Friday, 1 March 2013

Aggregating marginal gains

 I came across this wonderful phrase.  It was on a TV programme, I think.  As my memory’s elastic is a bit shot these days, I applied all my focus to remembering the actual phrase and didn’t leave anything over for recalling who said it and when and where.  Possibly a BBC breakfast TV interviewee.  But – whoever you were: thank you!

The phrase was aggregate our marginal gains.

I found this valuable because it applies tellingly to a life of simplicity.

If one walks the badger tracks rather than the highway, the whole lot is marginal – all gains are marginal!  Income is low, status is minimal or non-existent, one has no platform, nothing with which to impress, no strings to pull.

But the aggregation of one’s gains here in the margins amounts to a life of contentment.

For me, ‘going out’ means literally leaving the house – maybe to take a parcel to the Post Office or buy some vegetables.  My life is not quite as small and confined as Emily Dickinson’s but it ain’t far off.

Even so, my contacts are not limited or impoverished, because one of my marginal gains is a laptop and the world wide web. 

I often hear online friendships referred to in a derogatory  way, as if they were not real, a mere substitute for honest encounter – but this is a faulty evaluation.

I have friends online – in Australia, in America, in Europe – whose fellowship and perspectives enrich and illuminate my life.  Some, I have never met.  As we all share a common dedication to lives of simplicity, we are most of us not rich, so it is possible I never shall meet them; air fares are expensive.  Some, I have met in person but we live a great distance apart and nourish our friendship online.  And then there are those with whom I’ve found a way to meet up – snatched an opportunity.  One such was my friend Mary, met online, who teaches at the Daniel Academy and is part of Kansas City’s 24/7 prayer meeting.  She came to England when her daughter (as a component of degree studies) enrolled for a term at Oxford University.  So Mary flew in from Kansas for a few days, and I travelled up to Aylesbury with the Badger and thence to Oxford when he went in to work.  Mary and her daughters and I had morning coffee, complete with a plate of the most delectable pastries, in the splendid surroundings of the Randolph Hotel just opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum in Oxford.  It was such a happy meeting, and even if we never again have the chance to meet neither of us will forget.

I’ve delighted in meeting a few times with friends discovered on St Pixels online church, of which I was a member when I lived in Aylesbury.  Some of those friendships have been enduring treasures – and one is with my friend Emle (her online name, nit her real name), who lives in a very remote and beautiful part of Scotland.  BUT – it turns out she sometimes comes to visit family in York, and not a year can go by without my travelling up to York once or twice, just for  a couple of nights, for Minster evensong and tea at Bettys, and to visit Carmelite friends at Thorganby.

So here Emle and I aggregated our marginal gains at Little Betty’s in Stone gate.

Can you believe it, just for two days (the length of our stay), the grey drear broke, the sun shone and the skies were blue over North Yorkshire!

And here’s a Minster angel, newly washed and polished in the ambitious restoration of the huge (23m or 76ft) east window, saying ‘Hi’ to you online, all the way from York in the fifteenth century!

And here’s the Minster watching over the city, watching Hebe and me setting off along the city walls to the train station.

A commitment to living simply implies a lifetime of marginal gains.  But the aggregation is splendid.


Sandra Ann said...

Bettys Tea Rooms, what a treat!


beth said...

I, too, have dear online friends that I hope to meet in person someday. It's simply not true that those online relationships are necessarily shallow. I so value the support, encouragement, conversations in writing, and prayers of my "not yet face to face" friends. What a sweet thing it must be to meet someone you've only corresponded with over tea! I look forward to that!

Pen Wilcock said...

One of the world's oases, San! x

Beth - yes indeed - and the great thing is there's none of the awkwardness of getting to know each other, because we already know each other so well :0)

Pilgrim said...

I very briefly met only two online friends face to face, but it was enough to know they're real.

I love seeing those old buildings so tied to Christian history. Beautiful.
I just finished _I Capture the Castle_, which is kind of a love story to a couple old towers.
I would love to see those things, but it's good to hear about them secondhad.

Pen Wilcock said...


kat said...

I'm missing York already, thank you for giving me a little snippet of it's loveliness!! Must find a reason to go up there again now that Jen is home .... must also find time to meet a dear friend in Waterfalls again - can't think who that would be now ;-)

Julie B. said...

A lovely, heartwarming post, Ember. The view of the Minster gave me chills! :)

I echo what Beth said above - I'm so grateful for the very real friendships I have with people I've met online. The icing on the cake would be to be able to meet them face to face, even just once. :)

God bless your weekend Ember... xxoo

Paula said...

I look forward to meeting you some time, although I have never been outside of the United States! I, too, have met an online friend--Quaker Jane. It was lovely.

Rebecca said...

Aggregate. Marginal. Gains. For some reason, my wandering mind can't put the three together and make any sense out of them. I DO understand the phrase living simply and embrace it at a personal level (without trying to compare my simplicity with that of others....)

...and I SO agree that online friendships are real and honest encounters.

I especially appreciate the thought-provoking exchanges that take place as a result of your posts.

Pen Wilcock said...

Kat - Waterfalls will do as our local Bettys for now. Have had a busy spell but am now into quieter waters - writing like fury but time for a cuppa. What days/times are you free?

Julie - when you come to stay, we MUST spend some time in York. x

Paula - I would love to meet Ibbie - but would also be scared to; she is one formidable lady! Walks in the Light and in the Truth, and my soul has something shifting shadows to it that never knows what it means. I would dearly love to know her, but would feel safer observing from a distance!

Rebecca - it's complicated words for a simple accounting concept really - that in a system of gains and losses, if you take account of and heap together all the minor gains you might be tempted to ignore, they amount to quite a lot and don't look as minor as they seemed at first.

Pen Wilcock said...

Ooh - Kat - sometimes you can get a £19 room in the Central Micklegate Travelodge. I always stay there and always book at a bargain rate. This last time I got a £29 room (me and Hebe sharing, booked per room with no extra for two people) and a £70 return rail fare (advance booking)each. The Travelodge is less than 10 mins walk from the station. Or if you go by car there's a multi-story car park in the adjacent street.

Unknown said...

My strongest prayer partners are on~line friends. Some I have *known* for years & we Skype occasionally as a special treat. I always say, whether one means to or not, that writing exposes the soul & you get a true sense of who a person is. It is very hard for most people to lie when they write. That honesty allows for a depth of intimacy it can be hard to find any where else. Random thoughts as I do battle with Blogger again. I'm not nerdy enough for this! ☺

Pen Wilcock said...

"It is very hard for most people to lie when they write"

Such an interesting observation!

In similar wise, you get a very clear idea of someone's soul when they sing.


Ted Marshall said...

I, too, love this phrase marginal gains - thank you for remembering it. I've just linked to this post on my blog because it is so good at looking at the real things in life as opposed to the "stuff" we collect.
I've met and holidayed/weekended with in real life three people I've first encountered online, and I know that there are many places I could stay around the world because of online connections.
After all, in pre-computer days, strangers would conduct long correspondences by letter and become close in a very particular way: I'm thinking of authors and readers of their work.

Pen Wilcock said...

Absolutely, Tess - and, like you, I feel confident that if I were travelling, the kind of friends I've met on line would welcome me without hesitation.
One of the lovely things about old-fashioned letters is having a person's handwriting to see and hold; one of the lovely things about online connections is all the photos, that give such a strong sense of the other person's life. I always feel a bit embarrassed about all the pics I post of myself - it seems a bit narcissistic - except that I know how I love it when my friends post pics of themselves on their blogs - I never get tired of seeing them, studying them closely!

Nearly Martha said...

How interesting. I am sometimes shy of people I meet online, thinking that they have much more interesting lives than me but I have had some great conversations and learnt a lot so you may be right.
My son is studying archaeology at York Uni. A few weeks ago he had the privilege of a tour around the Minster with his professor. He said that it was fascinating.

Pen Wilcock said...


York Minster is one of my favourite places in the whole world. Standing in the crossing there is something special - I can feel the space expanding until the space inside is bigger than all the space outside. x