Tip-Toeing Out

What has changed?¬†It has been a question I’ve asked myself so many times on this journey over the last few years. What has changed?

I feel guilty sometimes. Guilty that I have had it easy. Guilty that my life is so comfortable. Guilty for desiring something I shouldn’t. Yet I also feel envious sometimes. Envious of people who seem to, well, feel more than me. Envious of people who have got to a place of knowing themselves better and sooner.

Strangely, there have even been times when I have envied those who went through some traumatic and transformational experience. I have envied the impetus to change that might have proved for them. Of course, this is an utterly ridiculous thing to want, not to mention insulting to those who have been through so much pain. I think it just indicates that I want something that is hard won. From my place of comfort and ease it’s easy to glamourise the ‘struggle’ when I have no idea how hard and isolating it is.

‘Struggle.’ Interesting word. In Christian culture, struggle has taken on a particular meaning. It is a word I have used a lot in the past decade to describe my experience and I want to explain what it used to mean and what it means, perhaps, now. For a long time, struggle was the most appropriate word for me to use to describe my experience of sexuality. My go-to phrase when ‘going deep’ with someone was ‘I struggle with same-sex attraction.’ Struggle suggests an attempt at rejection. A process of moving beyond and putting something behind you. An attempt to overcome. This was how I saw my sexuality. Something to overcome. To move on from.

Now, I didn’t grow up in a Christianity of exclusion, where anyone was praying away the gay or rejecting those who didn’t conform. I grew up in a very British, slightly nominal, definitely relaxed, environment of suburban Anglicanism. Hardly a progressive bastion, yet neither a place of hellfire and brimstone teaching that you might imagine as the backdrop for a ‘gay kid growing up christian’ drama.

A question that I’ve come to dwell on more and more is ‘Why then, did I reject my sexuality?’ No one was telling me it was wrong at church. My parents were particular to avoid discussing relationships at all most of the time, in a way that I came to experience as respectful and freeing. I was under no particular pressure. So what was it that made me spend many teenage nights pacing my room, obsessively calling out to God about this thing I wanted to reject? That I could just about come to accept as a reality, but which surely must be a passing phase? Something to be struggled with and defeated.

As a teenager in the early 2000s, I was mostly incredibly fortunate in the era of history I was growing up in. I think for many British millennials, there is this time in our memory when the government was good (or at least not impacting our daily lives very much), social media was simple, and we had ‘Snake’ on our phones. Yet my experience as a kid also, as it does for so many, taught me that I had to fit in. That avoiding difference at all costs was a goal. In my case, that staying at home and keeping my head down was the best way through.

This natural reserve, and fear of discovery, meant that when I came to understand the gospel for the first time (and I mean here, the more literal, evangelical gospel of my university years), I had found the perfect reason to keep on avoiding discovery. A system of belief that validated my self-denial and fear, labelled my experience as Christian ‘struggle’ and encouraged me to keep going, with the vague hope of change in the future. And this was enough. This was more than that. I found meaning, joy, community in the church. For these things and these years I am thankful. I was able to shed layers of fear and become more confident and open. I felt loved and accepted. Powerful and good things. Even if, looking back, some hard lessons hadn’t really been learnt and some future pain was being set up.

The first time I came out to anybody, in snatched half-sentences, became a model for my subsequent comings out (is that the plural?) It was a confession of sin. An admission of a stain on my heart and character that I felt could never be removed. I remember it viscerally. The stuttering conversation went from talking about struggling (there it is again…) with porn, to admitting I was looking at gay porn and was attracted to guys. It was an experience that was both thrilling and mortifying. My friend, a fellow Christian, was kind and loving. I never felt rejected. Our friendship grew as a result.

It is my fortunate testimony that every time I have come out to someone, it has been a positive experience. I have never known rejection or condemnation. I never felt, nor was I encouraged to think, that ‘being gay’ was sinful. But I very quickly learned to talk about my struggle (!) in the sense of it being a struggle with sin. And yes, lust is sinful, it is degrading to all involved, but I saw any expression of my gay sexuality as sinful. From how I thought, to the films I let myself watch, to how I acted and spoke.

That became my struggle. I didn’t speak about it that much. It was the kind of thing kept for the dark, for those ‘real talk’ conversations with friends. The light at the end of the tunnel was undoubtedly marriage. That I would be attracted to a woman, that I could make it work. That was something that I wanted, that others wanted for me, but that also made lots of friendships complicated.

Often, my comings out (I’m rolling with it) were with girls in the DTR (define the relationship) context. My view of my sexuality was causing me to hold back so much of myself, except for in these most personal moments, when I was forced to expose this wound so that it wouldn’t hurt others too. I never really dated a girl. It just never felt right. Looking back, I can say with confidence that my attraction has always been for guys and guys only.

So how do I view my ‘struggle’ now? What did change? It’s hard to put my finger on when it started to be honest. I can’t point to one traumatic incident or irreconcilable difference. I think I have always been pretty liberal, my evangelicalism never more than skin deep in most things, so why did it take so long for me to be open to pursuing for myself what I never begrudged others? I think it comes down to understanding. Understanding and community. I have always been someone who likes to understand what I’m doing and why. I’m also someone who is powerfully impacted by the stories of others. It is easy to live a single life when most around you are single and when your choice matches well with that of those in your community. That was the case for me in my twenties; it was pretty easy being single. I think I never really faced up to the fact that logically, my desire for relationship could not be fulfilled if I kept pursuing the non-affirming path I was on.

I don’t think I ever really admitted to actually wanting a relationship with a man. That a good and healthy thing could come from this desire that had so far been reserved for the darkest corners of my world, was too much for me to comprehend.

The last few years have been a time of frustration and perhaps some of that hard-won growth. Of facing up to the logical conclusions of my feelings and beliefs. There have been many times when I have felt like I had to choose; faith or sexuality. I hope that I have started to move beyond that lose-lose situation, that I can have peace with both. Yes, understanding has been key. I have read a lot of writing from a lot of people with a lot of different opinions, stories and perspectives. But also vital is my own conviction. Ultimately, it is my future. Under God’s guidance and protection I want to be fruitful. I want to have peace. I feel closer to that than before, even if I know that I am not at the end.

I think an important moment for me was a recent realisation in answer to the question ‘What stops you from saying you are affirming of same-sex relationships?’ I felt like I understood a logical support for such relationships, had overcome some of my doubts, and was already living as openly gay with those around me. So what was holding me back? It was like realising that the wall that had held me back for so long was just no longer there. It wasn’t so much a falling down, as a realisation that maybe there was simply no wall at all.

I don’t know what the future holds. I know that if all this has just been for me to get to experience romance, then it is ultimately pretty empty. I know that Christianity, and society generally, needs to validate singleness more. But if it has been me facing up to core pieces of my humanity, which God made me with, and gaining a greater peace, then it will have been worth the rambling road it’s taken me to get here.

These years of struggle (…) don’t feel like they’ve been very fruitful. I believe that a key part of our faith in Jesus is that we should bear good fruit. I pray that I am able to bear more fruit now, to be more open to Jesus’ leading, and to be free from the oppression that ultimately came from my own fearful heart. I am no longer a prisoner of fear, and that at least feels like growth.

 

Reading for a Corona Summer

One of my favourite things to come unexpectedly from this Coronatide we are seemingly stuck in has been the time to read. To read books, magazines, articles, Instagram captions. You name it. I’ve been enjoying more time to read it.

Now that I don’t even have work to occupy me, I have yet more time for reading. In the summer ahead I am excited to spend time enjoying books and digging for literary gold on the internet.

So to aid all my fellow readers out there, I’m going to try and share some of the articles and other things I’ve enjoyed recently. It really is true that this pandemic has provided fuel for many a writer, I hope that in reading these excellent pieces of work, it can inspire you too.

Most of these links are available for free, but a few might be hidden behind a pay wall. I can’t thank all the people who recommended these to me (because I forget), but I am grateful and am always ready to accept recommendations from others. Share away!

The Republican Choice by Clare Malone

The Republican Choice

A fascinating and in depth examination of ‘how the Republican party became white.’ Five Thirty Eight is my go to place for all my nerdy American political analysis. Their podcast is also excellent.

Consider the Greenland Shark by Katherine Rundell 

https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n09/katherine-rundell/consider-the-greenland-shark

Who knew that sharks alive at the time of Shakespeare are still living today? A beautiful and brief examination of the strange poetry of these sad sharks. They can’t even reproduce until they’re 150…what are we rushing about for?

Jessie Ware has long been both a musical favourite of mine and a highlight of my podcast listening with her wonderful ‘Table Manners’. I highly recommend looking up her back catalogue and her new album is out on Friday. This profile is both excellently written and has beautiful photography. I can agree wholeheartedly that the power of food is not to be underestimated.

We Need to Talk About Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom… by Saffron Maeve

We need to talk about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom…

Little White Lies is another place I look to satisfy by nerdy impulses – this time my inner film buff. This article made me reconsider the ‘black sheep’ of the Indiana Jones trilogy (we’ll ignore the Crystal Skull shall we…) and the broad and racist stereotypes it uses for South Asians, as well as how this fits into Hollywood’s general mistreatment of Indian and South Asian culture.

What Black America Means to Europe by Gary Younge

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/11/what-black-america-means-to-europe-protests-racism-george-floyd

This fascinating and saddening article bears reading by everyone, especially people who’d consider themselves good European liberals (like me). Also available as a Guardian long read podcast, this article confronted me very bluntly with the hypocrisy of the way Europeans love to empathise with and support the struggle of African Americans while ignoring our own racist history. Not to mention the entrenched racism experienced by our neighbours of colour in Europe. Highly recommended and hopefully a starting point for facing up to some of these things.

Hollywood Cool and Bradford Salt, an essay on David Hockney by Raven Smith

https://wepresent.wetransfer.com/story/literally-raven-smith/

Quite simply one of my favourite writers of the moment who regularly makes me laugh out loud, before hitting my heart up with some truth, Raven Smith writes this human and warm love letter to one of his favourite artists.

Here’s a taste –

“He is the patron saint of salty nonchalance and, like gruel at the workhouse, you just want more.”

Yes I do. I want more.

 

Bittersweet

Endings can be hard. Obviously, there is the sadness of mourning, of friendships and family lost; something that too many people are experiencing acutely at the moment. But there are other, smaller, endings. The TV show that ends too soon. The inevitability that a perfect holiday can’t last forever. Just having to go home at the end of a night out.

Sometimes I find myself pre-mourning the end of an experience, friendship or other moment in time. That sadness can bleed into the experience itself, adding a bit of bitterness to my joy. It is odd that I am feeling similar things as quarantine comes to an end here in the Czech Republic.

I write this on the eve of truly ‘returning to work’ at the school where I teach. I am experiencing an interesting mix of emotions; excitement to see my students, anxiety about being stressed or overwhelmed, relief that things are sort of normalising, as well as sadness at a ‘special’ time coming to an end.

Of course, I am lucky. I have worked from home and haven’t suffered ill health. I don’t have relatives or dependents I’m worried acutely about. I have been lucky enough to enjoy the breathing space and time of quarantine. I recognise that as much as there are things I’m happy are back (restaurants yay!), there are things I’ll miss from these strange few months.

I hope that I can keep doing some of them of course. Keep reading lots, keep developing my wine-drinking palette (so bougie, I know), and keep making and sharing recipes and culinary creations. But there is never going to be a time quite like it again. Even if there is a second wave (gulp) and we’re back to lockdown, this unexpected and weird time won’t happen again.

For that I’m thankful. But I’ll also kinda miss it.

For me, tonight, that little bit of bitterness is seeping in. And I think it’s making the good memories of the past months all the sweeter.

Quarantime

It may be oft repeated at the moment, but it is truly hard to believe that the past month has, well, been the past month. The fact that I went on a trip to Jordan in February and was planning to currently be in Korea on another seems, frankly, absurd. We have indeed moved to the other side.

How fast things have been changing was illustrated to me most clearly when I had a conversation with my parents in the UK in early March. By that time, the Czech Republic had instituted a strict lockdown and everyone had to wear masks outside. The pandemic had truly hit home here, despite relatively low numbers infected. Yet there my parents were, planning trips and events all week long. It felt like I was talking to myself in the past, grimacing and shouting ‘cancel it all!’ Needless to say, the very next day Boris Johnson announced a similar lockdown in the UK.

My experience of the quarantine has gone through several stages. I have to preface all this by saying that I one of the very lucky ones. I can work from home. I am not worried about bills. I am not in a vulnerable group. My job is to stay home for the sake of others. And to support those less fortunate in any way I can.

The initial stage of pandemic-fever which gripped me was an almost physical anxiety as I watched all my plans and normal routines crumble. This is perhaps the ‘panic buying toilet paper’ phase of quarantine. Though in my case it was more like panic buying wine… It felt like everything I knew and understood was changing daily as the government announced progressively more strict measures. The ‘home learning plan’ we had prepared at work suddenly became very real.

This probably lasted for a week or so and it was strange to see it replayed in my home nation a week or two later, as everyone queued outside Waitrose and shared the location of ample loo roll supplies with a mad sense of urgency. Yet actually, once it became clear that working from home was workable, and that I was actually more than capable of feeding myself adequately, a strange and welcome calm settled in.

I have been reflecting that I have actually not been this relaxed since, perhaps, childhood. Thinking about a situation like this a few months ago would have horrified me. What about meeting up with friends for a drink? Restaurants and cinemas? I’ll just be so bored! Yet there is something very reassuring and welcome about a very slow daily routine completely free from busyness and indeed FOMO. There are simply no events to miss.

Yes there is so much disappointment going around, but there is at least equality of disappointment. Everything is cancelled. Of course, to those whose weddings have been cancelled or who can’t attend funerals of loved ones, this is so much more difficult. I know I have it so easy. I feel guilty about that. But I also know that my role is to stay home and hold my slight disappointments very lightly. And maybe to order Uber Eats from my favourite restaurants who are struggling through.

So here’s where I am now. I think I have reached the peak ‘quarantime’ place where this is just, well, normal. The fact that I know it will not last forever is a welcome comfort, but there’s some small part of me that will be sad to go back to a busy and rushed routine. I know that we need to get there as soon as is safe for all those who are suffering, and of course I am in awe of the health carers, supermarket employees, and postal workers who are keeping us going and keeping us sane at the moment, yet this unique time is going to be remembered.

I hope the legacy is one for me of valuing the really important things; of taking my time, not rushing through conversations with friends and family, reminding myself, at risk of cliche, that the simple things are the most important.

So I’m praying for those in need and at risk, supporting them in the simple ways I can, staying home, and trying to make the best of it. In this strangely calm apocalypse we find ourselves, that’s all I can do.

Photo is by my amazing friend Eli – see her pictures here – https://seasidewildflower.com/

The Grey

I wonder if my dream will come true this side of heaven. I wonder if heaven is there to be honest. I understand more than ever the desire, both inside and outside the church, to bring ‘heaven on earth.’ To make the world a more happy and tolerant and loving place. I see how this desire leads to people idolising marriage or rejecting it as an outdated thing, I see how it leads to people having babies or choosing not to, I see how it leads to people becoming missionaries in far flung and dangerous places or to take to the streets in a pride march in a place where they might face similar danger. We all want to make the world a better place. What would that better world look like in my dream?

I think it might be something like this. So many of my insecurities, both self and other inflicted, come from expectations. Expectations from my own heart, from the church, from the world, from movie, hell, from Instagram. I expected my life to go a particular way until, well, it didn’t.

Perhaps the biggest area this has been hard for me is in relationships (of the romantic kind.) Everyone, myself included, is just obsessed. Everywhere you look, from the most conservative Christian, to the most postmodern atheist, the focus is on just the one thing, or so it seems. My perception, as someone looking in from the outside, is that the one thing everyone values highest is the thing I don’t have. So dramatic, I know.

As much as I appreciate people like Emma Watson saying she is happing ‘self-partnered’ – and we need to value each opportunity to big up those currently single – the answer is somehow bigger. What if we could truly free ourselves from these expectations? How many sons, daughters, friends, would feel less like a person-in-waiting if they were freed from the pressure to find someone? How many people would be willing to take a risk on actually meeting someone if they were freed from the pressure of finding ‘the one’? How many marriages would be improved if we were freed from our insecurities that we married the wrong person?

I dream of a world where we are just, well, people. Each precious. Not a half-person in sight. Not a waiting person, nor one who is too damaged. Too ugly. Not cool enough. Whatever.

I have glimpsed the reasons the world, and the church, is so in love with, well, love. Of course there are so many good things; the companionship, the love, the romance, the fact that someone is there, the family life. I get it. I don’t want to tear down marriage. I want to celebrate when my friends get married. But I want to be freed from the inescapable heartache that comes for so many when that happens. Why should we feel left behind? I wish I could reset my heart and remove this part. My head knows that I am no less a person than my married or coupled friends, but I don’t think my heart realises.

I dream of a place where each one is truly valued equally, yes irrespective of sexuality, race, gender, but also ‘relationship status.’ There are so many who are in pain every day, whether that’s because they jumped at a relationship that was wrong, or were afraid to jump at all.

In so many areas I feel like we need to recognise the grey. The fact that nothing is simple and everything seems blurry sometimes. This area of life is so significant and yet so nebulous for so many. So let’s talk about it, let’s try and be better where we can, let’s speak to our hearts and our friends. Let’s try to be more comfortable with the grey, because grey can be beautiful too.

The Unlived Life

As I’m sure many of you have been (and SHOULD BE), I’ve been watching the wonderful series ‘The Crown’ over the last week. As a Brit who feels fairly ambivalent about the monarchy most of the time, it’s incredible how some patriotic pomp can bring a tear to my eye, like some kind of collective memory. Perhaps they’re tears for some bygone age of Britishness, perhaps out of a national pride which feels all too rare these days. In one of this series’ best episodes, Aberfan, it was simple grief and horror at the terrible tragedy portrayed. Yet I think what gets me most is the simple fact that it is a drama about family. About a family in an extraordinary situation, but a family none-the-less.

One of the moments that stood out for me as I have been watching was when the Queen spoke of her dreams of the ‘unlived life’. It’s been an ongoing theme of the show that these people are stopped from being who they could otherwise be by the situation they find themselves in. Yes, they have extraordinary privilege, but also overwhelming pressure. The pressure to be completely visible and yet completely unavailable. To have no opinions and no slip-ups. Ever.

For the Queen, it is the simple dream of an unlived life as a horse-breeder. For Prince Charles, to be free of the pressure and expectation of waiting for his mother to die, and to be able to marry the woman he loves. For Princess Margaret, it’s simply to find personal happiness.

This theme of the unlived life struck me as it’s something I think we all feel. We all dwell on the roads not taken, the choices we might have made. That feeling of ‘everything would be better if…’

Perhaps a difference for the Windsors is that there is no way out for them. For us, these feelings often take the form of regrets. We always wonder if there’s a way to change our situation, to rectify mistakes. Of course, as we are not under the incredible pressure the characters in The Crown face, there’s a sense in which we always can.

Not that I’m saying we should live a life full of regrets. Not at all. I’m just noticing something about my thinking and about our culture, especially as I seem to have reached the end of any predetermined path. We tend to obsess about which way is the right way. We wonder whether there’s some abandoned path which would have been happier, more successful or more fulfilling. I think this robs me of contentment where I am, just as it robs happiness from some of the characters in The Crown.

What’s the answer? We’re not stuck in our situation like the royals. We can make changes and, when something is making us unhappy, make a course correction. But at the same time, I think we can choose to be happy where we are. I think we need to. For dwelling on roads not taken is an invariably destructive course. A course that will lead us to view our lives now as a poorer reflection of some other reality. When really, we need to see the beauty and wonder around us to keep going.

We need to recognise the ways in which this is the best of all possible lives. We need to try to be the best versions of ourselves. Or else we’ll be tipped, flailing, into the uncertainty of never-knowing, always looking for the better option.

So be sure to watch this wonderful show, but remember to recognise and appreciate the ways in which you are living, for want of a better phrase, your best life right now.

It’s People

What makes you happy? How do you relax? What’s it all about? What are you doing this weekend?

All questions of varying depth and seriousness, which I’ve come to think have one common theme in the answer. It’s people.

It’s not really about opinions, beliefs or preferences, it’s just common sense. When it comes down to it, we are made to love and to live with other people. Not just to succeed as ambitious individuals, to just look out for ourselves, or even to prioritise ‘self-care’. We’re made to be part of a community of people, some the same and some very different, taking steps along the wandering road of life together.

What that looks like is different for everyone and at different times of life. For me right now, it looks like a community of individuals, couples, families and others, doing life together. It’s frustrating in many ways, especially trying to navigate different cultural expectations and backgrounds, but rewarding in more.

I still feel lonely much of the time. Does that mean I haven’t found ‘the one’ yet, or the right community even? I’m not sure it does. I think it means that I’m learning that there is no such thing. That everyone carries with them a burden of loneliness. We’re the only ones inside our own heads and there’s no way to change that. Yes, having a significant other is good. That burden can feel lighter. But the burden can be even lighter if we have a community of people who know and love us, both friends, lovers, and family.

That’s where our cultural reverence of romantic love falls short; one other isn’t enough. We need people. Lots of people. Diverse and wonderful and difficult people.

Yes we need the friends who are easy, who don’t challenge us very much, with whom we can quote ‘Friends’ endlessly and sing along to Celine Dion, but we also need the friends who are older and wiser, who can question and confront us. Who can push us when we need it, or hold us back.

To be quite honest, I feel some pity for myself in the past. I feel my past loneliness more now that the heavy load has been shared amongst trusted companions. I wonder what my future self will feel when he looks back on me now. I hope he will feel similarly. That there is more and deeper sharing to come. I have to admit that one of my greatest fears is that this is the best it’ll get.

I worry because it’s people. The best and hardest part of life. How to love and live and relate with those so similar and yet so different from us? I am hopeful and thankful and joyful because of the people I’m blessed to know, excited about those I’m yet to meet, already mourning those I’ll lose. I’m willing to take the risks.

I take comfort in the fact that now my heart has known so many wonderful souls, there’s no way back to the loneliness I might have felt. Not truly. For as I’m known and loved and walked beside, my burdens and stories are shared, remembered, treasured.

People can move on, let us down, disappear, but we are blessed with the chance to be friends, if even for a short time. Let’s make the most of that.

Uncertainty

Certainty is easy I think. Not easy to find, but perhaps easy if we hold it. If we know what we think and believe then we have a security which is unshakeable and real, often reinforced by the people around us who share that certainty. This can make us, and has made me, feel a measure of contentment which is hard to find in our busy world.

Recently, certainty has been harder for me to reach. The relative contentment of my twenties giving way to a more listless and wandering heart in my thirties. It’s hard to point to reasons, but I wonder if my earlier contentment was in part based on expectations, on patiently waiting for something that would seal my certainty and hold me fast for the rest of my life.

The fact that the people around me were, for want of a better term, conventionally progressing through the stages of life (marriage, kids, promotion, cat…), led me to expect the same I think. When these stages didn’t materialise, or looked different from expected, some of that certainty began to change. Almost like I had stepped off the conveyor, or perhaps onto a different conveyor entirely.

Partly this was because I literally stepped out of my comfort zone in moving country half a decade ago. As I reflect on what led to this decision, I feel peace about it, like it was definitely the right thing to do, yet I also feel that in ditching the beaten path I’m a bit lost in the woods.

Not that the woods are unpleasant. I am fortunate to be in a stable and prosperous stage in my life in so many ways, feeling successful and valued in my decade-long career, yet I just find it difficult to know what next.

It’s often discussed how we millennials were raised with the dual expectations of continual success and personal happiness. These things seem hard to reconcile sometimes, and the way I’ve often viewed is that in my extra-curricular life I can pursue the personal part and in my job the success part. I think the lines are more blurred than that in real life. To be honest, those blurry lines are making themselves apparent everywhere and perhaps that’s the origin of some of this uncertainty.

Whether it’s the ongoing Brexit mess, the divisions over nationalism and liberalism, personal and political, everywhere it seems people are seeking certainty and security in one extreme or other. I feel caught in the middle, in the grey and blurry, both personally and politically.

In this grey place though, I think some things become clearer, even if one of those things is not the future. The really important and vital things in life become crystal clear sometimes in these circumstances. Things like community, like laughter, like family, like vulnerability. These things transcend my current quandaries and in fact help me to make sense of where I am and where I’m going.

Because that’s another interesting thing. I’ve begun to wonder if uncertainty is actually what we should expect. What we should learn to accept and even use. Uncertainty can mean that we are cautious as we don’t know quite what to expect. Gentle with others wandering through the trees with us, who are dealing with their own questions. Brave enough to make our own paths through the trees when there is no clear way forward. Patient to wait for the next thing, rather than rushing through.

Uncertainty is perhaps more real than certainty. Not that holding fast to beliefs, ideas and plans is bad, but that when you hold so tight you can’t deal with questions or challenges then maybe you’re actually cutting yourself off from others and new opportunities.

Holding fast to an expected life plan to seal your certainties similarly cuts you off from opportunities and experiences. I’ve been blessed with unexpected twists and turns, which I’m trying to learn to be thankful for and to embrace the uncertainties.

(Sort of) Arabian Nights

On a recent trip to Morocco, I read the book ‘In Arabian Nights’ by Tahir Shah.

Through this remarkable book, many of the things my friends and I were noticing about the culture we found ourselves experiencing came into focus.

Marrakesh feels like an assault on the senses. Every narrow alley and bustling square is filled with market stalls, donkeys, motorbikes, and every kind of person. From gormless tourists to hippies, traditionally dressed bedouin and berber to innumerable Moroccan traders seeking to entice everyone else into their shops crammed with goods.

It can be an uncomfortable place – squeezing through impossibly tiny spaces, having menus and goods thrust at you, not to mention the catcalling my female friends experienced. In his book, Shah talks about the formidable Moroccan women who rule the roost at home, but it’s an unpleasant realisation that many men see western women as completely different.

Interestingly, the favourite name that the sellers called at me was ‘Ali Baba.’ For a rather pasty Englishman I found this quite hilarious. Ali Baba is one of the characters that we in the West associate with the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ – the collection of tales told through generations in the deserts of Arabia and North Africa.

In legend, these stories would be told around the campfire to keep the minds of shepherds and merchants alert as they travelled the trade routes and pilgrimage trails, all the way from Baghdad to Timbuktu. Each story is viewed as a vessel for some lesson or message, passed on from a time before writing.

The historical art of storytelling still holds sway over many in Morocco. You can see how the past in much closer to the surface in the crumbling, donkey-filled streets of Marrakesh. We are very good an sanitising our cities in Europe. In some ways, the markets of Morocco have not changed for a thousand years. The goods made and sold, the leather and metal and wood, have been made for generations.

‘In Arabian Nights’ is in part the search for the story ‘in the heart’ of the author. It is also a panorama of life in Morocco for an outsider, albeit one who speaks the language. You can see in its pages the way that superstition and stories permeate the streets of this ancient kingdom, like the sun streaming through the geometric roofs of the covered markets.

One of the highlights of our trip was a tour with a local guide to the local countryside. We visited the High Atlas mountains and the desert, rode on camels and wandered through abandoned villages. Talking with our guide, we learned about how Moroccans pride themselves on their religious tolerance, as well as their Muslim heritage. Our assumptions were challenged, even as we were acutely aware of our whiteness and foreignness.

Shah discusses the phenomenon of mass tourism in his book. How the locals are very happy for the money tourism brings, and thanks to the high value they place on hospitality, are wonderful hosts. Our riad had it’s own cook, who was one of the most wonderfully kind and caring people we met. She prepared us delicious food and copious amounts of refreshing mint tea.

I can’t help but worry that Morocco is being spoiled by tourism, yet at the same time something about the country seemed remarkably ancient and unchanged. Shah talks about ‘rivers of words’ flowing below the streets and the sands of the country, deep enough that they are untouched by the modern world. These rivers link Moroccans together and back in time to their ancestors.

The love that bonds the people to each other, to their community, and to their past, goes beyond our Western conception. It is tied up with obligation and family in a way that our individualism has turned away from. Undoubtedly their are negative aspects to this and it was very noticeable how different, often negatively, gender relations were on our short visit. Yet the bonds of love and community seemed so much stronger, so much deeper, than we experience. It got us thinking about how new our ‘western’ way of life is. How so much has changed so fast. What have we lost?

I can’t recommend this wonderful book highly enough, but you should be sure to read it in Morocco. Let the rivers of words and the ancient charm wash over you and see what you learn.

 

beauty in the ordinary, even amidst the frost and snow

I don’t know about you, but I find that it’s all too easy to close in on yourself in these wintry times. To sit around and feel small. To feel like after the feasting of Christmas, already fading into memory, that there is nothing to do but plan adventures in the far-distant summer.

That is how I feel at the moment. Like the coming weeks are merely obstacles between me and the next dose of escape from normality.

Why do I think this way? Why when I have just had a day with colleagues I love? With students I care about? Why, when I have beautiful people around me? People to eat and drink and laugh and talk with?

Looking through some pictures this evening, some good and some very ordinary, I am reminded of the generosity of community and friendship I have received. I am receiving.

I need to learn to be more grateful. To them and to God for his goodness. To recognise that beauty in the ordinary, even amidst the frost and snow.

That is my hope.

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