Tuesday, 17 July 2018


It seems to me there's a basic divergence in approach when it comes to clothing.

Do you remember Trinny and Suzannah? They took a whole swathe of hopelessly frumpy women and re-clothed them to bring out their best features, allowing their elegance, beauty and sexiness to appear, showing them off to be the best version of themselves they could be. Amazed and delighted, woman after woman looked into the mirror on those shows at the big reveal, saying, "Is that really me?" 

Gok Wan did something similar, with the added feature of nudity — a (tasteful) nude shot was included at the end, to encourage the woman to see and believe that she, just as she was and in all her glory, could be beautiful. Plus he designed her a new wardrobe appropriate to the requirements of her life. 

Online you can find no end of websites to help you put together a clothing repertoire; you have to take into account your lifestyle, your personality, your figure, your tastes, your colouring, to get the right "uniform" from which to create your own personal capsule wardrobe.

So, one approach to clothing is to discover and reveal the individual. Show off your figure, bring out your best features — like the Colour-Me-Beautiful thingummy gets the best colours for your eyes, your hair, your skin. It's all directed towards letting you — the best version of you possible — be seen. As my beautiful mama says, "Be the age and the person you are, but be the best version of that."

But there is another approach to clothing. 

When someone enters monastic life, they usually have to choose something out of the kit they already have to wear while they live alongside the monastic community for a while, making up their mind if this really is for them. When the time of decision comes, it is/was traditionally marked by "clothing" — by taking the habit of the order. Entering the clothes designated entering the community.

Almost all social groups have uniforms, and if you want to belong you are wise to don the clothes. People read clothing, and assess you on the basis of what you wear. This can be a problem in a misogynistic society. For a while now, feminists have been strongly arguing that the responsibility for behaviour should rest with the person exhibiting it, not with the person towards whom it is directed. So, when considering the treatment of women by men, the argument is that what a woman wears is up to her, and the rape culture theories about a woman "asking for it" if she is "provocatively" dressed, and that she should "cover up" if she wants to be treated with respect, are void. I do agree with that, but also consider that people will still continue to read clothing as a message; that inevitably has outcomes, however unwelcome, violent, disrespectful and unfair.

It interest me that my husband, who strongly identifies as a businessman, loves to watch the TV serial, Suits. They wear his uniform; it's a drama about his world. People look for the ones who dress like them, and conform in their attire to the others in the group they want to join.

So that approach to dress is, in a sense, de-personalising; losing one's individual identity in favour of a group identity — no longer, "This is me": now, "I am one of these." Like a Muslim woman in her hijab, or an Amish woman in her cape dress and distinctive kapp — or, as a rape culture proponent might say, "she dressed like a whore" (or even more oddly, "like a hoe." In the UK a hoe is a garden implement.)

Here and there you get odd anomalies; I'm thinking of Sarah Chrisman and Isabel Penraeth. In her published work, Sarah argues strongly that dressing (and living) as a Victorian is her as she really is — her Victoriana allows us to see the real Sarah. And Isabel, during the years she identified as "Quaker Jane", dressed in anachronistic style not to be subsumed into a group identity but to make a clear statement of her sense of personal call/direction. In fact both Sarah and Isabel had to endure constant criticism and abuse from members of society who dress "normally", including, in Isabel's case, other Quakers. There are always those who will attack anyone perceived as different.

It interests me that Sarah and Isabel both followed a path of entering a form of clothing that yet created a strong personal identification and separation from the herd. Unlike a Muslim in a hijab, their dress did not allow them to merge with and vanish into a group; on the contrary, it made them very distinctive — yet not the Trinny and Susannah kind of distinctive, either.

In myself I find a sometimes inconsistent ongoing internal dialogue about dress. On the one hand, I love flowing and voluminous clothes, complete with hats or head-wraps, in which I can rest as in a refuge. I enter those clothes and they help me manage the oh-so-difficult-for-me world of social engagement. They are like the shell into which the hermit crab creeps. They wrap around me as peace. And then again, sometimes they make me tired because they have personality of their own, like a statement. Sometimes I just want my own hair, a dark grey t-shirt (long-sleeved, please), dark grey jogging trousers, a baggy dark grey high-necked, long-sleeved sweater. Little wonder, is there, that people so rarely recognise me — if they even see me at all (they often don't). I am either invisible or inside something else. I think, for me, clothes are a quietus — a shroud, a veil — in which to rest. A ship, a house, for the soul.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Made me happy

I may be simplistic in my personal walk, but I was all bogged down and tangled up in the complexities of humanity and church, and then this made me happy today. Made me smile. Made me dance.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Headwrap post

This is really for friends who like to head-wrap (or, as I keep typing by mistake, head-warp).

If you've followed this blog a long time, you may remember one summer a few years ago I posted about the kapps I like to make that I called "podvigs". Podvig is a word out of the Russian Orthodox tradition to do with intentionality and vocation, which made it feel apposite to headcovering.

I can't find the post now, I think I must have deleted it at some point. 

The podvigs are very simple to make. You just need a rectangular piece of cloth — I generally use an old tea-towel (for US friends, that's the English term for a wiping-up-washed-dishes-cloth) because they get to look a bit weathered and battered and I like my hats that way. They are also quite rough cloth, which means they stay put and don't slip, unlike synthetic fibres and smooth naturals.

You measure from just below one ear, up over your head to just below the other ear. Add a little extra for a hem on either side. That gives you the long straight edge of your podvig. Use the long straight edge of the tea-towel.  You then make a D-curve (draw it on the wrong side so it doesn't show later, so that you've drawn a D shape on your fabric.  Not a semi-circle, you go down straight a little way, then curve round, then up straight a little way to the other end of the long straight side. Are you with me? You just cut out a D, of which the long straight edge is a little longer than below one ear and up over your head to below the other ear. I can't give you measurements, it all depends on the size of your head, but if you do what I just said then it'll fit you.

So you cut out your D. I'm assuming the long straight edge is already selvedged or hemmed. Around the curve, make a tiny hem, just to stop any fraying along the raw edge. Then, again around the curve, make a deeper hem, perhaps a centimetre, to be a channel for elastic. Leave the ends open to thread the elastic through. Use knicker elastic type of width. 

Thread a length of elastic through, stitching it down at one end and anchoring the other with a safety pin to experiment until it is both tight enough and loose enough to wear comfortably. Then stitch down the second end of your elastic, and you have your podvig.

But here's the bright idea I had today. You can get online those fair-traded headbands from Nepal, inexpensive. Get one of those. Or any other headband you may have, but it must have a rough enough surface to create cloth-to-cloth traction (ie not slip).

Put the headband on first, to keep your hair firmly in place, then put the podvig on over the top. Because they are both rough cloth, it'll stay put.

I think it looks really good.

It's a lot easier than all the winding and knotting and whatnot that goes with most wraps.

And these are in a whole different league!!

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Why, thank you.

Our cats.

So thoughtful.

Such presentation.

Such pride.

Right there on the rug dead centre in front of the hearth stone, a splendid gift.  O, the joy. 

Worth a photograph, I thought. I used the Dramatic filter: it seemed appropriate, somehow.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Mapping your journey

Our home group has just started a new study course called "Going to Galway" (from the old Irish joke's punchline, "If I was going to Galway, I wouldn't start from here.") 

It's a Christian basics course working with the assumption that things always go better if you start where you are rather than where you're trying to get to — if you begin with the reality rather than the aspiration, if you see what I mean.

So we began this week by imagining one of those large tourist maps with an arrow proclaiming YOU ARE HERE (how do they always know?!)

And we thought about our own lives and our personal spiritual journeys, our specific road less travelled.

I'd thought we might be ambitious enough to draw a map, but that can take ages and it seems a pity to use up our fellowship time in corporate silence, drawing. Besides, some people feel horror strike deep into their soul when you ask them to draw a picture.

So instead, I made a sort of graphic with boxes to fill in (writing is less alarming for most of us), as a focus for our thoughts and starter for our discussion.

As ever, I was fascinated and delighted by the different insights and variety of experience, the richness and texture of spirituality that unfurled in our conversation. We had a good time.

So I thought you might like to have a go. Here's the graphic. 

You should be able to print it off in A4 successfully. 

  • Where I am now — how do life and faith feel to you at the present time? What fills your vision and determines your reality right now?
  • My True North — where you're headed, your goal or destination.
  • The hidden treasure I found — surprising sources of delight and enrichment you experience on the way.
  • Who showed me the way? — Who inspired and taught you?
  • Where I left an altar — those special moments of joy or grief, people you loved and lost and still remember, sacred instances like a birth, a marriage, a vocation . . .
  • Big crossroads — the life-changing decisions or changes.
  • What I lost on the way — and were you sad or glad about that?
  • Where I thought I was going but wasn't — sometimes as our spirituality develops, the way we began no longer works, and something new develops.
  • Where I got stuck — times I was puzzled or confused, despairing or defeated.
  • Who went with me — my true companions on the journey; the ones who understood and shared my spiritual quest.
  • The food I ate — what nourished and sustained me.
  • The light I carried — what illumined my understanding and showed me the way; and for what or whom I carried a torch, bore a flame; what have I believed in? What keeps the darkness at bay for me?
  • What got me started — a person? A book? An idea?
  • All at sea — where I am still confused or perplexed. What is hard to understand? Where am I still lost or out of my depth?

Let me know how you get on, and ask me if there's anything you don't understand.

Thursday, 28 June 2018


I wish a television channel — or at least a programme — existed, in which almost nothing happened.

I love costume drama; but it's the costumes I love, not the drama. I look wistfully at the pictures of Poldark and wish I could face actually watching it. But the sadness, the adulteries, the intrigues, the betrayals — I hate them, and they are the stuff of the unfolding story.

I started watching The Crown and got on quite well with it at first, but gave up. I couldn't keep company with its descent into exploration of marital strife, school bullying, promiscuity, spitefulness and family rows.

No story seems complete without bitter arguments, people storming out, terrible revelations, suffering and tension. I can't cope with it.

I wish there could be a programme where elegant people in Edwardian clothing, living marvellous lives in country chateaux and superb town houses, had tea with each other and drove about in their beautiful cars. They could go to the opera and open imposing black umbrellas against the rain and travel on steam trains and enjoy picnics in idyllic countryside. We could see their lovely china and crystal and beautiful décor, their silk and linen and lace, their noble horses and their dogs and farm animals. Which is to say, we would see the farm animals doing their work, or being brushed or fed, but not lengthy close-ups of copulation and shit.

We could see them going to church, and singing the hymns in all four parts, with a sensible and intelligent clergyman who actually had something to say worth hearing, with a wise and kind face and the ability to speak thoughtfully without pontificating or making a fool of himself. Not all the clergy are idiots.

There could be problems — characters could get sick and die or do something they were ashamed of or make a mistake; but they would explain what had happened and it would be received with kindness. They would support one another in pain or distress, hear each other's trouble with understanding, and together work towards putting it right.

They could identify social evil and set about making things better. The wealthy landowning people could be kind and generous to their servants, and they could all behave with dignity and restraint, speaking courteously — even about people who weren't there.

The servants of the big houses could have their own cottages with gardens and chickens, and we could enjoy seeing the simplicity of their lives — the humble homes and the grand palaces, equally beautiful in different ways; the skills of working men and women and the responsibility of wise and trustworthy landowners, working together with mutual respect.

And the women wouldn't all have to be thin; they could be plump but still beautiful and interesting. And the children could be quiet and studious, and polite to their parents, not always bullying each other or flouncing about complaining. 

The interest in it would come from seeing realistic problems constructively overcome — illnesses of humans, animals, plants; the challenges of development and change as industry alters the landscape and new skills are required; the domestic challenges of managing conflict well and communicating with people who aren't very bright. Everyday life has so much to think about and overcome: learning how to be a parent, the struggle of being shy or lonely, looking after bees and roses and new lambs, cooking complicated meals and planning banquets, training puppies and making friends with wild birds, the experience of growing old or of caring for a family member with a disability . . .

Why not? Is that unrealistic? Is it boring? I didn't think so. I think there have always been such people. Life isn't one great big slanging match of corruption and cruelty and people taking advantage of one another. Some people are good, and happy, and content. Life is difficult and funny and interesting all by itself.

I tell you what, I could watch it all day.

Picture: William McGregor Paxton, Tea Leaves, oil on canvas, 1909, Metropolitan Museum of Art — public domain

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Beyond words

Every now and then I like to go back to York to check in with my old friends — the Minster and Betty's Café, my places of pilgrimage.

York Minster gives me the oddest feeling. It is the friendliest building I've ever known. From the first time I set foot in it (forty two years ago) and still today, it has felt like a large animal that likes me. And I like it right back. It makes my heart glad.

Minster evensong is a variable experience, which has been travelling downhill for me along with a lot of other spiritual connections, during the last few years. But this week set it right again, and restored my joy. It was the turn of the girl choristers to sing, and they were spectacularly good. They also had a new (since I was last there) counter-tenor whose voice was just superb, absolutely inhabiting the note dead-centre. Simply beautiful. They sang a cappella the day I was there; soul food extraordinaire.

And I love the Book of Common Prayer. Objectively evaluated, my  life has been sheltered and uneventful, but — believe me — it's had its storms and terrors. I have not lived with the horrors Thomas Cranmer knew, with his prison room overlooking the yard where his friends were burned alive, knowing his own end would be the same ghastly and cruel agony. No twists and turns made in fear could get him out of it, and his courage at the end was magnificent.

Even though my paths have been sunny and secure by comparison, nonetheless his prayers resonate with my soul like no one else's. When he begs of God that we may pass our time in rest and quietness, my "amen" is fervent. When he confesses that without God's help, "nothing is strong, nothing is holy," my spirit witnesses to it as truth indeed.

When  the words of his prayer roll forth to start the Eucharist — "Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name . . ." — it is exactly and completely what I want to say.

Same with the collects at Evening Prayer:
For peace: "O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen."

For help: "Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen."

And intercessions for all conditions of humankind: "O God, the Creator and Preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations. Grant to all in authority wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness; and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve the people in thy fear."

"Yes," my heart says; "Yes."  Makes a change from its habitual teeth-clenched mutterings of "No" that public worship so often draws forth.

So the visit to the Minster proved to be restoring of peace and hope. 

And Betty's, in a different way, also feeds my soul — because of the excellence, the attention to detail, the kindness. Betty's is worth a visit. Worth coming to England for all by itself. In my lifetime, Betty's has survived three recessions completely unscathed, and if you've been there you'll understand why. Built on the rock, is Betty's. Integrity, wholesome goodness, cheerfulness, commitment to the highest standards.

On the way to York, passing through Kings Cross Station, I met this dinosaur (I am the one in front; the dinosaur is behind me). 

I'm glad we got this photo, because a railway station is no place for wild animals and they had all legged it when we passed through on our way home the following day.

Then on the last weary stretch of the journey home, by which time I was very tired and uncomfortable, I overheard a conversation that arrested my attention entirely (cell phones have more obliterated than blurred the distinction between private and public, have they not!)

The woman in the seat behind me interrupted her conversation with a friend to take a call.

"Hello," said she, in a hard and somewhat impatient tone of voice: "What can I do for you?" An unwelcome business call, it seemed.

She listened a moment then reiterated, "So what can I do for you? Can you name a figure?"

She listened further. "But what figure do you have in mind?" She sounded cold and irritable now.

She then began to wind up the conversation in a manner that sounded as if she was overriding the person on the other end of the line, suggesting they get their facts in order and call her when they had a better handle on the situation.

The tenor of the call was reluctance verging on hostility.

But it was the way she ended it that jolted my attention:
"Love you. Bye."

What? "Love you"? Seriously?

And it started me thinking about words.

There are words, like the ones written down here, for which you have to supply your own tone of voice; and when you do that, you import and impose a level of meaning that may or may not be here.

It occurred to me that the words in the Bible are like that. When the Bible, with its insistence on love and kindness, is used to hurt and exclude, used as a weapon, used to make oneself right and others wrong, then faith becomes incongruous and its meaning ebbs away.

That woman on the train — her words said "I love you" but her tone of voice and the whole of the rest of her conversation said "No I don't."

I think she must have been talking to a close family member, and the love between them must have gradually fossilised into duty as time went by.

So much of my life has been about words; but of course words are absolutely nothing if that's all they are. If you see what I mean.