Thirteen things I learned from my childhood church

It has come to my attention that over the last few years I have criticized the church quite a bit.

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tumbleweed moment while I think about whether to try to justify myself or just leave the observation lying there.

This is a list of positive lessons I learned from the church I grew up in, which was pretty charismatic and pretty evangelical, and no, I don’t really know what those labels mean, I’m just taking a stab at giving some background. I chose thirteen things because the number thirteen sounded nice in the title. I tried to choose things that I could associate with a specific memory. I prioritized things that might counter either (a) what I’ve previously written about churches or (b) what people probably think charismatic evangelical churches are like. The list is not exhaustive. It is rather too long. Also, probably the best teaching of a child by a church would appear in her behaviour rather than her memories. But I hope this redresses the balance.

One. God likes you. A lot.

Aged twelve, I took some friends to an evangelistic event where we heard that if we only remembered three words from the whole talk (well maybe five), it should be these three (or five): God likes you. A lot.

Later on, I started inviting friends to the sorts of evangelistic events at which Christian speakers laboriously debated the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, or informed all those present that hell was a very bad place. Foolishly, I failed to notice what was missing. It was never going to be good enough to summarise the gospel in four points on a dinner receipt, even if the points were more or less the right points, though that would have been something. It was always going to feel like a waste of time to lose public or private debates to the nearest available atheist, and winning them would have been even worse. Because I’d come from a church that taught that God likes you.

Someone wondered, why didn’t the speaker say ‘love’? Isn’t ‘love’ stronger than ‘like’? But even the best, most beautiful descriptions of a generous love poured out for all humanity would still need this extra observation, that by the way, God likes you, specifically you; enjoys your company, finds you interesting, really is pretty chuffed about those things about you that make you different from everyone else. Hovering over your head is a big blue invisible thumbs-up sign.

This impression has never gone away even in the moments when I realised I had zero theology and/or I had just been taken apart in one of those silly debates.

Two. You can’t take your stuff with you to heaven.

This came from a skit about a chap with big suitcases and a hotel up a long flight of stairs, the chap plaintively saying, “But what about my stuff?” … You can’t take it with you.

Ironically, perhaps, the children’s workers presented this anti-materialist, anti-consumerist message at what must have been the most materially complex kids’ event even known or conceived in the history of kids’ church: ‘Breakfast on the Beach’, which involved filling the whole of the front space of a 1,600-seat former cinema auditorium with sand and decorating it to look like the Bahamas. I remember singing on the beach, eating a fruit kebab, wiggling my toes in the cool sand and learning that I couldn’t take my stuff with me to heaven; I also remember seeing the trucks, or was it skips, full of sand when they’d got it all out again afterwards, and am now completely blown away by the kids’ ministry team of the time.

But there was no irony really. I think the point was that we were not supposed to cling to worldly goods, treasure them up for ourselves, or sink our identity in them, but that, this being the case, there was no need to hate them or shrink away from them either, since any ‘stuff’ that came to hand could be given away, joyfully, extravagantly, comically. If you had not, you trusted that everything would be OK; if you had, you threw a party for everyone else.

Whether I now live in this spirit of generosity is doubtful. But the anti-consumerism I idealise, even if I don’t achieve it, is more like Breakfast on the Beach than John Lennon’s well-known imagining. Imagine no possessions: fine, but look, suppose I happen to already be in possession of some fruit and some skewers and an electric guitar or two and relevant PA equipment and several tons of sand. Why not lavish it on the one group of people least able to appreciate what it cost us. Why not do something stupid, and see how many baskets full of leftovers there are at the end.

If I am now horribly sceptical about Christian speakers who own a private jet, or offerings talks that suggest that the more you give the more you’ll receive back, it is because my church taught me that I shouldn’t run after all these things, that the kingdom of heaven is marvellous beyond calculation, and that you can’t take your stuff there with you.

Three. Jesus’ love is very wonderful.

That was the reason, I suppose, which has only just occurred to me, for Breakfast on the Beach: the original breakfast on the beach, the disciples meeting this mysterious person who turned out to be the risen Jesus.

Jesus was always imminent and immanent and smiling behind everything good. You were always discovering Jesus, like discovering hidden treasure. Jesus’ love was always surprising. It’s so high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it. You made these shapes of high and low and wide with your body and you knew you could never reach far enough. Oh wonderful love.

Four. Sing.

Sing the action songs in the children’s meetings (oh wonderful love). Sing with the grown-ups with guitars and drums in the art deco cinema aforementioned, with its curious frieze of naked Greco-Roman warriors round the top of the walls. Sing a whole new set of action songs that came in when you were old enough to help in the children’s meetings instead of attending them. Sing and dance and wave a flag. Sing along to cassette tapes, sing along to a portable CD player like the cool people. Learn four chords on the guitar and sing of his love forever (D, Em, G, A, D, Em, G, A…). Sing for at least half of the Sunday morning meeting, even on an average Sunday when nothing unexpected crops up. Shortly after I first learnt to write, my notebook included a composition called ‘Mettings’ which read, ‘At mettings we sing’. Stop, period, и всё, basta. I am supremely grateful to my church for always worshipping, fervently, joyfully, and not because of routine but because of earnest desire. When I complain about song lyrics or volume or the way a worship time is done, it is in large part because my first church trained me to want to praise him with tambourines and dancing (often literally), and whatever gets in the way of that is endlessly frustrating, even if the problem is essentially just me being pig-headed.

Five. Pray without ceasing.

Here I’m remembering a coloured card prayer diary that I made when I was about nine and failed to successfully use on a regular daily basis. I started daily prayer times later; now, of course, like Emo Philips, I pray a simple prayer every morning, an ecumenical prayer that speaks to the heart of every faith and goes, Lord, please break the laws of the universe for my convenience… just kidding. Most mornings I stare vaguely at my Bible feeling sleepy and uninformed, and I have no idea whether my on-and-off-often-more-off-than-on God-directedness during the day really constitutes a Christian walk.

Laziness and distraction are obviously issues. The point, however, is that my church did not teach prayer as a mechanistic ritual for earning God’s pleasure or assuaging conscience. The church modelled prayer as a basic attitude towards life. Whatever you did yourself, you committed to God and placed under his kingship. Whatever you did for anyone else, you did it, entrusting them to his affection. Prayer was of course something you actively did, loudly and quietly, steadfastly and spontaneously, with more tambourines and more dancing: conscious, deliberate prayer was your first reflex, whether things were going right or wrong. But prayer was also the background to everything, as if you wrote your life on prayer-coloured paper.

Six. Pray in tongues.

I’m grateful to Wikipedia for the information that praying in tongues is also called glossolalia, and that it can be described as “the fluid vocalizing of speech-like syllables that lack any readily comprehended meaning, in some cases as part of religious practice in which it is believed to be a divine language unknown to the speaker”. In my church praying in tongues happened all the time, sometimes into the microphone with a follow-up interpretation according to the instructions of the apostle Paul, more often as a sort of personal letting-rip, sometimes in one of those beautiful moments when the whole room is singing those grammarless, lexisless, unplanned, uncrafted, untinkered-with, unhesitating sounds. Possibly it ought to put me off, discovering that there is some Scientific Explanation for all this and it’s a kind of psychological or sociological quirk, widespread amongst world religions. But I’ve thought about this and I just don’t care. I really don’t give a [however you choose to round off this clause]: it’s jolly useful to be able to pray in tongues when you want to pray but all your English sounds weird and stilted or just won’t form itself into prayer at all, and one can always say, following the advice of Mike Pilavachi, if this is gobbledygook, let it be gobbledygook for you, Lord. It’s pretty ace gobbledygook and I’m grateful for it even if that’s all it is – much more grateful than I am to Wikipedia.

Seven. Ask for more.

At some point in the nineties, along came the Toronto Blessing with an awful lot of laughing and crying and sitting around soaking up God’s love. This could be everything from brilliant fun to exceedingly annoying: when a visiting speaker gets up to preach, and then starts laughing, and can’t stop, and keeps laughing, and keeps on until half the church is laughing (the other half probably very perplexed and impatient), and still keeps on laughing and then says “More, Lord!” – well, one listening child thought “No! No more! This was quite enough already…”

Having now grown up, and having tried out all extremes of involvement in and detachment from the laughing and crying and falling over, I still think that God is not a God of disorder but a God of peace, that on the whole preachers should get on with preaching something, and that those people should be honoured and appreciated who are never going to laugh or cry or fall over and may be standing around in that kind of meeting feeling very alienated indeed.

At the same time, I don’t wish to shake off the sense of excitement when you think, wait, there is more than this, there is more to God or more to the truth or more to this person or situation than I realised before. It’s a good thing to never stop learning. It is a great thing to get to know the love that surpasses knowledge, whether you do it by sitting on the floor laughing for hours or in some more Britishly conventional way. I do think it’s good to ask for more.

Eight. When making a cheese and tomato sandwich, it’s best to cut the cheese and tomato in thin slices rather than big chunks.

Yes, I am literally thinking of a 9-11s meeting (the subdivisions of our kids’ groups had excellent names in those days) in which two children’s workers each made a cheese and tomato sandwich, and one of them cut everything neatly and made a nice sandwich, and the other cut everything any old how and made a weird sandwich. The moral of the story, if I remember rightly, was something about following instructions. To the casual observer, perhaps, charismatic Christianity might seem to be all about hyped-up emotion, sensationalism and spontaneous impulses. And yet, backstage, charismatic Christian children’s workers were teaching us to be reasonable and rational, to use common sense and to learn from the experience of those wiser than ourselves. Maybe you felt led to make a cheese sandwich, but you made it according to logic and tradition like a well-equipped and skilful sandwich-maker. Also, because you’d done Prophetic Training, you only made the cheese sandwich if on careful consideration it appeared to be Strengthening Encouraging and Comforting, and if it aligned with what you knew already from studying the Bible, and if, obviously, it did not mention Mates Dates or Babies. Reasonableness, you see. (Spoiler: most actual cheese sandwiches pass these tests.)

Nine. Be careful about showing your bra straps.

OK, OK, I put this one in deliberately to shock and annoy people. Well-adjusted liberal-minded folk tend to get twitchy if you describe how once or twice the youth group would be divided into boys’ and girls’ groups to talk about Relationships and related matters, including the vexed question of, um, dressing modestly. It sounds like a double standard, policing girls’ bodies, teaching them to feel shame, squashing young women beneath the ugly heel of the patriarchy. Well… It wasn’t. Sorry. At least, from my personal point of view as a girl in the youth group at the time, there are a couple of glaring reasons why this was not the case.

For one, in our church it was not possible to take a step in any direction without tripping over a fabulous female role model. Women were praying and preaching and prophesying, women were belting into the microphone, magically keeping the church running smoothly as an organization, caring for people wisely, leading, guiding, speaking, running the soup kitchen and the prison ministry, taking off to do development work in distant corners of the globe, using their creativity and intelligence and strength and confidence and even occasionally hosting stereotypical Ladies’ Days with continental breakfasts for those who enjoyed that kind of thing.

For another, the implicit message the charismatic church constantly gives you about your body is that you are to use it. Or rather, you are free to use it, in whatever way you can or find helpful. Raise your arms, stamp and shout, hop around for joy as gracelessly as you choose, lay your hands on people when you pray for them, lower them gently to the ground if they happen to fall over in the process. Dip your feet in paint and walk around on the map of Britain and then someone will wash your feet. Huddle like penguins if anyone needs to be encouraged or empowered, and if you can’t lay hands on the person in the middle, then lay hands on the person laying hands on them. Dance in the worship time, dance on stage, dance at the back where no-one can see except Jesus, dance in the street, dance in your kitchen at home. Speedily reassure anyone who really isn’t into dancing that the whole dancing thing is not mandatory and that worshipfully sitting on a chair is in no way less valid…

So when the youth leader advises you to dress in such a way as not to cause your brother to stumble, the context is your worth, embodied worth, responsibility and dignity as an equal member of Christ’s body who has important things to be getting on with. It was about respect for yourself and kindness towards others, about being free from the pressure of our peers and the fashion industry to look or act in any particular way. It was one fairly trivial side note in a larger message about growing up with a sense of authority and purpose and freedom from any expectations that society in general might be throwing at us along the way.

Ten. I’d far rather be happy than right any day.

Remember when people started saying that the pearly orbs appearing in digital photos of twilit youth services were actually angels? There was some kind of justification about wheels within wheels… wheel shapes, you know… they did look beautiful, those photos. Half of my small readership are now saying gosh, this church was even weirder than we thought. I hasten to clarify that we didn’t think the digital photo blobs were angels for very long…

I’d far rather be happy than right any day. This is (a) a quotation from Douglas Adams and (b) not entirely accurate. I would always get a kick out of being right; less egotistically, it is obviously important to seek and speak out for the truth. So the question is how and where to draw the line between honest, honourable pursuit of truth on the one hand, and, on the other, a smug, narrow, destructive obsession with currently accepted conventions and jargon. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition; everyone expects the theological thought police if the church culture seems to prioritize being ‘sound’ over being who you are. My church, it seems to me, did not do this: a little bit of muddle (look! angels!) was considered pretty much par for the course and something for the pastoral and teaching team to navigate thoughtfully, prioritising people, making sure above all that they knew they were loved. ‘Truth is a person and his name is Jesus’: truth started off with knowing God, each of us and all together, and one could move on to being right about things as a still important but sort of secondary part of the process of being a church.

Eleven. The Father really loves you.

I may have rather implied this already. But we did keep coming back to it. Did you know that he loves you? He loves you. Oh yes he does. Try it with all the different emphases. He LOVES you. HE loves you. He loves YOU. Helovesyouhelovesyouhelovesyouhelovesyouhelovesyouhelovesyou. He loves you yeah yeah yeah. He loves us oh how he loves us. Oh wonderful love.

Twelve. This is the body of Christ, broken for you.

I would pretty soon be out of my depth if I tried to dive into eucharistic theology or whatever it ought to be called. We were a charismatic evangelical former house church, and we simply called it “breaking bread”, and it was quite low-key and I wouldn’t want to suggest that we did it the only right way. But the way you break bread as a child, I’m sure, stays with you. To me, on an emotional level, it seems terribly important that we did not take a ready-divided bit of bread but actually broke it off ourselves, sometimes after the leader of the meeting had, while reading a relevant Scripture passage, torn the whole loaf in two. You see and feel it. You remember that his body was broken. You remember that it was broken for you. And then the cup of wine is a shared cup, the blood of one man that is life for all. I can’t explain it, but I’m sure I knew it on some level as soon as I was old enough to have the bread, which was somewhat before I was old enough to have the wine.

Thirteen. God loves everybody.

Yeah he does.

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I’m sorry but I’m not going to apologise any more: Or, More things I learned from teaching young learners

Once upon a time, a small group of small students, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and aged 6½ (the ½ very carefully insisted on, with the help of gestures) – once upon a time these students were asked to decorate a project they’d made for the corridor wall. The teacher gave instructions, indicated felt-tip pens, stars, shapes, squiggles, smiley faces. The students were more or less baffled until one said, “Oh, she wants us to draw Happy Things”, and they all piled in: stars, shapes, squiggles, smiley faces, multicoloured felt-tip Happy Things. And then one said, “io disegno il croce di Gesù.”

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“I’m drawing the cross of Jesus”

I’m fond of Trippy Theological Teaching Moments in the Young Learner classroom. Here are some others:

1. when a class of four-year-olds were comparing names, and little Masha, very self-possessed, observed that her name was the best name because it was the name of the Mother of God.

2. when I asked the students why they were speaking Italian during the Hello Circle, and they said they were wondering why Muslims don’t eat pork, whereupon we had a fine discussion about traditions and diversity which was totally irrelevant to the linguistic aims of the lesson.

3. when they said that the last student into the classroom would have to do a forfeit, which was the same word as a penance, and I found this unreasonably irritating and stipulated that in our classroom the first would be last and the last would be first, apparently a Bible verse that they knew already, possibly from Scouts.

4. when the students suggested ‘Do you like Jesus?’ as a discussion question alongside ‘Do you like Easter?’ and ‘Do you like chocolate?’: I can report that eight out of a random sample of eight Italian pre-adolescents liked Jesus.

5. when one student said that although Easter was important to him because of Jesus, really Easter was important to him mostly because of chocolate.

But “io disegno il croce di Gesù” is definitely up there among my favourite Trippy Theological Teaching Moments. Perhaps because she said it with such determination, an eminently logical next step from stars and squiggles. Perhaps because the other children questioned and then cheerfully copied her. Is the cross of Jesus a Happy Thing? they said. Is he happy on the cross, after all? È felice perché salva i cattivi, she said: he is happy because he saves the bad people, a weird reminder to English ears that he saves both the caitiff and the captive, these being the same person etymologically speaking, and that if etymology would stop its ears for a moment one might even suggest that he saves the catty. Perhaps because from his felt-tip chest on the felt-tip cross that big heart booms in the manner of a Looney Tunes character falling in love. Perhaps because the small students were so proud, showing off the project on the wall to their perplexed parents.

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‘What are you wearing?’ was technically the topic.

È felice perché salva i cattivi. But I’ve worked so hard, I thought; I’ve tried so hard not to be cattiva but to be one of the nice people, saying the right thing at the right time, polite, never offensive, apologising constantly, so that after a while people roll their eyes and think oh, she’s apologising again, as who should say, there she goes again crying wolf.

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A wolf crying wolf, perhaps.

Excessive politeness can of course be great fun, a brightener for those banal moments between life’s more meaningful interactions, and perhaps worth introducing as a sport in the next Olympic Games. For example, I recently had a delightful telephone conversation with someone wanting to speak to Rosabella’s mum, in which I tentatively suggested that she might have the wrong number, and she apologised for disturbing me, and I cordially said not at all and I hoped she would get through eventually, which perhaps she didn’t because today someone called wanting to speak to Rosabella’s mum all over again. A little over-apologising can be a thoughtful communication strategy at times. Other times, sadly, the apologies don’t really earn their keep. Here’s another clickbaitlist, “16 apologies I imagine you’d rather not hear”. (One of them will shock you. But only one.)

1. when I apologise as a defensive move in case I’m about to be criticised or corrected.

2. when I apologise because I’m not sure what to say and it seems a convenient filler.

3. when I apologise because I’m embarrassed, but all that’s at stake is my own dignity and you didn’t noticed that anything had happened.

4. when I apologise because I’m trying too hard to be liked.

5. when I apologise because I’d prefer to be 100% perfect and am constantly appalled to discover that I’m not.

6. when I apologise because I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve said so far, and it hasn’t occurred to me instead to ask you a question about your news or thoughts, or to say something nice about your clothing decisions, professional achievements or general excellence, or in some other way to move the conversation forward.

7. when I apologise for nothing in particular because I’m just feeling generally apologetic.

8. when I apologise because I’m fishing for the reassurance of being told it’s fine.

9. when I apologise in a second language for the billionth time using the same words because I don’t know any other way of apologising in that language.

10. when I say “sorry” as a knee-jerk reaction because it’s what you just said.

11. when I apologise when it was nobody’s fault, and nobody really needs to take any blame, or perhaps things didn’t really go very awry in the first place.

12. when I apologise for apologising.

13. when I apologise so much you don’t feel you can really be up-front with me and tell me that I did something wrong because I might be too upset.

14. when I apologise about the thing that wasn’t a problem, and don’t apologise about the thing that was a problem.

15. when I apologise for doing something that you also did, thus making you feel guilty, or that you ought to apologise when really you can’t see the need.

16. when I apologise because it’s become a habit and I’m not sure how to stop, like I’m not sure how to round off this list.

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“If in doubt, stick in a picture of some penguins”, that’s what I say.

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To stick in a picture of a penguin was with me the work of a moment.

Crying wolf: after too many random apologies, one single strongly-felt and important apology could come to seem less valuable just when you really need it to. Or one might completely overlook the opportunity to apologise for real, bogged down in trivial anxieties, unable to see the wood of friendship for the trees of embarrassment. And it would be an opportunity: what is it like, one wonders, when saying sorry is the first step and all the steps after that are positive changes, stronger relationships and more expansive views? What is it like when you get up somewhere, out of the valley, out of the Slough of Over-apology located somewhere near the Slough of Despond, into the hills and the mountains? It’s nice to be told that you didn’t need to say sorry, but what does it feel like to be forgiven, to know that you did do wrong and that it really was lifted away?

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Up. Danny Macaskill on the Inaccessible Pinnacle.

He never came to save the nice people.

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table…

Well, he did come to save the nice people of course—

A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them…

but not with any sense of deference to their orderliness and proper ways of doing things.

Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

È felice perché salva i cattivi: joyously, crazily, chaotically, in bright felt-tip childish scrawls all over the boring universe. Lavishly, like a broken jar of perfume poured out over someone’s feet. She with her jar, he with his life, neither of them were ever going to apologise for fluffing the script of the ordinary patterns of social interaction. They chose what was better. They were impatient in love, like children, who will always get the pen to the paper with immediate action, rather than stopping to question the artistic impulse. They had more important things to be getting on with.

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Bregenz, Martinskapelle. Photo: Andreas Praefcke, via Wikimedia Commons

This is not to deny that one can use the ordinary patterns of social interaction, apologising included, lavishly, lovingly and life-givingly. The question is how to develop a less hesitating, less apologetic, more forgiven, more confident approach, so that from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, even if the mouth is not normally very good at that kind of thing. I once tried giving up apologising for Lent: whether this had any even short-term effect is doubtful, as it’s a tough habit to kick. In theory, the jar of pride and self-doubt once kicked over, thoroughly kicked over and broken, would then pour out pure nard. Which is almost certainly not what another student had in mind when he rewrote Ten Green Bottles:

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8 Lucy were standing on the wall if one falls 7 Lucy will remain

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put the EFL teacher together again. But togetherness in oneself is not much worth having without togetherness with others. One’s own dignity, in the end, is not a Happy Thing. Better to be a little chaotic for the sake of compassion and affection. Better to not say sorry quite so often. Better to operate with a bit more colour, a bit more joy, a bit more freedom. After all, what Italian children apparently call a felt-tip pen is lo spirito.

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Sulla Terrazza, Christmas 2016

A language school seen from outside after dusk presents a vivid arrangement of neatly cut squares. Upstairs windows, downstairs windows, stacked above and alongside each other: Blue Room, Orange Room, Pink Room, corners of classrooms well visible through the glass balcony doors. Students, sitting round a table, ranged in an interested semi-circle, or strolling around the room presumably looking at pieces of paper stuck to the wall. Teachers, recognizable by height or hair or cardigan or characteristically light-footed loping shuffle. All at the same time, in silence, at this distance, and brilliantly lit in the darkness.

I realize it’s an unconventional, even rather creepy way of doing peer observations, watching the school after dark from a terrace on the other side of the street. It’s not something I make a regular practice of. But, chance having ordained that the flat where I live has a terrace strategically positioned for a zip-wire straight into the Kids Room, it would happen that one evening I’d go up for air, stars and to get the washing in and end up looking back at the workplace I’d just come from, thinking that there was something inexplicably beautiful and moving about, um, a bunch of lit classroom windows.

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It looked like this, but less blurry and somewhat less tilted.

I wondered about saying that this might be how God sees the world: all the rooms at the same time, you know, and everyone likes a good punchy paragraph opener. But it seems presumptuous to suggest that there’s anything God-like about me on my terrace getting the washing in, and anyway the point of the glimpses through the windows must be something to do with the fact that one is neither all-seeing nor all-knowing, cannot hear at all or see properly what is happening; good, bad or mediocre, any lesson appears from across the street as a bright, silent, magically, mystically populated quadrilateral.

Maybe one could suppose that this is how Santa Claus experiences the world: not the rather alarming Santa Claus who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, but a lonely, wistful, doubtful sort of Santa Claus, much unattended-to, looking up at the lit windows in great perplexity about how to engage with the complex and difficult world of human beings; a Santa Claus who really does wish a merry Christmas to all and to all a good night, but with a disappointed feeling that the night will be long, dark, and soulful for many;  a Santa Claus unsure how to fix this problem, but compelled by the irresistible idea that an extensive distribution of socks, oranges, board games and glitter-covered items will surely make all humanity feel that everything’s going to be OK.

This Santa Claus heard rumours, before Christmas, that 2016 was widely considered to have been a pretty pants year. He noted on June 24th that many of his elves were displaying a marked tendency to slack their work and have coffee-machine conversations in angry whispers. On November 9th, still more of them began the day with expletives over their computer screens and refused to work at all except with Radiohead playing in the background. During the year, he fielded petitions to the effect that Michael Gove be placed on the Naughty List and Nigel Farage not even be admitted to exist, while other elves worried about the workshop’s carbon footprint, and others expressed concern about presents that might reinforce gender stereotypes, and others debated humanity’s chances of surviving the transition of The Great British Bake Off from the BBC to Channel 4.

But this Santa Claus never got round to establishing a Naughty List, perhaps considering it a cumbersome modern gimmick, and finds it all very confusing, this maelstrom of difficulties that can in no way be solved by the application of anything wrapped in shiny paper and sellotape. Wondering what can be done for all the little teachers in their little lit classrooms, and thinking, not only about the matters of public farce that his enraged elves have reported to him, but the full unknown tangle of everything each little teacher might privately be experiencing by way of grief or joy, anger, hurt and uncertainty, this imaginary Santa Claus feels very uncertain himself, reaches for a consolatory mince pie, and is glad to pop back out of existence, blown away by a breath of wind up the Strait of Messina.

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In daylight.

Maybe the bright classroom windows seem beautiful simply because they are light in the darkness. Or maybe because one knows that a classroom experienced from inside can be horribly noisy, and the eerie silence of a distance view is therefore eerily notable. Or because you forget, when you’re teaching yourself and things are going really rather badly, that on every side there are other teachers calmly plying the same trade, and that your own component part is only a small part of the larger system which is only a language school at the end of the day. Or maybe because those distant silent lessons might be going well, and it still seems possible that ‘going well’ could mean something deeper, richer and more human than that all students are now able to use the present continuous to talk about actions in progress at the present time, crucial as that skill obviously is for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But it’s not really about teaching. It’s something about a shifted perspective, a scene that you normally experience up close, and involving yourself and other human beings, with all the chaos, irritation and hilarity that naturally ensues, now seen at a distance, in silence, so that almost no details can be perceived except the humanity of the human beings. Perhaps a person’s particular idiosyncrasies can be better understood at closer quarters; the perspective from across the street is that each little human person in their little lit room is really quite miraculous by virtue of existing at all. In the whole lofty and intricate space that is the world, or what I can see of it from this corner of the southern Italian coast, there through the classroom windows are however-many ‘very wonderful wholes’, thinking about the present continuous and unaware of how small and how very remarkable they are within the entire frame. The night may be dreary, the road ahead may be uncertain and The Great British Bake Off may be lost to us for ever. Maybe the students were not able, by the end of the lesson, to use present continuous to talk about actions in progress at the present time. Maybe there are no ways forward for the secret troubles each person was carrying that Santa Claus could not guess at. Still, grandly, constantly, and persistently, however unreasonably, all the encircling space, the sky and city and mountains, the quiet night, seems to say to them, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.

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