Tuesday, 30 August 2016


Work. I’ve had to re-think what that means, in my simplicity journey.

Like most people, I’ve been brought up with the unexamined assumptions that work is something you wouldn’t do if you didn’t have to, undertaken because it turns a profit.

For some time (decades, I mean) I’ve had my nose to the trail of a life and work shaped by particular principles.

  1. An ethically responsible financial trail. The projects I do for money link me directly with those paying my fees. If what I do isn’t up to snuff, it stops there. If my books were no good, the publisher would have no compunction in turning down the next one. If my editing were rubbish everyone concerned would know at once. When people ask me to take funerals, it’s because someone recommended me. And the people who pay the money get the goods. It’s not like being an employee of a large organisation where accountability can be hard to trace and responsibility can be passed on. I earn money on a definitely what-you-see-is-what-you-get basis. Nothing hidden, remote or anonymous.  Same with the cottage I let out. I like it that my money is invested in someone’s home, that I am personally responsible for maintaining. No mysterious stocks and share holdings that I’m not quite sure where the money is invested. Direct, accountable, personal. That feels good to me.
  2. Arising authentically from my heart, my faith, my soul. I have never created anything that could be described as ‘product’, and any publishers using that term in my hearing have lost their working relationship with me. My writing is not formulaic ‘product’, cooked up to tempt the appetite of passers-by. Into the books and articles I’ve written I’ve poured all the truth I know – the best light I can shine held as high as I can lift it, for those whose hearts are also hungry for reality.
  3. Permaculture principles of zoning applied to relationship, with a system of priorities starting with personal integrity, moving out to embrace my intimate circle of family and friends, then those with whom professional commitments bring me into contact, then anyone else who by grace has showed up into my life. So, even in those seasons when I’ve had a very hectic schedule, the people close to me were my first priority, and that was non-negotiable. Still is.
  4. Meaningful occupation useful to other people, put to the service of enlarging the Kingdom of God on earth – enhancing compassion, justice, kindness, truth, integrity and the wellbeing of creation.

So, for me, ‘work’ as a concept may have something or nothing to do with money. My mother was unwaged most of her adult life; I never knew anyone who worked harder. She worked constructively, she fed and housed her family through her work – but money came into it very little. She kept hens and sheep (raised orphan lambs almost given away), grew fruit and vegetables, bought and sold the homes we lived in for steadily increasing amounts. She avoided debt, preferring frugality, seeing what ingenuity could do.

I like to work, because I like to be helpful and useful. I am at Christ’s service. But work can be anything from hanging out the laundry to preaching a sermon to preparing a tenancy agreement to writing a novel to cleaning the bathroom to cooking the supper to leading a quiet day to putting out the dustbins to conducting a funeral. Some is paid, some isn’t; doesn’t matter. Work is not that which earns money – one’s income may be entirely unconnected from one’s work. A person’s work is the contribution they were born to make; as the robin is born to sing and the river is born to make its way to the sea.

Work is natural, it is joyous, it is vocation as well as occupation. It’s what Frederick Buechner said: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

 This is my daughter Hebe’s work:

This is my daughter Alice’s work:

Either of them could have earned more on the checkout at Asda – a useful and honourable occupation for sure, but not how they were called into this life to serve.


Sandra Ann said...

Just beautiful, your words and Hebe and Alice's works of art. I am struggling with the whole I work like crazy but am unable to monetise what I do and bring in an independent income. My deep gladness is my faith but haven't a clue how to turn that into a job that would fit working tax credit criteria!! Your truly exhausted searching for an answer :-) X

Suze said...

I love how you honour tradition and God in your work ethos.

Pen Wilcock said...

Thank you, Suze. x

Sandra Ann, I want to reply at length to your comment - longer than the limit Google Blogger allows, so I'll break my response over several comments.

Part 1:
I think your situation is especially difficult, because you not only have the responsibilities of a parent but also many health challenges to meet, requiring extra vigilance and devotion over and above the usual duties of a mother.
Something that has interested me particularly, in learning about life and work, is the various directions/instructions in the Bible. In modern translations, these are all addressed to 'you', but in the old translations, they're addressed to either 'thou' (the individual) or 'ye' (the community). This alerts us to a valuable truth: some matters of principle can only be worked out by individuals, but other responsibilities are to be borne by the community. Your family is a community. At the moment you are like its extern sister and Mother Superior and novice mistress all rolled into one. I imagine your house is also very full, and you have no spare room. But the time will come when your children move towards independence, and I feel sure that, as my children did for me, they will amaze you by their principled creativity - the seeds you have sown will bear a harvest, the fruit of your work. Already one of your children is in a religious order, and that bears witness to the good quality of your work as her mother.

Pen Wilcock said...

Part 2:
But, this business of bringing in the money. Obviously one way of getting richer is to make ones wants fewer, and I'm totally sure you already know this one by heart and are already doing it. I bet you know every trick in the book to make the money stretch as far as it will - stay-cations instead of holidays, clothing bought from eBay and charity shops, checking the reduced aisles in the supermarket for bargains, haunting Lidl and Asda even though Sainsburys and M & S are nicer. All that and everything else I'm sure you already do.
Something our family always did, which helped immensely, was let a room to a lodger. I expect you know that under the government's spare-room scheme, you can have the rent from one room (or floor, if you had a massive house) tax-free - with a rental ceiling of about £350. Even when we had five children in a three-bedroomed terraced house of very modest proportions, we let a room to a lodger - sometimes to an ex-prisoner or someone recovering from a suicide attempt, someone who needed a family around them. Minimalist living allowed us to fit easily into a small house even though we were a big family, so taking in the extra person didn't cause problems.
Similarly, when my life was uprooted upon my third (!) marriage, and I had to move to a different part of the country and leave my work, while I figured out what to do next I took in lodgers. It is a brilliant way to extend income. Even if the house seems full, it can sometimes be painlessly achieved by minimising one's possessions.

Pen Wilcock said...

Part 3:
Now my children are adult, two things in particular have enabled them to work at their own creative vocations rather than take jobs that produced money but no joy. One thing is minimalist living, which allows us all to share a house (five, sometimes six adults, plus a room set aside for a studio) comfortably, just because it's housing stuff that causes problems, accommodating people is easy. The second thing is supporting each other. Two of my daughters (the ones whose work I showed in the blog post) earn their living as freelance artists. Their route into this was interesting. One got a job at the library while the other went to the place for which she now does a lot of work - a monumental masonry - and offered to work there for nothing. They accepted. In due course, her work became so good that they were glad to pay her. Once she got *really* good (fast as well as excellent), she earned enough to support her sister, who was then able to leave the library and start as a freelance artist herself. They made the ladder for each other to climb up. Now they both earn enough money to contribute towards the livelihood of their younger sister who works very hard but not always for money.

Pen Wilcock said...

Part 4:
In your own case, I think that knowing your deep gladness is your faith is a good start. Despite all life's vicissitudes, here you are, still feeding and clothing and housing and teaching your children - sounds to me as though your faith must be in very good order indeed, because I know you are not rich! And in due course, once your little sprogs are launched, maybe you will have the chance to train for some kind of parish ministry (again, maybe and maybe not for money).
I know from my own life that raising a large family on a small income can be at best hand-to-mouth and at worst terrifying; but I am sure - entirely sure - that Jesus was right when he said trading one's soul away was not worthwhile even if it bought you the whole world.
Just knowing that the entire flow of grace is on your side as you seek to live with meaning, purpose and integrity is, I think a great comfort. May God bless and prosper you and your family. xxx

Heidi said...

The income part of work is so difficult. The only work that doesn't leave me frazzled and alienated (then ill) is tending our house and writing. Neither of which I get paid for. I don't write things people would be willing to pay for - not yet anyway - and what they would pay for, I'm unable or unwilling to write. Thankfully my husband helps me and I get a form of temporary disability, but I wish I didn't need it.

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes. Well put. That's why I believe this is a problem of society, not of the individual. You are working creatively and constructively, making a contribution and doing your best; you shouldn't be feeling bad. Writing is a joyous and insightful gift, and home-making is absolutely essential. The habit in our society of evaluating all aspects of life financially, making money the plumbline of worth, is creeping into everything and is so destructive.

Jen said...

Ah Pen. Your words are so wise. I struggle with this too for so many reasons. But always aware that my health isn't strong or reliable so although my business is doing well at the moment just a couple of years ago it was doing much better and then I had to cut back so dramatically. I love my work and I'm good at it. My work is cool!

BUT I know that God has a calling for me. Everyone keeps telling me and I feel it too. But I don't know what it is. When I first became Christian that urge to DO something that was the cause of a lot of my heartache went away and I thought it was because I had found God. But now it's coming back again and I fear it's because I'm not serving God as I'm supposed to be. And I've gotten off the right track or something. I've already preached at church and led prayers a lot and it seems to have gone down well. But I'm so not cut out to be a Vicar, mainly as I find social interaction incredibly draining and I'm more than a little Apsergers. I have to focus to do social niceties and it's exhausting. Also He made me as I am with all my abilities and disabilities so it must all be taken into account somewhere

I love writing and I'm told I'm good st it. I'd quite like to write like Anne lammott. But English!

I digress. Anyway. I guess I'm still trying to find my way. My faith is new enough to be easily rocked....

Have you considered offering spiritual direction for people via Skype? I guess the only problem with that is you prefer not interacting with people, or do you find Skype bearable?

Pen Wilcock said...

I don't like Skype (though I acknowledge it is a Godsend for people who love each other divided by distance). I find when I am with someone, much of the interaction happens through the subtle bodies not the physical body. So much is missed out (impossible) when one talks by phone or Skype that what could have been helpful deflates.
If you wanted to talk, we can make a time in the afternoon of the quiet day next week. We could find a peaceful spot - the chapel maybe, if you are okay with the stairs - and talk through things.

But I'd like to go back to what you said: "...my heartache went away and I thought it was because I had found God. But now it's coming back again and I fear..." It is important that you know the peace and uplift, the sense of purpose, will always ebb and flow. The emptiness and fear and sadness will always return. It is so with me at this moment. My thoughts are filled with sadness and despair - for the earth, for people tortured by their fellow human beings, over political cynicism in Britain, for refugees, for my own hopeless limitations. The heartache and emptiness, inadequacy fear and sadness, taste bitter and sour. But bitter and sour food is good for us - nourishes the liver :0) There has to be a mixture, it cannot all be soothing and sweet. It strengthens us. It has taken me *this long* (I'm nearly sixty!) to learn that it doesn't matter, to just keep walking.
There's a thing is the book of the prophet Isaiah (40.31), "But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint." Note the order. First the joyous flight, then down to earth but still going fast, in the end just putting one foot in front of the other - walking. When I was at ordination college, my beloved principal, Martin Baddeley, speaking about Jesus responding to a Syro-Phoenician woman beseeching him to heal her daughter, said: "Jesus walked, and he stopped. What is the speed of love?"
If your life is going very slowly, sometimes coming to a complete halt, with lots of thorny wilderness patches in it, lots of lonely hillsides and vast bleak stretches of water, with the occasional terrifying storms, then - by my reading of the Gospels - you are keeping step with Jesus. You are going at the speed of love. And this is the only thing he requires of you. xx

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

You are such a talented family! If more people felt and lived like you and your family do, the world would be a much better, happier and fairer place.

Pen Wilcock said...

We think it would. I believe firmly that all people are talented, intelligent and beautiful. The challenge - both ours and theirs - is to hit upon the right environment and attitudes for them to flourish. x

Jen said...

Thank you for your words. Thoughtful and thought provoking. I would love to chat on Friday. Stairs are fine as long is it isn't lots of flights!

Pen Wilcock said...

Righto. x

Anonymous said...

Alice and Hebe are very gifted artists. :)

Hebe's painting of William, Madeleine and John is beautiful!

- Philippa

Pen Wilcock said...

This one:

Yes, I love it too.

Was so nice to see you on Thursday.



Pen Wilcock said...

Friday, even!

Anonymous said...

LOL, yes, Friday. It was a wonderful day - a spa for the soul. A privilege to listen to other women's stories, too. Thank you, Pen!

- Philippa

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) x