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.



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

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

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

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

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

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…

Fighting will not solve anything: a pacifist’s view of obesity

The UK Government appear to have noticed recently that there might be quite a lot of fat people in this country. This is a problem because one of the impacts obesity can have is making you more likely to suffer complications from Coronavirus. Therefore, it is now your moral duty to Lose Weight For Lizzie, England and Saint George! This sudden awakening has prompted ridicule, fear, anger, and frustration: partly because the headlines are very, very wrong; and partly because they are probably right.

Why are they wrong? The easy answer is that there is no easy answer to this complex situation. Just as there is no single way to exercise, worship God or decorate a home, there is no single reason that people are obese. There are many medications and health conditions that can result in weight gain; there are societal and cultural implications; there are lifestyle factors and financial involvement. To suggest that all of these can be overcome by stopping junk food adverts for children and providing bike maintenance is, to put it mildly, utterly missing the point. Instead, it is taking a cheap shot at a group that we as a country are already conditioned to demonise: an easy target for a quick headline, and don’t worry if it all goes wrong, it isn’t your fault these people are too lazy to help themselves.

Me on our last wedding anniversary. BMI: definitely in the red.

I am obese. I haven’t always been; for many years I was solidly overweight, unable to drop down into healthy, but equally able to keep my BMI below that scary red “you will die and it will all be your own fault” zone on the charts. I’m tall and in proportion with myself, so even health professionals didn’t always realise I had a problem. They used to look surprised and change tack abruptly when I stepped on the scales, looking slightly embarrassed and talking about the problems of “carrying a little extra” – like I’d just picked up one too many books at the library. I have most of a lifetime’s experience of hating the “little extra” I have grown used to carrying; but speaking about it as something separate to me, something inconvenient that can be put down as soon as possible and forgotten about, won’t help. These rolls of fat are as much a part of me as my greying hair, my automatic smile, my heart and my pancreas and my memories. They may stop me doing some things (fitting into old clothes and choosing the right sizes in charity shops, for example, or touching the floor instead of my toes) but so do my memories. So does my fear. So, for that matter, do my job and my family and my finances and all the other pressures that hold me here, for worse and for better.

Given all this, then, how can any of the current headlines about obesity be in any way right? Because, although the message is clumsy and temporary and turning a process of love into a glorification of violence, it is a message with truth at its heart. I do want to lead a more sustainable life, and that means changing the things that have helped to keep me, at least, obese. I don’t like buying more food than we need, and one reason for buying too much is because we are eating too much (or sometimes that we’re buying treats for our kids to get them through the craziest, scariest months of their lives so far and then eating them ourselves to get us through those crazy, scary months instead, and end up buying more). Food with fewer ingredients and less processing is in general more sustainable, likely to be produced more locally, is more linked to natural diets and more likely to keep us full for longer: better for the planet, better for our bodies, better for our minds. Making food at home and bringing it to work and picnics means less plastic, less food waste, less chocolate mysteriously finding it’s way into my shopping basket, my handbag, my bulging waistline. It’s not all about food, either. Sustainable school runs would mean scooting, cycling, starting a walking bus around our estate; not driving to school slightly over the speed limit, late and knowing that that will mean sitting in traffic as I continue on to work. Sustainable days would be activities that build relationships and boost oxytocin, having fun playing together, exploring together, working together; not only shopping, eating, watching TV together.

It sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? A lifestyle that is healthy, happy and reduces the risk of dying horribly while people explain to you how you could have avoided this if you had just taken a little more responsibility for your own choices. Why would anyone not choose that option? So why is it, then, that I, and so many like me, are still obese?

I don’t have the answers here. If I did, I’d be out there marketing how easy it is to do this: if I can, anyone can! Instead, all I can do is share the things I have learned so far. One is that blaming people who are overweight is about as helpful as a chocolate teapot, and likely to be swallowed just as easily. There are a few people who have made conscious choices to eat food that makes them fat. There aren’t many of them, and they’re not going to be paying attention to the advice given out by the government in contradiction of their life choices, so let’s not get caught up in that. Let’s assume instead that excess weight is usually the result of other influences, not a goal in itself.

Sometimes it is lack of knowledge and education. Knowing that things with high calories are bad but never having been told why can lead to choices like eating Quavers instead of nuts or unlabelled, un-traffic-lighted carrot sticks as a snack. Never having eaten freshly cooked food can mean it is overwhelming to think about cooking yourself. Local council regulations that say that a microwave is essential in a kitchen but an oven is not can prevent many people from ever having the option of eating healthy food. Educating, discussing choices, changing priorities can change these things, but they will not change everything.

Living healthy also means living slow; dreaming slow; cooking, eating, shopping slow. It means having time to plan your shopping, to cook from scratch, to eat slowly enough to know when you are full and have time to stop eating. It means having time to walk or cycle, not drive in a race to squeeze everything in. It means having time to think and reflect and reject, not just react.

Changing shape means changing priorities. It means looking at where your energies are currently pointing and being able, and willing, to change direction if you need to. It may mean putting less energy into working and less value into financial gains. It may mean laying down commitments, hobbies, roles at church or, you know, Quaker Trusteeship (looking closely in the mirror) in order to have the headspace and diary freedom to be more active. It may mean letting go of good things as well as bad. And it may be – for me, it is – that these are not sacrifices that feel right at the moment. I’ve worked hard to get my priorities where they are now, balancing self and work and family and faith. It’s a nerve-wracking balancing act as it is, and if I add anything more in, however healthy that may be, the whole crazy caboodle will come crashing down in ruins.

If we’re agreed that headline-grabbing contradictions are not going to win the good fight and free us from obesity, what will? It has to be an entire lifestyle shift. A celebration of each of us as we are, without the blame and condemnation that lead so many into disordered eating. A commitment to ourselves and our finite energy and time, that lets us say no when we can fit no more into a day, that allows decent sleep patterns and prioritising care for ourselves and for others. A commitment to model good practise in cutting off the stresses and strains of work when we need to. If the government wants to fight this, let’s see real action. Let’s see legislation that encourages employers to allow their employees to take mental health days off. Let’s see rewards in the workplace for volunteering, so that you don’t have to sacrifice yourself in order to both do good for others and earn enough money to put healthy food on the table. Let’s see town planning that builds exercise into daily tasks; that put fun into routine activities; that makes love and loyalty more rewarded than individualism and self-promotion. Let’s celebrate who we are and how we look just as we are. And you know what? When we stop interfering and just let them get on with the process of living a good life, it’s possible that our bodies will end up sorting themselves out.

A normal city street with people walking and buildings in the background. In the bottom right are two people, waiting for a bus, swinging happily on the bus stop swings.
Bus stop swings in Montreal, Canada – activity and joy in the everyday

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.

Angels with dirty faces

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the act of being observed changes the occasion under the microscope. By monitoring the food you eat, you change what you consume, and when, and why, and how. By sitting in a classroom surrounded by more paperwork than is present at an amateur writing convention, you change the lesson you are watching and constrain or inflame the relationships that make it come alive. And by considering a blog post of each day as it passed, you anchor yourself in the moment, to the passing of time, and to the repetitive, beautiful, mind-numbing moments that make up family life in isolation.*

A diary with the title
Oh, the irony…

Lockdown with children: an exhausting joy

Family lunch in the garden = lockdown summer holiday

Lockdown begins and ends with the consciousness that, every minute of every day, we are responsible for the care and stability of our offspring. In many ways, I am very lucky. My children are old enough, able-bodied enough and grounded enough to take care of most of their basic needs independently. In the course of lockdown, they have even improved dramatically, if reluctantly, in everything from unloading the dishwasher to getting themselves dressed. They like playing together more than they like being apart, and they both sleep well and wake up late. I’m winning at lockdown parenting. And yet, even with all these odds lined up in my favour, it’s really, really hard. As I write this, hiding under the duvet in the spare room, a part of my brain is listening out for the next crisis, the next drama, the next reason to leave what I need to do to maintain my own equilibrium and dig out my whistle once more. Every certainty they thought they had – that school will always be there for the hating, that only grown ups do the boring chores, that even if the world is ending you are not allowed on the trampoline in your pajamas – has crumbled around them, and however awesome they are, they cannot keep themselves stable alone for any length of time.

Photo taken just before the umbrellas at dawn fencing competition started…

There have been some magnificent moments too. Being an entirely 21st century parent, these are, of course, the ones I have caught on camera. Being in the house, no excuses, no distractions, has given us the opportunity to make good memories, as well as more grey hairs. We have built a den. In fact, we’ve built several. We’ve done baking. They have gone jumping in puddles; I have not. We have experimented with more-dramatic-than-planned new looks and had make up and nail painting and flossing lessons (the dental kind, not the dancing kind, at The Paleontologist’s repeated request). We have spent endless afternoons in the garden and the girls have mastered flips on the trampoline, as every neighbour within a mile’s radius can probably attest. We have laughed hard and been terribly silly, and we have all eaten an utterly absurd amount of sugar.

…and outside. Not quite sure why it’s Halloween and Christmas already in this den. I couldn’t quite bear to ask!

Working from home, or surfing through survival?

The second inescapable fact of lockdown in this house is that both of us have jobs, vocations, and obsessions with people-focused work. Church services with no congregations; lessons with no students; Quaker worship over Zoom (who knew a video of thirty people sitting silently waiting could be so moving, and so noisy?). All these things can be done, and they are done, and done as well as we possibly can. But they take so much energy. There is so much scope for one little thing – preparing a workpack late, or accidentally muting a service on YouTube – to adversely affect so many people. Hardest of all is that when you are there, in person, worshiping, preaching, teaching, you get energy back from those around you. It goes round and round and breathes sustenance into everyone it touches. Alone with a computer screen, none of that is possible. This is a finite solution, and the cracks are deepening, as broken as our back lawn was before the rains finally came.

My view during Quaker Meeting this morning #nofilter #filthycarpet

Trying to take photos of my working life as a teacher during lockdown has lead me to acknowledge the good, the bad, and the actually quite dangerous. The thing that comes through clearer than anything else will always be that this is a juggling act. Most of the time, it’s my work that gets dropped. Sometimes, it’s not. Most of the time, it’s just another thing to try and keep in the air.

A messy desk with a laptop in the foreground.
Team meetings and monitoring assignments happening simultaneously. Me, jealous of everyone outside under that amazing blue sky? Why would I be jealous?!
A child's hand, caked in wax, in the foreground. In the background is a work computer.
This is what happens when you have children who are helping out in church services in the same house as parents who are working. Disclaimer: no Paleontologists were harmed in the taking of this photo. In fact, she was rather proud of herself…
In the foreground are workbooks and a purple pen. In the background is a trampoline. It is a beautiful sunny day.
Marking whilst “supervising” trampoline time. It’s not all hard work.

Lockdown and simplicity: focusing on the wins

Plastic free shampoo. Finally. I’ve been toying with the idea of using this for years, and have finally mixed it up…

It will be easy, my brain said. Let’s make a list of all the projects we can do, I said. We’ll be stuck in the house and can finally make a start on living a more ethical lifestyle, I genuinely believed. And, in some ways, we have. For example, we have managed to do much of our shopping from local suppliers – helped by the fact that they did not run out of flour or eggs, even when everyone else did, as well as that they bake the most astonishing chocolate brownies this side of heaven.

Delivery from The Good Loaf. Practically perfect.

Books. Oh, I do love books. As you will probably have guessed already, in fact. And one of the things that has made me most stressed since moving to this vicarage (yes, genuinely) has been that when we unpacked, we just dumped all the books on the nearest bookshelf to clear away the boxes, figuring we’d sort them out later. Turns out that by later, we meant in four years time when the whole country was in lockdown. Also turns out that as jobs go, this may be one I regret starting. Still, at least it’s given me the prod to set aside a fair few books for decluttering once the charity shops open again. Job done. Or at least, job will be done fairly soon when I finish clearing away the final pile to be sorted…

A few of our non-fiction books, roughly sorted and waiting to go back on the shelves.

Ultimately, lockdown has been harder than it has been easy; infuriating more than it has been fun. At no point have I questioned that it’s the right thing to be doing. At many points along the way we’ve all had an absolute ball. But anyone who thinks it’s not going to leave us all wiser, weaker women is, I think, missing something crucial in all of this.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, quite so amazing to me right now as grown up food, eaten alone and uninterrupted in the sun.

*Full disclosure: this is not, actually, a day by day account. It was intended to be, but then life got messy, as it so often does, and I ended up losing a week by blinking and sneezing at the same time (or maybe just by finally becoming accustomed to the not-so-new-anymore normal) and my plans changed. Oops.

Reader, I Married Him: Living with Christian Unity

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 

John 17:20-21 (NRSV)

Fifteen years ago, my mother had a premonition that I would meet my future significant other at one of two religious events that summer: the World Gathering of Young Friends, a week-long gathering of young Quakers from around the globe; or an ecumenical conference at Iona Abbey entitled “Breaking Down Dividing Walls in the 21st Century”, which brought together young people from throughout the UK, from different Christian denominations, to talk about our differences and learn from one another in community.

At the same time, in a far away county, another mother had a very similar premonition: that her son would meet his future significant other at one of two religious events that summer: attending the Catholic World Youth Day as a very interested Anglican observer; or attending an ecumenical conference at Iona Abbey entitled “Breaking Down Dividing Walls in the 21st Century”.

As will be of no surprise to anyone who knows either of our mothers, it turns out they were both entirely right, and my future husband and I did indeed meet on that beautiful, far-flung Scottish island, and have been talking about our differences and learning from one another in community ever since. I had never been to Mass. He thought he knew all about silence as worship already. I stood firm in the interpretation of Quaker communities as a priesthood of all believers, and saw Catholics as bringing goddess-worship back into the Christian fold. He believed in the literal and perpetual virginity of Mary, and not in the ordination of women. It was, shall we say, a bumpy ride to learn to listen to one another with love, with respect, with acceptance without agreement. Now, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I am trying to put into words some of what this process has taught me, some of what I would rather ignore, and some of what I can’t avoid, despite my firmest intentions, because every time I try, it beats me over the head and refuses to give up instead.

Unity takes practise. The order of our social engagements in that rosy, hazy summer struck me much, much later. Both of us arrived in Scotland fueled with the enthusiasm of months of talking about and experiencing our own faith with others – those with similar ways of practising that faith, and those with very different ways of doing it, who still broadly came under the same banner. We had spent time exploring what was significant to us and explaining it to others, across language barriers, cultural expectations, and experiential divides. Our tongues were already in the habit of finding new ways and new words for old and comfortable traditions. Not such a leap, then, to move on to rockier, scarier terrain with those who did not already share that mutual language and tradition.

Conviction without condemnation. In a world of post-truth, and convictions that are made or broken on the back of one throw-away tweet, it is a constant struggle to hold to your own convictions, speak them and share them with others, without inviting or offering condemnation. To be able to say “I think this, and you think that. We utterly disagree, and that’s OK.” To be able to learn from each other, to share cultural understanding and religious heritage, to be able to learn more about your own faith when exploring it through the eyes of others, seeing it for the first time: this is a gift, and a route into deeper understanding. Be warned when taking this route, though. There will be stumbles, false starts, and dead ends way up in the mountains that you find only after days of climbing. You will at times be surrounded by rocks and razor-sharp drops. You will bruise your wrists from swinging, alone and surprised when you thought someone else was securing your rope. You will hurt each other. Sometimes you will hate each other. And all of that is part of a journey to a summit that really is worth every year and belly-deep gasp for breath it took to get there.

Find your balance. Everything needs balance, structure, stability: from see-saws to ecosystems to marriages, they only work if they have both solid foundations and equal amounts of give and take. In my household, it’s all about balance. We have two cats: one is named Fry, as in Elizabeth, a prison reformer strong enough to be put onto a £5 note, and a Quaker; the other named Ambrose, after an equally impressive Saint, who had a habit of speaking truth to power, as well as being patron saint of domestic animals. We go to church one week, Quaker Meeting the next. We go away on church Pilgrimages and on Quaker residential events. The Paleontologist joins the choir; I join Area Meeting trustees. It’s all about balance. And also, maybe, just a bit about general absurdity and the triumph of hope over experience.

Be patient. Be very, very patient. Sometimes things will be very important to another denomination, and no matter how hard you try, it will be nothing more than minutiae to you. Exhibit A: arguing over how improper it is to put Jesus in the crib before Midnight Mass. Exhibit B: a stand-up row involving such jargon as Sufferings, Right Ordering, QPSW and AMs. (I feel like someone should put together a Venn diagram showing who may understand the significance of both those sentences. There’s a part of me that is very afraid the overlap may be rather lonely, though.) Whether you understand it or not; whether you agree with it or it makes your teeth scream on end; you need to dig deep, keep your cool, and, if you’re anything like us, leave the other one to it and go sort out some washing up.

Fifteen years has not been enough to work out how to do all this without hurting each other sometimes. A lifetime may not be enough. Life could have been easier for me if I’d met a nice young Quaker from a similar tradition; or for him if he’d married someone more naturally prepared for the role of Vicar’s Wife. I could have continued unswerving on a path I trod and loved when walking alone. He could have shared his vocation with someone who knows how to behave around bishops and doesn’t leave out some sections of the Creed. It could quite possibly have been easier. But it would have been infinitely less fun. Less like a blindfold rollercoaster with the car attached backwards by mistake. And in the end, it would have left me less aware of myself, and my faith more faltering, more superficial, and far less full of convincement.

A view of Iona Abbey and St Cuthbert's cross, looking out over the sea
Iona Abbey: home of prayer, spirituality and, as it turns out, match-making

I’m a Quaker; this is why.

It should be said much more often than it is that inviting questions when you haven’t worked out the answers yet is a Bad Idea. I learned this the hard way a few years ago, when I said on Facebook “I’m a Quaker; ask me why.” When someone did just that, I tied myself into a Gordian knot of “well, I suppose some people say…” and “I don’t mean you can’t” which confused everyone concerned and in no way answered the question. This week being Quaker Week, I’ve decided to have another go. So, in a slightly more premeditated way, here is my answer: this is why. It’s a different answer to the one I would have given 15 years ago; a different answer, no doubt, to the one I will give in 20 years time; but it is as true as it can be right now.

Lights and darkness, hope but not too much hope. A candle burns in a bedroom window, surrounded by lighted windows and a starry sky. In its reflection, the candle has just been blown out.

Loyalty. The Quaker community has been a constant throughout my life. As I have moved around the country, new Meetings have welcomed me into membership and joined the chaos of my family life. Quakers introduced me to my husband; gave me my first kiss; made me believe that there were others around me who valued me just as I was; gifted me with friends without whom the world would be a darker place and I probably wouldn’t be here at all. There are prophets in this community who dare to say the things no one wants to hear; lone tigers who do terrifying things against everything society and their quieter minds are telling them; people who shape the norm and people who shatter it; people I love and people I honestly can’t really stand. Every one of those people has an equal place and an equal voice and without any one of them, this community would be poorer. They took me in and made me strong enough to take on a world I would often rather avoid. They have loved me and my children, baby-sat for us, driven us around the country to gatherings and weddings and conferences, and quite frankly, have dug themselves far too deep into the centre of my being for me to just get up and walk away.

Challenge. There is beauty and peace in worship that consists mostly of silence. It isn’t easy, though. It’s very hard to hide when all there is is you and a Light that is digging around in all the dark corners you haven’t hoovered for quite some time and were really hoping no one would notice. I frequently go into Meeting with a Big Question I want answered: you know, “what should I be doing with my life?” or “how can I make world peace happen by lunchtime next Tuesday?” I usually come out with no answers at all, but more questions; or answers to questions I hadn’t dared to ask; or instructions that go beyond anything I want to admit to. In decision making I find myself going in the opposite direction to my expectations; in daily life I am suddenly, utterly convinced with no premeditation or control that this is what Needs To Be Done.* And then I have to live with that knowledge, that decision, that call, and try to hold on to that certainty when the clouds of the world roll over those beautiful starry skies and I cannot remember, quite, what it was that I saw there.

Discipleship. “By this will all men know that you are my disciples: if you have love one for another.” (Always in a soaring melody, for me, never spoken.) To me, the stripped back act of discipleship, of following the summoning and the footsteps of Jesus, is about talking the talk and walking the walk and living a life that rings true, resonating through my bones and becoming a conduit for a Love far greater than I am. I find the strength to yearn towards this through the stillness of Quaker worship. I’ve tried other styles of worship; I find them moving, energising, interesting, intellectually stimulating, educational, tedious and baffling, but I do not find them to be a way to the still small voice that lies in the midst of chaos and noise and walks the straight path through me. If I spend too long away from that deep pool of stillness I get cranky and lose my way. Much like I do when I haven’t eaten, or haven’t slept. All these things are equally fundamental to my being.

Action. Quaker is a doing word. It is about seeking opportunities to serve our society, making tea and keeping the buildings standing and caring for each others’ health and well-being and taking care of all our resources; it is taking a proactive role in our local communities; it means playing a role in politics, in social witness, in showing how business and ethics can work together to make the world more peaceful, more sustainable, break out of the current mould. It means finding the paths you are meant to get involved in and jumping in with two left feet if that’s the only way to do it, rolling up your sleeves, getting muddy and tired and lost along the way and knowing you are doing it for all the right reasons. It is saying that faith without works or works without faith are both meaningless, as each informs, drives, sustains the other. It is saying that even when these ambitions are achingly out of reach, the very hope of trying is itself an action.

Are Quakers perfect? Of course not. A worshipping community is like any other kind of family. Some are full of light and love and silly in-joke moments. Some are filled with darkness, forbidding silences, fear of crossing the threshold because there is nothing left within them of the goodness they once aspired to. And most are somewhere in the middle, with times of brilliance, and times of apathy, and times when you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong, but somehow, everything is just uncomfortably askew. It’s in those trying moments that worship binds us together, striving to live God’s love in a world that really, really needs it. And it’s in the moments that we shake each others’ hands when we disagree, when we agree, when we celebrate and grieve and struggle together, that we are closest to Him.

*This has been, at various points, praying, moving house, teacher training, calling my Mum, and any number of other things at other times.

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

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

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

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

Me: ??? ? ???

Cowgirl: Only boys are doctors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell are we doing here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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