Life Goes On (Obviously)

Autumn Rain II by Flickr user Dyversions

It is a wet, wet day here in Birmingham, England. The rain is falling on the land with the enthusiasm of a lover too long removed from his beloved. The green of the grass is the garden is lush and vibrant, the flowers dip their heads to better show their new glistening adornment. The leaves of the trees are making their migration from deep green, through golden yellow to passionate reds and oranges.

Autumn is here with a vengeance. It should be; it always arrives with my birthday*.

I am back at my parents’ house, another swing of the pendulum that has taken me up and down the country four, five times already this summer. I am ‘working’ at the bureau desk of my grandfathers; the first time I have had a proper workspace here since my teenage years. I have a job application to fill in, for a job I don’t really want (but probably need).

This weekend should be my last one here for a while. On Monday I head back down to London where I will be house-sitting consecutively for two friends. This, I hope, will mark the start of my return to the Big Smoke.

I’m resigned to the change. Not exactly excited, but not disappointed either. London was my home for many years, and it is still home to a great many of my dearest friends. After plans of farms and farming have fallen through, it seemed best to be somewhere where I have real ties, and I have more ties there than anywhere.

I have been homeless for over two years now. It was August 2008 when I packed up my flat, quit my job and ventured into the unknown. That unknown took me to l’Abri and all the wonders of deep friendships that grew from there. But there was no home for me at l’Abri (in the stable sense), and there has been none in any of my subsequent journeys either. Birmingham last summer was a holding pattern, Chichester was a fun but failed experiment. America this summer was… many things, but a study in alienation in many ways. Beautiful places with beautiful friends, but ones that only served to emphasise my alien-ness.

And now? Now I am longing to unpack my suitcase, to open my boxes of books and find shelves to put them on. I am longing for a neighbourhood, for an address so I can get a library card. For friendships built around a regular pattern of life rather than occasional visitations.

London is no longer my favourite place in the world. But, for now, it is the closest thing I have to a home. I need to pull my heart away from a distant future and into material reality, and the best anchors I have for that task are the friendships I have in the East End. And the opportunities that come with them.

I don’t really know what life will look like. I don’t know how I will pay my way. The generosity of friends keeping a roof over my head is a start. A good temping agency and the odd application form will help. Most exciting of all is the possibility of helping a friend set up a consultancy firm, which actually looks like it will happen in the coming weeks. It won’t be a full-time job, but it will be something. A challenge. Something new. Something fun.

It feels strange, after the last few years, to be trying to return to where I’ve been before. But this isn’t reconvening after a hiatus. I’m not picking up where I left off. This is a new start, if one in an old place. I don’t know if this gets me any closer to a rural, entrepreneurial community or not. But it does ground me back in the reality of life. And that’s progress, is it not?

The rain is continuing to fall, heavily. I think I’m going to have to put the light on – the grey, leaden skies are letting too little of the sun filter through. Beside me my suitcase is still full of clothes, waiting to be repacked for me to hit the road once again. I wonder how long it will be before I can unpack it for the last time?

The rain falls so that the plants may grow. When it stops (eventually), the air will be fresh and the grass a deep green that only comes after rain. Life, in all of it’s fullness, goes on as it always has. Obviously.


* September 22nd: brilliant sunshine, above 20oC temperatures. September 23rd: heavy rain, temperatures in the mid-teens… Same every year…

Continue reading

It’s Complicated

One of my most common topics of conversation seems to be the question of whether men and women can be friends. It occurs regularly, with people I am close to and people I’ve just met, in all sorts of contexts. And it is often much on my mind: you see, I have a lot of female friends.

It’s the “When Harry Met Sally” Problem. No, not the issue of faking orgasms in public spaces (which is much less common than you might think – at least in this country). It is Harry’s contention, on which the films plot hangs, that men and women can’t be friends with each other. I’ll let him explain why.

In many ways this is a logical argument. Basically, sex gets in the way. Our sexual desires are undoubtedly among our strongest drives, so it’s not really that surprising that sexual tension could hamper, or even impair, cross-gender friendship. But it’s a concept that I’ve always fought strongly against. I want to explore the whole area a little, if you’ll humour me.

Attraction

I have no problem acknowledging that we are sexual beings, and that are sexual drives come into play in most, if not all of our relationships. But I do take issue with Harry’s assertion that this means genuine friendship between men and women is impossible. I think there are two big reasons for this: on the one hand, removing the possibility of cross-gender friendship effectively removes the potential of intimacy with a whole half of the human race, which is ridiculous. On the other, I think Harry’s painting of the issue is far, far too simplistic.

I believe our sexuality and our sexual attractions and attractiveness play a part in all our relationships. As do our emotional mores, our psychological proclivities and predilections, our moods, our social and ethnic standing and background… Basically all the many conscious and subconscious factors that make up our humanness. Each and every one of these, and more, come in to play in all of our interactions, to one degree or another.

Think about your current friendships. How did you meet your best friend? What drew you to them? Imagine a context where you recently made new friends; perhaps you went to university or college, or started a new job, or moved to a new church or social club. Faced with many new people who you could possibly get to know, what drew you to the people you are now friends with?

There is always an attraction. It might be an emotional one, it might be a physical one, it might be a psychological one; but there is always some form of attraction on which a relationship is formed. And that is any relationship, male-male, male-female etc; platonic or otherwise.

If that’s true though, it complicates Harry’s thesis somewhat. Sure, sexual attraction may well be at play within a male-female friendship like the burgeoning one between Harry and Sally, but it may also be a factor with Harry’s guy friends (although I’m sure he wouldn’t want to admit it). If you are going to cut out any possibility of attraction – except with those you want to sleep with – then, if you are honest with yourself, you are going to be a very lonely person.

He’s just not that into you

This whole issues has been a big one for me, because a large proportion of my good friends are female. Not exclusively, but probably more than 60%. For some reason I find women easier to get to know and form genuine friendships with than I do guys. Maybe it’s because they tend to be less threatening (a distinct lack of bravado), or maybe because they tend to be more emotionally open. I don’t know why; but I have more good female friends than I do male.

So, Harry’s thesis has actually been a bit of a source of guilt for me. I think I know myself well enough to know where there is sexual, or emotional, attraction on my part, but I can’t speak for the other party. But if Harry is true, then all the women friends I don’t fancy must fancy me. So am I causing them issues? Is the very fact of my friendship being unhelpful to my friends?

It’s not you, it’s me

Complicating this somewhat is a dichotomy within my own personality. I am very definitely an introvert, and as such I tend to split the world into two very distinct categories: people and friends.

“People” is most of the world – those I know and those I don’t. Through no fault of their own (mostly) I find them very hard work, and resist engaging with them. I hold people at arms length for as long as possible, and resist engaging with them. I appear reserved towards them; perhaps even cold, grumpy and indifferent (at l’Abri I apparently have a reputation as being “scary”, probably for this reason).

“Friends” are altogether different. Friends are people who get inside the wall, who I make efforts to get to know and be known by. They are people I really, genuinely (sometimes passionately) care about. I am very interested in my friends, and want to spend plenty of quality, one-on-one time with them. And I do, when I can.

I would imagine that the transition from “people” to “friend” would be very confusing. A transition from cold to warm, from distant to intimate. Yes, I can see that that might be confusing. Especially if you are female.

[As an aside I was, a while ago, planning to write a post/essay on this very subject entitled “To all the women I know: an apology”]

There can only be one

So attraction and intimacy. Both issues. Of course, life is even more complicated than that…

For myself, and almost everyone I know, the (romantic) relationship ideal is (at worst) one of serial monogamy. Preferably life-long serial monogamy. In other words, marriage. The thing with marriage, though, is that it automatically transforms the relationship landscape. However many wonderful people there are out there; beautiful, intelligent, passionate women, or caring, mature and handsome men; you can only be a life-long serial monogamist with one of them.

It is undoubtedly true that you will meet, in your lifetime, a whole bunch of people that you are very, very attracted to. People that you may fall hopelessly in love with. People who you want to be life-long friends with. But you can only (ideally) marry one of them.

[As a good friend said to me once: “No one ever plans to get divorced” – everybody intends, at the start, for their marriage to be lifelong.]

I have known, as friends and sometimes as girlfriends, many wonderful women. Some I have been very powerfully emotionally attracted to; others physically; others both. But I have only ever wanted to spend the rest of my life with one. There was no fault in the others, no sense that a relationship between us couldn’t have worked, it just wouldn’t have been the same, as good. [Although, in my case, they would probably all have been better]

All of us, I think, chose at some point not to be with someone, not because we don’t fancy them, not because we don’t love them. But because we don’t want to spend our future days looking over our shoulder, wondering “what if…”

We save ourselves, for the one.

It’s biblical

I don’t really know what I think about Christianity, and I don’t want to go all  “church-y” on people (read through the archives if you want that), but I do, still, find some of the Christian narrative helpful for making sense of the world. It’s better than any alternative that I have found, yet.

Right at the beginning of the bible is laid out a vision for the nature of creation, and the nature of humanity within that. And that account says that together, as male and female, humanity is created in God’s image.

To me, that has always meant this: that it is only when men and women are together that we are fully human, fully what we were intended to be. Yes, men and women are very different beings: for example, men tend to be (primarily) visually attracted to someone; women tend to be (primarily) emotionally attracted to someone. Yes, at times we can fail, utterly, to understand each other. But the reality is that it is only together that we are all that we can be, informing and complementing each other.

I really do believe that cross-gender, heterosexual friendships are not only possible, but genuine, deep and rewarding. I think they are what we are made for. Yes, such friendships can be very complicated – they can be messy, even painful. But so can any form of intimacy. If you shy away from all possible risk, you end up a very lonely person.

It’s complicated

Is Harry right? In part, probably. In full, no.

I think all relationships are messy, risky and potentially painful. But I also think they can be hugely rewarding

I think it is possible to be friends with someone you fancy, even someone you love (although I would suggest, in that case, an honest conversation and some healthy boundaries). I think it is possible to be emotionally attracted, even in love, with someone and not physically attracted to them. I think it is possible to find attractive someone of the same sex, and still be heterosexual. I think monogamy can work. And I still, perhaps naively, believe that a true platonic friendship is possible.

Congratulations on reading all the way through (if you haven’t just skipped to the end). I hope it was worth it.

The conclusions are this: all human relationships are messy. All friendships are affected and inflected by our needs, desires and peccadilloes. But despite that, they are all, so, so often, worthwhile.

Beautiful Friends

Just before Easter I went to l’Abri again – another one of my now very regular visits. As usual this visit was primarily prompted by the arrival of dear friends from a distant land.

Steven Carlson and Alida Kovacs are two of the most beautiful people you will ever meet. Truly, in every way imaginable. Steven is a dear, dear friend from my 7 months at the Manor last year, and Alida is slowly and graciously becoming so. When they told me they were flying in from Budapest for a few weeks there was no way I could miss the opportunity to see them.

I had the privilege of a week in their precious company, which included being able to celebrate their engagement with them. A true joy.

I took a lot of photos in those short days, part of a new set now online. I’m pleased with some of the results – especially capturing something of the character of these two joyous individuals during a very happy time.

Enjoy.

On food, veganism and joy

A conversation between myself and a friend on Facebook (beginning with a picture of cakes)…

Me: nice cakes! Do they taste as good as they look?

Friend: not nearly as nice, i’m afraid..the vegetarian in me still cannot grasp the concept of baking with vegan products – they are well beyond me even now. the cupcakes were dry & tasted a little too much like soy..with icing, they were revived a bit, but even so..i think they were just decorative.

Me: shame. I’ve never understood veganism – you’ve got to have some pretty high principles to hate food that much. where do they get the joy in their life?
Well, fantastic decorating job, anyway…

Friend: haha the least i can say is that thank goodness our joy in life does not revolve around food! &… they were joyful over the icing!

***

I personally think that you can get an awful lot of joy from food. Think of your happiest memories… how many of them involve sitting around a meal table with close friends and/or family? How many of them involved a special meal of some sort?

A good steak, just the right side of medium-rare. Proper Pommes Frites (french fries), not the paler American immitation. Green beans. A good sauce (your choice)…

Real, fresh, Japanese Sushimi…

A glass of rich, smokey red wine and some Green & Blacks dark chocolate…

I’d go on, but I’ll make you all hungry. 😉

Aren’t these things that give you joy? Don’t they make you smile? I was thinking last night, as I drifted off to Bedfordshire, about the meals at l’Abri. There were so many good gatherings with friends around a table, so many joyous momoents. But many of them were made more so by the quality of the food: The first time Anna made Mexican Casserole. The Sunday Breakfasts where Phil made muffins. The time I made soup, and managed to persuade Marta that the salad demanded real olive oil…

In these moments, and in so many of your own significant memories, the people you are with are the most important thing. It is the shared fellowship that we treasure. But I really do believe that the food we eat plays a significant part in our enjoyment of the moment and in what/whether we remember. There really is a lot of joy in food.

I was mainly joking with my comment on veganism. But I do have a problem with it, because it does feel so much like a philosophy that steals the joy from food. It reduces food to something to morally anguish about, rather than celebrate. It becomes a measure of your superiority and a basic form of sustenance, and nothing more.

So, make beautiful cup-cakes. Gather friends around you to enjoy them with you. But make sure they taste nice…

😉

The Wedding of the Year

An impossible to focus camera. A grainy , ISO 800 film. A dark, romantically-lit house. Sneak-shots rapidly taken (between moments of clearing plates and washing up).

All these combine to give you some of the worst photographs I’ve ever taken. But they are indicative (if poor) images of precious memories. Yes, it was Marta and Danny’s wedding…

Enjoy

Decisions, Decisions…

How do you make the big decisions in your life? When you are trying to decide where to live, what job to do, which relationships to pursue, what basis do you use for making those decisions?

If I’m honest, I have never found decision making easy. I have an ability to see all the possibilities and consequences of a course of action, which often leaves me somewhat paralysed, not easily able to weigh the different options. But in times past I would have tried to base all my decisions on what seems ‘right’, on what ‘God’ wanted/was saying/was not saying, and on what I believed to be important from previous decisions.

Being in London, being involved with my church there and among the community of friends I had around me, was one of the important markers. I made a lot of decisions, about jobs, about where to live, based on that. I also made a lot of decisions based on my ‘theology’ (for want of a better word), my ideas of what Christian life was meant to look like. All of my career choices since graduating have been about enabling me to continue to live in London, to be involved with my church community there, and work in a ‘Christian’ context, for organisations that I felt were doing important work.

So what’s changed? Well, a lot, honestly. The chaos of the last couple of years of my life has left me questioning pretty much everything, including all the signposts by which I used to make decisions. I am tired of London, frustrated by and somewhat alienated from most of my church, and unsure what, if anything I believe about ‘God’. I am in the process of trying to start afresh; am currently looking for both work and a place to live, and could go and be anywhere… but there are an awful lot of where’s and even more what’s.

I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the possibilities. I don’t know what basis I have for making decisions other than what I want, and I’ve never been that great at working that out. What do I want? I want to live I the country. I want to have space for myself but be involved in community. I want to be near, and involved in the lives of, friends. I want a job where I actually want to go into work in the morning. I want space to see if this writing thing can actually go somewhere. I’d really like a dog…

So that’s something, right? Except, to my structured brain a lot of those things seem almost contradictory. Most of my good friends are in London. In reality, most work probably is too. My experiences of community thus far have been with churches, or with folks from l’Abri, most of whom are now scattered across the globe. If I managed to find a job in a more rural location, I’d most likely be trying to set myself up somewhere where I knew no one, which is not exactly helping with either the friends thing or the community one…

So, what do you do? At the moment, hampered by a lack of cash, crashing with my parents, in all likelihood it will be a matter of the utmost practicality, going for whatever compromise ticks the most boxes. Maybe getting another London job and trying to live near current friends. But that doesn’t satisfy; none of the options I can see in front of me at the moment satisfies. So there is always the possibility that I do something all the more unconventional…

Or just sit here in indecision a while longer…