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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


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.


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.



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…


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.


The Potting Shed – how and why?

cropped-thepottingshed.pngSomeone sent me a note recently saying how much they liked the sound of what I’m doing in The Potting Shed* and wondered how I got into it.

*The Potting Shed is the page on Facebook where the exploits of my freelance work are shared more frequently. It’s only a virtual shed at the moment, but it seemed logical: if you’re going to grow things you need tools and resources and a place to nurture them!

It was lovely to be asked 🙂 I had a little ponder and this was my reply. Perhaps you might find it interesting too?

Megan: Sharon, I completely love the sound of everything The Potting Shed does. How did you get into doing that? What is your background? (if you don’t mind me asking!!) xx

Hi Megan!
Thank you very much! I don’t mind you asking at all!
I’d like to say that it’s part of some kind of carefully planned career path…but that would be a complete lie! The reality is entirely more haphazard and accidental. My background is in youth & children’s work. I’m a qualified teacher and youthworker, but I have a real passion for heritage, arts, communities and storytelling.

This means that I tend to get drawn to projects which touch on those kinds of areas…Children and young people are part of communities and they interact with and affect each other (whether they know it or not!) Heritage is about the story of a place and the people who have, or are currently living in it, and the arts (such as storytelling) is how we can share and explore the locality and community where we live and begin to understand our place in it.

I think my core motivation is around valuing people: I believe everyone has inherent value, because each person is unique. Our DNA, our fingerprints, the combination of character, personality, skills and experience are not to be found anywhere else, or in anyone else.
That makes you uniquely valuable and irreplaceable.

The work I’m involved in – which has come along haphazardly and sometimes almost by accident, doesn’t bring value or worth to the people or places I work with…but perhaps some of what I bring helps to draw out the value of what’s already there?

Does that make sense?

I love what I’m doing, even though at times it feels very stressful (like now when I’ve got two chaplaincy visits this week and an exhibition opening on Friday!!) and I sometimes miss being part of a team with other people. Being freelance can feel lonely and isolated at times and I sometimes feel like I bear a heavier responsibility than if I were an employee in a bigger company. There are times when I feel like I’m dangling on a string above a rather cavernous ravine, and it wouldn’t take too much for the string to snap…

But on the other hand it’s a tremendous privilege to be able to work with people and make a big/small difference in their lives! Who can say that they get to do that? I love the variety, the creativity, the opportunity to direct and hold and shape things…And it means I can be very flexible around the needs of my family, which is the most important part.
So that’s kind of it really….!

Got any more questions…do send them my way

CUExpo – canals and dams

Rideau canal house

The Rideau canal, near Charleston university campus – such a peaceful spot!

Ottawa in June was surprisingly warm! I really wasn’t prepared for it, having been to Corner Brook in Newfoundland two years previously, but it was, frankly, glorious!
Having the 2015 CUExpo in the nation’s capital was a wonderful opportunity to get to know more about the country and its heritage. The conference opened with a traditional smudging ceremony and the host for CUExpo made the point that the university and indeed much of the city was located on unceeded Algonquin land, one of the First Nation peoples in Canada.

The Great Hall at the National Museum of Canada

The Grand Hall in the National Museum. The totem poles are made from whole trunks of cedar wood and tell the story of a person’s life.

I was able to visit the National Museum in the French Canadian section of the city, and travelling on the bus enabled me to see a wide cross section of the city and what modern life is like for Canadians living there. I particularly enjoyed the enormous totem poles and the First Nation style of artwork, which was bold but also sometimes disturbing!

I was also very touched and challenged by the newly released Truth and Reconciliation Commission report summary which detailed the ‘cultural genocide’ of First Nation people’s which took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these harrowing stories of young aboriginal children separated from their families and housed in institutional schools which sought to erase all their cultural heritage, was a shock to many Canadians, who simply didn’t know these things had even happened.

I went to the conference on my own, as a practitioner in my own right and was booked to do a storytelling session. This was instead of going as a member of the UK Community Partner Network (UKCPN), which is how I’d been able to attend the previous conference in Newfoundland. It was nice to see some familiar faces and to learn new things about community engagement practice, but travelling alone to a conference is also hard work (especially for an introvert!) and I think it would have been nicer to be part of a group.

My storytelling session entitled The Castle of Mystery went down well and those who came really enjoyed it, which was great! Storytelling is part of my creative practice, and a useful way to both challenge and reflect back to people, some of the dynamics of an organisation, situation or project.

It was useful and interesting to hear about other engagement practice elsewhere, but to be truthful it was also frustrating because the university I’m connected to doesn’t have a coherent community engagement strategy, or a team of people who might push that forward. In each successive session I went to, I heard about Chancellors and Vice Chancellors and Faculty Deans who’d put their weight and support behind a community engagement initiative, with fantastic results. Sadly the university closest to me seems to lack that vision at the moment, and although there *is* work happening across the institution, it’s fragmented and lacks punch. And without the weight of the executive behind it, it will only ever be thus.

I completed my own paper, ‘The Greenhouse Effect’ about the value of community engagement and a potential strategy for working with local groups, for the faculty I’m working with, but regrettably, nothing further seems to have come from it. Again without the weight of leadership behind it, community engagement will remain ‘off the edge of my desk’ for most of the academics there.

In the meantime however, I am co-authoring a paper about community engagement with two colleagues from the University of Portsmouth for the Research For All journal, which will hopefully be published next year and I have been invited to take part in an Interreg funded project called PONToon. So all it not lost….perhaps rather like a canal boat, these things take longer to move and longer to turn than anyone could have expected!

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