3 Day Quote Challenge – 2

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Not all who wander are lost

For the second day of the challenge for which Mrs T nominated me, this J. R. R. Tolkien quote comes to mind. A line in a poem in the first volume of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings,  it refers to the Rangers who although often considered vagabonds are actually protectors and bulwarks against evil in Middle Earth.

For me it speaks of hope, a reminder that despite times and seasons in which life conspires to rock my faith and unresolved questions bubble to the surface, I am not lost. Just wondering, pondering and finding my way home in the end.

The Year in Reading

After many years of having thoroughly enjoyed the annual parade of opinions of books over at The Millions, I decided to have a go myself this year. Far from being a celebration of a year in which I read deeply and widely, it is a light reflection on all the things I managed to read this year. Enjoy!

Of the myriad of things I most deeply wanted to achieve this year, two loomed large in the personal development domain; to read more and write more, which was why I entered the year clutching my copy of Patty Dann‘s The Butterfly Hours close to my chest. In my head, writing more  – and by extension, better – required tools for tuning my craft, which was why this book, with its promise of personal memoir married to prompts, seemed the perfect fit. It helped that all nineteen reviews on Amazon were 5*. I did enjoy the book, albeit more an an example of easy reading memoir than a collection of prompts. I suspect that had a lot more to do with me than the book.  If it is any consolation, I returned to it several times over the course of the year, it along with Dinty Moore‘s Crafting The Personal Essay being fine examples of the sort of creative non-fiction I would like to churn out.

Next up was Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, which I finally finished at this third time of asking. On my two previous attempts, I had found myself bogged down in the tedious beginning, but ploughing through this time brought me to the delights of the end. What I never quite managed to suss out was just how autobiographical the novel was, given that like the Sais Taiye has dual Nigerian and Ghanian roots and is also a twin. So thoroughly did I enjoy this that I went hunting for her seminal essay from 2005, Bye Bye Babar. Well worth the read, if I say so myself.

The grudging, reluctant engagement with books which dogged my interactions with both books was something I found recurred over the course of the year. The list of unfinished books is extensive with Andrea Lucado’s English Lessons and Adam Gopnik’s At The Strangers’ Gate  being the more notable.  The books I did finish fell mainly into four main categories; ones I read as guides for my #100DaysOfCreating project (Felix Feneon’s Novels in Three Lines and Robert Smartwood’s Hint Fiction), annual anthologies which have become regular fixtures on my reading list (such as the Jonathan Franzen edited 2016 edition of The Best American Essays), personal essay collections (such as David SedarisLet’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things) and books inspired by media I consumed during the course of the year (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes a useful counterpoint to binge watching all five seasons of Elementary, and Walk On – Steve Stockman’s attempt at providing insights into the faith that underpins U2’s oeuvre).

I had a late spurt of three books to thank for reaching fifteen books this year. All three were really good reads:  Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson’s We Have No Idea (a reminder that for all we know about quarks, leptons, and the material universe, the vast majority of what is around us is unknown), Dame Elizabeth Anionwu’s Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union (a deeply personal story of growing up mixed race in the United Kingdom of the 50’s and 60’s and eventually connecting with her Nigerian heritage) and Diego Torres‘s The Special One: The Secret World of Jose Mourinho (a no-holds barred look at the behind the scenes behaviour of Mourinho, particularly his Real Madrid sojourn and how super agent Jorge Mendes towered over his transfer dealings).

All told reading more widely  – and more consistently – has to be one of the objectives for the new year. Braced for the challenge.

Nine Fridays of Summer

aberdeen summer

For the first time in a very long time,  I have four day work weeks to look forward to. The theory behind getting these nine Fridays off is that they have been earned by working an extra thirty minutes each work day. How productive those extra minutes have been remains to be seen, but I suspect their value to our employer lies more in promoting a sense of being cared for in us than anything more tangible. The first of these was spent down south, catching up with friends and reacquainting myself with Stratford and the Olympic park.

Being a creature of routine has its perks – one wakes up, does the needful and shows up at work to deal with whatever is thrown one’s way that day – but without the requirement to go into work, I suddenly have the hassle of trying to find stuff to do. The big rocks are in place already – a trip to London to catch Erwin McManus and Carl Lentz amongst others at the Hillsong Conference Europe is all planned up and good to go, as is an extended weekend in Vienna in August. It is what to do with the rest of these summer Fridays that is the problem. Of course summers in Scotland have a reputation for being wet and windy with dry, sunny spells the exception.

Doing a lot of traveling comes to mind as something to do, particularly given getting to know the West Coast of Scotland is something I’ve wanted to do for a while.  Besides the time spent in train stations and airport waiting areas this requires, it is also likely to require a significant outlay in cash. A lot needs to be worked out from a logistical perspective to make this happen but I suspect the dividends – pretty interesting pictures and pretend travelouges – might make this a compelling option.

Another option is to spend the time catching up on all that reading I’ve failed dismally at this year. In addition to the books I have on the go, Teju Cole has an eagerly anticipated collection of essays out in August which I am sure I would be keen to read. Laziness though is the greatest obstacle to this objective, one will have to see how this pans out.

I have toyed with the idea of spending my Fridays cranking out a podcast about nothing especially important. The working title for this – which is likely to only be a spoken version of the things I whine about on here – is A Bloke’s Life. Although I do have a penchant for waffling on things of interest only to me, I also happen to know a number of interesting gentlemen who – logistics permitting – I might be able to convince to come on such a show. Don’t hold your breaths on this one though. What is more likely is a return to the online radio station I’ve previously appeared on.

Movies appear to be the easiest, safest option, particularly as I still have a stash of discounted Cineworld tickets to hand, and the beach cinema is less than 10 minutes away from my house by foot. The significantly reduced movie time since May does  lend its support to this argument, not least because a rash of movies are due out in the next few weeks.

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Star Trek Beyond – which I managed to see after a couple of hours at work – was the first of these, after habit had drawn me into work for a couple of hours first. Simon Pegg’s performances in these Star Trek movies have always intrigued me – given his attempts at affecting a ‘Scottish’ accent, and his English heritage. To his credit, he manages to throw enough Scottish colloquialisms in to make his parody recognisable. My ears have however not evolved enough to be able to say definitively that he has it nailed down. I suppose the nod to Scotland on the big screen – spot on or not – has to be celebrated and accepted?

#61 – The February Wrap – Of Life, and Steady Habits

#61-whatwerepeatedlydo-@allielefevere

What has quickly become apparent – as this year of living earnestly evolves – is that far from being the wild, giddy, excited life I half expected when my thoughts began to initially crystallise, it is one that is lived in increments; steady habits being the under-girding behaviours which hold everything together. That sense – of slow, steady if ponderous, progress – is one that has been consistently underlined and reinforced all year; by the book I am currently reading (Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life),  the ongoing series at Passion City on Habits and various conversations, the last of which occurred over the weekend with the older guy friend/ mentor O.  The general gist of the book and the series is that change is only possible if there is an overarching vision of the future that frames the daily actions that we take, providing an incentive that keeps us plugging away at them.

Discipline without direction equals drudgery, Whitney says; Giglio’s line is that who we become is all about the habits that we create and the habits that we curate.

I made steady progress in January but fell off the wagon massively in February, distracted by pressures at work and all. March though is an opportunity to get back on track, repeat the February habit as well as the March one and take it from there. Roll on the steady habits, shall we say?

Currently Listening to: When the Rain Comes – Third Day (from the 2003 Grammy Award winning album Come Together)

The Writer Is….

…Neither saint nor Tzadik nor prophet standing at the gate; he’s just another sinner who has somewhat sharper awareness and uses slightly more precise language to describe inconceivable reality of our world. He doesn’t invent a single feeling or thought – all of them existed long before him… He’s here, at our side, buried up to his neck in mud and filth.

The Seven Good Years: A Memoir, Etgar Keret

 

On Language, and Aspiration

hungerofmemory

In the opening chapter of his autobiography, Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez explores his introduction to the English language, and the strain his commitment to mastering it places on his relationship with his parents. Being Mexican immigrants to America in the 1970’s, their primary language of intimacy and engagement is Spanish, their efforts in English being halting and deeply accented, even though his mother is an excellent speller of words. The emotion most stirred in those early days – when he as the up and coming scholarship boy gets to be out and about with them – is one of embarrassment and perhaps frustration at their limitations. For him, as with most people looking to escape the limitations of a certain kind of background, aspiration is a keen motivator, one that drives him to seek to immerse himself in knowledge and books, and take up the manners, airs and graces of the class and culture he looks up to.

Language, particularly where there is one which dominates the economic, political and cultural landscape in a given society, is often the most visible marker of class, and the ‘easiest’ target for those who would aspire to those heights. There is a sense in which English – for now at least until China takes over the world – remains such a language for many people around the world. This was brought home to me quite forcibly by the gaggle of people I met at my water survival course a week ago. In spite of our varying nations of origin, Nigeria (in my case), Spain, France and the token Englishman, fluency in English – at least to such an extent where one could understand and be understood – was clearly a highly prized asset.

Beyond fluency, accents also serve as differentiators, often because we as people thin-slice others, drawing inferences from our first impressions a significant proportion of which is influenced by how they sound. As an example, more often than not if presented with a Glaswegian accent, my first instinct would be to ensure my wallet is well tucked away out of sight. Received pronunciation portrays an element of class and polish,  English spoken with a South Texas drawl immediately makes me think of a gun-slinging, cowboy boot wearing, oil patch veteran. On the other hand, if Barry Glendenning were female, his accent would have me hot under the collar. Clearly different strokes for different folks. In fact, one of the more interesting telephone interviews I have had was for a job in Newcastle a few years ago, ending with the interviewer asking me what part of the world I was from because he couldn’t place my (edited, and some would say contrived) accent.

I suspect that our Nigerian OAPs are on to something here, given how contrived their accents allegedly are. Given their need to differentiate themselves from what is a crowded market place, perhaps selling an aspirational accent to us is merely one more trick in their toolboxes…

With Grace

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I have been (re) reading Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace, the central idea of which is that the church has gone the way of the world in dealing with people who are different; with judgement and disdain rather than grace. For a book from 1997, it does not by any means feel dated, somehow remaining current not least for the issues it tackles; issued which defined the late Nineties but still continue to define our current epoch than anything else – homosexuality and the moral failings of people in leadership, temporal and spiritual.

Only a few short weeks – barely a month – separates us from the landmark decision made by the US Supreme Court in ruling that same sex couples can marry nationwide. The 5-4 decision was perhaps indicative of how closely fought the battle was – each of the dissenting judges wrote an opinion. Christian America has not taken the ‘affront’ lying down with a range of responses from declaring the decision the final sin that will bring an apocalytic judgement on America to a few more nuanced – and blatantly fence-sitting responses from the likes of Brian Houston and TD Jakes amongst others.

There are no simple solutions or answers to the conundrum the church faces. On the one hand, gay activists have become a lot more militant, keen to take on the supposedly disciminatory message of the traditional evangelical position of an active homosexual lifestyle as being sinful. The church has often had to respond from a defensive position, one in which it has been forced to attempt to distance itself from the discriminatory labels activitist throw about. Others more biblically knowledgeable and aware than I am have widely differing positions on the subject, but in my lay man’s head I cannot think of any context in which Romans 1: 21-26 is not a damning indictment of the homosexual lifestyle, as a punishment for turning away from God. The science, on the other hand, suggests – not quite conclusively perhaps – that nature, and genetics, play a part in sexual orientation. If that is true, then roundly vilifying LGBTQ folk is akin to racism, an equivalence quite a number of activists for gay rights have often made.

One of the more emotive chapters in Yancey’s book is the one in which he talks about his friend Mel White, and the fall out of his coming out. In the space of a short time, he went from being a celebrated evangelical icon to being a pariah. That his coming out meant the end of a long term marriage in which children were involved can’t have helped, but the vast majority of people he had been associated with – he ghost wrote for a number of high profile evangelicals – ended up shunning him, and distancing themselves from him.

The model of Grace Yancey espouses is one in which although we accept a difference in opinion and theology, rather than roundly treating others with disdain and responding with defensiveness, or even going on the attack, we treat them graciously, as people carrying the Imago Dei first and foremost and thus deserving of love and respect rather than as adversaries primarily.There are no guarantees the battle will be won by Grace – at least it will guarantee that we get the chance to speak and be listened to.

We, like the best and the worst of the earth, are sinners saved by Grace. Unless we never forget that, we will be sucked into the trap of Gracelessness.

**Update**
Since I originally wrote this, I have since read Walter Kirn’s excellent essay on Mormonism (Confessions of an ex-Mormon in which from his perspective as an ex-Mormon he somehow hits the nail on the head on what church is perhaps is (or should be) really about:

God doesn’t work in mysterious ways at all, but by enlisting assistants on the ground. Sometimes the stories don’t work, or they stop working. Forget about them; find others. Revise. Refocus. A church is the people in it, and their errors. The errors they make while striving to get things right.

Well said, Walter!!!

Bits, Bobs and Writing Elsewhere…

Firmly mired in the middle of my February read, Ted Thompson’s debut novel The Land of Steady Habits, no thanks to a gruelling schedule at work with criminal deadlines, although I did manage to complete a profile of Selma star David Oyelowo for the church newsletter I occasionally write in. What intrigued me about that in the first place was how open he has been about his faith through out his career from theatre to Hollywood. Fascinating read, if I say so myself. Other than that most of my February reading was web based longform, a few of the more interesting ones being highlighted below:

1. Biblical Reasons to Doubt the Creation Days were 24-hour periods – Justin Taylor (The Gospel Coalition): Interesting read, particularly coming from someone firmly ensconced in the camp of biblical inerrancy, key quote:

Contrary to what is often implied or claimed by young-earth creationists, the Bible nowhere directly teaches the age of the earth. Rather, it is a deduction from a combination of beliefs, such as (1) Genesis 1:1 is not the actual act of creation but rather a summary of or title over Genesis 1:2-2:3; (2) the creation week of Genesis 1:2-2:3 is referring to the act of creation itself; (3) each “day” (Heb. yom) of the creation week is referring to an 24-hour period of time (reinforced by the statement in Exodus 20:11); (4) an old-earth geology would necessarily entail macroevolution, hominids, and animal death before the Fall—each of which contradicts what Scripture tells us; and (5) the approximate age of the earth can be reconstructed backward from the genealogical time-markers in Genesis.

2. Ten Years of Google Maps, from Slashdot to Ground Truth – Liz Gannes (<Re/code>): Google Maps, ubiquitous as it now is, is only Ten Years old. Liz Gannes charts its origin story from birth to the pervasive product it now is. And the quest for innovation is not sated yet, by any means.

The early history of Google Maps ends there. Most of the seminal Google Maps team members have moved on, but to a person they recall working on Maps as the most fulfilling and successful project of their careers. They still take it personally when they hear of bugs in the product or complaints about misguided redesigns.

Today, Geo is one of Google’s main product divisions. Ground Truth remains an ongoing project, and Google developed tools to keep its maps updated through direct user contributions. The division continues to be acquisitive, buying Zagat and Waze and Skybox in recent years. Street View has mapped the Grand Canyon and the canals of Venice. And Google’s maps have laid the groundwork for its most ambitious project yet — self-driving cars.

3. Why I’m Still A Catholic – Nicole Callahan (Salon): Reflecting on remaining Catholic in spite of disagreements with doctrine and how defining herself as Catholic somehow feels like a crucial part of her heritage.

Despite my disagreements, my weaknesses, my failures as a member of the Catholic Church, I can’t do anything but remain in it, though I’ve long since abandoned any pretense of being a great Catholic. Like all American Catholics, I flout and complain about and struggle to comprehend Church teaching; I emphasize the things I find easy to agree with, and minimize those that bother me. But while I am a bad Catholic, and I know it, I am also a practicing one. I have figured out that I’m just the kind who stays.

Though I can understand all the reasons why other people lapse and leave, I can’t seem to manage unbelief. Nor can I turn my back on the church that still gives me a home, a place to belong, when I so often feel that I don’t truly belong anywhere else. This might make my faith sound like a “crutch.” It very well might be. At times I feel that I cannot function, cannot stay on my feet, without it.

4. What does your selfie say about you – The Next Web:

Selfies also allow us to exert a greater level of control over how others perceive us online, and this is a major appeal. Thanks to front facing camera phones, we can take countless photos of ourselves until we have an image that depicts us exactly the way we want – an image that we’re happy to share with the online world. Interestingly, recent research suggests that this “selective self presentation” may actually enhance our self-esteem and boost our confidence.

5. An Ode to the Aux Cord – Eric Hulting (Medium):

Few things exemplify that [instant gratification] more than the AUX cord. Literally any song that exists on your phone or the internet is within your reach once you get in your car. It’s cathartic, spiritual even, to have that level of free will over what you listen to. Last road trip I took, I listened to something like 100 different songs from like 50 different albums