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!

Driving Uganda

If you’d ever told me that I’d write a blogpost about an episode of Top Gear, I’d have laughed in your face. Yes, I’ve sporadically watched the show, but given as I can’t drive, let alone own my own car, its attractions are limited. Most of the joy I’ve drawn from it has been its theme tune and the fact that I can’t hear it without remembering my sister dancing to it clad in a yellow catsuit in a school dance show about 13 years ago! However, on Sunday night/Monday morning, I started receiving a flurry of tweets about a Top Gear special, featuring Uganda. In fact, more than that, just hours after we’d been to the ‘official’ source of the Nile at Jinja, the team were challenged to find the actual source of the Nile. Bizarre.

So, clearly catching up on this programme had to be high priority on returning to London. (Once I’d caught up on two weeks of Call the Midwife, obviously.) I watched it last night, and was fascinated…

Top Gear Africa special

Roads had been a hot topic of conversation while we were in Uganda. At our security briefing a month before leaving, road accidents were identified as one of the biggest risks on our trip – we were given strict instructions about the quality of vehicles we could use and the importance of seat-belts. We spent a lot of time in the vans (6 hours reaching Soroti, and at least an hour’s driving each way in order to reach the villages each day) and their quality was varied. Bex spent most of the week dosed up on Qwells thanks to travel sickness. One of our scariest moments was on the very first day, when we had to do the last 90 minutes of the drive to Soroti in the dark, on unlit roads whose surface was virtually non-existent. Reaching Ogongora required much jolting over roads that were more like overgrown footpaths. We had 4×4’s and decent suspension, but my hips still bear the bruises sustained from banging into the car door handle repeatedly.

The risk of a programme like this, so soon after our return, was that I would be irrationally incensed by the men’s actions. After all, Clarkson isn’t the world’s most sensitive man and what on earth would they make of the poverty so hugely in evidence at the sides of the roads they drove along?

Fortunately, it got off to a good start. Within minutes of watching Clarkson et al begin their challenge, I was laughing. They had all bought estate cars for under £1500 – estates? We were in proper hard-core vans with local, knowledgeable drivers and we struggled. How on earth would three Brits cope? Then there was the scenery – it was delightful to see it again a matter of hours after actually being there. I continued laughing as they gloated over how much better the roads were than they’d expected – little did they know just how quickly they would deteriorate.

Their first issue was in fact the same first issue we faced – the traffic of Kampala. Our start was delayed by nearly 2 hours on the first day because the vans got stuck in traffic. We were surprised, but soon realised that traffic in the Ugandan capital is on another level to anything I’ve ever seen in London! (Unlike the Top Gear team, we did not have to overnight in a traffic jam.) At one point our driver tailgated an emergency vehicle to get past a very, very long line of traffic. Obviously, I don’t condone such behaviour, but I bet Clarkson would!

However, there were moments when I found myself yelling at the TV. Particularly at the point when they stopped somewhere for the night and Clarkson was not complimentary about the hotel they found. Well, what the flip did he expect to find in rural Uganda?? Did he know that (in all likelihood) just metres away from the bed he found disgusting, people were sleeping without even a mattress? Really, who gives a toss about how a car is performing when people are living below the breadline? I guess the same could be said for every regular episode of Top Gear set in the UK…

Lake view from the roadOne of the stunning views we witnessed during the drive from Soroti to Mbale on Sunday morning. 

Despite all of this, it was a good watch and I will be tuning in next week for part 2. It makes me wonder what I’d have thought about the programme, had I watched it before the Ugandan trip was even mentioned – would I have got annoyed and angry? Possibly, and probably for good reason. Would I have sighed at the beauty of the Uganda countryside? Probably not. Would I have kept pinching myself to remember that only 36 hours previously, my feet had stood on that land? Obviously not.

[Incidentally, in other Africa related TV news – yes, I am aware of the Richard Curtis drama Mary & Marthaabout malaria. It’s downloaded, but I suspect I won’t watch it until things are a little less raw. I suspect I’ll find next week, with all the Comic Relief documentaries, quite hard work.]

Being driven up the wall…

…or at the very least around the bend.

After a five week break (thanks to parental visits, festivals and a blown gasket), I got back behind the wheel this evening hoping that I hadn’t entirely forgotten how to manoeuvre a vehicle. My skills weren’t totally absent, but it was clear that an awful lot more work needed to be done before a practical test could be contemplated. (Hopes of sitting it before 2011 dawns are starting to fade.)

While I may have mastered stopping a couple of lessons ago [sounds basic doesn’t it!] an inability to successfully multi-task appears to be holding me back in my progress.

How can this be? I’m a woman, we’re meant to be genius multi-taskers!
Surely I ought to be able to slow down, change gear and work out if it’s safe to make turn simultaneously?
Or remember to take my foot off the gas when changing gear?
Or change gear while also changing direction?
Or work out what the speed limit ought to be?
Or ascertain what the bus driver might do while avoiding oncoming traffic?

It’s rather depressing. I’m used to picking up new skills quickly, not having to slog away at something to get where I need to be, but this driving lark is hands down the hardest (practical) thing I’ve had to do in years. My latest plan is to investigate taking an intensive course later in the year where for a week I can blitz my skills and perhaps finally be ready for what can only be referred to as THE TEST.

Tips, ideas, moral support and prayer (for me, my instructor and the residents of south-east London) would be much appreciated.

Texting and driving

This evening, while on my regular Monday evening past-time of driving aimlessly [ok, the aim is learning to drive, so not totally aimless] around the streets of south-east London, my phone rang twice and then I had a text that I sensed was indicative of a voicemail.

Figuring it might be important (there are sick relatives around at the moment) I checked my phone when it was safe to do so. [Pulled over, handbrake on, in neutral…] It turned out to just be my sister, returning my call from the day before, so I fired off a text that read: “Can’t talk. On driving lesson.” 

The text conversation that followed had both me and my instructor in stitches…

Mim: “I think he should train you in talking and driving. As he’s obviously already covered texting at the wheel…”

Me: “Waiting for a ferry!”

Mim: “WHAT? Where are you going? Holland?”
Mim [in a separate text]: “1st country that came to mind…”

Me: “Woolwich ferry. Across the Thames…”

Bless her.

Has to be said, until I began this driving lark I hadn’t realised just how crucial river crossings (bridges, tunnels, ferries etc) were to those of us who inhabit a city divided by water. I have now, over the course of a few lessons, driven through the Rotherhithe Tunnel (twice, it’s hideous – narrow and interminable with a 20mph speed limit), the Limehouse Tunnel (also twice), over Tower Bridge and on the Woolwich ferry*. All fun activities, especially at night, when you get views like this:

Canary Wharf just behind the Thames Barrier
(Taken on ferry, while stationery & with engine off – in case you were concerned.) 

Another piece of driving good news is that I appear to have mastered both stopping (finally!) and roundabouts. Reversing round corners is still a skill that evades me, but one day…

*Today was the first time I’d personally driven a car onto a ferry. I’m counting that as another 2010 first. 

Nightmares

Generally, I’m not given to nightmares. Nor do I possess my family’s (well, my mother and sister’s) trait of emitting blood-curdling screams in the middle of the night.

When I dream, it’s usually rather random. For example, my recurring anxiety dream revolves around packing. Sometimes I’m on holiday and about to miss a flight; in more intense times there’s Gestapo at the door and I’m trying to choose my most treasured possessions… I’m a special person.
What I love is when reality clashes with dreams in a rather peculiar fashion. The other night, I dreamt I was in Southampton with friends (already weird, not been to that city in years) and needed to drive back to London. Some friends (my wise friend and her husband specifically) needed a lift to Winchester, so the idea was that I’d drive them there and drive on to London. Then reality kicked in – I realised that I’m still only a learner driver and therefore:
(i) I can’t drive without another driver in the car.
(ii) I can’t drive on motorways.
So, in my dream I’m panicking about how to get to London without breaking the law while also remembering that in my last lesson I still wasn’t that good at stopping properly… I re-told this dream to my driving instructor on Monday and he visibly shifted away from me in his seat, probably yet again wondering why he took me on as a pupil!

Then last night I had a dream that left me in a cold sweat and a heightened state of anxiety about a meeting I’ve got tomorrow (which incidentally, I wasn’t particularly concerned about). It involved a ferocious Bishop and an evil Archdeacon – eerily reminiscent of the Archdeacon in controversial comedy Rev. Oh, and my mother turned up too – very bizarre. I honestly couldn’t tell you what actually happened, but whatever it was it wasn’t pleasant. Who knew I’d ever end up having nightmares about members of the clergy? Clearly it’s what happens when you work for the church.

Who knows what will fill my dreams tonight, but please, no more nightmares, my nerves just can’t hack it.