What Great Divide?

Here goes with a ten-minute freewrite to answer the question:   If I’m reading for fun, do I usually choose fiction or non-fiction?  Well I can’t avoid what will sound like the worst kind of totally non-committal answer: Both/And – because that’s how my reading habits actually are and always have been.  It only takes a very quick glance at my bookshelves to see how a huge range of classics and modern fiction – novels and short stories – rubs shoulders with non-fiction titles covering theology, language learning, psychology, business and management, travel books, and hobby guides to a whole range of pursuits.

No divide here

As I noted in describing my Ten Favourite Books, I almost always have both fiction and non-fiction on the go at any one time – my current pairing is Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (all 800+ pages of it as a bedtime read!) and Brian D McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking (subtitled A year-long quest for spiritual formation, reorientation and activation).  

Doing the 10 books thing and looking at my current, recent and next-to-read books list, makes me realise that, even when I’m reading fiction, it tends to be quite true to life.  I’m not into fantasy or science fiction, and I’m not all that keen on crime or detective novels and really dislike anything wildly futuristic.  My kind of fiction is the sort of story that could be – or could have been – someone’s real life.  So most of the novels I read and enjoy the most are those based on an actual historical event – like my current novel, set at the battle of Stalingrad during World War II.  A recent novel I particularly loved, and read at a single sitting, was Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway: emigrating to the USA, slavery and quilting – a story that someone might actually have lived in that era.

imageAnd then there’s the Bible – a daily read through some small portion of its vast and varied library of 66 books covering just about every literary genre there ever was. I have my favourites, but they shift over time.  I’m currently loving being back in the amazing adventure of the early Christian church as described in the New Testament book of Acts.  And I want to spend some time slowly re-reading some of the Old Testament prophets.  Perhaps now I’ve got the blog going, I could challenge myself to blogging my way through one of them.  That might stir up discussion that would go way beyond the fiction/non-fiction preference debate.  Watch this space!

A job for life?

Did I know what I wanted to do when I was 24? That was the question I was challenged with at the end of one young blogger’s post about her employment enigma.  This got me thinking to way back – more than half my life ago – when I was also 24.  I pictured myself on my 24th birthday alongside the man who is now my husband on top of Moon Hill near Yangshuo in SW China. I seem to remember it was Easter Sunday and he had brought creme eggs with us for the celebration! At the time, I was teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) in Hong Kong; it was my second year out from finishing university and I was already on to my fourth job having first taught EFL in Cambridge, then in Portugal and an initial, and very short-lived, first job in Hong Kong.  The step from a degree in modern languages into TEFL had been intentional because I wanted to keep travelling and exploring the world and I needed to be able to pay my way if I was to do so. But even that morning on top of Moon Hill I probably realised that teaching English as a foreign language was not to be my job for life.

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All these years – and many job/career changes later – I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not someone who was born to have one job for life.  Even if I’d felt back then that the job I should be doing is the one I’m doing now, I’d have been stuck.   Women were not ordained as priests until I had turned 30, and regular church attendance was not a feature of my years in South East Asia, as my Christian faith lay rather dormant for a decade or so.

And if I’ve learned anything through my years of new jobs and training, new starts, and endless dilemmas and concerns that I would never know what I wanted to be when I grew up, it’s this: If we are privileged enough to be able to choose how we earn a living – and most of the world’s population is not – then the most important thing we can do in that is to discover our passion and then find a way of turning it into paid work.  Perhaps our young blogger’s most heartfelt desire is not lab work, but something more in the creative line that has prompted her to start blogging – only she will know.

In making her comment about not feeling she’s able to do anything other than lab work, she really sparked something in me.  At a very similar age I had this overwhelming sense that the only thing I could do was speak and teach other languages and I definitely didn’t want to be a teacher or a translator.  I went back to college and did an MBA; I worked in overseas telecoms marketing for a few years; and then, via a brief attempt at launching and running my own business, I found my way back into teaching.  This time I was teaching business and management in Higher Education, and later moved on into a training role in the Church of England where I was training vicars.  Alongside working life, I had two children and found my way back into living out my Christian faith again – and the rest, as they say, is history, and I write today with the job title of Rector (or vicar).

With half a century of whatever my lifespan is to be already now lived, I’m immensely grateful for the varied life experience I’ve enjoyed.  As friends just a few years older begin to talk about, and actually begin, retirement after 20, 30 or more years in the same job, I realise just how ‘non-standard’ my working life has been.  But in saying that, I have to admit I’m just focussing on the positives, because the frustration of feeling I was not in the right job and did not even feel I would recognise the right job if it hit me in the face, was an uncomfortable one and was, at times, extremely difficult to live with.  In recent years I’ve seen focussed friends start to reach the heights of their singular profession, while I feel I will grow older and greyer as a jack of all trades but a master of none.  And yet, I’m at peace with that now because I honestly believe that’s how it was always meant to be with me.  I think there’s something really significant about personality in all of this that I don’t have the time, the space or the inclination to explore here.  I am just one of life’s restless souls – always on the lookout for the next big adventure and the next new and interesting experience in life.

I wonder if the employment enigma blogger is another of those restless souls destined to journey through a range of lifetime experiences.  There seem to be a few clues in her writing: she happens to live in my hometown (perhaps it’s something in the water there?); her blog has a tagline that includes the phrase ‘Life: A Work in Progress’ .  In describing her new blog she speaks of

the fervor of excitement over starting something new

Just reading those words makes me tingle with the actual ‘fervor of excitement over starting something new’.  I look forward to following her blog and seeing where life’s journey takes her.

World Suicide Prevention Day

I could never have imagined – nor would I ever have wanted to – how this post would end when I wrote the first draft a fortnight ago.  It was 10 September and I had just learned the new-to-me fact that it was World Suicide Prevention Day.  So I jotted down a few statistics and quick thoughts before time to blog ran out on me.  And I saved the draft that follows:

WHO (World Health Organisation) estimates that a suicide takes place every 40 seconds somewhere in the world, meaning that more than 800,000 people die that way each year – more than all homicides and war deaths combined.  So each and every day, the loss of a loved one to suicide affects more than 2000 sets of family and friends. In England, it equates to around 4500 people per year, or one every two hours, with as many as 20 additional attempted suicides for every suicidal death. For the last 12 years, 10 September has been marked out as World Suicide Prevention Day in an effort to try and reduce these tragic and unnecessary deaths. World Suicide Prevention Day was not one I was aware existed, but, learning of its existence caused me to pause, to reflect and to remember. My brother-in-law was one of the 800,000 in 2012, a few months shy of his 50th birthday, and the news came as an utter shock to all those of us who knew him, and to many others too, given the hundreds who turned out for his funeral. A global campaign linked to this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day calls for people to:

TAKE 5 TO SAVE LIVES Everyone is encouraged to get involved and become informed and share these five key steps:

  1. Learn the signs: take a few minutes to learn the warning signs of suicide
  2. Join the movement: use your status updates and tweets to help save lives
  3. Spread the word: make a commitment to tell five people about World Suicide Prevention Day
  4. Support a friend: if you know someone who is struggling, learn how to help
  5. Reach out: if you are concerned about your thoughts or feelings, talk to someone

Two weeks later . . .

It took me just a few minutes on the evening of World Suicide Prevention Day to draft the opening paragraphs of this post, during which time perhaps another half a dozen people had taken their own lives around the world. That short first draft was all I had time to write, so I saved it, planning to complete and publish the post the following day, adding to the overall theme of suicide, and perhaps incorporating something more personal about our family’s experience of it. But I never returned to finish the post as planned because, within 24 hours of finishing that first draft, I learned that the 14-year-old daughter of friends had taken her own life at about the same time that I was writing my post. Her RIP Facebook page soon had over 2000 likes – hundreds of people who cannot begin to understand how she came to do what she did, many of whom are now struggling to come to terms with all that has happened.

So, despite the title of this post, it is not now World Suicide Prevention Day, but it has become all too clear that it’s never too late to share a message about suicide and its prevention. The statistics around suicide can come as a shock, perhaps because it still remains something of a taboo subject even today.  One of the most remarkable things I noticed when my brother-in-law lost his life to suicide was just how many people I’d already known well for many years had a death-by-suicide story among their own close family network.  When it happens to you, people tell you about their experience, and something of the veil of hiddenness that cloaks this subject is lifted, albeit only briefly. As stories are shared, common themes begin to emerge: depression and other mental health issues, struggles with addiction, financial concerns, bullying, or issues around self-esteem and identity (particularly among younger victims of suicide).  No two stories are alike; not all victims of suicide were depressed. But in every story I have heard there does seem to be one common factor: bereaved, shell-shocked, devastated relatives and close friends, people who had not seen this coming and are left trying desperately to come to terms with the horror of it and the seemingly endless guilt trips of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘if-onlys’.  It is just impossible to even begin to try and understand what has led a much-loved friend or relative to the conclusion that the only way out of their inner pain is death.  And, worse yet, they have not only thought about it, they have actually gone ahead and ended their lives.

If the tragedy that our family still lives with, and that our friends have just begun to live with, is to be prevented in other families and communities, then we need to begin talking about the reality of suicide so that we might all be better equipped to do what we can to prevent another similar tragedy elsewhere.  As a novice blogger, I never expected to be writing about a theme like suicide so soon after getting the blog up and running.  But real life has intervened, and so many of my thoughts have been about these tragic deaths that have touched our lives, that I can’t simply leave these thoughts to swirl around inside my head.  It wasn’t possible in these two cases, but suicides can be prevented, hence my listing of the Take 5 to Save Lives advice above. If you have somehow found yourself reading this blog and you’ve had suicidal thoughts, or are concerned for someone else, then please take action now.  In the UK you can contact the Samaritans on 08457 909090.  Papyrus works for the prevention of young suicide 0800 068 4141 and SOBS on 0300 111 5065 offers support nationwide to Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide.

Ten favourite books

I’ve been loving reading all the lists of 10 favourite books that people have been posting on social media recently and find I can’t help but mentally compare them to my own list. I love reading and I always have at least one book on the go, so it’s been difficult trying to think back over all my reading years to find just 10 for my own list. The task says they should be books that have left a lasting impact for some reason. I think the idea is also to jot down the first list that comes to mind – but of course I couldn’t possibly do a task like this without thinking long and hard about it.  So, two weeks after my first draft, here’s my list – and, surprise, surprise, it’s unchanged from the first list I wrote down.

Some of the ten

Some of the ten

Little House books: Laura Ingalls Wilder
One More River: Lynne Reid Banks
On the Beach: Nevil Shute
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Metamorphosis: Franz Kafka
Darkness at Noon: Arthur Koestler
Wild Swans: Jung Chang
Birdsong: Sebastian Faulks
The Siege: Helen Dunmore
If you Want to Walk on Water . . . John Ortberg

And here are a few reasons why it’s these books . . . They’re mostly in chronological order of when I first read them. The Little House books were far and away my childhood favourites. I just wanted to be Laura, on the exciting adventure of her life in all the new places they travelled to. If I had to choose just one to represent the series, it would probably be On the Banks of Plum Creek because I was so caught up in the drama of Pa being lost without food in the blizzard. Failing that, it would be By the Shores of Silver Lake with its dramatic opener about Mary being left blind after scarlet fever. Then, in my teen years, I read and re-read One More River – again, longing for the big life adventure of moving countries and an exciting new life (Israel at the time of the six day war). I sense a theme developing here which says a lot about me and my dreams – I hadn’t seen that connection before doing this task.

There are then three big books from my Sixth Form (High School) years: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was my holiday reading for my last ever family holiday as a child. We travelled by overnight ferry to Sweden and Norway and I read the book on the long sea crossing – I could scarcely get my head around the horrors humans could inflict on other human beings. I’d been fascinated by Russia from early in life and was about to start learning the Russian language, so this was a huge awakening into Soviet history some years before I studied it at university. Metamorphosis was an A level German set text and blew me away; On the Beach was a post-A level summer holiday read. The early 80s were a time when the threat of all-out nuclear attack or war seemed a horribly real possibility, so the book’s theme really tapped into that for me. One of the few English books I read during my gap year in Germany was Darkness at Noon. It seems that, as well as the adventurous travel theme, I was also hugely impacted back then by stories of human cruelty and suffering. What a joyful teenager I must have been!

I had to read so many German and Russian set books and extra stuff for my degree that I didn’t start reading “for fun” again until I left university. My first year after graduation was spent in Hong Kong when I read a lot of novels and non-fiction relating to life, history and politics in Hong Kong and China. Of all that I read, Wild Swans undoubtedly made the biggest and most long-lasting impression on me.

And the final two novels on the list both offer fictional, but historically fairly accurate, accounts of war experiences: Birdsong focused on WW1 and The Siege graphically portrays the WW2 siege of Leningrad in which the Germans cut off supply routes and hundreds of thousands of Leningraders starved to death.

And in tenth place I’ve included a John Ortberg book on Christian discipleship. It’s a book with a message that has always challenged me, but it’s written in Ortberg’s  light, engaging, and often very funny, style. I found it a thought-provoking read on how God calls his people to step out into the dangerous and scary waters of real faith, and it’s a book I’ve gone back to many times when I’ve needed to be reminded to get out of the boat and be and do all that I’m called to.

I could of course write an even longer list of the books that didn’t quite make the final cut. The most obvious omission from a vicar’s list of top books is the Bible, but I left it out intentionally as it impacts me on pretty much a daily basis, so I wanted to focus on other books that have left a lasting impression.  I was struck by not being able to keep any of the classics of world literature on the list – I think they were all just a bit too hard to read so never quite grabbed my imagination and stayed with me in quite the same way. But then again, many of them were compulsory reading at various stages of my education. Perhaps I should try them again now and see if some of them can make the top ten after all.  Perhaps the most striking thing for me in doing this task is that, as someone who reads a huge amount of non-fiction, all but one of my top ten books are novels, covering a fairly narrow range of themes: travel, adventure, new life, historical fiction.

For now, I’m just finishing the brilliant Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie having recently enjoyed one of her other books, Purple Hibiscus. Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking is my current non-fiction read. And awaiting my attention is a choice between Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries and Vasily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate – more books set in other times and cultures, depicting human life with all its joys and struggles through the eyes of characters whose own cultural heritage and life experience are very different from my own – in other words, my kind of books!

Just ten – Exodus 16

So the challenge is to freewrite for exactly ten minutes – not a minute more and not a minute less. Sometimes I love freewriting and I use it to sort all the big bundle of thoughts messing up my head in that moment. But I would never, ever hit publish having done a freewrite and no editing. So this could be interesting if I follow the rules of the game. The most obvious thing to write about is what I’ve just been doing because it’s really got me thinking.  I’ve spent the last couple of hours looking in detail at the Exodus reading I’ll be preaching my sermon from on Sunday.  It’s a reading that comes just after the event we call the Exodus (Moses and his big stick raised, God parting the waters, and the Israelites safely escaping to the other side before the Egyptians get drowned as the waters crash back in).  The great escape of the Old Testament, God’s rescue of his people still celebrated in the Passover festival in Jewish tradition. But Sunday’s reading is a little bit further on in the story – the second month after the big rescue – and the people of Israel are complaining – complaining a lot – because there’s not enough food and they wish they’d stayed back as slaves in Egypt after all, or been mown down by one of the plagues that got the Egyptians while they were still there.  Far better that, they complain, than being dragged out into the wilderness by their wonderful leaders, Moses and Aaron, to die of starvation. Of course, whenever any of us reads anything, we read it from our own perspective.  The Exodus is the great narrative of both Jewish tradition and is the essence of liberation theology in 20th Century Christian tradition.  I read this narrative here today in my sunny office (yes, sunny in Manchester) as a church leader.  Of course there’s a whole lot more to my identity than my role as Rector, but that’s the main reason why I’m reading this Bible extract this afternoon – because the congregation expects a sermon on Sunday (whether they want one or not is quite a different question) – there’d be at least surprise and shock, and, believe it or not, possibly even complaints if I didn’t preach one.  Yes, really! So, what has my afternoon of study shown me – what is God’s message in this text, for these people, in the parishes where I minister, on this coming Sunday?  Well, now there’s a question and my ten minutes are up . . . ! [Talk about out of my comfort zone! Ten minutes of freewriting, a couple of minutes correcting typos and putting in a bit of punctuation here and there and I’m about to hit ‘publish’ – unthinkable but true – this blogging thing is changing me!]