Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Habituation, Treats, Cold.

Habituation is a process of change. It reminds me of those temples (where are they? Indonesia?) gradually overtaken by forest; so that Buddha- heads and stone temples are interwoven and wrapped about with the cautious, feeling roots of great trees – discerning the crevices, feeling into the doubts and cracks of manmade monuments. The slow establishment of nature creeping up on the establishment of civilisation.

At first living so solitary a life away from my family was like a deep wound in me, a raw crevice in my soul. Sitting today, looking out upon the garden holding its breath in this moody day of February cloud and cold, I realise that a change has taken place and I am losing the will for human society of any kind. I live in the gaps, going as silent as I can about the house, hoping to avoid the people that live here. Sometimes, this feels like home, but more often I feel like a lost ape living among rather nice ruins, a place where grapes and peaches grow, the legacy of former times.

At night, falling asleep, sometimes I place my foot against Badger’s foot, to obtain a transfusion of his soul, and allow a little of his light to mingle with mine. Then I remember who he is, and that we belong to each other. But unless I am touched, I forget. I have the greatest difficulty staying anchored.

Something I like about simplicity and frugality, you know, is that it has so many treats! Today, with a cup of tea at four in the afternoon, I ate the remains of some very delicious chocolate brought by Pollenhonesty to our house. How could I enjoy it so much if I ate chocolate every day? We buy wine very rarely now – it used to be a regular item in Badger’s shopping basket. Last Saturday, on Valentine’s Day, I was able to give him a bottle of the deepest red Merlot. It has been elevated from something as commonplace as bread and milk, to being a delicious luxury; simply by not having it. Today it is cold cold cold. I am cold. My fingers are shrivelled and mauve. Later on I will hear the groans of the central heating coming to life – and what a welcome, lovely sound that will be! Something to look forward to and appreciate. Meanwhile, my bones and joints know it is still winter – and that is a privilege: to watch the grey Quaker lady sitting her silent prayer drawn in deep in the still, iron garden. She is invoking life. Spring is coming.

Monday, 16 February 2009

So. We got a Wii Fit! Badger bought one in a Moment of Valentine’s Day Magnificence!! And a great delight it is too.

Sometimes – does this happen to you? – I catch myself out in assumptions I had not realised were there.

Musing on the Wii Fit acquisition at the weekend, I realised that I had sub-consciously categorised it (relegated it, even) into a kind of spiritual hinterland, so that it fell somewhere outside the circle of relationship with the divine. Obviously this is nonsense: God is interested in everything – so I nosed around the thought a little further.

In the household in which I grew up, work was (rightly) reverenced. People enjoyed themselves, but there was not really a concept of ‘play’. We didn’t go to films or the theatre (not as a family - I was not forbidden from going when as a teenager I went by myself). We didn’t attempt croquet or billiards. Tennis featured faintly, and we did have two decks of cards. But we cared for the sheep and fed the hens and worked in the veggie garden; we walked the dog and prepared the supper and watered the plants in pots. That kind of thing. It was no treadmill – I spent hours dreaming and walking and thinking; drawing and writing and watching the river flow. But we didn’t play – even the dartboard on the kitchen door of my cousins’ home represented a degree of irresponsible frivolity unthinkable in our home. I can't remember us ever, even once, doing something as a family all together that could be described as 'play'.

One internalises these attitudes received from one’s parents, and they harden into an embedded authority. Learned too early to be fathomed – like those taproots that break off in the ground as you try to pull up the dandelion – the authority acquires its own voice, no longer linked with parental attitudes, but now taken to be simple and universal reality: the attitudes of God.

And 'God', as I have understood it from the attitudes of my upbringing is in favour of nature and inclined to be anti-machine - but tolerant of machines that are integral to the carrying out of duty; because 'God' is in favour of frugality (of time, money and resources) and self-sacrifice, regarding self-indulgence and waste as a sin. My own eco-passions have augmented these inner voices to add the conviction that wilderness is the optimum 'God' environment, and anything manmade besmirches perfection, descending eventually to the horrors of motorway intersections and working on machines in factories under fluorescent lights out of the sight of the sky. I think I have developed a local 'God' who inhabits the farm and the country lane, the forest and the garden, abhors the landfill site, Spaghetti Junction and tower blocks and (naturally) looked out a stable for His incarnation.

So in my psyche, gizmos are inadmissible if they are purely recreational.

A computer – well, that’s okay because I am a writer (and have been a preacher and retreat conductor); it comes under the head of ‘necessary tool for employment purposes’.

My mobile phone – well, cell phones were first acquired when our home was disintegrating; and were vital for keeping in touch with my children when they were still at a vulnerable age. So cell phones can be categorised as ‘an aspect of responsible parenting’.

But Wii Fit? Sucking in of breath! It’s for me (not a tool to put me at the service of someone else); it’s expensive (unlike walking to fetch the groceries or digging the garden; acceptable forms of exercise) and – worst of all – it’s FUN!

In considering the purchase of it, I felt disconcerted to discover that it ticks many of my simplicity boxes: it’s better value for money than gym memberships for me and Badger; it sits neatly in a corner of our home (as compared with exercise bikes and golf sets and skiing equipment); it can be shared by the whole household; once purchased it is low on further expense; it requires no sports clothing, not even the special trainers required for the gym. It allows me, without the time expenditure involved in changing location, to participate in fun exercise regimes. When I go to the gym or the pool, neither commitments nor energy permit me to spend the time there that I think would deliver my money’s worth – Wii Fit enables the best harvest from my time budget.

And, crucially, unlike the Yoga DVD, the gym membership, the New Year’s resolution to walk 10,000 steps a day – because Wii Fit is fun I actually do it. Look forward to it. Enjoy it. In middle age, this could be important.

I realised as I was pondering on all this, that I have mistaken my mother’s voice for the voice of God. I have assumed that God is suspicious and slightly disapproving of electronic technology – that He doesn’t really understand it, and perceives it as a dilettante luxury, poor stewardship of the time and money He entrusted me with.

And I have assumed that God has no time for play – unless it can be undertaken without allocation of resources; in which case, in the evening when the work is done, it is (for children) permissible.

And this makes me wonder: how much exactly of what I have understood to be God is in reality the embedded essence of the attitudes of my mother; distilled into a disembodied overarching Authority, whose source I can no longer access, and whose root goes down into my soul past tracing.

As a rule of thumb, perhaps I might put in place these new assumptions:

  • If it makes me feel tired and deprived and ashamed, it probably isn’t God.
  • If it’s diminishing, a little prudish, and tinged with contempt, it probably isn’t God.
  • If it’s ignorant, bewildered and defensive; strait-jacketed by all the symptoms of narrow life experience, it probably isn’t God.
  • If it is creative, liberating, makes me laugh and improves my health – it may well be God.
  • If it does no-one any harm and increases wellbeing and shared enjoyment – it may well be God.

My mother is a remarkable, positive, capable, fully alive individual. I admire and love her tremendously: but I prefer her as my mother than as my God. And my eco-passion, and preference for nature? I am hoping that the small, neat machinery (like Wii Fit) that allows our gym equipment to tuck into a corner, may save a few resources in the end.

And this leads me to wonder – might it be possible, then, to include a Kingdom of Heaven Sims game? On second thoughts, don’t answer that…

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

While our new Spanish lodger was chatting to his family on Skype, his wash cycle finished. As I happened to be passing through the kitchen at the time, I got out the washing and hung it up on the airer to start drying.

Then I went back to the study and carried on with what I was doing on the computer.

In due course, he came down, intending to hang up his washing. He came in to find me.

I speak no Spanish. His English is at the elementary stage.

'Emberr,' he said.

'Yes?' I said.

'Thank you for... er...' he said.

'Hanging up the washing?' I said.

'Yes,' he said: 'but no more. Er... is my job to do this'.

'In this house,' I said, 'we help each other.'

He smiled.

'You want anything, you tell me,' he said. 'I do it. You no worry about anything.'


How cool is that?

Monday, 9 February 2009

The relative and the personal – bearing things in mind

Today I was chatting online with an Australian, hearing word of the terrible fires that have claimed so many lives. People burnt up huddled in their homes, trying to shelter in vain; people burned in their cars as they tried to escape; a great tornado of flame as high as a four-story house, sparking new fires up to 40km away. Terrifying, devastating events. No way out.

Today I had an email from a friend facing up to the possibility of a marriage ending. To go or stay? What to tell the children? How much coldness and rejection is it possible to bear? No way out.

Today I had an email from a friend who has been through extensive treatment for illness; harrowed by long-term illness, harrowed by treatment side-effects; harrowed by life consequences associated with the circumstances of the illness. Yet another trip to the doctor’s. How much more intrusive investigation is it possible to bear? No way out.

Today I am thinking of my daughter suffering serious pelvic pain as a result of pregnancy: creeping slowly along leaning on a stick, instead of striding up the hills faster than any of us as she normally would. Nothing can fix this: in time and with care all will return to normal after her baby is born.

Today I am thinking of a friend whose husband left her, but still paid her rent – and then stopped. All the fear and anxiety of going it alone, finding out what to do, figuring out how to make ends meet…what the possibilities are.

Recently I have been aware of myself slipping into depression; working out what steps to take to climb back up again as soon as possible, before negativity becomes destructive – depressed people are not easy to live with!

Unable to finish a book, unable to face social interaction, unable to look constructively on anything or see any purpose, or conceive of my life and myself as anything but an embarrassing superfluity, I consider what I can do to improve my state of mind while I can.

A lifelong aversion to taking exercise will not be helping! We have the abacus out, mumbling numbers, calculating the possibilities of getting me a Wii fit, so I can exercise and inject a little fun and lightness, even while in a state of ultra-retreat.

I am eating super-healthy food, letting the carbo-fog clear from my cells.

My main problem is that I miss my family so much. I need to be near them. It is possible of course to create a new social circle; join groups, sign up for activities. But the thing about being a writer is the discipline of solitude; creating a social buzz is inadvisable. And, I don’t want to seek out new friends, new commitments, new groups, that will prevent me even further from making my way to the family who I love, so far away.

Now: I am healthy, I have the most wonderful life, free to write and think and make our home a happy and peaceful place. I love my husband more than I could tell you, and am so grateful for his companionship.

It seems like the ultimate frivolous whinge to be hankering after a Wii fit to play with, and to be grieving for my family, when there are people with ghastly diseases, people whose whole town has been burned to a cinder, people going through the tearing apart of a home and a history and a heart that marriage break-up brings, people facing financial troubles without the comfort and encouragement of a companion.

And yet… I am finding that a life with the fun trimmed off is…er… not fun.

I feel a bit guilty about this.

But, having been a child loved and cared for and raised in a home full of laughter and interesting things to do, I have this healthy instinct for finding my way to the light.

And, in a small voice, feeling somewhat ashamed when others are suffering so, the me-inside-me thinks it matters if I am depressed or not, and if I figure out ways to have fun and be cheerful while my family are far away during the years we are committed to living here.

So here in this space, I light a candle for the people of Australia, and cry out to God for their healing, for hope, for rescue…. I light a candle for my friend’s marriage; for peace, wisdom, right choices, understanding, comfort, respect….. I light a candle for my friend who has been ill; for healing through and through, for courage, for sustaining, for laughter and ease, for strength and hope, for the way forward….. I light a candle for my friend facing financial challenges; for generous provision, for security, for encouragement, for strategies that work, for good companions on the journey… I light a candle for my daughter; for patience and peace and contentment, for good cheer and easing of pain…. and I light a candle for my life; teach me to be sensible, to love my neighbour as myself, to share and to shine, to choose life, happiness, health.

God bless us, God bless us; share Your peace with us, shine Your light through us - God make us whole.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Rejoice in the snowfall

Ha’ you mark’d but the fall o’ the snow, before the soil hath smutch’d it?

Words of Ben Jonson, read when I was 16, that return unbidden to my mind when I look out across the snowy garden before footprints disturb the purity.

Snow is blessed by the gratitude of children saved from having to go to school, to the office, to the factory, the building site, the meeting. Rejoice in the snow that causes the common way to hold its breath and insists upon toboggans and fantastical myth-monsters sculpted in the hedgerow by the wind.

Bless the sparkle, bless the purity, bless the cold, bless the snowmen and the snowballs, bless the children laughing, bless the sheep buried in drifts blowing breath-holes and waiting for rescue, bless the birds hopping light on fragile surfaces, bless the breathing space in the battle, bless the magic and the beauty, bless the weather.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Breathing Cold Air

Walking not quite aimlessly in Aylesbury this February day. Grateful that the light is coming back: underneath the beautiful high austerity of the cold, the spring is returning. The light at the end of the afternoon is vague; taupe but inherently luminous like something away in its own head that won’t pay attention. The Time is rapt in memories and subconscious ideas of growing things: ‘Where are the songs of spring, aye where are they?’ the Year mutters, shuffling about the house searching for the way you grow things and make them live again, the music of beginning.

I am also away even beyond my own head, spiralling out to a cloud, striving with no success whatever to stay connected and find some form of passion. I am supposed to be writing a book. Perhaps I can call it ‘The Book of Excuses’ Ha! ‘The Ultimate Guide to Advanced Level Procrastination’. Every day I start tomorrow and tomorrow never comes.

I can’t fasten on to anything – any community, any ideology, and group that marches to any band and chants in any kind of unison.

Making it up as I go I descend into mere biology, watching the shadows of branches on the snow, staying still enough to observe the eyelashes of a hen blackbird, enjoying the cold on my nose, tasting life life life and losing all taste for human society. I forget who I am and get preoccupied with my hair growing.

‘Cold’ is such a magical idea. It comes in the same pack with ‘frugality’, ‘solitary’, ‘thinking’ and ‘water’ and 'echo'. But as soon as you open the bag they fly apart to the outside edges of the stars because they don’t like being close to anything.

I am a little terrified that a representative of final authority will notice the life I lead and redirect me to a supermarket, a nursing home or a church, there to fill my days more profitably and industriously.

I think, ‘I must offer to edit a book’; and then..... I don’t.

I love the air. I love blue and green and colours that slide between definition; of twilight, dove, cloud, shadow, dusk, bark, whisper and uncertainty. I love silence, and the sensitivity of finger-ends. I love the complexity of the ear, and the diversity of personality defying regimentation.

And I wonder what and where God is, and if I am supposed to know, or if ‘Mystery’ means that you never would.

‘If you gaze long into the abyss; the abyss gazes back into you.’ That’s Nietszche for you!

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Trust in the Light

Last night I watched two television programmes I thought would be interesting.

One was about tax and tax havens, the other about extradition police.

I came away disappointed. The journalism in the second one was extraordinarily childish – as in, how likely are you to get a meaningful interview with someone by following them saying ‘You’re a murderer aren’t you! Are you a murderer?’ No wonder the journalist’s target took refuge in the police station!

I felt overall that the principle object of both the programmes was to exploit insecurities, anxieties and inequalities.

The tax programme, about tax haven use by the super-rich, ended with the posting of a telephone number we could ring if we wanted to report anyone for avoiding paying tax.

Money has such a hold on our society. It is valued above almost anything else. ‘It’s cheaper!’ is thought to be the card that trumps any other argument – compassion, ecological well-being, anything. The earning and the spending of money have between them become a life substitute for millions of people, who would not know how to fill the time that came back to them if they neither earned much nor spent much. In recent weeks, spending money has even been urged upon us as a social duty; which, in the Kingdom of Mammon, it may well be.

I thought that one of the objectives of the programme about taxation was to stir up jealousy: the ordinary cove versus the stuck-up snob born with the silver spoon in his mouth – let’s get him! That kind of thing.

Hearing recently that one of our government’s targets is to provide nursery places for all one-to-two-year-olds made my heart sink. A little child needs to be at home with his/her mother. If that’s what they want to do with the taxes when they get it, I don’t think I shall be picking up the phone whatever I may see or hear.

I am not jealous of the rich. There are one or two things requiring money that I still would like to put in place in my life – and I shall. I’ll get there. Envy and resentment are empty, destructive emotions, and great riches are likewise destructive.

I like the Bible verse in the book of Proverbs (30:8-9) that says:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.

It is important to me to pay such taxes as I owe, because that is faithful citizenship. But simplicity is my priority. The tax havens of the rich and the envy of those who look on are not matters of indifference to me, because they contain the seeds of war, and so endanger the whole web of life: but they do not interest me apart from that. Why should I covet a share in someone else’s greedy isolation?

Then came the extradition programme. This startled me too. There was considerable focus on European eastern bloc countries lately come into EU membership, and an assertion that large numbers of violent criminals – rapists, murderers etc, are pouring into England and there is nothing we can do to stop them.

An MP was harassed on the subject, and a number of Lithuanian or Albanian or Polish men were filmed being arrested without the usual blurring of the face to protect identity.

I am unsure what the desired outcome of the programme was; but I have no doubt that it will have done nothing to build cultural bridges. It will have tended to create uneasiness and suspicion towards all men who have come here from the eastern bloc to live and work.

This evening a prospective tenant is coming to look at the room we have to let. We have surmised from his spec online that he may be Polish/Hungarian. Seeing that programme sowed a little seed of wariness and fear in my heart about him. I think it was meant to. I felt it could be seen as an incitement to racial prejudice. But when the prospective tenant comes to my home, as ever I shall turn on my seeing, and trust what is revealed to me when I look in his eyes, listen to his voice. I am not usually wrong. But such television programmes are not helpful. They are calculated to sow distrust and division, and to exploit the natural wariness that lies between one culture and another, inflaming it into hostility and hardening it into dislike.

When I watch the television news, I am intrigued by the emphasis that is placed on ‘worry’. What we should be, may be, are, will be or have been worrying about.

Worrying has become a national pastime. Being worried about the things we ought to be worrying about. Watching the news bulletin so we can learn where to direct our worrying next.

But Jesus said: ‘Do not be worried or upset. Believe in God, believe also in me…. Don’t allow your hearts to be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’

I think this is not a reassurance; it is a discipline.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Passing through on foot

Bless the silence

I hope this blog may create a place, for those people who recognise themselves in my outline of the Quiet Way, to keep in touch.

It's not intended to be a buzzing social hub.

You might think of it as one going quietly on foot along a badger track at the forest's edge, keeping an eye out for little informal waymarks - crossed twigs, an unobtrusive stack of small pebbles, a puzzling arrangement of leaves - that you recognise as the sign of a friend who passed by; one of the Kindred.

The links in the blog list will enable you to keep in touch with those who have expressed an interest in such an affiliation, as well as some who have not but whose path and purpose seem to me to be moving in the same direction.

It's not about signing up, or agreeing to a rule of life, but about seeing meaning in smallness and stillness and silence, desiring to build the peaceable kingdom, and finding encouragement in others who do the same.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

What are you?

A snatch of dialogue from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:
‘ “What are you?”
“I am complicated.” ‘

A story from the life of Siddhartha Gautama:
‘They asked the Buddha:
“What are you? Are you a king? Are you a God?”
He answered them:
“I am awake.” '

Today I went to the Methodist chapel. My family, visiting, wanted to worship there – so we all went together.
The preacher – he is a consummate preacher whom I much admire – challenged us about our vocation (it is Vocations Sunday, I think). He stayed with his point, pressing us to consider –
What do you have to give?
What do you have to contribute?
What is your ministry?
What is your vocation?
He challenged us about our ministry and (gently) reminded us of the need for preachers and the commitment of personal involvement. He spoke about the ministry of all believers, the responsibility that rests upon every one of us in the service of Christ.

I am trying to learn to answer honestly the questions that come to my soul.

They found no mark in me. I know that I can preach, and of course I felt guilty that I no longer do, when I heard the challenge. He spoke about the wonder of the privilege that it is to be a minister – and of course I feel guilty that I did not stay with that; walked away from the privilege, the challenge, the ministry.

But these were the answers the questions found in me:
What do you have to give? – nothing
What do you have to contribute? – nothing
What is your ministry? – nothing
What is your vocation? – nothing

And if asked: ‘what are you?’ I would have to answer ‘nothing’.

I remember the time when the vision of Lady Poverty started with me. I was fifteen, and I had not long given my life to Jesus and become his property, which I still am. I am not my own, I was bought at a price, and I belong to him. When this was new with me, I came across the Fioretti, the tales of St Francis and his early followers. I loved Francis for the vision he had of complete humility and lowliness. I was also somewhat afraid of it, because even without tasting it I could see what it cost. And yet I felt drawn to it, as you do to something that (like it or not) has your name, your number on it – the paper with the cross.

Since the end of the 1990’s, I have seen things systematically leave me. It’s an interesting process, and I am not sure what the end of it will be, though like reading about St Francis it makes me feel rather afraid. It is as though there is to be nothing in my hands, nothing to cling to or to say ‘this is mine’ – even a vocation, a ministry or a place.

Many people (and I think this was true of me) have a wistfulness to be something; to achieve, to leave a legacy, to contribute something; to be remembered.

I think that if I am called to follow any star, it is to learn to hold onto nothing, to hand everything back; to walk freely and quietly on foot and without definition. There is to be no place for me, and no privilege and no ministry.

Of course I am willing to preach, to share the Gospel of Jesus in his simplicity, to communicate what I have seen and what I know: but not in role as a somebody or a something - with no credentials - for what could I possibly have?

Even writing feels more of an effort, because what comes back to me are the words of Oscar Wilde: 'I wrote when I did not know life. Now that I do know life, I know that life cannot be written - life can only be lived.' I think he was right - and writing now can have no literary conceit to it; it's become the log of a journey - nothing more.

What am I? A human being – nothing less.