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For us there is only the trying (August update)

And… it’s time for an August review! Sit back, grab a cookie, and enjoy. Here’s what to expect:

  • An update on Thomas Clarkson
  • Thoughts on life and growth
  • Piranesi! (or, I won a book)
  • My painting I mentioned back in July
  • What I’ve been reading lately

Thomas Clarkson

Last time I spoke about Thomas Clarkson, I wrote about all the prayer which has gone into the project, by me and by others. This month I signed a contract to publish a Thomas Clarkson children’s biography! I am very excited, and overwhelmed by God’s kindness. Just because you’re passionate about something and put a lot of work in, doesn’t mean it will succeed… and when it does, it’s such a blessing. I spent August finishing and editing the manuscript, and it is which is now safely in the hands of my proof-readers (thank you!).

We’re always growing

August was a very busy, and at times stressful month, if I’m completely honest. Difficult assignments, surprise deadlines for various assignments all converging in the same week, some exhausting health problems (nothing major, just, well… exhausting!) and a burgeoning realisation that I’m a bit over COVID.

I’m grateful to God for his kindness, even so because although life is sometimes just plain Hard, in this season I have been able to see growth. We’re always growing of course, and God is making us more like him, but it’s one thing to know this, and quite another to see it. Lately I’ve noticed that Emily a year ago, five years ago, a decade ago, would have reacted differently. I have matured – spiritually, socially and emotionally. The difficult times in my life have brought forth golden fruit, even if I couldn’t see it at the time. Nothing is in vain.

So as my birthday draws near, and I realise (as I do every year) that I am not where I expected to be, or the person I expected to become, I take heart. Because my Father in heaven is working. Slowly, but surely, he is re-making me into his likeness. It’s painful and frustrating, and it takes too long, but it’s happening. So I wait in expectation and hope.

Piranesi

As some of you might know, I’m a huge Susanna Clarke fan. Up until this year she had only ever written one novel: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I loved it so much, and still think about it frequently. BUT she’s written another book! And I won a competition and for an advanced copy! And I loved it!

It took me a while to get into, and it’s very different to JS&MN, but it’s the sort of book which stays with you. You go on this strange, gripping journey, and you emerge with a new understanding of the world. Would strongly recommend.

“Nearer my God to Thee”

I realised that I never showed you the painting I mentioned ages ago. So, although it was finished before August… here it is:

I really like the story of the musicians on the Titanic. I admire their courage and their steadfastness. There’s something beautiful in their decision to play a hymn to comfort others, even as the ship went down.

Reading Lately

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine – Gail Honeyman

^ This was a lovely, heart-warming read – but what struck me most was that it was a book about healing. How often do terrible things happen to characters, only for the book to end? Or a Dark Past to be merely a plot device? That said, it’s not a book about Issues. You know, the kind which feels like it’s written so the author can tell you How Bad Drugs Are, or something. No, it’s a genuinely good book which manages to be both realistic and hilarious.

Four Quartets – T. S. Eliot

^I love Eliot’s poetry. It’s confusing and deep and absolutely beautiful. I particularly enjoyed ‘East Coker’:

“And what there is to conquer, by strength and submission, has already been discovered, once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope to emulate – but there is no competition – there is only the fight to recover what has been lost… for us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

East Coker – T. S. ELiot

Brideshead Revisited – Eugene Waugh

^ I expected not to like this… but I was pleasantly surprised. The writing is beautiful, the themes relatively thoughtful, and the subject matter interesting. For a book where not a lot happened, I couldn’t put it down!

The Wounded Healer – Henri Nouwen

^ Really interesting discussion of what it means to reach out to broken people when we ourselves are broken. I love his writing!

Othello – William Shakespeare

[watched, RSC, Youtube. Header image is from performance]

^ Talk about a tragedy. I generally prefer Shakespeare’s tragedies… but this was brutal. I think it was because, unlike Macbeth or Hamlet, there is no transcendent sort of aspect, which helps remove it from the every day (ie. no ghost, not witches, no prophecy, just evil, selfish men).

What about you? Read anything recently? How are you going with the whole COVID situation?

Images courtesy of https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/jun/12/othello-rsc-stratford-hugh-quarshie-lucian-msamati-joanna-vanderham

On returning home (May Update)

I’ve long been fascinated by the metaphor of “returning home.” It’s one which trails through all types of literature. Sometimes it’s a positive statement: home represents womb-like safety, the innocence of childhood. If only the character can return home, everything will be alright and they can begin again.

Other times it’s a more negative statement. Characters have changed. They’ve made choices and lived lives, and home becomes a place of jarring discontinuity.

I feel very blessed to admit that I feel I have received the best of both sides of returning home lately. After 14 days in government quarantine I arrived home – to both opportunities and growth.

EDIT: One of these was being published in the Eternity Newspaper – you can see my article here!

Opportunities

My family

It was so lovely to see them again, and I’ve enjoyed having regular Broadchurch-dates with my sister.

Novel re-writing

I spent a week re-writing and revising an adult historical novel for a competition. I wouldn’t have had this chance if I’d been overseas, and it was a really wonderful experience. For 8-10 hours a day I lived, breathed and re-constructed my 1879 world. I learnt a lot about writing, and refreshed my knowledge of the the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War; the British Army; The Epic of Gilgamesh; Afghanistan; and 19th century London. So fun!

NOTE: I’m looking for Beta readers… so if you’re interested in reading an adult, historical, Christian novel with a male protagonist and telling me if you liked it, let me know!

Researching

I also feel very grateful to have time to research Thomas Clarkson. I’m captivated by his story as a Christian Abolitionist in the 18th Century, the man behind Wilberforce, as it were. His life and faith are incredible testaments and still impact us today – and there’s very few (read: no) in-print biographies of him. This is my current project, and since he was a prolific writer I’m working my way through his works at the moment.

Language learning

Since full-time study for me won’t start again for a few more weeks, I have begun learning ancient (koine) Greek online. I’m still at the ‘learn the alphabet and sounds’ stage, and currently have a lot of respect for anyone who has ever learnt a language!

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Growth

Dancing in the morning

The Bible talks a lot about the Return of Joy. That come what may, though your whole world go awry, there will be dancing in the morning. This was something I had a hard time truly believing before my travels. I went through a season where I found it really difficult to hold onto hope, because it felt like so much had ‘gone wrong’.

In the past 3 months I have discovered many joys – little ones and big ones – and now I know, not just from faith, but from experience, that happiness does return. The ability to truly rejoice does come again. There may be weeping in the night, but there will also be dancing in the morning.

As long as we live we will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

There are no throw-away seasons

In the same way, before my travels I felt that certain periods of my life were ‘wasted’, best forgotten. Now, after both temporal and geographical distance, I can look back and see that they weren’t. Painful, yes. Inglorious and even embarrassing, yes. But a cosmic mistake? Never.

Likewise, I can see that the time I did get overseas, little though it was, was neither a mistake or a waste.

God does place us where he wants us

Before I left to travel I told God that I was stepping out in faith, not because I am a great woman of faith, but because I had no choice. I didn’t know where He wanted me or for how long, so I asked Him to tell me. To put me in the places he wanted me to be, and for the length he wanted me there.

It turns out that place was Yorkshire for 6 weeks, not Europe for 12 months.

God still sends miracles

Again, when I was looking into options for my sabbatical year, I told God that I wanted the impossible. I wanted to stay somewhere beautiful for weeks on end, with nothing to do save walk and read and love people. I wanted to rest. This seemed (financially and practically) impossible, so in lieu of a miracle I set about making plans which might include at least one or two of desires.

Guess what I got, in the end? Six weeks of rest, with nothing to do save walk and read and love people. I feel so grateful, and so in awe.

You only need one fixed point

I think what COVID has done for many of us (for all of us?) is ripped away everything we thought was stable. Economies, countries, education, work – all these routines and normalities we so often take for granted in Western countries. Before I left I didn’t bother taking insurance for anything except for medical, because I literally said to myself: what else could possibly happen in the countries I’m visiting which could cause me to change plans?

As it turns out, a pandemic can.

And you know what? With everything else in flux, God became my only “fixed point in a changing age” (to quote Sherlock Holmes, rather out of context) – and He was truly the only anchor I needed.

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Where to next?

My 2020 Sabbatical has turned out very different to what I expected. When I began to realise this, I started praying regularly for peace and joy amid my disappointment. Right now, I can say that God has mercifully given me much peace and joy. I have to admit now that I am home, I am not weeping the loss of “normal life” much at all. I wake up in the morning and my schedule is rather heavenly: Read X, Read Y, Read Z, Learn Greek, Pray, Read the Bible, Learn more about God, Run, Call a friend, Watch Broadchurch with my sister.

This will be the last in my series of ‘intentional sabbatical posts,’ so I’ll leave you, like the other times, with the books that have been shaping my thoughts:

Reading

The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition, Volume II – Thomas Clarkson

The Contemplative Pastor – Eugene Peterson

A Portraiture of Quakerism, Volume I – Thomas Clarkson

Locked Rooms – Laurie R. King (still…)

This list looks non-fiction heavy, but since the last post I also enjoyed: Faust – Johann Goethe (English trans.); Sabriel – Garth Nix; The Raven Boys (re-read) – Maggie Stiefvater; The Nine Tailors – Dorothy L. Sayer.

Also, more on Thomas Clarkson: A biography of Thomas Clarkson – Ellen Wilson; The History etc. Volume I – Thomas Clarkson.

 

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

I want a funeral like hers…

I was too young to remember the funerals of my biological Omas, but today I attended the funeral of my Oma-Friend (as she would sign off her letters), and I want to talk about it.

Not because I enjoy morbid topics, or because her life changed the world (although it did change mine, and for the better), or even because I am one of the few people who get the precious chance of a third Oma, but because I want a funeral like hers.

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The Lays of Ancient Rome

I’ve always been interested in how literature reflects and affects society. Perhaps that’s why I am fascinated by the Lays of Ancient Rome. On the other hand, it could just be because they sound cool.

The Lays are a collection of poems by Thomas Babington Macaulay. They are Roman ballads, set in Ancient Rome about Roman heroes, yet were written in 1842 by a Victorian gentleman.

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How to hold (your) AMBITION lightly

What is ambition?

When I think of ambition, I see someone fighting tooth and nail to get to the top of their career ladder… and to be honest, that’s not me.

When I think of ambition, I imagine an athlete, struggling to stay ahead of their peers, striving for Olympic gold… and to be honest, that’s not me.

When I think of ambition, I picture a work-a-holic father, shutting out his family and surviving on toast and beans in his desire for success… and to be honest, that’s not me.

And yet, I’ve come to realise over the years that ambition can take different forms. Or perhaps what I am about to describe is not ambition exactly – and yet ambition is the best word I’ve found so far to describe it.

Being unable to sleep at night because the ideas keep coming. I could do this, and that, and this again… that’s me.

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My Novel Journey

The Book

There’s a book I’ve been writing for a long time, and it’s gone through many evolutions. It began when I was fifteen or sixteen and I read something online which made me wonder: what would the Sherlock Holmes series have been like if Holmes and Watson met during the Anglo-Afghan war?

Then I thought: what would it have been like for any two people of such distinct personalities to meet in a trench? What if a masterful, proud man was terrified of the war – what if he were battle shy or blood sick yet refused comfort? How would another character uncover his secret and comfort him?

But then I asked: well, what if there was more than this masterful character’s personality standing in the way? What if there was some huge social divide – and offering comfort became a question of morality rather than mere humanity?

What if the masterful, proud, terrified man was a murderer?

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