Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Lament in a time of Corona

Yesterday was a day for a lot of crying and tears. After the country announced stricter social distancing measures on Friday (euphemistically called a 'circuit breaker', but really a more benign version of a lockdown), I didn't really have time to sit with myself and figure out how I was feeling. But the slower and more isolated weekend meant things began to sink in, and on Sunday I found myself grieving. 

I tried to list down what I was grieving over, and came up with:

- Loss of time
- Missing Jacob
- Feeling unsafe
- Loss of freedom
- Loss of intimacy
- Sudden upheaval and change
- Loss of dreams of what could happen
- Fear and uncertainty over how long this will last
- Loss of community (particularly church community)
- Fear and uncertainty over my ability to be a good friend
- Fear and uncertainty for the world, particularly for India and friends in the UK
- Loss of feeling like I can do a good job at work/not knowing how to best use my time for work

I listened to a sermon from the Globe church, where Jonty preached about fear and trust. Fear, he said, is not wrong. Fear is not shameful or weak. Fear is seeing what is real and what is bad and what is threatening and recognising its magnitude and your limitations. But fear can be met with trust, because trust is seeing a good and loving and powerful God, and recognising His infinite magnitude and love for us. A God who is bigger than what we fear. So I prayed for trust in the morning.

In the evening, I walked to Phoon Huat to buy chickpeas (and as usual came away with much more than that). While walking down and standing in the socially distanced queue, I listened to another sermon by Jonty, where he preached about tears and hope. Tears, he said, are not wrong, or shameful, or weak. They are a natural response to the brokenness and sin in our world. They are a lament that expresses pain and cried 'how long? how long will this last?' But lament is directed to a God gives light in the darkness, who knows the end, and who promises rejoicing. A God who gives us the choice to trust in his unfailing love, and to rejoice in a God who saves, and to praise because God has been good. And so I prayed for hope in the evening.


In my third year, I wrote an essay in tragedy term about lament, comparing a Greek tragedy, The Trojan Women, and the book of Lamentations in the Bible. I changed it a little (particularly after realising I had a real tendency for very long sentences), but I was reminded of the hope woven into lament in that book of the bible:

In Lamentations 3, the voice changes from a female voice traditionally used to ‘give voice to suffering and evoke empathy, appealing to the mercy of God’, to the male voice of the Geber, ‘intended to emphasise the need to accept responsibility for suffering and to find a way forward, propitiating the holy demands of God’.  The Geber inherits the female Zion’s narrative of guilt and sorrow and puts it to action, invoking the community to ‘search and try our ways, and turn again to the LORD. Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens.’ The recognition of wrong that results from understanding a divine and righteous God provokes propitiatory action to restore right relationship with God. 

This is seen in the pivotal verse 18, translated in the Authorised version as ‘My strength and my hope is perished from the LORD’ – however, Conway highlights that there is ‘no verb in the second half of the bicolon in the Hebrew’ and thus the verse ‘can be translated as a verbless clause ‘He has destroyed my endurance, and/but my hope is from Yhwh’, transforming hopelessness to hope. This then introduces the hopeful verses that follow, which recall that ‘the LORD’s great mercies […] are new every morning’. 

The sudden surge of hope in this chapter is based on ‘remembrance’ of God’s past mercy which the Geber ‘recall[s] to [his] mind’. This frees the lament from the confines of Jerusalem’s current situation and plight to contextualise it within the rest of the Hebrew scriptures. By placing it within a history of relationship between God and Israel, remembrance also provokes the active call in 3:40-41: ‘Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the LORD./ Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens’. The repeated ‘let us’ signals future action that offers hope. 

Hope does not seem to conclude the book, however, which ends with the plea ‘Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old./ But thou hast utterly rejected us; thou art very wroth against us.’ (Lam 5:21-22). This seems to grate against the form of the lament, which borrows from Mesopotamian city lament, a form which 'expresses the efficacy of prayer and the goodwill of the deity by concluding with the gods’ return'. (Boda, Dempsey and Flesher, 2012) This is where it is crucial to view Lamentations as a book within a larger compilation of Jewish history, poetry, and prophecy. The last words of Lamentations cannot be read as hopeless despair but the beginning of a new chapter, as the failure of God's definitive return at the close of this tragedy is mediated first by the prophecies of the coming Messiah and the restoration of Jerusalem after exile, and finally by the incarnation of Jesus.


Boda, M.J., Dempsey, C.J., and Flesher, L.S. (Eds.) (2012). Daughter Zion: Her Portrait, Her Response. Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Dusky Swifts and Psalm 91

 Jacob and I recently finished David Attenborough’s documentary series Seven Worlds, One Planet. Attenborough is an icon, the documentary series was so well shot, and there was laughter and tears as we went through all seven episodes/continents. In the South America episode, the final segment was about dusky swifts, which have made their home under the roaring waters of a man made dam. Though tons of water pour from above them, they manage miraculously to fly through it and make their nests on the walls beneath the waterfall, where they are safe and out of reach predators. The water, however, is still dangerous and baby swifts who are less adept at flying can sometimes be swept to their deaths, particularly when the water volume increases. And yet many survive, and thrive in this relationship with what might seem terrifying.
This reminded me of the psalm that our pastor has been repeating in these uncertain times. Psalm 91, which begins: He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

Aside from being a psalm which has bird imagery (He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge), this beautiful psalm reminded me of the dusky swifts and their wall. I thought of them dwelling in the shelter of the high wall, which, because they live there and are familiar with it, is their place of safety. I thought of how in these uncertain times where we face an invisible virus, not knowing where or who is safe, we can know that God gives protection and peace to those who draw near to Him and draw from Him. 

There are Christians who have fallen ill and died from this virus. But for those Christians who dwelt with God in life, seeking Him and living and loving as He shows us – there is not a single one of them who are not with God now, in the safest place. 

My Refuge and My Fortress

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
    nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
    and see the recompense of the wicked.

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
    the Most High, who is my refuge —
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
    no plague come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder;
    the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
    I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble;
    I will rescue him and honour him.
With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation.”

Redeeming my what ifs

Joanna Goddard recently wrote about an anxiety trick which works for her - turning your what if's around so that rather than dress-rehearsing tragedy we imagine possibilities of joy and peace.

I had the chance to practice this last week. I'd been tasked to bake a birthday cake for my boss, who is great and really supportive and I really wanted to make an utterly delicious cake. I'd eaten a wonderful chocolate hazelnut cake at Jacob's house, made by his top home-chef mum, and I asked her for the recipe, bought ingredients, and started mixing dry ingredients on Wednesday. I baked the cake on Thursday when I got home, but forgot that oven temperatures differ and that I should always check before the time is up - and when so I took the cakes out they were dry.

I panicked.

I hoped that the ganache would help, but it didn't, and so on the morning of bringing it to work, a very frazzled Miriam and her very patient mum poked holes into the cake and moistened them with water - not ideal. Thanks to Mum's help and Hannah kindly offering to take a grab with me to work, I got to work in one piece (and so did the cake), put it in the fridge and tried miserably to forget about it.

I read Goddard’s article during a toilet break, as I tried to breathe calmly in the cubicle, and told Jacob about what I read. I practiced what-ifs of possibility: ‘What if the cake is fine and people focus on just being together and celebrating Daniel?’ ‘What if the water trick worked?’ ‘What if people don’t actually judge me based on my ability to bake?’ And he helped with ‘What if this is your first step in a month of making lots of people happy on their birthdays and your cakes for J and the new person go well too and the office is full of joy?’

In the end, it was fine. People really enjoyed the cake, and despite having 400g of flour in it (and pretty much the same amount of sugar, plus hazelnut meal, plus other ingredients) most of it was eaten! I brought some home for my family and Jacob, and they liked it too. I’m baking another cake for a colleague tomorrow.

The thing is, I care way too much about what people think of me. I care way too much about how I perform, terrified of disappointing people. I also care way too much about the things, trivial or otherwise, which I base my identity on which are not God. I want to be assured, rooted in a love that will not let me go, and courageously loving those around me – ‘for the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline’. (2 Timothy 1:7)

And so,

what if

           the Creator of all things watched over me?

what if

           the perfect one of Heaven called me 'good and faithful servant'?

what if 

           I held closely to the understanding that nothing can separate us from the love of God?

Monday, February 24, 2020


“You are so young, so before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign language. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Remembering a particularly tender moment in life drawing class, and how seen and safe and full of potential I felt there, and how things were simple. In my empty hands I held a flower - which was a prayer - and around me as I knelt on the table the room and the sketching fell away.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the pure in heart, for their shall see God.

Friday, February 21, 2020

back log

1. In January my friend Chrispy got married. I was singing at her wedding, songs all about God's love. On Thursday there was the wedding rehearsal - with the inevitable mistakes, people looking mildly terrified, starts and stops and questions. I thought of how this life on earth is like a wedding rehearsal, where we fail and fall but do so knowing that the Kingdom of Heaven to come, where the bride of Christ meets her bridegroom, is one of joy in fullness, love unending, and utter communion with God, so close we can reach out and touch him.

To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky

On the wedding day, I arrived early and warmed up with Jacob, then prayed over the instruments (including the bass guitar and two other guitars we weren't using for good measure) before practicing with the rest of the band to prepare for the ‘real thing’. 

But nothing can prepare you for singing in front of the bride and groom - to see their joy and to see them rejoicing not just in the day and in each other but in the Lord.

2. As part of work research I read that in Olmec culture, a premature birth that resulted in the death of the infant was considered a self-sacrifice (in a culture where sacrifice was an act which enabled the continuation of life) and touched me unexpectedly.

3. I sat down to write down 'Daily things that bring me pleasure', feeling inspired by a podcast interview with Adrienne Maree Brown. Things that bring me pleasure include the soft darkness when I wake up and am the only person in the world, as I sit and talk to God, and when the wind breathes unexpectedly and cools me down on sweaty lunch walks, and kissing Jacob (almost daily). 

4. I had what I can only describe as an anxiety attack on a Saturday, reminding me of the helplessness I felt on the train platform in Oxford, November 2018. What began as general heaviness over family tension grew into an incomprehensible fear and sadness and looked like me crying a lot. I was thankful that Jacob was there to breathe with me, and that my family has been working through the tension slowly.

5. Chinese New Year was a really special time. I felt more comfortable with my extended family for not being with them for 4 years. We still have mandarins from Chinese New Year in our fruit and vegetable drawer, and sometimes I bring them to work and peel them at my desk, which necessitates a stop from any busy-ness as I mop up their sweet juice and inhale their citrus scent.

6. The Auntie I walk past each day on my rounds in Fort Canning Park now smiles at me, after I asked her one day if she was alright/needed help when she seemed to be in discomfort. It was a small, civil thing, but now we have a sweet understanding.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

New Year’s Eve

Last night we sat out on our balcony,
my family together
for the first time in four years.

We lit candles and Dad played a recording of Julie Andrews singing Auld Lang Syne
and I thought of a podcast I'd heard
Of how world war soldiers sang to it's tune

'We're here because we're here because
we're here because we're here'

I sang that to myself as I walked home
realising that though I miss 'there'

Which is Hampstead Heath and number 17
and the Riverbank Club and Leo's office
and Benson Villa and Wytham woods
and a certain caravan named Florence

that I'm here
because I'm here
because I'm here because
I'm here

I sang it underneath a sky you’d never find there
With blue like a child’s crayon and streaks of salmon
and an ocean-crossing vastness
And knew that there is both hope and futility
in ‘I’m here because I’m here’.
But who wouldn’t choose hope?

Monday, November 4, 2019

I recently stumbled across this photo blog and then the writings of Nikaela Peters. Her photos made me want to be a mother to chubby cheeked children, to make big bowls of overnight oatmeal for a family table which I’d spoon into mismatched bowls on Sunday mornings, to kiss the tops of heads, and eat fruit in sunshine. I smiled at her description of her children’s relationship – that competitive, craving, intimately close understanding between two entirely different individuals who at the same time know an obscene amount about each other. And this paragraph from her writing about a road trip took my breath away:

And oh! the land and how it lay, soft in parts, like fat, swelled and dimpled.  I thought I could see it yawning – the rise and fall not just of hills but of breath.  The word “lay” felt appropriate; isn’t that just what land would do next to the ocean, wild and numinous, what you would do, if you were the land?  Lie down?  Surrender to that which you cannot change or control?

In one of her writings she quotes Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead and Home and more. I read Gilead just before I fly away from England, and read Home shortly after arriving, finishing it last week. When I met Chrispy on Saturday and we spoke about books (I love conversations about books) she mentioned Gilead, and when I called Naomi last night she said she’s reading Gilead too.

Reading Home shortly after arriving back to Singapore has been a great comfort. In Home Jack Boughton, infamous black sheep of the Boughton family, returns to his childhood home in small town Gilead. Things don’t change much in Gilead, and Jack is still mistrusted. But the inevitable shifts like his Father’s aging, and the loss of his mother, and dissipation of his father’s old church also mean that coming home is a shock of expectation unmet, and a fear like the fear of the uncanny, settling in.

Yesterday Naomi asked me how it was to move back into a familiar yet unfamiliar place. I couldn't answer her immediately thought I tried, talking about the shift in a relationship of dependence to one of equals with my parents, and yet still living in their house, and the blessing and challenge that is. I talked about the relationships with friends which have been molded apart as life circumstances and priorities and interests diverge. It's weird, I said. I lament, I said. But the closest I could get to articulation was at a remove, watered down by articulation itself, like the removed third-person perspective of Home which then feels truer than any sort of intimacy with its characters.

Third person and first person existences - I believe I live them both. There is the reflective John Ames me that paces my mind in the mornings when I go on runs underneath a soft opalescent sky. Then there is the narrating self that looks at me and tries unsuccessfully to make sense of existence in language.

A first person/third person journey last - last Thursday - walking up dark steps with the fear of the abyss in my heart and the warmth of Jacob's hand in mine. I don't know why the childish fear of the dark never really left me. When we get to the top I want to cry with relief and also embarrassment at my foolishness, and also joy at being there, overlooking sea and buildings and trees with Jacob. We share lunch boxes of essentially the same thing - rice and tau gwa and vegetables. Maybe that is what love includes - you share what you have, not out of need, but for the giving. (My consumption of tofu has gone up exponentially, not that I'm complaining.)

(I'm writing this on a bus that smells strongly of McDonalds chips, and I am trying not to be here.)

Fireworks go off, unexpectedly, and I lie down on my tote bag and look up at faint stars.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Lunch break/thoughts while walking

Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter.

— Albert Camus, Notebooks

At lunch break, I try to walk out of the museum and go somewhere. Usually it's a spot in Fort Canning park, where I open my lunch box and eat while a film about the 1984 archaeological dig plays in the background.

Once when I was doing this, Jacob appeared with his lunch too, after some inconspicuous questions and a hopeful attempt of finding me within what is quite a large park. That was good.

Last week, I was listening to Charles Foster talk about the 'language' of killer whales as I walked, and how much richer, deeper and detailed it is compared to our speech:

"I’m often frustrated by the inability of my language to reflect the wonder of the world. I intuit that wonder, and then language tells me that I’m getting overexcited and I ought to calm down. But I prefer to trust the intuition. I know that propositions formulated in language can’t do the job. How can I possibly describe my love for my children, my outrage at the cruelty of men, the smell of a wood fire, or the sun on the back of a gull—let alone the dance of these things with one another?

We know from our everyday experience that words fall short of the splendor; that little of our real understanding is mediated through words; that most of what we get even from a formal lecture is subliminal (perhaps communicated by pheromones, or the interlocking of auras, or whatever)."

Later that day I was walking a far more road-side, noisy and dusty way to Little India, and listening to Robert Macfarlane talking about how language shapes our landscape, and vice-versa. His opinion of human language is more redemptive, :

"... poetry has been a huge force and presence in my life. The three poets who I met earliest were the three H’s. They were Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and Gerard Manley Hopkins; and in a way, for that troika of poets, words have a kind of palp and a heft that is as strong as a pebble or a gale. And I was fascinated by writers who fought and sought to give to their language aspects of matter, and who sought to give to matter aspects of language."

Macfarlane specifically mentions the word smout,  'which means the hole in the bottom of a stone wall up in Cambria, which is left so that small creatures can move through it but sheep can’t get out' and its counterpart in Sussex: 'smeuse', which refers to 'a hole in the base of a hedgerow left by the movement of an animal. To get out of the museum, I sometimes walk through a little gap in the scrawny hedge by the car park, my own little smeuse. I suppose, in that case, I am the animal.  

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Things you wouldn't believe

Last Sunday was a day of revelation. I discovered that segue is pronounced seg-way, not seeg as I'd thought. I also found out that because of the vertical way that time zones are delineated, certain places in Russia - despite having vastly different cultures and climates - have the same time as Singapore. Hong Kong has the same time as Singapore, and yet the experience of someone there and someone here, especially at this moment in history with the riots happening, is so dissimilar. It boggles the mind.

So far, I've largely enjoyed work. Sometimes I sit at the desk and think 'I have nothing to do, I'm so bored', but other times I'm reading articles about Mexican culture, or observing an artefact being taken out of a display case for conservation work (and the tricky maneuvering needed to make sure it doesn't touch the adjacent artefact on loan from Queen Elizabeth) or drafting a tour script which involves thinking carefully about what narrative I hope someone will take away from my tour of a gallery, which is something I'm particularly concerned about since the gallery I'm in charge of covers a period right smack in the middle of Singapore's colonial history.

I'm trying to settle into a rhythm of waking up, doing a bit of exercise, going to work. So far it has been working - sort of. I tend to get to work 5 minutes later than I want to, but since nothing is pressing at the moment and I'm still getting used to the whole work routine, I'm giving myself a little grace on that one. Oddly waking up five minutes earlier doesn't make me get to work on time, so I think it's just urgency after I get back from the run and getting over the disinclination to put on clean work clothes onto a still quite warm body.

Strangely enough one of my favourite times of the day is the morning commute to work. I pop in some head phones and tune into a podcast - most usually one from On Being, the Bible Project, or (most recently) emergence magazine. I've listened to interviews on subjects including silence, prayer, killer whales, gangs, the anthropocene, and the theology of work. Sometimes I listen to podcasts on the way home but other times I feel rather brain dead and instead put on some Dusty Springfield or one of the Sidchoir term playlists for some good old sacred music. (Ne irascaris makes my soul soar, while Hymn to St Cecilia puts a spring into my step!)

I made a chocolate and beetroot cake last night, and improvised with the icing by putting in some silken tofu - let's see how that goes when Jacob comes over to make our monthly newsletter. The newsletter was inspired partly by the prayer letter-emails I'd receive from friends who had graduated or friends who had gone on years abroad, and partly by the chatty newsletters I subscribe to from Hannah Brencher and Wild We Roam. I want it to be a document of our time here together both for our friends but also for us, to see how God is faithful even when we might not see it.

So in other words, despite my trepidation, things are well.

Sunday, September 29, 2019


I flew back to Singapore on Thursday. Things are still settling, and I'm aware that somewhere within me is a sadness I haven't fully faced about leaving England. But for the moment I am trying to remember my love for this place I am in. 

Yesterday morning I went for a walk with Dad in the cool morning air. We saw hornbills, pink-necked green pigeons and a kingfisher. We walked through many hued flowers and said good morning to older ladies out walking and maids with dogs on leashes. Dad showed me the exercises he does in the outdoor fitness corners, and I tried and failed to do a pull up (one day...). 

I am thankful for the beauty in this country, for the family I have here, and for the exciting prospect of starting work on Tuesday. I can approach this new season with fear or faithfulness, and I'm determined to choose the latter, knowing a good God guides me and those who know Him.

Now there's a storm brewing outside my window - oh, I've missed Singapore's sheet-like rain!

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Break it or bless it

I wrote this a while ago - not sure why I didn't publish it but here we go:

In Taize, I sat down with a nun, and we ended up talking about how relationships are about risk.

Loving Jacob, choosing to love him, falling continuously in love with him - is the riskiest thing I have ever done.

(aside from maybe cycling in London or jumping into a ravine in Jordan.)

(And yet - still the riskiest.)

Let me go back a bit. Soon after I started going out with Jacob, I saw down with a woman in church and talked about relationships, and she told me about setting emotional boundaries. She described it as 'not marrying him in your mind', a phrase which I accepted but didn't understand.

Jacob and I set our physical boundaries pretty early on in our relationship - it was as simple as sitting down and saying 'Let's think about our boundaries.' I had physical boundary talks with my Mum and with a married friend, and those were so useful. That's not to say that keeping physical boundaries was a single event. We've had to continually negotiate and re-affirm those boundaries in these (almost) two years.

But the reason I went to talk to the nun was because I'd been turning over the concept of emotional boundaries in my mind. How do I balance keeping an emotional boundary with the intimacy of love?

It brought me back to a email (part of a weekly subscription I have to hannahbrencher's blog) I received:

'I am all about dreaming and having a vision but there’s a line we can easily cross in our brains. We shift from imagining the possibilities into marrying something in our minds. [...] It’s so easy to shift into this mode of thinking, “This person is going to be mine. This person is going to be my future.”
Let’s pause. For five seconds, let’s pause and pray a really, really hard prayer to pray: God, bless it or break it. Bless it or break it. It’s a gutsy prayer because God listens. It’s a gutsy prayer because he will move. And it’s a hard prayer to pray because it means you releasing control and you are basically saying, “Whatever the outcome, I’ll still say Amen to it.”'

That prayer is, for me, what balancing an emotional boundary with the risk of love feel like

Having to pray that prayer has become a very big reality this past week, as Jacob and I look to the end of this year and what will happen when I move back to Singapore to start work with NHB. We have dreams of him coming too, getting a job, moving over.  But getting a job isn't easy, nor is moving country, and at a lot of points last week I've felt like systems and circumstances seem to be very much in the way, leaving both of us feeling quite small and weak and unable. So one night we prayed to God to break it or bless it. It was directly the outcome of job applications, but also encompassed the relationship as a whole. I's suggested we pray it, but I found I couldn't actually say the words when I prayed because as Hannah Brencher said, they are really, really hard to pray when you know that God has the power to break something you really want him to bless. Jacob, thankfully, was strong for the both of us and prayed it so that I could nod along in my heart, submitting to God's sovereignty while knowing my heart could be broken, but knowing God is always good.

Back to the present i.e. 28th September:

Now that I read these words in hindsight, I am so glad we did trust God with the risk of holding our relationship. While I wasn't always able to not imagine the future and desire it in my mind (and learning to balance hope for a certain future and trust in God's goodness should it not materialise was a whole other lesson) Jacob and I were able to remind each other that that possibility rested on the grace of God. Jacob comes to Singapore in 2 days, and that fills my heart with gladness and thankfulness.

2 days!

Be still my heart.

Saturday, September 7, 2019


Goodbye August, Hello September.

Mari Andrew wrote 'The hardest part about summer for me is the relentless length: of days, of nights, of weeks. [...] But August is short. August is a three-week foreign love affair that you can't bring back home. August is a beautiful person who just got off the subway, or a tomato whose prime you may miss by a couple of hours. August is a sunset, a Sunday, the last hour of the best party.'

Each day passing brings me closer to saying goodbye to what has been four years of learning and growing, falling in love, falling off bicycles, losing things, losing people, breaking things, getting stronger, and weaker, and stronger, and weaker, and knowing both are part of life's ebb and flow. It has been a very good party.


This month I read Gilead, and now am reading Mary Oliver's essays, lent to me by Lucy Boddington after I went to visit her one day in her lovely house, where we went on a walk and made Fimo clay objects and tried vegan magnums and she introduced me to the magical voice of Lianne La Havas. On that walk we waded into a stream, and saw a horse being washed (horses, it turns out, use tresemme shampoo too) by a bridge, and Kerry picked the very ripest blackberries off the hedgerows to be eaten there and then.

Gilead is a fictional autobiography written by Reverend John Ames, who is dying, to his son. It reminded me in ways of When Breath becomes Air, with all the tenderness of someone who is leaving the world and therefore has so much to say and also has the wisdom not to cling to what cannot be possessed. In one of my favourite passages, John Ames ends by telling his son, 'This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.'

If these were my last days, my actual last days, I wouldn't be sad about it. I've been trying to balance thesis writing with a deep appreciation for and attention to this interesting world around me. Blackberry picking is meditative, as is listening to Elgar's cello concerto at the proms. Different types of meditative, but great.

Today I noticed a leaf, green inside and framed by brilliant orange, like the amber sun setting in Highgate woods.


And yet, I am sad about leaving.

I had a dream a few nights ago, which woke me up weeping. In the dream I saw grandma, walking slowly with her stick towards a cluster of sun dappled trees.

'Where are you going, grandma?'

'I am looking for four years'

Let me look with you, let me walk with you. To feel you. To hold you.


Where have these four years gone? They have been eaten away by multiple hands dipping bread into hummus, danced away in ceilidhs, written away at all hours on essays from the trivial to the transcendental, whiled away lying in fields, whispered away in the dark, cried away in movie theaters and under the solitary cover of sheets and laughed away without fear of the future.


Queen Elizabeth I was meant to have said one of two things as her last words: 'All my possessions for one moment of time' or 'I count this as the glory of my crown: that I have ruled with your loves.' Such different senses to an ending, and I would choose the latter.

I think I've come to realise a little better what Paul meant when he said 'to live is Christ, to die is gain'. I have felt the joy of living this past month, but also the felt longing for heaven as never before as I read and think about that place of no injustice, utter peace, and perfect relationship with God. So time is not what I crave really. What I hope, is to have lived with love - and to keep doing so.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Bits on a rainy day

This has been a rainy week.

On Monday I met Rachel Mander for lunch, and afterwards we walked a little way to get gelato. It was grey and dreary, but sometimes you have to be a radical and disobey the dictates of the weather. I got coffee and she got apricot+thyme and chocolate, and we licked it as we exchanged music (rather, she told me about the fantastic band Harvest)

Yesterday it was rainier - the kind of rain that flicks up from the road when you cycle, and gets your dungarees all wet. When I got to the library, I went straight to the bathroom and stood in my t shirt while I dried my dungarees under the hand dryer. (something I would have never dared to do in Cambridge but SOAS relaxed culture and my desperation meant I'd left any embarrassment behind at my door approximately 30 minutes ago, pre-drenching)

Speaking of rain, I've been reading Gilead, and the narrator recounts this beautiful moment:

“The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”

This last week I've encountered lots of beautiful moments on this interesting planet:

I've heard a track coach say he'd just become a great-grandfather for the fourth time.

I've seen a path cleared leading to bushes laden with almost-ripe blackberries.

I've tasted a blueberry cheesecake almost too good to be true.

I've heard a man whisper to his tutor, 'It's so beautiful being in a library surrounded by trees.'

I've walked with friends and gazed at the moon.

I've received a wedding invitation, a postcard from a dear friend, and a pair of jeans that make me feel comfortable and adventurous (let's go on adventure, my friend!)

I've stood out in the garden and inhaled morning air and done a little stretch.

After the sun the rain, after the rain the sun...glad that I live am I.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Lead us not into productivity

On Wdnesday I woke up in a lot of pain. My stomach had swelled up and I was shivering. (I later put the food poisoning like symptoms down to having probably eaten a little bit of a mouldy carrot last night.) Anyway, that took me out for most of the day, as I lay in bed watching videos and reading and listening to music. By mid-afternoon I was feeling a lot steadier, and did some laundry and cooking, and then tried to do some thesis work. But I felt utterly unable, and after cutting some words out here and there, I stood up in frustration and headed back to my room. 'I've been so unproductive,' I said out loud.

Then I mentally wrestled that thought back. Just before leaving Singapore, I'd had a conversation with Leonard about how damaging that word 'productivity' is. Leonard said he preferred the word 'generative', but today I was even far from generative - closer to gestative. But that's how life works, how the seasons work. The woman keeps the child in her womb for nine months before it is born. No one would call that child r woman 'unproductive'. The earth nurtures the seeds during the cold winter before they creep out in spring, but that period of rest is part of the preparation for flourishing.

I recently read a post by the Jubilee Centre about how the ancient Biblical law on gleaning speaks to our society today. The article was directed towards environmental sustainability, but its premise was that productivity is a false (and damaging) goal. The article looks at Leviticus 19:9-10:

‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.’

The idea of not going to the very edges, not wringing out every last resource, is compared to the law God gives to Moses to keep to Sabbath as a holy day of rest - here time is the resource, to be lived in not used and spent efficiently and entirely like a commodity. The article explains:

'There is a sense in the Bible that humans are predisposed to overwork – not because we’re innately hard-working, but because we like accumulating wealth. And when you don’t put limits around that, it inevitably results in injustice and oppression. [...] Just as the Sabbath and Sabbatical laws limited the time in which the Israelites should do productive work, so the gleaning laws limited the space of their productivity.  [...] The Bible warns us that an obsession with the ‘good’ of productivity actually prevents us from doing real good: looking after the alien, the orphan and the widow. Permitting gleaning served a kind of double purpose in this respect. It offered direct benefit to the most marginalised in society, who could come and gather leftover crops – just as Ruth does in Boaz’s fields. But it also served as a visible and tangible reminder to better-off Israelites that they were not to prioritise their own harvest and prosperity at the expense of those who struggled to find their next meal.'

A second thing I noticed as I was ill was my predisposition to selfishness. Even when I was hurting (and actually more so because I was hurting) I was thinking of how to make situations work for me, how to save my time, how to do my thesis, how to get my shopping, and as I thought inward, I walked past a homeless man and ignored him. I think this is a really important part of thinking about the rest that radically opposes ultra-productivity - it is not a selfish rest. It is not about making yourself comfortable - it is about gestation, preparing yourself to love and give and respond to God's call to love where he puts you, not where it is most productive for you. Just as productivity is selfish, so can rest be, unless it is seen as resting in God, for God's purposes. If I don't obey God's commandment to leave room in the margins for love and compassion, then I won't practice love and compassion - not on myself and not on others. But those margins must exist in my rest as well - I am leaving the grain not for me to pick up when I am tired but for others.

So this week I wrote a list of All the things I'd rather be than 'productive':

Full of integrity

Change my heart O God, make it ever true. Change my heart, O God, may I be like you.

Friday, July 5, 2019

A strange dream

During grad week I had the strangest dream. It consisted of a dystopian world, in which the privileged portion of the human race lived in a large, regulated dome, whereas those not privileged worked as miners in a strip surrounding the dome, separated from the harmful and formless void of space around that, but without the light and oxygen so lavishly pumped into the privileged dome. The privileged dome's people looked like celebrities, or stepford wives. Each 'country' in the dome was a Church sanctuary led by a pastor, while its 'citizens' listened obediently in pews.

Hannah and I were (in this dream) part of a rebel group within the privileged dome, campaigning for miner's rights. The problem was that as the world died around us, the oxygen supply was being depleted. What oxygen the void supplied was pumped into the privileged dome, and as a result the miner's were surviving on less and less, and inevitably they would be entirely starved of oxygen.

So with our rebel group we charged through the churches towards the edge of the dome, where through the glass you could see the miners working in a dim darkness. Only a door separated them and us, a door only open-able from within the dome. I put my hand on the handle as a miner loomed before me and pulled the door open. Immediately, his hands shot out and grabbed my face, and suddenly I realised that letting him in would mean less oxygen for me, for the people I knew, and would mean letting in an angry, disenfranchised and oppressed group who were strong, and ferocious, and hungry for revenge. And so I wrenched myself from his grasp and closed the door, feeling sick at myself for doing so.

Somewhere in the dream Hannah was shot - I cannot remember if her death was the impetus for the rebel charge or was some sort of punishment from the church for our attempt. But I do remember also washing the miner's grubby hand marks from my face, realising that I was at heart a self-preserving, selfish person.

The dream ends with the oxygen in low supply. Even within the privileged dome there is not enough oxygen to sustain activity - every one lies among overturned pews in a cold blue light, breathing shallowly to preserve what time we have left. In my dream, the woman I love curls up near my belly, and I curve around her wanting only to protect and love in the little time we have left. And suddenly I see and know that when we die, our bodies, preserved by the formless void, will resurface in the distant present as the petrified bodies of Pompeii - that the dystopian dome world was not, as I thought, from a distant future but a distant past, and that humans were passing away with the world only to be reborn again.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Learning God's Time: Taize

 “God's time is slow, patient, and kind and welcomes friendship; it is a way of being in the fullness of time that is not determined by productivity, success, or linear movements toward personal goals. It is a way of love, a way of the heart.” 
― John Swinton, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship

One of my worst habits is making lists. I have nothing against lists - they organise, they help with anxiety, they create anticipation, and they help the chronically forgetful. But they also are illusory, giving the pretense of control over future time.  At this time, I will, at this time, I will... 

In Cambridge I realised at one point that my lists just weren't working because I hadn't scheduled in time to get from one place to another. Aside from that, I hadn't scheduled in time where I just lay on my bed in a funk, or when I took longer in the toilet, or when I had a general unwillingness to speed through life at my fastest pace, as my list expected. I'm saying 'my list' as if it is a thing separate from me, but let's take away that veneer right now - that expectation was self-generated and self-imposed.

This Lent I went to Paris and Amsterdam on a study trip with my scholarship programme. It was an incredible trip, which brought us to different museums/libraries/archives and let us engage with different curators and keepers. One perennial feature of the trip, however, was being told to hurry because we were late for our appointments. I wondered if the person planning the trip had, like I so often do, forgotten about the human predilection for tarrying. It was a sharp contrast to move from that hurried pace of 'getting there' to the slow meander one adopts within a museum. Partly because the objects have a (real or culturally constructed) aura which behoves you to slow and quieten your step. When you were in front of something that mattered to you, you stopped and contemplated. And then you stepped out into the city streets and resumed the blistering pace.

From Paris and Amsterdam I took the slow train with Jacob to Taize. I sat there as the french country side passed outside the window and tried to write out as much as I could about Foreigners in Tang Chinese Art as fast as I could, the dynamic which I am ashamed to say is my normal approach to work. 

That dynamic is, of course, part of the main narrative of productivity, which is the bedrock of our market-economy society. Shortly after returning to London, I listened to a podcast by John Swinton, called 'Becoming Friends of Time'. Swinton talks about how the advent of the second hand on the clock made time something measurable, and when measurable, commodifiable. 'Time was something you fit your day into rather than simply marking the different structures of the day', he says. The day became consciously limited by time, rather than a time full space, given by God. A God who is unlimited naturally is sovereign over an open and spacious time, but when time is god and in control, then daily life is constricted.

Taize was a place where the second hand did not exist, and time felt full and expansive again. One of the main things I was struck by in my time there was not knowing the time. There's a large bell tower, which rings on the hour so you know when it's time for prayer/breakfast/bible thought/prayer/lunch/cleaning/dinner/prayer. In between, the hour passes as it always does in daily life, however, you don't have the pressure to use it. Rather than time being used, or wasted, time is given and filled. And it is all the more full for doing less in it. 

It was full of prayer and people. Having expansive time meant finding it easy to slow down and love people. John Swinton talks about how Jesus, in coming to earth, limited himself to the average human walking speed of 3 miles an hour, to love us and be with us. There are so many times where I feel I'm going too fast to sit and stay with a person. Even when I do physically my mind often trips ahead of itself to 'the next thing'. 'Love has a speed', Swinton says, and that speed is slow and generous. Not rushing in time with people meant conversations meandered from introductions to travel to social justice issues to hopes and dreams to zero waste. 

Having expansive time also meant slowing down in prayer. The bedrock of the Taize day were the three sessions of prayer, which were mostly held as sung meditation. Near the beginning of the session was a period of silence, which we stayed in for about 7-8 minutes (apparently - but what are minutes when you don't have a watch/phone to keep the time?). Initially that silent space was so difficult to be in. My mind would wander, I'd get frustrated at myself for being unable to 'meditate well'... overall my mind was not a very peaceful place, and rather than meditating on God I'd be trying to muster my own force of will. But about three days in, I realised how silly that was. Not simply because self-focused effort is sort of antithetical to meditation, but also because I didn't only have those 7 minutes to meditate. I had all day, all time. Time slowed, not so that my mind could quicken and 'catch up', but so that I could learn to slow down with it. 

Time didn't only seem to slow and expand, but go backwards. I felt in lots of ways that I had gone back to a past time, a child time. When seated in the prayer hall one day, I stopped singing and curled up and listened to the song around me. In the darkness of myself and surrounded by a chant of love I felt foetal, not so much entombed but en-wombed. That child-like-ness extended to being fed - which meant not having any real control over what I ate which is not something I felt initially comfortable with. But just as a silenced second hand meant letting go of control over each minute, so receiving food meant letting go of control over each nutrient and telling myself, 'even in this small thing, Lord, not my will but yours be done.' (and perhaps it is just me, but I often find it easier to trust God's will for the big uncontrollable things rather than the small every day things which I am so used to 'managing')

One day, Jacob and I took a walk to 'the source' - a wooded area that clears to reveal a pond (it is all very psalm 23, green pastures and still waters, particularly because you are meant to keep silence while there). We sat in a tree and wrote letters to our eighty-year-old selves. Writing to eighty year old me was another time-bending moment, which emphasised again what mattered at this time might not matter in sixty years (how my Tang China essay did, for instance), whilst other things were timeless. I was writing to myself, but in another sense I was writing to the God who is ancient of days and yet whose mercies are new every morning, a timeless God who already knows and loves and has made provision for my eighty year old self. We exchanged our letters after we'd finished and laughed in that silent space. 

Coming back to London has made it slightly more difficult to remember and integrate those timeless days. But small changes have been good - taking proper lunch breaks instead of eating whilst reading another article, stopping work by dinner time, making reading God's word protected time in the morning, and not setting a fixed 'end time' when I meet friends. Sundays are days when I feel closest to that utter timelessness, and each Sabbath is a step closer to eternity, when time stretches out forever without end and is filled with the presence of God.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Very quick dinners (mostly toast)

Last week I came back from track and made dinner, ate it in bed, then called Jacob. As we said goodnight I said, 'Oh one more thing - guess what I had for dinner tonight?'

It was a bowl of peas.

A bowl of peas.

Not that there's anything wrong with peas. In fact, that was precisely what I was craving that evening so I very much enjoyed my big bowl of peas. However, sometimes when I get back at 8.30 and have nothing prepared the thought of cooking is quite a lot. Those nights of semi-desperation and semi-laziness have resulted in me perfecting the art of whipping up  a very quick dinner.

So here are some recipe ideas (if they can be called recipes) for the nights when all you want is something in 15 minutes but you don't want frozen peas. To be enjoyed over a good book, or a good conversation. Or in an exhausted heap.

Hummus on Toast

1 can Chickpeas
2 big squeezes of Lemon juice
1 clove Garlic (you can microwave it for 30 seconds if the rawness of it gets to you)
Olive Oil
A big glug of Tahini
A generous pinch of cumin

Roasted Red Pepper

- Blend everything in a food processor until it forms hummus, adding a little water if it's too thick
- Spread on Toast, top with whatever you fancy (sauerkraut/sliced cucumber is delicious)
- Have as many pieces of toast as you feel hungry for.

Garlicky Butterbeans and Kale on Toast

1 can Butter Beans
Some sliced up Sundried Tomatoes (in oil, so you don't have to rehydrate them)
1 clove Garlic
2 pieces of Toast
A couple of big handfuls of Kale (or spinach)
Olive Oil

Smoked Paprika
Nutritional Yeast
Slices of Vegan Sausage (so. good.)


- Just fry it all, there's no way this can go wrong.

Fried Rice

A portion of already cooked Rice
1 clove Garlic
1/2 chopped up Red Pepper
1/2 Onion
Handful Frozen Peas (you knew they'd make their entrance somehow)
Handful Frozen Corn
Nutritional Yeast
Grated Ginger
Soy Sauce
Sesame Oil

Grated Carrot/Courgette
Sliced Spring Onions
Cubed Tofu
Leftover Beans etc.

-Fry the Onion, Red Pepper and Garlic and Ginger in a little Sesame Oil
-Put in the Rice, Peas, Corn and keep frying till the frozen things are no longer frozen
-Shake in some soy sauce
-In the last minute, put in nutritional yeast and tahini and stir it about

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Reducing my waste (again)

This term I've been trying to reduce the plastic waste I produce as much as possible. My forays into conscious consumption have been on an on-again-off-again journey. In 2015, I wrote a post about how I was going to only buy clothes/cosmetics from charity shops or ethically-conscious shops, because I didn't want to support sweat shop labour or animal testing. That promise was quite easy to keep, partly because I love charity shops and don't use much make up at all.

In 2016 I wrote about reducing waste and eight different ways I was trying to put that into practice, from using solid shampoo to making soup with slightly-past-it veggies. I kept some of those good habits, but definitely fell back into bad habits, particularly regarding food packaging.

But with renewed energy, inspired by the likes of Sedona Christina, Sustainably Vegan, Venetia Falconer and blessed by the abundance of unpackaged shops in London, I'm trying again! I'm far from perfect, and I wanted to make it really clear that it's not a matter of perfection. The earth will benefit far more from a concerted effort of many imperfect individuals than the performance of one perfect individual. The aspiration for perfection can make making the first steps (and inevitable mistakes) really daunting. Instead I try to think that the way I am trying to live is out of grace for the earth, because of the grace God has shown me. And if I am trying to live a life of grace, it is necessary to have grace for myself too, so that my mistakes aren't condemning but just part of life, to be recognised and improved on where possible.

Here are some things I've put into place, and some habits I've cultivated/am trying to cultivate as I continue my low waste journey:

1. Using a menstrual cup. I got this quite early on but found getting used to it really difficult and quite painful, since I hadn't even ventured into the world of tampons. After lots of patience, youtube tutorials and support from fellow cup-using friends, it has now become really easy to use and honestly makes having your period so much less of a faff since it only requires changing every 8-12 hours (without any risk of Toxic shock syndrome)! Added bonuses include:

- Being able to swim with them in unlike pads
- Not worrying about period supplies for up to 10 years
- Some menstrual cup manufacturers work to reduce period poverty, e.g. freedomcups, stopperiodpoverty, thecupeffect
- Not throwing lots of pads/tampons into the bin
- Basically not feeling them at all
- Becoming more familiar with my own body

2. Buying unpackaged food items. I get unpackaged dry goods (rice, lentils, pasta, coucous, nuts and seeds, spices) from the SOAS co-op or the Harmless Store in Wood Green, just a 15 minute cycle away. For fresh items, I get what I can from ALDI and Lidl, and for what is packaged (most things) I either try and find them at the farmer's markets on Saturday or the little vegetable and fruit shop outside the archway tube staion.

Some things I'm still working on:

- Frozen items (particularly peas - I love peas!!!) I've got some frozen peas, spinach and berries at the Bulk Market in Hackney (40 mins away) but that's quite a long way to go for frozen food.
- Beans in cans. This is largely out of convenience since I find cooking beans a drag, and also out of caution from that time I almost burnt down my student house when I forgot I had some chickpeas boiling on the hob. Thankfully cans are recyclable, but obviously it would be great to reduce even recyclable waste.
- Soy Milk - still comes in a carton, and while my council recycles them lots of places don't.
- Jarred things (maple syrup/sundried tomatoes) The jars, when finished, are actually quite useful for storing dry items (though not in the case of maple syrup jars I have to say)
- Peanut Butter/tahini - I tried making my own with bulk peanuts, but the little food processor was not having it, so to preserve its life I stopped. I do try to get the biggest tubs of peanut butter/tahini possible to reduce packaging, but I'd still like to find a decent affordable alternative.

3. Making food items that I miss in packaging. I used to get these date and coconut bars from Aldi which were absolutely delicious. This year I've made a lot more hummus and my own snacks, from bliss balls to granola to spiced nuts/seeds to a chocolate mousse made of black beans (don't hate on it till you try it, it's so good)

4. Replacing packaged cosmetics/toiletries with items in recyclable packaging. Aside from solid shampoo and soap, I've started using solid deodorant (which comes in a metal tin) and am picking up some solid sunscreen (also in a tin) tomorrow! Instead of using cotton pads for toner I use the edge of a towel (although I still have leftover cotton pads, which I'm saving for if I go travelling or something)

Things I'm still working on:

- Toothpaste. I tried the coconut oil and baking soda she-bang and did not enjoy it, and am still not quite sure about baking soda based toothpastes for dental hygiene and tooth health. (Baking soda, however, seems to be the base of most commercially produced zero waste toothpastes) I don't know how to solve this, and ma actually hoping to find a squeezy toothpaste in recyclable or compostable packaging (if you know of any please tell me!)
- Make up. Thought I only have a few bits, they are all in plastic/non recyclable packaging (apart from the mascara and skin tint I have from lush which I think are recyclable) I don't plan on buying any more at the moment, but when I do need some in the future I'm not even sure where to start looking! (particularly if I'm in Singapore)
- Shaving. Currently on my last of a big bunch of disposable razors Hannah gave me when she left the UK, but I do plan to get a safety razor with replaceable blades after that. Still kind of scared of that since I've heard some horror stories about the sharpness of those things, but with practice and care hopefully I won't cause a disaster. (Update: have got the safety razor, it's all fine. I did nick myself a little but but it was not a disaster at all)

5. Other little things: got a coconut bristle dish brush which works wonderfully. Not quite so wonderful is the 'unsponge' I got, a fabric sponge which is washable and reusable. Unfortunately it doesn't dry easily and also doesn't scratch off stubborn bits of food so well.

6. As before:

- bringing food in a tupperware/old ice cream container when I pack food, plus a spoon/fork from the kitchen and a water bottle where ever I go is always useful.
- using cloth tote bags instead of plastic bags
- bamboo toothbrushes going strong
- second hand clothing purchases as always, although I have expanded out from charity shops to depop and ebay. (Depop and ebay, however, generate waste with the shipping packaging...)
- research, research, research! It took me a while to find different bulk stores/items like the coconut brush, but with more people thinking about, writing about, and promoting these things, it is a lot easier than it could be!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Death of a poem

Today was a mostly good day, but I ended it with a little weep, because my favourite poem died. Back in Cambridge, some time in my first or second year, I wrote the poem down on a piece of card I'd cut out from a tea-box. I wrote some lines bigger and bolder - the lines that really spoke to me. I called it my life poem, and tucked it away in my wallet.

You do not have to be good.

I'd first come across this poem on a day where I felt suffocated and stressed. It helped me breathe again, that first line cutting through all my striving and reminding me of the basic fact of grace. In Cambridge, grace was a shield against competition and imposter syndrome, a sanctuary and dwelling place when I asked myself simultaneously 'Am I doing enough?' and 'How can I do anything more?'

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

In Cambridge, when at times I felt so homesick I’d count the days till I’d fly home and then curl onto my bed and cry, I'd think of the last lines and feel seen by a God above. Even in my room, my loneliness wasn't unknown to him and the reminder that He is my Heavenly Father, the person who has put me in this world, into this big family of people and nature and words and art was something to hold on to. By the end of the year Cambridge felt less harsh, more exciting, and certainly more like family. As I wrote for the Unfiltered Network: 'Family happens where love is, and Cambridge is a place full of people who love intensely. [...] This intense atmosphere of unreserved love can be intimidating – or it can be an invitation [...] When you let yourself express your joy and passion to other people, you aren’t compared or patronised, but like a bud unfurling before the sun, you are invited to bloom – to develop that passion alongside people who find it equally important.'

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

When Grandma died and the sadness felt like an enveloping cloud, the poem reminded me it was alright to feel sad, but also that sadness was not the end. Sadness was not the future, even though it was a legitimate part of my present, and continues to be a legitimate part of my present now and then. (like, for example, writing this blog post and suddenly her soap smell and love of colour and fragile but persistent voice singing hymns beside me all come back) I didn't stay away from the world of people who love me and supported me, even though I felt like a big part of that world had gone. I talked to friends, cried on shoulders, and tried (and continue to try) to love the world she loved more fiercely.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

About month later, on a bus in Rome, I sat beside blonde-haired boy and showed him the poem. It felt dangerously vulnerable, as if the poem had become part of me, but I felt safe enough to show it to him. He didn't laugh at how the lines didn't fit within the width of the tea-box card. He didn't even laugh at the fact that it was written on a tea-box.

(Reader, I'm dating him.)

It took courage, but later in Dubai I felt safe enough to hold out more vulnerable words. And since then I've been learning to let myself love, to love, to be loved, to see God's love through the prism of this love on earth.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

I've shared this poem since, with close friends and in poetry groups. A dear friend told me recently that she now has it by heart, her Mum listens to it on spotify, and a friend of a friend of hers has it on her door. I imagine the poem as a pebble - it dropped into my life on that melancholy day and sent a ripple through my world. As I share it with others and they share it with others it moves over life worlds and through people eternally. So though I hold its sodden, pulpy fragments in my hands and mourn, it is not gone. It is all around me and within me. It is every time I feel joy with a friend from Cambridge, every time a remember Grandma, every time I kiss Jacob, every time I breathe in the grace of God.

And so now, the poem, in full:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

On Breath without Air and Buddhism

Earlier last term I finished the audiobook of Breath without Air, a combination of multiple cycle rides around the city with one ear phone plugged in culminating in a final fifteen minutes in my room, lying down listening to Lucy Kalanithi's epilogue (read by Cassandra Campbell) with tears streaming down my face.

Another thing I tried to do last term is wrap my head around the concept of nirvana. I'm still not entirely clear I grasp the Buddhist understanding of it, but I am quite sure I am closer to understanding than before.

These two things might seem oddly disjunct, but while I was reading about Nirvana my mind kept going back to something Paul Kalanithi believed in and repeated through the memoir: that life should not be about avoiding suffering, but about creating meaning.

A brief summary of what I've learn about Nirvana. Nirvana is not going to heaven or immortality, neither is it annihilation or apocalypse.  Nirvana is a cessation of desire/stress/clinging/craving/longing (Sanskrit: tṛ́ṣṇā - literally translated 'thirst') which traps us in the repeated cycle of birth, life and death (also called samsara) which is suffering. All the things we use to feel our way around the world and feel that we are in the world - all these cease:

'there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind; neither dimension of the infinitude of space, nor dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, nor dimension of nothingness, nor dimension of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world, nor the next world, nor sun, nor moon. And there, I say, there is neither coming, nor going, nor staying; neither passing away nor arising: unestablished, unevolving, without support ...' (Udana 8.1)

What I see in the philosophy of Nirvana is the escape of suffering, in part through the understanding that the samsara is a construct of impermanent minds and bodies. (along with other practices encapsulated in the 8 fold path)

In Christianity I see something radically different, something far more along the lines of Kalanithi's conclusion. Suffering is so present in the bible - the 'whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth', Job loses his family, his property, his health, the Israelites are enslaved and wander through desert lands, are exiled, are occupied, Paul speaks about a 'thorn in [his] flesh' and even Jesus, faced with the pain of the cross and the separation from God his Father, says 'Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.' And yet that suffering is part of a God-authored narrative suffused with meaning: the defeat of sin and death and the restoration of humankind's relationship with God, for the glory of God which entails our satisfaction in Him.

Suffering in this life is therefore far, far outweighed by the weight of glory and satisfaction that Christ gives us both in the life to come, and in the here and now. This way of looking at life does not negate suffering, indeed, it gives it even more severity because it is so at odds with the joy that God pre-destined for us and given us through Jesus. It is understood as imperfect, unjust, and painful. Yet it is also made meaningful, because it can produce hope, and allow us to show radical love and care, and expose our need of God and how His kingdom is the fulfilment of desires we didn't even know we have.

At one point in Kalanithi's book, after his diagnosis, he and his wife Lucy consider having a child. She asks “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” and he answers “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I think that encapsulates the Christian understanding of suffering. We suffer because things are not perfect, but we are capable of suffering because we have an innate sense of the tragedy of loss and end and an innate sense of the rightness of eternity (given that eternity is free of what gives rise to tragedy). The Christian therefore does not shun pain, but embraces life with its contingent pricks and blows, knowing that those pricks and blows were first suffered by Jesus, in his death which actualised an eternity in which suffering does not exist, replaced as it is by endless joy. Perception, sense, nature, personhood - these remain, but made entirely good again. That, surely, is something to be desired.