Friday, 31 December 2010
Friends, may 2011 be a year of blessing for you.
Just now many threads and strands of thought are muddling round in my head. I'm working on a novel with some elusive and complex ideas in that has delicate and not-so-easy passages of interaction and dialogue to write. And I've been asked for some complicated editorial bits and pieces to lay some inconsistencies straight in the fiction series I've been writing. Christmas and New Year have meant a difference in household routines etc, and family time and encounters, that all take up head-space. So my thoughts are a bit muddled and random...
One of the things I've been thinking about is the whole concept of personal history. I wish you could have been a fly on the wall to behold an interaction between me and my Badger yesterday; it would have been very educational for you.
You know how there are some things that run in families, or in a life, things with a History? A bit like old Aunt Ada Doom, in Cold Comfort Farm, who had to have her own way all the time because she Saw Something Nasty In The Woodshed when she was a little girl? So those things run like a tape that comes to dominate relationships and trains of thought and likely outcomes to conversations.
Well, a sequence of events set me off on one of those old tapes. A moment passed me by like a snake slipping quiet under the grass into the bushes, that I could have caught if I'd been alert enough, but I let it stay in my peripheral vision and didn't lay hold of it. That moment said to me, "You know, you don't need this. You don't need to do this." But in the interest of being honest or just unwilling to let things go, I set off on old complaints and clung doggedly to old hurts and injustices.
In the past, it would have escalated into a row, and me and Badger would both have been defensive and said hurtful things; but we didn't. He heard me, and he understood, and asked me what I wanted him to do that would make things better; and I couldn't think of anything. And we stayed in a place that was honest and loving, although fairly painful.
This was all about old family stuff, difficult things from the early days of our marriage.
And then this morning, it came to my mind what Carlos Castaneda had said about personal history in his book Journey To Ixtlan:
I have no routines or personal history. One day I found out that they were no longer necessary for me and, like drinking, I dropped them. One must have the desire to drop them and then one must proceed harmoniously to chop them off, little by little. If you have no personal history, no explanations are needed; nobody is angry or disillusioned with your acts. And above all no one pins you down with their thoughts. It is best to erase all personal history because that makes us free from the encumbering thoughts of other people.
Now of course if you really have no personal history at all you might have trouble finding your way home or remembering which brand of muesli you might want to buy in order to enjoy your breakfast tomorrow morning. But that isn't what he means. He's talking about letting go of the domination of relational tangles, allowing life to slip through your fingers like the water of a mountain stream, clear and free, unhindered and wild, like it was mean to be - not snarled up with recriminations and grudges and old resentments.
And I realised in a visceral way that hadn't come to me before (though I'd known it as an intellectual proposition) that I could let go of the painful history that had soured and poisoned some of what we'd passed through. I didn't need it any more. To retain it or let go of it was my choice.
So at the crossroads between the decade that has just gone and the one just beginning, I think I prefer the road to freedom. Goodbye to all that. I cut the ties of this pack I've been carrying, and it can roll down the hill into the sea. Eternity is only ever approached through the doorway of now. Eternal life has no yesterday and no tomorrow. The same is true of joy. The only access to joy is in the present reality of now. Nursing old grievances, the things that someone said and did, whether they meant to or not, is incompatible with joy.
So as I step into 2011 I am choosing to leave my personal history behind. It won't be needed on the journey. If I'm made in the image of God as Jesus said, then I am what I am, and the past has no dominion and isn't even very interesting either.
Peace. Simplicity. Friendship. Kindness. Understanding. These are what I choose.
God bless you in 2011. May it bring much laughter and many happy times. May you remember not to take yourself too seriously. May you have the space and the love you need to be the person you were meant to be. may you be happy. May you be whole. May you be free.
Monday, 27 December 2010
It’s coming up time for the New Year. I really like New Year’s resolutions. It helps me get a clear frame on what my priorities are for the short and medium term – to start on right now but expecting to take a while to process.
This year I have three resolutions.
Walk – spend time in nature
EAT CHALK – well, I posted about that during November. What I mean by that is that 2011 is to be a year when I focus on how I speak to people, to make it gentle and quiet, both in my voice and in what I have to say. All through the gospels, right from when the angels announced His birth and through a variety of incidents in the course of His life, we come across the phrase “Fear not” in connection with Jesus. “Don’t be afraid, it’s me.” I really like the idea that the voice of a person’s life, what a person’s whole self says, could be “Don’t be afraid”. So that when people see it’s you the tension goes out of them and they sigh with relief, “Oh! Phew! It’s you”.
For that to happen, the voice of a person’s life would have to be gentle and quiet; and strong too, I think. So that the sound of their voice brought people home to themselves, spoke peace.
To work towards that is one of my 3 tasks for 2011 – and that’s what I mean by “eat chalk”.
WALK – SPEND TIME IN NATURE – I really could do with getting some more exercise. I also crave time just being with the beauty of everything. During 2010 I did so much writing (I wrote 4 books; that’s a lot!) that all through the breezy blue sunlit days I was perched up in my garret, writing and writing, with a cloth hung from the window to keep the noon light and the afternoon light and the light of the sun setting out of my eyes. I didn’t go on the beach even though I live near the sea. I didn’t go walking in the hills or the woods. I didn’t sit out in the garden. I didn’t cook outdoors. I just wrote.
I wouldn’t quite know myself if I wasn’t writing something, and I have started a new book, but this one can go more slowly. This year I want to spend time walking, and being outside in nature. I love the earth. I love the beauty. It moves me so deeply, and it fills my soul with joy; all of it, the grass and the light on the water, the flight of birds and the stateliness of trees, the smell of dust and grass and flowers, the feeling of sun on my skin, the sparkle of frost.
This winter when it snowed, one day I had to go up into the hills to take a funeral, and the roads weren’t safe for my little car. So I had a lift with the funeral director’s bearers, and we had to go a circuitous route to stay on safe roads. The latest fall of snow had been very light and soft, every leaf and twig bore a tottering load of snow. The funeral was at half-past three in the afternoon, as the sun was low in the sky. Travelling up to the crematorium we drove through a fairy land of snowy trees, and when we came out from the funeral the sun was setting. The grass lawns of the cemetery were smooth expanses of untrodden snow, sparkling and glistening where the light caught and shadowed blue. Across these expanses fell great panels of vermilion light from the setting sun. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.
So this year I want to spend more time outside, to walk and think and just be, knowing I am alive and marvelling at the beauty, being grateful for the chance to have been here, the chance to have been part of this beautiful earth,
LIVE SPACIOUSLY – I don’t know exactly what’s happening with me, but I am getting less and less able to accommodate mental clutter. I cannot cope with complicated relationships – tension and arguments and games. I cannot even bear too much human company (Julie if you are reading this, it does NOT mean your visit to us in September – maybe you are not exactly human; I will be just fine with you :0)
And I can’t be bothered with the endless interaction Things require – tidying and sorting, washing and organising – some of them will have to go. Things set up a kind of IV to themselves from one’s soul – they drain energy away. And I can’t cope with complex schedules. I can feel the tug of a number of people I’m supposed to visit and spend time with… and somehow… I don’t. I care about them. I am happy to pray for them. I think about them. And there it stops. I’m not going to see them.
Today, we had visitors for the day. Fortunately, having raised five children, my hands know how to put together an adequate meal with little input from my head. But as I looked at the crumpled, slightly grubby cloth on the table, and put out for each person just a fork and a paper napkin, I had to concede that my performance as a hostess makes even the stable at Bethlehem look relatively stylish. Basic. That’s all I can do. I can feed them something tasty and nutritious, they are welcome at my fireside, and I care about them – how they feel, how they are in themselves, what their dreams are and their faith, their spirit inside them. More than that I cannot do.
I feel guilty about it often. An example: my mother is on the brink of moving house. She is coming to live near us so that as she gets old we shall be there for her. I am conscious that as her daughter I should have been to stay with her and helped her pack up her home. I have left it to her friends to do that, and it is remiss of me. But she is a lady of many treasured possessions, and very decided and particular preferences – and the will to tangle with all of that is like expired elastic in me. I can’t make myself do it.
This year, I am giving permission to myself to live without guilt in relation to these changes. I am going to make space for the urgent need to live simply. I will have only the honesty of who I am to offer, here in my home. Sometimes, when I can, I will make it to someone else’s place to visit, but if I can’t get my head together to do that, I will accept it in myself, and just hope they do too.
I am going to undertake the discipline to do one thing at a time, to let things go, to walk quietly through the days of my life, building structures of the Peaceable Kingdom.
I have thoughts about life, but in social situations – parties and visiting scenarios – I have less and less to say about anything. I am going to accept that.
If I am not harassed by things to do and deadlines to meet and social interactions to accomplish, then when my grandson comes to visit me, I am pleased to see him. When I am overwhelmed by the pressure of what people want of me and tasks scrambling to get done, then he becomes a nuisance. I will not have a child become a nuisance; that is not of God. So in 2011 I am going to make my life more spacious, so that there is room in my spirit to welcome the little ones of God.
WALK – SPEND TIME IN NATURE
IN 2011 – THAT’S ME
Thursday, 23 December 2010
Behind the coloured lights of the Christmas tree
behind the family times
behind the Christmas feast and the laughter
the gifts and the excitement and the fun
(even behind the challenges of spending time
with people we find difficult
with people we find difficult
people who are lonely for a good reason
people we heartily wish were not in our family – but are)
quietly, eager faces full of wonder
stand the mother and child
this is what it was always all about.
May the courage, faith and good hope of Mary
and the blessed presence of the child Jesus
be with you this Christmas
and through the year to come.
With love from Pen (Ember) Wilcock
Friday, 17 December 2010
Do I think men and women are created equal, and if so what do I mean by that?
Yes and no.
I don’t believe that all women are the same as each other, or that all men are the same as each other. So, for example, when it comes to caring for little children, I think in general women are better at it than men, but I also think that some men are much better at it than some women.
And I think things go better when people do what they’re good at. In an earlier blog where I mentioned that England has a queen, and she does a great job, a sister who commented on the post reminded me that however good a job she is doing, the queen is biblically out of order. I remember the scriptural texts that led my sister to that belief, but I am baffled by the concept of a God who would prefer a man doing something badly over a woman doing it well just because the man is a man and the woman is a woman. I have no clear opinion about this; it just doesn’t make sense to me. Where this is an issue, I prefer the route of simply deleting the hierarchical status. Let's not have monarchs, then. Same I feel about bishops, and indeed any ordained clergy. If there's going to be a row about whether women are allowed to be bishops or priests, let's not have them. Jesus wasn't a bishop or a priest, and He had no kingdom of this world.
Other kinds of equality? Are women and men equal in the sense of being basically the same - interchangeable? Despite the neurologists' findings that there is very little difference between the male and femael brains, I personally believe that, even factoring in the great variety among human beings in either gender, men and women are so startlingly different from each other they sometimes seem to come from different species if not actually different planets. I know marriage must be God’s idea because I can’t imagine that any other than a transcendent and all-wise being could possibly have come up with so laughably crazy an idea as a woman and a man trying to set up house together, and still have it work OK.
Are men and women equal in importance then – that is, do they have equal eminence, equal status, equal prestige? Yes, they do. They are both infinitely valuable to God – and there is no relative quantification of ‘infinite’ – and apart from that, neither man nor woman has any importance at all; no eminence, status or prestige whatsoever, outside of their own imagination. Neither man nor woman is more valuable than the other to God, and neither has any other value at all.
So should men rule over women? This is an unnecessary question, for God has already told us they always will (here), and that He regards it as a curse. She was looking for a connection, a linking of soul-to-soul (her desire is for her husband); instead she found herself a link in a chain of command (he shall lord it over you).
But it seems to me that there is a way round this whole equality question that makes it completely irrelevant. Because this whole thing is about who's the boss, who's in charge, isn't it?
Here are some things Jesus said that blow it right out of the water:
Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3 KJV)
And he said here (Luke 22:24-27 KJV) that the greater person should be like the junior person, and the boss should be like the go-fer.
And Jesus said: Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Matthew 11:29 KJV)
And here is something from one of the New Testament epistles (Ephesians 5:18-33 KJV) saying that a wife should reverence and respect her husband as deeply as the church reverences Jesus, and that the husband should love his wife with as tender and self-sacrificial love as Jesus loves his people in the church. "They two shall be one flesh." One flesh. How can you have a hierarchical relationship in one flesh? Hierarchy requires different ranks, different strata of status; one flesh is indivisible.
I have read Christian writers saying that in any relationship there is a conflict of interests, and when that occurs there has to be a hierarchical relationship, or there will be a stalemate. So one partner must have the casting vote and that should be the husband, because he's the head. That's logic, but it still isn't what Jesus said. When Jesus came upon his disciples arguing about which of them was the greatest, He said "except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." So you can set up an arrangement where the husband is in charge and the wife has to do as he says, but that still leaves them both outside the kingdom of heaven, because Jesus said that's not the way they do it there. To even enter it, you have to go the way of simplicity - stoop down, and be humble enough to get in. You don't stride into heaven, the lintel is low. You crawl in on your hands and knees.
It seems to me that all we have to do is put these teachings into practice and the whole problem just goes away. All you get left with is faithfulness, humility and love.
Tuesday, 14 December 2010
I have not honestly visited this question since I was an undergraduate of eighteen and wondered if I might be pregnant myself. I can recall the turmoil. My upbringing valued the art of fitting in. You don’t cause trouble. You don’t draw attention to yourself. You don’t rock the boat. You sit nicely and pass the biscuits and initiate conversation on topics that cause no contention. You are grateful for what is done for you, you work hard, you take responsibility, and you behave in a manner that will bring credit to your family. On reflection I could see that an undergraduate eighteen-year-old pregnancy was not going to be good news. Everyone I knew socially at that time (mid-70s) was of one mind – you make it go away. But not me. I had joined a pro-Life group (the only university club I did join), though I had stopped going because it was a pro-Life pro-Feminist group, and I was a bit annoyed by this because I wanted to put my hand up and be counted for babies to have the chance to live, but I didn’t think I was a feminist and didn’t want to become known as one by default. Anyway, the problem with its attendant turmoil did go away because I wasn’t pregnant – not by happenstance but because the contraception I had been carefully and precisely using had not let me down. I mention this moment in my mis-spent youth because I think it’s important to make it clear I am not thinking about ‘these girls who get themselves into this situation’; I am thinking ‘if this were me’.
Later, as a young mother of 22, I became friends with a Jewish obstetrician. By this time I had clearly abandoned my mother’s painstakingly taught lessons in how to conduct myself as a young lady, because I asked him not if his wife was quite well or he had enjoyed good weather on his holiday, but how he could square being a good Jew with his occupation as an obstetrician, involving as it did the regular performance of abortions.
He was a man not unfamiliar with questions of life and death. He had come to England in the first place on the Kinder-transport, sent by his parents as they saw what was approaching. So he evaded the concentration camps, but his family had not, which must have left its scars, don't you think? He wanted, I sensed, to work close to where life was, where life began. He was very honest in his answers to me. He said that he had become an obstetrician in the first place because he loved children, and wanted to be part of bringing babies into the world. When he began it, that’s what he had been thinking of, not doing abortions. But he said that people seek abortions because of serious moral dilemmas. He said that he had interviewed women who were afraid for their lives because they were pregnant, and women whose lives would be ruined for ever by the birth of a child. And of course, though he didn’t say this, women who have been trained to be compliant and respectful, to please and serve men, may be all the more likely to find themselves in this terrible dilemma. Women who have done what is asked of them and are not sure how to refuse an unwelcome request, or how to say ‘no’ when a situation has evolved beyond what they intended or imagined. He said he didn't see how he could improve anything by forcing such a woman to bring a child into the world. He said he thought it was desperately sad, but some of the situations brought him to the place where he saw it as the best thing to do. And he didn't like it.
When I met that man I had one child. I went on to have four more, all planned and intended. I used contraception on those occasions when I judged it not right to have a child, and left of the contraception when I thought another baby would be okay. I never had to do more than leave off contraception once or twice and I would conceive; and I never conceived when I was trying not to.
After I had my twins (Child 3 and Child 4) I felt I had seriously exhausted my resources on the child-raising front. We lived in a very tiny two-bedroomed cottage, with slightly less money than we needed to pay our bills. I had no car and it was a long walk to any grocer’s store. My husband was a busy musician, often out weekends and evenings as well as working fulltime (though when he was home he was a very hands-on father, and formed a close and happy relationship with his children). We had four children under four, all in nappies at night, some by day as well, no help in the house, and I was tired.
But the Lord asked me to have another child. He showed me that wherever the Bible says ‘blessing’ it means ‘fertility and increase’. He showed me that children are a gift from the Lord. He sent a word of knowledge for me to our prayer group. ‘I want you to have this child,’ he said. So I did. And what a child. The wild side of feral. Untameable. Our own small fury. That fifth child deserves a whole blog post of her own, but she threw the entire peaceful rhythm and ordered routine of our home life up into the air like confetti. She shredded beyond repair all my preconceptions about myself as a person and as a mother, and pulverised my illusions about my ability to cope. Since then she has grown up in to a sort of guru – not in the context of a cult I mean, just that she is as wise as the hills and the stars, and walks as free and as pure as the soul of the wind. She is an extraordinary woman.
When she was a baby, John Bickersteth blessed her. He was the closest to being a saint of anyone I ever met. It happened when I was supposed to be at my husband’s side in a meeting for worship, but couldn’t because I was still trying to get my wild baby to sleep in the corridor. I had her in her moses basket which I was swinging gently at the darker end of the passage where people were not, in the hope of her going to sleep. While I was doing this, John Bickersteth and his wife arrived at the meeting. This was in the context of his big stately home place that he’d turned over to the Lord to use as a conference centre, Ashburnham. He and Marlis were just going into the big hall for the meeting, when he stopped, left her side, came along the corridor to me, and asked: ‘Are you all right?’
I wasn’t. I felt upset and frustrated because I never seemed to be free of having a baby to care for, and I wanted to be in the meeting; and I hadn’t wanted this child in the first place, it was all the Lord’s idea and he’d sent me one that caused havoc and never went to sleep. But I had only been standing there in the shadows, quietly rocking the moses basket. Nothing in my demeanour should have given me away – and besides that, John was almost blind. He had about 10% vision. But the eyes of his soul were not blind. He had Seen me. So I told him about that baby, and how the Lord had asked me to have another one even though I felt I’d had enough, and how tired I was and how hard she was to care for. I told him about the vision I’d had when she was conceived – of an old plant fruit like a rosehip or an onion, wrinkled and finished, that had become infused with radiant light and turned back into a rose-bud again. And John said the Lord would honour that I had been obedient to Him, and that this child would be a special blessing. And he blessed her. I hung onto that through her stormy and difficult childhood, and I remember it now that I see her pure soul – a wise, ancient soul, a soul with a blue starry robe that sees into the secrets of life and knows about love and truth and freedom, and the power of patience and kindness – all the things that most of us come to much later in life than she has.
So I know a bit about having babies and what a struggle it can be. I am well aware that once a child is born your life is never the same again. But in my understanding of things, though a child’s body must form, and its mind and character develop, these proceed from the interaction of the soul with its environment: and the child’s soul arriving into your body is what conception is. The soul arriving is what starts it all off. When the angel Gabriel came to Mary, he was not suggesting that she grow or raise a Messiah. What He was would be there with her from the moment of conception – though His style of Messiahing certainly owed something to His mother, as you can see if you compare His sermon at Capernaum with the power and glory of His mum’s Magnificat.
So the idea of abortion is something I have given headroom to, but I would not give liferoom to it. I could not actually do it because if we had got to the place where this small holy guest had chosen the hospitality of my body, I could not live with myself if I turned her (or him) away. God can be trusted. God alone gives life. If God thought that my body was a suitable stable, and my womb a suitable manger, then Amen.
But I am speaking out of my life, my experience. I cannot begin to know what it must be like to be a woman whose family will beat her and burn her and murder her if she has this child. I cannot imagine how it must feel to live with the kind of rigid Protestant parents who would cover her with shame and throw her out of the family, and leave a woman raised to compliance and belonging and authority and hierarchy on her own with no support just when she needed it most, expected not only to manage an independence she was not raised for, but the expensive and exhausting care of an infant without the means to provide that.
Abortion? This is what I think about abortion. I think that like many social ills, abortion is an end-stage that people think of as a first-stage. Abortion is symptomatic. It is to be expected in a society where shame and punishment are rife, where breastfeeding is seen as obscene, where people are infected with materialism and consumerism, where women are supposed to be elegant and thin and sexy and employed, where raising children is not natural and sweet but processed through institutions and regulated by inspectorates, and where religious people get all acidic about sex. In a society that sets up gatherings – everything from church and chapel to theatres and restaurants and colleges – where the presence of babies will be an interference, unwelcome and a disruptive nuisance, of course people will seek abortions. Because they are themselves only human, only children, and they don’t want to be left out they want to join in.
When I had my second child, and she was about seven or eight weeks old, I went to a carol service. This took place in a medieval church on a freezing December night. It was beautiful, magical, charming, ethereal – songs about the baby Jesus, readings about the baby Jesus, a little Nativity tableau, everything you could wish. But oh dear! My baby got restless. She was one who liked to be fed at least once an hour. And in such a setting, breastfeeding was not socially acceptable. Hoping to quieten her and string her out until the thing was over, I crept out into the small, icy porch. There I found all the other people with restless infants, crowded into this bitterly cold inadequate stone ante-room because the real children were nothing but a darned nuisance to the people who were singing lovely songs and reading lovely poems and Bible passages grouped round a baby and its mother who were conveniently devoid of screaming, pooping or breastfeeding because they were only statues.
In such a society abortions will occur naturally. It’s no good blaming the women or saying they are selfish or sinful. If we don’t like abortion, then everything we do and say, every choice we make in our homes, churches, shops, cafés – everywhere – will have to say YOU ARE WELCOME. Abortion is the end-stage of an inhospitable society that practises a culture of blame. Why do women seek abortions? Because they will be excluded, punished, ostracised, blamed, limited, poor, left alone and get into trouble. We could change that, couldn’t we?
Just as long as babies are a nuisance, people will seek to avoid the responsibility they bring.
Monday, 6 December 2010
Crumbs. The Righteous Brothers. Bet that takes you back! John Wimber used to play keyboard with them, back in the early 60s!
That song, along with this one, has a strange effect on me – sets up an almost unbearable yearning and lostness. And then I want to hear it again. And again. Like you go back to woggling a loose milk tooth again… and again… as a child – fascinated by how much it hurts.
Connections, separations, how strange they are.
Decades ago, we were travelling back from Yorkshire to Sussex in our family car, having stayed there with my parents. My mother was driving back to Hertfordshire, so we came down the A1 together, eventually reaching a roundabout where she would peel off east and we would continue the journey south. I remember the moment when we reached the roundabout, and I looked for her, and she waved from her jaunty bright yellow Renault 5 – and then she was gone. I remember the feeling, of total loss, like a death within a life. Partings always affect me like that. Standing at the railway station waving goodbye as the train pulls out sends me crazy with loss. Unbearable.
But final partings – death, divorce – send me into different territory entirely. Feelings reach a certain level and then (in me) they flat-line. There comes a point where my soul reaches beyond the register feelings are designed to cover. Feelings are a kind of luxury item, for relatively simple, relatively trivial things. Some experiences in life surpass feeling.
On those occasions when, like rotten fabric giving way, I have felt my life tearing in two from top to bottom, I have experienced very little in the way of feeling. Feelings are more for The Righteous Brothers and Ben E.King, not for the moment when everything topples and you think, ‘This is it,’ just before it all goes down.
I had a dream – maybe twenty years ago – that we lived in a ramshackle happy little house by the edge of the sea. Its light frame made of graying wood exposed by the white paint peeling back in the salt and wind and sun held the glass panes of many windows. It was a house of light, a summer house, built on the sand of a beach where wiry grasses grew among the dunes. In the next bit of the dream – I worked as a hospice chaplain in those days – I saw myself urgently begging the hospice receptionist to supply me with some kind of lethal medicine so that I could bring my children’s lives to a close if the impending disaster proved more than they could bear, and she refused; said it was not their policy to give out such drugs. Then, in the dream, I saw the shabby little house standing bleached in the joyous sunlight and the children playing in the sand round about; when suddenly, from nowhere it seemed, a tidal wave swept in and engulfed everything. The flimsy wooden frame was broken to matchwood and swirled in the sucking waters that smashed the house to pieces before I could even move. Frantic, I struggled in the sea-water that swept me away, desperate to rescue my children, but among the roaring commotion of waves over my head, I could not even see. Eventually, kicking and struggling, my hand made contact with the hand of one of my children, and I knew she was dead. I knew they all were. And so I let go. It didn’t matter any more. ‘This is it,’ I thought. Only a sadness as vast and fathomless as the sea.
I never forgot the dream, and in terms of life story (taking the sea, the house and the death as metaphorical), it came true. The circumstances that swept our life away were as sudden and comprehensive as that freak wave, and just as irresistible. The security I had in place to shelter us proved as flimsy and insubstantial as a wabi-sabi little shack built on the sand.
When I was a child, if I or my sister went to a party, or some special outing, my mother waving us goodbye from the door as we went our way would call to us; ‘Have a nice time!’ If we were going to school, she would send us on our way with the words, ‘Best work!’
Every year, I save the Christmas cards I have been sent, secure them into a bundle with a rubber band, and tuck them away in a drawer. When December comes around, instead of looking through the address book and making a Christmas card list, I take out the bundle of cards and read them through, with their accompanying letters, reminding myself of the names and circumstances and tastes in Christmas cards of those who like to keep in touch. I did that this morning, with a slightly strange feeling, because I knew that somewhere in the bundle would be a card from my father, whom I found dead in his cottage last March.
My father and I were not close. Gentle, eccentric, untameable, he lived his life on the edges of everything like a feral cat that can neither leave nor come home. As far as I know he never read a thing I have written – he certainly would not have discussed it if he had. I visited him dutifully but not often as he grew old. I tried to be kind to him. I am very like him, the Norse ancestry is very plain in us both, and we had a certain like-magnets-repel thing going on. But, away on his own planet where no-one else dwelt but him, he cared about me very deeply in his unique and incomprehensible way. My mother, infuriated by him, once (among many times) berated him for his difficult temperament, like a broken branch jammed sideways in a stream. ‘You think I’m difficult to live with?’ he half-joked: ‘How do you think it feels like to me? I have to live with myself all the time.’
One time in the last year or so of his life, my mother was regaling us all with some story of how she is often (she doesn’t know why) mistaken for an Austrian when travelling abroad. Musing on why this might be, she lost track of the word she was searching for. ‘I think I must remind them of… remind them of…’
‘Hitler?’ he said.
A unique sense of humour. An unforgettable man. As a child, I adored him. He had effortless, natural glamour, and was quintessentially kind. As an adult? I cannot say what I felt for him. My relationship with him spiraled up into one of those places feelings don’t reach; like metal plates rubbing together the discord between us was intolerable. He was my father. I was like him. That was all.
So, I found his card.
This was the moment, I think – not the moment I found him dead or paid tribute at his funeral or watched the curtain close around his coffin – that I saw him wave goodbye as his rickety chariot peeled off into the blue.
‘Have a nice time – love Daddy,’ said his card; and on the front a picture of a snow bear curled protectively round its cub.
So. He is on his way. Things must have been resolved. In this, as in so many other occurrences, I have the sense of touching a living web of meaning that sings along its every thread with joy, and at the same time sweeps through my soul with the music of intensest sadness.
Goodbye, Daddy. God bless you.
This video is well worth your watching and considering.
As Christmas approaches, most of us will be buying some gifts and also the seasonable meat and vegetables to feed our families and guests.
This is a time to bless our community by purchasing from small local firms and producers - the farmers' market, the craftsman, the family-run shop.
A community is grown organically by systematic blessing. Sometimes locally grown produce and locally made artefacts cost more money than things made in China and flown across the world to be sold in a supermarket. There would be a reason for that, and it is likely to be related to the standard of living the producers can expect to enjoy. Anything small is more easily fixed and more easily maintained. Local systems are simpler and easier to safeguard. Local self-interest is easier to influence than self-interest on a remote and global level.
Thinking globally and acting locally; living simply and frugally, consuming very little; supporting local tradesmen rather than large international corporations; encouraging self-reliance and a good level of self-sufficiency in our own families - these measures will help to stabilise the terrifying economic slide we presently have in prospect.
I think sisters do not always appreciate what a crucial role we play in the shaping of society. Mention the word 'politics' and it translates instantly as 'Men; arguing - contention,' and sisters turn off, don't want to know. We think of ourselves as women of faith and prayer, but not as political activists; see that as not our place, something we leave to the men. It never occurs to us that whether we intend it or not, where we buy our children's toys and our clothes and our vegetables is political, and that politics is not a secular matter but is part of our discipleship.
If we read the Old Testament prophets, we notice God's grief and rage that the poor and needy are sold for a pair of sandals, hear Him cry woe and thrice woe to those who but house after house and field afte field until they have bought up everything and it all belongs to them. That's what Bernie Sanders is talking about. It is part of our faith. It's in the Bible. And what accumulates to consolidate or change it will be the innumerable individual decisions we make day by about where to get our carrots, our lamb chops and our underwear. Prayer changes things; and where we source the commodities for our households is a prayer.
Sunday, 5 December 2010
If you can fight your way through all the ads and eye-catchers, here's a reminder of Dave Bryant's song Jesus Take Me As I Am.
What brought it especially to my mind is the part asking God to make me like a pure, precisely cut crystal through which the light of Jesus can shine clearly.
Thinking of that song reminds me of a man I met when (a long time ago now) I and a handful of friends had the privilege of going each week to join in the Christian fellowship group at a prison a few miles along the coast.
As new men came into the prison and wanted to join the group, the first attendance of each was very revealing. Some came in quietly, desiring self-effacement. Others came in with swagger and loud bravado, obviously stretched thin by life and afraid of being seen and known. One man came at first unkempt and hostile, principally to gibe and sneer, but ended up being the most eager in the waiting queue, having showered and combed his hair ready for the weekly meeting now held precious because there he was accepted and loved. I remember forming a completely wrong impression of one man the first time I saw him. With a wickedly disarming smile and a cheeky line of humour he chatted and befriended us. Then we settled down to worship, and he spoke up to request (I remember it still, 30 years on!) No 136. I thought it would be some kind of joke - like the times men asked innocently to sing It only takes a spark to get a fire going (!)
But he was not joking. The song he requested was 'Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me' - and he meant it too. That made me stop and think. He was someone I grew to love and respect, for he was Christ's man, a most gentle and beautiful friend of Jesus, for all he'd made mistakes in life and done wrong things, ended up in prison. The Lord had lifted him. "Thou, O Lord, art a shield about me; my glory, and the lifter of my head" (Psalm 3:3).
The memories of those songs that have meant so much to me all came flooding back as I meditated on a short phrase I came across in Cynthia Keller's excellent novel An Amish Christmas, which I have been so enjoying reading in the last few days.
The phrase, ESSE QUAM VIDERI, quoted from Cicero, is apparently the motto of the state of North Carolina, and it means not 'eat until you are sick' (as you might at first think) but TO BE RATHER THAN TO SEEM TO BE. It is the focal theme of the novel as the story unfolds and, ever since I read them, the words have been on my heart and on my mind.
People often describe me as 'transparent' and believe me to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person; and I guess that's true up to a point. What you see is what you get - but I do select very carefully what I allow you to see; and I think that's prudent. Letting it all hang out is rarely wise and never lovely to behold.
But that means what I seem to be and what I am are often two different things. They have to be. I speak and write what I believe regardless of whether I achieve it, and that's my intention. I want to point your thinking toward the truth I believe in, not the depressing shortcomings of the way I live it.
A few weeks ago I listened to a friend teaching about some religious belief that God forgives only three times (not his own belief - he was teaching about a tradition). I hope that tradition is wrong. Tonight as I came into the quietness and peace of my room to let God's gaze of love search my heart at the end of the day (and don't run away with the idea I'm a holy mystic vigiling my way through the night, I did this for about five minutes), I had to say sorry once again for moaning and whingeing and gumbling and complaining and being unfair and unkind about other people. This is what I said sorry for yesterday too. Maybe it will be the last time and I will never need to say sorry for it again, but somehow I can't help thinking....
I felt that hopeless 'Here I am again, Lord' feeling. Only three times? I hope not.
So I pick myself up, or He picks me up or something, and I carry on.
Where I want to travel to is that place of real transparency, 'light of Jesus shining through', where the beauty of Jesus is seen in me, and the gap is closed between what I am and what I seem to be.
ESSE QUAM VIDERI
Do you know this hymn?
Dear Master, in whose life I seeThat's what I mean.
All that I would, but fail to be,
Let thy clear light for ever shine,
To shame and guide this life of mine.
Though what I dream and what I do
In my weak days and always two,
Help me, oppressed by things undone,
O thou, whose deeds and dreams were one.
(John Hunter 1889)