Thursday, 24 December 2015

On Humbug, Loss, and Hope


I'm so glad Christmas is nearly here. I'm not that keen on it anymore, really, but at least it means that the Run-Up To Christmas is nearly over.

I'm not sure when I first became the bah-humbuggy sort of person that I am now. I'm also not sure whether my dislike of the season has grown as I've changed, or as the world has changed.

Was this season always this frantic, this febrile? I don't think so.

I need to make something clear: I've got no problem with December being party-time. It's dark and miserable this time of year, and people need perking up. But it's the paradoxical deification of Christmas that I can't stand. The eager count-downs (“it's only 10 more sleeps till Christmas!” proclaims the DJ), the ludicrously po-faced perfume adverts, the incessant sleigh-bell backing added to anything that moves, the fake snow, the canned carols. From the juggernaut-like build-up an alien might presume it was God's bodily return we were expecting on the 25th. The Advent irony of this doesn't really need spelling out.

It all seems rather like a sort of giant opposite-of-a-pearl: layer upon layer of irritants accreting around an infinitesimal scrap of beauty.

Ah, the carols. Maybe that's where this all gets personal for me.

When I was a boy I sang in a church choir. Once, I was the lone voice singing the first verse of 'Once in Royal' into a dark, waiting, silence. After my voice broke I learned the tenor parts, and sung all the favourites so many times that I still know most of these off by heart.

So perhaps it's familiarity breeding contempt. That's certainly part of it. It doesn't help that some of the most popular carols are stuffed full of sentimental imagery and annoying moralising directed at hapless Victorian children.

But that's not all of it.

I enjoyed singing those carols in the church choir too. To feel – to be – part of something that had being going on long before I came along; calm, secure, enveloping, and full of story. Suggesting beauty, order, hope.

I mustn't sugar-coat the past. My childhood, like all childhoods, had its share of anxiety and pain. And my adolescence was messed up by stress and ill-health. But there was definitely hope. Hope that was never defined, articulated, questioned, or even acknowledged. Hope that underlying everything there was a Reason.

And now, here I am, forty-odd years later. Our society seems frantic in its attempts to conjure, ex nihilo, a sentimental spirit of Christmas past, decked in carols from a religion almost nobody believes, set in a landscape of snow and sleigh-rides that we seem unlikely to see again (unless the gulf stream switches off, in which case we may end up with more snow than we'd like). While I look on, feeling superior in my cynicism.

It strikes me that sentimentalism and cynicism are opposing but equal errors: they are both things that happen to hope when it decays.

(Fruit left too long can sometimes go soft: the delicious sweetness can turn into collapsing mush. Or sometimes fruit can go hard, especially if it stays on the tree: its living flesh turns to withered, shrunken, woodenness.)

So we're all in the same boat really: I certainly have no reason to feel superior.

This is where I have to make a choice. A blind step in the darkness, one way or another

This is what I chose. I know the unbelievers among you will easily be able to knock logical holes in it – so can I. But I choose it nonetheless...

The funny thing is that, when I think of the hope I had, it feels so real. Real enough to touch, to smell, to embrace. More real, I think, than when (I believe) I was 'in' it at the time. And I realise that grief for hope lost is a sign that not all is shrunken hardness, but that there is still life, hidden inside.

Or as Rumi, the Sufi mystic, puts it:

"Why did you stop praising?"
"Because I've never heard anything back."
"This longing you express is the return message"

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup. [1]

What about the world around me – this ceaseless slush of sentimentalism? It's no answer to blame it all on commercial interests: they just reflect back, amplified, what people want. If no-one wanted endless sleigh-bells (including on Tesco self-service checkouts – quelle horreur! ) we wouldn't get them. But why does the Run-Up seem to be growing in intensity as the years pass? I suggest a parallel: the increasing doses a heroin addict needs to try to achieve the feeling of the first hit; as CS Lewis puts it, 'an ever-increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure'[2].

But the memory of that original pleasure – that scrap of beauty at the middle of the anti-pearl – must still be there at the middle. If it wasn't, all the flim-flam wouldn't have anything to work on.

As Matt Haig says in an excellent Guardian article [3]

'Christmas can get to us, sure. But it can also help us. If we edit out all the noise, we can close our eyes and remember a time when we believed in magic and miracles...

...I realise now that, growing older, we can uncover magic as often as we leave it behind.'


I think, too, of people who decorate their houses and gardens with lights for Christmas. Strings of LEDs everywhere, inflatable santas, twinkling electric icicles, glowing reindeer on the lawn. Time, effort, and money spent on something that I, snobbishly, think is tacky. But I choose to see every sparkly, lit-up home as a creative act, not made for profit, nor for climbing up a greasy pole of ambition, but out of enthusiasm, a sense of fun, and love.

Happy Christmas!

[1] From 'Love Dogs', trans Coleman Barks, from Rumi – Rumi - Selected Poems, Penguin Classics






Friday, 27 December 2013

A short walk at the end of the year


This afternoon I went for a short walk in Highfield Park. The sun was about an hour from setting, and the wind was still strong after the recent storm. That perfect soft light you get in mid-winter lit up the tops of a bank of birches in colours reminiscent of a Klimt painting: golds, browns, reds. I made a point of wandering through the little copses, comparing the sound of wind made in different trees, and being astonished by how loud a noise one tree can make. The birds were mostly quiet, presumably cutting their losses and sitting huddled in the thickets.

To my surprise I found my eyes filling with tears.

Perhaps I had spent too long before going out pondering the pros and cons of getting a dog, as people do when they fear they can't have children or, in my case, fear that they will always be alone.

Perhaps it was an awareness of the people I know and love who are worrying about what the next year will bring, who suspect it will consist of worsening health, or new ways to fail.

Perhaps it was the sense of an old year sliding away, turning recent experience into fallible memory.

Perhaps it was the knowledge of the apparent fragility of my faith, immersed in a world which views it as an anachronism that can be allowed to die, surrounded by honourable atheists.

Perhaps it was none of these things (and all of them)...

Love Dogs (by the Sufi mystic Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks)

One night a man was crying,
                    Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
                    'So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever gotten any response?'

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr*, the guide of souls, in a thick, green foliage.
                    'Why did you stop praising?'
'Because I've never heard anything back.'
                    'This longing
you express is the return message'

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.


(*Khidr lit. “the green one”. Barks describing him as existing 'on the edge between the seen and the unseen', and as being 'the personification of the revealing function of the metaphysical intellect, the '”prophetic soul”', and suggests that 'he may be a partial source, along with Druidic lore, for the enigmatic Green Knight in the Middle English poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”'. He has also been identified with the Green Man of European mythology.)

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Book Review - Dazzling Darkness, by Rachel Mann

This post is a bit of cheat, as it's 'something I prepared earlier'. It's a book review.

Why now? Quite a few reasons, really, but here's one...

I was feeling worried and stressed today, and went for a walk in a little local nature reserve (Highfield Park, Levenshulme, if you're interested). I treated it as an 'awareness walk' as discussed in the book review. Listening to the bird calls, distant traffic, and the surprisingly loud sound of the leaves falling in a little copse, taking in the smells, looking at the shapes and colours around me, and feeling the roughness of bark and lichen, I was drawn into the present. Each time the worrying voice came back, I gently moved it aside and returned to the present (this learned from Mancunian Buddhists, but that's another story). 

So, to the author of the book I'm about to talk about, thank you: you've shown me a useful way to escape from the prison of my thoughts to the world that's around me now.

Anyway, without further ado...



Dazzling Darkness: gender, sexuality, illness, and God


A couple of years ago I attended a quiet day, led by an Anglican priest I didn’t then know, called Rachel Mann. She guided the day with a gentle touch, and I was both refreshed and calmed by the experience. During the day I learned that she had been an atheist before becoming a Christian. As the usual route with people I know seems to have been in the other direction, I was intrigued. Then a few months later I found out, quite by chance, that she was launching a book: lucky me!

Initially I found it hard to categorize ‘Dazzling Darkness’ (how we need to categorize!). It is not an autobiography: it is too selective for that. Nor is it a book of theology. Only after reading the whole thing did I realize that Rachel had told me what it was in the introduction and I hadn’t noticed: it is a Confession, following in the tradition of Augustine’s (which I haven’t actually read) and (in my opinion) C S Lewis’ ‘Surprised by Joy’ (which I have). It is an account of the journey of the writer into truth, and into reconciliation of the writer with themselves, and with the Divine. As Rachel puts it, ‘this is the story of a divided self seeking to live more or less at peace with herself’.

It is emphatically not a book full of easy answers and cosy platitudes. Rachel scrutinizes the uncomfortable and the difficult with an unflinching eye. She is not willing to settle for a sweet half-truth, when the true story is messy, agonizing, confusing, and unresolved. The former can often appear to be more honouring to God – we are all familiar with the stories of how God reaches out when things are worst and lifts the faithful out into joy – but the reality is that they dishonour the creator, by being content with a lie.

And so Rachel’s account of her battle with Crohn’s disease is not one of faith victorious over pain, but about a person sometimes worn down to defeat in a war of attrition with an unpredictable, capricious, and vicious enemy. Her story is about the God that she meets there, in the darkness where every shield and every comfort has been left behind.

I suspect, though, that many readers will be particularly interested to know what she has to say about being born male, but identifying as, and longing to be, female*: an interest that may come from a mixture of motives. But what I found most thought provoking here was her eventual recognition that her life as a boy and as a young man had value, and was good. It had never occurred to me before that part of the journey a transsexual person takes should, even must, include a thankfulness for the time lived in a gender the person has chosen to leave.

‘Dazzling Darkness’ is a challenge to the church. We need to learn that until we are willing to embrace all of life, including the messy, the paradoxical, and the unresolved, we will be selling people short, and selling God short.

But it’s also an encouragement. For those of us whose lives appear (at least to ourselves) to consist mostly of the messy, the paradoxical, and the unresolved we are reminded that right in the middle of this all is the Divine. Not there to show us a way out, but there to sanctify exactly where we are.

(Originally published in EF News, the newsletter of the Evangelical Fellowship of Lesbian and Gay Christians)

*It is perhaps worth noting that it took me a long while to get a version of the last sentence that even half-satisfies me, and I am not sure whether this difficulty is due to me, or to the limitations of language, or to both. I also wonder whether there is a parallel between sex re-assignment surgery (‘becoming a woman’) and conversion (‘becoming a Christian’): in both cases the official moment of change seems to me to the  - almost arbitrary – time when what was always there emerges from below the waterline.



Thursday, 24 October 2013

Ivy in autumn


I got up rather late this morning: as a result felt rather grumpy and guilty, especially as the sky was clear and bright.

I pottered down to the end of the garden, and while peering into the murky depths of my pond-in-progress was startled by a concert of buzzing. I was astonished to see the ivy covered in insects: honeybees, hover-flies, wasps, a red admiral butterfly, one enormous bumble bee, and two blue bottles. Apart from the butterfly, which was adopting a leisurely approach, they were all furiously at work, gathering nectar as if there were no tomorrow (which, given the time of year and the weather forecast, they were probably correct about).

The sense of fragile but exuberant aliveness was compelling. It was wonderful to be there. The great thing about insects (unlike, say, birds) is that they don’t generally mind how close you get when they are busy, so I could admire the way they sought out unvisited places and nosed into the tiny, unimpressive flowers. Many of the honeybees had so much pollen on their back legs it was surprising that they could fly at all.

The whole area was suffused with a startling musky smell, which turned out, on examination, to be coming from the ivy itself. It was as though the plant was shouting out, calling the insects with a voice impossible to resist, drawing them to the last source of sustenance before winter closed in.


Saturday, 7 September 2013

Depression


I've been trying to do more regular postings for a while, but, try as I might, no subjects seemed to have come to mind: at least, no subjects about which I feel I have anything useful to say.

I've come to the conclusion that the reason for this is that I've been wanting to write about a specific something, but been too afraid to do so, so it's sat there like a baby reluctant to be born and holding all the other babies up (yes, I know, it's not a very good metaphor, but it's the one in my head).

Clearly nothing else is going to happen until I get this one out of the way. So here goes.

I've recently gone through I fairly severe bout of depression. This is not unusual for me, nor, really, surprising, given that I've recently chosen to be made redundant from a stressful job. However the intensity and duration have been unexpected, and unpleasant.

Why don't I want to talk about it here?

I know that be posting on the Internet, I am making my comments available, in principle, to everyone, from close friends to prospective employers. And, because of the power to download, and to share, I may find that my comments are unable to be taken back.

It might seem strange to some, but I am less uncomfortable with the possibility of strangers poring over my miseries than of close friends and family members finding out how bad things can be, and have been. But I have not worn a mask in front of strangers. I have with family and friends. It's partly down to pride/shame, partly not wanting to give extra burdens to those who love me, and partly a desire to behave normally for a while, and push the Black Dog out of sight.

I don't know whether it's really true or not that the peoples of the far north have many words for snow, but either way I'm sure that they are aware of many kinds of snow.

We only have one word for depression, but I've experienced many kinds of depression. If they didn't all happen around the same time I might not even believe they were connected, although they can overlap. Here are some:
  • A heavy, aching, soul-sucking dread. The first time it happened, many years ago when I was still immersed in evangelicalism, I thought it might be a demonic attack. It takes all the meaning out of the world. I wonder if Philip Pullman's spectres were inspired by this.
  • An intense conviction that nothing will ever be OK again: that how you feel now will never change. There is no hope.
  • Sudden, unpredictable, attacks of fear. I might be working away at my Mac when suddenly one would sweep over me, and I would rush to my bed, climb in, and pull the covers over my head (I suppose this is technically anxiety, but to me – and others – anxiety is an integral part of depression.
  • Loneliness. The certainty that no-one will ever understand. Including God. If God exists.
  • A feeling that the world has become monochrome: a longing to be surrounded by colour again, not by shades of grey.
  • Waves of grief that seem to come from nowhere and leave my crying helplessly. Although the grief seems to want to attribute itself to specific reasons, I'm not convinced. Sometimes that little bit of me that is above the storm looks, observes, and wonders where it has come from.
  • The conviction that when I am in this state I am seeing the world as it really is (I hasten to add I don't think I'm being very original when I think this). We live briefly. We rarely realise our dreams. We grow fail and die. Generation after generation, the same tale, told by an idiot, signifying nothing.


I'm now looking at this from outside. I'm trying to record the experience before I forget. Why. I don't really know. But if the title of this blog means anything, I cannot leave it out, and I owe it to the people I love to be real with them about this, at least in writing. Maybe I'll honour them with more trust and vulnerability the next time it happens, as it certainly will.

Thank you to the people who love me and have stuck by me. Unobtrusively, unpatronisingly, and persistently, with simple friendship.

Here, gratis, is a poem I wrote many years ago, about the same experience. I originally titled it 'Withdrawn'.

Muffled Voices
Slide into obscurity, as
Double glazed panels slot into place
Around me
Familiar faces become slightly blurred
And infinitely distant.
Where before, hands would touch
And speech connect,
My voice reflects back on itself,
and my fingertips slide defeated from the glass



Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Who is my neighbour?

This poor blog has been rather neglected of late. I may talk about the reasons in a future post.

So I think I'll jump back in at the deep end.

A friend of mine has recently been convicted of downloading child pornography. It was a struggle for me to use the word 'friend' in the last sentence: I nearly wrote 'someone I know'. But he was (is?) a friend. Not a close friend, admittedly: I knew very little about his private life, and he knows very little about mine. But I enjoyed his company, his talents, and his quiet dedication to the things he enjoyed. 

As I don't want to identify him, or enable him to be identified, or (if I'm honest) risk anyone associating me with him, I'm not able to give many details regarding his offences or his sentencing. I can say that the details of some of the material shocked the judge.

Of course I was sickened. So were other friends. You would be. I was sickened by what it told me about someone I thought I knew, and sickened at the thought of the trauma (both sudden and never ending) inflicted on children so that he, and others, could feed on the images at leisure. 

But...

What happens next?

My friend has probably lost his job. He may or may not have lost his liberty (I'm not saying which). He has been publicly humiliated: people he does not know have felt free to express their opinions about him in the frankest possible terms, and people he does know are distancing themselves from him. He has been excluded from the (wholesome) social activities that (appeared) to give his life structure and meaning, and were an outlet for his undoubted talents.

He hasn't got much left really.

How should we respond? What should we do?

Practically, there are obstacles. He is no longer contactable via social media. I have no other contact details for him. He will not be attending the social events at which I used to meet him.

Even if I can locate him, I don't really want to meet him at the moment (what on earth would we talk about?), but I do want him to know he's not forgotten. Whatever he's done, whatever hungers drive him, it doesn't sit well with me to just write him out of my life. And he must be so lonely.

'Love the sinner, hate the sin'. Those words have so often been used against gay people that they have a nasty resonance. And even when an act is clearly wrong the statement is still unsatisfactory, as it makes us the judge, defining and separating wrongdoers and wrongs. But it does prompt a question in me: when someone behaves in a way that is clearly wrong and so injures themselves and others, how can I keep that in mind and yet continue to love, in way that is not patronising or judgemental, but is practical and health-bringing.

And how can I not forget that Christ's heart was always for the outcast, and no-one is more an outcast today than the paedophile. They are so outcast that I am nervous of people wondering about me, simply because I raise the issue (or when they see that I have a DVD of that excellent film 'The Woodsman'. Will some government computer programme even now be flagging up the presence of key words in this posting?

The parable of the good Samaritan is well known, and we can glibly (though rightly) talk about our duty to love those who others would avoid. But a direct reading of this parable suggests a harder challenge is also being talked about: are we willing to allow the outcast to (re)join our society as one who loves, and cares, and contributes?

Sadly, I'm struggling with the first of these challenges, and have no idea even where to begin with the second.

Postscript

I've just read an article about a remarkable community in Florida, where half the population are sex offenders : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23063492

Sunday, 10 March 2013

What's wrong with this picture?


Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!  I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

But when he was still far off he could see that the gate to his father’s estate was shut. As he got closer, he could see that it was locked fast. He held on to the bars, exhausted and hungry. And it started to rain.

Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields. When he came near the house, he could see his brother, huddled at the gate. He ran into the house and found his father upstairs, in his study, gazing out of the rain-splattered window.

“Father”, the older son said. “My brother is outside, at the gate! Give me the key and I will let him in!” His father turned to him, his face grave.

“You know I would love to”, he said. “But you also know my standards. I cannot tolerate or excuse bad behaviour. If I let him in, I would be condoning what he has done, and you know I cannot do that: it would contradict everything I stand for!” The older son pleaded with him, but the father would not relent.

Then the elder son said, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Why don’t I take my brother’s place? You could banish me and let him in in my place. You could let me take his failings on myself, and treat him as though he had obeyed your orders as I have”

The father said nothing for a while, but stroked his beard. Then he said, “Yes. That would be acceptable”.

So they went down together to the gate. The father unlocked the gate and the younger son staggered in. The father hugged him and led him towards the house.

And the older brother slowly walked away down the road in the rain. The gate slammed shut behind him.


(The first three paragraphs (and a few other phrases) are © NIV)