Crisis

(I wrote this in 2018 as I processed the illness and then the death of my mother…)

I am not sure I would call what I have been living through, a crisis – that would make it sound like a moment when in fact I have been living in this space for a while. It is more like a journey of evolution where one faith ends and another is awakened. It is a painful process but also a liberating one. I have heard it referred to as a reconstruction of faith – like a breaking down and a rebuilding. Others have called it ‘the dark night of the soul’ where you face your soul’s deepest anguish and may come to the point of completely doubting if God even is…

No one chooses this, although it is something that seems to come to lots of people in their story of belief in God. For many this ‘crisis’ happens through trauma whether historic or recent, through bereavement, divorce, some health issue or some deep pain within your identity. It is provoked by anything that acts as a pin in the balloon which says ‘life will always be beautiful’. It goes even deeper, because of the questions that arise about the nature of God. Often our expectations of life are rooted in a certain belief about what God is like: ‘God is good and loves me, so I expect that life will always work out for me in the way I hope’. When that balloon bursts, it happens with an unimaginable agony.

I read someone say that the pain we experience in life is down to the fact that we believe in so many illusions. Oswald Chambers I think. A crisis unfolds when we discover that what we believed about ourselves or another, or life in general, is not the reality. In my previous faith, I was certain of many things and with it, came a great deal of spiritual pride. I was sure of who God was, what life and people were like, of how I should be judged, and inevitably therefore, how others should be. I could diagnose other people’s issues, hold them responsible and maintain my own standards. I cringe when I remember my former self.

I heard someone say the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty. I think they meant that true faith involves humility; the realisation that you do not know everything and so maybe it won’t work out as you think and hope. If you are certain, then you put God in a box – that becomes the end of the humble expectation that real faith involves. If you ever get to the point where you think you fully understand life or comprehend God, then you’re either deluded or you must be ignorant of a whole lot.

In this process of reconstruction, I have become awake to the reality of my pain and weaknesses and life’s troubles and struggle. It has made we weep, and left me with many questions and uncertainties, sometimes I have felt that I could not even trust the ground beneath my feet.

The truth is though, that I cannot escape God. It would be easy if I could just walk away and pretend that the last 30 years of life have meant nothing. At one low point I actually imagined how much of my life I would actually have to change if I did ‘chuck it all in’ – ‘it’ being faith in Jesus (no small feat for a theology lecturer). But the issue is the history I have built with God throughout my lifetime. I could look back and say I imagined it, I was mentally imbalanced or swept up in the euphoria of my upbringing. But there are moments that cannot be explained by that. I would then have to explain away the stories of moments we described as God’s action, in the lives of my family and friends and wider community, and the history of the world…that’s a huge task.

There is a story in the Bible of a man called Jacob who in a moment of crisis and great fear, wrestles with God and wins a very particular blessing as well as a new name. Our chaplain at work reminded me of this the last time I spoke to her. I am definitely a wrestler.  It is not in my character to give up easily, and having a true faith stripped of illusions and false religion is worth fighting for. I believe that my mind was a gift from God, and not a barrier to my faith – it was made by Him. So I will continue to cry and shout, to wrestle and reason, to write my prayers when I cannot say them, to struggle through church and sometimes to not go, and then to go again. And in that, I have some hope that God is present and gently leading me to a greater truth and a clearer view of who he is and what life in Him is really about. Anybody with me?

Early

There are three kinds of people on tube at 6am: holiday makers, people coming from low paid night shifts and people going to high paid day jobs. All of them are missing out on good sleep time, only one of them for something enjoyable – thankfully I am in that category.

This first woman, whose age remains mysterious, is casually dressed in a fleece with flat comfortable shoes and looks like she is on her way back from a cleaning job. I imagine her arriving home, where home is a room which she shares with her husband and two children, because with her wages, even working every hour God sends won’t allow them to live any better. She gets home and out of her work clothes, and lays her head on the mattress for a short moment lying toe to toe with her oldest daughter, awaiting the alarm for school, and for the next shift to begin.

Next to her on the tube, another woman has bags under her eyes to match the dark grey of her designer handbag, and is living I am sure, in quite different conditions. Maybe she has left her partner asleep again in their swanky apartment so she can get an early start. Is he is annoyed that she is not present, is he proud of her focus and ambition, or he has resigned himself to a relationship of passing ships in the night? I imagine she is on the way to a corporate job maybe in finance or the legal sector. She walks with a sense of pride into her office, knowing she has earned her right to have her name on her office door, and maybe to have her coffee just the way she likes it.

And then there is me – I wonder what they see? She looks quite basic at 6am on the tube. She has had some sleep so she doesn’t look too tired, but has a slightly serious look, resting-what-face do they call it? She looks distracted like maybe she is mentally unpacking her suitcase to check she has everything. Where is she going alone looking so young. Maybe to see family in her homeland or to use her student loan for a girls trip to Europe? Has she just ended a relationship or maybe she has just been dumped and that is why she is travelling alone, maybe to look for a holiday romance? She just looked up and smiled at me, how lovely.

 

 

Art

I used to think creativity was only for the artists, like my dad who sketched pictures of us when we were little or who painted incredible images at home. My mom used to try to encourage us to follow in my dad’s footsteps, asking ‘which one of you is going to follow your dad??’ This became a burden on my little sister who was their last hope once we as the oldest three had proven to be no use beyond a misshapen stick man. I started to repeat what I had heard ‘I am not artsy or creative’ as if it was a skill you either have or do not have.

In reality I think we are all artists – that whether or not we are particularly skilful with a paint brush, art is part of our expression as human beings. The saddest thing is that as children it is expected that we will draw, paint, and use our hands to do crafts – and yet for some reason we think we should or will grow out of something so fundamental to us as children. As if we could ever grow out of the need to feel, to express or be heard.

At 30 I developed a sudden urge to do creative arts with paper and pastels and pencils. My instincts were telling me I needed to express myself in a way that wasn’t to do with words and academic work. My soul was calling me to know and express myself in a forgotten way. I get a lot of joy from intellectual wrestling, and my mind is very creative – but art connects with the side of me that pushes the boundaries of imagination even more. I can express in shapes and pictures what I cannot always say in words and this gives me even greater freedom.

The best thing I learn when I do art is that mess is good – it is the only path to truth, to genuine expression and beauty. As someone who likes neatness on paper and in life – this lesson has been the greatest gift. It may take 100 lines before I get the outline I want. I may end up with something I didn’t plan – and yet the end result can still be as beautiful if not more than the thing I had imagined. Even the ‘mistakes’ become useful, and in the end I end up with no regrets, just unexpected moments and experiences that added more colours to the canvas of my life. So I intend to continue to paint boldly and sketch wildly. I trust that I know what to do – and I will keep on expressing what is in my soul. I will be open to inspiration, but closed to comparison. For I am an artist.

 

 

 

Plates

There are elements of feminism that I share and elements which I reject. I saw an episode of Black-ish that summed it up for me. The show portrays with great humour, the life, experiences and concerns of a middle class African-American family making its way in the world. In one very interesting episode, there is a moment of tension centred around the fact that Bow, the mother of the family, is wants to get her husband Dre a plate of food, while hiding it from her feminist mother. Bow’s mom catches her in the act, and admonishes her for her ‘old fashioned behaviours’ which she says are setting a bad example for her young daughters. Dre’s aunt, an elderly African-American woman, interrupts to defend this simple act, which she describes with great poetry, as being practiced by the women of her generation as a way of restoring a sense of dignity to their husbands who experienced consistent insult and hostility in the world. It was in fact, the way women said ‘I see you and you matter’ to men who in the workplace, were treated as less then human.

To begin with, this made it clear, that any feminism that ignores the complex identities and struggles of African, Caribbean, Asian, Latino and even poor white communities, renders itself useless for people who are not white and wealthy. This is why womanism is essential – to help us to understand how issues of gender and race combine to multiply the burdens placed upon women of colour. We have different dynamics that have to be considered. How clear cut are the answers when the men in your community face oppression on the basis of race and/or class and women face the multiplication of gender, racial and/or class injustice? The issue of justice becomes multi-layered.

It also reminded me that neither women nor men exist in isolation, so to discuss how women can flourish, demands that we look at men and women together. As I watched this episode, it reminded me of the many times I saw my mom make my dad a plate. She never felt burdened by this; it was second nature for her to take care of him in this way and he was appreciative of it. But the truth is that my dad loves to cook! On many occasions my dad has beamed as he listens to us compliment what he has spent ages creating and preparing for us to eat. My mom and dad demonstrated a kind of synergy, taking it in turns to ‘make plates’. It taught us why concrete roles do not work – a couple and a family needs flexibility to be able to cope with the different challenges and seasons of life. Men and women need to be responsive to the needs of the other, so that each can find the space to grow and evolve into who they truly are.

So I will be a womanist over being a feminist any day of the week. This is about freeing all women from all kinds of oppression which prevent us from flourishing as people crafted by God’s own hands. It liberates all of us, when women can stand confidently in their own skin as individuals, in relationships or families and society as a whole. It’s about creating a world where instead of being pressured by external expectations or an idealistic role, I can freely choose to make a plate for someone I love, and someone else can recognise that I also deserve to have someone make a plate for me more often than not.

 

Sorrell

My grandma has a cheeky sense of humour, a keen smile and doesn’t mince her words. I love her company. She knows exactly what she thinks and what she wants and she doesn’t hesitate to state it openly. She is 88 and comfortable in her own skin. So when I called her to say I wanted to learn to make sorrell she told me she was out and I had to come another day. When I rang her bell she opened the door and greeted me with a smile that would melt a snowman, and a gentle hug from her tiny frame. This is the woman who nurtured my mom in her womb and gave birth to her. This is sacred ground, and she is the queen of it.

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She begins by telling me she’s grated all the ginger before I came, to speed it up. I explain to her I am taking notes, and ask her how much ginger to use and she says ‘a lot’ – that’s the best I’m gonna get as far as details are concerned. I impress her with my knowledge of how good ginger is for our health and she smiles a smile that says “your mom did a good job”.

 

She finds the pot full of grated ginger and as she takes off the lid I’m engulfed in the overwhelming aroma. The pot is bigger than most and when I ask why she bought a pot so big she answers me with a look that says ‘it must be obvious’, and explains that its for cooking rice and peas for when the family come around. We don’t use her big pot nearly enough.

She takes out a packet of linseed held shut by a rubber band and throws in a tablespoon. As she mixes it in, she casually recalls a story of almost having a miscarriage. The doctor in Jamaica told her to take some linseed with ‘something from the sea’ (she can’t remember what it was but hopes it will come back to her, I try my best to jog her memory in case some future child depends on it, to no avail) – and her baby was born healthy. Her sister, she remembers, had the same experience with the ‘something from the sea’. She talks about not having money for doctors and using natural remedies and how the free NHS makes healthcare accessible but then lacks the wisdom of mother nature.

I tell her I’m thinking of going and she tells me she’s about to cook, which means I’m staying. I arrived starving from London once and brought food on the way to her house. She is not easily offended but I knew not to do it again. Why did I think she wouldn’t have food on the stove? I’m used to millennials. As we eat she tells me she doesn’t like to ‘cook sparing’ meaning just for herself, because she likes to feed anyone who pops in. I want to be the kind of woman who has a pot that’s way too big to ‘cook sparing’.

Here is her recipe in her own words:

  • A lot of ginger
  • Some linseed (depending on how much you want to make)
  • Enough sorrell
  • Some sugar (to taste)
  • Sanatogen or whichever wine or even some rum (to mek it taste good)

Possession

He looked at me like I was car he wanted to steal, to take his time to break through the security systems and drive me off to an undisclosed location. He told me he loved me too soon – like a crow bar slipped between metal plates, he was deaf to the alarm that was blaring in my ears warning me of his far from noble intentions. He didn’t know that to love was not to possess another but to liberate them; and he was woefully unprepared for the cacophony of my freedom. When he told me I was everything he was looking for I know he believed it, but in truth I was that, and too much more. The more that would be sliced, chopped and squashed into the mould he’d pre-prepared for ‘his woman’. Confused by my refusal to wear the dresses and lipstick he had chosen, he grew increasingly distraught as it dawned on him that I was correct when I told him he had never met a woman like me in his life, but it wasn’t in the way he had hoped. I’m sure other women had confirmed that his current approach would get him what he wanted; to own and use and eat his fill. But today he learned new lessons.

I am glad he asked me if I would ‘get my body back’ after giving birth to our hypothetical children, because it was then I realized that he would always ask for more no matter how much I gave. This unintended confession alerted me to the knowledge that to build a life with him would equal a slow suffocation allotted to those who love generously, partners who are fluent in love of self but ill-prepared for the sacrificial love of another. Being a man of significant means, he was wrongly (and sadly) convinced that the status it afforded him warranted my trust and commitment. He did not seem to recognize that having money in the bank did not make him a good catch when the bill for his affection was a price no woman should afford and I would refuse to pay. When what he wanted was to exchange my soul’s joy and life’s purpose for his luxury homewares and designer clothes – I decided to keep hold of my laughter and buy my own. He told me once that men from his culture never cooked, I said that was strange and asked if they were known to eat. When he notified me that in fact he hired a chef to cook his meals for the week I was intrigued. He continued to explain that he was too busy to cook but when he got married his wife would handle it all. I heard the word ‘would’ as he held my gaze and the tension began to climb up my spine. By his eye contact I knew that he was giving a command that he hoped would sit like a seed in my mind, to produce the fruit he would later consume with great delight. As he stared at me, I tried to remember the last time someone had given me an instruction the way he had done, with the subtly of a glare. I knew in my own mind, that to allow myself to be tied to this man, but be to infantilise myself, giving the freedom of my maturity over in exchange for a second childhood. I never saw him again.

 

Love

On the anniversary of my sweet mom’s passing, I remember her with these words that I wrote last yearIMG_0944 a few days after we said goodbye. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

Before we could even pray or ask, God gave us the greatest gift in our mom. We could not have chosen the womb that bore us, but Gods love for us is shown in the fact that we were loved all our lives by an angel. She showed us what it meant to be a believer in Jesus, not through clever words and heavy rules but through a heart of love. She leant money to the poor knowing she would not be repaid, she loved to be generous out of the little she had. Her words were always good about other people, even those it was easy to judge. She was humble in asking for advice even from her children, she always thought of the person who was overlooked or misunderstood. Eternally optimistic and full of hope she refused to see the bad in people or circumstances. She was our number one champion cheering us on, our encourager and the one who believed more than anything that we could change the world. She was a lifelong learner, a hard worker, quick to get tasks done and diligent in everything she did. She has made us who we are. She was a true friend to me, showing me the way to love, faith and patience. The truth is I wanted to be more like her, I wanted to absorb her character, I admired her so much. Mom lives on in each of us, every time we follow her voice and her example. She lives on in us through every act of compassion, every moment we choose faith over fear, every time we laugh and dance and sing, every time we drink a glass of baileys. In the moments when we are lighthearted and joking, when we are hopeful and courageous and determined – our mom remains with us and we live to make her proud.