Tuesday, 31 March 2009


...speak 1000 words. I've been known to unsettle people by just how accurately I can gauge someone in a photo, and for confirmation, a series of photos.

Let's just say that the first picture of this person made me recoil from the screen. I looked for more images. The eyes are the same in every one - the smile never reaches them, and I wouldn't trust this man as far as I could pick up and throw Brian Blessed.

Something that should be there isn't. He gives me a serious case of the creeps.

Facebook Haggadah

In honour of Pesach next week and all my Jewish friends. I can't stop crying with laughter.

Go here immediately. Do not pass go. Do not collect £200. Just go.

I have to admit, I want to see the rest of the '25 things you didn't know about me list' by God.

H/T a Facebook friend.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Dream journal, 29/03/09

This morning's dream (I woke up at 5.15, then fell back asleep) is one that reminds me to pick up re-read Clarissa Pinkola-Estes' "Women who run with the wolves". Even *I* recognised the golden/divine child archetype the moment I woke up.

It was dark, and I was on the top deck of a bus going up the Woodstock Road. My friend (I can't remember who it is now, I knew when I woke up) and her mum were in the seat behind me. I was very, very sleepy - as in 'could barely lift my head off the seat' sleepy, and in that sleepy reality was sure that my friend's mum was driving. As we passed the Oratory, I turned around, noticed it was all lit up and saw a sign in the forecourt. I knew I had to go, and I drowsily asked my friend's mum to drop me off. When the bus didn't stop at the next bus stop, I turned around to ask her why she hadn't dropped me off, then snapped wide awake as I realised. I got off at the next stop and ran back to the O.

I walked into a HUGE reception area that looked more like the front of a school or university. People were sitting, milling around, chatting. There was a makeshift stage in the NE corner, and it was clear they were setting up for mass; but I didn't recognise most of the people there. Above the stage hung a banner proclaiming "Sacred Harvest Festival". I was puzzled, since we've just entered spring (From various cues, it was clear that it was taking place early this week.)

I peered through a set of doors opposite the entrance and saw the Oratory Church I'm familiar with. I sat down with my back towards those doors, facing the stage, joining a friend and beautiful, blonde-haired girl of about 8 in a white cotton dress, with the most gorgeous curls - who seemed oddly familiar and was clearly expecting me. I chatted away with my friend whilst the young girl listened.

Suddenly, Fr Richard came out of the doors leading to the church, looking very tense and closed. He put his hand on the girl's shoulder and announced,

"Due to the absolute insistence of the group saying mass with us, we will be having a girl altar server at mass today. I am terribly sorry."

Then he turned on his heel and walked away, as I tried to absorb what I'd just heard. I looked down at the little one, grinned and hugged her tightly, then turned to my friend and did the same - we both must have had the same look of joyous disbelief on our faces. But then the questions came galloping through my head, "Who is this group, and how powerful are they that they can push the English Oratorians into a corner like that?" "Sacred Harvest Festival? Here? In SPRING?" and so on.

Suddenly, I felt a tug on my sleeve. The girl tilted her head at me - she never spoke out loud, but I always knew what she wanted - and 'asked' where the sacristy was. Realising that everyone seemed to have 'forgotten' to tell her, I said, "No one TOLD you? How passive-aggressive," and walked into church with her, pointing out the sacristy. I was going to go up with her and rake someone over the coals, but she stopped me in the centre of church - halfway up the centre aisle - and shook her head. She then disappeared into the sacristy.

I went back to chat with my friend, and when the bell went for the processional, I again found myself in the centre of church to see the girl in cassock and cotta leading the processional - as thurifer. There was a flower pinned to her cotta, possibly a daff, but it was more lily shaped. I was FURIOUS, certain that someone had pinned it there to mock her, and started to move forward in my anger, but her eyes met mine and she shook her head. The message was clearly, "Leave it, *I'll* take care of it."

Hardly the actions of a real 8-year-old.

I didn't dream about the mass, but I DID dream that I texted "OMG, we had a GIRL altar server this week! SO COOL!" to the two members of community on retreat this week (the ones who, as luck would have it,
would be able to stop me from smacking someone) and that I was reporting back on the mass to Asta (also away this week), "She was AMAZING. Absolutely perfect, she was practically MC - she corrected Fr Richard when he made a mistake. Brilliant."

Then I woke up, wondering who she was. I remembered that I dreamt of her almost 2.5 years ago, on a cliffside by the ocean, and she stepped onto a path of red dust along the edge of the cliff that led off into the distance, towards a darkening sky. As the wind freshened, she turned back to me, her curls blowing in her face and kept looking, beckoning me to follow - interestingly, she has never once spoken to me out loud, but she has always communicated clearly.

In that dream, I didn't know whether or not I had.

Having just met her again, I hope I did.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

For Eve, the first mother, on Mothering Sunday

I think Dom still has the book with this story in it, the story where Rachel Remen's grandfather tells her that Eve's biting into the apple moved her - and us - from spiritual childhood, from the spiritual nursery of Eden to the spiritual adulthood of the world. That because we are what we eat, when she bit into the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the knowledge in that apple, God's knowledge, which encompasses everything from the tiniest seed to the distant nebulae, as well as the less tangible knowledge of philosophy, theology and love, became part of her cellular makeup.

When she left Eden, she carried God inside her. Sounds to me like she didn't need anyone else to do that for her - then or later.

That's my Eve. I have never believed that she committed a sin that needed to be reversed by her daughter Mary (always portrayed as meek and mild to her first mother's curious and stubborn - interesting, eh, what is considered a 'good woman'?). If Mary did anything, she continued Eve's mission, not reversed it.

And so, in honour of our first mother, I give you this poem by Marge Piercy - and hope I don't get my a** kicked by the copyright faery. Enjoy.

And...happy Mothering Sunday, mum. Hope I'm sassy, stubborn and curious enough to do you proud. xx

Apple sauce for Eve by Marge Piercy

Those old daddies cursed you and us in you,
damned for your curiosity: for your sin
was wanting knowledge. To try, to taste,
to take into the body, into the brain
and turn each thing, each sign, each factoid
round and round as new facets glint and white
fractures into colors and the image breaks
into crystal fragments that pierce the nerves
while the brain casts the chips into patterns.

Each experiment sticks a finger deep in the pie,
dares existence, blows a horn in the ear
of belief, lets the nasty and difficult brats
of real questions into the still air
of the desiccated parlor of stasis.
What we all know to be true, constant,
melts like frost landscapes on a window
in a jet of steam. How many last words
in how many dead languages would translate into,
But what happens if I, and Whoops!

We see Adam wagging his tail, good dog, good
dog, while you and the snake shimmy up the tree,
lab partners in a dance of will and hunger,
that thirst not of the flesh but of the brain.
Men always think women are wanting sex,
cock, snake, when it is the world she's after.
Then birth trauma for the first conceived kid
of the ego, I think therefore I am, I
kick the tree, who am I, why am I,
going, going to die, die, die.

You are indeed the mother of invention,
the first scientist. Your name means
life: finite, dynamic, swimming against
the current of time, tasting, testing,
eating knowledge like any other nutrient.
We are all the children of your bright hunger.
We are all products of that first experiment,
for if death was the worm in that apple,
the seeds were freedom and the flowering of choice.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Dispatches - Pakistan's Taliban generation

I'll never forget the time my father came back from Pakistan, having spent some time in Sawat in the Northwest Frontier Province. It was the only time I saw him genuinely excited by anything, face lit up with genuine pleasure. He swore that next time, we would go.

For some reason, we couldn't manage Sawat, so we ended up going to Kaghan instead. I had no problems with the switch. As I stood there, looking out at the Himalayas, breathing the air, I felt something I have rarely felt before or since - home. For a moment, this endlessly wandering pilgrim was at rest. It was worth the sun poisoning Rabia and I suffered that night.

And the people, blessed Lady. Beautiful, vibrant, friendly. I loved the kids who clustered round us asking us who we were, talking to us, laughing. The girls wore heavy shawls over their clothes to keep off the cold; the boys ran about without coats.

The first morning, I uncurled myself from under the razai (the most GORGEOUS, THICK, WARM, USUALLY SATINY-VELVETY duvets you will EVER find), washed up, and walked outside into the most glorious sunshine, to find my uncle getting shaved with a straight razor - the first time I'd ever seen it, and I was mesmerised.

The trip was magical - the natural beauty, the people, a heartstopping horse ride to Sahful Malook (pic below) - and the last night was full of magical, hysterical laughter as my mother's youngest brother kept us all gasping for breath - he's always been the family card.

Those are my NWFP memories.

Saiful Malook, gorgeous glacial lake in the Kaghan Valley.

So, to see it last night, savaged, scared, broken, oppressed by Taliban rule I didn't know existed in Pakistan, made my heart break. The emptiness, the pain, the breaking of the people's spirit vied with the stupidity spewing out of boys' mouths - "Al Qaeda did this, so I'm going to join the Taliban" - to make me alternately cry and scream.

The injuries, the deaths, the Taliban member who made me post a violent status yesterday after he called children 'tools to achieve the will of God', the brainwashed boy who said that 'God wants women to stay home, so what the hell are they doing out and about?' left me in horrified shock and rage.

One lad offered a moment of gallows humour when asked, "Do you want to be a suicide bomber?"
He replied, "I'd love to be, if I can get permission from my father."

The girls made me cry. The one who wanted to stay where she was and become a doctor, but will have to go back to her Taliban controlled village. The two girls who could have been my daughters who stood in a ruined school, whilst one said, "Education is a ray of light, I want some of that light."

The other...the other said she'd have to start wearing the burqa her father bought her. When asked whether she liked it, she said, "No. I trip on it all the time." Listen to hearts break everywhere.

Her brave father was the one man who made any sense on the programme; the rest sounded like Borg clones.

But what made my blood run cold was the young boy's voice singing a song at the beginning and end for which I had no need of the subtitles:

"If you try to find me after I have died/you won't find my body whole/you will only find little pieces/and if God approves/He will put the body back together again"

Pakistan, my Pakistan, what will become of you?

I'm not sure I dare hope.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Race for Life

Yes, I'm doing the Race for Life again! Clare has promised me that if I match her total of £200 last year, she'll take the picture of me looking like I need half of my own postcode off her sponsor page ;-). Ok, not really, but I'd love to reach £200 for the first time.
Seriously, though, I know I do this every year, but having lost people I care about, especially my favourite aunt (way too early), I have to. And the race itself is inspirational - there are so many stories of hope, courage and learning to live again after devastating losses. So, please, if you can, sponsor me. Just follow the link and donate online, it couldn't be easier. Many thanks.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The black and white riders...

"But his [Will's] attention was on the two tall riding figures starkly outlined ahead against the soft green of the park. In a few moments, the White Rider, as he felt he must call him, dropped aside and quietly trotted away. The coach went on, following the black upright form of the other.

"Bran said, 'Why should some of the Riders of the Dark be dressed all in white and the rest all in black?'

"'Without colour...' Will said reflectively. 'I don't know. Maybe because the Dark can only reach people at extremes - blinded by their own shining ideas, or locked up in the darkness of their own heads.'

--Susan Cooper, Silver on the Tree (p. 652 of the Dark is Rising Sequence, London: Bodley Head, 2007)

That is one of my favourite quotes of all time, and I've been meaning to blog it for a while, but today's discussion in the Social Club really pushed me to do it.

Nick came in and dropped down in the seat across from me. After mutual complaining about the rain, he nipped up to the bar to get a G&T and sat back down.

Then, the real conversation began.

One of the things I treasure about our friendship is that Nick and I really *listen* to each other. It may seem that we should spend the entire time using the phrases *traddy twit* and *liberal bitch*, but actually, our core principles/values are very similar, though how we express them politically can be vastly different. Passionate and headstrong in our convictions we may be, and hands will fly and voices rise (we both have cultural backgrounds that lead us to gesture a lot), but there will also be a pause as heads are tilted and ears opened. It's never just black and white.

Today's subject, twixt the odd funny story and teasing retort, was abortion, which moved into Bush's and Obama's conscience legislation. Not a subject I could usually discuss at the Oratory. But I knew I was safe with both Nick and Adrian (the raconteur), and so I was honest. And that meant a lot of emotion.

It doesn't get much more polar and emotional than abortion; and good friendships can be at risk over it. It hits on huge issues that can make it hard to listen to someone on the other side: "When does life begin?" "What are the rights of someone over their own body?" "Does a man have a say in whether or not he becomes a father?" "If a woman is raped or a girl is sexually abused, can you force her to carry the child of the aggressor for nine months?" and so many more.

The Black and White Riders run rampant across this road, with each side believing that it holds the shining ideals of life or of freedom, neither one willing to look to the other and acknowledge the complexity of their reasoning, the struggle that may have led them to their stance, the validity of some of their points. When Barack Obama said, "Every abortion is a tragedy," almost every pro-choicer I know jumped down his throat, despite his 100% NARAL rating. They felt 'betrayed', or 'Well *I* don't think it's a tragedy.' Fine. That's your position, but it is fascism to demand that it must be mine.

Allow Barack and the rest of us our more nuanced positions. Just because we find this side of the fence difficult sometimes, just because the necessity for abortion makes us sad, doesn't mean we are betraying the cause. We are one of the many shades of colour that make up the pro-choice side.

If I allow the pro-choice side many shades of colour, then I must assume that the pro-life side, made up of the same variety of human beings, has the same. That as angry as members of that side can make me, they are worth listening to.

The problem with both sides is that we make assumptions about the other; as a pro-choicer, I'm certainly guilty of that. When I hear someone is pro-life, I think "SPUC wacko" or "clinic bomber". I don't think "Nick, my friend, who always thinks things through and has good reasons for what he believes."

He probably stereotypes pro-choicers as liberal wackos who see abortion as just another medical procedure. He doesn't think, "Irim, my friend, who thinks things through and has good reasons for what she believes."

Today, I heard the words "love and support them" from him, and he heard me say, "I KNOW. I find it hard, but..." There were times when I could hear the unspoken "I hear you; I understand, but I can't agree," and times when I'm sure Nick and Adrian could hear the same. I've always wanted to be a mother, I've always been deeply aware of the immense potential of each life the moment sperm meets egg, but I simply *cannot* demand that a woman who has been raped or sexually abused carry a child to term. I cannot demand that a woman who finds out that her pregnancy endangers her life carry that child to term and risk leaving him/her and possibly other children motherless. I know that women will die if abortion is made illegal.

That means that no matter how hard it can become whenever I hear of a woman using abortion as birth control for the umpteenth time, I will stand for every woman's right to have an abortion. Because I *know* that it cannot be an easy decision. My position will always be far closer to the more nuanced Jewish position than to the absolute Catholic one.

People are not absolutes, and the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. When we believe the latter, the Riders drag us between them, leaving no room for humanity.

But as absolute as the topic of abortion may be; as heartfelt our disagreement, the Black and White Riders had no place in this discussion.

We found ourselves in the middle, passionate, on opposite sides of the fence - but leaning across it to listen. And that's as it should be.

Our conversation ended with Nick saying that the extremists on the left wing terrified him more than anything on the right wing. I said the opposite - that the right wing extreme frightened me more than the left. And I think we both have enough sense to be afraid of the extremists in our own wings.

We both fear the Black and White Riders, knowing that those blinded by shining ideas are locked in the darkness of their own heads. We know that in that direction lies the loss of the balance, compassion and love of neighbour we both hold as core values.

Maybe that's why our discussions are always in Technicolour.

May it ever be so.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Random thoughts on the nature of things

Over the last few weeks, or months, even, I've been thinking of a particular metaphor that arises from having a father who is an engineer (as does the embarrassing fact that when people first spoke of models on a catwalk, I thought, "Why the hell are they having a fashion show underneath a bridge?").

I've been thinking about the idea that foundations need to be rigid, but structures on those foundations need to be flexible.

So, let's take my chosen religion - Catholicism.

God's existence: foundation. Trinity: foundation. "For God so loved the world...": foundation. "Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. ": foundation.

THAT is the foundation. The rest is structure.

And that's my problem. Too much of what is *structure* and needs to be flexible is treated as foundation - hierarchy, form, rules that are generated by underlying principles, not ends in and of themselves.

Too much flexibility, and a structure is worthless, true. But there needs to be some give, and right now, I think the Church has become petrified. The Holy Spirit needs space and nooks and crannies and the ability to FLOW to do its work. I worry that Catholicism no longer has that.

The problem is that we confuse rigidity with strength and flexibility with weakness; yet it is so often the opposite. Leaving aside religion, many problems in secular society come from rigidity: a rigid idea of beauty; a rigid idea of what constitutes 'success'; rigid labels, which ignore the fact that we all have complex stories; rigidity in problem-solving; a rigid idea of what our life is supposed to look like. Rigidity far too often leads to brittleness. It's no wonder the world is such an unhappy place.

All that should be rigid in our lives is that we acknowledge ourselves and others to be human, with all that entails: the right to be who we are, not an extension of others; the right to mess up; the right to meander; the right to our own definition of success; and above all, the right to a life with equal opportunities to achieve that idea of success, whether you live in America, DRC or Kazakhstan. "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." That is our foundation.

The rest? Flexible.

We would do well to remember Jacqueline Carey's motto for one of the Houses in her Kushiel series: "That which yields is not always weak."

After all, what are the strongest natural forces in our world?

Not rock.

Water and fire. Both of which have core characteristics, a foundation, that make them what they are, but both of which are the ultimate in flexibility of form and movement - even so, their power to save or devastate remains unequalled.

Yet in that immense power, they dance.

Perhaps to recover ours, so should we.