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.

 

Composition in Valletta

A little poem I wrote a while ago.

 

Ancient walls the canvasses

for shafts of light

and beams of sound.

 

Streets leading you

(corks under the table when necessary)

and chasing around corners.

 

Wine by the glass

more wine?

Also olive oil.

 

Naked eyes and also through a screen

sunsets witnessed and ignored.

Searching (probably for a bathroom.)

 

Have you tried the rabbit?

The mussels are good too.

Buses and horses past tables on the pavement.

 

Shrines to the fallen light the way

justice will not be silenced

they will be remembered.

 

Talk more than skin deep

listening for a while too.

Where is Malta again?

 

I’m ready for some more travelling.

 

 

Photo Journal: MALTA

Some photos I took in beautiful Malta, quite simply one of the most photogenic places I have ever been.

All shots are on Kodak Ektar 100 film and were taken using my beat-up old SLR.

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My travel companion was also pretty photogenic.

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Below St Elmo’s Fortress in Valletta.

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Waiting for the perfect wave.

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Valletta.

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Above the cruise ships in Valletta harbour.

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Honey-coloured stone is everywhere in Malta.

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Mdina old town.

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Mdina

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Mdina

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Dingli cliffs sunset.

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Golden Bay.

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Exploring above Golden Bay.

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The sunset at Dingli cliffs.

Balkans Road-Trip

I took my camera on a recent trip around the Balkans. Visiting nine countries in two weeks, we saw some truly beautiful places. Here are a few snapshots.

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The abandoned bobsleigh track in the hills above Sarajevo.

This photo also nabbed me an honourable mention in a photo competition. Pretty cool.

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My travel companions, Ryan and Kiki, checking out a pretty great lake at Plitvice Lakes in Croatia.

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A roadside picnic in Bosnia. An amazingly green country.

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The waterfalls are also pretty great at Plitvice Lakes in Croatia.

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This was the view from our place in Mostar, Bosnia.

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The Montenegrin coast is rather nice. We travelled to the islands in the bay with a rather sketchy but very friendly local guide.

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The rather majestic Kotor, Montenegro.

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Close to Thessaloniki, Greece.

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Some of the many strays we found. We had to exercise all of our self-control not to come back with several extra passengers.

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Sofia, Bulgaria. Surprisingly green and decidedly church-filled.

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We finished our trip in Serbia. The final sunset in Belgrade was rather wonderful.

I can’t recommend the Balkans highly enough. Though the amount of grilled meat I ate may have stretched my stomach to the limit, the culture and landscapes (not to mention cheap and cheerful prices) of these small nations made for an incredible trip.

Post Wanderlust Blues

Which destinations are on your list at the moment? Where next? What are your plans for the next holiday? Have you been to x place? Have you been to y? Where should I go next?

These are questions I ask and answer a lot. Holiday plans seem to take up a lot of space in my mind, not to mention my internet history. I have spent a lot of time searching for cheap flights to this place or that in the past year. I even now have frequent flyer miles accounts. How grown up.

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed is travelling. It’s not like I’m travelling for the first time or anything. It’s just noticeable how much of my time and energy is spent thinking about getting away, seeing this or that amazing place, getting an amazing deal on a flight, or just ticking places off my list. Basically being somewhere else.

The opportunity to travel so much in the last year has been a complete privilege and I am so fortunate to live in a place with many possibilities, but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my desire to invest more in being here, now, and investing more in the community and place I’ve been put. This is one of my prayers for this year.

Wanderlust is something I’ve experienced over the past few years and I’m not convinced it’s a bad thing. It’s a wonderful refresher to move somewhere new, to see God’s goodness from a new perspective and in a new community, but I’m not sure it’s always good either. I don’t think it’s healthy to spend all my time and money seeking to be in as many places as possible. There are more important things.

I pray that travel takes the right place in my life and in my thinking; as something I love, which I do regularly, but which doesn’t stop me investing in community here, nor lead me to seek meaning and identity in a list of countries visited or places seen.

The Wood Between Worlds

“He was standing by the edge of a small pool – not more than ten feet from side to side – in a wood. The trees  grew close together and were so leafy that he could get no glimpse of the sky.  All the light was green that came through the leaves: but there must have been a very strong sun overhead, for this green daylight was bright and warm. It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine.”

In a rush of warmth and familiarity it came back to me, the same words and sentences I had read as child evoking the most calm and contented feeling. Where was I, who was I, when I last turned these pages? One of my favourite things about books is how they can serve as miniature, paper-filled, time machines, reminding us of things that have changed, as well as things that never will.

Reading the chapter in C. S. Lewis’ ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ where Digory (the eponymous nephew) travels for the first time out of our world into the ‘wood between worlds’ served to take me back to several times I’ve read this book. The idea of a calm, silent wood serving as an in-between place in the spaces between myriad worlds fascinated me. When I’m stressed, I often long, as I’m sure many do, to escape to such a place, lying down on the grass and falling asleep beneath green-leaved trees. Of course, it’s a very English vision of a peaceful getaway, but I’m very English so it appeals!

Since moving to Prague maybe I can understand the idea of a place between places better than before. My normal has changed, multiplied, since moving. Going home feels very normal, as does coming back to my new normal of work and friendships in Prague. I didn’t expect that. I thought going ‘home’ would be a relief, a welcome return, a restful experience. At times it was all of those things, but it was also, surprisingly and reassuringly, normal. I guess I have lived in England for twenty five years of my life; things are bound to have remained relatively unchanged in the course of four months.

Yet it wasn’t normal as it had been before because work, church, house and ‘stuff’ were here in the Czech Republic. It’s amazing how quickly I have started to feel comfortable here. I guess getting the bus to work each day, interacting with the same people, even dealing with the same dodgy customer-service, has made a routine like any other.

Between these two new normals I think I would like a wood. Somewhere to cosy up in and retreat to. The allure of an idealised countryside has a strong pull on me, as it seems to on the English consciousness as a whole. Rolling hills, a moss-covered forest floor, a National Trust tea shop… I think this desire to escape is also a symptom, for me at least, of busy working life and a desire to do lots and fill my time to the brim. If only I could simply slip on a magic ring (as Digory does) and flee the burdens of this busy life.

Yet C. S. Lewis makes this wood more than just a beautiful place, it is somewhere where you quickly lose all ties to the world you have left.

“The strangest thing was that, almost before he had looked about him, Digory had half-forgotten how he had got there. At any rate, he was certainly not thinking about Polly, or Uncle Andrew, or even his Mother. He was not in the least frightened, or excited, or curious. If anyone had asked him ‘Where did you come from?’ he would probably have said, ‘I’ve always been here.’ That was what it felt like – as if one had always been in that place and never been bored even though nothing had ever happened.”

Sometimes I long for this too, or so it seems. To just be free of fear, excitement, curiosity, burden, events even, would be so much easier. Just give me a nice book, cup of tea and wood between worlds. But what would there be to escape, to enjoy, to achieve there. I’m tempted much of the time to just jack it all in and run to my bed, comfy and warm and free from danger. Yet I know that I have been put here for a reason, for God to work his purposes in, for his glory and my good. The place between normals isn’t as good as the normal, the run-of-the-mill, the stressful and busy.

Give me normal, as long as I know the wood is there. It’s in the pages of the book I’m reading, the simple pleasure of sleep, a nice cup of tea, Netflix. It’s in snatched ten minutes and lazy Saturdays. It’s ultimately and completely in heaven, though the metaphor is decidedly flawed when stretched to that extent. May my desire for escape and rest not lead to me fleeing normal, but to my enjoyment of that peaceful wood when I glimpse it.

Bruxelles

It’s interesting and harrowing walking through the streets of a place like Brussels.

How does one quantify that feeling of unease? Is it an underlying racism? Am I more uncomfortable in ethnically diverse places? Do I have a crippling fear of concrete?

I hope not, yet something made me feel very uneasy as I arrived there compared to home, compared to Prague. Is it simply unfamiliarity? Is it the woman begging at the tram stop? It was certainly the possibly prostitutes who cheerfully said ‘Ca va?’ to me not far from my hotel (and outside designer shops no less).

I hope and pray I met some friendly Belgians and that I am being judgmental but I’m not sure.

Brussels is a real breathing, begging, sinning place, not simply the heart of a utopian new Europe/the demon beloved of UKIP (delete as appropriate). There are people there who have never, and will never, leave. People who call it home. People who wish they didn’t.

It is a challenge for me to remember that so often the places we visit as tourists have a life that we don’t see, sufferings and heartaches that are hidden out of the sight of fleeting visitors. This is something I have begun to realise about Prague as I have spent more time here. This rawness seemed much closer than I expected in Brussels. May my eyes stay open, may I pray and do what I can for this city, may I not put on my tourist blinkers once more.

On a lighter note, Brussels also has a most frustrating metro with many tram stops seemingly fiendishly hidden. But maybe that’s just me. The fact that I accidentally stroked a guy’s head on the metro probably didn’t help.

Admittedly, not Belgium’s fault.

Ahem.

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Nice towers.

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Fantastic waffles (yes, it’s under there somewhere).

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The Atomium.