Mother’s Day 2020

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I hadn’t been looking forward to leading two worship services on Mother’s Day this year, because it would have been my first after her death last year. In fact, I hadn’t really given my preparation much thought, possibly secretly hoping that it would go away. Not only did the thought of it awaken some powerful emotions that continue to lie barely below the surface of my day-to-day life, but there’s the ongoing emptiness of loss combined with the strange feeling of ‘lostness’ that occurs after the death of both parents, which may be magnified in me because I’m an only child of only children.

So there’s a sense of relief I’ll not have to minister to others in public on this sensitive occasion because of the coronavirus pandemic. But clearly, I’d rather have had my vulnerability and emotions laid bare than being in this current health crisis. Equally, I’ve discovered over the years that my ‘wearing my heart on my sleeve’ nature has been used by God in Christian ministry to bring comfort and strength to others, a very humbling experience. Central to my faith is the vulnerability of Jesus, demonstrated powerfully in his willingness to suffer and die. This reminds me that emotional openness and vulnerability must never be confused with weakness, for in our weakness we can be strong.

For this year, that’s all I’m going to say. I’ll leave others to share their thoughts, emotions and spiritual insights on Mother’s Day, and I’ll be pleased to read and share them.

Note: The photo of my mother and daughter Pollyanna was taken in 2018.

Books for the whole year!

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I love reading, but I’ve made a resolution this year not to have more than one on the go at a time (one of my failings). Obviously, I’ll make exceptions for the Bible, poetry anthologies and the like. For Christmas 2018, Naomi bought me two great poetry anthologies, and last year I read a poem a day every day. Rather than start the second one in 2020, I decided to re-read the first one because I enjoyed it so much (as well as the fact that I couldn’t immediately lay my hands on it). One of the books Naomi bought me this year (she knows me well) was the one above by Dan Snow, which features a short and excellently written article describing an event of that day in history. I’m already hooked.

The 2010s – Album of the Decade

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Once I’d chosen my top albums of the individual years of the decade (15 albums in total with joint-favourites) the album of the decade just shouted out at me!

Blackstar (stylised as ★) by David Bowie was released on 8 January 2016 (Bowie’s 69th birthday). Two days later, he died of liver cancer; his illness had not been revealed to the public until then. Co-producer Tony Visconti described the album as Bowie’s intended swan song and a “parting gift” for his fans before his death. Staying true to himself, he again produced something new and unique.

The album is remarkable in that David Bowie turns his own death into a work of art. Without discussion or question, it’s my album of the decade.

2010 Gorillaz: Plastic Beach
2011 Björk: Biophilia
2011 Radiohead: The King of Limbs
2012 Sigur Rós: Valtari
2013 Black Sabbath: 13
2013 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Push the Sky Away
2014 Thom Yorke: Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes
2015 Public Service Broadcasting: The Race for Space
2016 David Bowie: Blackstar
2016 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree
2016 Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
2017 Brian Eno: Reflection
2018 Nils Frahm: All Melody
2019 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Ghosteen
2019 Thom Yorke: Anima

This is the remarkable video of the song Lazarus from Blackstar.

Vacant Earth

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Fragile Earth by Mixtaped Monk (also known as Arka Sengupta) is one of my favourite independent albums of 2018; I loved it the minute I first heard it.

I’ll let him describe it: Imagine waking up one day and discovering that there are no human beings present around you. You have all the essential supplies of the world at your disposal. But you are left to fend for yourself. What would you feel? How would you react? What would you do with your time? How would you lead the rest of your life? Will you accept your fate? Or would you ceaselessly search for others like you?

Inspired by a dream a dear friend of mine had once, “Vacant Earth” tries to answer the questions mentioned above. Through sounds (and their associated emotions) the album tries to relate the story I imagined, with me as the protagonist, when my friend had first told me about her dream. Sonically, the album borders around post-rock, neo-classical and ambient music.

Note: You can see all my favourite albums in 2018 here.

2018 Favourite Albums

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I don’t know about you, but for me, 2018 hasn’t been the greatest year for new commercial music; but of the 91 albums I’ve listened to, here are my top ten (in alphabetical order):

David Byrne: American Utopia
Johnny Marr: Call the Comet
Mogwai: Kin [Soundtrack]
Nils Frahm: All Melody
Ólafur Arnalds: re:member
Paul McCartney: Egypt Station
Paul Weller: True Meanings
Roger Eno: Dust of Stars
The Good, the Bad & the Queen: Merrie England
Tony Bennett & Diana Krall: Love Is Here to Stay

Although not a particular favourite, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by the Arctic Monkeys deserves special mention. It features a rich sound embodying lounge pop, space pop, glam rock and psychedelic pop, as well as elements of jazz. It’s a major departure from the band’s previous guitar-heavy sound, an album less accessible than their previous work (which I prefer) and one which has divided fans.

My favourite live album is:
David Bowie: Welcome to the Blackout (Live London ’78)

Despite what I’ve said about commercial albums in 2018, it’s been another great year for independent music and (out of the 45 albums I’ve listened to) here are my top ten (again in alphabetical order):

Cousin Silas: Short Stories, Short Stories 2 & Short Stories 3 (3 albums as 1 choice)
Cousin Silas: Unlimited Boundaries
Cousin Silas & Kevin Buckland: Sacred Space
Cousin Silas & Kevin Lyons: The Fortean Project
Martin Neuhold: Embraced by Dusk
Martin Neuhold & Cousin Silas: Piano 2
Mixtaped Monk: Vacant Earth
Øystein Jørgensen: Sea Of Thoughts
Phillip Wilkerson: Reveries
Scott Lawlor: Remnants of Winter Memories

You can find my Bandcamp music collection here.

Let me know what you think about my favourites, and maybe share your favourites. Here’s already looking forward to what 2019 will bring.

Note: Another Bowie release might possibly have been my favourite live album had I heard it during the year, you can read about it here.

Born into Poverty (Western School)

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My talk given this evening (12/12/18) at the Western Community Primary School Christmas Performance, attended by the parents, families and friends of pupils, along with the Wallsend Corps Salvation Army Band. My theme was suggested by the headteacher and some of my inspiration was drawn from here.

We all know the traditional story of Christmas, of Jesus born in a stable because there was no room in the inn. Mary and Joseph had to leave home, along with many others, and there was nowhere for them to stay or for Mary to have her baby.

There was no beautiful cot, only the animals’ feeding trough to place him in and make him comfortable. The word ‘manger’ comes from the French ‘to eat’ as in ‘Pret A Manger’ (Ready to Eat).

Let’s imagine Jesus was born today, and his parents were homeless and in poverty, maybe as a result of war, famine or economic circumstances. Maybe he would be placed in a cardboard box wrapped up in dirty blankets, and where would his parents find food for him?

If he was born into poverty to homeless parents in this country today, he might be placed in a supermarket trolley (poetic licence, but please come with me). The symbol of food and drink becoming the cot for the Son of God; food and drink which would normally be placed in that trolley being unaffordable for his parents.

Sadly, food and warmth can’t be taken for granted by many families. So it’s important that we help those who are less fortunate today.

It’s wonderful what this school is doing to help such families this Christmas. This is something we do because it’s the right thing to do, whether we’re Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus (for example) or of no faith.

Christmas brings out the best in all of us, as we celebrate a God who sent his Son as a vulnerable baby to be our Saviour and Lord. He brings love, joy and peace to those who welcome him; that’s the Christian message at Christmas.

So thank you for your generosity in helping people and families less fortunate, this is really appreciated. But we have to keep looking out for those in need, both at home and abroad. This is something the Salvation Army does all year round (not just at Christmas) because God reached out to us in Jesus.

The peace of God be in your heart
The grace of God be in your words
The love of God be in your hands
The joy of God be in your soul
and in the song your life sings.

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you,
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face towards you
and give you peace;
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

This is me (Helen Austin)

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I’m pleased to share this guest post by my online friend Helen Austin. It’s a deeply personal story with an important message. This is my edited version (with permission and approval) of her original post that you can find by clicking here.

The iconic song This Is Me from the film The Greatest Showman performed by Keala Settle has partly inspired this post.

‘I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one’ll love you as you are’

My life changed forever 11 years ago, late afternoon, walking past a building site I had walked past SO many times before. It took me on a journey I had no idea about. The journey of being a victim. A rape victim.

I had no idea what to do, how to be, how to move forwards.
I just put one step forwards at a time and somehow managed it.

Looking back there are things I wish I had done differently. I wish I had told people, my friends, especially those in London who had no idea and no idea why I suddenly moved after deciding to settle there. I wish I had told my Mum instead of feeling this fierce sense of protection for her, and not wanting to expose her to my mess. I wish I had found other ways to cope without drinking and self-harming, and trying to die a few times. I wish what had happened hadn’t happened.

But it did, and despite now wishing I had done things differently, I have found peace with the fact that I did the very best I could at the time to survive. In 11 years I’ve learned and I’ve changed, I’ve changed from being a victim to being a survivor.

For years the darkness was present and often overwhelmed, as did the thoughts, the ones in my head that told me I needed to hide, to hide who I was and my feelings, because no one wanted to know or cared, or wanted me, this person in ‘broken parts’.

I spent years being ashamed of both my physical and mental scars. Yet, somehow deep in my soul was this ability to not be totally grounded down to dust.

‘But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious.’

I was fragmented, with lots and lots of different fragments (hence the name of the anonymous blog I wrote for many years), but I wasn’t dust, and I started to find my ‘place’. A place to be and belong, not as an anonymous person hiding behind my stories.

As me, Helen, the survivor.
As me, Helen.
I am bruised, for sure but I am also who I am meant to be.

I’ve learnt to laugh again, and love again, and find joy in life again. I’ve learnt to let people in, to accept support, to accept I am who I am, and that is who I was and am meant to be, shaped by my experiences but not beholden to them.

This last year, in particular, I have learned to embrace being a rape survivor as part of my story. It isn’t all of who I am, but it is a part of who I am and that cannot be changed. My rapist (and his friend who was there) didn’t beat me, they have not silenced me.

‘I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me.’

On social media I’m passionate about talking about sexual violence and violence against women. As part of that I sometimes share my story. I know some people think I’m mad and some people wonder ‘Why’ I put myself out there in that way…

Well…

I do it because I am not afraid any more.
I’m also not afraid (and never have been) of what people think of me.
I genuinely don’t care if people don’t want to read what I have to say, as they don’t have to, although I hope they do!

People with voices and the ability to speak out need to be seen and heard. It’s 2018 and despite the successes (?) of online media campaigns such as ‘Me Too’, society still needs to see and hear survivors of sexual violence.

It’s 2018 and stigma still exists. Prosecutions and convictions are abysmally low and victims/survivors are failed every day across the country by local services and police.

So (if we are able) we have to speak out, challenge and bring about change.

I do this so other people know they are not alone. Being a victim of rape, or any sexual violence can leave you feeling incredibly alone and isolated and I spend a lot of time in contact with other survivors who find life hard, supporting them as a friend, and as someone who understands.

So I hope by beating the drum loudly if just one person knows they are not alone, and that someone out there cares, then it is worth it.

I’m thankful for the women who went ahead before me, beating their drums, mentioning, in particular, the rather amazing Jill Saward who was a forefront campaigner on this stuff, and a close friend, who personally taught me so much. We miss you Jill.

So, here are, 2018 and its 11 years on for me…

I am happy (apart from when the health stuff gets bad). I love life and living. I’m loud, bubbly, outspoken, fiery at times, passionate about Jesus; and loving people. I’m not where I ever thought I would be BUT I am where I am meant to be, and it’s a huge privilege to be able to use my experience to support others.

I am Helen, and 11 years later this is me.

Note: See also here.

Remember New Year Resolutions?

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Do you remember your New Year Resolutions? Yes, I know they soon get forgotten, but the start of September is a good time to review them (or any month actually).

For me, family life is very precious, as I’ve written about here. My New Year resolutions for 2018 reflected this, and I’ve tried to do justice to them: Look after myself better and sleep well (so I can be there my family and work smarter). Spend quality time with family every day. Live in the moment and worry less. Effective planning and organising in my personal and work life. Run twice a week.

I’ve not totally succeeded, but I remind myself that every day is an opportunity for a fresh start – not just at the start of the year.

Article 50 & Brexit Reflections

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Last year the people of the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union by a small majority. This immediately divided the nation in a number of ways and plunged the UK into a complex crisis, not least constitutional. These divisions seem to have deepened and there are ominous signs pointing to a potential breakup of the United Kingdom. I voted for the UK to remain in the EU, believing that to be the best way forward for the country and Europe as a whole.

One thing that concerns me is that such a huge change could be carried through by only a simple majority. Surely something so far-reaching should gain acceptance on at least a 60% threshold, or possibly even a two-thirds majority? With the UK split roughly 52/48 (and then not geographically evenly) there was bound to be division and tension with such a slender majority.

But worse was to follow the referendum. There was an immediate political vacuum, with no plan for what a post-Brexit UK (or disUnited Kingdom) would look like. In addition to this, it emerged that politicians (especially in the Leave campaign) mislead the population with promises from which they backtracked.

Many will say this was the democratic will of the people, but there is more to this than meets the eye, and more than I have the time or inclination to go into. Suffice it to say that many voted Leave for a variety of reasons (some simply as a protest vote) and some regretted the decision, not realising we would actually leave (unbelievable, but true), or became concerned for the negative consequences – for which we were warned.

One of the most worrying concerns of Brexit is the increasingly negative atmosphere towards immigrants and refugees which has resulted in increased hate crimes. We can all do something positive to help by reaching out in solidarity and respecting everyone.

I write as a concerned individual, seeking ways to be positive and working together with others to make our land and continent a better place for all its citizens, especially our children and grandchildren. Despite my reservations, and as Article 50 is triggered by Prime Minister Theresa May, I believe there’s hope for our nation if we and our political leaders work for the common good of everyone.

Like it or not, we are where we are and have to make the best of it, although because the negotiations with the EU going badly there is an increasing call for a People’s Vote on the final deal, and also concern we might crash out with no deal.

Updated Monday 14 January 2019