The meaning of Matryoshka Haus – on a tree

Looking back over 2011, a definite highlight for me has been becoming part of the Matryoshka Haus community. This time last year I’d discovered Sweet Notions thanks to some happy coincidences, and had been to a couple of events. I’d heard a lot about someone called Shannon, but had only met her once, briefly, and at a freezing (literally) cold Christmas market. But, in the last year I’ve found myself carrying pink and black furniture along busy London streets; loaded transit vans outside swanky hotels; baked cakes late at night; and re-connected with my sales-woman side – all in the name of Sweet Notions.

In my family, it’s become a tradition that things of significance in our lives are marked by the acquisition of Christmas tree ornaments. I can tell you the story behind pretty much every decoration on my tree – which overseas trip it’s from; which friend gave it to me; or who made it. As I decorated my tree this year, I realised that several of this year’s new additions had connections with Matryoshka Haus.

The first came from an art shop in Chichester, bought while in the town with a group of people I have only got to know thanks to MH. Several of us had spent time together renovating an old house in France over the summer. Close friendships had developed and we’d spent a weekend at a film festival. In a matter of months, one of my most important support networks in London had become a group of people that I’d barely known 12 months earlier.

Little did I know, when I accepted a dinner invite from Shannon, that it would result in a series of trips to France, some fantastic new friends, my first ever Thanksgiving and getting involved in an exciting missional project. Thus, in years to come when my grandchildren ask for the story behind the heart shaped glass bauble, I’ll be able to tell them about the strange collection of great people I lived life with in my early thirties.

Appropriately, the others were bought from a Sweet Notions pop-up shop, and, even more appropriately, one held at the Marylebone Project where the Design Camps take place. These ornaments really sum up Sweet Notions for me – like the jewellery the women make, they’re made from reclaimed beads and reflect their individual personalities.

Although I’ve only met the women a few times, I learnt early on that one with a particular flair for jewellery design especially liked to create things using turquoise and blue beads, so as soon as I saw a couple of turquoise decorations I knew they were Adele creations. In fact, as I was admiring the tree on which they were displayed, I had a chat with Adele who pointed out which ones she’d made and then proceeded to teach me how to make them (several people are receiving my versions this Christmas). The other two that I acquired were made by Cathers, which is also appropriate, given as I can probably credit her with getting me properly involved with Sweet Notions in the first place!

Planning and Skating

Plans continue for a home for Matroyshka Haus…after our last gathering, a working group was established to look after the whole area of business plans and proposals. It’s a group of varied skills and gifts (reflecting the diversity of the MH community) who are working together to try and smooth the way for a building that could become home.

We met just before Christmas to start work on a proposal for the Church of England, but were able to combine some hard work with a weekend of fun, saying goodbye to Shannon as she headed back to the States.

What better way to spend your last day in London than at its Tower, on ice skates?

We’ll miss Shannon while she’s on the other side of the Atlantic, but the community continues gathering. Plus, with Skype and email, it’s almost as if she’s still in London!

Thanksgiving – an English perspective

As an English person, I’ve generally been rather bitter about the extra holiday that Americans benefit from in the last week of November. As the British comedian Jimmy Carr described it on Twitter:

“It’s Thanksgiving today. Long story short it’s where Americans give thanks to the English for inventing them. You’re welcome.”

Before the Americans reading this get offended, don’t worry, I’m deliberately being glib. The establishment of the colonies is a complicated historical event that I’m not going to go into in this post…

Anyway, this year I was very pleased to welcome the holiday (albeit a day late) into my life. On Friday, a community of 40 people gathered in Mile End to celebrate and give thanks – and to eat a vast quantity of food. I am very thankful indeed…

I am thankful that we were blessed with professional chef Richard (and his wife Robin), who flew in from Texas to cook for us. [I am less thankful that the Turkey was named Millicent on Twitter prior to eating – my pseudo-vegetarian sensibilities mean that I’m not so keen on eating named animals. But the fact that Millicent, once cooked, had to be transported from Bethnal Green to Mile End in a taxi rather makes up for it. Comedy.]

I am thankful for the opportunity to use a fiercely powered blender (and learn some new skills). My black-bean hummus may have looked ‘interesting’, but it was delicious. If someone could send a blender my way, I’ll be knee-deep in hummus before I know it!

I wasn’t sure that I’d be particularly thankful for eggnog, but it seems that it is actually the alcoholic beverage of the Gods (at least Shannon’s Step-Dad’s recipe is). Yum.

I’m less thankful for the invention of American Football. The ball is a silly shape, meaning that it doesn’t bounce/travel through the air in the way that one would expect it to. This means that one looks like a total idiot when one tries to kick it in the air, only for it to return to earth narrowly missing one’s head…

I’m especially thankful for the presence of a 5 day old baby at Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for his safe arrival; his intense adorableness; and the fact that I got to hold him for a few blissful minutes. Honestly, there are few ills in the world that can’t be put right by a cuddle with a newborn. [I actually have a theory that there would be fewer wars if world leaders spent more time holding babies…]

Most of all, I’m thankful for Shannon and the Matroyshka Haus community. For Shannon, who had the idea in the first place; and the community that’s gathered around her – both of which are now very special fixtures in my life. A year ago I barely knew most of the people I spent Friday with; now, I see them most weeks.

I believe Thanksgiving is all about family, and I’m really pleased that I got to experience my first one with my London brothers and sisters.

A version of this post originally appeared on Liz’s blog.

Giving thanks

“At 18 we are so sophisticated that leaving school doesn’t move us. The subconscious fear is not of adulthood, of success or failure, but that nothing else will move me either.”

– school-leaver Emma Forrest, Sunday Times, 1995

 

The UK generation that these two sentences describe are now well into their thirties. These dead-eyed professionals are all around London. If we were allowed, we’d look into each others’ lifeless faces across the tube carriage and try to offer an awkward replica of sympathy. But eye contact, humanity – anything that distracts from work – is some kind of sin. Our economic woes are only background radiation to the bigger problems weighing on Londoners: loneliness, purposelessness, anxiety.

 

Welcome to our city, where Matryoshka Haus have decided to build.

 

The community’s Thanksgiving celebration this year took place in a former cow-shed in East London. As Christmas approaches, it’s touching to remember Who was about to be born somewhere like this. Once the stinky preserve of the working-class, this particular shed was tucked out of sight behind a grand Georgian square whose gentry it served.

Since those days, it’s been transformed into an unusual live-work space, and most class distinctions are less obvious. Last Friday, the slow beginnings of a community party did a good job of distracting this web agency’s professionals from their work. The smiles began to spread. Thus began 18 hours of extraordinary hospitality and grace:

…by our chefs, who had flown all the way from the US to cook for us all.

…by those who organised enough resources to feed 36 people (and all the others – the new parents, the sick girl, the unemployed actress – who benefited from the leftovers)

…by everybody who listened to anybody else’s story

…by a fashion photographer who volunteered her time to record the delighted faces

…by the many hands who took part in preparing the enormous feast, and similar sized clean-up

…by Milicent, our 28-pound turkey (perhaps somewhat grudgingly).

 

Among us were many leaders and influencers in this world-changing city. But also, among us there was great brokenness… those struggling with cracked relationships, work stress, abusive marriages, unemployment, long-term depression and identity issues. All of us are broken in some way, but all of us decided to take off our plaster-cast masks on Friday. I think that is what is special about this community. Most of the strong ones who bear London on their backs, suffering from the strain, have left our churches in disgust. But they still flutter toward the tiny light of Matryoshka Haus like moths, seeing something they can’t understand… yet.

This weekend, we realised something that had lain unnoticed inside the Russian dolls of the MH logo. To see what’s inside, you have to break each doll, one by one. This is the kind of  brokenness that reveals treasure. I think that is what I am giving my gift of thanks for; the treasure of Hope that I have found in these wonderful people.