apple seed

growing great ideas!

The gift of swans in flight

On Sunday mornings it’s my turn to get up and take the dog on his early walk. To be honest, it’s not my favourite thing to do – I much prefer being cosy and warm in bed, but as my husband does every other day in the week, I think he’s earnt a morning off!

So I heaved my tired self out of bed this morning, stumbled around getting dressed, ate some breakfast and finally left the house a bit  before 9am. It was cold, may only 2 or 3 degrees above freezing and there were only a few hardy folks braving the cold.

After a while the dog and I made our way to the foreshore by Whale Island. It’s a scrap of beach opposite HMS Excellent, a naval facility which forms part of the Navy base at Portsmouth. The inlet is part of a tidal feature which used to be a lot larger until the construction of the M275 motorway in the 1980s. Stamshaw Bay, as it was then, used to reach right up to end of the roads which now butt up to the motorway. Instead of the bay, there is a now a park created from the small bay which was filled in with the rubble dug out from the foundations of the motorway. The park is nice, and has lots of well established trees, but I do wonder sometimes about Stamshaw Bay and how it might have looked before…

Anyway, there we were, the dog and I, braving the cold along with a lady jogging and two people walking along the path. Low tide was at around 5:30am so much of the seabed was visible, except for a few gradually deepening pools where the seawater was beginning its slow return to the beach.

Amongst this rather bleak winter morning tableaux was a family of swans. Two mature adults and a clutch of cygnets who are probably close to two years old. The young have lost nearly all their brown feathers now and are much closer in appearance to their elegant parents, except for their smaller size.

We watched them, the dog and I, as they flew up and down the length of the inlet. After a while, it appeared as if the older swans were badgering their young to practice flying; gently hassling them until they finally took off and flew, close to the water, up to the other end of the beach, which is about half a mile long.

It takes a lot of effort for a bird that size to defy gravity and take off. The younger birds had to flap hard and they didn’t get too far above the surface of the water – but they still looked beautifully elegant as they did so.

in the quiet of the winter morning I noticed the sound they made as they flew – it wasn’t a vocal call that I could hear, but the sound of the air as it rushed past the ends of their wings. It was a very particular tone, almost like musical notes, as they powered towards the end of the beach.

I quite often pray and sing quietly as I walk with the dog on Sunday mornings, and as I did so this morning, I thought about the sound of the swans as they flew – that particular harmony of air and motion. I think there are moments for all of us, perhaps at work, perhaps at church, maybe when we’re soothing an anxious child or offering kindness to a stranger, when we feel that moment, when we are that harmony of air and motion. Those moments when we are in our element, at our best, doing what we were created to be and do. And it’s not usually a grand moment, not a fanfare or ‘superhero’ moment, but instead a moment of ordinary heroism which makes such a difference to people.

Do you know what those moments or environments are for you? Can you recognise those spaces or places where you are in the harmony of air and motion? Where you are soaring and doing that thing which you are naturally gifted at and which blesses people around you, with hardly any effort? Think about those times, seek them out, invest in them. Because nobody does it quite the way that you do!

We are the stories we weave…

At the end of January 2017 I had the privilege of being invited back to Portsmouth Cathedral for the 22nd Muslim-Christian celebration. This annual gathering sees members of the Wessex Jamaat and Portsmouth Cathedral join together for readings, music, an address from both communities and of course good food and conversation!

Last year I was asked to devise a creative activity which people could engage with and they enjoyed it so much I was asked to come back again!

This is the prototype weaving card which I made. The top strip represents myself, the centre one is for my family and the third one with the sequins represents my community.

After some thought, I came up with a weaving activity, to be shared between two people: each pair was given a square of card approximately 10x10cm, with evenly spaced notches along two of the opposite sides. Embroidery thread was then looped across the card and through the notches to create a very basic warp for weaving.

Guests at the event were invited to choose 3 strips of recycled fabric, from a range which I’d brought with me. Those 3 strips would represent themselves, their faith and their family or community. People could then weave their strips into the card frame, filling approximately half of it, leaving space for someone else to fill the other half.

As always, I was both gratified and encouraged to see people willingly and enthusiastically engaging with the activity. And as they wove, they chatted about themselves and the fabric they had chosen.

What struck me was that people sometimes chose the same type of material, but for each person it represented something different.

It told their story, perhaps the same story, but from a different point of view.

I have noticed lately, that the stories we hear tend to be very much from one side, from one perspective. In the aftermath of the EU referendum and the US elections, the news channels seem to have settled themselves, for the most part, on one side or the other, with a few brave stalwarts holding the middle, fairly neutral ground. The general public then follows suit, drawn inexorably towards either end of a tunnel which offers no light at its end – only more vitriol, anger and a deep sense of fear and/or betrayal.

Our social media feeds into this isolating trend: the algorithms behind the screen are designed to filter out news which doesn’t fit your preferences, or articles or retailers which you haven’t ‘liked’ or don’t click on very often. But the danger of this is that we consume news (often unsuccessfully confused with ‘truth’) in the same way we consume our favourite TV shows, or cereal or brand of deodorant.

We hear the story, perhaps the same story, but from only one perspective.

And thus it reinforces that narrower world view and encases us in the arrogance of certainty, instead of challenging ourselves to wade out into the deeper and murkier waters of alternative viewpoints.

Professor Grace Davie of Exeter University in her book ‘Religion in Britain: a persistent paradox’ observes that as a society we have lost the skills for dialogue on religion. To put it another way, we don’t know how to talk to each other about faith, or God or spirituality without being abrasive, hurtful or just plain ignorant (that’s my paraphrase). I would argue that the same is true of politics and social in/justice, which is the outcome of political decision making.

How refreshing then, to be part of an evening where people are openly invited, in a warm and safe space, to share and celebrate that which makes us different – and yet where we have so much in common.

We share the same story, but tell it from a different perspective.

It is true that history books have often been written by the ‘winners’, although in recent years ‘alternative histories’ have been told by those minority voices, bringing a fullness to a story which had only been half-told.

Are we brave enough to hear the story we are part of, from someone else’s point of view? Could we be gracious enough to value their viewpoint, even if it’s not the same as ours?

I suspect that it is only in the murky uncertainty of the middle ground, that any peace or reconciliation can be won. The firmer, more solid ground of ‘opinion’ and ‘alternative facts’ seems to leave us with little option than to raise the ramparts and defend our position. The story then rapidly shrinks to a tale of ‘them and us’ – hardly a very noble way to forge the future.

We are the stories we weave. Are we willing to include other threads and strands in that story, or will we only consider the ‘truth’ we hold most dear?

If that’s the case, our tapestry is likely to be very small indeed.

Some of weaving squares created at the Muslim-Christian evening at Portsmouth Cathedral. These will be mounted into two frames, one of which will be given to the Wessex Jamaat, the other will reside at the Cathedral.1

Just two or three degrees…

Just a quick thought on this frosty January morning.

I’ve been offering mindfulness sessions as part of the Youth Chaplaincy project during January. Each week I’ve gone into local colleges and staff and students have been invited to use natural materials as a part of their mindfulness – focusing on a small thing for a short while, as a means of ‘turning down the volume on life’ for a while…

This morning it was my turn, as I walked along the beach with the dog. It was probably only just two or three degrees above freezing, but I tried to take some time to notice and pay attention to the things around me.

I noticed things with frost on like this black pebble, seaweed and even a feather, which for some reason I’d never considered as being vulnerable to frost – probably because I’m more used to seeing leaves with frost on, than seaweed or feathers.

I noticed the sand beneath the pebbles – which is always there, but I forget because I don’t see it as often (very pebbley beaches around Portsmouth).

But the thing which struck me most on this occasion was the difference between being in the shade and being in the sun. I’d been walking along the beach with the dog with the sun on my back. When we turned round to come home, I climbed back up onto the path which runs alongside the foreshore and I suddenly noticed how much cooler I felt. I realised the path was in the shade, and even though it was probably a difference of only two or three degrees, it was really noticeable!

I purposefully walked back onto the pebbles on the beach and in a few moments felt slightly better as the winter sun, pale though it was, began to warm me up again.

Just two or three degrees different, but somehow it made all the difference in the world.

So here’s my thought: what small change in thought patterns, habits or behaviour could you make, which might make all the difference in the world? Sometimes it’s not the big things, but the small changes, which make the biggest impact…

Lessons from La La Land – jazz music and the church

Keith (John Legend) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) – scene from the film La La Land

(warning: this article contains mild spoilers relating to the film)

 La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is currently enjoying top reviews as it opens in cinemas across the UK. The story follows the two main characters, Mia and Sebastian as they seek to follow their dreams in the ‘la la land’ that is Hollywood.

The film is a wonderful showcase of music and dance in the style of a 1950s musical but the ending lifts it from being a pastiche of those classic films, to something rather more honest and wistful. I thoroughly enjoyed the film and its unconventional ending, but I was struck unexpectedly by a challenge from one of the supporting cast, which would apply equally well to the Christian church, as it did to Sebastian’s character.

One of the things which Sebastian is struggling with, is his failure to find a niche where he can play ‘true jazz’ to an audience which appreciates it. In the opening scenes we see him in a restaurant at Christmas playing a rather gaudy version of Jingle Bells (which he clearly hates). When he breaks into a different piece, he gets fired because ‘no-one wants to listen to that’.

Later in the story he meets an old friend, Keith, who is also a jazz musician and Sebastian agrees to join his band. At first Sebastian is uncomfortable with the fusion of traditional jazz and modern hip hop rhythms and Keith recognises that.

He points out the uncomfortable truth which Sebastian already knows: that jazz is dying. All the people in the clubs are old people and there are no young people there. Sebastian wants to bring back jazz to a younger and newer audience, but as Keith so eloquently puts it:

“How are you going to be a revolutionary when you’re such a traditionalist? You’re holding on to the past, but jazz is about the future.”

I was struck on the way home, what a strong analogy this is for many branches of the Christian church.

The church is dying, in a way. Great numbers of churches are investing huge amounts of energy and resources into protecting, defending, preserving and maintaining their traditional ways of doing things. But maintaining what feels familiar and safe for some people, is actually alienating many of the newer and younger audiences which the church has yet to reach. Much of the spiritual wealth and value which the church has to offer isn’t being accessed by those who might need and enjoy it the most, because it’s located and presented in places which younger people can’t or don’t access.

And I’m not talking about teenagers or university students. I would include here young adults in their twenties and those in their thirties, potentially with young families. These generations, who were born into the digital age, who can’t imagine or remember life without the internet; who are living in a time where the globe feels smaller but the threats feel bigger; when debt is higher but income lower – these people are the ones who might find the most comfort and encouragement in knowing a God who loves and accepts them unconditionally. But they’re not hearing this message, because it’s broadcast in a language they’ve never used, in a place they’ve never been to.

How can the church be revolutionary, without compromising on its core values, identity and belief? That’s the real struggle many churches are facing, because many of its oldest members can’t see how to re-shape their practice into something accessible, without feeling that their Christian identity is in danger of being eroded.

And how can the church retain and bring forward the deep and rich vein of historic Christian practice, without getting stuck in the past and thus failing to be relevant to the present and the future?

The film La La Land illustrates the compromises Sebastian has to make in order to be able to realise his dream of opening a jazz club. The lessons he learns on the way are valuable and inform his own development as a musician. I wonder if the church is capable of undertaking the same journey, while it seems to be working so hard to maintain the story of the past?

 

Snapdragons don’t read memos

This is a Snapdragon. Lovely isn’t it? It’s growing through a crack in the concrete path outside my back door and has been producing these cheerful, pale yellow flowers for about a month now.

Trouble is, it started this marvellous endeavour in December and Snapdragons usually flower in the Spring.

There are other flowers in my garden (not many, admittedly, as it’s winter and my garden tends to get abandoned ’til at least March), but they’re winter flowering varieties. I expect them to be making some effort. But this little chap doesn’t seem to have got the memo.

This Snapdragon is flourishing – almost defiantly, forcing its way out through an invisible gap in the paving. It seems to declare: “I am here! I am growing! I will survive – and without your help!”

At the beginning of the month, I decided I wanted to ‘pay attention’ a little more: take time to notice those small but unusual things which might point to something bigger. Rather like the way we might spot buds in the hedgerows, or crocuses beginning to peek out, as a sign of Spring. In the same way I set myself the challenge to be a little more aware, to look for clues and listen out for the soft voice of God which might be leading me somewhere new.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, when something happens out of season or unexpectedly, it does tend to grab your attention. It makes you stop, maybe look twice and think: Well, why is this happening? What’s going on here? What is this telling me?

Sometimes things happen when we don’t expect them. Doors open up and opportunities occur when we’re not ready, or sooner than we thought. Are we ready to respond to the unexpected? Can we be flexible enough to change our minds and our thinking, when something happens which we weren’t expecting for a while? This little Snapdragon speaks of things happening out of season, and without outside interference. The seed did exactly what it was supposed to: it germinated, sprouted, grew and flowered exactly as it was meant to, but at a time no-one expected.

Are we ready and prepared for the unexpected? Can we be flexible enough to adapt if our long-term plans suddenly land in our laps with three months notice? Snapdragons don’t seem to mind – would we turn down an opportunity, just because we didn’t think we were ready…?

Answers on a postcard…

Sharing what we know

I subscribe to a range of arts organisations news sheets, as I like to keep up to date with what others creatives across the world are encountering. I find it helpful because it puts my experience into a wider context, as well as offering new questions and things to consider.

One of those is Createquity which takes a global view of arts policy and practice. In their recent ‘top ten’ list of news stories in 2016, I was struck by the fact that two almost opposing news items were in the same list: #6 was about the actions of the Turkish government to crack down more on artists and intellectuals and yet the very next article, #7 was about the growth of impact investing and crowdfunding for arts projects. It seems access and support of the arts is both widening in some parts of the world and simultaneously narrowing in others.

Another interesting read comes from Fuller Theological Seminary. You might think that a Bible college might not be very interested in the arts, but in fact the opposite is true. Fuller Studio brings together a range of specialisms and reflects on how faith and spirituality might be present in those fields. I like the way they use story to invite reflection, particularly the Story Table.

My final offering into this eclectic mix comes from the Higher Education sector: Creative Academic is an online journal inviting researchers and lecturers and others working in the HE sector, to reflect and share on their use of and experience of creativity in their work. This is an emerging area for academics, and there’s lots of enthusiasm for exploring and explaining how this works.

If you have suggestions for a good source of arts/creativity news, do share!

 

The face of Janus: thoughts from the other side of 2016

illustration by Sharon Court

Towards the end of December I noticed a common theme to the tone and content of my friends Facebook comments. They read basically: “Good Riddance 2016 – you were all kinds of awful and I’m glad to see the back of you!”

To be fair, I can kind of understand their point of view: we saw the deaths of a number of well-known and well-liked celebrities (perhaps no more than previous years but the loss of these individuals seemed to resonate with a lot of people my age). And let’s not forget the shambles of the EU Referendum or the US election… But in addition to that, I know of personal tragedies that people faced: the onset of cancer, the sudden death of a close family member, heartbreak, loss and disappointment. Perhaps 2016 does have a lot to answer for?

I was taking my dog for a walk one day, amongst the mulch of dead leaves and the shadowy silent figures of sleeping trees, and I thought about how much people wanted to reject the year – to push it away and maybe even pretend it had never happened, and I wondered whether we could actually do that? Turn our backs on it completely and simply refuse to accept the pain, disappointment and grief.

I looked at the landscape around me and it occurred to me that nature doesn’t do that. It doesn’t turn its back on the year just gone, but in fact it draws from it intentionally.

During the autumn we see the spectacular effects of nature preparing itself for winter: deciduous trees draw back into themselves any unused chlorophyll and any remaining sugars show in the amount of red in the leaves – the more red there is, the more sugar is present. Yellow or golden leaves have much less sugar.

That chlorophyll becomes the storehouse for the following year, allowing new buds and leaves to be grown, drawn from the growth of the previous season. Nature doesn’t turn its back on the old year when the new one comes; it doesn’t disdain or despair. Rather it keeps the good and uses it for renewal.

Now this is where my analogy starts to get a bit wobbly, because of course if the soil quality is poor, or the local water supply is tainted, the trees might also draw in bad things as well as good. Trees, you see, can’t make choices about their water supply or soil quality.

But we can.

We can choose to keep what is good, wholesome, healthy and encouraging and we can choose to let go of the pain, loss and disappointment. Certainly we will be impacted and changed by it – the rings inside a tree bear testament to the rainfall of previous years – but even loss and bereavement can bring strength and hope after a time.

2016 may have had its challenges, but there were good things too: the long-awaited pregnancy, the chance to go to university, the security of a permanent job, the reassurance brought by making new friends at a new school. These are the chlorophyll moments of 2016: the life-affirming experiences which bring joy, hope and peace.

So will we take our lessons from social media, or from nature, whose quiet presence offers a consistent reminder of the opportunties and choices before us?

The choice is up to us.

 

 

 

Does it add up?

A colleague within the Church of England recently sent me information from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England. Towards the bottom of the email, which was a summary of a variety of reports from 2016, was this list of statistics:

Children’s Rights Alliance for England

CRAE findings from their State of Children’s Rights in England 2016 report:

  • 3.9 million children were living in poverty in 2014/15 (29% of all children)
  • £2.4 billion cut from children, young people and family services over six years
  • 3,390 families with children are living in bed and breakfasts
  • 39,388 recorded sexual offences against children in 2014/15, an 84% increase in the past two years
  • 30% financial decrease in support for asylum seeking families with children
  • 1.4 million more pupils are taught in good or outstanding schools than in 2010
  • Less than 25% of white British boys from lower income backgrounds are achieving five GCSE grades A*-C
  • 14% of looked after children achieved five GCSE grades A*-C compared to 53% of non-looked after children
  • 202 children under 18 in adult mental health wards last year (43% increase since 2011/12)
  • 200 million a year cut to the public health grant in 2015 with a further £331 million cut by 2020/21

There are a couple of things I want to comment on in particular:

The number of children living in poverty was almost 1/3 of the population two years ago. I wonder what the figures would be now?  Just to clarify, the poverty line is defined as “the estimated minimum level of income needed to secure the necessities of life”. The Children’s Society website has a calculator which shows what level the poverty line was at, between the year 2000 and 2015. In 2015, an average household of two adults and two under 14s might be expected to have an income around or above £336 per week (after housing costs). Anything less than that would mean they were living below the poverty line.

Think about that for a moment: there may well be families you know, ordinary ‘normal’ families, who are actually living in poverty, but you wouldn’t know it just by looking?

It will come as no surprise to anyone, that the needs* increase as the funding for support services decreases. Public funding continues to be slashed and services cut or relocated to the voluntary sector (but on a smaller scale) and yet the levels of need are clearly not in line with the services available.

*particularly of vulnerable families

202 teenagers with mental health problems were cared for in adult mental health wards. This highlights how stretched adolescent mental health services are (teenagers are only admitted in specialist, high need circumstances such as attempted suicide, severe weight loss or being a danger to themselves) and also raises questions about how well equipped mental health services are to deal with the diversity of needs from different generations?

These statistics makes sobering reading for anyone, but many of us who work with children and young people may feel it more keenly as we see the faces which these disembodied numbers represent. I think it’s important therefore, that we keep reminding policy makers that these numbers are real people, with real faces, who deserve to be valued and treated with respect, and not reduced to a dot on a graph.

Pay attention: life lessons from nature

Connections

I am the world’s worst person to go on a walk with.

You see, one of my hobbies is photography, and even if I’ve only got my mobile phone with me, I still want to stop and take pictures – my family often feel exasperated when they have to wait for me, as I’ve gotten distracted by something which caught my eye. I notice things and I wonder and I ask questions…

We hear a lot about mindfulness these days. In case you’ve been stranded on a desert island and haven’t heard of it, mindfulness is the practice of choosing to be more aware of your environment and yourself, in order to promote wellbeing. Some of the oldest world religions have been practising mindfulness for some time – Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity among them, encouraging followers to set aside time aside for quiet reflection and meditation.

It’s become a very popular trend over the last couple of years. As a society, we’re told we are experiencing more stress than previous generations, and the consequences of not dealing with stress properly – anxiety, depression, anger and other manifestations of poor mental health can be considerable. Looking after yourself and your mental health is important and mindfulness can be a healthy part of that, but I try and use it in a slightly different way…

As a Christian, I operate on the assumption that God can and does speak to us and that he has things to say. The challenge is not whether God can communicate as much as whether we’re actually listening! For me, mindfulness – that intentional act of stopping to pause, reflect and listen, is a key part of how I hear from God when I pray and I will often look to the natural world for inspiration.

Variety

For example, some time ago I was taking our dog for a walk, and I felt God say I should pay attention to the leaves I saw along the walk. To be honest, I’m usually paying most attention to the dog as he’s a beagle and has a habit of getting into spaces he’s not supposed to, or eating things he shouldn’t. The route was a familiar one and I didn’t expect to see anything special…but I was wrong.

Scale

 

I have included some photos I took on that walk and some observations and questions it raised for me:

Connections (top of the page): where are you connected in? Who or what do you connect to? Are there some connections which need nurturing, or some which need pruning back?

Variety (middle of the page): each leaf is different, unique. They have their own version of the variegation which makes the whole plant  distinctive. That difference is what makes the plant stand out. Do you celebrate your uniqueness, or do you try and hide it? Do you feel uncomfortable with being different to other people, or are you content to be yourself?

Scale (towards the bottom of the page): some of the ivy leaves in this photo are small, others are huge! Yet each one is necessary to the plant. Each leaf’s ability to function and contribute to the life of the plant is not determined by it’s size, but rather it’s ability to access the sun. Do you value the contribution you make? What would be missing if you weren’t there?

I think that whether or not you hold a faith, these questions would still resonate with you, and invite you to reflect on aspects of your life which you might want to change or value differently.

This year’s theme at Portsmouth Cathedral is all about ecology and the environment and it’s called All Things Bright and Beautiful. I’m involved in the planning and management of the project, and will be running some sessions, writing blog articles etc. My aspiration is to create a series of mindfulness reflection activities, based on things found in nature and along the coast, which can be shared during the year. Ultimately, I’d like to compile them all into a little book and have it properly printed – watch this space for further updates!

Enjoying the view…

img_20150725_153152-01

There’s something about seeing a place or an object from a different vantage point, which can change the way you think about it.

The photo  shows a view of the city of Portsmouth, but from Portsdown Hill.  From here it’s easier to see the green spaces and in the distance the sea is just visible. But from the heart of the city, surrounded by tower blocks and the noise of traffic, those green spaces and sea views seem a million miles away…

Our view of things can be challenged and changed – if we’re prepared to consider new ideas and be open minded. This was part of the theme of the Viewpoint project at Portsmouth Cathedral which ran from September 2016 to July 2017.

During the course of the project, there were five artists in residence, exploring the theme of faith & spirituality through their chosen practice. I was not only curator of the project, but also had the opportunity to be an artist in residence myself, as creator of the Viewfinder, a sculpture created from a recycled spinning wheel.

You can find out more here: Viewpoint project (The link takes you to a series of blog articles, describing the artists and their work.) The evaluation report and accompanying paper should be available online shortly.

 

« Older posts

© 2017 apple seed

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑