Saturday, 30 May 2015

Sing A New Song

My friend Margareta DIDN'T die! She came pretty close to it last November ( The Last Mile ), but she pulled herself back from the brink with the loving care of her son Loarne, who took leave from his Friary to watch  over her, encouraging her to eat, drink, move around, take her meds, and do everything else necessary to ensure a miracle.

So, Margareta and I embarked upon a longer journey.  

Margareta tells her story over and over. An authoritarian father who was disappointed in her, a sister who criticises everything she does. Even to this day, nothing Margareta does is good enough, she isn't clever enough, articulate enough ... On and on. I listen, I nod sympathetically, I make the right noises. Until yesterday, that is, when something in me woke up.

"Margareta, you have to stop this!"

I hold her hand and remind her of the wonderful things she has made with her hands, the beautiful home she has created that she shares so gererously with others, her kindness, steadfastness, intellect ...

I tell her how loved and appreciated she is, and I watch her shake her head in disbelief.

Is it possible to stop her carrying the disapproval of her father around, or to shut her ears to the critical voice of her sister? I don't know, but I'm not going to stop trying.

Oddly enough, when leading bible studies, Margareta would strive to make her students aware of who they really are. So much more than a finite creature in a decaying body.  She looked at me, aghast when I told her to stop her ears to the lies from the past, start listening to a new song, and sing it to herself.

Monday, 25 May 2015

#MicroblogMondays: Storyteller

The Storyteller

My aunty loved a man from New York
The grown-ups whispered disapproval with
Well-scrubbed minds.

The child I was, heard the words
With luminous ignorance and made
A carousel with the sounds:

"New York"!

Friday, 22 May 2015

A Time To Grieve

I didn't attend my father's funeral, and I never regretted it. I sat by his side in his final days, he, too weak, too close to dying to want to talk, I, waiting with him, silently, or telling him how much I loved him, not trying to imagine a world without him.

I wrote his obituary, and read it to him the night before he died so he knew how precious he was. That was our farewell. Two days later, I flew to South Africa to complete the work in a village school he had sponsored. "You go!" He said, believing I would be away when he died. I went, and my Xhosa friends sang for him, and I went to this beach and cast into the ocean a wreath I made with vines and flowers from the rain forest.

I then scratched his name, along with my mother's, in a hidden place in the rocks nearby.

This thanksgiving for my father's life was a special and deeply meaningful ritual. Far away from home, I grieved for my father and there, in my heart, which was pounding with the ocean, I laid him to rest.



Monday, 18 May 2015

#MicroblogMondays: A Moment In Time


I am sitting in the third floor cafe in Debenhams overlooking King's Square, Gloucester. The first time I sat here, or whereabouts, I was a child. The square below was the terminus for the buses, a car park and public toilets interspersed between the bus stops. The Matson bus, number 6 stopped over to the left, and the number three 'way over to the right. That was the bus we took to visit my aunty.
There have been many changes in the sixty years since this was a Bon Marche, and I drank milk! But the hills in the background have always looked the same: the beautiful Cotswold escarpment.
I'm about to finish my peppermint tea and head for the station to catch a train to Bristol to spend a couple of days with my youngest daughter.
Much has happened to me, good and not so good, but here I am, having outlasted it all. Everything changes, nothing stays the same. Sometimes that is a scarey thought, but today, it's a source of comfort.

King's Square in 1950's:

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Are You A Psychopath?

Of course you're not! You are as empathetic as the next person, I'm certain of it. And yet ... And yet ...

Taking the focus off you for the moment, let's look at how I react to stories of people I can't, or won't understand. There's this woman at this group I belong to who drives me round the bend. She is loud, domineering, self-publicising and smug. I possess all of these amiable qualities to a degree, so I guess what really got under my skin was that she out-competed me at my favourite game - being nice to people and geeting praised for it. Oh dear me, yes, I know myself and I'm not always pretty. Anyway, the point is, I laughingly spoke of the horrible Emma to friends with the rider, "I could take an axe to her, I really could."


After about the third time of postulating murder, I stopped to take a good look at the feelings I was experiencing. I was upset and  angry. Underneath this pleasant exterior, something ancient and reptilian was asserting itself.

Fortunately, I've been here before with other Eights on the Enneagram, and I know when to stop. The cure is to befriend. To listen, to reassure and to empathise. It takes a few short weeks for this to take effect, and now I bear with Emma's passion, enthusiasm and wholeheartedness (note the rethink here ... ) with equinimity. It was a pratice well-worth making perfect.

So I was alert to a letter written to the New Scientist by Darach Conneely, "Voting For Empathy Or For Negativity" that quoted some research by Harris and Fitch (Princeton) "Dehumanising the lowest of the low".

You think you know how it works: Populist politiicians incite in perfectly ordinary and respectable people the fear of 'the other'. Turn a young man or woman who has fallen on hard times, and is in need of a helping hand, into a 'benefit cheat' and the helping hand is snatched back pronto. Your reptilian brain is switched on and empathy flies out of the window - the fact-finding rational being that you can be, has been short-circuited, and consequently, some rather unpleasant people now hold power. (Thinks: Do you really want this person grasping the money bag when it's YOU that's down on your luck? Self-interest can be a very long game.)

Quote from Conneely's letter:

"Brain scans appear to show very clear differences between psychopaths and people who feel empathy. But when normal people were led to believe that they were observing a person suffering and that this person was a cheat or not part of "our tribe" their scans looked the same as those of psychopaths, with no sign of any empathy. ..."


Managing your empathy is your affair, and I'm confident you do well at it. My plea would be, don't let someone after your vote manage it for you.

Monday, 11 May 2015

#MicroblogMondays: Election Reflection

I am SO glad it's over! Fortunately British politics is always about pink or pale blue shades of centralism, so I am hopeful that there won't be too much to worry about over the next five years, I suppose you couid say I got neither what I wanted, nor what I feared, and that's a result.

I do wonder though, if there might be a better way of doing things. If our nation is in such dire financial trouble, why can't we have a government of national unity? Or at least a government that leaves polemic and division to one side for a bit, and works to draw opponents together to work in the interests of everyone?

Last Wednesday, I went to the cinema in Gloucester with Carol. As I walked down Southgate Street towards the Cross, I heard shouting. It was Samantha having a very public row with Vince over - something - that she clearly felt was unfair. Later I met Robbie, who was drunk, and Robin who was sore from a beating, and I stopped - to hug Sam and calm her and remind her of her worth, to commiserate with Robin, to make sure Robbie knew where he was ...

To me this work, as a Missioner, is a joy and a privilege. It's me doing what I love with people I love.

Yesterday I went to a BBQ with friends and family from Church. These are people I love too, whose life experiences are so different from my street friends. Something in me wants to battle with them, to force them to understand the impact of austerity on the vulnerable who are beyond being able to cope. I could feel the old class war begin to break out, but something different happened. I listened, I got off my high- horse and I let these friends tell their stories too.


No great conclusions here, but for me, a bit of a change of heart. I'm not going to metaphoricalky shout slogans over a class wall. I'm going to carry on bringing the two sides together in myself and reconcile in me whar I want reconciled in politics.




Wednesday, 6 May 2015

It's Testing Time!

My friend Wendy sent me an article from the London Review Of Books about the state of education in England today. It was horribly dispiriting. There was one bright spot. Someone is starting to question if continually pressing down on disadvantaged kids with more and more test practice to get better results to ward off the inspectorate, can actually be called 'an education'. Someone is seeing the light.

Perhaps to your surprise, I think that education reform was necessary and generally well-intentioned.There is a section of our student-body that is highly resistent to advancement: children living in financial, social and emotional poverty. To improve the life-chances of these kids is a noble aim, and if the dismanting of public education would achieve it, I'd go for it. Trouble is, it's not working. I think that this is because there is an official blind-spot as to where the remedy lies. I taught schools in areas of social deprivation for most of my career, and I know quite a lot about this, and I would like to offer my own prescription for improvement.

Give the children most resistent to attainment the same priviledges as the children of the wealthy:

Safe streets

A diet sufficient in nutrients to feed the brain and allow proper intellectual development

Safe places to play

Economic stability

Unstressed living

Small classes

Bright, beautiful and stimulating school buildings

The best teachers

An enriched curriculum

Time with a caring adult

A sense of entitlement


Not going to happen is it? It bloody well SHOULD! How can it possibly be right to further impoverish a child's experience of school by increasing the time spent ( often with complete futility) in the intellect- deading pursuit of endlessly practising for tests? Unless kids are safe, unstressed, well-nourished, and well-cared for, they're not going to achieve very much at all. This is an unpalatable truth. Politicians may not be able to fix this all at once, but recognising the answer doesn't lie with superheads or free-schools, or blaming teachers, but with a more egalatarian society, would be a great start.

Gordon Brown once set something like this as a target, so political will WAS there. Once.

Back in1990, the year the SATS were introduced, I was teaching the first cohort of seven-year-olds subjected to them. Teaching to the test was actively discouraged. They were to be a true reflection of a student's ability.

They're now a true reflection of the sytem's stupidity,

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

#MicroblogMonday: A Walk In The Park

Westwood Park in Worcestershire.


A beautiful afternoon, sunny and warm.