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.

========================

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

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.

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.

IMG_20200319_211832_283

Stay safe.

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!

IMG_20200319_211832_283

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.

Winter Reading List – 2019-20

Here’s what I’m reading for the holidays. I’ve tried to post less frequently about my reading habits (as I worry it makes me a relentless bore), but, well, this is my blog, and you can always keep scrolling if you really want to.

IMG_20191223_153615_402

London: The Biography – I am sure Ackroyd called it ‘the’ biography rather than ‘a’ biography to appear as the definitive story of London. Interesting and unwieldy it is; definitive it is not. Great to focus on ‘life’ in London but you can’t really tell that story without telling the story of power, government or politics as well. Plus, it is SO long, and I feel as though I have been reading it all year (which is nearly true). (Goodreads)

12 Rules for Life – like marmite, Jordan Peterson seems to have split my friendship group (and not on the usual left/right dichotomy). I’m about halfway through this and have not yet decided my view on it. Peterson is unquestionably smart and well read, but sometimes uses words so carefully that you wonder what he really thinks (see: gender roles). Also, I am having difficulty identifying with a lobster, and my back is already pretty straight. (Goodreads)

The Green Mile – somehow I have never read this nor seen the film. I haven’t started yet. I enjoyed Stephen King’s ‘the Outsider’ last summer. (Goodreads)

The Message of the Sermon on the Mount – John Stott is a master and his writing is imbued with such grace and humility. I have loved this walk through the most important sermon ever preached. I will be sad to finish it because it has been such a joy. (Goodreads)

A Short History of England – this has been on my list all year, but it arrived yesterday, and I am super excited to read it. (Goodreads)

I’m going to indulge myself and post a year-end ‘books I liked and hated this year’ at some point soon. Sorry (and Happy Christmas).

What I’m Reading: Fayke Newes by Derek J Taylor

For anybody with even a passing interest in democratic institutions, it was jarring to hear the American president describe the free press as the ‘enemy of the people’.

‘Surely’, I thought, ‘surely we have now shifted the Overton window to a new extreme!’

It turns out that I was dreadfully wrong. The ‘Media’ and ‘the Mighty’ have fought for centuries with mud-slinging, lies and aggression (and counter-aggression).

Fayke Newes cover

With a delightfully irreverent cover, a title of faux-medieval origin and the (current) American president in Henry VIII’s garb, Derek J Taylor’s latest book immediately invites us to place modern ramblings about ‘fake news’ into their rightful historical context.

Taylor begins the tale with the Western world’s favourite serial husband (Henry, not Donald). And with his decidedly Trumpian cry of ‘false fables and tales’ against an opponent, Henry VIII is an excellent place to begin.

Charting his way through Tudors, wars and revolutions (of both the bloody and industrial persuasion), Taylor’s mapping of the relationship between those who make the stories and those who tell them (or both, simultaneously) is an engaging read. Their co-existence appears to be a form of uneasy symbiosis; the mighty providing the fire, and the media, the oxygen (or does that make it antibiotic?).

A particularly engaging part of the book involves the suffragettes. Emmeline Pankhurst and her WSPU did not gain real traction – despite serious action – until the media picked up the story (one way or another). The sheer starvation of information or recognition meant that there was no real engagement… until a turning point. And with the media attention came real reaction from the mighty – to the press and to the suffragettes. And so the cycle continues.

A lengthy historical tome this is not. A salutary lesson: more likely.

Fayke News is published by the History Press. Additional details and vendors available here.

On Reading: Relapsing into the Addiction

I grew up with a borderline-unhealthy attachment to books. I devoured everything from The Lord of the Rings to trashy teen fiction to dog-eared copies of Readers Digest in the doctor’s waiting room.

Law school, traumatic reading experience that is, changed that. A few years after graduating, I realised that I no longer regularly read for pleasure. The magic had been murdered by my LLB. I immediately set myself a modest goal to read 12 books by the end of the year.

That year, I read 17 books in total. I’ve since gone further (more on that later…), but those first few months, I learned three key things about (re)developing a reading habit.

1. “Let it gooo”: accept that it’s okay not to finish a book.

This should be rule number 1, 2 and 3.

A salutary lesson: in the afterglow of my goal-setting, I went to my nearest bookstore and bought three books. I got through three pages of the first, put it back down and didn’t read again for two months.

I had no desire to keep reading that book, but the idea of starting another without finishing the first was even less appealing.

In the end, I gave the first book away so it could not judge me, un-read, from my shelf. This let me start the second book (Grisham’s fun collection of short stories, Ford County). I had learned my first lesson: if a book is not working for you, move on!

2. Be flexible: read however works for you

Just start reading! Read wherever you possibly can, whenever you are able to, and whatever you feel like reading.

None of those first few books I read were particularly deep books. I needed to de-program my brain from approaching books like legal puzzles. Heavy literature is not the only (or best…) form of true reading. Reading something is nearly always better than reading nothing. Read what you enjoy!

Initially I resisted eBooks, feeling that a ‘true book experience’ (whatever that is) must be in paper form. What garbage. You need to read however works for you. I now read mostly on my kindle, often standing on the train, sometimes walking to Sainsbury’s. Audio books in the car might work as well. Snatch time where you can get it.

Just read!

3. Relax: have fun

Setting reading goals might not work for you. In fact, it might be counter-productive! If 12 books in a year is unattainable for you, start with 6; one book every two months is achievable for most folks. Even if you get 3, that is better than zero!

As you read, savour what you can; one of the joys I find in reading is encountering lines or passages that stick with you. I still find myself mulling over lines from East of Eden (“I wonder how many people I have looked at all my life and never really seen” being a particular favourite).

You might enjoy getting to know the characters – either way, enjoy the journey!

… and have fun.