Writer’s Blog!

Again apologies for the silence. Where have you been my vast army of Blog Followers have asked (they have said it, honest, just not in the comment box).

Writer’s block. Really, it is… and it isn’t just about not knowing what to write next. It’s about not knowing what to write at all. How disastrous is that for an aspiring Writer!

“Writer’s Block”, I always thought, is one of those phrases that is really just an excuse for not wanting to do your homework. Well it always worked for me. But actually, according to Wikipedia, it is a condition, primarily associated with writing – although pop culture cartoonist Charles Schulz is said to have had it – in which “an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown”.

That’s me. And it seems I’m not alone. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoy. And if you don’t get writers block after writing War and Peace then you can’t call yourself a Writer, I say.

I am reliably informed by writer friends of mine that this can range from having difficulty coming up with original ideas, to not being able to string two words together, to not being able to write another sentence for years. All sounds pretty feasible, and forgivable, if you are a seasoned author. But if your a first time writer, such as myself who has only got the one book under her belt, the chances are it’s more about lacking the confidence and self-belief – that there is more than the one book lurking inside you. Or, as is more likely to be the case for me, other distractions have just gotten in the way.

Having spent more years than I would have liked writing Road to Damascus I’ve thrown myself back into full-time work and sitting in front of a screen tapping out my usual Sunday evening drivel doesn’t seem as much fun when I’m also spending five days a week tapping out drivel.

But the simple fact is, on a good day, I like writing. Although I’m not sure I like blogging. The average observer reading those words would ask, “What’s the difference?” The writing snob among us would reply, “A world.”  It has taken me nearly ten months of blogging to work out that a weekly blog isn’t going to make me a better writer, but it may help with the discipline of writing. But lately even this basic truth has evaded me.

Like writing a school essay, writing 500 words each week on a random thought, event, or rant, as often has been the case, provides enough interested for the 2 hrs it takes to produce them (if I’m lucky), and even less time to read them, but there is little to sustain the mind.

Therefore, with this realisation staring me in the face, I am going to let the writing snob in me take control once again. To doggedly bash out 500 words for the sake of doing it is a little like doing Churchy ‘good works’ – serves no one but the worker.

From now on I’m going to let the cat do the typing. Stay tuned.

Picture 38

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Long Time No Hear. But I am here!

I have taken a bit of a blog holiday while I revise my blog site.  However I thought I would take this lull as an opportunity to give you a bit of an update on what has been happening with my sister, Suzan ,and her family who are at this moment part of the mass of refugees fleeing Syria.

If you have read Road to Damascus you will know that Suzan has seven children.  Five of them have already left Syria and have settled in other countries this year.  Suzan’s two remaining children are still in Damascus.  Solim, Suzan’s eldest boy has had to remain in Damascus, but his wife and two young sons made a perilous boat journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece and are now in a refugee camp in Frankfurt, Germany.  I know little of their story, but I will update on this blog as I know more.

Shereen is Suzan’s youngest daughter who married a Palestinian and has two girls. Being married to Palestinian has made it difficult for them to settle in any of the surrounding countries for reasons I have yet to fathom.  Plans are afoot to get her and the girls to Turkey to join her older brother, Mohamed, who has settled there with his wife and family. Suzan went to the US to be with her other three children living there earlier this year. However, she is planning to join Mohamed in Turkey soon and help settle Shereen and the girls when they arrive.

Susan & family

The last time Suzan’s family were together was in 2012.

It reads like a Arabian soap opera, and I’ve suffered a few of those over the years on various trips to Damascus.  But this is real life and its happening now to people all over the Middle East and they are coming our way.  These are people who  have left everything in order to survive and they need our prayers, support and practical action. Write letters, form local groups and gather supplies.

If you know a local councillor, MP or anyone with influence in local or national government ask them what they are doing to help plan and support the 20,000 refugees who David Cameron has said Britain can home.  Its not many, but its a start.

When I was a child I  was haunted by images of the Vietnamese Boat People who came to our shores looking for refuge.  Britain was there then to help and we can do the same now.

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When Past Meets Present. Or Is It The Other Way Around?

Regular readers to my blog will have noticed that there was no post last week. It was remiss of me not to warn you.  I can only put it down to the excitement of heading up north to visit a friend in Filey.  But as with all badly planned, spur-of-the-moment adventures (well mine anyway) Filey isn’t where I ended up.

It had been a bleary moment at the end of a hectic day when I saw this photo on an online hotel booking site and nothing less was going to do for my three day excursion. This monumental structure was perched on a cliff top overlooking the sea looking every bit a Bond movie set location.  Not the smartest holiday location for the mobility challenged and I should have perhaps done my homework before booking, but I was captivated.


My chosen location? The Grand Hotel. One of the largest, and certainly the most impressive looking hotels in the North, there is little doubt that The Grand dominates the skyline of Scarborough’s South Bay below.  On that point alone I was nervous about hitting the ‘book’ button.  But naturally a risk-taker and fascinated by The Grand’s history and design I figured I would know little about it if the hotel was to plunge into the sea while I slept in my bed.

Now a Grade II listed building The Grand was originally designed and built by architect Cuthbert Brodrick in 1867 and was typical of its time.  With four towers to represent the seasons, 12 floors for the months of the year, 52 chimneys symbolise the weeks, and 365 bedrooms, one for each day of the year, it was easy to see why some described it as “immense architectural extravaganza” on the one hand and a “an ugly Victorian pile worthy only of demolition” on the other (A Sense of Style, Bryan Perrett, 1991).

In its heyday, which was arguably during Victorian times, The Grand focused on providing health and wellbeing for the establishment’s well-to-do clientele who came to relax in the seawater tubs – a relatively new pastime for the British who didn’t generally go on seaside holidays then. Nowadays, the hotel caters towards the budget end of the spectrum and despite a recent seven million pound facelift there was still clearly work to be done.  But at thirty-five quid a night I was prepared to forgive the shabby furniture, pealing wall paper and stained carpets and the fact that every time I got in the lift I had no idea where I was going.

A mass of contradiction The Grand befuddled me from beginning to end, possessing an aura of dignity, affluence, privilege and unadulterated arrogance in an attempt to conceal its holiday camp management operandi.  Did it work? Probably not, but it seemed to me that The Grand would have almost certainly have been demolished had Butlins not  stepped in and turned it into the ‘pack-em-in’ commercial venture it is today.

imagesFor a dizzy daydreamer like myself it wasn’t difficult to imagine the splendour of The Grand’s good times, but it would have been nice if I hadn’t hadn’t needed a days wheel in the hot sun and two luke warm pints to do so.

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The Story Behind the Photo

Cambodia 2006 042

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2006

Whenever I go on an overseas programme visit I can usually find a spare day (although there aren’t many) to see something I wouldn’t normally see if I was on a regular holiday.  I wouldn’t call it sightseeing because in my line of work most of the places I tend to visit aren’t exactly on the tourist trail. Poverty isn’t particularly photogenic.

One programme visit took me to the southeastern country of Cambodia.  I was particularly fired up about this trip because when I was growing up the civil war in Cambodia was my first real sense of a world that was going wrong. I was 11 years old and the BBC News was full of the human suffering at the hands of Khmer Rouge. Cambodia existed under a  dictatorship and as such political opposition, religious leaders, artists, writers, business people, in fact anyone who was from the educated middle-classes, suddenly became enemies of the new communist state and were killed in special execution centres.

The most notorious of these centres was the Tuol Sleng in Cambodia’s captial Phnom Penh.  Formally a university, Tuol Sleng alone was said to have imprisioned as many as 17,000 men, women and children during the regime’s four years in power, and it was here that Vulthi, ADD Cambodia’s Project Manager asked if he could take me.

A survivor of one of the work camps himself Vulthi took me on a somber tour of the cells and torture rooms housing vivid photos and paintings of the rooms inhabitants. Vulthi didn’t attempt to sanitize the realities of what happened there, nor was he overly emotional or morbid with his recollections.  He just told it like it was. But there was no need because I could see for myself how it was.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia

Every cell I entered was left exactly as it had been found.  The empty metal-framed bed draped with handcuffs that had chained the occupant to it until they died of starvation or were set alight by their jailers before fleeing on liberation day. And as if to reassure me that what I was looking at was genuine, on the wall a poster sized photograph of the same room on the day the Vietnamese troops stormed the jail.

Two things struck me about that visit to Tuol Sleng: One was the emptiness of the museum. It clearly wasn’t popular with the tourists. The other was Vulthi’s willingness to share memories of a painful childhood without any trace of bitterness.

Unlike the Holorcaust, which I find hard to relate to because it didn’t happen in my lifetime, the turbulent years of the Khmer Rouge is something I shared with this gentle, forgiving man, albeit at a distance.  As someone who wasn’t held captive by the past Vulthi embodied everything I aspired to be and I was grateful for the time we spent together at Tuol Sleng as it put the news stories into context for me in a way that no tourist was ever going to get, even if they did muster up the courage to visit it.

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What’s self-esteem got to do with it?

Lock Ness, Scotland

Lock Ness, Scotland

I don’t know why it is exactly, but I have found that the people with the healthiest self-esteem make the greatest friends, lovers and partners. I’m not talking about arrogant people, believe me I know enough of them. I’m talking about people who know they are both good and bad yet believe at the deepest level they are really good for people.

It’s a life changing moment when somebody wakes up to this reality, when they realize they were created so other people could enjoy them, not just endure them. Again, I’m not talking about arrogant people.

One of the most gratifying conversations I had recently was with a mate who was commenting on how I dealt with a problem she had shared. I wont tell you what the problem was  because it’s not relevant to my point, but my friend said she had appreciated the measured, grounded way I responded to her which didn’t dismiss her problem as being silly or trivial (which she felt it was) but I had appeared to understand her anxieties without telling her what to do. Really?!

Now that was pretty unsettling to hear I have to say. No one has EVER described me as grounded or measured.  I was far more used to hearing adjectives like ‘flighty’, ‘impulsive’ and ‘too directive’. So I found myself wondering what had changed in me that people are now picking up a different vibe?

Well I guess time and a slow dawning that the words of Psalm 139 – which were pointed out to me by a loving, Heavenly Father many years ago at a time when I needed some advice that was measured and grounded myself – had slowly seeped into my inner consciousness and increased my own self-esteem enough to know that I could actually be quite good for people.

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139: 13-16)

I guess what I’m trying to say here is, if our identity (who we know ourselves to be) gets broken, it affects our ability to connect with other people. And I wonder if in reality we are not all a lot better for each other than we think we are, but we just haven’t recognised it yet.

It is fair to say that in a lifetime we are not going to become perfect people, but I wonder how many of us are holding back on relationships because we think we have nothing to offer them that will make their lives better. I know I have felt that, and in some circumstance I still can think like that, but then I have to remind myself that my perception of me isn’t often what others see, no matter how well I think I know myself.

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What do you do on a Sunday morning?

Syadnara, Syria

The Monastery of St Sergius in Maaloula, Syria, 2006

I go to church. Yeah, so what? Now there’s an understandable response because for most, even church goers, ‘going to church’ (said through pursed lips and clenching ones fingers together) doesn’t mean much.

My school days were impregnated with traditional church activities. School assembly every weekday morning and trips to the on-site chapel twice on a Sunday, with Sunday School sandwiched in between. I hated every bit of it. Who’s business was it but my own what happened to my soul? Yet for twelve years of my life the battle for my soul seemed to be the business of everyone else’s but mine. It mattered little whether it was the disciplinarians of the Methodist boarding school establishment or the free-spirited Happy-Clappies who attempted to make church ‘fun’ once the disciplinarians had retired, there was little doubt that my soul was for the taking. But what direction it would go was anyone’s guess as I wasn’t much into rules.

When it was eventually won neither group had anything to do with it. It was just me and a quiet, gentle voice saying, “Stick with Me and everything will be alright.”
“That’s fine,” I said, “Just don’t make me go to church.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like church, but in its right place. And for me, ‘in its right place’ isn’t always in a building with a spire, or a school hall or even in a drafty barn, where a lot of the free-spirited, happy-clappies decamp to in the summer. For me church is wherever I find myself and for the most part it’s not on a Sunday.

Years ago I used to help out at a breakfast drop-in centre for asylum seekers in Hammersmith, west London. It was run by a Shaftesbury Society Mission and while they had a church service of sorts mid-week, most of its work was outside the building in one of the poorest parts of the borough. Coffee, croissants and endless form filling was the primary purpose for my being there it seemed. Breakfast was hectic, tragic, frustrating and occasionally rewarding. Sadly, many seeking asylum in the UK rarely get it, but at our breakfast drop-in, when they did it was cause for great celebration.

None of us who helped out knew anything about how to navigate the Home Office asylum systems, but Hammersmith was a ghetto for those let out of the detention centres, but not quiet let into Britain and they were on the church’s doorstep. Housed in dilapidated tenement buildings with food stamps and whatever they had brought with them, those arriving to our shores had little or no knowledge of spoken English let alone written, yet they were expected to complete endless paper trails that kept them dangling for years.

In Hammersmith there was a need and it was right in front of us. I suspect if we looked really hard we’d find similar needs in our own towns. Its a challenge stepping outside the traditional church boundary, but it could be fun.

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The Road from Rootless

How did your journey start? It doesn’t have to have any spiritual basis, but I suspect if you do look at life as an unfolding journey there will, at some level, be something outside of your own though patterns that has influenced where you now find yourself. Obviously for some this question is unlikely to have a satisfactory answer because the journey itself may be tragically short, but for a good few the journey will take a life-time and will be punctuated by a number of pitstops to check over the map, refuel and switch direction if need be. That is, if your life has followed a similar pattern to mine.

More often than not those pitstops are memorable events. They don’t have to be particularly significant, but we remember them because they represent a shift in direction, or the way we think about something, which then ultimately has an impact on decisions we eventually make.

Being born to Jordanian parents, but brought up in England was not particularly significant or noteworthy for me until I actually went to Jordan and was forced to engage with a culture that I discovered I was totally at odds with.

I was 21 years old, white, British, spoke without any sort of accent and until that point was living an uneventful life in South London. However, returning from that maiden trip into the unknown I realised that life had shifted couple of gears. It wasn’t instant, like speeding off at a green light, but a dawning that something wasn’t quite right and I wasn’t who I thought I was.

Was that the beginning of ‘a call’? Most calls I knew then, and still know of now, usually start and end with a nun and almost always involve some sort of risk taking. But what if the call is just a feeling – a restlessness that you can’t quite capture or pin down? I had returned from Jordan feeling isolated and rootless and that was it.  There were no words written in sand. Neither was there an audible voice prophesying the next 50 years of my life.  Yet, there is no denying the sense that something or someone was calling to me and I resented it. I know that sounds a little ungrateful, but I was young, strong willed and didn’t want to follow any other rules but my own.

Looking back I wonder what all the fuss was about. I hadn’t been asked to put on a habit or sail east (that came many years later – well not the habit bit), God had just said, “You want roots, I’ll give you roots.”  Weird. I had no idea what that meant and to be honest I wasn’t that fussed about what He said next either, “Just trust and obey me.” It all seemed a bit too random for me, but I had no other choice. Stay rootless or stick with the journey.

Jacaranda Tree, Zambia

Jacaranda Tree, Kabwe, Zambia

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