Light Your Lamps

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I have some words written in my journal from an Advent Retreat I attended at the start of December.

Awake.

Ready for action.

Lamps Lit.

Watchful.

Work clothes.

They are not the words I was expecting.

Even my purple pen and black inky hearts can’t really make them look beautiful, although I try my best.

Wasn’t I here for a deep breath, for rest for my soul?  What am I doing in this beautiful space scribbling down words like action and work? Why do I feel excited, like I’m hearing something new?

*

I am the girl who got so tired of rally-cries, altar-calls and persuasive sermons  that she got ‘Be Still’ tattooed on her foot.

I am the girl who ended up very sensitive to many words, many phrases, many hymns and many, many parts of the Bible.

I took refuge away from them.  I took refuge for a time far away from church and I took refuge, sometimes, in the loo at church.

I still do, to be honest, but not so much.  I found a practice that helped me.

Addie Zierman calls it ‘Sermon Notes for Cynics’.  She writes:

I began jotting down things that rubbed me wrong. If something troubled my spirit or caused my cynic voice to holler, I wrote it down in my notebook. When a worship song lyric made me cringe and shiver, I’d sit and note it, right then.
In time, I began to take it a step further. Instead of just noting the cringe-worthy phrase, I took a moment to sit with it. Could I pinpoint what about that line hit me wrong? Did it bring up a memory or hook some old painful theological wound? Did it seem to oversimplify or overcomplicate? Did it strike me as being at odds with the God I know?

I continued to do this … and the most surprising thing happened.

By honoring the questions and concerns that rose up, by giving them a very physical space to “live,” a new space opened up in me too.

I had worried that if I began to write down the things that made me cranky, I might never stop. Instead, the opposite happened. When I honored my cynic voice and noted what she had to say, she stopped shouting so loudly, and I could hear those other things.

Beauty. Hope. Maybe even the voice of God.

I have found this to be true.  I have gathered my own trigger-words, noted them, sat with them, wondered about them.  They sound different to me now.  I don’t have to hear them in the voice of that preacher.  I don’t have to hear them in the voice of the girl I once was.

Some words I picked up wrong, that’s all.  I made them try-hard and anxious and then simmered in anger at them later.

*

My husband is the type of man who, when his wife gets a tattoo that says ‘Be Still’, will get a black sharpie and script ‘Keep Going’ on his own foot in his best cursive, waiting nonchalantly beside her to be noticed.

It was funny.

It was also wiser, perhaps, than intended.

You can’t make a phrase like ‘Keep Going’  beautiful, I thought.  Not as a tattoo, not with a black sharpie or a purple pen or inky hearts.  It’s a word about strain and striving, isn’t it?

But we need both, of course – to be still, to keep going – I picked it up wrong, that’s all.

*

And so back to my chair in Pilgrim Cottage, to the Advent essay I am reading from Luke 12.

We are to have our work clothes on and our lamps lit.  We are to be awake and ready and watchful.

I am surprised that there is space inside me for these words, that I can’t wait to write them down and mull them over.  I do not imagine that I will carry them with me into January, that they will shape my phrase for the year.

I had heard this story all my life with panic.  I heard the rousing preacher.  I heard the over-zealous teenage girl.  The heading in the NIV for this passage is ‘Watchfulness’ but the heading in my mind was ‘Watch out!’.

But what about being watchful as an act of faithfulness, instead of panic? I am drawn to that.

I think about how I wake up every night in a sweat about half an hour after I first fall asleep.  There is something I have not done and someone is dead, or sick or missing or something is very wrong.  Until I realise it is not.  I was dreaming, that’s all.

Sometimes it feels like our high-alert switch is stuck and it is such a stressful way to parent or live but we cannot seem to help it.  I’d like to be watchful instead.  Ready.  Available.  Present.  Not waking up in a sweat.

*

‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ it says in Luke 9:26.

I heard this last April in church.  Addie hadn’t yet suggested her Sermon Notes for Cynics, and I still had few tools to deal with these words.  Words that made me feel tired and judged and boxed in and angry and ashamed.  My instinct, as always: to take refuge away from them.  But I didn’t.  I wrote them in my Bullet Journal (see, now, the particularly jagged handwriting? I was a little cross).  I hid in a corner at coffee time (which is progress from the loo) and when my friend Joan asked me how I was I said that my field was all wobbly and she said hers was too and we sat with it.

I am still sitting with those words, I realise now, as I am thinking about what it means to light your lamps and put your work clothes on.

Whose field did I think I was ploughing in? The field of the scaremonger preacher?

When I think of that field as the one that is mine to tend, doesn’t it become a beautiful thing?  The field of my calling and my gifting and my place in the world.  The plough that needs my temperament, my creativity, my good work, my effort.  And, honestly, when it comes to those things isn’t it hard to keep going?  Isn’t it a challenge? Don’t we need a warning that it’s going to be tough?

*

It’s 2018 and my phrase for the year is Light your Lamps.

You can strike a match and stay in your post out of fear, I know (I’m not sleeping, Lord.  I’ll never sleep!).  It can be a performance.  It can be a thing that will not last.

But I want to light mine with intention and expectation.

I find it hard to keep burning.

‘I have edited my own soul many times,’ Erin Loechner says, ‘and each time I’ve done so in the name of kindness.  Good intentions.  Passivity.’

I find it hard not to edit, not to diminish what I thought mattered, not to downplay the words I was starting to say.  I find it hard to keep burning.

Light your Lamps is a reminder.  Maybe it’s a quiet rebellion, too.

Can you be a slow, meandering kind of girl and also be ready, lamps lit, work clothes on, hand to the plough?  I am hoping you can.

I am not fit for the Kingdom of God, I think, but I am being made fit.  I need to be still.  I need to keep going.

 

 

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Body: Skinny

Body 365

There are conversations that I have never felt I have a voice in, among women. Conversations about body image and size and weight loss. I don’t feel like I have a voice in the casual conversations among friends and colleagues (and acquaintances even) about points and slimming world and ‘being good’. And I don’t feel like I have a voice in the public ones… in the campaigns and activism and articles and feminism, much of which I love to see.

I was a skinny girl and now I am a skinny  thin slim fineboned petite 30-something woman.

See I picked up a lot of baggage, being a skinny girl, and all these years later there aren’t many words left that don’t sound like criticism in my ears.

***

When you are skinny, in a world where lots of people want to be, people don’t filter what they say to you. People are intrusive in ways they would never ever normally be.

The most harmful things that have been said to me about my body have been said by people who loved me, or at least liked me.

I didn’t pick up my negative body-image from magazines or soaps or pop music or bullies or bitchy girls. I picked it up around dinner tables and  in church, I picked it up wearing uniforms and special outfits. I heard it addressed to me and I heard it addressed above my head, to my mum. I picked it up from people who were kind-enough, aware-enough, pc-enough and sensitive-enough to never dream of commenting on the weight of an overweight child… who would NEVER draw attention to that child or try to openly discuss their body with their mother.

When I was growing up the things I was told about my body  made me feel labelled, criticised, humiliated and patronised. And simultaneously I was told I couldn’t have any issues about my body. I was lucky.

It was confusing as a child and confusing as a teenager to have body issues and then to be pushed out of every conversation about body issues.

***

There is no one comment or one person that damaged me, but the build-up did.  I ‘get it’ now, of course. As an adult I have a different perspective and more resilience. I know that there is much damage in our society from the pursuit of ‘Thin’ and there is a huge balance to redress.

I have been enjoying the Maisie Dobbs books recently and I read with a wry smile as in between solving mysteries she dodges intrusive comments about her eating habits. She can’t visit Lady Rowan or Dame Constance without being told to “put meat on her bones” and she is forever assuring people “I eat plenty”. I have a fondness, now, for those pass-remarkable characters in life… for our Mrs Doyles, our  honorary ‘Aunties’ and matron figures. I don’t want to rid our world or dining rooms of them entirely.   I have learnt to be less sensitive to their analysis and advice, and these days I can brush it off more often than not. But still, I feel for that skinny girl, who couldn’t. I wish she didn’t have to run a gauntlet of comments growing up – comments on her arms and legs, comments about how bony she felt when hugged.  I wish she didn’t have to endure assessments and prodding and eyes on her dinner plate. I wish she hadn’t spent YEARS covering up her limbs, sweaty summers in long-sleeves and jeans, ashamed.

***

The world is divided when it comes to Body Issues, and maybe we will never totally understand each other. We are divided into those who want to be curly and those who want to be straight, those who eat when they’re stressed and those who lose their appetite, those who treat their aesthetics with too much importance, and those who neglect it.  We are even divided into those who feel too fat, and a few of us who feel too thin.

Maybe we will never totally understand each other but I’ve noticed something as I have tried to write this piece, that I suspect many of us have in common. It’s hard to admit that certain things bother us.  It’s hard to say I struggle with this, I’m sensitive about this.  It’s hard because it is not the whole story of who we are. It’s hard because it seems so superficial. It’s hard because shouldn’t we just ‘get over it’? It’s hard, for me, because all my life I have heard “well I’d love to have your problem“.

***

I have 2 daughters now who may have inherited my metabolism. How do I raise them to stand proud and not be diminished? It was an uphill battle for my own mum whose voice was wise, sane, loving…yet other voices got in and damaged me.

My mum has countered those voices in changing rooms across the country with patience and persistence.

I don’t know how to raise my daughters, but I am learning how to stand proud myself and not be diminished by comments on my figure. I listen to my mum and my husband. I listen to who God says I am. I read Anne Lamott and Brené Brown. I treat my body with compassion and fondness and gratitude. I wear clothes I like that are sleeveless and short and I can see this unique and particular body looks good, doing its own thing. Then I am proud of myself for wearing them, and for thinking so.

Brené Brown says: “What we think, hate, loathe and wonder about the acceptability of our bodies reaches much further and impacts far more than our appearance. The long reach of body shame can impact who and how we love, work, parent, communicate and build relationships.”

I’m just not prepared to pay that price. Let the impact of body shame be the thing I’m most afraid of.

Brené says that we must reach out to others and speak our shame: “If we feed shame the secrecy and silence it craves— if we keep the struggles with our bodies buried inside – the shame will fester and grow.” I spent all those years feeling ashamed of being skinny, and because that seemed like such a weird thing, I was doubly ashamed. It never occurred to me not to internalise every comment and feeling.

Let’s stop worrying if our bum is too big or too small and let’s worry more about what we miss, lose, diminish and inhibit in our lives when we let body shame take root in our pysche.

(More guest posts from some important voices coming over the next few weeks! Read the series so far here .)

There is a House

There have been some interesting conversations going on in Northern Ireland recently, haven’t there? I mean, there have been mostly AWFUL ones, and it is gutting that they have been sparked by the inflammatory comments of one our most influential preachers, and our First Minister. But yet, I have listened with interest to Muslims talking about their faith on the radio, which I would not otherwise have heard. I have picked up wise perspectives anywhere I can find them (like here, and here), including a song that will no doubt save my life a time or 2 in the future. (I hate, of course, that these are sometimes lone voices in church leadership, when Pastor McConnell’s is so LOUD… but also…  the lone voices have been the ones I have often listened to in my life and I am just thankful that they are there).  And I have been glad to hear Anna Lo’s voice, her hurt voice, played over and over. I am not glad for the hurt, or the stories behind it, but she has spoken powerfully, and I am listening.

On the radio a Muslim leader is repeating how his faith is peaceful, how he too condemns Islam extremism and campaigns against it. He is explaining what Sharia Law means to him, what applies, what doesn’t, how it is interpreted by Muslims in the UK and how certain practices and atrocities committed in the name of Islam are NOTHING TO DO WITH him, and his faith. Some of it is achingly familiar. Christianity, too, has much to explain at times. We, too, want to distance ourselves from practices and atrocities committed in some brutal eras through history, in some other parts of the world, and in our own province’s Troubles.  The Book we love  contains some dark stories.  We cannot explain harsh Old Testament laws and practices – exploitation of women, violence, death – that are an unsettling part of our faith narrative. I, too, want to yell that they have NOTHING TO DO WITH it.

Samantha Eyler wrote in the Huffington Post last week (here) about having to lose her religion to support gender equality. When she tells of a faith lost in horror and disappointment upon discovering Old Testament abuses she writes that: “Obviously, many moderate Christians have managed to more loosely interpret the Scriptures that had become an intellectual and moral glass house for me. But the problem is, I didn’t know very many of those people then, and the ones I did know I had been taught to demonize as ‘backsliders’ or – the worst of fundamental slurs – ‘compromisers’.”

Her article is moving, and relatable. The difference in our stories is probably that I have always known just enough of ‘those people’.  I have felt both horror and disappointment with not only what the Bible says in places, but with how it has been claimed, quoted and preached in Northern Ireland. But I have also heard wisdom, known love and seen fruits of a Spirit I couldn’t ignore.

There is a house I return to – it is refuge and tonic when I need it most. It is the house I grew up in. Whenever I find life or people or Northern Ireland or Evangelicalism stressful … this is the place I can breathe again.  It is a house of gentleness, peace, love, self-control. It is a house of goodness. A house of faithfulness, and a house of joy.

On Whitewell’s website Pastor McConnell writes “We constantly say we do not want any one to feel lonely, isolated or left out in this great house” … and yet, his sonorous words of condemnation that have reverberated around the world in recent weeks give an image of Northern Ireland and Christianity that many of us want nothing to do with. 

When loud thundering voices boom across our province, or when wise leadership is lacking and longed for – I have still been able to trust in God’s wild, unconditional love for me and my neighbour because there is a house where I have been loved like that, there are lone voices that I have listened to, and there are fruits of a Spirit I cannot ignore.

Someone sent me a piece Helen Warnock wrote on Facebook that included these words: “Let’s call out the best. Not naively but with wisdom and honour. Let’s remember some of the great people we rub shoulders with every day and applaud them.” I like this. There is James McConnell but there is also Steve Stockman, there is Peter Robinson but there is also Naomi Long, there are heated arguments on the Nolan show but there are also insightful discussions on Sunday Sequence. There are racial slurs and unkind soundbites but there is also #ShoppingForPeter and #IstandwithAnna. And there are ordinary people, living God’s way.

Samantha Eyler’s article begins with her confession that she wants her faith back but can’t find it, and it ends with this stirring request: “So moderate people of faith, those of you who can endure the cognitive dissonance of espousing progressive politics while gleaning support in religious traditions that are thousands of years old — I ask you to please speak up. There are many of us who need to hear your voices much more loudly.”  As much as I am thankful for the people, the voices and the house that made the difference for me, there is a challenge for me when I think of those who don’t have this.

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Galations 5: 22-23, The Message

In a world so rife with vulgarity, with brutality and violence, love exists. I’m grateful to know that it exists.

Maya Angelou

If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.

Frederick Buechner

[While putting down these initial thoughts on Friday, I was glad to read this from EAUK and glad for these insights, probing and questions  here   from my favourite activist, Gemma Wilson] 

Being Known

“She’s going to be the outgoing one” they tell me, nodding knowingly at each other, as we stop to chat on our way out of church. We were late, a few rows in front this morning, but they don’t miss a thing, these ladies. Watching. Analysing. They have my one-year-old pegged. The outgoing one. I nod too.

They are probably right.

***

Angel Gabrielle can’t remember her lines. I am in P5. My teacher asks me to try. I know every word. But I am too quiet. She asks me to try louder and louder, but in the end, I am too quiet to be an angel that talks.

***

I had read the Oliver James books, the F*** you up ones. I was well versed in his psychology, I think there is a lot of wisdom there, a lot to learn about the effect of our nurture. I knew about labelling from the earliest moments, about self-fulfilling prophecies. But yet. I can see it, in their very first hour in this world. Even though I know, as well, about the effects of their different labours on how they come into the world. Still, I still say it: Wasn’t Olivia always so self-contained? Didn’t she arrive quiet, watching, those unblinking blue eyes taking it all in? And didn’t she always need time and space? I read all that I now know of her into that very first photograph. And, in comparison, didn’t Imogen arrive hanging on, reaching out? Didn’t she just emerge feistier? I think now of her first hours of screaming and feeding and I think of it as ‘so Imogen’ –  looking for comfort and connection. 

In Comparison. Is that ok?

***

There is a parenting thing on the internet about how to care for introverts and how to care for extroverts. I read it to my skeptical husband. “Yes” he says, “that’s our 2 girls.”

***

My primary school reports all say variations of the same thing. I am a lovely/quiet/shy little girl in the school. I need to participate more in class. My teachers tell my mum that they know I know the answers, they would like me to put up my hand. I wonder now, why they didn’t just ask me to answer, I would have told them.

My P6 teacher notices that I love to read. She moves me up to the top group, never mind that I don’t answer out loud. She sends me home with novels that she thinks I might like to read. I do. Every time I finish one she sends me home with another. I thrive.

I have this teacher for 2 years. I love English. Forever after. This teacher who let me read and stop worrying about putting up my hand.

***

She shakes my hand away at her big cousin’s birthday party and disappears into the huge play area that I’m sure she’s a few years too young for. She doesn’t look back. She climbs. She explores. She pops out now and again and then she is gone. She follows the big kids to the ropes course. She waits in line. She tries to put on her own harness. She holds on, steps out, works out what to do. I thought she’d be more nervous. We almost didn’t come. She is 3-years-old, at home in this sea of older children, among the ropes and tunnels and bridges.

She gets scared only once, when she enters the small party room for lunch. She freezes at the sight of the kids all round the table and turns on her heels to run.

Olivia’s my introvert, I’m fairly sure. She needs a bit of time before she will sit on that cow print stool beside 8-year-old boys she doesn’t know.

And yet she is curious and brave and comfortable in her own skin. She escapes laughing, every chance she gets, out of that small room and runs for her life.

***

I am trying to teach comparatives and superlatives to my class. Bigger, smaller, nicer, taller, stronger, weaker, prettier, funnier. More than. Less than. Good, better, best. The most. The least. I love words, but sometimes I hate these words. I struggle to think of sentences that are worth saying as examples.

***

I met an old friend recently through work (my bible-class teacher and teenage inspiration). We digress from time to time from the work we are supposed to be discussing. She is talking about me as a teenager and talking about my mum. She says “it was an amazing thing to witness, how your mum stepped back and just let you grow.”

***

She’s going to be the outgoing one” they say and I nod. I think so too. But still I wonder… about the things we notice, and the things we say. About understanding V labelling.

I want my girls to feel known, but not labelled, to feel unique but not compared. I want them to know they can be quiet, it doesn’t mean they are too quietI need to remember I don’t know who they are going to be. I need to let them surprise me. I am conscious of the words that will ring in their ears. They are a thousand other things than the shy one or the bossy one. I want to let them be, let them grow, let them thrive, and when necessary, let them turn on their heels and run.

Are you a poet or a dancer
A devil or a clown
Or a strange new combination of
The things we’ve handed down … ?

[Marc Cohn]

Fan Mail

Every now and then my brother and I have this conversation.

Me: “Charles, have you written that letter yet to Eugene Peterson?”

JM: “No, Charles. Have you written to Philip Yancey yet?”

Me: “No, I really should.”

JM: “I know, me too.”

I have been declaring my intention to write a letter to Philip Yancey for over a decade now. I ate up his books in the years that church was not feeding me. Soul Survivor– how my faith survived the church is THE book that, along with a handful of people in my life, helped MY faith survive the church.

I remember reading it in the mornings on the patio at home, in the summer of 2001. It was the first book that I read with such relief, and such thanks. In it he writes about 13 unlikely mentors who helped shape his spiritual autobiography, and in doing so he became my first unlikely mentor. This bushy-haired American writer of my parents’ generation was the first person that gave me that sense of “Me too!” and of “Phew”. This was the first book that gave me permission to have the kind of faith that I do – to think my thoughts and engage with my questions and to find inspiration in some unlikely places. Frederick Buechner, one of the 13, refers to himself and the others as an assortment of “odd fish”, and I just loved their stories. And I loved Yancey’s story and I loved that someone had written a book like this.

The words that reached me on the patio were thoughtful and hopeful and honest and interesting. All of the things I wished church was. It kind of was church, sitting outside with my tea and toast, running in every now and then to read this sentence or that sentence to my mum. No clichés, no tidy answers or churchy phrases … none of the quick, easy, surface stuff that was leaving me feeling empty those days. No bullshit.  This book satisfied my mind, as well as my soul, and gave me the one thing I was really craving, spiritual company.

Soul Survivor was full of inspiration, but more than anything what it said to me was Don’t Panic, hold on to your odd little faith. It kept me company, along with a few of my favourite people, when I didn’t feel like I had a lot of company. It was enough.

And slowly, my bookshelves expanded.

fan mail

About 6 years ago I was bought Traveling Mercies. A good book is about the best present you can buy me, but this wasn’t just the gift of a good book, this was the gift of Anne Lamott. As my 3-year-old Charlie & Lola fan would say…  she is my favourite, and my best. I immediately borrowed more of her books, while I filled my Amazon wishlist with her back-catalogue of novels and non-fiction until I had the entire works of Saint Annie. If life, or the people in it, is at all difficult or stressful….  if I am in any way anxious or crazy or wound-up…. if faith is a little murky or beyond all imagination… then there will be one of her books on my bedside table. She keeps me company so much of the time, sometimes I forget I don’t actually know her. You know when people talk about their ideal dinner guests? Well she would be my number 1, if it wasn’t for the fact that that scenario would stress me out and I wouldn’t be able to speak to her, or eat my dinner.

I know Donald Miller wrote a post this year about how his faith has changed since Blue Like Jazz, and I’m sure mine has too, but I have no words for how much I loved this book. I couldn’t believe it. It was such a find.  I bought it for my favourite people. I read entire chapters out loud to Chris. It was so good for me. Donald Miller became the second person I should never be seated beside at a dinner party. When Chris and I started to look for a church to call our own, I started to look for one with people like Anne Lamott and Donald Miller in it. Or, at least, people who read Anne Lamott and Donald Miller. This did not go well. But when I longed for spiritual company, I just read Blue Like Jazz again.

Introverts in the Church (Adam McHugh) was an impulsive buy – in my Amazon basket almost as soon as I had read the title, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. I’ve bought it, lent it and yammered on about it to my favourite introverts, and extroverts.  For me, this book gave me a better understanding of myself and a lot of help in how to live, work and practice faith in ways consistent to my personality.  It reminded me of who I am and how important that is. It has taught me to advocate a bit more for myself and people like me, and our way of being.  For me this book also gave a lot of insight into some of my struggles with church, and finding a place there.  Now that I understand why I feel like running for the door so much, I am actually doing it less.  Insightful, thoughtful and healing, I found both peace and a lot of power in the pages of this book. Around the same time I watched and loved the Susan Cain TED Talk and added Quiet. The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking to my essential Introvert Collection.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead is the book that is changing my life right now. Sometimes my sister-in-law and I just say to each other: “Brené Brown”.  I’m on my second read. I haven’t even begun to process it all yet. This book was written for me.

(As for Peterson, my brother calls him The Godfather. I would say he’s his mentor and spiritual hero. He hasn’t found the words yet to capture his influence, so I certainly won’t try to do it for him.)

I am wondering… who are your spiritual mentors? Who most deserves your letter of thanks? Who are your go-to-people or one-off reads that have saved you a time or two? Who makes you too starry-eyed to ever be sat beside at a dinner party?

A bit of a ramble

Now and again I like a McDonalds, I’m afraid. And there is nothing like a Friday afternoon in the Abbey Centre to provide this need.

We took a booth behind a group of giggling school boys whose infectious laughter lit up the place. They were very young secondary school age… firsties, I would say. They had smart little sports kits on and medals round their necks and big hair. They looked cute and cheeky and vibrant. My 3 year old looked at them adoringly, and so did I. I wondered what hilarious, albeit juvenile, snippets of conversation would come our way.

Well, what came our way was all about your mother, I’m afraid.  Every single sentence.

I had, and have, some thoughts. I can’t quite untangle them. Here they come…

*

First, I thought this was the very crude your mother talk. It was not. It was “Your mother’s so fat she…” and “Your mother’s so stupid she…”. So I thought, phew, not so bad. Then I thought, noooooo, actually, bad.

I thought with rising panic, will this be my beloved thoughtful, quirky, fluffy-haired nephew Caleb in a few short years? I quickly decided, no. NO. (Though technically, maybe).

Then I thought with heightened panic, will this be what my beloved Caleb will have to sit in the middle of in a few short years? Will these be his friends? The talk of his peers? I knew the answer was probably, yes.

So then I thought, I’m going to say something. I know people who would SAY SOMETHING. I’m going to do it. But I didn’t know what it was that I wanted to say. What it was that bothered me.  You shouldn’t talk like that about your mother? Or his mother?! You shouldn’t talk like that about women? Please don’t talk like that in front of my 3 year old daughter? Don’t call anyone stupid? Or fat?

And I saw their teachers huddled at a table near-by, purposefully tuning-out. I’ve been that teacher. I knew they probably deserved a medal round their own necks for being there, on a Friday evening, engaging their boys in something better than this talk. There was no way I was going to add a lecture from a member of the public to their day.

I felt like an old 30 (+) year-old sitting there in my green raincoat with my cross thoughts. Staring stony-faced at the youth of today. Trying to get my daughter to turn around and stop taking it all in.

Eventually they started firing their food boxes at each other and their weary teachers quickly rounded them up and out the door.

*

And so I pestered my husband for a few days after with my tangled up thoughts and my questions about boys and what they talk about, and what they talked about 20 years ago (20 YEARS!!!), and his thoughts on it all. I couldn’t decide whether to shrug my shoulders or get on a soapbox.

Initially he shrugged his shoulders. He said it’s just how it is, he said it was harmless really, he said it’s just the next step up from toilet humour. He said whatyagonnado?

And I said but, but, but, but, BUT….

I said yes it is, and no it’s not and REALLY?

And eventually he said I agree with you, I agree with you, I AGREE WITH YOU, WOMAN. But still, whatyagonnado?

*

Something in me thinks I should just shrug my shoulders. When I torment people with my thoughts on these kind of things, that’s what they do, then pat me on the head. Like I’m quaint, and naive. To get all bothered by Fat and Stupid jokes is one huge Overreaction, is it not?

There is much worse talk. And actions. From much younger kids.

And didn’t we all sit round that McDonalds table, at some time or other? Laughing at people? Calling names? Finding something cruel, funny? Or pretending it was funny? Competing to join in?

Maybe some of those boys were enjoying themselves and maybe some were having a horrendous time. If I didn’t know what I wanted to say about it, I don’t expect them to find the words. Or risk survival by saying it. I think of Anne Lamott wondering how on earth anyone can bring a child into this world knowing full well that he or she is eventually going to have to go through the seventh and eighth grades.

*

I get it. I’ve been there. I know my nephew and my daughters will be there. And I’m not naive, actually. And I’m not easily offended. I love to talk about the kind of topics people don’t mention in polite company. I like colourful language. I like all kinds of people who say all kinds of things.

SO what has bothered me so? Maybe I was just paying more attention on Friday. Maybe my misguided first impression highlighted the whole thing in luminous. Maybe I have been  too long on maternity leave in a bubble of toddler and babydom. Maybe the arrival of a 2nd little daughter has further softened my insides and increased my fear of the world they will go out into.

Or maybe what bothers me is that I don’t think calling people fat or stupid is funny, and I don’t think it’s harmless… and I just can’t figure out how to say it without sounding like … that person. Without sounding like a huge Overreaction.

Nevermind  figuring out what we say to  our daughters or the kids at the table beside us.

*

I don’t think there was any one line I could have said that would have been wise or helpful in McDonalds. I think it’s more about all our words, all the time.

And I think we have to think about the words that we do say, and when to say them, and how to say them.

We hear all of the time about cruelty online, about cruel, anonymous bullying. We are so concerned about it. We are SAYING SOMETHING about it. We are phoning in radio programmes and commenting and worried sick for our children. We are asking sites like ASK FM to change their policies and asking big companies not to advertise on them and then we shrug our shoulders about what is said out loud, in McDonalds.

We let bullying and cruelty take root in the things that we, the adults, say and value, we let it take root in humour, take root in one-liners, we let it be said about hypothetical mothers or strangers. We let it be. We shrug our shoulders.

We are more concerned about our children throwing their litter at each other, than some of the things that they say out loud.

We wait for the big stories. The sad stories. We wonder at the cruelty and where it came from? Whatyagonnado?