Letter to a teacher

I’m currently reading a very wholesome book called Write a Letter by Jodi Ann Bickley.

One of the early exercises asks you to write a letter to a teacher who inspired you. Well, here it is.

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Dear Max

It feels strange to call you that, but I’m in my mid 30’s now and so I think it’s reasonable for me to do so!

It has been nearly 20 years since I finished up at [school name redacted]. Since then, I’ve lived in five different cities across the world and visited or worked in something like 25 different countries. I say this not to aggrandise myself, but to point out that God has been good to me in giving me the sort of experiences that the awkward ‘teenager me’ could only have dreamed about (but probably didn’t dream about, because teenagers are not clever enough).

I write clearly enough; I always have. But what I haven’t been doing well enough in is writing for pleasure, or to stay in touch. As a result, I have spent a good amount of 2020 writing for pleasure, writing to friends or just typing and seeing where the words take me. Some of my writing has been published in a few industry publications. Even then, finding inspiration is sometimes a bit difficult.

As a kind of remedy, I’m currently reading a book called ‘Write a Letter’. The very first exercise asks you to write to a teacher who inspired you. I feel as though you won’t be offended that I didn’t think of you first. I was at [school] 20 years ago and, frankly, barely remember it, let alone the teachers.

However, as I mulled over it this morning, you bubbled to mind. And as I thought about it more, I realised that it was because the enduring memory that sticks with me is that you had respect for me.

There are good teachers and there are bad teachers, I am sure… But ‘teachers’ aside, there are also educators and potential-seekers. I think you were one of those.

The respect you had for me – as an individual, as a human – is something that I can still vividly remember, and set you apart from others in the faculty (not just at [School], but generally).

A few distinct memories of you from my time at [School] came to mind today. Two are pertinent here:

  1. In probably the only ‘bad’ thing I ever did at school, I found myself in trouble for being a smart-arse to a teacher (whose name I recall but I won’t mention). I was dropped a ‘behaviour level’ (which, in hindsight, was a pretty ungracious system) and sent off to a few detentions. Incidentally, my sentence was kindly mitigated by my ally – the deputy principal – which proved to be an early lesson in the value of what is known in the Middle East as ‘wasta’. As I came to the end of my last detention, you publicly commended me in the detention room for accepting my sentence in good grace, accepting what I did was wrong and moving on with life. It probably made me look like a golden child, but you called out the good in a (very mildly) bad situation and the lesson stuck with me.
  2. On my very last day of school – education complete, bar for the ceremony – you took time to pull me aside and give me (and my Dad, if I recall), some guidance on possible career that you felt I might not have come across or given enough thought to. You were extremely gracious in doing so, and called out skills that you saw in me that (as a skinny 16 year old) I hadn’t yet seen. In fact, I didn’t really begin to use those skills until about 5 years into my career (ten years or so after you saw them).

So, all of that aside – thank you. You showed respect to a 16 year old who was a bit of a non-entity. I think that is why I thought of you when the book asked me to think about a teacher who inspired you. That kindness has stuck with me.

Yours

James

Social Impact Bonds – when are they the right choice?

I’m very fortunate that my work takes me into interesting and innovative territory, including working on transactions that mobilise capital for social aims. One such emerging mechanism (albeit one with a 10 year track record) is social impact bonds.

I have this piece out today in The Catalyst called “When is the Right Time to Use a Social Impact Bond?”, exploring when a Social Impact Bond is the right choice for your social transaction (and, by extension, when not!).

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.