There’s no place like home

Dorothy tapped her red shoes, said it over and over again, and found her way back to Kansas.

At about 2.30pm on Friday I walked into a small office, I gave my name and new address and walked out with a bundle of keys. I could have been anyone. I didn’t tap my red shoes, they were brown and lacking in glitter. I also didn’t chant ‘There’s no place like home’.

Earlier in the day I had whisked the sheets off my single bed and wondered whether this would ever happen again with any regularity. I’ve been told that once you get a double bed there is no going back. I had noticed my bank accounts were supplemented by a new account that morning, abundant not in the resources it contained but in the debt it recalled.

It suddenly became very real. I felt as though there ought to be some great solemnity to my actions as I turned the key, entered the block and juggled my way through various keys to reach the space that is now my own in a more tangible sense than ever before. I spent that first night in a sleeping bag having carried a few essentials on the bus, my excuse was the delivery men expected any time from 7am the next day. The truth: there was no way I was not staying here – even the prospect of going away for a few days next week seems slightly weird.

For the past few months this process has absorbed me, and if you follow me on twitter then you’ll have picked up on that too. I hear from my Mum (not on twitter) of conversations she has with those well acquainted with my movements documented in 140 character exerts. When I start instagramming photos of my packing progress I know things have gone too far. For weeks and months I have had room for precious little but mortgage applications, survey reports, property information forms, planning permission and elusive asbestos reports. When I realised I was reading documents my solicitor was not I perhaps should have taken the hint.

I think I have got lost in the process to dull the effect of what the move means.

I may have been in my old house longer than people stay in bought properties but it was always with the potentiality of leaving at short notice. I could wake up one day and in a month be in Australia having left my job, my house and with no one else holding me to the place I currently call home. But home just became a little less flexible.

It’s one of the reasons why I hesitated before jumping in, I like flexibility, I like being able to change plans without consultation or consequence. In short I like independence.

But in every act of chosen constraint is a new freedom. There are things that I am now less able to do, but others that become far more achievable. I have a home where I can welcome guests more readily; I can indulge my book loving, cookware hoarding, habits. To borrow the phrase of Andy Crouch, the horizons of the possible have now shifted.

It means I commit to being in a place I wondered if I would ever call home. But in that commitment, and as a direct result of that choice, I am more able to make home a reality. I first wrote ‘feel like home’, but then I stopped, paused, deleted, and realised the internalisations of the very habit I am wrestling with: to think of home as something other, something more achieved, settled, and perfect. So it is not about feeling like home, it is about making home happen. It is about choosing that this is the place I am.

Boundaries between adolescence and adulthood are far more permeable than before, moving out later, getting married a little older, waiting to have kids, it all pushes the threshold into realms less perceptible or shared. For many marriage is the great threshold when you relinquish a life you had and commit to something new and something shared. But I am not married, it is conceivable I never will be, so I can not pretend life waits for me to resolve my insecurities.

My bookshelves are up, books categorised and alphabetised, boxes of assorted tat I couldn’t bring myself to part with still await sorting and refining. Under my desk sits a box of CDs without a home, although I dutifully placed my CD player on the shelf and attached the wires it rarely spins the disks. Because times are different and habits change. The normality of one form of life gives way to another.

And in the transition between rooms that feel foreign to realising they are home, the temptation to say ‘mine’ stilled by the voice that says ‘ours’.

Quarter life crisis – relationships, romance and reality

One of the reasons I felt I needed a break from blogging over the summer was the intensity with which I had posted during June and July, both in terms of volume, and the topic. I’d often rise early write in my favourite spot for an hour or two and then head into work. I was often emotionally as well as physically exhausted. I’ve always tried to write with as much frankness as I can muster and it took its toll.

Which is why when I turned my mind to what I might write about upon my return relationships were further down than the bottom of my list. I was positively determined to steer clear.

Yet as I worked my way through the aspects of life that the phenomenon of the quarter life crisis affects I realised that avoiding talking about relationships would be doing exactly what I fear we do all too often. That is, push to one side the inconvenient and challenging topics and cling to what is safe, known and under our own control.

Emily Maynard wrote a cracking post a couple of days ago about the recurrence of inquiries about ‘why are you not married?’. I think it’s slightly different from a guy’s perspective, I don’t think it comes so frequently, but rather than the sympathy that is perhaps attached (but not always appreciated) when directed at women, for men there is built into the question an element of criticism. That’s because in the church one of the seemingly irrefutable facts is that women outnumber men. Also, as men and women age through their late twenties and beyond, it is women who see the biological countdown with greater clarity.

When the question comes there is always a hint of the underlying questions, either, ‘why haven’t you got your act together?’ or ‘why are you being so picky, there are lots of stunning girls at church?’. And yes I’m guilty of the first charge and I agree with at least the second clause of the latter critique.

What most often provokes the question is when I bake a cake, or brownies, or a pavlova, or decide on a whim to spend an entire Saturday creating a unique, never to be replicated dessert concoction. Then the question is a little different, it’s usually backed up with: ‘any woman would be grateful for a husband who can cook’. Ignoring for now the incredible gender stereotypes in such a statement, such a question places incredible pressure, am I supposed to use edible goods as my principle flirting mechanism?

The other prompt for the gentle prising open of my romantic commitments, or lack thereof, is when I’m in the company of either of my incredibly beautiful nieces. They’re 18 and 15 months old (each other’s cousin) and generally amazing. The occasional case of mistaken identity as their father is quite fun, but sometimes I manage to successfully pacify them, and then the observation comes once again…

Coming back to the quarter life crisis theme this comes into play because I have too many choices. My friends and colleagues, with their not always subtle critique, have a point. I am overwhelmed with choice. There are many incredible women who if in a different situation, with less choice, I may well view in a more romantic light.

But my hopes are built for that experience, that attraction, which transcends the normal. The defining feature of what makes life special seems to be that which lifts us from where we are and onto another plane. Relationships, and the romance within them, are heralded as the hosts of such achievement.

From a personal perspective, for most of my life I simply shrug it off and move on. But this makes me inoculated from the promise of relationships. It makes me view it as something that is even further away from my present state. It allows me to think in abstract concepts and not engage with what the challenge might actually be. I don’t have to become comfortable in my life outside of marriage if I don’t consider that an important part of me.

I respond to choice by running away. Scared of opting for an imperfect solution I prefer to delay resolution altogether. I let it linger in the air, I wait for too long to decide whether or not I – in that most infantile of phrases – fancy a particular person. I hang on to attraction even when I know that it is going nowhere, I hold it like a comfort blanket that doesn’t satisfy but constantly offers the promise that maybe one day it will.

During the frenzy of posts earlier in the summer Jennie Pollock wrote a guest post for me, Singleness is not a prelude, and it has attracted quite a lot of attention. It’s a really good call for contentment in where God has placed you. In it Jennie challenges our view of singleness: “our cultural attitude to singleness – particularly within the church – is similar to my attitude to my life in OM: it’s fun, but it’s not the real thing. It’s the phase you have to get through while waiting for your real life to start.”

The quarter life crisis is about wanting adventure and change, and a life that does not disappoint. But when the adventure carries the risk of disappointment we are pulled in different directions, some pursue the adventure and some avoid disappointment. Unfortunately the adventure is always a gamble.

What questions about relationships do you find hardest to handle? Do they cause you to question you place, identity and security?

Quarter life crisis – a community called love

One of the things that I’ve highlighted as a defining feature for the lives of plenty of people in their twenties is a lack of commitments. This can take the form of getting married and having families later, changing jobs frequently, and being unable, or unwilling, to buy a house. The composite effect of these trends is a generation that is transient and is always open to change. But moreover, change is championed as a good in and of itself, decisions that could tie you down are delayed in order to be able to change at a moment’s notice.

I don’t think this is all bad, I think there are in fact very good things to be said for an attitude that is willing to experiment, and a flexibility to change when that is necessary. But it can also have a corrosive effect. It can shun stability as boring or constricting, it can limit the depth of relationships, and it stands in the way of developing community.

We’re so open to change that we no longer know what holds us together.

In the absence of married and family life, not only is permanence a luxury, but community is harder to form. I may have plenty of friends, I may have a diary full of social activities, and facebook notifications inviting me to more, but am I part of a community that invests in each other and cares and grows.

There is something about being part of a family unit that makes the development of community easier. And as you grow older and more people shift into that camp the remaining options become sparser. This is on top of the life in a city such as London where people frequently work long hours, commute considerable distances, live far apart and have hectic social lives. Where in this space does the energy and capacity for community?

A contradiction is at work here, I want to be a part of something, I want to know people and I want to be known. But I don’t always make the sacrifices necessary to make that happen. I tick the box to say that I want it but my priorities tell a different tale. We turn creating community into a purpose that we can reduce to defined functions and complete. We will spend time with people, we will eat together, we will be accountable to one another. We will do so much while still failing to build a community of love.

There are two things that mimic community but in my experience tend to fall short. The first is friendship groups and social activity and the second are church small groups. I think they come at the need from two different directions, friendships are built on time and communal activity, small groups based on defined purpose and structured meeting.

And we avoid intentionality, whether it’s in friendships or in church small groups. We like things to go with the flow, intentionality in friendship seems forced, and our church groups are too often simply a secondary reprise of the Sunday before. We can do a lot of stuff, whether it’s social or spiritual activity, but that doesn’t by itself translate to community.

I’m beginning to think that the starting point for developing an authentic community is a willingness to prioritise, so that while other things will make their calls on our life, the community to which we commit does not suffer. The social dimension of the gospel means that we cannot live out our faith alone, or in narrow silos unconcerned with each other. It needs an integrated space where we may live different lives, and work out our own stories but we can come together, and in doing that the stories of our life will always be changed.

Quarter life crisis – a place called home

I still think that Southampton is my home. I’ve lived in London for four years this time around and in a couple of weeks, all being well, will own a flat. I will have a home of my own but it still doesn’t feel like home.

Maybe when I’ve painted the walls, purchased the oven, chosen which tea towels to buy and the rail to hang them on I may achieve a more marked sense of rootedness. Maybe when I know my neighbour’s names, taken my place in the residents management company, felt the first mortgage payments leave my account. Maybe then it will feel like home.

The biggest hurdle to buying a flat has not been the money, or the bureaucracy – although I know more about double glazing regulations than I ever thought possible – it has been surrendering transience. I could still just about bail, and I’ve thought about it once or twice. I could pull out of the process, count my losses and move on. I would then have the flexibility and the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted.

Because I have taken certain choices my life is now constrained. The other day in the opening post to this series I referred to people getting married at a relatively young age and that this choice, and even more so having kids, restricts your ability to do whatever it is that takes your fancy. One of the causes of the quarter life crisis is the delaying of taking decisions that tie you down and limit your flexibility.

Freedom is exalted, the ability to do what you want and when you want it is lifted high, and even choices taken for your own interest that limit this freedom are somewhat frowned upon. Next month if I wanted to become a cattle drover in the Australian outback it would be harder. There are now things that I cannot do. Andy Crouch talks about the horizons of the possible, that by doing things we not only make some things possible we make other things impossible. It is my hope that by investing, in a personal rather than financial sense, I will open up possibilities even though I close others off.

I shuddered for too long at the prospect of putting down roots because I wanted to be free to move on at a moments notice. In some not so hidden recess of my mind I hoped I wouldn’t be living in London forever. I may still not, but I am for now, and the reluctance to accept that with any certitude meant I lived on the verge of the potential for change.

But home is not just about bricks and mortar. It is about commitment and it is about community. I didn’t have to buy a flat to settle down, but it’s something that forces me into that mindset. Maybe transience is here to stay, but that shouldn’t prevent commitment, rather it should make commitment even more urgent.

How would you live if you knew you were where you would be for the rest of your life? What do you need to change about your habits, routines and commitments? Are you afraid of permanence?

Quarter life crisis – work and the need for adventure

I’ve written before about how even in a job that I love, working with people who are great, I at times get dissatisfied. And I think that’s a pretty common symptom of the quarter life crisis.

Later this week I’ll reflect a little more about the factors that come together to create this effect, but for now let me simply say that there is both good and bad in the dissatisfaction with how things are and the desire for something more fulfilling.

Like virtually all people who enter adulthood, whether after university or having skipped it, I need to work in order to pay my rent, keep my stocks of ready meals intact and occasionally have some fun. For many work is simply a way of paying the bills, but for many also this is not all they want work to be. There is a desire that while the pecuniary aspects are essential, fulfilment of some sort would be a nice accompaniment.

On the spectrum of work satisfaction I consider myself fortunate to be towards the positive end. Although I could hardly write this if I were to vent my frustrations and hatred of my place of work. I like variety, and in work I get variety. I like challenging tasks, I get those, I get to write, solve problems and work with some great people in a cause I believe passionately in.

And yet. And yet it doesn’t give me everything I want. Sometimes the workload is heavy and the problems too complex and I decide that becoming a tree surgeon might be a serious option. At other times I want something more tangible, perhaps providing clean sanitation to children in The Sahel would sate my appetite for doing good. But what I’ve come to realise is that I would always want something else.

There is a need for adventure in all of us. There is a desire to be living a story that has purpose and be playing a role quenched with meaning. Last week I got to go to a screening of Blue Like Jazz and hear from the director afterwards. Part of what he said was the story of Don Miller’s follow up best seller: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years which chronicles the process of writing the screenplay for the film and in the process learning what it felt like to edit your life down to a meaningful and worthwhile story. What if, he pondered, we did a better jump of knowing the story that we are living and the part we get to play?

It may be that you are fortunate to be living out a story that melds your work and your passions together. But I don’t think the Paul’s overriding passion in life was to make tents. It may be a cliché to fall back on, but I think it helps, sometimes our jobs will pay the bills and our adventure will come alongside. However, I wouldn’t write off just working to pay the bills, or marking time until the next big thing comes along. I spent a year making sandwiches and coffee and was challenged for the way I tended to say that this was ‘just what I was doing for now’. It was important and I learnt a lot through what I was just doing which I thought was to just pass the time.

How should we embrace the need for adventure without giving into every wave of dissatisfaction that comes? How do we integrate all parts of our life into a story that is consistent with the purposes we seek?

Quarter life crisis – finding church

Straight out of university I moved to London, I had a year placement all set up and I was ready to start my life. I registered a new email address with pretensions to drop the Danny and become Daniel. I was ready to be a grown up.

I’d moved away from home to go to university, I’d settled swiftly and part of that was finding a church. I’d grown up in Southampton, lived in the same house my first eighteen years and been a part of the church from the day I was born. Church was a place I knew people and where I was known. It was not a small church, but by virtue of a countless Sunday, fundays and games of hide and seek I had a place I belonged.

Moving to university created a rift, suddenly the known nature of church was replaced with a void of choice and novelty. But when you have organised tours of churches in your new home town, life is made a whole lot easier. There were some churches which with the greatest respect to them and friends who were and are part of them were simply never going to be the place I called home. And when I settled upon where a place to be a part off, integration was facilitated by special events, teams and a group of people in the same situation as I was.

All of this is a way of very briefly sketching the ease with which I transitioned from a church that I loved and felt a part of to another where I felt the same. When it came to searching for a church in London there was no such custom built process or teams prepped over the summer for my arrival. I was on my own. One Sunday before I moved I travelled up to London, with my sister for company, and went to a couple of churches, it was a surreal experience. You are on your own in the mist of people who know each other. When I moved I tried out a few more and chose a church to make my own. And for a year I went fairly diligently, went to a small group slightly less diligently, and when my year was up and I moved back to Southampton I faded out of the church without effort or notice. The last Sunday I went was like the very first.

Movement is a defining fact of life for many people in their twenties. Something happens, and then the next, life moves on, priorities change, home is a moveable concept, and church becomes a convenience store. It becomes something static while we are mobile so we drop in and out and our relationship with it becomes more like a consumer and a provider than a church made up of people.

And the problem only gets worse when the church responds to this attitude. It’s sees people wanting church for what they can get out of it and they seek to provide that. Now I don’t go in for all this self-flagellation nonsense, I’m not saying we should make church boring and hard work and painful just so we are not appease our more sensual appetites, but we shouldn’t change just because we think it will make people like us more.

Four years go I returned to London and aside from visiting other churches for baptisms, christenings and the like I’ve stayed with the church I went to the week I arrived. And now is the place for very carefully crafted confession: I don’t agree with everything, and I don’t like everything. Just step back and imagine what a church would look like if you did agree and like everything. You would be preacher, worship leader and serving the tea, and doing it all to yourself.

There’s a crisis with people in their twenties leaving church, but I don’t think the answer is to serve them the church that they want on a plate. I think that church needs to challenge the presumptions and attitudes that we hold and ask why it is we hold them. Maybe when the church is clear about what it is and what it is for it will find the authenticity so sought after.

Anatomy of the quarter life crisis

When the sports car turns up on the drive, or the order goes in for the new Harley Davidson, or the letter of resignation is tendered in order to start up an Alpaca farm, or the man who has loved his wife for the past 25 years finds his affections wandering. It’s the mid-life crisis.

Well known, frequently observed, caricatured across popular culture it’s a phenomenon that hits at a certain point in life. Usually sometime in their late forties a person wake up one morning and wonders what they are doing with their life. They have gone through the phases of life set out in the manual, they’ve climbed the rungs of the career ladder, they’ve got married, had kids, those kids have grown and are becoming more independent. And they realise the things that have anchored their life for so long do not provide satisfaction.

It’s the reach for something to provide the thrill which they have suddenly realised is missing that is most notable. Whether it is the fast car, the off beat adventure, the marital infidelity, it is the desire for something greater which gets the attention. But that desire does not emerge out of thin air.

The search for something more, something to bring satisfaction, give meaning, provide fulfilment is not restricted to middle aged men. And maybe I’m imagining it, but the dissatisfaction seems to be coming earlier in life. The disappointment that things are not the way they hoped they would be; that the promises they lived for turned out to be illusory. This is the quarter life crisis.

Frustration that life hasn’t worked out how we want is not enough by itself to spark this crisis, what is needed is the opportunity and the capacity to do something about it. So the mid-life crisis came at a stage after the busyness of life has subsided and due to increased time and resources living with the apparent inadequacies of life was not unavoidable. What enables the mid-life crisis to occur is dissatisfaction and the capacity to choose something different.

And for many people the same two things now exist at a much earlier age. Maybe life is, as was suggested to me, just lurching from one age related crisis to the next, but I think there is something specific that hits people in their mid to late twenties.

Maybe I need to add a caveat or two. No one is the same as anyone else and the life experiences we have will vary. So what I’m saying is a generalisation, it may will apply to some people and not others. You may think I’m speaking precisely to you or think I’m spouting nonsense. The second caution is that there are many different causes that lie behind any particular action or train of thought. So my analysis of dissatisfaction and opportunity is simplistic and of course misses the many personal goings on that will be at play.

But there is a conveyor belt that pushes us through life for the first twenty or so years. There’s childhood when you’re dependent, there is adolescent when we strive for independence but with the safety net of family and community reigning us in. There is the freedom granted when we leave home, head to university but there is a purpose that under-girds that free form explosion of individuality. We leave university for the world of work with ideas of changing the world, of hopes and dreams and a complex assortment of desires to make something of ourselves. And it’s easy to get to 25 without having thought very hard about why we are doing what we do.

This is not new, the progression of life has always had templates and norms to follow. What is novel is the absence of the constraints in this next phase of life. Some people still get married at this stage in life, have kids, and are in a chosen way constrained. Yet for many people the choices are kept open and the options remain on the table.

The promises of changing the world do not always turn out the way that we hoped. The people we imagined living our life with do not fit the form we choose. The jobs that we do pay us a wage but do not provide the satisfaction we think we want. It is the sudden overflow of options that creates a crisis. As Don Miller says in the film Blue Like Jazz “You wake up everyday lost in a sea of individuality”. We want to make something of ourselves and we feel like we should be able to. With the time, the flexibility and the disposable cash we want to attain something that is missing, something that will make our life more worth living. But it doesn’t, so we hit a crisis.

All this week I’ll be writing about how this plays out in various areas of life. I’d love your input, have you hit such a crisis point? What causes it and what does it look like? How can it be resolved?