building something good

Hello, friends. I hope you have had a good week. I had an awesome moment last night, at the gathering of our wider student community, the Nest, of looking round the room and realising that a good handful of our student leaders from last year have really come onboard with where I see the group going. All of them were getting to know the new students, clearing up after dinner, moving the evening along, making people feel welcome – no matter what had happened in their weeks, which they were able to set aside to be fully present for that gathering.

And I know these guys – I know that some of them have some really tough stuff going on, while others are really busy and tired. They are amazing people.

It reminded me of a quote I read before, from a psychologist called Peter Kramer, who said that the opposite of depression isn’t happiness – it’s resilience. These student leaders (and good friends of mine) weren’t necessarily having the time of their lives; to them, it was just another weekly gathering, another time to serve. But they had the capacity, the tensile strength, to prioritise that mundane, but essential calling for the evening over sinking into some mire of self-pity and exhaustion and checking out.

And that choice, by these people working as a team, is making a real difference to the 40+ people who have visited the Nest these past couple of weeks. It is stamping positive memories of being in community, being loved and wanted and thought interesting, on their first weeks of living in Coventry.

I am so proud of them.

Feels like we’re building something good here.


Ps. Other interesting snippets from the week:

Related article about raising up team and shaping culture.

Watched this classic with my housemates on Monday night. How true to life is that Mexican-wave-softball-game scene?! Nora Ephron = pure genius.

Good bedtime reading that I’ve just finished. Very honest, funny, and delicious – you may need to fix yourself a midnight snack.

It’s an old album now, but she has a really great voice:

Thankfulness: a commercial

colour run

I was at a festival recently, where one of the speakers said that she does ‘thankfulness commercials’. When her kids start to get grumpy or complain, she makes them stop, and each name five things that they are thankful for.

And you know what? She said that once they start, they never ever can only name five. They just carry on – “I’m thankful for…my mum, my dad, my brother, my house, the sun, the moon, the stars…” etc.

It made me think how mostly, the white noise of my heart is not thankful noise. It is grumbly, complain-y, ‘if only…’ noise.

This week, I am thankful for:

  • A fab weekend away – the Colo(u)r Run, thin-crust pizza, a sandsculpture festival, the sea, and About Time
  • A warm, sunshine-y afternoon
  • Casual weekday badminton (and flexible working)
  • One of my new housemates discovering that he owns a microwave (!)
  • Other furniture gifts still coming in: a dining table, another sofa, a wardrobe, vintage porcelain dishes, money
  • A garden harvest of fat green beans and six beautiful tomatoes
  • A team and job that I love
  • A friend to sit with while reading
  • Winning at this game.
  • Long-distance phone chats
  • Encouragement to persevere, from the book of Hebrews
  • A borrowed umbrella when it was raining
  • This good read
  • The most bombastic crumble ever – plum, peach, rhubarb, fig and ginger
  • My entire church staff helping me to move house
  • My vicar/boss sawing a hole in the back of my bookcase so that I have access to power sockets
  • A helpful contact agreeing to be interviewed for an assignment
  • Cantonese curry. Stroopwafels. Home-baked jam cookies the size of your hand.
  • That man in the queue behind me at Costa, who helped pick up my change that had fallen all over the floor. (He also said it was an ‘omen from the Lord, telling me to relax today’…! Maybe so, Mr. Helpful)
  • My baby nephew. Oh the cuteness, oh the chub.
  • Complete support from ex-housemates (‘do you need any food? Cleaning supplies? Anything at all?’)
  • Indoor picnics with the just-moved-in look

 indoor picnic

And that, my friends, is all.

Have a weekend full of things to be thankful for!

dear Warwick graduand

warwick graduation

Dear Warwick graduand,

I’m glad that the sun has been shining for your graduation this week. That’ll sure look nice in those photos. I hope you’ve had a good time and not too much trouble keeping your family happy.

Just as an ‘oldy mouldy’ who’s seen a few Warwick graduations – fourteen, to be precise – come and go, I wonder if you might allow me, for an instant, to burst into all this Bubble hubbub, to burst your bubble.

I would like to invite you to identify who, or what, receives the honour from your graduation ceremony. There are two time-honoured ways of recognising what humanity values – the diary (time) and the wallet (money).

Let us think – you have spent the last three, maybe four, years of your life learning the ways of the world on this campus, examining some of the foundational theories of your academic discipline, and hopefully making some lifelong friends and not getting too drunk or high along the way. This has been, without a doubt, a formative period in your life. And you are emerging from it – you, with all your gifts and genius and weirdness and just distinctive individual interesting humanness – to a ceremony that allows you to walk across a stage for 30 seconds. Wearing basically the same outer costume as everyone else in your department (compulsory or else you cannot walk across the stage), identified only as ‘a degree holder in your subject’, and distinguished only from the other people walking on before and after you by the hierarchy of your degree classifications on your certificates. Hmm.

Let us think – someone has paid tens of thousands of pounds for your university education. Someone, somewhere, has worked really hard to generate enough of a surplus over and above the costs of survival, that you could be here. You yourself maybe, like many of my friends, have had to work part-time to keep yourself here. It has also cost your parents quite a bit to be present today (and astronomically more, if they’ve travelled from abroad) – look at that nice frock mum is wearing. And now that they are here, guess what? It costs yet more for you to be part of the 30-second walk across the stage in the right costume. Those flowers and balloons are not free. If your department is having a celebratory event, it also comes with a price tag. Hmm.

I am not saying that you should not have fun. I am not saying that you should not smile in those sun-drenched photos and be happy and have a great day. What I am saying is, understand that the flows of time and money on your graduation day are not really being directed by the University towards your honour – not very much, anyway.

What I am saying is, the universities across this country, indeed the world, convert the natural curiosity of young adults and the love that their parents have for them into large flows of time and money that shore up the university system. I am not saying that it is the universities’ fault either; that just seems to be the system, and indeed as far as Warwick goes, it’s a brilliant university to have spent three years at. Also, I know, I know, you have the day to get on with, and you’re not going to change the system today. But perhaps we should ask – as we pause to take off those high heels and apply plasters in between camera flashes – what exactly is it that we are shoring up? What are we celebrating and honouring? And perhaps more importantly, what should we really be celebrating and honouring instead?

Here are some suggestions.

1. You made it – many people don’t. Celebrate that somehow, partly through your own effort but very largely not, today the sun is shining and you are on a campus savouring this particular moment in your life. What a gift. Why should you be so lucky?

Please do NOT celebrate the fact that you, by your supreme human effort, have successfully climbed to the top of a very slippery pile, which usually involves desensitisation to your own values, and are looking smugly downward at all the other bodies that you have stepped on. Gross.

2. Your ‘framily’ – these are your friends and family who really, really do care about you. That flatmate who held your hair back when you were throwing up over the toilet. Your long-suffering parents who kept phoning you even when you weren’t really interested. Please, celebrate that you have them. Celebrate them.

If you are hoping that your 30-second moment of glory on the stage will produce this magic rush of approval and affirmation, and wishing that your awkward teenage brother and decrepit grandmother weren’t here, then have I got news for you. You are probably not going to finish your life rich and famous, but you can finish your life with lorryloads of framily. Public approval and affirmation will not make you feel deeply loved. Framily, although it is slow-burn and sometimes induces feelings of going crazy, will.

3. Uni Veritas – universities were originally started as a place for scholars to find the ‘one Truth’, the ‘Uni Veritas’, and to learn to live by it. Now, I happen to think that the original ‘one Truth’ that these places were set up for people to find is completely valid, because Jesus is the only thing (Person) that has ever made my world cohere. But this is not really about that, not directly anyway. The point is, celebrate the discoveries that you have made over the last three or four years as to how you want to live your life. Celebrate that you have certain values, which move you to live for things that are bigger than yourself. Celebrate your choices made consistent with those values, especially when you were tempted to sell out. Celebrate those times when you chose courage and fought fear. Celebrate your in this manner becoming more fully alive and human.

In other words, today, please don’t celebrate the university system, and please don’t celebrate yourself instead of that system. Celebrate your good fortune (‘God’, if you like), your community, and your ability to sell out your life for something much bigger than yourself.

Grace and peace, and sunshiney photos xx

social movements and Gen Y (or, stuff I’ve learnt from my students)

Oy! Don't so Lone Ranger leh

Oy! Don’t so Lone Ranger leh

I work with a lot of students, and many are really lonely when I first meet them. The more go-getting among them often have great ideas, followed by bursts of enthusiasm, followed by a gradual sinking back into normality/boredom when a project either successfully concludes, or bombs (or fizzles out in a middling sort of way). Eventually they get up again and have another burst of enthusiasm, for a different project. And do do do. And sink back. And rinse and repeat.

I don’t have a problem with this per se, in fact it can be a great sort of contained skunk works for rapid learning, and I don’t deny that it can produce some great results (in bursts). What I do struggle with, though, is the gap between most of these students’ huge hopes and dreams for things beyond themselves (peace in the Middle East, saving the environment, clean water and education for every child…) which will take massive sustained, coordinated effort to attain over years if not decades, and this pattern of scattergun, often Lone Ranger activity, which does not appear to me to be a workable, liveable means to achieving those huge hopes and dreams.

french civilian despair

The danger is that students then look at all these projects over time and think, “well, it was okay/good, but it didn’t really make a dent in (insert huge hope/dream). Come to think of it, neither did (this other project). Or (that other project). And they were all a heck lot of pain on my part for what they achieved.” This often doesn’t happen in a sudden realisation, more in a steady, creeping angst kind of way over a long period of time. And at this point, here are two destructive things that can happen:

1. The student loses heart. The gap between what they want to see in the world and their actual capacity to effect change just feels so unbridgeable, and they get discouraged and too hurt to try anymore. Something has soured. They retreat into their small dreams (sometimes telling themselves that those dreams are still worthy — which they are, they’re just too small for who the student is).

2. The student blames others. If only those guys over there had joined me; but they just don’t get what I’m trying to achieve (cue martyr spirit). So I’m going to try harder to do things even more on my own in future to protect myself. Or, poor me, stuck in this (job, relationship, other unfortunate situation) because I have to for (insert inevitable lifestory reason). If I didn’t have to do x, I could achieve so much more (cue self-pity).

Um, hate to break it to ya, but you are the only constant variable in your equation.

mo farah

One of my (smallish) dreams, which also happens to be one of the main purposes of the job I get to do (woop woop!), is to equip students and send them out into the world with both the heart that actually has those huge hopes and dreams, and the capacity to make them happen. Here are some of the things that I often find myself trying to teach/model to students in my job:

1. Focus your calling. You are probably not going to be the person who achieves peace in the Middle East and saves the environment and provides clean water and education to every child. But you might be the person who makes a massive dent in one of those. What’s it gonna be for you? (In the words of Jim Collins, what’s your personal hedgehog?)

2. Take the long view. It won’t all happen today, but it could happen in your lifetime. If x is really your hedgehog, which you will give your life to see happen, what do you need to start doing now so that you’ll be best placed to achieve it in 20, 30 years’ time? Sometimes these are really direct things, like getting more educational qualifications or work experience in a certain industry. But sometimes, these are strangely indirect things, like growing in perseverance through starting regular exercise. (And sticking with that image,) think of your life as a marathon, not a sprint.

3. Think movementally, not individually. Please don’t be the Lone Ranger, dreams that are bigger than yourself need movements that are bigger than just you. Who is going to be your mirror and your memory and cover your blind spots? Who can you hand on your massive hope/dream to so that it keeps growing past your lifetime? Most of us think in a rather loner, lifespan-limited way. Find a remedy for that. Live in community. Serve someone else’s hope/dream.

Gen Y are often characterised by sociologists as having little sticking power, and desiring community but being highly individualistic. Let’s buck those trends.

(Top photo from here; middle photo of French civilian crying as the Nazis occupy Paris from here; bottom photo from here. With thanks to all.)

recent interestingness

pan's labyrinth

Ofelia and the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth

May this roundup fascinate, tantalise and perturb you:

Pan’s Labyrinth. (Okay so I may just be the last person on the planet to have watched this…) Gore and horror elements are not really my thing, but still, what a great realistic fairytale.

Carrot batons steamed and flavoured with honey, thyme, salt and curry paste. From here (it’s rule number 69).

19 things to stop doing in your 20s. You got me there.

Summer is coming. I must make these.

This talk on the different human motivations for green behaviour and how to tap into them.

It’s not every day your church leader gets killed for attempting to assassinate Hitler. Whatta guy. (Also, this is a classic text on living in community.)

And finally, because as a fundraiser I get to keep tabs on interesting events, this! And this (oh please come to England. We will still run, for sure).

Have a good weekend, everyone.

(Photo from here, with thanks.)

life in community (or, unknown unknowns and practice makes perfect)

spring flowers

Ladies and gentlemen, spring has sprung! After the coldest March since 1968 or something ridiculous, it’s finally starting to feel civilised again. I’m sitting here munching on a Lindt bunny (delicious although, what the heck is Lindt gold bunny day?) and looking out my window at our crocuses. They are probably the latest crocuses ever to bloom, but I shan’t complain, as they are also the first that we’ve ever planted as a household and we thought they might well die from poor weather/planting timing and human ignorance. But here they are, poking their dopey little heads out at the world.

In keeping with the shift in season, today I’ve decided to tell you about some of the rhythms that we have as a household. Here we are, four single girls living away from our parents, all twentysomethings with jobs, all with various hopes and dreams for changing the world and various brokennesses that hold us back.

I think that, as a well-educated, smart twentysomething, it can be quite easy to want to rush out and Change the World. We’ve been fed the line, by school or by ambitious parenting, that if we work hard we can really achieve anything we want. The problem is, this is a highly individualised line, that does not include serving other people and their dreams, being family to one another, and sometimes just stopping and being without needing to do things for some productive purpose. But all these are inbuilt needs, and if we don’t devote some part of our lives to cultivating them, we will burn out.

Plus, most of us have never had to “be family” intentionally; it was just handed to us on a plate by our parents or by spending lots of time at school, so why would it even be on our radars, and how would we know how to do it? It falls into the dark category of unknown unknowns, things we might miss without even realising.

So being aware of this, and considering that practice makes perfect, my housemates and I committed two years ago to living in community; that is, we chose to live in a way that commits us to one another as a family, though we are neither blood-related nor married to each other. We eat together five times a week, have people over together (“your friends are my friends”), have communal rhythms of being thankful and prayerful, go on holidays together twice a year, and share money for food, rent and bills.

children reading together

(My younger sister is doing a similar thing with her community house in Oxford, and they have a rhythm of all getting together to listen to one of their housemates read from Lord of the Rings every evening. Awesome.)

Obviously, that is quite a lot to unpack, which is why there shall be future blog posts 😛 but for today, here are two reflections on living in community:

1. Intentionality. Community doesn’t happen unless we make it happen. This is not Friends where people are perpetually just hangin’, not if we are gainfully employed. What days are we going to eat together, and at what time? Which week can we book off in June for holidaying together in? The more time scarce we are, the more intentional we have had to be. Hence, a magic whiteboard of timetabled-ness and a magic house admin time (Sunday 5.30pm) every week.

house rhythms

2. Disillusionment. I don’t mean being all cynical and distrustful, but rather that living in community takes a healthy dose of realism, of starting where we are at, and remembering that we are all recipients of grace.

“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial […] the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Obviously, this kind of a lifestyle isn’t for everyone; different people have different commitments, lifestages etc. But I wonder how different the world would look if we each translated some of these values — of doing life together intentionally, with lots of grace — into our varied contexts?

(Photo of two children from here, with thanks.)