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.