Saturday, 30 July 2016

This Year

For me it is this time of year, much more than December / January which marks the end of the old year and start of the new. This is when I look ahead to new adventures and start a new diary. This is when it makes sense to stop and look back and celebrate the year that was. (But it's too long and probably not very interesting to anyone bar me, so don't feel obliged to read!)

In my world September is synonymous with settling back into rhythms and routines. The return to school brought its usual inherent busy-ness and both the joys and challenges of getting to know a new set of students who have, I can safely say a year on, been amazing to teach. Thrown in to the mix this year were the DSEi arms fair protests which, even as they draw attention to the horrors of war and the arms trade; also provide space to stand together with those trying to do something about it.

Standing out in October was the half-term holiday when we took a proper break and went away to Mytholmroyd. The weather was kind: blue skies for beautiful walks in the daytime but cold enough to justify the open fire in the evenings. Cups of tea, good books and meetings with friends: the perfect antidote to an otherwise busy schedule.

November marked the beginning of the next phase of the life of our little community when, having visited for a few weeks in September, Corline returned to live with us, making an open-ended commitment to community life and venturing out on to this journey together.

As is invariably the case, highlights abound in December, this year including the COP21 protests in Paris. If outcomes from the summit were far from satisfactory; the energy and passion on the streets were well worth being part of; not to mention the opportunity to catch up with good friends (and good food and wine!)  And then there were parties: fun and friendship for Sinterklaas early in the month, and a beautiful celebration of what Christmas is all about with those who gathered with us on Christmas day.

There can be few better ways to begin a year than beneath the Valencian sunshine: warm weather and even warmer hospitality, beautiful surroundings and beautiful prayer meant a once again wonderful Taize meeting brought us into 2016, (although I may be getting too old for 36 hour coach journeys) Sleep deprivation and beautiful experiences of prayer were recurring themes in January: the end of the month was marked by the Birmingham Churches Together 24 hours of prayer, a wonderful celebration of the unity of the church in all its diversity.

I am sure something memorable must have happened in February too, but nothing immediately springs to mind. Maybe I had a nice, relaxed laid-back month doing not very much ... 

An early Easter meant Student Cross fell in March this year, and if Holy week coinciding with school term-time meant I was only able to join in for part of the week, I was nonetheless pleased I decided to join in for the bits I could. To walk, talk, reflect, share; to renew old friendships and make new ones; to be community.

April’s Taize weekend provided a space to sing and to be silent, to listen and to share. We are now looking ahead to a much bigger gathering next April/May: which for all the work it may involve over the next year I am very excited about (! It was also in April, I think, that I first got involved in the "Long Journey Home" project, working with first generation migrants to provide a platform to craft and tell their stories: it has been a privilege to be involved over recent months. 

In May I handed in my notice at school. I wouldn't say it was a highlight, but certainly a significant moment in this year's journey. It was a tough decision and I knew I would be sad to leave a school I love, but it was, is, the right one.  

June was referendum month. Also definitely not a highlight (although I did get to babysit my niece the same day and that was quite fun.) We also headed to Reading ... not because it is a particularly exciting holiday destination, but because, ahead of the parliamentary vote on Trident renewal, it felt like a very important place to be to say no to atomic weapons. An early start, a long and in parts stressful day... shared with some very inspiring people. I am glad I was there.

July has mostly been about celebrating! Our end of year party brought together some of those who have shared in our life in different ways in the last year. Then came the end of term and some fond farewells to colleagues and students (and pink wafers and party rings!). And just last week the St Chad's Sanctuary Summer School, including a fantastic day out in Weston Super Mare was a beautiful way to round off the year there too. 

There may well be some other significant bits I've forgotten about temporarily too - please don't be offended if it involved you! This blog post is quite long enough as it is.

In between all that we've welcomed a good few visitors and somehow managed to squeeze in all our regular commitments: work, volunteering, welcome, silence, discussion, laughter, friendships and prayer. 

The public prayers have now closed for the summer, and if I do still have a lengthy jobs list for the next month, the rhythm becomes somewhat more relaxed plus there are trips to both Taize and Greenbelt to look forward to.

I think I can safely say I have made the most of 2016/17. Bring on the next one!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The first day

There are some wonderful authors with immense talent and an amazing command of the English language: but if the magic of stories is in the possibility to paint pictures which draw others in, and to elicit a rainbow of emotions from your listener, then it turns out you can be a master story-teller long before you have the command of grammatical tense.

I know I am hugely privileged to have heard the stories of so many remarkable people, and to have heard them told with honesty, emotion and good humour.

One of my students recently recounted his journey to and first day in the UK. He told of experiences no-one should ever live through. And yet, it was told, sprinkled with touches of humour and with a smile almost always on his lips: and as I listened, horrified, with tears in my eyes ... I laughed.

I think it was OK to laugh, because I knew we were laughing together. Thank you M. I am honoured to call you my friend.

With hands which danced
Over these,
The studied words
Of a language not his own

These outstretched hands
And winning smile
Which spoke in truths
And offered up
A story and a life

And invited us
To laugh

And as he told
Of hands clasped tight
Around searing rods
Of fingers, bent and burned
From clinging on
To life itself

And as I listened
With hands clenched tight
The shame of a nation
Daring to deny
His only hope

Somehow we laughed

And as he told
Of ears which closed
Against the haunting roar
Of deafening sounds
should ever have to hear

And as I recognised
How possible it was
For ears 
to strain for the familiar
In a language that did not match
The school book scripts 

Again we laughed

And as I half-heard
A tale of pain and fear and loss
In simple-spoken truths
And the self-depreciating humour
Of survival

And as he shared
That defining moment
 The unfettered, still-remembered joy
Of a dawning realisation
I am free

Once more we laughed

And as he stops
And turns to thank
My countrymen and me
I wish he knew
How much he brings

These outstretched hands
And winning smile
Which offer up
This lesson to our humanity
This timely reminder

Of how to

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The next adventure

It is coming up to three years since we moved to Birmingham. At the time it was a leap into the unknown, with question marks over almost every aspect of what our life here would look like. Now it feels like home.

It is a long time since we have stayed in one place for anywhere near this long: and doing so has been possible because it has continued to feel like a place of challenge and adventure. While in many ways I feel very settled here, there has constantly been enough newness to ensure life continues to feel like a journey rather than a place where we have arrived.

And so it is time for the next step.

It is something of a leap of faith and by many rational standards probably slightly mad. Just before the half-term holidays at the end of May, I handed in my notice at work. I am leaving a job I love for a leap into the unknown of a job I hope I will love even more.

I will be very sad to leave a school where I have clambered up a very steep learning curve, and have had a tremendous amount of fun along the way. I will miss colleagues who do an amazing job and children who have made me smile every single day. I will, at the of term, almost certainly cry.

I have always described teaching as a vocation. And while, at least for a time, I am walking away from it, I stand by that description. But like conversion and faith, vocation is not a once in a lifetime decision that predestines all of our future path. It is an evolving journey and sometimes, it involves turning down the side roads.

And so it is, that three years after beginning to volunteer there, I am going to go and work at St Chad's Sanctuary.

Nobody who reads this blog can be in any doubt as to how special this place has become to me. The people I have met there have been an incredible inspiration and it has been a really important part of my very positive experience of Birmingham.

I am not naive (or I try not to be). I have no doubt that going to work there will shift the dynamics. There will be challenges I will have to look in the eye which as some one who waltzes in for a few hours on a Friday I can cheerfully avoid.

But having thought long and hard, when I finally made the decision, I knew that right now, this was the place I needed to stand and these were the people I need to stand with. I needed to place myself where I can live, as far as possible, as a witness to the welcome I want my country to offer. I needed to try and take one more step towards living as the me I aspire to be.

Now, that seems even more true than it did then.

Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to present this as some kind of major self-sacrifice. I am very excited to be going to work at one of the most life-giving places I have ever encountered and I know that, while it won't be all plain sailing, it is somewhere that will bring me great joy.

It was not an easy decision. But it is the right one. Bring on the next adventure.