Tag Archives: food

How veganism came knocking on my door

It all started with a flippant comment in the office (yes, I spend two days a week in an actual grown-up office now. It is so cool it has neon pink staircases). Someone was laughing about how loads of people in their church had watched the film ‘Cowspiracy’ and now they’d all gone vegan. Crazy! Hilarious!

But somewhere inside something registered, because this is what I am like – I have a compulsion to keep trying to make the world better and improve myself, whatever the cost. (The to-do list will never end; I will never do enough). I hadn’t even seen the film, but slowly the cogs started to turn and I started to think, “oh no, I might need to become a vegan.”

Which is obviously crazy, right? Why would a passing comment from a friend make me feel like I needed to make such an insane and drastic lifestyle choice? Veganism had always seemed so extreme, anti-social, and unappealing. It’s not that I don’t ever eat vegan meals, or that I think they all taste disgusting. But it seemed an austere life.

The issue that pretty much dwarfs my personal tastes, however, is the environment, and the growing tide of evidence about the negative impact of eating dairy and meat that I can see out of the corner of eye. There was of course the film ‘Cowspiracy’ itself which I watched one evening on netflix. (If you haven’t seen it, an activist goes researching what is damaging the environment and climate most and discovers that the worst culprit globally is the cattle industry, because the amount of dairy and beef we are consuming is completely unsustainable for the planet to provide). But it doesn’t take much googling to discover that lots of people dispute the statistics quoted in the film.

Around the same time, however, I started to see articles like this one, reporting on the UN and IPCC’s recommendation that we move away from a reliance on animal products in our diet, because the planet cannot cope. Even Boris Johnson, a man I cannot claim to admire, wrote this column in which he ridicules the very idea of cutting down on meat consumption before completely supporting the scientific analysis of the underlying environmental crisis. (His argument – change of diet is completely unreasonable – imagine having to do something as inconvenient as altering our diet to save civilisation – the answer is to somehow curb the global population drastically in the next 30 years, which is clearly far more practical and reasonable a suggestion).

I have never seen the UN as a particularly radical force in the world, given the number of committees and members and agendas it must somehow accommodate. So when the UN recommends a vegan diet, it strikes me as unusually bold.

And then I thought I would see what George Monbiot had to say on the matter, knowing him to be terrifyingly radical but also incredibly well-informed on all issues relating to climate change. And of course, I found out, he is pretty much a vegan nowadays. Sigh.

I had, and have, two main reasons for resisting becoming a vegan. I’m not saying they are good reasons, but I am being honest:

  1. I comfort eat. Food brings me happiness and pleasure. In this season of life characterised by frequent sleep deprivation and intense parenting in my waking hours, nice food just helps me keep going. I don’t think it’s out of control, I’m not overweight and I don’t go crazy. But food really helps me cope, and the thought of cutting out so many comfort foods because they (mostly) contain dairy, and sometimes meat, feels like a bleak prospect.
  2. I don’t want to become the nightmare dinner invitee or house guest. I want to be able to receive the hospitality I’m offered without having to turn everything down. I hate fussiness. (I actually quite enjoy the creative challenge of catering for guests with dietary restrictions, but I hate to enforce it on anyone else).

My husband pointed out that I tend to be fairly black and white about these things and maybe being immediately extreme wasn’t the best approach to lasting change. Which I considered to be wise, whilst also still wanting to make a dramatic decision. (Then again, firebrand George Monbiot only considers himself ‘almost’ a vegan).

The other contributing factor here is that I would like to eat better. I have always thought diets were a waste of time, not least because once the diet is over we just go back to our old habits. And I’d like some new and better habits, but honestly I just don’t know where to start. When confronted with a piece of cake in my hunger my train of thought goes something like this: ‘I can resist because maybe it will make me imperceptibly thinner or negligibly healthier or I can just enjoy this treat.’  You might be able to guess what I usually choose.

I don’t look at my body with disgust (although in the rare event that I weigh myself, I do loathe the numbers), I don’t feel a compulsion to be thinner (although it would maybe be nice, if I was also healthier and stronger). I have some good habits – I mostly cook from scratch, we eat fruit, we eat plenty vegetables, we try to eat vegetarian more days than we eat meat). But I also feel a bit stuck. I don’t want to be a health nut but I’d like to make a few better choices.

I feel like I have more of a chance when my motivation towards change isn’t just about my body.

And all this coincides perfectly with Lent, which starts this week. If you miss the January bandwagon, Lent is, of course, the next best opportunity to give something up.

Only Lent carries another set of underpinning beliefs, as a season of church life. I haven’t always marked Lent (some churches do, some don’t), but in recent years the season has started to mean more to me. I shudder at the thought of deprivation, but the discipline of removing things from our lives which have become distractions from the most important things, or ways of numbing ourselves from our own pain or the world’s pain, even just indulgences which have become too normal – that feels like an important exercise to undertake. We let go of something as a step of faith, in the hope that there will be something more real and more substantial on the other side. Our step of faith is towards God and the promise that he could be more to us than the things we leave behind.

So the Lent resolutions feel more weighty for me – less about new plans to undertake, and more about hard choices and things I need to leave behind. Giving up certain kinds of snack food like chocolate can seem like a shallow way to tread this path, but who am I to judge the call anyone else needs to make. Food is a huge source of pleasure for me, but also my go-to drug for numbing my emotions and pacifying my distressed heart. And so changing how I eat feels like a big and a hard thing.

We have gone vegetarian for Lent before, and this year I am going to try to eat in an increasingly vegan manner as the season goes on. I’m not enforcing veganism on the rest of my family, although as I’m chief cook they will get to eat many delicious vegan meals in the coming weeks (frankly, my kids would happily eat pesto pasta every day anyway, and vegan pesto is easy to find).  A little googling has thrown up a few snazzy vegan snack companies out there, and, more helpfully, I stumbled across this helpful list of accidentally vegan snacks.

And beyond Lent, who knows? I hope we’ll grow new habits, discover a better way to live and  make some permanent changes to our diet. I would be happy if we cooked meat very occasionally and saw it as a huge treat. I’m not going to make our families or friends cook vegan food for us when we go to stay. It’s hard to predict what course we’ll chart after Lent, or how well we’ll adapt to the changes.

(Dear God, please leave me caffeine, alcohol, gluten and sugar.)

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Our Big Lunch

Doddington Grove Big LunchYes, it’s another foray into the world-beyond-the-baby, in which I catch you up with some local community happenings.

This last week, we finally got organised enough to put on a BIG LUNCH (if you don’t know about the annual BIG LUNCH set up by the Eden project, it’s a cracking idea designed to help us Brits throw an annual street party and get to know our neighbours).

It actually fell on Jesse’s 6 month birthday, so we told him it was kind of a party for him.  We’re just hoping it doesn’t raise too many expectations for future birthdays.

photo 4

If you’ve been reading this blog a while you might remember that towards the end of last year we were trying to set up the Tenants and Residents’ Association on our estate.  There once was a TRA but it wound down, and no-one had ever bothered to get it going again.  So the dynamo that is my husband set about marshalling some troops and battling the prevailing cynicism to kickstart a new TRA.

Our building is the only building on the estate on our side of the road.  All the other buildings are across the unusually-wide street and before this year we didn’t actually ever meet anyone from there. We were a world unto ourselves.  But then after a few weeks of flyering and door-knocking and postering, 30 people turned up to the relaunch meeting.  And most of them came not to gripe about leaky roofs (although heaven knows, we all could go there…) but because they wanted to get to know people and build a sense of community around the estate.

The frustrating part is that up until the launch meeting the family Flan were all in it together, but then Jesse suddenly started going to bed at 7 and giving us back our evenings…which meant we couldn’t both go out of an evening.  And given Andy was voted in as the chair of the TRA, it was more important for him to be there.

So Jesse and I missed a lot of the planning.  We did some flyering.  But we still got to go the party!  And what a day it was.

There were loads of people, piles of homemade food, a furnace of a barbecue, a packed bouncy castle, a long queue for face-painting and a whole lot of chatter.  There was even sunshine!  And a friend from uni turned up, who I hadn’t seen in about a decade! What are the chances?

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I loved that there were so many kids there (there were a lot of rounds to the tug-of-war) and that everyone just wanted to hang around and keep  nattering.  It took a lot of legwork to make it happen – the new TRA committee had a lot on their plate – but it was just a great day.  All kinds of people came out of the woodwork, wanting to get more involved.

And possibly the highlight of the day was the incredible Spanish tortilla cooked by Lourdes, one of our legendary neighbours who is loved by people across the whole estate.

Just that morning in church we’d been thinking about what it means to reweave the broken threads of relationships in all the different spheres of our lives, and how we can put into practise a love which restores people and communities.  That afternoon we got to practice.  There’s a new, fragile expression of community starting to emerge in the neighbourhood, and we are loving being part of it.

 

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The Big Lunch

The Big Lunch stickers

Yesterday was the Big Lunch – a brilliant initiative from the Eden Project to get as many people as possible across the whole of the UK to have lunch with their neighbours once a year in a simple act of community, friendship and fun.  What a great idea.

We didn’t really get our act together in time, and having lost some neighbours recently to the bedroom tax (they had to move out after more than 15 years on our block), we were feeling less than confident about our ability to rally the neighbours and rearrange the car park.  But the beauty of being in a community of like-minded, neighbour-loving people, is that when you can’t get it together yourself, you can go and join in with them (aka crashing their party).  And that’s what we did yesterday.

bunting

We hot-footed it across the Elephant towards Borough and onto Great Dover Street where our friends the Casserleys had organised a Big Lunch for their neighbours.  Despite the absence of many of their regular friends and organisers who had gone away for the weekend, more than 50 people showed up.  There was a tug of war, a bbq (maybe the slowest one ever…), live music and ice lollies.

tug of war

The great thing was, people loved it.  They stayed for hours, chatting with neighbours they hadn’t met before.  The kids all played together, and the bigger the group grew, the more courage other people found to come out of their houses.

I was so impressed our friends went ahead and organised it, even though it was pretty much a solo effort and they weren’t confident anyone would come.  I was telling their neighbours how lucky they were they had benches and communal outdoor space to gather between the blocks of flats, and they informed me it had all been initiated and organised by the residents themselves over time – there had been guerrilla gardening and and community organising.  I realised how easily I dismiss some of the potential of our block, and default to assuming the bureaucratic council will get in the way.

We turned up yesterday just to help out and get behind someone else’s great idea, but the upshot of it that we feel inspired and encouraged, and just a little bit braver when it comes to hosting the Big Lunch next year, on home turf.  Plus I found out all kinds of useful stuff about the local schools and housing situation.

That’s something I love about being in Christian community – there’s a commitment not just to loving each other but to serving each other.  We choose sometimes (on good days) to lay aside our plans to help turn someone else’s hopes and ideas into reality.  Those moments are easily crowded out, but we’re trying to choose them a bit more often.

Did you host or attend a Big Lunch in your neighbourhood?  How was it?

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How to meet the neighbours

Irving House

On Saturday night we had a brilliant evening round at our Polish neighbours’ flat – we ate great food, drank some extraordinary Hungarian wine, talked about travel, love, family and faith.  Andy finally found another chess player on the block and I vowed to teach him bridge so that we could all play together (somehow we have morphed into middle-age).

We *love* evenings like that, it makes us grateful to live where we do, alongside such a diversity of people from different cultures, and it makes the idea of local community feel tangible.

Those are the good moments. As normal and natural as they might seem, they are neither.    Even living in a social housing block where everyone is very close together, it’s normal to keep yourself to yourself.  The moments we’ve experienced of genuine community have come about because of a series of choices, a good chunk of time, and after a fair dose of false starts.

You’ve probably worked out by now that Andy and I aspire to be good neighbours.  It’s hardly a radical idea, but in London it seems to be getting more unusual. Normal is maybe saying hi if you’re on your respective doorsteps at the same time, but that’s as far as it goes.

(Not so fifty years ago, my 85 year old friend Maire tells me.  Everyone knew who you were and looked out for you.  She has lived in the same square mile her whole life and boy, has she seen things change).

A couple of months ago I spoke at an event aimed at helping people who want to get more involved with social action in London.  I was on a “panel of experts” answering questions about our experiences.  I felt like a total rookie and a bit of an impostor, but I tried to talk about our tiny attempts to be good neighbours.  And, weirdly, it seemed to be what people were most interested in.  They just wanted to know where to start.

So if you already know all your neighbours and find building relationships with them really easy, this is not the post for you (but well done).  Otherwise, this is where I share the things we are learning about it.

1.  It takes time.

By this I don’t just mean ‘gosh, people take ages to trust you, you have to stick around for years before they will open up’, although that it sometimes true.  What I mean is that we have learnt that we have to carve time out of the other stuff we do to make time for the neighbours, or else they never get more than a hello.

I moved onto an estate about seven years ago, super-keen to get to know the locals.  But I worked full-time, commuted to work, was really involved in church and saw plenty of my friends.  I was just never in, and certainly never in the daytime.

Partly motivated by this frustrating experience, four or five years ago I decided to start working part-time.  It was a financial sacrifice but it meant that I would be around in the neighbourhood more in the week, and be less exhausted at weekends.  A bit later Andy and I started booking out an evening every fortnight when we would have different neighbours over for dinner.  Sometimes it means turning down other more exciting invitations, and sometimes our neighbours bail out.  But little by little we’re making friends.

Andy’s top tip: When you leave to go out, go earlier than you need so that if you bump into neighbours you can stop for a chat.

2. It takes cultural adjustments

It’s amazing what you discover about your own expectations of people.

We’ve had neighbours show up for dinner with three extra relatives who happen to be staying, and others turn up 90 minutes late, at 9pm, with all their children on a school night.  Some people never turn the TV off (actually, most people) and plenty of them don’t have much of a taste for British cuisine (or maybe just my cooking).

Some people will come round the first time you ask, others take ages to trust you (or still don’t).  Some people invite you back, others wouldn’t dream of letting you see their flat.

All I can say is that we’re trying and we’re learning.  The “how” of making friends is different every time.

3. Look for allies!

Frank

Frank

When we moved in we were lucky enough to be introduced to loads of the neighbours by our landlady.  And one of those, our next door neighbour Frank, has become our most loyal supporter. He has lived in his flat for fifty years and he knows everything that goes on. Whenever we have a party, he’s the first to turn up. When new folk move in now, he’ll make sure we know, tell us their names and send us off with a wink!  We cook him bangers and mash every now and then (he’s not a fan of vegetables) and he’s introduced Andy to the local fish market (we have not been won over to jellied eels).

Some people are hard to get to know – so we make sure we enjoy the friends who are less hard work!

4. Push through the pain barrier.

If you love knocking on strangers’ doors, this whole business will be easy.  But for those of us who don’t, there’s just a pain barrier to push through.  Andy got used to it when he was campaigning to be a local councillor.  I have to psyche myself up a bit before I go, but if I have done that, I’m ok (can you tell I’m the less spontaneous one?).

Go and ask to borrow some sugar or some milk.  Hand-deliver invites to your house-warming.  See if someone will water your plants when you’re away. Ask the Latinos to help you with your Spanish!  I mean, don’t be too weird, but be a good neighbour – people want to discover they have nice people living nearby!

I’d love to hear about how you get to know your neighbours…

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Eating Green

Yes, drum roll, it’s another instalment of…

the greenish life

Another blog about how we are attempting to live in a collaborative, ethical, earth-friendly kind of a way, minimising our damage of the planet and the waste of resources.

So, a few days on from the launch of the UK-wide IF campaign, it seems like it would be topical to talk about food.

(What? You haven’t heard of IF?  Quick, have a look here.  It’s a massive national campaign to address the huge justice issues that mean that nearly one billion people go to bed hungry every night and two million children die from malnutrition every year.  Important, yes? Sign up!)

Trying to tackle the gargantuan realities of unjust trade laws, land grabs, unsustainable farming, child labour, corruption and tax dodging through your weekly food shop is clearly ambitious.  And optimistic.  And most of all, complicated.

It often feels a little pointless when there’s a Tesco on every corner.  But I stubbornly believe in doing things not just because we hope they will change the world.  I do them for the sake of my own soul (and body).  And because I’m the only one I can change.

So here is a list of four ways we try to shop and eat in a greenish manner, and why.  They are not the ‘right answer’, but more a snapshot of where we have got to as we wrestle through the shedloads of options and information out there.

1. We try to assess cost in a holistic way.

Being raised by a Scottish mother means I have an eye for a bargain.  Andy will similarly gravitate to the ‘reduced to clear’ section of any given shop (much faster than me).  So I have a moral compass that says it is always right to spend as little as possible.  But that becomes complicated when spending as little as possible means that other people suffer: farmers haven’t been paid fairly; poorly waged children have worked in factories or fields to make the saving possible; dangerous chemicals have been used to make crops more durable.  There are other costs that I am forcing others to pay.

Now spending more is no guarantee of those factors not being present.  But taking up those clichéd middle-class shopping habits of buying fair-trade and organic – for those who are able financially – seems to me a better choice, and a way to influence the market towards that kind of production.

This week's fruit and veg box.  So far the contents have made it into veggie lasagne, pizza and soup. (The weird one is celeriac).

This week’s fruit and veg box. So far the contents have made it into veggie lasagne, pizza and soup. (The weird one is celeriac).

For us that means a fortnightly organic fruit & veg box, and we also stock up on other locally produced basics – eggs, milk (the amount of hormones constantly injected into milk-producing cows in order to keep them perpetually pregnant is horrifying, hence we have switched to organic milk), some meat and fish.  The added cost means we probably eat a bit less than we used to, especially when it comes to snacks.

It’s a full-time job to source everything locally and organically (I only work part-time, and it’s too much for me) – which is why companies like Riverford/Abel & Cole and even some of the better supermarkets like Ocado – are very helpful…especially when they deliver.

2. We only eat meat at weekends.

I once participated in a debate over vegetarianism at Tearfund, one I (shamefully) didn’t take very seriously.  I seem to remember using bacon as my main argument.  But hearing the other side, hearing arguments about our unsustainable level of meat production around the world, convinced me that some big habits need to change.  The environmental cost of eating meat every day is just too high.  It’s a tough habit to break, so we have given up meat Monday to Friday, meaning that when we eat meat on the weekend we can afford to buy organic/free-range meat.

(It is possible that you have spotted the husband eating meat on a weekday lunchtime.  He would like me to emphasise that he is in theory behind the habit-change but is working on his follow-through…)

3. We try to minimise the links in the chain between earth and table.

When I first travelled overseas with Tearfund, to Brazil in 2006, one of the things that took me by surprise was how much I loved the closer connection between land and table.  What we ate in small rural communities was usually what we had seen growing outside (or running through the yard).  I realised just how many complex processes (and journeys) separated what I ate in London from where it had come from.  I miss the connection.

Amazing magic bread dough (thanks River Cottage) which is super-easy and makes delicious garlic bread and pizza

Amazing magic bread dough (thanks River Cottage) which is super-easy and makes delicious garlic bread and pizza.

So there are a few things we do to reinstate it.  We try to grow veggies and herbs on our tiny balcony (more on that one in a future blog – we live round the corner from a great garden farm who do free gardening lessons).  We try to buy British (see point 1).  I try to make things from raw ingredients rather than get them ready-made (it is easier when you work part-time).  We avoid heavily-processed food.

 

 

4. We are trying to simplify our tastes and be more grateful

This one might seem a little a strange, and Andy is much better at it than me.  There is such a raft of exotic and extraordinary food on sale everywhere, and for someone whose emotional well-being is strongly connected to her diet, it’s pretty exciting.  I could eat a different style of cuisine every night of the week.  But when you can always eat anything, nothing feels special.  It’s harder to appreciate the simple things and be grateful for them.    So we are trying to impose some limits.

Andy never used to like drinking plain old water, but over time he has resolutely trained his body to drink little else (I am trying…).  He has taken to eating plain porridge for brekkie very day. He doesn’t buy booze because it is an expensive habit.  He only drinks tea if he’s at your house and you want to make him some, and never coffee.  Now I happen to really enjoy coffee and red wine, but I’ve drunk less wine at home since we’ve been married  – we only really drink it with other people.  It has become more of a treat.

Here is some veggie pizza we made from the bread dough. Mmmm.

Here is some veggie pizza we made from the bread dough. Ok, it won’t make it into a food magazine anytime soon, but it tasted good.

I’ll be honest that I find this one harder because I derive more pleasure from food than he does.  But simpler doesn’t mean less fun.  It just involves a bit of retraining to appreciate things that are less complicated.

I’m on a journey with it.

I would love to hear what you do to try to shop and eat green.  (Do you forage?  Do you eat all your left-overs? Do you have a wormery? )

 

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I love lunch

I write “I love lunch” optimistically, full of faith and hope because if I’m honest lunch is usually the weakest contender in ‘meal of the day’. (It’s normal to review the day’s meals and compile a leaders board, right?)

Too often I’m out of the house, unprepared, grabbing something on the fly, pacing the streets of Teddington in search of anything that isn’t an overpriced panini.

But I am hopeful, because I have just invested some birthday money in an exciting book: River Cottage Veg Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whatsisface.  Part of my journey on living within limits brings me to the question of food.  Is meat-eating basically a terrible environmental catastrophe in the making?  (Pretty much, at current levels anyway). I posted on Facebook, asking for recommendations of books that might convert me to the green side, and received all kinds of responses.  These ranged from “Don’t do it!” to diet book recommendations (once I worked out people weren’t just calling me a ‘skinny bitch’ – it did seem unlikely), to a handful of ethical reflections and then the practical advice of my friend Dave: “Honestly, get the Hugh Fernley-W book. Skip the theory, and get some good recipes!!”.  And so I did.  And I’m cooking up a storm in the kitchen.

Saying that, I was hoping to write this post earlier, only the night I returned, recipe book in hand, to greet my organic veg delivery and get cracking, I was devastated to discover that the veg had been delivered while my husband was asleep, and so they had been rescued by our faithful next door neighbour Frank, except he had now gone out for the evening.  I was grumpy and there was no vegetarian food to photograph.

But here was today’s lunch:

Ribollita. It’s a kind of hearty soup.

It’s called ribollita and it was great, although perhaps not the most appealing meal to have photographed?

Anyway, we’re now officially veggies from Monday-Friday, and so far I haven’t even eaten meat this weekend.

The other reason to blog about lunch is because of this BRILLIANT new film about a project my friend Rachel helps to run, called LUNCH.  “There are children around this country who are only eating if their school provides them with a meal” she says.  1.2million children in the UK are registered for free school meals, but there is no provision for them in school holidays.  That’s where this nifty and amazing project comes in.  Get involved.

Lunch from Matt Bird on Vimeo.

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An adventure with limits

As you read this I will be on holiday.  Woo!

The plan for last few months has been that we will jet off to somewhere sunny – catch the last rays of southern Mediterranean sun.  There’s something about the sunshine that just makes me happy. And since we’ve been married we’ve only really holidayed in the UK, and a fair amount of torrential rain has followed us around.

So we earmarked a week in the sun, and I set about seeking out cheap deals.  With a growing sense of unease.

Everything looked so impersonal.  It was like a holiday conveyor belt, nothing that felt real or special.

Then there was the fact that my carbon footprint is already outrageously oversized thanks to the long-haul flights I take for work each year.

But the biggest questions in my mind came from this sense that we fighting against natural, environmental limits.

It is autumn now, and I like autumn a lot.  Why can’t we embrace and enjoy the changing seasons, relish the beauty of England at this time of year, without needing to flee to a different climate?

Working as I do for an organisation with strong convictions and policies when it comes to the environment, I asked some colleagues for their opinions.  Unanimously, they said I should go and enjoy my overseas holiday, despite the environmental costs.  I’m not writing this to name and shame them, they spoke out of love and generosity towards me, encouraging us towards a holiday.  But I couldn’t find anyone to challenge me.

And why this perverse desire to be challenged, even stopped?

For me it plays into a loud debate that has been raging in my head, on and off, for the last couple of years.  And it’s about limits.

A friend of ours in Brazil, a radical, crazy urban farmer called Claudio Oliver, spoke to us some time ago about his belief that we need to reinstate “limits, renunciation and a sense of sacredness” into how we live.

Limits aren’t very sexy.  Although I’ve read tons of articles saying how crucial they are to children – healthy boundaries in childhood get the big thumbs up.  But when it comes to life as an adult they’re seen as cramping our style.  Something to overcome.

And our crazy consumerist culture is always driving us to want more, to leap over the limits of our bank balances, and buy everything we want.  There’s never a reason to say no. Put it on the credit card.  Or riot and steal.

And whatever you want to eat tonight, you can.  Regardless of the time of year, or what we can grow in this country, you can go to a restaurant or a supermarket and get pretty much whatever you want.

It’s luxury.

But I feel like something’s been lost.  Treats, for a start.  I can get anything at any time, so where does specialness come from now?

And where does pushing the limits lead? To debt, obesity, burn-out, stress. To a banking crisis.

When we were booking our holiday I was agonising – what will make me happy?  Our whole culture says – something more, something new.

And the reality is that no holiday can really make me happy.  I’ve worked out enough about the world to realize on its own it can never make me happy.  Happiness comes from somewhere else, from an attitude of wonder and gratitude, an ability to take pleasure in small things, from knowing that I am loved and I belong.

Pushing the limits of our bank balance and our geography and our use of natural resources to grab some sunshine didn’t feel right.  And so we’re off to a beautiful spot in North Devon instead, for a blustery, cosy autumnal break.  (Check out the amazing www.pickwellmanor.co.uk – how gorgeous does it look?!).

Which is all well and good for us, but there are bigger questions, aren’t there?  About the planet and how we don’t engineer our own extinction by continuing to live on, blind to the limits of the natural world.  It’s a question that a lot of people are asking.  A big crowd at Tearfund are wrestling with it right now.

Politicians won’t legislate limits if it means they’ll get voted out at the next opportunity.  And we do need some legislation.  The law can’t do everything, just like abolishing the slave trade hasn’t got rid of slaves.  But it makes certain behaviours unacceptable, unjustifiable.

Legislation won’t come until enough people want it.  And there’s the challenge.  How do we unlearn what constitutes ‘the good life’ in our western bubble, and come to believe in something better?  If we can’t school ourselves, we don’t stand a chance in our communities.

How do we recover an appreciation for limits, which strikes right at the heart of our consumer ideology?  How do we begin to recognize a life with limits as a better, richer, more generous, more human life?

It sounds so hard, but I am a big believer in imagination. Humans are incredibly creative when we’re suddenly having to constrain ourselves within limits. But the hard bit at the start is that none of those limits are enforced yet.  If we’re serious about this (and I really am) we’ll have to begin by enforcing some limits on ourselves, and they’ll probably feel artificial.

The other bit is that’s it’s really hard on your own.  So company will be important.  Is anyone with me?

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When it’s easy to love South London

How I love South London when the sun shines and neighbours do stuff together.

This Sunday I helped plant a community herb garden on an estate near London Bridge.

We have this thing at our church that means we don’t always just meet in a big hall on a Sunday morning to sing songs.  Once or twice a month we meet in local neighbourhoods in smaller communities and look for practical ways of expressing love towards the people who live around us.  And this Sunday our friends Martin and Naomi and their two gorgeous daughters decided to get us replanting their housing estate’s fledgling herb garden along with their neighbours.

The kids were very enthusiastic, especially when it came to making a mud pie....

I know very little about gardening, but I can operate a spade, and this is mainly what I did.  We set out – Martin & Naomi’s family, Andy and I, and our Turkish friend Baci – and over the course of the next hour several of the neighbours rocked up to help.  There was 4 year old Aldous (very enthusiastic with the watering can) who announced the gardening was “more fun than the wii, and not the wee that comes out of your willy”.

Within about an hour and a half we’d taken the plants out, thrown away the ones we weren’t keeping, tilled and aired the soil, replanted old and new herbs, covered the ground with stones (apparently this is important) and made labels out of lolly sticks so we knew what everything was.  Then we even found some chipboard to make a sign from, so the neighbours know they can help themselves.

A dance of joy over the completed herb garden...

And the sun shone the whole time! And afterwards we had homemade scones and jam!

This is when it’s easy to love South London. We’re already plotting some more rogue gardening, and I’ve spotted some brilliant free gardening lessons at my local garden farm.  Genius!

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Footnote: It’s less easy to love South London when your neighbours get burgled, which also happened this week.

 

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I love Paris in the Springtime, especially when people get healed.

“I love Paris, oh why, oh why do I love Paris? Because my love is there..” sang Ella Fitzgerald, and she was right – here he is!

Last week I got to travel with the husband, which was exciting, and not just because Paris is the city of love, or because it was also the city of brilliant sunshine during our stay (both of which helped)…but because of what we were there for.  We spent three and a half days at the L’Eglise Reformee du Marais, a beautiful old church right by Place de la Bastille where there is some amazing and beautiful work afoot.

We were invited by our friends Bob and Gracie who are living there for a year.  They’re an inspiring pair themselves.  They used to live in community in rural Honduras alongside campesinos, where they taught sustainable farming, preventative health and led Bible studies. Then they’ve mainly lived in Washington State since then, working with Central American Immigrants, prison inmates and people who are homeless. (Check out Bob’s excellent blog) But they’ve moved to Paris for a year because they’ve been so inspired by what Gilles Boucomont and his team are up to at the church.

I love France.  I love the wine and the cheese and the baguettes.  But I have rarely heard anything especially exciting or inspiring about the modern day church in France.  There is of course the amazing priest Jean Vanier who set up L’Arche (people living in community with those with a mental disability). but after him I get stuck for inspiration.

But what we experienced was amazing.  And I’m trying to work out how to describe it because it’s totally un-pc and irrational.  They pray for people to be delivered from all kinds of things that lock them up. Addictions. Cancer. Abusive relationships. Generational patterns. Curses. And they have incredible stories of people’s lives being completely changed. We met people who had been healed of brain tumours, and others from deep emotional wounds which were defining their whole lives. The team pray out evil spirits, like in the Bible, but not in a hyped up, scary kind of a way; or a ‘quick, he’s gay, he must have a demon, cast it out’ way; more in a compassionate, unforced, down-to-earth ‘we think this stuff is real and so we’re going to confront it’ kind of way.  And starting with the Jesus-like question – do you want to be free?

I’ve been around some of that stuff in poorer parts of the world; I’ve heard it shouted about a lot by Americans; but in Western Europe, the heart of rationalism and secularism, it was more unexpected.

This is a bit different to previous blog entries.  It’s easier to write about less controversial or overtly spiritual things.  But these things we heard and saw in France genuinely give me hope, even in spite of knowing plenty stories about how this kind of thing gets twisted and misused.  I think that there’s more to humans than our appetites, our education level or even our relationships, and I think profound change affects more than just individual lives, it affects families and communities and societies.  I’m not about enforcing something spiritual on people, but I can’t write off the enormous change I’ve seen in people which has come about through seemingly inexplicable supernatural means (well, I guess it’s only inexplicable if you don’t believe in God).

I don’t think just praying for people is the answer, any more than I think just feeding them or giving them computer lessons is.  Change is  complicated. But I think the French team we met, and the thousands of Christians working in similar ways, are seeing extraordinary and wonderful things happen – things which have left me feeling more full of hope and faith than anything else for a long time.

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”   John Wesley

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