Thursday, 25 June 2009

Stepping Off 5

Recently at a meeting about climate change, a website was recommended to me for stimulating and encouraging changing our lifestyle to earthfriendly ways.

The approach taken - Calculate (your carbon footprint), Compare (yourself with other people), Compete (to improve your performance) - is not my style, but it did get me thinking about the whole question of Carbon Footprint.

I visualise Carbon Footprint a bit like Buddhapada or those paintings of the Footprints of Christ after the Ascension; the reminder, legacy, consequence, of how we have lived our lives.

But, I don't see how it can realistically be calculated in industrialised society.

Our family members in the Hastings tribe house run no car, work locally, shop from small local businesses, choose fair trade and organic options, take no foreign holidays, use the heating frugally, have no tumble drier or dishwasher, have insulated the roof - you would think their carbon footprint was minute.

Until you start to think about it.

Last night in the Hastings tribe house we had a (delicious) Indian meal delivered from the amazing Bay Spice kitchen, and then we watched a film that we'd borrowed on DVD from the library.
What was the carbon footprint of that? How could we possibly calculate it?

The food came in a van loaded up with many orders - what proportion of the vehicle fuel and the manufacture of the van belonged to us? What percentage of the fuel in the kitchen and the manufacture of the equipment there? The meal came in aluminium foil containers with foil-backed cardboard lids. The vegetables (it was a vegetarian meal) may have been grown in our country: but what about the spices, and the grains? How were they transported from where they were grown? And the ghee - was it packed in metal drums? And the cows it came from? The grain they ate, the fertiliser to grow the grain, the milking machine components and the electricity to run it, the electric lights in the milking parlour for the morning milking before dawn?

And the film we watched - not just the electricity to run our television and DVD player: what about the manufacture of the TV and the DVD player (probably overseas), transporting them here, the manufacture of the freight carrier and the lorry, the manufacture and fuel of the car the lorry driver went to work in to start his working day? And the shop where we bought the TV and DVD player - the lights, the till, the shop fittings: their manufacture and the electricity to run them. How did the shop assistants get to work? Each in his or her own car? On the bus?

And then - the making of the film! The lights, cameras, studio equipment, all the people involved, their accommodation... it goes on and on!
It seems to me that the carbon footprint of eating the Indian meal and watching the film is incalculable.

So how could we possibly make a meaningful calculation of the carbon footprint of our whole lives? Even making the attempt is an exercise in learning how to ignore things!

This we know: to live simply, all the time, every day, in every aspect of our lives, to simplify - this is the earth-friendly strategy. Calculating, comparing and competing becomes unnecessary when we choose simplicity.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Stepping Off 4

In order to achieve the dream of stepping off, here are some of the changes I have made so far:

1) Stepping aside from the work of being a Methodist minister. That was for the sake of integrity, because of family issues, because the Methodist community did not really want to go where I wanted to lead, because I believe in the circle of faith rather than leaders set over people, because I think paid ministry tends towards dishonesty, because I think there are times to be silent so the obligation of saying a word on every occasion inappropriate, and because I wanted to be free to listen to the Holy Spirit and follow his prompting discerned in my heart. Leaving the ministry meant losing the regular small income from preaching, funerals and retreats.

2) No longer being a car owner. I had a car in Aylesbury and one in Hastings, though I did the shuttling between the two on public transport. The Aylesbury car was just for my use, the Hastings one was shared with two of my tribe. Both were sold, and the money went back to Badger who paid for them.

3) Selling and giving away most of my possessions, to make space in the house. This was both so that the interior would be as little cluttered as possible, so cleaning it would require the least time and attention; so that we would be as flexible as possible in our use of the space and our future choices; and so that we could have two lodgers, to use the living space responsibly, build community and sharing, and return an income. Badger has the income from one lodger, I have the other.

4) Moving my work base to, and centring daily in, the Palace Flophouse.

There are some more changes I still have to make.

1) I need to make some physical changes. I am overweight and have bad varicose veins. Circulatory problems mean it is excruciatingly uncomfortable to sit at any length in a normal chair. I have to sit on the ground or on a bed. If I can't, my legs swell up. My main occupation is writing, but the laptop sitting on my thighs makes serious pains from my abdomen to my knees. So I need to use the computer less, and without it resting on my lap; and I need to walk more and lose weight.

2) The implication of that is that I will have to restrict my writing time/projects, and spend more time walking, gardening and doing other things that are not using the computer.

3) This will be a big challenge for two reasons. The first is that I allot my time carefully. I set time aside for the tribe, to nurture being family; I set time aside for chores, errands and house-cleaning in Aylesbury; and then I set time aside to think, listen, pray and write. The tribe time is a stretch of 10 days in each month down in Hastings. The rest of the month is spent mostly in solitude in Aylesbury. I alleviate the solitude by keeping in touch with friends and family on St Pixels and Facebook. Restricting computer time means cutting back on that. It will be lonely, I think. The second reason is that cutting back computer time may mean writing less, which will take my income down again.

4) So the next change I have to make, if my income is going down again, is to learn to be very frugal. At the moment I pick up bits and pieces on ebay, and buy secondhand books, buy cheap clothes. Those expenses will have to be cut right back.

It looks as though life is asking me to go a little further up the mountain again; to simplify still more. This is a bit scary. I thought I had got my life tucked right in, but I can see there is loads more to do.

I think the difficult part will be the withdrawal from the company of other people. I find the internet communities very cheering and encouraging. Also, participation in offline human society is very expensive. For example, this last weekend I travelled to Hastings a week earlier than my normal schedule, to take part in supporting the art and flower festival at our chapel. The expense of this is significant: train travel to Hastings; a weekly bus ticket to use in Hastings (cheaper to buy than the two trips to the chapel over the weekend); regular groceries for the week; travel food on the journeys down and back; lunch and snacks purchased from the chapel in the two days spent there in support of the event. It comes to a lot. Down-scaling financially means withdrawing from participation in the community, because participation always involves necessary and unforeseen expense.

Choices bring consequences, don't they!

This is turning into quite an adventure.

Stepping Off 3

The vision of the Palace Flophouse is as a staging post in stepping off.
Over the past few years I have been putting together bits and pieces with this in mind. Some turned out useful, some not.

The storm kettle is an essential. I have the 2.5 litre size, with the little saucepans. Using the most minimal amount of fuel - paper, twigs, cardboard, whatever - in just a few minutes a 2.5 litre kettleful of boiling water is ready: and while it's heating the baked beans can be heating on the top at the same time.

The Whitstable Bucket is brilliant. It has an inner bucket with holes in the base, half the depth of the outer bucket. The exterior wall has holes around the bottom - so a draught is created, and ash can drop through and be collected. It has a sturdy rack for grilling or standing pans on. The one design flaw is that the handle isn't quite long enough, so the wooden bit gets burnt - and in any case if you tried to pick it up by the handle while the fire is alight, you'd get burnt too. It should have two carry handles on the sides. It draws the air really well, so (like the storm kettle) it's good for a cook-up using any twigs collected. When I am walking through the woods (or anywhere in August when the pine cones fall) I like to take my wooding bag and bring home a stash of fallen twigs to burn.

My cookpots are heavy duty affairs, apart from the little aluminium ones that came with the storm kettle. The heat over the Whitstable bucket is impressive: I have a small brass and copper saucepan (thick, heavy); an 8-inch cast-iron frying pan, a good-size tierra negra cooking pot, a 6-inch iron wok, and an enamel kettle. Steamed veggies are important to me, so I intend to get a small chinese bamboo steamer (they are amazingly cheap). Something I didn't expect is how often I am cooking for a group of people rather than just myself at the Flophouse - so I am going to get a 12-inch cast-iron wok for when folks come by for supper.

I have a 2-litre pump thermos flask. The Palace Flophouse is in the garden of the main house, so the simplest thing is to boil a kettle first thing in the morning, in the house, to fill the thermos - which then keeps the water hot for up to 12 hours. Stepping off even further, away from a house, the water could be boiled up in the storm kettle - but I wonder if there would be issues on a winter morning about warming the thermos gradually to avoid shattering, but still having the water for filling it at boiling point. I guess it would be possible to boil the water, mix a bit with some cold to then pour in the thermos for warming it; then light a second little fire in the storm kettle to bring the water back a to the boil. Not hard, but fiddly.

I have asked Badger for a 4.5 litre thermos cookpot for my birthday. I am really excited about this! It works like a haybox without being so massive. A slow-cooker that needs no fuel past the firts ten minutes. You take out the inner pot, cook up the stew ingredients in that for ten minutes, then put the inner pot into the outer pot: and leave it. Several hours later - stew! This is of great value in the cold weather. Cheap stew ingredients need long cooking, but fuel is also precious, so fuel for a long stew isn't practical.

Sporks are fab for eating: spoon one end, at the other end a fork with a serrated edge for cutting - brilliant! I have mostly enamelled tin plates, mugs and bowls - light and unbreakable.

I did get a Porta Potti, but decided that was a mistake, though it's a good product - more necessary for travelling; campervans, caravans etc. I was really annoyed with myself about that. It was a needless extravagance. A bucket is fine. If I stepped off far enough to be right away from a house, a compost toilet would be my choice - or just dig a hole and empty a bucket into it. As things are at present, fresh human urine is of immense value in the compost heap - human excrement is not, but that can go into the toilet of the main house.

Overall, water and fuel are both saved.

The Palace Flophouse is very light: it has a big window. This means it warms up quick from the sun, and there is good light to work by. Once the sun goes down, lighting is from nightlights in jam jars - not candles, which are more hazardous. And the jam jars will stand on the counter, not be suspended from the ceiling. The heat above a candle is significant; and it is not my wish that the Palace Flophouse should burn to the ground!

For work and keeping in touch with the tribe, I need a phone and computer. I have a very basic pay-as-you go Nokia phone, and a little Samsung notebook with a battery capacity of about 4.5 hours, on a mobile internet connection that costs me £30 a month and gives me up to about 19 hours a day connection for the sort of things I want to do (ie just researching online and emailing etc - no big downloads). So I can charge these up in the main house at night. I'd love one day to have a solar panel, just for charging up the notebook and phone: I don't need electricity for anything else. I have a digital camera too.

The Flophouse will be really cold in the winter - but then, so is the house. In fact the house is probably even colder, because it doesn't warm up quick with the sun like the Flophouse does. If it's mega-cold charcoal in the Whitstable bucket, lit outside until it stops smoking, then brought in should warm things up. Apart from that I figured that if I insulate myself - warm clothes, hat, fingerless gloves, duvet, sheepskins, hot water bottle - then it won't matter if it's cold, so long as it's dry; which the Flophouse is.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Stepping Off 2

So those were the readings and thinkings that directed me to where I am now. There have been other influences too – principally the big life and family traumas that raged around like bad weather for a decade and are starting to die away now. The thunder of those storms has died away to a distant rumble now, and the rains are relatively half-hearted; but I live with the after-math: a weariness and wariness that need solitude and space.

But the family troubles are not the essential motivating factor; they just increase the pressure of an imperative already present: the yearning for simplicity.

I am aware that there are people who uproot from family ties, leaving behind their spouse and going into the wilderness. I feel such a strong imperative to move further up the mountain; and along with that, a sense of things slipping through my fingers – that I no longer have a grip on the comings and goings and doings of human society. I have lost the will to please and compete, to cope with confrontation and negotiation. My desire is to live and let live, and to build a vision of peace: peace in oneself, peace in the world. To sow the seeds of peace and kindness and wisdom that will nourish and protect the earth and the creatures of earth. But I still have responsibilities: I am a wife, a daughter, a mother, a grandmother, a sister – and those silver threads join to my soul and are not meant to be cut.

In the Hindu system of religious philosophy, there are 4 stages of life:
1) Brahmacharya ashrama: the years when a child is at school, developing, learning and preparing to take responsibility and make a contribution (approximately). A time for study and preparation of the soul/self.
2) Grhastha ashrama: the householder. A time for consolidating material security and prosperity. A time of familial and community responsibility. This period of life is associated traditionally with marriage and raising a family.
3) Vanaprastha ashrama: the forest-dweller or hermit, living in semi-retirement at the edge of the family estate; separate from the family, but available to support and advise as the younger generation, now adult, take on the responsibilities of the Householder. The days are spent thinking, learning, reading, meditating, praying. This period of life is characterised by simplicity and withdrawal from worldliness.
4) Sannyasa ashrama: when life in the world and family ties are renounced for the purpose of attaining enlightenment. Sannyasis take vows of renunciation, and leave everything behind them.

I think I have come to the third stage. I am not ready to forsake my family; but I am no longer of use as a Householder – literally, the person who holds the house; holds it together, has a hand on all the business, notices, plans, remembers, keeps the peace, offers the solutions. I hope I gave my best to doing that, in its time: but it has left me now.

As long as I live I would like my presence in the world to be a source of encouragement, healing, hope and peace to the ones God gave me to care for in this world. But I am no longer capable of managing anything.

So I have made my nest in a potting shed under a plum tree in the garden of the house Badger and I bought in Aylesbury. I am happy to come into the house and clean, and to sleep at night with my dear Badger; but for myself the house is too solid and central now. My potting shed is called the Palace Flophouse (after John Steinbeck and Cannery Row). It is where I write and think and read and pray and spend my days, when I am not with the tribe down by the edge of the sea, in Hastings.

Namaste to my sister, my nephews, my aged mother and father, my daughters, my husband, my grandchild. Namaste; peace be with them, joy be their portion, contentment to their souls. There is a kind of regret that I could not keep the Householder thing going a little longer – to make a practical and financial contribution, to be a real support to them. But the forest time, the third age, has come.

There is also a Hindu word vyragya, that is about becoming dispassionate - drying up, really - and I feel that relates to this disturbing sense I have of not loving. As though the self, the connectedness and involvement of the self is atrophying. It occurs the me that this may be an opportunity to become a quiet, dry channel along which the compassionate love of God may flow; loving-kindness. I hope that may be so.

In general terms, because life (even my life!) is not simply about me, there is an ecological dimension to this. The house in Aylesbury where Badger and I are based, is home not only to us but to our two lodgers. The four of us therefore live individual but interwoven lives.

I was interested to read on the Resources for Life website, about the Mobile Hermitage (a version of Tumbleweed I think), this paragraph:
Despite its name, the Mobile Hermitage is designed to be part of a community of tiny houses. Interdependent freestanding small houses are very economical to build and maintain. By sharing common resources such as laundry, lavatory facilities, bath house, large kitchen, and activity center, a greater sense of community is established, and significant savings can be achieved.
Aside of my own navel-gazing, such a concept is central in my own my vision of simplicity: to share more, annex less, and decrease the demands one makes of the earth's resources; spend less money, increase freedom and flexibility - creating an opportunity for Stepping Off.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Stepping Off. 1

This is to be the first in a short series of posts. I feel that I am at a kind of crossroads on a hill, able to look back along the road I have travelled, and also see down across the valley where the road I could take is visible in the distance. There are options.

Aside of the metaphor of possibilities and history seen as roads, there are also matters that I don’t understand, and blocks I come up against repeatedly. How to find the way round the blocks like water; no fight, no blame?

Today, I want to look back at some of the milestones along the road have travelled, and come up to this present crossroads place. Tomorrow to look at where I am now. The next day to consider what may lie ahead.

Writing a blog post on the world wide web is different of course from talking to a trusted friend or thinking things through alone. Sometimes people do post indiscreetly about their private relationships and histories: I shan’t do that, but it means that what I write here will be seriously incomplete, since private and personal experiences have contributed to heavily in forming the person I now am. But, hey.

It began in earnest when I was fifteen. Already I loved deeply the Earth, the creatures and the green and growing things, the soul of tree and hill and stone and sky and water and fire. Then, after giving my heart to the Lord Jesus, I encountered St Francis of Assisi, and his vision of holy poverty, complete simplicity and humility.

Then and now his asceticism does not resonate with my soul, but his humility and simplicity do, and his love for the earth and acknowledgement of the ensoulment of creation.

After St Francis and the Fioretti, the book about his life and early followers, a year or two later I read Herman Hesse’s book Siddhartha, and saw the film that was made from the book. This expanded and deepened my vision and understanding of how simplicity could be lived. At the same time I read Sister Felicity's book Barefoot Journey. When I was eighteen, I discovered the Tao, and also a book called Unsui, about the life of Zen monks.

I have been challenged and taught by other lives and stories – Juliette de Bairacli Levy’s Wanderers in the New Forest, Julia Butterfly Hill and The Legacy of Luna, Catherine de Hueck Doherty’s Poustinia; and some community expressions of simplicity – monastic communities, Stephen and Ina May Gaskin’s Caravan, and the Anabaptist world – Amish, Hutterite, Mennonite; and the primitive Quakers.

What came together in me was a definite and quite fierce small flame of longing burning for a barefoot life: simplicity, humility, quietness, frugality.

It crystallised in my imagination into a sense of living in a hut two-thirds of the way up a mountain. I think this image drew on my memory of an afternoon spent with a woman hermit in the woods above Ampleforth, and also was fed by the goat woman in the film of Cold Mountain.

I had been thinking that what I wanted was a life that would fit easy into a twelve-foot caravan, the space defining the limits of my possessions.

But I’ve also had a sense of wanting to step off – ‘step off’ what?

I want to step off the ground: to live in a dwelling that has no roots or foundations. A hut just placed on the ground, or a houseboat or a shepherd’s hut. And right up close to a mature tree. With no electrical cables or mains drainage or gas pipes or any other veins and arteries opening connections.

There I want to be able to think and contemplate: to feel along the silver threads that join things and people until I feel my way to truth.

I want my hut to be in nature: so that the birds and frogs, the insects and hedgehogs, the foxes and grass and clouds and rain and sun are my living room.

I want to walk lightly on the earth: not to wound or deplete or poison the earth. I want to be the earth’s faithful child; nurturing the earth as the earth has nurtured me. I want to be the earth’s friend.

I want to live less and less in the world of money, and sever the links with consumerism completely. To work with my hands and to work with my skills and use my wits to earn a living feel right.

Self-sufficiency is not my aim. I feel that things go better when we work together and we share: links of craft and trade are honourable – but I would prefer the links to be small and immediate: honey from the bee-man, bread from the baker, fruit from the garden and the hedgerow, candles from Peter Neumann, cutlery from Tod, socks that Alice has knitted. This is growing. It isn’t there yet. But the longing is present and intensifying.

Like a hunger and thirst, I want simplicity – to live with very few possessions; to walk humbly; to live unobtrusively, a hidden hedgerow life. Also in my relationships: honesty, integrity, freedom, respect, peace and kindness; no contention, no possessiveness, no domination.

I think I should also strive to want to love: because love is the mark of Christ’s disciple, and is the best way of all. But in my life now, after the many personal traumas of the last decade, love does not come easily. I try to ask nothing of others, and to meet them with the Namaste of my soul: reverencing and respecting the truth and light of their living being. I am hoping that may be a step on the way to love.

A rose from Alice's and Hebe's garden

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Fountainhead

Wandered across to Quaker Jane's website this morning to see if there was anything new since last I was there - and there was!

I loved the photos of Tabitha in her new black bonnet and dress.

And I loved the section headed 'Love, the Heart of the Quaking Testimony', from which - this quotation:
What creates Simplicity in a life is that Christ will show us what we are to do in this life, and what we may freely avoid. Very simplifying. We can bring our large brains to the "problem" of simplicity, or we can open our hearts to what Christ would simply have us do.