Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Mind control

Here is what I am wearing today.

I could understand it if you privately wondered why I seem so obsessed by my clothing.

There are answers to that — yes, more than one!

The first is that my world is very small. My income is both modest and shared, so I rarely go anywhere because even a bus to the town is a £4.30 return. I walk round the block sometimes, and visit Buzzfloyd and her tribe, but apart from church and grocery shopping, that's what I do. My room is 6'9"x9', and my possessions and scope for activities are accordingly few. I can do handsewing, and crochet, and I have a folding up table. I like to make things. Recently, I needed some storage for underclothing. This is expensive to buy of course, but sticky-backed plastic is not much money, so I began to collect packaging boxes, and customise them to my own requirements.

This has my long-sleeved (underwear) vests and leggings:

This has my underwear bottoms:

This one has my socks and tights:

It has something on every surface:

"The pure land", btw, is like Buddhist terminology for the Kingdom of Heaven.

That box took quite a long time to do and I found it rather complicated. A bit of a tussle. I and my scissors got quite sticky. But I like it very much. As well as containing socks, it sits beside me on the bed as a mini-desk for my laptop, avoiding the unbearable sensation of electronic vibrations from having it on my actual lap.

There is always housework, of course, and laundry and weeding the garden and making lunch. And every now and then I write a book, and most weeks I have preaching or some kind of church meeting to prepare.

All of these things are interesting, of course, but you can see why deciding what to wear today might loom large in my life. There isn't a great deal of variety, and the main structure is both solitary and disciplined — which I like, but I enjoy thinking about what clothes to put on, especially as I like my clothes a lot. I like the colours and the flowery fabrics and soft, supple textures, and thinking about who make them. I like the pockets (and putting a newly ironed hanky in them) and the buttons.

But if the first reason I think about my clothes a lot is that there isn't much else to think about — other than the magnificence of the living Earth and the eternal realm of mystery, both of which I consider all the time — then the second reason is an oddity of my mind which I suspect proceeds from my undiagnosed oddities belonging to the autistic spectrum. 

Because each day, there are clothes that I want to wear — and once I identify them, I recognise with great joy and fierce passion that, yes, these (and only these) are the clothes I love. I want to wear them always. I never want to wear anything else. I want to get lots more like these — these colours, these fabrics. I want to dispose immediately of anything in my wardrobe that is not the same. I want everything in my wardrobe to be the same sort of thing — this (and only this) sort of thing. Anything that is not like this I don't want to own, see or think about. I don't want anything else in my house, anywhere, not even in the attic. I don't want to know anything different is in my wardrobe even if I can't see it. Throw it away, throw it away.

Then, by lunchtime, I feel unbearably oppressed by the clothes I'm wearing. Their colour vibrations are exhausting me, they feel heavy and thick and cumbersome, I have to wear something else. I never want to see these clothes again. I can't think why I ever thought I liked them. I no longer want to own them or think about them or have them anywhere in my house, not even in the attic . . . etc, etc.

I really am quite tiresome to live with — for myself, I mean. Well, probably for other people, too.

And, if I own many clothes I become exhausted by the confusion of their varied and competing personalities. I cannot have a variety of styles or I get bewildered and overwhelmed. My cotton jersey dress always quietly worries me — because the others are all woven and have different necklines. I have to have only one type of thing, and not too many. I have a certain number of hangers, and that number limits how many garments I own.

Thus, the simple matter of getting dressed in the morning is, for me, like trying to swim across a wide river in full flood — a struggle to resist the currents and undertow that constantly try to sweep me away, including the strong tug to immediately and permanently dispose of anything I don't want to wear at the moment.

That's why I think a lot about my clothes. That, and the language of clothes, which intrigues me.

I love the things I am wearing today.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Life improbable

You could not make it up. Life goes on surprising me, pouncing from unexpected angles and catching me unawares.

So I was pondering on what the heck to to with my hair until it grows long enough to tie back.

And I though about zandanas I used to have back in the day — around 2010. Maybe . . . I thought.

So I looked online to see what's happening in zandana-world nowadays.

And they have these chef's caps. 

And butcher's hats.

Also in black.

Or green.

Or even pink.

Now, in the UK, Amish = Seriously Weird. Nobody, anywhere, wears a prayer kapp. Even my auto-correct wants to alter "kapp" to "app". Even the women who live in Plain-Dressing intentional communities have fiddled about with their headgear to make it look more like a regular scarf. 

And yet, here we are — men wearing what is as near as dammit an Amish prayer kapp, and friends, that's just fine! Nobody turns a hair.

I don't know about prayer kapps being weird, I think that's weird. Not that the men have those hats, I mean, but that if you call them a durag/butcher's hat/biker's bandana/chemo hat, it's all perfectly acceptable, but you say it's a prayer kapp and everyone draws back a little and makes their witty little jokes and quips about you. 

I don't think I'll ever understand the human race.

N.B. The one I have on at the top of the post is none of these things; it's a podwig I made from an old dishtowel. It was clean, of course. Used, but clean.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Changing the clocks

Just a reminder to UK folks that we put the clocks back an hour tonight.

In case you are one of the many people who get confused every six months about what that means, I had an experience that has always helped me remember.

A couple of decades ago my life crashed big-time. At that point, what I called "normal" stopped abruptly, and nothing has ever been the same again. That doesn't mean my life has been unhappy, just different. The things that happened then have conditioned everything since, and go on making a difference. My job is to turn that persisting influence to joyous peace, and I have.

In the initial turmoil of the crash, as part of what happened — which took my job, my family home, my income and my marriage — I had to find work, any work, real quick. It was September.

A dear and lovely woman, faithful and wise, who ran a nursing home for dying and chronically sick people, made room for me to work night shifts.  These were 12-hour waking shifts. 

Chronically charged up with adrenalin by the frightening circumstances into which I'd been plunged, I started out okay. I was probably awake all night anyway a lot of the time! But then, stressed and worn out, I found it harder and harder to stay awake all night.

By the end of October, I was so weary, and I was working the night we changed the clocks. This meant that a whole extra hour insinuated itself into the night, so that when the morning finally came and it was time to go home, it actually wasn't — not for another hour. What made it worse was that we worked in pairs, either two care assistants or a care assistant and a qualified nurse, and the nursing home had a policy of regularly breaking up the teams to stop us settling into comfortable patterns (yes, I can't see why, either). I had been moved from an excellent situation with another care assistant where we'd got the work down to a smooth and effective operation, to work with a nurse who longed to be paired with a young, handsome, male care assistant who was just superb at his job. She bitterly resented being saddled with me, and refused to speak to me. All night. At all. Every night. It was the only year I watched the curling on the Winter Olympics, which they show through the night — it's on at 3 o'clock in the morning. And I read Eckhart Tolle's The Power Of Now (very good).

I tried to console myself with the reflection that when the spring came, if I was on duty for the night shift when the clocks changed again, I'd have a short night that time.

By the time Christmas arrived — and because I was new, I had to work Christmas Eve, Christmas Night, Boxing Day Night, then the nights of New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, because the old hands had booked their leave long since — I was exhausted. I had begun to be ill but I couldn't stay at home because there weren't nurses available to work those nights. So I got through, and when my duty nights were over I collapsed in bed.

It was the first time (and the only time, it lasted a mere matter of weeks before everything changed again) in my life that I'd had a place of my own, a two-roomed apartment that I loved. On my bed I had a beautiful traditional Welsh wool blanket in grey-blue and deep Burgundy red and black. I loved it. And I'd bought a 4ft fibre-optic Christmas tree that I had in my bedroom. I lay in bed, lost in fever, so glad at last to rest, watching the beautiful changing lights on my tree, loving my wooly blanket, enjoying the frosty air and the ice-flowers on the windows.

And one night it snowed. We have very little snow here on England's south coast, so I thought it might be the only snow we'd see that year (it was). So at 6 in the morning, still pitch-dark, I got up and went down the street and rang the doorbell of the place Alice and Hebe were staying until I woke them up — because they, like me, love the snow. They eventually emerged, got dressed, and we walked down into the valley of parkland, exulting in the moonlight and starlight and gradual lightening of dawn, every tree and plant clothed in a light shawl of sparkling snow, so magical. 

And then I was too tired to walk back up the hill! I had to sit on a bench for a while, and just didn't know how I'd make it home, but I managed in the end.

Such a strange wild time, but blessed by colour, by light, by frost, by stars, by snowfall, by the love of family and the kindness of friends.

Come February I could no longer stay awake at night and had got overweight and too tired to think straight. I moved to day shifts for a bit, but was just too worn out to cope with staff dynamics (not all care assistants are nice people, and some can be a bit . . . primitive) as well as heavy and deeply stressful work. Dressing the wounds of a woman whose cancer was breaking through her abdomen until there was hardly anywhere left to stick the dressings down; helping a middle-aged man whose life had been destroyed by stroke paralysis come to terms with his new situation, sitting with dying people through the last quiet hours of their lives, watching the descent of a neat and reserved elderly lady into the drooling collapse of aggressive motor neurone disease, feeling her horror and fear at the involuntary groanings she made and at the advancing weakness robbing her of the ability even to point at the pictures of what she wanted on the little board. Terrifying to experience, terrible to watch. By the end of February I'd come to the end of myself, worn to a frayed thread, gave in my notice and left in March.

So I never did work that short night.

And that's how I've always remembered which way to change the clocks. In October, you get a longer night, an extra hour in bed. Tomorrow morning when it feels like 8 o'clock, it'll still be only 7 o'clock really.

As the old Indian said: "Only the government would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom of the blanket, and have a longer blanket." Ain't that the truth!

Friday, 26 October 2018


When I was a teenager in the 1970s, just about every adult woman had her hair permed — cut short and curly. I was going to say "every woman bar none"; but then on reflection, as I allowed my memories to expand, I recalled a few old biddies who still sported the Eton Crop, or maintained the arcane art of twisting straight longish hair round a narrow velvet band worn (like an Alice band) round their heads. And we did have one glamorous soul in our church who, at the advanced age of thirty-six, still had waist-length hair coiled into an elegant chignon or French pleat or whatever it was called.

Girls had long straight hair à la Yoko Ono / Françoise Hardy / Sandie Shaw; but then you grew up, retreated into crimplene, and got your hair cut and permed.

I remember once when I was about fifteen, or thereabouts, when a woman from our church had her hair cut — and didn't re-perm it! She came to parish communion the next Sunday with her hair short and straight. It was discussed at home after lunch. 

"Why has ***** ****** done that to her hair?" asked my father.
"Perhaps she's doing penance," said my mother.
He thought about that.
"Well, she must have done something very bad," he concluded.

It's all different nowadays. Where I live, even quite old ladies might have long Sandie-Shaw-esque hair, and some of them dye it green or purple — or shave it off altogether and tattoo their heads— and nobody bats an eyelid.

I have a fondness (as you know) for head coverings, not to signal female subservience, which I don't believe in, but as a sort of Thinking Cap, a reminder to practise holiness and humility. Unfortunately, hereabouts head-coverings do have a vocabulary, but it includes only two words: "chemotherapy" or "alopecia". And as cancer has become a sort of dark god of our age, a bit like Kali, to wear a chemo-esque head-covering when you haven't got cancer or alopecia, and aren't African or Muslim, is a form of obtaining sympathy by false pretences; a social gaffe of sorts. 

But it did occur to me that a person could wear a head covering without occasioning comment if she grew her hair first so didn't mislead people and create awkwardness. Like I used to have my hair.

It takes three years to grow hair that long. Here's how far I've got.

Yes, that's right; not very far. Plus, I'll probably have to cut it at some point along the way to abolish split ends etc. But I've made a start.

However, I've now got to that atrocious bit where I have a fringe like Herman's Hermits (remember them? No? You must be a young 'un), and nothing I can do keeps it out of my eyes. I have to watch telly with both hands clamped to my head just to keep the waterfall of hay off my forehead.

So today I took the Next Step. A hairband.

When I was a schoolgirl, we had a French book entitled À la Page, featuring someone called Armand who had a dachshund. We had a German book too, with a protagonist by the name of Dieter, who also had a dog and a tendency to clumsiness and larking about in the garden. Hence the warning cry from his Mutti, "Achtung, Dieter! Die Blumen!" Too late. I think he already went crashing into the flower bed.

But going back to À la Page, which had delightful pen-and-ink illustrations, there was an incident involving some chap with a luxurious beard, and the accompanying exclamation, "Quelle barbe!" 

Like the town Great Gonerby near Doncaster at the bottom end of Yorkshire, this passed into my teenage vocabulary as a useful expletive. Quelle barbe! is an excellent shriek of astonishment in response to any alarming situation imaginable, as also is Great Gonerby! Both come to mind with immediate effect on viewing this new hairstyle.

"What has she done?"
"It must have been something very bad."
"Great Gonerby!"
"Aye. Quelle barbe!"

But I am determined. And I know it is true, as of all circumstances in life good or bad, that this too shall pass. Though I might have to think of something different glued into place with hairspray to lead worship on Sunday. 

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Regarding clothing

Four words that have me scurrying fast in the opposite direction:




What Ted did next

Well, you may (not) remember me posting a whole year ago about Alice and Hebe making icons. These were the art works in question:


And you may also (not) remember me posting earlier this summer about Ted changing the Badger's computer password and locking him out of the office website.

Ha! Ted's been busy again.

Ted is not so great at catching mice, because he shows up against almost any background, and everybody can see him. But he has a brother, Miguel.

Here he is.

Shadow among the shadows, Miguel is very good at catching mice. 

Sometimes he eats them.

Sometimes he lays them out dead as a special gift.

And sometimes he lets them go in our living room.

We had a wood stove in our living room, that looked like this. 

The top got a crack in it, so we had to replace it. Despite the dire misgivings shared by me and our Alice, we gave in to the longings of other household members for a new one like this.

See the difference? See the shorter legs?

In case you were wondering about the misgivings, they were that Miguel would release a mouse into the living room and it would take refuge under that stove and we wouldn't be able to get it out.

Which is what happened.

With much combined effort and a lot of swearing, plus making crackly noises with bubble wrap and having a shopping bag on hand as a humane trap and a few bath towels as exit-blockers, Alice and Hebe did manage to capture said rodent and restore it to its wilderness home (our garden).

The upshot of that incident was we started to close up the living room at night. But we live in an old Victorian house which needs all the air circulation it can get, especially when it's damp and cold — like, at night.

So the icons went mouldy.

Icons, you see are made from natural ingredients including eggs, so they are somewhat foody — hence, vulnerable to mould.

Hebe discovered the problem and took them into the studio, wiped them down carefully and left them to dry in the sun. On the windowsill, next to the kiln. Where the cats like to sit.

Next time she came by, there was another problem.

This one was okay.

But Ted had discovered that nice foody icon all warm in the sun. And he began to eat it . . .


He succeeded in licking off quite a bit of that icon with his rough, determined little tongue.


Ted! Whatever next?

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Our Fiona playing and singing her songs on Instagram

# ofionamusic

Shot silk

 Do you know what I mean by the phrase "shot silk"?

I imagine most of you do. Friends who read here are mostly makers, and many of you have home sewing on the go as a matter of course. But for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, shot silk is fabric (silk, obviously) made with warp thread of one colour and weft thread of a different colour. There's a very good description and photo here.

It came to mind because of a book I'm reading, The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks.

I've had it here a little while, but only begun it recently because I was reading something else. So I'm not very far into it yet — only on page 9, to be precise. 

But already James Rebanks is presenting himself vividly to the imagination. To give you a flavour, here's an extract from his introduction to the book (entitled Hefted, a reference to the bonding of sheep with the geography of their home). He writes about his schooldays:
 There was an abyss of understanding between that teacher and us. The kids who gave a damn had departed the year before to our local grammar school, leaving the 'losers' to fester away the next three years in a place no one wanted to be. The result was something akin to a guerrilla war between largely disillusioned teachers and some of the most bored and aggressive kids imaginable. We played a 'game' as a class where the object was to smash the greatest value of school equipment in one lesson and pass it off as an 'accident'.  
  I was good at that kind of thing.  
  The floor was littered with broken microscopes, biological specimens, crippled stools and torn books. A long dead frog pickled in formaldehyde lay sprawled on the floor doing breaststroke. The gas taps were burning like an oil rig and a window was cracked. The teacher stared at us with tears streaming down her face — destroyed — as a lab technician tried to restore order.


I pause in my reading to look at the photograph of the author on the back cover of the book.

I look closer.

Gosh again.

I was interested to read this because I come from a family of Yorkshire farmers. This . . . is not what I was imagining.

Reading on past the initial accounts of James's schooldays, I come to his description of a day gathering sheep on the fells. It begins in the still dark early morning with him going outside to unchain his dogs.

Gosh again. I revisit that face. I stop to think.

I'll try again tonight.

Eating my lunch today, I was still pondering that life, that face, the calmly related accounts — coloured by neither triumph nor sorrow — of his schoolboy insubordination. 

What particularly interested me was something quite outside the book: the person who lent it to me — my friend Steph, source of many good books. Her son Ian finds them for her.

Steph, who worked as a health visitor before her retirement (and a very good one, I should think) is the widow of a Methodist minister, Alan. He died in 2013, having been a minister two years longer than the whole of my life. Open, gentle, enthusiastic, a man without guile, a Christian of humility and kindness. And Steph, compassionate, warm, intelligent, his perfect companion as they made their pilgrimage through life side by side. 

That was the warp thread.

But as I thought about them, about the years they spent living in Nigeria and in Shetland — not the most comfortable and domesticated of environments — and about how they took to darkest Hastings with ease, it occurred to me there was a weft thread of an entirely different colour. There was, in the soul of both of them, a wilderness spirit of daring and adventure, characterised by courage and freedom.

I thought some more about this as I ate my coleslaw and pickled beetroot and smoked fish. I searched back through my memory to other ministers I had known, and considered them.

When ministers are portrayed in film and TV drama, they are usually either vague, wispy, affable personages of gentle birth and upbringing, easily shocked, or self-satisfied portly idiots. More recently a third strand has emerged, of priests who are secretly tortured souls, their external lives devoted to Helping Other People, their inner world anguished and chronically desperate.

I drank some orange juice and thought about it some more.

And the more I turned it over in my mind, the more it seemed to me I was looking at shot silk. A warp thread of calm, self-deprecating (well — in some cases), unassuming men and women, quiet and hard-working. The strong framework laid down of the Kindly and costly quiet discipline of Christ's gospel. But shot through with this contrasting weft thread of fiery soul, their own wild and idiosyncratic humanity, finding here no abiding city, open to almost anything, inhabiting a striking and vivid inner world. 

Not as feral and uncompromising, I think, as the face on the back of that book, but certainly capable of understanding and accepting the tensions and potency and sheer voltage written there. 

There's thunder and lightning in them there hills; and, somewhat to my surprise, I see that nobody is better placed to recognise and embrace it than a minister's widow.

How very interesting.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Winter kit

The kind of clothes I like to wear — dresses with long sleeves and  full skirts — work fine in the summer. In the pictures on the websites, you see the dresses worn just by themselves. So, what happens in the winter?

I think they look nice with cardigans over the top, like this.

I haven't got any full-length photos with cardigans — it means getting changed and setting up my laptop on tottering stacks of books, but these give the general idea.

I try to keep down the cost of what I spend on clothing, but at the same time I prefer most natural fibres — the cardigans in the pictures above are made of cashmere, so they are warm and light, but I got them second-hand on eBay at a fraction of the price they would sell new. The brown one cost me about £40.00, but was as good as new; bought new (from Orvis) these cardigans cost £225.00. It's a matter of knowing what brands suit your figure, and then watching and waiting patiently. If you buy out of season, you are ready when the weather changes and also avoid competition from other buyers.

I don't get on very well with coats — most are not soft and stretchy enough for my hyper-mobility issues; they are too confining and make me actually tired! I have shawls, which are lovely for an evening walk or for church, but they aren't so practical for getting the grocery shopping — then I need both arms and hands free, and to wear a back-pack to carry the groceries home. Not so good for gathering firewood, getting spring water etc etc, either.

A cardigan will do instead of a coat in the autumn and spring, but sometimes a sweater is more snuggly. Though I have misgivings about the fibres that are slowly turning us all into plastic, I do like micro-fleece for all sorts of reasons: doesn't shrink or fade or change shape in the wash, very light and stretchy, soft and not the slightest bit scratchy, durable, not too hot but stops the wind.

I used to have several of the simple Lands End micro-fleece sweaters with polo-necks (I don't mean like a polo-shirt, I mean the high turtleneck sort — like the one I'm wearing here. Apologies for sideways pics). But then something (hormones I guess) changed in me that I started to have problems with the high necks. Micro-fleece doesn't breathe like knitted wool, and with the polo-necks those sweaters made me feel like I was suffocating.

Recently on eBay I got some different Lands End sweaters, micro-fleece and high-neck the same, but with a buttoned quarter-placket, so you can undo it and let the base of your throat breathe if you get hot. 

That there (base of the throat) I find is what makes all the difference in regulating heat, so these are great. Warm and snuggly, über-practical, ultra-comfy, and with a kind of casual feel that calms down the otherwise rather formal dressed-up feeling of a dress. More of a loafing about kind of garment. Plus they work over a skirt and t-shirt too, which cardigans don't (unless all buttoned up).

There's a small design characteristic too, which is crucial in making them work with long, full skirts: they don't have a welt pulling the shape in at the hem and sleeves. That, the straight-down, boxy shape, and the simple straight sleeves, is what really makes them work. And I think they do:

That closet in the background, by the way, the Badger built to store his clothes when he moved down from his attic — a really neat bit of carpentry IMO. He also built me some shelves and a bed for my little room (which already has a closet in it that he built for me).

Well done, that man!

Well, that's an inspiring home!

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Life so vivid and real

A dog barking on this cold night.

The year turns, and the evenings draw in dark.

The cherry tree in my neighbour's garden has changed from green to gold to vermilion and deepest crimson, indescribably beautiful. Where I used to sit here and marvel at its glorious umbels of blossom underlit by the street-lamp, in the spring, now I gaze on its fiery glory, drinking it in.

The moon tonight shines so white and clear, high in a cloudless sky, silent and serene. "There's Mars," I think, picking out the red planet, easy to spot. "There's Jupiter . . . there's Venus . . ." And I look for the constellations — for the Plough, for Cassiopeia that we call the Wilcock stars because they look like a W.

Downstairs, people are laughing and starting to practice Christmas songs — a carol of the Advent, the waltz from The Snowman. A trombone, a French horn, a flute, violins . . . At the end of each piece the playing disintegrates into excited chatter and happy laughter at the success of a tune played well.

Above the door in my room, the light from the passage illuminates the stained glass lamb Alice made.

Beauty, whether the enchantment of the seasons or the loveliness of the moon, the delight of music or the work of human hands, is restorative, feeds the soul. Convenience and beauty do not often occur on the same pathways; choosing beauty often means abandoning convenience. A fair trade, I say, well worth making. Out in the country, where our chapel is, they have no street lights. After an evening meeting in the winter, it's hard to find the path and not stumble. It isn't easy to walk even the short distance down the steps cut into the hillside and over the road to the car. If we had a bright bulkhead security light on the side of the building, it would be so much more convenient. But then we would lose the moon and the stars, the magic and the mystery, and be left with nothing but electric light. Let's keep it how it is.

This morning, in a day flooded with sunshine, I preached at our chapel, which meant I got to be in the privileged position of seeing all the faces looking back at me, the eyes full of intelligence and kindness, thoughtful and alive. Faces that I love and know so well. The faces of children I've known since they were born, of adults I've seen grow from youth into middle age, and now growing old.

That church community is so loving, so full of grace. Not many in number, but singing to raise the roof. 

It's been a lovely day.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Cost and values — the real and the unreal

Here's something Thomas Jefferson said in 1802:
"I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property and their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered."

Money, as I'm sure you know already, doesn't exist any more as an actual thing, but is a merely notional phenomenon. Every time someone needs a mortgage to buy a house, the lending institution verifies the borrower's capacity to pay, then authorises the loan. At that point, the money loaned does not as such exist; it comes into being only as figures on the balance sheet, and achieves reality only in the years of toil required to earn and repay it at substantial interest. So the lending institution offers only a number written down, but the borrower gives a portion of his or her life for those figures written in the column, plus a significant percentage in addition. The best that can be said of such a system is that at least the borrower obtains a piece of what we rightly call "real estate" — land, with a building on it. So the bank facilitates the exchange of labour — which is real — for land; which is also real.

There is a sense in which no one can own the land. How could anybody be so deluded as to think they in any sense can possibly own any part of creation, or to think that the living Earth can be parcelled up and sold, or to think they have the right to "own" what was made by God and given to us all — all species, all people? In that sense, everything owned is stolen, true enough. But at least real estate is truly real.

When I was about eleven years old, I went with my mother to visit my Auntie Jean and Uncle Bill, farmers in the West Riding of Yorkshire. While we were there, my uncle went outside and returned with a birthday gift for my mother — a sack of potatoes. It would last our family a long time, and be the basis of many meals. In thanking him, my mother said what an expensive gift he had given her. My uncle waved that away, and what he said to her has stayed with me all my life: "A bag of potatoes is worth a bag of potatoes." He evaluated the real by reality, not by some notional standard from the world of unreality. It was worth what you could eat, not what you could sell it for.

That's why land and buildings have real value and are real estate. The building can be a home or a place of business. Not only can you be safe there, but you can trade from there, take in others who have nowhere to go, you can store what you need for lean times or to make whatever you sell. And you can grow fruit and vegetables, herbs and flowers, mushrooms and nuts, on the land, or keep birds or animals there. You can grow firewood and compost human/animal/vegetable waste. Four bean plants and two courgette plants can give you most of the vegetables one person will need for a whole summer. With even a small plot of land and a modest dwelling, you can make life work. And if you have children, you can fulfil your responsibility in calling them into the world by leaving them the security of your little bit of real estate. 

The government tries to stop you doing this, of course. As house prices have leapt in giant strides while inheritance tax (at 40%) thresholds have tiptoed modestly forwards, it has become ever harder to provide for one's children; what took a lifetime of work to establish can be raked away at the moment of death by the great institutional claw.

In recent times, I've noticed two particular instances of people's failure to grasp how important is real estate. One is a popular bumper sticker that finds no resonance in my soul: "We're spending our children's inheritance." This is meant to be funny. Words fail me. Folly to make the mind boggle.

The other comes to me in advertisements in magazines and on the television — financial institutions urging homeowners to "release the equity" in their homes, tempted by the idea of cruise holidays and new cars, by comforts and conveniences, to trade in the real for the unreal, the lasting for the ephemeral, to hand in their real estate in exchange for money that is merely notional and will not last.

Ready cash is always useful, and there are times and circumstances where people have to sell their homes; of course I understand that. But the land has a real and lasting value that a holiday and a motor car do not. When we part with the inheritance of the land, we deliver ourselves and our children into the hands of those to whom we have sold it. There is a real sense in which freedom is bound up with the land.

And the Earth — the green herbs and living water, the trees and oceans and lakes — are also the cradle of wellbeing and healing.

I do not think of myself as owning any part of the Earth; to me that would be arrogant presumption. But I have used almost all the money that has come my way to buy real estate, to obtain the right to plant trees, to grow a garden, and to make a place of shelter, peace and belonging for the people God has given into the circle of my heart's care.

May the land be blessed, the hills and the forests, the waters and the living creatures. May the hand of God hold back the reach of money; for Mammon is insatiable, and gives nothing back.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Signals and messages

Right at the outset I should say that my thoughts are still forming and developing on this. Then, this is not making a point or a statement, more musing aloud, and to see what you think.

So, this is further to the earlier two posts I wrote about rape culture and the one about clothing as a social and political message.

I've been thinking about behaviour and signals, with regard to how we dress, both with reference to rape culture and life generally.

About rape culture, I want to pick up something Buzzfloyd says in this comment thread: "What you are asking essentially treats rape as a point on the spectrum of sex. I would suggest that rape is not sex at all. Rape, as I'm sure you've read just as I have, is about power."

Thank you for bringing that to the fore, Buzz — it's a really important point that should not get lost. A horribly clear evidence of that is rape on a grand scale being used strategically in war. That's an extreme example for sure, but it's true of all rape culture — all kinds of sexual harassment and assault are about power, even when they are not intended, or the perpetrator has not seen them as assault. It is the casual assumption that it is one's right, and socially normal, to treat people this way, that really defines rape culture. 

Perhaps, then, what I want to look at today has to do with people trying to conduct ordinary sexual relationships within the context of rape culture, rather than rape culture itself. Inevitably, as Buzzfloyd pointed out in her comments regarding what I had to say about women's very high-heeled fashion shoes, "Oppression cannot work if the oppressed do not internalise the rules of the oppressor. . . . I don't think it's surprising that the oppressed internalise their oppression and actively construct the culture that damages them."

So we reach the bewilderment of a scenario in which a man and a woman (let's assume a straight couple for the moment or all my sentences will get even longer and more convoluted) are both socially conditioned by rape culture, both want to break free, yet both perpetuate it because, as Buzzfloyd put it, "the fish can't see the water."

How, then, to distinguish between a (reasonably) healthy sexual relationship or encounter, even though both parties are conditioned by rape culture, and a relationship or encounter which rightly belongs to rape culture — the unthinking exercise of male privilege in dominating women? Actual rape, plus torture and war crimes etc are already criminalised, so I don't mean that. I mean the encounters people argue about, where some of us are outraged and some of us can't see the problem.

So in my thinking, I've been considering the whole business of messages and signals, homing in on two separate issues.

Firstly, the reading of body language and choice of clothing. It is very frequently misinterpreted. 

If I was captioning this picture:

I'd call it We all belong to the same group. It seems to me that in choosing their attire, these women want to make it abundantly clear that they belong to each other and are separate from the rest of us, because they are all dressed both identically and distinctively.

That seems self-evident to me. Even so, I could be wrong. For instance, they might all be bridesmaids relaxing at the end of a wedding, so what looks to me like a determined cultural distinctiveness might not be a cultural message to the wider world, but a celebration within their group of their chosen status as the bride's companions. 

Then there's this picture:

When I examine this, the women look to me reluctant and a bit grumpy, like they didn't want to be there and are rather annoyed about something. I fairly often see that facial expression on members of my own family when they feel forced into the public eye or in some way put on the spot.

But I could be quite wrong. I think it's possible they are just cold, and the sun is in their eyes, and they are waiting patiently for the song they're getting ready to sing

In all human interactions, we rely heavily on the signals and messages of body language, including dress. The more casual and fleeting the relationship, the less that matters — well, maybe. Even then, consequences arise. But surely in the profound, intimate and transformative territory of sexual relationship it has to be important that we talk, that we check, that we make sure what we thought was signalled actually was intended. Making sure, as my husband puts it, that what was being broadcast is the same as what was received. Especially now that we've all been sustainedly alerted to the pervasive reality of rape culture, it is incumbent upon us to secure the "enthusiastic yes" people talk about. And by "secure" I don't mean coerce or threaten or shame to bring about acquiescence; I mean check. Communicate. Properly. And yes, that can take years. I've been in my present marriage twelve years and still the two of us often find a mismatch in interpreting what each other may say or do. And yes, we will make many mistakes along the way. But I think we really do have to make the journey. 

Then, there's a second aspect to this interpretation of messages, that I think of as "taking this personally". I've come across this causing misunderstandings between women and men repeatedly.

Let me give you an example.

When I was sixteen, I had to walk along a country lane several hundred yards every morning to catch the school bus. One morning a car pulled up on the opposite side of the road, a young man in his twenties got out and asked me for a date — to go for a drink with him. In those days, a fervent young Christian ever on the look out for opportunities to share the Gospel, trusting fearlessly in God, I cheerfully agreed. So he and I met up at a pub somewhere in the evening. 

For me, the encounter on the road had come right out of the blue. I'd never seen the man before in my life. Not for him. It turned out he'd seen me every day on his way to work, formed the impression that I was looking at him just as he was looking at me, and felt sure that a silent relationship was evolving. He found it almost too much to swallow that he could have imagined all this — or that I would have agreed to go for a drink with him unless the imagined connection had in reality been established.  I hadn't even noticed the car going by; I certainly hadn't seen the driver. A driver can see a pedestrian more clearly than a pedestrian can see a driver, because of the reflections on the windscreen. Happily the man wasn't dangerous, just disappointed, though the angels that watch over me may have felt a little anxious at some point.

Another example from another time and place.

As I sat in the passenger seat of a car stationary at the traffic lights while we waited for the green signal, the male driver remarked idly on a passing teenager something to the effect that she certainly knew the impression she was making. I looked. All I saw was a girl walking down the street. She was normally dressed for a teenage girl in our area — long, loose hair, tight jeans and t-shirt; and she was just . . . walking. But my male companion, finding her attractive, assumed that she intended him to

Now this is where I think men and women very often get their wires crossed. I'm sorry if this sounds rude, but I think a characteristic of male privilege is that men often mistakenly assume things are either about them or for them. They, in general, see themselves as more central and more visible than women see themselves as being. 

Therefore, it quite often happens that a man will think a woman has signalled a sexual invitation, when in reality she's just playing tennis or getting water from the well or serving coffee. So she feels assaulted and he feels rebuffed.

The tendency to rely heavily on body language, implication, inference, glances and dress in establishing sexual connection, only compounds this confusion.

So, especially where sexual intimacy is concerned, if you mind very much being misunderstood, take the time and trouble to make things verbally clear before proceeding.

Some people actually don't mind as much as others. The same young man I encountered on the way to the school bus became a long-term suitor of mine. I was not sexually attracted to him, but he did persist — even joined our youth group and sent me bunches of flowers. My interest in him was as conversion material; I thought he ought to know about Jesus. One evening, sitting with him in his apartment, I'd been telling him a long time about Jesus, warming to my theme, when he kissed me — rather passionately. Being the kind of teenager I was, I allowed this to happen. Then he wanted to know if we would now be "going out together" as we used to put it in those days: partners. I said no, we would not. He wanted to know why, and I said because I didn't fancy him. He then wanted to know why, if I didn't want to go out with him, I had let him kiss me. I said, because it seemed rude not to — I didn't want to hurt his feelings. He found that hard to believe. But because I am appallingly truthful and he had the sense to ask and check, we got things clear. Had we not taken the trouble to have the conversation, we'd have got deeply mired in misunderstanding — for instance if he'd assumed I was now his girlfriend, while I'd knew I was just being (as I thought) kind.

But if some of people's stories I've since read are anything to go by, there are many girls who would feel assaulted, shamed, humiliated, threatened, frightened and besmirched by that kiss. But I didn't. Not everybody feels that sexual encounters are a big deal. Oh — a passing thought, since this is the world wide web — if you are reading this and wondering if despite my advanced age I would be happy to have a sexual encounter with you, let me take a moment to assure you that, unless you are my husband, I would not. Always worth clarifying. I am not advertising intimacy, just pointing out that some people are more casual in their attitude to sexual encounters than others. 

So, as a rule of thumb, it's wise to talk things through not rely on assumptions, and one should never assume that strangers spotted in the street are behaving as they are to secretly signal a desire for personal connection. This is overwhelmingly likely to be a mistaken inference; in reality they are only taking back their library books.

One last thing about social messages, this time not about sex but more general scenarios, but it still can be applied to sexual contexts: we tend to interpret social situations in terms favourable to ourselves.

So, for example, the parent with children who behave inappropriately in a restaurant, rolling about on the floor and knocking things off the table, may describe that restaurant as "not child-friendly" if asked to leave. The odds are that the parent is less likely to conclude the children are "not restaurant-friendly".

Likewise the teenagers larking about in the street, shouting and laughing and falling around in other people's way, are more likely to see the old lady (me) glaring at them as "judgemental" rather than themselves as "anti-social". It's quite possible that both may simultaneously be true, of course.

It seems to me that with sex, with dress codes, with behaviour in public and at home, if we always say the other person is the one with the problem, who must change to accommodate our view of life, then difficulties tend to become entrenched. If we are willing to either meet the other person halfway, or if that is intolerable then leave the situation, life goes more smoothly. 

I gained some insights from my father with regard to this. I was going to say a I learned a lot from him, but I think that may be overstating the case. He was an odd mixture of humble realism with obnoxiously overt racism and homophobia. When you put those two characteristics together, the result was such memorable comments as, referencing a political régime where homosexual men were put to death: "I think homosexuals should be shot, too; but I understand the homosexuals don't agree with me."

And I think he put his finger on something of great value there — about learning to disagree even when our outlooks are extremely and radically opposed; irreconcilable  That somehow we have to let the world be big enough for all of us. We can maintain our distances and separations, establish our agreed norms, and there is room for that. We can be "holy unto the Lord" in the sense of splitting off from other people if that's the way we see things — like the Strict Brethren in my town who will only buy detached house, not row houses, so they aren't yoked together with unbelievers: well yes, it's a point of view. But to end war and allow the shalom of God to flourish, there must also be respect well-laced with kindness; the willingness to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, to help them be their best selves so far as I can, to accept that there exists a remote possibility that I (even I) may be wrong, and to remember not to take everything personally merely because it's taking place in the same area as I happen to be. While it is no doubt conceivable that other people's behaviours are all actually intended as a slight, an insult, a warning or an invitation to have sex, on reflection one has to concede it's overwhelmingly unlikely.

Or that's what I think anyway.

Sorry this is so verbose, so extremely prolix. Are you still alive?

Friday, 12 October 2018

Clothing as a social and political statement

In the comment thread following yesterdays blog post here, I was intrigued by Rapunzel's insight that I'm someone who has "who has chosen to use her clothing as a way of making a very important social and political statement". 

That had never occurred to me, but her observation took my thoughts on to my friend Julia Bolton Holloway, who consciously and intentionally makes her own clothes as a political and social statement (as well as religious). She learned to sew from her Aunt Eileen (see Julia's wonderful article on lichens for vegetable dyeing here).

In one of the posts on her blog (this one, of July 2014), she says this of the origin of our clothing:
" I saw - and see - how enslavement requires this Platonic mythology, Plato's 'Myth of the Metals'. That illiterate slaves are only iron, that educated people are silver, that the king is golden. It is a lie but if both oppressor and oppressed can be made to believe it, how very convenient it is for the rich, for the privileged, for those in power. The settlers fail to subdue the indigenous peoples, so massacre them, and/or corrall them on reservations, next they import foreign workers to build their land, again along racial lines, using the greatest contrasting skin colour. First from Africa, next from Latin America. Or outsource manufacturing to China and Bangladesh. Women no longer sew their own clothes. They do not know who does. The clothes themselves become less beautiful."

In this interview, Sr Julia says she wears blue because it is the "colour of work, it’s the colour of humility, it’s the colour of learning."

She travels by bicycle and by public transport, because those are democratic, humble and accessible ways of getting about — levellers, as one might say — and Earth-friendly. Her choice to sew her own clothes arises partly from her monastic commitment to simplicity, partly as a silent act of solidarity with the poor — as a vote of freedom from the slavery of sweatshops and mass production — and partly from a belief in creativity, in the beauty of what is hand-crafted and bears the character of the maker. 

Sewing by hand, rather than with a machine, has the loveliness of slow, the humility of simple, the restfulness of quiet. Julia understands and is familiar with all these.

Carlo Bevilacqua includes Sr Julia in his beautiful photographic studies of modern-day hermits, and there's a section in my sidebar on this blog giving links to Julia's web presence. If you do a Google image search on Carlo Bevilacqua Into the Silence, you will find the photos. His pictures of Julia are lovely — I don't think I can reproduce any here, as I don't have his permission. I haven't got permission to use these others I've put in, either, so I hope that'll be okay — they aren't anybody's art and livelihood in the way that Bevilacqua's are.

I feel an instinctive "yes" to Julia's reservations about lavish use of technology, preference for what is simple and handmade, and choice to live in poverty with the poor. What I think is even more beautiful is that her poverty isn't exactly "voluntary poverty". She's so unusual, such a scholar and such an artist, such a free spirit, that I think she would, could, never have been numbered among the wealthy. She has the natural humility of creation.

It was a great blessing to me that during my years of formation for ordained ministry, Julia was willing to act as a mentor for me. She is one who holds a light for us to see the way to go. 

At one time she was part of the Quaker meeting at Princeton, and she embodies George Fox's recommendation to "let your life preach". Sewing her own clothes by hand is an integral part of her chosen way.

Here she is on YouTube, speaking about her life as an urban hermit in Florence (I've linkified the photo).

Another frame from this lovely film: