The Bimble-berries

New term. New opportunities and challenges. New relationships to navigate. I think one of life’s epiphanies is realising that that how people treat you is much more about what’s going on for them than anything particularly to do with you. But as a school child it’s hard to hold onto that. This story has no bearing on any individuals or events in particular, it’s just a word picture about how we relate to each other. 

“Mary came home from school, flung her bag across the floor and stomped upstairs. Her Grandfather watched from the corner. Her CD player went on. It was loud.  She came back down to look for something and he could see she had been crying. He drew her to his knees, smoothed the hair away from her face (she had a habit of chewing it) and asked. “Did I ever tell you about the Bimbleberries?”

“No, Grandfather” she sighed. She didn’t think she was very interested. Grandfather came out with all these odd stories of creatures he’d studied as a scientist. But she hadn’t been able to settle to anything upstairs so she might as well listen. Besides, she was fond of him and didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

“I was shown them by a friend who was studying creatures in a pond. One day, beyond the usual insects, something else caught his attention. It was a writhing mass that looked like a  bunch of tadpoles had hatched but stayed connected and he started to examine them more carefully.

They seemed to be joined together through tentacles that emerged from the under their bodies, if you could call it a body, that is. There seemed to be no limit to the number of tentacles they had attached to other ones. He realised they weren’t writhing at all – each tentacle was moving quite slowly, but the mass of them together gave the impression of constant movement. The only way he could describe their bodies was translucent blueberries. Because they were moving so slowly, he called them “Bimbleberries”.

“It sounds gross, Grandfather.” Mary was unimpressed. Why on earth was Grandfather wittering on about this odd and unpleasant sounding pondlife.

Grandfather went on to explain the connections between the Bimbleberries. Using a powerful magnifying glass, his scientist friend could see that the tentacles emerged from a soft underbelly  – almost like a jellyfish. They seemed to move of their own accord, feeling around for other tentacles to cling to. Once they met, they started to intertwine, like strands of bindweed. Intertwining tentacles made a chord. He could see that bodies of those with strong chord looked fatter and healthier, so he guessed that the chords  – where the tentacles intertwined, were how they got their nutrients.

Mary was getting impatient. “So, we’re talking about a creature that’s a cross between a see-through blueberry, a jellyfish and a tadpole with a bunch of strings attached”. “That’s right”, smiled Grandfather. “I bet you could do an amazing picture of them”. Mary shrugged.

“You’ll like the names he gave them.” said Grandfather. “What, Fred, Bob and George the tadpolefishberry?” retorted Mary.  What about one called Dave. Daddy calls everything he doesn’t know the name of Dave.”

“Well Dave could be a good name for a Buzzberry”, mused Grandfather.

The healthy ones, with strong, intertwined chords were called Buzzberries. The stronger the chords, the healthier the Bimbleberry. Strong chords could be tugged and tested, and withstand a bit of fraying at the edges without breaking the connection. 

But they weren’t all Buzzberries. There were some that weren’t as big  – they had dents in as though they weren’t getting enough nutrients. Their tentacles were a bit more straggly and the chords they made were more fragile.  One day when he was watching, he saw a smaller one put out  a tentacle towards another one. They seemed to intertwine at first, but then snap – the tentacle of the second one had been retracted so quickly, it stung the first one, leaving it raw and jagged and hanging loosely. He saw that if that happened to a Bimbleberry a lot, its outside layer went from being soft to brittle, and it developed the dents. The sad thing was that the tentacles they put out became wispier and weaker over time, so it was harder for them to form strong chords. He called them the Brittleberries.

“What happened to them?” Asked Mary. “Well some of them didn’t stay Brittleberries” If they managed to make good connections they could grow into healthy Buzzberries. But the ones that didn’t sometimes became “Bristlers”. That was the name he gave for those who seemed to be inflicting the most damage on the chords around them- wrapping their tentacles so forcefully around another tentacle, thatt it broke, or starved the other Bimbleberry nutrients. Because of the constant movement, things could always change. Broken chords could be mended, but they would grow back more hesitantly. Bristlers didn’t have to stay bristlers but it would take some good strong chords before they could grow softer again.

Mary had forgotten her troubles by this point, and was comfortably nestled on his lap, with her mind in the world of the pond Grandfather was describing. His next words brought her back with a bump.

“He did say that smaller bimbleberries seemed to be able to sting each other quite badly. Particularly if two tentacles were forming what looked like it could be a strong chord and then one of them pulled away suddenly.”

“I felt like a Brittleberry today” Mary said softly.

Grandfather hugged her close. “I could tell” he said.

As she let herself relax, something seemed to be filling Mary up from inside. Whatever happened the next day, she knew that she had that strong chord holding her steady. And because of that, she knew she would also be on the look out for any Brittleberries she might help.” 

 

 

Moved to tears

I didn’t expect to cry today. Worry and irritation, I expected, and exhaustion I knew would appear – all the normal emotions associated with taking two children to London in a pandemic (I have a hair chewer and a finger nibbler). But nothing prepared me for the sheer wall of emotion I felt within minutes of arriving at mile 12 of the London Landmarks Half Marathon and turned to face the oncoming stream of runners. There was no jostling for a view, and no press of the pack to lessen the blow – we could make eye contact for a good 10 seconds with any runner on our side of the street. We were there in good time – nearly half an hour before our runner (my husband) turned up. The emotional impact was astonishing.

Being a half marathon, the elite runners had gone early and any seriously elite would of course be in Tokyo. The vast majority of runners were wearing charity vests, and of these I spotted only one charity that wasnt related to illness or bereavement. Macmillan and Tommys were out in force – along with Cancer Research, British Heart Foundation, every individual cancer support charity, MIND, Grief Encounters etc. Many runners had the names of who they were running for on their vest. Many didn’t have the profile you might expect from a runner comfortable with 13 miles at a stretch and by mile 12, you could see the strain. But they kept going.

I don’t think anything could more forcibly reject the hideous quotation that one man’s death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic. The emotional weight of the stories held by those runners was overwhelming in its volume – within minutes the tears were flowing and I had to force myself to look for the names on the vests and start calling them out – as soon as I saw a charity vest relevant to my friends or family, I choked up again.

Why? Why an utterly unbidden and unexpected outpouring of such intensity watching a bunch of ordinary people put one foot in front of another? It wasn’t just sympathy for the runners – I didn’t know their stories, I just knew that so many of them had them. I don’t think it was just a response to the fact it was clearly a challenge. It felt more like a stripping away of any of life’s trappings to something raw and something real: That suffering inspires a response, and that response can be a statement of hope. That every life has its own unique significance, regardless of how long it is for – the Tommy’s team was testament to that alone. That whilst nothing could ever make up for the loss of a loved one, or a traumatised childhood, our response can be one of compassion – to reach out in determination to redeem the experience even of complete strangers. To respond to the gut wrenching pain by striving to make it better somehow.

My husband was running for NACOA- the National Association of Children of Alcoholics – and the funds raised by the team should finance the operations of their helpline for children for the best part of a year. I know his story and why this means so much to him. I don’t know the stories of the hundreds of others we saw today. But I applaud them all and am grateful to them for seeing something that prompted such an appreciation of the rawness and the depths of life.

The children grew vociferously hungry, and normality quickly resumed.

Etched in Eternity

When something important ends – a friendship withering through distance, a career abruptly terminated, or even a bereavement that tragically ends a relationship, it is hard to put words around their enduring value when they cease to be a daily reality. My daughter once described colouring a picture as ‘bringing it to life’ and that idea inspired this reflection on my belief that everything matters and has eternal value.

Etched in Eternity

“The world is like a drawing, outlined in black and white; and our lives inhabit different parts of the picture, sometimes adding intricate colour or subtle shading or sometimes just a grubby smudge.

With every life a little more detail is added, reflecting and reacting to what was there when it arrived and contributing something entirely unique.

The beauty of each contribution bears no relation to the passage of time: A fleeting moment can shed the brightest illumination or a lengthy drawn out scrawl contribute little.

But once etched in, nothing can erase any part that has been given it’s own unique colour by the preciousness of a life, the importance of a friendship, or the impact of a vocation, however cut short.

There it stays, in the eternal picture, testament to the love, joy, dedication and kindness that nurtured it and was nurtured by its existence.

For the slice of the world we see today is but through the dimension of time. In this eternal picture, viewed by the dimension of colour, the most cherished moments, however fleeting, can still shine the brightest.”

There may be many traditions where this thought is expressed. We all need to know we have significance. For me, that confidence comes from a faith in an Eternal Creator, who records even our tears in his scroll (Psalm 56) and promises that nothing, death, life, angels, demons, height, depth, or, I would add, time, can separate us from his love (Romans 8.). In his heart, we are truly etched in Eternity.

Spending your marbles

Everyone loves a marble run – it must be one of the most enduring toys. Its addictive fascination is evident in the way in which zoos, attractions and waiting rooms around the world raise money by inviting people to watch a small object follow its trajectory and end up at the bottom with a satisfying clunk. Gravity never varies, but the size of the coin or the speed at which you propel it into the opening gives just enough variety to keep having another go – until parental patience or the coin supply runs out.

With a marble run, after phases of patient construction and careful experimentation, the denouement will often come with the irresistable urge to grab a whole handful of marbles to feed in all at once, giving off a panoply of sound as they navigate the different turns, wheels and drops before congregating in a huddle at the finish. And if, as in the best marble runs, there are a variety of destination-points, within seconds of the finish they may well be gathered back together and propelled into the feeder point in a slightly different way to see which destination ‘wins’. And so on and on, until the noise, mess and chaos is declared ENOUGH.

The reason for talking about marble runs is that I think that every time you buy something, it’s like shoving a handful of marbles down a marble run. There are different places the marbles can end up – all at the base of different towers. Let’s label them. There is the ‘social’ base where part of the price you pay goes to the people that made or transported what you are buying and affects the conditions in which they live. There is the ‘nature’ base, which represents the way in which the product was made can either run down or build up a natural resource, for example, the difference between fish caught through trawling or through methods with less of an impact on marine life. And then there is the ‘money’ base. We’ll come back to that.

There are different ways to change where the marbles end up. Most of the time, the speed or combination of marbles fed through the top won’t make much difference. More reliable redistribution of the marbles means making changes to the way in which the pieces are joined together – in our terms that means paying a fairer wage, changing working conditions, or making pollution, waste or carbon more expensive. Some of these changes might not affect the overall number of marbles that need putting in – just their distribution.

Now, back to the ‘money’ base. This is really two bases – one is the profits on your purchase that go to the companies involved – profits that are distributed to shareholders and are the foundation of what keeps the company in business. The second ‘money base’ is the return to your pocket when products are sold at a price below their ‘real’ cost, taking into account aspects that the market doesn’t price well. For example, when awful labour standards drives the price right down- like those that led to the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. The money base is important. Profits enable businesses to invest and sustain jobs. They enable more ethical suppliers to generate investment and replicate their approaches at scale. Consumer savings can be less a luxury than a lifeline to supplying families with essentials. Both can be what enables charitable giving. But if the return to the money base continues at a disproportionate rate, it’s the ‘social’ and ‘nature’ bases will be run right down.

Even allowing the marbles to accumulate disproportionately in the money base, and then using donating to charity to try to tackle the lack of marbles in the other bases is like throwing the same marbles down the same run in the hope that they land differently. It is far less efficient and effective than making the changes in the connections that make the marbles end up in different bases. There is no point making millions premised on rainforest destruction and then claiming virtue by generous donations to tree planting. Granted in the event of no other change, the donation is better than no donation but if the desire is to have an impact then addressing supply chains would be much more effective. That often means consumers need to be willing to pay a higher price.

In some cases, changing the connections in the marble run might be price neutral. However, the likelihood is that it will mean fewer marbles ending up either in profits or in your wallet. Many people are naturally wary of inflated prices when companies claim they are putting more marbles in the nature pot, but are actually just trying to justify higher prices or ‘greenwash’ their practices. Others are wary of companies promoting products that are badged as ‘enviromentally friendly’ in the full knowledge that the most environmentally friendly (and viable) approach would be not to purchase any such product.

We cannot consume our way out of the planetary crisis but nor can we cease to produce and consume. The challenge is to identify those companies and products that are asking a price that is perhaps best described as a ‘do no harm’ price that has not been artifically inflated.

I long for the day when ‘do no harm’ standards are the baseline – where there is a price default that prevents both labour exploitation and destruction of the natural world – rather than these products being badged and marketed as the exception. But for the time being, it’s down to us to work out where we want our marbles to end up.

Living within these four walls…..

I have spent so much time in the past year in the same four walls; working, eating, family life, any precious few minutes for leisure. Its plenty of time to notice all the parts that need work, the niggles I can’t seem to get fixed. Plenty of time to take comfort in all the material aspects that make it ‘home’.

And then we moved house. But I found that the four walls I lived within moved with me – the four walls that bound how I think, feel and act. Sometimes they can feel as intractible as solid walls – but more often they are like an infra red web of relationships between everyone in my household, and us all together, connected to the world outside through an even more complex web of family and friends, school and work.

It’s not that the new house doesn’t make a difference. It does – there is more space, a bigger garden, and being more rural we enjoy a beautiful outlook and woods on the doorstep. We are incredibly fortunate. I think the space to breathe and the view enables more ‘give’ in the walls of our inner lives. It changes how the children play, how we will relate to others, and a closer connection to nature. I would never say physical location doesn’t matter. The birdfeeders never cease to calm my soul. And yet, in essence, I remain comforted and reassured by the same kindnesses, habits of affection, or gestures of friendship. I am hemmed in by the same frustrations – at myself and at others: additional space has no meaning to young children wanting constant close physical companionship.

There is work to do in the new house – some of it routine, like tending the garden. Some is more drastic – changing internal walls. And there is work of all kinds to do on my inner four walls; my connections with family, with God, with the natural world, and my sense of self. They are not only in my house; the relationships I am part of affect the walls that others live within.

As I was weeding near the fence recently, trying to distract myself from aspects of the house and garden I don’t enjoy, I had in mind some verses from Psalm 16 – “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. Surely I have a delightful inheritance.” And it reminded me that however I change or work on my physical house, and whatever happens in the inner web of my life, I can take comfort from knowing they remain held within the unbreakable cords of love that is the foundation and sustenance of all life.

“Underneath are the everlasting arms”. (from Deuteronomy 33 v.27)

#DotheDecentThing

Today I read an article in today’s Sunday Times that made me very cross. It was about people who can continue their work from home not giving due consideration to paying their cleaners who cannot work but are dependent on them for wages. Of course, many people do not have a secure income or are furloughed themselves in which case the situation is different. But the impression given by the article was that it was just not something that was being factored into the changed set-up affecting professional households. So I wrote this.

#DotheDecentThing

We’re stuck at home in lockdown
Compelled to quarantine
But choices still need making
So Do the Decent Thing

Last month, who did your cleaning?
Picked up what children fling?
They can’t do that from their home
So Do the Decent Thing.

We clap to cheer our heroes
Give pensioners a ring
But if you have a cleaner
Then Do the Decent thing.

The chance you made success from
The hard work you put in
Should help you see who needs you
To do the Decent Thing.

There’s plays to watch and Netflix
And schooling to fit in.
But if nothing else, then teach them
To do the Decent Thing.

The story of Rob, Robyn and the Robin and the day the wheel stopped.

Once upon a time there was a wheel whose spinning sustained the world. Everyone and everything was connected to the wheel, and, in turn, affected how it span. People had jobs, paid taxes, built and sold companies, bought houses and cars, went on holiday and pursued hobbies. The wheel connected everyone – including three characters called Rob, Robyn and the Robin.

Rob worked in a supermarket. He counted stock and stacked shelves. He wasn’t paid much and his hours varied. Robyn cared for sick people. She also wasn’t paid much and often the conditions she worked in weren’t great. But she believed in what she was doing. And the Robin – well, he did what Robins do – he bobbed along and sang. So, like everyone else, Rob, Robyn and the Robin depended on the spinning of the wheel. And whilst the wheel span fast, none of them attracted much notice.

Then one day…..the wheel stopped. It juddered to a halt. And the world stopped too. But Rob, Robyn and the Robin kept doing what they had always done. And when there was nothing else spinning the wheel, everyone noticed.

Rob stacked shelves and kept the food supply going. And, as if for the first time, people said thank you.

Robyn risked her safety looking after people who were sick. And, as if for the first time, people applauded.

And the Robin sang. And, as if for the first time, people sat still enough to listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One

 

Anchor Friendships

Friendship matters immensely. It comes in many forms and circumstances create all sorts. At its most fleeting it might be a momentary connection – such as a friendly opinion given by a stranger in a changing room that helps you decide on an outfit. Then there are the friendships of circumstance born of being thrown together on a daily or weekly basis. These have huge value. Without those connections borne of circumstance, our routines would be far more bland and self-serving. When we need help, it is the friends we know through our weekly routines that are often most likely to step in.

Some friendships go deeper – for a season of your life it might be that you could not imagine living without the input and mutual connection with a particular friend. Perhaps it might just be for that season; perhaps it might be sustained beyond. But either way, it should be treasured for what it meant to you at a particular time.

But anchor friends are something else – those with whom our connection goes far beyond the initial circumstance that brought you together.  You can’t see anchors but they keep you steady; You can tug on them every so often to check they are secure; and however, the times and tides change, you remain connected.

What makes an Anchor Friendship?

“A friendship that is taken seriously, even if there isn’t frequent contact.

A friendship that has shaped you in some way, and remains a reference point for your decisions: When you see each other – you can pick up as before because even though you don’t know the details of each other’s circumstances, you know how they will be approaching life.

A friendship that connects you to something important from past, or family or even your personality that might be hidden – but is kept alive through your friendship.

A friend whose interests and perspectives that you value in all sorts of aspects of your life – far beyond the context in which you met.

A friendship that stays in your head – experiences or stories that make you laugh, pause for thought or smile in affection – and for that friend you make a mental note of what they would enjoy or be intrigued by.

A friendship where things can be said or talked about that others could not express or would not dare to mention.

A friend who, when you think of them, or better still have spent time together, you stand more solidly on where you’ve come from, and walk more lightly in who you are because you are anchored in that  friendship.”

If any of my ‘Anchor friends’ are reading this –  –  this is in part to cherish you and thank you for what you mean to me!

And with that thought, I’m leaving off blogging until the Autumn now but thanks for reading this far and I hope to share more thoughts in future!

 

Does living simply mean simply being mean?

“They can’t just eat sawdust!” wailed one family member. “But it’s Christmas, – they like getting lots of presents!” protested another when I baulked at the volume under the tree.

It’s one thing to change your own consumption habits. I can now look at reduced packets of the specialist cakes and biscuits I am restricted to and not want them if they contain a lot of plastic or palm oil. A few years ago I would have hoovered them up without a thought.

But it’s another to impose yours on your children isn’t it? Shouldn’t they just be able to enjoy a ‘normal’ childhood? What we consume and how we parent is almost more than anything else governed by our expectations of what’s normal. But what’s ‘normal’ about resource use is currently changing. A few years ago I happily bought plastic foam craft kits in plastic containers with no thought but to the creative stimulation it would give my child (and the few minutes peace it would give me). Now, I see craft cupboards in institutional set-ups as the future contents of my recycling/rubbish bins.

There is an apocryphal story of a monk who said to a guest “let us know if there’s anything you want and we’ll teach you how to live without it”. Given that that’s my tendency as a parent, I’m asking for a sense check on my framework of what I think is OK to deny children as a way of teaching them that there are limits to our resource use that are not to do with how much they cost.  Some of these need a luxury of time (refilling bottles or looking in charity shops). Others have just been a change in what I see when I look at something. This isn’t trying to be a statement of virtue – there is an equally long if not longer statement of consumption I could make (I have done far more than my share of flying over the last few years). It’s a question about our norms. Can we break away from a childhood flooded with stuff, or will it always seem simply mean?

  • not buying magazines with plastic toys
  • hand-me down clothes and new ones from charity shops where possible
  • no ‘character’ toothbrushes or toiletries if we can find bamboo or refill bottles
  • choosing which presents (birthday or Christmas) they won’t keep before they get put in over-stocked cupboards
  • not buying ‘gimic’ toys that entertain for only a few minutes
  • only eating processed packet food like crisps and smoothies out of the house and in holidays on picnics
  • not buying fruit (esp berries) out of season even if it’s their preference
  • presents of toys/books/games from charity shops encouraged from others
  • not buying clothes with plastic in/on (sequins, glitter etc)
  • re-used craft materials and minimising plastic pens and plastic craft kits etc
  • no big one-off birthday balloons
  • re-using stationery from my childhood and writing notes in pencil rather than biro
  • jumpers are compulsory – thermostat at home is almost never above 19 degrees

I’d love to know what you think.

 

The world’s a mess. So, did the Christmas angels get it wrong?

The classic nativity tells a lovely story but the reality was a lot messier. Perhaps the message of the angels sounded as preposterous then as now, given the state of the world. What can we make of it? This is my attempt.

“Joy to the world”, sang the angels that night;
“Peace to all men”. And the skies shone with light.
But whatever came of that heavenly pledge?
For just here and now life seems right on the edge.

Where was the peace when to Egypt they fled?
What joy could there be as the babies lay dead?
Slain by the word of a paranoid king;
Witnessed by those who had heard angels sing.

I wonder if stories of thousands of years,
Of people and families, their joy and their tears,
Are enough for the message we can’t get it right;
For nothing and everything causes a fight.

We’re faced with two choices: Is this all that’s there?
Is it just down to us to decide if we care?
To do what we can for world, family and friends
And accept when it’s over that that’s where it ends.

Or….did the angels sing?

Did they point to a hope that lies deep in our soul,
That everything matters; we’re part of a whole.
We’re held by a love that is vast and immense,
Even when what we’re going through doesn’t make sense.

If true joy and peace isn’t ours straightaway,
They gave heaven’s pledge that it will be one day.
Their song was a promise that broke through the fear,
Proclaiming to shepherds that God was so near.

So near at his birth, through his life and his death,
Sharing our suffering, until his last breath.
And then when he rose on that first Easter Day,
His body was new, all the pain gone away.

He promised He’s with us still, though we can’t see.
And through Him we glimpse how things one day will be.
A new world: creation, restored to its soul.
All brokenness banished; just perfect and whole.

Now it is messy, of that there’s no doubt.
Love and peace whisper: Hate has a shout.
But even in darkness, His hope can shine through,
Kindness and love can show faith to be true.

We might feel connections that can’t be explained;
Love that forgives, though impossibly strained,
Friendship persisting whatever the cost,
All echo His love for the broken and lost.

So join with the angels, and sing out their song,
Peace still eludes us but they were not wrong.
The hope of the world came to earth Christmas night.
He asks us to trust Him, and follow His light.”

 

I saw this picture at a market stall in Greece in 2017 which seemed to capture what I was trying to say. Apologies for not knowing the artist – if anyone does, please let me know!

 

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