Monday, 31 December 2007

New Year's resolution

Well, it's that time of year again - we're going down the waterfall of 2007 into 2008. Whilst watching the "House" marathon on Hallmark this weekend (what better way to end the year than watching Hugh Laurie, sex god?), I was stopped in my tracks by this Marc Cohn song:

How many roads you’ve traveled
How many dreams you’ve chased
Across sand and sky and gravel
Looking for one safe place

Will you make a smoother landing
When you break your fall from grace
Into the arms of understanding
Looking for one safe place

Oh, life is trial by fire
And love’s the sweetest taste
And I pray it lifts us higher
To one safe place

How many roads we’ve traveled
How many dreams we’ve chased
Across sand and sky and gravel
Looking for one safe place

I've spent my life journeying, looking for or trying to be that one safe place - from trying to take up as little emotional space as possible, searching for the closeness and trust I never had with family, to trying to be a shelter for others. Sometimes I've done well, sometimes not - my story is a very human one.

Listening to this song yesterday, these lines hit me the hardest:

Oh, life is trial by fire
And love’s the sweetest taste
And I pray it lifts us higher
To one safe place

In one of life's sweetest paradoxes, to find the love that brings safety, your journey can't be one of looking for a safe place - love can only find you when you're willing to take a risk and fully engage in life.

Suddenly, I realised that my journey needed to be about living my life to the full - stretching, taking risks, loving, being willing to fall from grace.

My New Year's resolution? No more searching - falling or flying, the love I find on the journey will bring me to that one safe place.

Roll on, 2008.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Benazir Bhutto

Years from now, when asked where I was when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, I will respond, "I was at lunch with a Pakistani friend who was flying out to Pakistan that evening. If the question is where was I when I heard, I was at home, it was 16.20, and I went to the BBC website ON A WHIM. There it was."

I remember the execution of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, just months before we were due to visit Pakistan for the summer. I wasn't really affected - my parents weren't Bhutto supporters, and my father read news of Bhutto's death with grim satisfaction. I didn't really understand what was going on: as long as my relatives were ok, I was fine.

My late teens and twenties were a time of separating from my Pakistani identity. Even so, I cheered Benazir Bhutto as a western-educated woman who wanted to rule in an Islamic country. No matter how much my father cut her down, I always secretly hoped she'd get into power - a western-educated woman as Pakistani Prime Minister! HA! Take that you pompous, Muslim, South Asian male jerks!

Then she went for an arranged marriage. I, and many other girls of Pakistani heritage trying to straddle East and West, felt betrayed. So I didn't pay much attention when she was elected Prime Minister. I carried on my merry way, turning my back on my Pakistani identity.

Let's be clear here: Benazir Bhutto was no saint. She promised advances for women during her tenure as Prime Minister and didn't deliver. She saw the Taliban as a 'stabilising force'. She might have been guilty of corruption. Hero worship has no place here.

She was as complex as the country from which she came - an extremely privileged woman who spoke out for the poor (though actions are harder to find); a proponent of democracy who ran her government and party like a dictator. Full of contradictions, ever tough - but those were necessary qualities in an area with the worst gender rights record and the most corrupt political system in the world.

Whether one supported her wholeheartedly, felt that she betrayed her education in Western democracy, or felt she found it impossible to resist becoming part of a corrupt system, one cannot deny that she loved her country and gave her life for it. Her fate and that of Pakistan's were inextricably entwined; she lived and breathed Pakistan, even when she was thousands of miles away.

That sense makes the news of her assassination even more frightening.

I didn't expect to be hit by it the way I was; when I saw it on the BBC website banner, I just stared, unable to absorb it. Benazir Bhutto. Assassinated. I immediately turned on BBC News 24 and stared at it for 2.5 hours before I realised we weren't actually going to hear Pervez Musharraf's speech in full, nor was there going to be anything new for a while.

Mind-numbing, someone called it. Yes. But so much more. Shock, grief, horror, anger. Fear. And a sense of something being ripped away. An awareness that whether this was a master stroke designed to destabilise Pakistan and drop it into the hands of Taliban clones or whether this was a horrible miscalculation by one of her opponents, possibly even Musharraf- today, evil won a battle in the long war. And I'm feeling so much more I can't even begin to verbalise now.

But what I can verbalise is this: I don't want to read any more crap like the stuff on the BBC "Have your say", where the most recommended comment is the offensive "That's the way politics works with The Religion of Peace," and another is "Pakistan - what a wonderful place it must be." HOW DARE YOU. YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT THE PEOPLE AND THE COUNTRY, YOU XENOPHOBIC JERK. SHOW SOME RESPECT.
The people I want nearest me, the people I want to talk to about what I'm thinking and feeling are the ones who know Pakistan and love it, who can understand what I can say, but more importantly, what I can't. That's one friend flying to Lahore as I type, and another who had the nerve to tell me I was more Pakistani than I wanted to admit to.

Oh God. This can't be true.

We all thought she was indestructible, that she'd always be there. Her narrow escape in October, when 140 of her supporters were killed and 400 wounded, reinforced that belief. We couldn't imagine Pakistan without her.

Now, we have to.

Rest in peace, Baji.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Mona Lisa Smile

I'm a sucker for life-affirming, cheesy drama. Add a feminist twist to it, and it's irresistible - so when Mona Lisa Smile showed up on Channel 5, it became must-see pre-Xmas fare.

And in its last lines came a sentiment that resonated deep within:

"Not all who wander are aimless. Especially not those who seek truth beyond tradition, beyond definition, beyond the image."

If your *real* concern is for truth, you cannot limit yourself to a particular tradition, definition or image...and you will never find the whole truth within an institution.

Because the truth, which sets us free, cannot be owned by any one person or institution. Anyone who tells you they have "the truth" is lying. The truth cannot be contained.

That truth which sets us free breaks down those walls, turns our lives upside down, shatters our definitions and images and leads us into places we've never imagined - and to the place we spend our whole life searching for:


Even if it isn't what you expected it to be.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

O Holy Night

I may not sing or play an instrument, but nothing moves me like music. If I need to feel after being numb for too long, work through problems or be brought closer to God, nothing does it like music. From Thomas Tallis to Def Leppard, from Bach to Bollywood to Shania Twain's "Man, I feel like a woman" (and yes, I dance around the house to that), if those closest to me can't reach me, music will. Music can reach places the spoken word can't, and the story that lyrics tell allows us to face our stories at one remove.

Thank God for the Welsh. (Calm down, Robert G.) With an accent that turns their speech into song, it's no surprise that they produce world class singers the way Bollywood produces films. I've often suspected Welsh babies could hold a tune from the moment they were born - I'm sure many a Welsh paternity suit has begun with:

"That's not my baby. You've been sleeping with an Englishman."
"Baby can't be 100% Welsh - he cries flat."

Well, the X Factor's Rhydian Roberts is no exception - a baritone who soars into the tenor range as easily (and as often) as I pick up chocolate, he has wowed the judges week in and week out with his vocal ability and both OTT camp and understated performances. To quote judge Simon Cowell (known for his scathing comments): "If we're going to award the prize to the person who has been consistently, actually, brilliant throughout, we'd have to give it to you, Rhydian."

Many people have argued that his training has eliminated any emotional tenor (pun intended) from his performances, but my sense is that they feel that way because what they call 'emotional' is actually histrionics. Genuine emotion is most often understated - you sense it rather than see it. What Rhydian's training has done is modulate his expression of emotion and given it a greater range by increasing the shadings. No one listening to this rendition of 'O Holy Night' can argue that he sings without emotion or passion. He just doesn't need fireworks to show it.

People's complaints show how frighteningly incapable we are of reading or understanding the infinite expressions of emotion - most people only recognise or acknowledge emotion when it is extreme.

Back to music. "O holy night" is one of my favourite carols - for its intensity; for lyrics like 'a thrill of hope: a weary world rejoices'; for ranging from hushed awe to opera.

And, most of all, for that penultimate "O night divine..."

Ah, you think, yeah, the dramatic, spectacular bit. What was that about understated?

No. That's not what it's about for me. It's about having a voice and being able to let go. When you grow up not having a voice, or moderating your voice so others don't get hurt or upset, or remaining silent so others don't get angry, having a voice - a *true* voice - seems a million miles away. You either keep quiet, censor, or when you have to, defend. You rarely make a strong statement from the heart.

Making that statement from the heart and singing that penultimate 'O night divine' require that you let go. You cannot speak from the heart if you are controlling or holding back. Likewise, that penultimate 'O night divine' requires that you surrender to the music and trust your voice. If you hold back, you become physically incapable of singing it.

So many people think that because I pipe up and disagree or fight my corner, a true voice is the least of my problems. That's a defence, a barrier. What and whom I love, my dreams, joys, hopes, fears, sorrows, darkness, my beliefs (the real ones, not the censored ones I offer so you're not offended) - *that* is my true voice. Few of you have heard it, even in passing. Those very few of you who make it safe enough for me to speak it consistently, thank you from the heart.

The last four weeks, the universe has been teaching me to set boundaries. From a friend who has yet to explain and really apologise for brushing me off when I'd travelled 70 miles to a friend who felt that accusing me without really listening to or engaging with me constituted a fair discussion, my life has been about saying, "I will not be treated like that. I will not be abused or taken for granted."

So I haven't really had a chance to speak out with my real voice recently.

Which is why, when I first heard Rhydian sing that penultimate 'O night divine', I wept. Hitting that note with a rare clarity and sureness, he held it, loud, long, true.


As all our real voices should be.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Criminal minds...

is one of my new favourite television shows, not least for the erudite quotes at the beginning and end. Tonight's juxtaposition of quotes at the end - apparently contradictory, said by the same person - was one of the best yet:

"It is better to do violence, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence."

Still not sure who it is? This quote should help:

"I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary. The evil it does is permanent."

That sounds more like the version of him that we revere...the man is Mohandas Gandhi. What does that first quote really mean? He's saying that it is better to be violent, if that is your truth, than to claim a position of nonviolence as a lie because you are incapable of doing something about a situation.

True nonviolence is not a position of weakness: it is the position of ultimate strength. It is only when you are deeply rooted and secure in who you are that you can even contemplate true nonviolence as a position - and I'm not talking about just guns or knives. I mean the violence we do to eachother on a daily basis: judging eachother;
the subtle bullying, trying to pressure others to 'fall into line' with the rest of the group for their own good; the parent who criticises and controls endlessly because 'praise would make you lazy, and criticism will make you work harder'. On a show I was watching, I heard a woman claim "I'd call myself aggressive. I'm strong." Aggression isn't about strength; it's about fear. It is the ultimate in weakness- it's proactive violence - getting in there before someone else does.

Being in control is not always strength. And to quote a favourite book, "That which yields is not always weak."

But what about violence 'in the name of good'? The snipers and police officers who kill hostage takers, terrorists, people who place our lives at risk? Responding with force to an invasion? The death penalty for those who commit heinous crimes?

I'm not saying nonviolence is easy, especially in a world that communicates through violence so often. There are times when a show of strength is needed, no question. But responding with more force than is needed crosses the line into violence. And you can't help but wonder what happens to the hearts of those snipers and executioners over time.
Like faith, like following your principles and being true to yourself, it's a choice you make over and over, every single day.

The evil violence does is permanent. Just ask those one or two generations down from an alcoholic or the survivors of a violent event beyond our imagining.

Yes, but what about revenge? What about when someone hurts you or someone you love, and all you want is justice? All you want is for them to feel in pain the way you feel in pain? All you want is fairness?

"Before you embark upon a journey of revenge, dig two graves." --Confucius.

"Yes," you may say, "but it would mean the world to me. Then I'd be fine. It would be over, and life would be fair."

To which I would respond with a final quote - taken out of context, true - but it shows the true price of violence, even that done for the best of reasons:

"For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Big bird...

Tonight, I read at mass (God, I *adore* Isaiah) and at the Advent Carol Service at Church.

Smooth as silk.

But I haven't been to Benediction in years. So when Joseph read the Divine Praise:

"Blessed be the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete"

out of my mouth comes:

Blessed be the Holy Spirit, the ParaKEET."

Hopeless. I started giggling, picturing the Holy Spirit as a giant, brightly coloured bird. No dignity. Mind you, I suppose the liturgical colour for Pentecost is red. On the other hand, green and yellow might clash with the tabernacle veil. Best to stay with a neutral white dove, I think.

I told Ruth on MSN, just now, and her response has set me off again:

Irim says:
I read at the Oratory Advent Carol service
ruth says:
how did it feel?
Irim says:
I haven't done the divine praises for a long time
Irim says:
Instead of saying the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete
Irim says:
I said, "The Holy Spirit, the...
Irim says:
ruth says:
ruth says:
God, the Macaw!

Can't you just hear the conversation:

Jesus: Father, you can't do that. You need a neutral.
Father: I quite like bright colours. And the Holy Spirit is supposed to be creative and inspirational. What's wrong with a macaw?
Jesus: Ok. Let me hold Him up to a Pentecostal tabernacle veil.
Father: The red looks fine.
Jesus (raising an eyebrow): AND THE BLUEY PURPLE?
Father: Ah. Indeed.
Jesus: Look, Dad, you know I love you. But there are going to be liturgical colours from deep to reddish purple, green, gold, white, red... you need to go neutral. We're talking grey, brown, black...that sort of thing.
Father: So: pigeon, sparrow, crow. Mmmm. Lots of choice. And the crow's voice - oi, you trying to kill me here?
Jesus: Don't be a Jewish mother; it doesn't suit you.
Father: You backtalking me? I'm putting you in the world, I can take you out. Your mother doesn't have to say "yes", you know.
Jesus (*thinks*): Ooh, let me see: born in a manger, laughed at, spat on, nails driven through my hands and crucified. Oh no, Daddy, I don't want to miss THAT!
Father (managing a straight face): I've got an idea...
Jesus: I'm all ears.
Father: White is the new black.
Jesus: Eh?
Father: A dove. He'll go with everything, lovely voice, not too flashy, not too dull. Pure looking.
Jesus: *Snorts* But you just LOOK at white and it gets dirty. Hard to keep it immaculate.
Father: Son, that's your job.
Jesus: Oh. (looks crestfallen) You didn't mean that about Mum saying 'no', did you?
Father: See you at Christmas, Son. I've got a present for you.

Monday, 3 December 2007

She has floppy ears...

is one of the most amusing 'mis-hearings' of the lyrics that back up Peter Gabriel in one of his most surreal and fabulous songs, "Games without frontiers".

I was hypnotised by that song when I first heard it a quarter of a century ago, and it's still an all-time favourite. It's a testament to the fact that enduring popular music isn't the anodyne, ungrammatical, uninteresting, talent-show cr*p that's coming out now - I've been curious about Peter Gabriel's references for *25* years. That's not going to happen with Girls Aloud or Westlife now, is it?

Ok, time for my confession: I heard those lyrics as "She's so popular." Actually, they're "Jeux sans frontieres" - French for "Games without frontiers".

Directly from songfacts:

"Kate Bush sang backup - that's her singing "'Jeux Sans Frontieres'." (I thought it was Peter Gabriel doing falsetto)

"Gabriel got the idea for the title from a 1970s European game show of the same name where contestants dressed up in strange costumes to compete for prizes. A version of the show came out in England called "It's a knockout," giving him that lyric."

The 2nd verse of the song begins:
"Andre has a red flag/ Chiang Ching's is blue/They all have hills to fly them on, except for Lin Tai Yu.

"Andre could refer to Andre Malraux (1901-1976) the French statesman and author of the book Man's Fate, about the 1920s communist regime in Shanghai. Red flag may refer to Malraux's leftist politics. Chiang Ching could refer to Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) Chinese leader of the Kuomintang who opposed the Communists - hence, the rightwing Blue Flag. Chiang's forces lost the civil war in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, where they set up a government in exile.

"Lin Tai Yu may be Nguyen Thieu (1923-2001), South Vietnamese president during the height of the Vietnam war. After the Communist victory of 1975, Thieu fled to Taiwan, England, and later to the United States where he died in exile.

"The lyric could refer to the fact that while leftist politicians like Andre Malraux had a secure position in France, and rightist leaders like Chiang Kai Shek had a secure country in Taiwan, those caught in the middle like Nguyen Thieu were pawns in the Cold war and had no secure country. This could also be a reproach to either Thieu or his United States backers, saying that he was now a nobody."

Marvellous. How many songs have THAT much learning packed into 4 minutes? How many songs haunt you for a quarter century? And even if the above surmise is incorrect, how much do you learn from researching and debating what it means?

All in the guise of a catchy tune.

The song does something else that all good pop songs should: it taps into deeply held emotions. When I first heard it, it helped me articulate my feelings that adults were playing silly games with other people's lives, so they could fly their flags from as many hills as possible. The chorus - "If looks could kill, they probably will/in games without frontiers/war without tears" also tapped into that fear of those of us growing up during the Cold War in the Reagan era - the fear of imminent nuclear war, vividly brought to life in movies such as "The Day After" and "Threads". Little did we know how soon it would lift, and that the end of the decade would see the demise of the Berlin Wall.

Since that time, pop doesn't hold the same appeal - I can't think of a single song that has the impact of Paul Hardcastle's "19" or Peter Gabriel's "Games without frontiers". There's no attempt at intelligent writing or tapping into real emotions, no Dylanesque social commentary, no interest in the world at large, just a self-absorbed obsession with looks and puppy love. I'm a bit worried that this generation will be ruling the world in a couple of decades, and they don't seem to care enough to write songs about it or debate what's happening in it. The time to start is now.

Mind you, no one will ever be able to surpass "Games without frontiers":

It's a knockout.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Golden compass

Before I start, let me say that I far prefer the original title Northern Lights, and don't approve of the dumbing down of the title for Americans. They need to learn.

But this isn't about Philip Pullman's marvelous trilogy, Dark Materials.

It's about the people in your life who are golden compasses.

I've thought about this on and off for a long time, but last Saturday's ordination put me in a reflective mood, and I finally pulled it all together.

Saturday's ordinand to the diaconate is someone who has been a member of the community in my church since October 2003. I'd seen him around for about 18 months before that. I found him unsettling - in part because of his build and his economical movement, which reminded me of a fighter, but mostly because he 'felt' like a coiled spring - everything from voice to movement was measured, controlled, but it felt like a hurricane was being held in; there was an incredible tension, a dissonance between inner and outer that made me wary and uncomfortable.

His rigidity and marriage to rules - Jesu pie, there were days that I wanted to shake him and remind him that flexible trees are the ones that survive strong winds and come upright again. I began to think of him as Br Rule-Keeper. Let's just say that the mental intonation was not complimentary.

But discomfort makes me very watchful - and the more I watched, the more wariness turned to (grudging, at first, I'll freely admit) respect and affection. He was gentle with children, and unlike others I have known, had a healthy adult-child relationship with them: he wasn't trying to be one of them, he was the adult and they were the child, and the kids loved him for it - no chaotic, hyper childishness that's fun for a while, but not something you can lean against or trust. Just quiet solidity and the occasional teasing. His actions matched his words...I didn't like him, but when he promised me he would do something, it was done. No drama, no whingeing, no lies...just action.

In my world, that's worth a hell of a lot.

Oh, we still spar and roll our eyes at eachother. We'll never agree about the Catholic Church, rules, orthodoxy, any of it. I still want to shake the pedant (sorry, m'dear, but you can be) out of him and get him to loosen up a bit and put some emotion into it, especially when catechising the masses. But I'd bet you my last tuppence we agree on the *principles*, even if our expressions of those principles are 180 degrees apart.

But his stability, his demand for things to be thought out, makes him something more precious than that friend who always agrees with you: it makes him a compass. But what does that mean?

I was reading one of Rachel Naomi Remen's stories of a young man who came to counselling after his father died - he was an artist; his father was an insurance agent, accountant or something along those lines. He spoke of their fights, how he struggled against the direction that he felt his father wanted him to take, the security his father insisted he have.

Then he won an exhibit. Afterwards, one of the judges came up to him and said, "How could we not give it to you? Your presentation answered every single one of our objections. Clearly, you had thought everything through."

And the son got it.

His father was a compass. The son didn't have to take his father's direction, but because his father always pointed north, the son could mark his chosen direction from his father. And his father had forced him to be able to defend the direction he chose to take, to ground his dreams in reality.

So it is with Br Rule-keeper. I'm sure, since he sees Catholicism as the One Truth, he would prefer that I keep to a direction far closer to his. But he always points north, so whatever direction I choose to take, if I mark it from him, I will always travel true.

And I've finally realised that, as an iconoclast, I don't really want the whole system to come down at once - I want it to *change*. The edifice may have to be taken down and rebuilt, but it must happen systematically, and not in the form of a collapse. That needs rule-keepers.

He's not alone in my life: I'm blessed with friends who are compasses of all shapes and sizes. From my ex-supervisor-the-kindred-spirit to cynical Rachel to midnight sidhe and Moses, from the somewhat-distractable-but-intuitive-friend to the "How long have you had a thing for unavailable men?" mate and the "A
nd he missed out on getting his boner seen to by u! what a step in the wrong direction! :)" cheekily affectionate male friend, none of them are what you expect a compass to look like.

But they always point true North - and allow me to mark my heart's direction.

Thank you. I love you all more than you will ever know.

Beware of those that look like compasses. My father looked and sounded like a compass, like the paragon of stability, but he was one of the most controlling, emotionally unavailable men I have ever met. A current male friend's bearing and orthodox pronouncements give him the appearance of authority and compasshood, but scratch the surface and you find someone whose emotional unavailability and need for control rivals my father's, except it is more like being in the middle of a tornado than a Siberian winter, not least because he drowns it in alcohol.

Trust me: don't go there. Taking your direction from someone who is running from their own pain, from themselves, will only ensure that two people are lost, not one.

Don't forget to try to be a compass to others - always point true to your heart's direction, to what you really believe, and you will be someone else's true North.

I said I wasn't talking about Philip Pullman. I lied.

After all, what is Pullman's golden compass? An alethiometer, derived from the Greek meaning "truth measuring instrument". Ask the golden compass a question and it will give you a true answer - but you have to be able to interpret the symbols to know what that answer is. It won't always be what you want to hear. But it will always be what you need to hear, and you can mark your direction by it.

So pay attention to your compass, and treasure it. S/he is, after all, one of life's most precious gifts.