I woke unusually early this morning to find this wonderful message waiting for me on Facebook. I stayed in Thanh’s Mum’s homestay in Ninh Binh in Vietnam when I was travelling last year. It was a really beautiful place in terms of the scenery, but they were also a wonderful family to stay with. If Vietnam listens to the wisdom of its young women, and enables them to live their dreams, who knows what might be achieved…?
Here are some more of my photos from this beautiful place…
There are many reasons why I called this blog “La Perle”, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. But the other day I arrived early for a meet up with a friend and her little girl at the General Cemetery in Sheffield (now no longer used as a cemetery but as a public park). So I went for a stroll around, for the first time realising just how extensive the cemetery is. I stumbled across this enormous monument in one corner that I’d never seen before.
The inscription reads:
“To kindred friends and townsmen dear
A Christian merchant slumbers here
Who found while goodly pearls he sought
One pearl of price surpassing thought
Reader do likewise – he who finds and buys
that pearl, though he sell all he hath, is wise.”
This recalls the parable of Jesus about the pearl of great price:
“…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
There are some things; moments, experiences, interactions between us, that everyone knows are extraordinary. The kind of moment when someone says something that is deeply true, maybe very vulnerable, some wisdom coming from somewhere beyond, which none of us can access at will, and yet any of us may find ourselves stumbling across unexpectedly. Those moments are to me like the pearl of great value.
I want to live my life like the merchant, open, expectant, looking for the pearls. And when I find one, I hope I will give up everything I have for it. This is an ongoing journey for me. There was a moment when I was much younger when I chose to follow Jesus. That decision involved letting go of other possible paths. It is a constant choice. And it is a risky option, requiring readiness to let go of all sorts of other things. But that pearl is so beautiful, I don’t regret anything I’ve given up for it.
The fact that I stumbled across such an explicit reminder of this wisdom in a cemetery only reinforces it for me. This is wisdom from beyond the grave. From the perspective of our mortality, what is wise? Or, as another friend put it to me a while ago, if we knew we only had another year, or just 3 months or 3 days to live, what would we do? What would be important?
This blog started as a travel blog as I visited friends and family around the world last year. On my travels I experienced many special moments with people, known and unknown to me, and also moments on my own in jaw dropping awe of creation. Each one of these moments was like a pearl of great price to me. It took a lot of effort to make the journey, and to make it I had to let go of a lot of things. It was worth every sacrifice and every penny. I’ve shared some of the pearls here, and there are many more still to add and marvel over.
May you also be a seeker after fine pearls. And when you find one, may you have the courage to let go of all the other stuff in order to claim it. “…She who finds and buys that pearl, though she sells all she hath, is wise”.
I, like so many others, have often fallen into the trap of only making friends with people who are quite similar to me. But occasionally, just occasionally, I have had the privilege of becoming friends with someone who is really quite different from me.
For many years I have lived and worked around social housing estates in the UK. My Dad was brought up in a similar community, so I have some things in common with the friends I’ve made there, though perhaps at one step removed.
Something I am learning from Black Lives Matter and from black writers recording history from their perspective, is the power of friendship with those who are different from you. James Cone describes eloquently in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree how various big name white theologians in the midst of the civil rights movement in America failed to make friends with their black colleagues, and how this is partly why they were anaesthetised from really feeling the full force of injustice and the hideous suffering and loss of life caused by the lynchings. The lack of awareness and feeling, coming from the lack of friendship with black people in turn stopped the white theologians from acting or speaking out / campaigning quickly to bring about a change in the law so the lynchings would be stopped. If your friend’s brother has just been lynched, and now his children have no father, you feel something, right? And you are motivated to bring about change, even at risk to yourself.
All of this is resonating with my recent learning as a coach to do with how people can move from not seeing/not knowing there’s a problem to seeing it, then onto feeling the significance of the problem emotionally and physically (opening our hearts and bodies to it), and then onto taking some action to address it.
What is interesting is that most of us most of the time halt this process of change quite early on. For example, we refuse to see/recognise that there is a problem in the first place, in spite of the evidence all around us. Or, we acknowledge the problem, but then we refuse to feel and engage with the discomfort of what it means. Or, we see the problem, engage emotionally with it, but then still fail to act to do anything about it. There is ample evidence of all of this sort of behaviour in the Covid-19 pandemic, regarding reluctance in mask wearing, physical distancing or avoiding unnecessary travel, for example. How we are engaging (or not) with the climate crisis is another example.
Sometimes my friends who are different from me give me an awkward feeling. Often, they don’t share my middle class language of polite niceties, which cover over a multitude of sins. They also don’t always share my convictions about what is most important during the pandemic or about the climate crisis. They are more inclined to say frankly exactly what they think or feel, without any attempt at hiding it or pretending to be considerate towards others who may think or feel differently.
There’s a certain kind of clarity that comes when someone just says exactly what they honestly think. At times, it presents me with real discomfort, because I completely disagree with what is being said, and I find the language very harsh, with little or no allowance for the possibility that they may be wrong. But just this morning I have been wondering… What if the depth of my discomfort is coming from a realisation that, if I were being really honest, I would have similar thoughts on these, or other topics? And I would similarly admit no possibility that I might be wrong…?
With all these thoughts in mind, here are some questions I will be pondering:
What are the situations where I fail to see there’s a problem still, in spite of the evidence around me?
What are the situations where I know there’s a problem, but I fail to let myself be friends with the victims and start to really feel the discomfort of the repercussions of it?
What are the situations where I know there’s a problem, I feel something of the repercussions of it, but I still haven’t actually taken action or spoken out?
and…What steps will I take to move beyond where I currently am?
Another thing some of my friends have been teaching me, is about knowing what you deeply want or need. I am no psychologist, but when someone states repeatedly what they want and defends their right to have what they want, what I hear is a small child who is clawing their way back to life. Maybe what that child needed when they were younger was ignored? Maybe they were mistreated instead of cared for? In which case, their asserting their right to meet their own needs irrespective of the needs of others could be the frail beginnings of a recovery? How do we co-create safe spaces for each other to acknowledge our vulnerabilities and begin to face them undefensively and find some agency? How do we make these spaces safe, open, honest, gentle and mutual, without colluding with self centredness or aggression? Is it even possible?!
In response to this, I am also wondering how aware I am of my own needs, and how prepared I am to own them honestly and openly, regardless of other people’s responses to my vulnerability?
It can be tempting to condemn people who express themselves directly and honestly with no niceties. But what if my friends who are different are in some ways like a light shining on my darkness?
Lockdown lassitude 😴 – when you just. Can’t. Be. Bothered!
Lockdown leftovers – again, 😋
Lockdown lollies – again, 😋 the reason for the lard
Lockdown lazy days – when you just. Can’t. Get. Your. Act. Together (and decide to go with it).
Lockdown legs 🦵- more lardy than usual, may also be unaccustomed to any movement whatsoever
Lockdown liberties – this is when, let’s admit it, we take liberties, as in, “It’s Covid-lockdown-brain… I couldn’t help it/I just forgot/I was Zoomed out/I just can’t seem to get organised these days…” etc etc (delete/edit as applicable)
Lockdown lawns – how do they grow so quickly? How?? And why do I not have time to mow them when most social engagements have disappeared from my diary??? Why???!
I have many other Lockdown L words… if you’d like me to add more, like this post…! And feel free to suggest some of your own, of course…
👆🏼This is the Black Lives Matter poster that we made to take with us on the demo (see earlier post), which I prayerfully painted and then stuck in our front window next to the NHS one.
👆🏼Our window is not right on the street. there’s a driveway and my car in between. And the poster was not really all that big (the biggest paper I could find though). Nevertheless, the other day, my housemate was just on our driveway when a black lady waving her arms excitedly in the street caught her attention. The lady had a big grin on her face and was pointing to the poster saying, “Black Lives Matter, thank you, thank you!”
Some time later, I was struggling to resurrect some wire fencing that had been trampled on at the top of our back garden. When the weather was colder, someone had climbed over into our garden to gather some of our dead wood, then climbed back over the fence into the ginnel (non Yorkshire folk, “ginnel” means alleyway) and made a fire there.
It was a very hot day, so I was sweating away while also getting stabbed with barbed wire, brambles and broken bits of fencing. As I picked up all the dead foliage and branches and threw it onto a pile for the tip, I found quite a few bits of rubbish discarded by passers by as well. With every bit of rubbish and the burnt bits of wood, I found myself feeling more depressed about the state of humanity and sad for whatever reason those people had for making a fire in a ginnel rather than having a safe home to go to.
My housemate came into the ginnel with me to help me remove the pile of dead branches and rubbish. We came across a length of carpet and various other items strewn a bit further down the ginnel. I sighed, and despaired a little bit more. I know life is really hard for a lot of people, but I just find it so sad to see whole lengths of mucky carpet discarded like this.
As we made our way to our garage to dump all the stuff, one of the workmen working on the building site nextdoor approached us with a big wheelie bin and said, “Do you want to dump all that in our skip?… in fact do you want to bring it as you are on the sheet?” And he wouldn’t stand by and let me carry it. He took my end of the sheet and carried it for me. His cheery grin and his thoughtfulness and kindness restored my faith in humanity and really made my day. He, also, was black. (We noticed his white colleague leaning on the wall watching, having a fag break. I found myself thinking, perhaps a little unfairly, that this was absolutely typical; my racism tends in this way against those with the same colour skin as me.) Because of the encounter with the black lady earlier the same day, I found myself wondering whether he, too, had noticed our little poster and been encouraged and emboldened by it?
I tell these stories, because, when I speak to any of my black friends, they have umpteen stories of how they have been treated badly because of the colour of their skin, despite being some of the kindest, most talented and intelligent people I know. Sometimes they’ve actively been insulted or mistreated. Other times they’ve just been passed over for promotion or job opportunities even when they had a proven record that outstripped their white colleagues. In this context perhaps even our small poster comes as a big encouragement to people.
One black friend recently told me about an encounter with a white female friend, who’d announced she would never go out with another black man, because her experience with one black man had been so bad. In recounting his story, he said, “She would never have written off all white men just because of one bad experience with a white man. So why did she write off all black men just because of one bad experience? There are good people and bad people. The colour of their skin has got nothing to do with it! Why can’t we just treat each other as individual people?”
Why is this still happening? How is it that we still fail to realise that every human being is a human being, with just one body and one life to live, and that this is a precious and holy thing, not to be dismissed or disregarded? And that any human being can make good choices and bad choices, and most of us make a mixture of the two most of the time, but that however we judge good or bad choices, the colour of someone’s skin is not the arbiter of their value or of their “goodness” or “badness”? I address these questions to myself as much as anyone else.
We are all members of one race. It’s called the human race. May we start to act like it. And may we never underestimate the power of every poster, every kind word, every open question, every thoughtful act, when people have been living with injustice for generations. In the meantime, I will keep thinking of these two beautiful black people, and all my black friends and acquaintances, and sharing what they tell me of their stories. May they know that they are loved, honoured, valued and delighted in today.
We physically distanced ourselves, we wore masks, we knelt in silence, fists of resistance raised. The air hummed with our anger, our sorrow and our determination to bring about change. One moment, feeling a bit foolish, kneeling there, the next looking again at the young black woman at the front, fist never lowering even for a moment. She knows what it is to be black. She knows this isn’t just another issue; this is life or death. Then our anger mixed with humiliation for generation upon generation of our collective failure to act or to speak up. Or to even see the people around us as they really are, and listen to them talk, at length, about their lived experience, their pain; their reality.
My friend wrote a chant in response to this which serves as a song of lament and also a way of reminding ourselves repeatedly to wake up and pay attention, to prevent us falling back into our well worn grooves of inaction, silence or complicity:
“The beginning of evil is heedlessness; Lord have mercy”
Another friend blogged a response to do with the controversial dismantling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. What he writes is astonishing and in my view should be read by anyone in the UK currently or who has an interest in what is happening here.
“…it was only in 2015 that we [UK Government] finally finished paying the debt borrowed by the UK state to pay off the slave owners after the abolition of slavery act in 1833. It was the biggest payment in our history, more than the bankers bailout in 2008. It was 40% of our entire GDP. Not a penny went to slaves who still had to work as interns for free for a further 5 years.”
During this “lockdown”, I have really been enjoying revisiting photos from my world trip last year, since a friend invited me to share 10 travel photos over 10 days on Facebook. It’s a challenge to only share 10 from such a big trip, but I have loved doing it. I will share my favourites here too. While I was travelling, little did I suspect that all of these places would be in lockdown due to a pandemic within less than a year. How strange, and how grateful I am to have travelled when I did and to be home now.
This post follows on from the earlier one “Facing the void”. Although the idea of confronting our limitations and feelings of powerlessness could feel depressing, actually, I think it can be a deeply hopeful thing to do. So I’m sticking with it…
So, here are my questions to myself: When I stop, and cannot do anything of value; when I am unable to be useful, who am I? Do I have any intrinsic worth? Even if I “know” in theory that all life has worth, do I really believe it about my own life?
Many people are coming up against these questions for the first time, because of the pandemic. This is territory I am familiar with. Just under five years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Instantly almost everything about my life changed. Although other people adapted their expectations of me pretty quickly, it took longer for me to adapt my expectations of myself. It took me about three months to really let go and stop working completely, for example.
My actions, my identity and my sense of self-worth have been strongly shaped by my desire to be useful for a looooong time. But because of my experiences, I now question that.
During that year, I had a lot to face. Including learning to break tasks like getting out of bed down into tiny, manageable steps. Everything took ages. Surviving became my only big goal, and each day presented many different challenges.
I was off work pretty much for a whole year while I had chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy, which amazingly over 9 months managed to eradicate the cancer. Then I began hormone therapy to minimise the chances of the cancer returning.
One of the many challenges during my cancer treatment was my gathering sense of doom about the political direction of the UK and the world in general, and my sense of utter powerlessness in the face of it all. One time, I arrived home from a long weekend in hospital to the news that we were going to use drones to bomb Syria. On seemingly rather inadequate evidence and threatening the lives of many innocent citizens of that country. I was so angry! I’d spent the weekend working with doctors and nurses and all the hospital staff to try to preserve my own life, only to find our politicians had sat in their comfy seats in the House of Commons and decided to remove the lives of many innocent people. I was livid.
I am sure that many factors played into that political decision, not least the fact that Syria is a long way away from the UK, and we have this chronic tendency to value the lives of people overseas less than our own. But I think there’s another, deeper story at work here too. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I don’t really believe my own life is valuable, I won’t really believe that the life of any other living being (human, animal, plant) is really valuable, either. Not really. This is why I think it’s really important for us – all of us – to actually face these questions, rather than avoiding them out of fear.
In a Zoom meeting recently, a colleague said, “People are afraid, because they can no longer define themselves by what they consume”. I, for one, have been astonished at how little I’ve purchased since the lockdown. Now, I’m wondering what I used to spend money on! Do we really want to be sleepwalking into a situation where we measure our own worth only by what we do, or where we define who we are mainly by what we buy? Really?
If you, like me, know someone who has died recently either from COVID 19 or from other causes, I doubt very much that you will be thinking their life was defined by what they bought or even what they did to earn money, however laudable their work might have been. As a friend used to say to me, “I’m not going to lie on my death bed wishing I’d spent more time at work.” The reality of our own mortality is something we can befriend as a perspective-giver sometimes.
I am aware of the massive challenges our economy faces now. But I would contend that the world economy faces those challenges, not just our country. And that it is surely high time for us to find a better, fairer way of distributing wealth or trading with one another for what we need, anyway? In times of crisis, the gift economy emerges beautifully, creatively, and money – these coins/notes/figures on a computer screen – seems actually worthless. What intrinsic worth do figures on a screen have? None. Even the coins are only really worth what you could make with them if you melted them down.
I want to offer some reassurance to anyone who feels afraid to confront their doubts about their own worth. Life is extraordinary. It is a sacred gift. And, perhaps unlike those coins, every living being has deep intrinsic worth. These things are not just beliefs to me. They are facts. Or at the very least, I think they are beliefs that carry the same weight of truth as facts do. May you catch a glimpse of your own worth today, whether you are in a busy and “useful”, “doing” phase of life, or in an inactive time where you are feeling powerless.
In my understanding, the European Union was set up to help bring about the end of wars and to increase international cooperation. Or to use the classic Miss World phrase, to promote “world peace”, the cause we all agree is so worthy. The UK wasn’t involved in the beginnings of the EU after the Second World War. We’ve often been slow to cooperate, and quick to hang onto what we deem to be ours. And, having come late to the party, we’ve exited the EU now as well. So I feel mixed about the 75th anniversary of “Victory in Europe”. I feel sad that we let go of something so precious, won at such cost, without seemingly remembering that the point of it all was to prevent war, with all its needless, tragic bloodshed from happening in Europe again.
In a report about VE Day on the news last night, someone pointed out that when the UK welfare state (including the NHS, the world’s first free health service) was created, after the Second World War, even people who wouldn’t really benefit from it supported it, because they knew it would be good for others.
People who are staying at home and still physically distancing themselves during this pandemic are doing so not only for their own benefit, but out of consideration for other people, so they don’t inadvertently pass COVID-19 onto them.
I wish we could reclaim some of that post war clear-sightedness and selflessness now, for those who are not bothering to physically distance themselves from others. I imagine that anyone whose relative has died tragically from COVID-19 will continue to be careful about distancing themselves. The cost is real to them. I suppose by the end of the Second World War, probably everybody in the UK knew more than one person who had died in the war, and many others who’d been injured in it. Maybe this was part of what inspired such enormous public support for the welfare state, even though it must have cost tax payers dearly. Who cares about taxes when they’ve seen people die in wartime?
I understand that this isolation is a nightmare for some people. Especially those grieving alone, those having to shield themselves, and those who are really ill in hospital and for those who are trapped in unsafe homes, or who are finding the situation is triggering trauma from the past. But I hope that those of us who are not facing a direct mortal threat from being at home will manage to stay put for the time being, out of consideration for others, as well as ourselves.
Well, my little “retreat-at-home” went pretty well. The builders building the school nextdoor seemed to be at their noisiest last week, drilling up the pavement, but maybe I just noticed them more as I was being quiet? For this, and many other reasons, it was not at all like my usual retreats, when I would go away to a quieter place for 5 days or so. But it was a refreshing and good time. I particularly found the digital and tv detox helpful. I may have to do this more regularly.
One of the things the retreat drew strongly to my attention was something that I had been beginning to notice anyway about breathing. Slowing my breathing and breathing more deeply is becoming a more habitual part of my practice of contemplation and prayer these days.
This has come to me now for several reasons. I’ve been doing yoga in the lockdown, which encourages a type of active, aware breath, in tandem with physical movement. (I recommend https://www.youtube.com/yogawithadriene if you want to try some for free online.) Over the past few years, I’ve also had many conversations with friends and done various bits of reading and researching on the topics of trauma and anxiety. There’s so much to be said about this, and, although it may not be possible for everyone in every situation, generally speaking, finding a way of stilling yourself using your breath can be very helpful for many people.
For a long time, I’ve been aware of focusing on the breath as a starting point to prayer or meditation, but I don’t think I’ve ever practised this as consistently or habitually as I now find myself doing. Somehow, trying it out every time I’ve settled into a time of contemplation, meditation or prayer for a few weeks (and especially on my retreat week) is finally making its mark, and it is now becoming almost a reflex – as semi conscious as a night time brushing your teeth routine, really.
Maybe the right “tool” appears at the moment we most need it?
If you want to try slowing your breath, find a comfortable position with a strong foundation (notice the soles of your feet on the floor, your sit bones on a chair, or if you’re kneeling, the tops of your feet and shins on the floor etc). It takes me a while to make myself pay attention to my physical body. I wiggle to find the best position. Then I might open my hands in my lap, close my eyes, and just begin to notice my breathing.
After a few breaths, I gradually begin to deepen my breathing in and to lengthen my breathing out (so I breathe out for longer than I breathe in for). To really deepen my breathing in, sometimes I put a hand on my belly and feel it rise as I breathe in and fall as I breathe out. This reminds me that a deep breath fills the lungs from here, rather than from higher up around my chest, where we tend to gasp from if we’re anxious. As I’m doing all this, I also begin to gradually relax my face, jaw, shoulders, legs; wherever my body feels tense.
I stay with the deeper breathing for a while. On my retreat, I used an incense stick, which smoulders for half an hour, each morning as a measure of time, and also as a lovely fragrance to breathe in deeply. I only normally use incense like this when I’m on retreat. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea! It’s also quite tricky to commit the whole half hour to stillness. But as I noticed each day how the smoke curled its way unaccountably towards me, I was reminded of previous retreats, and I received a blessing from its gentle, silent, unpredictably curling, fragrant smoke.
Being still and breathing, even just for ten minutes before a meeting brings a blessing for me and for those I’m meeting with, I’m sure. Giving myself the freedom to be still and breathe for half an hour is glorious.