The Angel’s Share

Last evening I went along to a (fairly) local cinema to see Ken Loach‘s latest film, The Angel’s Share. It’s WONDERFUL! If you get the chance go and see it.  I promise you’re in for an intelligent, life-affirming, warm, funny, hope-filled, movie experience.  The screen play is written by Paul Laverty, who has collaborated with Ken Loach on several films.  This film, likened by some to a modern, more gritty, ‘Whiskey Galore,’ tells the story of Robbie, Rhino, Albert and Mo; four young people thrown together by their respective court- sentenced Community Pay-Back.  Robbie, described  as a ‘wee thug’ is a young man whose life has been marked by poverty and deprivation.  We learn from his court advocate that Robbie has already served time for committing a violent assault, but that in the ten months since his release he has endeavoured to change his behaviour and that he now has a long-term partner, Leonie who is about to give birth to their first child.  His recent relapse, which has brought him back to court is part of  a life-time’s feud with a neighbouring family.  The judge decides to give Robbie another chance and so, instead of the five years’ incarceration he may have expected, Robbie gets 300 hours Community Payback.  Robbie vows to be the best Dad and partner he can be – but it seems that circumstances  decree that once a ‘wee thug’ all you can ever be is a’wee thug.’  The film then charts Robbie, (and his companions’), as he sets out to seek the Holy Grail of a real job and a new life, in which he can become the man he seeks to be.  The trailer to the film tells us, ‘to make a change, you need a chance,’ and through the film we see the changes and chances offered on the way.  There is Harry, an angel in human form who offers Robbie friendship and the chance to believe that things can be different.  It is Harry too, who introduces Robbie to whiskey and the craft involved in making it, that provides him with the catalyst to a new life.  Later on we, briefly, meet Grace who offers Robbie and Leonie her home for six months, (while she’s away in London), a chance to move from their own neighbourhood – described by Leonie’s Dad as, “no place to bring up a ******* wain.”  (Yup, the language is very, very earthy).  When they ask her why she’s being so generous Grace replies, “Someone once gave me a chance, and it changed my life.”  In the event, Robbie doesn’t get to take up her offer because the rival gang he’s had so much trouble with have followed him there.  It seems that even when offered a chance, he won’t be allowed to take it.

Robbie, despite everything still hopes.  He has seen in some of the people around him that there may still be another way.  Harry’s interest whiskey tasting has awakened Robbie’s senses of smell and taste and he finds that he is a ‘natural’ when it comes to discerning whiskey.  This newly found talent becomes the way to make the biggest change of all.  I’m not going to give any more of the plot away – because really you need to go and see for yourself – it’ll be worth it.  I will tell you though, that the ‘Angel’s Share’ is the term used in whiskey making, that is used to describe the 2% of whiskey that evaporates each year in the cask, as the whiskey ages.

In many ways this film could have turned out to be acutely depressing.  It is a mark of the Laverty/Loach collaboration that is actually life-affirming and funny. Much of it seems more like documentary than fiction – something Ken Loach is known for.  Set in Glasgow, it doesn’t try to hide the fact that there are few jobs; violence is a way of life for many and youngsters left with little or no hope turn readily to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain.  However, the stereotypes are brushed aside and Paul Laverty’s young people are given much more rounded and complicated treatment.  For one thing, they’re often funny.  Albert, in particular, is hilarious.  His drunken antics at the edge of a railway platform in the opening scene had the cinema laughing out loud! Added to that the characters show vulnerability, compassion and love and together, a great camaraderie. For me, the major theme in this film is redemption, the chance of a new life, like a slave whose freedom has been purchased.  Last Sunday I was talking to a group of people about this theme, which is one of the central tenets of Christianity.  Jesus Christ, acting as our kinsman, pays the price and allows us to be taken out of the market place to be free men and women – no longer enslaved to the powers of this world which would have us believe that we can never be more than a ‘wee thug.’  I don’t know if Laverty or Loach are people of faith, (if not, I’m genuinely surprised),   but another strong theme is the one of love that plays all the way through.  It’s Robbie’s love for Leonie and his little son, Luke that spur him on to become more than he thought he would be; and it’s the love he finds in Harry and the gang that support him as he continues to strive for his goal.

The hard truth is though, even as I relish in this delight of a film, today there will be young men and women living Robbie’s life in Glasgow and all over the world, who will never have the chance to make the changes Robbie does.  Robbie is played by Paul Brannigan, a young man whose own life shares many similarities with Robbie’s.  He, too, decided to seek a better life for himself when he became father to his son, Leon. He is, though, every bit as exceptional as the character he plays on screen.  I think of some of the young people I know who live on a housing estate with few services and fewer resources.  Why do we allow this separation amongst people?  Why do some have more than enough, whilst others have so little?  Why do some young people enjoy loving homes, a good education, nutritious food whilst others are faced with violence, poor standards of schooling and a diet of cheap take away food?  Why do we accept that this is the way it has to be?

This film is a challenge to all who believe that EVERY human life is important and that EVERYONE deserves a chance.  ‘Nuff said – Amen!

Who’s the Most Famous Person You’ve Ever Met?

Greetings y’all!  It seems ages since I checked in – and I suppose it is.  Anyway, I have been tasked with writing a piece for the local newspaper and decided that I’d share it here:

Many years ago, in another life, I worked in a theatre Box Office.  During my time there I met some very well-known, (dare I say it?), famous creative people.  You’ll be pleased to know that I’m not going to burden you with a whole host of name dropping, but suffice it to say I can lay claim to having stepped on the tail of one of Harry Potter’s darker teachers and that one of the film world’s brightest stars played a practical joke on me, when he was a student at the Theatre School.  Other than that, my lips are sealed.

I was thinking of this time recently when someone asked me who is the most famous person you ever met?Hmmn, not sure why the ‘famous’ bit is important, but I’ll give it a go, or so I thought.

It’s hard to differentiate when you have such an august back catalogue, so I decided instead to mention the most famous person I’ve met who has had an impact on my life and thinking, and that is Sr. Helen Prejean. Yes, I have met her – at a conference in London. Now Sr Helen is no film star; she doesn’t wear the latest designer fashion or show up in the tabloids on a regular basis.  I’m sure the order to which she belongs would have something to say about that if she did.

This is what she looks like:

In case the name eludes you, Sr Helen is a nun and she wrote the book, “Dead Man Walking,” which led to the film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.  Sr Helen has spent many years campaigning against the death penalty in her native Louisiana.  Her assertion is every human being is worth more ‘than the worst thing they’ve done.’ She has journeyed alongside some of the most disturbed and violent men on Angola’s, (the big prison in Louisiana), Death Row, and her work has led her into many difficult situations that would, undoubtedly have stalled a less tenacious person.  However, another of Sr. Helen’s sayings is that “When you follow Jesus Christ, then controversy will follow you ‘round like a hungry dog.” And that is something I can personally attest to – although I’ve never been faced with the viciousness that she has.   Sr. Helen is not the most glamorous or even famous person I’ve met, but her life and words have informed my own life in a way that no one else has. One, interesting thing, at least interesting to me, is that when I was working at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, GA, I discovered that Sr. Helen had actually written some of her book there.  It seems we have friends in common too.

P.S.

Well, what a coincidence!  I hear from my daughter that the UN has been investigating life amongst the Native tribes in the USA and has some damning things to say.  The article is here.

Wise Words

As I  continued my work on ‘connection’ for this week, I turned for inspiration to one of the great figures of the past, Chief Seattle.  The First Nations People of the Americas have had a tremendous impact on my own thinking and formation.  I rarely write or talk about it, since it’s an annomolous aspect of my life, given that I was born into a Welsh family a few thousand miles and a century away from Chief Seattle.  I don’t have a romantic view of Native Americans – although I probably did in the past.  When I was a child I always chose to play the Indian, rather than the cowboy, because I saw them as wise, nature-loving and ‘whole’ people. That was then.  I have a great respect for the wisdom that comes from a life on the Plains; and for the understanding that comes from living in and amongst the natural world – as opposed to concreting it over and trying to tame it.  But the First Nations People are not some historical entity.  They too, have to make their way in the 21st Century. It’s not been easy. In every way possible, Native Americans have been betrayed, exploited and disenfranchised by ‘The Whites.’  Have a look at these statisitics from just one reservation, (Pine Ridge):

97% of of the population at Pine Ridge Reservation live below federal poverty line.

* The unemployment rate vacillates from 85% to 95% on the Reservation.

* Death due to Heart Disease: Twice the national average.

* The infant mortality rate is the highest on this continent and is about 300% higher than the U.S. national average.

* Elderly die each winter from hypothermia (freezing).

* Recent reports point out that the median income on the Pine Ridge Reservation is approximately $2,600 to $3,500 per year.

* At least 60% of the homes are severely substandard, without water, electricity, adequate insulation, and sewage systems.

* Recent reports state the average life expectancy is 45 years old while others state that it is 48 years old for men and 52 years old for women. With either set of figures, that’s the shortest life expectancy for any community in the Western Hemisphere outside Haiti, according to The Wall Street Journal.

In the richest country in the world you can find some of the poorest people in the world.

One of my ‘virtual’ friends, (at least, friend is  how I think of her), is Margaret.  Her blog is here. Margaret is an Episcopalian Priest living and working amongst the Lakota on the Eagle Butte Reservation and her stories of life and faith at the sharp end are well worth a visit. Vulnerbility and authenticity, (which seem to have been my words for the past week), are very much part of the Kingdom Culture she, (and I, through her blog), experiences.

I’m going to use some of this thinking in my work tomorrow and we shall be listening to Chief Seattle’s words for today echooing from the past, (1854).  Here’s a version you might like to see:

Thought For the Weekend

A telephone call earlier this morning alterted me to the fact that I had forgotten to send in my contribution to a local newspaper’s, Thought For the Weekend’ column.  In fact, I hadn’t just forgotten to send it, I’d forgotten to write it – HELP!  Not to worry though, I managed to rattle something off, based on yesterday’s posts, but I thought I’d post it here anyway.

 

Get Real!

Getting ‘real’ is a daily challenge for most of us.  The last few years has seen quite an increase in so-called reality TV; programs using real people to tell real stories.  Well, not quite.  The latest edition in this long line of reality productions is, ‘Made in Chelsea,’ described as, ‘a scripted reality show.’ What on earth is that? Virtual reality perhaps?  I wonder how real that can be.  Many of us spend a fair amount of our time these days negotiating our way through a virtual reality.  We have our usual lives, of course, during which we interact with family and friends and generally dealing with the messiness of human life and relationships.  As well as that though, we now have the opportunity to live in a virtual reality.  We can go online and, using our various screen names, avatars and other internet and technological devices, become whoever we choose to be.  We get to try on different personas, share our ideas, and invent identities for ourselves. I will say, here and now, that I am a big fan of the internet.  In many ways it makes my life easier.  It enables me to share my thoughts and ideas with the world, in a way I would probably never be able to do, if it were not for my computer. It does come at a cost though.  How real is it?  Whatever I decide to publish is entirely in my control.  I get to edit and delete. I get to choose how I appear on line and it may or may not be the real me.  The other challenge is the amount of time we spend in these virtual realities against the time we spend in the real world.  I don’t just mean being physically present, but actually engaging with our hearts and minds with those around us.  How many times have you seen a group of people, ostensibily out together, all texting or chatting away to someone other than their companions? We’ve never been so connected to each other and yet so lonely at the same time.  We can’t make real connections, based on virtual presence.  Human relationships are sometimes messy and difficult, but they are necessary to us. We need to feel loved and wanted. However popular we are in our virtual space, it will never make up for real life.

Connections

For the past couple of weeks my work has led me to consider issues of inclusion/exclusion and connection/disconnection.  During this time I have discovered the work of Brene Brown, who is a researcher in social work.  Her video on ‘vulnerabilty’ is over on my work blog and is well worth the look if you’ve got a spare 20 minutes or so. I’ve also been reading her books, “I Thought It Was Just Me – but it isn’t;” and “The Gifts of Inperfection.”  Brene has spent the past twelve years researching the somewhat unpopular subject of ‘shame,’ something from which we all suffer, yet are reluctant to talk about.  Brene’s books encourage us to practice ‘shame resistance,’ in order to be able to live our lives to the full. The main weapon in the shame resistance army is empathy.  Apparently, if one could put ‘shame’ into a petrie dish the necessary growth media are silence, judgement and ridicule.  If you want ‘shame’ to disappear though, you just add empathy.  Of course, it’s not as simple as it sounds, (what on earth is)? Firstly, you have to have a sound grasp on what empathy actually is.  It’s not just sympathy and it’s not, as I’ve often thought of, ‘putting oneself in another’s place.’  Empathy goes further – it’s trying to see the situation through the eyes and feelings of the other person; so, not imagining how you might feel in any given situation, but how the other might feel in any given situation.  If more of us were able to practice empathy we would be doing ourselves and each other a great favour.  Brene’s insights are very thought-provoking and I’m still working with them.  Her assertion is that we need to be kinder to ourselves to begin with, because only by practising this kindness to our ourselves can we transfer this skill to our empathy for others.

Our connection to one another is at the core of this working of course.  As Brene puts it, “We are hard-wired for connection.” Too many things stop us from developing authentic relationships with one another and that brings me on to the other interesting video I’ve discovered, a message from Sherry Turkle. Sherry’s recent work has focussed on the way we are forsaking genuine connection for connections in the ‘virtual’ worlds of the internet and technology.  I’d be interested to know what you think about  these issues, so feel free to comment below.  In the meantime, this is Sherry’s message, so you can see for yourself.

A Walk in the Woods, (sort of)

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Hello Lovely People!

The weather here has been just about perfect for the past week, so I finally gave in and decided to get out and about in order to enjoy it to the full. I thought I’d take the camera so you can share the walk with me.  it’s nice and sunny, but not hot.  In fact there’s just the right amount of gentle, cool breeze to ensure optimum walkies conditions. off we go then.  It’s not long before I see this splendid forsythia, (if that’s the spelling).  Actually as this is right by the front wall of my house,’ ‘not long’ is something of an understatement, but it’s pretty, so let’s move on.

House in the woods

This grand house belongs to a not so near neighbour – here I’m just showing off my camera as it zooms in quite beautifully. I’ve never been inside the house, but I love the way it nestles in the trees.

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At the bottom of the hill, beneath the house is a cycle track that leads to the next town, (about 5 miles away).  it takes about 5 minutes to get from my house to the beginning of this path.  The way leads down to a series of Mill Ponds – which really were mill ponds as they were created by the mill owners of the textile mills, who used water to power their equipment back in the olden days when our town was famous for its textiles. In recent years some restoration work has taken place and this is now a haven for wildlife. the information board lists all kinds of creatures who already live here, but today they must be all be out or taking a nap, because all is quiet down here.

Bluebells

Some nice, spring bluebells by the side of the path.

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A shot of the path itself and, although they don’t show up very well, the path is carpeted with pussywillows.

Something there

The town in which I live is attracts a great many artistic and creative people.  One of my neighbours has made this sculpture in their back garden.  You don’t see that on Gardener’s World now do you?

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Look at this splendid Willow – I think it must be a Grandpa!

What you can’t experience – because I didn’t capture them digitally – are the other people/bikes/doggies and the sounds.  So, to help fill out the experience, here’s a brief rundown of the missing stuff.

Number of people riding past on bikes = 10

Number of people who walked past = 7

Number of doggies out for walkies = 5

Number of doggies on leads     = 2 which meant….

Number of doggies who ran up to say, ‘hello’ =3 – luckily they were well behaved boys and/or girls, so no probs!

Number of birds spotted = 2 robins

Number of birds heard = hundreds, (judging by the raucous noise)

Number of Ducks seen = 4; 2 flying over at a fair old lick and Mr and Mrs Duck, here:

Mr and Mrs Meat Duck

So, that’s it.  My walk along the local cycle track.  Thanks for joining me.  Hope you’re enjoying life where you are!

 

Fireworks…..

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Sparkler

 

As November arrives, so does the annual onslaught of fireworks. Now, I realise that some people actually like firework displays and pay good money to go and see hundreds of pounds worth of the things blown sky high – but I’m not one of them. To me, they are noisy, showy things that sparkle for a moment and then extinguish, leaving nothing behind but smoke and a big sense of disappointment. Having said that, one of the best sermons that I ever heard, (and saw) was based on a firework; a sparkler to be precise.

The sparkler was lit and the congregation informed that, if they didn’t like long sermons they were in luck, because this one was going to last only as long as the sparkler did. Our attention was drawn to the beauty and glitter of the light –nice in its own way, but not much use in a power cut! A candle, on the other hand, was plain and ordinary, yet its light is steady and will last quite a long time – even a small tea-light will last a few hours. A candle is not as flashy as a sparkler, but it’s a lot more useful. So, the lesson went, those of us who are called to bear Christ’s light to the world, needn’t worry that we are not beautiful or flashy or spectacular – sparklers are of little use; it’s candles: plain, simple and ordinary though they might be, that help lighten a darkened world.

That was it. Brilliant eh? (pun intended). I heard that sermon nearly thirty years ago and it’s as true today as it was then.

By the way, if you are going to a firework display – I genuinely wish you a very good time, from the safety of my living room!

A Little Piece of Heaven…

St. Bronagh's bell

On a recent holiday in Northern Ireland I came across the story of St Bronagh – a little known Irish saint, who lived some time in the 6th Century AD. Even after trawling the internet, I can only find a few brief details. Her name means, “sorrow” and she became the leader of a monastic settlement that devoted its life to prayer. Several times a day the bell would ring out over the valley to summon the faithful to their devotions. This particular bell was not housed in a tower, but hung in the branches of a tree. It is said, that, in time, the tree’s branches grew around the bell and hid it completely from sight. Later on its very existence was forgotten and, on occasion passers by would be surprised when the blowing of the wind would animate the bell and its ring, would once more be heard across the valley.

The bell reappeared when a great storm blew down the tree, and eventually, after many more adventures it ended up encased and on show in the church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, where it remains today. But Bronagh’s legacy is not limited to one ancient artefact. The valley she sanctified with her prayers has now become home to the Benedictine Monks of Holy Cross Monastery. They too, dedicate their lives to prayer and serving God, and in the few short years they have been in residence they have made a tremendous difference to life in Bronagh’s Valley. Their mission is one of reconciliation in a land where the sectarian divide still causes so much pain and distress.

The story of how the monks came to be where they are is a long and inspiring story that began in 1982, and many, many people have been instrumental in helping the community find its place in the world. But, perhaps, the story began even longer ago than that, when Bronagh’s prayers caused the valley to become, what the Ancient Celts called, “A thin place.” That is, a place where heaven can be glimpsed on earth. That’s certainly my experience of this beautiful place and I am already looking forward to my next visit.

In the meantime, here are some more photos of my trip:

At The Bottom of the Garden

A pilgrimage trail at the bottom of the garden…

 

Moody Sky Over Slane

A very moody sky over Slane.

Monastery Waterfall

A Waterfall at the monastery.

Spooky Tree

A spooky tree in the cemetery at Monasterboice where the crows added a spookier and very noisy soundtrack.

and finally,, no trip to the Holy sites would be complete without a pic of St. Patrick..

St. Patrick Window

Curiosity….. is expensive

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Yesterday, the Facebook page of my favourite yarn shop, Along Came Polly, told me that something called, ‘needle huggers,’ had arrived in the shop.  Now then, i wondered, what on earth might they be?  Well it turns out that needle huggers are cute little jelly-type bears that hold your knitting needles, (and work in progress), together, so that you can safely leave it and it won’t all fall apart when you next pick it up.  So, being the grade A arctophile that I am, (it means bear-lover to the uninitiated), I just fell in love with them on site and duly forked out the cash to make them part of my knitting collection.

I also fell for the lovely sock yarn in blue and purple hues and some double pointed needles so I can join in the present blogosphere fashion and make my own socks.