Seven-thirty on Sunday morning. The sunlight’s soft, and the rasp of the crow on the church tower stirs smaller birds to song. In an hour or so, the chorus will be punctuated by passing cars and the pounding of runners’ feet. It seems a global pandemic has done more than any number of New Year’s resolutions for the urge to get fit, but for now the peace is palpable. I’ve almost forgotten the flash of fury on the wall behind the pub yesterday morning, and I’m some yards past when I turn back. I breathe relief when I see someone has painted it out.
Three days or so ago, the words ‘Feminism is Love’ appeared on the wall. Admittedly, it had already been embellished with ‘b*ll*cks’, in very small letters, by the time I first saw it. Yesterday morning the customary sense of safety I feel in my small corner of the world was ruptured by the words ‘FEMINISM IS MAN-HATING FILTH’. Someone, presumably not hugely fond of women, had gone to the trouble of wholly obliterating the original slogan with white paint, before painting over it in angry black letters.
I’m rattled by the thought that someone who hates me so much lives close enough by to have done this. I’m a woman, and by definition a feminist, since I don’t believe I’m inferior to any man. There are those who will say I shouldn’t take this personally, but how can I do otherwise? Here’s someone going out of his way to spew hatred against people like me, when the original slogan was all about love.
The trees and grasses are taking on autumn colours. The crow, tired of her rasping, has flown in search of breakfast. Two squirrels scatter ahead of me, and the sun through the leaves soothes me as I climb the hill behind the church. I’ve come here of a morning in the past and found the aftermath of parties on the mound, but aside from a red bandanna on the back of the bench, there’s no evidence of human presence today. I gaze out over the city, my adopted home, and wonder how a beautiful world like this came to be such an angry place.
A few weeks ago, I participated in a YouGov survey about people who try to reach safety by crossing the Channel in dinghies. I refuse to use the word ‘migrants’, because these are people like me, and there but for fortune. I was horrified to read a week or so later that 49% of respondents to this survey had been wholly negative about vulnerable people fleeing for their lives. I think I may have mentioned before that I understand the world less, the older I grow.
One of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had took place a few years ago. I briefly belonged to a church that bordered on a cult, from which I’m almost proud to say I was expelled for refusing to toe the line. An older woman confided that she’d agonised for months over her children, who couldn’t swallow the dogma of the cult, and were thus summarily excluded from her version of heaven. She’d come to terms with it, she said, but it wasn’t easy. Not easy? Is it even possible to come to terms with the idea that your children are going to hell on a point of doctrine? The hell these people believe in isn’t a pretty place.
I’m delighted to find a bee on some late knapweed flowers. It’s hard to hold hate when there’s so much beauty in the world, yet for some people expressions of love or beauty seem only to enhance their bitterness. How do we speak about a God who loves the world, then delight in the idea that we have some kind of exclusive right to this love? How do people come to celebrate the thought that everyone else, even those they claim to care about, is on a highway to a place of extreme pain?
It occurs to me that we’re haunted by the idea of scarcity. In the words of a long-forgotten song, ‘there’s not enough love to go round’, or indeed enough of anything. The squirrels on the path are already hoarding nuts for a winter of scarce supply. It’s instinct that drives them to behave this way, and without it they’d likely starve. In the dark days when survival was perilous, we too were driven by instinct. We ate as much as we could when the food was there, because we couldn’t be sure where the next meal was coming from. We learned to hoard and fight and fear, and those instincts will rule us still, if we let them. Witness the billionaires, sitting like smoking dragons on resources they’ll never need. More than half us adults in the western world are overweight, to the detriment of our own health. For us, food is no longer scarce, but we continue to act as if it were. Then, when a global pandemic happens along, we fight to hoard toilet rolls as though our lives depend upon it.
Oddly, the experience of belonging to a cult didn’t poison me against the God it claimed to worship. I’ve always loved stories. My mother read to me as I sat in the pram in the kitchen of our first home. Milly Molly Mandy I remember to this day. Later, my father could often be persuaded to tell me stories at bedtime. His were moral tales or parables, so perhaps that’s why I’ve loved the stories Jesus told for as long as I can remember. I’m capturing the brief light on the teasels through the railway fence with the camera, when one of my favourites comes back to me.
Jesus told the kind of stories you can revisit time and again, and always find something new. This one’s about a man who owed a ridiculously large amount of money to a king. He couldn’t have paid it back in a million years, so he fully expected to be thrown into jail, in accordance with the custom of the time. Instead, the king chose to forgive him the entire debt – not simply to give him more time to pay, but to wipe the slate clean. As the man walked free, he bumped into a mate who owed him a couple of quid. You might think he’d have been so thankful he’d spread the love, and let his friend off too. Not a bit of it. He seized him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
Until now, I’d seen the man as one who simply couldn’t get his head around forgiveness. Today, however, it seems more about scarcity. This man truly believes there’s not enough love to go round. He needs to hoard against the day when the king changes his mind, and it all comes crashing down. His sense of scarcity makes him fear the man less fortunate. What if the king decides to give it all to him instead?
The members of any cult live in fear that their god might run out of love for them. The respondents to that YouGov survey are terrified the children who survive those perilous voyages will take their jobs or homes. The man with the paint bucket is afraid to give women respect, lest it diminish his own self esteem, and the man in Jesus’ story thinks the king’s generosity is so scarce he needs to hang onto every morsel for himself (spoiler alert – it doesn’t end well for him). And of course, we’re all of us frightened by our own mortality, the more so in this time of coronavirus, so maybe it’s small surprise we sometimes find ourselves at each other’s throats.
The sun climbs, and I find myself thinking of coffee. The pathway’s narrow, and in these strange days I’ve become vigilant, so the woman in running gear doesn’t see me standing back in the gateway until she’s passed. Nonetheless, she stops to thank me, and we marvel together at the morning light. Are you a photographer, she asks, and I think perhaps I am most of the time, but the world’s generous, so I can well afford a morning off. I come home to coffee and a fresh sense of peace.