5 reasons I’m grateful not to own a home

hiking.jpgOne of the perks of being married to a vicar is free accommodation.

If I’m honest, the insecurity of not owning our own property has started to bug me over the last couple of years. I won’t say it ‘concerns’ me or ‘worries’ me, because I have no reason not to trust that God will provide everything we need in the future. But it does bug me.

As friends move on to their second, third, fourth property, gradually moving up the ladder, gaining space, building extensions and increasing their investment, we live fairly comfortably in a house which won’t be there when my husband retires. I sometimes wonder if we should be living on more of a shoestring than we do, and paying off a mortgage on a tiny holiday property somewhere in the sticks.

We did own a house, once. In fact we were amongst the first of our friends to buy a place, thanks mainly to the fact that we’d moved to the North and could afford something small. But when we relocated, we rented the property for a year then sold it. It didn’t seem right to keep it, as it wasn’t a natural rental property – but nor did it seem right to purchase a different property elsewhere.

It was the hubs who felt strongly about not re-investing in property. I wasn’t convinced at first, but after a fair bit of submitting the issue to God, I came to the same conclusion. And we still have no regrets about what we did (or didn’t do). But that doesn’t make it an easy decision to live with!

However, to counter any jealousy I may feel when others are moving into gorgeous homes, to which they can do whatever they like, I thought I’d write down five things to be grateful for about our situation – not with gritted teeth, but because I’m convinced this is where God wants us, and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). I’m trying to practise this truth!

We don’t pay maintenance costs.

While we cover the costs of the garden and (most) interior decor, all the essential maintenance is sorted out by the Diocese. If the boiler breaks, we don’t have to worry about finding the money to fix it. If there’s a leak, we don’t have to spend ages ringing round companies that might be able to come and sort it out immediately.

Sometimes there’s a tension between what we think is urgent, and what the Diocese thinks is urgent – but, on the whole, one call to their housing people, and things are sorted out pretty efficiently.

We get to live in a house that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

Vicarages have to have at least four bedrooms, plus two reception rooms (so that one can be a study – a vicarage is a work-place as well as a home). They tend to be generously-sized.

Not only would we not be able to afford the size of this house if we were in different jobs, but we also wouldn’t be able to afford the location of this house. While we’re not in a particularly affluent area, the fact that it only takes 15 minutes to walk into the city centre whacks on another few thousand to the value of our home.

Another advantage specific to our home is that houses like ours just don’t exist in our area. Usually if you want to be close to town, you sacrifice a garden. Or you move out of town to get a garden – and sacrifice convenience. We are fortunate to get both.

Obviously not all vicarages are exactly like ours, but they will all have their unique quirks and advantages which add value – value which most of us wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.

It’s a constant reminder that our home belongs to God.

If you’re a Christian, everything you are and have belongs to God. But how easily we can slip into selfish ways with our homes, our money, our possessions and our families!

I totally do this all the time with the things I own and the people I love. But one thing I’m not so selfish with is our home. A vicarage is owned by the Diocese, and it’s supposed to be used to bless your church.

Whether it’s New Year drinks to say thank you to the people who lead at church, our weekly parents’ house group and creche, or (yet another) World Cup barbecue with the 20s group, our family has a wonderful opportunity to live in a space which is designed to bless others. How cool is that?!

(For the record, yes there are boundaries that need to be set, and we take these seriously. After all, we’ve been through the adoption process, where we had to justify the use of our home from a safeguarding perspective. But that’s another blog post!)

It helps us to empathise with those around us.

Many of the people we see regularly at the school gate, at church, or round and about, don’t own their own home – and, whilst some of these people are hoping to buy in the future, many won’t even entertain this notion, as there’s absolutely no way they’ll ever have a chance to get on the housing ladder.

It’s tempting to think that owning a home is a right, but actually it’s a luxury, and it’s only enjoyed by a minority across the world. Even in the UK, it was only 40-50 years ago that people started to buy homes en masse. Renting a property owned by someone else has generally been the way that people kept a roof over their head throughout history.

Not owning a home, and realising the many, many people around us who don’t own one either, reminds us that it’s a luxury. If we ever do buy a home, we certainly won’t take it for granted.

We have more security than many.

And finally, whilst in many ways we’re in a similar situation to those around us, we’re also very different. We have earning potential. We have savings. We have financial support from our families. We’re in a much more secure position than many, and may one day have the option of buying a home.

Again, not owning a home reminds us of the great security we do have: a landlord who’s not about to kick us out with a month’s notice. A decent place to live which is kept in good order. A guarantee that we can live here until the hubster’s job ends. And that, when it does, we’ll have another home provided for us.

Compare this to friends living in social housing with no proper flooring, private-rentals with dodgy landlords, or in communities which are unfriendly and antisocial, and we feel pretty grateful.

I won’t pretend this is an easy journey, but it’s the one the Lord has us on for now. Maybe He will guide us to buy a house in the future or maybe we’ll spend our retirement renting, but one thing I know for sure is that His ways are best.

We don’t get to take our homes to heaven, after all!

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Egg-hunts, trying to be holy, and the Post-Modern Jukebox (What I’m into – March 2018)

Books

I finished The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (whicher (get it?) was highly absorbing, if a little slow-moving in the middle).

And then I spent a very enjoyable time with The Diary of a (Trying to be Holy) Mum. I won’t tell you how brilliant it is, because I’ve reviewed it here (and there are TWO copies to be won…comment on the post by Wednesday to be in with a chance!).

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Food

So I know there was food this month, but I didn’t really notice any of it, as I was pining too much for my first love. February’s optimism turned into March’s struggle. I tried everything to replace it: crisps, liquorice allsorts, fresh scones with clotted cream – but there’s no denying that I felt entirely lost without chocolate.

Will someone tell me what’s so infinitely better about chocolate than other sweet treats? I can’t put my finger on it – but nothing else tastes as good. 😦

Music

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A friend and I went to see the Post-Modern Jukebox, and they were all kinds of awesome. In fact, I already think they’ll be my top gig of 2018 – they would take a lot to beat. Fabulous musicians, singers…not to mention the incredible tap-dancer, who made me regret quitting tap lessons all those years ago! Who knew tap could be so cool.

I really hope they come to the UK again soon, as I know my older two kids would love the show. The arrangements are fabulous: contemporary pop songs, re-styled in vintage 20th-century genres. One of my favourites is their Motown version of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone‘ – have a watch/listen!

Articles

One of the very best and easiest family decisions you can ever make, by Sarah Mackenzie for Ann Voskamp’s blog, was beautiful and inspiring – and I recommend it to all those with children in their lives.

I laughed out loud and nodded in agreement with this brilliantly dry piece from a Dad, on all the things he can’t do because he only has daughters.

She would be better off dead is a poignant and inspiring read, on why Christians need to move towards disability.

Last but not least, I found this blog post incredibly powerful: God is taking everything away from me, on Vicki Cottingham’s response to being diagnosed with M.E. The post is a few years old, but I recently ‘met’ Vicki online through Christian writers’ forums, and so have been made aware of her fantastic blog.

On the blog

I asked whether we should avoid Mothers’ Day just because it’s hard, and (when my husband went away for a few days) wondered if I could make it as a single parent. When my son asked a tricky question, I gave him this answer on the definition of ‘brother’.

I shared some prophetic words which I received recently, asking whether we can really trust them, and I reviewed Fiona Lloyd’s brilliant book – offering a giveaway which you can still enter!

Elsewhere

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Photo credit: Home for Good

It was a joy and a privilege to be able to write up the story of how four inspiring York families have opened their homes to Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children – you can read it on the Home for Good website.

If you’re interested, do read the stories of the individuals mentioned in the above article (I wrote these too!): Jen, Clare, Sandra and Lynn are incredibly inspiring.

In other news:

* I’ve joined the Association of Christian Writers (ACW) and attended my first Writers’ Day. It was brilliant: jam-packed full of practical, useful info about writing for magazines, led by an editor and journalist. I enjoyed meeting a few people who I’d started interacting with online, too – always good to put a 3D figure to a 2D Facebook profile pic 😉

* When I blogged about single-parentdom, what I didn’t say was that the hubs was away three times this month – very unusual, as he’s not often called out of town. I was surviving the middle of these trips when I blogged. No wonder I’ve reached the end of March exhausted!

* We’ve enjoyed the first week of our school holidays (which are different to just about everyone else’s holidays). After two years, I can finally take all four kiddoes out on a day trip without the need for a Supporting Grown-Up, and it feels amazing! They can all walk! They can help each other out in the soft play! When they’re near a road and I call ‘STOP!!!’ they sometimes listen! Yay!

* As part of the above, we may have *slightly* overdone it, with six egg hunts completed at various venues this week. And there will be more to come. I’m a sucker for an egg hunt.

* And last but not least…I’ve set up a real proper newsletter thingy! In addition to the blog emails (where you receive an email whenever I post), this is more of a summary email every few weeks, where I’ll link to blog posts and other articles I’ve written which might be of interest, as well as give you an update on how my writing is going generally. And you’ll be the first to hear of any books in the pipeline! If you haven’t already, please sign up here – I’ll be eternally grateful to have your support! I promise to keep the emails short and not to spam you!

Linking up as always with Leigh Kramer’s blog. Take a look at some of the other ‘What I’m into’ posts – maybe you’ll find a new favourite blog! (Or second favourite. Humph.)

what i’m into – april 2017

It’s been a silent month on the blog, and I know many of you were wondering whether I’d passed across the Jordan due to excessive Creme Egg consumption during March. Thank you for your concern, and I’m happy to report my status as ‘alive’, although with far fewer teeth than one month ago. Here’s what I did in April, in between unwrapping (and demolishing) foiled eggs.

Books
suzuki.jpgI properly read Everything Depends on How We Raise Them, which I mentioned dipping into in January. It was good to complete as, overall, it did give me a broader idea of the Suzuki methodology for teaching Early Years – but the numerous sweeping statements, and lack of evidence to back up many of the claims left me wanting more, so I hope I can find a few more thorough Suzuki textbooks to guide me through. I’ve yet to blog about how our experience of Suzuki has benefited our adopted boys – perhaps this month, fingers crossed? (I realise this is a fairly hollow gesture, coming from the girl who has blogged approximately not-at-all since the last ‘What I’m into’, but hey.)

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I also began my first ever Hunter S. Thompson book – suggested to me in my Year of Books by an ex boyfriend. (And of course you always do what your ex tells you – that’s a thing, right?) It’s interesting – but more next month, when I’ve finished it. Suffice to say it’s not my usual read but I’m rather fascinated by it.

Food

As hinted last month, we dabbled in a bit of low-carbs eating this month: a crustless quiche went down well with half the family, and courgetti was a hit with everyone (most of the kids didn’t notice it wasn’t spaghetti), although no one told me how much courgettes shrink during cooking so next time I’ll purchase a small allotment’s worth. This is the spiralizer we have in case you’re thinking of investing in one – it works a treat and is easy to clean – even for someone allergic to washing-up like me.

I think the low-carbs interest wore off later into the month as I realised that no one actually wanted to eat like that apart from me. So I took down an old May edition of BBC Good Food magazine, and tried a few things like spinach and goat’s cheese puff (success with two-thirds of our family), black bean meatballs with stir-fried noodles (100% family approval rating – this doesn’t happen often) and a flexible leftovers tortilla, which I planned for a Monday so we could use up the veg from our Sunday roast. Although, of course, after several years of making roast dinners and never cracking the secret of how many veggies to cook, this happened to be the one Sunday where I got it so very nearly right, and therefore had precious few leftovers for the leftovers tortilla. So it was just a tortilla. And not a very authentic one. The kids’ Spanish teacher looked at me rather oddly when I said there’d be tuna and pesto involved.

In the same magazine, I also rediscovered this amazing recipe for mac ‘n’ cheese which is just SO good and I don’t even care that it’s not the right season for comfort food.

We loved being the guinea-pigs for our friend Guy’s new pizza oven over at his bistro. The sourdough pizza base is AMAZING, and the toppings all fresh and yummy. Local friends, if you haven’t been to Guy’s then hurry round as quickly as your feet will carry you – it’s pizza and a cocktail for a tenner on Wednesdays throughout the summer. Happy times.

Articles

Not a huge amount this month, but two Marathon-themed stories stood out for me. One was an old college friend, Jackie, who got married early on the morning of the London Marathon, then ran it with her new husband, dad and cousin. Why? Because she’d been diagnosed with cancer just days after her now-husband had proposed to her. She took up running as part of the recovery, and has now done several runs to raise money for cancer charities.

The second was from a friend who didn’t even run, due to unexpected ill health this year, but his perspective is refreshing and inspiring. Read Ed’s brilliant article on putting Jesus above running.

Oh yes, and this article about why women clergy lead so few large churches gave a lot of food for thought.

Music

This month has seen me enjoy the Pitch Perfect soundtracks (again), Norah Jones, The Carpenters and (always) the Postmodern Jukebox.

BUT April was dominated by the sound of my 7 year old Mister tinkling the ivories, learning to play by ear. He shows little interest in learning the pieces in his piano book, but loves playing Vindaloo, which a friend taught him last year, so I decided to give him the first three notes of Bless the Lord O My Soul to see what he could do with them. With a bit of assistance here and there, he got it sounding great! We’re now on to the Match of the Day theme tune, which he’s nearly mastered. The challenge is finding more pieces in C which can sound good with one hand – and which he knows. Any suggestions, please share!

Geeky muso moment alert: the link above is the original version, or at least closer to it than the current version of the theme. As I listened, I’d never spotted quite so many Afro-Caribbean elements to the music, and used this as an opportunity to enthusiastically educate (read: bore) Mister with details of post-war immigration to the UK and how fusion music develops. Fun!

Screentime

The Producers Poster

This month we watched a couple of Matthew Broderick films – the cult 80s classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the 2005 version of The Producers. Yep, my life doesn’t really involve staying up to date with films. We enjoyed both, though, especially Ferris. Oh, and I did make it to the cinema to see Beauty and the Beast – there’s one current film for you – which was pretty good.

On TV I caught up with ‘Child of our Time’ on iPlayer, which I find intriguing and frustrating in equal measure – intriguing insights, but frustratingly short – I’d love to have heard more on each teenager. And, along with every other person in the country, I blubbed my eyes out to Rio Ferdinand’s moving documentary on becoming a single dad through bereavement.

In other news…

I did a talk! A real, live one with a mic and audience and everything!! And it took me approximately seventy thousand hours to prepare. If this is ever something I end up doing more of, I’ll need to build a time-machine. The theme was ‘Saying yes to God’, and I covered eight reasons we often say ‘no’ to God, countering each with a Biblical truth. Maybe I’ll put it into some blog posts in the future…the mythical future where I remember I have a blog, and manage to convert all the blog posts in my head to real, actual blog posts that people can read. You know the one, right?

I went to see Evita with some friends – how exciting! 2017 WILL be the year I go to more theatre productions.

I ran a successful school disco, reminding myself just how much junk food small kids can put away, and updating my knowledge of chart music in the process.

And THEN my daughter’s Reception class put on an Easter performance and it was the cutest thing and made me cry like some massively hormonal mama four days after childbirth. Honestly, those kids could do nothing but lift a single finger in the air and I’d be weeping inconsolably. Having had two kids pass through Reception, the kind teachers are used to it by now. By the time this whole sorry debacle is replayed with child no.4, I swear they’ll be handing me a box of tissues on the way in.

We enjoyed SUMMER this month too – notable by its absence for the rest of the year. It lasted approximately 2.5 days and was glorious. And by glorious, I mean 15 degrees. We packed in as many meals outdoors as we could, including a homemade cream tea. Have now packed away shorts till 2018.

I enjoyed my annual phone chat with my godmother, who I rarely see. She’s wonderful, and I basically treat our conversations like a free therapy session. We spoke for five hours, into the wee hours, and it was all totally worth the shatteredness the next day.

We were visited by a new health visitor who is also a MAN, and I got a little bit stupidly excited about this. It made me wonder whether being excited by gender stereotypes being reversed is, in itself, a form of gender inequality. Answers on a postcard?

I did a whole load of gardening this month, which (shhh, don’t tell anyone) I’m actually starting to enjoy. It started as a necessity in that we have sizeable front and back gardens, a massive border which resembled the aftermath of a hurricane due to a Giant Hedge being removed some time ago, and a husband who is more likely to learn where the sewing box is kept and proceed to make outfits for all six of us in this season’s colours and fabrics than to pick up a spade. But now I find myself wandering slowly round friends’ gardens, nodding and ‘mmm’ing as they explain what everything is, when it was planted, how well it flowers, how many slugs they had to fend off last year, and so on and so forth. I’ve found myself recognising a few plants when meandering the grounds of stately homes, and learning how to comment on them by name in a casual “Of course everyone knows this” tone of voice, when just a year ago I couldn’t tell a hydrangea from a hyacinth.

I’m a bit of a Project Madam, and tend to start things I don’t have time to finish. This month I determined to finish updating the kids’ scrapbooks (a ridiculous Project which I’d never have started if I’d known how many kids we were going to end up with). And I actually managed this – if you understand that, by ‘finish updating’, I actually mean ‘use up all the photos I’ve managed to print out’. There are still huge gaps and nothing yet for 2017 (and precious little for 2016, come to think of it), but it’s a start.

I then started on Project Two, which was to sort out our garage – a project which was started (or intended to start) a year ago, and which has taken up more hours than I care to mention. It doesn’t sound exciting, but I could just die with happiness at the beautiful amount of space it’s created. Anyway, the project ran a little bit into May, so you’ll just have to wait till next month for the Before and After photos.

Am I getting old? Yes, absolutely. I’m surprised I haven’t hit my forties yet with all this plant-recognition and garage-sorting and general fuss over keeping up with the music the young people are listening to. Next month I’ll have bought a sports car and pierced my navel.

How was your April?

Linking up, as always, with What I’m into over at http://www.leighkramer.com – check out her post, and others!

when the waters recede: who will still show up?

Recently my beautiful city flooded. There are two rivers here in York – the Ouse floods every year, sometimes several times, but, because the city is built for this, with nearby housing designed on the first floor upwards, the damage is limited. This time, the floods were so bad that the flood barrier had to be raised in order to let out some of the Ouse’s water into the Foss. This is the river near us and, whilst we are fortunately high enough above the river not to be affected, several friends had to evacuate their homes, with damage which will take several costly months to repair.

We were away at the time, and could only sympathise from afar via social media. As news of the events unfolded on local Facebook groups, it became apparent that a mammoth volunteering force was springing up – locals from all over the city (and non-locals from all over the country) were jumping to the aid of those they didn’t know: donating cleaning supplies, baby essentials, food and furniture; cooking and delivering hot meals to volunteers, the emergency services and the army; coordinating drop-off points, collections and deliveries. It was, by all accounts, an incredible example of the desire deep inside us to be generous, kind, sacrificial.

One guy posted on Facebook something which stuck with me. The gist was that his Christmas hadn’t turned out the way he’d expected – he’d ended up helping out in the donation centres – but that this had been the highlight of his Christmas, being able to help, and seeing so many others prepared to give of their time, energy, money and possessions.

It wasn’t a surprise to me that he felt more fulfilled helping others than indulging in chocolate or wine or whatever he might have been doing on Christmas Day. We’re designed to live in community, which means that we each have a desire to help those around us. Of all the ways we could spend our time, helping others is something which never disappoints, never leaves us dissatisfied. I’m not sure we will ever reach our full potential if we’re not actively engaged in serving those around us – it’s part of who we were designed to be.

One of the glossier round-robins we received at Christmas left me a little uncomfortable. For a few days, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was – and then the penny dropped: there was no mention of any activity designed to serve someone else’s needs. There were paid jobs, and there were indulgent hobbies – and that was it.

I’m not going to pretend that it is pure altruism which motivates people to give voluntarily of their time and energy, although of course that is a big part of it. Actually, people who spend some of their time volunteering have recognised that something in us lights up when we serve others. We’re made to do it, and when we do it we discover a little more of the people we were designed to be.

Friends, York is in need 24-7, 365 days of the year – and your locality is too. There are people who are addicted to all sorts of things, living right near where you live. Families are breaking down. People are living on the streets, or in carpet-less council flats, with barely enough money to feed their families. Pushing back evil with good is necessary all year round.

However, the good news for stressed-out parents, busy career types, elderly folk with declining energy levels, is that we don’t have to do this in our own strength. We don’t even ‘have’ to do anything. The battle is won, God is victorious – we simply show up and take part on the winning side. The question is: where are you showing up? Are you showing up at a toddler group each week, which could do with a hand welcoming new people or clearing up afterwards? Are you showing up at a school gate, where some of the parents are going through hell and need your listening ear? Are you showing up at a lunch for older folk who really need to know something of God’s hope? Are you showing up at work, where colleagues need to know their work is valued and respected?

Or are you just showing up and going home?

I know I said 2016 was not about resolutions (actually I’ve been a hypocrite and made one – more on that later) BUT perhaps it should be the year for Showing Up – proper eyes-open, ears-alert, hands-ready Showing Up. Who knows where God will take us?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 12:1)

an idiot’s guide to ethical christmas shopping

Last month, a Facebook status from a friend, asking for ideas as to how to shop more ethically this Christmas, confirmed the desire I’d had for several weeks to blog on this issue. It’s clearly something people want to talk about!

Of course, ‘ethical’ is a sliding scale. We can be ‘more’ or ‘less’ ethical in our lifestyles – but, as a result of sin, we will never be able to live our lives with a zero carbon (or any other) footprint. And it seems that just as we’re trying to be ‘more’ ethical, we hear of yet another company whose ethics are questionable. Earlier this year, even Fair Trade food companies came under fire. I find it helpful to consider how I would justify my decisions before God – He knows of my situation, my limited finances, my knowledge of injustice, as well as my lack of knowledge. So, please, rather than feeling guilty at the word ‘ethical’, instead be encouraged by Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Now, our family lives on a fairly limited budget for most of the year – but Christmas, giving gifts to others, is an excuse to spend some money, to invest in the economy! But there’s a choice here: do I invest in the large companies, the high street shops and supermarkets? Do I contribute to lining the pockets of Amazon directors? Or do I want my money to be invested in businesses where people come first? My pound can do an awful lot of damage – or an awful lot of good. Let’s be encouraged that God has prepared ‘good works’ in advance for us to do, rather than focus on things we aren’t able to be so ethical about. We can actually do some good!

There is no right or wrong approach, I merely offer some ideas from my own experience. I would love to hear yours (please do comment!). And apologies for non-York residents, when I mention local shops; I’ve tried to offer general, nationwide ideas too.

* Firstly, I start with the Fair Trade companies. They have limited gift ranges, so I prioritise their catalogues to maximise the money spent with them. I use the fantastic Fairer World shop here in York, but elsewhere Fair Trade shops can often be found in cathedrals and large churches, or there are one-off fair trade markets and stalls. Shared Earth shops can be found in Liverpool and York (and you can buy online). If you can’t get to a shop, why not look up the Created and Traidcraft catalogues online. Both companies also sell beautiful Christmas decorations which I love.

* Next, I look for other local social enterprises to support. In York, these include the fantastic Bike Rescue Project (which employs and trains ex-offenders and others struggling to get employment and experience), York Disabled Workers Cooperative (beautiful woodwork) and, my personal favourite, Mermaid and Miller – frustratingly not open at the moment, due to change in premises, but still hoping to open later this month 🙂 Mermaid and Miller employ adults with learning disabilities, and train them in a variety of crafts. What they sell is beautiful – and much of it is old second-hand pieces lovingly upcycled into something quirky and different. Very reasonable prices too. Go check them out!

* Then I widen the net to other local, independent businesses. And boy are we blessed with those in York! (Non-Yorkies, feel free to ignore the following paragraph – you’ll have your own local places to support!) I love Shine, Snow Home, Love Cheese, Look What Mum’s Made, Blossom & Walker, Collection Box and York Cocoa House to name but a few. OK, so I don’t know the working conditions of those making the products, or whether the raw materials came from sweatshops overseas (although chances are that most of these products are made in the UK, many even made locally). I do know, however, that the presence of these shops in our towns and cities makes life better. I want to support them. I want the people who make these lovely, unique items to be able to make a living from being creative. And they’re just much nicer gifts! With lots of family and friends living far away, a gift which has ‘York’ on the label, or which simply wouldn’t be found anywhere else in the country, is pretty special in my opinion.

* Finally, when I need to use large retail outlets or websites, I choose carefully. In my family, there are lots of Christmas Lists. Some of the items – specific books, games, DVDs or toys – are impossible to buy from independent businesses. So – what to do? I try to avoid Amazon at all cost. Not always possible, but I try. I like using play.com. Who knows if they’re any better? Again, we do what we can given our circumstances, and trust God’s grace for the rest. For a book I bought recently for a birthday present, I used Waterstone’s online. If I can’t make it into town, at least I can invest some money in a high street retailer by using their website – which I think is preferable to an exclusively online shop. And of course there are companies like John Lewis, known for their ethical values.

Quite often, the ethical choice is pricier than its alternative, something which often drives us to the supermarkets, with its heavily-laden aisles of cheap gifts. But, as someone who’s on a budget (yes, even for Christmas), I want to reassure you that the ethical alternative can and does work. I spend the same as I would have done – but buy less. (Who needs more rubbish at Christmas?) It’s better quality, though, and will probably last longer. There’s more value, I think, in the uniqueness of the present – a gift, after all, should say something about the giver, and the relationship between giver and recipient. This Christmas, let’s make our pounds do some good.

things i have learnt since sending my son to a school in special measures

This post, explaining why we were confident about sending our son to a school in special measures, provoked a big response this summer. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, why not have a look now? It will make more sense of the following!

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So we’re already half a term in to our son’s school career. Forget what he’s learnt – I feel like I’ve been on a hugely steep learning curve since term began. And already God has graciously affirmed the decision He led us to make regarding our son’s schooling – time and time again. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed. (Please forgive any unintended arrogance/offence/political incorrectness caused by the words I use, and instead remember that I come from a position of naivety, having been in a pretty middle-class bubble my whole life.)

Those from tougher backgrounds are often more open than those from more advantaged backgrounds. We who have been lucky enough to have more advantages in life do feel the need for a facade, don’t we? All through life – whether on UCAS forms, CVs, in job interviews, on dates, and in social situations – we learn (indeed, we’re conditioned) to hide our flaws and promote our positives. This term, I’ve had people I hardly know share pretty deep and personal things with me during a brief exchange in the playground. I’ve had to learn how to hide my shock at what I may have been told, and replace with sympathetic nods and words. There is no facade, no pretending that life is OK when it’s not. I find it refreshing. I’m learning how to be open about my weaknesses, my mess, my falling apart. As new friends start to enter my home, I’m remembering that mess and dirt are OK – they’re the reassurance that I don’t have it all sorted. And hospitality (search the blog for more on this!) is the ultimate display of our vulnerabilities.

I’m suddenly embarrassed by all the Stuff. Exacerbated by the onslaught of new Stuff from the kids’ birthdays, I’m seeing afresh just how much we have – not just the quantity, which we try and keep on top of, but the quality. I’ve never been one for designer brands, and mainly buy my clothes from charity shops, but walking through the playground in my Hunter wellies while my kids ride their expensive scooters does make me realise how privileged we are. I wouldn’t go back to leaky wellies, or heavy, hard-to-manoeuvre scooters – but where do I find a sensible balance?

Difference doesn’t matter – integrity does. There is no shying away from it: I look different to a lot of the other parents. On weekdays the ones who look like me trundle past our house to take their offspring to the More Middle Class School Down The Road. But perhaps I’m not so different to the other mums I’m meeting after all. I’m not going to dress differently, disguise my non-local accent or pretend I don’t live in the huge house opposite the school (although I will remind people, ad nauseum, that we don’t pay for it, it comes with the job). To do any of this would be ingenuine – it would be an insult to those I’m meeting, as if I were saying to them You couldn’t possibly want to be friends with someone like me. How arrogant and patronising. If I’m open to getting to know other mums, then they will want to get to know me too. We will find there’s more in common than we thought.

A simple greeting breaks the ice. I’ll be honest: there have been times when I’ve stood in the playground and felt like some weird social experiment – a misfit, an oddity. What am I doing here? I imagine the worst of those standing next to me: they’re looking at me weirdly, I’ve offended them, they hate me. If I’m brave enough to be the first to smile, the first to say hello, then I discover no such thing. In fact – perhaps they were thinking the same about me? We break the ice, we connect.

I can refer to Al as ‘my husband’, and not as ‘the kids’ dad’. This is actually a Thing. Our kids are so lucky to have an amazing dad who lives with them and is fully invested in every part of their lives. End of.

I bet your kids have been learning loads at school this half term – but what have you learnt? Do share your thoughts…I’d love to hear them 🙂

why i’m sending my kid to a school in special measures

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It was never meant to be the case.

The kids and I often walked past the fag-smoking, obscenity-shrieking parents at drop-off or pick-up time, but I knew we’d not be living here when the time came to make a Decision. As a teacher, the school did provoke my curiosity – but there was no point wasting time or energy finding out about it.

And then, gradually, as God revealed plans for us to stay exactly where we are, ministering in this area and living in this Vicarage, the Hypothetical turned to Actual. We were Actually going to have to make a decision – and this establishment, with its poor test results and shocking attendance figures, was our catchment school. The head of Mister’s preschool had warned us of the ‘rough families’ it attracted, and advised not to go near it with a barge pole. Our next-door-neighbour’s daughter, having spent a few weeks in the school, was told by one of the teachers that there was a “much better school down the road”, with the implication that this intelligent young girl would be better catered for there. She promptly moved school.

With these less-than-savoury second-hand impressions, you might have wondered why two Oxbridge-educated, qualified-teacher parents didn’t consider the ‘better school down the road’ – after all, the ‘better’ school is less than ten minutes’ walk away. Hardly unjustifiable in terms of the whole Sending-Your-Child-To-The-Local-School ethic. But, as we found ourselves falling more and more for this area, so we found ourselves falling more and more for the school over the road. Going into special measures last year (the lowest rating given by Ofsted, the national inspectors for schools) was the best thing for the place. There’s a new headteacher, new staff, new equipment, and stacks of funding for improving just about everything. The school has an optimistic feel. The children we’ve seen have been on task, polite and friendly. This is one of the reasons we’re entrusting our son to the school for the next few years. Another is because, as a teacher, I want to see this school improve, and know that it can only go so far unless it has a majority of parents who are committed to the place. We’re hooking up to this increasing mass of supportive families, and can’t wait.

But that’s only a fraction of it.

For each loud-mouthed mum screaming at her many, many kids outside the school gates, there are ten others who we don’t see because we don’t hear. They support education. They support the school. They want to do what’s right for their child. Actually, they’re not too dissimilar to me.

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And the loud-mouths and the invisible ones – well, that’s just surface stuff. Underneath, there are a lot of hurting families living in poverty or chaos or both. I know this because all Reception kids are given breakfast during the first part of the school day. This is not a Breakfast Club for rich, working parents – this is because not every child will get breakfast at home. Also, we were told that it would be really good  if we could label all our kids’ clothes – but not to worry if we didn’t manage to do it, as the Reception staff would do it for us. In my sheltered Home-Counties upbringing, I never had to worry about my clothes being unnamed – but if you’re attempting to raise your family in the midst of abuse, debt, relational breakdown or whatever, whether to go iron-on or permanent marker is the least of your worries.

We need to be in this place. We need to learn that privilege is the exception, not the rule. We need to get to know families who can educate us about what life is like for them. We need to develop empathy, and discover how we can best serve those who struggle. We need to be here because Jesus would be here. It’s time to stop ignoring the poor.

Now please understand that I’m not criticising anyone who, in the same position, would have made a different decision. We each have different and complex criteria surrounding the decision-making process when it comes to our children’s education, and I’m not the one to judge. All I know is that when Jesus returns, we will need to account for the decisions we made – and, on this occasion, we feel convicted that this is the choice God is calling us to make.

Am I concerned for my son? That he will learn to swear? That he will follow the wrong ringleader? That he will be bullied? Yes – but no more than I would were he going to any other school. In fact, the environment he’ll be going into has made me pray all the harder for Mister: that he would be a leader, not a follower. That he would stand up for good. That he would be kind to others. That the prophetic word given at his dedication service – “touched by the hand of God for his generation” – would start to bear fruit.

God is in this school – and, we believe, wants to bring many of its students, parents and staff to know Him.

Sending Mister to this school was never supposed to happen – but, actually, it’s no mistake.

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