Tuesday, 18 October 2016


I really did mean to write something about our family camping trip – then my best beloved Badger wrote a piece for the Association of Christian Writers blog More Than Writers that covered it perfectly: The Call of the Relatively Wild.

The wild, in the particular instance of our short camp, was not so much the back-to-nature as our grandchildren. Oh yes. Little Sardine and The Blur.

Little Sardine particularly enjoys the Badger’s company. She does call him Badger some of the time, but having rumbled that his name is in fact Tony, that’s what she mostly says. “Tony,” she announces, “is my best friend.”

Recently she came with her brother to our place for an Emergency Morning when one of her mother’s teeth unexpectedly fell to bits. I drove her mama to the dentist while the Badger stayed home with the Lego, dinosaurs and (crucially) i-Pad. “Take care of Badger,” I said to her as I left. “I will!” she assured me.

On our return she was there to greet us at the front door. Even before she confessed to her mother “I missed you at the dentist” (the words “while you were” should have been in there somewhere, but no matter), she made sure to let me know, “I took care of Badger.” She certainly did. He had to have a quiet half hour with a book after she went home.

Here they are at camp.

Sometimes people ask me why I call them Little Sardine and The Blur. Sardine got her name before she was hatched – but not long before. Her mother, in the last few days of pregnancy, began to feel distinctly uncomfortable, and said the child was packed in there like a sardine. The tinned variety, she meant, in case you are bewildered. They wodge ’em in close.

And why The Blur? Well, here he is on our camping holiday.

That’s why.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

The portable, flexible, invisible beauty of minimalism

As long as I can remember I’ve been interested in nomadic living. Since I was a girl I’ve looked at nomadic dwellings and storage solutions, fascinated by being able to fit in anywhere then just get up and go.

Over time, as tiny houses appeared I pored avidly over the creations of Jay Shafer and Dee Williams (I love her), listened to their accounts of how to live in a tiny house, watched every video by Kirsten Dirkson I could find. I love this one – and I’m especially interested by the very last thing Kristie Wolfe says, right at the end of the video: "If you’re going to be off-grid it opens a whole world of selection."

Many people have difficulty with trying to start up off-grid because official permissions are not forthcoming or because other members of the family feel tiny off-grid living is a step beyond where they’re prepared to go. That’s what happened to Dan Price – he loved his family and they loved him; but they couldn’t face living his vision and wouldn’t go with him.

I am a quiet, rooted, low-energy person. I like to stay in one place. I love where I live – near the ocean but also on the edge of a valley given over to public parkland full of trees and home to wild animals and birds. So, though nomadic solutions interest me for their space-economy and versatility, I don’t actually want to move around.

I read once – a long time ago, I’ve forgotten the details of the writer and publication – about a study of eco-villages around the world. It was to do with which one came out as the most Earth-friendly of all. Findhorn in Scotland won, not because of sophisticated technology but because of their practice of sharing. That opened a whole new exciting world to me – I realised that by sharing we could help both human society and the wellbeing of creation better than any other way. The great thing about that is that anybody – a child, an old person, rich or poor people, people of differing nationalities – all of us can share. Everyone can contribute to this great and urgent work of protecting Earth against Mammon. I quickly saw that the more minimalist a life I led, the greater were my possibilities for sharing.

I love watching Grand Designs, and sat down the other evening to see a recent episode featuring a couple in England’s West Country. They work for a living creating artefacts out of steam-bent wood, and wanted to substantially enlarge and link the buildings of the dwelling they had – a small Victorian game-keeper’s cottage and a separate stone bathroom built into the side of a hill. They did a wonderful job, and the result was beautiful.

But my attention was caught by a phenomenon with which I’ve by now become very familiar.

Kevin McCloud (whose series Grand Designs is), interviewing the couple at the start of the build, made much of the inconvenience of their bathroom arrangements – exclaiming in horror that every time they wanted a pee in the night they had to go to a separate building. This assumption is very common. I remember reading about a tiny house dweller who had originally not installed a bathroom, opting instead to go outside into the woods. Then she discovered there were bears in the woods, got scared, and installed a bathroom.

Do they not know about chamber pots? Nobody has to even set foot outside their bedroom to pee in the night, much less go outside.

One of the most exciting things about minimalist living is its portability – very versatile. Here are some of the circumstances of my life where the versatility of minimalism is so effective. I love off-grid living, but my husband is not attracted to it. Our family needs to be in a town so we can manage with only one vehicle between three households (and our household has five people); that way we can all get about on foot and by public transport, and benefit from the infrastructure of a town with its wholefood co-op, libraries, employment opportunities, cinema, restaurants, and myriad other things that a town has and a rural location does not.

At first I thought the best solution would be to build a shed in the garden and live in that – so I could live off-grid alongside my on-grid family. I found the drawback was that the vibration of a group of holy people is tangible and healing, energising. It renews and upbuilds the spirit even – maybe especially – in sleep. I wanted to be with them, within the circle of their aura, not separate from them. I wanted to sleep at my husband’s side; and he didn’t want to live in a shed.

So I did some more thinking. Thoreau put his finger on it in this wonderful passage from the first chapter of Walden. The difficulty comes from fixtures and furniture – the unwieldiness of them.

We have got used to embedding our human needs and functions in a context of associated furniture, and the bulkiness of the furniture requires the designation of living space – separate rooms. So we have a bathroom for the bath, sink and toilet, a bedroom for the bed and clothes closets and dressing tables, a kitchen for the sink, fridge, freezer, pots and pans and food storage, a living room for the TV, sofas, coffee tables etc. We end up needing a quite large house to accommodate the separate needs of even one person.

I realised that if all these things became packable and portable, detached from designated rooms, sharing would become easier, life would be more flexible. And I saw that it is perfectly possible to live an off-grid life even in an urban setting with a modest-sized garden and sharing with other people who don’t want to live off-grid.

I think showing you what I mean may take more than one post, or this will get so lengthy as to be cumbersome. But let me start by showing you what I mean about sleeping and working arrangements.

For a start, nobody needs a bedroom.

Just now, our household has a bug. We’ve had (some of us still have) very debilitating heavy colds. A lot of coughing and sneezing, snoring in sleep and waking in the night. Normally I sleep with my husband, but just now I’m sleeping separately until we are both well again. This is easy, because all of us here sleep on the floor.

So this is a room with very little in it – my mother occupied it when she lived with us for a few weeks recently, after a hospital stay, and so may another member of our family if she comes to live with us for a while. Just now it's empty, and we like to keep it fairly free of furniture to give us somewhere to sing and dance and exercise. I’ve been sleeping in this room.

Here is my bed, rolled up for the day. 

Tonight I’ll unroll it and sleep by the fire, where I have a view of the garden trees in the moonlight.

No need for a bedroom with a double bed, plus a spare room with its own bed for times like this when we need to sleep apart.

And, while we’re in this room, let me show you my office. 

Normally, I like to sit near my hubby to do my work while he is alongside at his desk, up in his attic. This is where I usually sit. My 'office' tucks under that little table that he made.

But just now because of my hubby’s cold he is breathing through his mouth which means whistling through his teeth; and if I have to listen to it I will have to kill him. So I have taken my office downstairs.

This is my office (it was a Vivobarefoot shoebox).

It has everything like diary and pens and correspondence etc in it. It also has my library – yards and yards of books all tucked up neatly in a Kindle – and my speaker so the music stored in my i-phones library can fill the room if I like, and my electronics store 

 to connect things up and to access my massive archive of papers. All this needs electricity of course, but that comes from the solar panels on the roof. 

Meanwhile my glasses, toothbrush, spork, knife, phone, pen, ear-buds, fold-up shopping bag, coin-purse and handkerchief travel with me everywhere in my bum-bag (US ‘fanny-pack’).

I love the tiny houses Jay Shafer designs, and the many similar, but the one drawback (to me) is that everything is so small and poky – a mini-bathroom, mini-kitchen, mini-loft-bedroom, mini-living-room (complete with small tub chairs), mini-desk etc. When all you need is a room, with a certain amount of storage for the basic flexible necessities.

Kitchen and bathroom arrangements can likewise be made way more flexible and portable than they normally are. And I am a big fan of ease and convenience – I confess I don’t like to put myself out! If something is hard I generally give up. So, minimalism doesn’t bring hidden hardships or I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s mainly about questioning assumptions.

 During the day, the room I’ve been sleeping in is needed by other people – for exercising, and for a pop-up studio for some of the artefacts currently in process. So I de-camp to our family room where I can curl up in the corner of the sofa and write.

I could easily sleep here too (and sometimes do) if the room I slept in last night is needed for someone else at the time.

I personally would prefer to have no furniture beyond a couple of storage cupboards and maybe one or two of the low tables my hubby makes. I’d have cushions and sheepskins, because I like to be comfortable, and they’re easy and light to move and pack. But my household values the armchairs and sofas and the kitchen table. And the beauty of minimalism is it allows you not only to share space but to also share completely different lifestyles. There’s no reason at all why an off-grid minimalist lifestyle cannot nest elegantly and invisibly inside a regular lifestyle. It just vanishes.

Monday, 26 September 2016

The mark of the beast

I was going to tell you about our family’s mini camping expedition, but that’s set on one side for a moment – other things are occupying my mind.

THREE STRANDS OF CONCERN fill my consciousness as I watch the world and its ways.

THE FIRST is how we treat the Earth – our mother, our home, on which we utterly depend for every breath and morsel of food, for all our wellbeing. The Earth is the beloved gift of our Father God and belongs to him. God loves the Earth and all he has made, he calls it good. The Earth is alive. Everything of Earth – even the still, silent parts like the rock and the dust – is alive. It is ensouled. God has a covenant with all creation upon Earth – and that means the whole being of the Earth in all its forms is spiritual, first of all because God raised it all into being and God is spirit, second because God could not enter into a covenant with anything less than spiritual (it would be meaningless, like a human marrying a cardboard box).

We are accountable to God for how we cherish, love, respect the living Earth. Even if we weren’t, to desecrate and despoil it would be madness – where else is there for us to go?

Consumerism and growth economics are the problem here.

The fracking, the oil pipelines, the dirty energy, the cutting down of the forests for profit, the dangerous nuclear power stations, the proliferation of plastics – these are evils. I am implicated, I participate in them, but I recognise that they are evils, and it is my responsibility to try to disentangle myself from them. I cannot see a way to do so immediately and simply, but I can at least make a beginning. It can be a process and a direction even it is not a finished accomplishment.

THE SECOND strand of concern is political corruption. Those of you reading outside the UK may be unaware of the recent political turbulence in our Labour Party – but it has been, and continues to be, shameful. The machinations and underhand strategems, the disloyalty and destructive self-ambition have been overt. People have been disenfranchised in tens of thousands, while those who held power have used it for no good democratic purpose.
The self-serving activities of our politicians is no news, of course. My own MP, committed to climbing the greasy pole of power, has used the government departments with which she has been entrusted, not to serve the common good but as material to advance her own career.

David Cameron and George Osborne during their time in office likewise ran the country as a business – the land as a commodity, the people as a labour force, the owners and shareholders themselves and their cronies. To them, these islands were a mine from which they extracted what they could in the time they had.

Our present administration sees the whole purpose of life as being to get as much as you can for yourself regardless of the cost to others and to the living Earth. They see the Earth as there only for extraction, for milking, for sucking out every ‘resource’, every consumable and saleable commodity. They see other people as allies or competitors – and as scarcity deepens, only as competitors in the end. Those they see as allies are not friends – there is no loyalty in the matter; an ‘ally’ is, for them, someone who serves their interests at the present time. A rung to step on.

This outlook is ungodly and evil; which is to say, it is inherently incapable of resulting in social wellbeing or human blessing. It is rotten.

THE THIRD strand of concern is violence. The systematized murder of black people in America. The UK collusion with Saudi bombing in the Yemen. George Osborne chortling as the bombers went off to blast poor, beleaguered Aleppo: ‘Britain’s got its mojo back.’ The plans to build a wall enclosing the refugees at Calais. The savage income cuts to poor and disabled people. The cruel indifference to refugees. The mountain of money made every year from the sale of weapons. The culling of badgers and clubbing of fox cubs, the shooting of birds for sport. The intensive farms and terrible abbatoirs, factories of terror. The subjugation of women by men, rape as a tool of war, as a punishment, as an accepted way of life. The assassinations and interventions to destabilize human communities with the intent to capitalize from that instability. Beheadings and shootings and the right to bear arms – the whole vile racket of war.

Violence is the scourge and shame of the human race. Violence in all its forms debases and diminishes us. This depravity does not rest with individual perpetrators, it is like a terrible infection, spreading through the whole community – to every single one of us colluding knowingly or unwittingly, and our children and our children’s children. We are all dragged in to this loathsome, disgusting trade. War is never glorious, war has no honor, no triumph. It is a show of pitiable weakness, it has no strength in it at all. Peace is strength, kindness is strength, compassion is strength – to lift the fallen, to bear the cost, to exercise restraint, to comfort and heal and uphold, to protect and shelter the vulnerable; these are the signs of human strength.

AND THESE THREE STRANDS – they are not separate, they are tightly braided together. And so systemic, ubiquitous, rooted are they, that I am fixed, trapped, fast-bound by this tight mesh of merciless human savagery. That in which I take refuge also takes refuge in me. It’s like the plastics that disperse into the earth, the sea, then the fish, the plants, then are taken up again to reside in our own flesh. I have taken refuge in the consumerist selfishness of the murderous West; so now it has taken refuge in me. I am implicated.

I know the power of prayer. I know the seeds of violence and of peace start small in the impulses of the human spirit. I know the remarkable power of one small weed breaking through the tarmac, the power of one – one purse, one voice, one life. I know the power of starlight, of a candle lit at midnight. So I have to try. I have to do my best.

Meditating on these things, I felt that the way in is to gradually diminish violence in my own life. In my faith tradition (Christianity), fasting has always been known as a powerful form of prayer. I know that food products of animal source are inherently violent – whether the slaughter of animals to eat, the pulling of fish from the sea, the mass gassing of day-old male chicks in service of the egg industry, the taking of a calf from its mother so we can have all the milk. There is violence shot through it all. I personally have tried and failed to follow a vegan way – my body does not flourish on a vegan diet. But I thought, I can fast. I can abstain from much of it. I can eat just a small amount of meat or eggs or fish from sources I trust. I can live a fasting life, eating mostly plant-based food. And steer clear of the mischievous crops – the palm oil, the soya.

Beyond that, I can dress myself in second-hand clothes to diminish the pressure of consumerism and waste. Anything I am finished with, I can pass on responsibly, sending the least possible to landfill. I can earth-closet, I can solar-power, I can compost. I can shop where the vegetables are not encased in plastic and where the human rights of employees are respected. I can live frugally and send what money I can spare to help the refugees and the people trapped in war zones. I can do my best to raise consciousness, to speak of these things, to increase awareness. I can speak up for the Muslim, the minority person, the cause of peace, even where it is seen as trouble-making and finds disfavour. I can live small and simply, live mindfully and intentionally, practice kindness and gentleness, and share. I can take responsibility for myself. I can vote. And that way of living will be my prayer – for the Earth and the people of Earth.

I’m not really sure what else I can do.

It seems to me that the days of the beast are with us. The great pains of childbirth, the prolonged and painful labour for the birth of the new creation. May God give us the wisdom we need, the patience, and the faithfulness.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Works in progress

Two of the people in our household – Hebe and Alice – work as freelance artists.

They do all sorts of things. There’s a wonderful bed-and-breakfast establishment in our town called St Benedict, belonging to two Orthodox friends. The inside of the house is very richly decorated, and various parts of it have been painted by Alice and Hebe. Like the panels of these folding doors,

and this mirror - painted from the back (so fiendishly hard to do; they had to layer the flowers from foreground to background, counter-intuitive. Then gild over the whole back with white gold):

That house has a tiny jewel of a chapel nestled into a corner of the garden. To made it into a thoroughgoing Orthodox chapel, it recently had a dome added to it that came to Alice and Hebe to be painted. But before that, a canopy where a lantern will hang. This is how it arrived, with just Alice's (or Hebe's) first pencil sketch on it.  

Then half finished.

Here it is looking suitably atmospheric by candle light once finished.

Just now, Alice and Hebe have Pope John Paul II and St Vincent Palotti in their studio. This work is for St Mary Star of the Sea in Hastings Old Town. I think they must have a special devotion to St Vincent there, because a commission from a while back was also of him. The statues arrive at our house looking ghostly – here’s St Vincent Palotti when he got here:

Here he is now, with Pope John Paul in the background, waiting patiently for his turn.

Hebe says when she is painting saints they draw near to help her. She says Our Lady is the best – she joins in to make the statue really pretty, every time. Here's a Mary they did:

But Hebe says the worst one is Jesus. He looks at what she’s doing and says with cheerful approval, “That’s fine!” And she asks him – “Should I make the colour a bit warmer – more detail round the eyes?” And he just says, “No, it’s fine!”

It’s a wholesome occupation. Reverent and focused, requiring a quiet eye and a steady hand, imagination switched on and powers of observation firing on all cylinders.