Tag Archives: creativity

Dangerous Woman

It’s a funny old time in which it feels like everything is changing and, at the same time, nothing at all.  I hardly know what to write, so today I am stealing somebody else’s words.

A friend of mine, Kelley Nikondeha, has been part of creating a new series of writing and thinking over at SheLoves Magazine, and they launched with a great declaraction, written by Idelette McVicker, which I am just going to post here.  Don’t credit me with the poetry.

This is the kind of woman I would like to be.


I am a Dangerous Woman.
I am here and I’m awake.
I pay attention to the rumblings in my soul
I listen and watch for how the Spirit leads.
With each humble choice, I take a step closer to my Destiny.
With each strong Yes, I become more of myself.

I am a Dangerous Woman.
I draw deeply from the Life that beats in my blood.
I have a place in the story of God.
Large or small, my capacity is mine and
I will move in it to make change in my world.

I am a Dangerous Woman.
I have a voice that needs to be heard.
No need to rage or raise a fist.
My Love will speak
My arguments are strong.
My life itself is a protest towards great Love.

I am a Dangerous Woman. 
I may start with tiny steps and
My ankles may roll with the weight of the task
But I am determined.
I refuse to let Fear hold me back.
I choose Love.

I am a Dangerous Woman.
My ducks may never be quite in a row,
The laundry may never be done.
I may never feel strong enough, capable enough or smart enough.
I will do it anyway.
Shall we go together?

I am a Dangerous Woman
I embrace small beginnings and
Show up in small pockets of Love,
But I don’t think small.
I step over the obstacles that tell me I should quit.
And so I start.

I am a Dangerous Woman, 
I am tired of spending my choices on myself.
I will let my privilege and my power
Speak for good.
Aligned with the purposes of the Almighty,
My strength roars.

I am a Dangerous Woman
I am part of a vast network
I recognize how we are all connected.
My choices affect a world of people, plants and animals.
What a big responsibility, you may say.
But O, What a great adventure!

I am Dangerous Woman
I refuse to do nothing.
I choose to listen to the gladness of my soul
And the hungers in our world.
And where these meet,
I will plant a garden.

I am a Dangerous Woman 
I refuse to let shame hide me.
I refuse to let old boundaries hold me back.
I refuse to let what’s-always-been-done create the future.
I refuse to be silent about the things that matter.
I refuse to be afraid.

You may ask: Who do you think you are?
So I will tell you: 

I am a Dangerous Woman,
Loved by God, empowered by God.

I am a Dangerous Woman,
Devoted to a Dangerous God.

I am a Dangerous Woman
And I will beat my drum, as we dance into the Land of Freedom and Promise together.

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Loving decisions and living with questions

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign  tongue.  Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Rainer Maria Rilke

I’ve read those words many times in the last few years, but I’ve been thinking about them more pointedly in the last week or two.  I’ve told you about looking for a new job, but really it feels like I’m actually trying to rebalance my whole life, post-maternity leave.  The world has changed, and so have I.  It’s a strange old time, and I’ve been saddened by how many of my friends have had rough transitions back to work after having babies.

There are a lot of questions.  The job is a big one – what on earth should I do to earn a living?  How does that fit with all that I think matters in the world?  And there are other questions about the complex jigsaw puzzle that makes up our life as a family in this local community.  What can I contribute and where do I just need to be present?  What do I want to keep going with? What no longer works for our family?  Will there be enough to fill the holes I’m left with (i’m thinking about gaps relating to purpose and identity rather than spaces of time)?

I have a lot of questions, but I don’t love ambiguity.  I like decisions (can you tell that I’m a big J in Myers-Briggs world?!), and I feel like I need to make some clear choices.  I need to decide what to do for a job – and whatever it is, I feel a particular need to own it.  I have spent ten years at Tearfund after arriving on a two month temp contract to make some money in between acting jobs.  It’s been an extraordinary journey which has changed me profoundly, but everything I did there grew and evolved from role to role.

So the next job feels like a more pro-active choice.  I have to choose something.  To say “This, and not that”.

The decision to keep working outside our home is a choice in itself, I guess, but it’s been a fairly easy one.  Jesse has taken really well to nursery, and I am happier when I’m out working part of the week.

I want to bring some honesty and clarity to the other pieces of my life, even when that’s painful.  I hate disappointing other people, or letting them down, but I also remember hearing something a few years ago (I think maybe from Oprah’s new bestie, Rob Bell) to the effect that we can’t really ever say a meaningful ‘yes’ to anything unless we can say ‘no’ to other things.  Or, if we say yes to everything (& everyone), we’re not really saying a meaningful ‘yes’ to anything (or anyone).

But back to the questions.  There’s a big one that keeps haunting me.  What place is there for creativity – and specifically, acting – in my life?  It’s extremely unlikely that my next job will be as an actress, and I’m fine with that for many reasons. But that passion is so foundational in my life and my identity, and I’m coming to be at peace with that being a valid thing rather than something self-indulgent to try and shed.  So where does it fit?  I just don’t know.  And that’s where I come back to that strange Bohemian-Austrian (thanks wikipedia), Rilke.

It seems like the best decision I can make right now is to commit to the question and to living in the question – in my family, in our community, in our church, in the big wide world.  I don’t think that means jumping at every opportunity to be vaguely creative because it might be an answer (i would end up with 20 new projects before the weekend); instead my best guess is that it will mean cherishing that unresolved desire, even though that is sometimes hard and sad, returning to it, weighing opportunities against it, not letting it die.  I’m not sure I’m great at it, (in fact I’m pretty sure I’m not) but it’s my aspiration.

And in the meantime, some decisions.

How do you live with important, unresolved questions?

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Why I’m trying to be braver in 2015

Girl hand up_gif

Copyright © Rockwood R-VI School District


At the end of my first term at drama school, a teacher whom I respected and feared in equal measure, told me that I was playing things safe.  He was famed for creating intimidating (and frankly terrifying) practical exercises and improvisations which were hilarious to watch and mortifying to be part of.  I rarely volunteered.  But after he challenged me I decided that I didn’t want to be a spectator.  And so the next term I always had my hand up first to volunteer.

There were a lot of excruciating moments that next term, but I never regretted facing my fear (or rather, my blind terror), and getting on my feet.

If you caught my new year’s resolutions, and you made it to the very bottom of the list, you’ll have read that I am trying to be braver in 2015.

I had a minor epiphany when I started reading one of my Christmas presents, a book called The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp (an exceptionally named author).  She lays out 33 questions to help you work out what matters to you – she calls it a creative autobiography.  One of the first questions asks what is the best idea you’ve ever had, and then what made it great in your eyes.  I’m not sure I would class any of my ideas as truly ‘great’, but a few thing popped into my head.  One of the early contenders was the combining of Feed the Birds and Poisoning Pigeons in a musical medley for my theatre company, The Ruby Dolls, which still brings me a lot of joy.  (I then decided to classify this idea under ‘favourites’ rather than ‘best’).  I tried to think about bigger ideas, and finally landed on a couple of big projects. And then the first thing I wrote about why my best ideas were so great was this: They were brave.

They were brave.  I overcame all the instincts I have to disqualify myself for the adventure, and I just stepped forward.  I put myself out in a world which might reject me or decide I wasn’t good enough.  There were moments when I would have given up were it not for the champions I had alongside me (my husband, my boss) or the companions embroiled in the project with me (the Dolls).  But I had my head above the parapet.

Now when I look back at them I don’t think they were the world’s best ideas, but I feel proud of them because I saw them through.  I didn’t sit and spectate, I had a go.

I feel sad when I remember the times I haven’t been brave.

I remember when I was at university I auditioned for a lot of plays (there were a lot going on).  I always hoped I would get an amazing part, but I never really expected to.  I always psychologically relegated myself to the smaller parts – once I even took on assistant directing because I really wanted to be involved and I thought that was the safest bet – and yet when the shows opened, I often kicked myself.  I could have had as good a shot at those parts as whoever ended up with them.  It was only my fear that kept me away.

I know student drama is hardly the most important of arenas in life, but the disappointments I faced because of disqualifying myself have stayed with me.

This year has some big fat challenges in it; there is unchartered territory ahead.  It’s time to stop spectating and sticking with what I know, and step out bravely into the world; to stick my hand up in the air and risk looking like a fool all over again.

Is anyone else trying to be braver this year?

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The play I (never) wrote

You might remember that while pregnant I decided to undertake two epic writing projects.  I was going to write my first book and write the new show for my theatre company, The Ruby Dolls.  (Clearly there was once a time when I had goals).

So let’s start with the latter.  I didn’t write it (this story will form part 1 of the blog), and it’s fab (and this bit will be part 2).   Fab-Creatures-small


I did start writing it.  Our previous show had been written by all four of us, which took a lot of creativity and courage – maybe more than we thought we had at the outset.  The end result was rich and bright and moving, and told very different stories…in a slightly uneven fashion. So with this show we decided we would funnel our different ideas and contributions through one writer.  And when it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be performing in this one, I was really keen to write it.  And also quite daunted because maybe I can’t write whole plays.

We began a collaborative process at the very start of 2013, funded (and psychologically bolstered) by the Arts Council, which roamed wildly in subject matter between Russian revolutionaries and animal husbandry, sirens and bedouins.  We went slowly, together, led by a wonderfully generous human being called Dominic Burdess who we’d invited to direct the show.

But then time sped on, and suddenly the arrival of our baby became imminent (and fairly non-negotiable) and we still didn’t have a script.  I was still eager, still committed, but everything was still evolving in the rehearsal room – plot, character, tone.  If I’m honest I also probably didn’t have the courage to go away alone and answer those questions myself, and make an offering of a script.  It wasn’t what was being asked, but I’m also not sure I trusted myself to produce something that was good enough.

I know, how rubbish to get so far and then be a bit of a coward.

There was talk of me returning to the process in three months. I was adamant that they find another way forward, because who knew what I was going to make of mothering.  In hindsight, a wise decision.  I could barely do up my shoelaces 3 months later.

So anyway, I stepped back, and a ludicrously talented and far more experienced (that makes her sound old; she is not old) writer and comedienne, Abigail Burdess, stepped in.  She wrote a script with her very talented brother (that same Director Dominic) and our insanely talented MD, Ben, wrote the score for A TOTALLY ORIGINAL musical. Bish bash bosh.

I saw an early run of the show in the rehearsal room, and I laughed a lot and also cried.  Then I went back home and felt a little pang that I was not going to be in this brilliant new show.  And I decided that I would be more courageous in my writing next time.


I finally saw the show in all its glory this past weekend during a crazy 24 hour trip to Edinburgh, involving two pre-5am starts which were not necessitated by a screaming baby.  That is how much I love my Dolls.

It is billed as a “fantastic feminist fairytale” (what’s not to love?) and consists of a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park culminating in a talent show for goat people.  And it’s a musical in four part harmony.  If that sounds a touch crazy, believe me that it’s good-crazy.

The writing is really something special.  Somehow the show manages to be hilarious, flippant, irreverent and silly, whilst at the same time talking about big, important things – things that matter a lot to me, and, I think, to a lot of us.  Abigail’s lyrics are sharp, observant and ring with truth.   I’m still singing several of the songs (I would sing them to you if you were here on the sofa with me), and I’d love to tell you all about them only it’s so hard not to give away all their jokes.  There’s an amazing ballad about metaphors (I know, it sounds weird but it is *genius*) and a heartbreakingly accurate, blisteringly fast song listing all the dos and don’ts of being a goat/woman. (Climax: DON’T BE TOO FAT! DON’T BE TOO FAT!)

One of my favourite lines comes during Fanny’s initiation ceremony to become a goat (it’s an allegory, as you probably guessed from the references to feminism).  She is offered bread, and goes to take it, only to be reprimanded with the line, “No! you refuse the bread with the words ‘I’m going carb free this week’.


The Ruby Dolls themselves are inimitable, and sparkle as much as ever, evidently relishing such a great script.  The Doll characters are all turned up a notch too. Susie is zany, wild and completely hilarious; T has the biggest lungs, the best character name and undoubtedly the best costume; Becca brings a whole new exquisite octave to the party and makes the whole thing classier; and Jess is utterly lovable for her wide-eyed innocence and determination to make the whole thing work.

I saw another high-profile feminist show in Edinburgh whilst I was up, called Sirens, created and performed by a popular Belgian theatre company (have you ever heard of such a thing?).  They had a similar axe to grind, but chose very different means – powerful in their own morbid way.  But the Dolls bring such skill, and joy and humour to their message (yes, people, there is a message) that I know which theatre I’d rather be in.

Disclaimer: As a member of The Ruby Dolls myself, the views expressed are subject to my own wild bias in their favour.

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When I no longer have any goals…

Just recently I was reading a blog post about goal setting.  And I realised that for the first time that I can remember, I have no goals.  Which was disorienting. I do not know what I want to achieve in life.

I mean, obviously I want to raise a child who is loved and happy and that’s what takes most of my energy right now. And being a spectacular wife.  And I have your typical list of ordinary tasks to complete like ‘make dinner’ and ‘go to the chemist’ and ‘hoover’.  But somehow there is a hankering in me for more than that, a hankering which is currently shapeless.

During pregnancy I seemed to keep reading articles about these extraordinary women who discover a new burst of entrepreneurial energy after childbirth and begin their own businesses during maternity leave.  I think there was some kind of special series in that free magazine they give women on the tube.

I am not one of those women.

The scale of free creative energy I have is probably best communicated by the direction my musings are taking me: not new career plans, but potential hobbies.  And specifically, photography and gardening.

Let me be clear at the outset: I am shockingly terrible at both.  But recently I have been feeling like maybe I could do something about it.

The photography one is actually more intimidating because of the intense psychological battles I face.  An offhand comment in childhood – “You’re not much of a photographer, are you?” – has somehow hung over me like a weird self-fulfilling prophecy for 25 years, telling me I’m always going to be rubbish at taking photos.

In my last year or two before maternity leave, I had someone work for me at Tearfund whose job was basically to take really great photos and film on her SLR (I don’t even know what that stands for) to illustrate the stories we were trying to tell for Tearfund. (You can see some of her work here or here).  She made everything look beautiful.

I use my iPhone and instagram because it’s easy to make rubbish photos look quite cool.  But I dream of more.

And then on the gardening front.  Well, this is our balcony at the moment.

photo (1)Yep, dead as a doornail.  (The picture also illustrates my terrible photography).  I went to a vegetable-growing workshop at our excellent local garden farm a couple of years ago.  I bought some plants at the local market, inspired by my neighbours’ more beauteous doorsteps.  But everything is dead now.  I killed it all. Partly it was the frequent travel, partly my bad memory. (And partly my husband).

I would like to get better at both.  But there is a suspicious side of my brain that thinks I am maybe just a bit bored and consequently becoming overambitious.  Should I direct my energies in more useful directions?  Perhaps I need to make peace with being a bit crap at gardening and photography and move on (as I have done with other areas of life – DIY, physics, personal grooming).

It’s a bit like ski-ing.  Very fun but a bit too high maintenance to incorporate into regular life.

But then again (can you tell I haven’t worked this one out yet?), both are potentially connected to my longterm passions. Photography is a way of storytelling which is right at the heart of what I love to do.  And gardening is a way to reconnect with the natural world – another thing I care deeply about.

One thing, at least, is clear to me.  Doing these things in community is really the only way I’ll get on with it.  I don’t have the kit, the expertise, or the motivation to sustain any great learning curve on my lonesome.

So this has become a cry for help!  Have you any ideas about how I could learn how to grow things and keep them alive on my balcony?  Or to take beautiful photos that tell a story?  They’re doing a gardening workshop on my estate in a few weeks but it’s the day of one of my dearest friend’s weddings!

(I know one man who could do both in a flash but he lives in Northern Ireland, sadly).

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When it’s too hard to choose

Yesterday we went to the funeral of a friend who had died at the age of 44.  I am still reeling from seeing her birth date on the front of the order of service.

Her husband and close friends stood and spoke about her faith, her courage, her humour, her straightforwardness.  She had a bright, bright twinkle in her eye. They talked about how full of life she was to the very end, despite a long and painful battle with cancer.

We were last with her a couple of months ago and she was so very much alive.  I am left wondering how she lived so well to the last (and yet not the last).

It makes me think of those injunctions we bandy around, you know the ones, urging us to live each day as if it is our last.  To wring every last drop out of life.  I often shirk from them because that kind of life sounds too exhausting and I have hit too many limits in the past decade to believe I can do it.  It makes me feel like I have to choose everything, cram in all there is, never stop.

Sarah Bessey recently wrote in a blog about her struggles with the pressure to do everything and to do it really well, and it struck a chord:

But that’s not me. And that’s not a life I can live with joy. Sometimes I feel like I just need to suck it up and lean in and all that crap. But then I realise that I’m sick of striving and I’m ready to relax into my own life.

It reminds me of another piece of advice I hear people give:

You haven’t really said yes to something until you’ve said no to something else. 

I am not always good at choosing. Okay, maybe I’m genuinely terrible at it.  I am better at meeting expectations and keeping you all happy (not that I even manage to do that, as you probably know from experience).  I gravitate towards doing what you expect or what I perceive is ‘the right thing’ by you. If I find the courage not to, I probably feel guilty.

It doesn’t feel like a good philosophy for a deep and meaningful, fully realised life.

And I was just away for a few days with some other writers where I felt inspired and excited and just a step or two closer to who I am or who I feel I might have it in me to be.  Only I’m not sure how to choose that life.

It was a great weekend for feeling like a writer; a beautiful bubble of rest and conversation.  I don’t have any notable successes under my belt to justify feeling like a writer (even assuming that would do the trick), but it seemed enough to be there, with projects underway and half-dreamt dreams, entering into the conversation.  Only now the weekend is over and I am back navigating the mass of commitments and expectations which define my regular life.  I wonder, again, how it is possible to choose something, to decide it is more important than the rest.

On the horizon is a hiatus.  A re-evaluation point.  I may even foolishly have referred to the approaching ‘headspace’ that having a baby will provide, before Andy’s spluttering laughter brought me to my senses.

True, I’m about to plunge headlong into a new phase of life, one which I cannot fully anticipate or imagine and which will throw into the mix a raft of new, overwhelming demands.  It’s impossible to know when I will want to write again, or even feel capable of stringing a sentence together (a week? a month? six?). But there is a kind of pause built into it, a suspension of the old routines and demands, and an invitation to reconsider.  To let the chips fall in a different combination.  To lay some things to rest and pursue others.

Am I using parenthood as a convenient excuse to walk away from things I can’t otherwise find the guts to say no to?  There’s probably some of that in the mix.  But maybe it will give me a little help as I search for the courage to choose the important things and let the rest of the world down.  And in a few years I might stand a better chance of being more alive, rather than just more exhausted.

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Are religious people less creative?

There is a beautiful song by Duke Special called This is all that matters, from his album Under the Dark Cloth.  It begins:

Under the Dark ClothI might not have held you

the perfect embrace was

a gesture that I couldn’t find.

The bird which resides

on the edges of space will

agree that I was not unkind.

Mine is a spirit which won’t be contained 

in a castle, cathedral or jail.

Truth is elusive but I will remain 

though I stumble and flicker and fail.

I lived under the dark cloth

nothing else matters at all

following visions of heaven,

nothing else matters, nothing else matters at all.

The album was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and was inspired by the life and work of three great American photographers: Stieglitz, Steichen & Strand (who all lived, so to speak, ‘under the dark cloth’ behind the camera).  This song, the last on the album, is a defence of a life lived for art and creativity at the expense of all that might have been brought to relationships.

It’s not an unfamiliar idea, that those precious gifted few (the artists) must be allowed to create, to give to the world, to transcend convention and respectability and even morality, in order to pursue the higher ideals of their art.  We cannot hold them to the same standards of behaviour as the rest of us; for they are free spirits who must not be contained.  If they want to act in a fairly shoddy manner to their nearest and dearest, or even the world at large, it’s ok, they have a greater purpose. “Truth is elusive but I will remain” – and their lasting contribution will shape and enrich and change the world.

“Nothing else matters”.

I have had this song in my head over the past few days, since reading a blog post which my friend Hannah showed me, asking why aren’t religious people as creative as unbelievers (and then its follow-up post, both on patheos).  The central argument of the blogs seemed to be that religion fosters stability, strong relationships and encourages people to think alike, all of which factors are likely to pull against creative impulses which challenge consensus and cultural norms and practices and force us out into new ways of thinking.

So of course conventionally religious people can never be as creative as non-religious, because by definition they are committed to…well to commitment and keeping things running.  And being nice.

The two arguments (from the blog and the song) aren’t exactly the same, but they are related. They want to tell us that being a great artist, a great creative, can never really be compatible with the kind of regular goodness we might see as accessible to the normal human being (especially the religious one, but the argument seems compatible with most versions of conservatism).  We have to choose – let them be great, or ask them to meet our standards both of convention and morality.  Or even for ourselves – will we aspire to creative genius or being a good mum/wife/daughter/friend/church-member/whatever.

Now I have never believed myself to be a great artist. I never grew up believing I was one of those precious few, the free spirits, the real creatives.  I was told repeatedly that I wasn’t.  But interestingly, it never occurred to me that what disqualified me from their ranks was my faith, or religious way of life.  In my mind it was just my personality (and my lack of talent).

I remember at drama school being asked by several other Christians – is it hard for you as a Christian, being in a place like this, being asked to explore all kinds of weird (implication: immoral) material?  I was always surprised.  No, actually, I felt like I had a brilliantly secure anchor in God which freed me to explore all kinds of crazy ideas and characters and techniques without fear. I’m not saying I never hit any boundaries of where I would go, but they were rare.

I’m not writing from the perspective of a great artist, but over the years I have had this persistent niggle about the kind of argument that underpins Duke Special’s song and a lot of the thinking behind those blogs.

It is articulated in part by an interesting aside in the second of the two blogs which highlighted how the sociologist Max Weber had distinguished between conventional and radical forms of religion.  The blogger, Connor Wood, summarised:

In its radical manifestations, religion is a raging geyser of creativity, breaking down cultural barriers and tearing away at established lifeways. In its routinized form, religion is the stable, plodding foundation for everyday family and economic life. It organizes people’s relationships, stimulates in-group cooperation, and streamlines the countless social processes that undergird life. 

I think this is a fascinating attempt at a distinction (and makes radical religion sounds way cooler), but at a guess I’d say that most of the religious communities I have been part of have had features of both manifestations.  I’ve always been drawn towards convention-disturbing, risk-taking, tradition-busting faith groups, but there is still always an anchor, always a pull towards community and togetherness and conversation over lone-ranger activity.

What I’m really getting at is that I think it’s a totally false dichotomy to set ‘being a great artist’ against ‘being a great human being’, in the sense of being deeply connected to others in committed relationships, pursuing goodness and overcoming our selfishness (my own rough definition).  I don’t think we let artists go “too far” by asking them to pursue their vision and ideas whole-heartedly, I think we ask them to stop short by divorcing this from their character and from community.  We’re all called to something better.

Or, as Connor Wood puts it:

So bland art just doesn’t do it for me. But neither does the blasted, lonely life of a countercultural rebel who despises religion and tradition. I want both real meaning and real creativity. And I think our society could use both, too.

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Whose stories matter?

Last night I went to sit in sauna for an hour.  Well, that was what it felt like, but actually it was a theatre.  I watched a production called ‘A Conversation with my Father’, written and performed by a thoughtful and intelligent protester called Hannah.  It’s headed for the Edinburgh fringe in a week or two (has it really been a year?!) and was previewing in Battersea.  It’s a one-woman show that uses pre-recorded conversations with the performer’s father to explore the issue of protesting.  The performer is an activist, a protester, and she has been kettled in this very city; her father was a policeman for thirty years and, back in the day, bought a new family car with his overtime earnings from policing the miners’ strikes.

So far, so interesting.

Last year probably the best piece of theatre I saw (and certainly the best storytelling I encountered) was Mark Thomas’ autobiographical show, Bravo Figaro, in which he did something decidedly similar – told the story of his relationship with his father using pre-recorded audio tapes of a conversation with his old man. (I loved it so much I dedicated a whole blog to it).

And then there’s the fact that last year I helped devise, write and perform a new piece of theatre looking at the influence of our family histories on the people we become.  My dad featured, briefly, albeit not on tape.  The four of us in our theatre company spent a lot of time raking through the leaves of our family trees and debating (sometimes peacefully, sometimes not) what stories we would be allowed to tell, who had the rights to these stories, and what they all meant.

So it would be fair to say I’ve given these things a lot of thought.

To add another layer of relevance, just a couple of weeks ago our theatre company staged a new show, one I wrote rather than performed, about London, and we featured a character who was a protester, and who claimed to have been kettled (“I’m well proud of that”).  We took a more playful approach (the character was barely out of school), but still, she was there because it matters to us that there is a current of protest and challenge in our city, and that the unauthorised voices are heard.  It’s part of why we love Mark Thomas too.

Returning to last night’s tropical adventure, for all of the context that I loved and resonated with (my dad and I sit on different ends of the political spectrum; he was in the military and I lean towards pacifism; I have protested and he’s more of a law-and-order type) I found myself asking questions about when it works to put your family stories on stage.  Not because it’s sometimes inappropriate to air your dirty laundry in public (although that’s probably true, but not at all an issue with this show), but because of what makes good and important theatre. The show sold itself partly on the clear conflict between father and daughter: one an embodiment of dissent, the other of the status quo and enforced order.  But what in life was a beautiful truth – that both positions were nuanced and compassionate and non-aggressive, that father and daughter respected (and loved) one another and could co-exist peacefully – was less interesting on stage.  Dad the policeman was a really nice guy, and smart too.

For me, the power of Mark Thomas’ piece lay in part in the fact that the father/son conflict was unresolved and would stay that way.  That this wasn’t a story of forgiveness and reconciliation, but of an extravagant and beautiful gift given in spite of their brutal history, and his dad being too old and frail to change.  It spoke hope and grace into pain and blazed a path forward, writing a new ending for their story.  Or a new beginning.

And in a similar vein, the production last night landed with a reflection on how the world will be changed by stories.  That protesting has its place, but stories win people’s hearts and move us to new places and new ways of seeing the world.  (Hear, hear!)  And perhaps that is why Hannah has not been to a protest in a while but has made a piece of theatre to take to the Edinburgh festival (no small feat and I don’t envy her the slog of the next few weeks).  Her story is thoughtful, and well told, and it’s no small thing to bring something so personal to a room of strangers.  But when are our own stories big enough to change other people and to matter to them?  The right answer seems like it should be ‘always’, because I do believe that all our stories matter, and we have to get better at listening to the less familiar ones.  But when should they get put on a stage?

It’s a big question to ask myself as I write a new show and my first book, the latter of which is really a compilation of personal stories (don’t worry dad, you’re not in them).  Why do any of them matter to you?

I guess the answer is that some of them might and some of them won’t.  But my bit is to choose the ones I think matter most and put them out there.  To be part of the conversation.

The show has provoked some great responses and touched many people, so don’t let me discourage you from going (Catch it at the classy Northern Stage at St Stephen’s in Edinburgh).  Especially if you’ve not thought much about protesting and why people do it. It didn’t affect me deeply, maybe because its lack of real conflict failed to speak to my big, unresolved questions.  But it might be just the thing you need.

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Ten things I have learnt from Lulastic


If you’ve spent much time here you’ll know by now that I am a big groupie of Lulastic who blogs about thrifty living, justice, parenting and embracing your inner hippy.  As well as being an excellent blog-read, she also lives in our neighbourhood and is an excellent (and hilarious) friend.  The tragedy for us locals is that she is about to leave to tour Europe in a camper van with her husband and two little ones, and then move to New Zealand (actually the furthest away you could possibly get from here).

So as therapy to help me deal with her departure, I am dedicating today’s blog to her, in honour of all the weird and wonderful things she has taught me.

Whilst she would probably never use such strange, religious language to describe herself, I like to think of her as a (hippy) prophet.   She’s no weirdy-beardy old man enacting the future destruction of Jerusalem (at least she doesn’t blog about that kind of thing), but she sees particular sides of life with unusual clarity and passion, and responds with courage and creativity which, on good days, wakes me up from my own laziness and indifference.  Which I think is part of what a prophet does (maybe more on that theory another time).  I am always drawn to people who seem to me to have the courage to live with more imagination than most of us. So, like I say, I’m a fan.

Here are my top ten things I have learnt/discovered/taken up because of her (the ones relating to parenthood are still to be tested):

1. Shampoo is not a necessary part of life.

This is my hair after 10 months without shampoo. I don't usually photograph my hair unless it's in victory rolls and a lot of hairspray but here it is - shock horror - down.

This is my hair after 10 months without shampoo. I don’t usually photograph my hair unless it’s in victory rolls and a lot of hairspray but here it is – shock horror – down.

Lulastic gave up shampoo at the start of 2013 in the name of eco-thrift because, well, no-one is born needing shampoo, right?  And we would probably be healthier, and our water systems and the environment too, if there were less toxic chemicals being circulated around.  Ten months later I followed in her footsteps and so now I’ve been shampoo-free for nearly eleven months, and my hair looks great (apparently it didn’t smell great at the start, says Andy).  I use bicarbonate of soda once a week, plus cider vinegar to rinse.  And occasionally, egg yolks. Although many people think I’m weird.

2. Buying new stuff is the least creative solution to life’s challenges

Most of Lulastic’s household furniture was discovered abandoned on the street (we have one such piece in our flat but sadly it predates our arrival). Or found in charity shops or skips.  Or maybe they even used freecycle.  When they discover they need something, buying it new is like the eighth possible solution they will consider, after borrowing/finding/making/sharing/making do without.  It makes me think about how lazy I can get, and how unhealthy it is to think so little of buying stuff we don’t need, or replacing stuff for no reason other than being fed up with it.

3. Co-sleeping is not evil.

This is a whole new world for me, having never thought anything about where a baby sleeps. except in a cot.  I think I had a vague notion that people think sleeping with your baby is dangerous.  And I laughed heartily at that scene in the film Away We Go, where Maggie Gyllenhal’s character introduces the idea of the ‘family bed’ and asks her guests if they intend to ‘hide their lovemaking from [their] children’? But now I’ve read heaps of stuff, scientific and experiential, about its benefits and also heard a lot more confessions from mothers who do it.  I’m not sure what we’ll do, but I certainly feel very differently about it now.

4. Some brave people don’t even use nappies

I’ve been to plenty communities in countries around the world where babies quite evidently don’t wear nappies (there isn’t money for them, but then again why would you suddenly start buying them when no baby you’ve ever known has ‘needed’ them?).  So you’d think it would have come as less of a surprise to discover that there are people in England who don’t choose to use them.  But actually it was a radical discovery.  Lulastic’s kiddos don’t really wear nappies.  I see the logic of it. It’s a bit like the shampoo thing – when did we decide we needed them? Except, you know, the potential mess factor is a bit more serious.  I think I’m just too lazy/cowardly to try it out myself.  (And I can already see my mother’s face at the very idea…). It’s been educative and hilarious to find out about it though.

5. There are great car boot sales and charity shops in south london

If I was every in any doubt, those days are gone.  I’m a big fan of the charity shops in Teddington, where I work, but they’ve gone a bit upmarket in the last year or two (read: insanely overpriced).  Thank heaven for the Walworth Rd, and plenty top tips from Lulastic.  Almost my entire wardrobe is sourced in charity shops or bags of hand-me-downs. And guess where we’re looking for baby gear…

6. There’s a whole lot of judgement out there about breastfeeding.

Flip, the girl has some stories about the crazy reactions she gets. It’s strange because pretty much every mother I know breast feeds – maybe it’s just whatever strange subsection of the British pubic I hang out with? Anyway, her posts offer much celebration of this beautiful parenting choice which are pretty inspiring.  She’s tandem nursing right now, which I have witnessed in all its glory…

7. That you can basically use bicarbonate of soda and coconut oil for everything and save heaps of money.

I have blogged before about using bicarb for everything (cleaning your house and saucepans, washing your hair, it’s also great as deodorant) but Lulastic introduced me to coconut oil which has now become moisturiser, make-up-remover (very good for mascara), some-time-conditioner, deodorant (I have an allergy to the normal stuff) and various other things.  Ingenious.

8. How to have a money-saving pregnancy.

It helps when you have lovely friends (mostly from church) who hand you big bags of hand-me-downs (like Lulastic herself – I am currently sporting a fab pink sundress that came from her very wardrobe, and a charity shop before then and in between another pregnant friend who saw me in it last night and cried “I wore that to the Olympics last summer!”). But it’s also useful to hear from people who’ve already been there and can tell you what not to bother wasting your money on…

Giving up alcohol is also saving us money (sigh).

9. Living out your values (like justice, simplicity, generosity) is not incompatible with raising a family, but actually a beautiful journey to go on together.

I love that she took Ramona (her first child) to a protest when she was only a couple of months old, and that she spent some her maternity leave at the Occupy protests at St Paul’s, because she wants her children to be around people who believe the city can be a better place. I love that they see potential and joy and hope in raising kids in the inner-city. And they are convinced that raising kids to be peace-loving and creative and responsible has a huge impact on the world.  There are heaps of ways she and Tim are exploring how to love and empower their kids, and help them not just get squeezed into the mould of our consumerist culture.  I am only sad we won’t be raising our kids in the same neighbourhood…(genuinely gutted about that one).

10. How to make cool fridge magnets out of beer bottle tops

Maybe not so profound this one, but I love them and get lots of compliments on them.

bottle top magnets

Finally, I must mention that she taught me to make yummy cheese toasties in the frying pan.  WInner.

Hopefully this has whet your appetite and can now go forth and discover more of her brilliance.

Meanwhile, I will be grieving…


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Serenading the City

I promised you news of my first writing project this week, so this is the story of Rubies in the Smoke. (No, not the novel by Philip Pullman, he had only one Ruby but we have four).

Our theatre company, The Ruby Dolls, has been together for more than four years now.  And crikey, that’s flown by fast.  There’s no team I ever worked with so intensely for so long, and probably no other group who could tell you so accurately what I’m really like in a bad mood or under pressure (but this is a closely guarded secret).  It’s especially intense because we do practically everything ourselves most of the time – writing, arranging, performing, events management, admin… This makes it exhausting and often all-consuming, but also an obvious cradle of support, creativity and opportunity in which to develop my writing.

My first outing has been such a fun little project.  I’ve written an hour’s cabaret show (we’re always scripting bits and pieces for events here and there) on the theme of our beautiful and maddening hometown, London.  Writing a show about London is an obvious staring point because it combines a bunch of ideas that I already think about a lot, with an invitation to have a bit more fun with how we present them.  There are pigeons (but don’t come if you’re sentimental about them, I have a mild pigeon-phobia which underlies anything I may have written about them); there are royals; there are bankers and immigrants.  If we get it right there will be plenty to make you laugh, some seriously impressive harmonising, and maybe even a few things you will ponder deeply on your way home.

And there’s a new Ruby Doll!  Because I don’t really fit into my costume anymore so we had to recruit. We found a fabulous addition to the Ruby team, Becca Doll, who has the voice of an angel, and who will be debuting with us next week, while I step into new Ruby shoes (with a smaller heel).

There are many joys to writing a cabaret show.  There’s the fact that you can pull together an incredibly wide smorgasbord of music, characters and whatever other random factors you can think up.  There’s the adventure of taking familiar songs and thinking of startling new ways to reinterpret and stage them.  But for me there’s also the journey of taking four characters that I’ve seen develop over four years and find a framework to push them into new territory.  It’s less about scripting beautiful scenes (what fun is that level of precision?!) and more about creating a playground where the clowns (or Dolls) can make a play for what they want.  Which is a slightly different skill set from the one I anticipated at the start.  It’s the best and worst part of working so collaboratively (mainly the best).  Everything is game for everyone.

I’d love you to catch the show if you can.  I’d love to know what you think.  For once I’ll be sitting in the audience so you could come and say hi.

We open at St James Theatre in Victoria (swanky new venue) on Saturday 6th July, and we’re there on the Sunday night too.  You can get tickets here (but be quick, they’re disappearing fast), and you can even get dinner at the theatre too should you fancy it (and be feeling flush).  If that’s a no-go, we’ll also be appearing at Unleashed, a cabaret festival hosted by Shoreditch Town Hall, on July 17th (more here).

And finally, here’s a little Ruby taster to whet your appetite:

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