With the Christmas holidays over and the decorations coming down, there is perhaps a sense of ‘getting back to reality’, or once again entering the ‘real world’. As my husband reminded me, the word ‘reality’ can often get confused with ‘normality’. Something may be normal, but on closer examination may not be as real (in the sense of substantial, meaningful and true) as first thought.
The normality I am about to enter once again is the English primary school. It’s a job I love but, as I suspect anyone in education will agree, it’s an environment that grows more and more fictional with every passing year. With levels and targets becoming increasingly the bread and butter of teaching, children’s levels of attainment are determined by the need to show progress throughout the year, rather than being an accurate reflection of what a child can actually do. This sort of thinking may even be sneaking into the performance management of teachers themselves. It’s a numbers game that can chew you up and spit you out if you take it seriously.
One of the key roles of religion is to help us tell the difference between normality and reality. Gathering, telling stories and breaking bread is an opportunity to be put in touch with what really matters. On Sunday we visited our local Anglican church. Being Epiphany Sunday we heard the story of the wise men, Herod and Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ flight to Egypt. The world is still full of murdering tyrants and teems with refugees. This helps to put OFSTED into perspective!
In little over six months time, my husband and I will be making a break with normality to discover the varied ways we can live with others in a religious context. We will quit our jobs and spend an undetermined amount of time living in different intentional communities. We are making good progress in planning for this ‘purposeful adventure’. We will shortly be visiting communities in Dorset and Somerset and had a delightfully warm and helpful conversation over Skype with members of the Quaker Intentional Village in New York State. When describing our plans to others, we are often met with bemusement. ‘What about your pension?’ seems to be a recurring question. My 91 year old Nana can’t understand why we’re not ‘settling down’. Some people find it easier to conceive of it as a gap year, after which we will return to ‘normality’ and begin paying into the pension pot once again. Financial prudence is certainly a good thing, but, with things as they are, who knows what state our pensions will be in in 40 years time. I could be dead by then! We are certain that this is not a gap year, and we are completely uncertain of where we will be led. Our plans are certainly not normal, but they are concerned with perhaps one of the most real questions – how are we going to live?
Appropriately for the Feast of the Epiphany, the metaphor of the wise men works well for us. After our meeting for clearness back in the summer, we both have an unshakeable sense that this is the right course of action. We’ve latched onto the star. We have found the Guide, and although we don’t know how normal the destination will be, we’re sure it will be very real.