Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Quietly during the night

I generally wake around five o'clock. Every other day I get up then for a bath before the rest of the household is stirring, and the alternate day I stay peacefully in bed and watch the morning rise.

Yesterday, I woke at a quarter to four. 

Around 2007, a time of considerable struggle for me, after a battery of medical tests I had a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. It doesn't bother me much these days because I keep a strict discipline of life and diet. But if something very stressful crops up, I do get a flare-up.

Recently, after a few turbulent months that have prompted me to make some changes and tighten up my practice, I've come out of a patch of illness and started to feel much better. I've felt peaceful and (for me) relatively energised, with improved stamina and focus. 

So I was surprised when I woke at a quarter to four to notice familiar signs of inflammation in my neck and hands and feet and limbs generally. What could this be? Was it an infection, a cleansing reaction, or what? I hadn't eaten any of the food that could set it off, I'd been very careful. I suppose I got tired preaching at the weekend, but that was two days before. I felt momentarily puzzled, and drifted back into sleep. And when I woke up properly an hour later, I felt fine.

Over breakfast I mentioned this to Hebe and Alice. It turned out they both sometimes experience the same thing. One of them said she occasionally wakes up in the (too) early morning with painful tonsils and a general sense of inflammation in her throat. She knows if she goes back to sleep then when she wakes up properly for the day the problem will have gone. The other one has rumbling auto-immune issues, that make her joints flare up and swell from time to time. She likewise said she sometimes wakes early to find her joints hurting and inflamed, then drifts off to sleep again and finds they are better once morning has come.

We concluded this is part of the body's repair work during sleep, that we had inadvertently surprised by waking before it was done. The toxins of stress or diet, or just part of our rhythm of nutrition and disposal, the healing of wear and tear and investigation of incipient problems — these are dealt with in all our body systems by our inner repair angel, our own personal Rafäel, as  we lie deep in sleep. Waking too early, we can find ourselves walking in on a surgical operation of sorts — "You aren't expected back yet, please go away." So our astral selves clear off again and leave the angel to the patient healing work. And in the morning, "All done! House is ready for you. It's okay to come back in again now."

Does this happen to you?

Monday, 17 June 2019

One thing at a time


Do I look slightly stressed?

The evening goes like this.

I put the frying pan on a medium heat, starting off some chopped onions to cook in olive oil as a starter for the meal I intend to prepare.

I go out into the garden carrying scissors to pick a big handful of herbs to add to the supper I'm cooking. 

I cut bay leaves, marjoram, sage, mint, lemon balm, thyme, rosemary and parsley. I have the scissors in one hand and the herbs in the other. This takes a while, because the mint is right down at the bottom of the garden growing in the shade, I need to circumnavigate trees and step over a fallen rose stem to get at the bay tree, and the parsley is at the top of the garden in the veggie patch. I make a mental note to come back and tie up the rose stem.

The little apple tree next to the veggie patch is in full leaf now, and several self sown herbs are growing on the path. I have to step carefully round them, and cautiously use the stepping stones on the veggie bed to get at the parsley so I don't tread on any plants.

I notice the cherries are plumping out nicely and wonder how to go about picking them as they're so high up.

While cutting the parsley I notice the wind has dried out the ground despite recent rainfall. The baby kale sprouts are coming through and today has been hot and sunny so I really ought to give them some water.

Once my supper is cooked I want to sit down and relax for a while; I'd rather have done the watering before I eat.

One of the foxes that comes to our garden has mange, so I need to bring the foxes' dish up to the house to get their supper, so we can add the homeopathic mange drops to their food. It takes two of us to feed them at the moment, because our herring gull pair has become bold and insistent. One of us feeds the gulls their scraps, and while they are guzzling it down the other of us nips down the garden and hides the fox food under the low-growing hawthorn cover. If the seagulls see us put the fox food down, they come and eat it the minute our backs are turned, so this stealth is vital.

I'd rather have fed the birds and the foxes before I sit down to eat my supper, because once I've eaten and washed up, I just want to relax and watch TV with the rest of my household. I like the quiz programmes, and they'll be on in ten minutes.

I look at the dry veggie garden and the scissors in my hands and think about the onions cooking on the stove and hesitate. I put the scissors on top of the water butt, making a mental note not to forget them after I've done, and water the veggie garden with the two watering cans I filled up earlier. I need to refill them. The taps on the water butts are stiff when the butts are full of water — pressure from inside — so I need both hands. One of my hands is full of herbs that I don't want to crush. I have to be careful. The parsley and thyme stems are a lot shorter than the other stems. I have to be careful not to drop them. 

I go across the veggie patch to the path, stepping only on the stones I put down for the purpose so as not to tread on any plants, then round the self-sown herbs and the apple tree to the back door. As I approach the door my gaze falls on the tomatoes growing in their planter. They absolutely must be watered, tomatoes need consistency of moisture in their compost. I water them with their own little watering can that stands alongside them that I filled earlier for this purpose. I used some this morning, so now it's empty, so I should go back to the water butt to refill it. I decide to approach the water butt from the quick, easy side that doesn't involve the circumambulation. I can do it but only by getting a faceful of miniature ornamental cherry and reaching round to turn the stiff tap with both hands but very carefully so I don't crush the herbs. Damn. I forgot the scissors.

I straighten up, push past the little ornamental cherry to reach for the scissors. The tomato-watering can is only small, so it overflows spectacularly while I'm doing this. It doesn't really matter, the water just flows into the veggie bed, but it's irritating because I don't like wasting water. I'm worried about the onions. Are they burning? I'd have liked to add tomatoes and garlic at an earlier stage than this so they could reach the same stage at the same time. It takes forever to peel garlic, you have to be very patient, and I haven't even begun.

I turn off the stiff water butt tap with the scissors in one hand and the herbs in the other. I'm careful not to crush the herbs but I do hurt my hand. I take the refilled can back to leave by the tomatoes and go into the kitchen. Damn. While I was out in the garden someone else has come in to cook their own supper. Now they will be standing in front of the places I need to get to in order to whirl round and chop tomatoes and peel and chop garlic to add to the onions before they burn to a cinder. The quiz programmes start in two and a half minutes. I begin to feel very irritable indeed. 

"Did you mean to leave these onions cooking?" asks my housemate. Yes, but I didn't intend them to be very nearly black.

I try to be patient enough to respect the fact that now we are both using the same space in our rather dinky little kitchen. I snatch the onions off the heat, peel the garlic badly, fling tomatoes in unchopped. I look at the herbs, deciding I'll just eat the greenfly not rinse them off. I grab an aubergine (eggplant) and chop it up at lightning speed, ditto a courgette (zucchini), and fling them in. 

I break three eggs into a bowl and beat them up as quickly as I can, tossing in a random amount of seasoning. I wonder why I feel so ill and realise I stopped breathing a while ago. I feel dizzy now.

Eventually, being scrupulously polite and friendly to my housemate, I manage to cobble together a disappointing omelette incorporating burnt onions and underdone aubergine and courgette, and greenfly. I wanted to finish it under the grill but that's all part of the oven, which the other person is now using so I can't.

The quiz programme began fourteen minutes ago. I'm annoyed that I missed it. What about the seagulls and the fox? Breathe.

I run down the garden to recover the foxes' dish left under the hawthorn yesterday. We put the food and medicine in their dish, gather up the scraps for the gulls, go outside to feed them, successfully duping the gulls.

Coming back in, I realise I haven't washed up the frying pan or spatula or scissors. I do that, dry them up and put them away (our draining board is minuscule, our pans are few, and four people need to cook their supper — you can't leave unprocessed items lying around).

I take my cold, rubbery, badly seasoned omelette with its burnt onions, greenfly, undercooked courgette and aubergine into the sitting room, just in time for the last round of the quiz programme, on football, about which I know nothing and care even less. So I've missed the bits I like, about arts and books and science and geography and history. 

Breathe. I sit down quietly, across the room from another of my housemates, who has been peacefully watching the quiz with a cup of tea. I am really cross, but I don't say anything.

When I was a child, in the little book of proverbs my mother gave me for Christmas, was one that said:
One thing at a time
And that done well,
Is a very good rule
As many can tell.

Oh, yes. That must be why Thich Nhat Hanh drums it into his novices to breathe and smile and only do one thing at once. I must try to remember. However does he find the time? How early does he have to start supper?

Damn. I haven't tied up that rose stem.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Willie Nelson redefining what it means to be 86!

Slugs, shells, snails, hermits and minimalist living

I try to be cautious and respectful about using other people's material online, but there's this captioned picture I wanted to share with you that I found and kept (because it made me laugh) a couple of years back. I've linked it to the place it originated, not particularly as a recommendation (or not) but just because it ought to be credited.

Here it is.

I love it.

It came back to mind because I was thinking about where a person's sense of identity comes from.

Our household has been immensely enjoying Sally Wainwright's new serialised TV drama, Gentleman Jack, about the Victorian landowner Ann Lister, who lived at Shibden Hall near Halifax in Yorkshire. Ann was comfortable with being a woman, but ill at ease with many of the trappings associated with femininity — all the lace and bows and so forth. She worked out her own style of dress that expressed herself — and the clothes she wore were (of their time) both manly in style and yet still appropriate for a woman.

Of course she would still have been the same woman on the inside in a frilly pink silk dress with pearls and lace sewn onto the bodice, but she wouldn't have felt comfortable because it would have been the wrong outer shell for her inner snail. Perhaps like a hermit crab looking for a house in someone else's discarded shell.

And I've been thinking about our identity, personas, dress, belongings, homes, reputations, occupations — the shells we put forth for our protection and in which we take refuge, and the relationship they have with the snail inside. And the effect it has upon us as we go deeper into the practice of minimalism.

Jesus was a minimalist. 

There's a verse in John's gospel (14.30) where Jesus says: "...the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me." I chose the KJV translation because the wording brings out the thing that interests me, which is that it always reminds me of that verse in Ephesians (4.27) about how to manage anger, that says (NIV) "do not give the devil a foothold."

When John Wimber came to the UK back in the 1980s to teach about signs and wonders, we at the Ashburnham Stable Family (an East Sussex charismatic Christian network) studied these things in some depth, very helpfully and instructively. One of the subsections of our study was cursing and blessing, and I tucked away in my inner filing system the teaching we received that a curse cannot be effective without a foothold — it must be justified; which I found an interesting thought. If it has no foothold, it simply rebounds. This ties in with what Jesus says here about peace, so perhaps it's true about blessing too. It seems likely.

And he practised minimalism entirely, holding on to nothing and no one, not even holding on to his life. Nothing had any foothold in him — you got the uncompromised unadulterated complete Jesus when you met him.

I think in some ways our clothing, occupation, reputation, and material possessions are footholds — not for cursing and blessing, I mean, but for establishing identity, giving other people a handle on who we are. And then beyond that, all these give us ourselves an idea of who we are. We feel a strong need for the external to be congruent with the internal. This can be seen vividly in the journey for self-expression of transgender people. Each individual is unique of course, and what is true of one may not be true of another, but I have wondered whether some transgender individuals might not feel so intensely that they are driven to the pain and expense of surgery if our society were in the first place less binary in its expectation of sex and gender roles and appearances, choices and self expression. If every single person in the world had long hair, no make-up, and a simple linen long-sleeved uni-sex tunic with a standard neckline and a plain loose wool coat for the cold, with no colour or style variation, would fewer people feel desperate about their physical sexual characteristics?  We shall never know.

— that picture's from here (Hebe's work)

One of the things that struck me (and has stayed with me) when I was involved in a prison chaplaincy fellowship back in the late 80s early 90s, was the sense of personal freedom I encountered in the men I got to know in the prison. There they were, convicts, and yet almost without exception there was about them an honesty and simplicity in the way they related with me that I did not find outside the prison gates. I emphasised that it was in how they related with me, because I am fully aware that a prisoner might try to take advantage of someone who offered a link to the outside (eg could be a mule), there can be opportunism, and lies (I remember one convict saying to me with a wry smile, "Oh yes, everybody's innocent in prison!")

But in the interpersonal quality of the encounter, there was indeed this honesty and simplicity, and I came to the conclusion it was because they had lost their good reputation. Like St Francis saying "We must be content not to be good and not to be thought good" — well, they were. As human beings (and locked away from easy access to drugs and alcohol) they offered some of the freest, simplest, most human encounters I have ever known. Another place I found this in a different way true was the hospice, where everything was getting up and leaving the people I met there. It encouraged honesty.

By contrast, most of us take refuge in and rely on what we own and what we wear, our gender and marital status, what we have achieved, our certificates and trophies and medals, our social accreditations of various sorts, and our material possessions, to tell ourselves and those we encounter on the journey who we are.
I think this is why minimalism feels so peaceful and free — especially if you practice it in terms of humility as well as material possession, being content with the lowest and the least, being unrecognised and unacknowledged, of no reputation and no account. There you are in the world, just you and God, with a place to stay and simple clothing to keep you warm and something to read and something to eat . . . and that's it.

Perhaps all those shells I see in the garden are, after all, nothing to do with predatory blackbirds and thrushes, but are the discarded identities of snails who espoused minimalism, refusing to be consumerist commodities any longer, entering the unadorned world of the slug.

Jeepers, it's time I got out of bed and got dressed; I need to focus my mind on chapel this morning because there's hardly anybody there and I'm the preacher . . . see you later, fellow slugs . . .

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Less stuff, more happiness | Graham Hill

Truth, there.

Concentrate not on the specifics but the principles. I personally have all sorts of reasons why I would not enjoy a living space like Graham Hill's, so I've chosen the different approach of several people sharing, all keeping a minimalist discipline — this enables the same principles to be lived by different means.

Here's another way of approaching the same basic idea — the Simply Home community in Portland, Oregon — and again here.

The central thesis holds good, I think — that editing is the skill for this century. Check out the many Sharing Systems ideas on Graham Hill's LifeEdited.

Friday, 14 June 2019

Gallery of Minimalist heroes

Here follow some minimalists in whom I rejoice.

St Francis, my hero for nearly fifty years —

I love that he said: "We must bear patiently not being good and not being thought good."

Our self-esteem and the positive regard of others are cherished possessions; it is not easy to let them go. Finding humility is a descending stair cut roughly into the rock and clay of life, taking us down to the bedrock of peace. It involves letting go of all bolstering opinion, whether our own or that of others. It is part of our invisible minimalism.

Diogenes, my favourite philosopher —

He slept rough here and there, but often in a large disused water jar in the market place, and he begged his food. He saw himself as a citizen of the world and distanced himself from partisan tribalism. He famously had no possessions but his staff and bowl — then one day when he say a boy drinking from cupped hands, he realised he didn't need the bowl and threw it away. Diogenes was an essentialist to the core. In our household we felt surprised that he saw the staff as more useful than the bowl, and we spent a while talking about that. By the end of the conversation we'd decided we could all do with staffs!

I delight in Bashō's student Mizuta Masahide (17th century Japanese physician), for the little poem he wrote —

— that says when his house burned down it gave him a better view of the moon. I don't know if it really did, but Bashō liked the poem and it offers us the clearsighted courage of minimalism expressed in a nutshell.

I love St Martin of Tours —

— not only for cutting his cloak in two and giving one half to a beggar on a cold day (a model for minimalist generosity, sharing the one thing you have), but also for hiding in the poultry run when the church dignitaries came to make him a bishop.

I cherish the teaching of Bodhidharma (said to have brought Zen Buddhism to China), not least for his portraits —

Just when we might have thought nothing could be more minimalist than buddhism, Bodhidharma provoked us into seeing we had a way to go yet, teaching that the essence of the way is in no longer being attached to anything, even words and appearances, finding enlightenment simply, directly, in and through everyday experience. Giving yourself up without regret, using everything without using anything, travelling all day without going anywhere at all. Bodhidharma expounded the zen of the minimalist mind.

And I am enjoying my newest friend, Ryokan Taigu —

— who put it like this: