Saturday, 19 July 2014

Extending Family

When I came up to Oxford for university, our college (like many) had a parenting system, where pairs of freshers were linked up to pairs of students in the years above them, who would show them the ropes and be a first point of contact when they arrived. My college mum was a wonderfully bohemian classicist in the year above me who fed me lots of tea, helped me work out where everything was in college, and was a lovely listening ear for an end-of-term debrief when everything was getting a bit much (especially in my first term!) The parenting system also meant that you would 'marry' early on in your first year so that you could be parents the following year. It seems Oxford still upholds some traditional virtues, even if some of my friends' marriages had more than two participants...

Fresh-faced-freshers-week-freshers, the night
Tom asked me to be his college wife.
Sort of.
I ended up with a fun relationship with a 'College Mum', and a great friendship with a 'College Husband', who I will forever insist is the best college husband ever. He just was. His only flaw is that he never rugby-tackled another guy to "defend my honour" like a friend's college husband did, but I'm not going to hold that against him. (The fact that my husband, the tackler and the tackle-ee are very good friends and were housemates at the time should probably be factored into that story to tamper its impressiveness.)

Extending family at college is a great way to build friendships quickly, and give those relationships a different sense of depth and significance, even if how you're connected as parents and children is somewhat arbitrarily assigned. Family makes it stronger, somehow.

Within church culture, we also talk about spiritual mothers and fathers, or even grandmothers and grandfathers. There's this recognition that you don't have to be a biological relation to someone to be invested in them, for them to come to you for advice, guidance, comfort, prayer and counsel. Within our church in Oxford there are recognised people in those positions, who are wonderful parents to all; and then there are individual relationships where that mother-daughter/father-son link grows. I don't think communities can function without them, especially if you want people to grow.

While we were in Zambia, one thing that stood out to a lot of us was the sense of community and family that they model in ways we seem to lack in our culture. During the first week we stayed a couple of nights in the homestead of an extended family, just outside a village called Miloso. They opened up a clearing for us between their houses, and let this crazy group of English teenagers come and set up camp among them. The homestead consisted of the head-man and his wife in one house, then his five children and their spouses and children lived in the surrounding houses. The crops were divided up between the families; the dogs, chickens and sundry other animals they owned roamed between the houses; the cousins played together. You could see in his face that this man was delighted to be able to live there with all of his extended family. 
Jake and Sam playing catch with the kids,
between the houses, between piles of maize.

In contrast to our culture where it's so easy to disperse so far from our families, it seemed almost counter-cultural for everyone to be there. All involved, all chipping in together, in and out of each other's houses, family without walls.
The happiest man we've ever met

On the third day of our visit to Miloso we went out for the day with a home-based care team, visiting people who are chronically ill, who find it hard to get from their often quite isolated homes to see anyone. The second family we visited was home to a little girl called Hope, who is thirteen. A year ago, Hope was diagnosed with HIV. All three of her older siblings died of HIV/AIDS, as did both of her parents, by the time she was one. We sat around and spoke to her and her family through the interpretation of the pastor we were travelling with, learning of her struggles and her situation. We asked who takes care of her, and one lady replied, '"I do, we do, of course; she is my sister's daughter". 

Beautiful Hope
One of the staff leaned across to us. "We have no word for niece or nephew in Bemban [the local language]," he said quietly, "sons and daughters are sons and daughters of the whole family. Her mother and father might be dead, but her 'aunts and uncles' relate to her as if she were their own daughter. There is no question that they would look after her."

When we reflected on this later, that relational link stayed with us overwhelmingly. She might not have biological parents, but she is still seen as a daughter among that family, in that village. To not even have a word for niece or nephew, to be so intrinsically nuclear even in their extended family, was so striking.

They way they live as family makes me reconsider what it means to be family, and extended family, both naturally and otherwise.

Throughout the trip I found my own family extended too. Without the ability to join in actively, I found I had a lot of moments sat with ones and twos of the young people as other activities went on. We'd chat, we'd laugh, I'd ask them how things were going, and day by day started to get to know some of the amazing things going on in their lives, minds and hearts. 

The conclusion I came to is: this group of thirteen sixteen-year olds are truly phenomenal.
Everyone (including the head man!), just before we left the homestead
At the end of the fortnight, we as leaders handed out certificates to each student to acknowledge positive characteristics they had demonstrated on the trip. It was such a hard task to narrow it down to a few words each, when they'd shown such creativity, leadership, sensitivity, encouragement, etc. etc. etc. Sweetly, they'd gotten hold of certificates for us too, and presented me with one that simply says 'Everybody's Big Sister'.

A shared love of ice-cream
(photo credit to our cousin,
Kim Overbeck (the third sister))
Naturally, I'm not a big sister. I am very happily little sib to my pink-haired big sib. I don't have any of my own little-siblings, but have now inherited thirteen of them, who are eight years my junior, and in whom I am ridiculously invested, and ridiculously proud. In the quiet moments while they got on with things (particularly that one long quiet moment when they climbed a mountain all day and I didn't) I spent a lot of time praying for them, and hearing from God for them. It becomes impossible not to be invested, particularly when you chat with them about their fears and see them overcome them, see their hearts changed by the things they experience, and see them supporting each other through their challenging moments. 

I could write about each one of those students and how great they are individually, but there's not time or space for that. But, if you're one of them and you're reading this, know that you are incredibly impressive. If you are one of their parents reading this, know that your children are of utmost credit to you. And if you don't know them from Adam (he's the second one in from the left. Ba-dum-chh (no, really...)), know that teenagers deserve a lot more credit than they get. I haven't been more moved, or more entertained, by any group of people in a long time. They made me laugh until I cried and choked, which is quite some achievement.

Extending family, extended a little more.

Today's video is a bit of an in-joke, just because Jake can take this song off completely accurately and that made me laugh a bit too hard. It seems weird to me that the 'next generation' are into The Lonely Island now too, much as we were when we were freshers at university...It also brings memories of the morning Jake asked me, 'Are you sure you're a grown-up?'....'I'M AN *ADULT*!' 

(Obviously my answer was 'no?!')
I'm sure there's more Zambia tales still to come, but for today it's ciao for now. x

Sunday, 13 July 2014

But I don't want to slow down! Let's...Zzzz.

Hello! Once again, standard apologies for not having blogged for so long - today I'll write a bit about what's been going on in the long-term, and then hopefully can give you a series of blogs about what has happened more immediately, in the last few weeks! There's so many stories to tell, and so much to catch up on, so bear with me and hopefully I'll be back up to speed soon... 
Photo spoiler. More to come.

So, life eh? Honestly, life has been tricky for the last little while. You may remember this time a year ago I was zipping off around the country, working all of the hours of the day (and then some more, sometimes, somehow?!) doing ecological surveys for my MSc? You may also remember that right near the end of that time the doctors signed me off with exhaustion. Urgh. It was a really frustrating time, both personally and practically. Suffering from exhaustion is the worst, because you can't show someone what's wrong - it's the whole 'hidden illness' thing - you can't carry on doing what you had been doing, you simply cease to function. And cry a lot (which is very unlike me).
Eco-warrior, saving the baby newts
Anyway, a few weeks' after that, the masters was over, I had a two-week breather, then I started my exciting new job with Christians in Science. Honestly, I cannot thank God more for both the provision of a job (any job!) straight after my money-draining-masters, nor for how brilliant a job it is. It suits me down to the ground, is totally interesting, involves great people and I get to work in the church office where there is a. lots of cake, and b. (only just more importantly) lots of people who I have a lot of laughs with. Life got back on track a bit without the endless hours of motorway driving, the 3am bat surveys and never sleeping in my own bed

Then in February-ish, I got the standard late-winter cold. After the coughing and spluttering stopped, I realised the energy had not come back: and thus, the onset of some weird form of post-viral fatigue. Not the whole-hog, there was no crippling debilitation, but just enough for my doctor to look at me with her head slightly askew and say 'Hmmmmm? Let's do some blood tests, shall we?' Enough that I would feel the room swimming as I blinked furiously to stay awake in evening meetings, or morning meetings...or, increasingly, not in meetings at all, because I simply wouldn't go. My capacity had shrunk down to that of a five year old (but without all the running around and splashing in puddles) - really, I needed an afternoon nap, and to be in bed before 9pm. Who, in their mid-twenties, has a schedule that allows that? No-one. Exactly. So, on with the prodding and poking we went.

Mid-March, just before another appointment at the doctors, I discovered a lump. Here's where we go all Miranda...I discovered a lump, in my...*mouths-awkwardly-and-almost-silently*...breast. Yep. So, my maternal grandmother had breast cancer when she wasn't all that old, so I'm just aware. And I checked. And I felt something different to normal. And I thought I should just get it checked out, and they'd tell me it was nothing, and it'd be fine. Better to be safe than sorry. 

So, I got it checked, and the doctor winced a bit, and said really, to be safe, I'd better just go to the clinic to have a scan. Just to be safe. So a few weeks later at this clinic they scan my top half as if it's pregnant, stroke their beards a bit (why are there so many men here?!), and say hmm, there's one lump that's fine but there's another underneath it we can't quite see. We'd better just send you for a biopsy. Just to be safe. So the next day, I rock up at the hospital and they perform an incredibly sore pokey-proddy procedure I would never wish on anyone, and tell me to come back the next week for the results.

Honestly, waiting on results from a breast-cancer screening clinic is one of the most unsettling things in the world. Objectively, you know you'll probably be fine. I mean, come on, I'm 24 and relatively healthy. And it would be such early stages that everything would be fine, right? But it's probably absolutely nothing. Just nothing.

In my head there were two possible outcomes: 1. it's nothing, just a fibroid, it's nothing, no action required. 2. The Other Option Which We Will Not Consider.

My wonderful, WONDERFUL friend Helen came with me to all these appointments at the hospital, including the results. Having been kept in the waiting room a ridiculously long time, we eventually went in to see the consultant, and she very brusquely explained that I did not have malignant cancer. My heart soared, for a brief moment, until she told me that I do have a benign tumour, though. One that wouldn't spread but would keep growing if not removed, and that needed operating on. Just to be safe. And that operation would be in two weeks' time. OK?

A tumour? A TUMOUR?! Two weeks' time!? No, not ok! Do you know what my first thought was? "I'm going to Zambia in a six weeks! I can't have an operation in two weeks' time! That only gives me a month to recover!?" Breathe in slowly, breathe out slowly. Breathe in slowly, breathe out slowly. "Will I be allowed to fly?"

I had not considered that there would be this middle-ground, the third option. It's not cancer-cancer, but I do need an operation. Ha. Great. So, I quickly told my boss, started closing down my office, and prepared myself for some slicing and dicing, and two weeks of sick-leave. 

I won't give you the gory details (although there are entertaining stories I might divulge at a later date, particularly those of wandering through the Churchill hospital with a one-sided Madonna-esque cone bra look, created by having a plastic cup surgical-taped to my chest to protect a bit of the pre-op procedure. Hospital gown protruding hugely. All dignity cast aside.), but, it all went well. Everything was removed safely, I came round happily ('Please can I have some tea?!'), things started to heal quickly, and I spent two very, very, very quiet weeks convalescing back at home with my parents.

Those two weeks seemed to drag on incessantly with not-being-better-yet-ness, yet sped on with wait!-I'm-not-quite-better-yet!-ness. The general anaesthetic, while quite easy to come round from, still pumped with adrenaline, took its toll a few days later when the adrenaline left. I was wobbling around even trying to walk downstairs, incapable of doing really anything, and essentially became a pathetic and needy toddler. Good job I was with my parents, given their experience of dealing with me in that state, albeit twenty years ago. I spent huge chunks of time just watching the fledgling blue-tits in our garden, being constantly tended to by their parents, who flew back and forth, back and forth, across the garden to feed them, absolutely incapable. I knew exactly how they felt.

'Feed me!' (photo credit: Papa Sturge)
                                         *                     *                    *                           *

I've spent a lot of the last year wondering why I don't have enough energy, brain space, capacity, to do the things I normally do. I think of being a sixth-former - doing A-levels, grade 8 violin, learning to drive, doing youth work, going to church twice a week, youth orchestra, a Saturday job, and somehow still having friends - and wonder how I did it. All I've been managing this year is getting to work and back each day, maybe having dinner with a friend every so often, and that's about it. Going from a speedy-speedy, all-go person to a 'sorry, no, I won't be able to be there' person is really frustrating - especially when you've said 'YES!' to accompanying a group of 16 year olds to Zambia and that's looming in a fortnight's time, and you still feel like a Zombie.

That situation really isn't easy. And God, I think, has had a lot to say to me about pace of life, where my value is, and trusting him. But all I can really say is, by his grace, that month long period between being operated on and flying to Zambia got me back to just the fitness level I needed to be.  
"Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." Isaiah 40: 28-31

I wasn't able to do all of the activities with the young people: no rope swings, ropes courses, team sports or climbing mountains for me - internal healing says no. And that's also not the easiest to say to the faces of 16-yr old boys when they say 'oh, come on Emily, come and have a go!' and you want to say 'but my boob!' and know there's absolutely no way that's appropriate. BUT, I was up, active, brain-functioning, energy levels high enough and TOTALLY up for having an amazing trip, and helping the young people process all they were doing, seeing and experiencing. 

So, today really this post is to explain some of why I've been 'away' for so long, and some of the context behind the amazing trip I came back from, just a week ago. It's like, an emotional trailer for stories, musings and reflections on Zambia, teenage-life, God, community, and everything else, that are still to come.

As ever, I'll end with a video. Next time, I'll introduce to you properly the phenomenal group of teenagers we took away, but this guy gets an early introduction: Rowan is a Youtuber, and all-round brilliant guy, who videoed our whole experience and is making daily vlogs to document the trip. Much as this post is like my Zambia trailer, here's Row's trailer for his Zambia Youtube series. 

Next time, Zambia stories, lots more photos, and all that jazz. Until then, lots of healthy love, Em x

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Imaginary Landscapes and the art of escaping

A couple of weeks ago I had the fortune of spending a week at Word Alive in Prestatyn for work, manning the Christians in Science exhibition stand. We really enjoyed ourselves, were set up between two brilliant organisations (Changing Lanes and Adventure Plus) who were incredibly entertaining, and also had a great time talking to people about who we are and what we do. It was a genuine delight! 

An added bonus of being there was that we weren't chained to our stands all day, so there were odd slots where we could attend the meetings and seminars with the rest of the punters.

'Popologetics' by Ted Turnau
One particular seminar stream we managed to attend was taken by Ted Turnau, a brilliant communicator and teacher in cultural and religious studies, on what he calls 'Popologetics': doing apologetics by engaging with popular culture. For those of you not fluent in Christianese, 'apologetics' is the discipline of defending your faith in the face of criticism. For those of you who rarely leave the Christian bubble, 'popular culture' is what the rest of the world around us is engaging in while we're listening to Rend Collective albums: music, film, tv, books, comics...etc., etc. 

The series of seminars was to encourage and equip Christians not to just shun things in popular culture that don't at face-value seem to line up with Christian teaching and thinking, but to engage with why people are so won-over by particular stories and worlds. What is it in them that engages and resonates with people? How can you see truths of the gospel in those worlds? What do they say about good and evil?

I found the seminars such an inspiration: not because the concept was entirely new to me - I hope I already engage in that sort of way in this blog, for a start - but because he had so many great ways of looking at things I thought I already knew. He re-inspired the creative bit of my brain, that has lay dormant for some time, to re-engage with the power of story. I have found myself using examples and thoughts from his seminars in almost every real conversation I've had since I came back.

Perhaps my favourite of the concepts he explained was under the heading of 'imagination', in the idea of an imaginary landscape. He explained that everyone has an engaged imagination, whether we think ourselves imaginative in the creative sense or not, because all of how we perceive the world comes from the interpretation of our imaginations. It's why we mis-see and mis-hear, and how we're able to predict how things are able to play out before they do. We have an imaginary landscape in our own minds onto which we project, and therefore interpret, all the sensory information we receive from the world. 

Map from
There is also the sense in which we can enter other people's imaginary landscapes, when we get sucked into stories and worlds of the tv/books/films we're engaged in. The reign of the fandom, and extended fanfics, etc., is testament to this: people enter into stories and worlds that they then don't want to leave, so they extend and extrapolate them as far as they can beyond what the author or creator had originally laid out. It's not just the fantasy worlds either - chick flicks and sitcoms are as much able to do this as Middle Earth and Hogwarts - and they capture us, somehow.

When we spend time in these other imaginary landscapes they automatically begin to overlay and mesh with our own imaginary landscapes. While we know they are fictional, they infiltrate our own landscapes and give us scripts or expectations for how particular situations play out. Their infiltration shows when we start to make the analogies in our own lives ('it's just like in [x] where [y]!') or predict what might (or what we might like to) happen in our own lives based on the influence of those stories. In its crudest form, it is why Mr Darcy has created ridiculous romantic expectations for women globally - he's managed to infiltrate the romantic area of the imaginary landscape and has unwittingly given scripts to millions of women of what the 'ideal' romantic relationship looks like. I write as if it's his fault: somehow it seems easier than blaming Jane...

It got me thinking about what landscapes have infiltrated my own, and what it is about certain worlds and stories that sucks us in so much. I've had many conversations with my friend Emma, who's an English graduate, about the joy of living in a book you don't want to end. But it's not just literature geeks (sorry, Em! I love that you're a literature geek) who do it  - you only have to look at the Big Bang Theory-esque science-comicon-nerd thing to see its Star Trek-y influence there, or at any other person who's just a bit addicted to that soap or that drama. 

I must admit, I am the worst for it. Once I'm in another world I am *IN* - and its influence on my thinking is almost embarrassing. I would love there to be a Pottermore equivalent for every other story and world I've engaged in. I find it hard to unpeel that imaginary landscape from my own, and so I temporarily (or not so temporarily) interpret the world through the mesh of the two, the fictional and the real. Even once I've left it, it often leaves indelible marks on my landscape, sometimes without me knowing. And even now, sometimes I find something on my  landscape that's making me interpret or predict something in a particular way that I didn't realise wasn't my own, but a fragment of someone else's that stuck there when I was a child or a teenager before I'd really landscaped my own mind in that bit of thinking. 

The other thing it got me thinking about was how far we go into other worlds to escape. This week I have been on annual leave, and apart from doing odd jobs I have essentially spent four days wrapped up in Harry Potter world (I know, I am that cool), re-reading all the books. It's hold is obsessive, even though I know what happens. It is escapist to let yourself be taken along in another world. (I even just allowed myself to get wholly distracted by gifs from the films for about 15 minutes instead of writing this...)

Sometimes the joy is that it lets you not be in your own world.

This week ahead I've got an annoying amount of doctors appointments where I will variously be prodded, poked and scanned. If I'm honest, it's been a lot easier to live in a different world than in my own world that anticipates that impending discomfort. I've never liked doctors surgeries or hospitals. It allows me to have imaginary thoughts as I go to sleep, rather than anxious ones about what might hurt and what results might be. It lets me disengage from my own reality and hide.

What it also does, is lets me disengage from God, and His reality. And I guess that highlights the whole idea of the seminar series in the first place, to enter into these imaginary landscapes with God, and see what he had to say about them; not to enter into them to get lost. I'm not at all saying we shouldn't let ourselves get into these things, there's so much goodness and imagination there; but, I went to church this morning fully reluctant to engage with God and the real world. I was pretty sure that if I escaped far enough into a different world, and could feel someone else's feelings I could distance myself from my own and cope with being tired and unsure until it had passed. 

Turns out, that isn't how the world works, and it especially isn't how God works. Even through my reluctance He still somehow managed to muscle in and tell me to stop being an eejit. I'm ever grateful of how often I'm welcomed back when I've been being an eejit. It happens more often than I'd care to admit to.

Anyway - a light note to leave you on...One of the things that pleases me about the HP-world is that I know I'd have a profession in that realm too: I'd definitely either be a herbologist or a magizoologist. And what would be more fun than flying a Hippogriff? 

And with that glorious moment settled on, I'm back to my kindle for the last precious hours of annual leave, before I re-enter the real world of offices, meetings and doctors appointments tomorrow. Maybe I'll hum Hedwig's tune every so often if it all gets a bit much...

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Roses are Red, Violets are Blue...

...Ahhh, yes. It's Valentine's Day tomorrow (in case you hadn't spotted).

If I'm honest, I almost didn't spot it: I had a big work event on Saturday (the 8th), that put blinkers on me to anything else that was happening in the world in the run up to it. But, I emerged happily on the other side, to realise that Valentine's Day was only six days away. I think only having six days' notice is quite a blessing - normally the mental torment begins almost as soon as people have forgone their new years' resolutions (so, the second week of January, then...)

Taken from Buzzfeed's 'emotionally repressed
Valentine's cards for British people'
It was drawn to my attention by this Buzzfeed article of 'emotionally repressed cards for British people'. I can't say that I laughed at all of them *ahem*, but there's a certain excellence in some of their sentiments. If I were to send Valentine's cards, they may well be somewhat like that. (Especially 'You make tea properly'. Who could ask for higher praise?!)

In reality, in all my twentythree and five-sixths years, the extent of my true Valentinian exchanges amounts to two: one in either direction. Sure, I've sent cute cards and pidged little chocolates to my friends...but I'm talking genuine emotional reality here:

1. Sent: one, hand-drawn Valentine's card, 2004, aged 14, to the boy I had the biggest crush on in the entire world. It was anonymous, but he knew it was me because I was about as subtle as..well, as subtle as a 14 year old girl who has a crush. Well done, teenage Emily.
One Rose

2. Received: one red rose, 2010, pidged anonymously to me. Sender identified 18 months later.

Good. A potted history of not very much romantic action.

The thing is with Valentine's Day, is that it can be cruel in its very existence. For many people who receive Valentine's cards and gifts, those things will be entirely expected, as part of a loving relationship. But for people who have no other half, and are not expecting anything, there's still the idea that there just might be someone out there (perhaps a particular someone) who would think to send you something lovely to express the sentiment of their feelings towards you. And that brings a little spark of hope. 

I've written about hope before: it's such a powerful thing. 

There's that little thought in the back of your mind, just to check the doormat for post when you get home from work... Just to check your messages again... Just to wonder if anyone actually has your address? 

I even had a worry today at work, because I'd sent a hand-written piece of post to someone, that I knew would arrive in their pidge tomorrow morning. I know what catching a glimpse of personal mail on Valentine's day does - and the disappointment when it's something completely other. I was worried I would stir up hope there, where there was only work-related admin. (So, I'm sorry, if you read this!)

In the film of the Hunger Games, when President Snow is trying to curtail the ambitions of some of the plucky competitors, he comments: 

"Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it's contained."

I'm sure there's a lot of reality in what he says. Maybe for some of us this reflects in our Valentine's expectations? The little spark of excitement and looking forward to the 'perhaps' is ok - but piling too much hope there leads to pity and self-doubt.  It's very true that a lot of hope in something uncertain is a dangerous thing.  How many girls have joked about, if not actually acted out, the classic Bridget Jones 'All by myself' scene, especially when contemplating another Valentine's day alone?

It's funny, but in a 'because it's true' way...

One of my favourite proverbs is: "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life" (Prov 13:12)

Hope deferred makes the heart sick.
Hope deferred makes the heart drink red wine alone in pyjamas
Hope deferred makes the heart sing 'all by myself', and play air-drums, because there are no messages.

I guess, on reflecting on this, I have to return to the second half of the proverb...but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life. I'm sure when Solomon wrote all those proverbs, he probably wasn't specifically thinking of romance and Valentine's day. But. Maybe we have to think about where our hopes and dreams really lie, and where we're seeing fulfillment of our dreams...and where that tree of life is growing

Hoping in a Valentine's affirmation can be exciting flicker of hope, but hoping in it solely for justification is dangerous way to make the heart sick. Our hopes aren't in flowers and chocolates and affectionate sentiments, even though they are lovely. Our value and worth does not come from another person's gestures. Where we find our value is a huge topic, and I won't try to delve into it now - but know for sure that it isn't found in one, a dozen, or a thousand red roses.

So. Tomorrow. Check the doormat for post. Let your heart rate rise a fraction when the DHL man arrives to deliver a parcel (it'll be that thing you ordered from Amazon a few days ago, remember?), and don't squash the flicker of hope; because who knows, tomorrow might be the day the red rose arrives.

But. If it isn't, don't let your heart grow sick, because there is always more hope. Different hope. Bigger hope. And your extraordinary value is not diminished by a lack of roses, not one tiny bit.

So I'll leave you now and head to bed to build up some energy for tomorrow - y'know, just in case a huge bouquet of flowers arrives that I have to lug home across town...

Monday, 30 September 2013

Can we stop for a corner?

The first time I had the joy of going to the Isle of Lewis and Harris, in the Outer Hebrides, I was fifteen. This story happened on this first visit (the first of four so far, but believe me, I'll be back again. And then probably again after that).

We were on a youth residential, and there were about 15 or so of us young people doing all sorts of wonderful outdoor activities over two weeks on the island. On this particular day, we went on a 'hill walk' - I seem to remember the walk was about three miles long: half a mile on the flat, one mile down a gorge to a beach cove, one mile up the other side of the gorge, then another half a mile's walk on the flat to where the mini-buses were going to pick us up. In the bottom of the gorge was a scrummy and isolated little beach, where we sat and had lunch, skimmed stones, and enjoyed the wondrousness of being in the Outer Hebrides.
The view before the descent down to the beach
I went on the trip with my best friend, Mica, and we made friends with two guys from another local youth group. We were quickly an inseparable four (I'm sure you can't imagine why), and on this walk we stuck together for pretty much the whole way. 

The first half of the journey was great - full of beans, fresh feet, and just the slightly awkward feeling of a scrabbly descent. Do you know what I mean? When you're using your knees and the muscles in the front of your legs in a way you never normally do. Your footing is a bit uncertain, but gravity helps the excursion and you make it down to the bottom roughly in one piece.

Sian at the beach at the bottom
The ascent, however, was a different story. Because of how steep the gradient was, the path zig-zagged up the side of the gorge, meaning you had to walk at least twice as far as the actual distance to the top. And even with the zig-zagged path, the incline was still pretty vicious. About half way up the side, we ran out of breath - almost all of the others had marched on ahead. When we reached the corner of one of the zig-zags we all paused for a few moments to recover before we tackled the next zig (or zag, I can't remember which one we were on...). I think as we carried on we got further and further behind. We were determined to get there, but every so often one of us would cave again: 'can we stop at the next corner?!' we'd desperately ask...

Having arrived at the top on the other side
Eventually, we made it through all the zig-zags to the top of the gorge, where all the others were waiting for us, before the last stretch of the walk. Then came the awful moment: everyone's been waiting for us, sat there having a break and regaining their strength, and you huff and puff and haul your way up to the last bit of the incline towards them. 'Well done, you're here! Right, let's carry on, last bit!' And off we went for the last bit, with only a moment's pause.

Yeah. It was one of those moments when you're bringing up the rear, you arrive, everyone else is rested, and you just have to carry on for that last stretch without stopping. Subsequently, as we carried on for the last half mile or so at the top of the gorge, we were still absolutely shattered. After about ten minutes of walking along a gently meandering path (without a zig or zag to be seen), one of us caved again. 'OK, I know we're on a straight path, but can we stop for a 'corner'?' We all agreed that was a great idea - and the phrase stuck: for all other activities we did that fortnight it mattered not if there was a physical corner to be seen. The request to 'stop for a corner' became synonymous with needing to slow the pace.

Forgive the quality of these - they are WAY pre-DSLR. In fact, they're film, printed, and scanned into the computer. Do you even *remember* that level of old-school-ness?!
I was reminded of this story recently when I realised that all of the school kids were going back to school at the start of September, and I hadn't finished my Masters course, having worked straight through the summer. And then again, when I realised that we were preparing for the uni students to come back to start their new terms...and I still hadn't finished my Masters course. It was like everyone had reached the top of the gorge, and was resting, a long time before me and I still was nowhere near the top. In fact, towards the end of the course I hit such a point that I genuinely had to 'stop for a corner', as my doctor signed me off for a couple of weeks with exhaustion. I think if it had been a mile's walk up a gorge I probably could have managed it, but it seemed the relentless work placement was too much for me to take. 

The whole course felt analogous to the hill walk, in reality: six months of something that was for the main part hugely enjoyable, but made you ache because you were using unusual muscles (the 'commuting' and 'being a post-grad' muscles); followed by a brief but beautiful break (aka 'Christmas week'); then a long old uphill slog that was satisfying to get done and very worthwhile, but blooming exhausting, and requiring more breaks than were technically on offer (aka, 'six solid months on placement').

I finished my Masters exactly a fortnight ago - mid September - just as Brookes students were starting to arrive in Oxford. At the beginning I had that awful feeling of having to start again straight away, without a break. It was just like arriving at the top of the gorge and everyone saying 'Well done, you're here! Right, let's carry on, last bit!' again. How could I crack on with everything that a new term brings (even if I'm not studying any more) when I hadn't even finished my term, let alone had chance to recover? If I didn't get a chance to catch my breath, wouldn't I just spend the next stretch of the journey (which just happens to be starting a new job) searching for a corner even though we were on a straight path?

Thankfully, life doesn't always hold to analogy. I have had a few weeks to recover, but they weren't all down time - I had a conference to prepare for which needed me to create a presentation on whether Evolution disproves God; as well as chasing estate agents for money and doing all sorts of life admin I'd put on hold while I was studying. But, despite being quite a busy bee, rest has come. I feel rested. I am not *not tired*, but I am now excited to start my new job which is invigorating just of itself. I'm pretty sure I won't be begging to stop for a corner once I get going, because new good things have a way of making time fly.

I'm excited by the next step, with or without corners, but I'm glad I'm not walking uphill. I'm really excited about engaging my brain in something new, getting some routine back, not having to leave Oxford every day, and managing my own routine again. I'm not sure I've reached a 'flat bit' on the walk, necessarily; but perhaps I've changed into a wetsuit and gone and jumped into the sea - entirely different, entirely refreshing.

In the style of old, I will leave you with something that has fully entertained me recently, that is entirely unrelated. I've been loving both 8 Out of 10 Cats does Countdown (amazing combo) and the fact that The IT Crowd came back to do a final episode, so what else can I offer you than a smash-up of the three? 
Until next time (and who knows what exciting new jobby things will spark bloggy things?), much love x

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Where There's Tea, There's Hope.

This last week I have been away camping with my church family, down on a site in Evesham, Worcestershire. For those not familiar with the eccentric sub-culture of church summer camps, they entail big celebration meetings of worship and teaching, seminars, eating together, time to catch up with extended church family, lots of fun, and a week away in a tent (or a caravan if you're posh). There's a fair few different camps out there, and they all vary slightly, but the one I went to (Transform) was specifically for our network  of churches in the UK, Salt & Light. [I actually just typed newtwork, which says a lot about what the last five months of my life have looked like]. Honestly, this week away, despite being in a tent, was exactly what I needed. Actually, perhaps part of what I needed was to be in a tent, out with the elements, back to basics. It was good. Mmmm.

However, one thing that is always tricky when you are camping but not 'glamping' (or, you don't have a big enough car to bring lots of equipment, or you're not a proper grown-up who has actually accrued lots of equipment) is food and drink. Nothing stays cold and fresh, so you have to live hand-to-mouth. You have to make dinner in one saucepan over a single burner. Doing the washing up feels like a task that could take weeks. Making tea can take up to half an hour (especially if your sister decides the kettle needs 1.5l of water in it to make two cups of tea).

With a single burner, a single whistling kettle, four plastic cups and a cool-box that was cool for approximately three hours of the five days we were there, my sister and I attempted to navigate the minefield that is staying caffeinated while you are camping. Friends of mine who were camping in the tent next to us revealed on the first day that they didn't have a burner or a kettle. 'How on earth are you going to drink tea?!' was my initial, outraged, response. Thankfully, surrounding us were friends who understand the need for tea, and were able to fill that essential void. But it is an important one - navigating life on much less sleep and with a lot more mental stimulation without tea is incredibly tricky. 

A lovely course-mate of mine from Reading Uni gave me a most-excellent Secret Santa present last year: it's a mug that says 'Where there's tea, there's hope'. It's one of those mantras that I genuinely find reassuring. Especially when it's 5am and you only have time to put clothes on, drink a cuppa and grab a cereal bar before you drive for three hours to a building site. Or when you get home after a long week of looking for bats that aren't there. Or when you've spent a whole evening looking for jobs and not finding anything (I am glad that particular phase is over). Having a cup of tea in a comfortingly shaped mug, being sat up in your bedroom or in the living room with housemates - it means all the other stuff of life can be forgotten for a few minutes and you can relax and recharge. Mmm, warmth. Mmm, caffeine. Mmm, things are actually ok. Mmm, Hope. 

Where there's tea there's HOPE.

Today at church, Jeremy spoke excellently out of Romans 5:1-11 (it's a corker, have a look). Some of the general points he made were about what each of the the aspects of the passage give us hope for. He quoted Elvis Costello (I hope I've remembered that right?) as having said in an interview that the worst thing you could do to someone was murder them. But after that, the worst thing you could do was take away their hope. It's so true - what is life without hope? How would you carry on without hope for something more? Hope for a future?

We all have hopes for our lives, and I find myself at that stage when you really think about what your hopes actually are. What kind of career am I hoping for? What kind of lifestyle do I want to have? Am I hoping for a husband and children? What things am I hoping will happen in the exciting black hole of uncertainty that sits ahead of me, that likes to call itself my future? Will I be the kind of person who grabs a home made muffin out of their Cath Kidston polka dot biscuit tin and heads to work, wearing trainers at the bottom of a skirt suit...? (OK, I may be having someone else's fantasy there...)

Actually, if I'm honest, my hopes for my life keep changing. I just don't know what it's going to look like. But, my hope for life is unchanging. 'My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly trust in Jesus' name'. This song was a favourite at Transform this week:

Where there is tea, there is hope. And where there is salvation, there is hope. And where there is love, there is hope. 

And with that, I'll sign off, and pack my bags for another week of ecologising. But please don't forget that there is always hope, even if it's just where the tea is. 

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

I don't know where I am.

'I don't know where I am?'

Anyone who's watched this series of Doctor Who will recognise this refrain. 'I don't know where I am, I don't know where I am...' - it begins in the first episode of the series as members of the public get sucked into their wifi, and is repeated as Clara spins through time in the series finale. 

It's a state I hate being in, not knowing where I am. I am someone who is unfortunately graced with a horrendous sense of direction. If I walk into a shop that has more than one entrance and exit I'm done for when I then try to leave - I could be anywhere! (Why do they do that?!) When I passed my driving test and was allowed out in the car, I remember my mum being amazed at how little I knew of navigating my way around the town I'd lived in for eighteen years - it just isn't how my brain works. I don't retain direction, unlike my big sister, who could navigate to my grandparents' house when she was three, or something. We really are wired quite differently. 
Even when we were squee she concentrated on the road while I just waved at passers by. (I don't think I was doing any of this driving, despite having a wheel.)

So in my current role on placement with an ecological consultancy firm, being sent all around the country in a van on my own, I am my own worst nightmare. Not only do I have the problem of waking up in the morning and having to work out which region of the country I am in (trying to decipher which bit of the 6:45am weather report applied to me this morning was genuinely impossible), but I have to find my way there: to sites, to hotels, to places to eat. I rely heavily on the sat nav software on my phone, but that in itself isn't always enough. As we know, a bad workman blames his tools, and a bad workman in the craft of navigation, I surely am. 

Today was a bad one. Due to a complicated survey arrangement, where I essentially had been booked in to be in two places at 8am at the same time (which were an hour apart, I might add), I was meeting some other ecologists onsite, having already started. I rang one of them when I was nearby, on a fuzzy, middle of the countryside-style phone line: 'Meet us at Crockham Hill!' she said. Fabulous, I thought to myself, type that into the sat nav and off we go.

Twenty minutes later, I'm in the village of Crockenhill. No, that's not a typo, genuinely there are two villages within 17 miles of each other, one called Crockham Hill, the other Crockenhill. When she'd spelled it out over the crackly phone-line, I'd got the wrong one. So there I was, trying to be guided through a village both by a colleague on the phone and by a sat nav, who were clearly at odds with one another, while I, merely the hands and feet that move the little white van, try to work out the discrepancy between the two.

I don't know where I am.

Even with maps, I said this several times today. Trying to find Crockham Hill. Trying to find a supermarket. Trying to find my hotel. Thinking about what I'm going to do when my placement ends...

Not knowing where you are is fundamentally disorientating. I realise that while for many people there is excitement and adventure in exploring a new place - uncharted territory - for me there is an underlying unease about being somewhere I genuinely don't know. For several weeks in the last month or so I have been out on surveys in Leicestershire, which despite being tiring for all sorts of reasons, was great for me because a. I went back to the sites several times, so became very familiar with them; but also b. Leicestershire is a county which borders my home county, Northamptonshire. My Granny lives in one of the villages there, the scenery is familiar, I know the names on the signs, it's all within my extended territory. But here? Here is uncharted for me. It's only Surrey and Kent, but still. 

But unsurprisingly, where I am going with this is that this is not just a physical and geographic principle. Not knowing where you are is frustrating and disorientating when it refers to the rest of life too. Increasingly, at the moment, I am saying perhaps not 'I don't know where I am', but 'I don't know where I'm going', or 'I don't know where I'm going to be'. Welcome to your post-graduate twenties, eh?

I still have three and a half months of this placement, and therefore my masters, left to go. Mid-September it all rounds off. And at the point of writing, beyond that point I don't know where I am. Oxford: that's about as far as I've got. Oxford is home now, so living in Oxford is the only thing that's vaguely firm. However. Thankfully, I am repeating to myself, I don't have to be worried, because I can trust in God who does know where I am. He knows where I've been, where I am, and where I'm going, all at once.

Being a Christian in the workplace is genuinely not very straightforward. In my old office, it was fine: you had a problem, you prayed about it together. But here, out on placement, I swear when I'm lost just like everyone else, I get groggy when I'm tired and hungry just like everyone else, and I find some people difficult to be gracious to, just like everyone else. Turns out being a Christian does not make you a perfect colleague. (Ha, who knew?) But. It does give me hope. 

There are phenomenal verses like:
'The Lord directs our steps, so why try to understand everything along the way?' Proverbs 20:24, 

'The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry, and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.' Isaiah 58:11,

'The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights [and not slip on your bum as you cross a stream]' [Emily paraphrased] Habbakuk 3:19

and, one of my favourites 'No-one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame.' Psalm 25:2.

So. I don't know where I am. But, thankfully I don't have to fret while I work it out. Phew. Feel free to remind me of that when I'm fretting, ok?

Sorry this is such a long one - you may have noticed it's been a long time since I last blogged, and I've got lots of words in a backlog, it seems. I shall sign off now, from my little hotel room in Godstone, with a song that gave me hope yesterday morning when I was stuck on the M40. 

Hopefully I'll see you soon :)