Saturday, 30 January 2016

Days of Gratitude - Hard Times, Tea, Zentangles, the Sunday Assembly, and The Perfect Rainbow

The month of January draws to a close and the Sunday Assembly Gratitude Group continues.  Whether it will survive as planned until the end of the year remains to be seen.  Half a dozen of us post every day or nearly every day - out of fifty people who signed up.  I hope the others are being able to celebrate gratitude in their own way or are being encouraged by those of us posting random and non-random good things from our days.

The last week of January has been really difficult for me, largely due to the quite debilitating psychological effect of a certain appointment that will be mentioned later.  But there are always still things for which we can be grateful.  While this diary mentions some of the hard things I want it to focus on the good, even when that gives an unrealistic picture of my life as if it's some mental health paradise where I can do anything and power through like the most flawless superhero.

It's been tough to do anything much.  So tough that I haven't even begun the book pictured below and I really want to do that.  But finding the mental energy to do anything has been a real challenge.  I have to begin the book - she's written a follow-on course which is published next week.  Does anyone want to buy me a copy?!  (Also "Exposure Anxiety" by Donna Williams, "Meister Eckhart" by Matthew Fox, "The Nine Degrees of Autism", books on the Morrigan, "The Tain", and the poems of Rabindranath Tagore all of which have expanded my Amazon wishlist in the last week.  Slight book addiction even though just lately they have been very hard to read at all.)

One day of January remains.  I am fragile inside so will do only what is wise for me to do.  The current plan includes attending the Sunday Assembly.  If you ever feel like attending a Sunday Assembly and there's one near you then go along.  You won't be turned away - they are explicitly radically inclusive.  And even if you decide you hate it, at least you will have had the chance to sing some songs, listen to some interesting people, and eat some cake.  I recommend it - and I say that knowing the apparent paradox of me liking to be both at the "godless assembly" and at my church on the same day.

 24th January

Quiet day. Yesterday wiped me out more than I thought last night.

But grateful I found the energy for church and even for a few of us to get to the pub afterwards. Soooo worn out now but they are people I love.

And grateful that this book arrived and I can begin it tomorrow. Looks to be much fun.

 25th January

I have focus choices today that could lead to depression or to calm acceptance and gratitude:

A. How hard it's been to get through the day due to what my head threw at me. How bloody awful some of the moments have been and how hard it's been to deal with anxiety and other things. Yeah, I could choose to see this day as terrible.


B. I have got through the day. That is an achievement in itself.
C. The wonderful person who helped me back to the light today. Twice.
D. The light bulb moment and idea this morning that is actually rather good and quite exciting. And which, if it can happen, will benefit people in a way that currently does not exist.
E. I have a home, family, friends - including a Facebook anniversary with Ellie - food, a piano and guitar to play, soft toy friends who got named today, and so much more.
F. Saturday had such smiles and unicorns. And the previous Saturday included someone who could be the Saint of Unicorns. And there will be many more good days, some including unicorns.

26th January

Written on the 27th

A really tough day.

Grateful for Amanda's words to me. Grateful that I wrote something that makes a big project feel less like an amorphous blob.

And grateful that even on bad head days I can be quite good at a Sudoku on Puzzle Nikoli. Yep, I am showing off about a meaningless skill!

27th January

Grateful that even though I had a panic attack at the bus stop and had to give up I still made it later to sit in a certain cafe where nothing matches and drink tea.

And for a certain joy for a little while earlier because no matter what tomorrow brings, life is awesome.

28th January

Well that was horrible! A word that could express anyone's experience of an ATOS assessment.

Grateful for the very good woman who took me there and sat with me in the appointment, without whom I would never have managed to get there or get through it. Grateful for the awesome people in my life.

I'm actually grateful to have felt so rubbish for the assessment because it meant she got me on a bad day without me having to say "Yes, I know I appear stupendous but sometimes I fall apart." I was a mess and that's probably a good thing under the circumstances.

Grateful that it's over, for better or worse.

Grateful to be back home, safe, with hot chai, and that I have very good friends here of a type that really confuse ATOS assessors when in part of your answer to "Do you live with anyone?" you say "... and eight friends. One of them is a unicorn." The photo is not the unicorn!

29th January

No photo today - because I haven't got permission to share the image.

Grateful for the card that a very good, close friend made and sent to me this week and for everything that it means to us. For memories of what she has drawn on the front of the card - a perfect moment in a day that's already featured in the month's gratitude. I really am most fortunate that she is a part of my life.

And - in a more shallow but equally valid way - grateful for the charity shop sale which had a cool Per Una coat and a cute posh party dress for a Pound each.

Added afterwards:

Come to think of it. I am grateful for this morning's rainbow, right across the sky.  And then it became a double rainbow. Gorgeous but my phone couldn't fit it all in the picture.

30th January

Grateful that, as it turned out, I was buying a little present for a friend at exactly the same time as she was buying me a little present, 100 miles away.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Clare's Story - Christianity, Sexuality, Transgender Life, and The Struggle to Self-Acceptance

There's a new issue of "Franciscan" out.  Normally I wouldn't be commenting on that.  But this issue was edited by a Franciscan brother I know.  The article that begins on the front cover is by Professor Helen Berry, one of the preachers at my church.  And inside there is "Clare's Story".

I wrote it six months ago and I have to say that such a lot has happened in the last six months that some of my perspectives on my own story have changed.  When I say at the end that "surprises keep coming," well they really do and they seem to happen with increasing regularity at the moment.  My faith is very different to how it was six months ago and at this point it could go in almost any direction - although I don't think it will ever move back to faith in the literalistic truth of the religious stories.

Also, six months on I do not identify as a lesbian.  I've been able, thanks to a lot of thought and discussions with friends, to be able to accept that I am asexual.  And when you're ace, words such as heterosexual, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual and so on kind of lose their meaning in your life.  Yep, asexual.  This is me, coming out, yet again!

So this is Clare's Story.  I think it was edited a little to fit into the journal - I sent them something about 50% longer than the submission guidelines requested.

My name is Clare. I am transgender and lesbian, truths I only accepted in 2013, a process including great highs, difficulties, triumphs and an examination of every part of my life.

At an early age I knew I was different and didn't fit into the life I was meant to be living. It wasn't long before I'd worked out that I wasn't just different, but what was thought of as bad – in my gender and also in my neuro-diversity. From early childhood I knew shame about my identity and attempted to suppress everything I believed to be shameful, to create a persona to imprison the one already there and live as the kind of person I thought would be acceptable.

I managed to suppress myself so far that I didn't even know that I am female. Clues arose sometimes and because I felt so guilty I hastily squashed them. I would try make up, cross dress and have all kinds of dreams, desires, interests and fantasies but I'd learned such things were evil so I came to intensely hate myself. Inevitably this contributed to decades of mental health problems.

My upbringing was outwardly normal and balanced, a stable home with two parents and a brother. But that balance could not compensate for what was going on inside or for the way I was consistently told that certain things were wrong; the times I was told “Don't be stupid, that's for girls.” Life as a teenager became inner torture. Life cannot be good when every day there is an enormous shadow blocking out the sun. I turned from being a child who didn't smile much into an inwardly bound person with constant low lying depression and major depressive episodes.

Then I discovered Christianity. Or at least one version of it. I converted through an evangelical, Pentecostal, born-again experience. I hadn't expected that but it gave me much that I'd never had before: solidity, meaning, hope. But it wasn't all good. I didn't convert based on the conviction that God loved me. I couldn't really deal with that concept. I converted largely because that brand of evangelicalism was pretty much the only religion that agreed with what I already believed – that I was evil, some kind of monster, an aberration. My new faith taught me that I was right, that I was so evil that I deserved to burn painfully for eternity. But it gave comfort because it turned out everyone else deserved that too – but there was hope for all of us.

That form of Christianity wrecked any self-esteem I had left. When somewhere deep down you know you're transgender, queer, it's hard to be part of a faith that teaches how evil that is. Many can tell stories of how churches – not Jesus – have hurt them greatly. My first church had many ministry tapes from a so-called gay cure ministry. As a young, enthusiastic convert I swallowed the message and didn't dare to question it – because that would have been to question “God's word”, to despise God, to despise that one hope. I became thoroughly Biblically (as we saw it) homophobic and transphobic, hating myself even more. I don't condemn myself for my homophobia because with the inputs I had I couldn't have believed anything else. But I deeply, deeply regret things I've thought and said.

Coming to terms with accepting myself as female and lesbian took a long time and a series of near miracles. I almost don't know how I got from there to here. When I came out I had good and bad experiences in churches. The people in my local church were supportive, though I was told it would be “inappropriate” for me to continue to preach or lead anything. That hurt, but it worked out well, causing me to walk away from that life and find a wide open space to learn more about myself and about my faith.

I'd been attending another church too and got called in for a “talk” with the pastor. He called me an abomination (based on Deuteronomy 22:5) and said that he couldn't conceive that I was any kind of Christian at all unless I repented of my gender. He said lots of other things that were highly unpleasant. But by that time I was secure in myself and certain that I was not condemned for being who I am and his words did nothing to destroy me. In a way I'm glad to have experienced that because it gives at least some insight into what other people have gone through and continue to suffer in many churches. But I do worry and weep for LGBT+ people who are raised in places like that and endure sheer hell.

Overall I've been very fortunate in faith. My wife sent me to get support from Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church. So in June 2013 I went to a service, one of the many scared people who come through the door. It's one of the best things I've ever done. MCC is now home and the people there are cherished family. It's been very difficult at times and through everything MCC has been a rock of support. No matter how low I've been, no matter how much I struggled with faith and dealt with the pain I'd lived in because of my faith, the people there have stood by me and held me.

I spent a year preparing to leave MCC and to walk away from Christianity forever. But in October 2014 that changed. I surprised myself and formally became a member of the church, publicly renewing my baptismal vows a week before, something that for me was a necessary step.

I needed this renewal for two reasons. Firstly, I was baptised under another name, another gender, and was a very different person then. My present is a changed life from my past. I'd love to be re-baptised as Clare but of course that's not a theological option because baptism is a one time event. I couldn't be baptised again but I needed to publicly express that, as Clare, those vows I made as “him” still stood, more firmly than they ever did in the past.

The second reason was even more important to me than the first. Over the previous eighteen months my Christian faith died a slow and painful death. Church services were torture for me. The church put up with my many words, my complaints, my deep pain through that process. I cannot thank them enough for supporting me through the death of my faith and through everything I said, and felt, and did.

My faith deserved to die. It really did. Good riddance to it! Not because of any doctrines or dogmas that were or weren't attached to it. But because the root of my faith was self-hatred, self-denial, self-rejection – arising from a firm belief that I was no good. Much of that came from received beliefs about my gender and consequently my near-constant urges to self-destruct. My faith helped to destroy me, helped me to eradicate myself, for twenty-three years. It was immensely important to me but it crushed me.

Eventually I was able to leave that faith behind, and rest secure in a faith that excluded any personal God. The plan was to leave MCC and never look back. That was the only future I could see. But throughout the whole journey I still believed in MCC, her vision, her people, and the place of healing that the church is. And, solely because of certain of the people, I stayed.

Many people noticed a not so subtle change in me since the start of October 2014. At church one evening everything suddenly clicked. I could sing the songs, pray the prayers and knew it was OK to receive communion again for the first time in a long while. And I was extremely surprised that night to find myself on my knees, hands in the air, lost in worship and thankfulness to the God I didn't believe in. The “God of Surprises” entered again and renewed my world, my heart.

Faith returned. It's a new faith. Brand new. It's a far healthier faith, one that accepts the love of God, and one that can honestly say with the Psalmist;

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.

As I renewed my baptismal vows it was my freedom to be Clare, to be authentic, that I celebrated. But more than that I celebrated my return to faith. A purer faith. A very different faith than that I had before. Based on self-love rather than self-condemnation, on authenticity rather than self-squashing, on freedom, on love, on grace, on hope, on acceptance, on inclusivity, on joy, on light and life and on so much more.

The story continues. Surprises keep coming and my faith is going in unexpected directions. I am wildly unorthodox, have a spirituality that embraces all kinds of things that I would have condemned in years gone by. And yet I now seriously call myself more of a Christian than I ever have been. A Christianity of love, light, and life not constrained by dogma and doctrines. A Christianity of freedom and joy rather than my previous false Christianity of law and self punishment. In short: Hallelujah! For I am set free.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Days of Gratitude - Five Days of Frabjousness and Panic Attacks

The Gratitude Group continues and it's time for another post.  I'm posting these mainly for myself.  On the Facebook group page all of these will just get lost but if I post them here I can then access them in moments if I'm having a bad day or a particularly bad hour and I will be able to see that the bad is only temporary and that the light will return - and that even in the bad days there is light to be found and celebrated.

The last photo here is important for the words:  You're Perfect Just The Way You Are.

It's true and it's taken me a long time to realise it. I'm still learning.  I was blunt with someone last weekend who was saying that she is imperfect, flawed on the grounds of being a bit weird.  I was so sad to hear someone say that.  Weirdness doesn't make something imperfect but we were in a church and they had been talking about how flawed and blemished (and sinful) we all are.  It takes a massive leap of faith and love to move past that kind of talk and to see people as essentially glorious wonders not as essentially inheritors of original sin, made ugly in some way by that inheritance.  At Broadacre sometimes you head people say that we are perfect in our imperfections.  Yes, we are.  You are.  I am.  Perfect.  We are perfectly us and yet spend so much of our lives trying to be imperfectly something else or thinking we are inadequate because we don't match the image of some flimsy facade that has been repeatedly presented to us as the better way to be and live.

19th January

Happy Biscuit Day!

This is a cat called Biscuit, featured on a cat calendar today. I haven't met Biscuit, just seen photos and videos. Biscuit is very cute.

I am grateful because last August I met Biscuit's owner and we're now friends. And the same weekend I met others who are now friends.

And in that weekend, pretty much exactly 3600 hours ago, I began to dance barefoot in a big thunderstorm with one of those people and what has developed out of that is wonderful and I could not be more grateful for it or for her or for us.

20th January

Today has been hard. It's included panic attacks, publicly bursting into tears when I went to buy food, and being told I am not eligible to be referred for the help the specialist says I need because I don't have enough issues.
Moan over. Grateful for these two news friends I found this morning in a charity shop that opened nearby. You can never have too many friends.

21st January

The only photos I've taken today were of my over sized sock collection with an over emphasis on black. It's part of an ongoing clear out process.

Grateful to have been with a friend tonight.
Grateful to have booked tickets to go back to Manchester even though it's thirty days away and right now that feels like an eternity.
Grateful that the majority of moments today have not contained a panic attack or tears.
Grateful for the safety of this home, this room, and this bed.
Grateful that the soon-to-be-shrunk sock collection is over sized rather than having little or nothing to wear on my feet.

And grateful that I've been able to blog my gratitude pictures and comments and that they helped inspire someone else going through a rough patch to write her own blog post today about some things for which she is grateful.

22nd January

Grateful for this. I began a course today. From a starting point of total ignorance I have pretty big hopes of what could develop from what I learn.

Hey Clare, you're in the midst of mental health crud and struggle to get through each day. So why not add to the fun: come up with ideas and start a company or social enterprise?

It's scary though and totally not what I could have expected to be a possibility a year ago. It is hard to believe that this could become reality. It will often be challenging but it IS possible.

23rd January

Grateful for this:

For the unicorns, rainbows and magic.

For friendliness and smiles in the street.

For bringing galloping to Northumberland Street.

For bringing some love to Monument to improve the atmosphere once the (swear word deleted) masked and angry xenophobic and racist speakers of hate had left.

Grateful that there are crazy, light filled people who will do things like this. And that today I had both the spoons and the opportunity to be one of those crazy, light filled people.  Grateful to have met others and happy to share this world with them.

Activities such as these are really hard for me - autism isn't easy! - and I am having to shut myself away right now in recovery for my brain but it was great to be there and do this. A friend said that when you're short of spoons you have to be very wise in your choices of what to do and what not to do. This was something I'd gladly spend my spoons on again.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Street Art Part Two - Blackpool, Lancashire

Last week I visited Blackpool.  This visit was two days after the day spent in Manchester that I wrote about in the previous blog post which included lots of pictures of street art.

I was heading into Blackpool on the bus and was happy to spot lots more street art so I got off the bus and photographed it.  All the photos below come from one location, around a car park by Church Street.  I've found out now that it's all there as part of an urban art festival and that there is more art in other locations in Blackpool.  If I'd known that then I might have sought out the lot.  But what there was around that car park was enjoyed.  And the festival has become an annual event - so by the end of this year there could be lots more art for me to enjoy.

Getting off the bus there was also a happy thing because in that area I also found a second hand book shop.  And then I discovered The Regent Picture House, a 1920s cinema.  It's not a cinema now.  Now it's a rather good antiques and collectibles shop with lots of very varied stalls on three floors and a tea room with tasty cake and friendly service.  I'm in clear out mode of all the clutter I already own so didn't buy anything except in the tea room but I enjoyed walking round the place - twice, as I went back a couple of days later with the same wonderful friend mentioned in the previous post.  The Regent will be a cinema again as well as a shop.  The tiered seating area on the first floor is still there.  It's a mess at the moment.  Anyone there would agree.  But they have started to restore it and the plan is to reopen as a cinema in the evenings and show whatever films people want to see - which probably won't be the same ones as showing in whatever cinemas Blackpool currently has.  It's going to be mint.

Here's the art.  Photos taken again on my phone - the second cheapest smart phone I could buy nearly eighteen months ago.  I hadn't expected to be using it much and the last five months I've nearly worked it to death.  It needs replacing - especially since Microsoft updated the operating system to something that uses nearly all the phone's memory.  Thank God I chose the second cheapest - because it had a slot for a memory card.  But the phone will soon die at the hands of Microsoft.

Street Art - Manchester's Northern Quarter

While I was away recently I spent a few hours alone in the centre of Manchester and wandered round the Northern Quarter.  I like it.  Parts of it look a bit run down but that may be more appearance than reality. It's not all shiny lights and gloss and glamour and the noise of multinational commerce.

But it's the kind of place I enjoy if I'm in the middle of a city.

As I wandered through I noticed that there is quite a lot of street art there and much of it is really good.  So on my way out of the Northern Quarter to meet my friend - and deliberately including a few streets I hadn't walked down before - I came to a decision to get out my phone and take some pictures.  Sometime when I'm back there I'll explore more and take pictures of more of the art.

It turned out that we spent much of the afternoon back in the Northern Quarter.  My friend likes it there too.  She had mentioned a cafe and I wanted to go there.  I loved it.  Very comfortable place to sit.  Dangerously comfortable since it is a pay as you go cafe where the only thing you pay for is the time you are there.  Someone blogged about Ziferblat Manchester a couple of days ago.  Click here and you'll be able to see why I loved it and why it's among her favourite places.

My wonderful friend also took me to a shop I'd noticed from the art outside it, Afflecks Palace.  It's a really cool place.  All kinds of wonderful little shops and stalls are there.  All I bought were a few badges and some very cheap beads which I confess are mainly for being on pretty display rather than for making things from.  Next time we'll go to another cafe.  She showed me the cakes through the window and I just have to visit.  I can't not visit a place with cakes like those.

If you're ever in the centre of Manchester for a few hours and if you're anything like me then I'd advise to visit the Northern Quarter and to avoid the Arndale Centre and all the chain stores with their bright lights and sterility.  Just wander and explore and enjoy.  Of course, if you're a big fan of what large shopping malls have to offer then indulge yourself in the Arndale Centre.

So here is just some of the street art.  There is plenty more to go back and record.  And at the end something that isn't street art and isn't in the Northern Quarter.  But I liked it.  Life is enriched by street art.