“As Christians, we have become so fixated on our roles as servants that we miss out on the relationships of mutuality that the Spirit wants to knit between people.”
Craig Greenfield: Subversive Jesus
Traveller life forces on ahead at the speed of light.
The shinkansen practically flying along bullet speed lines.
Moments have passed,
“Mamonaku! Tsugi ha…”
“Attention please! Our next stop is…”
There is barely any attention for the present, the here and now!
And yet already travellers have reached Tokyo.
“Tokyo ha shuuten desu”
“This is the last stop this train will make”
Lives once lived and now gone.
And for what – achievements, marks made?
What remains in these once occupied seats?
They lie in wait for the next travellers.
Lost property is moved on to join a throng of impressions.
Allusions to travellers emeriti lie amongst unaffected effects.
Just occasionally one such suggestion is left behind.
A find which causes future travellers to ponder.
“What went before?”
“Or more aptly who?”
Such intrigue is unusual on this otherwise silent journey.
Travellers are lulled by the steady rhythm of the shinkansen.
“Mamonaku! Tsugi ha…”
“Attention please! Our next stop is…”
Could such curiosity be imagined?
Or does such an object point to hope for this journey?
Perhaps the unknown destination is not to be feared.
Yet all travellers can do is remain;
reading their newspapers on the train,
littered with everything and nothing, perceived yet rarely known….
“Mamonaku! Tsugi ha…”
“Attention please! Our next stop is…”
As autumn falls around me, I’ve been thinking about this idea of being left behind. I have had the great privilege of planning and leading two funerals this week, and have been reflecting on the differences in approach of each and the reasons for these aside from obvious character distinctions.
This led me to further ponder what and who we leave behind, the order and disorder of that, as well as when the leaving behind takes place. Last year I was invited by a church to speak to a group of people who had been brought together after they had suffered loss. I had been asked to share my story with them, and as I prepared I was struck by how familiar that feeling of being left behind was for me.
I was never the quickest learner in my class, something which I have since learned was probably due to undiagnosed dyslexia, and as my peers whizzed on past I was often left still scratching my head. My sister left home as I started secondary school; I effectively felt like an only child after that. When it came to making decisions about sixth form and university, my friends seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do, as I continued to ponder and seek that spark which would ignite my interest.
It seemed that people were always rushing on ahead of me, knowing exactly where they were going, as I ambled on via Japan. On my return after four years of living there, I still did not really know what I wanted to do – except that I did not want to teach! Strange then that I should discern a calling to teach shortly after that. That is perhaps where I stopped feeling so left behind and found my direction, but it had been a long time coming!
And now I find myself looking at a new horizon. Having been ordained deacon nearly four months ago, this horizon is less familiar than it sometimes feels. Indeed it was only a short time ago that I was living, working and worshipping within a very different community to the one that I now find myself serving within.
This transition is not a bad one; it is one which I have been eagerly anticipating, and have spent the last few years preparing for; and yet I have been so conscious over the last few weeks that with every beginning, there are a number of endings. I am not sure we allow ourselves enough time or space to process these endings as well as the beginnings – I am certainly guilty of throwing myself into the next thing! Now, here I am, still very much loving this way of life and path that God has put before me, whilst also feeling a twinge of culture shock.
Here there are those things that are cast aside or strewn along the way rather than intentionally or carefully left behind in designated areas.
There are those marks or tags which people want to leave to show that they were, or indeed still are, present. These instances of leaving aspects of life behind are more likely performed in chaotic, or even desperate ways. A part of my culture shock is not knowing how to walk alongside those who are on such a different path from my own. I have been reminded in Craig Greenfield’s Subversive Jesus that Jesus would have been far more radical than I, and far less privileged. Jesus made it his raison d’être to walk alongside those whose lives were most chaotic, who lacked any real sense of what privilege would feel like…so how much of that sense of privilege do I leave behind as I learn to walk this path?
How much do I allow my feet to make imprints on the ground, in the hope of bringing about real social change which could have a positive effect, and where do I forget the bigger picture and just hold the hands of those who need company on their lonely path? What most contributes to impacting that sense of being left behind, or loss and loneliness? As Olivia Laing in The Lonely City puts it:
“We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.”
Is attraction beauty
or is it more desire?
Am I attractive due
to my humour, care
or kindness to others?
Or is it more my hair,
facial features, physique?
Perhaps this all absent….
Sixteen year old me seeks
to be noticed and known.
Innocence affirmed, shown
love rather than mere lust.
Pure feelings which draw, hold,
rather than fixation
which invades, pervades, gives
violation to voice.
When I declared #MeToo
that maddening black hole
surrounded me with shame.
Whilst knowing I’m not to blame,
I’ll never be the same.
Scars may well heal over;
never will they fully
disappear out of mind.
In the darkness of night
kept safe from prying eyes
those scars begin to itch,
skin tightening around
impossible to hide.
As light shines in shadows
slowly the life comes back
as I dare to believe.
I begin to see this
injustice, to own it!
Other women declare
#MeToo – I take courage.
This is not just my fight!
but will that be enough?
I’ve taken a while to think about adding my story to this now viral hashtag – not because I struggled to think of an incident to recount, but because I found it so difficult to choose which one! Amidst that thought process I realised that I was worrying about how those who might read what I had to say would feel if they recognised their behaviours in what I wrote about, either directly or indirectly, and I felt like I wanted to protect them from being hurt or feeling like I had misunderstood them or their intentions…then I remembered the lecturer from a postgraduate course years ago who had told me that I need to learn to write like a man.
He was encouraging me to do so, in order that I become more forthright with my views and more assertive – a literary style which I often read as arrogant or overly self-assured, not to mention one which ignores the possibility of being wrong.
Such a way of writing would fail to reflect who I am, my character, and the significant influence of Japanese culture on my behaviour and presence, not to mention that British modesty or Christian humility which I seem to have perfected in most areas of life (and when I break out of it, it is often accidental and I experience huge discomfort at the idea of having potentially come across as arrogant!). Then I realised that this is the first incidence of #MeToo – I write like me, not a woman or a man, but just me, and yet my writing was reduced to a gender stereotype, albeit in the spirit of academic advancement; if academic advancement requires me to cease to be me, then perhaps I do not need it!
Please be assured that I do not mean to make anyone feel uncomfortable in telling my stories but rather to show, along with millions of others, just how prolific a failure to think of how words or actions may be understood really is. We can all be forgiven for making a mistake once, twice even, but perpetual gender stereotypical put-downs can only end badly! Living in a world where the assumed gender pronoun, experience, and vantage point is male has meant that I have often been on the receiving end of poorly judged words or actions.
One man who I worked with, and had great respect for, used to sing “You don’t have to say you love me, just take off your clothes…” to the tune of Dusty Springfield’s You don’t have to say you love me. I felt like I had to laugh, that if I didn’t I would be seen as prudish or lacking a sense of humour. In my mind I needed to make it alright for him to sing that – what crazy world had I lived in that would make me feel like that?!
Years later I had realised that my role was not to make others feel comfortable about their mistaken views on appropriateness of words and actions. I therefore did not laugh, or make light of it, when more recently a man felt it was his prerogative to pass comment on sexual practices he believed that I might engage in – might I add he was not a friend and I had only ever had one conversation with him. As this incident took place over a lunch meal in a community, where I seemed to be surrounded by men, one whom I had never met, I felt completely trapped as well as livid that this injustice occurred in such a public setting and yet if I were to react it would be me who would be judged as “out of order!”
There are so many other stories I could share – the many instances I have been called a girl rather than a woman when in my 30s or being accused of having PMT when I have expressed dissatisfaction are fairly regular occurrences. I rather want to ask what #MeToo means for me and for all of us? The vastness of sexual harassment and sexual violence (stories which I also have, but choose not to share here) shows that there are vast swathes of people in society who do not understand those who they share space, time and, even at times, friendship with. They do not read situations correctly, or the signs that they do read are misinterpreted. Equally those who feel wronged or violated do not feel safe enough to speak out, to express themselves. How is it we have made huge advances with space science and travel, and yet still seem unable to establish gender relations and communications which are mutually respectful, comfortable and equal? How and when will this persistent inequality be eradicated?
These are huge questions, ones which I hope will remain and unsettle each of us long after the viral #MeToo has disappeared. Whilst I began by worrying about who might read this and how it might make them feel, I now hope that my stories, told and inferred, will spur you on to make change happen, to not settle for the unsatisfactory, but rather to seek a harmony which enriches both women and men.
I’ve been reading The Lonely City, which has seemed apt to be reading in the week of World Mental Health Day on 10th October. How is it that the loneliest places can often be the busiest places, where people go virtually unnoticed?
We live life so quickly that it is possible to avoid meaningful conversations with anyone when there are so many people milling around – the more lonely one becomes, the harder it can be to reach out and ask for help.
How soon those who feel isolated or desperate begin to have a slightly distorted view of life.
Many of us seem adept at presenting a calm exterior with few truly knowing what is happening beneath the surface. Having a small circle of trusted confidants can be helpful, but perhaps we need to be a little more open and honest if we are to positively challenge attitudes to those who live with poor mental health.
Where is the hope? Is it easy to identify, to grasp and quantify? Or do we need to illuminate it?
How can we as the church, and as individuals, support one another when everything feels too much…surely we should be able to admit it, to scream out and join one another in lament?
Being with someone in their darker moments means that we are also there when hope begins to reveal itself, slowly at first perhaps, nonetheless noticeable.
Eventually it might become easier to see signs of hope, and possibilities, especially with someone walking alongside. Can we show bravery by being honest with one another when everything feels overwhelming? Equally, do we have the courage to stay by the side of those we care for when they are overwhelmed, and be with them in their times of darkness, acting like a beacon for them?
It’s sort of like opening the curtains
on a morning thick with fog;
difficult to orient the self within,
impossible to see a way through,
or detect the familiar which undoubtedly
surrounds, yet remains out of reach.
Walking through that same fog
further distorts impressioned reality,
challenges each of the senses.
Or similar to swimming underwater
away from bright surface light;
no breath, aware of impermanence.
Distorted sounds mingle together,
vision impaired by stinging cold water.
Need for oxygen overpowers all feeling,
get out, rise — rush to the surface
to greedily gulp in fresh, crisp air…yet
light patches become spots…dots.
Imagine waking in the middle of the night
in a strange, unfamiliar location;
unable to find a bedside lamp or light switch.
Eyes adjust to dark but still do not see.
One foot tentatively in front of the other
with arms desperately stretched out ahead
and breath firmly held so as
not to betray this fragile presence to
unknown, unidentified enemies.
Or envisage the fear running through
every millimetre of the body,
as understanding of just how lost
it is possible to be in this strange
unfamiliar place begins to unfold.
No idea of that intended destination
from more than an hour ago,
even less inspiration regarding
where to start to head back.
Then the beautiful armchair in which to be enveloped is becoming rare,
with warm comfort of familiar brew, often accompanied by a biscuit or two…
That is safety, refuge — but how do I get back there?!
This week I had the great pleasure of a quiet day to contemplate the last month of ministry and refocus for the month ahead. I read an excellent book called Spirituality and Photography. I was struck by two things.
Secondly we need to see rather than just look. Ritcher describes the difference as knowing what you are looking for but being more open to possiblies when you are seeing. The way the light falls in this leaf seems to be to be an allusion of the pain endured during the crucifixion to me – I was only able to see this when I was open to the possibilities.
Be catchers of light this week!
The comfortable security
gently draws me in.
The old leather arm chair
sits in the corner waiting
to envelope, to take me home,
back to a time and place
which no longer exists
with the charm and charisma
of wonderful nostalgia.
The leather smell releases
as I sink deep into the chair
which empowers the dreamer
to dig deep into the soul.
I close my eyes to explore
the space and place I have
been brought – past, present, future?
None of it beyond reckoning –
I am outside time and space.
I sit at the top of a castle tower,
overpowered by darkness.
Light clusters around a small candle
to my left – I reach out for it
and take it as I tentatively lean
towards the top of the steps
the urge to step out and explore
overtakes me…and I go!