Wednesday, 14 August 2019

The cultivation of focus and peace

I'm interested in the sporting world phenomenon, "the quiet eye". It's the state that in some ways resembles rest but is in fact absolute focus — single, undiluted concentration.

It's a theological phenomenon too. You'll probably know the verse from the book of the Revelation, in which Jesus is said to address the church at Ephesus thus: "I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love."

The first love is, I think, something akin to the quiet eye. At Ephesus they're doing a lot of good work but they have taken their eye off the ball.

The practice of minimalism for spiritual purposes is for the cultivation of effective focus and peace — the quiet eye, the first love.

It has a number of components, whether skill sets or information sets or simply habits. There's a dietary aspect. There's the practice of household maintenance. There's the management of our schedule and relationships, and also of our time and our money. When it's correctly done, everything flows toward the same end, becomes contributory to the quiet eye, the first love.

When I closed my Facebook account, "pokes" had gone somewhat out of fashion but, in Facebook's earlier days, when I first had an account, "pokes" were all the thing — most days someone would "poke" you. Many people found it, as I did, irritating.

I've found that in daily (offline) life, there are also things that poke you. 

A diet based on the wrong foods leaves you no peace, your teeth get bored, you get hangry, you have cravings and fling between peaks and troughs. Eating correctly creates steadiness and calms the nervous system, gives you stability and tenacity and alertness and physical peace. 

Clutter and dirt and disorganisation poke you — the dust gets in your airways, the micro-organisms (as well as the larger ones like rats and insects) challenge your immune system and engage your energies. You lose things and have to hunt for them, trip over things, can't find anywhere to rest. Your gaze settles only on chaos.

Too much social involvement pokes you — the factions and feuds, the gossip and people's numerous issues. They unsettle and distract.

Too many duties and too crammed a schedule poke you incessantly, as you juggle and inadvertently drop responsibilities and commitments and flog your exhausted mind to turn from one event to the next and the next and the next, as they come at you like waves crashing onto the shingle as the tide rolls in.

I don't know if you read my post called Resistment a couple of days ago – about buying dresses — but I'm almighty glad I did resist them and that the two I succumbed to purchasing were startlingly cheap. Because when I wore one of these dresses on my regular visit to my mother, she looked up at me in astonished bewilderment as I came through her door, asking me in wonder, "Pen . . . why are you wearing a dressing gown?" Yes.

From that moment onwards I knew every time I wore one of those dresses there'd be an inner tugging of the sleeve, a whispering in my soul's ear, an incessant stream of pokes: "Does this look like a dressing gown to you? . . . Or to you? . . . Or to you?"

And right there what seemed like a treasure becomes a burden best left behind. Move it on. It undermines the quiet eye.

When I'm doing anything I want to be able to focus on that completely. I get thrown off if I have tight shoes that hurt my feet, or the kind of fringe that gets in my eyes, or the kind of bag that always slips off your shoulder, or the kind of dress that climbs up your tights as you walk down the street — or if I'm wearing a garment that people looking at me mistake for a dressing gown. Has to go.

Cultivating the level of focus to avoid distraction, rather than going back to eliminate it after the problem has occurred, is no doubt the next step. Though, in the realm of clothing, there's an issue I have never managed to resolve: for me, the ideal daily garments would be like the robes of a monk/nun, enveloping, simple, androgynous; yet the reality is these attract attention and comment and misinterpretation, they are eye-catching and invite comment, and so surrender the peace they promised, to distraction. The unobtrusive continues to be the better choice. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Origami bento bag

Half way through August is a good time, I think, to begin considering Christmas.

Sounds laughable, but I had five children and very little money.

I made a decision early on, never, no matter how much money I had at any give time, to attach an expensive gift like a bicycle, musical instrument or (later) electronic equipment to a birthday or Christmas. If I did that I'd be setting myself up for disappointing people on subsequent occasions.

It was important to me to treat my children both fairly and as individuals. In recent years I have stopped giving gifts (except for my aged mother and our grandchildren), but in the years of their childhood I used to give my children a Christmas 'stocking' brought magically in the night by Father Christmas, who I had explained to them was the story of Christmas. I let them know early that Father Christmas was only a story, as I wanted to make a distinction between that exciting childhood story and the real, true story of the baby Jesus, the infant Light of the world.

In their 'stocking' — actually a bag — I would put ten things:

Something to wear
Something to read
Something to eat
Something with a face (eg doll, teddy)
A toy or activity (eg skipping rope, jigsaw)
Something to make (eg art materials, science project)
Something pretty (eg necklace, earrings)
Something useful (eg underwear, bicycle pump)
Two other items specific to that child's interests and preferences

Each 'stocking' was unique (even the bag) and particular to that child. 

So I had fifty items to source by late December. This is why I started in August. Often I was on the look-out for second-hand items (especially clothing, which was more expensive relative to budget then), but I still wanted the gifts to be special and lovely, so I started looking early.

In these days when we are trying to inch towards generating less waste, perhaps especially less plastic waste, and when people are drowning in mass-produced objects, there's been a move towards re-thinking gifts. Many minimalists prefer to give experiences over physical items — which I agree is a good idea but likely to be very expensive.

I think something you have made yourself is usually welcome and makes the recipient feel special. I have in the past sometimes made little booklets — A5 size (being A4 folded), 4 or 6 sheets of heavy A5 paper, the outermost one being card, fixed once made using a long-arm stapler — with pictures and quotations and funnies suited to their interests and style.

Hebe and Alice (two of our household members) often bake or make sweets or roast and flavoured nuts. We save up attractive glass jars from our regular grocery shopping, both for general re-use and for home made food gifts. Coconut oil and sauerkraut both come in jars we prize — large, wide-necked.

I like the idea of fabric instead of paper for wrapping gifts. One more step towards reducing waste and disposability.

Today I saw a bag on Pinterest that struck me as a brilliant way of presenting a gift — because the bag itself is lovely, and would form part of the gift as well as wrapping it beautifully. It's described as an Origami Bento Bag.

There's a blog post with instructions for making it here.

You can alternatively buy a PDF tutorial (instant download) with a set-by-step guide and template for the bag, from Etsy, here.

On the Etsy shop (Indigo Bird Design) there are lots of sewing patterns for bags (and other things), and the Origami Bento Bag has the pleasing feature of being very easy to make as well as a very attractive design.

So if you still give Christmas gifts, but are trying to head towards the distant star of zero waste and homemade gifts rather than factory-made items, I thought you might like to do as I used to and start in mid-August. You have 134 days until Christmas, and may need every single one of them.

Thursday, 8 August 2019


This is my phone cover —

— inspired by Elizabeth Warren.

It is tremendously useful to me. Every time I am tempted to stop writing, stop preaching, stop going to church, stop living (all frequent and regular occurrences), I see my phone cover and I think, "Okay; not yet."

But just at this moment I am resisting rather than persisting. Specifically, I am resisting beautiful dresses. Let me tell you about them.

I am going to link the photographs, not as an act of advertisement but because the photos aren't mine so I should, and the links take you to see lots of pictures of the dresses, which are also on my Pinterest board called "Wearing Peace Flow".

I think these two dresses are the most beautiful I have ever seen.

I want these dresses with every fibre of my soul. But there are two problems which I am steadily bearing in mind.

The first is that they are one size and, as I am sure you are aware, one size fits none. The Chinese people who make these dresses thankfully provide, as many UK manufacturers do not, the measurement across the shoulders. The bust measurement of the dresses is, as you can see, both flexible and massive, because of the folds of fabric and the cross drape (a modest dresser's dream come true). But the shoulder measurement is, in the case of one, fifteen and three quarter inches, and in the other, sixteen inches. My shoulders are seventeen inches across and would remain so even if I lost every fat cell on my body. I just have the skeleton of an Amazon. Furthermore, my hypermobility means I slouch and flop and droop, and need wiggle room around the angles of my body as a result. So if I purchased either of these dresses I would bitterly regret it because they would be just that little bit too skimpy across the back. So, no. "No, no, no" — I tell myself.

Then there's another thing. About a million years ago when my children went to school out in the country village of Robertsbridge, I drove out from Hastings to take them and collect them every day. The school secretary, a sweet and delightful Danish lady with a candid and spontaneous approach to life, greeted me one day with her usual open, cheerful, loving kindness, saying with concern, "Oh! Are you unwell?"

"No," I said, puzzled; "I'm fine."

"Ah! I just thought you might have been because you're wearing your dressing gown."

That "dressing gown" was my very posh long line cardigan from East, that I thought the height of sartorial chic. I never wore it again.

Now, here in the UK we have a tradition of plaid dressing gowns, perhaps especially red tartan dressing gowns. Like this one.

I am in the morning of old age. I live in a town on the south coast which relies heavily on nursing homes to make its economy thrive.  I have been out in my car in the early morning and actually seen a wild-haired old lady hurrying along the street in her nightie and dressing gown and slippers, then twenty yards further along the road observed a nurse in uniform hurtling along in hot pursuit.

I know exactly what would happen if I went out in one of those beautiful dresses. I'd be apprehended and turned in at a nursing home, and I'm not quite ready for that.

Furthermore, in case I needed any concluding dissuasion, both those dresses cost a lot of money.

I got these ones instead —

— at a fraction of the price.

As these come in sizes, I was able to get a massive size to take account of my broad-beamed shoulders. I think the Chinese people have difficulty imaginatively encompassing the dimensions of Western people. In sizing these, they have as it were taken the corner and enlarged the whole thing. The size that fits my shoulders is consequently fifty-five inches long. Stilts required.

So far I own one of these dresses (the black one). In order to not actually walk on my own dress as I proceed through the world, I had to chop a length off the bottom (like the government changing in and out of British Summer Time — never were the initials BS so advisedly applied). But that isn't simple because the front dips, presumably to accommodate, in wearing, the humungously voluptuous frontal development the Chinese have assumed is an addition implicit in requiring an Asian size XXXL, but which I do not have. In my case, just the shoulders.

Dress 2 and 3 are on order, and I am girding up my loins for the daunting task of cutting a few inches off the bottom, but with the correct upward curve to result in a hem straight all round. I remember it well from last time, and I assure you it is not easy. Especially as the fabric which proclaims itself to be cotton — but I do not believe this and suspect it is rayon — is somewhat slippy with all the elusiveness going with that.

So, though I visit my Pinterest board wistfully and often, nevertheless I am resisting and resisting. I am not going to buy those beautiful dresses. I do not want to be captured by a nurse and taken away. At least, not just yet.

Fairy lights

It has to be borne in mind by anyone conversing with me that I am a novelist.

At our (lovely, relaxing, sublime even) hairdressing salon recently getting my hair cut, I casually remarked to the gentle and talented Vicky who takes care of all of us, that the reason my family's hair grows so almighty fast is that our brains are nothing but compost. She hesitated, scissors arrested in mid air. "Is that . . . true?" she said: "because I believe anything."

"No," I said.

It reminded me of an occasion when I was preparing a couple for marriage. We were at the chapel on the Thursday night, going through in exact and minute detail what would be happening at their wedding on the Saturday. At these rehearsals I required every person to attend who had an active part to play in the ceremony — congregations are active too, but you know what I mean. So we had our organist, our bride and groom, the best man and bridesmaids, the bride's father, and the ring-bearing page boy, who was about six years old I suppose, and stood patiently alongside his relatives staring at my feet while I explained every atom of what would take place.

I paused to ask if they had any questions. The page boy had. He pointed to my toe ring, and asked me why I was wearing it.

"Because," I said, "In my former incarnation I was married to a hedgehog."

He looked up at me with amazement. "Is that . . . true?" he asked.

"No," I said.

Bear that in mind when I tell you that in the bath this morning I finally got my head round what electrolytes are.

My grandparents lived in Scarborough, in East Yorkshire where the Vikings set up house and begat my family line.

Occasionally I used to stay with them as a child — my grandparents I mean, not the Vikings, though it came to pretty much the same thing. 

They took me to see a place that entirely spoke to my soul. Searching on the internet now, I can find no trace of it, so I don't know what it was called — it may have been the Valley Gardens or possibly the South Cliff Gardens, but it was in a deep valley/hillside (as most places are in coastal towns) lavishly illuminated with strings of coloured lights. You had to go there after dark, obviously, and we did. If you imagine something like a Christmas tree but huge and you could walk down in to it, and I think there was water with boats that also had coloured lanterns reflecting on the water. So magical, so pretty, so colourful. Enchanting. It was too long ago, I cannot put a name to it, but to me it was like fairyland. It took my breath away.

And I was thinking in the bath this morning, that must be what electrolytes are. They are the illuminations of the lumen of the gut. As you go down into the darkness of its labyrinthine valley, winding back and forth on itself as its pathway makes its downward descent, it is lit and make marvellously beautiful by the abundance of glorious electrolytes sparkling along the route, making a kind of fairy land of your insides. 

Those people who write about cleansing the gut producing startling ropes of mucus are mistaken; what they are finding is strings of electrolytes whose bulbs have gone, being put out with the trash. That's all it is.

Down there in your gut it looks something like this —

— entirely because of the electrolytes. I think that red one might be the way out, seen from within. It does appear to be some kind of sphincter.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

The darkness has never overwhelmed it.

There's that verse in the prologue of John's gospel, saying how the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness have never overwhelmed it.

That word I've given as "overwhelmed" can be translated as encompassed, swallowed up, extinguished, understood or put out. The darkness neither gets its head round the light nor subsumes it. You might say, the darkness never digests the light; it maintains its own integrity whatever its context or surroundings may be. This is why the light is a good metaphor of divine being — because it communicates the I Am That I Am, the Name of God. 

This came to my mind a couple of days ago when our cat Ted got into a fight and had an injury to his shoulder. Hebe and Alice took him to the vet, who pronounced that on this occasion he had sustained no infection from a bit, probably only a sprain, so should be kept indoors for three days. Hahaha. 

A litter tray and cat litter was accordingly sourced and set out, while Ted having returned from the vet sat brooding under Tony's bed, refusing to emerge. After three hours he came forth, and went to the back door asking to be let out. Hebe showed him the litter tray, which he looked at blankly, saying, "Yes, very nice; can I go out now, please?"

After some deliberation it was agreed the best plan would be to let him out as usual since confinement would only further stress him, but go with him. 

The difficult period of time would be the small hours of the morning when cats are still abroad and interacting but humans are fast asleep. This is when the fights happen.

Hebe found a solution — to sleep in Komorebi, where Ted loves to spend time, with the door open so he could come and go but she would be close to hand in case anything kicked off. So that's what she did.

At nightfall, just before I retired to bed, I went into Hebe's room at the back of the house and looked down through the trees to the window of Komorebi, illuminated by lamplight in the descending darkness.

I thought about family and home, the way we care for one another, travelling together through the world so that difficult times feel bearable and we keep each other safe. I thought about how life can be cheerful and meaningful, even when we are only ordinary people with not so many opportunities and not very much money. A place to return to, where love is found, where one's soul is seen and known and cherished. Not everybody's home is like that, I know — but ours is. 

And I thought the lantern-lit window through the trees, the light of home, might be the one that shines in the darkness, never properly understood, but never extinguished or defeated. To know one is loved, has a place to return to — to come home — is surely one of the most precious treasures human life affords.

Friday, 2 August 2019


Finished and sent in to trusty editor the book I've been writing through this summer — second book I've written this year, and another commissioned; hooray!

This one has not been commissioned by anyone, though, just my own bright idea, so no idea if it'll fly or not. Nonetheless it feels good to have completed it.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

For anyone overwhelmed by clutter

Most people who read here have been on the trail of minimising and simplifying for a long time, but I expect some of you struggle with a lot of stuff to deal with.

Today I found two posts I think are really good about tackling overwhelming piles of junk and clutter.

The first comes from Courtney Carver at Be More With Less and is about alternating slow small incremental change in the direction of simplicity and peace with short sharp bursts of intensive de-cluttering.

The second, from the visually very cluttered blog of Tracey Lynn, is about incorporating places and systems for the items in our home — reminds me of the Japanese composite word danshari (dan-sha-ri, meaning refuse-dispose-separate).

I think the methods recommended in both those posts look promisingly do-able. Good luck! Calm and harmony to your home! May your living space reflect the peace and order of heaven.

The mountain and the sea

On the morning my husband Bernard died, as I vigiled with him I also kept an eye on my inner viewer, where I could see a small sailboat slowly making its way out of a harbour to cross the bar and reach the open sea. Behind the boat I could see the dark headland of the sheltering hills, and I knew once he passed the end of the headland he'd be free. And so it turned out, and after his last breath I didn't see the white sail and the little boat any more.

But, it's not just in dying we put out to sea. I've also watched my mother (though I suppose that is also dying, just waaaaay more protracted) slowly putting out to sea in the last years; retreating into vagueness, declining responsibility for her actions, letting memory go. She doesn't do it on purpose, though to those of us still standing on the shore it can look like that. She's just drifting out to sea, leaving behind the commitments and engagements and responsibilities that make entanglement with this life what it is.

Then, as well as the open sea there's the high mountain. I wonder if you know Edward Burger's documentary about Zen hermits in China, Amongst White Clouds? Absorbing, fascinating, beautiful.

It gives expression to something I have never incarnationally experienced, but which is very real inside my spirit — how far up the mountain one lives.

In my early twenties I read Catherine de Hueck Doherty's book Poustinia, which made a deep impression on me. Her book Welcome Pilgrim I have never read, but it looks very interesting and I think I will. The poustiniki, about whom she wrote in Poustinia, were (are?) Russian hermits who lived alone up the mountain in small huts, in austere simplicity. They devoted their lives to prayer and studying the scriptures, but — and this is key — they also came down and helped in the village. They didn't just stay up the mountain doing their own thing, they offered useful practical help to people who needed it. But, on the other hand, they didn't become embroiled and enmeshed in the push and tug of life in the village. They had what a minister I once knew used to refer to as a hit-and-run ministry; they came, helped and left. Heheh — like Lynne Truss's book about grammar and punctuation, Eats Shoots And Leaves. Like anchorites, with one window into the sanctuary and one onto the marketplace; but higher up the mountain than that.

I've been intrigued by the identification, of other women in my age group, with my imperative, urgent, irresistible need for quiet, solitude and withdrawal. Several of you have written to me and told me of this. 

Earlier decades of my life were characterised by heavy involvement with people's lives — in hospice, in prison, in the church, and just socially. We never locked the door of our home because people were always finding their way to it, coming to find us, asking for refuge and help, somewhere to stay, someone to listen.

Over time — and, interestingly, not of my own doing or my own intention exactly — all this changed. Decisions have consequences and consequences have long tails. Choosing loyalty to marriage and family over career had profound and complicated consequences for me. Choosing to take seriously some insults and criticisms levelled at me, and receive them with humility, also had consequences — lasting years in the case of both those choices. Choosing to set up house with artists has had huge consequences; the portcullis was drawn up overnight! 

And in those movements of life, as I passed through them, travelling slowly on foot through the years, I did not really perceive the direction of travel. I just walked along the track life offered me, following the twists and turns as I came to them. But they took me higher up the mountain, and that came to be the place where I felt safe and peaceful and wanted to be.

Eventually, it came about that when anything especially vicious kicked off, my instinct started to be not to engage and talk it through and sort it out, as once I would have done, but to get out, to withdraw, to go higher up the mountain.

I find myself at a place where my soul flatly refuses the grief and struggle of engagement. There's a hymn (do you know it?) Sweetly the holy hymn, that includes the verse:

Upon the battlefield
Before the fight begins
We seek, O Lord, thy sheltering shield
To guard us from our sins 

I am conscious that, even somehow without my permission, my feet have walked off the battlefield and set off up the mountain. My boat has cut loose from the harbour and is drifting out to sea. I no longer have any fight in me. I no longer have the wisdom to pick sides advisedly. I hate the wounding and the casualties and the ruined lives, of ordinary everyday human warfare, in homes and in the church. I can't mend it, patch or heal it, but neither do I want to give my tacit consent to all the in-fighting and lacerations by staying there, silently watching while people get hurt. The only thing my inner wisdom tells me to do is walk away, go higher up the mountain. 

But I still want to help. I still want to be part of putting gentleness and kindness and healing balm into the world. The only thing I know to do is live more and more simply, and just be here for anyone who wants to find their way to me, and write books about simplicity and kindness. These are the only things I do that prove useful. If I get muddled up in the fray, nothing good comes of it. I think I am entering the "Sssssh" part of my life.

I think, from what you tell me, you feel the same. 

But — and this is important — because a lot of people read this blog without making themselves known in the comments, to you I want to say this: if the church has hurt you, if life has hurt you, if your family and the people who should have loved you have hurt and betrayed you, not listened to you, stopped your voice and ruined your work, I am so very sorry. Because I am part of the human race, I say to you on behalf of all of them lost in blundering human frailty, I love you, I am sorry, please forgive me, and thank you. 

Thank you for your song, your face, your unique and particular soul. Thank you for the hope in you that never dies and the tender, human reality with which you were born. Thank for being dear, loveable you. Just as you are, the mystery at the heart of life, the I Am That I Am, loves you, cares about you, sees you, hears you and is with you. Take comfort, brave soul. You are not alone. xxx

(I have linked the above picture so it is properly credited to its source. I love the picture but am not especially recommending the course or products on the other end of the link. It's just that the picture says exactly what I mean. The course, products etc might be excellent — I just don't know)

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Made us laugh.

In a nearby town, an advertised event:

Connecting Souls Coffee Morning
A coffee morning for like minded people

Monday, 22 July 2019


What is it about old ladies and handbags!?

At earlier points in my life, I've visited an old ladies in hospital, or taken an old lady there, and in every case she would clutch her handbag tight, get anxious if it got misplaced. The handbag was really important.

I have even, on one occasion, needed to check the contents of a handbag belonging to an old lady in hospital, and found in it only a mouldy peach. 

But now that I am also becoming an old lady, I understand. 

One of our household asked me at breakfast time, "Are you going out?" I wondered why for a moment, then realised it was because I had my handbag nearby. And, no, I wasn't going anywhere — I just needed the things in it, on and off throughout the day in all the different places I might be.

My handbag is smaller than the ones I used to have. When my children were little it had to contain wet-wipes and jelly-babies and a book to look at and a cotton muslin and so on.  Then, as life moved on, I needed a bag sizeable enough to contain an A5 writing pad, one pen and a spare, my Filofax, usually speaking notes and a folder relating to whatever I was going to, and a make-up pouch, as well as all the usual handbag things. So I used to have a shopping-bag sized handbag!

Now those days have gone, and I no longer need a large bag.

I like either leather or canvas bags, and of the two options I prefer leather, because I think it looks more suitable at a formal event (but is equally fine for everyday), and is easier to clean.

I prefer to buy bags second-hand, to (albeit minutely) slow down our pervasive problem of mass-production, and to obtain a nice item within budget, and to take my custom to a down-sizing woman at home making a little money. Also, I often change my mind a couple of months after a purchase, and want something different. If I paid £4 for my bag that doesn't matter very much; a very different story if I'd paid £400 or even £40 for it. I bought my current one on eBay for £15.00 in February.

My bag is very dark green. I really love green and red for bag colours, as they surprisingly go with almost everything — I have navy, grey, black, burgundy and green clothes, and I thought the dark green would look nice with any of them. Plus, I think dark green is beautiful.

I dislike a lot of accoutrements on bags — buckles and catches, tassels and tags, chains and zips and metal linking rings. I don't like long dangling straps, or those doubled-over straps that let you vary the length between a shoulder bag and a cross-body style. The muddly appearance irritates me.  

I also dislike grab bags — I have to wear my bag on my shoulder. I do like the appearance of grab bags, but my hyper-mobility means my blood tends to pool, and I get very uncomfortable if my hand is down by my side unsupported for any length of time (eg, holding a bag by its handles). If my bag is on my shoulder, I can tuck my thumb round the strap as I'm walking along, which helps my blood do its thing and stops my hands swelling up. 

I like to be able to clamp my bag firmly under my arm, for security. I am never easy with those back-packs where the small compartment for your purse, tickets, phone etc, sits on the outside, behind you where you can't see. I think those new backpacks where the access is on the inner side against your back are a wise security improvement — though it makes it harder to get at your stuff. For me, the ideal when travelling is the hands-free combo of a backpack with nothing in it worth stealing, and a small pack (bum bag, fanny pack, money belt, whatever) with my money and tickets, glasses and phone strapped onto my front.

So my current handbag looks like this —

Here's what it has inside (plus the phone I was using to take the photo) —

I got those two fold-up nylon shoppers at Sainsbury's, and they are excellent. For one thing they're capacious and take plenty of groceries, but also they have the good strong integral handles, not the thin stitched-on ones that cut into your hands when the bag is full.

I carry two pairs of glasses with me always, everywhere — one for just looking at things and one for inspecting small print on labels carefully.  

My bag is the perfect size for me. It slips down beside me in an armchair, and between my pillows and my husband's pillows if I'm sitting on our bed reading or writing. It's unobtrusive and the handle isn't the sort that trips people up if I put it on the floor by my chair. It isn't heavy, its design is simple and classic with no ornamentation, it's well-made and I find it attractive.

In some ways I like the idea of having a backpack for my main bag, but for two things — I don't like the way backpacks are infested with straps like an octopus's tentacles, dangling all over the place, and much of the time I want something small and neat rather than large and capacious. The great thing about a small, slim, flat shoulder bag is that the (also small, slim, flat) shopping bags can sit folded up inside all the while you don't actually need to use them.

So in my bag I carry my two pairs of glasses, the two nylon shoppers, a small coin purse, my phone, my rail card in its handy ticket wallet, my house and car keys, a pen, and my cards (a debit card, a emergency car rescue card for if we break down, my do-not-resuscitate card which also lets my organs be harvested, and my two store loyalty cards).

I find I need to use all these things very frequently (well — not the do-not-resuscitate card so far, but everything else), and hardly ever need anything more. So I keep my handbag by me wherever I am stationed indoors, and take it out with me wherever I go.

I do have one other, a canvas shoulder bag, which is handy for when I'm preaching — I can put my handbag inside it alongside the folder containing my notes and whatever I've brought for bored children to do.

What about you? I bet you have strong preferences for bags as well!

Friday, 19 July 2019

Japanese brooms

Are you familiar with Japanese brooms?

I think they are utterly marvellous.

We have two. The first I got from Japan (via either UK eBay or UK Amazon, I forget which). It was described enchantingly as a brush for passages and porches, called a hoki. Elsewhere I've seen them called a shuro.

Then we got a second one — to have either one in Komorebi and one in the main house, or one upstairs and one downstairs.

You can choose whether to pay a huge sum of money for a broom sourced from a Japanese family of artisan brush-makers — and, oh my goodness, do the Japanese not elevate this into an art form sublime! Or, if your purse is lean and moth-eaten, you can source such a broom from eBay at a very modest price indeed — usually from China. Search on "Japanese broom".

The handles of ours are made from bamboo, the bristles from some kind of plant. Softer and more pliable than straw brooms, and having the natural slim fan shape, they go behind radiators, under cupboards, alongside the kitchen machines, and get all the dust from corners and skirting boards. They are great for the bathroom — sweeping behind the wash basin and the toilet. The bristles are fine enough and the handle short enough also to use as a dusting broom.

Unless you have fitted carpet everywhere (in which case obviously a vacuum cleaner is your friend), a hoki/shuro broom would be — in my opinion — the only duster/brush you ever needed to keep your house clean. And not a plastic handle or nylon bristle in sight (the eBay listings for the Chinese ones say the bristles are nylon but they are not; look closely at the photos to check before buying), even the thread to stitch the bristles is compostable bio-degradable string, not something that will choke wild beasts for three million years.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019


Over time, the groceries I buy have gradually changed. They may change again, but I think are less likely to because I no longer buy randomly according to taste but for specific principles that won't change unless new information (eg on health) prompts a re-think.

My principles don't have an ascending/descending order of priority — they are all important to me.

These are the principles that now determine my grocery shopping:

  1. My health. I have spent a humungous amount of time reading and researching the impact of food on health. As our UK health service gets more fragile, and as I age, I feel a clear responsibility to build the best health I can through what I eat.
  2. The well-being of creation. For me, the work of Allan Savory has been a real eye-opener. It makes sense of what I've read elsewhere about farming and respect for the land. I want to do my very best to care for the Earth and to be sure the farm animals whose bodies or produce (eggs, dairy) I eat have been cared for and allowed as natural a life and as gentle a death as possible. I want my buying choices to work towards shalom.
  3. The local economy. I believe in supporting local businesses, because I think that is in every way more sustainable. It promotes accountability and reduces the pollution associated with big food miles. It means I can find out about the places and people who produce my food, making wise choices and allowing them to build up a customer list they can rely on. I also (vaguely, this is more instinctive than rational) believe in eating produce from the place where I live — local honey and butter and fruit and veggies.
  4. Cost. I have a low income, but I prioritise food quality above almost anything else in my purchasing. So I buy food that may seem expensive, but I eat relatively small amounts, and anyway that's the thing I choose to spend my money on. To be able to afford high quality food, I choose the cheaper items — cabbage rather than artichokes, mince rather than leg of lamb, for instance. Where I can, I get the items that are cheap and nutritious and compassionately and responsibly produced — of which the star example is that we buy our eggs from the farm gate right next door to our chapel. A dozen costs less than half a dozen in a supermarket. There are zero food miles because the hens live there and that's where we're going to chapel anyway. The hens are battery rescue hens. They are free range. Perfect.
So the food I buy now goes like this:
  1. I buy meat. I am very attracted to vegan diet as an ethos, but I don't do well on it personally and I have issues with some of the global impact of it. Having thought about this deeply, I have come to the view that our living and dying are always inextricably linked; for instance the combine harvesters for grain crops are bound to kill mice in the fields, and our car journeys to the shops are bound to kill insects — the windscreen after a motorway journey is covered with tiny dead bodies. The only reason farm animals have the opportunity to live is because they are farmed; if we did not eat them, there would be no more pigs, or beef cattle, bred. A wild animal (eg deer, goat, bird) often lives its whole life looking over its shoulder for predators, and its end is often violent and gruesome, and its condition pitiable in disease. Though a farm animal's life is short, if it is looked after kindly then it at least has a life, during which it is cared for and provided for. Animal welfare is very important to me. So I buy my meat from two or three places, chosen for animal welfare, organic farming methods (and pasture-raised animals), and/or freedom from plastic packaging. My meat products come from Primal Meats or Graig Farm. I used to buy from Eversfield Farm. They are very good, but I love the passionate animal welfare of Primal Meats, and the plastic-free packaging commitment of Graig Farm. I also buy bone broth from Osius. I don't know why it only has one s.
  2. I buy dairy products. I like Beurre d'Isigny butter, Graham's milk and Yeo Valley Greek Yoghourt, but I have just made a new discovery. Hook and Son farm is just a few miles away from us at Hailsham, and they will do a doorstep delivery to our postcode once a week. So I can get raw butter, raw cream and raw milk from them delivered! Yes!! They also will include in the delivery bio-live yoghourt from Court Lodge just down the road at Wartling.
  3. Apart from that, I buy fruit and vegetables. Mostly I get these from Sainsburys, Asda, less often Marks and Spencer — or from Trinity Wholefoods (a co-operative selling local produce, in our town). Sometimes I drive a few miles out to Great Park Farm. I also get my oil, nuts, salt, herbs, spices and cider vinegar from whichever of these shops I happen to be in when I need them. My cider vinegar is the organic sort with "the mother", and my salt is Cornish sea salt.
In addition, I have been trying to grow more of our own food. This year nearly all the cherries we had were from our own tree, and we have lots of greengages, plums, apples and pears coming. We pick blackberries wild. Each year I try to grow courgettes and pole beans, because one plant does a lot of food in each case. I started growing kale this year, and will grow that every year from now on.  I've grown some outdoor tomatoes, but only a few. We grow lots of herbs, which we use for teas and in cooking. The only other food I can think of that we buy is honey, and we get ours from Freddie's dad who keeps bees in the park down the hill from us. Oh — our water is from the spring at the foot of the hill.

I have stopped eating processed foods and ready meals, also sugar and grains, and I no longer drink any tea or coffee. I never drank much alcohol, but I now no longer drink it at all. I avoid additives and artificial sweeteners, preferring to just eat a simple "ingredient".

As the members of our household have birthdays coming soon, though, there has been discussion about whether or not to have birthday cake . . . And we might. Or not.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)Psalm 150: O praise God in his holi...

I love this Stanford setting of Psalm 150. I think it's the same one they sing as a recessional after Sunday morning eucharist at York Minster.

Garden surprises

In response to the church hierarchy's assertion that "Jesus never called women to be his disciples", in defence of an all-male priesthood, I once heard it said that was because the women came to join him without being called.

Our garden is a bit like that.

It has kale, which I planted:

— but nestling more cosily than it might wish among potatoes (which I did not plant) and some other thing that I can only guess might be foxgloves.

There is less kale than I intended because cats and foxes got busy in the spring and dug up most of my baby kale plants, but what remains keeps us in greens and struggles on valiantly despite being almost swamped by the potatoes —

— and by that thing on the left, which seen in full is this:

Yes. An absolutely massive fennel plant. We have good compost.

It's getting extremely difficult to walk round our vegetable garden. On one side the potatoes spill over the path, obscuring it completely. On the other side there's this climbing squash vine —

— which, again, I did not plant. It's travelled from the veggie patch right across to the house wall, wrapped itself lovingly round that (self-invited) fennel in a pot and is now heading back to the veggie patch. It's a bit of a challenge to pick my way across to the water butt, to give all these beings a drink in the evening.

I did plant these courgettes:

— but I've had to take off some of their enormous leaves that had covered some other, smaller plants entirely.

I suppose it's all good, and I've let them stay, but I'll be glad when the time comes to dig up the potatoes; and I tell you what, that fennel isn't coming back next year! 

Saturday, 13 July 2019

The ontology of minimalism

Our biology teacher, Mrs Coleman, had two little Griffon dogs who lived during the day in the stock room behind the biology lab. Occasionally she allowed us to see them, and at lunchtime she took them for a walk. Mrs Coleman was tall and gaunt, with black wavy hair and an imposing aristocratic nose but a gentle and hesitant manner. She taught us about caddisfly larvae.

The caddisfly is one of those creatures with two distinct parts to its life. The adult is terrestrial, but the larvae are aquatic. In the water, these larvae get busy making themselves cases in which to pupate, out of whatever gritty little bits and pieces come to hand on the wetlands floor, wrapped up and bound together with silk.

So if (as Mrs Coleman did) you house caddisfly larvae in an aquarium in your biology lab, and provide them with a liberal sprinkling of interesting and colourful stone grit (turquoise, carnelian, anything pretty or sparkly), the caddisfly will go to work on its architectural project and provide itself with a coat of many colours as good as anything Joseph ever wore.

Then, is the case part of the caddisfly? Or is the caddisfly merely inside the case? Who is a caddisfly really?

Something similar applies to hermit crabs. They seek out shells in which to shelter — and is the shell part of the crab or a separate thing? 

What is mine and what is me and where is the boundary line? 

If you see me, I will be dressed (I hope). 


(Google definition)

(Merriam Webster)

You can dress an altar — another term for the same thing is "adorn" the altar. 

We see one another adorned. When you see me, you see my choices, my opinion, my evaluation, of myself and of my situation. 

I used to have different outfits for different occasions — to fulfil other people's expectations and preferences. I wore different clothes for home and for church, for visiting my mother or for conducting worship. I became unsure who I was — less myself and more them, maybe. I lost something of my inner self into the circumstance, as I took on who they were — not like a caddisfly, not like a hermit crab; like a chameleon.

I thought about it hard. If I own almost nothing, I am left alone with myself; and in that solitude I encounter God (and demons, like Jesus in the desert). I wanted that, and I wanted the sense of freedom and flexibility, of slipping through the world like a mouse through grass, leaving nothing, not even a footprint, behind. But at the same time, I didn't want to give offence. And sometimes the way I dress has given offence; the offended have told me so. I didn't want to attract attention to myself. I wanted, as Sally Wainwright said of the Brontës, "to walk invisible".

I realised dark clothing would be the way to go. Even the contours of one's body blur in the shadows of dark. Dark clothing does not call the attention of other people. It works for formal wear. It doesn't show stains (much). So that's what I chose. It allowed me to slip in and out of as many contexts as I wanted without causing offence, drawing attention or increasing the number of clothes I had.

I realise minimalism is about more than clothes, but mine isn't, because I no longer have very much else of my very own. A few books and just a tiny few personal treasures. Anything else I use is shared with other people and co-owned.

I find that ownership extends and complicates, and to some extent confuses, one's sense of self. A person comes to self-definition through any number of realities about which one can say "my" — my job, my home, my family, my heritage, my culture, my personal style, my achievements, my education, my personal history, my marriage, my status, my investments.

If minimalism is embraced not as a style but as a slow divestment of all that, oneself becomes slowly more apparent. I have no job and consequently no status, I live in someone else's home, my achievements ran into the dust and evaporated. I have one investment, a rental cottage that supplies my income; and I find that if there's just one thing, it has its own clarity distinct from oneself. If you see what I mean. I am not likely to define myself as "a landlord" by virtue of owning one small cottage I let out, am I? It's just that thing, its own self, separate from me — and isn't even my own but co-owned; I'm just allowed to use the money to live on (and maintain the house itself, of course; I have to share the income with the house, as well as to pay my own rent, etc).

As for my education, that didn't really stick. My inner being is sufficiently anarchic that I passed unscathed through the entire process of education, emerging knowing very little more than I knew when I entered it.

My culture, my heritage, is an odd rag-bag of upward mobility and social pretension. I come from servants and labourers who worked hard and made good and acquired airs and thought more of themselves as a result. I'm not sure what I am there — and in any case writers, like artists, sit in the margins of social culture, somewhat separate from it.

Then there's personal history. I've spent two or three years detoxifying my body of that — its traumas and disappointments. Have you read Carlos Castañeda's books about Don Juan? What he says about erasing personal history? I find it a really intriguing thought.

In Journey to Ixtian, he says this:
"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. I have, little by little, created a fog around me and my life. And now nobody knows for sure who I am or what I do. Not even I. How can I know who I am, when I am all this?"

Curiously, I find that slowly leaving behind my personal history, rendering it unnecessary, doesn't (for me) create fog but clarity. The definitions imposed upon me by other people's choices and decisions and the things that happened to me as a result — including the schools they sent me to, the jobs they gave me, the certifications and statuses they bestowed on me, the opinions they expressed about me — swirled like a dust storm around me. I find that if you walk quietly away, and keep on walking, and refuse what they give you and pin onto you, then gradually you come clear, are born again. Then there is just you and God and in that company you know who you are.

You do still have to get dressed in the morning, because you are a being in the world and besides you'd get cold or sunburnt if you didn't. But, espousing minimalism, at least you don't get dressed into a persona (my preaching outfit, my formalwear, my sportswear, my leisure gear, my gardening clothes); you just put on your clothes and there you are.

What I want, when you meet me, is that you will find yourself with a simple being, so that it will almost feel as though you are alone. You will know who you are because you are with me. And if you have undertaken a similar journey, I will know who I am because I am with you. And this ontological clarity comes from the simplicity of living without defence or pretence in the presence of God, like Jesus in the desert. It is peace, it is shalom. The details of circumstance become immaterial, like the petals of cherry blossom shaken free from the tree in the wind.

That's what I want. That's where I'm headed. 

Like the thing it says about seeing in the first letter of John.

If we take everything out of the way, perhaps we shall really see one another. What do you think?

Friday, 12 July 2019

Things and self

I like to be able to see my things, preferably all of them in one place together. Otherwise I forget who I am, and get lost in my belongings — I get confused between their personalities and my own identity. So for me, the best way of all would be one-bag living; I think that's what I'd most enjoy. The less I own, the more present and concentrated I feel.

One of the areas of confusion for me has been about location. I had my little room in the big house, and I also had Komorebi. I thought I'd like being based in Komorebi — sleeping and living there, but I didn't. I felt lonely for the sense of presence of the other people whose home I share, especially at night. Komorebi is a lovely place to sleep, very calm and peaceful — but I find the auric mingling with my family very sustaining and beneficial (a blessing), so I also wanted to be with them.

Having pared down my belongings again, I found it possible to address this, making my life more of one thing in a way. I'll show you.

This is my husband's room. He used to be in the attic, but after he had pneumonia a while back, we thought maybe wiser to be less on the edge of things.

He made those bookshelves and his wardrobe. His desk is in the window.

On his bed is the big crocheted blanket my daughters made for me. We love it. Because it's his bed and my blanket that makes us feel part of one another.

He has a chest of drawers as a bedside table, that he originally bought for me (from a charity shop) but it fits just right here, and all the little drawers are good for compartmentalising belongings.

That's his winter coat hanging on the door, with a scarf woven by the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey.

There's a chest of drawers we got on eBay on the side of the bed I sleep. In the top two drawers we keep our spare bedding.

The bottom drawer is where I have my jeans (3 pairs in total now) and t-shirts. I have about 5; the number changes — for example, I had another one but got bleach on the front and spoilt it, so I repurposed it as a PJ top. Anyway, I have a few and I keep them here.

Under the chest of drawers is a box that had strawberries in, from the supermarket, just the right size to store my toiletries.

Then the bed frame is just a bit bigger than the mattress, which cunningly allows me to keep my canvas bag, my electronic bits, the bag with my comb and scissors etc, my chilly bottle for cool water at night, and my supplements, all where I can get them but they are still out of the way.

Under the bed there's a drawer on wheels I can pull out, just the right size for the rest of my clothes. 

That little white box you can see is special and precious. I keep my earrings in it, but it has something else inside too. It was sent to me by Diana Lorence of Innermost House, and inside it has a locket that contains ashes from the fire on the hearth of Innermost House. What a wonderful thing to have. It is a treasure.

So that's where I sleep at night and where I've put my clothes. The box on the bed that I use as a computer desk has my night things in during the day and my day clothes ready for the morning at night.

There's a space for my books on the top shelf of the bookcase.

Mine stop just before that short orange thing.

But then, come with me down the garden and have a look at Komorebi now.

So here are some photos of the inside.

As you can see, it has electricity now. It makes it more practical. There's a hotplate tucked away under the bed, which can be used for cooking or making tea or just for an electric fire.

I moved my altar things on to the windowsill there (along with the altar things that always belong in Komorebi). On the shelf underneath is an old ice-cream carton with grains of rice in, to soak up any moisture in the air, and alongside it my sewing box (an ex-frankincense-packaging-box) and my first aid box (an ex-sock-box)

We have a set of mugs and some cooking things so we can make a barbecue kind of meal sometimes.

The rest of my books are there.

There's no internet connection in Komorebi, but it's a good thinking and praying and talking and just being, place. I write there, but have to mark any references etc to chase up, and do them when I come back to the house.

The little bedroom I had in the big house has been re-purposed for our member of the household who mainly lives somewhere else, because it makes a cosy nook for someone just holing up here for a few days, which is what she does.