I’m back! I’m back from holiday, and I’m back from my ‘blogging sabbatical’, and it feels weird and good and slightly scary to say that. I’m very late, but do check out the library of ‘what i’m into’s over at my friend Leigh Kramer’s place.
This month was eventful. At the start, we threw the party of the century for the boy, on the theme of pirates and sharks. To see what we did, and for more ideas on how to run a pirate party, visit Jon’s Pinterest board.
Vicky Beeching, formerly a Christian singer-songwriter and worship-leader and now an academic, writer, speaker and commentator in the national media, happens to be one of my oldest and dearest friends, and on 14 August 2014 she came out as gay (in the national papers). Her story is an important one for the church to read and consider, whatever side of the debate you are on, and I found it particularly helpful to listen to the radio interviews, where she tells her story in her own words. (The Independent article was very powerful, but obviously written by someone very angry at the church, whereas in Vicky’s own speech you don’t feel that same sense of anger.)
We had a lovely holiday in Italy, staying with friends, and after a scare where I was very ill for a few days following the exertion of a car journey, friends got praying, and amazingly, I survived the flight with very few repercussions, for which I am very thankful. Jon has been on sabbatical this year, and as part of his sabbatical he has studied art history and ventured into creating art himself, so the highlight of the holiday for me was seeing Renaissance art in Florence, and going to the Brancacci chapel, where Renaissance art was birthed by a little-known artist called Masaccio. I sat in the chapel, and the frescoes were so beautiful and the chapel so prayerful that I felt teary and a great sense of privilege.
Florence was a short, flurried burst of activity in the wheelchair with photos and exclamations of delight, followed by bed rest, followed by meals. We hold the world record for speed round the Uffizi gallery, and despite all the guides saying you need three hours to ‘do it properly’, I can assure you that if you suffer from ME and have a four-year-old, doing it all in 45 minutes is entirely possible, and indeed enjoyable. I had read up on the art beforehand, thanks to Judith Testa’s book (reviewed below), so it was just magical to see it all.
I fell in love with the city of Florence when I was sixteen, having recently read A Room with A View, and it was just as lovely as in my recollection.
(I’m glad my hair isn’t quite so big these days…)
Right at the end of August, I heard the news that my dear friend Lorraine had died. We had worked closely together in my previous church where I was employed as community minister, and she was diagnosed with cancer only five months ago. I have been reeling slightly from this news, and went to her funeral this week, (my second time in a church in the past 2 years), which is why this post is so late, because I have needed to recover, both emotionally, and physically, from the exertion of a trip out of the house. She was an amazing lady.
- Thrashing About With God – Mandy Steward
This has been on my ‘to read’ list for ages, since practically every writer-friend I know has recommended it. Much like me, Mandy Steward was the Christian good girl, and then she grew up and married a minister, (which, as everyone knows, makes you a Super-Good-Christian). But burnout, doubt, and a faith crisis combined to throw her into a whirlpool of unknown, and this book is her thrashing her way through these questions, and finding a place of peace and resolution. From this general description, I feared that it would be angry and chaotic, but although it poses some difficult questions, it is not an angry book. It felt to me like a free and freeing exploration of faith, throwing everything up into the air, and not catching everything, but just catching a few things, and turning them over in her hands so that the concept of a relationship with God appears fresh and new and good again.
This is, without question, a book for the burnt-out, the weary, the good girl or guy who is weary of being good, the doubter, the poet and artist, the lost one. It is for those who are in the midst of the storm and don’t know how to get out. I loved this book. I wasn’t sure that I agreed with everything in this book, but it is one of the few Christian books where that is not only permissible, but encouraged. I loved her spirit of exploration, her astute analysis into the psyche of the good girl / Older Brother of the prodigal son, and her deft storytelling. It is a beautiful, lyrical read, and a lifeline for those drowning in doubt. Highly recommended (and the Kindle price at the moment is ridiculously cheap!) Get it from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
- An Art-Lover’s Guide to Florence – Judith Testa.
Judith Testa should get a commission from the Florence Tourist Board, because anyone reading this book is going to want to turn straight to the computer and book the first flight out to Florence. The idea is that she analyses some of the great art works of the Renaissance, putting them in their political, religious, and (important but much-neglected) sexual context. She doesn’t go through every art piece, so it’s not like a catalogue, more like a knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide to accompany you through each museum and gallery, and the book is ordered by the various locations, so that if you were just going to visit the Duomo and the Uffizi gallery, you could happily read those chapters as a stand-alone. What makes this book so exceptional is her story-telling ability – I was plunged into the Renaissance world of war, betrayal, sexual liberation and sexual repression, family loyalty and ambition, and each story was fascinating. Because of her, I discovered the Brancacci chapel, the little-known and little-visited birthplace of Renaissance art, with an astonishing fresco by the little-known artist, Masaccio.
For me, the best part was her analysis of the paintings themselves, and some of those were so well-written and so moving I found myself with tears in my eyes at the end of the chapters. If you are planning a visit to Florence, get this book a few weeks before, and read it in preparation for your visit: it will make all the difference between going round the Uffizi, getting dizzy from the many portraits of random unknowns, and not knowing the significance of the details, to going round the Uffizi and seeing the paintings as though you’re visiting an old friend, and tracing the stories in the details of the paintings. It’s like having an enthusiastic, knowledgeable, story-telling guide going round every museum with you – and that makes it an absolute bargain. Highly recommended. Get it from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
- I know why the caged bird sings – Maya Angelou.
I have so many Maya Angelou quotes on writing as my favourite quotes that I figured it was time to read one of her books, and this, her memoir, is hailed as her masterpiece, so I was excited to read it. It is very well-written, telling the story of her difficult and sometimes harrowing experiences (including sexual abuse) of growing up in a racist society in the South, and you can practically feel the dust on the road, and the sweat of the cotton-pickers. I liked and was challenged by the anger in the book, and found it to be unsettling, in a good way. Sometimes it felt a little snarky rather than angry, which I liked less.
Generally, I really enjoyed it – until I came to the end: there was no real ending. It felt like I had travelled along an arc, and then been left in mid-air. I subsequently discovered that she has written many memoirs, which continue after this one left off. I know that memoirs are not autobiography, but even so, this one ended more abruptly than felt natural, and as endings are very important to me in a book, I felt cheated. It is still worth reading for her vivid descriptions, and an unflinching portrayal of racism in the US. Get it from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
I have always loved languages, and I wanted the boy to enter Italy knowing even a smattering of the language. Thankfully, this was easy, thanks to us going through the basics together with a language book with cartoons (though I wish it had more on ordering food and less about describing the rooms in your house), and, more significantly, downloading two albums of Italian nursery rhymes.
I did my research, and these two are by far the best of the bunch (sadly only available on MP3): Le Filastrocche della Nonna (or from Amazon.com) is excellent recording quality and is sung by a clearly-anunciating female singer with a pleasant voice, and this album, Canzoncine e Filstrocche Dell’asilo by I Sanremini (or from Amazon.com) has some really fun traditional songs (La Pecora Nell’ Bosco was a firm favourite) sung by a group of children that sounds authentic and raw, but not hopelessly flat. I translated all the Italian nursery rhymes (many of them are in Italian on the web, and Google translate is a help, but I found myself delving into an Italian online dictionary and really getting to grips with the language). From the nursery rhymes I learnt all the essential vocabulary one might need as a tourist on holiday (frogs croak, the tail of a mouse, the ox in his stable etc) and, as a former linguist, it was enormous fun. It turned out to be an excellent way of getting a small child to learn a language: I printed out the translation with pictures illustrating each nursery rhyme so he would know what it was about, and he then charmed all the waitresses by telling them how old he was in Italian and singing them nursery rhymes. I felt VERY smug as a parent, which is really what it’s all about, isn’t it? If you happen to be travelling to Italy with a small child, then buy the albums and add a comment below, and I shall email you all my translation of the nursery rhymes.
I’m excited to be returning to blogging, and I am thrilled by the line-up of amazing God and Suffering writers I have for you this term, with Leanne Penny kicking off the season on Tuesday. Thank you so much for sticking around, and bearing with me – it means a lot. 🙂
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Over to you:
- What have you been into this August?