Thursday, 29 January 2009

Is it worthwhile?

It was inadvisable, in my childhood, to be found reading in the morning. It was bound to be a source of irritation: the morning was for work – reading was not work but leisure, and therefore to be reserved for the evening – or at any rate the afternoon.

My mother worked very hard. All day long she would be cleaning and sweeping, caring for the animals, washing the clothes, nipping out the side-shoots on the greenhouse tomatoes, mixing sheep-muck with water for liquid feed for the vegetable garden, planting beans, feeding lambs, getting in the eggs, ironing, making cakes and meatloaf, walking the dog.

She never stopped. In the summer months she would be up until one and two in the morning shelling broad beans, slicing runner beans, skinning tomatoes, putting them down in the freezer to see us through the winter. Never stopped. Her hands were stained brown with plant juices that couldn’t be washed off.

In my understanding, work is physical. You do it and people can see that you are. It involves getting up and moving. Work involves muscles; activity.

And I think of work as justifying my being here. Once when, as a child, my mother complained to her mother of all the work to be done, my grandmother replied in astonishment: ‘But what would we do all day if we didn’t work?’

‘Work’ was synonymous with ‘life’ in my family.

But it was also true that no one minded what you did if they couldn’t see you. Up in the wood, hidden in the attic, across in the sheep field, down by the river, you could read all day if you’d a mind to.

I like thinking, and looking, and sitting quietly. I like doing things slowly. I like watching the light and the trees, watching the rain as it crosses the valley, smelling the scent of wet earth carried on the breeze. I like touching the petals of flowers, and crumbling peat in my hands, and feeling the rough bark of trees with my fingertips.

I like tasting things – metal, cork, the skin of my knees. I like watching the fire change and feeling how similar is breathing the cold air of winter to drinking water.

I like standing under great trees and feeling their joy. I like trying to understand what animals are saying. I like listening to the robin sing, and having the time to notice him playing hide-and-seek with me in the hedgerow.

I like watching the dawn of a February morning. And I love the ocean, and the hills.

I also like ironing and weeding and washing and sweeping and cooking and running errands. I love drawing together the strands of things so that my home is a place of peace and warmth and beauty, where people find rest for their souls and love that nurtures and heals.

I like quietness and stillness and silence and not really doing too much.

Sometimes in my life I have met people who told me I was lazy; in a biting sort of way – full of contempt. I wonder if I am?

For quite a lot of years I worked very hard. I cared for my children, then I worked as a minister: and often during those years I worked til I felt ill with tiredness, almost hysterical with tiredness – that’s how I knew I was working hard enough.

Sometimes as a mother, at my wits’ end with exhaustion, I’d rage and scream at the children, hardly knowing what I was doing. Sometimes as a minister, I had to play pounding rock and roll tapes in the car to re-start the rhythm of life in me, because I was really too tired to drive home.

After a decade of terror and despair, of endings and beginnings and endings – finding my family without a home, myself without work, without a husband, then watching a second husband disintegrate in illness, widowhood, starting again, marrying again, moving far, far from my family which tore my soul in two – I came to a place where I had in the deepest roots of me had enough. I had to be quiet: not for a week in a hotel or a fortnight on the coast, but at home and forever.

I had to find peace from the things that tear and witter at the spirit, the nattering twittering dailiness that is always wanting something.

So I sold or gave away almost everything, and now I live in peace.

Most days have very few obligations – I keep the house as clean as it needs to be, or I potter in the garden. I see to the washing and feed the birds, water the plants. I get the provisions from the market and cook the supper.

Sometimes I’m lonely, but I don’t mind it very much.

It makes me ponder on what is worthwhile.

When I worked so very hard, I compensated by spending money – take-away meals, days out, ‘retail therapy’, coffee in town, nice clothes, bags, shoes, jewellery, a car…. Oh, all kinds of bits and pieces. It used up all my money, it took up all my time, and I was tired, tired, tired.

Now I have very little money. I still like to buy clothes and books and presents – but I buy them second-hand for a song. We can eat very cheaply, because I can take my time and go to the market and the inexpensive shops. Holidays are visiting my children or my mother.

I am so happy and so peaceful. There is time for everything.

The days are not busy busy busy – there is space. And with few possessions the house is easy to keep tidy and clean; it feels spacious – room for the soul to expand.

I was raised to believe that constant activity was what justified my taking up space on the earth. I still feel a bit guilty, and wonder if that may be true – and yet somehow I can’t help travelling this way: it was how I was made to be.

Sometimes I look at the things people do that keep them so busy, and I wonder if they aren’t busy because they have things to do but are doing things so that they will be busy. They work hard for long hours to pay for a car and an overcoat and a briefcase and smart suits – and why do they need those things? So they can go to work.

Of course, the fundamentals are paying for accommodation and food and heat – but it actually takes startlingly little to generate the money for those, provided people live together in sharing clumps and are happy to live simply with few possessions.

One of the most expensive things of all is war. Every time I see on the television the escalation of aggression between antagonistic groups, it strikes me what a waste of everything that is. A waste of life, scattering joy and destroying the homes so carefully got together and paid for, destroying hospitals and water provision, the infra-structures that keep people safe from disease and enable them to taste the sweetness of life. War lays waste civilisations and beautiful wilderness, human lives and the heritage of art. War kills hope and fosters despair and bitterness and grief. There is nothing good in it at all.

Oh God of peace, in whose hand are all my days, grant me to live quietly that I may shine a steady light and do some small good in this world; grant me to live happily that the lives touching mine may be sweetened and blessed; grant me with my every moment and with all the fire of my soul to build the peaceable kingdom, the city of God. May I walk lightly through my days; may I take time to notice the beauty of all you have made; may my choices be informed by compassion and may I breathe in wisdom; may I stay close to Christ in his poverty and simplicity, passing through on foot until I find my way home.


Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Worst Horse

I wanted to tell you about the Worst Horse!

I love it!

This is something I read in Shunryu Suzuki's book Zen Mind Beginner's Mind.

In his chapter The Marrow of Zen, he begins by referencing the Samyuktagama Sutra Vol.33, where apparently horses are categorised as excellent, good, poor and bad, according to how teachable they are. The best one, the excellent horse, is responsive to the will of the driver - speeding up or slowing down, turning right or left - with never a touch of the whip. The horse that is not excellent, not the best but still good, will respond at the crack of the whip but you don't actually have to hit it. The third horse - 'poor' - has to feel the pain of the whip before it will comply. But the bad horse, the worst horse, won't do anything for you until it feels pain to the marrow of its bones. It's almost impossiblle to teach it anything.

Suzuki goes on to say how, reading this scripture we immediately know we want to be - or are at least supposed to be - like the best horse; almost psychically responsive and teachable; and if we can't manage that we at least want to be like the second best horse.

But he says that in Zen it just doesn't matter what kind of 'horse' you are. He says the compassion of the Buddha (and bear in mind 'the Buddha' is not an external person such as the Christian means in saying 'God' or 'Jesus' - there is nowhere for the Buddha to be but in your own buddha-nature) is enough. He asks how the reader thinks Buddha will feel about the four horses - sympathy, surely for the worst horse.

So he concludes that if you practice with the great mind of the Buddha, it is the worst horse - your imperfections - that will be your most valuable asset: 'In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind'.

This is akin to one of the most beautiful teachings of Christianity: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.

Now I like that because it's profoundly true, but I also like it because The Worst Horse appeals to my imagination. Is it like this? Or this? Or this?

I also like it for its connection to Big Horse - whom you can find all over the place if you are bored in chapel of a Sunday morning. Bewildered? Let me show you:

I definitely remember hearing the preacher say 'We are here Big Horse we worship you...'

He is a bit of a shady character. In Genesis 3.14 - it doesn't seem to be there when I actually look, but I'm sure I heard the reader say: 'Big Horse you have done this - cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures...'

And in Proverbs 1.14: Big Horse I have called and you refused... (you see what I mean about being related to the Worst Horse!)

For those who are nervous of straying from the doctrinal straight and narrow, there is the reassurance of Edward Caswall's famous hymn: My God I love thee - not Big Horse...

Big Horse... the Worst Horse... they feel like friends of mine...

Big horse is there in the hymn book right along with all those wonderful bears:
The image bear (in Born In Song)
The dazzling body bears (in Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending)
Gladly, the cross-eyed bear (from Keep Thou My Way)

and their friends The Cross Wee Flea and the (X-rated) Bosom Fly (from Jesus Lover of My Soul )

This is not meant to be edifying. Just something to Bear in Mind.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Walking quietly, walking free

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3:8 NIV)

I love that verse from the Bible.

I have a desire to vanish, to be invisible, to disappear, to be free.

I am a bit solid for that.

But the desire is still real.

I have spent the last two years paring my possessions down and down and down until they are very few. Well – by contemporary English standards. I have still not arrived at Dave Bruno’s 100 Thing standard, if each item is being counted – my hairbrush, each shoe, my nail-scissors, my change-purse and so forth.

This is where I have got to.

In the study, downstairs, there is a calligraphy belonging to me hanging on the wall.

Next room along, the kitchen, there are 2 small shelves with bits and pieces of mine – jars of tea, some sporks, some favourite plates, etc – I’ll show you :0) In the utility room is a small cupboard with my food in – because of having lodgers live with us, the cupboards are allocated, and I have found this helpful, as otherwise I, who do the grocery shopping, tend to get all the things I like and when Badger takes a turn on cooking he goes to the cupboard and the things he likes are not there. We notice in advance if our things are separated out a little. I also have a cast-iron cookpot, a frying pan and a three-tier steamer. And I have two hessian bags for shopping.

The garden room (it’s called The Room of The Worst Horse – I must tell you about that some time) has three chairs belonging to me – a small green wing chair, and even smaller Orkney chair, and a smaller still fishing chair. On the walls in that room are three pictures of mine.

Upstairs, in our bedroom there are four pictures of mine on the walls, a terracotta Indian statue that belongs to me, and under the bed I have a box of clothes, a box of trolls, a box of tools, a box with my camera in and a small box of personal treasures. We have a bookcase in our bedroom. The bookcase belongs to me, but only one shelf has books of mine – the rest are Badger’s. I have a bushel basket made in Norfolk; at the moment it acts as a wastebin. And I have a shopping basket where my knitting wools are.
I have a few garments hanging alongside Badger’s in the wardrobe.

Two of the rugs in our house belong to me.

Nothing else does.

Of those things, I would happily give away any or all of them to anyone who really loved and wanted them, even my pictures which are original works specially given to me by the artists.

In my hut two-thirds of the way up the mountain (in my imagination, you understand, that is in fact where I live) this is all I would take:

· My kitchen bits as mentioned above, and a wooden spoon; with my baskets for veggies etc
· A wooden bed with a really comfy mattress and snugly duvet, plus one change of sheets
· My few precious books that remain: 3 copies of the Bible (2 Jerusalem Bibles rebound for me by dear friends when they began to fall apart, and the NRSV I was given in my ordination as a Methodist minister – I no longer am but I regard it with reverence); 2 translations of the Tao, and a small number of other books and treasured documents – 1 shelf
· My computer
· My mobile phone
· My box of clothes
· 2 pairs of winter shoes, 3 pairs of summer sandals, I pair of trainers, I pair of rubber clogs for muddy places
· My box of tools
· My small box of treasures
· Cosmetics – these are not many: a moisturiser; a lipstick that also does as a blusher; a small tube of concealer; a bottle of shampoo; a deodorant; lavender and tea tree essential oils.
· I’d take a hairbrush and comb
· I’d have a lamp

I wonder if I could manage without my camera? No. I think I would like that with me. It's part of how I communicate. I would hesitate over whether to take with me a small CD player and a CD collection – at present I have both those things in the world, but they are in someone else’s home. Again not with me, I do own a storm kettle – but that’s ‘just in case’.

All of it would fit in one small room, where I hope I could have a Baby Belling cooker and a sink for washing and washing up.

My aim has been to own as little as possible, to be tied by as little as possible, to live on as little money as possible, and to have the smallest possible footprint on the earth.

How to pass through life soft and light, leaving no footprints and hardly a shadow.

I am not very easy to recognise – people almost never know me on second meeting, and usually pass me on the street without seeing me at all.

I have usually dealt with interactions by dressing up as someone. So I dress like a gypsy or a Buddhist monk, or a 1940’s housewife or a Mennonite – and this gives me a persona through which to meet people.

In the stripping down of my belongings, gradually my dressing-up clothes have gone, in favour of a small wardrobe of practical, simple garments – skirts, trousers, tops and jackets – that do no more than clothe me. I like them, but they leave me exposed as me; they offer me no sheltering persona.

So I have become less inclined to meet people, because I do not want them to see me, and without a persona they can see me.

I live very simply and in extreme solitude.

I do not dislike people. I do not know if I am shy. But I prefer to live a retired and unseen life of profound simplicity.

Last Friday, people were invited to our home to see The End of Suburbia – a really thoughtful and interesting film.

I arranged the room, making sure comfortable seats were ready for all comers; put the film out ready along with a list of those attending; prepared the kitchen with tea, coffee, milk, sugar, spoons ready in a cup, a kettle of water, a plate of cookies, and chairs for people like me who start to feel faint if they have to go on standing up.

I lit the woodstove to make the house welcoming, cleaned the floors, helped Badger take the TV through.

And then

I almost

went and joined them all

but I thought of their eyes that would look at me

many eyes

and no persona in which to hide.

So I slipped upstairs, turned out the lights, and curled up on the floor behind the chair and the open cupboard door in our lodger’s room.

I heard Badger go up to our room and speak quietly; but I was not there. I was nowhere. No-one. Quite invisible.

With all but the smallest handful of people, the Kindred of the Quiet Way who are making this journey with me, that’s how I like to be.

I will watch the film by myself, some time.

Link to 'making a garden' photos'

I made a set of photos of the garden I am making, in response to Buzzfloyd's request to see some pics. This should take you there.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Making a garden

When we moved to this house, there was no front garden, just a paved forecourt to park a car.

Last autumn we made a garden again. I sold my car. I pulled up the paving slabs and advertised them on Freecycle, where they were snapped up immediately and a man with a lorry came and took them away.

I thought it would be simple from there - just digging up the compacted earth and adding a bit of compost, maybe some sand to clear: but no! Under the slab was a thick layer of concrete that defied Badger's best efforts with his pick-axe. What to do what to do.....? (nothing for a while)

Then I began to go to Quaker meeting, and discovered a husband and wife a few doors along from me to be Friends. I was so pleased. The lady had seen my halted efforts with the garden-to-be, and was able to tell me her neighbour is a builder, then engaged in some work on her house.

A young man working for this builder took an afternoon out to come over with a jack-hammer and break up the concrete - which, along with the sand that had lain on top of the concrete, he was able to recycle in the ongoing works on our neighbours' home.

He had quoted me too low a price for this work - it took much longer than expected because the concrete was so thick. I thought he should be paid more, he said 'No! No! A quote's a quote!'
We argued back and forth a little, and I persuaded him to accept a bit extra - not, I think, the usual disagreement in such circumstances!

Then Badger bought some bags of compost and rotted manure, and we heaved it all in. My dear friend Pearl had given me £50 for some plants. I got penstemons, primula, alyssum, snow-in-summer, some hardy plants that you get in hanging baskets with small umbelliferous flowerheads in a variety of colurs (peachy pink here), a Peace rose and a white rose (Silver Wedding I think), a small Southernwood plant, some pinks - oh, lots of things!

I already had two lavenders outgrowing their pots and a rosemary needing transplanting. A lady on Freecycle responded to my posted request for plants and brought me wild geraniums and sedums and a buddleia. I was delighted with them, but they will stay in their pots, because they are somewhat invasive.

On the day we made the flowerbed, the first plants to go in were the lavenders - and even before I'd finished bedding them in the earth, a bee came to get involved.

My Quaker friends had brought me a campanula, which went at the front of the bed near where people pass by, so everyone could see its ravishingly soft sweet blue and green.

Towards the end of the autumn, beginning of the winter, we found a dwarf stock apple tree reduced to £6 at the garden centre - so that took pride of place in the centre of the garden.

Around the edges of this flower-bed remain paving slabs left for paths to the front door and the side gate, and along the front for the plants as they grow to spill onto without tripping up passersby. On the paths I am gathering plants in big pots - a curry plant, a euonymous, the geraniums and buddleia, and recently a big bay I transferred from its outgrown pot to a big blue-glazed one.
In the summer, I imagine many more trailing and sprouting, climbing and overspilling - I managed a brief riot of nasturtiums last year before the frosts.

Already the birds perch in the little apple tree on their way by - mostly visiting the glorious, berry-laden pyrocanthus that curves over our neighbour's fence.

Today I planted out a small clump of snowdrops, a tiny white hyacinth, and a number of primroses, some with rose pink flowers, some with pale green flowers.

It's such a small plot of land, too tiny to make much of a difference, but I'm hoping it will be part of the Revolution - the real Green Revolution, not the so-called one that keeps farmers in thrall to big businesses, selling them seeds for plants that won't yield seeds they can keep for next year.

To avoid the pendulum swing of drought and flood we have brought upon ourselves, we have first to understand the movement of water through the landscape. Root mats, plant bodies, serve to slow down the passage of the water, and hold in place the top layer of earth we rely on for fertility. If the earth is raw to the elements, it is vulnerable to being washed away. If it is covered by concrete or decking, the water never touches the earth, but floods over the top, bypassing some areas, torrenting through others. Plants gentle and slow the passing of water through the landscape, allowing it to soak without flooding the thirsty earth. Plants are the blessing of the earth.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Again and again

I have started this blog again and again!

Each time I have deleted it because I was dissatisfied with it.

Who knows how long it will this time remain?

We are still in January, so not too late for New Year resolutions.

I will post my thoughts here through 2009 - and maybe keep them, or maybe start over, in 2010.

Today I have been thinking about frailty, of various kinds. In my fifties now, I am startled to feel stiffer, slower, more achey than I thought I would. Used to people laughingly saying that '70 is the new 40', I expected to feel younger for longer than I do.

Last night I didn't sleep so well - which is normal now, but I don't get accustomed to it.

So today I felt a little slow and tired.

It's a beautiful day: austerely cold - frost tight on the grass late into the morning, the wood of the shrubs sere and withdrawn, with that grey look of resignation; winter, the time of waiting.

I love the summer - the warmth and the light; the languid summer days that linger beyond dusk - when you can leave the window open wide every night, and the trees stretch a canopy of shadow over the parched grass.

Most years I have found it hard to live through January, February and March - starving for the light: but last autumn I took myself in hand and resolved upon a new approach. I decided to see the winter as a Quaker woman, dressed in grey, with a white cap and kerchief, sitting quietly in the silence of Meeting, as the clear high light of winter comes shafting through the uncurtained window into the spare simplicity of the meeting house. I thought if I imagined winter like that, I could find my way to its beauty: and this has worked for me.

I also like the winter scenes in this, my favourite film. There are good clips from it on YouTube too, like this one. This film has a wonderful effect on me. It slows me down - kind of reconfigures the way life is installed in my soul, so that it runs at the speed intended by the Maker.

When I was training for ordination, our college principal, Martin Baddeley, used to say: 'Jesus walked; and he stopped. What is the speed of love?'


I have been thinking about other frailties too - I think this is time for a confession! Today it seemed like a really good idea for us to buy a flat-screen TV. The front room in our house downstairs is a cosy room; a study full of books, with a woodstove and Badger's desk, and a big telly. At the back of the house is a room full of light. The back wall is mainly a huge window onto the garden. That room is for people to gather and a place where we can put up air beds for guests staying over. This week we are showing a gathering of people the film 'The End Of Suburbia', about post-oil-dependency society, as part of Badger's ambition to make Aylesbury into a Transition Town. So I thought it would be a great idea if instead of lugging the massive old telly back and forth from the front room when we do something like this, we got a flat-screen telly that would be easy to carry, and then The Tall One (our lodger) could have the present big telly in his room, and the telly he has at the moment could go in the bedroom that is sometimes let to a second lodger, sometimes a place for visitors to sleep.

I was getting well carried away with this idea when, like a weak shaft of sunlight struggling in the fog, came the remembrance that I am committed to living simply. This film we're showing is the first time we ever did anything like that - you can't buy a telly on the strength of one film! In fact, we probably shouldn't have a telly at all. Almost never have I seen on TV anything that contributed to purity of heart and greatness of soul - but I've seen a lot that dragged me deeper into the mud out of which it reached its grubby hands.

So I changed my mind. No flat-screen telly. What a relief.

A day for frailty, then - of getting older, of feeling a bit rough, of faltering purpose. And I am writing a book just now about people making the momentous transition from independent living to residential care home accommodation; which concentrates the mind on sober thoughts, some of the scarier moments life has to offer.

But also a day for remembering who I am; for gratitude - because in the simplicity I have chosen and worked to create, being slow, being tired is a possibility; it is allowed. Accepting is a part of the rhythm of things, and I thank God for a life and a schedule spacious enough to permit this. Sometimes I notice it is a discipline - solitude, quietness, frugality, littleness; these are not always the easy choice - but mostly I see it for what it is; the greatest blessing. I thank God for the chance to live under the wing of His peace.