Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Grace economy

So having carefully thought through the challenge of moneyless living, I decided it wasn’t for me (see previous post).

Even so, I wanted to live as small and humble and simple as I possibly could. That was how Jesus lived, and how St Francis lived. I love the freedom of it, and the space it leaves to think clearly and make decisions slowly. I dislike the tendency to approximation and sloppiness that come from too much rush and tear, from busyness and haste. I like the quietness and peace of empty space, unfilled by ornaments or utensils. I like what Japanese call Ma – the space between things that allows each thing really to be seen. I value time, not to fill with chores and commitments, but to sit still and really see – the bees visiting vetch flowers in the grass, the squirrel on the fence and the wren coming for crumbs of cheese the crow left behind, the fox and the badger at nightfall, the setting sun and the stars coming out.

To make this life possible I aspire to own as little as possible – just a few clothes and a small shelf of other odds and ends, my bedding, one or two cooking pots, a mug and plate and bowl, a spork and a knife. The essentials. I do still perhaps have more clothes than I need, but they are simple and interchangeable, practical and hardwearing, quiet and not eye-catching; simple and plain. I thought through the whole issue of observant dress (like Plain Dress or the robes of a monastic) and concluded that such garb was, at the roots of its beginnings, the unassuming clothing of humble working people – decent, modest, ordinary. So that’s what I wear. I try for black or dark grey because it takes you from everyday to formal more realistically, and shows stains the least.

So much for things. As to money and ownership, I have three sources of income: writing, a tiny pension left by my previous husband, and a cottage I let, that I bought from money my mother gave me and my father left me. I maintain the cottage to a high standard and let it at a rent the low side of fair, so it returns only a very modest net income. Most years I earn just around the tax threshold. This year will be less because I wrote no new books – so no royalty advances!

I spend my money, just over a quarter on my contribution to the expenses of our household – five adults sharing; a quarter on the shared food bill for the Badger and me, and helping an unwaged family member; a quarter on bills for my rental cottage; just under a quarter on savings and disposable income.

My disposable income goes on things like books for my Kindle, stamps, essential oils (instead of deodorant, and for scenting bathwater) and other toiletries (face and body moisturisers made by my family, and shampoo), eating out, transport, occasional purchases, and gifts to charities (Friends Of The Earth, Stop The War Coalition, the wonderful Methodist relief and development fund All We Can, the food bank, and various organisations helping refugees or people who are desperately poor.

Right now, the Badger is away in America, so I am living in Komorebi while he’s gone, but when he’s home I like to be near to him so I live mostly in his attic with him. I like to be near my household too, so I hang out with them and eat with them much of the time too. All of us work from home at least some of the time – just now our Alice is making some huge stained glass windows for the hospice in our town.

The last paragraph was not about money but gives an idea of how we live. In our garden we grow herbs and trees mostly – we have several fruit trees, still young but already producing well; so it makes a beautiful space, welcoming to birds and insects, toads and wild animals, but also grows food for us to eat. We have huge barrels for catching rainwater (about 750 litres worth in total) from the roof, and we catch sun in our solar arrays to heat the water and supply electricity for our house. Much of our winter heating comes from the woodstove and the open fire. The main fuel is either logs from old or diseased trees needing to be felled, or from what they call ‘heat logs’, compressed from sawdust floor-sweepings generated by the timber industry. And our kindling is a mixture of dead (ready to use) twigs tossed down to us in the storms by the beautiful and beloved old ash trees at the foot of the garden, and fir/pine cones that we collect when we’re out for a walk at this time of the year.

I believe in that thing I best like described as the ‘grace economy’, though some people call it the ‘gift economy’ – where people are just given what they need because they need it, no strings attached. Though (for the reasons given in the previous post) I decided being moneyless doesn’t really work in the modern Western world, I am opposed to the reign of Mammon – growth economics will destroy the Earth; we urgently need to transition to sustainable economics. Consumer lifestyle, mass production, and the proliferation of manmade objects are bad news (and therefore the antithesis of the Gospel). So in the gradual dispensing of all I own, and the radical minimalizing of our household possessions, we haven’t sold things (even beautiful, valuable, desirable things) but given them away. We try to make sure everything we donate is given responsibly. Odds and ends are collated appropriately into craft bundles or altar kits; furniture and household items are given to friends starting out afresh or on low incomes; clothes and ornaments for the most part go to raise money for charity (charity shops/ Goodwill); unused (unwanted) art supplies go to students or other artists working in that field; old bedding not fit to donate is welcomed by the dog warden so strays have something comfy to lie on, not just a concrete pen floor. Broken or damaged wooden items are good for firewood, or else the Badger remakes them into beautiful furniture.

Then, when it comes to purchases, I try to source clothes and household items secondhand – from charity shops or eBay. And we ask around our family before purchasing. For instance, our duvet covers (me and the Badger) gave up the ghost – but our Rosie had a couple of spare sets that she kindly gave us.

We do have a car (bought secondhand), but it is very economical, and is the only car for our household of five adults, my married daughter’s household, and my elderly mother.

In my experiments with the grace economy, I’ve tried to minimize what I do for money. At one time I might have claimed expenses for preaching and conducting retreats and quiet days (travel and resources costs), and I used to be paid fees for that work, too. But now I don’t. I still work for money – my rule of thumb is that if the only link the person hiring me has with me is money, then I charge a fee; but if their life and mine belong to each other, then I don’t. 

None of this is very remarkable or innovative, for sure – but the life we get at the end of it is wonderful, and it allows us to walk relatively lightly on the earth.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Minimalism and moneyless living

I’ve been thinking about money a lot. It’s a favourite subject for me – I’m very interested in money.

A few years back when we (my family) were playing around with different poetic forms, some of us were writing haiku: 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 sequence. Hebe wrote this:
Money is currency, not a static thing. It is – is intended as – a flow. Stagnant (hoarded) money does not bless. Not to say that we shouldn’t save, but our savings should be like a reservoir with an overflow. There is (though our society seems to have a hard time grasping this concept) such a thing as ‘enough’. Once our savings goal, which should be moderate, just enough to cover needs and contingencies, has been met, then it should be allowed to flow out again, because it’s the flow that enables the blessing.

The question is, to what extent is its flow congruent with the flow of grace? If it is, it will bring blessing; if not it will set up contra-flows and eddies that threaten our wellbeing.

My thinking about money is always intertwined with thoughts about holy simplicity. How to follow a minimalist path wisely and realistically.

So this summer I’ve thought and read and researched a lot about living without money. There’s more on that topic than there used to be. Daniel Suelo, Peace Pilgrim, Heidemarie Schwermer, Mark Boyle – these are familiar names, but the numbers of people experimenting with moneyless practice have increased, and their findings make interesting reading.

I thought hard about moneyless living, wondered if I could do it. You have to have no home, really – because of council tax and other maintenance overheads; and you have to think about sourcing food. Most moneyless people rely heavily on dumpster-diving, and I feel uncomfortable with that. It’s not eating thrown-out food that bothers me but getting into trouble – going where I’m not welcome and being chased off, people being angry with me. That happens with authority figures anyway; I make people angry quite a lot, unwittingly, and I’m nervous of triggering rage. So while I’m happy to forage wild food and eat thrown-out food, I’m leery of instigating conflict/antagonism.

Also, I love the Buddhist monastic precept, that you should not take what is not given. That refines further the Judeo-Christian precept that you should not steal – you actually wait to be offered before you take. This precept seems to me to greatly enhance the chances of harmony in human society.

While I was pondering this, I came upon a moneyless blogger’s article on transport, in which he said he’d been much encouraged by a remark Daniel Suelo made that I either hadn’t read or had forgotten (I’ve read most of what Suelo has to say). This was to do with entitlement – that Suelo reportedly identified as a problem moneyless individuals sense that they couldn’t avail themselves of what was normally paid for. The particular matter in focus was riding on the subway. The blogger felt unentitled to ride on the subway with no bought ticket. But Suelo had said the subway (this is in America – I think they mean a train – underground?) was going in any case, so what was the harm in riding on it? The blogger embraced this argument gladly and thus solved his problem.

Now, while I am not greatly disturbed by the notion of people fare-hopping, I don’t want to do it myself. This time (unlike the dumpster diving) the issue for me is not just about getting into trouble.

Moneyless living should offer a practical and coherent philosophy, if one is to propose it as a way of living; and this business of riding the subway with no ticket exposes a big hole in it. Because the subway didn’t get there by itself, it was created within the money system. In order to have something as complex and sophisticated, drawing on that many disparate disciplines and commodities (sourcing, engineering manufacturing, operational) if you didn’t have a common currency like money you’d have to invent one. You couldn’t create something like a subway bartering pigs or apples or even iron ore. So really, if you are in favour of everyone (not just yourself) living without money – if you have embraced and are proposing it as a workable philosophy for human community – then you should model ways to live it that don’t depend on the money system. That’s what I think, though I well know that those who live without money disagree, because they go into this subject carefully. I am not interested in pursuing a philosophy of life that depends for its survival on a contrary philosophy. What I’ve seen so far of moneyless living in the Western world relies on a parasite-host arrangement which doesn’t attract me.

But because growth economics has an arising angel of certain death for the Earth and all of us who are part of the Earth, I am very interested in living as simply as possible – walking lightly, living frugally and sustainably, sharing as much as possible, owning as little as possible.

 Minimalism and sharing form the most effective symbiosis for the good of the Earth and the wellbeing of people. Because this blog post is long now, I’ll write about that next time.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

A waymark or milestone or something

I just woke up to something so blindingly obvious I can’t believe it took me so long to understand it. But I’ve been on the trail of this since I was fifteen, and only tonight got the point – that’s 44 years.

So, when I was fifteen I asked Jesus into my heart, to be my Master. I gave my life to him. It’s been his property ever since, and I have – though it remains true that my choices and how I have lived have not always been what he has asked of me or shown me how to be.

Then just a little while after that, still when I was fifteen, I came across the life and writings of St Francis of Assisi – and I recognized in him the quiet eye, the single-pointed concentration of being, that I knew I wanted. And the joy of a pared-down life, the freedom and exhilaration of irreducible minimalism. Exposure to angels, to the presence of God. Luminous humility.

I loved Francis then and I do still. I love his slightly unhinged literalism, the blaze of his compassion and tenderness, his astonishing self-discipline, his ability to turn away from himself to a gaiety so translucent that Holy Spirit shone right through.

So, there was Francis, lodged in my mind and heart, in my consciousness.

When I was sixteen I worked with nuns, and I searched in them for the inspiration I’d found in Francis – and didn’t find it. Some of them I liked better than others, but they were only people, if you see what I mean. Just women who had chosen to live that way. Nothing special.

When I was eighteen I left home and went to live with some monks in the West Country.  Unusual men – I think it would be fair to say they were even somewhat odd. Delightful in their way. I lived with them for a while. I liked some things about their company – but one lived with fairly serious mental illness, another struggled with the turbulence of his humanity. They were interesting, I learned about life from living with them; but they did not have what I was looking for.

I went from there to college, and met the nuns attached to the cathedral where I worshipped. They used to invite me to tea and I found them intriguing – but not inspiring. Most weeks I attended a rather wonderful prayer meeting at a monastery of Poor Clares. I loved them, and their way of life delighted me. They were darlings, but I could not find what I was looking for in any one of them.

I made friends with the monks at Ampleforth, and found inspiration there. In the unfolding of time, two of the Ampleforth monks have remained vivid in my mind – dearly loved, people through whom I saw the light of Christ shine so clear. But they could not answer my questions – even dodged and rebuffed me. Something evasive, elusive, something I could not grasp. Something that disappointed me and slipped away from me. What I was seeking wasn’t there.

I searched everywhere – reading the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and Gandhi and Lao Tsu, sniffing along the Amish trail and looking among the Plain people.

Everywhere I looked and read and studied, all I found was people – ordinary people – when I got close enough to really see. People with foibles and issues and frailties; only people like me.

Early on in my search I asked God for a guru, and the Spirit breathed inside me saying, you have to be what you are searching for – you have to be your own guru.

I tried out spiritual directors and writers and communities and teachers and leaders. I watched and I listened, I weighed and I thought. And always I found some that was good and some that was lacking. Nothing I could entirely trust myself to.

Alongside this I had been tracking simplicity, experimenting in myriad ways with the holy poverty I saw in the life of Francis – trying and failing, working on it, seeing its power and letting it slip through my fingers.

I tried simplicity of dress and taking up little space, owning and disowning, a while wearing saris, a while wearing Plain dress – and attracting gently affectionate mockery or silent bewilderment.

Along the way I encountered all manner of traumas and tearing griefs – losses and terrifying life crashes, the implosion of illusions including illusions about my own integrity and spirituality. I learned that nothing could be relied on, not even oneself; nothing is permanent, everything passes.

I came to minimalism and discovered its startling power – taking me closer to freedom. The less you have the more you have. 

And every now and then the intense longing would spiral round, for my community, for the people on the same trail, the same path. And I wanted a teacher, a guru. But every time when I thought I’d found someone, I looked closer and thought . . . hmm . . .

This last stretch of time – the last few months – has come back the intense longing for people to compare notes with, who are on the same track; and for a teacher, a guru. But the thought doesn’t even have the time to expire before I know, “Not that . . . not that . . .”

I know that if I found others committed to extreme minimalism, trying by every means to live the most pared down life, the most frugal and hidden and poor – we would recognise each other, but have nothing to say. Because it doesn’t really organize or formulate – it comes to the place where it just is, where there is only the self and God and silence, and nothing else will do.

And then it was just tonight, recognizing that, I understood what had been in front of me all along – why the nuns and monks and anabaptists and Amish and all the rest had never been able to supply the thing I was looking for; it’s not in the person, it’s in the life.

The person is only ever just that – a person – a flawed and ordinary human being. The wonder, the transformation, the light shining through is not in the person, it’s in the committed life. The person becomes the fuel for the burning of the flame, and the flame rests on them like Pentecost, is upon them but does not belong to them, rests on them but is not owned by them.

There is no guru, no teacher, no authority. There is only the Tao – the way – and you’re either walking it or you’re not. Life is the teacher, the guru, the message.

This has happened to me before once or twice, this coming out into the loneliness of naked light, where the unbearable love of Christ waits in uncompromised silence. I glimpse it and then shut my eyes, can’t look, let it slip. It’s very hard to sustain. I find myself wanting someone to do it with, to be a pilgrim alongside – but that’s the thing; everybody is, but nobody perfectly is. We are all on the journey – or at the very least muddling around the same territory like book mites traversing a map.

Life will be my teacher and Christ my companion and in the untracked improbability of the Tao I will be lost and found and lonely and come home to myself a thousand times. And the less I have the more I will have until I have nothing and come into my inheritance, Light invisible and unimaginable. Which I have to say doesn’t sound very promising, because what it offers is abjectly terrifying until one’s being slips into that socket and knows this was home all along.

Thursday, 4 August 2016


For a while we lived in Aylesbury.

There we had a mosque and a significant presence of people in the local citizenry from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

So I saw lots of women out and about dressed in salwar kameez, going about their daily business. Walking along the same street, I noticed that they walked slowly; an unhurried rhythmic grace.

Our house in Aylesbury had a prison at one end of the street and a leafy public garden at the other end. In that garden, I often saw an elderly couple in Muslim dress taking their constitutional afternoon walk. No rush, no power-walking. Just slowly and peacefully.

Once I went to London on the train to hear Thich Nhat Hanh speak. I travelled in to the capital on the regular overground system, then took the tube to the conference hall. As usual, the underground station platforms, stairs, escalators and walkways were crammed with people in a hurry, dodging round each other, edging passed each other, marching along. But I was lucky. I got off the tube train onto a platform where two Buddhist monks in their robes were walking along to the same destination. I fell in behind them. They walked slowly and peacefully, no rush, completely relaxed, no strain or tension in their bodies. And I noticed that where the bulk of the people were constantly stopping and starting, surging ahead then frustrated by the obstacles they presented to each other, these monks kept the same pace – slow enough to give time for others to make way for them without creating turmoil. I think they may even have got there quicker in the end – they certainly got there with less stress.

Reminds me of the gait of Catholic nuns I lived and worked with – neither rush nor delay; a steady, deliberate, mindful pace. Walking with inner calm intact past a vainly ringing telephone on many an occasion. Made me smile.

A slow, low-energy person raised by a high-voltage mother, much of my life has been spent trying to get up to speed. I messed up my adrenals depending on sugar to achieve the necessary pace.

Often, I notice myself trying to do things fast. Shoulders hunched tense, quick as I can, trying to chop the veggies to get them into the pan before the oil overheats, trying to get the washing on the line without keeping people waiting when I’ve promised to drive the car to the store, trying to get done, get ready . . .  I stop breathing. Dizzy and faint at the top of three flights of stairs taking the phone up to my husband, I lean against the wall – and remember to start breathing.

I don’t actually need to do things this fast. My children are grown, I have detached from my mother’s unreachable standards, I have dispensed with almost all possessions, I need little and can work with patience and focus on occupational tasks and duties.

I’m thinking of walking behind a woman in salwar kameez and sandals swaying gently on her way to Aylesbury market. I’m thinking of two Buddhist monks threading peacefully through the rush-hour crowds in the London underground.

Speak softly, People will listen. Take your time, The world will wait.”

I didn’t ever know I did things all of a rush, how anxious and guilty I felt. I didn’t ever know I stopped breathing, hunched my shoulders, created my own emergencies to rescue and deadlines fulfill.

I’m learning to go slowly. I like it better.

*        *        *

Picture – detail from a painting by Hebe Wilcock