Age

Some of you quick witted readers will have noticed that I’m not a spring chicken any longer. If you hadn’t, then me using the term “spring chicken” should give it away. I’m not as old as I thought I was though. For the first three months of this year I was convinced I was a year older than I am. I put it down to the lockdown; some of you may think it’s just another indication of my slow decline.

I first became old at the age of 26 when I started youth work. Young people viewed me as decrepit even though I was only a decade older than some of them. Oddly, I don’t think I’ve aged in their eyes since, I’m just old, and when I tell them I was Yoda’s babysitter they believe me.

I don’t feel old, apart from the odd twinge, and I sometimes wonder who the guy in the mirror is and who did that to him (it was the Church, by the way, but, again, that’s for another post). I think it’s other people who decide how old you are and whether you’re welcome or not. In most contexts, I’m invisible to those in their 20s, and I’m treated with suspicion by my peers because I haven’t given in to stretchy pants. Yet.

Of course, there are savage reminders.

We ordered a takeaway. We like takeaways; they’re bad for us but oh so good. We often order so much that the restaurants give us, not the usual two, but four fortune cookies. I’m convinced they think we’re a very large family. We’re not. There are two of us.

Any way, the delivery guy showed up, panting under the weight of our dinner, and I duly gave him money (that’s how it works). It was more than the cost of the meal.

I said,

“keep the change”.

And he said,

“Thanks Pops.”

Pops. Didn’t see that coming.

I never imagined that anyone would call me that. Not ever. So it really tickled me and I started laughing and he went on his way probably thinking “poor old guy, he’s completely lost it.” I told my lovely wife. She was particularly delighted (did I say she was lovely?).

So, I guess, I’m officially old. But it doesn’t matter because I don’t measure my years against a life time, I measure them against eternity, and a promise of much, much more.

And the takeaway was delicious.

Origin Story

Every superhero has an origin story and although I’m not a superhero (and neither is Batman but that’s for another post) I feel it’s time to share how I became youintheblue. I’ve had a few online identities that reflected the kinds of work I wanted to present but I came to the conclusion that everything I do should be in the same place regardless of whether others considered it spiritual or secular (or nonsense).

I filled a couple of pages with names I liked and tested them out to see if they were available. Most of the ones I liked were already taken; basically anything using a colour, a mustelid or any kind of monkey was used by someone else – which oddly restored my faith in humanity.

It was around this time that my best mate came for a visit. He’s from California where he works in youth theatre and visits local schools as a storyteller. He’s a brilliant communicator, writer and creative. Obviously, I asked him to tell one of his stories – The Man with Two Hands – to the children at a school I was working with at the time. He agreed.

It’s important to say at this point that students at regular schools in California don’t wear uniforms (I’ll supress the rant about uniforms and conformity for another time) so my friend was quite surprised to find around 200 children, all dressed in blue uniforms, staring up at him as he took to the stage.

The story went down a storm, the children loved it, the staff loved it, so there was time for a bit of Q&A. Each time a hand shot up to ask a question, my friend would say, “yes, you in the blue”. The children never quite got why the staff were laughing but it was a great moment which led to me taking on the identity – youintheblue.

Poetry & Jazz

I often say that I don’t like poetry or Jazz but that’s not what I mean. There are a few poets I like (mostly Northern, mostly edgy) and a fair few Jazz tracks I enjoy (mostly when I don’t know it’s Jazz). What I’m lacking is a map and a guide. Both art forms are so vast and varied that I don’t even know where to start; like being in a field of a million different wildflowers and told to choose my favourite by name.

I’m quite eclectic in my music tastes, thanks to friends, Spotify and BBC Radio 6 Music. It helps that I’ve cast off the tribal shackles of my youth where the only acceptable sounds came from, for me, a narrow canon of rock and metal (I did have a secret stash of Kate Bush albums, obviously) . I also ignore charts, trends, critics and being cool in general. This frees me to listen to French cafĂ© music or Motown or film scores or Delta Blues or whatever.

In terms of poetry, school went out of its way to put me off any form of verse or arrangement of words (except rude limericks, of course). I learned to hate poetry with a passion and when asked to write a poem for homework, all those years ago, I handed in the lyrics to War Pigs by Black Sabbath (I, or should I say Ozzy, got 8 out 10). Oddly, though, I’ve written my own poetry since I was 18 years old.

I think we all need a map and a guide when we encounter art (or faith for that matter). Otherwise we end up being surrounded by stuff we don’t even like. There’s so much art and music out there why waste time on that which doesn’t inspire us or challenge us or make us light up. So, if you want suggest some good poetry and Jazz, I’m open to your guidance.

Everything is Connected

I love making lists. I have notebooks full of them. I start most of my list items with an asterisk. So much so, I’ve adopted the asterisk as one of my symbols (I have 31 which form my totem but that’s for another post). Each item also has a box at the end and I delight in colouring that box in when I’ve completed the task. I’ll even write a list item that I’ve already done just so I can colour in the box.

Lists help me to organise my world and also give me an illusion of control that I’m happy to buy into. However they also create a world where everything is definable and orderly and categorised which, if you’ve actually lived any life, is not the case. I like my lists but art and faith have both taught me that life is more about wonder and chaos and mystery.

In the early days of my faith it was important that I had the right theological answer for every question. In my creative life, poetry went in one place, stories in another, and illustrations in another; each had a different value. As I, hopefully, grow and expand as a person (and not just from beer and pizza) I’ve learned that, actually, everything is connected. There is no spiritual and secular; they’re the same thing. There is no higher form of art and lesser form of art; they’re all the same thing.

So, for me, everything is sacred (because I am a spiritual being) and every act of creativity is art (because I’m a mini Creator) and everything is connected. Faith informs art, art expresses faith, both reflect the person.

Obviously, I’ll still be making lists. Lots of lists.

The Tree of Life (a story)

The tree of life had always been there, swaying in the summer breeze, bathing in sweet rain, exulting in warm sunshine. It was not discovered for it had always been. It was not defined because it was complete in itself. It had no name because it needed none. It had no end because it had no beginning.

The first people enjoyed the tree; they gazed upon it, sheltered under it, created things inspired by it. They laughed, sighed, danced and sang under its magnificence. They celebrated each other in the dappled shade of its leaves. They were content.

The second people guarded the tree and built a wall around it – a beautiful wall, but a wall nonetheless. They created rules concerning who could see the tree and when. They decided on appropriate garments and gestures and tone to be used when visiting the tree. They selected the worthy and held the unworthy at bay.

The third people made weapons and called for the worthy to defend the tree and to destroy the unworthy. They soaked the land in blood and ruled by fear, and by guilt, and by violence. The tree of life shrivelled and died but the people fought on, eager to maintain the wall, and the rules, and the worthy.

In time, the tree of life sprang up again in the most unexpected of places. Once again it comforted those who sat and gazed. It sheltered those who created, laughed, sighed, danced and sang under its wonderful branches; and they were content.

Flow

I have a fascination with how thing flow. Water, electricity, information, trains, planes and automobiles. I like to imagine all these things weaving around each other but rarely inhabiting the same space. The arteries and veins of the city. One day I’ll create a piece of art on the theme of flow.

I’m also fascinated by the flow of ideas. Where they come from, how we find them, how we grow them. There are lots of books on the subject and I’ve read quite a few of them but it’s still a mystery to me. Some days they fall out of my head and land all over the place, I can’t move for them, I pick one up and then see another shinier one – you know how it goes. Other times they hide in the shadows, glue themselves into the recesses of my mind, and there’s no winkling them out.

My faith is a little bit like that. Sometimes it’s like God is sat next to me, smiling as I draw or write, content to just be. Other times, and I confess most times, God feels more like the butterfly of an idea I can’t quite grasp or the lingering aroma of a delicious meal I just missed. I guess that’s why it’s called faith and not surety.

So creativity, ideas, faith, all rely on patience, humility and honesty as we seek something bigger than ourselves; as we seek to discover the flow.

I can’t draw

I used to run an Art department in a big youth zone. We had a great team of artists, musicians and actors who would deliver fantastic art workshops night after night. At some of the sessions I would work alongside the visual artists and teach young people how to draw cartoons. I got to know some of them really well but the first thing any of them would say was, “I can’t draw”.

I can’t draw. You’re probably thinking the same and, if I could, I’d give you a pencil and tell you to make a mark. If you can make a mark you can draw. If you practice you’ll get better at drawing. So, maybe you can’t draw well… yet.

I remember one young man who would come over to the art area and doodle these brilliant little characters while we discussed films, music, and games. We also had some fascinating discussions about science and faith. I would compliment his drawing, give him a few tips and ask him if he might be interested in making them into a comic. He would tell me that his drawings were rubbish.

I made a badge from his drawing and put it on my lanyard. The next time I saw him I pointed to the badge, smiled and nodded. He smiled and shook his head. We would then sit down to talk and draw.

I put his drawings in the gallery and collected them into a folder with his name on. I would point to the badge, smile and nod. He would smile and shake his head.

After a while, some of the other young people began to compliment his artwork. I would point to the badge, smile and nod. He would smile and shake his head.

I was as relentless and annoying as only someone who cares can be.

It finally happened. I saw him approaching the art area. I pointed to the badge, smiled and nodded – he smiled and nodded back. That has to be one of the best moments of my time in youth work. With that nod he acknowledged what every one else knew – he was good enough.

As young people do, he got older and left the youth zone and time passed. When I moved on from my job one of my colleagues smiled and gave me an envelope. It was a hand made card with a thoughtful message and covered in his characters. They were, as you already know, brilliant.

Of course I kept the badge

Technical Ecstasy

Music wasn’t a part of my upbringing but it started to seep into my soul without me knowing. We had a record player, orange with a clear lid, and about a dozen vinyl records that were seldom played. It lived in the living room which was a bit of a no go area for me so I never touched it. I sometimes looked at the record sleeves – The Planets by Holst, Westside story – but I couldn’t penetrate deeper than that.

I spent most of my time outside, roaming the estate, getting up to mischief, trying to manoeuvre the brutal teenage politics, but I began to hear talk of bands and new singles; of the Top 10, and Top of the Pops. Friends with tape recorders would sit on the curb and play stolen tracks from the radio and the rest of us would gather round and listen, nodding to the beat.

My best mate liked Showaddywaddy so I liked Showaddywaddy. He learned the lyrics so I learned the lyrics. He bought blue suede shoes but I couldn’t afford them (probably a blessing).

At around 15 years old I was hiding in the cloakrooms during lunch at school with some other kids (it was cold) and one of them pulled a tape recorder out of his blue plastic Adidas bag and pressed play. It was like someone had turned a light on in a dark room, as if colour had just entered the world. The music was hard and heavy, full of energy, and it lit up my world.

The album was Technical Ecstasy by Black Sabbath and it’s not an exaggeration to say it changed my life. From that day I became an explorer looking for sounds that would make me feel like that again. At first it was pilfered snippets that managed to get aired alongside the mediocre; then late nights listening to Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show; and finally when I was 16 , and started work, I bought my own record player and spent glorious hours searching through the boxes of vinyl at a scruffy record shop in the next town.

That love, that search, is still in me.

I’m listening to Technical Ecstasy as I write this – 40 plus years older but definitely not 40 plus years wiser – and it still lights me up. I’ve wandered into so many genres and styles, often because of friends, and I still haven’t scratched the surface.

Which is a long winded way of saying this – Art lights people up.

Somewhere out their is a track, a photo, a dance, a sculpture, a whatever, waiting to pounce, to wrap itself around our self, and wanting to remind us of what it means to be a human being; to be our higher selves.

Faith & Art

To me faith and art are the same thing but I need to qualify something first; by using the word art what I really mean is creativity. I’m not talking about the buying and selling of work by professional artists and dealers, more about the creative spark inherent in everyone.

God is Creator. To create is to imitate God like a child presenting a simple image to a parent who delights in it. The child sees something wonderful with their eyes, or their imagination, and seeks to capture it. They want to share it with those they love.

Faith and Art operate in the same realm – the imperfect exploration of the unknowable. Skill is useful but can also get in the way. Vulnerability is better. Each lead to, or embody, hope; each involve struggle and failure and disappointment and hurt; each bring joy and fulfilment and a sense of being. They both comment on who we are and highlight varyious parts of our journey – both the darkness and the light.

Faith and Art can be used to control or mock or belittle or they can be used to lift and lighten and affirm – we have the choice – but hopefully they should ease the journey of others and leave the world a better place.

Faith and Art are the same thing -they lead to paths unexplored; to mystery unsolved; to destinations undreamed of.


Slogan

One of my favourite authors is Douglas Coupland. He’s one of those people who seems to know what’s going on. His books are so in tune with The Now, whilst at the same time being so visionary, that I have an “Oh, yeah” moment about every 20 pages of everything he’s written. Visit his website, he’s great… https://coupland.com/

He’s also a visual artist/designer. One of his exhibitions from a decade ago, featuring various slogans has taken on a new life during this Lock Down period. The Guardian did a great piece about it so I’m not going to pretend I have any insight… https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/29/i-miss-my-pre-internet-brain-slogans-coronavirus-douglas-coupland

What I did notice recently, however, was a slogan that seems to be creeping into every advert, commentary and soundbite. It fascinates me, so in homage to Douglas Coupland, I’ve created my own version of his slogan work.

Whether it’s cleaning products or insurance or financial help or groceries, this little slogan keeps appearing – Now, more than ever.

I normally let these little slogans flow over me but this one has stuck (much to the copywriter’s delight I should imagine) and I don’t know why. Is it because I feel they’re using my fear to sell me things? Is it that I want to feel like they care? Or Is it that they’ve hit on a great truth that now is the moment to make that change, do that thing, be that person we know we can be?

Answers on a postcard.