Quieter and Quieter

It’s half term in our household, so this will be a briefer blog post and more top-of-the-head in style.

On Monday I spent an idyllic day at Kew Gardens. A lush, green, verdant day in the company of my lovely and lively family. On the way home, walking the short distance from the tube station to our front door, we passed a homeless man sitting on the steps outside Marks and Spencer’s.

I try always, at least, to acknowledge people who have no choice but to beg on the streets: with a greeting, a smile, or at least a meeting-of-the-eyes. Sometimes I may give them nothing else. There’s an ongoing debate within me about how, when, what and where it is most effective to give. But to meet someone’s eye seems like the minimum required by human decency.

Perhaps it was the juxtaposition between the blessings of a family day out and the loneliness and physical poverty of the man on the step. For whatever reason, my embarrassment outweighed my decency. I chose not to look that man in the eye. Or in fact to look at him properly at all.

But I reckoned without our five year old, who sees everything and processes what he sees out loud. ‘Mum,’ he said, as I pulled him hastily past, ‘There was a man there and he was asking for money because he had no money. And every time somebody gave him no money his voice got quieter and quieter, because he was SO SAD, because nobody was giving him anything he needed’.

‘His voice got quieter and quieter.’ Those words and the image they convey will stay with me for a long time. As I wonder how many voices, articulating how many basic needs, get quieter and quieter until they fade away: quite simply because nobody replies.

Grownup Girls & Shot Silk Sisters

The truth is, I don’t really cut it as a girls’ girl. I’ve never been to a gym session or an exercise class with my mates; when I run, I run alone, partly because I don’t have enough breath to chat at the same time.  I’m not in the habit of meeting up with female friends for in-depth group analysis of our current relationships. And the last girls’ night out for which I spent several hours prepping my hair and nails was at college in the late 1980’s.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’m blessed with a glorious array of women friends who inspire me, love me and make me laugh a lot. They probe me with the right questions at the right time and in the confidence of easy friendship share their insights, vulnerabilities and achievements. But with the exception of some lovely school-gate friends these grownup girls are all over the place – geographically, not emotionally – so I’m far more likely to be found in the company of one or two women than hanging out with a whole bevvy of them.

Except, that is, when it comes to my day job. Which happens to be for the Church of England: an institution which is struggling to make space for grownup girls to flourish. My work on gender-related issues means that I get to hang out with various crowds of richly talented, deeply intuitive, wonderfully creative, wickedly humorous, ever-resourceful women-of-the-cloth: vibrant, finely woven, shot-silk, cashmere-soft, leather-luxurious, lycra-edgy, tough as hessian cloth.

An amazing spectrum of women who throughout the church’s struggle to welcome, embrace and deploy them have remained passionate in their love of God and quietly but wonderfully competent in their living out of the Gospel in the world. And still they do that, and will do so, no doubt, for as long as it takes and thereafter.

In that sort of context, getting together with your mates – as part of a big crowd or a small one – really matters. Because it’s there that you remember how normal and normative it is to be a woman. It’s there that you see why an institution which doesn’t have women working alongside men in all the high places and all the far corners, at the centre as well as on the margins and everywhere in between, falls so tragically short of its potential. It’s there that you find the language to begin to express what is missing, and what goes wrong, when women are not fully encouraged to flourish.

It’s there that you look round the room and know, with all your heart, mind, soul and feminine intuition, that God created grownup woman, and saw that she was good.

Vulnerable Adults

Honesty and vulnerability have stopped me in my tracks three times in the past few weeks. Not my own heart-on-sleeve habit, which regularly trips me up, but other people’s willingness to acknowledge their fragility in public.

Firstly it was Katharine Welby’s musings about her ongoing experience of hope and despair in the midst of depression. Then Giles Fraser’s ‘Thought for the Day’ in which he tipped off a million or so listeners to the fact that he spends time on the therapist’s couch. And finally Vicky Walker’s anguished and hilarious blog story of a day of mess and awkwardness – life as lived by the gloriously imperfect.

Most of us struggle to some degree with issues around vulnerability and openness. How much we reveal of our deepest hopes, questions and fears will depend on our personality and preferences, our comfort level with the individual or group that we’re talking to, our awareness of the impact on relationships and professional roles, and quite simply our fear of being misunderstood.

If you don’t want to make yourself vulnerable then the answer is simple: keep your thoughts and struggles to yourself. Katharine’s blog went viral, and was followed by an excellent interview in The Telegraph where she acknowledged both her fear of ‘getting boxed up as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Depressed Daughter’ and also the relief she experienced – and the countless grateful responses she received – when she did speak out.

We generally learn most about ourselves, others, life and God when we are willing to take off our metaphorical protective clothing. As Vicky Walker puts it, ‘How can anyone really know me if I hide? And how can you really be known if you say you’re OK too?’ Of course the appropriate level of disclosure does require some good sense. In a subsequent interview on Radio 4’s ‘PM’, Giles Fraser was asked what drove him to therapy in the first place. Laughing, he replied, ‘The point about the therapist’s couch is it’s a safe space to talk about one’s own problems and anxieties – and the point about the PM programme is that it’s not!’

Richard Rohr writes‘Intimacy lets itself out and lets the other in … You are always larger after any intimate encounter … It is always grace’. Even if we’re not living life in the public eye, any decision about opening our hearts involves a risk assessment. But at the right time and with the right person the risks are often outweighed by the potential for new understanding, deepened relationships and real growth, together, in wisdom.

Learning to Fly

If you happen to be passing Junction 38 on the M1 before the end of August you might want to take a detour. Yinka Shonibare MBE is exhibiting at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park: and for those who can’t get there, some of the works from his exhibition, ‘FABRIC-ATION’, can be glimpsed here.

If Shonibare, who is British-Nigerian, has an artistic ‘signature’, it’s the attractive batik prints that draw us into the gritty and challenging subjects of his work. Delighted by the vibrant colours, we’re surprised to find ourselves suddenly wrestling with the London Riots, the oil trade, global food production, the Arab Spring, colonialism and aliens.

In his late teens Shonibare contracted an illness that left him with severely restricted mobility. Every detail of his artistic creations is conveyed to a team of people who build the works on his behalf. Shonibare talks about art as being his ‘vehicle for flight’ from all that might otherwise have restricted him: referring not only to his physical disability but to other people’s limited assumptions, based on racial and cultural stereotyping, about what sort of art they might expect from him.

Absorbed by the artwork and the artist’s story, I find myself wondering about the relationship between the thorns in our flesh and our ability to fly. Shonibare is rightly celebrated for the stand-alone genius of his art: not the-genius-of-his-art-in-spite-of-his-disability-and-other-people’s-racial-stereotyping. Yet that genius grows from the soil of his whole self and the most challenging aspects of his life experience, as well as the easier parts.

Most of us live with a thorn or two, even if they are not in any measure so debilitating as restricted mobility or the experience of racial stereotyping. Our thorns might be the emotional triggers that can be traced back to childhood; the low moments that overcome us when we least expect it; the disorientation inflicted by grief and loss; the sense of inadequacy in the face of other people’s competence; the scars left by relationships where trust was violated.

Some of our thorns can be successfully removed and the wounds might even heal. But there are others that we will always wrestle with one way or another. Perhaps the question is whether we can use them as spurs to discover our ‘vehicle for flight’. Can the difficult things that shape us become our jumping-off point: to a deeper sympathy with how the world works, to an insight that enables change in a community, to a new confidence to take life-enhancing risks? Even, perhaps, to our own version of creativity, however vibrant, gritty or rebellious that might turn out to be.

The Kissing Habit

Kissing the ground is a habit I’ve been cultivating for some time. Not literally or publicly, in the-manner-of-the-Pope, though I suspect that his reasons for doing it were similar to mine. I don’t actually get down on my knees in the playground, street or tube station; my kissing habit is more something that goes on in my soul: if a soul can be said to kiss, which I’m pretty sure it can.

For me kissing the ground is about two things. Firstly it’s about recognising that in all of its complexity, brokenness and potential, the created world resonates with quite a lot of the stuff in me. I want to explore the connections between that world, myself and other people, in order to understand better how it all hangs together. Secondly, kissing the ground expresses a longing to live life in all its fullness, as the Jesus of John’s gospel invites us to do. So there’s no time to be lost. I’m almost certainly playing the second half of the game by now, and to echo Henry Thoreau: when I come to die I don’t want to discover that I haven’t lived.

Those closest to me will assure you that I’m not someone who leaps out of bed at 6am with a song in my heart and enough energy to give away to others. In fact I’m a bit rubbish in the mornings. So my determination to embrace life in all its fullness is not, I hope, of the irritating sort. Neither does it fail to take seriously global or individual tragedies, moments of meaninglessness or even just the dragging boredom of some of life’s necessary tasks. This new blog will not sit light to reality.

Instead, my sort of kissing expresses a commitment to ask myself in every situation and experience: what is there here that is significant and lasting, what connects with my life and other people’s, what pushes my roots deeper into creation, what will help me to grow in empathy and what feels real, exciting, meaningful and holy?

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov a wise monk called Zosima declaims: ‘Kiss the earth and love it, tirelessly, insatiably … Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears‘. Whether our tears are of joy or fragility, triumph or tragedy, they are intimately connected with the dust of the earth. In kissing the ground we say a loud and clear ‘Yes’: to life in all its fullness; to our own potential; to the exhilarating difference of others; to encountering the divine in the detail; and to the possibility of meeting God on ordinary, everyday, sacred ground.