Monthly Archives: May 2017

I simply remember…

It’s been another one of those weeks. I had a different blog post entirely, all ready to roll, and then…as John Lennon once pointed out, life happens while you’re making other plans. Or in this case, death and destruction does.

The people in Manchester had other plans. They went for a night out, to see a pop concert. To dance and sing and buy Ariana Grande merch and shriek and go wild and have fun. They never dreamed it would end in explosions, screaming of the wrong kind, desperate people trying to find their relatives. Their parents. Their children.

I said to someone earlier in the week, if I could begin to fathom how anyone gets the idea that their god wants them to kill little girls, I’d be working in criminal investigation. It simply is not comprehensible to the vast majority of us. We can say that fear and uncertainty make people cling to belief systems that stress rigidity, control and purity, and there’s good research that bears that out (and no, it doesn’t apply just to Islam, at all – not that this poisonous worldview is anything like the faith the majority of Muslims follow). We can try to understand, but on a human level, words fail us.

There are things we can do. We can refuse to let ourselves be ruled by hatred and a need for revenge. We can shun the generalisation that makes everyone who looks or dresses a certain way a potential source of violence and fear. We can reach out. We can see the people who held onto what it means to be human: the police, the firefighters, the homeless guy who aided the injured, the Muslim cab driver who ferried kids to meet their parents for nothing, the Sikh shopkeeper handing out free soft drinks to the mourners at the memorial.

And we can hold onto what’s good in life. What’s real. What matters. The things they wanted to kill: music, fun, families, friends, laughter, community. And the myriad of small things that make life worth living.

The BBC Radio 4 series, Soul Music, looks each week at a piece of music – a classical aria, a pop song, a favourite hymn – that has meant something deep and special to various people. This week’s choice happened to be a song that I’ve known myself since childhood, thanks to a primary school music teacher who had a thing about Broadway musicals. Mrs McManus, I salute you – even though it must have sounded weird for the parents, hearing a choir of eight-year-olds singing ‘Sixteen Going On Seventeen’, long before any of us knew what a roué or a cad was – for making sure that, at forty-hem-hem, I still know all the lyrics to every song in The Sound of Music. And in particular, to ‘My Favourite Things’.

It sounds super corny, but Maria von Trapp’s philosophy for calming frightened kids as a storm rages outside isn’t a bad one at all, for many negative circumstances. For one thing, it’s distracting. When you’re out of immediate danger, but still have dread and anxiety hanging over you, keeping your thoughts occupied with the small blessings of life can stop you ruminating.

But perhaps there’s even more to it than that. C.S. Lewis once had his learned devil, Screwtape, complain that humans, pesky creatures that they are, can be kept from the kind of mindless conformity that often leads to evil, simply by their apparently trivial tastes and preferences:

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack… I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

Fear tries to paralyse us from enjoying life and being human with each other. Fearful and violent and greedy worldviews – be they from religions or governments or commercial interests or just people who’d like to control us for their own ends – don’t trust joy. So to get back to the grounding of our selves, those favourite things are a lot more important than you might think.

Julia Cameron is thinking of this when she suggests that blocked artists make a list of a hundred things they love. It’s not a bad exercise for anyone who feels life isn’t moving forward as it should. But you have to be very specific.

Fresh mango.
Sunlight on old polished wood.
The fuzzy bit on the top of a chaffinch’s head.
Nirvana’s
MTV Unplugged in New York.
Pesto pizza from Hot Mama’s on East Pine.
The smell of the earth after rain.
Walking barefoot on cool terracotta tiles.
Seeing people with wild coloured hair.
Feta cheese.
Passing an unexpected patch of bluebells.

Not things of great consequence (except the Nirvana Unplugged set, that killed MTV from the inside, I’m telling you). But things that make the world a little more bearable for me.

You’ll have your own list, and it’ll alter over time. But take the time to make one, often, and see if it doesn’t change your mood, just a little.

There have been a few covers of the song, and one of the more famous ones is by this gentleman, who’d been to some dark places and come out the other side with his joy intact. So here’s John Coltrane. Because whatever happens, life, and love, are what wins.

Whatever you call us

Let’s talk about words. Words are important.

A great many words get thrown around these days online, some of them more stinging than others. It’s not uncommon, now, for people to turn round and call you a bully, or worse, for calling them a racist…even when they’ve demonstrated the fact by doing things like, you know, supporting someone who says he wants to build a wall to keep out all those rapists and drug dealers from south of the border.

But the words they fling back at you, like so much monkey poop, are uglier still. Is there any kind of creative magic we can work on this sort of ugliness?

We could take a cue from the groups of people who are already defending their rights. Some people of colour take pride in using the n-word to describe themselves. LGBT people unabashedly use the term queer as an identifier. Some feminists have reclaimed derogatory terms like bitch and slut. The Fat Acceptance movement prefers their F-word to any of the euphemisms a diet-obsessed culture tiptoes round it with. Some people with mental illnesses have adopted the term Mad Pride, and a lovely friend of mine, a wheelchair user with MS (sadly now departed from this plane) used to refer to her ‘crip rights’. It takes time, but adopting and using the terms other people have used to ‘other’ you can be effective.

With that in mind, can we deconstruct some of the insults spewing from the nastier corners of the Web today, turn them around and reclaim them as something more positive? I think we can. Consider these…

Liberal. I for one simply cannot understand why this is considered an insult these days…except, of course, by anyone for whom liberals are those nasty people who want to allow non-Christian religions and not allow you to take a gun into your local kindergarten. The word itself comes from the Latin liber, free. Same root as Liberty. Gosh. Liberal itself is a synonym for allowing, generous, relaxed. Remind me what’s so bad about that?

SJW. This, of course, is an acronym for Social Justice Warrior. Yup, apparently fighting for social justice – you know, striving to follow in the footsteps of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, and Angela Davis, and Harvey Milk, and many other brave people who wanted the world to be a better, more equal place – is now a negative thing. Who knew? Personally, I don’t think you have to be a Warrior of social justice if that’s not your natural role…others are available. The world will always need Social Justice Bards, after all.

White knight. This is mostly used by those charming gentlemen (cough! cough!) of the ‘Men’s Rights Activist’ movement, which i won’t describe here if you don’t already know about it, but let’s just say it’s less about fighting for actual issues that affect men and more about yelling at feminists. They mean a man who, in their eyes, rides in to ‘rescue’ pathetic whiny females when we’re beaten by their, the MRAs’, infallible masculine logic (COUGH!). Dubious colour symbolism (and equally dubious morality of actual medieval knights) aside, I think we should be glad when people with privilege act as allies to people who lack privilege. We used to call that being a decent human being.

PC. For Politically Correct, which quality in British tabloid newspapers must always legally have the words ‘gone mad’ attached to it. Much as people would love to think it means Muslims getting pictures of bacon sandwiches banned from Facebook, political correctness is a mockers’ term for recognising people’s differences and treating them with respect. Which we also used to call being a decent human being. Notice a theme developing here?

Cuck. Ah, this one. This is surely a harder one to deal with, isn’t it? Ultimately from the old term cuckold, meaning a man whose wife is unfaithful to him (derived from cuckoos laying their eggs in other birds’ nests); used as an insult, it implies that you’re ‘unmasculine’ or weak. I think of what the mother of modern witchcraft, Doreen Valiente, said about the curious tradition of the cuckold being depicted with horns on his head. Was it, she speculated, that horns once symbolised the pagan Horned God, and that the sexually liberated women he consorted with made his horns, to later morality, a symbol for any man who’d been humiliated by ‘his’ woman’s infidelity? It’s folklore, but it’s a good story. And if the people who hate you use terms that show they’re in favour of controlling and owning other human beings, you have to figure you’re doing something right.

Snowflake. Aren’t we all delicate, fragile little things, they argue, melting away at the slightest hint of an insult? Well, clearly these people have never actually had much acquaintance with snow. It looks pretty, but enough of it can block roads and delay trains…and in the right place, cause an avalanche. Plus, put enough pressure on it and it becomes ice…and ice can, given enough time, carve out whole valleys and fjords. Snowflakes are unique and lovely and powerful, and you underestimate them at your peril.

These aren’t the only ugly terms you’ll hear out there. Feel free to take any others you find and claim them for yourself. Take the words and make them into something. Write them in postcards. Print them on a T-shirt. Or use whatever creative arts you use. (This piece of beading is going to become a pin brooch.)

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Above all, remember: you define yourself. You don’t have to believe what they say you are. And if they can use words against you, you can use them right back.

Julian of Norwich: a cosmic optimist

Today, an introduction to a local heroine of mine.

Living in East Anglia as I have for twenty years or so, my nearest – and favourite – city to go to on a weekend is Norwich. Norwich has a famous and impressive cathedral, but it also has a multitude of smaller medieval churches: some converted into galleries, music venues and in one case, a Puppet Theatre, and some still used for their original purpose.

Just off Rouen Road, up a side street where you might easily miss it, stands the church of St Julian the Hospitaller, the patron saint of wayfarers. Rebuilt after damage in World War II, the church has a small room attached to one side of the nave. In the 14th century, this cell was for many years the home of a remarkable lady who wrote the first book by a woman in the English language, but whom most people hadn’t heard of until a few decades ago.

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Julian of Norwich – her statue shown here on the front of Norwich Cathedral –  was an anchorite: an unusual calling today, but pretty common then. She took religious vows like a nun – of poverty, chastity and obedience, but also of solitude. After a ceremony in which she had the funeral rites read over her to show she was dead to the world, she spent her life mostly in this one room, and in an attached walled garden. She had a window into the church to take communion, and another curtained one onto the street where passers-by could come to receive spiritual counsel from her. She had a couple of servant girls to do errands in the outside world. And because the Ancrene Riwle, the instruction book for anchorites, recommends keeping a cat, Julian’s usually depicted with one. She would have spent her days in prayer, meditation, reading, and probably needlework on church vestments or garments for the poor.

Julian took up this life after a dramatic experience that she describes in her book, Shewings. When she was about thirty, in 1373, she was taken so seriously ill that her mother fetched in the local priest to give her the Last Rites. But when he held up a crucifix in front of her face, she had a series of visions so profound that they changed her life. She recovered completely, and spent her years of near-solitude pondering her visions and their meaning.

We don’t know much about her background. She wasn’t a nun before her illness; at her age, she’d have long been married with children, but the Black Death had been ravaging England and she may have lost her family to it. We’re fairly sure she was literate (she claims she ‘knows no letters’, but that probably just meant she couldn’t write in Latin), which shows she was middle-class. One theory I like is that she may have been the daughter of a cloth merchant – Norwich was very big in the wool trade, and there’s a fair amount of textile-related imagery in Julian’s book. Like most anchorites, she took the name of her church’s patron saint, so we don’t know her original name. But her personality shines through the text.

Shewings translates from the original Middle English as A Revelation of Divine Love, and that’s the overriding theme of it. As a medieval Catholic, her visions, triggered by that crucifix, involve a lot of the gory details of the death of Christ. But they also contain some striking dialogues with the living divine presence, and some equally striking imagery. Julian pictures herself walking at the bottom of the sea and knowing herself to be perfectly safe in God’s protection. She tells a parable of God as a master who sends his servant on an errand, but can’t be angry at him when he accidentally falls into a ditch. She pictures the world as a hazelnut held in the palm of her hand – a tiny thing, yet sustained by love. And she affirms that divine providence really does think of everything:

A man walks upright, and the food in his body is held in, as in a very fine purse. And when his time of need comes, the purse is opened and closed again, in the most seemly manner. And it is God who does this; as is shown, when it is said that he comes down to us in our humblest need.

Yes, you did just read that right: Julian is saying that God’s love for humankind is shown in the remarkable way we’re able to take a dump. (Pathology geek note: the comparison of that part of the anatomy to a purse’s drawstring opening was used in medical texts at the time, another indication that Julian knew her books. It’d be interesting to know what she’d have made of Martin Luther, who was said to have had conversations with Satan while sitting on the privy…)

There are two features of Julian’s book that modern readers are probably drawn to, though. The first is her description of God as ‘our Mother’. Female imagery for the Divine, even within the Abrahamic traditions, isn’t unknown – witness Jesus himself longing to gather Jerusalem under his wings like a mother hen – but it’s so often either been overlooked, or actively suppressed, that hearing it feels radical.

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The other is her famous assertion that ‘all shall be well’. Although Julian’s times really needed this sort of hope – the Black Death I already mentioned, but there was also ongoing war between England and France, and from her cell Julian wouldn’t just have been able to smell fish from the docks just downhill, but the faint aroma of burning heretics – she didn’t just mean it in a here-and-now sense. Her optimism was cosmic in its scale. In her faith, you got eternity with God in Heaven if you believed and repented, everlasting torment in hell if you didn’t. Julian was deeply troubled at the idea of eternal suffering, but in her vision, Christ affirmed that ‘I will make all things well’ – that somehow, at the end of it all, everything would be made good and whole and healed. That, to use the phrase from Judaism, tikkun olam, the healing of the world in which we all participate would one day be accomplished.

She comes to the brink, in fact, of affirming that everyone – including Jews, Muslims and pagans – would be saved, somehow, without violation of free will or Church doctrine. Universalism was a heresy, and Julian was canny enough to know that it might too easily be the smell of her burning flesh drifting across the River Wensum. So she trod veeeery carefully…so much so that the monks who transcribed her words later left stern warnings in the comments about making sure you kept to Church doctrine, and you still come across evangelicals today who rage about her ‘sentimentality’ (meaning she puts human feelings ahead of rigid dogma, and hooray for that).

Julian, perhaps because that aroma of heresy clings to her, has never officially been canonised as a saint, although many churches keep her feast day on May 8th, the day on which she had her visions. But I don’t think you need officialdom to affirm anyone’s sacredness, and Julian has become a guide and comforter to many people, of all faiths and none, who read her book and visit her shrine every year. As a Pagan who, nevertheless, can draw inspiration from plenty of places outside my own spiritual remit, I find in her a fellow writer (a task that always involves solitude), a woman with a message in a time when women’s voices were dismissed and sidelined, a rebel with a cause who managed to rock the boat just enough to not fall out, and a visionary with one foot in the real world who had to try and bring her visions down to earth into a form other people might be able to understand.

But I’ll leave you with her words:

Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed He thee? Love. Wherefore shewed it He? For Love. Hold thee therein and thou shalt learn and know more in the same. But thou shalt never know nor learn therein other thing without end.

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(This portrait of Julian is from the mural of the Dancing Saints in St Gregory’s Episcopalian Church in San Francisco, a church with views almost as eclectic as my own on what makes for sacredness. You can find out more about the mural here.)

And while the songwriter Sydney Carter is best known for ‘Lord of the Dance’, he also wrote this, about Julian and her hope: