jam for Ash Wednesday

The internet has been positively buzzing this week with suggestions for marking Lent. From pledging to wear only six items of clothing for the duration, through undertaking a good old-fashioned fast, to spending time outside in bare feet, it seems there is no shortage of creative ideas for anyone who wants to live more thoughtfully in the run-up to Easter.

The challenge for me has been finding something that will work as I enter a season of great busyness, with work intensifying just as my university studies also gather speed towards a couple of big assignments. Give up chocolate? Er, not very likely! Instead I’ve been looking for a way of marking Lent that ensures that the relentless pressure to meet deadlines does not crowd out everything else that is important. This is not just about dealing with stress – although that comes into it – but about something far more fundamental. The Welsh poet and priest RS Thomas describes it beautifully.

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

RS Thomas

This is about seeing the difference between what can never last and what is of eternal significance; between a flame in a tinder-dry bush that will burn itself out in seconds, and a sacred fire that encompasses the very presence of God (Exodus 3: 1-6).

Phew! How do we learn to do this? How do we develop ways of living that enable us to accomplish all the very many things that are put before us each day while simultaneously being alert to the times and places where God is breaking into the ordinary?  I suspect this is a lifetime’s work, but two things I have found helpful are:

  • Regularly set aside time to be still before God (I find this a real challenge)
  • Never rush

For Lent I plan to add a third, less obvious discipline. Last year, my daughter set me the challenge of taking a photograph every day. In the end I failed, although I did manage to keep it up for more than 200 of the 365 days. I learnt a lot from doing it. I learnt that when you are always looking out for pictures, you see everything in a new way. That even when you have ‘done’ the picture for the day, you carry on looking more attentively at the world around you.

So I plan to take a photograph for each of the 40 days of Lent as one small way of ensuring that I do not become consumed by the insistent urgency of work and study. I am not saying that I expect to find my own burning bush in a photograph – although I suppose anything is possible! What I am hopeful of is that the discipline of framing just one moment out of every day will help me develop an attitude of attentiveness, so that maybe, just maybe, I will be more prepared to turn aside for a miracle.

Today’s photograph is from Todmorden, where sheets of rain were sweeping through the valley all day. So I was all the more cheered by the lady who gave me some freshly made raspberry jam. I know Ash Wednesday isn’t usually celebrated with pots of jam but this, for me, was one of the most touching moments of my day: a stranger, who was already freely giving me her time, also thinking of extending this lovely gift.


I have found another tonic for the winter blues: a good long train journey. Yesterday I travelled from South Yorkshire to Devon in the blessed peace of the Quiet Coach (which was surprisingly quiet). Without internet access, I managed to read two chapters of my current set book- and almost understand them too – and also type up about 10 pages of interviews from Todmorden. It was like being suspended in a place where I had no responsibilities, no deadlines and no distractions. Absolute bliss. If only train fares weren’t so extortionate, I could make a habit of this.

Countryside somewhere near Bristol

Advent blog calendar

Two years ago I blogged through December in a bid to fight the winter blues and it seems I need to do the same this year too. I know what depression feels like and I’m not there yet, but I can sense it lurking on the margins. Maybe it’s the short days or the huge uni workload or, indeed, the sense of imminent financial Armageddon across the western world – whatever, I find myself wanting to cry for no reason and stay in bed rather than do things I normally enjoy.

I had coffee with a young friend of mine the other day and she told me she thought she might have a ‘depressive mindset’. Without really thinking too hard I found myself saying that I thought a tendency to depression, if kept under control, could be a creative thing. I’m not for a minute suggesting that it is always possible to keep depression at bay but I have learned through experience that noticing symptoms early and then doing something creative in response can be very therapeutic.

So on the grounds that attack is the best form of defence, I plan to blog every day during Advent: a daily post, probably pretty short, with a picture taken on that day. Seeking out things to photograph when you are feeling down is a really good way of taking your mind off the negative and noticing the good that is around us. It’s a shame that today’s picture is so crappy, though.ImageIt’s supposed to be an illustration of why I enjoy being at my uni so much. You can sit in the library and look out over the bus and railway stations as well as the much debated Park Hill Flats and I thought it would sum up the way both universities in Sheffield make a real effort to engage with the city rather than being ivory towers. My brain is seriously stretched with literary theory these days and it’s good to be reminded that there’s a real world out there, not too far away.

Finally, a huge thank you to Jacqueline whose blog always makes me smile, and who had me positively beaming today thanks to her very sweetly bestowing on me the Jennifer Avventura Reader Appreciation Award. I’m very honoured and very heartened. So thank you again, Jacqueline – and thanks for your unfailingly cheerful blog posts!


a bit less baffled

I have to thank my blogging pal Christy for a really thoughtful response to my rant about students who don’t participate in seminars. She raises some interesting questions about whether 18 is the best age to start a university education, but on top of that she also made me wonder whether the problem doesn’t lie more with the system than with us individual students.

Along with something that Colleen said in the comments, Christy’s piece made me wonder if the problem might be down to me – perhaps my presence as a much older woman was actually making it more difficult for students to participate. At first I thought, no – my children are this age and they talk to me about almost everything. What’s more their friends seem to like talking to me too. But then I realised this was a stupid comparison. My kids and their friends generally relate to me in the kitchen, where I am chopping and stirring, baking cakes and making cups of tea – in other words, whether I am talking about Virginia Woolf or my daughter’s new shoes, I am basically a nurturing mother figure.

Christy and Colleen on the other hand made me wonder how I come across in the seminar room. I realised there is probably a huge gulf between how I might look and how I actually feel. Christy describes how when she was in uni, the few mature students she met ‘always seemed to have something eloquent and interesting to say’. Now, this is definitely not the case where I am concerned, but I do see that it might appear that way to a nervous 19-year-old.

If so, I wish I could tell my teenage colleagues that I really do not feel confident or eloquent at uni at all. I wish I could tell them that I often feel really stupid and that I even cried in a tutorial today when the creative writing tutor gently tore my latest submission to shreds.

The more I think about this, the more I think that the problem with seminars might not actually lie with any of us students but in the way they are set up. After all, in what other situation are you expected to talk to near strangers about ‘love, joy, death, dying, redemption, forgiveness, sorrow’, as Christy neatly sums up the themes of great literature? Not to mention sex, which was the elephant in the room at this week’s session on French feminists.

When I worked in EFL teaching, the entire point of classes was communication. Our students were there to learn English and they were never going to do that if they didn’t speak. But we didn’t expect communication to happen spontaneously; we worked really hard to ensure a good rapport among the participants. In fact one of the most rewarding parts of the job was seeing friendships spring up between people of different nationalities who might, in other circumstances, have been deeply suspicious of each other.

I think higher education teachers would do well to learn a few tricks from the EFL classroom. Occasionally I have been to a seminar where the tutor has worked like this, dividing us into small groups and setting us specific tasks around a text. Those sessions were much more rewarding than the rather loose ‘let’s all talk about this together’ model.

The university where I study is extremely responsive to students’ views on the learning process. I might just take this up with the staff-student committee. But I’d be interested to hear what other people think first.


I’ve written here about babies who do not cry because they are institutionalised and about toddlers who do not speak because nobody has ever shown them how.

Maybe that is why I am particularly furious today about able bodied university students who live in a democratic society and do not speak in their seminars.

I am halfway through a part time degree in English. I enrolled full of enthusiasm, expecting to have stimulating conversations with other people who love books and reading. It was the fulfilment of a 25-year ambition.

Three years on and I am beginning to think I might have to stop going to seminars. I can no longer cope with the long silences that follow almost every question posed by the tutors.

I have tried to be patient and to make allowances for the fact that my fellow students are young and perhaps shy. But nobody is a fresher now and I have run out of excuses for them.

I simply cannot understand why anyone would pay for a university education and then fail to participate in the learning process. Yet week after week I sit in seminars where only one or two people speak unless virtually forced to by the tutor.

Take Wednesday, for example. Fifteen minutes into a seminar on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – arguably a landmark work in English literature – the tutor despairingly announced that he felt as if he was pulling teeth. It’s not as though the questions were difficult. ‘What did you think of this book?’ is hardly threatening, is it?

I wish I could take my silent fellow students to meet some of the people I encountered in my years as a teacher of English as a second or other language.

They would probably like Yasmin. A refugee from Yemen, she was one of the most intelligent women I have ever taught and one of the hungriest for learning. Her eyes filled up with tears when she told me how her parents had forced her to leave school at 14.

Or take Munira. Munira was raising eight children on her own, all of them under 11 years old. But she never missed a class and always handed in her work on time. ‘My ambition is to go back to my country and be a teacher,’ she told me. Unfortunately her country, Somalia, is gripped by famine right now and I’m guessing nobody is going to school there.

It wasn’t just women, either. There were several Kurdish men in my literacy class. The reason they could barely read or write was that when they were children, the Iraqi authorities banned them from school because they were from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group.

And if all this seems too far from home, how about my mum? Her ambition as a teenager was to do biomedical research, but back in the 1940s her school told her that ‘girls don’t do science’. She’s 76 now but she still speaks of it with regret.

My fellow university students make me want to weep with frustration. Their lack of engagement is such an insult to thousands of people around the world who would literally give their right arms for the chance of decent education.

They also devalue the learning experience for everyone. It took over an hour to get nine things on the whiteboard that people thought were interesting about Orlando. Next week I might just go to the library and read instead. The problem is that then I wouldn’t be participating either – but at least I would be learning.