An Old Woman – a poem by Arun Kolatkar

An old woman grabs
hold of your sleeve
and tags along.

She wants a fifty paise coin.
She says she will take you
to the horseshoe shrine.

You’ve seen it already.
She hobbles along anyway
and tightens her grip on your shirt.

She won’t let you go.
You know how old women are.
They stick to you like a burr.

You turn around and face her
with an air of finality.
You want to end the farce.

When you hear her say,
‘What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?’

You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.

And as you look on
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.

And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls

With a plateglass clatter
around the shatterproof crone
who stands alone.

And you are reduced
to such much small change
in her hand.

Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004)

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Arun Kolatkar was a poet from Maharashtra in India. He was a prolific poet writing in both Marathi and English. He was also an award winning designer. He won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for his collection of poems, Jejuri, published in 1976.

This poem describes a fairly typical experience. The reader stands in the shoes of someone accosted in the street by a beggar desperate for money for something to eat. The reader knows what it’s like, to be stuck to “like a burr”. What we often forget, because we want to look past them as if they weren’t there, is that, for the desperate too, it’s part of their everyday, to latch on to others in the hope of charity. The tendency for the accosted is to shake off the attention. The norm for the beggar is to be shaken off.

But, in this poem, there is a notable turn towards compassion. The speaker looks “clear through the bullet holes she has for her eyes”. “You” look through and past her, but as you do so what you look at begins to shatter, and it’s only the “shatterproof crone who stands alone”. Is it then that the bullet hole eyes take on their significance? Is it at this point you recognise her wounds, the battles she may have fought and lost? Is it at this point that you realise what has become of her, and what has become of you in the hands of poverty – that “you are reduced to so much small change in her hand”?

There is such pathos in that last line. There is such small change in small change for a life that should be demanding huge change.

Broken: stunning, timely and beautiful BBC drama

For “Broken” read “broke”.
For “Broken” read “society terribly broken”.
For “Broken” read “heartbreaking”.
For “Broken” read “compassion”.

Broken is a six part drama by Jimmy McGovern set in the north of England (filmed in Liverpool). It is Daniel Blake-bleak. You can watch it on BBC iPlayer.

There are many great performances. Sean Bean makes an excellent priest (playing Father Michael Kerrigan) and Anna Friel plays the part of a single mother well past the end of her tether. They do “broken” very well.

We only get hints about the reasons for Father Michael’s brokenness. He has been shamed and shaming and he is willing to break himself for the rest of his life. We see his brokenness mending as he seeks to make amends for his past, and we see the brokenness around him mending through his offering.

The parish could be any urban area in northern England. It is poverty stricken. The people walk, they don’t drive. The shops are closed. The only shops left open are the betting shops – their gaming machines having bled the community dry reducing people to dire debt and desperation.

Sam Wollaston, in his review for the Guardian, is right when he says: “This is a portrait of poverty in forgotten Britain, minimum pay and zero hours, crisis, debt and desperation.”

This is where people live and where they stay. Father Michael also sounds like a man who isn’t going anywhere. He has a strong regional accent. He sounds as if he comes from somewhere. It isn’t surprising that the priest and people love one another dearly. They might be from different places, but they both belong somewhere – as opposed to the urban metropolitans who could belong anywhere and often can’t be trusted because of that. (See note below about the Anywhere and Somewhere tribes.)

Father Michael is the person people turn to – they rely on him. They trust him above all others. But he is not the “heroic leader”. He is wounded himself, shamed and vulnerable, hoping for heaven. He is unassuming, self-effacing. He knows “it’s easy to forget Christ’s here, giving us strength, easing our pain,” and so he lights a candle as he invites people to open the heart of their troubles.

I could be critical. It is very clerical. But is that liberalism speaking? Is that the criticism of a metropolitan who could belong anywhere. There is no criticism from the people who are THERE, broken. He can be trusted. He is there. He is on their side utterly. They need someone to be on their side. The institutions they should be able to rely on repeatedly let them down. They need his ministry.

Christina played by Anna Friel is desperately poor. Just when we think she can go no lower her mother with whom she lives (and who helps share the living costs) dies. She pretends that she is still alive so she can claim her mother’s next pension payment. She’s arrested. Father Michael goes to court as her character witness. He calls her “this wonderful woman” who does everything for her children. I have no doubt that anybody would ever have called her “wonderful” before, but there was evident integrity in Father Michael’s statement. He uncovered the truth through his love and practical wisdom.

There is a moving scene n the confessional. A woman confesses that she is going to kill herself because she has stolen a vast amount from her employer (to feed her gambling addition). She recognises Father Michael’s vulnerability and witnesses his own confession.

We need more drama like this. We need to know more about people like Christina. We need to understand how wonderful they are. We need her to have more of a say in our national life. We need more priests like Sean Bean. We need more people to know they are “wonderful”. We need as much as ever to find our way through brokenness, and we need our Prime Ministers to learn from the witness of the faithful ministers in our broken communities.

I wonder how many priests, having watched this, will be left wondering how far they have moved from their calling – going somewhere else. And I wonder how many will be left wondering whether they are called to be priests – at any rate, whether they are good enough to be a friend broken for others somewhere just like that.

NOTE: David Goodhart in The Road to Somewhere: the populist revolt and the future of politics (2017) claims that there are two tribes, the Anywheres and the Somewheres. The Anywheres are light in their attachments “to larger group identities, including national ones; they value autonomy and self-realisation before stability, community and tradition”.  The Somewheres are grounded in place, uneasy with the modern world, experiencing change as loss. Goodhart used this theory to explain Brexit decision.

Russell Brand tastes revolution in the Watford Gap

Russell Brand is always worth listening to. He is passionate and outraged. He is intelligent, and, he admits to being “fucked up and naive”. He gave voice to his outrage in an interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. Simon Kelner described the scene in the Independant. “On one side was a rather effete figure with an unruly beard who found it hard to take anything seriously, and on the other side was Russell Brand.”

Since then Russell Brand has been reflecting on developments since that interview. They are published in today’s Guardian. He is passionate about change and connects with the new movements such as Occupy. He writes of his commitment:

Well I am naïve and I have fucked up but I tell you something else. I believe in change. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty because my hands are dirty already. I don’t mind giving my life to this because I’m only alive because of the compassion and love of others. Men and women strong enough to defy this system and live according to higher laws.

He has seen the Apocalypse:

The less privileged among us are already living in the apocalypse, the thousands of street sleepers in our country, the refugees and the exploited underclass across our planet daily confront what we would regard as the end of the world. No money, no home, no friends, no support, no hand of friendship reaching out, just acculturated and inculcated condemnation.

and he has glimpsed the revolution at the Watford Gap:

One night late at the Watford Gap I got chatting to a couple of squaddies, one Para, one Marine, we talked a bit about family and politics, I invited them to a show. Then we were joined by three Muslim women, all hijabbed up. For a few perfect minutes in the strip lit inertia of this place, that was nowhere in particular but uniquely Britain, I felt how plausible and beautiful The Revolution could be. We just chatted.

Giving hope and changing lives

“This task [of giving hope and changing lives] moves beyond what the city council or national government can do, not least when budgets are being reduced drastically. It will require the combined energy, resources and wisdom of everyone to address some of the fundamental economic and social issues we face, and to protect those who are most vulnerable in our communities.

“I am aware that I am taking a leap of faith that we want to promote another’s fulfilment at the same time as our own. As we seek the welfare of the whole city, may we know that we are committed to Giving Hope and Changing Lives when, in our relations with our fellow human beings, distant respect moves to deep appreciation and mere tolerance becomes full participation.”

David Urqhuart, Bishop of Birmingham, writing in the report Giving Hope Changing Lives on the future development of Birmingham, as reported in the Chamberlain Files. Jenny Gillies brought this to my attention in a tweet @revjennyg.

Changing the order of things

It is a privilege to be supporting newly ordained ministers: a group of people in short-term posts on their way to taking on posts of greater responsibility. They are a people in transition who manage remarkably well to avoid being anxious about what might or might not happen to them. They are going through the appointment process, which is also, of course, often a disappointment process. The process of appointment and disappointment is a confusing one. There is not always an apparent justice.

I have always been intrigued by the element of surprise in (dis)appointments and the more exciting appointments I have been involved with have had an element of surprise. Ruth was overwhelmingly surprised when she was appointed churchwarden. Jack was surprised when he wasn’t, though to his credit, he came to terms with his disappointment with great grace.

Ordinarily, there should be justice in appointments, and succession planning should follow well understood procedures. But there needs to be processes of disruption. I have been reading the story of Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s two sons Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 48). They were born in that order and should, by rights, have been blessed in that order. Jacob himself “stole” his father’s blessing from his older twin Esau. Of Jacob’s twelve sons, Joseph was the last in line, inspiring murderous resentment amongst his brothers. (The stained glass pictured above shows Joseph’s blessing). Disappointments abound in the Bible. The choice of David by the prophet Samuel was a surprise to David’s father. David was not the first-born, but the last-born – and still so young. Each of his older brothers was presented to Samuel. Each was dis-appointed as Samuel turned the line of succession on its head (1 Samuel 16:1-13).

The New Testament takes up the theme. Everything is in the wrong order. Even the birth of Jesus is in the wrong place. The wise ones went for Jerusalem and finished up nine miles wide of the mark. (Matthew 2). Jesus, himself set the cat among the pigeons by describing the disappointment process. He said “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16) before being challenged by the Mum who claimed her two sons had the right to the best seats in the house (Matthew 20:20-24).

All these stories are a reminder that there has to be room for manoeuvre and that there have to be processes of disruption. Prayer before appointments is an invitation for the Holy Spirit to confirm or disrupt the natural order of things. Sometimes the order of things has to change if things are going to change. The story of Manasseh and Ephraim, (or is it Ephraim and Manasseh?) is a reminder of that. It represents the hope of a new order, in which those whose appointment comes as a surprise live for the sake of others and not for themselves. That is why the order is changed.

A new order is one in which all those who come last in things come first – a great disappointing for some.

The stained glass is by Maria Stolz of Renaissance Glassworks Howard Lake, MN 55349

Here is another post on the theme of disappointment and leadership.

Lessons on leadership from nature

“There is a simpler, finer way to organize human endeavor. I have declared this for many years and seen it to be true in many places. This simpler way is demonstrated to us in daily life, not the life we see on the news with its unending stories of human grief and horror, but what we feel when we experience a sense of life’s deep harmony, beauty, and power, of how we feel when we see people helping each other, when we feel creative, when we know we’re making a difference, when life feels purposeful.”
“Over many years of work all over the world, I’ve learned that if we organize in the same way that the rest of life does, we develop the skills we need: we become resilient, adaptive, aware, and creative. We enjoy working together. And life’s processes work everywhere, no matter the culture, group, or person, because these are basic dynamics shared by all living beings.”
“Western cultural views of how best to organize and lead (now the methods most used in the world) are contrary to what life teaches. Leaders use control and imposition rather than participative, self-organizing processes. They react to uncertainty and chaos by tightening already feeble controls, rather than engaging people’s best capacities to learn and adapt. In doing so, they only create more chaos. Leaders incite primitive emotions of fear, scarcity, and self-interest to get people to do their work, rather than the more noble human traits of cooperation, caring, and generosity. This has led to this difficult time, when nothing seems to work as we want it to, when too many of us feel frustrated, disengaged, and anxious.”
“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”
“To resolve most dysfunctional situations, the first thing to do is flood them with information.”