Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Cameron's Britain: John's Story

This is the story of John.
He was born in 1950 into the poorest district of a very poor town in the North of England. The eldest of six; he spent the first three years of his life sleeping in the shed at the bottom of his grandmother's garden, with his unmarried mother and two younger siblings. The grandmother, a distinctly Victorian and indomitable lady, refused to house her son's lover and their illegitimate children but was cordial enough to at least have them in the garden.

John's parents eventually married and the family were duly housed in a tiny three-bedroomed semi by the council. Three more years brought three more children, and stretched the family's meagre income to perilous levels. Food was always in short supply, though cigarettes and gin were not. John's dad spent every weekend down at the local pub, a habit he kept right up until his death. The children rarely had shoes, or coats, or other basic necessities and life in the cramped little house was often fraught and always hard. John slept every night fighting for space in the grimy, urine soaked bed he shared with brothers, and mornings were spent fighting for who got to wear the one remaining pair of socks.

John was a clever little boy.  From the age of four he walked the two miles to the church primary school, alone, and later, holding hands with his siblings.  Such a clever, thoughtful, painfully shy little boy. Clever enough to pass the 11+ when the time came, but not permitted to attend the local grammar school due to the prohibitive cost of the uniform. Or at least, that was the excuse his parents gave.

He was just fifteen when he eventually left school, and had hopes for a career in the Navy.  A Recruitment Officer visited John's home to try to persuade his parents that this would provide a good future for John, but they had different hopes for him; hopes of him finding immediate work and bringing much needed money into the home.
He found work on the railways, in a signal box at first, but gradually progressed to more manual labour as he got older and stronger.

Life at home was still hard; still fraught. His younger brothers were often in trouble with the police for theft or vandalism. They were beaten with a belt for their indiscretions and John too; after all, as the eldest, it was partly his fault for not looking out for them. Each of his sisters got pregnant at age sixteen and moved out into their own council houses or flats. Again, John was beaten for not having done something to prevent it.

Change and hope came in 1967 when John fell completely and irrevocably in love with the daughter of the landlord of his local pub. After a long courtship they married in 1973.
The usual stuff of life spun out; two babies born, house moves, holidays, changes of job, illnesses, grey hairs, grandchildren, creaky joints, deaths, parties, new three-piece suites, re-decorating, new cars...all that stuff that makes up a simple and yet intricately woven life.

That was then.

This is now. It's 2014 and by the time John is eligible to retire next year he will have worked solidly, at back-breaking, heavy, dirty work, for fifty years.

Fifty years.

In all that time he has never once claimed income support, job-seekers' allowance or indeed, any benefits of any kind. He has never been admitted to hospital, not even as a day patient. He has always paid his taxes and his National Insurance Contributions.  He doesn't have a criminal record, he has no debt. Despite suffering physical and mental abuse as a child, he has never raised a finger to his own children or verbally abused them. He worked seven days a week for years to pay to put them through university. He is immensely proud of them and still hugely in love with his wife. They celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary last year.

Unlike some of his siblings, John has never succumbed to alcoholism. He is living, breathing, laughing, loving proof that you can survive a neglected, impoverished childhood without perpetuating the abuse. The cycle stops with John and his life turns to a new, solid and dependable rhythm.

 Imagine then, if you will, how he feels now, at age 64, learning that when he is finally able to claim his state pension next summer, he isn't going to get the amount that he ought to, just because he was born 9 months too soon.
Imagine how he feels, knowing that all he'll get is £113.10 a week, for paying into the pot for fifty years.
Imagine how he feels, knowing that if he was born after April 1951, he'd get £148.40 a week; the New State Pension.
Please let that sink in, then imagine how he feels when confronted with the fact that his wife is also not entitled to the New State Pension, because she was born two months too late.  His wife; sadly retired due to ill health six years ago and unable to work now.

Imagine how he feels; how they both feel.

Then please imagine this scenario: at his wife's worried nagging, John eventually visited his G.P about chronic pain in his hands, which are incredibly swollen and sore to touch, and have been for some time.  The G.P grudgingly referred him to an Orthopaedic Consultant, with the comment that if he insisted on still working then "of course your hands will hurt and there's not much we can do is there?"

Of course John insists on working. Insists on pedalling 9 miles a day, to and from the builder's yard, to lay heavy flag stone for 7 hours in the freezing December wind. All to be told by an educated, middle class man, sat at a comfy desk in a warm doctor's office that his hands hurt because he 'insists' on working.

Three month wait to see the Consultant. Three months of more pain in increasingly cold and biting weather, with increasingly useless hands.

The verdict? Turns out working for fifty years outdoors with power tools and heavy machinery can really play havoc with your hands. Turns out John needs an operation to fix his hands which are all but crumbling day by day, which will mean three months off work. Minimum.

Imagine how you feel when you hear that. Imagine the sense of despair and pointless, impotent rage you might feel. Add this diagnosis to the one John had for his lungs; hardened with pleural plaques from all the asbestos he breathed in during his late teens and early twenties when he worked on the railways. Not entitled to a decent amount of compensation, by the way, unless he is diagnosed with a terminal illness such as asbestosis. What a comfort that will be should such a diagnosis be forthcoming!

This is Britain in 2014.
This is Cameron's Britain.
This is what happens to a decent, hard-working, honest, man; a man who has never cheated anyone; who was born into poverty and has worked like a dog his entire adult life to dig his way out of it.

Doesn't it just make you think of the word "Austerity" in a different light?

I bought this for John for Christmas:

Happy Christmas Dad. I love you. 


Monday, 10 November 2014

My dog is a Misandrist

Meet Flora. She's three years old and of the canine variety; full of attitude, rebellion and halitosis laden affection. Physically, she's somewhere between Brian May and King Charles II; she's all shaggy black ears and fluff.  She is trained to sit, stay, come, fetch and find, which makes her sound terribly clever and makes me sound really competent.  Alas, while Flora may be trained to do these simple commands, she also has an iron will and getting her to do them when I want her to is sometimes a challenge.

Flora doesn't really respect the fact that she's a dog. Flora thinks she's a person; one of us, and my daily challenge is to get her to understand this simple, unequivocal biological fact and be at one with her doggy-ness. Flora attempts to usurp my children every day; it is her mission to climb to the top of the familial tree, confound the hierarchy and take her place on my knee.  Mini insurrections occur daily; rampant food thievery and sofa jumping are just two of her methods for familial dominance.  She loves my husband but has overwhelming disregard for his authority, and the one and only time I have ever heard her be aggressive was when he forcibly removed her from my knee. She adores me with a fierce and enthusiastic loyalty that remains unquenched, no matter how cross I am with her, no matter how much I push her away. She returns time and again, to mutely plead with her huge, liquid brown eyes, that manage to say so eloquently, "just let me be near you...let me sit with you...I love you." 

It's humbling to admit, but Flora probably does love me more than anyone else (and trust me, I am blessed by love in my house) as her love is more unconditional than that of a baby for it's mama; I think I could starve Flora, and she'd still come wagging her tail when I walk in the room.  She is my constant companion and is probably my best friend.

This year Flora had puppies, and whether it was the hormonal turbulence of the pregnancy and aftermath or just a maturing and general wisening up, I'm not sure, but since then, Flora has been distinctly anti-men.  She growls and barks when they come near her, and the bigger and more manly the man (read: louder) the more she barks.  
What does Flora know that I don't? I've wracked my brains and I still don't know the cause of Flora's rampant Misandry. All is know is that somewhere along the line, men became a became the enemy. And it's no use me pointing out to her that, "it's not all men, Flora," because she'd just look at me like I'm an idiot because, quite frankly, that is beside the point. And it doesn't make any difference, because she clearly wants to warn me about something...and anyone reading the news, any day of the week, can see what that might be.

At the beginning of October, one story in particular resonated with me.  A woman walking her dog early in the morning in Salford, was dragged into some bushes and raped.  This poor woman's plight struck me because not a day goes by when I'm out walking with Flora that I don't worry, however fleetingly, that I might not be safe. That the beautiful woods where we frequently take our late afternoon stroll might not be harbouring a strange man behind the trees. That the winding and isolated cycle-paths where we walk are sometimes too quiet...too isolated for me to fully enjoy the tranquility without feeling a flicker of fear if I see a lone man approaching me.
Am I paranoid? Hell yes. But then, stories about men raping women do tend to have that effect on me.  So I'm cautious about where I go and I'm careful to not be out when it's dark or too early in the morning. Indeed, this appears to be savvy advice; a way to live by and not get raped while out walking your dog. One of the police officers who was investigating the Salford rapist had this advice for local women:

"I would urge people to take extra care, remain vigilant and be aware of their surroundings.”

Sound advice surely, but aside from the fact that this presupposes the notion that the victim in this case somehow wasn't paying attention, it also doesn't really make it clear what we're supposed to be vigilant about. If I'm out walking with Flora, I am hyper-aware of my surroundings. I love my surroundings; they are the reason I live in this area and walking Flora amidst beautiful surroundings is one of the pleasures of my life.
I walk...I pray...I am aware of my surroundings. 

My surroundings can't hurt me. The trees and bushes that I walk amongst can't assault me. The wildflowers and lonely footpaths, and the twisting stream will not - can not - rape me. 
It is men who rape. 
It was a man who raped this woman. It is men who rape that I am afraid of when I am walking with Flora in the woods, and I heartily resent being made to fear my environment. This is my world, as much as it is anyone else's, and I sometimes reflect on how wonderful and freeing it would be to walk with Flora in the moonlight or very early in the morning. I'm too chicken to do it though; I'm actually too scared to fully own my environment, and that is the depressing truth. 
The next time I'm out with Flora, I'll try to be a bit more understanding the next time she embarrasses me by barking incessantly if a fellow (male) dog walker says hello. I'll try to be less irritated the next time she growls and shrinks away from the kindly old fella who tries to befriend her every time we meet. I just need to accept Flora for who she is.
My dog is a misandrist. And reading the papers these days, you can understand why.

Monday, 6 October 2014

I'm not shaving my legs - a poem for my daughter

This poem was born out of two things: a conversation I had on Twitter and a memory I have of cuddling my little girl when she was just two years old (she's now six.) She was wearing a little summer dress at the time, and I can remember hugging her warm, tiny body, and looking down and seeing the fine, dark hairs on her back and thinking, knowing, that one day she will be teased and mocked for it. Mocked and made to feel shame just for being dark, half-Italian and not perfectly smooth. I also have an uneasy feeling that I am part of the problem, since I proliferate our society's obsession with hairless women every single time I wax and shave. This is my response. This is for LJ x

I'm not shaving my legs, it's a choice that I've made
I'm tired of being told how I have to behave.
I'm supposed to be hairy, for why does it grow? 
"You're a woman, you fool. What the hell do you know?"
I'm not shaving my legs, I think that it's wrong
To pluck and to wax whenever it's long
"But you'll look so hairy and terribly butch!
"You'll feel so prickly and horrid to touch!"
I'm not shaving my legs, it gives me a rash,
And I hate waxing my face to get rid of my tash.
It's natural to have hair on my arms and my chin
I'm not shaving my legs, just so I fit in. 
"But you'll be so manly, just like a bloke!"
"You'll be so hairy, you'll be a joke!"
I'm not shaving my legs, and here is why:
One day I will listen to my little girl cry
And all because she doesn't conform
Her body doesn't fit into a cultural norm
She has hair on her legs and her arms and her back
She must shave it all off or face the attack
Of a world that expects her to be so smooth
So naked and bare and this she must choose
But I say, NO to the tyranny of the blade!
And screw you too, this world that we've made.
I will celebrate my girl and all she can be
But right now, this day, she just wants to be me.
And mummy is smooth and silky and bare
My girl wants to be me, and have no hair.
I'm not shaving my legs, it's a thing I must do
For if her legs are hairy, then mine will be too.

Friday, 26 September 2014

So you think you're a Feminist huh?

I am a woman.  I am in my mid-thirties.  I'm married.  I'm a mother.  I'm a Christian. 
I'm also a Feminist.  
Or am i? 
A month ago my answer would have been a resounding 'Yes!' Of course I'm a Feminist.  I believe in equality don't i? I believe that I'm just as good and able and capable as a man don't i? I believe I shouldn't be oppressed just because I'm a woman; that I should have equal rights, be it pay or opportunity or whatever. 
Don't I? 
Curious by nature and believing absolutely that knowledge is power (and having a daughter who is now old enough to ask very searching questions) I've taken some time lately to really explore this issue like I've never bothered to before.  I've read, I've discussed and I've asked questions. In fact, I've started to question everything.  The result has been unexpected and shocking. Not since the night I became a Christian have I experienced such a seismic shift in my own perspective and world view. 
The key, over-riding conclusion I have come to is this: 
I'm not actually a Feminist.  I'm not even close. In fact, I have betrayed my sex and myself on many, many occasions. How could this have happened? When did I not adhere to my own set of principles? When did I not live out the things I believe in? Why can I not stand up and call myself a Feminist?  
Here's a few reasons why: 
When I've gossiped about other women and privately labelled them as being 'slutty,' because of the length of their skirt or the amount of make-up they wear. 
When, as a younger woman, I felt flattered to be whistled at by a gang of workmen...and slightly disappointed when they ignored me.
When I secretly resented another woman for being thinner and more beautiful than myself...or when I felt superior because I was the one who was considered more attractive.  
When I told my boss I was pregnant in an apologetic tone. 
When I scheduled my ante-natal appointments after work in an attempt to be thought better of by my boss and work colleagues (Ultimately, I wasn't.) 
When I jokingly told my husband to stop acting like a 'girl' when a spider fell on him in the shower. 
When I've allowed a car mechanic/ gas fitter/ washing machine repair man/ etc, to talk over my head to address my husband (who is clueless about such things by the way) rather than speaking directly to me. 
When I've labelled a woman as foolish for marrying a man who is a known cheat...she should know better, after all.  
When men have stared freely at my breasts and I've been too embarrassed to reproach them. 
When I've apologised for being 'just a mum' and have denigrated my position in my family because my work isn't paid work.  
When I've subconsciously judged other women for how they look.
When I've consciously judged other women for how they look.
When I have consistently reduced myself to being just a face and a body and have pointlessly chased a standard of exterior feminine perfection, largely defined and found desirous by men. 
When I've mutely submitted to being groped.
When I've sat idly by for thirty-five years and not done one single thing of any substance or real meaning to further the Feminist cause, whilst at the same time blithely enjoying the benefits available to me thanks to the hard work and toil of thousands of Sisters who came down this road ahead of me. 
For all these reasons, and perhaps many more, I struggle to call myself a Feminist and keep a straight face. 
Some of these examples are indicative of larger flaws in my character, and trust me: God and I are working on it.  But these examples show more than my fallibility as a woman and a human being; they show how ill-equipped I am and society still is to embrace true equality as a concept, never mind as a reality.  Sadly, I'm still very much enslaved to this patriarchal society that we all inhabit. The blindfold may have been removed, but the shackles still remain very much in place.  I feel anything but free. 
So I'm not a Feminist. 
Not yet.
But I'm bloody well going to be.

Monday, 1 September 2014

The long and short of it - why we shouldn't get het up over height

An article in The Times this morning really piqued my interest:
"The best husbands come in small packages."
According to a study of 3000 couples in The U.S, men who are short ( under 5ft 7in) do more housework and are less likely to get divorced.  The thing that interested me most about this was the figure which suggested short men are less likely to get married in the first place. Is this because women are just not as attracted to short guys, and if so, why the hell not?!
You may have detected a trace of anger here, and there's a reason for it: My husband is exactly the same height as me, a modest 5ft 4ins, and he could probably tell you far better than I how prejudiced people are towards his lack of height.  That said though, I probably have more of a bee in my bonnet about it (at least today I do anyway) than he does.  Being a laid-back kind of guy, he would probably just shrug his shoulders and say "it is what it is" but dig deeper and he can reveal a past where this was the chief factor that he was picked on for at school, and one of the reasons he found it hard to approach women during his teenage years and early twenties.  It was his assumption, and he was probably right in some cases, that women just weren't going to be interested because he's too short.

So macho

I knew a woman who had a propensity for choosing huge macho men, who were into body building and had a penchant for status dogs, like Rottweilers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers (the bigger and scarier the dog the better.) They all seemed to drive those enormous truck like 4x4 vehicles with manly names like 'Warrior' or 'Gladiator' ("you've seen how big my car is, just imagine how big the rest of me is!) and would brag about how they could lift her really easily with just one arm. This lady was herself quite tall, and I think for her, his immense size served to diminish her own somewhat, because isn't that how we're taught things ought to be in our Western culture? By the way, the last of these guys she was in a relationship with was also having a relationship with his pregnant girlfriend at the same time; clearly he wasn't what you'd describe as a keeper but I suppose it's possible that his uber-macho image and attitudes to women were completely unconnected.  Mmm...

Height is a Feminist issue

 I think there is a very real connection between the reasons women prefer tall men and the patriarchal
 society we live in; men are supposed to be bigger than women, in every sense and this is just played out in physical terms.  Women who are above average height will I'm sure be able to testify to having had the uncomfortable experience of being taller than everyone else in the room, and certain guys really don't like that. Our society makes it clear (still) that a man most definitely doesn't look up to a woman. This not only does a huge disservice to women, for it casts us in a subservient role right from the off, but it's obviously deeply unfair to those guys out there who fail to live up to ( sorry bad choice of words) this male ideal.  You either rail pointlessly against this height based prejudice; over-emphasising your maleness: Familiar with Little Man Syndrome anyone? Or: You withdraw from the arena all together and accept the derision.

No laughing matter

Lack of height, particularly in a man, is still something which it is totally acceptable to mock mercilessly.  I'm not just thinking of idiots who you might encounter in the pub on a Saturday night; I'm thinking of recent examples in British television; in particular prime-time family show Strictly Come Dancing. My husband and I were rendered incandescent with rage every time Tess Daley referred to Professional dancer Vincent Simone as 'pint sized' or a 'pocket dynamo.' She refrained from saying 'ah, cute,' whilst ruffling his hair and calling him a munchkin, but only just.  The cynic in me wants to think that perhaps Tess herself has memories from a time when she was mocked for her tall stature, and found that as soon as she put heels on she was taller than every guy in the room, and this was just a projection of her own insecurities, but I don't know the lady so it's probably unfair to speculate. What struck me though was that at no point did anyone, not even Vincent himself, allude to the fact that comments like this are actually demeaning and down-right offensive. Perhaps Vincent, like most below average height guys is simply used to it, or else too fatigued by the preoccupation to bother saying anything. Either way, we certainly do have a collective hang-up about height, and short guys really feel the brunt of it.

Walking tall

My husband's height has nothing to do with how good a husband he is; his patience, self-lessness, kindness and good humour are far more important factors.  His height to me is an irrelevance; other people, usually taller males, find it far more worthy of note. I think this is because his lack of height somehow boosts theirs.  By pointing it out, they are implicitly claiming superiority over him, but while they certainly can (and do) look down on him in a literal sense, this is just an illusion.  My husband is faithful, hard-working, devoted to his family, and a brilliantly attentive and caring father. He has proven himself time and time again to be more of a man than any other man I've known.  Do I feel protected and secure when I'm with him? Absolutely. But that has nothing to do with his inside leg measurement. I don't need a tall man to make me feel any more of a woman, and ladies...nor do you.  In fact, I would highly recommend a shorter guy. They take up far less room, you can kiss them without straining your neck and you don't even need to adjust the car seat every time you get in the car.
Job's a good'un.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Playground pick up? It's just like being back at school

I hated school.  Hated it.  26th May 1995 was the day that I left and I still count it as right up there with my wedding day as one of the happiest days of my life.  Schools have a kind of prison-like quality to them, with their high fences and heavy metal gates; strictly monitored and locked between the hours of 9:30 a.m and 3 p.m.   And even if you were to somehow work out the code to open the gate, you still have to master the locked door, complete with buzzer, and be admitted by the gestapo on the front desk.  And no one is entering or leaving that building without scribbling their name and mission on the signing in book.
This is all very reassuring for us parents of course, for we want to know that the dearest things in the world to us are as safe as can be, but I can never shake from my mind the fact that while the school is undoubtedly concerned about locking the bad guys out, they are equally determined to lock the children IN.
Years later I can still conjure up the unpleasant feeling of being deposited at the school and left behind a sealed glass door at the end of a labyrinthine network of corridors that I could never have hoped to find my way out of alone.  To make matters worse you're incarcerated in a room full of people who you don't know and would never have met at all except for the fact that they too were born in the same nine month time span as you.  In my case, the person who was supposed to be in loco parentis, my reception teacher, was clearly Peri-menopausal, hated children and had all the kindness and patience of Cruella Deville.  And what the hell was that smell? A combination of rubbery floors, wet coats and soup.

Group dynamics

As you grow and become accustomed to the school environment (read: institutionalised), the focus shifts, inevitably, to your fellow inmates. Sorry, classmates.  Very early on factions and cliques develop and the pressure to belong to one of them is intense.  Like minded individuals tend to recognise similar personality traits and therefore gravitate towards one another.  Once a person is a member of a particular group, it is nigh on impossible to switch allegiance, although with girls at least, there appears to be a certain amount of toing and froing during the primary phase until the cliques become pretty much fixed in secondary school.
Before my eldest child started school, I naively supposed that I'd left all this behind me on 26th May 1995.  Just one term of standing on the playground at drop off and pick up time was enough to disavow me of that particular notion.
I was back on the school yard.  And so were the cliques.

Feeling cliquey

There's the Older Mums, who don't feel that they relate to the younger mums; the Young Mums who don't feel they relate to the older ones; the Working Mums, who are instantly recognisable by the high heels and tailored clothes, and the fact they are always rushing because they have to start before 9:15; the Earth Mothers, who usually come complete with at least one child strapped to their chest and always wear Birkensocks (for some reason these mums have a boy called Felix and they never cut his hair. Why? Why?) and the Yummy Mummies, who rock up to school every single day with a face full of slap, hair dried and straightened, looking immaculate.  
Even outside of these broad groupings there are minor, less stable cliques, based upon nothing more than the fact that we have children who are the same age.  We may have never spoken to one another except on that playground, yet we are thrust together every morning and every afternoon for at least five minutes until the kids come spewing out, arms waving, coats trailing, pony-tails skew-whiff.  

Not fitting in

Does any of this sound familiar? Try this anecdote for size:
It's quarter past three on the playground.  I hover at the perimeter; not because I'm too timid to walk straight into the centre, but because I have my dog with me and all canines are banned from the school yard.  As usual I'm red faced and a bit sweaty, having had to run part of the way because my time-keeping is appalling.  Because today I can't go onto the school yard, I'm forced to stand next to the Dog Owner Mums, a clique that I am most definitely NOT a member of.  They all have children in a higher year than my daughter, and this is the parental equivalent of looking down on lower school when you're in upper: They gave birth two years before me, and therefore are far more experienced and know far more than me.  To add insult to injury, their dogs are all well-behaved, and mine is, quite frankly, an embarrassment.  My two year old cocker spaniel is beside herself with excitement to be at school; a place teeming with people, new 
smells, and three new doggy friends nearby! One of them, a beautiful, dignified looking Husky, takes one step towards my dog to have a curious sniff.  
'Down,'  her owner snaps.  The Husky drops to the floor at once.  My dog is now choking herself - very audibly - in her desperation to get to the Husky, who is eyeing her with a look that blatantly says, 'you are a disgrace to the entire Dog Nation.'  The owner turns to give me a look that I believe carries a similar sentiment.
I spend the remaining five minutes until chuck-out time pondering the situation whilst pulling my dog away from each and every passer-by.  These are the conclusions I came to:
The school playground can be a place of hostility, unbridled bitchiness and rampant competitiveness.  But it can also be a place of great kindness, huge camaraderie and massive comfort during times of worry.  I have met some lovely, inspiring people during the past four years; people who I absolutely would never have met if it weren't for the random fact that our children were born in the same academic year.

We are all mothers

So what about the cliques then? thirty-five I'm certainly too old to be a young mum, but tooyoung to be considered amongst the ranks of the more mature mothers.  Being a full-time mum/homemaker/housewife/unemployed person (pick whichever phrase is most pleasing to you), I most definitely can't belong to the Working Mums, although maximum respect goes to them for getting it together day after day, when it's sometimes a challenge for me to do the breakfast dishes before I leave the house in the morning.  I really would love to be a Yummy Mummy of course, but such dedication is beyond me.  I consider it a result if I manage to get in the shower before I leave in the morning.  Which I suppose leaves me as an Earth Mother, for no other reason than that I actually do own a pair of Birkenstocks...

Friday, 29 August 2014

Wait til your Dad gets home! Why God as a father-figure is a problem

The phone rings:

"Hi Dad. It's me."
"Is Mum there?"
"Can I speak to her?"
"Yes...I'll put her on."

This is just about the only one-to-one conversation that my Dad and I have with each other since I moved out of home. Admittedly, my Dad is something of a relic from a forgotten era, and still views the telephone with bemused suspicion, but looking back, I don't think conversations were actually all that fulsome when I was still living under his roof.  Introverted and quiet by choice, for decades he has moved silently from his arm-chair, to his bike, to work, and then home again, to return to his arm-chair and the sanctuary provided by his newspaper.
He's just not much of a talker, but then again, he's never needed to be. Since the age of seventeen, he's been with my mother, and honestly, she can talk enough for both of them. She was - and still is - the conduit between my Dad and I.  If I need a shelf putting up ( my husband and I are complete DIY morons) then I ask Mum...and she TELLS Dad to come and do it.  Any familial news, trivial or earth-shattering, we tell Mum and in due course, she passes it on. This is our status-quo, and if I ever attempted to bypass her and go directly to Dad, she would probably feel quite put out, because that's just not how things are done in our family.

Dad the Father

 It's not that my Dad is a non-entity; quite the opposite in fact.  Because he is so taciturn, when he does say something everybody pays attention, unlike those of us who probably talk too much and have our superfluous conversation tuned out frequently.  Growing up, he played the role of traditional Dad; he went out to work and my Mum kept house and looked after my brother and I.  If we were naughty (which was regularly) we were often threatened with that old chestnut, "just you wait until your father gets home!" To which my brother and I would snigger, knowing full well that upon hearing of our crimes, his reaction would be something along the lines of, "Oh well...don't do it again then," before retreating behind his paper.  In our house, my mother was the true disciplinarian.  She punished us if we needed it; she was the one we went to if we were hurt, or scared, or lonely or bored,
 or whatever.  She took care of our needs, which were many and varied.  As a child, she was my whole world, and in many ways she still is.

God the Father

I don't want to denigrate Dads, least of all my own; it's just that my relationship with my Mum is so much more all encompassing and in many ways, more vital to my daily happiness.  Trying therefore to get my head around a God who is my Father, has often not been helpful to me in building and deepening my relationship with Him.  If I'm upset and need a calming arm around my shoulder, it is to my mother who I inevitably turn.  If I have a problem and desperately need advice, my mother is my first port of call.  My Dad loves me, and I know on an instinctive level that if I were to go to him
in any of the above scenarios, he would do his very best to comfort and help me.  Unfortunately, the
inter-change would be so excruciatingly embarrassing for both of us that I'd never consider putting
him through it. You perhaps see now why I have a hang-up in this area; it has the potential for creating rather awkward prayer moments.

God the Mother

Some nights, my prayer to God might be a request to embrace me with His love; to commit me to his tender loving care; to nurture my burgeoning faith and feed my hungry soul.  And really, aren't many of these words adjectives commonly reserved for Mothers? Let's indulge in the stereotype for a moment and consider who it is in our society who commonly does the nurturing and feeding and caring; whose love leans towards the tender side? It is mothers whom we more often than not turn to to meet these needs. Which makes me wonder why we don't focus more often on this clearly feminine aspect of God's character, or rather, why we give these characteristics a male hook to hang them on.

Problematic labels

The God of my childhood most definitely was a dominant male Father-figure, in the most traditional sense. This was the God of Sunday school, with an Old Testament bias and a concentration on judgment, punishment and repentance.  This then was my Christian heritage/ baggage that I had to unpack when I first started to seriously consider becoming a Christian as an adult.  It is an issue which continues to impede me on my journey of faith, for it is inconceivable to me that I should desire a personal relationship with a God who, quite frankly, terrified me as a child of four.  While my Dad is actually a pussy cat by comparison, the Father label then just doesn't cut it for me. But then ultimately, nor does the word Mother.

In the name of the Parent? 

In an ideal world parents would be the perfect double act.  They ought to complement one another and share out the duty of care and responsibility equally.  One parent might have a particularly gentle touch when it's needed, the other might be adept at standing firm; one might be a good listener; the other might be just the person to go to for advice.
I want to envision a God who epitomises all these qualities, and I want my vision to have no gender bias. This image of God would encapsulate the strengths and weaknesses of both sexes, for weren't we all made in His image, men and women? For me, this is a view of God that is far broader than I ever imagined as a child and it's one that I wouldn't mind forming a relationship with.
So for any any problems I have, I'll be offering them up to Him/Her.
For putting up shelves, I'll still be asking my Dad.

If you've got any thoughts on this, please do share them with me.  I'd particularly be grateful for any suggestions of reading material that might help me on my way. Thanks for reading.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Be honest: Being a Christian is hard work!

In less than two weeks time, my little boy starts school. For me, the transition from the lazy freedom of pre-school days to the regimented routine of Reception class, is utterly heart-breaking.  But observations about how clingy a parent I am and what this says about my need to control everything will be left for another post; what I actually want to write about is my son's perspective on starting school and how we've tried our best to make this life-change as positive for him as possible.  We've told him about all the fun activities he'll get to take part in, all the new friends he'll make, how lovely his new teacher is, and how grown up he'll be when he's at 'Big School,' just like his sisters.  We've waxed lyrical, we've enthused, and ultimately we've exaggerated. In short, we've lied, at least by omission.  Because at no point have we admitted that school might actually be a tad boring at times. At the very least it's restrictive, and will certainly preclude him from sitting at the kitchen table all morning with his play-doh, as well as being able to stroll round the park with his Mama and his baby brother.  Not to mention the fact that his treasured Spiderman t-shirt will be off-limits for five days of the week. I can't help but think that the reality of school; which we've built up hugely in an attempt to reassure him, will none-the-less be a major disappointment.  We've focused almost entirely on everything good about the experience and we've left out all of the bad.  I fear it's just not going to live up to expectations.

Fibbing by omission

I see a parallel here with the testimonies of many Christian people, particularly when they're focussed on evangelising people.  There is much talk of the difference that God will make to your life; how accepting Jesus will dispel fear and unhappiness; how his presence will be a constant source of joy to you, how communicating with God in prayer will unburden you, and how worship will uplift and sustain you.  I agree with all these things, and want to write that a belief in God has for me been utterly life-changing and transformational, though I'm obviously not done yet, not even by half! I just wish that someone had told me about all the other stuff...

Not all it's cracked up to be? 

Without a doubt, becoming a Christian is the hardest thing I've ever attempted to do, and I've got four children under the age of ten! Perhaps this is just another signpost pointing to me being a huge glutton for punishment ( I adore my children but I've not slept properly now for more than ten years) because being a Christian certainly doesn't make your life easier.  Sure, it's more fulfilled, more meaningful and more full of wonder than ever before, but easier? No way.  

Not so easy 

 I'd like to think that in terms of distance I wasn't a million miles away from living my life according to Christ's teachings; I tried to be honest, attempted to be thoughtful and sensitive to the needs of others and wouldn't have dreamt of cheating anyone.  But I have certain personality traits (we shall call them flaws) that make being a Christian really difficult.  Firstly, I have a vile temper and it's a real challenge some days to reign that in and apply myself in a way far more pleasing to a God who ultimately, would much rather I didn't fly off the handle and hurl angry epithets at other members of his treasured Creation.  Ok, so this doesn't happen often, but I really do struggle to maintain my new Christian aplomb sometimes, particularly if someone has upset one of my kids. The red mist descends and WWJD? is the last thing on my mind.  

But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! (Matthew 5:44.)

This edict presents me with my greatest challenge as a Christian.  People can be selfish, thoughtless, obstinate, rude, ignorant or just plain annoying (yes, even me!) and that's not even taking account of the people who are cruel, sadistic or murderous.  And Jesus wants me to love them?  With my Christian journey still very much in its infancy, I have to confess that I'm nowhere near fulfilling this command.  It's hard to not dislike those minor irritants who we encounter as we go about our day, such as the man in the white van who winds his window down to swear loudly at you because he cut you up at the roundabout, or the woman who 'tuts' really loudly at the supermarket and gives you the hairy eye-ball because you accidentally knocked her ever so slightly with your trolley.  This doesn't even include those truly heinous human beings, who have done things so terrible that they scarcely warrant that title. Love them? I try really hard each and every day to remember that these people - all of us - are God's children, and he loves us, one and all.  Some days, I'm lucky enough that I succeed, and I see the world through God's eyes; I see a person how He must see them, and the sense of familial affection is overwhelming.  Unfortunately, much of the time, particularly when someone has vexed me, my dominant thinking is: Sorry God...not today.  

Reality bites

Some days, I glibly wonder if becoming a Christian has actually made my life better after all, and I hanker pointlessly for that time, 'pre-God,' where the main point of reference for my behaviour was myself and I was free to dislike with impunity.  Least I wouldn't have so many things to be sorry for at the end of each day, nor would I have to endure a continuous sense of failure as I struggle to measure up to an apparently impossible moral yard stick. So yes, following Jesus is hard...but isn't it meant to be? I mean, at no point did Jesus himself claim that it was going to be an easy ride.  He makes it quite clear that following Him is going to be difficult: He says, 'Don't be surprised when I say you have to be born again...' And if I have to be born again, then perhaps part of me needs to die first? If a death is involved it's probably going to pinch a bit.

And you will know the truth...and the truth will set you free.' (John 8:32)

Would it have helped me to have been told from the get-go that this would be a struggle? That not only do I have to contend with my family and friends thinking that I've suddenly got a screw loose, as well as the weekly challenge of attempting to get four kids to church on a Sunday morning ("whaaaaat? Sunday is a pyjama day, right?!"), it's actually going to be hard? That's not a tempting proposition now that I come to think of it.  And choice would have still remained the same; I would have chosen to accept God into my life (or open myself to the reality that He was there all along) despite all the stuff that I find difficult, or irksome, or just plain inconvenient.  The most worth-while things in life are usually those things that have cost us something to attain; I'm thinking about the four kids again, in particular the collective eight days spent labouring. Ouch.
When the going gets tough whilst on your journey of faith; those times when you indulge in murderous thoughts about that obnoxious man who lives two doors down, or the BMW driver viciously tail-gating you on the M56.  Or when someone close to you is sick and you've prayed and prayed, and she's not getting any better, and you think, what IS the point? Forewarned is fore-armed and if you know in advance that it's coming, and that it's normal to feel that way, and that we've all been there, then you will find comfort in the knowledge that you're not alone; this is how it is sometimes...and that knowledge might just be enough to give you a stronger grip on the cross and to keep clinging on.

So...will I be telling my little boy that he might actually hate school? That his fellow pupils might not be delightful little children, that they might annoy him...or worse?  That his teacher might not be an angel and might actually expect him to sit still, be quiet and God Forbid, work hard?
Not on your nelly ; )

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Do I really need to be good?

It was the week before Christmas and the retail park where I'd come to do my last minute shopping was typically packed and teeming with shoppers.  I was five months pregnant with my first child and was trying to work out how to afford Christmas and still manage to buy all that I would need for my new baby.  While returning to my car I looked down and there it was: a clear, plastic bank bag, full of twenty pound notes. I gingerly picked it up and guiltily looked around; part of me imagining that Dom Joly or someone similar would yank the bag out of my hand with a fishing rod.  I didn't count it; I didn't have to. There were clearly many hundreds of pounds in the bag, possibly more.

What do you do?

The money would have made a huge difference to me. I could have bought much of what I needed for my new baby, which was actually a real worry at the time. But what of the stranger who had dropped it? I immediately imagined the sort of person who deals in cash, an elderly person perhaps or someone self-employed. They were probably frantic. They might have saved the money, bit by bit. Of that though, I knew nothing, and ultimately it didn't really matter what the money meant to them, or indeed how they themselves had come by it. It wasn't mine, case closed. I went into the shop nearest to where I found it and handed it in to the manager who assured me that they would hand it in to the Head of Security.

Pay it forward

As I drove away from the retail park I felt a warm glow of pride for having done what I knew to be the right thing.  I hoped that the person who it belonged to came back to claim it. More than that though, being of a sentimental disposition and with some half-baked notions of fate and karma, part of me really thought that something good might come of it, for me. I had done a good deed; I had acted unselfishly and therefore I might, in some small way, and not necessarily in a financial way, be rewarded.  Not really the definition of unselfish, huh?

How it really works

The following year was the worst of my life. All manner of personal tragedies struck me, and much, much later, I remembered the little plastic money bag and I thought, well that's just charming isn't it? Looking back at this episode with Christian eyes, I want to laugh at the blatant self-interest I displayed and then I want to cry at my naïveté.  To think that anything we do in this life somehow stores up cosmic brownie points, or increases our currency with God, at best represents a simplistic idea of how He works, and at worst shows really suspect motivation for doing anything good.

The Story of the Lost Son

This story, sometimes called the Story of the Prodigal Son, best sums up for me the idea of doing something good..and then expecting something good in return.  I've always struggled with this story and felt a huge sense of injustice on behalf of the son who is left at home.  Possibly because I have a brother who lives overeseas, whose visits back home are greeted by my mother with all the anticipation and ceremony of a visiting dignitary, whereas I, who can be seen any day of the week, never elicit such excitement.  But I digress into bitter rantings...back to the story of that other prodigal: He returns home after a prolonged absence, during which time he has frittered away his father's money, lived what Luke calls " a wild life," and then has to ignominiously return home, cap in hand.  Instead of being castigated for his monumental screw-up, the son is generously and lavishly welcomed home; his dad throws a party for him!  It can't only be me who identifies with the other son's sense of betrayal: He complains to his dad in Luke 15:29 - "all these years I've slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me!" He feels hard done by; he's been faithful and hard-working and he obviously expected something in return for his efforts: He bleats bitterly in Luke 15:29' "and yet in all that time you never even gave me one goat for a feast with my friends!"
(Ok, so the goat thing might be a distraction; think house party and a keg of beer instead.) Kind of like me with the money bag, this son has done what he thinks is the right thing, but he expects some kind of special reward for doing it. He's completely missed the point...just as I did.

"His father said to him, 'Look dear son, you have always stayed by me and everything I have is yours.'"

I suppose it's counter-intuitive (and counter- cultural too!) to do something without reference to your own self-interests but shouldn't that be the very essence of the Christian spirit? Isn't that why it's so hard?  This is what the son has to grapple with; he had his dad's love the whole time, he didn't have to earn it. And of course the opposite is true, as shown by the other son; there is nothing you can do to cause God to take that love away.

Do our actions matter at all then?

This was my question: if God loves me anyway, and I can't make Him love me more, and I can't make Him love me less, what is the point in trying to be good? In other words, I should have taken that wretched money! The "Anyway" prayer, often attributed to Mother Teresa and reportedly written on the wall of her room in Calcutta, is the best and simplest answer to this question. Take a look:

People are often illogical, unreasonable and self centred. Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful you will win some false friends and true enemies. Be successful anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
What you spend years building someone may destroy overnight. Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today people will forget tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may still never be enough. Give the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Lord, I am so small and your universe is so huge

"When I consider your Heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?" Psalm 8

I identify so completely with the thoughts of this psalmist; who indeed am I, or any one of us, that an all powerful God should care at all, or even notice us?  I hear the atheists clamouring to answer this question with a resounding, He doesn't, because He doesn't exist!  And yet, it was thoughts like this that made me start to question His existence in the first place.  The world is at times so beautiful, and my experience of it so achingly profound that I refuse to accept that all I am, all WE are, is a ragbag of cells and connections, with no greater meaning or purpose than the instinct to not die.
Is this because I'm over-sentimental? Emotionally flaky?  Terrified to face the 'blind, pitiless indifference' that Dawkins speaks of and therefore desperate to believe in anything to take away the 'sting' of death? Perhaps it's all those things...or perhaps not.

The world is a truly remarkable place, but it is our interaction and pointless enjoyment of it that is most incredible.  I write pointless, because there is no need for us to enjoy our environment; it isn't essential to my survival that I should find the smell of my garden after a summer rainstorm so intoxicating, or that certain music by Sigur Ros  should make my chest ache with bitter-sweet emotion when I hear it, or that I should be so moved and captivated by the minute perfection of my baby boy's hands. No, I enjoy these things because there is more to be had from my existence than mere survival.
 Is it so hard to believe that we really might be that incredible and unique, and yet fallible and broken...but still loved, and valued and eternally precious? Go with it. Live with the notion that you really are amazing.  You're no mistake. You are meant to be here. There is meaning woven into every part of your day. There's someone who is bigger than you, bigger than This, bigger than all of us.  And if that concept is too much for you, then perhaps I'm not the only one who's emotionally flaky...

Wake up sleeper! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you! - Ephesians 5:14

How much of life passes us by, while we're rushing around like headless chickens, attending to the mundane but necessary admin of our day? We are a household of six, and as a stay at home mum  much of the 'admin' naturally falls on me to attend to. Six people generate a lot of washing and cleaning and cooking.  I can spend an entire day simply picking up after people and lose count of the number of times I answer a child's request to play with them with the words, "yes, in a minute."  The guilt I often feel at the end of each day when I consider the things of value I could have accomplished, had I not gotten bogged down in the laundry or the endless dishes.
Our house is a place of noise; the kids shout, I shout back, baby cries; there are umpteen disputes and inevitably somebody gets whalloped, and I'm called to the scene of the crime to adjudicate.  When the noise finally ceases at bedtime, it's usually so late that I'm too tired to revel in it.
How does someone in my position find time for God? How do I fit Him into a life where four small people already make so many demands upon my time?
The answer of course is that I don't. God isn't something or someone to be fit into anywhere; he's too big and all encompassing for that.  Fitting God in; or worse, scheduling Him into my routine, is a tiny and altogether tawdry way of viewing Him.
I think it's actually the other way round...I must fit into God's way of doing things.  I must arrange my life around God's schedule.  Exactly what that means in practice, I'm not sure, but I know it won't involve a day spent plodding through housework like an automaton; it will involve being open to the potential of each new day; alive to the possibilities available to me and mine, and most of all, fully awake to the presence of God in my life, whether I'm on my knees in prayer or up to my elbows in dirty dish water...