Wednesday, October 22, 2014


I've been reading a lot lately: Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies; Barbara Glasson's I Am Somewhere Else; Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, and a heap of memoirs besides - accounts of misspent childhoods and voyages towards self-discovery. There's been a lot of 'God' on my bedside table and piles more on my desk: there's a half written letter to one of my closest, oldest friends who is being admitted into the Church of England as a Reader later this month; there's a little pile of gifts for two other, more recent but also very close friends, who are about to return to Australia - one to head a parish and the other to continue his academic career writing about Christianity. I've also been watching a slew of Netflix documentaries on Christianity, my favorite of which is 'For the Bible tells me so...' which includes the following film sketch (helpfully annotated here by Gay Star News).

My understanding of the Bible is similar to my understanding of Coronation Street - I grew up dipping into occasional episodes, and I have some understanding of the main characters, some memories of the main story lines, and a fascination with the more outlandish twists in the plot. I used to watch Coronation Street at my grandmother's house, glancing at the screen while sucking mint imperials and leafing through horse magazines; I used to sit through endless episodes of Christianity at our local church, half-listening but preoccupied by the village doctor snoring at the back of the choir stalls. By the time I became more interested in what was going on in the Bible and why, the village vicar had decided I was somewhat - ahem - "troublesome" and tended to avoid answering my questions on the rare occasions when he hadn't successfully managed to avoid me.

I don't watch Coronation Street anymore - in fact, I probably wouldn't recognize half the cast these days. The Bible has the advantage because their cast hasn't changed for centuries (except for the addition of a new saint every now and again), but rather than being reassured by the familiarity, I am increasingly frustrated. Primarily, I am frustrated about the absence of female characters and the awful behavior of those few women who have been written into the Bible's pages - Eve accidentally brings about the downfall of the entire human race; the only career advice Naomi thinks to give her recently widowed daughter-in-law is to sleep with a wealthy distant cousin (which proves the old adage that it's not what you know, but who... in the Biblical sense); Mary gives birth without a midwife (Really? The town was packed to the gunnels with females but none managed to help? Virtually every other birth in history is attended by females but not this one??!); Delilah gave Samson a bad haircut; Martha complained a lot about the housework; and Mary - the other one - gave Jesus an expensive foot massage.

I was in my 30s before I heard about Veronica. She's in that episode when Jesus is struggling to carry the cross to Golgotha and everyone is wailing and sobbing and gnashing their teeth on his behalf. Veronica steps forward and wipes his face with a damp cloth. I like that. It's something I hope I might do in those circumstances - to step forward and try to make a bit of a difference, even when there is not much anyone can do. Because I was excited about finding an admirable female in the Bible, I chose to sit next to a Jesuit priest later that week on a train journey from London to Scotland. He told me people normally choose not to sit next to him because they're put off by his religious habit. I think he might have preferred to sit alone, but I wanted to talk about Veronica and it felt like too good an opportunity to miss.
'What do you know about Veronica?' I asked as we drew out of King's Cross.
'Nothing really,' he answered.
'Really? Nothing?'
He shrugged and explained she wasn't an important part of the story.
We talked a lot over the next 4 hours, but it appeared there was really very little to say about Veronica.
Ten years later, I asked the Professor of Liturgical Theology at Harvard the same question. He's about as far removed from a Jesuit priest as you might imagine two people to be: one wears a brown habit, the other wears jeans; one has dedicated his life to obeying the Bible, the other one to deconstructing its message. But the Prof's shrug was similar.
'She probably didn't even exist,' he said, 'I suspect she might be a metaphor.'
The only woman I've found in the Bible who makes me want to encourage my children to read Bible stories, and she's probably just been made up by someone wanting to make some kind of theological point? Great.

I don't believe the Bible is the word of God, as some of my friends do, and I can't accept that every word contained on its pages is a great unquestionable Truth. In fact, if God was going to do the whole thing again and wanted my advice, I'd recommend he or she demanded a greater degree of editorial control.

But I'm not willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater, either. I'm not willing to reject my sense of wonder and amazement, to neglect my faith that something beyond humanity makes the world a better place and offers help in times of need (even when we don't or can't or won't listen). I'm wary of people who interpret the Bible literally and use it to justify their prejudices, but I also know that some of the most amazing people I have ever met are guided by a profound sense of faith - to name a few, I'm thinking of Anne Shumway and her dedication to vulnerable women across Massachusetts, of Pastor Rick and his peace work in Jerusalem, of Rev. Sekou and his determination that the voices of the people in Ferguson, MI will be heard because that is the only way the conflict will be fairly resolved. There are many, many more. In fact, I'm sure that for every bigot who uses the Bible for their own means, there are far more people working within religious communities to make the world a better place. And I am glad of them.

I don't know where any of this leads me, or leaves me. But I've been reading and I've been thinking and God has been on my mind.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Words, faces and electric shocks

Some things seem inevitable: the stiffness in my neck and shoulders; the constant low-level pain; the restrictions in my movements; the itchiness around the area where my scar is healing (my scar, by the way, still looks spectacular - a kind of hybrid between bad-ass zombie war wound and Zippy's fastened shut mouth in the 1970s' tv show, Rainbow.)

But there are other things besides.  

1. Words
Because of the shattered bones in my neck and the real fears of paralysis, the medical team gave little attention to the lacerations in my scalp at the time of my admission to hospital. By the time they'd operated and I'd recovered from the anesthesia, the holes had mostly scabbed over and the nurses were unsurprisingly reluctant to poke about at my head when it was only connected to my body by a few bits of metal and a screw or three.

I began to notice my word confusion during my time at the rehabilitation center. Very specifically, I noticed my relationship with words had shifted when I spent an entire morning trying to find the word 'anatomy'. But this was during the 'hey, be grateful!' part of my recovery: a period where anything I noticed or pointed out about my condition merely emphasized how fortunate I was to not be (a) dead, (b) severely brain-damaged, or (c) in a wheelchair. (I am still exceptionally grateful for those things in a way I cannot easily put into words, I just don't use the exclamation mark as frequently.) 

By the time my 6 week check-up came around (starring the beautifully made up physician's assistant and the blue-eyed surgeon), I knew something was wrong. My words were addled and my short-term memory was shot. The beautiful physician's assistant pouted at the computer screen and scrolled through some of the CT scans which had been taken on the night of the accident, but she seemed unenthused - as though they were part of a soap opera episode she had already seen. By this point we'd also moved into the 'Let's Wait and See' part of my recovery, so her response to my concerns was, inevitably, 'Let's Wait and See' - delivered with a smile, before she went to touch up her mascara.

I've been obediently doing a lot of 'waiting' and 'seeing' lately, but I've also been talking a lot of nonsense. 

The typical morning in our house involves me chivvying the girls to get ready for school:
'Come on, Iola. You need to get your school sandwich ready.'
'I'm on school dinners, mmmmy.'
'Not your school sandwich - your school bag. Obviously, your school bag. Have you taken it out of the kitty litter yet?'
'The kitty litter?'
'No, not the kitty litter - the boot room! Have you taken your school bag out of the boot room?'

The girls are now so used to their mother being linguistically inept that they either laugh or try and guess what I really mean. It's more difficult when my words get messed up in front of strangers. 

For example, yesterday afternoon I'd arranged a play-date with another mother and her two daughters. We don't know one another well, but I enjoy her company hugely and I was looking forward to her visit. A few hours before her visit, she sent an email explaining the complexity of her day but saying she would probably be on time. I replied, telling her it wasn't a problem. Or I thought I'd told her it was 'no problem', until I opened the email later that evening. I had actually written that I was sure there was 'no probability' of her being on time. Hmmm, charming. I don't know if she thought I was rude or existentialist, or a mixture of the both, but I'll apologize next time I see her... if I remember.   

2. Faces
My accident happened two weeks after moving to Vermont. My children attend two different schools which means I need to know the names of about 15 new teachers and school staff, as well as smiling vaguely at more than 50 parents as we stand around at the end of the school day waiting to collect our little darlings. We also have new neighbors, I see new faces on dog walks, and I smile somewhat hopefully at the same people who serve me in the local shops, the post office, the library etc. It would be challenging enough to remember everyone's name even if I still had a short-term memory.

I have clearly offended some people - asking several times which child is theirs, or forgetting to acknowledge someone whom I was talking with only a few days earlier. Other people find it hilarious: Dan - who might be called Dave but seems to answer to both - has offered to write out name cards for people to wear whenever they speak to me, and Iola's class teacher suggested I might make a set of flashcards with people's names and faces on them. My concern about this second is that it risks ending up becoming a completely inappropriate version of Happy Families!

3. Electric Shocks
I've never been a fan of shopping, but nowadays it hurts. The worst culprit is the local organic supermarket which is all craft-beers and organic cotton yoga tops and homeopathic medicines. This morning I suffered 18 electric shocks between the kale counter and the kombucha bar. At the customer services counter, a young woman with enormous deer-like eyes, long hair and long silver earrings smiled as I approached.
'Does anyone else suffer shocks when they shop here?' I asked. 
'Shocks?' She nodded, but it seemed an involuntary movement - the infinite action of a nodding dog toy sitting on the parcel shelf of a car rather than an indicator of human agreement. 'Like what kind of shocks?'
'Electric shocks,' I said. 
'Hmmm,' she put her head slightly to one side, but continued nodding. 'Electric shocks.'
'They hurt,' I said. 'And it happens every time I shock here.'
'You shock here?'
'No. Obviously I shop here because that's why I'm here with my shopping cart and my collection of reusable shopping bottles, but your store gives me shocks and I have this thing with words right now.'
There was a lot more I was about to say but a look, midway between alarm and fear, crossed her beautiful deer eyes and, for a brief moment, she stopped nodding. It seemed like a good point to shrug and leave.
On the positive side, I won't recognize the long earring-ed customer services person when I next go into the store, which will give her plenty of opportunities to avoid me. On the less positive side, it means I'm no closer to a solution of how to buy my organic carrots and ethnically scented candles without repeatedly electrocuting myself. I had wondered about trying to find a home delivery service, but the combination of my tendency to use the wrong words and my inability to remember what I want could make this a very expensive mistake. Instead, I'll put on rubber-soled shoes and do the old-person shuffle around the store in the hope that it might make it less shocking. I can console myself, at least, with the knowledge that I won't remember the humiliation in too many details by the time I've driven back home.