Friday, 18 December 2009

First class recorded and Gawd 'elp yer

The British postal service, so people are fond of saying, is the best in the world. If that’s the case, heaven help you if you live in the rest of the world!

This year has seen a series of postal strikes, half-cocked and intermittent: I am not sure what they resolved, if anything, but perhaps they made somebody feel better.

Meanwhile naturally, the delivery service was (as planned) seriously disrupted – though to be fair it was not always that easy to tell.

Back in May my daughter Grace planned a home birth at the little house where her sisters live in St Leonards-on-Sea. Accordingly, since the birth was to take place in my bed there, I sent for two spare sheets, a waterproof terry-towelling mattress protector, and a set of similar protectors for the six pillows. They did not arrive. The ebay vendor from whom I had purchased them, a philosophical type well-acquainted with the British postal service (the best in the world), expressed no surprise, and dispatched a second set with good success, by private courier.

In the anxious time awaiting the arrival of the original set, I quizzed the postie several times. They were, he said, all at sixes and sevens in the sorting office. The parcel might eventually get through. Or it might not. To my wondering aloud whether I should walk over to the sorting office and investigate, he responded with an emphatic negative: 'I wouldn't do that if I were you!'
That was a large parcel. What on earth did they do with it? I can understand delay and confusion – but even a sorting office is only a box, not a wormhole in the solar system. If they have a parcel there, surely at some point it must come to light? If they have a habit of absorbing non-delivered parcels, surely the building must eventually reach capacity? How odd.

More recently, one of my family at that same little house was approached by the postie while she was waiting at the bus stop. ‘There’s no-one in at home,’ he remarked: ‘I’ve put your parcel in the black bin to save time’. She had no idea what he meant. Afraid of appearing foolish, she nodded and smiled as one does, and assumed he had taken the parcel away and fed it into a separate section of the system. The following day, when emptying her rubbish, something caught her eye at the bottom of the dustbin. Only then did she realize that the postie had actually deposited her parcel in the rubbish bin, ‘to save time’! What?!?

The postie likes my girls. Just as well. He is meant to deliver only letters and packets, but the other day he brought round a parcel, explaining that it had been sitting on the shelf at the sorting office for a week, but the man who was supposed to bring it couldn’t be bothered, so he thought he’d pop it in his own bag and deliver it. To reiterate: heaven help the rest of the world!

This December I have bought a number of items from ebay. In the main they are trickling through eventually. Yesterday a parcel was brought to my door. I live in a typical English street, smallish houses in rows, odd numbers down one side of the street, even numbers down the other side. My house is number 18. The delivery man asked if I would take in a parcel for the lady next door. I did not have my glasses on or look at the label, but said I would. I asked which next door, and he spoke confirming his earlier jerk of the head – it was intended for Sylvia at No 20. She was surprised when I took it round later, as she had not been expecting a parcel. Inspection revealed it to be for No 21 – which is some way down the street on the other side. I took it over. The householder laughed. ‘I’ve got one for No 10,’ he said. The day before, I took in a parcel that I was assured was for me. It turned out to be destined for the old people's home.

Feeling nervous about my ebay packages, which are late arriving as might be expected in this pressured time of year approaching Christmas, I looked at the receipt for the most important of the parcels now several days delayed, and felt relieved to discover that a tracked delivery mode had been selected, and a tracking number provided.

I went to the Royal Mail website and entered the tracking number, hoping to be reassured that something was known about my parcel, and it was at least possible to verify its passage through the system. Nothing in my imagination could have prepared me for the (automatically generated) response to my tracking enquiry; which was that this particular category of tracked mail could be tracked only after it had already been safely delivered.

I say again; if the British postal system is the best in the world, Heaven help the rest of you.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Almost every year on the first Sunday in January, someone asks at church if we have made New Year resolutions and, if so, what they were.

Every year I think, ooh what a good idea – but haven’t made any resolutions, and then my mind goes blank; and apart from vague aspirations towards slimming, nothing occurs.

So I thought this year I’d think about it in advance, and accumulate a few resolutions for 2010. So far I have 3.

I read a thing once that Wayne Dyer said. He explained that psychologists assert that human beings are not capable of doing things they think are not good. They might do things they think would be bad if someone else did them, or think they do it only because they have no choice, or that the exceptional circumstances make it the right thing to do this time only – but they will always convince themselves that what they are doing is, at least on this one occasion, good. So Wayne Dyer said that people – even quite abhorrently awful people – are always doing the best they are capable of with the information they have at the present time, however deeply flawed their reasoning. People change by enlightenment, by embracing a different conceptualization. How the Bible puts it is: ‘Be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds’. So berating and accusing never works; only new understanding changes things, and people are always more open to new understanding when they feel safe and relaxed rather than defensive and under attack. My first resolution is to hold in mind that all people are always doing the best they know with the information they currently have. I hope this will help me to criticize less, blame less, and go my way in a more peaceful manner.

Trees are vital to human wellbeing and the future of Planet Earth. There’s a DiscWorld novel which involves a special book that is believed to be precious because through this Book people will be saved. I haven’t read this story, only had it recounted to me, but I understand that there comes a point in the narrative where two characters are stranded at night in the open, very cold. The only thing they can do to keep warm is burn the book. So it turns out their salvation was indeed in the book – but not in the way they think. I’m really interested in the Christian tradition of referring to the Cross as ‘the Tree’. It’s seen as a Tree of Life because of Jesus’ life-giving sacrifice. Crucifixes depict Christ’s passion & death, and so create a legacy of an image showing salvation as a man who stands for the whole human race pinned firmly to a saving Tree. And that’s oddly true for everyone without exception whether they believe in the Christian gospel or not. It’s still true that our future is pinned to the future of the tree: without trees, people have no hope. The Man and the Tree – in that union is salvation. So my second resolution is wherever I can to make choices that support the continuing existence and well-being of trees. I am going to make nut roasts a lot, and eat nuts for snacks. I’m going to choose fruit that grows on trees – apples, pears, cherries, plums, bananas, dates, figs. Some essential oils come from trees without harming the tree, I think; and same with maple syrup. So we can develop a tree-friendly home. We’re going to plant in our garden three apple trees and a pear tree, a silver birch and a walnut tree. There’s going to be a Michael tree too, for Grace’s child (my grandson). This was a thought of his father, Clay; to have a tree in a pot that would grow alongside the child, eventually to be planted out when they can afford their own place. Tony is going to start donating to tree-planting organizations because of the carbon emissions from his necessary car travel while he still works in Oxford. I will try to find out about firewood sources that come from coppiced woodland – there’s lots of it in Sussex, and though it involves cutting a tree down, it’s part of a managed cycle that protects the future of the woodlands. You can buy BBQ charcoal sourced in the same way, from local woodlands, here.

I have my usual general aim – to explore more deeply into simplicity. The last few years I was concentrating on cutting down my possessions and taking up less space; also on using less electricity and gas (thermos cooking etc). I did quite well. There were some BIG decisions, like moving to live in a shared home, and not running a car. Recently I bought an electric machine for making my tea in the morning while Tony is away. That didn’t fit the general programme! I’m not sure I’ll keep it over time, but I’m certainly appreciating it at the moment! But for my third resolution, this year I’d like to concentrate on developing a life that uses less and less money. My life here in Hastings is part of my response to the Word of the Spirit within me when I asked the question (repeatedly, over about 2-3 years) ‘What was I sent here to do?’ Though writing books fits in with what I was sent here to do, because I was sent to teach and guide and share the things I notice, I was also sent for a ministry of love and kindness, making a home where people are welcomed and sheltered, encouraged and healed. That’s a groovy ministry, but there’s not much money in it – so it’s important I now start to learn how to live with very little money. Up to now, though I’ve lived simply, I haven’t been especially careful with money – just earned more when I needed more. I don’t use up a lot of money by general modern standards, but there’s a lot of margin for shrinking that right down – so it will be an interesting experiment.

Well, those are my resolutions so far. Maybe I’ll think of some more, but real ones, not pointless ones just to make up a list.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Other thort

Prosperity and acclaim with integrity are found through perseverance and specialisation.

Thursday, 12 November 2009


The secret to extending possibility lies in living an ordered life.

Thursday, 5 November 2009


One of the rifs running through this week has been a steady pleasing chattelpurge – continuing with the gradual sloughing-off of all the stuff, in preparation for moving house.

It’s been a more instinctual than considered process, that is until the arrival midweek of the new issue of Permaculture magazine, which I most heartily recommend – it never fails to challenge and inspire me, more than any sermon I ever heard.

In this one, there’s an article about Mark Boyle, founder of Freeconomy, who has made the bold decision to live without money. The only other person I have come across doing this is Peace Pilgrim. I’m interested in the idea, and after I read about Mark Boyle’s life and choices I spent a long time thinking about it.

After much thought it came to me that being a man, young and single factored heavily in the feasibility equation. Mark lives in his caravan and cycles to where he needs to be. But, suppose he had a wife… then a child… and the child had a medical condition needing attention… then his wife developed cancer… what then? Wouldn’t the child like to go to school or otherwise be in the company of other children? Wouldn’t the wife and child, if they weren’t well, need transport to a hospital, and to benefit from the medicines, equipment, training, buildings etc etc that had all cost money? What about his parents? I wonder where they live? Does he not visit them?

I guess living without money would shorten our lives and limit our possibilities. As I turned it over in my mind, I concluded it is a noble ideal, and a wonderful, transformative endeavour; life-changing I should imagine. A way of making one’s soul. But also isolating and frustrating.

It got me thinking about the Darvell Bruderhof in Sussex, who witness assertively to a life where all things are held in common and the phenomenon of private property vigorously denounced. But I wonder. Private property and holding all things in common may not be as sharply distinguishable as might first be thought. In a big family are the household items private or communal? If private, isn’t the Bruderhof just a family on a bigger scale – corporate private property then. I think they might demur if I tried to remove some of their not-private not-property from the premises. But maybe they wouldn’t.

Tony the Badger and I are moving to a house-share with three of my family members. At first it was instinctive to mentally divide up the territory – this is your room, this is mine, this part of the garden is yours, this is mine. Only gradually did it dawn that we all got less that way. The more we shared the more we would each/all have. The more we clutched at the less we ended up with. Like a big green field divided into tiny yards.

I feel more drawn to sharing, living with little, living with less, than to living without money. But no doubt Mark Boyle’s freeconomy is a challenge and an inspiration.

It’s important that in our chattelpurge we give things away more than sell them. The kind of simplicity that appeals to me is about freedom and generosity not scrimping and saving. It’s about living in the flow of grace. Life can get very mean if one is always focused on the cheapest, the bargains, haggling and cheese-paring. Simplicity as I see it is about flow, and trust. If we all buy less and share and give more, then although we wouldn't have a freeconomy we would be less driven, we would be able to let go of our sense of scarcity. People giving things away - nice things, not just stuff too used and broken to sell - would create a new vibe of optimism. Giving and receiving bring joy.

Then there's the pleasure of walking light. When my children were little, I remember watching a friend whose children were teenagers, walking along the street. She had nothing in her hands to carry, and I envied her. Everywhere I went I seemed to have groceries or a nappy-changing-bag or a child’s coat or something to carry. I wanted to walk down the street with nothing in my hands too.

To walk light like that means accepting inconvenience – you might go out with no umbrella and then it rains; you might go out without money and not be able to get the bus home when you were tired; you might remember you needed milk and bread and vegetables and not have brought a bag; you might go out empty-handed but stop at the library and have to carry books home. Or determinedly refuse to and then wish you had a reading book when you got into bed that night. It's a matter of choosing. Which means most to you?

One of the games this week has been to try to get through to Friday without grocery shopping – eating up all the odds and ends from the freezer and store cupboard ready for moving house. I never ate so many pulses in one week! We did it, though.

Giving things away is fun. Adventuring into simplicity is fun. But I notice I get frightened when I run out of money. How interesting. What does that mean?

Monday, 26 October 2009

Urban Simplicity

Most books and newspaper or magazine articles conceptualise living simply in a rural environment – back to the land.

Living simply is popularly seen as wabi-sabi and vaguely muddy: an exercise requiring gum boots, and probably a dog.

There is a great difference between England and America here (and obviously other parts of the world too), centring mainly on the issue of space. The American tiny house websites often show pictures of enchanting little dwellings only X square feet, squeezed in impossible nooks between larger houses. In England, most ordinary people’s houses look like that anyway. Land is at a premium, because there is less of it, and what there is either belongs to an individual or the government; so you can’t build on it or camp on it or stop a trailer on it overnight.

This means that in England living in the country is not as it was in Jane Austen’s novels, what you did when you ran out of money. It is now what you do when you win the lottery.

There are people who live simply and don’t have much money in the English countryside. Some have inherited farms. Some work as volunteers in retreat houses, or are part of intentional communities or New Age groups that have won the planning consents battle to settle (like Tinker’s Bubble). Some are very old people who have lived there since before the price of accommodation was pushed sky-high by the feminist movement with its working women moving the goalposts so that house mortgages were set to factor in two incomes. Some are people who had a lump of capital to spend on a house but do not have high incomes. Some have high incomes entirely absorbed by massive mortgages.

But people who have not inherited houses in the countryside, do not have and do not aspire to have the kind of jobs that attract high wages, are plain individuals not part of an intentional community or staff of a country house, probably live in the town.

In the English villages, the shops, post offices, pubs, schools, chapels, public transport and other facilities have gradually dwindled away. So people for whom living simply has an important Earth-friendly component, and who therefore want to live without cars, almost certainly (though not always) live in the town.

When television programmes discuss Earth-friendly initiatives and lifestyles, and look at choosing to live simply, generally keeping hens and installing solar panels and large underground rain-water reservoirs and wind turbines come into the equation.

All very interesting, but involves the living-simply-by-accumulating-gadgetry-and-accessories approach that is likely to appeal in a consumer society.

Urban simplicity is a far more practical proposition for young people starting out (with no inheritance) or for people who have been divorced and lost half their assets at a stroke, or who have been made ill by the rat race and forced to drop out and seek something richer in peace and poorer in finance, or who earn only enough money for a modest home for their family and can afford either for everyone to get weekly bus tickets or run a car but not both.

For people who cannot even consider the cost of installing photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, Earth-friendly simplicity is made possible in an urban setting. Here are some of the strategies.

• Ditch the car. Walk, use public transport. In some towns bikes are really good. I went everywhere on a bike when we lived in Bromley, because the terrain was even, the roads were wide and the people lived in big houses with off-road parking. In Hastings I don’t cycle: the hills are very steep, the roads are narrow and lined with parked cars because the houses are small and close with no off-road parking. Cycling here is for the bold and intrepid and the very fit. I get a £9.50 mega-rider bus ticket once a week, which takes me anywhere in Hastings and out as far as Bexhill (the next town, five miles along the coast). If you live in a town, you don't have to run a car. If you live in the country you almost have to have one (or someone does, to give you lifts).

• Share accommodation. We have sometimes had lodgers, and are currently in process of setting up a household of 5 adults, all family members. Living by cultural norms, those people would have 4 (there is one couple) sets of rent/mortgage, 4 TV licences, 4 sets of council tax & utilities, 4 heating and water boilers running, 4 stoves on for supper, 4 computers, 4 TV sets, 4 fridges, 4 freezers. So we shall have reduced all that by 75%, except the council tax which will be a little higher than for the sort of dwelling one of us would have been able to afford – but still much lower than 4 separate ones.

• Share costs and possessions. We shall have a car (a Toyota Prius) for our household, paid for by the company one of us works for, but we probably won’t run a second one. We certainly shan’t have one each!! We shall have a little more furniture than each of us would have had alone, but nothing like as much as all of us would have had living separately. Shopping, eating, cooking and utilizing garden produce is more economical per capita as a big household than as a household of one. One Christmas tree. One wood stack. One DVD to watch in the evening. Und so weite.

• The usual mantra – repair, re-use, recycle. The towns are rich in pickings of second-hand stuff. Hastings is stuffed to the gunwales with second-hand furniture shops and charity shops, and if you live locally they will deliver your purchases free, and if you only bought a small thing – a stool or shelf – there is a bus to take it home on or home is not too far from the shop to walk.

• Wholefood shops and co-operatives tend to centre in towns, just because there are more people there to make them viable.

• I get a lot of things on ebay. Recently I got a warm winter coat with a glam faux-fur collar on ebay, for £8. When my children were small, we got almost all their clothes second-hand. Their winter coats we acquired at the end of the summer term (the end of the school year), when all the items languishing in Lost Property were put out to be claimed or moved on. Some of the wealthier children had in fact not lost but dumped the new coats their parents had bought them, because they were not fashionable. We waited for those. We never had to buy a winter coat for our children until they all moved to a school where a uniform coat was required, when I became chaplain there. So we had to buy them second-hand coats but we did get a free house, so that was OK. But the thing about second-hand clothes is you depend on what’s available more and can be less demanding about what you want (unless you are mega shrewd and patient). We found that hardwearing practical clothes came up less often – when they were little our children’s everyday wear tended to be other people’s outgrown party-dresses because the track suits never made it to the charity shops. This means it’s easier to be a Second-hand Rose in the town, where the environment doesn’t need special shoes etc.

More thoughts on same subject to come…

Friday, 18 September 2009

Cautious Pudding

You've heard of Hasty Pudding? This is like it but subtly different: It is Cautious Pudding.

My doctor told me, my scales told me, the medical charts told me, the mirror told me: I have to lose some weight. Then eventually my joints and varicose veins began to tell me the same thing, but louder and a little more shrill – and I gave in.

After the menopause, weight is easy to accumulate and hard to shift: I was prepared for that, so I felt encouraged to discover it’s not as hard as I’d been dreading.

Acid reflux and fluid retention (sorry, this isn’t too much information for you, is it?), and relentless inflammation pain in my legs mean that fats, sugar, and citrus fruit (and any other very sour food) cause me quite intense pain. There’s something else too – either wheat or yeast, I can’t figure out which, that makes me very bloated and stiff.

So I’ve upped the exercise, and been eating food very, very low in fat and sugar. I eat almost no wheat (rice/corn/oatcakes R us) making my own muesli with oats as the only grain. I don’t go near acidic fruits, especially citrus, except for the smidge of citrus in my Earl Grey tea. I can’t imagine life without a cup of tea, and Earl Grey is about the only one that doesn’t set off the acid stomach problems.

It’s been very effective. Where I was having to take analgesics every night because of the intense pain in my legs, and experiencing a lot of fluid retention and deep, dragging weariness, I now have no pain, enough (though not loads of) energy, and the fluid has all gone away.

The thing I have missed is comfort food. I love steamed vegetables and fish and salads and fruit. But sometimes, especially if I feel lonely or cold, I long for a bit of stodge.

Today I made a pudding I hope might be OK. It might not. If I eat bread – any, even a slice or two – I can reckon to gain 3lbs weight: if it’s the wheat doing it, then this pudding must remain a distant dream. Time will tell.

I put an ounce of semolina (which is wheat, but I tried making this with brown rice flakes and the result was disgusterous), with just a scant teaspoon of sugar and a dash of vanilla, in a glass bowl. I added a cup of skimmed milk, and microwaved it for about 3 minutes, whisking it up with a fork every so often to stop it clumping. When I had made it, I put a very small amount (about half a teaspoon) of jam on it. And it was delicious.

I don’t think it can be very fattening, because the amounts of the wheat and sugar are so small. It has to be better than a slice of toast with butter and jam.

You may be wondering why we have jam and semolina and sugar in our house at all! Well, the jam is Badger’s because he loves it and eats quite a lot. The semolina is left over from before I started this reformation. The sugar is for Badger’s porridge in the winter, and for when people come who like sugar in their tea.

I suspect that it would be more intelligent to just cross wheat and sugar right off my list. I have a bad relationship with sugar, because it sends me a bit bi-polar and creates anxiety. I am also suspicious of the voice inside me that says, ‘Just once in a while – just now and again for a treat’: because past experience tells me that today’s treat is tomorrow’s habit.

But I’m hoping it will be all right. We’ll see.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Monday, 24 August 2009

Dirt Woman Transcends the Dust Mites!

Worried about the way mattresses take your sweat and dead skin cells and give you allergens and dustmites in return?

Wish you could go on holiday in the Caribbean but haven't got the money?

Wondering how to furnish a very long thin room?

Or just in need of a blissfully relaxing place to chill out?

A hammock could be your answer! This one came from Handmade Hammocks UK: the frame is made of sustainably produced rubberwood and the woven bit is made from fairly traded organic cotton.

"My life is my vacation" (Mohandas Gandhi) Woohoo!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Bad Woman's Guide to Painting and Decorating

Almond White.

If you look round your cosy home – because your mother is coming to stay, or you want to sell it, or it’s your turn to host Thanksgiving – and the only words that spring to mind are ‘Oh ****!’ – then what you need is almond white.

Because almond white has the happy property of being uncannily similar to paint that was white, once long ago.

So a duster and a damp rag will do for the passable bits, and the bits that need something a little more radical can be uplifted by a couple of coats of almond white.

Now, personally, I have grasped that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I would not climb on the desk and the filing cabinet because I can’t be bothered to move them, and have a damp rag handy to wipe up the spots of paint that fall on the new telly. I would not skip the bit above the bay window because I can’t raise the energy to move the sofa and take down the curtains. And it would never, ever occur to me to paint over a brown patch where some damp got in once, without really bothering with the rest. Not me. Oh, no. I would have all the furniture moved out or covered in dust sheets, I would spread special floor-coverings made of recycled old bedding that I’d fallen on with a glad cry when someone else was throwing them out, and kept on their own shelf in the Useful Things Cupboard particularly for that very purpose. I would wash things down and sand things off and take days and days and days over the whole palaver. But you – now you might not be such a thorough kind of person. You might think, as some people do: ‘Oh, blow that for a lark – won’t a dab of paint just do the trick?’

And if you are that kind of dubious, half-hearted, indolent type of person – the words you need to hear are ‘Almond White’. Okay?

Thursday, 13 August 2009

O the ingenuity!

In our kitchen we have these really good pan shelves that Badger made.

Today in the post came a skirt I bought on ebay. It is max priti but also makes me look max fat.


So I combined the skirt with the pan shelves.

Ta da!!

Leo Babauta's Zen Habits blog

I really love this blog. His post of yesterday (August 12th) - The Minimalist Principle: Omit Needless Things is, I think, one of his best.

It has good writing advice, and a link to his excellent piece on creating a minimalist home, which I have just read again and enjoyed and found inspiring all over again - and paragraph on buying is spot-on.

I haven't yet explored the links to other related sites he's posted, but when I have done that in the past I've found them to be treasure indeed (so I'm off to do that next).

My two next tasks in my personal discipleship are:

  • Establishing in my life a discipline of joy. Joy is a source of energy and dispels discontentment. It encourages others, creates beauty and light. Too often (and increasingly) I have allowed my soul strength to dissolve into anxiety and restlessness, and this needs addressing now. I know that joy is linked to freedom and peace, and all three are linked to a discipline of simplicity - so I intend to meditate into this for a while.

  • Thinking carefully about treats and the creation of cheerfulness. When I am under emotional stress, to keep myself cheerful and prevent myself nosediving into depression, I ask less of myself and give myself treats. The problem comes when the treats cost money and involve accumulation of stuff - ie shopping. I mainly do internet shopping now, and restrict myself absolutely to very inexpensive items (or I would crash the simple and focussed lifestyle I have chosen, which is low-income). In the past I have noticed that companionship does the same for me as shopping - so planning a party with someone, and having a film from the library and party food for supper supplies the cheerfulness element of the treat. The challenge for me at the present time is being isolated from my family (and the writing discipline requires a lot of solitude, so working up a second group of people to have fun with would be writing suicide!), which has the effect of my cheerfulness draining away like water through sand. So when I get low, I buy some clothes (very, very cheap and usually on ebay). Then when I get too many for the allocated space I send some to the charity shop. But this is wasteful of time and money. So I need to address it.

'Thank you' to Leo Babauta, then, for his continued inspiration on the Zen Habits blog!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Opus Interruptus

Working from home. Oh, glory! The snag is, it’s not only your own home you're working from, but also the home of the other people who live there but work somewhere else. So you become the natural troubleshooter and all-purpose person to deal with everything of any description concerned with that location.

It wouldn’t be like that, living in a shed. There would be no phones to go wrong, no wiring or plumbing challenges, no painting and decorating, and only minimal repairs. Shed life is my heart’s desire.

I asked the magazine Woman Alive if they would like a regular column on living simply, and the editor thought that might fit in well with their vision for the development of the magazine. She offered me a regular column of 290 words in length, and after some deliberating I said ‘yes’. The hesitation was because it’s mighty difficult to convey or discuss a concept in 290 words – much harder than if you have 1,000 words, or even 500. Part of the reason I said yes is because it isn’t easy; it’s a writing challenge, and I like that.

The last few weeks have been full to overflowing with family and house matters – looming especially large was the interaction with estate agents and the preparation of our home for sale.

FINALLY today offered a clear space for some writing, and this had to be a Good Thing, because today is also the deadline for the copy for December’s issue of Woman Alive, when my regular column begins (though I do also have an article in this month’s issue, about my new book which comes out in September).

Yesterday, at teatime, the telephones in our house ceased to work.

This morning I phoned British Telecom and had a lengthy interaction with a very nicely spoken female automaton. The outcome of this call was an assurance that an engineer would fix the problem by tomorrow, and that updates would be texted to my mobile phone in the meantime.

I thought that was okay, and went to hang out the washing.

When I came back into the house, there were letters on the mat – I had left the front door open, to be friendly and so the postie could drop in any parcels, knowing I was at home. One of the letters was a Post Office card explaining that, as I was out when the postman called, the parcel he had brought (which had to be signed for) would be taken back to the sorting office. The card had a time written on it – 3 minutes before the time of my reading it. I grabbed my sandals and dashed out to look for the postie, knowing I might have to be at home the rest of the day waiting for BT, so not be in a position to go to the sorting office. No sign of him anywhere up and down our road, or in the next road. Hey ho.

I gave myself a pep talk. ‘Why are you so stressed? Why do you get so het up about these things? What does it matter? There will be time to get the parcel, it’s no big deal! For goodness sake calm down, Ember!’

Resolutely, I set myself to the tricksy task of saying something useful, inspiring, interesting and intelligent in 290 words.

I fired up the computer, set up a file, typed one sentence, and the house phone rang, just one little trill, then stopped. A short while later, it did it again. ‘They must be testing the line,’ I thought – and addressed myself again to the task in hand. Then my mobile phone rang. It was BT to say they had an engineer not far away – would I be home later on? Yes, indeed.

I returned to writing the article, and began to warm to the task. Then came a knock at the front door. ‘Ah!’ I thought – this must be the BT engineer.’ But no – it was a man come to read the gas and electricity meters. The gas meter presented no problem, but the electricity meter lies deep within the cupboard under the stairs where we have put all the junk to be disposed of in the course of preparing our house for sale. I heaved it out to the point that with the help of a powerful torch he could get at the meter. Then put it all back when he went.

My computer had started to play a quiet little piano tune to itself when I returned to it, but I jerked it back to reality and read through what I had written. With some effort I felt my way to the state of mind I had been in before. Then came another knock at the front door. ‘Ah!’ I thought – this must be the BT engineer.’ But no – it was a delivery man with a large parcel from Amazon for the people at No 31 who are cunning enough to work in some other place than their own home, and were therefore not available to take delivery of their parcel. I felt a certain sense of injustice that things had so fallen out that I had missed my own parcel but been home for theirs; but, hey.

I signed for the parcel and gave the man back his clipboard. He gave it back to me. Could I please print my name in that box too? I did.

Then I went back and once more interrupted my computer’s harmless little ditties, and read through what I had written. To my astonishment, it seemed okay. I wrote another sentence.

A text message came in to my mobile phone. Assuming it to be one of the promised updates from BT, I opened it. It was a message from Orange to tell me I could now text anyone in Europe for 10p. I deleted it, and returned to my article. I wrote another sentence. My mobile phone rang. It was BT. The engineer would be with me in five to ten minutes. Was that okay? ‘Yes,’ I said through gritted teeth – ‘that will be fine.’

I finished the sentence I had been writing and shut down the computer. The engineer arrived. He needed constant attention. All the phones in the house had to be unplugged and plugged in elsewhere. Two of the sockets were behind large bookcases, one of which could be accessed only by moving our lodger's stereo speaker, which stood on a heavy and unwieldy metal stand fixed into the carpet with prongs and supporting a tall thin candlestick and a houseplant. And then the engineer asked for a cup of tea. Since he had done a nice job of fixing the phone I made him one, and gave him a cake, both of which he enjoyed slowly, while pursuing a conversation of considerable length.

‘D’you work locally, then?’ he asked me. This was an improvement on what most people say, which is: 'Day off, is it?'
‘I work from home,’ I replied.
‘Oh,’ he said; ‘what do you do?’
‘I am a writer,’ I said.

We then had the usual conversation – he has a fourteen year old daughter with a rich imagination; what did I think were her chances of becoming a writer? And we had the other conversation –

‘What does your husband do?’
‘He is a publisher.’
‘Oh, right! So that’s how you got your books published!’
‘No. No, not at all. After twenty years of writing books, I married my publisher.’

Then he tested the phone one more time and went away.

I switched on the computer. It was sulking now and didn’t want to play any pretty tunes. It has to be left in peace before it feels like playing little tunes to itself.

I opened the file with the article. It was looking good.

There came a knock at the front door. ‘Hello? Hellooo! HELLOOO!’

It was Melissa from No 31. She had come for her parcel.

For some obscure reason, my mind has just made a connection with a Christmas card my sister sent me when our children were small. The first four lines of text were on the outside, beneath a cartoon showing Father Christmas with a child on his lap. The last line was on the inside, discovered when you opened the card:

‘You’d better not pout
You’d better not cry
You’d better not shout, and I’m telling you why:
I have a gun.’

I have finished the article. 290 words exactement. I have submitted it, invoice attached. The phone is working. The sun is shining. I am off to the sorting office to collect my parcel. Howzat!


We grew these. Now, how groovy is that!

Friday, 24 July 2009

Dirtwoman - the Final Resignation

In the house where I live, I am Dirtwoman. To be fair to him, for a long time my beloved did not fully realise that I was Dirtwoman – and in any case he was so pleased to be relieved of juggling washing, hoovering, shopping, cooking, cleaning, ironing and washing up with the demands of a very full-time job that he didn’t give it too much thought – except always to be willing to help Dirtwoman whenever asked.

Some homes don’t actually have a Dirtwoman. When the estate of my beloved’s previous marriage was split 50/50 and the family home sold, he and I cleaned through. I spent an evening scrubbing, bleaching, de-greasing another woman’s kitchen – because in that home they had Careerwoman and Intellectualwoman and Findyoursoulwoman – but they had no Dirtwoman as such.

We have lodgers share our home with us, and all of them have been very clean and tidy. They do their own laundry and washing up; they cook for themselves and keep their rooms pleasant and tidy. But it is always Dirtwoman who crawls around on her hands and knees scrubbing the floors; who cleans around and in and behind the toilet; who moves the shampoo bottles and bleaches the bits of the bath where mould grows if you don’t; who bleaches the shower curtain, and scrubs the grime that gathers in the corner of the window frames, and empties the bins, and scrubs out the recycling boxes and takes a nail brush to the moulding on the skirting boards and brushes the yard.

There is a glorious exception. In our house, my beloved cleans the oven. Last night at my request (graciously and willingly) he also took the remainder of the stew that had gone bad up the garden and buried it. When he dies, he will go straight to heaven for this. God sees.

My mother has been a Dirtwoman Extraordinaire all her life. I remember the Lost Soul feeling of coming home early from school on the last day of term – when home was not yet home as I knew it, with home-made cake and jam sandwiches, but a Grim Place dominated by floor wax, Windowlene and Jif.

I was okay with the nappies when my children were babes – though despite all my eco-principles I have advised my daughter to let go of this one Shining Act of Environmental Responsibility – stuff the terries: go for disposable. Mopping up sick, pee, spilt food and drinks: the mountains of washing up and laundry, the endless sorting of belongings – I felt this was fair enough.

Around and after the ending of my first marriage, every member of our family went through multiple moves; and we were a kind of corporate Dirtwoman as each inhabitant marched out. We bagged and boxed and carried and scrubbed and wiped and swept. I guess that was okay.

I’ve even been a Dirtwoman by trade; skivvying as a cleaner and as a care assistant shovelling in Ready Brek at one end and catching it as it came out the other. I guess that was okay: I needed the money.

When I got together with my beloved, I used at first to stay some weekends at his place, and he came and stayed some weekends with me. When I went to stay at his place I’d clean through; hoovering, polishing, washing the floors, cleaning down the bathrooms, doing the ironing. Sometimes his ex-wife would have been to stay with his daughter while he was away, and left behind some big oven dishes from a roast dinner for me to clean up. I guess it was okay. My beloved was grateful, and I do love him very much.

When I go to stay with my family, sometimes I dabble as a Dirtwoman – it doesn’t hurt to pick up a cloth and help out, and they all have their hands full earning a living or raising a family.

And just now I am getting a home ready to sell. They say, don’t they, that it doesn’t matter too much about the condition of the home you sell: hey, don’t try too hard! – the next people will want to do things their own way; they will expect to re-decorate, re-carpet, change everything to their own tastes. Will they? I am not convinced. I try to imagine myself viewing a house and thinking, ‘Oh, cat-sick stains on the carpet, toilet stained dark brown, walls in need of painting – woohoo! I was hoping it would be this way; now I can refurbish a whole house! Out of my way! Here comes Dirtwoman!’ Nah. I’d rather it was clean and fresh and ready to move into, every time.

What I would really like is to live in a shed. One small room. Almost no belongings. A brush, a cloth, flimsy curtains that wash out quick and go up on the line without a struggle, without hurting my neck and my arms; a bucket toilet. People think a bucket toilet in the shed where you live is not hygienic and not private. I think shitting in the middle of a house where everyone can hear you and smell you is not private, and you can clean a bucket a lot more effectively than a flush toilet. And cooking over charcoal outdoors, draining dishes on the grass, is clean. The stuff that accumulates in sink traps and the powder drawer of washing machines is disgusting.

But I have to choose between the way I would like to live, and the companion I would like to live with, who prefers a large house, two bathrooms, a nice fitted kitchen – and lots and lots and lots of ornaments. Memorabilia.

I have chosen the person. Not without struggle, I admit. There have been a series of moments when I have almost, almost chosen the way of life instead. For the freedom. Because I want to live with cleanliness, order and peace; I don’t want dust and moulds and parasites and grease and the stains of spilt food and drink and the stains of stuff that dropped out of the orifices of living beings: but I don’t want to be Dirtwoman any more either. I don’t want to choose between using a toilet with stuck-on bits of shit from who knows which resident, or scraping it off myself. I don’t want every day to clean out the slimy bits of onion and soya and hair stuck round the thing that catches stuff as water goes down the kitchen sink plug. I don’t want to scrub the stuck-on gunk off the wire racks on the draining board and under the washing up bowl, or poke out the slime mould that gathers under the draining board drain-holes with a knife. I don’t want to poke out the grey fluff that gathers where the radiator pipe goes into the floor.

Not now, not never, not ever again. I like to be clean, but I hate being the household dalit, everybody’s Dirtwoman.

This last time, as we move house, I will be Dirtwoman. But after we have moved, Dirtwoman will have resigned. Even while I think about it, I have no idea how I can share a home with a bunch of other people and accomplish this.

But I will. Somehow I will.

The enemy of cleanliness and order is the accumulation of possessions. Everywhere stuff accumulates there is either filth or a Dirtwoman. The gift of life was not meant for this.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Dynamic Light (write your own sermon)

As a child in church, the coloured light coming through the stained glass windows attracted and nourished me. The pictures in the glass I found somewhat of an impediment, distracting from the vitality of the coloured glass and the light.

Stained glass is an amazing art form, absorbing to gaze upon, because the relationship of the artefact and the context is so dynamic.

Alice’s calendar glass stands on the cill of the windows in a curving bay facing north, in a house built on a hillside sloping downwards towards the east. The entering of the light changes dramatically as the year turns. At this point of the year, the light slants strongly into bay from the western side at evening. At all times of the year light floods up from the east as the sun rises.

For privacy (the window looks onto a residential street, from which the house is separated only by a tiny garden) a curtain made from the finest Indian cotton (it’s a pistachio green sari in fact) has been hung in the window.

Some of the glass in the calendar panel is white (clear), some is old, faintly green, window glass. Two of the figures set in the panel (John the Baptist and the Christ Child, for the solstices) are glass sculpts (lost wax technique), the other two – Oestre and Michael, the equinox archetypes – are in pale porcelain clay.

As the day and the year change, the light speaks differently through the glass. When the light fades in the late evening, the glass figures of John the Baptist and the Christ Child become quite dark, and the pale clay figures appear light by comparison. As the light of morning and (at some times of the year) evening come slanting through, the clay figures recede, the light now inhabiting the translucent material of John the Baptist and the Christ Child.

The light green, the folds, and the gauzy texture of the sari window curtain, and the palest green and handblown texture of (some of) the glass panels, also interact dynamically with the light: and in some places the glazing bars of the window create shadow – though where exactly depends on the direction of the light slanting in.

Goodness me. There are so many metaphors in this that I hardly know where to begin.

The Summer Solstice when the light is at its xenith, represented here by John the Baptist (whose feast occurs at that point in the year), a man full of light, of whom Christ said there was no greater in the kingdom of God.

The Spring Equinox, when the light balances and fertility flows, represented here by Oestre (Easter, resurrection, new life, in the Christian church) the pregnant woman in porcelain clay.

Yul, the turn, at the winter solstice, the coming into the dark world of the infant light, represented here by the translucent figure of the Christ Child.

At the Autumn Equinox (again a time of fecundity and flow as the light balances in the time of harvest) and the feast of St Michael and All Angels, the flaming figure of Michael the Archangel, who points towards the coming of the dark times, and calls us to prepare.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

What would he do?

I admire and salute the teaching of Wayne Dyer. Namaste, Wayne Dyer.

Here are two things he said that I love:

"Attachment to being right creates suffering. When you have a choice to be right, or to be kind, choose kind and watch your suffering disappear."


"The measure of your life will not be in what you accumulate, but in what you give away."

I think that we could do without a lot of books and courses and sermons and discipleship programmes and commentaries and study guides if we had just those two pieces of advice and lived by them.

Another phrase that has come back to mind, as I've recently been thinking over decisions I have to make, I came across when I was sixteen, and I read a book by Charles Sheldon called In His Steps. Apparently it was written in 1896. I don't think I realised it was that old when I read it - it seemed to be up to date enough to make sense to me.

As I generally do, I've forgotten just about everything that Charles Sheldon said in his book; but I think he would be pleased that over the last thirty-five years (in the course of which I have excelled myself in forgetting almost everything everybody tried to teach me from the subjunctive to the reason for thinking about the square on the hypotenuse to Sine, Cosine and Tangent, which may have been the names of the three witches in Macbeth, or a further set of names for Ananias, Azarias and Misael - or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as their jazz names ran) I have remembered - are you still with me? - the central point his book was trying to make.

Which is that when we have a decision to make, we should ask ourselves the question "What would Jesus do?"

It's a question I come back to. During those thirty-five years, I've heard it maligned and belittled on occasion. Sophisticated churchmen have explained as to a little child that it's an irrelevant question because Things Are Different Nowadays (Jesus would never have understood) and because in any case (trump card - lean forward, permit a little triumph to enter the voice): 'You are not Jesus!!!'

Seems reasonable.

But I know that 'What would Jesus do?' is a good question, and this is how I know.

From time to time I get in trouble with People In Authority. I don't know why, but as a rule with a few encouraging exceptions they don't like me. And one time when I was a minister I was in trouble with a representative of church authority. I hadn't done anything wrong, but he wasn't pleased with me or with the way I was going about things. And in the privacy and security of his office he let me know that I was using the church for my own purposes, twisting the truth, leaking confidential information, deceiving the church, and a number of equally reprehensible things that in fact I had not done, though what I had done had put him in a bit of a spot for sure (told the truth and kept on telling it).

It was a difficult and exhausting interview, and things were not going well. I was getting tired and worn down by all these accusations, and I was groping around inside my soul for something I could put my hand on that would steady me. And what came to my hand was that question I'd read when I was sixteen. So I explained to this important Man of God that years ago when I was a teenager someone had taught me when in doubt to ask the question 'What would Jesus do?'; and that when I applied it to my current situation I knew for certain that Jesus would not have spoken to me in the way this important churchman had been speaking to me - and that was how I knew it couldn't be right for him to follow this line of approach. And I said it simply. I wasn't rude.

He went ballistic - how dare I say such things to him and he was going to throw me out, terminate the conversation forthwith und so weite: and that's how I stumbled upon the understanding that this is a real question that cuts to the heart of things. "What would Jesus do?" is a question that peels back the layers and reveals the wisdom that lies underneath all the posturing and manoeuvering that belong to the power and greed fixations of the Kingdom of Mammon that has so many people unwittingly tight in its thrall.

An odd thing, that I would not necessarily have expected, is that when with an honest and humble heart I ask myself the question "What would Jesus do?" I find no difficulty in identifying the answer. Sometimes it's hard to ask the question, and there are many people who have an interest in making a person feel foolish and childish and uninformed for asking it. But it's a question that with surprising rapidity propels me up the ladders, and has a way of saving me from the poison of some of the snakes.

I asked it today as I sat quietly thinking in Fiona's little room in the tribe house. And as usual, the answer came hot on the heels of the question, and now I know what to do.

"Attachment to being right creates suffering. When you have a choice to be right, or to be kind, choose kind and watch your suffering disappear."

"The measure of your life will not be in what you accumulate, but in what you give away."

"What would Jesus do?"

Three thoughts I recommend.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Emptiness Happiness

'Emptiness' is a word I associate with negative connotations - specifically, sad pop songs about someone whose baby has left him feeling blue because she has left him and is now in the arms of someone nue. (At least, she is nue. No doubt in the arms of someone nu. Tsk. What are they like?!)

In general, 'empty' goes with 'sad and', or is a synonym for 'lonely'.

But I love emptiness.

On the telly quite often there are adverts for products for people with constipation. With contorted faces they rub their bellies and discuss that terrible bloated feeling that they all seem to have - it's odd actually becaue they are usually lithe, active types as thin as rakes; somebody may not be being quite straight with us... What are they eating? What exercise are they (not) taking, that they are having such frightful problems with bloating?

Anyway, they all agree that if you knock back this probiotic yoghourt or high-bran cereal, or whatever it is that will go to work on the bowel, you will be renewed and re-energised - because you will have had a Really Good Poo.

And who can argue with that? Emptiness brings wellbeing and relief.

Lao Tsu wrote about emptiness:
Thirty Spokes share the wheels hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes that make it useful.
Therefore, profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there
(Tao Te Ching, 11.)

Getting rid of Stuff was a project that took three years to accomplish. Even now of course, Stuff still accumulates. It comes in different categories:

  1. Things that seem to arrive by themselves. We had a large purple towel in our bathroom. We assumed it was Ben's. Then one day Badger asked him, and he said it wasn't his. So we assumed it was Miguel's. But he didn't have any towels when he came - and when Badger asked him, he said it wasn't his either. We have no idea where it came from. A previous lodger, maybe?
  2. Things that people leave behind. When Miguel went back to Spain after several months in England, he had accumulated a few items that it was impractical to take - a straw hat, some bacon and a tin of spaghetti, some plastic coathangers; the tail-end of a stay. We didn't want them either.
  3. Things that people give you for presents. This is, oddly, more difficult when you like them and when you want them than when you don't. The useless and hideous can simply go to the charity shop to await someone with a different point of view. It's the lovely things that are the problem. And the things given by people who visit often. And worst of all, the things you asked for. I saw this beautiful skirt in an expensive shop that sells gorgeous linen garments in Lavenham. It cost £72. Let me repeat that - £72! I had no money. My mother said she would buy it for me. My sister egged us on. Everyone was buying things. I got carried away and accepted it. I could never find anything that went with it - it looked odd with all my clothes. It needed a frilly shirt. I look DISASTROUS in frilly shirts. It was see-through and needed a slip underneath it. I hate wearing slips - they make me feel claustrophobic. I kept one slip just to wear under this skirt that I never wore because I had nothing that went with it and I hate wearing slips. So I thought I'd cut my losses and sell it on ebay. I did. It went for £3.31. My mother lives in Saffron Walden. So does the woman that bought it. Oh, no! Oh, glory! Ah well - I wrapped it up nicely and put the slip in with it. Ha! Another thing gone! :0)
  4. Things that you thought you wanted. At one time when our house was over-run with the joyful guests of one of our lodgers, I began to get a bit desperate about the lack of privacy regarding the bathroom. I bought a Porta-potti plus associated chemicals and loo paper which altogether plus carriage cost me £100. I thought it was just the thing I needed and would make all the difference and revolutionise my life and make me happy and be fantastically useful in the Flophouse. It did none of these things and nobody else wants it either and at the present time it's advertised in the local paper for £45.
  5. Flotsam and jetsam. The junk mail that includes an advertisement for something that seems relevant. Instructions for appliances. Metal bookends. Scart leads. Polyfilla. Unsuccessful shampoo. Really Good cardboard boxes - and bubble wrap. An extra telephone that still works. Ringbinders. Elastic bands. That sort of thing.

These are the items that accumulate to cause Household bloat. The entire building needs dosing with Allbran and Danone, it needs to do a massive poo - because IT IS THE SPACE WITHIN THAT MAKES IT USEFUL.

When the stuff levels are strictly monitored; when I start the day in this calm, uncluttered bedroom with its huge, airy window, drinking Earl Grey tea from a plain white mug, sitting up in bed with no throws or funky bedspreads, just a duvet in a calm cotton cover, wearing one of my three nighties (one to wear, one in the wash, one in the drawer); and look forward down a day in which there is time to do the tasks that belong to that day, time to write, time to think, time for people, nothing much to be cleaned and tidied in this uncluttered house - oh glory, I feel good!

Toinette Lippe says 'Problems arise when things accumulate'. Amen! Do they not!

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

I can make a difference

You'll just have to excuse me. If there is a way to get images embedded as and where I would like them in this post, I haven't discovered it!

So I have posted what I want to say, and the pictures I want to show you, as a series of posts in reverse order, so that visually they come out in the right order. If you see what I mean. I hope you are not badly confused!!!

I started the day thinking about whether I, just one person, can make a difference to the Earth. Or not.

Then I thought about the garden at the front of our house.

When we came here, three years ago, at the front was just a dusty forecourt paved with concrete slabs.

At first we parked a car on it. Then last summer we dug up the concrete, and planted a garden instead.

The very first plant to go in was a lavender bush I'd been growing in a pot. As the bush was being settled into the ground, the first bee arrived!

A little apple tree went right in the middle.Last winter, in January, I took some photographs of the garden.

A few weeks ago, in June, six months on, I took another set of photos.

I think we just made a difference!

Here is the garden when we took pictures last January.

And here is the garden six months later on, in June.
I think we just made a difference!
'Venus' sculpt by Alice Wilcock

Can I make a difference?

I worked for almost three hours on my notebook this morning, which leaves me about an hour and a half on the battery.

It's been colder after the rainstorms, so I wore a cardigan today and decided I needed something hot at lunchtime.

I picked some broad beans, just coming ready now in the veggie patch close by, and I filled the storm kettle with clean water from the bottle in the Palace Flophouse. I lit the little fire under the storm kettle, using receipts, scraps from old letters torn up, dried grass and dead twigs tossed down to me by the plum tree.

I put the beans on to cook on the top while the water for tea boiled in the storm kettle. It only takes a minute or two for the water to boil: I made the tea in the billy-can, transferring the beans to finish cooking over the little fire.

With the beans I had canned sardines and canned sweetcorn. I drained off the water from the beans into the sardine can, to start cleaning it ready for recycling. The bean pods I chucked onto the fruit beds, where they will rot down in no time.

The billy-can takes up most all the water from the storm kettle, holding enough tea for two big mugs, where I needed only one. So I used the hot tea left over mixed with a little cold plain water to wash up the cans and spork and plate.

A few sparrows were hanging around outside, so I put down some grain for them.

In the course of the morning I needed to pee three times - I emptied the bucket of fresh pee onto the roots of the young apple trees we planted. The free-draining earth here doesn't hang on to nutrients. You can buy nitrogen fertiliser from the shop to feed the plants, but as human urine is one of the richest sources of nitrogen, why waste the money and generate all that packaging, transport etc? I washed out the pee-bucket with water from the rain-butt - a lot came down in the night - and emptied that on the fruit bed.

If I'd been in the big house, I would have boiled the electric kettle for tea, cooked the beans on the gas hob, run the tap until the water was hot then filled the bowl to wash up, and flushed the loo three times (that's fifteen gallons I think).

So I guess I saved about eighteen gallons of water, plus a certain amount of gas and electricity, as well as enjoying the company of the sparrows and generally having a groovy time chilling out here in the Flophouse.

I also saved someone the trouble of manufacturing me a car and a whole lot of petrol, having exercised some determination in choosing to work freelance from home. That choice is not made without personal cost - my bank accounts are dry right now, waiting patiently for fees owed me to flow in. It took patience, effort and commitment to arrive at the place where I could get off the car-driving carousel; it didn't just happen to me by accident, the luxury of a middle-class life others would like but can't afford.

So I saved some water, gas, petrol and electricity today. So what?

Someone pointed out to me a while ago that the difference I can make is too small to be a difference. I can't stop the climate changing. Anything I can possibly do is too little and too late. I might as well just decide what I want to do, and do that - forget about trying to make a difference to the Earth.

I thought about that quite a lot, and I concluded it's both true and not true. After listening to the government man's guff at Haddenham on Sunday, I think it's fair to say that if we leave our future in the hands of our illustrious leaders we'd better start marinading ourselves ready to be barbequed now. I think almost everyone I meet makes choices that are basically selfish whatever badge they like to wear on their lapels. I do so myself, a lot of the time.

But, I also believe firmly that the value of truth and righteousness are intrinsic. In a tsunami that swept away ten thousand people, it still would be worth rescuing one child. The truth is still the truth when nobody's looking, nobody's listening, and everybody else is telling lies.

Even if the Earth is destroyed by our greed and selfishness, it matters to me that while I lived, the Earth knew I was her friend. Because I believe the Earth is not just stuff, but has being and awareness. Of course the Earth will die one day - so will you, so will I. But I would not leave your friendless in your lifetime because your lifetime will some day come to an end. And if you were suffering, if you were abandoned and persecuted, it would be more important, not less, to be on your side. Jesus said 'I was in prison, and you visited me' - not 'I was in prison and you released me': you do what you have the power to do, that's all.

Also, even if I can make no difference whatsoever to climate change, the Earth and human society, everything I do, say and think will certainly make a difference to myself. I care about that, not only for the sake of achieving what I aspire to be and do, but because I spend a lot of time alone and cannot escape myself: I am my own companion - I need to be able to like and respect the me that I have to live with.

It's worth holding in mind that it is impossible for an individual to estimate the extent of the influence and change s/he can achieve. When Jesus died on the cross, he had been tortured and broken, he was thirsty and in agony; he even felt himself abandoned by God. He never saw with the eyes of his flesh the Temple curtain torn in two or heard the centurion say 'Surely this man was the Son of God'. Maybe we also, struggling here with the futility of what we can offer, will never get to see the difference it might make. Only afterwards, when 'It is finished', will we see the thread we wove into the pattern. But even here and now, though we can't know the extent of our contribution, we can know the nature of it, and whether or not we did our best. If we were to throw that away, I can't imagine what we would be left with that could be called worthwhile.

Bible-box top, painted by Alice Wilcock

Furtive lawn travellers

From Thomas Hardy's poem, Afterwards:

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone."

I have always loved that description of the hedgehog travelling furtively over the lawn - it conjures up the reality perfectly for me. :0)

Today, after a day of storms and showers yesterday and a night of rain, everything is cold and fresh and wet. This morning the grass in the garden is populated with slugs and snails venturing out from underneath the sheltering plants.

I watched a large snail traversing the patch of mown, and it brought to mind a gyspy vardo making its way down a green lane, pulled by a slow grey horse: not a bow-top I mean, but one of those big angular ones, wider at the roof than the floor. The snail moved along in something of the same way, making what speed it could before it caught the eye of a blackbird on patrol looking out for furtive lawn travellers.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Sunday morning at Haddenham church Cafeplus+

When we got to Haddenham (which someone told us yesterday is/was the largest village in Europe!) we looked round vaguely for the village hall, where the Cafeplus+ is held - and quickly spotted a huge banner hung on the railings identifying it. So the first thing was that we were really impressed by the publicity that helped us find our way.

When we got inside the building, we found two big rooms, one with a stage where the presentation was to take place, one with hatches through to the kitchens. In both rooms tables and chairs were set out cafe-style, with pretty tablecloths too. In the room with the stage we also saw lots of stalls - ecological organisations like the Transition Town group and people who help you to get eco light bulbs etc. In the other room, lots of people were already having breakfast, so we went in there! :0)

The breakfast was amazing. There were different kinds of rolls, cereals, cheese, salami, marmalade, jam, different types of teas and coffees - everything you could think of. After a while a lady came round offering everyone soft white rolls with freshly cooked bacon in. This breakfast was for anyone who wanted to come, and it was all FREE! A donations box stood at the side, but no amount was suggested, required or demanded, and though the leaflet about Cafeplus+ on the table did mention the donations box, it was only in a small note near the bottom.

The people were kind and friendly, and several of them stopped by and chatted to us. Apparently St Mary's church in Haddenham has been doing Cafeplus+ once a month for four years. It runs from 9.30-12.00 on a Sunday morning, a presentation called Food4Thought following the breakfast.

In October (4th), when the church celebrates Harvest Festival, Haddenham Cafeplus+ is having a Food Festival, with cookery demonstrations, a chutney competition, local food producers, and possibly a farmers market.

As my In Celebration of Simplicity book will be just published then, and uses the metaphor of making bread as a way of looking at our spiritual journey, I asked if I might be able to have a stall and bring some books to sell, bringing along also some cookware for people who live simply - my thermos cookpot, sporks, storm kettle etc. They thought I probably could, and gave me their contact details. I think I might make a stand of pictures of the Palace Flophouse to take along for a backdrop display. The people were very open and welcoming.

After breakfast it was time for the presentation. It was very clearly done, with graphs and stories of the lives of individuals to help us understand the urgency of climate change.

We learned that the summer in 2003, which was so hot that upwards of 20,000 people in France died of the heat, will be normal in another 20 years, and a really cool summer in another 50 years, if we don't sort ourselves out and change the way we live.

We saw pictures and a film about a farmer in Malawi, called Andrew, and heard about his situation from the UK Director of Tearfund, who had met Andrew and seen his farm.

Andrew has two acres on which he grows maize, and that's all fine and he can feed his family on that, in normal circumstances. But things are changing because of climate change. He has much less rain, and then when the rain comes it is too heavy and torrential, and it is all full of sand that it leaves behind on his fields. So when Andrew plants his maize now, he has to dig down through a deep layer of sand. This means planting each plant takes him about 30 mins where it used to take 30 secs - and his harvest yield has halved.

Paul Brigham (the Tearfund man) made the point that though we would all be affected, it is the poorer people, like Andrew, who suffer first and most. He said that Andrew generates 0.1 tonnes of carbon per year, whereas most of us in England generate 9.0 tonnes at least per year - so we are causing the problems that Andrew is suffering.

He also said that in the predictions of how climate change will affect the countries of the earth, England is one of the least affected places - but that as there will be millions of climate change refugees and England is small, this is not a cause for complacency.

Paul Smith (responsible for environmental issues at Coca Cola UK) also spoke to us. He had a flow chart things showing how big companies had to pay attention to each stage in their sourcing, manufacture, distribution and supply, reducing their carbon footprint wherever possible. He brought along an old-style Coca Cola bottle and a recent one, explaining that the new one created 20% fewer emissions overall. His audience applauded him because they were polite but, after all we had just seen and heard, I suspect most like me were thinking that the most Earth-friendly thing Coca Cola could do would be to cease to exist.

Then a man from the government (James Hughes) came to speak about government things like 'targets', 'conferences', 'white papers', 'strategies' and many other burbly-burbly things of that nature. His basic message was that the government takes all this Very Seriously, is Trying Very Hard, but still Needs To Do Better. He had a large thick document with a glossy colour cover in preparation for a meeting in Copenhagen where all the government leader people gather like they did at Kyoto and talk about being responsible. It's happening soon; and he said we should all send Gordon Brown a postcard about this as it will make a difference. Or maybe it was the other man who told us to send postcards - the man from Tearfund; I can't remember.

There was to be a time for our questions, but that got mainly used up.

The questions had to be written down on tiny slips of green paper, on little close together lines. Most of the piece of paper was take up with large words at the top and space round the edge, but there were these little lines where anyone the size of a young ant could write a question.

I wrote on mine, 'I have a question but I would like to ask it myself'. Margot (the vicar) said I couldn't do that, I had to write it down. I said I couldn't do that because the question was too long. She said exactly, that was the point. So I said Okay, and never got to ask my question. I felt disappointed and frustrated, because the government man was there, and I really really wanted to ask him something. But even the ants never got their questions read out anyway, most of them, because they ran out of time. But I didn't stay to hear the ants' questions, I went outside and caught the bus back to Aylesbury because I was upset that I was never going to get to ask my question.

This was the question I wanted to ask the government man:
"At the end of the 1990s, I watched on the telly the pictures of the farmers in Kent ploughing their orchards into the ground because the EU directives stopped them from making their living that way any more. A few weeks ago I saw on telly that people stopped buying cars because of the economic downturn, but instead of seizing the opportunity to redirect money and people towards public transport, the government spent billions of pounds on keeping the factories open and trying to bribe customers to buy new cars they didn't want. At the current time on telly there is a government advert saying that if you forget to pay your car tax they can come and crush your car into a cube. How can the government do things like this, and then expect us to believe that rushing around talking about Copenhagen, strategies and white papers makes then envirionmentally responsible?'

Anyway, the government man came and went and I never got to ask my question. But he had a dinky little plastic widget the size of a credit card with a USB attachment that folded in and out of it, containing the Copenhagen document. Badger asked if he could have it and came home really pleased because the government man gave it to him. And it was a funky little thing - but I don't think he wants to read all about the government, I think he wants to take it to work and see if he can't get his publishing catalogue onto one of those instead of using glossy printed paper.

So I came home full of admiration for Haddenham church's generosity and Powers of Organisation, and determined to take the next step and the next step and the next step towards Stepping Off this awful destructive consumerist eco-vandal lifestyle of our society.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The plum tree that shelters the Palace Flophouse.

Fab & groovy people

This morning Tony the Badger & I are going across to the village of Haddenham, where his friend Margot Hodson has become vicar, after having been chaplain at Jesus College in Oxford for some while.

Margot's husband Martin is an environmental biologist, so their sphere of thinking, influence and education makes them a grand team for enlightening folks about the urgency of climate change and the responsibility we all have to respect and love the Earth.

Margot and Martin wrote a book a few months ago, called Cherishing the Earth, which Tony the Badger published. I went with him to their book launch, and was really impressed by their data and approach.

At Haddenham, Margot has what she says is a Fresh Expression of church, called Cafeplus - I think maybe that's sometimes Cafe+ which would be a kind of visual pun about being cafe style church, wouldn't it.

I say 'what she says is' because cafe church is a fairly standard style of church now, and many people seem to be calling their projects 'Fresh Expressions of church' when what they are really is standard church with a funky twist to it. But I haven't seen what she's doing yet, so can't be sure.

Anyway, at Cafe+ in Haddenham this morning they're having a bonanza do on climate change. There will be a presentation; and Paul Brigham (UK Director of Tearfund), James Hughes (Govt Head of Carbon Budgets and Offsetting) and Paul Smith (Head of Environment or Coca Cola UK) all happen to live in the village and are coming along to be part of a panel to answer our questions.

Haddenham is forging ahead well with its Transition Town status I believe, and Margot says the local Transition group folks will be there.

So that sounds interesting, doesn't it!

At the moment I'm re-reading David Edwards excellent book Free To Be Human, which forces me to face the realities of just how un-free we have allowed ourselves to become, and makes me deeply suspicious of the input of anyone who is head of any government department at all - and the concept of 'Head of Environment for Coca-Cola' sounds hilarious in a surreal and impossible kind of way. But from the standpoint of someone who is incapable of organising groups and events in any way shape or form, I admire Margot's capacity in this regard immensely, and am looking forward to hearing what the people have to say.

The other thing I am excited about today is that I have got a bowl with one of Rima Staines ( and she's here too) fab pictures printed on. This one, to be precise. I got it from Etsy. I love Rima's clocks, but just now my purse, which is of fairytale unpredictable dimensions, is about the size of a gnat, and won't allow for such a purchase. Also, I am saving for one of these at the Herstmonceux Mediaeval Fair at the end of August. But the bowl I was able to afford :0) It came yesterday and is sitting proudly in the Palace Flophouse, a good size for picking blackcurrants or pot herbs into. Glorious.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A deeper layer

I thought that the whole simplicity thing for me began with discovering St Francis when I was fifteen years old.

But I’ve uncovered a deeper layer I had forgotten.

When the fretting and fretting to live in a shed finally got to the point of explaining to Tony the Badger that, though I love him with all my heart and certainly want to share his company and sleep in his bed, I just have to live in a shed, and plans were made to get a second shed for the garden I knew at once that my shed was to be called The Palace Flophouse.

Now I haven’t read Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday since I was about 12 years old, so in all those years The Palace Flophouse has lain (as I thought) dormant in my imagination – but it’s obviously that that’s what's broken through to the surface. Until a week or so ago, I could have told you who wrote those books, but not a single character or happening or anything else about then. All forgotten.

When I thought of the shed as The Palace Flophouse, I felt two reservations. 1) I really dislike plagiarism and living on borrowed ideas. I would have preferred to make up a name of my own. 2) I like to call a place by a holy name – the Big House at Aylesbury is Hagia Sophia, the flat in Hastings was Gezellig, the tribe house in Hastings is Godsblessing House.

But I knew it had to be the Palace Flophouse so, intrigued, I re-read Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, and how startled I was. Because with the top layer of my mind I had totally and utterly forgotten the content of those books, I hadn’t appreciated how formative they had been, or remembered what a resonance they had found with my soul.

The two books taken together are about the best treatise on simplicity, living simply, I ever read. I’m not sure why they don’t usually get a mention. Where Thoreau’s Walden seems to be a kind of set text (I haven’t read it all but enough to get the gist of where he’s coming from), I don’t recall ever seeing Steinbeck referenced as a simplicity guru which, in the best sense, he surely is.

Reading those books again has made something immense fall into place for me. I came to St Francis after I read those, when a certain view and understanding had already formed. The one place I part company with St Francis is over his extreme asceticism – mortification of the flesh, despising of the self. Steinbeck talks of liking yourself in the same easy way you might like anyone else, and he looks steadily at human weakness and idiosyncrasy with humour and compassion and understanding – which is surely less neurotic.

It’s not often I come across a book that makes a difference, that doesn’t leave me thinking ‘Yes, but...’ and wandering off after page 23. It’s not often either that I come across a book that can effect a healing in me, or that can create a tangible wise peace. Reading these two books forty years after I last read them has done just that.

Cannery Row. Sweet Thursday. If you know yourself called to live simply; I recommend them.