It was inadvisable, in my childhood, to be found reading in the morning. It was bound to be a source of irritation: the morning was for work – reading was not work but leisure, and therefore to be reserved for the evening – or at any rate the afternoon.
My mother worked very hard. All day long she would be cleaning and sweeping, caring for the animals, washing the clothes, nipping out the side-shoots on the greenhouse tomatoes, mixing sheep-muck with water for liquid feed for the vegetable garden, planting beans, feeding lambs, getting in the eggs, ironing, making cakes and meatloaf, walking the dog.
She never stopped. In the summer months she would be up until one and two in the morning shelling broad beans, slicing runner beans, skinning tomatoes, putting them down in the freezer to see us through the winter. Never stopped. Her hands were stained brown with plant juices that couldn’t be washed off.
In my understanding, work is physical. You do it and people can see that you are. It involves getting up and moving. Work involves muscles; activity.
And I think of work as justifying my being here. Once when, as a child, my mother complained to her mother of all the work to be done, my grandmother replied in astonishment: ‘But what would we do all day if we didn’t work?’
‘Work’ was synonymous with ‘life’ in my family.
But it was also true that no one minded what you did if they couldn’t see you. Up in the wood, hidden in the attic, across in the sheep field, down by the river, you could read all day if you’d a mind to.
I like thinking, and looking, and sitting quietly. I like doing things slowly. I like watching the light and the trees, watching the rain as it crosses the valley, smelling the scent of wet earth carried on the breeze. I like touching the petals of flowers, and crumbling peat in my hands, and feeling the rough bark of trees with my fingertips.
I like tasting things – metal, cork, the skin of my knees. I like watching the fire change and feeling how similar is breathing the cold air of winter to drinking water.
I like standing under great trees and feeling their joy. I like trying to understand what animals are saying. I like listening to the robin sing, and having the time to notice him playing hide-and-seek with me in the hedgerow.
I like watching the dawn of a February morning. And I love the ocean, and the hills.
I also like ironing and weeding and washing and sweeping and cooking and running errands. I love drawing together the strands of things so that my home is a place of peace and warmth and beauty, where people find rest for their souls and love that nurtures and heals.
I like quietness and stillness and silence and not really doing too much.
Sometimes in my life I have met people who told me I was lazy; in a biting sort of way – full of contempt. I wonder if I am?
For quite a lot of years I worked very hard. I cared for my children, then I worked as a minister: and often during those years I worked til I felt ill with tiredness, almost hysterical with tiredness – that’s how I knew I was working hard enough.
Sometimes as a mother, at my wits’ end with exhaustion, I’d rage and scream at the children, hardly knowing what I was doing. Sometimes as a minister, I had to play pounding rock and roll tapes in the car to re-start the rhythm of life in me, because I was really too tired to drive home.
After a decade of terror and despair, of endings and beginnings and endings – finding my family without a home, myself without work, without a husband, then watching a second husband disintegrate in illness, widowhood, starting again, marrying again, moving far, far from my family which tore my soul in two – I came to a place where I had in the deepest roots of me had enough. I had to be quiet: not for a week in a hotel or a fortnight on the coast, but at home and forever.
I had to find peace from the things that tear and witter at the spirit, the nattering twittering dailiness that is always wanting something.
So I sold or gave away almost everything, and now I live in peace.
Most days have very few obligations – I keep the house as clean as it needs to be, or I potter in the garden. I see to the washing and feed the birds, water the plants. I get the provisions from the market and cook the supper.
Sometimes I’m lonely, but I don’t mind it very much.
It makes me ponder on what is worthwhile.
When I worked so very hard, I compensated by spending money – take-away meals, days out, ‘retail therapy’, coffee in town, nice clothes, bags, shoes, jewellery, a car…. Oh, all kinds of bits and pieces. It used up all my money, it took up all my time, and I was tired, tired, tired.
Now I have very little money. I still like to buy clothes and books and presents – but I buy them second-hand for a song. We can eat very cheaply, because I can take my time and go to the market and the inexpensive shops. Holidays are visiting my children or my mother.
I am so happy and so peaceful. There is time for everything.
The days are not busy busy busy – there is space. And with few possessions the house is easy to keep tidy and clean; it feels spacious – room for the soul to expand.
I was raised to believe that constant activity was what justified my taking up space on the earth. I still feel a bit guilty, and wonder if that may be true – and yet somehow I can’t help travelling this way: it was how I was made to be.
Sometimes I look at the things people do that keep them so busy, and I wonder if they aren’t busy because they have things to do but are doing things so that they will be busy. They work hard for long hours to pay for a car and an overcoat and a briefcase and smart suits – and why do they need those things? So they can go to work.
Of course, the fundamentals are paying for accommodation and food and heat – but it actually takes startlingly little to generate the money for those, provided people live together in sharing clumps and are happy to live simply with few possessions.
One of the most expensive things of all is war. Every time I see on the television the escalation of aggression between antagonistic groups, it strikes me what a waste of everything that is. A waste of life, scattering joy and destroying the homes so carefully got together and paid for, destroying hospitals and water provision, the infra-structures that keep people safe from disease and enable them to taste the sweetness of life. War lays waste civilisations and beautiful wilderness, human lives and the heritage of art. War kills hope and fosters despair and bitterness and grief. There is nothing good in it at all.
Oh God of peace, in whose hand are all my days, grant me to live quietly that I may shine a steady light and do some small good in this world; grant me to live happily that the lives touching mine may be sweetened and blessed; grant me with my every moment and with all the fire of my soul to build the peaceable kingdom, the city of God. May I walk lightly through my days; may I take time to notice the beauty of all you have made; may my choices be informed by compassion and may I breathe in wisdom; may I stay close to Christ in his poverty and simplicity, passing through on foot until I find my way home.