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That was the (non-binary) year that was

Newsletter: December 2021

Dear web friend

Old year and New year greetings to you as we make our way through this festive jungle of joy and turmoil, rage, tinsel, uncertainty and laughter. It’s very good for me to know you are there, some strange connection in the air, an invisible thread; and I am grateful.

I don’t know how the year’s been for you; and, in a way, I don’t want you to tell me. Because if you did, with all the time constraints, you’d have to dumb it down, select moments to mention, and avoid or ignore others; and this wouldn’t do your year justice at all. It has been such a deep-woven tapestry.

Someone recently said to me, ‘It’s been a terrible year, Simon.’ I took them at their word, and heard their story, but inside, I struggled. I simply don’t believe in ‘bad’ years, it’s all too binary.

I remember when the queen famously referred to 1992 as her annus horribilis. We understood why she said it, picking out events like the fire at Windsor Castle.

But you cannot intelligently speak of a year as good or bad – as I say, it is all too binary. If we declare the year horribilis, we ignorantly trample on all the mirabilis there has been. Each year lived, like Joseph’s coat, is many-coloured. And the queen is hardly alone in her binary assessments; there’s a lot of them about. ‘What an awful year! Won’t be sad to say goodbye to that one!’ Binary perceptions reign.

Real life, however, is not binary but speckled, with the horrible, the ordinary and the wonderful cheek-by-jowel. Here, in each moment, is light, darkness and various shades of grey.

And maybe in the end, all the colours are one. As the contemplative mantra declares, ‘Everything belongs’. We discard nothing, despise nothing and hold every experience with care.

As I ponder my own year in this letter, I’m aware of the headlines which I offer; but know also that they tell only a very small part of the story.

So, it was a year when three writing projects, incubating for a while, all appeared at once, like startled moles into the sunlight. None of them have ripped up any commercial trees. I have never had this knack – the knack of easy engagement; that natural ability to produce books large numbers wish to read. If the zeitgeist were a train, I’d always miss it.

I haven’t found this truth easy. I used to call it failure, and feel the sense of abandonment. But I do less of that now and sit more easily with what is; and where all is quite well. I am able to write, I am able to publish and that is enough. Create and let go; create and let go.

First came Gospel: Rumours of Love – my attempt to bring Jesus to life; both the private and public person. Some incredibly nice things have been said about the book, but whether it’s a step too far (in different directions) for both believers and non-believers alike, I don’t know. One Amazon reviewer said, ‘Beautifully written… it is a thought-provoking and moving novel, which has given me a very new relationship with the man I thought I knew.’

And as the dust settles, I’ll settle for that.

I spoke about the book at the Bendigo Writers Festival. You can catch me here in interview with Meredith Lake.

And if, like some mad impetuous fool, you want a copy of your own...

Then came the musical, All Shall Be Well, telling the story of Julian of Norwich. Music was provided by the wonderfully gifted Martin Hoile, a friend from school and part-time collaborator since. One reviewer said: ‘Words and music incredibly moving. God speaks to Julian directly in her cell.’

It was considered by various production companies – even making it to a desk in the National Theatre – but in the face of fierce, talented, more gifted or more contemporary competition, it never made it over the production finish line. It is out there now for you to listen to, and download, if you wish.

I believe it would make a great show (which is sort-of predictable – I’m as biased as a fox in a fox-hunt debate). But I’m aware it will probably never become one. We create and let go, create and let go.

Oh, and my personal favourite among the songs? So difficult to say; such different moods available, so it depends on the day. But probably, arm-twisted, ‘Tread Quietly’, although ‘You Shall Not Be Overcome’ is very close. Your choice will probably be different.

And then, dear reader, almost as an afterthought, came A Hearse at Midnight, the latest in the lengthening Abbot Peter series. It’s quite dark, but also quite funny and quite good. One reviewer wrote: ‘The Latest Abbot Peter/Tamsin Shah mystery will not disappoint. Intelligent, uncomfortable, gripping.’ It’s why God made long winter nights, apparently. The abbot (whom I love) has a small but devoted bunch of followers (whom I also love) and I’m writing the next one even now. Why? I don’t know; I really don’t. Perhaps I just have to. I’m learning it’s not for money or fame…

In the meantime, I led a five-day Gospel retreat at Sheldon in one very sunny week in the summer. And more recently, was up in London at the Medatio Centre leading a day entitled, Staying Sane in Insane Times. It was recorded on Zoom, so follow the link if you wish to join in. Come and go as you please over a day/month/year.

Most of my life is not public, however, but spent in small rooms with individuals. This year, I’ve known the honour of over 450 sessions - face-to-face/zoom/phone - with brave people longing to come home to their lives. This feels like my real work.

Or maybe my real work is simply enjoying the sky, running every morning, growing sunflowers, raging at Johnson’s lies, watching Succession, reading Pat Barker or Maurice Nicoll with some coffee and chocolate, seeing my children grow and unfold, eating tuna baguettes, laughing a lot or standing still in the dark at the end of the day, in awe of the moon.

Or maybe – and I’m sorry if this is going on a bit – the real work is everything life brings, this speckled glory, given to us so briefly.

My ambition for 2022 is simple: to be an empty cup which can receive. If I can receive, it’s possible I’ll have something to give.

For now, though, I wish you strength for your own incredible journey (no exaggeration), and joy along the way as the new year unfolds… so much joy. And I close, as I started, in gratitude for your kind presence and the invisible thread which joins us.

In all our work, whatever it is, we create and let go, create and let go.

Simon x

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