be avoiding. Choose community. Choose fun. Choose habits that lead to satisfaction with yourself and those around you. Choose to be happy with what you have and not compare it to other people’s Instagram lives. Choose local food and playing in the garden. Choose giving away things you still like to others who can’t afford them.* Choose to think in a whole new way, that looks at what is there to enjoy not what is not there to envy. Choose to learn from others’ acts of love and generosity, not sulk that their house is bigger (or cleaner…) than mine. That’s the simple lifestyle I am looking for. And it is only achievable through determined choices, day by day, year by year, one picture, one blog post, one memory at a time.

*For those of you who are my generation, and now can’t get a Scottish voice saying “I chose not to choose life. I chose something else” out of your heads, yes, it was deliberate #sorrynotsorry

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A stunning autumn day; The Cowgirl, just learning to run, heads off into the distance.

Plastic: Superhero, evil genius, or a good old-fashioned scapegoat?

Scooters. Phones. Toothpaste. Glasses. Roller skates. Fridges. Ankle Foot Orthoses (mobility aids, usually known as AFOs – so inevitably, my family only ever use the term UFO. In fact, I just had to Google the proper name…) Bicycles. Hearing aids. Cars. Lego (said in a growly, so-excited-the-hyper-just-screams-through kind of voice. The only way to say it properly; trust me.) Plastic is everywhere. It makes everyday life more accessible. It is a key ingredient in making modern living as (relatively) cheap as it is. It is used to make a marvellous mosaic of machines and games that have no purpose other than to just be fun. The Paleontologist, in particular, would not want to live in a world where 280-step Lego rollercoasters were not in existence. Of course, she would probably have picked up far less swear words too, but nobody’s perfect…

I give you Lego Jurassic World. With a snow mobile in the background, because frankly, why not? This is normal decoration for a dining room, right?

But plastic is the villain in every good story about the oceans, city parks, farms, even Mount Everest. Bags that sea creatures mistake for tasty jellyfish nibbles, or nappies that will still be around a hundred years after their wearers have themselves grown old and died, or teabags, for goodness sake – is nothing sacred? We have all been part of the creation of a culture of throwaway values, of putting convenience before worth.

I have been trying to cut down on plastic – particularly single use plastic. I have, of course, put as much plastic into the kerbside recycling as possible for some years (increasing dramatically when I realised I could rinse it out in the dishwasher instead of doing it by hand 😳) Recently, I have increased my efforts: toilet roll now magically appears on our doorstep, wrapped in paper and made from bamboo; milk arrives in glass bottles; and it turns out it is possible to get through a period without plastic. Well, except the ibuprofen boxes and chocolate wrappers. Oops…

The problem is that cutting down on plastic does not just mean saying no to throw away Costa cups and regifting Enchantimals. (No, I hadn’t heard of them either, until The Cowgirl got given some for her last birthday. Half skunk, half girl, and a build so skinny they make Barbie look rotund. So of course, the children love them.) Cutting down on plastic really means cutting down on the things that make it possible to work, have fun, have kids, have a hobby, all at the same time. It means forward planning, and being willing to go to different shops for different things, rather than just doing a Morrisons shop online and accepting that peppers and aubergines will arrive in polythene netting encased in shrinkwrap. It means aiming for a picnic bag that puts Mary Poppins to shame, filled with metal straws, collapsible cups, cloth handkerchiefs and bamboo cutlery. It means having the disposable income to invest in reusable options, and the disposable time to put in the groundwork, find the alternatives, make cleaning products at home, grow your own food.

As real life kicks in the questions get harder. Should I avoid plastic altogether, buying new non-plastic storage containers, or is it better to keep using old ice cream pots and takeaway tubs, which at least mean they are getting more use than they were intended for? How about going to a plastic free shop? Should I go there to do my shopping, even if I have to drive miles and end up wasting a huge amount of time and fuel? I always intend to buy vegetables without packaging, but then I have a week of mocks to mark and end up buying ready-cut vegetables in even more plastic than usual. Can you get medicines without plastic; and even if you can, should you? Children make their way round zoos and aquariums, entranced by the occupants and engaging with fantastic interactive displays educating them about the impacts of plastic waste on the environment; then they stock up on Haribo and Fruit Shoots for the drive home.

A few weeks ago, I helped my mother clear out her loft. Buried near the back, under 30+ years of slate dust, were a few bags of the toys my brother and I had outgrown a lifetime ago. We put them onto Olio, and after the usual confusion of not quite managing arranged pick-ups, they were passed on to someone intending to share them between her son and his nursery. When she saw them, her response was “They’re gorgeous. Almost too good to be played with.”

Almost too good to be played with? Toys that were second-hand 35 years ago and have been abandoned for years in a way that fills me with guilt (Toy Story has a lot to answer for) are still remarkable for their quality? What have we done? We all, as consumers, have a part in this. We have accepted as the status quo toys that become worn after 6 months – but that’s ok, because after that they will have been forgotten anyway, and something else will be in favour. Our phones last 18 months if we’re lucky, but that’s great, because the blistering pace of progress means we’re already eager for faster processing and better cameras after half that time. With a daughter so keen on excavations, I can’t help wondering: if there is still humanity on this planet in 500 years time, what will they find if they excavate a 21st century dwelling? What of our lives would be on display in museums of the future; and is that the picture we want them to form about us? It is a baffling contradiction that the things we consume break so easily, yet are made from materials that take centuries to degrade.

I don’t know how to fix this. I think it’s time to start making these links out loud, and talking about them more. It’s time to get back to looking for a form of protein The Paleontologist enjoys that doesn’t come wrapped in single-use, non-recyclable plastic. It’s time to acknowledge the power and responsibility we all have in these things, and use that power wisely and collectively. And after that? I think it might be time to sit down with my super-smart children, over a snack that doesn’t come double-wrapped in plastic, and work out together how we can possibly make this a better world to live in.

Fixing things that ain’t broke yet

At every point in my life, I have thought to myself that this is it. I am more busy than I have ever been before, and I have reached capacity. I thought it when I was doing my GCSEs (oh, the irony!) I thought it when I was doing my A levels and learning to drive and working, all at the same time. (You know, just writing that made me realise why it is so frustrating when my students complain about balancing those 3 things. Should I have more sympathy, or should I tell them they ain’t seen nothing yet? Choices, choices…) I thought it at University, then again when I was working a few different jobs at once straight after Uni. I thought it when I was working full time and volunteering as a Quaker treasurer. I thought it when I was at home with one child, and then with two. I thought it when I was training to be a teacher. Now, as a full time teacher with still fairly young children, I know it’s true. I really have reached capacity. Never, ever let me take anything else on. Ever. Well, unless something better comes along, obviously. Or something really fun. Or something really worthwhile… And there I go, doing it all again.

Looking back on those earlier times in life, the thing I miss more than anything else is the time to stop, and read, and think. Even in the very early days of motherhood, I remember reading – book in one arm, feeding child in the other, making plans. Of course, I had no idea what was coming, so most of my planning was thrown out over the next six months, but what a glorious luxury that time was, and how little I realised it then.

Time is not something anyone seems to have any more. I recently realised that I have no actual physical parenting books at all, now that even The Cowgirl has officially outgrown Penelope Leach. (On a side note, any recommendations of good books about parenting pre teens would be really appreciated. I can buy them and feel guilty every time I see them unread on my bedside table…) Instead of having time to plan, I go with whatever works – usually whatever leads to a marginally easier life. And once I’ve found the sweet spot of something that gets the job done, I would rather chew off my own arm than change it. Bedtime is one example of that in our household. We still have exactly the same bedtime routine that we set up when The Cowgirl was six months old, at the same time in the evening, because you know what, it works, the girls sleep through, and we have some time in the evenings to do marking, catch up on emails, or, you know, watch The West Wing from start to finish. Again.

It’s ok, I reassure myself. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s working well, so let’s not tamper with it. The problem with this, of course, is that the world is changing all the time, and children tend to change five times faster than the rest of the world. As they change, our expectations and responses as parents need to change too. And if we’re going to do this well, they need to change preemptively. By the time you notice that an old favourite isn’t working any more, in my case at least, it’s usually not been working for quite some time, and I’m running to catch up lost ground.

When The Paleontologist was young, her desperate cry when upset was that she wanted a Mummy hug on the sofa. It was a beautifully simplistic time (except for the time when she refused to walk home because she was cold, wet, and wanted a hug on the sofa. It took me half an hour of persuasion, swearing and tears – all from me, obviously – before she agreed to start walking home so that we could actually sit on the aforementioned sofa to have said hug…) Could I use the same comfort now? Well, the hug and the location remain the same, but they have lost some of their magic. They are no longer enough to cure any ill, and instead of being all perfect, the hug is for comfort, not solutions, and the talking, and the crying, and the questions, and the not-having-answers-but-that-has-to-be-OK is where the magic is slowly, so slowly, being brewed. My ways of dealing with childhood devastations have been forced to shift and shudder and get through on a wing and a prayer in a desperate attempt to keep up with growing minds and developing bodies.

Almost every day seems taut with new decisions: tiny individually, but when matted together they become a hedge of thorns that it is almost impossible to get through without getting scratched to shreds. Do we let them open the door without an adult? (Answer: no – remember we live in a vicarage and so you never quite know who will be on the other side of the door, and in what state.) Do we let them check to see if the milk has been delivered? (Answer: yes, but never again – by the time we came downstairs, they had not only got the milk in, they had also drunk the lot of it…) How much freedom do we give them online? How much do we nag The Paleontologist to do her homework, and how much do we let her suffer the consequences of leaving it undone? Do we let her read as late as she wants to (just like her mother…) even if it means that she’s an absolute misery in the morning, because she didn’t get enough sleep (just like her mother…)? I let The Cowgirl choose for herself who to invite to her birthday party, rather than inviting the entire year, and my goodness me, the horror on some people’s faces when I mention this is frankly terrifying.

Looking at the world around us, and our relationship with it, I can see a number of parallels. It’s not broken yet – though the continuing devastation caused by Cyclone Idai tell us that it’s not exactly unbroken either. We don’t want to mess with what works. Our lives and our communities are doing just about alright using the methods and priorities we have set up over a number of generations, and frankly, we just don’t have the time to stop and work out alternatives. Particularly alternatives that will probably not be as convenient. It means letting go of something very dear to us, something that has seen us through some really tough times. It means letting go of the things that made us feel like we are in control and we have this, and moving into the unknown, where we might not be in control any more, and we certainly don’t have this, and accepting that we may never have it again. Why on earth would we do that voluntarily?

But we know the answer to that. Nothing lasts forever, and desperately clinging on to it with both hands still doesn’t stop time passing. Everything changes. The world might not change quite as quickly as our children do, but it still moves faster than we would like. We need to change our relationship with our children preemptively, before we destroy it by trying to keep it static; we need to change our relationship with the world just as much, or we won’t only kill our relationship with our environment, we will kill the environment itself.

Of course, with both parenting and, you know, saving the world, recognising you need to change the approach is only the first step. The even greater challenge is working out what to do next…

A canal in spring, the towpath fading into early morning mist, concealing the way ahead and the familiar landscape around.