Six Months In.

I lie in bed, my face leaking, my cough verging on the Dickensian, and a fever providing a grimly welcome protective glow in this brutal, NEVER ENDING New England winter, I decide that this is a great time to acknowledge passing the six-month mark.

So here it is: I’ve been doing the being-in-America, Yale-Divinity-School thing for over 6 months now, and, with each passing day, I am finding it increasingly difficult to believe that it still isn’t Spring Break. 

On the other hand, there have been lovely things this semester. I haven’t spent all of it (or even most of it) feeling like I have all the structural integrity of a wet paper bag.Today I helped a group of children plant seeds/rub water and soil into their t-shirts/hair/faces, some for the first time.

There was also that rare moment when I looked at the snow falling under lamplight and didn’t feel hollow hatred about the fact that it’s so cold I recently burnt my face – in fact, I almost felt awe.

Last week I talked about Dante with a group of incarcerated men and thought that maybe all this studying might be worth something after all. I’ve eaten a lot of burritos. I’ve received/given schnuggles. I’ve heard my mouth keep talking even when my brain was no longer paying attention. I’ve played Beer Pong against ex-frat boys and almost won. I’ve tweeted thousands of characters, catalogued/shelved/sorted hundreds of books, emptied tens of compost bins. I’ve watched A LOT of The (U.S.) Office. I’ve watched my first ever Super Bowl. I’ve been to ice hockey games.

I have tried being vegetarian.

My prayers remain arbitrary, nonsensical, distracted. I’ve tried giving up saying “I’m busy” for Lent, and have realised that I’ve simply replaced it with whining about the weather instead/brag-plaining about how many pairs of socks I’m wearing (have you seen how cold it is? It’s SO cold. I think my pores have frozen shut). I have been anxious, tired, excitable, angry, happy. I have regretted hours wasted, and have wished I spent more time doing nothing. I have written bad blog post drafts, and deleted most of them. In fact, as I write this, I’m wondering whether I should delete this one, too. But then I haven’t posted in a while, and I’m sick/feverish enough to believe that this is passable. I’ll probably regret it tomorrow.

Six months in, friends. *winces* *gulps tea*

My First Thanksgiving (ish)

Technically, my first first Thanksgiving was age 5 in St Louis, Missouri. My only memories of this event, however, are eating more than my fair share of Pumpkin Pie and the smiles of the lovely neighbours who fed it to me (Thanks Pat and John) so we’ll treat this as my ‘first’ one. I didn’t eat any Pumpkin Pie this year. But I did wash my hands with ‘Pumpkin Spice Scented Hand Soap’ several times. If that doesn’t demonstrate the incredible power of the Pumpkin Spice meme and its plan for world domination, I don’t know what will. And I spent two days wanting to eat my own fingers.

I went to Long Island for Thanksgiving, which meant that I got to experience a key Thanksgiving tradition – combining bad weather, bad traffic, and stressed drivers gritting their teeth for a long weekend with the family. (Has anyone else noticed that the most travel heavy holidays of the year are timed to match the worst travel weather? Someone, somewhere must have written a conspiracy theory about this. Prize for whoever finds it first.) Fortunately for me, I both a) can’t drive and b) have managed to befriend generous people who can, so I pretty much snoozed my way there and back. Yes, I am that terrible human who says “yay, roadtrip!” and then promptly falls asleep.

We got there alive, thanks to Brian Barry, and then we were greeted by warmth, sofas and dogs, thanks to Brian Barry’s mother. We ordered New York pizza (after clarifying that, in the opinion of REAL Noo Yawkers, Domino’s may as well be the anti-Christ), we played Cards Against Humanity, and we lay down for a long time, letting the combined pizza sweats and the my-brain-is-a-dark-and-horrible-place guilt merge in a warm holiday glow.

Then, sleep. Then, a Thanksgiving morning spent watching other people make me an enormous lunch (seriously. The Barry’s are so nice. SO. NICE. ) while I drank Sangria and pretended that I don’t care when I lose card games.

The most important revelation of the day: Thanksgiving is basically just a food rehearsal for Christmas. America, you’ve nailed it. We de-baconed a gloriously, offensively large turkey, and I learnt about American ‘biscuits’:

DEBACONING THE TURKEY.

DEBACONING THE TURKEY.

American Biscuit

American ‘Biscuit’ – kind of like the beautiful love child of flaky pastry and a scone.

This might as well have been Christmas dinner – eating a meat I don’t eat any other time of year, watching it try to snow outside, and making little gravy, cranberry sauce and mashed potato volcanoes on my plate. Before complaining that I ate too much. The only things missing were bread sauce and mince pies, and wrestling over the crispiest roast potato.

Then more lying down. And hours of watching Thanksgiving football, while other Americans began their ‘Black Friday’ at 4pm on Thursday afternoon – what better way to say ‘thanks for all the stuff I have’ than sucker punching strangers trying to grab the same new stuff as you? (For my theology-hat perspective on this, I wrote an article called ‘How Not To Give Thanks’. You can read it here.)

So we watched the Black Friday ads.

And then, on Friday, we watched the Christmas ads. Over several hours of staring numbly at the screen, I only saw one advert with no reference to Christmas in it whatsoever. Is it too soon to be done with Christmas? I’m done with whatever hideous caricature of Christmas the TV offered me, anyway. Can we skip it this year and just do the carols bit? I had my Christmas lunch on Thursday…

(P.S. A HUGE thank you to the Barry’s for letting me lie about on their furniture, eat their food and make random, often unsubstantiated observations about the declining state of western civilization for two and half days. You are wonderful.)

Happy Two Month Anniversary To Me

The more time I spend here, the more I like Americans. This post is going to ooze with positivity, justice and liberty for all, just to prove how good for me this place has been. This post is partly a 2 month marker, partly a balancing out – because I feel like this blog may not be an entirely fair representation of my American experience so far. As one American friend has pointed out to me; “if your number one experience of American university so far has been ‘identity politics’, you’re doing it wrong.”

Here are just some of the wonderful bits of Americana I’ve seen that have brought joy to my life and light to my eyes. And a smirk to my face. (I’m still British.)

STATE LICENCE PLATE MOTTOS. I’m just going to list my top 5. But they’re all glorious. What would British county mottos say? Norfolk: “Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”?

1. “Taxation without Representation” (District of Columbia) What does this even mean? Is this passive-aggressive? I hope so. 

2. “Live Free Or Die” (New Hampshire) Ok, I get what this means. 

3. “It’s that friendly” (Kentucky) …Except for all the guns. Hello, Concealed Deadly Weapons License. 

4. “Is OK!” (Oklahoma) Just lovely. Oklahoma, you win. And I am in no way biased because of the musical Oklahoma.

5. “Potatoes” (Idaho) Potatoes. 

CAR STICKERS. Top 3: 

1. “For God, Country and Yale” (so apparently this is a Thing. Can only be bought and used by those with a clearly demonstrable grasp of irony.

2. “Do you follow Jesus this closely?” (I fear that the same irony stipulations may not apply in this instance)

3. “Do you fly the AMERICAN flag? Then drive an AMERICAN car!” (Does that mean all the bits have to be made in America? What about the people making it? Do they all have to be American too?)

EATS.

1. Deep fried corn bread. I’m still not sure what this is. But I like it.

2. Pop Tarts. I’m not sure I actually like these, but I like what all those E numbers and sugar do to me. 

3. Mac and Cheese. Everywhere. All the time. NOM.

4. Root Beer. See Pop Tarts. 

5. ALL THE MEXICAN THINGS. BURRITOS. CHILLI. Glorious. 

UNFORGIVABLE SINS

1. “Half and Half”.

2. Hershey’s.

3. Supermarket Bread.

4. Cheese.

5. ‘Pink’ lemonade. THE PINK LEMONADE IS A LIE.

THINGS.

1. Red cups. I love red cups. I can’t tell you how much I love red cups. Every time I drink out of a red cup I feel like I’m in an American high school film. The star spangled banner starts playing in my head. I want to tie my hair in a pony tail and wear a baseball cap and be happy forever.

2. American football. I love American football. I can’t tell you how much I love American football. Every time I go to watch a game I feel like I’m in an American high school film. The star spangled banner starts playing in my head. I want to tie my hair in a pony tail and wear a baseball cap and be happy forever.

3. All the stash. If it doesn’t have its own t-shirt, it doesn’t exist.

And, finally, U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A. Look at ALL THESE NICE THINGS! *waves tiny flag, and then burns it in a dignified ceremony after accidentally dropping it* Americans, you’re ok. Which, in British speak, means you’re bloody marvellous. Now stop doing my accent.

‘The Fat of the Land’: in defence of Americans (but not America).

So in the UK we have this thing we do (a thing that, come to think of it, we probably share with quite a lot of the world). For want of a more sophisticated way of putting it, this thing is basically making fun of Americans.

You know the stereotype – lumbering, gun-wielding man-beast, schnaffling oil and chocolate and deep frying things and being mean about Muslims.

Or, alternatively, daddy-issues blonde sorority girl/cheerleader with a therapist and a credit card.

Or Kanye West.

And how we laugh at you, while choosing to ignore our own heavily stunted social functionality and long history of oppressing other countries/imposing cricket on the world/stealing tea.

The thing is, I’m sure all these people do actually exist in America. And they are easy to laugh at. Why?

Because, in my head, they’re all really rich.

We’re still living under this delusion that the stereotype of fat, non-recycling, consumers/bastards lies in enormous wealth. And, since the only people left in the world that we’re allowed to make fun of now are rich people and gingers, we make fun of fat Americans, who are obviously also to blame for climate change and a lack of food sustainability, because surely no one could get that rotund without being in possession of a large salary, a stupidly oversized car, and no social conscience.

Of course, the majority of people in America are relatively wealthy. But, living in New Haven, I’m learning a hard thing. The social stratification of America (and this falls heavily along racial lines, too) and the availability (or not) of good food mean that, basically, you have to be wealthy to be healthy. And that’s before questions of food ethics are even raised.

How did we get to this unsustainable, junky existence? I’m pretty new to this, but there seem to be 3 sad stages:

1. Food deserts are a thing. Even in big cities. A food desert, for the uninitiated (a.k.a my British friends who live, at all times, within about a 10 minute walk from a Tesco) is an “urban neighbourhood without ready access to fresh, healthy, affordable food”. In America, more than 23.5 million people live in food deserts – half of whom are low income. [1] For these people, buying good food means a) owning a car and b) having the time and energy to travel. Not so easy when you’re a single mother working 3 jobs and trying to find someone to look after your children.

2. Let’s say you make it to this oasis of fresh produce and manage to find something on the shelves not crammed full of corn syrup and added salt. Can you afford those apples? No, you can’t. And the ready-meal next to it (promising to save you time AND cram your children with sugar and fat and happy feels) is cheaper. Much cheaper, actually. The only fruit I can afford to buy regularly here is bananas, and I’m not exactly poor.

3. Now, let’s imagine the ideal: you’ve got to the shop. You have money in your pocket. You’ve also – weirdly enough – decided you don’t want to buy things which other people have suffered to produce, and you have somehow managed to keep that concern in your head, even though no one outside of a few elite hippy circles (e.g. Yale Divinity Students) is talking about it. NOPE. There are no fair-trade products available. ‘Organic’ seems to mean suspiciously little. You’re tired. You’ve been working all day. You’re hungry. And, meanwhile, the queue outside the local McDonalds grows.

America has a food problem. But the problem – at its root – doesn’t seem to be poor Americans. It’s the people feeding them.

On other hand – on Sunday, over 400,00 people marched through New York to protest climate change. Perhaps the game is changing?

[1] U.S Department of Agriculture

One month down.

It’s been a month, America. Somehow, we’re still together. DSC_0722

As some of you may have started to gather, when it comes to writing sarcastic blog posts, ‘Murica is the gift that just keeps on giving. There’s just an incredible wealth of material – so much to mock, and so little time.

Meanwhile, people here have been remarkably tolerant of my unnecessary, almost entirely inappropriate rudeness about their country, and my insistence on operating through a lens of wide-eyed socialist judgmentalism when I notice new things/make loud, sweeping observations. To my lovely new American friends, you are all so. very. tolerant.

With that in mind, while I’ve been busy lecturing America, I’ve been learning some things – like hugging strangers, and almost enjoying it. And not asking “what’s in this?” when I’m offered food.

I’m also learning that I still have an enormous amount to learn about being a functional adult. I still can’t cross a road without looking the wrong way, almost getting killed, and horrifying whichever innocent happens to be standing next to me on the pavement/nearly driving over me in their car. (Whoops.)

And a certain dysfunctional pattern seems to emerging in my status updates – one which suggests that I should not even be left unsupervised in a padded cell, let alone in grad school:

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 07.45.19Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 07.45.05

Keep being tolerant of me, America. We’ve got 14 months to go.

Do you want to talk about it?

“But I don’t want to go among mad people”, Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.”

Yesterday I found myself in a therapist’s office.

I am, as far as I can tell, a fairly self-absorbed human being – a fact fairly cogently demonstrated by this very sentence. I am highly prone to over-analysis, to navel gazing, to self-doubt/loathing/criticism, which tends to be hidden behind a façade of blunt confidence. Not an altogether attractive or useful combination. (N.B. I also take happy pills. If you know me fairly well, you probably already knew that. If you didn’t, well, now you know me a bit better.)

I do think, then, that one of the worst ways I could try to manage my depression and general self-absorption would be to, say, sit down with a stranger once a week for an hour, in which I talk almost exclusively about myself, and about how stuff makes me feel. Especially if this stranger would also only talk about me – in fact, sentences with ‘I’ in would be actively encouraged. Not only that, but we’d also dig up a bunch of stuff from my past so that I could not only dwell on present me, but also past me, and future me. A lot of me in one room, basically. Too much me.

(N.B. I’m not talking about CBT, or seeing a psychiatrist, or even seeing a therapist for depression management. These things can be highly useful and important – in fact, I have done two of them in the past, and encouraged people I know to do them. I’m just passing judgment on what is helpful for me, now. Not anyone else.)

So, anyway, the upshot of me thinking that therapy is a terrible idea is that I went to see a therapist.

Sweeping generalization alert: Americans really like therapy. They love getting all those feelings out there – really out there – and using words like ‘discern’, ‘self-care’, ‘fulfillment’, and ‘actualization’. I do not like these things. These things make me feel like a violently itchy rash is crawling across my shoulder blades. I don’t want to ‘dig deep’, or ‘open up’, or ‘let it out’. I’d like all of the things to stay nice and suppressed, thanks very much. I’m British. Just give me the pills and leave me alone.

On the other hand, I’m British, so I also really like free stuff. And therapy here is free for all Yale students (an assumption that they need it?) so of course I went to have a consultation. And I thought – well, I haven’t seen any kind of counselor/psychiatrist for a really long time, and so maybe this will be interesting. It was certainly interesting.

It’s worth saying that they were very nice to me, that it’s useful that I’m now on their system in case I need some help in the future, and it’s not their fault that I have a tiny sarcastic monkey that sits on my temporal lobe and says things. I had also already been to a ‘spiritual discernment’ meeting earlier in the day, which had involved colouring pencils and anxiety, so the monkey had had a warm up, which didn’t help. And she asked me about everything. From “can you describe exactly what happened to you during X horrible event” (yes, I can, but I don’t want to) to “were you a difficult birth” (are you trying to work out whether I resent my mother, or whether my mother resents me?) the whole thing was exhausting, and it stole an entire afternoon from me because I had to go and be foetal and whimper afterwards.

And it raised some questions. Therapy culture here seems to suggest that the best person to go and talk to about difficult things (and here, I’m really talking about ‘therapy’ outside of serious mental illness recovery/management) is a stranger, rather than a family member or friend – or a church/faith leader. Why is that? It can’t be the ‘expertise’ these people offer, because if you want coping techniques/stress relief/mindfulness, whole tsunamis of ink have been spilt on the topic, and you can ‘train’ yourself. Why is the ‘pursuit of happiness’ a key goal that the individual rather than community strives for? And how are we defining ‘happiness’? Is Oprah entirely to blame for this?

And, above all, why all the feels, Murica? Why?! Do you want to talk about it?

Conversations and De-nom-nom-nom-inations

If I were choosing a denomination based on the free food available, the Episcopalians would be winning.

Not that it would be a fair contest, given that Yale Divinity School has more Episcopalians per square foot than London has pigeons. I think I had assumed that Episcopal worship would just be Anglicanism with an American accent, but I have been surprised by how (Episcop)alien (yeah, I’m really proud of that) it is to me in many ways – and this seems to be rooted in whether the Anglican church should be top-down or not in terms of its convictions on particular issues. No prizes for guessing which side of that debate my American brethren fall.

But this is all really a side-note, since, while I’m a cradle Anglican, I tend to treat Christian denominations like the pic n’ mix aisle of a sweet shop.

Moving on from my Episco-pals to my own denominational confusion, and how that has come to the fore while being Stateside.

Before moving to America, the most religiously distinctive thing about me was identifying myself as a ‘Christian’. I am well used to revealing that piece of information and receiving curiosity, confusion or contempt in return. The response I am ill-used to is “what denomination? Are you Anglican?” Erm. Bits of me are? I like a lot of Anglican practices. I like its broadness. I even have some Anglican friends…. As a baby I was baptized in an Anglican church. Does that make me Anglican? I haven’t regularly attended an Anglican church for about 5 years – and even before that my parents chose our church based on the church itself, rather than the denomination.

“So what kind of church did you go to?” “Well. I went to a Baptist church for a bit. But I’m not really ‘Baptist’. I went to a Lutheran church for a bit. But I’m not ‘Lutheran’ with a capital L. I think the Methodists have the best hymns. I think the Orthodox church has some of the most beautiful Trinitarian theology. I like churches that clap, I like churches that don’t, I like liturgy, I like good preaching, I want a really significant Eucharist, but I get incense headache, and a lot of the time I don’t want to go to church at all.”

Normally whichever poor sod bothered to ask has stopped listening by the time I get to ‘Lutheran’. I don’t have a neat answer to the question, because I’ve never really had to define myself by my denomination before.

Which has raised an interesting question about the way we construct our religious identities. I can certainly see the draw (and the power) in constructing your religious identity around a particular denomination (or around words like ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ neither of which I feel comfortable using either), and, while my initial reaction to being asked to define my Christian faith by denomination made me feel irritated, I’m starting to wonder whether it’s quite an important identity when it comes to Joining in The Conversation. “What’s your faith perspective on this?” is so often a question that means “represent your ‘people’ for me”, and I don’t have a ‘people’, something I assumed would make it easier to dialog – but perhaps it doesn’t.

My sweeping generalization of the day: Americans like identity labels. They like stories of the self. This applies beyond faith identifiers – to race, sexuality, gender, political party, ethnic make-up, personality type…

Maybe this isn’t the restriction it feels like, but a way of helping people engage beyond messy personal emphasis. It’s certainly a different language, though, and one I’m trying to adapt to.

ADDED BONUS: Dylan Moran on Protestantism and R.C.s: