Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Stand up with a steely glint in your eye and crack on

the Nasty Party just got Nastier
Way back in the less dim and dark days of 2002 during the Conservative Party annual conference the then Chairwoman of the Party spoke of the need for change, arguing for a broader, more open, more sympathetic approach. The Party, she claimed, needed to rid itself of the reputation for being known as 'the Nasty Party.' That same speaker, Theresa May, who in the intervening years had risen to the dizzying heights of Prime Minister, today fielded her final PM's questions, then headed off to Buckingham Palace to step down as PM. In doing so, she left the post to the tender mercies of Boris Johnson.

If we thought the Westminster Government was relatively right-wing under Mrs May, the new incarnation under Boris was always going to be extreme right, hard-line. And, so it appears to be. With astonishing speed, having been sworn in as the new PM, Boris has wasted no time in what effectively appears to be a night of the long knives - culling any who expressed support for other contenders in the Party leadership contest as well as any not prepared to leave the EU if 'no deal' should be on the cards (as looks more likely to be the case). Within a couple of hours, the new PM had appointed someone who:
  • lobbied for the tobacco and alcohol industry
  • did backdoor deals with Israel as a cabinet minister and in so doing, threatened National security
  • opposed equal marriage
  • threatened Ireland with food shortages over Brexit
  • wants the death penalty reintroduced
and that’s just Priti Patel, the new Home Secretary. There's also the terrifying thought of Jacob Rees-Mogg who, with all his Pullmanesque Spectral presence, will soon be looming over Parliament in his new role as Leader of the House Commons. Strident Brexiteers and BoJo supporters have been duly rewarded with other Cabinet posts bringing into being a Cabinet that could only have had Nigel Farage as midwife. Truly, if it were at all possible, the Nasty Party has just become even nastier.

Why am I writing about this wretched turn of events? Yesterday, a friend posted a tweet expressing her despair at the thought of Boris becoming Prime Minister. She wondered how to get out of bed when waking up to such news. As I sat and looked at her tweet I realised that now, more than ever, we don't have the luxury of not getting out of bed: at the most basic level as followers of Jesus, we're called to stand up, speak out, be love in both word and in action. While there is no ideal political party, this is the Party who, through their long and inhumane policy of austerity, have preyed upon the most vulnerable in our society. Rather than tackling the various companies that pay virtually no tax, instead, the Party has scapegoated the poorest, the sickest, the ones not in a position to defend themselves - the ones Jesus named as 'the least of these.' This new Cabinet contains those who are cheering at the thought of leaving the EU, because they will no longer be committed to adhering to the EU Convention on Human Rights. It is now even more the Party of the elite, for the elite.

In response to my friend's question about how to get out of bed, I tweeted:
With fire in the belly, determination in your heart, and resistance in your soul.
They want us to roll over and be passive.
No. Don't let them off with anything.
Stand up with a steely glint in your eye and crack on.

I'm thinking of getting a mug made with that last: a small cry of resistance in times such as these.

Soft closing loo seats for serial killers

On holiday, and with a little more time to ponder life and deal with some household practicalities, I can't help but think what a strange, wee world it is. No, not the world where Trump and BoJo are apparently leaders on the world stage; I'm talking the world of bathroom accessories. In need of a new toilet seat *genteel cough*, I went on t'interwebz. I'd always thought that I was relatively easy to please and in this case, I was after a simple white wooden seat. Typing key words into a popular search engine, a vast cornucopia of delights and assorted horrors spilled out of my screen.
Ah, yes, add 'soft closing' to the search terms.

I looked at dolphins desporting themselves gaily on seat covers and twitched a little at the thought of another set of dolphins curiously watching my progress as I... well, let's just draw a veil over that.
I raised an eyebrow at seats with mottos such as 'Carpe Diem', 'Just do it!', and 'Yes, you can!'. I can do without motivational messages on a loo seat, thanks all the same. A small mercy: at least the first resisted going down the 'Crape Diem' cheap pun route.

The sheer variety of food and beverage themed seats truly had me puzzled:
a reminder of what goes in, must come out?
Then there was what I named the 'bling' range:
diamantes, sparkly glitter-pink decoration, pearls and champagne. Why?
Several seats left me oddly disturbed:
the large and too jolly Santa Claus seat...
the bloody hands - a favourite of friendly neighbourhood serial killers, I suspect.
However, I needed quite substantial amounts of brain bleach to get rid of the rainbow unicorn image.

toilet seat, please.
Clearly, I'm too conventional with my water-closet accessorising needs.
Where's my hammer?
Am off to build my own.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

sitting with the words: Didion and a grief observed


“I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: 
he would need shoes if he was to return. The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought. 
I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power.” 
― Joan Didion, 'The Year of Magical Thinking'

Very occasionally, a piece of writing manages to lodge itself somewhere deep within soul, flesh, bones, and sinews; takes up residence in a quiet corner and settles in for the long-term. I've been sitting with one particular piece of writing for several years now and keep returning to it, wandering in, wondering, and very occasionally, weeping. Each time I make the journey to the dwelling place where these well-considered, well-crafted words live, there's a sense of silent ritual; a physical nod as I pick up the book and realise that it's time once more. The ritual - blink, and in a moment, it's passed - involves a cleansing, a paring away. Sloughing off assorted encrustations of white noise and distraction. There's a baring of the heart, this to create that sacred space for honesty, a little like shoes being taken off in acknowledgement that, to be here is to stand on holy ground. These words are good; worthy of attention. These words refresh; a well of cold, pure water to drink long and deep. Time spent in their presence requires the patience of the goldpanner - to read slowly is to find those small shining specks that stand out, shimmer, call you to reach back in to the stream for more. The writing nourishes, is cathartic - tears, silent wonder, and deep yearning interweave - leaving gratitude and hope, clarity of mind and purpose, calmness of soul. With a nod to life, and a  satisfied sigh born of doing useful work, the return journey is made, and shoes put back on ready for the world once more.

So it is for me, with Joan Didion's 'The Year of Magical Thinking'.
What is it to grieve? Didion's unrelenting gaze, so often focused on others, is directed upon herself, examining her grief in the wake of husband John's death. It is astonishing, powerful, and written in her singular style: cool, crisp, and observing the small details, the marginal - people, reactions, items such as shoes, that elsewhere would go unremarked. Didion tells us this is how grief was, and is, for her filled with 'magical thinking.' Items don't get thrown away because they may be needed; they sit, waiting patiently, symbol of hope for the beloved's return. To remove them is to walk in unfamiliar territory, to let in the possibility of no return at all. Surely this present is just a strange dark dream that will end, and all shall be well once more? The shoes will be worn again, glimpsed under the table while the loved one sits on the old, wooden chair, engaging in the ease of old, familiar conversation. Grief is the place that unites mind and heart, who work together in disbelief and denial of death, creating magical thinking: keep the shoes and you might just cheat death itself.

Didion, in studying her process of grief, holds it out, arms-length so as to examine it more clearly. She refuses to give in to mawkish sentimentality: the years of disciplined observation of others now in full clinical sweep even while her heart and world is breaking. The disorder of grief is made orderly as she calmly recalls, examines, processes. Through the writing, Didion gives herself permission not to feel that societal pressure which tries to rush us out of the awkwardness and embarrassment of grief so as not to feel a bother to others; it is well-measured, there is space. Be. Breathe. Recollect. Release. This is what makes it an extraordinary book; it is defiantly counter-cultural - Didion doesn't shy away from doing the work of grieving, and as she does, provides a way for others to quietly do that work in their own time, in their own space.

There are many kinds of loss. Didion marks the loss of a loved one. When working through change, and loss of various kinds, I come back to her book, looking for traces of magical thinking within the particular situation. It helps to declutter my mind, reorient, and refocus it. Currently I'm pondering institutions, particularly the mainline church in which I serve, and which is undergoing a profound sense of loss: the glory days of 'empire' and establishment fading, the default norms of ecclesiastical power no longer automatic, the language now of 'managing decline' underlining a quiet hopelessness. There is magical thinking a-plenty within a structure and pattern that has seen better days. The thrawn resistance to change - the determined keeping to ways of doing and being that echo keeping shoes, just in case they're needed. I'm not convinced the Church was ever meant for power within the earthly framework of empire, so perhaps am less inclined to keep those particular shoes. How do we move forward, however, regroup, and do so that isn't a panic-induced rush, but allows breathing space for reflection? I wonder not what kind of shoes, but whether we need them at all?
If we want to stand on holy ground, we have to let go of the shoes.