Tuesday, 27 December 2016

A Perfect Moment To Introduce An Imperfect Blog

It was the second of November 2015.

An ordinary day.  An extraordinary day.  Nothing to mark it out as special.  Everything to make it special.

Over the course of a fortnight I asked a magic friend to give me a photographic challenge each day.  Whatever she said I would find.  On the second of November she asked me to take a picture of a white horse.  A worthy challenge since very few white horses live in the centre of Newcastle Upon Tyne.  I managed to complete the challenge though in some style.

A white horse.  All the photos in this post were taken on that day as I walked from the Metro to the White Horse, then over the hill Marsden Quarry, down to the sea and along to South Shields where the light of sun on sea confirmed everything I learned that day.

From the White Horse pub I walked onto the low hills nearby and felt freedom as I passed through the woods and onto the open ground at the top.  Joy surged through me and a great satisfaction that I had chosen to photograph that particular white horse rather than heading into the world of riddles and photographing a single tooth.  I walked across the top of the hill and wanted to cry out in my happiness as the wind hit my face and as the sky looked down on me and smiled.

I saw cliffs ahead of me and found myself at this spot.

It's not the most spectacular view.  I wasn't at the top of a mountain gazing across the other peaks.  However, it's a view and it's one that I will remember for the rest of my life.  I looked across to South Shields, Tynemouth beyond, and in the far distance I could see the hills of Northumberland.  And the wind hit me more and my spirit soared upon the air since my body couldn't soar.  I lifted my arms and spread my fingers and felt the exhilaration of the breeze.

And then it happened.

A moment of total clarity.

A moment of total certainty.

And I knew what I had to stop doing.

Until that moment I had things planned.  I was going to be involved in setting up and running a business.  I'd had some very good ideas.  I had a business mentor to work with me.  And I truly believe that it could have been something that would have greatly benefited autistic people in Newcastle.  That was the plan.

Until that moment.

I knew with complete conviction that I had to give up on the business idea.  Drop it.  Immediately.  Give up the ideas and let go.  I knew that wasn't the right path to follow.  I'd been excited by the idea but have to admit that the decision to walk away was a release from a trap I'd been building for myself.  I truly hope that someone else will be able to take the ideas, add their own, and run with the plan.

In that moment of clarity I knew what I had to do.

It was as if the whole of creation spoke to me.  I felt at one with everything and nature turned to me and said, "You are a writer.  Write."

Then I knew.  I had to write.  Write, write and write some more.  For myself primarily.  Slowly learn the skills, run with wild ideas, and just have a lot of fun.  It didn't matter whether I would ever made a living out of words.  It didn't matter whether I would be so fortunate as that.  And it didn't even matter that I had no plan whatsoever.

I just knew.  I had to write.  I am a writer.  On a path leading to a place I do not dare to dream.

This blog is a part of the working out of that moment of clarity.  As I approach 2017 I have a few plans regarding writing and my life.
  • Keep writing things for the blogs I already have.
  • Work my way with and through specific books on writing.
  • Read poetry.  Initially from specific sources.
  • Generally read more and savour the words others have written. 
  • Indulge myself in Rumi and other spiritual geniuses.
  • Attempt to write my post-theistic way through the New Testament gospels.
  • Enter some competitions and submit some work - but only if the main motive of writing is my own enjoyment.
  • Continue to walk and take photos and explore the world.  Do these things more not less.
  • Sing more and dance more and find freedom of physical expression.
  • Experiment and play with art more than I've ever done before.
  • Return to meditation.
  • Improve my posture after decades of hunching and having no shoulders.
  • Attend The Writers' Cafe more and share space, friendship and the excitement of story with those people and just to see what happens through that experience.
As with all resolutions, plans, and ideas they may or may not happen.  This may be the ideal, not the reality.  And that's acceptable.  I'm making this life up as I go along and I know that I have limited resources and get overwhelmed very easily.  So this list will grow and shrink and adapt itself to my plan without a plan.  I will also go off on wild tangents as I get totally obsessed about things.  That's inevitable.  It's just a part of who and what I am.

And then there's this plan:

  • Find myself some daily writing prompts.  And just free write from them, posting whatever the results may be and not worrying about literary merit.

So here it is.  This blog.  It will contain the results of the free writing.  To begin with the prompts I use will be taken from http://thinkwritten.com/365-creative-writing-prompts/  That may change.  I have books of writing exercises and sometimes a friend has given me a prompt - the most recent resulting in a 15,000 word story.

I don't promise to post every day.  I'm not up to that level of discipline.  But I promise to write.  Here.  On other blogs.  Privately.  On ideas arising from the cafe.  Exercises.

In 2017 I devote myself to being a writer.  I don't know whether that will lead to anything.  I don't know whether I will ever make a single pound out of writing.  It doesn't matter.  I write for myself.  For my happiness.  For my freedom.  That moment of clarity was liberation.

If my writing ever adds some happiness to another person or causes them to smile or to think then that's a big bonus.  If my name is ever in lights with a million pound book and movie deal ... to be honest I don't know if I could cope with that.

I don't know what will happen.  What projects will thrive.  What projects will die.  Or what projects may come to pass that I haven't imagined.  It can all be part of my plan without a plan.  Every wave, every ebb and flow, every tide.  Every surprise washed up.  Every surprise taken by the sea.

No, I don't know what will happen.

But it will happen.  I will make sure of that.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Happy Christmas To You All - A Not-Sermon With Childhood Photographs

Much of the following was free written when getting distracted from writing something else.  I've added a few parts.  I'm not a preacher any more.  And this is far from being a sermon.  I wonder how I'd preach now.  Maybe I should choose gospel texts and write sermons interpreting them according to what I believe now rather than to the faith I once received.  It might be an enjoyable challenge.  Post-theistic, post-literalistic preaching.  I wouldn't be the first to do it.

You can take the Christianity out of the preacher but the preacher remains!  And sometimes the preacher may discover that Jesus wasn't any kind of Christian either.  Sometimes.

I've placed a few photos into all these words.  They're of Christmases from my 1970s childhood.  Here's the first.

Happy Christmas to you all.

Christmas is a time when Christians across the world, on December 25th or January 6th, celebrate the birth of Jesus who is called the Christ.  Hymns of praise are sung about the birth of this child, born in difficult circumstances 2000 years ago. We all know the story.  Actually, strike that sentence.  It's a sad fact that many people grow up today not knowing the story.  And that is a sadness.  It truly is.  Not because they should all be good little Christian boys and girls.  But because it's a powerful story with much to teach us and because it's a part of the heritage and history of much of the world including the UK.  Understanding our history and the forces and influences that have shaped our civilisation and culture is impossible without understanding the role the story of Jesus has played in getting us from there to here, and admittedly sometimes how it has been used to stand in the way of progress.

So this is Christmas.  The birth of Jesus.  Believed by some to be the saviour of the world.  Believed by some to be the only real hope for our future as individuals and as a species.  I used to believe that too.  I have on this computer the notes I read from when I led what I think was my first church service at Trinity Baptist Church in Fleetwood, Lancashire.  It was the Christmas service in 2000 and it took the form of a set of carols with readings and a short talk between each of them.  It was kind of a festival of five lessons and carols with chunks of solidly evangelical and conservative preaching.

I said then that approaching God was "only possible because the eternal Son became flesh, being born in Bethlehem, growing as a man living among people."  I spoke of light and said that "Jesus is light - he is the true light to a world in darkness.  And he is the only true light.  Nothing, and no one can bring light to the world unless Christ is present."  Reading through my notes I spot a few of the things that led me to becoming a pretty damn good preacher.

At the time I found much comfort in those words and thought nothing strange about the exclusivity of the way I interpreted the words I found in the Bible.  My doctrine and my God provided me with hope and meaning and something solid to walk upon.  I thought I was being like the wise man Jesus is said to have talked of who built his house upon a rock.

Things have changed.  I have changed.  Posts in this blog have followed the process of change and I expect I will continue to post about changes.

One thing that hasn't changed is the calendar.  On December 25th the Western church celebrates Christmas with those hymns and prayers and with great joy.  On December 25th and the Western secular world celebrates Christmas with food, family and presents and the pressure to make everything perfect and lay on a good show.  Not for any deep reason.  Just because it's what people do.  People look at you with shock and disbelief if you don't do the same.  As if you are monstrous in some way or at least completely enigmatic.

I know the majority of people in this country don't celebrate the birth of Jesus anymore.  That's fine.  Personally I do believe, even still, that Jesus is at the centre of what Christmas is about.

Giving presents isn't a bad thing.  At Christmas the story celebrates the giving of a saviour to the world.  Giving presents is a sign of love.  Sometimes a sign of duty too - but ideally of love.   People have this thing now about "reciprocity".  If someone gives you a gift you have to give them a gift.  Of equal value.  Or someone somewhere will grumble.  The Christmas story tells us that reciprocity is impossible and not desired.  Jesus was given and gave himself.  And no gift we could ever return to him would match that gift.  Christmas isn't about reciprocity.  It's about love.  It's about hope and it's about poor shepherds who celebrated fully even though they had nothing material to give.

Feasting isn't a bad thing.  Christmas is, liturgically speaking, one of the great feasts.  But a wise man said that feasting is meaningless unless there is fasting.  Without the meaning behind the feasts of Christmas and Easter and without the preparation times of Advent and Lent what is the feast of Christmas?  It's just an excuse for a bit of gluttony and a reason for people across the country to swear when they stand on a set of scales again after New Year.

Yes.  Presents and feasting can be very good things.  But without the meaning behind them they have lost much of what made them special.  Sharing time with family and friends is a good thing too.  The Christmas without Christ still has much that is good and I hope everyone reading this - if they celebrate Christmas at all - will find some enjoyment in it.  I know that for some that's very difficult.  Because the pressures and expectations of family can hurt.  Because a lack of friendship can mean Christmas is the loneliest time of the year.  Because of everything that people think Christmas SHOULD be.

Last December I was talking with a woman who said she works three jobs so that her family can have a good Christmas and have everything they want from it.  Three jobs.  She hardly sees her family in the year because of the three jobs.  She hardly has time to rest.  All so that Christmas can be big.  Maybe her children would settle for a few less presents if they actually got to spend time with their mother throughout the year.  Maybe.  Is it just me or do others find that kind of lifestyle completely crazy?

Without Christ at the centre of Christmas things can go wrong like that.  They don't have to of course.  But they can.  Christ was born in humility.  Christmas points to celebration, to loving all people, to acceptance, to inclusiveness, even to having a wonderful feast.  But it doesn't point to excess, greed, capitalism or consumerism.

I read a post the other day about the meaning of Christmas and the "war on Christmas."  Some Christians of a particular variety will tell you that a war is being waged on Christmas as Christ is removed from it.  They will point to the evil atheists and the fallen secular society and rail against the secular Christmas.  This article points to a much greater war on Christmas - one being fought by many of those same Christians.  It's food for thought whether or not you believe the story.  Here it is.  At the very least you'll learn why the British banned the reciting of Mary's song of praise we call the Magnificat, the song she sang after being told she would bear a son.  And you'll learn why that song is such a call to justice and social action.  It's food for thought for me at least and I hope that somehow 2017 will see me follow that call better.

As for me, this Christmas is different.  I converted to Christianity in 1990 and have been a regular church goer ever since.  I've been a part of lots of different churches and denominations in the places that I've lived and Christ was very definitely the centre of my life.  Or possibly not.  Maybe church was, doctrine was and forms of prayer were.  Maybe something I thought of as Christ was at the centre.  But maybe that wasn't Christ at all?  Maybe I missed Jesus.  At least partly.

Yes, this Christmas is very different for me.  I gave up church for Lent.  And I have continued to give it up.  Since Lent I have attended two or three church services, one meditation at a church, several meetings of a "not church" whose people look to Jesus, and some Quaker worship.  This Christmas I am not a church goer.  And I do not call myself a Christian.  I haven't yet followed Bertrand Russell and written a book called "Why I am not a Christian."  Perhaps my reasons would be very different to his.

I'm not a Christian.  I don't believe in the literal truth of much of the Jesus story found in the Bible.  And I don't believe all the doctrines and dogmas that religious men (almost always men not women) have piled onto those stories and engraved in stones more solid than those God supposedly wrote the Ten Commandments on.  And yet ...  There's still this Jesus.  I still read some people who place Jesus at the centre of their lives and I love what they write and respect the faith they have.  It has to be said that they're not exactly of the Calvinist persuasion.  The Jesus people I like won't tell me I am doomed in some way because of being inherently sinful.  They won't tell me that their religion is the only hope for this world. They won't tell me I'm a transgender abomination.  They won't tell me that Jesus would increase nuclear weapon stocks and demonise asylum seekers.  The Jesus people I like are progressive ones, people seeking the way of love, seeking that inclusiveness.  Some of them don't even believe in God.

Who knows, perhaps one day I'll be able to return to Jesus and the story, interpreting the whole thing in a way far removed from the traditions of men that I so fervently believed.  This year it's been too painful.  I crucified myself on the cross of Christianity for all those years.  So many versions of Christianity wounded me deeply.  And because I believed I was deserving of Hell - and a transgender abomination to boot - I found versions that wounded me more.  It was only after moving to Newcastle that I began to find a path out of all that.

This Christmas feels pretty strange because I am not a Christian.  I hardly know what to do.

But it feels wonderful too because I am not a Christian.  I am more free than I have ever been in my life.

This Christmas Christ is not at the centre of my life.  Or maybe Christ is.  Maybe I'll find that out in 2017.  The true Christ - anointing of Spirit, passion, fire, beauty, love, freedom, generosity, openness, and everything else the word can be.  And Jesus too - a far more radical Jesus than the one who came to save us from our sins and from eternal judgement.  Maybe that Jesus will still be a part of my life and like some of the people I read I will walk with Jesus while not being a Christian.

An extra photo I found in another folder.

Here I am with my toys on my first Christmas day.

Whatever you believe, however you celebrate or don't celebrate I wish you a happy Christmas and leave you with a hope that the Christ anointing will affect your life in 2017 and you will discover more of the Christ Spirit that already exists in you.

That's not a call to conversion to a creed or even to a person.  It's a call to realise your self.  A call to find your own wonder, your strength, your beauty, your passion, and to grow in the God which is everything we call love and light, creating that God and dwelling in God by choosing to walk in that love and light.

Yep.  My God is not a being, not a person living in the sky.  I am not a theist.  But I am not an atheist either.  I'm not quite sure what I am.  And I believe that statement is where freedom dwells.  Because in that statement is possibility and the embracing of a greater wonder than I ever could have found before.

Happy Christmas.

Live in Wonder.

Live in Love.

And if you're feasting, enjoy yourself.

Here I am, behind my dad in 1980.  On the left side are my mum and my brother.  You can tell that it's 1980.  The 70s had finished and our 70s wallpaper had finished with them.   We feasted well.  Roast turkey, home made yorkshire puddings - my mum did the best yorkshire puddings of course - roast potatoes made in the specific potato roasting dish that continued to be use until my mum's death - and vegetables.  Although if you were to look closely you would spot a total lack of vegetables on my plate.  And then there would have been a dessert of some kind.  Some years we even had a Christmas pudding and I know my dad set fire to it on one occasion.

If you can feast as well as we did and with as little pressure as we had to be perfect then you're doing very well.

A Detour To St. Andrew's Cemetery, Jesmond, Newcastle - Photo Blog Part 3

This post follows on from two others relating a trip to St. Andrew's Cemetery in Jesmond.  I wasn't feeling like posting the final set of photos today but then decided that leaving them until tomorrow wouldn't be quite appropriate to the season.

Tomorrow is Christmas Day and maybe it would be a bit strange to post about death on the day devoted to celebrating the birth of Jesus.  Strangeness wouldn't stop me of course - I'm the person who gave up church for Lent and who my wonderful Manchester friend constantly calls "a bit weird."  She's being kind.  She doesn't really mean the "a bit" part!

I left the Jesmond Community Orchard and returned to the cemetery.  An excuse for more photos.  These are only some of them.  I won't write much about them because I confess I just got a bit sidetracked and wrote nearly 1500 words about Christmas before remembering I was meant to be writing about graves.  I will post those words too - they are far more appropriate for tomorrow.

None of these graves appear in the book "Beyond The Grave: Newcastle's Burial Grounds."  I didn't even see the grave of Dr. Thomas Headlam who, among greater achievements, was president of the Literary and Philosophical Society which I joined two days ago.  Dr. Headlam died in 1864 so it would be a surprise to meet him.  I'm not aware of any major hauntings in the building.

The photos.  All totally unedited.

I like the names on some of the graves.  Case in point: Valentin Jean Baptiste Jacquenot.

Also the name and place on this grave.  Antonio Luis Paes Barretto - Da Marinha Brazileira

This next grave tells quite a sad story.

It bears this inscription:

It's very sad.  Travelling by ship all the way to New Zealand for the good of his health he died a month after arriving.  He died young too.  But I have to confess - very mean person that I am - I burst out laughing!

Eventually it was time to leave the cemetery and head for home, just as I had intended before getting completely distracted in Jesmond.  Getting distracted is a good thing sometimes.  Although I have, yet again, got completely distracted from my cup of tea.  There it sits on the floor.  Cold.  Mourning that it never got to be drunk.

Onwards to the Metro.  And then home, happy to have seen somewhere new.

Friday, 23 December 2016

A Detour To St. Andrew's Cemetery, Jesmond, Newcastle - Photo Blog Part 2

This post follows on from the previous.  To find out why I found myself wandering in Jesmond Cemetery you'll have to read that.  Go on, you know you want to!  And while you're there, skip back another post to read a Christmas story I wrote.  It's full of typos and things to tweak.  Unless I've already done that.  I've been told that it should be published.  Being told is the easy part.  Achieving the act is the harder.

I've pulled out my trusty book about the graveyards of Newcastle.  I'm glad such a book exists.  Much praise to the author, Alan Morgan.  He tells me that St. Andrew's was consecrated on 25th October 1858 at a time when there was no housing in the area and there was no railway line - the original Jesmond station wasn't opened until 1864.  If I carry on like this I will start to sound like a nerd.  There's nothing wrong with that.  My favourite uncle, who sadly died this year, was a self-defined nerd.  Until his death - and for a few weeks afterwards - he wrote a daily blog subtitled "Thoughts and Memories of a Happy Nerd" covering all the nerdy aspects of his life.  It's worth browsing.

I've been wondering about my own blog recently.  The title "Reborn as Woman" and the name "A Woman Reborn" are both true and always will be.  I am transgender and that's not a movable feast.  When I began the blog I envisaged it as a blog about my path through the transition process.  It didn't work out that way and these days being transgender is way down on the list of things in my life that I find exciting.  I will always be absolutely glad that I admitted the truth and embraced myself as Clare.  I wouldn't ever go back to being him.  But as I live life my passion lies elsewhere than the fact of being transgender.

I'm wondering therefore about giving this blog a brand new title.  Or even starting a brand new blog somewhere.  Something new.  My uncle had 535 followers on his very nerdy blog.  I have 2.  Yep.  Two.  Maybe a new start, a new site.  There is another one.  I've posted three times on it and have about 30 followers.  I haven't made any decisions as whether to detour to another blog.

That's an unsubtle link back to this post.  A detour to the cemetery.  Here come the photos.  I haven't edited any of them.  At all.  Not even a crop.  This artist is very lazy!

My graveyard book lists sixteen graves of interest and provides information about the men and women buried there.  I will have to go and find them all.  The grave above is one of them.  You see the name there of Ralph Hedley.  He was an artist and wood engraver.  His paintings can be seen in the Laing Gallery and much of the wood in St. Nicholas Cathedral was engraved by him, including the Bishop's throne.

This next tomb is in the book too.  It holds many members of the Barawitzka family.  The book mentions Gustavo Barawitzka who ran the Criterion Restaurant.  He was an immigrant from Italy and didn't obtain British nationality for 25 years.  Were he alive now he would be demonised by members of Britain First, the spoken words of men like Nigel Farage, and the written words of tatty rags like The Daily Mail.

This is a sad one.  Here's a massive marble memorial with space for lots of family names.  It's an impressive object.  But not a happy one.  Because it only contains one name.

Teresa Gaya Samuels.  I don't know what happened that meant the rest of the marble wasn't filled.  I guess that if I were to put in some serious research I'd find an answer.  Google isn't telling.  Here's Blob Thing and Teresa.  I wonder who she was and why her name is alone.

I walked through a gap in the wall and found myself here.  This is the Jesmond Community Orchard.  It's rather lovely and made a fine addition to the peace of the cemetery.  If you get a chance, pay it a visit.

I'll finish this post with a few pictures from the orchard.  Next time we'll be back to the cemetery for another set of photos.  Unfortunately I can't offer you a photo of the grave of Eileen Maud Blair.  She was the first wife of George Orwell.  I can't show you the grave of William Curtis - after whom a lecture theatre was named.

I won't even be able to show you the grave of Sir George Burton Hunter.  See why I have to return to the cemetery?  He's a pretty famous local man - a ship builder and head of the Swan & Hunter company which made ships including the Mauretania.  Yes, I have to return.  Soon.  And then head out on a quest to see every cemetery of Newcastle.  Jolly isn't it?!

Thursday, 22 December 2016

A Detour To Jesmond Cemetery, Newcastle - Photo Blog Part One

It was August.  Four months ago.  I had attended a little social group that day at the cafe in Exhibition Park.  It was run as the Sunday Assembly Newcastle event on the grounds that the assembly wasn't able to meet that month as usual.  So some of us met up, shared drinks and food if we wanted them and chatted for a while before going our separate ways.

Afterwards my only plan had been to get home.  I would walk to Jesmond Metro station, catch a train, go home, drink more tea.  Simple as that.  I felt I needed to be somewhere quiet pretty quickly because although I had enjoyed seeing good people I was pretty shattered by being there among them and having to focus so hard.

So I walked.  Briskly.  Out of the park.  Under the main road.  And into Jesmond.  Just a couple more minutes walking and I would be at the Metro station and could get home.

That's when my plan went wrong.  Or went right.  I saw this path.

I've seen it before of course and have wondered where it led.  I wondered again.  And decided to find out.  It led here.  Or rather the place it led to led here:

I think I've found the houses where I'd want to live in Newcastle.  I'd have one of these.  They would be pretty expensive though because they're nice houses in a very desirable area of the city.  There was no way we could have afforded a house anywhere in Jesmond when we moved to Newcastle.  Not even a very scummy house.  If such houses exist in such a location.

I walked on and decided that I might as well keep walking to West Jesmond Metro instead of turning back on myself and heading for Jesmond.  On the way I passed the entrance to Jesmond Cemetery.

When I used to walk my child to and from school everyday I would sometimes walk on from the school into the city centre.  At my pace it would take another 45 minutes from the school gates to Haymarket.  I walked a lot in those days.  To the school and back twice a day - four miles.  And I would often go to Mass on the way back which took it up to five-and-a-half miles.  That's before shopping trips and those walks into town.  On the walk to the town I would pass the gates of Jesmond Cemetery and every time I would think to myself, "I really should go in and explore sometime."

On that day in August I decided to do it.  I needed a quiet place.  A cemetery would be appropriate.  Now I am thinking to myself, "I really should go back with my book about the cemeteries of Newcastle and explore sometime."  I will.  Sometime.

The following are photos taken in the cemetery.  I'll be posting again with more photos taken there and also photos taken in the community orchard that adjoins the cemetery.  You will spot that I like cemeteries - just as you would have done if you saw my posts, some months ago, about a wilder graveyard in Durham.

I found my quiet.  And I found that my thought on all those walks from school had been entirely correct.