Tonight my flatmate and I are racing to Borders on Oxford Street. I am writing this on the tube (uploading it later, of course) invigorated by the fact that I can flip out and tap voraciously on my macbook. It was a geeky conversation that began the race. And the loser is a rotten egg. It’s on!
Arrived at Borders. Via Tottenham Court Road. Had one of those experiences that challenge your sense of place in the world when I could not find the damn shop. I had been to it several times, I had noted the landmarks. And yet, when it most mattered, when sheer pride and the threat of being a rotten egg was at stake, I couldn’t find it. A swift phone call and admission of defeat later I was in my chain crack den.
Book stores are a dangerous playground. A small hoard gathered in the crook of your arm can amount to a large fortune. I justify each purchase: a gift, a need for personal development, the cover’s kinda cool.
In the wonderful journey of other-self discovery between the shelves I pause awhile at the Self-Help section. I love this section because the back page synopses offer glimpses of a world so much more hopeless than my own. I read “How to have it all without risking it all”, I peruse “How do you date me?”, I ponder “Be your own life coach”, and with every one I am encouraged by how little I feel the need to read on. I enjoy taking a little time out for self-help because it reminds me I’m doing ok. Not great. But ok.
Unfortunately this late at night there are no equivalent independent bookshops that I know of. If anyone does then please tell me. I have challenged long-held friendships with my commitment to the cause of the independent…
I am having a very interesting week work-wise, life-wise and theological thinking-wise (as CC Baxter would put it).
The first two are largely irrelevant – or fundamentally crucial, depending on how you look at it, and more later no doubt – for the purposes of this blog, or at least this post.
Note to self: Get to the point.
I am reading James Alison, Undergoing God, and it is written with the unguarded and verbose enthusiasm of a scholar and priest. It is occasionally heavy going because Allison is a writer committed to full explanations. This is no bad thing, but when the words are small and the carriage is swaying, it is easy to repeat whole paragraphs without realising it.
Today I read his well-formed comparison of Christian worship with Nuremburg. Inspired. And in reading something so startling I instantly felt that need to share it. I looked up with the same starry-eyed expression of wonder at the world that Lata in A Suitable Boy wears, and which draws Kabir to her. Except that I caught no one’s eye and I was acutely aware that my passion-red book with the word “God” so boldly emblazoned on the front cover might not invite the most objective of participants to this particular debate.
But should I have tried? Can theology be tested and suggested in a vaccuum?
On the way home I sat in the tube, leaning forward from the bag slung over my back and yes, perhaps taking up a little too much room on the armrest. At the next stop the lady next to me mumbled something and moved to a vacant seat further down.
I looked up and asked with a shy giggle, “Did i do something?”
She answered with her own shy giggle, “No, I just want to be able to lean my head against the glass because I’m so tired.”
I, nervous of any tension or commuter guilt this may have generated say, “Oh, sorry, I heard you mumble something and thought I might have driven you away or….” and descend again into the shy giggle.
She responds again with a shy giggle and we turn slowly back to our own space with that final ah/um that the world over means “That’s the end of that then.”
Perhaps, if the rest of the carriage hadn’t been so quiet, I might have asked her why she was so tired. No, I know I would have. And yet only a few minutes later, on my second train home, the man next to me was having a long and loud personal conversation in a similarly quiet carriage. Is it the semi-anonymity that makes this conversation more acceptable? Is it acceptable? Or is the carriage too quiet for someone to risk asking him to end it?
The Jubilee Line has been suspended, the bodiless voice told me at London Bridge. I later discovered this wasn’t the case, as my rebellious friend double-backed to discover a virtually empty platform and the trains still running. Knowing the Northern line would be an exercise in scrum tactics I decided to take the bus.
A brief text to my line manager later I settled against the yellow pole and relaxed. A few months ago I was stuck on a bus in heavy traffic waiting to get to an important meeting. At that time I decided I could get more and more pissed off, trapping my frustration and allowing it to build without release. Or I could relax safe in the knowledge that the situation was out of my hands. After all, I work in the environment sector and we should advocate public transport, despite its failings.
So I relax. Insofar as it is possible to relax wedged between a banker and a railing.
I stood at the door of my flat this morning with last night’s reading in my right hand and my head in my left. The first day of this new initiative and I was already falling at the first hurdle.
But it’s Monday. It’s a crap day. I feel crap, the week’s going to be crap, I might as well read something to cheer myself up…
This must surely be a commuter doctrine: that for even the most cheerful of travellers, the sheer weight of peer pressure and past experience will render your Monday morning crap.
One way of improving my general outlook would be to begin seeing this through. So, as a twenty-first century compromise, I put on my iPod and listened to a Philip Yancey talk from this year’s Greenbelt. Two in fact, by the time I got there and back again. What a delicious irony that he exhorted me at one point to do things I didn’t want to do; using the analogy of the Olympian who trains through sleet and rain for a worthy prize, he asks: “surely something as precious as a relationship with God requires that kind of effort?”
It was a greater comfort to hear someone speaking than my usual playlist. Not least because I know all those songs already. Aside from the odd Bob Dylan lyric or Spice Girls melody, there is little that I would take notice of or find new interest in. A good friend of mine uses his commute to listen to new artists downloaded the night before. I’d like to think I’m trying a theological equivalent.
On those rare days I turn off my iPod and embrace the noisy silence, I am bombarded by the wealth of humanity on my daily commute. Faces show the exertion of restraint, coughs are muffled and tinny overload music frowned at by strangers that don’t want to risk any further confrontation than a sideways glance. But every so often there is a shared moment that hints at the transformative possibilities of this quotidian grind.
So for 6 months I will silence my music to hear the sounds of life. I shall read books that challenge and inspire me in the hours before and after work, rather than wallow in the fictional diversions that are so hard to escape as my stop approaches. I may even risk conversation with my neighbours, in whose company I spend more time than many of my friends. And in all this I will see what can be experienced of God in my commute.