Author: Emily J. M.

Hi, I'm Emily. Two of my closest family members struggle with chronic illness, and I watch them. That's hard, and so I write about life as a 'Watcher', what it looks like to support them and find Hope.

Living on the edge of the unknown

“If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that life can change completely in a single second.”

So I responded to an upset eighteen year old Canadian as we sped towards Lyon airport, the sun setting to the right of us, the long shadows of an unknown future striding to catch us from behind.

Two hours ago we had been told that everyone had to leave Taize. In a split second we had accepted an invitation to evacuate to England, our common colonising ancestor. After a stressful hour six of us had booked tickets for the only two flights we could find, for 2pm the next day. We had packed our belongings in 10 minutes, and now we were rushing to make it to the airport before France went into lockdown and the rumours of closed borders, unknown restrictions, and cancelled flights became reality.

Even as I spoke those words I was aware they were pretentious, patronizing and rather idiotic. I was also aware they were true.

Using up my last euros at the airport…

We constantly live on the edge of uncertainty. Some of us have had more reason to be aware of this than others. For as long as I can remember I have known I will not have my mum forever, and yet that split second phone call during my lunch break at work when I heard she had a mass in her pancreas still changed everything.

For as long as I can remember I’ve devoured books where dramatic things happen. Kids die too young; people are wounded in battle; last minute inheritances save the day; all is lost and all is rescued over and pver again. Yet I still remember exactly where I was when I found out that my ten year old friend had died suddenly from an undiagnosed brain tumour.

In the weeks leading up to my travels I chose not to dwell on my hopes and excitement because I knew that life is rarely smooth and expectations often go unmet. Still, the last thing I expected was a pandemic, and the hours that preceded our hasty departure will be remembered for a while.

I don’t know how my story will end, but after a sleepless 30 hours spent watching as flight after flight was cancelled and wondering if mine was next while praying the UK would not close its borders before I got in, I am currently enjoying a happy interlude.

Isn’t this stunning? There are times out on the moors when I feel God has given me eternity in the space of a few seconds.

My days are filled with sharing household responsibilities between the five of us; watching TV; knitting; Taize style prayers; walking on the desolate moors; and reading. It’s a dreamlike existence. Each morning I am beyond thankful to have a place to stay thanks to a generous friend (and their generous family) and each evening I am beyond thankful to hear that my family in Australia are still well and healthy.

At times I feel like I’ve entered an Enid Blyton book. I love moss so so much; it makes me so happy you wouldn’t believe.

I don’t know what will happen once the UK emerges from lock down and we come out of quarantine. I don’t think anyone does. The world will never be the same, and so I wait and watch and pray. I hope the lays of Europe will settle in beneficial lines for me, but I do not know.

A pastoral scene

Each of us, all the time, live precariously. It’s easy to forget this. To forget just how quickly the world can be remade, to forget how easily all the future can be undone. We are but dust and ashes, and so, so fragile. All this pandemic has done is pull back the veil a little. Right now everyone of us is being confronted with the reality of our existence simultaneously: It is uncertain. It is unknown. It is terrifying.

And so what? Do we sit and wait around for the world to end in either a bang or a whimper? Do we throw in the towel, or begin to cotton wool our nests against an apocalypse? You could. People do. But isn’t there a better way?

So many times in those chaotic few days I thought I’d never reach Yorkshire. In the first few days after I arrived I still felt like it would all be snatched away. It still could, but that’s in God’s hands, not mine.

Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. I find this really comforting. Life always was uncertain, always has been terrifying. What this pandemic does is give us the opportunity to see clearly and to decide how we will respond. Not just to the current crisis, but to the remainder of our unstable lives.

God was the answer when life seemed safe, and he remains the answer know we know it is not.

I feel utterly and entirely spoilt. God did not have to send me off to quarantine to such a place as this – and I am so, so grateful.

And so we march on. Wavering on the precipice of eternity, hands held out to Jesus. For this minute I am alive, and all the other minutes have been woven carefully into the very material of the universe by a Master Craftsman. What is unknown to me is known by He who knows me and makes himself known.

For now, that is enough.

Only in Britain..

Reading:

Making Money, a discworld novel – Terry Pratchett

Thomas Clarkson’s  award-winning (and literally world changing) “An essay on the slavery and commerce of the human species, particularly the African” (1785)

The wrath of a loving God, unravelling a Biblical conundrum – Br John of Taize

Sel. From Martin Luther’s Table talk

Various fan fictions and online meta analyses.

… I also watched North and South for the first time. Seemed appropriate given the locale (I’m living in the North now). I know everyone seems to love it, but… I just couldn’t deal with the romance. On what basis do they love each other? They’ve never even had a proper conversation. It drove me up the wall.

Our rewatch of Good Omens and Doctor Who was much more enjoyable. And also appropriate given Eccleston is northern?

And credit for the title goes to the Star Trek episode “the city of the edge of forever”. Likewise, credit for the second title in the previous post goes to Gabriel Marquez’s Love in the time of the cholera.

Lastly, T. S. Elliot owns “a bang or a whimper” and his poem is absolutely stunning: https://msu.edu/~jungahre/transmedia/the-hollow-men.html

Life in the time of Corona virus & Lessons from the rain

LESSONS FROM THE RAIN

I struggle with the cold. I really do – and since arriving in Europe it’s been cold with a capital C! Cold with sun is doable, but when it’s cold and rainy and you can’t be inside, I tend to not be a particularly joyful person.

I was praying for joy in the rain this past week, although to be honest I didn’t think such a thing was possible. I would settle for long suffering endurance with only a few moans a day.

Then as I was walking (not particularly patiently) in the rain a few days ago I had a sudden realization of how verdant the grass was. It was so, so green – something which would not be possible without the rain. And I grudgingly agreed to myself that perhaps the trade off was worth it: rain for green grass. Without water, as we know in Australia so well, there is no life, no regrowth, no refreshment and renewal.

I was also reminded about something my Aunty said after my cousin died. She said that the rain had become to her a sign of rebirth. Because it is only when a seed is planted and watered that it can grow. And God does not plant seeds and neglect to water them. There are no meaningless deaths under His mighty hand. Rather, every death brings purposeful life. Every seed is watered. Every rainfall heralds a resurrection.

Hope comes again. God’s promise to Noah in the negative is “it will not flood again” – but the positive expression is, “the sun will come again”. Joy and warmth will return; the rain does not come in vain.

So now as I walk down one of the many dirt paths, shoulders hunched and fingers clenched against the rain, I try and remember these two things. Rain brings resurrection; the sun will come again.

There have been difficult times in my travels, like in life. A moth eating through 50% of my t-shirts/long sleeves and scattering them with holes (thankyou Amelia for putting up with my complaints).

Getting fined 60 euros because no one told me to validate my train ticket and having the conductor tell me “that’s your problem, not mine”.

Returning to my room to find my locked bag busted open and my posessions scattered around (but nothing taken).

Spraining my ankle and still being unable to sit cross legged for very long (we sit on the floor in church). Catching the cold that’s flying around Taize (but not corona!). Being up all night because the food didn’t agree with me.

And yet, the sun comes out again. Joy returns. There is always hope – just like the rain will end, so will present troubles.

There were times in the past year where I couldn’t imagine they ever would. Where I felt like it would rain forever. It’s true that there are some storms that we are called to walk through our whole lives long. But perhaps even then, joy can return. The sun can burst through the clouds.

And in the meantime we walk through the rain in hope. Hope for new life, hope for resurrection. Hope because no life is meaningless and no seed is planted that will not be watered. And one day, the sun will shine again.

Reading

Because each season of life for me is flavoured, shaped and adjusted by the books I’m reading at the time, I’m currently enjoying:

Thomas`a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ

Martin Luther’s Tabletalk (selections from)

Laurie R. King’s Locked Rooms (reread)

LIFE IN THE TIME OF CORONA VIRUS

This is a last minute addition to the post because the situation in France is changing by the hour. First 1k ppl are allowed to meet, then 500, then 100, and now, from 6pm last night, no one. All non essential shops are closed, all schools and unis.

Taize itself has closed, which means we’re not welcoming any participants, and have become a closed community until at least April 19.

Volunteers from countried which have recalled its citizens and closed their borders are leaving to get home before that happens, so life’s a bit crazy and a bit unsettling at the moment here.

Still, there is nothing to do but wait and pray. I am unaffected, but praying for peace for those who have to weigh up choices and make time pressured decisions. It’s also sad having to say so many goodbyes!

Community life will also be changing. The 3x daily official prayers are cancelled and we will all have to figure out a new rhythm of work and prayer.

In the midst of all this turbulence all over the world, I have really appreciated these two resources. One is a quote from C S Lewis and the other a poem by Annie Flint – both well worth the read!

C. S. Lewis on the Coronavirus

https://library.timelesstruths.org/music/He_Giveth_More_Grace/

If you can imagine…

If you can imagine a tiny village in France, with 11th-18th century buildings covered in moss and vines, and daffodils and green paddocks stretching as far as one can see –

If you can imagine getting sunburnt one day and snowed upon the next, bare trees and blue skies, biting winds and freezing evenings –

If you can imagine two thousand Portuguese students and two hundred other individuals singing and praying three times a day in a sprawling, candle lit church –

If you can imagine being one of only two native English speakers, and having a 1/5 chance of a song being in your language, and listening while each Bible passage is read aloud in three languages (thankfully English is always included) –

20200301_110000-12018602085663628952.jpg

If you can imagine prayer first thing in the morning and last thing at night and discussion groups of individuals from every religious and non religious background imaginable –

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If you can imagine white robed Brothers in church and then the same ones in fleece jackets and slacks afterwards. If you can imagine Sisters from 3 different orders in jeans and cardigans –

If you can imagine cocoa in a bowl and bread with chocolate sticks for breakfast and some variation on pasta, green apples, beans/peas, cheese and bread for every meal –

If you can imagine long queues filled with singing Portuguese students and longer walks in the French countryside –

If you can imagine endless barricks and tents and a garden of silence complete with a lake –

If you can imagine all this, perhaps you can imagine a community called Taize.

Singapore

Brief observations…

The first thing we discovered was a siesta in the middle of the day is practically necessary to survive the heat. I am so thankful for the aircon in our hotel – it actually kept our room cooler at nights than at home!

One of my delights has been trying as many drinks as possible – I could blame it on the need to remain hydrated but really it’s just so fun! The various juices and ice-teas are cheap and there’s so much variety. From wintermelon tea to soursop juice and a milky-jelly one which to this day I have no idea what it was, each one is an experience.

Coffee is also an experience. Would you like it with sugar, condensed milk or evaporated milk plus sugar? What, you drink it unsweetened? Good luck trying to explain that… You want normal milk? Too bad. When in Rome…

Kopi and kaya toast. Very traditional

The regulated integration of cultures in Sing is also so fascinating… There are 10 official religions and each housing block by law has to contain a certain percentage of each of the main ethnicities. It means that even though “China town,” “Arab street” and “Little India” exist, community life is far more integrated than you’d expect.

Sing. really is “Asia lite” and it’s been quite nice. You don’t have to worry about water, food poisoning, language, or even transport. Very relaxing!

Meeting many solo female travellers on various walking tours has also been cool. Hearing where they’re from, which countries they’ve travelled thru, how long they’re traveling for, and why they left home has been interesting. It’s like a window into a whole new subculture – one I guess I will be part of very shortly!

Due to the corona virus, we’ve had our temperatures checked multiple times a day, on each entry to a public space and 2x daily at our hotel. It also means that several places we would have visited are closed – such as all the mosques and temples. So too are the catholic churches, altho the protestant churches seem to be open. We visited an international church on Sunday and it was lovely!

R&R for A and I has included watching the Netflix series Dracula (by the creators of Sherlock). While not particularly relaxing and with some shocking scenes, I’ve found it a fascinating attempt to update the 19th century novel by Bram Stoker and make it both relatable and applicable. Interestingly, episode 3/3 which is almost entirely not based on the novel, being set in 2020, is easily the best.

I’ve also read Good Omens (1990), after watching the tv series (2019), and spent some time pondering the differences between the two media. The modern adaptation is definitely angsty-er but also more heavy on The Power of Friendship (TM). It seems cultural expectations can shift wildly over 30 years.

A beginning…

I don’t find minimalism particularly hard, but there’s always a trade off.

Today’s one was my Bible and journal in lieu of a third pair of shoes. Ah well, I can’t wear three pairs at once anyway!

A prayer point would be that Singapore doesn’t get any more corona virus cases. I don’t want to be denied entry to Europe bc I’ve been there!

Review: Good Omens (2019)

[PS: This is obviously not travel-related. Just something I thought I should post as I tie up loose ends. Incidentally (or not) I will be reading Good Omens (book) on the plane.] 

TV series |6 episodes | Amazon Prime

Based on the eponymous novel by Neil Gaimen and (the late) Sir Terry Pratchett

Good Omens

What would happen if the angel guarding the gate of Eden, and the serpent who tempted Eve were flung down to earth and spent six thousand years together?

What would happen if they both discovered they rather liked humanity and the world in general?

What would happen if they became friends?

Good Omens, that’s what. Good Omens (starring Michael Sheen and David Tennant) follows an angel (Aziraphale) and demon (Crowley) pair as they attempt to avert the impending apocalypse and save the world, all while keeping their actions hidden from their respective bosses.

Joining them is an eleven year old Antichrist and his gang of precocious friends; a witch tasked with bearing a book of (true) prophecies; the klutzy descendant of a witch killer; a still-in-active-service witch-hunter; a middle-aged lady of questionable morals; the four horsemen of the apocalypse; a hell-hound named Dog; some vengeful demons; some up-tight arch-angels; and a black Bentley.

What could possibly go wrong?

VERDICT: A fun look at the end of the world through the eyes of a demon and angel pair who are intent on saving humanity. A cluttered cast, but enough chemistry and twists to make it worth watching.

 

What I liked

Enemies to Friends

I love the ‘enemies to friends’ trope. I love seeing unlikely duos overcoming their differences to fight on the same side, and even respect and like each other. It makes for good characterization and interesting plot developments, and was done really well here. David Tennant and Michael Sheen have great chemistry. 

Perhaps more importantly, the angel and demon retain enough of their respective ancestry to keep the viewer unsure. The demon really is selfish and at times awful, the angel really is trying to help people and be kind – and this leads to inevitable clashes. Yet at the same time, they have each rubbed off onto each other over the millennia which adds another unexpected element to the mix. It’s hard to preempt their actions which keeps things interesting. 

Let’s alter the source material

I really enjoy adaptations. I find conspiracy theories fascinating. I love the extra challenge of discerning what is true and what is false; what has changed and what remains the same. In this case the ‘source material’ is as old as time: the biblical story itself.

Is it an accurate retelling? Of course not! The facts of the biblical account are shamelessly altered to fit the story. I think this can enable those who know the original account to look at it through new lenses, which is always helpful. I also think it can be very harmful when people take Good Omens at face value, assuming it to be a correct representation. But then again, that sort of un-discerning consumption is always unhelpful. 

Of the top of my head, alterations (from evangelical canon) include:

  • The serpent is a demon named Crawly (later Crowley) who didn’t really know what he was doing
  • The angel at the east gate (Aziraphale) gives away his flaming sword to Adam and Eve to protect them
  • Holy Water is a Thing, capable of destroying demons
  • Angels and demons alike are fallible. They can both be violent, petty and out-of-touch with humanity
  • God is a female and appropriately (for plot purposes) removed and distant
  • The Antichrist is Satan’s actual son

good-omens-episode-3-crucifixion-1

[Aziraphale and Crowley watching the crucifixion]

What I didn’t like

It didn’t go far enough

I think Good Omens played it a bit safe. I understand why – political correctness; not wanting to alienate a section of the audience; plot purposes. But it could have been so much more!

We see this in a fascinating conversation about whether “The Great Plan” (which all the heavenly and hellish principalities know) and the “Ineffable Plan” (which only God knows) are actually the same, and whether all these beings are actually working for God or just themselves.

Unfortunately this helpful critique is smashed to the ground by the heavy-handed exchange that follows:

Gabriel: God does not play games with the universe.

Crowley: Where have you been?

Ultimately Good Omens uses some biblical motifs but that’s it. It’s not a sustained critique, or even a satire or parody. Which is fine… but it lingers on the border between the two camps long enough that this feels disappointing.

Still, one point I find particularly interesting is that Tracey has to “give up” being a “fallen woman” in order to get her redemption. Which seems a bit more aligned with orthodoxy than the series’ affirmation that “being human” is better than being good or evil. 

Plot over characters

The relationship between Aziraphale and Crowley lies at the heart of Good Omens, to the extent that when they are not on screen, the plot drags. There are too many characters, they often come across as a bit caricatured, and everyone knows the world isn’t really going to end.

The final episode taps into this when it resolves the “end of the world” plot halfway through, and then spends thirty minutes tidying up Aziraphale and Crowley’s future and relationship.

Unfortunately, there were some times when the plot got directly in the way of characterization.

For instance when Aziraphale calls Crowley “nice” and Crowley slams him up against a wall and begins to say “don’t call me that -” and then someone interrupts with news of the Antichrist and we move on. I think this was an opportunity to really delve into the characters, to make them defend their beliefs, to force them to confront their inner natures, and it was missed. 

Ultimately, the ‘character premise’ in Good Omens is far more interesting than the ‘plot premise.’ 

The ending was rather cliche

The race to save the world ends with the usual affirmation about humanity. Everything human and natural is good. Higher Powers and Destiny are not. The angel and demon are at their best when they are most like the humans around them. It’s all very comforting, and it is truly is touching – but I can’t help but wonder (again) couldn’t we have done more?

Sure, my heart swells to the backdrop of “A nightingale sings in Berkeley Square” and Crowley and Aziraphale toasting each other “to the world,” but it still seems like an incredibly safe ending for a premise that appeared so high stakes. 

We’ve just learned that there’s another dimension underpinning all of life, but it doesn’t really matter, does it? Pity, I could have been fooled into thinking it might.

Notable mentions

  • The twist at the end was really well done, and showcased the actors’ extraordinary ability.
  • God as narrator worked for the first episode, and worked well – but after that I felt it got a bit laboured.
  • The scene where Crowley gets drunk: “I just lost my best friend” and then Aziraphale appears: “Awfully sorry to hear that old chap.”
  • The scene where Aziraphale gives Crowley Holy Water, evidently thinking it will be used as a ‘suicide pill’ when Crowley’s superiors come to Damn him for being too nice of a demon. Crowley’s gratitude and Aziraphale’s “you go to fast for me” was one of the most moving parts of the series.
  • “Queen” playing in Crowley’s Bentley
  • Crowley having a throne in his flat and threatening his plants into good health
  • The Montage™ of them meeting through the ages
  • Adam Young’s earthly dad. I don’t know, he cracks me up.
  • Crowley as a Nanny and Aziraphale’s “party tricks”
image courtesy of: https://www.filmsjackets.com/good-omens-david-tennant-blazer; https://tvline.com/2019/06/01/good-omens-episode-3-crowley-aziraphale-friendship-cold-open-photos/

The “Carton Effect” (or, self-sacrifice in literature)

We all know the fictional ‘trope’ of “self-sacrifice.” It’s what Aslan, Harry Potter, Timothy and Jesus have in common.

I’ve recently been musing on a specific type of sacrifice ‘trope’ (for want of a better word) which seems to crop up again and again in literature. I’m calling it….

“The Carton Effect”

Sydney Carton, from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, is often expounded as a heroic example of self-sacrifice. Let’s analyse his actions.

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A biblical interpretation of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I wrote a review of sorts for the BBC series Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but it occurs to me that I have neglected to write about book by Susanna Clarke of the same name.

There are multiple book reviews for this 800 page novel on the web. Some brilliant, some dry, some which encapsulate what I believe to be the heart of the book and others which appear to miss it altogether.

There are also many critical interpretations: I’ve read essays which address social class, feminism, LGBT representation, historicism, religion, textual structure, folklore and nationalism.

I haven’t seen a Biblical interpretation (although I saw an interesting gnosticism one) and so I’d like to attempt that here. I feel, however, that I ought to state some disclaimers:

  1. By analyzing JSMN from a biblical perspective, I’m not claiming that this is how Clarke constructed the text. I am simply doing what literary critics do and reading it with a specific framework in mind.
  2. I’m also not claiming that ‘the Author is dead,’ and Clarke’s intentions don’t matter. I think that such a reading devalues the text. Nevertheless, the reader has a right to interpret to the extent that they can back their arguments with textual examples.
  3. By reading JSMN through a biblical framework, I’m not claiming it’s an allegory. There seems to be the mistaken idea that reading something “with a Christian perspective” simply involves finding a Christ-like figure and pinpointing a resurrection – as if textual interpretation is some sort of bizarre Where’s Wally? Game. It’s so much more than that.

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In defence of Fiction

This post was written in response to someone who dared to suggest in my hearing that non-fiction trumps fiction. (Don’t worry, we’re still on speaking terms!)

My defence of fiction (firstly, let’s make sure we’re on the same page)

Firstly, we cannot include the Bible in this debate. I believe that the Bible stands alone as the Word of God, a sacred text, written by the Divine. It is Truth embodied.

Secondly, we can’t say one is better than the other. To do so is to misunderstand the debate. They are both literary genres. Neither is the exclusive bulwark of Truth, although both embrace it. Non-fiction does not have the exclusive rights to ‘objectivity,’ to ‘practicality,’ or to ‘clarity’. Neither does fiction alone protect the last vestiges of ‘creativity,’ of ‘beauty,’ or of ‘refreshment’.

Fiction fulfils a different purpose to Non-fiction, but it is of equal importance, and thus deserves equal attention. This is my proposition. These, then, are my arguments:

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Allegories, themes and “emotive directions”

I am rather dismissive of allegories. As a child I found them profoundly disappointing. I’d begin reading what I thought was a “new” story.. Only to discover a quarter of a way through that I’d been “tricked” and it was actually an “old” story in disguise.

Allegories have their place… But generally not on my bookshelf. (Disclaimer: I say this having written allegories myself. Also, the Narnia series are not allegorical!)

While I dislike allegories, however, I really like “emotive directions”.

If you’ve never heard of such a term, relax. I made it up.

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