Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Exam stress? What exam stress?

I have a feeling that Scottish school pupils are sitting their English SQA exams today. If not, it was yesterday - we retired teachers become quite hazy about these once crucial dates - and, incidentally, I'd be fascinated to see what the new English exam paper looked like, if anyone reading this can tell me. But the discussion on the radio took me further back, as I was suddenly overcome with the sensation of being 17 and in the middle of my own Highers.

I am one of the age group who sat the very first Scottish O-Grade. Because I attended a selective senior secondary school, in the double-language stream, we were told that we would merely take such O-Grades as were deemed necessary for us individually, "in the by-going" as they said. No exam leave as such - just the day of the exam itself. We all sat Arithmetic; I also took the exams in Physics, Chemistry and Maths (not my best subjects, so an insurance policy) as well as Geography (which I would then drop until S6).

So my memory of being 17 actually slipped back to one day in S4, when I was 16. I think it may have been yesterday's sun that did it; I sat O-Grade Arithmetic on a glorious sunny morning in Hillhead High School and then I took off. I met my mother at Queen Street station at lunchtime - she coming from the school where she taught mornings, I fresh from the sums - and we hopped on a train to Edinburgh. There we climbed Salisbury Crags, sat in the sun, and went for our tea before the train home. It was my first taste of freedom.

And it was this freedom that came back to me as I listened to people recounting their exam horrors, the stress they were under, the nerves and the late night studying and the lack of sleep. I honestly remember nothing of these. I recall the freedom of being alone in the empty house with hours of study before me - for we did have exam leave in S5 - and the chance to do what I wanted when I wanted. As the sun moved round to the back garden I would take my chemistry notebook outside to swot equations (I never really understood chemistry, so everything had to be learned by rote. I scraped a Higher). I grew tanned and relaxed, though there was always some turquoise ink staining the hand I'd used to cover what I was learning. I'd take afternoons off and walk the half-hour or so to school for orchestra practice, sauntering in as the bell went at 4pm, enjoying seeing friends and adored music teachers as we rehearsed for the Glasgow Music Festival (unaccountably, this was always at the end of May, so we were actually working our butts off at the same time as studying; I actually found the tension of the Festival much worse than that produced by exams).

By the time I reached my last exams (what were they in S5? French? Chemistry?) I had been off school for perhaps a fortnight and was bored with my holiday. Yes, I did last-minute revision, but it never felt more than a kind of obligation. Maybe we'd been so rigorously pushed in class that we knew most of the stuff already. The Hamlet stuff I'd mugged up so assiduously went out of the window when I saw the question (about Shakespeare's tragic heroines - I ask you!) and switched regretfully to comedy with Twelfth Night; the Latin was its usual slightly worrying breeze of being finished almost an hour early (I never liked going over what I'd written in an exam). I always assumed, I think, that I'd pass - even in the subjects I was destined to scrape through I never believed I'd actually fail - and I was eager to get on with orchestra and end-of-term nonsense and being out in the sun with my pals. (Hillhead in these days had open corridors ...)

So my memories clashed happily with the programme on the radio as I wandered in and out of the sunny garden and felt 17 again. As to whether I'd care to be 17 again ... that's another matter.

Ah. There's something I forgot to mention: I experimented with cigarettes, in exam leave. Daring, huh?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Cascading across the years ...

Next week there is to be a meeting in Pitlochry - a Cascade Conversation called Listening across the Spectrum. Cascading I understand - I was once sent on a course on managing stress, on the understanding that I would share with my colleagues in school the insights gained over four sessions. Perhaps it was my failure to induce a hypnotic trance in my cascadees that rendered the cascading less than fruitful; I did enjoy the afternoons away from the weans, and found the experience of being almost-hypnotised fascinating but that wasn't really the point. But this conversation won't be about stress, and I shouldn't imagine it will be facilitated by a hypnotherapist. No, this is part of the process for discussing same sex relationships throughout the Scottish Episcopal Church.

What - again, do I hear you ask? Well you might, especially if you have nothing to do with church circles. But I'm saying it too. I was invited to attend this conversation, and part of me is deeply scunnered that a standing commitment prevents my going - but part of me is cheering quietly. Why? Because it's years - yes: years - since I asked the previous Bishop of Argyll when we were going to begin the so-called "Listening Process" in our neck of the woods; it's years since the powerful day of intense conversations in Oban led to a province-wide day in Stirling. It's almost two years since our Synod threw out the Anglican Covenant. I don't think I can bear to pussyfoot around the same elephant in the room again. What are we playing at?

This is what it says in the most recent online InspiresThe Cascade Conversation is being held because the subject of human sexuality is one on which there are differing views and because it raises controversial and challenging issues not just for the Scottish Episcopal Church but for all denominations.  During the Cascade Conversation, it is hoped that participants will engage with the subject, and with one another, in a way which synodical procedure does not always permit. In trying an alternative way of addressing a complex subject such as human sexuality, it is hoped that the Church as a whole will both learn and benefit.

And that sounds just fine, doesn't it? Or does it? What do we actually mean by "trying an alternative way of addressing a complex subject such as human sexuality"? I shudder to think. In my no doubt naive and thoughtless fashion, I long ago reached the realisation that the faith I had come to well into my adult life meant that I was going to have to get away from the comfortable and the customary and do things that part of me shrank from - like lying down in the road in front of a foreign power's nuclear sub base, for example, like standing up in a court of law and saying yes I was a Christian and that yes in moments of extreme provocation I would use bad language to a police officer (the Sheriff thought that was perfectly reasonable, since you ask), like making political speeches from the back of a lorry, like going on telly. And it meant also that I was going to have to stand up for justice and truth and fairness in society - and in the church.

I have to confess that I've shed much of the respect for form and authority that I had half a lifetime ago. So any injunction that what transpired in the confines of an assembly was to remain secret would tend to have the opposite effect on me - because I've had enough of hugger-mugger discussions and decision-making. People find it difficult to accept that some of their fellow-Christians are different from themselves? Tough. I find it difficult to accept that some of my fellow-Christians are narrow-minded bigots. I find it really tough to keep a civil tongue in my head when provoked. And I really, really struggle to love people who behave in an unlovely fashion - and that includes myself. But I look at congregations and I see in them gay people, with and without partners, and I see people like me who have been a part of the conversations in the wider church, and I wonder: why are we ignoring this elephant in the very rooms it currently inhabits? Why do we need to wait till conversations between carefully selected people have taken place before we learn more and learn to be more whole? Are we so terrified of the real struggle that loving and understanding will involve?

And it's that struggle that matters. If this Cascade Conversation is going to pour over the church (see - I'm expanding the metaphor) in such a fashion that it will sweep away complacency and sheer bloody ignorance and will in its place bring understanding and a sense of shame for the awfulness of our past  attitudes and an urgent desire to right the wrongs done to LGBT Christians over the years, then it will be a joyful flood indeed, and I shall be deeply sorry not to have been a part of it.

I'm not holding my breath. But I'd love to be proved wrong.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Luke 10:38

It is late afternoon. The sun is heading for the rim of hills behind the village. The dust rises from the footfall of the arriving walkers. The woman is clearly eager to offer her hospitality as she bustles out to invite them inside her white cube of a house. They fill the room, which is already dark with the departure of the sun; Martha lights the oil lamps that sit on the shelf, on the long wooden table. The room fills with the smell of maleness, of dust, sweat, mingling with the not dissimilar smell of a vegetable stew, in which there are pieces of goat meat - slightly stringy, but a welcome addition for hungry men. There is bread, baked this morning, already toughening in the dry air, and rough red wine. A jug of water, earthenware, chipped. The voices are guttural, deep, with a counterpoint of Martha's shrill encouragement to eat, there is more - and to Mary to get up and help her. Jesus' voice is clear. She should stay.
                                                                     * * *

That wee lassie must be the younger sister - look: she's sat down on the floor. Martha's clearly stressed by all this clutter of visitors - she wants help. I don't blame the wee one, though. We can listen to Jesus all the time - she's snatching her chance. What a shame - now she's blushing, scrambling to her feet ... hey! He's put out a hand, he's stopping her going. Bit harsh, though, to say that - if Martha sat and listened too we'd all get no supper. There's no easy answer, but I'm glad there's someone willing to do the necessary.

                                                                     * * *

I want to listen. This is the most important moment in my entire life. I know Martha is trauchled, but... and I think one or two of these men think I should be serving them more. But when Jesus says I've chosen the better way I'm overcome - all the guilt evaporating in a burst of joy. Or is it smugness ...?

From Iona retreat, March 2014