A #BeautifulStory in which nothing much happens

LGBTQIA Christians on Twitter have been responding to a video from the Church of England Evangelical Council by sharing their experiences as queer people of faith under the hashtag #BeautifulStory. For what it’s worth, here’s mine. I posted it on Twitter yesterday, but it’s probably easier to read here and, because this is the first time I’ve written a lot of it down, I didn’t want to lose it in my feed.

I’m not sure that mine is a particularly #BeautifulStory. Nor is it a particularly ugly one. It’s a bit awkward, and a bit messy, and for the first twenty years of my life I didn’t know that I had it. I grew up under Section 28, you see.

Consequently, I didn’t come across the word ‘bisexual’ until I was 20. If I’d heard it earlier, my life might have been very different. But then again, it might not, because I had many other things going on in it. Including a lot of Scripture Union books.

My church and family were Church of England, slap bang in the middle of the road. I continued down the middle of that road at university. But it’s very easy to internalise certain interpretations of Scripture, particularly if they seem to be more decisive than the alternative.

Anyway, I’d had a few half-hearted crushes on boys in my teens, so I couldn’t be gay. My cousin asked me (at my 18th birthday party) whether I liked women or men. I do wish he’d given ‘both/and’ as an option – though at that point the honest answer would have been ‘neither’.

(I should probably have said that this isn’t a particularly exciting story, either!)

So I went to university, dodged (or did I???) the Christian Union by sheer luck (was committed to symphony orchestra; both met on Tuesdays), had various crushes on various people, ended up going up with a bloke I lived with. (Who was and continues to be lovely!)

Despite studying English Lit and therefore having at least some exposure to queer theory, the first point at which I was prompted to apply it to myself was a Livejournal meme (the old sort of meme which was a series of statements which you bolded or struck out as appropriate)

One of those statements was ‘I am openly bisexual and have completely different reasons for being attracted to men or women’. I thought about that one for a while. I couldn’t say that it was true, for several reasons, but denying it didn’t feel right either.

And that was as far as it went. Meanwhile, the Christian Union drama went on and on and ended, the year after I graduated, with someone suing the Students’ Guild. The drama had got me to articulate my convictions about faith and sexuality to myself.

This was because the drama had a lot to do with the ‘religious freedom/Biblical teaching/equalities’ faultline, though that wasn’t where it had started. Never mind that. I couldn’t reconcile anti-LGBTQ theology with the Gospel.

I hoped and suspected that same-sex marriage, if it ever happened, would sort things out. What I didn’t do was apply any of my thinking to myself. Because I was in a heterosexual relationship, so why would I need to think about any of that? And for quite a while, I didn’t.

So. Graduated. Got engaged to the chap I mentioned upthread. (What I didn’t say is that we met in chapel choir, and that he was agnostic at the time and is now a churchgoing atheist. Which doesn’t seem to bother anybody…)

The beautiful irony in this #BeautifulStory is the fact that it was Church of England marriage preparation courses that got me to take a long, hard look at myself and appreciate that I couldn’t keep on keeping what I knew about myself to myself. So I came out to my fiancé.

And again, nothing much happened. We got married, moved house several times, sang in the choir together, both knowing I was bi. It didn’t make any difference. As one of my friends once said, being bisexual merely doubles the pool of people with whom one doesn’t commit adultery.

All of that is still true. And yet… It does make a difference. Because knowing I was bi and having my husband know I was bi wasn’t enough. Without realising, I was pushing part of myself down, leaving part of myself outside the church door.

I was thinking that part of myself was not acceptable – despite the fact that I’d have been horrified to catch myself thinking that about any other #FaithfullyLGBT person.

There’s a character in my first novel who’s a bit of a caricature of the Perfect Christian Woman. Wife, mother, pink top, cross pendant, etc. She’s also bi, but nobody knows, because she’s so good at projecting the PCW image. In a way, she’s a rather unflattering self-portrait.

Quite a lot happened the year I turned 30 – in my head and heart, at least. I finally found the gumption to self-publish. And I untangled a whole load of that internalised biphobia. I realised that nobody had hurt me as much as I had hurt myself.

And, self-publishing, on the last but one editing pass, I revisited my self-portrait, my Perfect Christian woman, and thought, Good grief, she sounds miserable. I’d moved on.

In between times, I was coming out to people, some of whom were at church. Sometimes it was awkward, sometimes it was a relief, sometimes it was awful. Every time my knees went wobbly afterwards. After a while I decided that I’d act as if everybody knew, and stop worrying.

But of course heteronormativity plus a different-sex partner meant that people always assumed – actually, ‘assumed’ is too strong a word – that I was straight, so I kept having to come out. I came out online, I came out offline. I came out to my family, to clergy, to colleagues.

I came out so many times to my (high turnover) Bible study group that I started to wonder if my purpose on earth was to demonstrate to ordinands (this was a Cambridge church, so got a lot on placements) that they were likely to encounter bolshy queer laypeople.

Now I’ve moved and will have to do it all over again. I have a few lapel badges to assist me. And it does get easier with practice (and not caring so much what people think, or whether they even think it.)

And this is really what my #BeautifulStory has been. From the outside, it looks very similar to the way it looked 15 years ago. But inside I am constantly being renewed and transformed.

I am constantly coming to understand more of who and what I am, and how that glorifies God much more than my previous half-life. I take all of myself to church, these days.

My novels tend to have more action than this. If you want a fictional #BeautifulStory, try Speak Its Name. If you want to know why this is still a big deal in the Church of England, The Real World is out now.

Meanwhile, in the real world…

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Do you remember how, back at the beginning of lockdown, various obnoxious productivity types were telling us all that if we didn’t come out of it with a new skill or a novel then we were all pathetic failures? I haven’t heard so much from them recently. That may have something to do with my spending less time on Twitter. Or the obnoxious types may have discovered that in fact it’s not so easy to get things done with a global crisis going on outside, and have shut up.

As it happens, I’ve learned a few new skills – painting walls, making curtains, changing taps – but they’ve had more to do with having just moved house than with enforced leisure. I’ve continued to work full time, so, apart from the commute (which I’ve gleefully replaced with an additional daily hour in bed) I haven’t had much in the way of enforced leisure. Anyway, I went into lockdown with a novel, or, at least, 93,000 words of one, so it would be a bit of a cheat to claim that it had anything to do with coronavirus. If anything, I was hoping to make it shorter. As it is, I’ve now got 94,661 words. They’re better, though. They’re quite a lot better.

They’re good enough for me to say, tentatively, that this book’s going to come out this year.

I’m aiming for a release date in November. Of course, this means that I need to have everything done in September, which means that I’ve only got a couple of months to get things done. But that feels achievable, now, in a way that it didn’t at the beginning of the year.

Meanwhile, my existing books will remain free to download from Lulu until the end of this month. After that they’ll go back to full price. Consider this fair warning, and, if you haven’t grabbed them already, you can find them here:

Things I know people won’t like about The Real World

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Well, the clue’s in the name, really, isn’t it? Granted, The Real World is set in 2017, which was not quite so spectacularly apocalyptic as 2020’s turning out to be.

That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been quiet around here recently: there’s plenty that’s wrong with the real world, and quite often I feel that the best way for me to contribute to righting it is to show up for my job, to be part of a collective campaigning against racism and transphobia rather than pontificating in my own tiny corner of the internet.

The other reason is that by half past five I tend to feel that my eyeballs will start dribbling out of their sockets if I look at my screen for a moment longer. I turn my computer back on in the evenings, and convert some thoughts into pixels, but it’s slower going than it used to be. I’m not missing my commute, exactly, but it did make a lovely chunk of time that was for writing and nothing else.

So the first thing that people won’t like about The Real World is:

  • I don’t know when it will be published. The last time I had a date in mind, I was thinking of this September, to coincide with the beginning of the academic year. I’m pretty sure I won’t make that now, and, while I’m feeling more optimistic that I will, you know, get this wretched thing finished, I couldn’t tell you when that will be.

Apart from that:

  • Church politics. Church processes. The small but important faultlines between different churches and different Churches. My first beta reader pointed out, tactfully, that there didn’t seem to be anything else. I’ve added some other things since, but there’s still quite a lot of Church stuff in there.  (Depending on your point of view this may, of course, be a feature rather than a bug.)
  • Not everybody gets what they want. In fact, hardly anybody gets what they want. I don’t think this is a pessimistic book, but it’s set in, well, the real world, and at least one of the characters wants two things that are, in the real world, mutually exclusive. And, while an author can of course wave a magic wand and make everything better, that doesn’t feel honest to me; it doesn’t feel respectful to those real people who are having to make those impossible decisions.
  • I’ve managed to develop Unpopular Opinions about a concept that’s a major theme in this book. I’m hoping that my opinions haven’t hijacked everything else, but that’s for the reader to decide. I had an epiphany some time last year when I realised that, just because a character happened to agree with me, it didn’t mean that they were right, but it’s undeniable that they do have their say.
  • Portraying depression from inside the head of someone who has it is probably a risky move. I’m gloomily resigned to the probability of someone mistaking depiction for endorsement, but I’m not looking forward to that.

The thing that I don’t like about it at the moment (apart from the fact that it still needs a lot of work) is the fact that it’s stubbornly refusing to go below 93,000 words, and at the moment I can’t see whether that’s because 93,000 words is, in fact, the length it needs to be, or because there’s something that needs to come out.

I’ll keep you posted. Probably. In the meantime, I hope the real real world is being kind to you.

A brief update (and free books)

Hello friends! I hope you’re keeping well. It’s a funny old time – though I think perhaps it feels less strange for me as we moved house two weeks ago, so the general chaos of curtain rails and cardboard boxes has drowned out the background, global, disquiet. And we still don’t have broadband at the new place so I haven’t been online much.

However, I have seen that many institutions, artists, musicians and writers, have put their work online for free, to go at least a little way towards brightening the gloom or passing a few dull hours. And I thought I’d do likewise. The ebook versions of both of my novels can now be downloaded for free from Lulu. The price reduction should eventually filter through to the other online bookshops.

If you’re trying to come to terms with the sudden absence of sport from your life, try A Spoke In The Wheel. If your church, university, or both, has moved online and you’re missing the politics (erm…) you might prefer Speak Its Name. Feel free to download both if you like! I’m in the fortunate position of being in salaried work that I can do from home, so I won’t be disadvantaged by people reading my books for free. And, once I’ve got fed up with putting up picture hooks and painting walls, I’ll finish the next book, and you’ll be able to buy that one.

 

Pilgrims

that’s the way of it: you meet them
over and over, evenings, lunchtimes,
along the road,
at cafés, fountains, benches,
along the road,
you meet them, wish them well,
you move on
or they move on
along the road
you meet them, over and over,
meet them
along the road,
along the road,
you move on
or they move on
along the road,
you don’t know
the last time you meet them
that that
was the last time you met them
along the road

Going forward

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‘Well,’ my manager often says after some particularly unfortunate circumstance has come to light, ‘we are where we are.’

This post is going to be less about where we are (goodness knows we could argue about that for the next decade and more) and more about where I’m going to go from here. If you’d like to join me, I’d be glad of the company, but this is primarily a personal response.

I’m operating under two assumptions. Firstly, that life is going to get generally worse for people under the current government and outside the European Union. Secondly, that the referendum was not won on truths, or lies, or facts, but values.

If I’m wrong about either of those… well, it doesn’t actually make much difference. If life in fact gets better for more people, then I’ll be delighted, and the referendum is done, if not done with.

So what do I do with that?

I intend to work – to continue working – to make life better for as many people as I possibly can. At the moment I think that what that looks like is to continue turning up to my day job in trade union education, where we work to equip people with the skills, the knowledge, the confidence that the education system failed to give them. I think it looks like campaigning to rejoin the European Union. I think it looks like working damned hard to protect our rights in the meantime. In any case, I commit to responding to suffering with kindness rather than cruelty (and I think that means never, never, saying ‘I told you so,’ no matter how tempting that might be). I commit to operating from hope.

And I intend to talk more about my values. I believe in openness, open-mindedness, justice, kindness, equality, fulfillment, respect, redemption, transformation, hope, love. I think that I need to talk more about why I believe in those things, and what that means for me.

I find myself without a snappy line to finish this post off, and I suppose that isn’t really surprising. Because I don’t really know what happens next. I don’t know what the end looks like. All I can do is set a course forward.

 

December Reflections 30: thank you for…

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… surprising and exciting developments.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be surprising. When in the autumn we added up the balances of our various savings accounts and found that they made a mortgage deposit, that was after many years of channelling a direct debit in that direction.

What else?

The opportunity to serve on a Cursillo weekend. I wrote a couple of days ago about ‘the privilege of loving people’, and this was largely what I had in mind. Making tea for people, putting chairs out for them, washing their hands… it was wonderful.

Good progress on two books. The Real World is more or less there in terms of word count, and I’m looking forward to diving back in with a red pen in a couple of weeks’ time. The Rassendyll Kidnapping is a lot more nebulous, but a whole load of plot came together in my head at the beginning of December, and I got most of it down before I forgot it again.

Time with family and friends – particularly a week with my family at and around Ventnor Fringe, and a week with the in-laws on a narrowboat on the river Avon, and another week with my friend Anne in York. I’d like to see more of more people next year, though.

The chance to see the best cyclists in the world ride past me.

New people and new places. Theatre. Museums. Good books. Good food. A really interesting talk that made me think about food differently. (The very short version: delight and sharing.) Wide-ranging conversations, leading (I think) to interesting places.

2019 hasn’t been a year of fruition, exactly, but it’s certainly been a year of emerging shoots. And I’m thankful.

December Reflections 29: home

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Up until five years ago, I lived in places where the horizon was adorned with a decent border of hills, or where the land fell away and fell away and fell away to the sea. I lived in places where hills or sea or both played intermediary between me and the sky.

I’m still learning how to feel at home under this vast pearly, milky, sky; to orientate myself against a horizon that’s low and flat and at once remote and close; to measure myself in a landscape where the tallest thing is a tree, or was built by human hands.

But it’s the same sky: this wide blue-and-white sky; this low, sulky, grey sky; this deep blue, starred sky. It stretches over everywhere I’ve called home, and the places I have yet to call home.

December Reflections 28: my wish for 2020

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Ely.

It seems to be where we’re going next. We’ve had an offer accepted on a house out on the north-west edge. It has pear trees in the garden.

I should have taken a photo of the first sight from the south, the cathedral side on, rising up from the flat land around it. The Ship of the Fens, they call it. It doesn’t look very ship-like from here, the middle of town.

Even this year I’ve spent a lot of time in Ely, mostly doing Cursillo-related things. It’s been drawing me towards it. City on a hill, fen-bounded island, eely Ely.

One of my internet friends wrote:

Build a home, put down roots, grow stuff, eat pears

and when I read it something resonated inside me: Yes. This. This is what I want.

I felt something similar at the end of the Midnight Eucharist, very early on Christmas morning:

Go in peace. Proclaim the Word made flesh.

Yes, this. And how that works, how far I stay involved with my current church, what else I do, what lies beyond that, I don’t know. I can only trust that two apparently contradictory wishes are in fact taking me towards the same figurative destination. Anyway, this physical location seems to be the place to investigate things further.

Ely, then. May it be good to us.