Monday, 21 April 2014

Learning to see again

Happy or unfortunate, life’s coincidences.

One of two girl children born to a nurse trained in the techniques and philosophy of Sir Truby King, assiduous and purposeful attention watched over my infant years. It’s a significant thing, being the child of a Trained Nursery Nurse.  All those lectures and notes, all that systematic method, drawn together and focused with the force of a heavy woman’s stiletto heel upon parquet, into the life of a casual and unsuspecting baby.

It didn’t suit my sister – lively, vivacious, active, curious, truthful – but it did suit me.

Swaddled, I was laid down in my pram under the trees; and there I lay, content to watch the pattern of light and shade.  Given a postcard to entertain me, I was sent to rest on my bed; and there I lay, looking at it in detail and at length, then watching the sun light filtering through the pink flannel lining of the white candlewick curtain, listening to the cooing of pigeons in the boughs of the Scots pine outside the window. Told to sit nicely in church I watched the interplay of light through stained glass onto polished pews – the dark amber golden wood, the scars of age, the dancing random colours. Told to play quietly, I sat on the path and watched the ants hurrying busily between their small kingdom in the grassy verge and the sunwarmed concrete with its dust and inconsequential detritus of dead leaf and bark fragments.

Throughout my childhood, I watched and listened and thought.  At school I gazed through the window at the distant poplars, watched the dust in the sunbeams or the trickling of rain on glass. I looked at sunlight and leaves, wooden window sills and painted glazing bars, doorsteps and hinges, bath taps and flowerpots, happy and absorbed.

Then I became a mother and everything changed. In that moment I became a responsible being, my life re-cast, characterized now by unremitting activity. My dormant volcano of rage, its eruptions triggered only rarely in childhood, leaked molten lava. Always, always, I felt guilty, tired and inadequate. I progressed from there to the imperative also to earn a living. In this, too, I was ill-equipped.  There are few occupations for those primarily fitted to lie on their backs and watch the clouds blown by the night wind across the field of stars.
Living simply eases the demand for output and enhances the opportunity to think, to watch, to listen. So I did that.

But eventually, in this last decade, it dawned only gradually upon me, I had lost the ability to see.  So preoccupied had I become with the inescapable necessity to do, to organize, to respond and to invent ways and means, that my mind had become taken up with looking for – looking at relegated to dilettante decadence. Laziness.

But I am inching my way back. Sluicing out the guilt of responsibility, looking and looking and looking until at last things are beginning to reveal themselves to me again.  I don’t have to go far. Just stay very still and concentrate into the sharpest indigo third-eyed point. Then I see.

Shaft of sunlight falling across a cushion on an old armchair by the angle of the chimney breast.

The colours of the cushion in the light.

The texture of the embroidered cushion cover.

Sticks and the light and shadow of the white painted wall.

The clumps of mint and chives growing at the edge of the grass.

The Victorian brick wall at the back of the log store.

The apple blossom opening.

The glory of a first rose.

The ardent red of new leaves in spring.

The meandering of the path, a dry river.

Nostalgic rusting metal, silvering wood, of the old garden seat and table in the long grass.

The lavender swarming close up the side of the little Russet apple tree and the old chimney pot where we grow mint, alongside.

The rich glaze of a pot.

The juxtaposition of colour, texture, form, in ordinary household objects.

The masculinity of tweed, leather, metal. Grey blue, worn green, golden brown.  Syrupy liquid brown that pours out and mingles inextricably with sunshine. Glad brown. Warm. Friendly. Comforting.

Ashes. On Indian stone.

Shabby things.

Utensils handled and worn.

Architectural forms.  Cool green and white. Austere shapes. Dim corridor light.

Moss and violets growing over and around damp stones.

Violets at the path’s edge, where earth accumulates at the foot of the wall.

A foxglove rooted in the crevice where the painted housewall meets the path.

Weeds sprouting opportunistic, softening the cracks in the concrete, beautifying, returning what is manmade to the Earth. The silent determination of growth.

 Mint shadow.

Air bricks in this old house, and a small audacious weed.

Tiled path, decayed.

A lantern suspended from stairs.

A discarded brick-pink towel on a sage-green carpet.

The clean distinctiveness of separate household objects.

Sunlight on the wall.

On such feeds my soul like a browsing goat. Chews the cud, yellow slot eyes closing in the warm sun. This is what I came here to see. It takes time.

"Monday Blog Tour"

There’s a thing going round among writer friends – a mini-blog-tour.  Claire Dunn has invited me to participate (see her blog, here).  

That’s C.F.Dunn, author of an unfolding series of novels, Mortal Fire, Death Be Not Proud and, most recently, Rope of Sand.

This mini-blog tour involves answering four questions –
  • What am I working on?
  • How does my work differ from others in its genre?
  • Why do I write what I do?
  • How does my writing process work?

 – then nominating two other writers to address the same questions.  I’ve nominated Rachel Phifer, author of the novel The Language of Sparrows, and Donna Fletcher Crow, a prolific and successful author of Christian historical novels.  Donna will be picking this up on her blog, I know; but I haven’t yet heard back from Rachel.

So, then, to the questions.

What am I working on?
My current work-in-progress was intended as a preachers’ resource, but my publisher feels it will do better as a gift book / bedside book.  It’s a fusion of reflection and fiction, in the same way as was my Lent book published this year, The Wilderness Within You.
This new book is to be called The Wren On The Fence, and will be a collection of 52 short fictional pieces, following the liturgical year.  Each piece will explore the theme set for the Sunday of that week in the ecclesiastical year, and take into account also the quarter-day and cross-quarter-day themes of the ancient Celtic Year – pre-dating the Council of Whitby.  Each piece will be to a word-length allowing it to take about ten minutes to read, so it will be handy for those looking for material for women’s meetings, homegroup meetings, personal quiet times or for the ministry of the word in an evening service or ‘second’ service (eg an 8.00am communion service).
I’ve just begun this, and its completion deadline is the end of November.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I write both fiction and non-fiction, Christian spirituality.  My publishers (both UK and US) produce books primarily (broadly) for the evangelical end of the Christian marketplace.  In Christian fiction there’s a strong movement away from ‘confessional’ fiction, in which the Christian message is explicit and declared, to a more implicit exploration of Gospel themes – less upfront about Jesus, more imbued, shot-through, with the values that characterize (or at least inspire) the Christian faith community.
My work differs from all this in two ways. Firstly, in my novels, I am not following the trend of being less up-front about Jesus.  Because I believe that the irreducible minimum content – the essence, the nub – of the Christian faith is a direct personal encounter and relationship with the living Lord Jesus, that’s what I write about. It’s possible to be nuanced in expressing this in fiction, but I don’t try to tone it down or cover it up in any way.
Secondly, my thinking – and therefore my work – draws on and is informed by other thoughtforms and world religions; Hinduism, Sufism, Taoism, Buddhism and a whole variety of other thinkers – secular, scientific, New Age, Theosophist, Anthroposophist – I don’t mind what they are, I’m interested in what they have to say, exploring it, considering it, turning it over and over in the light of truth as I understand it.  Listening always for the ring of authenticity.
In both these respects my focus and intent, or at least my method, differs somewhat from the general current trend in Christian fiction and devotional material.

Why do I write what I do?
In 2007 I made a resolve that henceforth I would do – only do – what I came here (to Earth) to do. Being an awkward and somewhat dysfunctional person, my contribution to human society is not considerable; but I have gained some insights, and I think I can articulate them in such a way that they become helpful to others and hopefully nourishing to the soul. So my writing is my offering to God and to other people. 
I write fiction with the aim of making goodness attractive. I’ve noticed many books rely heavily on what is cruel, unkind, frightening or horrific for their power – the villains and their activities give their work its splendor. I strongly believe it is possible to fill life with goodness without being either boring or bored; and my novels set out to demonstrate this.

How does my writing process work?
I live a secluded, isolated, retired life, devoted – avidly – to thinking, wondering, watching, listening, finding out and reflecting. 
I make notes of my conclusions.
The process is primarily an exercise in ferocious concentration. It makes me hard to live with.

Simplicity thoughts

A friend on QuakerQuaker posted about her journey into simplicity.  I won't give her identity here in case she wouldn't wish it, or talk about the comment thread, because though QuakerQuaker isn't confidential, it is a context and Friends could reasonably expect what they said in that context to stay there.

But in reading about her explorations and reflections, I realized I’d formulated further conclusions of my own, which I wanted to share with you here for your consideration, as well as in the comment I left on QuakerQuaker.
The Friend on that site wondered how others find the peace amid increasing meaninglessness in modern day-to-day  life. She asked what brings us joy and peace, what we have let go of, and what we do to stay connected to Life.
And in reply I said the following.
"I have been fascinated by simplicity all my adult life, trying (and often failing) to find my way into a sustainable and realistic practice of simplicity. I've found plenty that are neither, and wasted a lot of time and money on them too.  Here are my findings so far:  
1) As they say, "blossom where you're planted"; I believe realistic and sustainable simplicity involves learning to live lightly within one's actual context, rather than complicating life by creating an alternative reality and oscillating between the two. 
2) Authenticity - truthfulness - creates simplicity. Restless aspirations, trying to fulfil the expectations of others, and wanting to be someone different complicate life badly. 
3) Wholegrains and vegetables promote simplicity because they diminish internal pendulum swings (which are exacerbated by meat and sugar).  Simplicity is strongly linked to interior peace, and so are whole grains and vegetables. 
4) It takes a while to process assimilated information. Sometimes, in my search for simplicity, I get so much of information/ideas/opinions on board, so forceful, that it backs up and makes my mind sick - mental over-production. It occurs to me to limit information, but act on it. 
5) Of all the things that promote realistic and sustainable, honest simplicity, the best and most beautiful is sharing. The more we share the less we end up with. The less we have, the easier it becomes to share. Sharing is the most practical route into simplicity, and it generates joy. Simplicity is the only doorway into spirituality, sharing is the simplest route into simplicity. Sharing also helps safeguard against grabbing back - because others are now holding firm to what once was all your own."

And, to add to that, here:

My next door neighbor Sylvia shared with us the rocking horse in the picture above. She knows my daughter Grace, whose children follow on in age from her own, and has often kindly given us beautiful sturdy and practical outgrown clothing. Then she gave us the horse.  To watch my granddaughter get the hang of rocking it herself, singing along in her best approximation to the words of “Horsey, horsey, don’t you stop,” is pure joy.  The horse is a strong toy, and in due course can be passed on to another family.  This is a very happy simplicity practice, and it has more joy in it than selling things does.

When I did my 365 chuckout – my year of getting rid of at least one thing for each day – something I gave away (none of these things were sold, all were given) was a fishing chair, on Freecycle.  I treasured (and blogged) the email I received in response:
"Thank you very much for the fishing chair you have made our young son very happy as he has just started to go fishing with his Dad and he now has his own chair to sit on He’s actually having his lunch on it now. Nicky".

It gave me such delight – much more than ever the chair did or than the small amount of money I could have got by selling it. Sharing is the happiest way into simplicity. I recommend.

Oh. For any poor deprived folk who don’t actually know Horsey Horsey, Don’t You Stop, it goes like this: