“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Monday, 28 September 2015

Holding It All Together

The last few weeks have been emotional for me, for both happy and sad reasons. There has been the joy of attending Summer School, which never fails to refresh my spirits and feed my soul, and  a peaceful week away in my beloved Peak District with my husband.

I have also been happy to know that my children-no-longer-children are embarking on new phases of their lives - my daughter is moving into a flat with her boyfriend as she starts her final year at University in Sheffield, and my son is spending an Erasmus year studying at the Charles University in Prague. I could not be prouder of them or happier for them. They have grown up into unique, strong, independent young people, and that is good.

But I am also suffering from empty nest syndrome - most of the time, I'm fine, but just occasionally, I miss one or the other or both of them like fury, and this boils over into tears. Daft, I know, but I cannot help it. And I am mourning the loss of my cousin, who died in June, and of a dear friend, who died at the beginning of the month. Both were in their fifties, both taken too young. Both much missed.

On Saturday, I spent the morning at a training day about leading a good funeral service - part of the Rites of Passage course I'm currently running in the District. It was wonderfully led by my friend and colleague, Ant Howe, and included a short memorial service, during which we could remember our own lost loved ones, while he held the space for us.

I went straight from there down the M40 to attend the joyous handfasting of a dear friend and her lovely OH. The main ceremony was conducted outside, according to the Wiccan tradition, and was followed by morris dancing and a delicious shared meal. It was a truly blessed occasion.

What I am in awe of is the capacity of human beings to hold all these emotions together at one time, and not actually burst! Over the last few weeks, my mood has swung between joy and sorrow, contentment and grief, often in the course of one day. It is so lovely (even if it is sometimes hard) to feel what I am feeling, and not to have numbed it with alcohol. I celebrated my second soberversary at the beginning of the month, which is a source of lasting contentment.

And so I am grateful, even for the hard bits, because I know I would not feel the pain of loss so keenly, if I did not love greatly.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Compassion, Not Judgement; Compassion, Not Fear

For the last few weeks, our television screens, newspapers, and Facebook feeds have been full of horrifying images of Syrian refugees, who have fled from the civil war which has been raging in their country for the last four years. Then one image, of a small three-year-old boy, lying dead, face down at the edge of the water on a Turkish beach, seems to have touched the hearts and minds of British people. His name was Aylan Kurdi, and he and his five-year-old brother and his mother all lost their lives in their family's bid for asylum.

photo by Nilufer Demir / Reuters
As Somali poet Warsan Shire points out: "You have to understand, that no-one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land. No-one burns their palms under trains, beneath carriages; no-one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck feeding on newspaper, unless the miles travelled mean something more than journey ... No-one leaves home unless [they know that] anywhere is safer than here."

These people are not economic migrants; they are refugees seeking asylum from the horrors they have experienced. All they want is a place of safety, where their houses will not be bombed, their young men kidnapped to fight for the regime, or members of their families killed. The charity Mercy Corps explains: "According to the UN, more than half of all Syrian refugees are under the age of 18. The youngest are confused and scared by their experiences, lacking the sense of safety and home they need. The older children are forced to grow up too fast, finding work and taking care of their family in desperate circumstances."

Not economic migrants, refugees.

The article on the Mercy Corps website makes for sobering reading. Four million Syrian refugees are currently in five host countries, including over 1.5 million in Turkey, over 1,150,000 in Lebanon, where one in five people are now Syrian refugees, nearly 625,000 in Jordan, where the figure is 1 in 13, and Iraq, and Egypt, who have also given hundreds of thousands of refugees shelter, at least at a very basic level. But their living conditions are far from adequate - people are living with no heat or running water, no proper sanitation, and are facing a very bleak future. At this rate, the United Nations predicts that there could be 4.27 million Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 - the worst exodus since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago.

So the numbers seeking to come to Europe are a tiny fraction of those seeking safety. And I have just heard that Germany has agreed to take 800,000 of those. Many humanitarian organisations, including Mercy Corps, the Red Cross, Medecin Sans Frontieres, are partnering with the United Nations, using both private contributions and funding from the international community to actively address the needs of Syrians caught up in this terrible disaster. But so much more needs to be done.

Each one of these refugees is a person, a human being, not just a number, not just a nuisance. The United Nations estimates that more than half of the country's pre-war population of 23 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, whether they are still in Syria, or have escaped across the borders.

So we need to show compassion, not judgement; compassion, not fear. Compassion is not about being safe; it is about putting ourselves at risk, about letting down the guards around ourselves. It is we who have to be the change we want to see in the world. We who have to take responsibility for our own actions - to become activists, where we are. Because every little makes a difference.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Tribute to Tyndale

Yesterday my husband and I went down to London for the day, but not to see the Queen. The morning was devoted to visiting an exhibition called Treasures of the British Library, which was free to all comers.

It was absolutely marvellous, and took us well over two hours to get round. Of course, there was a section of sacred texts in amongst everything else, and we saw a copy of the Codex Alexandrinus, one of the three oldest extant Bibles in the world; some stunningly beautiful illuminated Qur'ans and Bibles, and the Bedford Book of Hours, which was so richly illustrated, it took the breath away.

The exquisite Bedford Book of Hours
But the item which moved me the most was  a little book, measuring about 4 inches across and 6 inches tall. It was one of three remaining copies of the Tyndale New Testament, which had been published in 1526, in Worms, because he had had to flee from England.

A page from the 1526 edition of Tyndale's New Testament
My lovely book about the Bible by Gordon Campbell calls William Tyndale 'the father of the English Bible'. He was responsible for producing the first complete New Testament in English, and had also partly translated the Old Testament, when he was executed for heresy in Belgium in 1536. Two years before that, he had produced a revision of his New Testament, about which Campbell comments "it has been estimated that 83 per cent of the KJV [King James Version] published in 1611 derives from Tyndale, either directly or indirectly through other Bibles."

Two things moved me about actually seeing it - one was that I knew he had died because of his passion for making the text of the Bible widely available in English; and the other was that as I bent to decipher the close-set text, I could suddenly feel how amazing it must have been to be an ordinary English person (or at least one of the minority who could read) and to be able to actually read the sacred text of my religion in my own tongue for the first time, and no longer have to rely on the priest to tell me what the Bible said and taught. It must have been truly awesome.

I am so grateful to the British Library for putting on this sort of exhibition, free for all to attend. Long may it flourish!

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Feelings of Pronoia

It really was such a delicious feeling, to discover a new word today, whose meaning (whether it is true or not) really speaks to my condition.

I just got back from leading worship at Oxford Unitarians, and was feeling pretty darn chipper anyway. So I turned the computer on, to check my e-mails and have my customary squint at Facebook. To be confronted with a lovely post from a friend, which she in her turn had shared from somebody called Anthony Smith:

"My new favourite word is Pronoia (the opposite of paranoia). It's the belief that everything in the universe is conspiring to support you."

My heart instantly leapt in recognition - yes, I do believe that this is what the universe is like, oftener than we might believe.

And yet I had never heard it before. So I put it into google, as you do, and was surprised to find multiple references, including a dedicated website pronoia.net. Somebody called Rob Brezsny has written a book called Pronoia is the Antidote to Paranoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings. Here is an excerpt from it, quoted by the website Free Will Astrology

"DEFINITION: Pronoia is the antidote for paranoia. It's the understanding that the universe is fundamentally friendly. It's a mode of training your senses and intellect so you're able to perceive the fact that life always gives you exactly what you need, exactly when you need it.

OBJECTIVE OF PRONOIA: To explore the secrets of becoming a wildly disciplined, fiercely tender, ironically sincere, scrupulously curious, aggressively sensitive, blasphemously reverent, lyrically logical, lustfully compassionate Master of Rowdy Bliss.

HYPOTHESES: Evil is boring. Cynicism is idiotic. Fear is a bad habit. Despair is lazy. Joy is fascinating. Love is an act of heroic genius. Pleasure is your birthright. Receptivity is a superpower.

PROCEDURE: Act as if the universe is a prodigious miracle created for your amusement and illumination. Assume that secret helpers are working behind the scenes to assist you in turning into the gorgeous masterpiece you were born to be. Join the conspiracy to shower all of creation with blessings.

GUIDING QUESTION: "The secret of life," said sculptor Henry Moore to poet Donald Hall, "is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is -- it must be something you cannot possibly do." What is that task for you?"

It all sounds a little bizarre. But then I noticed that the book also suggests a daily practice, which I find quite interesting:

"DAILY PRACTICE: Push hard to get better, become smarter, grow your devotion to the truth, fuel your commitment to beauty, refine your emotional intelligence, hone your dreams, negotiate with your shadow, cure your ignorance, shed your pettiness, heighten your drive to look for the best in people, and soften your heart -- even as you always accept yourself for exactly who you are with all of your so-called imperfections."

I really cannot argue with any of that. Maybe more of us need to become pronoiac (which is apparently the preferred adjective). Maybe it might make the world a happier place ... who knows?

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Lamentation for a Lost Way of Life

Yesterday I had a physiotherapy appointment for my poorly knee. The physiotherapist was looking at my MRI scan on her computer when I asked the question "So when will I be able to run again?"

Her answer was one word. "Never.". And I instantly dissolved into tears, as the finality of that judgement sank into my heart. Apparently the meniscus is already damaged, and the way I walk ("very poor mechanics") makes matters worse. If I persist in running, it will compromise my current ability to walk pain-free, and eventually I will need a knee replacement, probably sooner rather than later.

It was so hard to hear this. Running has been a huge part of my life for the last sixteen years, ever since I decided that I wanted to get fit before my fortieth birthday. Well, now I am 55, and my running days are over. In the last few years, I haven't run many races (my peak year being 2004, when I completed the London Marathon), but I have been able to go out three times a week for two or three miles, and to come back feeling on top of the world.

And now I can't do it again. Ever. The pain is hard to bear.

A part of me is trying to rationalise the pain away - come on, it could be worse, at least you can still walk or cycle. You haven't been diagnosed with cancer or heart disease or Crohn's or MND or any one of a number of hideous, life-changing conditioins. Your life is not threatened. Get a grip.

I know that over the next few weeks, I will come to terms with this change in my life. I will keep searching until I find an alternative form of exercise that makes me feel good about myself. But I doubt that any will match up to the simple joys of putting one foot in front of another - of running.

Just now, the words, "Once I was a runner" are the saddest in the world. I can feel the grief settling into my bones. And so I am lamenting a lost way of life, a lost source of happiness. I am finding it difficult to discern where God is in all this. He/She seems to be altogether absent.

Except perhaps in the sure knowledge that this too shall pass. Which I will cling onto, in the days ahead.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Finding the Courage

There are times in everyone's life when we feel scared, not brave enough, and want to run away and hide, from whatever situation we find ourselves in. It is certainly true of me.

This morning, a friend of mine posted a lovely reflection on Facebook, which got me thinking about what courage is, and where it might be found. He wrote:

"The special form of lovely when the result of someone believing in you, when you yourself didn't, helps you to find courage you didn't know you had."

My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines courage as "Bravery, boldness", for me this implies some form of heroism and derring-do. Like facing down a mountain lion or some other daring deed. The sort of thing that James Bond might do, as a matter of routine.

But I believe with my friend that courage can be found in some very unlikely places. In her wonderful book The Gifts of Imperfection, BrenĂ© Brown explains that "Courage originally meant 'To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.' ...Speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we're feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. ... Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today's world, that is pretty extraordinary."

"Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line."  It's about being brave enough to reach out for help; to admit that actually, we don't know; that we aren't ready for this yet; or that we're feeling rubbish. It is also about feeling the fear and doing it anyway, to quote a book title by Susan Jeffers. It can be about taking that first vital step on a new path, about moving out of your comfort zone and into the unknown. This kind of courage is the quiet sort of everyday courage, and if you start looking for it, you'll find it everywhere.

And the lovely thing is, if we can be brave enough to "speak our minds by telling all our hearts", this will often be met with empathy, understanding and support. Even perhaps relief - because sometimes when we share that we're feeling scared or inadequate in some way, it allows other people to admit their own vulnerability too.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Feeding the Passions

When Gordon Campbell's book, 'Bible: the story of the King James Version' was published to mark the quatercentenary of the KJV in 2010, I can remember looking at the hardback wistfully in Blackwells, and then remembering that I didn't buy hardbacks any more, and that I'd wait for the paperback.

And then, of course, I forgot all about it. Until I ran across it again a couple of weeks ago, and bought it on impulse. Yesterday evening, I finally got around to starting it.

There was the usual thrill of starting any new book that only fellow reading addicts will understand - the excitement of turning to the first page and starting to read, knowing that by the time you finish it, you will not be the same person you were when you started. But this was something special. Reading it feeds two passions of mine - the old enchantment around rare books and the history of printing and publishing that goes back to my Library School days, and a growing fascination with the Bible, in terms of both content and history.

I know that most people will think I am decidedly odd for getting so excited about reading an academic book. But I'm happy. Back in a few days. Bliss!