Hazel McHaffie

authenticity

Rachel Held Evans

Last week I shared some stories of authors overcoming huge obstacles to pursue their art. This week I want to pay tribute to a specific writer/blogger who crammed so much into her life before it was cut short quite catastrophically.

Her name is Rachel Held Evans and I’ve been a fan for years. Her professional experience as a journalist, and humour columnist, shine through her lively, no-nonsense, writing. She has a lovely line in self deprecating honesty and an endless thirst for personal integrity and authenticity – and given the murky political shenanigans in this country (and hers) of late, there’s a high premium to be associated with that quality!

In brief, Rachel left the evangelical church in 2014 because, as she said herself, she was done trying to end the church’s culture wars and wanted to focus instead on building a new community among the church’s “refugees”: women who wanted to be active in the church, gay Christians, and those who refused to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith. That journey took her personally from a position of religious certainty to a faith which accepted doubt and questioning as part of the ongoing process of being a Christian. She faced the conflicts and uncertainties fearlessly, and as part of a vanguard of progressive-Christian women, she fought to change the way Christianity is taught and perceived in the United States. In the space of eleven years, she published six titles based on her experiences, some of them best-sellers, and became internationally famous.

I guess her story resonates with mine, which might be why she appeals to me so powerfully. Like her, I was brought up in a faith community with clear parameters for both belief and behaviour; like her, I’ve since found a different, much wider, understanding of what it means to be truly Christian. Unlike her, though, I have not shared my journey in public, but she speaks for me in so many ways. She doesn’t shy away from the anomalies and the hard-to-believe elements of the Bible; instead she tries to unravel them and find a meaningful way to understand them. She stares squarely into the face of the challenges not only in the Bible but within the church too. She appeals to the die-hards and those who believe they have all the answers, to think again.

Sadly, in 2019, when she was only 37, Rachel had an allergic reaction to medication for an infection. Her brain swelled up to a severe degree and she was placed in a medically-induced coma. Her condition continued to deteriorate and she died on May 4. I am part of a group who honour her memory.

Her very public sharing of her personal vulnerability, and her honest exploration of a faith filled with doubt, leading to her empowerment of a rag bag of disenfranchised people, form an awe-inspiring legacy, and I for one am indebted to her.

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Triumph over adversity

At this time of year the plight of children for whom it’s not a magical season tugs at the heartstrings in a particularly poignant way. The starving, the abused, the institutionalised, the unloved, the unwanted, the severely disabled  … you know the haunting images as well as I do. But I wonder how often we think of those who work behind the scenes to rescue these waifs.

Imagine day after day after day, being shut in a room with eight children all with severe emotional, educational and social problems, several still incontinent, and just one unqualified helper (an uneducated migrant worker).

I can’t. I’d be completely out of my depth.

Not Torey Hayden; that’s her workplace. Children ‘whose entire lives [a]re chaotic tragedies‘ are her forte. But even she is somewhat fazed when she’s asked to add to the mix a six-year-old girl who has recently abducted a neighbour’s four-year-old, tied him to a tree, and deliberately burned him. The courts have decreed this seriously troubled little girl – SIX YEARS OLD – must go to the state hospital. But there’s no space available at the moment … no room at the inn. Hmmm. She must be placed somewhere

Miss Hayden’s class, known colloquially as the ‘garbage class‘, it is then. The dumping ground for young ‘human refuse‘, the severely disturbed, the emotionally fragile, the most educationally disabled, those from chaotic and disrupted homes, the all-round challenging. Last stop before the institution.

Torey’s take on these little people caught up in cycles of violence, poverty, addiction, abuse, neglect and apathy is

‘ … for some children, even love will never be enough. But belief in the human soul escapes all reason and flies beyond the frail fingers of our knowledge ….’

‘Some of these children live with such haunted nightmares in their heads that every move is fraught with unknown terror. Some live with such violence and perversity that it cannot be captured in words. Some live without the dignity accorded to animals. Some live without love. Some live without hope. Yet they endure.’

One Child is not written to evoke pity for the child, or praise for the teacher, or to ruffle the peace of mind of those who chose not to know. Rather it’s a song to the human soul, because this little girl – the closest thing to an unteachable child her previous teacher had ever encountered – is at heart a survivor.

It was never going to be plain sailing. Sheila is filthy and infested; she’s been abandoned by her mother, blamed by her father; she makes a dramatic debut gouging out the eyes of the class goldfish with a pencil and flinging them on the floor to suffocate; she absolutely refuses to do any paperwork even though she’s well above average intelligence, destroying every piece of paper put before her; she completely wrecks a neighbouring classroom when Torey goes away to a conference for two days. But gradually, gradually, inch by inch, she learns a better way of being, how to relate to other people, how to curb her emotions. And this exceptionally perceptive woman rescues her from a frightening future.

Of course I have no means of verifying the veracity of this author’s account – and I confess I took David Pelzer’s books about his childhood abuse at face value, though they were subsequently called into question. I cringed at Hayden’s use of words like ‘retarded’ and ‘crazy’ too. Nevertheless I found it beneficial to think myself into the mind of this little girl and her teacher, and to watch good triumph over tragedy.

I’ve long had a problem with certain awards and honours going to celebrity figures like sportsmen and actors. Low profile people like Torey Hayden who labour day after day to make a difference to unknown families, unseen and unsung – now they really do deserve our respect and admiration.

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Exotic island or private library?

Some writers fly off to exotic islands or remote mountains; some hide away in huts miles from any internet connections or distractions; some spend six months trawling through microfiches and dusty archives. All in the name of authenticity and accuracy. To get in the zone.

Me, I’m knee deep in books which might inform the two stories I’m currently working on. Trips to special locations remain somewhere in the hazy future.

The hypocrisy and mores and prejudices of the upper classes? Julian FellowesSnobs or Past Imperfect will do nicely, thank you.

A bit of terror and psychological trauma? Harlan Coben or Robert Goddard are my go-to choices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A blend of ethical dilemmas and fiction? Diane Chamberlain, Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenkauf will keep me out of mischief.

Everyday life in bygone eras? Biographies about Dickens, Jane Austen, et al are guiding me nicely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can pick up and put down, browse or flick, all while I weave in and out of domestic responsibilities and grandparental excursions during the summer season. All without roaming further than my study/library door. No jet lag, no tummy upsets, no grappling with weird currencies and incomprehensible languages and dodgy local mores. And I’m still free to whip into town for Festival performances and assorted exhibitions. Perfect.

 

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Hot off the Press!

First batch of Inside of MeWell, here they are, still warm. My first batch of Inside of Me. They arrived yesterday, bang on target.

And as I hold the finished product in my hands, I’m enormously grateful to all those people who made this moment possible. To those who gave me the benefit of their wisdom and expertise, checking facts were correct and scenarios authentic. To those who provided their technical know-how and capabilities to ensure the final product looked so good. To those who encouraged and supported me through the entire process. To those who continue to believe in me, even – no, most especially – when I start to doubt myself.

I salute you all. And I hope you can feel a sense of ownership too. You’ve earned it.

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