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!

Verdant Vermont

One might say too verdant. Surely the first weekend in October would mean guaranteed fall colours in New England?? Perhaps, and there were some, but apparently I was a couple of weeks early for peak season. No matter, even without full autumnal spectrum, the colours of Vermont are pretty spectacular.

Fall glimpses in B'boro

Fall glimpses in B'boro

I almost didn’t go to Vermont on this trip. (I know, ridiculous!) At one stage in the planning process, I’d wanted to tack NYC onto the end of a week in Dallas (y’know, because of SUN, HEAT and well, friends…). Mentioning my proposed presence in NYC to Ian, a dear friend unseen in over 5 years, and Vermont resident for a similar length of time, he recommended a train trip up to New England – which was very tempting. Texas and Vermont couldn’t both be done, but an occasionally wise friend pointed out a few things to me: 1. I like long train journeys. 2. I love New England. 3. I love autumn. 4. I’ll always be able to go to Texas another time. And 5. I really needed a proper refreshing break, which a week in TX wasn’t necessarily going to be.

Mass view

And thus, after over 5 hours travelling on a spacious, comfy, virtually deserted Amtrak train, I alighted at Brattleboro. A town in the southern most tip of Vermont – in fact, I could see New Hampshire from the train station, just over the Connecticut River. [Can we take a moment to praise the wonder of Amtrak? Yes, it’s slow. Yes, driving is cheaper. Yes there’s only 1 train between NYC & VT a day. But the views! The wide seats! The space! The tracking app friends can use to monitor your progress! The free wifi! We will say slightly less about their rail replacement bus service on my return – except to say that despite leaving an hour later, it got to its destination 20 minutes early. That’s a win.]


Got to be said, I didn’t know much about Vermont before I got there. From conversations with Ian, I knew bits and pieces – I knew quite a bit about Bernie Sanders; I knew Chick-Fil-A was banned;I knew my friends Ian and Adam had been able to marry there in 2010; and I knew that it’s one of the most liberal states in the US. [Can you guess what kinds of things Ian posts on Facebook??]

How would I describe VT now, having spent all of 72 hours there? Well, it’s got to be said, there are a lot of positives – even leaving aside the gorgeous countryside and incredibly clean air. Did you know that billboard roadside advertising has been banned in the state since 1968? Why? So that people can see the trees and mountains, obviously!! There is the distinct impression that everyone cares – about the environment, the local economy, ethical farming, civil rights and kale. There are a lot of feelings about kale…


The ‘Eat More Kale’ guy is a legend – he took on Chick-Fil-A and won. Plus, he now makes Bernie Sanders merchandise…

Brattleboro has no chain stores downtown (except a Subway that somehow snuck in). There’s a food co-op instead of a grocery chain, cute gallery/knick knack shops aplenty, a shop dedicated to the state of Vermont, and plenty of independent cafes. Oh, and there are four bookstores, including one that specialises in social justice books (and bumper stickers) and a gorgeous second-hand maze. There are local dairies making local cheeses, plus the whole industry around maple syrup – from the liquid gold, to candies, and to booze. God bless maple syrup combined with distilleries! It’s basically Stars Hollow – especially once you get to the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market by the river…

Oh, and did you know that Rudyard Kipling wrote the Jungle Book in Brattleboro?? (In buildings that are now part of the campus on which my friend Ian now works.) Yep, a classic tale of South Asian jungle was written in a room looking out onto a New England forest. Obviously…

I returned to the Big Apple full of enthusiasm for the state, practically signing up to move there asap. Then I got on a subway, went out for cocktails, visited a public transit museum and shopped at Target – and in the process, the dream of Vermont life faded into memory.

Ian, Adam & a covered bridgeThanks to Ian, Adam and the covered bridges of Vermont! 

In praise of St Lydia’s

My trip to the States was essentially a “hooray for finishing my MA, let’s have a well deserved break” kind of holiday. It had been nearly 3 months since ordination and life had been pretty full-on, with getting to know Christ Church, my MA thesis and a freelance research project. It was to be a time for R&R and a complete break from life in London.

One might have assumed that that would mean a break from churches – but no. In fact, in my first 24 hours in NYC I managed to spend time in four different churches! Out of 7 nights spent in the city, five were spent participating in some kind of church activity. This is possibly what one might call a bus man’s holiday, but in my defence not only did it result in new friends, it also gave me a really interesting insight into the issues at the forefront of churches in this part of the US – from LGBT rights and inclusion, to race and church segregation – which was fascinating to reflect upon, comparing with the UK.

My first stop, having landed at JFK and taken the A-train into Brooklyn, was a church – St Lydia’s to be precise – where Hannah (my host) works and which had been cited in the MA thesis I’d handed in just ten days previously. It is a community that enacts one of the most fascinating acts of Eucharist (communion) that I’d ever participated in. Having read a lot about it and heard many stories from Hannah (and a member of Matryoshka Haus who’d recently got to know it too) it was high on my list of places to visit in NYC!

St Lydia'sImage credit.

My thesis was on the subject of how the Church of England could make Eucharist more a part of the mission of the church, and hospitable in the way that (I and others argue) Jesus and Paul intended it to be. St Lydia’s seemed to me to be a brilliant embodiment of this. Every Sunday and Monday night, the community comes together for ‘dinner church’ in its store front home, where the communion is celebrated around a table to which all are welcome. The elements (the bread and the wine) are shared in the context of this meal, and it aims to foster the genuine inclusivity of the Kingdom of God.

Preparing for dinner church

I was expecting to be fascinated by the service – I did not expect, over the course of such a short space of time, to be so embraced by a community who were all but strangers to me. I could wax lyrical about the meals, but for starters, I just want to highlight a few things that really struck me.

  • Dinner Church is essentially sung Eucharist. Simple songs were taught and repeated (and clearly repeated week in and week out, so many knew them well) as part of the liturgy. They were accompanied by a box accordion and simple drumming that might to a stranger seem indicative of ‘hipster Brooklyn’, but were in fact just instruments that really fitted the context.
  • There was a healthy respect for the elements and an elevation of the Eucharist’s role within the community. This is exactly what my thesis was trying to get at – all too easily in the CofE we can make Eucharist a part of worship that we do without thinking, or in some circles, do too infrequently. Here it’s at the centre and drives the life of the community. It is at the table where relationships are formed and lives shared – it was the truest ‘foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet’ I have yet experienced on earth.
  • Name tags might seem cheesy, but at St Lydia’s I was touched by the impact they can have upon building relationships. A name tag enables you to offer your neighbour the bread or wine using their name – which I think has a profound effect upon the act. [I am still in awe of a college tutor who would give the bread using the name of the recipient at college worship, I watched him get the names of over 50 people correct!!] It also meant that people would readily start a conversation with “So Liz, how have you ended up here?” – perhaps helped by American confidence, but use of someone’s name helps them to really feel at home. (Plus my name tag went into a box ready to be used on subsequent visits…)
  • People really were open to sharing their life stories with one another. After the short sermon was a time of response, related to the topic. British me was surprised at how keen people were to share personal information and stories to a group that would always include some who were unknown to them. Even more incredibly, by Dinner Church number 3, I was willing to share too! [Also, have you ever heard a sermon where the response was to design a tattoo??]

My name is Liz

I’ve brought home with me lots of ideas – for church, for my ministry and for Matryoshka Haus. In the case of the latter, it was the very practical divvying up of tasks when cleaning up after dinner! Washing up or fixing tables not only means everyone is sharing responsibility for the task, but also provides great getting-to-know you opportunities. I would love to try this kind of service myself, in some form, once I’m priested next summer. It’s also confirmed to me that ideas I included in my thesis are possible! The church just needs to get a little bit more creative.*

The table is set

St Lydia’s isn’t just dinner church – there’s a new ‘waffle church’ (a version of messy church where stickiness is definitely an end result) and a vespers service, as well as one-off talks and community events. My final New York evening was spent listening to Phyllis Trible lecture on feminist theology – which I’m sure is everyone’s idea of an excellent way to spend one’s last night in the Big Apple! Whatever, I enjoyed it! I also loved being made to feel so welcome by Emily and Julia and everyone else who makes up the community there – especially the one evening when out of a gathering of 24 people, four of us were Elizabeths or Lizs!

If the long-term plan to do a PhD is realised, and I base it upon the groundwork I’ve done through my MA, I’m vaguely hopeful of spending some more time with St Lydia’s in the future, but until then, thank you guys! It was a real joy.


*On the subject of my thesis, I realise I’ve not said anything much about it. To be honest, as I’m still at the “Argh! It’s probably all rubbish!” stage of awaiting my grade, it’s not a great time to go into much detail. But its official title was: ‘Communion Table or Communal Table. What can Anglican practice of the Eucharist learn from the communal table of the missional community?’ Suffice to say, I now know a surprising amount about certain sections of Canon Law…

New York Transitting

“You’ve been following the museum’s Twitter account for nearly four years and you don’t even live in the country??” 

It was at this moment that I realised one of my hosts did not fully appreciate the level of my public transportation geekdom. Yes, I had been following @NYTransitMuseum since 2011. No, I had not been to NYC since 2009. No, I did not think this was weird. [They post archive photos and tidbits of American transit knowledge – plus, every so often they have a chat with the @ltmuseum!]

Obviously, a trip to the museum had to be included on my travel itinerary, and by fortunate twist of fate, it happened to be only ten minutes walk from my hosts’ apartment in Brooklyn. Incredibly, they hadn’t visited in the year that they had been living in the neighbourhood! I mean, seriously?? But both felt like it was a suitable post Sunday brunch activity, and joined me in the transport geekery fun.

Three have fun in the NYC Transit Museum

For anyone who has experienced the multiple levels of the London Transport Museum, the New York version is on the small side. However (and it’s a big however) New York’s museum is only in a FLIPPING DISUSED SUBWAY STATION!!! Hello ultimate geek heaven! Transit history AND a disused station?? My goodness!

The disused (but still live) platforms are put to great use, housing a history of subway carriages – which, quite honestly, was a highlight for everyone. Carriage design doesn’t seem to have changed too dramatically in recent decades, but the adverts certainly have. I think we got as much joy out of their bizarre-ness and political incorrect-ness as a little kid dressed in his own MTA uniform had jumping on and off the carriages! [Seriously, I wish I’d asked to take a photo of him – it was clearly a clever home-made job for a transport mad 3 year old. Soooo cute!]  A selection are below, without comment…








What the museum does a great job of is charting the progress of some pretty iconic NYC transit things – like the train carriages. We appreciated the collection of historic turnstiles and subway tokens immensely – working out which ones would have been functioning on previous visits to the Big Apple, and (obviously) discussing the relative merits of New York’s turnstiles and MetroCards versus London’s ticket barriers and Oyster cards. [Clearly London wins on that front, although NYC gets bonus points for not needing to touch out.]

Special mention should also be given to the current featured exhibition ‘Bringing back the City’, featuring three different disasters in recent years (9/11, Hurricane Sandy and a power outage that none of us had heard of!), their impact upon public transit, and the MTA’s response. The 9/11 section was particularly fascinating, partly because the impact was huge (some of the network still isn’t functioning properly) and partly because the response was incredible. Did you know that up to 40 new transit maps were issued PER DAY in the first days after the attack?? In a pre smartphone world, these, plus staff with loud hailers, were the only way in which to get information out to passengers.

My only regret about the visit was that my stay in NYC didn’t coincide with any of the tours they give of another abandoned station – the beautiful City Hall station which closed in 1945. It would have been worth a membership fee for the museum and the $50 ticket for that experience!

Borough Hall Station

Fortunately, the station I used the most (Brooklyn’s Borough Hall) is considered another excellent example of subway design… 

Pumpkin spice and all things nice

When one visits the USA at any point between August and Thanksgiving, it is compulsory to consume as many pumpkin products as is physically possible. During the 10 days that I was resident this autumn, I’d like to think that I more than did my part in the annual celebration of all things pumpkin.

Now, I am a pumpkin fan. I love a good savoury pumpkin – preferably roasted with chilli, or in soup form; pumpkin pie is hands down my favourite aspect of Matryoshka Haus’ annual Thanksgiving; last year’s discovery of this pumpkin loaf recipe has become a firm favourite amongst those for whom I bake; and I claim credit for innovating the coffee-free pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks (“grande steamed skimmed milk with two pumps of Pumpkin Spice” – yes, I am *that* person). For me, a trip to the East Coast in the fall was an ideal opportunity to avail myself of as much pumpkin as possible.

I’m aware that many would turn their noses up at such an escapade. The sort of people who crack jokes on Twitter about the stereotypical consumer of a PSL (who invented the acronym in the first place). The kind of person who thinks the gratuitous addition of pumpkin to everyday items is nothing short of a shameless marketing tactic… However, I turn up my nose at them!

Pumpkin Patch

My pumpkin odyssey began innocuously with a slice of pumpkin loaf accompanying my Starbucks order. It’s fine – probably not as good as the one I make at home – but when in Rome…

Pumpkin Cider at Harpoon

Then there was pumpkin cider, drunk in the brewery that produced it. To be honest, I’m not sure I could have identified the pumpkin had I not known about it, but nonetheless, a good cider on a chilly Vermont day was much appreciated. Plus, I’d just visited a genuine New England pumpkin patch.

Dunkin Donuts proved to be a purveyor of an exceedingly excellent pumpkin donut, with a pleasing orangey hue and a cracking glaze. There is no photographic evidence of this as it was eaten in a frenzied hunger on board a train back to New York.

A photo posted by Jackie (@jocose_jackie) on

If there’s one retailer that fully embraces the world of pumpkin, it’s Trader Joe’s. I ‘popped’ into its Brooklyn branch on a Sunday afternoon, which was a big mistake as seemingly every local resident had had an identical idea. I was confronted with a multitude of pumpkin options: pumpkin O’s cereal (like Cheerios); tortilla chips & salsa; panettone; yoghurt; various baking mixes; oh, and dog snacks. Yes, pumpkin dog snacks. There are over 40 items in Trader Joe’s 2015 pumpkin collection and I’m pleased to report that I only bought one of them – a jar of pumpkin spice! I was very tempted by the pumpkin spice cookie butter though…

Pumpkin Pop Tarts

My Target shopping expedition (no word of a lie, I had been making my Target shopping list for weeks beforehand – it was probably the most organised element of my whole holiday!) yielded pumpkin Pop Tarts. (Yes, I know that they’re ridiculously unhealthy and just plain awful, but I have a childish soft spot for them.)

Shake Shack pumpkin goodness

Shake Shack delivered autumn in a small tub, in the form of a slice of pumpkin pie, swirled with cream. So a dessert that bore no resemblance to the original dish, but tasted fabulous. (Note to self: this should not have been bought to consume on the subway home, it got messy.)

Incredibly, there was a pumpkin option that I searched for and did not find: a pumpkin cupcake. New York’s cupcake game has gone seriously downhill since I last visited in 2009 – although I did at least manage to find a chocolate one with swiss meringue frosting, a combo that remains top of my cupcake combo leader board.

Pumpkin M&Ms

Oh, and I rejected a third opportunity to sample pumpkin spice M&M’s, because quite frankly, they sound WRONG!

Just in case you thought my love of pumpkin might have dissipated since returning to the UK, let me share with you my favourite discovery on last week’s trip to Morrisons: Ben & Jerry’s Pumpkin Cheesecake ice cream. De-lish!

B&J Pumpkin


My sister used to comment that my travel journals (completed for every international trip I take) were merely chronicles of what I had eaten and when – and this blogpost would certainly meet such expectations. However, there’s also plenty of food I haven’t mentioned (the best apple pancakes I’ve ever consumed, for example) – and will go unmentioned, for there are much more interesting things to write about!