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 richness in the rhythm of the year…

There is a saying that Christmas comes but once a year. But it doesn’t. On the 21st October I walked past a busker playing Christmas carols, and saw shelves starting to fill with yuletide fare. If we all lived by that reckoning, Christmas and its associated paraphernalia would occupy one sixth of the whole year.

I have realised how much that means we miss out. For the last three years, I’ve lived in Greece – where each month, each season has its waypoints that are shared collectively. Some of them relate to the changing seasons – others are of religious, cultural or political significance or a mixture of them all. And together they give an immense richness to the rhythm of the year.

There is no way that shops can sell Easter eggs in January – there are far too many other experiences to be had in the meantime. Starting from New Years Eve but lasting most of the month is the tradition of ‘Vasilopita’- the cake of St Vassilis, aka Greek Father Christmas, that is shared (with a hidden coin for one lucky person) to mark the beginning of the year. Families, clubs, schools, all mark the first event in their year by sharing one. Then there is the run up to Lent – the two weeks before are ‘Carnival time’ – perhaps marked by processions and parades or just private parties and a tradition of dressing up – the parks in central Athens are full of children dressed up to go out just because it’s carnival time on the relevant weekends.

Just before Lent is ‘burnt Thursday’ where you enjoy an awful lot of grilled meat, and then Lent itself starts with ‘Clean Monday’. The parks and mountainsides are full of kites being flown – you see them everywhere as you drive even up the motorway. At no other time of year did I ever see a kite being flown – apart from perhaps the odd one at the beach. But on clean Monday, it’s what you do. It made me realise the difference between sharing and experiencing a tradition together, and just happening to take a similar decision to other people about what you feel like doing. We might decide to take a picnic to the woods and fly a kite on a sunny day – but we wouldn’t necessarily call out greetings to those doing the same.

Then there’s the big military parades, a public holiday and school processions for Independence Day on 25th March marking freedom from Ottoman rule. The nearest we would have is Remembrance Day here, but twice a year in Greece it happens on a completely different scale. Roads are closed, every school and civic organisation processes down the street. Then there is the week before Easter day  – called literally ‘Big Week’ in Greece. Again, alongside the traditional foods cooked and eaten in families, there are the two big communal experiences – the processions on Good Friday evening, and the big event -the midnight fireworks and lighting of the candles outside the church at midnight on Easter Saturday. Whilst Easter Saturday is bigger, I was probably with several hundred people processing the streets from the local church on the Good Friday I joined.

The richness of the rhythm continues the rest of the year, and is apparent even in day to day life – the greetings you use vary according to whether it’s the start of the week, the start of the month, or the season of the year. Similarly the strong tradition of celebrating ‘Name days’ brings people together with an awareness that they are linked to others, and linked to a person of significance in their culture. Many names with a strong Greek heritage are very popular – (Eleni, Alexandros, Dmitri, Irini, Eva) and there is still a prevalent tradition of naming children after grandparents.

I’ve mentioned before that I really valued the ability to eat seasonally – seeing a pomegranate fruit develop through the year on the tree next door and then buying them in the market when you knew they had matured was a real pleasure. And I, for one missed Sunday trading not at all (particularly as the bakeries were open where you could buy the most amazing desserts as Sunday lunch guests). I developed a real sense that in fact, it’s us that lose out if we eat fresh strawberries all year round – it’s not just about the environmental impact.

So, in the UK, apart from Easter and Christmas, we have Hallowe’en and fireworks night, Remembrance Sunday, Pancake Day, Mothering Sunday, and the remnants of May Day celebrations and traditions apart from the many local traditions in different places. But what are the  others we can envigorate? – the Sunday afternoon walk, the Saturday morning in the park, Christmas jumper day (Save the Children), Carol singing, the Big Get Together in June, the RSPB’s Wild Sleep Out – there must be many more.

Traditions and waypoints anchor us to who we are and provide a shared space to interact with others outside our normal relationships. Of course they can be used for negative ends at the wrong time and with the wrong leadership. And  yes, there were frustrations in  living in a culture with very strong expectations of what you do at different times (I was berated by a phone technician for not being at the beach with my children in August) But surely they can also help bridge divides, provide a focal point for those feeling more isolated, and situate us together in who we are, where we live and where we’ve come from and why we’re here.

 

 

 

 

Farewell Greece!

The term has ended, the parties are over, the packing is upon us and the move has begun in earnest. What will I miss and what am I looking forward to?

First, the mountains; Mount Parnitha and Mount Pendeli are in my sights pretty constantly. They frame the journey to and from school. I can see at least one of them from all my favourite places; the vineyard, my balcony at home, Schinias beach and the local cafe terrace. And when driving back from a trip, the first sight of one of them is the signpost for home. I haven’t walked up them nearly as much as I would have liked. But I have loved the fact they frame my life.

The vineyard, Ktima Kokotou. Home to friends, great wine, a wonderful playgroup and holiday camp, and a place that never failed to feed my soul and restore a sense of calm. More on that in another post.

Graviera and fig jam. Frankly it is my ambrosia. In fact I will miss the abundance of dried figs, fresh herbs nuts and fruit in general. And the fact I could buy local, seasonal good stuff reusing paper bags and have a friendship with the ladies who run the greengrocers.

The wildness. When I first arrived I felt it was all messy. It still is, but I have learnt to appreciate the abundance of the natural life bursting out of anywhere it is allowed to flourish. Wildflowers on the verge of a roadside garage, birds and bats making their home in half built buildings. The tortoises and butterflies in the playground.The litter and graffiti are still an eyesore but there is something to be treasured in the way that nature is not managed into sterility. And how glorious to discover that next doors tree with bright orange flowers is a pomegranate tree, and to realise that fig leaves are actually quite big!

There two other aspects of my life I will miss most (apart from time to write!). The first is a sense of anonymity and independence from anyones expectations. The majority of my childrens friends are from a different culture and the expat community is diverse, and even the Brits here didnt know us previously. It has meant I could be very deliberate about how I lived and how our family worked. Having a big house thst others came to helped build my empire. Back home, we will be part of a family and a community with expectations that will again shape how we live and I will lose a bit of that control. Thats probably healthy!

The other sense I will miss is that of being more connected to the rest of the world. The Middle East is very close. Conflicts and refugee flows have very real consequences here. I was sent a picture of a Syrian refugee snuggled up in the baby cot my daughter had just outgrown and I had donated the day before. If you can look at your possessions and in all honesty know that if you give it away it will be used immediately, it brings home just how much we have.

What am I looking forward to?

Walking. Walking in my daily life, to school, on my commute, to the shops and also walking at the weekends. Climate and babydom have been the main constraints to doing more here but I have missed it a lot.

The National Trust. No really! Not just the wonderful places to enjoy spending time with the family but also the whole concept. The idea that a group of interested citizens can work together, often through volunteering to steward something of national importance, whether wild places or houses of heritage. I think its something we take for granted but we shouldnt. Its a national treasure in itself.

Online shopping and being able to buy groceries in one place rather than the three regular places I go weekly here! The convenience wont make up for the seasonal local fresh stuff though.

Daffodils, bluebells and blackberries and all my benchmarks of the changing year. Over time I learnt more about the plants here but I still dont feel connected in the same way that you can walk down a familiar path amd know what to expect. In particular I have really missed our family haven and the peace and connection I find there.

Anchor friends. People whose friendship helps define who you are. Mine are in the UK. They have done an amazing job keeping in contact and we have nearly 60 different visitors in our three years but it is time to live in the same place and reconnect again.

Did I mention car parks, traffic junctions and roundabouts? I will never take road planning for granted again!

There is so much more to say, and I havent done justice at all to the wonderful people who have been part of our lives here. But for now. Greece, Adio!