Thursday, 1 February 2018

Red Riding Hood

Working as a writer means keeping to a disciplined path. It's solitary and focussed. There are some tasks that feel like climbing mountains, where you have to steady your nerve and say, "Come on. You know you can actually do this. Just begin."

There are times like today, when I've completed a massive piece of writing . . . and another piece of work has come in. 

Last year when my health wasn't good, I thought I wouldn't be able to finish the one I've just completed now. I hadn't the strength. It took a lot of working on my health to be able to continue. And that's an aspect of the discipline: it isn't something people normally associate with writing, but it is all part and parcel of keeping to the path. It's ascetic in some ways; it requires simplicity of lifestyle that at times feels severe.

Then today, because I managed to finish it, I feel like celebrating — but I've made no provision for celebrating! I live so simply, I eat so simply, I don't drink, I choose solitude, I chat with no wolves . . .  And there's the new work waiting to be done, plus a new project of my own slowly hatching.

This last few weeks has felt like swimming — breaststroke, strong, slow advancing through a resistant body of water. A sermon, more work on book, a magazine article, more work on book, another sermon, more work on book . . . on . . . on . . . keep going . . .

A bit beached today.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Faith and creeds

The thing Jesus didn't do was start a religion.

His teaching was all about how we treat one another — encouraging us firmly towards kindness and understanding, trust and simplicity, humility and mercy.

When the zealous tried to make him their leader, he took off. When they tried to elevate him to leadership he found a donkey, the ordinary man's humble steed, to say, "Yes, okay, but this kind of leader." When they called him "Master" and "Teacher", he accepted the accolade as accurate, but took a towel to wash their feet and said, "Like this."

He consistently pushed against the boundaries and challenged the strictures of the religion in which he was raised. No healing on the Sabbath? Really? Why not? No women in here doing theology with the men? Why not? Give family priority access? Why? Anyone can be my family. Not go to tea with a tax collector? Why not? Don't let that woman touch you? Why not? Throw stones at her? Why? Haven't you done things you're ashamed of too?

His criteria for godliness were nothing at all to do with doctrine, and were all about helping other people, generosity, acceptance, and a childlike spirit.

He lived in radical simplicity and the Spirit flowed through him in massive power for healing, sanity, and for bringing peace not to human beings only but across the boundaries of species: life listened to him and believed him. He lived with 100% authenticity and as a result could do what we call "miracles". Miracles are thought to be a suspension of the laws of physics, divine intervention into quotidian reality; actually they are incorporated into the realm of physics but are kicked into touch by hypocrisy, lies and constructed personas. When he said we could do even greater things than he did he wasn't kidding, but we hobble our capacity by our failure to live, speak and recognise truth.

After Jesus came Christianity, which does and does not have anything to do with him. About 300 years after Pentecost, the Council of Nicea nailed things down into a creed. But creeds are to faith what Tupperware is to manna. It goes off. Faith in Christ can only be lived, it cannot be formulated. As soon as you organise it, tabulate it, set it as dogma and doctrine, it ossifies, it goes schlerotic, it turns into something else.

Christianity, as organised religions go, has the capacity to be something very beautiful. As a faith system it has done a lot of good. It has also acted as a huge cloak for abuse and torture and caused untold misery of course, but that's people for you — it need not have done. Christianity remembers Jesus, talks about Jesus, points toward Jesus — at its best; it does also systematically trash everything Jesus ever stood for, sometimes.

But Christianity is not and never can be a substitute for knowing and walking with Jesus. That is something completely different. The creeds and leadership structures, the buildings and denominations and training schemes and accreditations and synods and imprimaturs and validated liturgies are all very well if you like that sort of thing, but in the end they are not the real deal.

"He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." It doesn't need a book, a set form or a certificate. It's all, entirely in your heart, or it simply isn't real. 

Thursday, 18 January 2018


I used to like watching what the media call "gritty dramas". I loved Prime Suspect, and vivid in my memory from ages ago (2010?) is Criminal Justice II; but I think my absolute favourites were The Bridge, and Happy Valley by the unbelievably talented Sally Wainwright.

I still hold those levels of writing, directing and acting in the highest esteem, but increasingly these days I find I cannot watch them. It feels as though too much of the world's sorrow is already inside me and I have no space for any more.

Sarah Lancashire starred in Happy Valley — she was brilliant — and right now she's starring in another gritty drama on UK TV, called Kiri. It's about a tragic situation where a social worker allows a child an unsupervised visit with grandparents, and the child is murdered.

I watched the first episode with the Badger, and then the second one aired last night, straight after Love It Or List It with Phil and Kirsty. 

Just at the present time I'm scrambling to finish writing a book. It has to be in to the publisher in March, and meanwhile that same publisher will any day now be sending me someone's novel to edit that carries its own deadline. 

Our household is made up entirely of quiet people (they do play French horn and trombone and bodhran and flute and violin and piano and harp and oboe and recorder, but the people themselves are quiet), but even so daytime requirements can be . . . turbulent. Writing goes best when I start early in the morning. I often wake around half-past three or a quarter to four, and I can get a solid chunk of work in if I start then. This has a knock-on effect of course; by half-past seven or eight in the evening, I'm often ready to turn in. I fell asleep in my armchair (not a pretty sight) before Phil and Kirsty finished, and there was no hope whatsoever of watching Kiri.

So it was my intention to see Kiri on catch-up TV; the first episode was so good.

But — does this happen to you? — sometimes you can notice-but-not-notice some reality of life. And wanting to watch Kiri made me consciously aware of something I'd noticed but not noticed for a long time. 

I couldn't watch it by myself. It has too much trauma. 

I sat and thought about this, considered it, played it through in my mind, asking myself why I wouldn't watch Episode 2 by myself if I saw Episode 1 with the Badger and thought it was great. 

And I became aware that when I sit in the same room with the others of my household, there's a kind of ectoplasm — like squid ink in the water or smoke rising from a slow bonfire or steam from a wet fence when the sun comes up — a subtle presence / ambience / aura / atmosphere exuded by the other person; an emanating strength. Being with them strengthens me.

When I write that down it doesn't read as astonishing at all. "Yes," you may think. "Of course."

But I hadn't really thought about it before. 

Such influence as we have upon one another! Its negative aspects are much discussed, of course — the effects of mental cruelty and psychological/emotional abuse in gradually eroding a person's confidence and self-esteem. Yet the positive aspects, less so; especially given the emphasis on individualism in contemporary society.

But in our household all of us find strength and hope and courage in doing things together. Even something as simple as watching a programme on TV in which a person suffers and is broken down, torn by distress and unkindly treated by their fellow human beings. Even though I know it's only a story. I need the quiet, steady strength of someone sitting beside me to be able to bear watching it.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Eating simply

A maxim that serves me well: "If in doubt — simplify."

I have yet to find a circumstance it doesn't improve.

It works extremely well for healthy eating.

Veganism is trending, as more people find out exactly what animal husbandry and slaughterhouse practice means in real terms. Recipes for nut loaves and many kinds of dips abound — and aquafaba has recently become a thing.

I care passionately about the welfare of farmed animals, and I would love to be vegan, but I'm one of the many people who don't do well on vegan diet. The problems are not so much those usually raised about sources of calcium and protein and Vet B12 — those things have been well addressed long ago. Less often flagged are dietary aspects like copper and zinc. Copper abounds in veggies, while some types of zinc required to metabolise copper come from animal sources. So unless you have that type of zinc, you can end up with both copper starvation because you can't metabolise all that copper in your veggies, and copper poisoning because you ingested all that copper in your veggies. I've concluded that my way forward is lots of plant-sourced food with a small amount of animal-sourced food. The question is, what?

A few years ago I began to ask myself seriously what I came here to do — what do I need to put into my life so that I could make peace with the idea of dying when my time comes? What will make me contented now and also content with the certain knowledge that I must lay it all down at some point, possibly without warning? What will make me both happy and free?

Simplicity bordering on minimalism/essentialism is, for me, the answer. To own as little as possible, to have as uncluttered a schedule as possible, and to have vast tracts of time for thinking and looking and wondering. 

What has made me happy in this particular day? Looking at the slow, drifting flames in the wood stove. Looking at the colour of wet bark. Looking at the diamond clear drops of rain hanging from the twig-ends of the greengage tree. Standing guard against seagulls while the crows — who rejoice my heart by trusting me — eat the breakfast I put down for them in the garden. Walking in the rain. Soaking in the bath.

These are simple things. Not free — crow food, firewood, accommodation, hot water, these cost money; but not much.

It also makes me happy to push gently into grace/gift economy, so that less and less of what I do is about money. I still have to receive an income to pay my way for utilities, food, clothing, travel, books, stationery — the basic things — but I have reached a place where what I am paid for I would do anyway; I receive payment for it but I don't do it for the money, if you see what I mean. And where I can give away what I have, and work for free, I do that.

During 2017 I was ill quite a lot of the time. My own fault; I'd drifted from the diet that safeguards my health. I'd actually reached the point where I felt so ill so much of the time that I hardly had the energy to do anything, and was quietly waiting out the remainder of my time on Earth waiting for it to be over.  That could have been a mighty long wait as I didn't have any illness as such — well, only things like fibromyalgia, swollen ankles, acid reflux, a venous blood clot, dizziness, exhaustion, depression, chest pains, breathlessness; all the usual suspects. Somehow as the autumn ended I managed to get back into eating right, and slowly wellbeing has returned, such that I can write again and go for walks and generally feel more alive.

But something that is not on my To Do list now or ever is complicated cooking. My housekeeping has to be simple. Frankly, I didn't come here to make nut loaf. It has to be way simpler than that.

What I find most effective — and cheapest too, and the most ethical — is the simplest food of all. Eating what Alice and Hebe call "ingredients".

Fruit, vegetables, beans, some grains (not wheat, for me, but quinoa, brown rice, rolled or steel-cut oats), nuts, herbs, seeds, oil, spices. Just steamed, boiled, fried or baked. Quick, straight-forward. Ten-minute cooking. 

I thought long and hard about the animal sources. Dairy foods make me ill (and are both complicated and cruel to produce), and you know, I find I really can no longer fancy eating somebody's leg or liver. I mean, it just seems very strange. There's a place near us where rescued battery hens find a home, and I get eggs from them. I eat fish about three times a week. This seem to me the simplest type of animal source foods. To lift a fish from the sea and kill it swiftly is less complicated than raising a whole cow or sheep for a year then slaughtering it, butchering it, packaging it, retailing it. I feel so sad for the fish, but it got to live wild, at least. To eat an egg is simpler than eating the chicken. The rescue hens part is important to me, because I'm no fan of gassing male day-old chicks in large batches. Is that what we came here to do? Seems improbable. The rescue hens eggs also come direct from the gate of the house where they live, which happens to be next door to the chapel where I worship, and they happen to cost less than half the price of supermarket eggs as well. Stacks up well — no food miles, no packaging (you take your own), low cost and high welfare. I need only an egg or two each week.

On this very simple and basic diet I do amazingly well, and it makes my money go further. Simplicity ramifies into every aspect of life to improve healing and wellbeing for the individual, the community and the whole of creation. My breakfast today was porridge made from a handful of rolled oats cooked in oatmilk with a pinch of sea salt, combined with the fibre left over from a glass of home-made apple and carrot juice — some from a late-fruiting apple tree in our garden, the rest organic produce from the supermarket. Supper will be a jacket potato, cabbage, fried onions and black bean hummus. Followed by an orange. Couldn't be easier or more delicious. I recommend eating simply. It kind of works like fractals, making a corresponding wellness in my body and the body of the Earth which my body also embodies. Food for oneness, or something.

The picture at the top, I took back in the spring — of ramsons picked wild nearby for our salad. Another month and they'll be up and ready to pick again. Makes me happy.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Almost good and the imperative of confession

I decided to type this in the 'large' option of font, because I've been finding the last few posts a bit fiddling and small to read  so I thought maybe you have too. It might just be my elderly eyesight. It might be that you have the sense to enlarge the page view. Whatever — I thought I'd go a bit bigger. If it feels as though I'm shouting at you, let me know and I'll subside again for the next post.

In my lived-faith-practice, I notice the Spirit often speaks into my heart by emerging themes. Generally what happens is I notice something seriously objectionable in what somebody else is doing. Then I notice that by a curious coincidence another person in my circle of acquaintance is doing the exact same type of offending behaviour. 

Of course, in another life than my own, 'behaviour' is exactly what it is; external manifestation — the part of the iceberg that's sticking up above the surface of the ocean. I make a judgement on what they do with very little idea of what's underneath, what the behaviour is emerging from in terms of stuff they're living through, dealing with, what is triggering all this obnoxiousness, why it is they can't contain it and it has to overflow into evident ordure that reaches my nose.

Then I take it into my prayer, bringing it to Jesus and inviting the cleansing and blessing of his shalom into the person exhibiting the problem.

Without fail, before I even get the garbage I'm dragging halfway to the throne of grace, once I get within earshot the Lord says to me, "Oh yeah? And what about you?" 

And at that point I have to stop ignoring the precise same behaviour showing up in my own life, look at where and what it's coming from, voluntarily open it up for him to look at and clean out, invite his healing and shalom and almighty bleach spray and fresh air into my own dark and mildewed corners — what we call 'confession'.

And the thing that keeps showing up in my life right now at the present time in a phenomenon I call 'almost good'.

When I was a child my father spent much of his life overseas developing the export market for Eveready Batteries, and when he came home from his trips around the world he'd bring gifts and souvenirs, including vinyl discs of music currently trending in Europe, Japan, Africa or wherever he'd recently been. Singles. The Chipmunk Song caught his fancy, and on the flip side of it was David Seville's Almost Good. So this song was part of my childhood. I liked it, but particularly I was intrigued by the concept it presented — that alongside 'good' and 'bad' there was another possible category of 'almost good'. The notion stuck. 

In recent times I've been brought up again and again — in other people's lives —against the evident reality that mediocrity doesn't know itself. People who feel inadequate, aren't doing a good job, are letting things slide and allowing something good and worthwhile to dissolve and crumble on their watch. It's not that they don't mean well, it's not that they are refusing the task, it's not that they aren't standing in the gap. It's more that they are making an almighty effing mess of it, by procrastination, by half measures, by falling down on the job, by being neither conscientious nor meticulous in carrying out what their responsibilities require of them. 

Most destructive of all, is that they cannot afford to look at this and acknowledge it for the single and simple reason that to do so would damage their fragile self-image which low self esteem already renders crumbly. They look at people doing a good job and don't see the difference. Presented with the evidence that they are making  a pig's ear of their responsibilities they a) lie about it and b) blame someone else and c) talk big and lofty about their rĂ´le in it in such a way as to make someone else look bad. That faux-concern for someone else's 'weaknesses'; those dark hints about Problems that they are Dealing With (caused by someone else that they are having to mop up) that Explain Everything. Yeah, right. Mediocrity doesn't — can't afford to — recognise itself. Because steeping in the shame that acknowledgement brings is so very extremely painful. That's why. 

So as usual as I drag this lot the the Throne of Grace I tune in to the usual, "Oh, yes? Thanks. What about you?" And I recognise I have to deal with similar issues.

I see the places where in my relationships I adroitly project and displace blame for my own inability to handle interactions. I see the times where I present a butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my mouth account of situations I'm part of that would all be going so amazingly well if it wasn't for Someone Else. I see the ways I conveniently downplay my contribution to a failing situation and inflate outrage over what They Did To Me. In my work, I detect the grandiosity about my own achievement and its corresponding shadow of disappointment in my failure to get all the way there, to be and to do the best I am capable of, to prepare sufficiently and carry out the task with compassion and grace and imagination.

But the thing is — never fails to intrigue me — in this examination of conscience and exposure under the steady Christlight of the Spirit, there is no increase of wretchedness and shame or guilt; only liberation and even excitement at new insight, refocusing on constructive ways forward, peace and healing. 

This is the primary way you can tell the difference between the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the accusation of the brethren that comes from the corrupt source. The Spirit's convicting doesn't make you feel bad and it doesn't make things worse. It brings compassion and understanding, toward other people and also toward oneself; it deals with the accumulation of festering detritus in the dark corners; it improves everything.

That's why confession is imperative. Blaming other people never helps. "Let your light shine", Jesus said. If I clean up my own act so the light in me is no longer dusty and swamped, light can enter the picture — and that light alters the picture; it introduces the change I want to see. That's what Gandhi-ji said, isn't it? "Be the change you want to see in the world." That's the badger.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Voices of dominance and submission

Things come and go in one's life, don't they? It's that way with me, at least. My awareness intensifies and then fades. It reminds me of sheep in the fog, where you know they're there but don't really see them, until suddenly one emerges and is right in front of you — they were there all along, but you see them now. Though sometimes you hear one cough.

So it is with elements of interpersonal relationship, or the spiritual patterns and dynamics underlying life — they are there but buried until your attention is attracted by something at the very edge of your field of perception — something coughs — and you turn and it stands forth and you see.

Spiritual path involves a lifelong process of clearing and simplifying, lifting out reality from all that buries and obscures it, allowing what is real to emerge and truth to appear. This develops peace, even at the same time as it usually provokes resistance and opposition. When you make truth appear, things start snarling and upheaving. Still you press on.

Back in the day, my first washing machine was a twin-tub (yours too?). How they worked was by twin compartments, one being a spin-dryer, the other a large tank for washing. The washtub had flattish rotary vanes built into one wall to agitate the water. You put in the water with a hose provided — either your own hot water from the get-go or else it had its own incorporated heater, which took awhile. You chucked in the soap as it filled. It drained off into your sink using the same hose, I think — I can't clearly remember now.  Must have done.

Anyway, there you were with a big tub of soapy water with your washing in, and at some point you turned on the rotary vanes and the whole lot started churning round and round. Then came the phenomenon I call "socks in the washing". Sometimes there'd be a thing you inadvertently put in that should not be there — a non-dye-fast garment rapidly turning everything blue/purple/pink, or a pair of cashmere socks that should have been handwashed. As the washing churned around, if you were watchful you could spot the item you wanted to remove and snatch it out as it went by.

And again, this is the same with interpersonal dynamics, the things that catch your attention as life churns around. Every now and then something comes to the fore and you get the chance to pluck it out of the mix — if you don't it submerges again, but it continues to work its alchemy, staining your whole life airforce blue. If you see what I mean.

And something I'm becoming aware of, as I watch the sheep loom in and out of the fog and the socks emerge and disappear in the churning washing of my life, is (or should that be are?) the voices of dominance and submission.

I notice the ones who like to say "No!" in a strident tone (just as an integral part of their regular conversation), the ones whose transactions are bully-or-be-bullied, the ones who put you down once they gain confidence, the ones who shut you down or shut you out, who scold you and humiliate you, who get you where they want you, who turn away in scorn from you, the ones who understand conversation as thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Or proposal-antagonism-struggle-loss/victory. I notice the authoritarian note in the voice and the corresponding meekness of uncertainty, in the same person.

In myself, I notice the desire to say, "I started it / lead it / thought of it / said it first."

I don't like it in myself, the harsh voice of dominance, laying down the way-it-is, sounding impatient. I don't like it when I catch in others the meekness of submission, when someone rolls over and shows you their jugular vein as a plea for mercy because they think you're winning, because your knowledge/skill/power is superior. 

There's something jangly in these interactions, commonplace as they are. Seeing them offers the chance to subtract some socks from the washing.

And then, also: "I'd go a little further up the mountain, if I were you," advises the inner sage. "Say less, be a little less mixed in. Watch more. Volunteer your opinion less. Walk the quiet tracks."

"The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.
The depth of their knowledge is unfathomable,
all we can do is describe their appearance.
Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream.
Alert, like men aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests.
Yielding, like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
Hollow, like caves.
Opaque, like muddy pools.

Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfilment.
Not seeking fulfilment, they are not swayed by desire for change."

(Tao Te Ching Ch 15, tr. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English) 

Monday, 11 December 2017

Winter's day


We have it.

Some of us are hiding from it.


We are ready for it.


We have a fire in it.

All is calm, all is bright — here. God help and succour the refugees sheltering in the Calais woods, the lives scourged by war, the increasing numbers of homeless poor driven into destitution by bad political governance. 

Now, Lord, send them some summer, some manner of joy,
Heaven after hence-going, that here have such default!
And have pity on the rich that relieve no prisoners
From the good things you hast given, the ungrateful many;
But, God, in thy goodness, give them grace to amend.
But poor people, thy prisoners, Lord, in the pit of mischief,
Comfort those creatures that suffer many cares,
Through dearth or drought, all their days here,
Woe in winter-time, for want of clothing,
And in summer-time, seldom a full supper.
Comfort thy care-stricken, Christ, in thy kingdom.

(from Piers Plowman)