On rest

My year started with a book that came to me with providential timing.

Last year was a tough year. Really tough. I ended it thoroughly depleted; staggering into the Christmas break emotionally, spiritually and physically wrung out. More than ever, I needed a rest… a sabbath, if you will.

Enter: Sabbath, by Nicola Slee. Slee’s thoughtful and vulnerable book is based on a poem by Wendell Berry, which begins describing his journey into sabbath rest:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.

Wendell Berry, Sabbaths

Real rest requires an element of intentionality – a deliberate pause in order to find the stillness. As my exhausted brain worked through the mess of the year, it began to quiet as I allowed it to process, rejuvenate, recharge.

Reflecting on the book, and on my own relationship with rest, it occurred to me that sabbath actually has an element of work; it involves the work of resting.

To rest actively requires us to consider what has made us tired, and to sort through the chaff in our minds.

But fortunately, this quiet work of the sabbath comes with a reward.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

Wendell Berry, Sabbaths

Doing the hard work of rest is valuable. It is also, at times, painful. As I took stock and reflected, I could see truths and realities in a way that I could not in the noise and busy-ness of life.

As I approached the end of my break, I wrote in my journal:

This year – more than ever – I have limped over the finish line, frailer and sicker than I have ever been.

Slee says that this is normal – sometimes to enter sabbath is to have it all crash down on you as your body catches up. But this year has been particularly torrid and I think this has had an effect. The last few days have been tough. I begin work again tomorrow and my body knows it. I don’t want to do it.

I need more time.

Even just little more time.

Leaving sabbath is difficult, and not just because we connect with ourselves and with God in it.

Leaving sabbath is hard because we return to a world we do not control, and which has marched on in our absence. Even if I was in control of my world (which I am not), returning is hard as it has grown out of my control in my absence.

While I have been in sabbath, I have been discovering (or rather remembering) some of my passions that bring me joy.

And that, I suppose, is good. Anxiety may be the price of leaving my sabbath woods, but a renewed sense of self and (hopefully) better tools to find rest again are what I take from it.

There are certain parallels between leaving sabbath and leaving the strangeness of this season, whenever that may be.

2020 has forced many of us into a form of sabbath; a mandatory degree of rest and reflection that we have not had before. In many senses, the year has been traumatic… But it has also been an opportunity to reset and renew our inner worlds.

Leaving this form of sabbath will come with its own challenges.

Leaving any sabbath is hard. But eventually the sabbath must end.

The key is to take its lessons and its energies to meet the new day.

Certainty and familiarity

I don’t want to pontificate about the short- and long-term effects of the last few months, but I have been reflecting a little lately on two things in particular: certainty and familiarity.

The strangeness of this year has upended a number of things that we thought were certain – supermarket stock, health systems in the global north, the ubiquity of air travel and mobility, not to mention (controversially) the need for a physical office.

At the same time, the last few months has also left man of us with a deep sense of defamiliarisation. Not only are the ‘certainty’ building blocks changing, but the things that make life familiar also seem to be changing.

Our rituals – handshakes, physical meetings, crammed bars – are no longer possible.

Our spaces – offices, trains, planes – are altered. Some of these may change forever.

But as much as the unfamiliarity and the uncertainty affects our lives, there are some things that remain certain or familiar, and that I am grateful for.

Some of these are certain ‘certains’ that I had never really thought about before.

Our carers are a consistent and welcome form of certainty – often overlooked and underappreciated.

I’m grateful for the certainty of my faith community, even if its online mode of expression is deeply unfamiliar!

I have found comfort in the familiarity of baking bread. Finding flour was a bit touch-and-go there for a while(!), but the rhythm of bread-making has been a deeply familiar part of my life for a few years now.

The internet – gosh. Without the certainty of the internet, it is hard to know what we would have done. Never thought I would thank BT.

And then there are our relationships; (hopefully) a source of both familiarity and certainty in times of need.

So, in the unfamiliar and the uncertain – we can always find what is truly familiar, and hopefully some things that are certain.

Thriving at home

The internet is veritably heaving with articles about how to be productive at home. I’ve read a few. They’re fine, if a little facile.

For me, what is more important is keeping a sense of life progressing forward during this weird time.

I thought I’d share a little about what I’m doing around the house to: a) keep moving forward, b) enjoy the quiet time without pressure to be social, c) getting distance from my work when the house has become my workplace, and d) do more ‘quirky experiments’ (see my post from May).

1. Bread

In fairness, this is not really new for me; I’ve been baking bread for some time.

Sourdough seems to be the bread du jour, with many millennials growing their first sourdough starter. Really, though, you can bake immensely satisfying and tasty bread with ordinary baker’s yeast. I’ve done both. Anything with a longer proofing time (e.g. overnight) will taste leagues ahead of store-bought bread, and the process is really rewarding. Admittedly, it’s not for the patient – but there is a definitely joy in the wait and the reward.

Bread

A good start is the Overnight White from Flour Water Salt Yeast by Forkish (fantastic author name for a food book).

2. Growing – and growing to eat

Garden peas

We don’t have a large garden, and it’s largely paved, meaning most of our growing happens in pots and a couple of elevated beds. I’m really enjoying pottering about each day. Some of our plants have been with us for years, and we’ve now got carrots, mangetout, strawberries, peas, celery, lettuce, spring onion, tomatoes, potatoes and herbs (including bay tree, parsley, mint and others). Some of these have been re-grown straight from kitchen scraps that would have otherwise gone in the bin.

It has been particularly fun to see some of the plants I’ve grown from seeds thrive – special shout out to my peas, madly climbing our homemade tepee trellis.

I’ve also started a worm compost with an Urbalive unit, reducing our food waste.

3. Fermenting

Most people – including myself, until recently – associated ferments with deeply unpleasant, stinky, odours. I’ve learned that a lot of what we eat is actually fermented – from naturally leavened bread, to wine, beer and sauerkraut. I’ve tried my hand at a few now, including carrots sticks with cardamom, kimchi and sauerkraut. Some have failed – the sauerkraut was particularly over-ripe, but some have been great!

My favourite by far has been tepache, a Mexican pineapple. See recipe here, and the It’s Alive video version here (with the inimitable wourder-drinker, Brad).

Tepache

For bonus quirk – I’m trying to make the top of the pineapple shoot out new roots so I can grow a new plant).

4. Gaming

Again, not a new one – but I’m really enjoying Red Dead Redemption 2 😉

5. Reading

Again, the two people who regularly read my blog will know that reading is not really a new habit for me. However, I started the year with a resolution to be more intentional about the types of books I read – to ensure I was being strategic. Lockdown, for me, has been tricky with reading. I am often tired at the end of each day, as the work and general stress of the situation has got to me. When I have enough energy, though, reading has been a constant source of joy. I am currently enjoying Montefiore’s biography of Jerusalem, and Wilcock’s analysis of Revelation (only coincidentally on the topic of apocalypse!). See my reading post from March showing some things I’m working through or have just finished.

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Stay safe.

Sunday is on the way

Each year I am struck by what a sense of isolation and helplessness the disciples must have felt on the first Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

All they had known for years came crashing down around them. Their messiah and deliverer died an ignominious death on a Roman cross.

The disciples had in their hearts a vision of political revolution; the establishment of an earthly kingdom. But what they had before their eyes was a crucified leader.

It is easy for us now, on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, to know that we are about to celebrate the resurrection. We know that we can celebrate His death on Friday because his resurrection on Sunday is on the way.

But in that moment, the disciples knew nothing of what was to come. 

They hadn’t read to the end of the book – of the victory to come. And even if they had, it was a different victory than the one they had anticipated, and they could not have comprehended, with their religious-political mindset.

But Jesus did know the end of the story. He knew of the victory to come. He knew Sunday was on the way.

Despite our strange isolation this year, we cannot really fully understand what the disciplines went through on that first Easter. But we can empathise with the isolation and a sense of helplessness.

More importantly – we can remind ourselves that Jesus knows the end of the story. Isolation is not the end. Victory – in some form or another – is on the way.

Sunday is on the way.

Amman Citadel: Being new among the old

I grew up in a young nation. The First Australians inhabited and stewarded the land for millennia, but urban record (as Europeans think of it) really dates only back from British colonisation (from 1776 onwards).

So, until I was 25, I had no real exposure to ‘old stuff’.

Visiting Amman Citadel was thus my first real encounter with an ‘old’ urban landscape. In my home town, Melbourne, properties from 1950 are considered old! By contrast, Amman Citadel has an archaeological record spanning from pottery Neolithic peoples through to the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods.

Amman Downtown

In my first visit, I was amazed at the length of the period of occupation, the scale of the site and the varied architecture.

Having since undertaken some additional study in archaeology, and visited it again a few times, I understand the features of the site better than I did then. I can appreciate better its strategic elevated location, the fortifications, the record of building and re-building; the use and re-use of materials… and the crucial focus on preserving water.

But nothing compares to that first visit, fresh from a ‘young’ urban tradition, placed deep into the middle of an old one. A few highlights for me are always the following.

Temple of Hercules

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Nobody could subjugate a city like the Romans could subjugate a city. You can imagine how the population must have felt about the might of Rome whilst looking the immensity of this temple atop the raised portion of the city.

Byzantine Church

The Byzantine Church dates to 550CE. While I stood in the ruins of the church, I was struck that I was standing in the very spot where, over a millennia ago, fellow believers had stood (or knelt) and worshipped in the same tradition that I do. Imagining the practicalities of services in that building (and its annexes) was a real joy.

Umayyad Palace

The entryway to the place is a beautiful cross-shaped entry hall with a stunning roof reconstruction, opening out into an immense palace (with, of course, water works and a colonnaded street).

Amman Citadel is in the heart of Amman downtown. Entry is 3JD and a visit will take about 2 hours.

On ice cream as a respite to a busy world

Our family is fond of telling a story of the time we ran into my grandfather at a supermarket car park when my siblings and I were much younger.

My grandfather – a man of high standing in the community, of amazing virtue, and of deep wisdom – was loitering near the indoor car park entrance, eating an ice cream, while waiting for my grandmother.

When he saw us, he looked slightly guilty and awkwardly asked us not to tell our grandmother that he was eating ice cream. By any stretch, it was a comical moment.

Predictably, once we got to the top of the stairs, we ran into my grandmother. Immediately, my brother, all of 5 or 6 at the time, told my grandmother that our grandfather was downstairs eating an ice cream.

For many years, the funny part of this story was that my brother ratted out my grandfather nearly immediately. That remains funny.

But as I’ve got older, and time has passed, the story has taken on other dimensions, at least to me.

The story now reminds me that my grandfather who was (and is), in many ways, super-human, was also human. And the human simply wanted a quiet moment with a simple pleasure.

The story now reminds me that, in lives devoted to finding meaning and giving it to others, sometimes we need these moments of banality.

The story now reminds me that sometimes we need to eat our ice cream as a quiet respite to a busy world.

And the story now reminds me that sometimes we need to be caught, to the delight of our grandchildren, doing something slightly naughty.

I wonder what else this story will remind me of in another 20 years.

What I’ve been reading – March 2020

Right. So we’re all locked in together in a COVID-19 state of joy. Here’s some of what I’ve been reading lately (and what I’m currently working through). I’m already 8 books in this year, because I had a lot of time on my hands in Amman!

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Necropolis, Catharine Arnold: This one charts a course through London’s relationship with its dead. Where and how does it bury its dead? The subject is a little dark, but ultimately it’s a fun romp through a kind of history that isn’t often written about. What is amazing is how major shifts in history radically change approaches to mourning and storing of the dead.

Jerusalem – the Biography, Simon Montefiore: I’m a quarter through this one and it is amazing! I struggled a bit with ‘the’ London biography, but this one is leagues ahead in terms of accessibility, flow and storytelling. I am looking forward to seeing how he dances his way through the fraught modern era. But really – isn’t all of Jerusalem’s history contested?

The Rule of Law, Tom Bingham: Our whole society is predicated on the rule of law. We obey the law, and so does everyone else. Without it, the economy dies and so does society, really. A rather topical read, given what’s going on (and what I’ve spent the last few months working on).

Misery, Steven King: Somehow I missed this modern classic before now. What a gripping, frightening, tense read! He really was the master. Was the whole thing a metaphor about his hatred of his cocaine addiction? I don’t care. It was just a good story.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman: I’ve never read (as an adult) a book where the first-person protagonist was a child. I LOVED this book. Highly recommend for a quick weekend read.

First you Write a Sentence, Joe Moran: Have been trying to improve my writing but there aren’t very many good practical books that give you writing building blocks (other than Steven King’s On Writing). This one boiled down to “Don’t be too noun-y. Except when it makes sense. Or too verb-y. Except when you want to. And don’t use too many parentheses (except when you should).”

Preparing for Easter, CS Lewis: Who doesn’t love CS Lewis? This devotional has a thought for every day of Lent. Some days are better than others. It has been a very thoughtful journey so far.

Bonus – Ginger Pig Meat Book (because I want to be better at cooking), Easy Learning French Grammar and Practice (because I want to improve my French).

I’m also still slogging through the 15-book Wheel of Time series. More on that later.

I still need to do my 2019 wrapup. Maybe. One day.

On fear, sadness and COVID-19

In many ways, one of the saddest things about COVID-19 is the fear. The fear of each other, the fear of the future and the fear of being without.

I cried a little at Amman airport this morning when I saw two young children wearing face masks. Their parents carried on stoicly, but you don’t cover your children’s faces without being struck by some sort of fear (justified or not). It reminds me of the morning after the Finsbury Park mosque attacks. I was walking to the station and saw little boys and girls accompanied by their tired-looking parents. The children normally walked to school without adult supervision.

The parents were afraid. Literal survival was at stake.

There is something primal about the protection of a parent over a child. And in the case of COVID-19, it’s a risk that they cannot see nor fully comprehend. This event could still be anything and they don’t know how to protect their kin.

I also share in the fear. Today, I was nearly quarantined by flight restrictions. I would have been stuck outside of my home countries, without friends of family. In the hours when that seemed a real possibility, I was afraid. Even as I write this, waiting for the plane to take off, I am anxious.

But what of fear? Fear often comes from a sensible survival instinct, but there is also an element of sadness to it.

There is a sadness to it because a state of fear is your body telling you that something is not normal, is not safe.

Young children with their faces covered is not normal. It is not safe.

And in this case, the non-normal, non-safe state is such an unknown. If a lion is coming towards you, you know what you’re afraid of. In this very strange March 2020, we don’t really know what to be afraid of. Closed borders? Flu symptoms? Running out of bog roll? Each other?

Being afraid without fully knowing what to be afraid of is unusual.

Either way, this state is not normal. And it is not safe.

Yet we have Hope. “I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from?”

On the passage of time

There is a certain helplessness that comes with the passage of time.

“Time flies”, they said… but it never really rang true to me.

The older I get, the faster time seems to go. There’s a growing sense of running out of time.

When you are a child, the hours and days are endless. As a teenager, you can waste hours lying on your bed, doing nothing, and it costing you nothing.

Time no longer works like that for me.

Every day is full and somehow seems to have fewer minutes than the last.

It’s not a matter of not being in control. It’s that the march of time is speeding up.

And with it, my life.

It is perennially harder to find time for reflection, for prayer, for planning and for growth.

And when you blink, a month has gone.

It’s like being a passenger in a speeding tube of time.

There’s still so much to do, but so little time.

I wonder whether Jesus felt like this, approaching the end of his time on Earth. He had done so much… but did he have the feeling of running out of time as well?

Lent day 12, 2020. Amman, Jordan