Risky Business

On New Year’s Eve, a question was asked of the table at which I was seated: “What did you learn in 2016 and what would you like to master in 2017?”

As reflective, end of year questions go, it was a pretty good one. Not too cheesy;  not uber-religious (given as it was a mixed crowd); and it could be interpreted in a few ways.

I probably could have answered it multiple times over. Looking at my list of 2016 Firsts [yes, I still do this – less intentionally, more reflectively realising what I’d done for the first time in the past year], there were plenty of things I’d learned. Including:

  • How to take a funeral.
  • A huge number of film-related factoids, thanks to regular attendance at the BFI’s monthly MK3D nights – when Mark Kermode shares his wisdom.
  • How to lead a Transformational Index workshop on my own. [Now a significant part of my freelance income.)
  • More about gin. Specifically, which gins I like. (Still not found many that I don’t like!)
  • That it’s possible to walk from Gare du Nord to Gare d’Austerlitz and really is the best way to combat French strike action in Paris.
  • How to preside at the Eucharist.

Some lessons were simply the natural course for the stage of ministry I’m at. Some were delightful happenings. Other lessons were less of a joy and more of a necessity. But I’ve learned a lot all the same.

However, it wasn’t anything from that list that came to mind on New Year’s Eve. In fact, it wasn’t a specific event or experience, it was an attitude. In 2016, I learnt that I can take risks and it will be ok. And if it doesn’t turn out ok, that can be fine too.

I’m not a natural risk taker. My Myers-Briggs profile is ISTJ (some readers will at this point nod sagely and understand exactly what this means…) I am an introvert and a planner. I don’t do spontaneity well. I like to know what’s next. Someone once commented that my love of walking across London is indicative of my personality type: it’s time alone with my thoughts (or podcasts) and I always know exactly how long it will take to reach my destination because traffic/other people won’t interfere with my journey time. They were pretty spot on.

It’s not that as 2016 dawned I decided to become a risky person. It just sort of happened and it was good.

The example I shared on NYE was from my adventures this year at the BFI. Back in February I went to my first MK3D event. I knew that in the room were people who I’d communicated with on Twitter, but I didn’t intentionally set out to meet any of them. When I returned in March, I noticed that a few of them were sitting together and so, with all my extrovertedness mustered, I approached them in the bar afterwards and asked if I could join them for a drink. I don’t do that sort of thing – ever! But it worked. We’re now a committed foursome and sit together at each event. We all agreed in December that becoming friends was a definite highlight of the year.

It may not sound that incredible, but as friends who heard about it at the time commented, it just wasn’t something I’d usually do.

Fast-forward to the summer and the planning of a holiday to the States. I discovered a while ago that my sister has coined the term “Doing a Liz”, to describe my habit of jetting off to some semi-exotic location simply on the premise that I have friends there. She has never travelled alone. I thrive on it.

Usually, these trips are pretty well planned. I know where I’m going, where I’m staying, who I’ll see and when I’ll get there. Over the last few years, my trips have increasingly involved friends who are my MBTI opposites. There’s less planning, more spontaneity. I’m getting better at having a flexible schedule (to a degree). But on that October trip to the States I left a whole weekend blank. I was hopeful that it would be spent in Virginia, but I’d not been able to lock down the details. I’d told the friend I was staying with in New York that I’d probably be with them on the Monday, but that there was an element of uncertainty around it – if things went wrong, perhaps I’d end up there sooner.

I took a risk. A previous version of me may well have said that it was a ridiculous plan (or non-plan) and booked to go straight from DC to NYC. It all worked out. In fact, it worked out better than I might ever have been able to plan it – including a car-ride from Northern Virginia all the way to Brooklyn (what are the chances that someone will need to make an 8 hour drive to your destination on the same day you need to be there??). I had a great time and returned home so thankful that I had *not* planned the trip to within an inch of its life.

As if to cement 2016 as something of a risk-taking year, I celebrated New Year’s Eve back in Virginia on a trip that ranks as the most spontaneous bit of international travel I’ve ever undertaken. Friends were heading out there before a work trip to North Carolina and I had unexpectedly secured Sunday January 1st off work – cue space for a decent length holiday. But the actual trip booking? The week before Christmas. That is decidedly uncharacteristic Liz behaviour – but my goodness, how much did I need that trip!!

Thinking about this theme of risk in the early days of the new year, I’ve been struck that actually, riskiness has been a bigger part of my life since I got ordained. Not so much because of ordination, but because I took up a half-stipend job, trusting that I’d be able to muster enough freelance work to make up the difference. Financially I’ve not quite managed the other half of my stipend, but every time I’ve finished a piece of work a new piece has shown up pretty quickly. As 2017 dawned, I’ve got two pretty exciting projects on the table and the prospect of more to come. The risk is paying off.

A dear friend who was with me on both my American adventures in 2016 has told me more than once how proud she is of me. (Each time emphasising very sweetly that she doesn’t mean it in any kind of a patronising way!) It’s not that she wants me to live in a particularly risky way, but that taking certain risks is demonstrative of confidence – confidence in myself and perhaps most importantly, confidence that God has got this.

It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve taken risks, but I think in 2016 I realised how important it can be – even when the risks don’t quite work out how you expect them to. In fact, especially when they don’t!

Appropriately enough, on January 4th, in Durham NC, I discovered this print in the rather fabulous Parker & Otis:

The plan is that it’ll hang on the wall and help me face the risks of 2017. I will not be afraid. Even when I get stuck into the thing I said I was looking to master…

…driving. Yep. 2017 could actually be the year I knuckle down, feel the fear and do it anyway. God help me and all other road users!

2016 Firsts

As has been traditional since 2010, I’m beginning 2017 by attempting to chronicle all the things I did in the preceding year that were ‘firsts’. These days, instead of keeping a running list, I use my iPhone’s camera roll as a memory jogger and compile the list at some point in the first days of the new year. I’m really only posting it so that it’s stored somewhere. Plus, it came up in conversation on New Year’s Eve, so it seems appropriate to still keep up the habit.

So, 2016’s Firsts:

Celebrated Epiphany with port.
Experienced London Lumiere.
Attended my first burial.
Toured behind the scenes of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Passed a Theology MA.
Listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. [And become obsessed.]
Facilitated a TI workshop solo.
Watched the pancake races at the Guildhall on Shrove Tuesday.
City hacked London.
Drunk gin at a gin palace.
Taken chums to Belfast.
Attended MK3D at the BFI.
Attended the installation of a priest.
Lived in Highbury.
Walked the New River Path.
Met (and joined) the ‘Blimey Charlie’s Angels’.
Watched the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice.
Led Good Friday meditations.
Waterboarded a bathroom.
Travelled by bus in Paris.
Seen Sunset Boulevard.
Watched Glenn Close perform live.
Visited a prison.
Eaten afternoon tea on a bus.
Hung out at the London Aquatics Centre.
Played in the Highbury Fields playground.
Watched someone have radiotherapy.
Been a judge for an awards ceremony.
Walked from Gare du Nord to Gare d’Austerlitz.
Owned steel toe capped wellies.
Visited a strawberry festival.
Tiled a bathroom.
Drunk Lynchburg Lemonade.
Plastered a ceiling.
Swum in Lac St Helene.
Visited Eymoutiers.
Bought a book at Shakespeare & Company.
Owned an iPhone SE.
Stayed at St Neots retreat centre.
Ordained priest.
Drunk at the East London Gin Distillery.
Presided at the Eucharist.
Listened to the You Must Remember This podcast.
Used the secret railway to Moorgate.
Voted in an EU Referendum.
Attended a memorial in Trafalgar Square.
Worshipped in Chelmsford Cathedral.
Joined Snapchat.
Attended a rally in Highbury Fields.
Owned a Kenwood.
Lost a grandparent.
Helped lead a funeral.
Hot tubbed in Forest Gate.
Made Lynchburg Lemonade.
Broken a toe.
Watched a play on the Camden Fringe.
Made raspberry gin.
Listened to Harry Potter & the Sacred Text.
Climbed to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Hunted for Dream Jars.
Visited a parishioner in a hospice.
Watched Groundhog Day, the musical.
Explored the Hampstead pergola.
Hunted for rhinos in Exeter.
Baked raspberry & dark chocolate scones.
Experienced Friends Fest.
Slept in my parents’ new home.
Drunk a Pumpkin Spice Frappaccino.
Explored a tube station covered in cats.
Visited the Museum of the Docklands.
Stayed in Capitol Hill district.
Shown an American their capital city.
Run in DC.
Had a gel manicure. (By a male manicurist.)
Shared a cocktail served in a fish bowl.
Toured DC monuments by night.
Travelled through DC by bus.
Explored the National Cathedral.
Ridden on a double-decker train.
Stayed in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Kissed in America.
Eaten Sprelly.
Brunched at a Cracker Barrel.
Road-tripped from Virginia to NYC.
Travelled through NYC by car.
Visited the Tenement Museum.
Watched Jimmy Fallon rehearse.
Drunk at the Boat House in Central Park.
Assisted at a confirmation.
Graduated with a MA in Theology.
Watched Harry Potter & the Cursed Child.
Attended the fireworks in Victoria Park.
Visited Leicester Cathedral.
Made a cake in the shape of Thunderbirds 2.
Sous-cheffed Thanksgiving.
Conducted my first funeral & burial.
Watched In The Heights.
Played Mission Possible.
Heard Rowan Williams speak.
Baked Maids of Honour.
Presided at Midnight Mass.
Hosted family Christmas.
Flown into DC.
Celebrated New Years in a different country.

The lady cement mixer

“And amongst their number is a lady cement mixer…”

The Bishop of London’s deep tones rang out across the congregation gathered for ordinations at St Paul’s Cathedral, and as he did so, people sitting near me conferred quietly. “Who *is* this lady cement mixer??” they murmured – for, amongst those being ordained, this was the second reference to this mysterious woman in just two days. From the seat behind, my sister giggled, she had guessed the answer. My mother apparently hadn’t, for several hours later,  she asked me who it was – to which the response came from more than one person gathered there: “It’s Liz of course!!”

In my defence, I had been asked to complete a form that shared some information about myself with the Bishop. What did I enjoy doing in my spare time? What hobbies did I have? There was even an instruction to be a little bit different. So I shared my hobby of house renovation in France, complete with the acquisition of the skill of cement mixing. And thus, I became “the lady cement mixer”.

IMG_7282Lady cement mixer at work. The stuff gets EVERYWHERE.

It’s embarrassing. Not because I am in any ashamed of my Chateau Duffy skills, but because there are probably people who heard the Bishop’s words and thought to themselves: “How wonderful!! Not only was a woman working on a building site, but she then felt a call from God and is now ordained! Fantastic. London is such a diverse church!!” When in fact the truth is that a terribly middle class woman has some slightly odd hobbies – hobbies that actually, she shouldn’t tell churches too much about, because otherwise they’ll want her to start fixing things!

The Bishop’s words were uttered a year ago last week. [Confession: this post was sitting in drafts for ages! My ordination birthday is July 4th…] I’m officially a Reverend of one year’s standing! But they came back to me last month, as I not only mixed more cement (as apparently it’s believed I’m the only person who knows how to do – I am not!), but also learnt about plastering and how to tile a bathroom. Pretty soon I could start my own business…

Perhaps I shouldn’t be quite so embarrassed by the Bishop’s fascination with the female ordinand who can mix cement. After all, how many people do you know who can mix cement? How many of them are women?? Do any of them do it for fun?

Liz the vicarThe lady cement mixer in her natural habitat…

One of the many things that Chateau Duffy has taught [and it’s categorically taught me A LOT], is that I love breaking gender stereotypes. I knew this already (hello lady vicar), but the world of building sites is so dominated by one gender that it feels more noticeable there. Am I as strong as other people? Not necessarily. Am I happy to scamper across the roof or to balance precariously upon things? Nope. But do either of these things have much to do with my gender? Not really. [I concede that the men are generally stronger, but that doesn’t have to be a gender thing. I am very anti the cries of “Can we have some men to help with…” that go up at events when some marginally heavy lifting needs to be done.]

On our most recent trip, there was a day on site when I was the only woman present. I actually didn’t realise this initially – I was ankle deep in mud, standing in a 1 metre deep trench and it was difficult to see anything that was going on that wasn’t to do with the removal of mud and rocks. I was proudly putting to use my brand new steel toe capped wellies [an emergency purchase the day before after an old Primark pair split – they were a massive bargain courtesy of my favourite ex-pat], while desperately trying to clear the last few inches of the trench. But when another woman popped by and pointed out my unique status

Trench WelliesCaught between a rock and a hard place. (Standing in 1st position – because of lack of space) 

My job wasn’t super hard. I was following behind a friend using a pick axe (and later a jack hammer) – they broke up the rock and I removed it. It was tedious and tricky. The trench was too narrow for feet to stand side by side, so there was some physical dexterity required, plus a little ingenuity when the spade became too wide for the trench. And thus I found myself putting skills acquired during pilates to excellent use: standing on one leg, the other hooked up on the ground above the trench; and one arm stretched out over the ground while the other clutched a trowel – in this position I was able to do an elegant and safe bend down to the bottom of the trench. (And looked ridiculous, but no matter, it worked.)

Trophy gloryMy efforts in the trench even earned me a trophy!  

The thing with Chateau Duffy is that it’s completely dependent upon team-work, and the willingness of individuals to pitch in at whatever level they’re capable of. Some people turn up who are trained architects, builders, plumbers or general DIY-y type people. Other people come with other important gifts – like cooking amazing meals for large groups of people. And yet others – myself included – turn up to learn new skills, pitch in wherever’s needed, and generally do their bit for the greater good of seeing the building finished. One day. One day…

I work hard because it’s fun. I love a challenge. I want a place to go on holiday to in the future. And, because I really like the novelty of being a female vicar who knows her way around a building site. It’s not so much “This girl can” as “this lady vicar can”. Can, does, will and LOVES it.

Discovering your family’s twin…

It’s not uncommon to discover that those with whom you become friends in later life have had an upbringing similar to your own – like attracts like after all. But there are occasions on which this fleeting similarity turns into a vision of an almost identical childhood, and quite frankly, there is one particular set of friends where the similarities are now spooky. It’s less “Oh! How funny! We had that too!” and more “Ah, ok, yes we had exactly the same thing…again.”

The Kilverts and the Clutterbucks have known each other in some form since 1997. Clutterbuck Maximus (myself) and Kilvert Maximus (Jenni) met through singing, and our younger siblings joined the happy singing throng a year or two later. It’s been nearly 19 years and it’s now official that we practically had exactly the same upbringing.

Minimii & MaximiiWe are so cool that in 2008 we had Minimus & Maximus hoodies created! Clutterbucks Minimus & Maximus (left), Kilverts Minimus & Maximus (right). The Morris sisters (centre) literally did share a childhood with the Kilverts…

It began with the simple things: similar values around after school activities and wholesome holiday adventures; clothes from 80’s classic retailer Clothkits; and a lack of frivolous games (looking at you Mr Frosty). It’s the kind of thing Buzzfeed could turn into a listicle, which if posted on Facebook would garner likes from a good number of friends.

Then it turned out that on more than one occasion, there was the possibility that we would actually have grown up together. In 1982 my family moved to Wealdstone in Harrow where Dad became minister of the local Methodist Church – the very one which my friends’ family had attended until a move to Harpenden a little while earlier. (This particular gem was discovered by our mothers while on the London Eye, they realised they had mutual friends as a result.) Over a decade later, there was a possible job in the very same town – it ended up not being a match, but had it been, I would have met Jenni two whole years before we actually did.

This past week featured a long discussed trip to Belfast for the Kilverts & Clutterbucks [well, the Kilvert, Clutterbuck, Barrett & Monks] – I think we’ve only been talking about it since 2004! We were fairly certain it would be a success because Belfast is wonderful, and despite them having spent less time with our parents than we have with theirs, our identical childhoods would ensure all would be fine. And it was.

As if to affirm our theory, during the trip we found physical evidence that cemented it. Our arrival coincided with the delivery of a box of photos sent by my aunt to my mum for safe keeping. [Fascinating in itself, especially due to some ridiculously strong genes that I’ve inherited.] Perusing the photos was an amusing pre-dinner activity (thank you aunt for including more than one photo of me naked in a paddling pool), not least because of a few similarities that cropped up.

First of all, photos from my third birthday, featuring an incredible Postman Pat cake, baked by my mother just hours before she went into hospital to have my sister.

Liz's Postman Pat

The Kilvert sisters recalled a similar cake baked by their mother and a text was sent to obtain photographic evidence:

Upon seeing the photo, my mother exclaimed “But we had the same dress that Gill’s wearing!” The rest of the family murmured agreement, and we (well I) carried on sorting through the box of photos. One was identified by my sister as ‘the epitome of sisterhood’ – given the disgruntled look on my face in the presence of my younger sibling.

The epitome of sisterhood

And then we realised, the dress I was wearing was the very same dress mum had identified in the Kilvert photo (albeit with the collar a bit tucked up under my chin). Voila:

One could argue that it’s simply a coincidence that is likely to emerge from being born in similar years and brought up in the same culture, but I think the Clutterbucks and Kilverts would like to see it as a sign from heaven that our friendship was always meant to be!

Oh, and we had a pretty nifty time in Belfast too. Much cake was eaten (although, as my mother commented, we never ate a whole piece – preferring to divide all cakes between us!) and the best and worst of Irish weather experienced. As always, the time passed too quickly!

Plane selfieThree of #4gotoBelfast on board their flight.

Girls at the dockEnjoying Belfast’s ‘honesty box’ cafe – The Dock – and their red-hot heating!

Girls at CausewayAt the Giant’s Causeway the day they take the postcard photos…

Giants Causeway Panorama

 

The First Nowell

There ought to be a badge for curates that declares: “I survived my first ordained Christmas!” – such is the achievement of getting through one’s very first festive season as a member of clergy. The services, the sermons, the lunches, the drinks parties, the children’s parties, the Christingle making, the carols…

I guess a part-time curate’s first Christmas could be considered slightly less of an achievement? Yes and no.

Yes, because I didn’t do the full slog of Christmas services. Thanks to still being a commuting curate, reliant upon London Transport (which ceases to exist from 9pm on Christmas Eve), I missed Midnight Mass. (Also thanks to there being two other clergy present to divide preaching and presiding between themselves.)

But I did preach my very first Christmas Day sermon – complete with photos of some gems from the Clutterbuck Nativities Collection, and a legendary pop diva in the congregation. [I kid you not on that last point. Fortunately I didn’t find out about that until after the service!] I travelled through deserted London streets courtesy of a Muslim taxi driver who spent most of the journey quizzing me on how to cook a turkey – as I’ve never cooked one, I really wasn’t much help, but did recommend Delia’s Christmas.

Inuit NativityFor some reason, the Inuit Nativity got a lot of laughs in my sermon…

Being part-time means that there’s an awful lot to pack into the two weekdays that I’m at the church. Which can have interesting consequences – like the December Wednesday when my very first school assembly (on King Herod & lying) was preceded by the over 60’s Christmas lunch. I love the over 60’s group! They’ve made me an honorary member of their coterie, and that allows me to attend their monthly lunches. The Christmas lunch was talked about for several weeks beforehand, with references to sherry and wine plentiful. On the day in question, we wrapped up our 10.30 midweek service a bit before 11.30 and immediately, out came the sherry. A particularly spritely 88 year old offered me a glass, insisting that I should have something, after all, assembly wasn’t till 3pm – I relented an asked for a very small glass. I’m not sure what a large would have looked like, as I was handed a regular wine glass that was two-thirds full of sherry! [Needless to say, it was not drained empty!]

Downside of being part-time? Missing some of the Christmas lunches. Upside? Not having quite so many enforced mince pie eating occasions!

To be honest, the biggest Christmas challenge was never going to be the work, but the fact that it was different to any other Christmas I’d had before. I’ve grown up with church-orientated Christmasses – where the priority was getting one, two, three or even four services done between Christmas Eve morning and Christmas dinner! I’ve been hauled into action on grey Christmas mornings to support parents’ leading worship – regardless of whether or not I was indulging in my semi-annual Christmas cold. But it turns out it’s rather different when it’s you that has the church to look after!

Christmas 2015 was the first Christmas I’ve ever spent away from all my family. It was the first Christmas that my parents would spend with neither daughter with them. A tad daunting, but I have amazing alternative families…

A campaign had been underway to get me to spend Christmas Day in Harpenden for over a year – and where better place to spend Christmas than with a family of people you’ve known for over half your life, and who appear to have had a near-identical upbringing! Christmas with the Kilverts was different to a Clutterbuck Christmas (fewer nativities for starters), but it was good different – including Christmas quizzing, Christmas cheese, Christmas present notebooks [still reeling from the organisation level displayed on this one], and the Queen. Yes, the Queen. For the first time IN MY LIFE I watched the Queen’s speech. And you know what? It was really rather good and something to be stored away for a future sermon illustration. Anyway, huge thanks to the Kilvert clan for trekking to Highbury on Christmas Day, being in my congregation, and then taking me home with you and making me feel so much a part of the family!!

The other alternative family was of course my London one. For a city whose population seems to flee in a mass exodus in the week leading up to Christmas, it was a surprise to discover that so many Matryoshka Haus-ites were in town over the holidays. Christmas Eve-Eve was spent enjoying great food with great company in the new building, while the following night was a lovely extended family meal at home. [Christmas: when three roast dinners in four days is considered not in the least bit excessive!] Celebrating Christmas with friends, my honorary niece & nephew [“aunty Liz” appears to be catching on as a moniker with the smallest housemates] was lovely and more than made up for the lack of actual family.

Oh, and I put Father Christmas to the test and won. Twice. Stocking gifts arrived from Belfast, and then on Christmas morning a Christmas miracle occurred! A stocking full of another set of presents arrived at my bedroom door. So it’s official, Father Christmas *does* exist!

Christmas Stocking

 

Well done fellow Deacons for surviving Christmas. Now, bring on Easter!