Friday, 22 January 2016

Sources of strength

Watching the moon sail bright across the heaven through the Badger’s skylight windows as I was falling asleep, I thought about sources of strength in making good choices.

People of faith, schooled perhaps in the-answer-is-always-Jesus thinking, are often quick to say “God. God is my strength.” Like Harry Potter’s friend Hermione, swift to supply the right answer.

God is our strength of course – and in some difficult passes, our only strength. We live in Spirit and the Spirit lives in us; otherwise we wouldn’t be alive at all. We would be mere lumps of matter, except that even matter is God-breathed. There is no getting away from the Spirit of God. So God is our strength, naturally; both by grace and by the simple fact of our existing at all.

Even so, the very word “disciple” implies that we live under discipline, not merely scudding along surfing on a cloud of inspiration. We have to do it as well as be it. Discipline requires constant exercise of choice, turning away from the territories we are passing through in order to keep to the path that is ours. This implies effort and effort requires strength; so I thought about our sources of strength.

What brought this to mind is the surprising difficulty I find in choosing every day some things I believe to be good. Not so much lofty things like prayer, I mean (though that, too), but more mundane matters – the food I eat, where I draw water, earth closeting, minimalism, abstaining from activities that hurt the Earth, walking every day. That sort of thing.

In the perpetual experiment and course of study my life has been, I have certainly discovered what is good, both by enquiry and practice. I know perfectly well why it is better for me and better for the Earth to drink water from the local spring, wash up in rainwater, eat what is simple and natural and stay away from the refined carbs and sugars and processed meat – all that kind of thing. I know why it’s better to light a fire or wrap up warm and have a hot water bottle by me than turn on the central heating. I need no further information on the subject.

As to matters of diet, the reasons why I should eat what I know is good are played out with boring repetition when I make poor choices (I do like cake) and end up liverish and shot with pains.
So I asked myself, if I know all this, why is it a hard discipline to keep making the good choices? And what are my sources of strength in making those choices?

The information itself is one source of strength; understanding the point of drinking living water and making off-grid choices is a good motivator when it comes to the slog of carrying the big bottles.

But information alone fails under the pressure of tempting alternative possibilities. Expedience, busyness, convenience – these can overwhelm information even when they should not.

The three principle sources of strength I identified are habit, context and community.

Habit is a strong motivator. When I am rushed or harassed, habit becomes the easy choice – the thing that wins through. The point about habit is that you no longer have to think; it’s the path you could walk in your sleep. So when I’m distracted from the weaving of a beautiful fabric of daily routine, by news or obligations or just the presence of other people, it tends to be habit I fall back on. The more I make the good choices, the more likely I am to go on making them. They seem easier as the habit strengthens. They become just what you always do.

Context is also a strong motivator. I should explain what I mean by that. For example, if you are trying to build a dietary discipline that protects you against diabetes, obesity and fibromyalgia, you will do well not to attend cream teas and stay out of the baked goods aisle in the supermarket. If you pick your snack in an orchard and shop in the fruit and vegetable section, you’ll establish the right path for health. What applies to food choices is also true of other choices – surrounding yourself with, or immersing yourself in, the environment that enhances the likelihood of making the right choice is obviously a source of strength. If, for example, you have resolved to stop driving cars and travel only by public transport, you are more likely to keep your resolution if you make your home in the city than if you choose to live up a steep hill five miles from the nearest store and you have a family to feed.

Community is a strong motivator too. It’s easier to sit down to a plate of steamed vegetables if you aren’t with somebody eating a cream doughnut. It’s easier if three of us lug the bottles of water home from the spring and we are all walking along together chatting. And it’s a great deal easier to practice minimalism if the people you live with choose to do the same. You can’t even see your minimalism if they don’t.

It occurred to me that habit, context and community are pillars of the monastic life, which maybe explains its strength and success for helping people who want to make good choices.

I haven’t got anything more to say about this, so I’ll stop here.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Here is love, vast as the ocean - Robin Mark

Mince pies, sand and bobeches

So it turns out that mince pies and bobeches inter-are.

Do you have mince pies in America, in Australia? They are very important here in Great Britain. You cannot truly have Christmas in any gastronomic sense without mince pies.

In case you don’t have them, I should explain they are small pies of a size to hold in your hand and eat in a few bites. They are made with shortcrust pastry – er … the crumbly sort where you rub the fat into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, then add cold water, knead, roll out. The filling, enclosed with a lid, is a spicy dried fruit mixture of about the texture of jam (US ‘jelly’), includes suet (whether vegetable or animal).

If you make them at home, they go in the regular bun tin (the baking tray with a dozen cup-shaped depressions to cook individual cakes or pastries. But if you buy them in the shop, as we usually do, they usually come cooked in little foil trays. We don’t throw these out, our Hebe saves them up because they are handy for the paint she uses for the calligraphy on coffin plates.

The main candle that illuminates my room is on a wall sconce, and the drip tray is not large. As my computer often sits beneath it, there is a risk of sticky beeswax dripping onto the keypad, which would be an unhappy occurrence. So I thought I should acquire a bigger bobeche to add to the drip tray it already has.

I looked at some on eBay, but they tend to be expensive and come in sets. Then I thought – oh, wait on! What about screwing the candle cup through one of the little foil trays we kept back after Christmas? That would work perfectly! And so it does. 

You don't need brass polish to clean the sconce, either. The sandpit is a very practical alternative.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Ordinary miracle of every day

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
                                   ~ Ernest Dowson, from Vitae Summa Brevis

At chapel on Sunday we had the reading with the wedding at Cana-in-Galilee – the one where Jesus changes the water into wine.

I thought about what the ruler of the feast said to the bridegroom when he tasted the Jesus wine: Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now (John 2.10).

It brought to mind days long gone when I spent most of my time in hospice, travelling along with people in the very last bit of their lives.

I lost count of the number of people – this became commonplace – who told me these had been the best, the finest and most precious weeks of their lives. A treasure-store, really, discovering the riches of love and being loved, of honesty and kindness, often of forgiveness and reconciliation. Laying down of earthly burdens, turning away from the complications and machinations of what passes for life as usual, to a bright simplicity before the open door to heaven, its borrowed light.

Over and over again, rulers of the feast of life God had set before them, they expressed their surprise: Thou hast kept the good wine until now.

Could we, I wonder, start now? Appreciate that in this living moment, these are the roses, this is the wine, God’s good gift. Or at least drink the water, and wait for the miracle to begin.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Poco a poco

First thing this morning. Last night's well-fed fox, leaving calling cards of greater abundance than usual liberally distributed about the (grooved wood) deck of Komorebi. Sigh. Some forms of gratitude, however well-meant, candidly one can do without. But I’m glad he liked his supper.

On reflection, I thought what I said in that last post (about Rising Early) sounded a little demanding. Stealth simplicity, slinking along in the margins, asking nothing, using nothing, abstaining from all gas and electricity and plumbing.

But how will I charge my computer, I imagine you wondering; I won’t be able to use my curling tongs. Or straighteners, I suppose it is now, isn’t it? Life like a game of Simon Says, changing direction.

What I should have added in, is that one doesn’t need to be 100% about this. Father Tom, in his simple, computerless, phoneless wooden house, still had showers and electric lights. Though he travelled on a bike and blended his soup through a mouli-grater.

As Alfieri so well puts it in A View From The Bridge: “Most of the time now we settle for half and I like it better.

Being something of a hundred-per-cent-er myself, I have not found this art – or is it a skill? – easy to learn. All or nothing, me. By turns.

But with application and patience I am managing to incorporate into my practice the wisdom expressed by Jim Harrison: “The reason to moderate is to avoid having to quit.” 

So, yes, we go to the spring for our drinking water, and we collect rainwater in massive barrels for our plants to drink in summer. Sometimes – not always – I lug rainwater up to the bathroom to add to the hot water and make my bath the right temperature. We line dry our laundry; but we wash it in a machine that runs on electricity. We have solar panels for both hot water and electricity, but we do use the gas boiler to (liberally) augment the work of the sun. We export electricity to the National Grid – but we use electricity from it, too. Some of us earth closet some of the time, but not always. We burn scrap wood and timber from old, diseased trees, and gather our kindling from what the old trees chuck down to us; but we put on the central heating if it’s really cold. We turn it off at night though; all of us have hot water bottles.

We make some of our clothes and pots and furniture, and we buy some too. Some of what we buy is the work of local crafters, some is mass-produced, affordable. Our food comes from beautifully run organic farms and wholefood co-ops; also from the supermarket. We moderate, to avoid having to quit. We settle for half because it makes life possible. Little by little. As the Peruvian proverb says, Poco a poco se anda lejos” (little by little you can go a long way).

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Plum Village Song - No wait

For a while I lost this song – it vanished from the internet entirely. I am so happy to find it back.

It’s by Sister The Nghiem of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village community. I believe (this may be wrong) it was inspired by a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, which I think is just the bit incorporated in the middle:
Don't wait for anyone for your peace of mind.
Know your rhythm and bide your time.
You are a living miracle in constant change.
And when you see this clearly, nothing will contain you.

But here are the words in total:

No wait for me to change your life
Look to the miracle going on inside you.
You are the farmer, you are your field,
Tend to your land and grow your freedom.

In each a flower unfurling, a flower unfurling.

No wait for anything, take to the sky,
You are a phoenix rising, you are a monarch butterfly.
Survey your kingdom with awakened eyes,
See the spring and summer in the winter moonlight.

In each a river is flowing, a river is flowing.

Don't wait for anyone for your peace of mind.
Know your rhythm and bide your time.
You are a living miracle in constant change.
And when you see this clearly, nothing will contain you…

In each a mystery unfolding, a mystery unfolding.
In each a wonder to behold.
In everyone there's a flower, a mystery, a wonder,
In each a story being told.
In each a river is flowing, 
In each a river is flowing ...

I think it may be the most beautiful song I know.