That awkward feeling

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.

Steps, Stairs, Up, Staircase, Stairway

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…?

Banner, Header, Question Mark, Question

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?

Adult, Blur, Bokeh, City, Evening, Light

It’s a whole new world

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.

Lake Tahoe Rim Trail, California/Nevada, USA
Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park,
San Francisco, California, USA
St Kilda Pier, Melbourne, Australia
Artist’s Palette geothermal pool, Rotorua,
North Island, New Zealand
Road to Glenorchy, South Island,
New Zealand
Dunedin Peninsula, South Island,
New Zealand
Lotus Lake, Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Reclining Buddha, Penang, Malaysia
Me with orchids, Singapore
Arosa, Switzerland

Voicing our fears

This blog post may not be for the faint hearted. I just thought it might be good to reflect on some of the fears I’ve heard people articulate in video and phone calls over the past few days. Because several people have said that it has actually been very good to find a space to name their fears. I guess naming our fears may be the first step to beginning to deal with them (if “dealing with them” is possible). I’ll do another post about our hopes, but maybe it’s important to actually sit with our fears for a while. I do find it curiously comforting to realise that other people are facing many of the same fears I do, and some extra ones as well. There is a sense of solidarity emerging, which is how human beings have faced all kinds of adversity. Compassionate solidarity is the beginning of cooperation, which has enabled us as a species to survive a lot of storms. (Having said that, if reading these is not helpful for you at the moment, then please ignore this post!)

Who am I when I can’t do anything useful?

We’re just about OK at the moment. But if this lockdown lasts for months and months, how on earth will we cope?

What if we are back to some kind of “normal” in a year’s time, but people still don’t want to gather? Or they don’t want me to hug them? [Said by a very tactile person.]

People who are close to me have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and there’s nothing I can do to help them. I can’t even be with them, to hold their hands.

Have we made the right decisions about our young adult children living with their boyfriends/girlfriends (or not living with them) for the lockdown?

How do we take sensible precautions, without giving into anxiety?

How do we cope with the fact that one person in our household is very anxious about washing everything that we buy / observing more extreme social distancing / just avoiding other people altogether? In fact, how do we cope with everyone’s different anxieties and the different ways people are finding to cope with the situation?

We’re self employed and our business doesn’t qualify for any of the government support and we can’t work in the lockdown. How are we going to be able to pay the bills, or have money for food even?

When I was ill with Covid-19, at one point I felt so bad, I actually thought I’d wake up in a hospital bed. My spouse has underlying health conditions making them more vulnerable. When they got it, I thought it could be the end, and because of all the horror stories, I was afraid they’d have to go to hospital and I’d never see them again. [This couple have both recovered now, without needing hospital care.]

I so want our “new normal” when it emerges to be better than the old “normal”. But I am worried that it might be worse, because many people are feeling so anxious.

All shall be well

This is a beautiful song by Penny Stone, set to words by Julian of Norwich, who was an anchoress (a type of hermit, who lived in a tiny “cell” attached to a church building, with no door) who lived around 1342-1416 ish… if you want to join in, the words are: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well…for there is a force of love moving through the universe, that holds us fast and will never let us go”:

…and here’s the sound of the Easter dawn near me. Normally there’s quite a bit of traffic noise, but since it’s reduced significantly it’s been lovely to be able to hear more of the birdsong:

Facing the void

Alongside all the really laudable and vital practical help people are offering each other in this extraordinary time, I’m wondering whether there’s also an invitation for us to face our own powerlessness? However much we can do, there is a lot that is simply out of our control.

The journey of faith is ultimately about loss and powerlessness. We can’t always be the answer to our own prayers or good wishes for each other or for the world. When we face into the void, all there is is God, even if you’re not sure whether God is. And most people, when facing into the void, are not sure whether God is, even if they have a deep faith.

This is my experience, having had cancer. One of my invitations during that time was to face into the void. To recognise the limits of my own mortality. The darkness of what is unknown and unknowable by us. For me, it was an invitation to be deeply honest. Maybe the most profound prayers are the ones made by those who are at a loss?

To my surprise, I didn’t want to pray for my own healing. I didn’t even want to pray for strength to fight the battle with cancer. Instead, I found myself asking Jesus, from within the eye of the storm, “Will you be with me?” And I realised more profoundly than ever before that, whether I lived or died, that would be the most important thing. To know that God would be with me. It was probably the most profound prayer I have ever prayed.

People’s constant, kind love for others and care for them is truly beautiful. And the world so needs that at this time. But maybe we are also invited to stop all our activity for long enough to face what scares us most?

As I write this, I am acutely aware that many exploited, vulnerable people will be being mistreated and exploited even more in the current “lock down”. They literally live with their own demons, and now have no choice but to face them daily. And currently, they may be even less able than usual to escape them or find respite. I am at a loss to know how I or anyone other than their oppressors can really help them. I suppose my prayer is that they will somehow find their own agency, even now. And that something about the situation will radically change their oppressors in a positive way.

As we all face our demons and name them, may they flee from us, leaving faith, hope, healing and love in their wake. 🙏❤️ 🌱

Recognising the times

Someone shared this really helpful article “That discomfort you’re feeling is grief” (from the Harvard Business Review), with reflections on the pandemic and our current responses to it. It offers some ideas that address my discombobulation that I mentioned in my post Doh. Worth a read:

…and here is such a wonderfully Italian musical response to the situation that I am finding so uplifting this morning. Listen and be transported and heartened:

Here’s a link with the translation of the lyrics. No wonder it resonates so much. The whole opera is set during the Babylonian exile of the Jews, when their question was, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”. This piece (from Verdi’s opera Nabucco) is known in English as The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, struggling with their difficult reality. They wouldn’t have known if/when their struggle might end. Translation here:

Doh 🙄

Well, my new found rhythm was working pretty well for the first two days, but now it’s all gone to cock! I had not anticipated what a grand expedition going shopping would be. Partly this was just due to the amount of preparation needed in terms of thinking about what we would need as we don’t have the luxury of going back for the things we forgot anymore (trying to be part of the solution not the problem!).

We went to local shop before the supermarket, as we like to support them but also thinking (we were correct) they might have some items the big supermarkets could be out of.

We delivered some essentials to a friend in isolation due to multiple health vulnerabilities. And I confess I took advantage of being in a different neck of the woods to hunt for flour for J’s birthday cake for tomorrow, returning triumphant, amazingly (there had been no flour at all in the other two shops).

All the time we were doing these shopping tasks today, I was thinking about all the people who have no money at all to access food with. Being thankful for all that the food projects and food banks are continuing to do to try and help, while feeling so angry that they are now put in an untenable position in terms of how they can practically get the food to those who most need it with the nation locked down. Britain’s shameful and needless food poverty situation, which has been rumbling on for 6 years or more is now becoming a tragic disaster at the very time when we could really do with not having to still manage it with volunteers.

Big picture, angry and frustrated thoughts like this are a constant present reality alongside all the details of the small tasks of each day for me. My brain is turning to mush with even greater frequency than usual.

But the real reason my schedule all went to cock today was because I am so discombobulated by all this, I keep forgetting what someone has just told me, or what I was in the middle of doing. I had about 5 things to do for work on my phone reminders today, which will have to wait until tomorrow. And I have had to leave stuff half done that I would normally really prefer to finish (if only so that I can remember where I got to with it!). I know full well that when I return to some of these tasks tomorrow I won’t have much clue as to where I got to or what I need to do next to progress them.

It’s so frustrating that our brains function so very poorly when faced with this level of systemic threat. I guess all of the things I’ve described are evidence that my body and brain have put themselves into existential high alert mode, even though the actual threat to me personally from this virus is hopefully limited (though who knows?).

Maybe this is something that could bring us hope though? That, even on a deeply subconscious level, we consider such a threat to the whole of humankind as A Really Big Thing. Perhaps it’s a sign that even the most preoccupied of us do actually care about one another in the end. And that we do instinctively realise what is most important, even when we are so bamboozled, we struggle to get our daily priorities in order.

I will revisit my rhythm for the day again tomorrow. And people will encourage me and help me to begin again. And I think I might make a personal rule that’s it’s OK in this season to sometimes literally just do the tasks that are in front of my face, and not think about too much else.

But that food poverty thing, I really mean that.

Here are two beautiful pictures from my walk today, where I wrote this to the sound of birdsong. The birdsong seems more prolific at the moment, with the lack of traffic noise. For this I am very grateful. Maybe they are singing to call us back to ourselves?

A Burning Bush

This morning, I went out and prayed a little song looking at this extraordinary forsythia, or “burning bush”, as I thought of it. The song borrowed words from the ancient story about a bush that burned and burned but didn’t burn up. (Exodus chapter 3 in the Bible.) Once God had got Moses’ attention with this extraordinary sight, God told him to take off his shoes because, “the place on which you are standing is holy ground”. I sang those words looking at that bush. Then later the same particular reading was there in our Evening Prayer (allocated by a prayer book – 66 books in the Bible, each with many chapters and verses…what are the chances?!). Along with this beautiful quote from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

“Earth is crammed with heaven,

and every common bush afire with God,

but only he who sees

takes off his shoes.”

I increasingly think that every place where we might stand on the earth is holy. And that all creation is crying out to us to pay attention to it, to nurture and care for it. All animals, plants, trees, skies, rivers, lakes, seas. Everything. That’s what the climate crisis has begun to make us realise, and what the corona virus pandemic may also somehow be warning us of.

The wild world is not under our control, although parts of it have been under our thoughtless dominion and monopolisation for far too long.

If you get the chance, maybe try taking off your shoes and standing on a patch of our good earth if you can access one at the moment. The place on which we are standing is holy ground.

Routines and rituals

I am really not a fan of routines in general. But my experience of living communally and the wisdom of many ancient monastic communities (of monks and nuns) is that routines really help. Especially when you’re all living in the same space. I’m thinking it’s time to share some of this experience about how to create a good home together…

I have so much to share about this, but for now let me just say that I’m going to try out a daily rhythm from the Northumbria Community retreat house ( (“Midday and Evening office” and “Compline” are other prayer times):

Northumbria Community Nether Springs House Daily Rhythm

I’m not sure how it’s going to work out, or how I will interpret the categories of activity. Already today I decided that washing up should be in the first “work” session. One thing I feel really concerned about is that we learn to properly value household tasks like washing up, cooking, cleaning, laundry etc, which have often been done primarily by women, and have rarely been accorded their proper social value. In times of pandemic, when we’re all at home more, these tasks matter more than ever and I believe everyone in a household who possibly can should share in them. They are not the sole province of women or even of adults.

I do let the cat off though. She’s so lazy!

I am well aware that the freedom to live to anything like this routine is a real gift. I’m in the self employed category, so most of my work for the moment has been cancelled. My work now consists in figuring out how to adapt what I can to be online and then working out which work streams I’m going to be able to develop in this season, and also how to access any government help.

In the midst of so much uncertainty, I am wondering whether this little framework of routine could be useful. Feel free to use it or adapt it for yourself, if it might be useful to you too. Or maybe to come up with your own. And let’s see how we go…

The view from here

I have an extraordinary neighbour, a local councillor whose husband Howard Knight (also a big figure in politics) just died tragically before his time of an aggressive form of cancer. Even in this pre funeral time, Sioned the Extraordinary, as I’m going to call her, has been prolifically sharing on social media links to sites where art galleries, theatres, NASA even are making inspiring images freely available online or live streaming theatre for free to help us out and give us a different view particularly for those stuck at home in isolation. Howard’s funeral is later today (and is also being webcast). Prayers winging their way to you all.

Here are some of Sioned’s isolation-busting links:

Wind in the Willows West End performance being live streamed:

NASA pictures from space:

Indigenous films online for free:

Paris museums make pictures of their art collections available online for free: