Monday, 7 May 2018

Green pastures and still waters

The times we live in leave me struggling. 

The two aspects that most deeply disturb me are war and lies. Both of these spit in the face of God — and as George Herbert posted out, "Who spitteth against Heaven, it falls in his face." There is no just war. There are no justified lies. I see both war and lies proliferating, and I see the proliferation of war justified by a proliferation of lies, and it grieves not only me but the Spirit who dwells in me. I see the reach of Mammon growing exponentially, and I feel deep foreboding about it.

There is so little I can do. Only uproot the seeds of war from my own garden, and turn away from dishonesty, embrace authenticity, speak the truth. Though — heheh — sometimes speaking the truth can start a war, can it not!

Recently — in the last year — I've had a feeling of lagging further and further behind. It is as though the world no longer has a place for me. I've felt a kind of pervasive, spreading despair. Where can I be? Where do I belong? Where is peace?

When will you ever, Peace, wild wood dove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I'll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?
(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

We went out to Alfriston just before the hot weather came, at the end of the wild days of wind and rain, on a cold and breezy spring day of clear sunshine, to visit the clergy house by the village church. They have lots of photos of it here.

I hadn't been there for forty years or more, but it was vivid in my memory.

I loved it, and looked at it all over, then went out to sit in the garden. 

It is built just by the river, full from the spring rains so that the branches dip down to the water.

The last person who lived there was Harriet in the nineteenth century, and the vegetable garden is laid out as a traditional cottage vegetable patch would be. 

The formal garden nearer the house itself is created from clipped hedges and trees of box and yew, with beds of old English herbs — pinks and lavender and rosemary and so many more. Herbs that I have known from gardens I have loved my whole life long.

Do you know the song King Jesus hath a garden? The words of it are here, and here is the choir of Kings College Cambridge singing it. The garden at the Clergy House at Alfriston reminded me of that song.

What struck me particularly as I sat in that garden was its restraint — the green simplicity of it. The orderly vegetable beds and formal hedges, the herbs and old English plants.

It was full of peace. A retreat from the urgency and clamour of the modern world. A place where the spirit could thrive and be restored. It had such a strong feeling of happiness, as though it was a person as well as a place. If there is such a thing as happy ghosts, they were there. Somebody had dearly loved that place, and been happy there.

It showed me how to live, made a way in.

I am so glad it is there.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Glasses. For travelling.

My friend Margery died well over a decade ago, but I treasure her memory in all sorts of ways. She was my prayer partner, and times beyond counting we would travel out to the Thursday night meetings of the Stable Family at Ashburnham (the Stable Family was brought into being to work and pray for the revival of the church here in East Sussex). Margery's driving exhibited a number of curious phenomena, not least of which was that she needed to change specs when she hit 30 miles an hour.

As anyone who wears glasses can tell you, the challenges of adjusting vision to circumstances is a game that can easily distract for a lifetime.

I have several pairs of glasses.

I got my first pair sometime around 1999, much to my delight because glasses have always intrigued me and I found them a lot of fun. I chose ones the most like the specs Gandhi had that I could find. He bought his in London in the 1890s.

Gandhi's specs:

My first reading glasses (look at them carefully — because more about them in a minute):

As time went on my eyesight got worse, and I needed a stronger prescription. At first the second (new) pair felt way too strong and I only wore them for threading needles and reading the small print listing food ingredients on packets in the supermarket. But gradually I needed them more for regular work.

For a while, I found Pair 2 good for reading (and writing), but useless for public speaking — the people's faces were just blurs. Pair 1 became my go-to specs for public speaking (and preaching). I could read from my notes down on the lectern, and look across the room, and it all worked fine. They also became really good for travelling and shopping, because they sharpened up my vision for seeing things like train time digital displays and what type of nut butter was in the jars on the grocer's shelf; but then I needed to change glasses to my reading specs to check the ingredients list ad make sure nobody had smuggled palm oil or sugar into the nut butter. Much like Margery changing specs at 30 miles an hour. So I always took both pairs of glasses when I went out — and still do.

Then my vision got worse again, and I was prescribed a third pair of glasses — all three pairs being Gandhi-esque in appearance. Partly for Gandhi and partly for the Amish (and some conservative Quakers), who also wear similar specs to mine. 

As before, the newest set (Pair 3) proved way too strong initially, though in the last few months I notice they are becoming more frequently necessary. At the same time the optician prescribed Pair 3, he also recommended distance glasses for watching TV etc. So now I had four pairs of glasses. I only need take the first two pairs out and about, though. Unless I'm going to the cinema or theatre or a concert, in which case I take the distance glasses as well. 

This is the first pair, that I now only wear for looking for things in a shop (and for another purpose that I'll tell you about in a minute).

This is the second pair that I wear for all regular work and also for public speaking these days.

And these are my sunglasses. Did I mention those?

That makes 5 pairs.  I haven't photographed Pair 3 because . . . er . . . I couldn't be bothered.

But now, here's the thing. While out and about in the world, wearing Pair 1 to locate and identify things I couldn't otherwise see, I made a discovery. 

I don't really need to wear glasses at all just for walking about, but sometimes I keep Pair 1 on, to save putting them away and getting them out again. A situation where this applies is on the Tube (the London Underground trains). I don't need glasses for just getting about, but I do need them for reading the map/chart up high on the wall to check which stop is mine. So I'd keep them on.

And this was my discovery. When I am wearing these particular glasses, people treat me differently! They speak to me in a special, soft, kindly voice, and offer me their seat on the train!

If you wear Plain dress out and about in the world it has a similar effect on people, which I rather miss. Everyone used to treat me like their friend when I wore Plain dress. But the specs are somewhat different. Evidently when people look at me, they think not "Gandhi" but "Granny". It's brilliant.

I have a spec-effect-enhancer wheeze too. Last winter our Alice knitted me a hat. It's grey. And I find that if I wear the hat as well as the specs — like this:

— and especially if I slightly tilt my head to one side and maintain a half-smile like the Buddha, everyone is really kind to me, and they all speak to me in that special voice. The ticket collector comes by and I show him my ticket and my Senior Travel Card and he says "Thank you, dear" in a soft, quiet way.

Whether you need glasses or not, I recommend you buy a pair like Gandhi's, with a fluffy grey hat, and learn to smile like the Buddha; because suddenly the world becomes a kindlier, gentler sort of place.

Plus it's funny. It's rather touching, and highly amusing, and gives me hope for the human race. 

One day I expect I'll find I need a stick. Or an umbrella like Gandhi's.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Reverence, veganism and the violence of life

Father Tom Cullinan, a Benedictine monk, lives in a wood on the edge of Liverpool. He follows a path of wise simplicity, grows vegetables and keeps sheep. 

The first time I met him they had just, that day, slaughtered one of their sheep. The young man who had killed the sheep was sitting quietly and thoughtfully, drinking a cup of tea, sobered and somewhat shaken by this taking of a life. He had raised and loved this animal, caring for it every day. He and the sheep knew each other as friends. He had kept faith with the sheep by slaughtering it in this manner — quietly, gently, without trauma, in its home.

I read somewhere that Islamic recommendations for slaughtering sheep say you should hold the animal peaceably, so that it is calm and relaxed, then slit its throat with a sharp knife and hold it as it dies.

It sounds horrible, doesn't it — shocking? But if we stay with the idea and look more deeply into it, it holds up well in comparison with the alternatives.

We kept sheep when I was a child. Every year we had orphaned lambs and raised them for meat. My mother bottle-fed them, and they lived in our five-acre garden. We cared for them with watchful diligence. Any sign of blowfly or footrot (the two diseases that plague sheep) and we were onto it at once. We dipped and dosed them, keeping them free of ticks and other parasites. 

When the time came to slaughter them, my mother personally loaded them on to the lorry taking them the short journey to the local slaughterhouse. Once she took her sheep to market, but when she dropped by during the day to check all was well with them, they heard her voice and called to her. She felt terrible to leave them there, and never did that again.

A few miles away from my home there's a farm shop where they sell the meat of their own sheep. You can see the sheep — with new lambs just now — outside in the field in the sunshine. They are well-cared for and content.

When I came across the work of Will Tuttle, I read his book arguing the case for veganism. There are several reasons why a person might be vegan. According to the findings of Max Gerson, whose clinic has good results, cancer is stimulated by eating meat; so one might wish to be vegan for health reasons. Where livestock animals are kept in feedlots or indoors, it takes a phenomenal amount (pound for pound) of grain and water to raise them for meat; so one might want to be vegan as an act of responsibility against world hunger and water shortage. I have read that livestock, through a number of causes (eg methods of animal food production, cutting down rain forest to raise animal feed, methane from animal digestive processes, etc) contribute significantly to climate change; so one might want to be vegan for ecological reasons. I believe it was with this in mind that Thich Nhat Hanh decreed his community should be vegan rather than vegetarian, in his Blue Cliff letter a few years ago.

But even when someone has accepted that pasture-raised animals, grazing on traditionally open grasslands or hilly areas, may actually be carbon-neutral and not injurious to our health if eaten in moderation, they might still choose to be vegan for reasons of compassion.

Will Tuttle wrote in his book about an occasion when, as a boy, he witnessed a cow being taken for slaughter. It went deep into his heart. He saw her reluctance at being pulled by her rope along the track, sensing (as animals do) the intention and destination. He said he just wanted them to let her go free, but they did not.

Most of us, I think, have a similar immediate response. It is intensely sad when an animal is slaughtered. On the day my aunt's family slaughtered a pig on the farm, in the morning their dog would go and hide in the bedroom. It is a deep and grave action that we take, when we put a living being to death in this way.

But what are the alternatives? There are two practical ones that I can think of. 

One is for these livestock animals never to be born. No more pigs. No more sheep or cows or chickens. Only wild animals living free and unmolested by human beings. Then we have to ask ourselves, is it better for a creature to live, to give birth and suckle her young; for an animal to graze in the fields or rootle in the woods and by the stream, even for a short time, or never live at all?

If we do eat any animal products, I believe we have an absolute responsibility to make as sure as we can that the creatures who provided our food were well and kindly cared for.

The second alternative is that animals should live free. Does this make their lives better?

There is a picture — it's here, but I warn you, it's sad; I read that the photographer became depressed as a result of taking this photograph — of a mother deer in the moment of being surrounded by three cheetahs moving in for the kill. She had stopped, and given herself to them so that her fawns might escape them. In the photo she stands steadfast and full of courage as the predators' teeth meet her throat and hind quarters.

Obviously farming livestock doesn't stop this happening, but when one considers that a sheep or goat or cow is protected by the farmer against the suffering of the wild hunt, it doesn't seem as bad as it at first might appear.

I think the option of grazing protected and in peace, with parasites and diseases and obstructed births all tended to, might well, for a sheep or a goat, a deer or a cow, be one of the better available options.

Likewise with poultry and egg production. It must surely be better for male birds to be raised for meat, giving them a chance at life, albeit short (and properly free range, please), than to be gassed en masse at a day old so only the egg-producing females are allowed to live.

For some people, the whole thing is too heartbreaking to bear. They — like the Jains in India — forswear all violence, all hurt to any living being. 

But . . . every time I tread on a snail by accident when I go for a night walk, or see the multitudinous corpses of tiny flies on the summer windscreen after driving on the motorway, or consider the disposal of slugs and blackfly and greenfly in raising vegetables, or remember the flea treatment for our rescue cats and the worm medicine given to little children, I know a truly vegan path is not going to happen. Are we really going to let the guinea worm and the mosquito breed and thrive?

Violence, it seems, is an integral part of life. Veganism, I believe, can never be fully realised. But what I do advocate, with all my heart, is reverence. 

Like the reverence with which Father Tom's friend took the life of the sheep, gently and without trauma, accepting and absorbing the sorrow. 

I loathe and abhor the "funny" photos posted of turkeys at US Thanksgiving and UK Christmas, dressing them up and making them dance or move, in a shameful comedy.

I believe all livestock should be farmed compassionately and with kindness, respecting the animals' needs and nature, giving them shelter and freedom to roam. Not cooped into featureless fields with no variety and no byre offering shelter from wind and snow. They should be known and loved, ideally kept in herds small enough to be watched over and the individual animals known. They are not human, but they are people, with relationships and personalities, yes and souls.

Let them live in contentment and fulfilment. Let them die with compassion and dignity — a swift and calm end. Let us know them, give thanks for them, and receive their sacrifice soberly and with gratitude.

Death is not a bad thing. Everything that lives must one day die. I too will die, and I have no wish to live as long as I possibly can. An earlier, less protracted end is what I have prayed for. A quiet, dignified, private, unexceptional death.

Death is not life's opposite. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal, and death is a part of it.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Grieving for Syria today

So, on today's news I hear with heart as heavy as a stone that the UK cabinet, without responsible democratic process, has joined with the Trump administration in America to bomb Syria again.

My soul feel sore and bruised and my whole being is full of grief. 

I am ashamed of my government that lies right and left, abandons the poor and disabled. I am ashamed of its violence and cruelty. I am ashamed of the rapaciousness of the Western powers.

I think of the refugees from the theatres of war, trying desperately to reach safety here, sheltering through this harsh winter in the woods of Europe, harassed by police, walled out by the UK, even the children turned away.

I am so ashamed and my soul rocks in grief. This cannot come to any good.

Not in my name.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Jeepers! What a day!!

So I guess this all starts about a fortnight ago.

My Mental Elf, an unpredictable companion — he and his Black Dog — at the best of times, got an unexpected kicking two weeks ago, since when I have been doing what I can (primarily the application of lavish amounts of beautiful colour) to get everything back to a condition of harmony and peace.

My husband was planned to preach in our Methodist Circuit today, then decided to go to Minehead Spring Harvest (which overlapped this Sunday) so I said I'd pick up his preaching appointment. But then wasn't well enough, so another preacher kindly did a swap for him.

My daughter Buzzfloyd was also on the Methodist preaching Plan for this Sunday, at the community centre up on the Ridge. As I was now free I said I'd take her there.

Meanwhile the Novovirus currently stalking Hastings made a direct hit on her house. Husband, kids and mother-in-law all throwing up, only Buzzfloyd left standing. They began to recover and it seemed to have passed her by, but I said if she ran into trouble I'd catch her preaching obligation for her.

So she prepared her Sunday worship and emailed the hymns and order of service off to the steward. So far so good.

This morning around 5.30 my phone pinged. Uh-oh. Buzzfloyd was throwing up. Right. Into the breach.

I got up and had a bath, washed my hair, and started to dry it; at which point the blowdryer packed up. Not sure of the cause, I went downstairs to the cupboard where the fuse box is to see if it had tripped the system. I switched the cupboard light on and the bulb blew.

Happily I had a good bulb upstairs I'd just taken out elsewhere, so I put that in and — phew — it worked (better than the old one); and the fuse box switches were all set to 'on'.

So I went back up and tried the dryer in another socket — no joy — and plugged my computer into the now vacant socket; yes, worked okay. So the (small, cheap) dryer was dead. No worries. I wrapped up my hair in a cloth and got dressed. 

All good to go except for printing off the service that Buzzfloyd had prepared and emailed through to me.

A few weeks ago our printer began to signal that the ink levels needed re-setting. I understood that to mean 're-fill the ink', which my husband at my request accordingly kindly did. I thought that was the solution but apparently not. This morning, after printing off the first three sheets, the printer stopped and would do no more. It wanted its ink levels re-setting and refused to print another word until this happened. Unfortunately I had no idea what this might involve (since it now had plenty of ink) and I had no time to read the manual as faffing about trying to get the hairdryer working had used up the time.

I grabbed up the pages it had printed before it died, got an extension lead and the computer, stuffed everything in a bag and hurried out into the car.

Breathe, I thought to myself; calm. And (crucially) check. I went through my bag to be sure I had everything. Oh no. Where were my glasses? Where did I put them down? I tore back indoors and searched for them — I'd left them in the bathroom — then scooted back out to the car and set off with just enough time to get to church with a few minutes in hand.

The community centre is a hive of activity on Sunday. As I drove along breathing down the neck of the v e r y  s l o o o o o w w w driver in front of me, I prayed and prayed there would still be a parking space. I didn't now have time for a Plan B.

Well, between a huge SUV and a stout family car, there was one thin little parking space left, adequate for my fortunately very narrow car. I slipped into it, just, but had to climb into the back seat to get out of the vehicle.

I found my way through the maze of rooms in the community centre to where our people meet for worship. As I came in they were singing, a joyous and lovely hymn accompanied by guitar. So beautiful.

Our printer churns out documents last-page-first, so though I had the blessing and the second half of the address, I didn't have the order of service. As it turned out, the steward to whom Buzzfloyd had sent all the details had gone off to Spring Harvest as well — so the organist had no hymns and no order of service and nobody had any readings.


But Buzz had also sent the bumph through to another preacher who worships there, so she had made a note of the hymns (I snatched the list off her and gave it to the organist). 

This preacher also had made a note of the first reading, which Buzz had asked her to read. As it transpired, I was so thankful for this — some of the teaching depended on it, and when I'd looked it up in a hurry to get the text of the readings, I misread the reference and left off ten verses! She, thank God, had it right.

Well, the service went okay — the people all kind and good-humoured and loving as they always are, and the material Buzz had prepared as brilliant as ever, and perfectly timed.

Afterwards, having agilely climbed back into the driver's seat of my car again, I went to the supermarket to pick up plant milk for the humans and a box of dog food for the hungry foxes (I think they must have cubs). At the checkout, the cashier picked up the box and the underneath gave way and out dropped 48 pouches of dog food.

Right, that's it, I thought. I'm going home and staying there. Please God don't let the car break.

When I got home, the rest of the family had been hard at work cooking the most splendiferous Sunday lunch — roast potatoes and gravy and everything delicious.

At the end of the church service, before I left, the preacher who'd read the gospel said to me, 'We have to hold onto our joy. It's precious. Satan wants to steal our joy. We have to make sure we keep it.'

Amen, sister.

Quotation about being calm an adaptation of words by Matt Haig in his book Reasons To Stay Alive.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Skin Fur Light

In 2008 I made a resolution (which I have kept) never again to do anything but what I was sent here to do. 

The question was, what might that be? It began an ongoing exploration into why I am here.

I asked a similar question back in 2002 — "What is the purpose of my life?" I knew from my Anglican childhood that the purpose of humankind was to love and serve God for ever, of course, but that held for me a pious falsity that didn't quite cut the mustard. Tentatively, I found a workable answer in my family — to be specific, my children — that doing the best I could for them felt my nearest to an authentic sense of purpose. But I held in mind the observation David Whiteland made in his brilliant Book of Pages — that having a purpose is the difference between a machine and a living being. A being is simply (gloriously) alive. It needs no purpose. Purpose is derivative — secondary to a user. Perhaps I didn't need a purpose (?)

As I've thought about what I came here to do, the answers that rang true have become less and less moral, dutiful and institutional.

Today, watching TV, for no reason at all, I rested the flat of my hand on the skin at the top of my chest beneath my throat, and it struck me how soft it felt.

I am glad I had the chance to live in a physical body and feel that particular sensation of softness.

Watching my body age intrigues me. The skin where my forearm comes to the inner side of my elbow is crepey now.

The skin of my face is lined and lived-in.

How interesting, how physical and earthly, is skin.

I came here to experience skin.

I am also thankful I had the chance to stroke fur.

To look at the noses of animals.

To watch light move through the house, interacting with everything as it falls and glances, making glints and shadows, mystery and glory. Light is the nearest thing I know to holiness made visible.

I am not sure I wholly get the hang of loving. Truth ebbs and flows like the sea, and is equally elusive to my grasp. I am the most useless person I know (in the strictest sense); reclusive, uncooperative, hard to see. I won't even answer the phone. It seems that was not what I came here to do.

But to see and to touch and to listen — to open my senses unto full stretch, allowing the inflooding of music flying up and up like a skylark rising — Mozart, Handel — or hear a nightingale or watch the colours of the dawn and the moon on a winter night. To behold the amber gaze of a vixen and engage in conversation with a crow. For these I am glad with the whole of my being that I had the chance to be here. To feast my eyes with ravenous joy on the sundance sparkling surface of the ocean.  

That's what I came here to do.

About bitterness

I try to keep numbers of Facebook friends to a reasonable low, but even still I have several friends whom I know hardly at all — people whom I’ve never met offline, who live far away and whose perspective on life is not mine.

What I think they all have in common is living in the light of something greater than themselves — faith in God, spiritual practice, political commitment, a passion for the wellbeing of the Earth and the myriad living beings for whom, like us, it is home.

Consequently, my Facebook feed presents a constant stream of posts urging me to help, to give, to improve myself and to adopt a better attitude.

One of my Fb friends is staying just now at the same Christian conference as my husband is attending, and she is giving us a wonderful window into the inspirational impressions that catch her attention as she attends workshops and worship.

One of them caught my eye particularly:
“Bitterness obscures our ability to see clearly.”

How true that is!

I turned it over and over in my mind, reflecting upon it.

I have known bitter people. I think I harbour a fair degree of bitterness myself. 

I do believe I may have developed some opinions about bitterness. Here, for what it’s worth, they are.

I thought: some herbs are bitter. Dandelions, for example. Bitter herbs are usually very good for the liver. They are included in the Jewish Seder plate at Passover, reminding the people of Israel about some of the bitter experiences they passed through in their life’s journey. Bitterness, then, has its place; it is part of both our medicine and our memory. It is not possible to eliminate bitterness from life; it cannot be all sweetness — to hope for that would be unrealistic. Perhaps (like dandelions for the liver) one just has to know how to make use of the bitter weeds that grow unbidden in the garden?

I thought: how useful is it to reproach or look down on someone for bitterness? I don’t mean my friend or her Facebook post did, but I know that it can happen. Some of the most bitter people I know have suffered considerable injustice; the bitterness developed in its wake. Is the bitterness, then, or the injustice, the root problem? Bitterness can also grow in the compost of disappointment; we speak of being “bitterly disappointed.” To be overlooked, passed by; to see lesser work done by more privileged people fĂȘted and praised while one’s own good work is disregarded — this can turn to bitterness. Then is the bitterness or the lack of affirmation the real problem?

And I thought of the many times in my life I have watched while onlookers comforted the perpetrators of injustice. The man who cheats on his wife — “Oh, it was because she worked night duties, poor man; she should have found a different job.” The person who is cruel and destructive — “Oh, it was because they had such an unhappy childhood, poor thing.”  In the church, where the practice of forgiveness is a central aspect of the Way, it is easy to become so focused on understanding and compassion that those who suffer injustice get completely forgotten. As a minister I knew said to someone who had lived through a series of bereavements and traumatic events: “You must be used to it by now”; when of course in reality, seeing one's life systematically trashed is not the sort of thing a person can get used to. In these bombsites the weed of bitterness seeds and flowers and establishes.

Bitterness does obscure our ability to see clearly. But, since bitter people are always unattractive, sometimes it is not the bitter people who cannot see clearly, but their bitterness obscures our ability to see them clearly. The bitterness is evident, but not always the injustice, the disappointment and the cruelty.

I don’t think I have a message or a lesson or a pointer to show a better way. I’m just saying — but this I do know for sure; where bitterness is apparent there is always hidden pain.