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!

Take the BART (man)

It wouldn’t be a trip to another major world city if I didn’t take some time to analyse the public transportation network. (On my 2009 trip to the US East Coast, I compared and contrasted the systems in Philadelphia, DC and NYC. No one accuse me of not taking this geekery seriously!)

I should confess that I only actually made one journey on the BART – the Bay Area Rapid Transit. It could have been two, but I managed to misread the map so badly on my penultimate day that I didn’t realise that I could catch the BART all the way into The City from our local station. However, my only journey proved to be a long one. Pleasant Hill to SFO airport is almost an entire line – 22 stops and 70 minutes long.

BART mapIt was the yellow line that proved useful. Sadly, the lines don’t have fun names – instead using the stations at either end. 

One of my criteria for grading international transit systems is how easy they are to navigate by a clueless tourist. I generally consider myself to be fairly savvy, what with my love of public transportation and all, unless I’m operating in a foreign language. The BART has a fairly easy map (unless you’re an idiot and forget where The City actually is), but what is utterly flummoxing is its ticketing system. When you look up a journey online, it tells you the exact cost – mine was $10.05 – which I thought was random. When I came to buy my ticket, I came unstuck – I couldn’t work out how to buy a single journey. There was no station finding option, just an automatic $20.00 added to a ticket. It took a trip to the ticket office (who wouldn’t sell me a ticket) to get an explanation. Apparently I needed  to use the +/- buttons to get my ticket to the correct amount for my desired journey. What?? How crazy! Can you imagine what would happen if you had that system in London?

However, the train itself was very pleasant. You know that mild sense of panic you feel whenever you attempt to take luggage on the underground? Will there be space? Will I annoy people? Will I be able to keep it safe? [Or is that just me?] There was none of that on the BART – there was oceans of room and, possibly because I got on at the 3rd stop, I had a seat where my luggage could easily be placed in front of me. It was clean, smelt pleasant and for most of the journey we were above ground, running parallel to the highway, with plenty of pretty views to consume.

BARTInside the BART. See, spacious! (Although it was Saturday…)

Within the BART, you have what seems to be a pretty good system – for a state in which the car is king. Admittedly, if you have the misfortune of living north of the Golden Gate Bridge, you have no link at all, but otherwise it might work out. Of course, during our trip we actually only met one family who regularly used it – even though our last week was spent within easy reach of stations. (It may have helped that the family were originally from New York and had lived in Paris, so public transport seemed more normal to begin with.)

Oh, and obviously, for a certain generation there is a near uncontrollable need to say ‘man’ immediately after the word ‘BART’. If you don’t understand why, simply Google ‘Bart Simpson Man’ and it should be explained to you…

On Target…

When you’re an aficionado of American blogs as I am, there are certain things which attain almost mythical status – craft products unknown on these shores (‘Modge Podge’, I’m looking at you…); baking goods only acquirable at inflated cost (Funfetti, Fluff, assorted cake mixes…); and, above all else, the lifestyle essential that is Target.

For those who aren’t American blog fans, the closest comparison I can make is to a French Hypermarket. It sells everything – from food, clothes and toys, to stationery and soft furnishings. For years I’ve read about shopping trips taken there. Of days lost in its aisles. Of children pacified by its contents. Of designer ranges launched – specifically an Orla Kiely line back in 2009. Despite my trip to the East Coast that same year, I still failed to explore one thanks to their absence from the centre of more cosmopolitan cities. (New York, like central London, lacks that most useful of amenities: huge grocery stores.)

It was with genuine concern that Cathers asked, on my very first morning in Texas, if I minded stopping by Target to quickly return some things she’d bought the day before. I think she was surprised at my enthusiastic response. We were both surprised by what eventually ensued…

My debut Target experience wasn’t just a regular Target, it was Houston’s Super Target. Cathers went off to return her stuff and I set off to explore, promising to go no further than stationery. I shouldn’t have worried, stationery alone kept me occupied for over 20 minutes. A suitable notebook for travel journalling was purchased, as were some notebooks so cute that they couldn’t possibly be left on the shelf. In fact, much of that particular section was so cute it was difficult not to leave it behind – I counted over 20 varieties of Thank-You notes alone! (Seriously, stationery addicts would be hard pressed to ever leave that place.) After some time Cathers returned, bearing frozen beverages – yes, Super Target even has its own Starbucks.

Thus, we wondered around the store, sucking mocha Frappaccinos through straws and generally exclaiming in excitement over many a new discovery. We’d been there about an hour when we were startled by a colossal crash. None of the Texans batted an eyelid, but as we looked towards the doors, we saw rain of Biblical proportions falling from the sky. Crashes and bangs interrupted the peace at regular intervals for some time, so we saw it as a sign from God that we should stay in the store longer. So we did.

It’s not even as if we ran out of things to do… We tried on clothes – I needn’t have bought any new summer clothes prior to leaving London, Target had all I needed – an activity that took nearly an hour in itself. Even when we got to the point of being ready to pay, Cathers pointed out that we’d yet to peruse the dollar section. Unpacking my bag last week, I discovered the results of that particular foray – Little Miss Cheeky post-it notes, a pack of Iced Tea mixes, and a book of Biblical word searches I’ll be saving for the next Vicar Weekend. We didn’t even make it anywhere near the groceries section…

Two hours after arriving, we finally left. The storm had passed and the ground bore next to no sign that it had ever been torrentially raining. Target had been everything I had heard, hoped and dreamed it would be – and more.

It’s a good job we had far more interesting things planned for the week, as a shopping trip to Target would have been a fairly pathetic trip highlight. But a highlight it was nonetheless – just last night Cathers and I reminisced over its joys, as she ate a lolly made with her Target dollar aisle popsicle maker, and I wore my Target leggings…

When cheerleaders go bad

Just when you thought this blog was becoming a little too serious and intense, along comes a post about cheerleading…

Apparantly, cheerleading is the world’s most dangerous sport. This isn’t because of the injuries that can occur when a pom-pom flies into the eyes, oh no…it’s become particularly dangerous because of the increasing number of gymnastic stunts involved. As of 2008, High School Cheerleading accounted for 65.1% of ‘catastrophic’ sports injuries amongst girls.

And the danger doesn’t stop when cheerleaders leave the gym or football field. Cheerleading is seemingly not as sweet, innocent and wholesome an activity as depicted in the classic film ‘Bring It On’.

An article in today’s Guardian chronicles Cheerleading’s annus horribilis, including the kidnap & beating of a cheerleader by 6 other members of her high school squad in Florida. Not to mention the fact that the University of Idaho were forced to change their uniforms to something less slutty. Or that eight high school cheerleaders in Georgia were suspended for performing cheers whilst drunk. (Wouldn’t that just be hilarious to watch?)

In other cheerleading news, did you know that Indian cricket teams have them? And even they have their scandals. Last year, two British cricket cheerleaders were allegedly excluded from a squad because their skin was ‘too dark’.

Then there’s the gay cheerleader that was axed from Heroes. (I’m saying that like I watch the show, I actually don’t, but probably should.)

I think we need more cheerleaders in the UK. Not just pretty girls in slutty outfits either, have some decent gymnastic men in it too. (Although, my concept of male cheerleaders is slightly tainted by the fact that the current – but soon to be ex – US President was a member of a cheer squad!)

The influence of others

I’m sure that whilst I was at the office this morning I had three different blog inspirations to choose from. However, a 2 hour journey home (which should’ve taken 45mins) seems to have drained them away.

One was going to be a fabulous theological discourse on the amount of influence God is allowed to have on the President of the USA.

A blog that’s well worth keeping an eye on is Thank You Ma’am, which I’ve mentioned before in relation to the author’s grammatical pedantry. Yesterday’s post was on the subject of JFK’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and ended with this paragraph:

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

This quote preceded a statement which was intended to placate voters who had issues with JFK’s Catholicism:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President — should he be Catholic — how to act, and no Protestant minster would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.”

The question that Sharon (the blog author) rightly raises is: ‘Would a Protestant presidential candidate actually say, in a campaign speech, that he believes in an America where a church, church elders (or God) would not tell the President how to act?’

So, what I intended to do was waffle on about the relationship between church & state, especially in a legally secular, yet obsessively religious country like the US.

But instead, I’m going to just ask the question:
Would this even be an issue in the UK? Would people mind if we had a PM who publicly said that they listened for God’s guidance in matters?

Something to ponder…