The lintel is wonky and every time we stick our heads out, it threatens to crash down on us. Those on the other side gaze up from under the sun with wary pause, afraid to look in and suffer a blow, the wall tumbling down with billowing dust and red brick.
The lintel is wonky and cracked. The pressure on the frame below became too much, cracking and sagging and crumbling. Hairline fractures turn to splinters and give way to cracking glass which held its place but not for long.
The lintel is wonky and chipping away with plasterwork meeting the ground below. Gaping holes begin to form in the surrounding walls, wide enough for a small finger; for daylight. The cracks spread upwards, outwards, with masonry disappearing, weeds assuming its place.
The lintel is wonky and giving way. The glass is now gone, giving way to birds and breeze. Floor boards warp ‘neath the puddles as clouds reflect their migration. The new air fills our lungs and outside voices dance in our ears.
The lintel is wonky and descending quicker, as children’s’ bouncing balls shudder the wall like a joyful jack-hammer fuelled by laughter. The tree sprouting from between crumbling floor boards stretches towards widening gaps in bricks, hungry for light and sky.
The lintel is falling and we all stand watching, aware that all that’s kept us from one another is history.
The thought of Sunday School for me evokes memories of white-skinned flannel figures wearing robes and cloths over their heads hung on a board perched haphazardly on a wooden stand. We children would gather around and look at the figures moving around the board stiffly as the teacher gave us a lesson based on some Bible verse or story. Zacchaeus would haunch over in a tree, Jesus would hold his hands to the sky, Paul would always look wise with his grey long beard. Did I mention they were all white? I also vaguely recall making crafts though I could not detail what was made nor what it represented even once. A lasting impression Sunday School left on me: an impression that it was boring and I’d rather have been sleeping.
There was a BBC documentary not long ago looking at the history of feminism (a subject that would have undoubtedly been derided within the walls of my former Sunday School, given their theology on the subject), visiting societal happenings involving women within Britain over the course of the years, touching on slavery, suffrage, representation and outright women’s rights. The presenter visited a working town set up in the Midlands in the 1800s or so where the workers spent long days in one mill or another, starting employment at an early age. The presenter began to tell of a woman whose name escapes me now who set up a society to ensure that children were granted an education during the great Victorian era of charity. From the presenter’s point of view, while it was not a strike for women’s rights intentionally, the organiser and the other women involved in this community activism made gains for the rest of us as they began to step out of the shadow of their husbands, to become figureheads in communities and social classes. They were empowered themselves as they began to perform charity for the poor around them.
The presenter, obviously not coming from a church background herself or just not that interested for the purposes of this documentary, didn’t dwell long on the ins and outs of these charitable organisations, however, she did make mention that these schools were the beginnings of Sunday School. The thought had never once occurred to me what the history of dull flannel graphs might be, but as a person greatly interested in the social justice side of my Christian faith and that of the church as a whole I found this provoking, particularly given my misgivings about Sunday School.
Sunday Schools were put into place as a means to educate an illiterate public of poor working class children and adults. It did have at its heart the aim of creating a more ‘moral society’ as people would learn from the scriptures themselves and cultivating ‘Christian behaviour’ was to be part of the classes, so there was a strong agenda of conversion which I’m personally not all that keen on given the way it’s been abused in the past and presently (homeless people should never have to sit through a sermon in order to eat). However, a new endeavour as set up by Jesus-followers to ensure that every individual is granted the access to knowledge equally is powerful in my estimation. It evokes in my mind the Genesis story where God puts Adam and Eve in a garden with a multitude of trees to eat from, perhaps here representing paths of life-giving choices they could make. They were also offered the opportunity to throw it all away and take a (mis)adventure into the unknown. They were given equal access to each choice, and Sunday School as originally established also gave children and adults who were never granted an education the opportunity to have more choice in life. It’s beautiful, it’s hopeful, and it’s risky. Unlike modern Sunday School, by the way.
Let’s ditch Sunday School as we know it. Not to recreate some whimsical, formulaic achievement from our past, but to achieve something greater.
May the church remember its spirit of adventure in investing itself fully and hopefully in the lives of others. May the church embrace creativity rather than stifling and boxed-in religious practices. May the church find new and exciting ways again to release the world we are part of from oppression, whether through giving us all equal access to knowledge and truth or doing something else equally empowering, both for the deliverers of such charity and recipients alike.
I was only 12 and had no idea what it meant let alone felt like to be horny. Yet there I was, in the line at Warehouse Records shyly palming Two Live Crew’s controversial single, wrapped up tightly in its shrink wrap sleeve, boasting a black and white label warning me that what I held was highly inappropriate. Mom was waiting outside in the car, a move I was surprised she accepted willingly, as I said I wouldn’t need long. I must’ve bought a Tiffany single alongside the offending merchandise in order to justify my time spent in the store.
After returning home I promptly tore into the crinkly plastic wrap that stood between me and everything Tipper Gore and the American Family Association railed against in that day. Oh sweet explicit lyrics here I come. I ejected whatever was in the double cassette player at the time, likely a blank cassette used to record from the radio and put in the single, turned the volume down and pushed play with a ‘thunk’. The crisp white noise of the cassette reel came over the speakers ahead of the song. And then, the naughty boys of the crew chimed in, merrily talking about their (s)exploits followed by a super catchy bass line, then, ooh… that’s exciting, groaning and moaning in the background and finally, the chorus got right to it: “Me so horny, oh oh, me so horny.” My gyrating bottom set to dancing and I giggled like only a mostly-innocent but aptly curious and rebellious pre-teen could. I would find a place to store the cassette, the most censored music I would ever purchase, and camouflaged it in Precious Moments type propaganda.
Music has always held an important place in my growth, as it has for most teenagers, songs, albums and musicians acting as shrines set up along my life path to mark passing events, preferences and moods. I never quite understood growing up why older people were stuck on the music of yesteryear. My parents listened to old-timey gospel tunes that caused them to slap their knees and sing embarrassingly out of tune. On occasion they’d also listen to what we called back then ‘oldies’ and a small part of their imagination seemed to flit off back to the soda shop which was an actual thing for them, not just a set for a film. Now, when I turn to an oldies station the music of my youth- MY YOUTH!- the 80s and 90s makes an appearance. Grunge alongside doo-wop for goodness sake! I am old and have no idea how I ended up here. Either that or ‘old’ is just something being brandished about by those young’uns like Britney Spears and …. Oh wait. She’s old too.
For the most part, the music of my teenaged years is pretty much all I listen to these days. I’ve gone through periods of re-acquaintance with recent music in sync with hard moments in life, yet the exploration of new music has very much become peripheral to everything else in life. I am those older people, set in my musical ways, shocked yet relishing the fact that at least the oldies stations recognise our contribution to music’s heritage, even if I don’t perceive it to be so long ago. To be fair, the hipsters are all about the 90s now which is kind of embarrassing, but then I did that when I was 16 and wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt. Deadheads are kinder and more embracing souls than I am.
There was a college picnic planned for the day my dad died and I was determined I would be there. I turned up a little bit late considering I’d driven the 2 1/2 hour journey that Sunday morning in a daze, having not slept particularly well the night before after taking the nurse’s call from a deep sleep. “Is this Vickie?” she confirmed. “Yes,” I replied blearily, sitting up in my parents’ bed which I was using after graduating college. Dad was in the hospital so obviously didn’t need it, and he didn’t live there then anyways, and mom preferred the guest room at that stage.
“I’m very sorry, Vickie, but your father has died.” I wasn’t overly surprised, though I had been prepared for him to live for some time longer in a relatively vegetative state, only communicating via nods and the occasional grunt. And through his eyes; He always communicated through his eyes- Such regret, such sorrow, but always that tiny little beam of sunshine in the corner of his iris that was my daddy. I had resigned myself some weeks before to being his carer as my mom shouldn’t have to shoulder his burden after what he did and it felt as if my sisters had washed their hands of him telling me he was my responsibility since he left them at an early age and had put me through university.
To be honest, what welled up alongside the tears that began cresting from my eyes was relief. The saga of my dad’s sin we’d wallowed in for years was nearly over. The ball and chain of having to be nurse to him, putting everything I’d worked towards over the last couple years on hold indefinitely, was brought to a sudden yet not surprising end at that moment when I answered the phone. He just died. He didn’t let us know he was going to leave, although it was inevitable it would happen. He just did, as suddenly as a heavy book being slammed shut somewhere in the middle.
Before hanging up I asked the nurse to call his girlfriend and let her know. I despised that woman, more as a scapegoat over the last few months’ unfoldings, but still, she deserved to know and to grieve. I would not invite her to the funeral, but she needed to find a way to say goodbye.
I got my mom up in the room down the hall and told her he was gone. She cried but I could sense the room fill with the same relief I’d experienced. The same for the calls to my sisters who took it a bit harder being so far away. Yet there it was. Finished.
As planned, I woke up that morning and somehow put myself together, knowing I’d cry most of the way down the Pacific Coast, then pull myself together for a bit of a distraction, however I really hoped that people would ask and hug me and let me let loose the hot angry tears and emotions I’d bottled up for most of the last five years. He was gone, he was a bastard, and I missed him. But I had missed him for years, even when I was sitting beside him.
People didn’t really know how to handle someone rocking up to a merry summertime picnic with such grievous news. It was almost like they doubted it really happened. Why would I be there of all places if my dad just died. The driving, south and back north, that was the most cathartic part of the whole day. It most always is.
As the smoke from his life cleared, we worked our way through the funeral details, the service to be held at my mom’s church, his most recent place of attendance and the only place who accepted him whole-heartedly, while challenging his destructive behaviour. We would have him cremated, put into a box – nothing too fancy – and transport him through airport security and across six states to take his place in his state of birth, beside his mom who he lost the year before. She was his first and probably his greatest love, undoubtedly the one woman for who he had unswerving devotion.
One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity. – Desmond Tutu
To read along with an audio file, visit my site at Cowbird
An uneven beat of pat, pat, pat,
people rushing alone with briefcases
or together, arm in arm, suitcases rolling lazily.
Workmen rushing to repairs or to replenish,
Their carts thudding rhythmically along floor tiles.
Dressed in their best or in their most comfortable:
The attire of tourists in I *heart* London hoodies;
Sensible layers en garde against shifty weather;
Scarves, the souvenirs of travels past-
Scottish highland wools, delicate Asian motifs,
And that simple grey one from a sudden cold spell
one Portuguese afternoon;
Traveling musicians with metallic cases plastered in stickers,
sheathing beloved stringed instruments carried on their backs.
Leaning shoulders lumber with sacks full of clothing,
books, tools of their respective trades.
Some dreaming of time away, their journeys to begin.
Others wishing they didn’t have to go- not yet. Or never.
Children, eagerly peppering parents with questions.
Confused faces searching other faces out for one familiar.
Bustling waiters make easy conversation in native tongues
over deep brown cups of coffee and smooth paper headlines.
A crescendo of sound and movement,
an engine’s low hum and the squeak of tired wheels.
The floor teems suddenly with coats and tickets at the ready.
Near the end of the concourse, the pianist strikes, tink, tink, tink,
with a bright and chirpy tune rising above the receding bustle.
Sitting in my white skin in this corner cafe, festering, eating a pastry and drinking a nice coffee, I am holding a new publication from one of the most expensive and exclusive estate agents in our neighbourhood. ‘1986’ it’s mysteriously invoked, kind of like a Taylor Swift album laying claim to an entire year, in this case the founding year of the agents who have been party to such generation, or rather degeneration of change in our community and housing market.
Looking through the listings of east London hot properties featured in its pages, though it is not merely a property guide- it’s a lifestyle magazine also showcasing high priced homeware and entertainment- not one property listed in our vicinity runs below a million quid. Others rent at not below £400 per week for a one bedroom. I begin to feel my stomach turn and burn with that familiar sensation of indignation as I open a second publication from the café bookshelf titled ‘Courier’. I don’t even know how to make sense of this magazine with its jargon on scaling and foraging on gloomy winter days, and I’m a university graduate. Every single face I see is a shade close to my own. And it’s not just a race thing; it’s a socio-economic thing, these hobbies and businesses, which sadly too often relate to skin colour. The topics aren’t so much what divide and exclude as anyone can be interested in such ideas; it’s an issue of a subsection of society, the gentry if you will, who have adapted a language to identify fellow elite and exclude others.
I’m getting pissed off by this point and my frothy coffee is beginning to get cold but I pick up another publication, a news sheet published locally, and one I enjoy reading. It’s as white as can be with only the inside of the front page featuring a person of colour in a photo op flanked by a white Councillor and a white MP grinning like Cheshire cats at the re-opening of the man’s convenience shop which had been ransacked by rioters in 2011. “Look! We’ve helped a hard-working brown person get back on his feet!” That, and an ad at the back for a local girls’ school featuring a photo of a black girl and a girl in a hijab, though I doubt their parents would be likely to read this publication. Perhaps the school is appealing to white folks like me with a conscience who’d rather our children integrate.
In the five minutes following, from my table at that social enterprise café on the corner, I count the people walking and cycling by: 50% white, 40% brown, the other 10% unknown due to their position, speed or clothing. Naturally, I’m just judging these pedestrians by their skin colour at a glance which is never a great idea, however I would reckon that several counted amongst the white crowd were in fact people of colour, boosting that figure to be closer to even. Why then the disparity in our communication? Why the isolation?
The fact is, I’d never set foot in the shop over the road offering beauty services and cornrows. Naturally they’ve adapted a business suited towards a niche and I don’t think anyone would argue the validity in that. The first and last time I had cornrows was when a little black girl with a beautiful smile in Costa Rica helped me braid my hair so I could stop carrying around cumbersome bottles of shampoo and conditioner on our field biology expedition. A couple doors down from the beauty parlour is a newish restaurant catering to those with a less stringent budget than most of the people living in the estate around the corner.
This flagrant diversity is one of the truly admirable things I love about Hackney but it’s also one of the most appalling weaknesses and cultural borders I’ve seen, cloaked in what estate agents love to boast about areas previously known as Murder Mile: the gentry are coming. Seriously, I have seen this lauded by an agent just this week with a new build locally: “… one of inner London’s most exciting and rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods. This is urban living at its best.”
So, Dear Hackney and East London: My heart is breaking and weeping and calling out to you as a place I hold dearly, to those moving in to old communities first and foremost – acknowledge, realise and own up to your own responsibility in maintaining a community that flourishes in the broadest sense. You and I will continue being privileged, seeing our dreams come true or at least failing trying. But do not move in and forge your own identities at the exclusion of those who have built up lives, businesses and families in this place. We are the occupiers.
Communities change, people move in and move out. It’s history and history at its worst, unfortunately. Keep your eyes on the whole forest, not on your own little wood patch. When you move into a community that is largely composed of struggling, poor and working class folks who have put their roots down, do not do so with an attitude of putting a thick glossy coat of paint over the cracks hoping the façade will hold together. Do not come in as the privileged class with the answers and the means. Get involved with your new community, spend time building relationships and investing in the folks who have built it on their misfortunes, hopes, successes and history. Do it as equals, knowing that they too have something to teach you.
Get off your fucking high horses, writing your articles which nobody outside your own clique understands and do something amazing that you can see in the face of another human being.