Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Almost good and the imperative of confession

I decided to type this in the 'large' option of font, because I've been finding the last few posts a bit fiddling and small to read  so I thought maybe you have too. It might just be my elderly eyesight. It might be that you have the sense to enlarge the page view. Whatever — I thought I'd go a bit bigger. If it feels as though I'm shouting at you, let me know and I'll subside again for the next post.

In my lived-faith-practice, I notice the Spirit often speaks into my heart by emerging themes. Generally what happens is I notice something seriously objectionable in what somebody else is doing. Then I notice that by a curious coincidence another person in my circle of acquaintance is doing the exact same type of offending behaviour. 

Of course, in another life than my own, 'behaviour' is exactly what it is; external manifestation — the part of the iceberg that's sticking up above the surface of the ocean. I make a judgement on what they do with very little idea of what's underneath, what the behaviour is emerging from in terms of stuff they're living through, dealing with, what is triggering all this obnoxiousness, why it is they can't contain it and it has to overflow into evident ordure that reaches my nose.

Then I take it into my prayer, bringing it to Jesus and inviting the cleansing and blessing of his shalom into the person exhibiting the problem.

Without fail, before I even get the garbage I'm dragging halfway to the throne of grace, once I get within earshot the Lord says to me, "Oh yeah? And what about you?" 

And at that point I have to stop ignoring the precise same behaviour showing up in my own life, look at where and what it's coming from, voluntarily open it up for him to look at and clean out, invite his healing and shalom and almighty bleach spray and fresh air into my own dark and mildewed corners — what we call 'confession'.

And the thing that keeps showing up in my life right now at the present time in a phenomenon I call 'almost good'.

When I was a child my father spent much of his life overseas developing the export market for Eveready Batteries, and when he came home from his trips around the world he'd bring gifts and souvenirs, including vinyl discs of music currently trending in Europe, Japan, Africa or wherever he'd recently been. Singles. The Chipmunk Song caught his fancy, and on the flip side of it was David Seville's Almost Good. So this song was part of my childhood. I liked it, but particularly I was intrigued by the concept it presented — that alongside 'good' and 'bad' there was another possible category of 'almost good'. The notion stuck. 

In recent times I've been brought up again and again — in other people's lives —against the evident reality that mediocrity doesn't know itself. People who feel inadequate, aren't doing a good job, are letting things slide and allowing something good and worthwhile to dissolve and crumble on their watch. It's not that they don't mean well, it's not that they are refusing the task, it's not that they aren't standing in the gap. It's more that they are making an almighty effing mess of it, by procrastination, by half measures, by falling down on the job, by being neither conscientious nor meticulous in carrying out what their responsibilities require of them. 

Most destructive of all, is that they cannot afford to look at this and acknowledge it for the single and simple reason that to do so would damage their fragile self-image which low self esteem already renders crumbly. They look at people doing a good job and don't see the difference. Presented with the evidence that they are making  a pig's ear of their responsibilities they a) lie about it and b) blame someone else and c) talk big and lofty about their rôle in it in such a way as to make someone else look bad. That faux-concern for someone else's 'weaknesses'; those dark hints about Problems that they are Dealing With (caused by someone else that they are having to mop up) that Explain Everything. Yeah, right. Mediocrity doesn't — can't afford to — recognise itself. Because steeping in the shame that acknowledgement brings is so very extremely painful. That's why. 

So as usual as I drag this lot the the Throne of Grace I tune in to the usual, "Oh, yes? Thanks. What about you?" And I recognise I have to deal with similar issues.

I see the places where in my relationships I adroitly project and displace blame for my own inability to handle interactions. I see the times where I present a butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my mouth account of situations I'm part of that would all be going so amazingly well if it wasn't for Someone Else. I see the ways I conveniently downplay my contribution to a failing situation and inflate outrage over what They Did To Me. In my work, I detect the grandiosity about my own achievement and its corresponding shadow of disappointment in my failure to get all the way there, to be and to do the best I am capable of, to prepare sufficiently and carry out the task with compassion and grace and imagination.

But the thing is — never fails to intrigue me — in this examination of conscience and exposure under the steady Christlight of the Spirit, there is no increase of wretchedness and shame or guilt; only liberation and even excitement at new insight, refocusing on constructive ways forward, peace and healing. 

This is the primary way you can tell the difference between the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the accusation of the brethren that comes from the corrupt source. The Spirit's convicting doesn't make you feel bad and it doesn't make things worse. It brings compassion and understanding, toward other people and also toward oneself; it deals with the accumulation of festering detritus in the dark corners; it improves everything.

That's why confession is imperative. Blaming other people never helps. "Let your light shine", Jesus said. If I clean up my own act so the light in me is no longer dusty and swamped, light can enter the picture — and that light alters the picture; it introduces the change I want to see. That's what Gandhi-ji said, isn't it? "Be the change you want to see in the world." That's the badger.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Voices of dominance and submission

Things come and go in one's life, don't they? It's that way with me, at least. My awareness intensifies and then fades. It reminds me of sheep in the fog, where you know they're there but don't really see them, until suddenly one emerges and is right in front of you — they were there all along, but you see them now. Though sometimes you hear one cough.

So it is with elements of interpersonal relationship, or the spiritual patterns and dynamics underlying life — they are there but buried until your attention is attracted by something at the very edge of your field of perception — something coughs — and you turn and it stands forth and you see.

Spiritual path involves a lifelong process of clearing and simplifying, lifting out reality from all that buries and obscures it, allowing what is real to emerge and truth to appear. This develops peace, even at the same time as it usually provokes resistance and opposition. When you make truth appear, things start snarling and upheaving. Still you press on.

Back in the day, my first washing machine was a twin-tub (yours too?). How they worked was by twin compartments, one being a spin-dryer, the other a large tank for washing. The washtub had flattish rotary vanes built into one wall to agitate the water. You put in the water with a hose provided — either your own hot water from the get-go or else it had its own incorporated heater, which took awhile. You chucked in the soap as it filled. It drained off into your sink using the same hose, I think — I can't clearly remember now.  Must have done.

Anyway, there you were with a big tub of soapy water with your washing in, and at some point you turned on the rotary vanes and the whole lot started churning round and round. Then came the phenomenon I call "socks in the washing". Sometimes there'd be a thing you inadvertently put in that should not be there — a non-dye-fast garment rapidly turning everything blue/purple/pink, or a pair of cashmere socks that should have been handwashed. As the washing churned around, if you were watchful you could spot the item you wanted to remove and snatch it out as it went by.

And again, this is the same with interpersonal dynamics, the things that catch your attention as life churns around. Every now and then something comes to the fore and you get the chance to pluck it out of the mix — if you don't it submerges again, but it continues to work its alchemy, staining your whole life airforce blue. If you see what I mean.

And something I'm becoming aware of, as I watch the sheep loom in and out of the fog and the socks emerge and disappear in the churning washing of my life, is (or should that be are?) the voices of dominance and submission.

I notice the ones who like to say "No!" in a strident tone (just as an integral part of their regular conversation), the ones whose transactions are bully-or-be-bullied, the ones who put you down once they gain confidence, the ones who shut you down or shut you out, who scold you and humiliate you, who get you where they want you, who turn away in scorn from you, the ones who understand conversation as thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Or proposal-antagonism-struggle-loss/victory. I notice the authoritarian note in the voice and the corresponding meekness of uncertainty, in the same person.

In myself, I notice the desire to say, "I started it / lead it / thought of it / said it first."

I don't like it in myself, the harsh voice of dominance, laying down the way-it-is, sounding impatient. I don't like it when I catch in others the meekness of submission, when someone rolls over and shows you their jugular vein as a plea for mercy because they think you're winning, because your knowledge/skill/power is superior. 

There's something jangly in these interactions, commonplace as they are. Seeing them offers the chance to subtract some socks from the washing.

And then, also: "I'd go a little further up the mountain, if I were you," advises the inner sage. "Say less, be a little less mixed in. Watch more. Volunteer your opinion less. Walk the quiet tracks."

"The ancient masters were subtle, mysterious, profound, responsive.
The depth of their knowledge is unfathomable,
all we can do is describe their appearance.
Watchful, like men crossing a winter stream.
Alert, like men aware of danger.
Courteous, like visiting guests.
Yielding, like ice about to melt.
Simple, like uncarved blocks of wood.
Hollow, like caves.
Opaque, like muddy pools.

Who can wait quietly while the mud settles?
Who can remain still until the moment of action?
Observers of the Tao do not seek fulfilment.
Not seeking fulfilment, they are not swayed by desire for change."

(Tao Te Ching Ch 15, tr. Gia-fu Feng and Jane English) 

Monday, 11 December 2017

Winter's day


We have it.

Some of us are hiding from it.


We are ready for it.


We have a fire in it.

All is calm, all is bright — here. God help and succour the refugees sheltering in the Calais woods, the lives scourged by war, the increasing numbers of homeless poor driven into destitution by bad political governance. 

Now, Lord, send them some summer, some manner of joy,
Heaven after hence-going, that here have such default!
And have pity on the rich that relieve no prisoners
From the good things you hast given, the ungrateful many;
But, God, in thy goodness, give them grace to amend.
But poor people, thy prisoners, Lord, in the pit of mischief,
Comfort those creatures that suffer many cares,
Through dearth or drought, all their days here,
Woe in winter-time, for want of clothing,
And in summer-time, seldom a full supper.
Comfort thy care-stricken, Christ, in thy kingdom.

(from Piers Plowman)

Saturday, 9 December 2017


Dawn French has made a really groovy diary — it’s for your appointments, your aspirations, your innermost thoughts; and it has her wise observations on life intermingled, plus delightful illustrations of the quick-charcoal-sketch variety.

It would make a great present. I looked at it a long time online, enjoying it. But I’m not going to buy a copy for myself, and here’s why.

I’ve started journals a couple of times and never get very far with them, because I don’t find myself all that riveting, and I don’t harbour stuff that needs dealing with. One of the exercises Dawn invites readers to do, is write a letter on a specially provided tear-off page. This would be a letter you’ve always meant to send but never actually written, something important. Once written, you file it in a flap on the inside back cover, to give yourself time to consider well before sending.

I rarely write letters, and hardly ever write one of the Important sort. But if I need to, if the time seems right, I just do it. I did exactly that recently, trying my best to express myself kindly and humbly while at the same time bringing an end to a relationship gone sour.

Another exercise is to stick in a head and shoulders photo of yourself, then write below it what you see, and what you feel about that person.

I do sometimes keep a photo of myself in case it’s needed for the bio accompanying an article or something, or to show the hairdresser how I had my hair before when I go back for a trim — but I don’t really know what I think about me, how I come across, or what sort of person I am. I prefer myself lived in than looked at. 

And then, there’s the business of innermost thoughts. A friend once invited me to read their journal, and I was surprised by how boring it was, that person being in real life interesting and good company. Kind of lame. I’d rather not leave that sort of record behind.

Some journals are fascinating, of course — take Thomas Merton's, for example. But wise and inspiring though he certainly was, I still think he'd have done better to refrain from committing to paper his thoughts and feelings about his abbot James Fox, with whom he had such a troubled relationship. Merton being so loveable and so spiritually brave, readers naturally incline to sympathise with his perspective; but I can't help seeing that Fox had a point — yes, he surely did. 

As a teenager I did for a couple of years keep a diary, meticulously and in depth. All written in my left hand (I am very right-handed) and in the lettering style of a young child. The journal of a soul. Perhaps peculiar, but these outpourings meant a great deal to me, and a friend who was doing the same used to read my entries avidly, as I did hers. However I knew I had gone a little too far one Sunday evening when I allowed another friend to read an entry. In typical teenage fashion I asked, “Does that seem odd to you?
The reply — “I don't think it's odd that you wrote it, but I think it's odd that you're letting me read it” — struck home, and summed up exactly the problem I now have with diaries. I just don't want to be that exposed.

As a young child — five? six? — in a moment of fury I wrote in large, emphatic letters on a scrap of paper, “I hate *****” (my sister).
In 2010, the best part of fifty years after I wrote that, my father died. I have a preference for following the old gypsy tradition and burning the vardo with all its treasures and secrets still inside; I’d have called House Clearance and asked them to take what they wanted and dump the rest. My sister is not of the same mind, preferring to sort everything meticulously and conscientiously  — it is for her, I think, an expression of respect and love, as it would be for many people. It took her a long time. Some years after my father’s death — last year? the year before? — I received from my sister a bundle of papers relating to me, that my father had kept. It included some childish early writing done at school, a sentimental story about a dog (that I thought Wonderful and Amazing at the time of writing when I was seven) and a page saying what I wanted to be when I grew up (a poet). It also included that scrap of paper saying “I hate *****”, carefully curated by my father for nearly fifty years, carefully sorted and re-delivered to me by my sister. I have no idea why anybody would do that, but it tells me this: it is never advisable to commit to paper my thoughts and feelings about another person, unless they would comfort or encourage that individual if discovered. So that rules out journalling, doesn’t it? Because if you are writing with a reader in mind, sensitive to their feelings about what you have said, it won’t be an honest record, will it?

So when it comes to innermost thoughts and feelings, yes, I do share them — verbally, with a small group of people I absolutely trust — the negative and the positive alike. I will have left my true record in the memories of people who loved me and understood me well, and I think that’s as far as I want it to go. Which is why, however lovely an artefact a journal may be — and here’s another one I looked at a long time (but didn’t buy) — they are not for me.

Friday, 3 November 2017

A tangle of opposing forces

Can we talk about plastic?

I expect, like me, you’ll have seen pictures and read articles about the rising tide of discarded plastic choking the Earth, and the serious problem of tiny plastic particles swirling about in the ocean — both just being there at all and getting into the food chain (including into us). Darn! How awful.

We are strongly urged by responsible voices to stop using plastic for packaging, especially one-use packaging; small spring water bottles have come into focus.

So far, so good. Let’s stop. Sounds simple, yes?

If I start with the positive and move on from there to the hand-wringing, you’ll know when to stop reading if angst bores you.

Here are the things I’ve figured out I can do (POSITIVES).

Get some of those net bags for repeated re-use. A choice at this point — the nylon ones are also essentially plastic and will give off the plastic particles when washed. I’d go for linen/cotton ones, but will they look alien enough to cause the store cashiers to make a fuss (and do I have the psychological strength to withstand that if they do)?

Get the fruit and vegetables sold loose in bins.

Make food at home instead of ready-made. We do mostly, but I could step this up a bit. The packaging for ingredients is usually simpler than that for ready-made — fewer layers, fewer bright (toxic) dyes, etc. If we cook our own beans instead of getting the canned ones they come in very simple cellophane packs from the whole food store. I know cans aren’t plastic, but there is still a packaging issue. Oh. Is cellophane okay?

Choose the things sold in cardboard and paper over things sold in plastic. I know cardboard and paper is bad news for trees — and by heaven, we need every tree we can get — but at least it could stimulate the growing of trees to cut for paper (does it??), and we use all our card and paper packaging as kindling for the wood stove, except massive boxes that had something huge in; and sometimes even then. I can immediately think of several switches I could make — washing powder, oats . . . er . . . I can’t think of anything else.

One huge triumph for us is our egg purchasing. Eggs are important to us because we eat very few animal products, and I want to be sure we get our animal-source zinc and don’t end up with just the plant source that won’t combine with the copper abundantly present in plants, this leaving us with Bothe copper starvation and copper poisoning — and other health problems that could occur if only I knew about them; B12 etc. So anyway, there’s this person who lives right next to the chapel I go to, who sells eggs at the garden gate from rescued battery hens. Therefore, no food miles at all (because we’re going to church anyway and the hens live right there), no cruelty (no gassed chicks — all rescued birds, trotting about free), and re-using our own egg boxes. Ha!

We have already gone over to always using cloth shopping bags, and we go always remember to take them with us. Tick. Go, us!

Okay, now for the HANDWRINGING

Clothes. Oh, crumbs. Well, in future I am happy to buy merino tights not nylon, but not to throw out the ones I already have. Likewise, some of my skirts are synthetic, and for the style that suits me that’s just what they make them of. It’s taken me such an age to get to clothes that suit me, I don’t want to change them now — and anyway, they’d still be in the world, wouldn’t they? To get both clothes that suit me and ecologically responsible fibres, I’d be moving to much higher prices than I’m used to spending — eg buying new. And one of the reasons I was buying secondhand in the first place was to cut down on consumerist manufacture ruining the Earth. Hmm. This will take some thinking about.

Food.  Because I have several health issues, I have to be very careful about what I eat. I’ve found a range of foods that work for me, and some of them come in plastic packaging — eg the plant milks (almond milk, Oatly etc) come in tetrapak type cartons. They have plastic coating, don’t they? And plastic tops? Also in order to stick to eating the food that keeps me healthy and not stray ravenous into eating stuff that makes me ill, it’s important to get things that don’t taste bad. The mixed nuts at the whole-food store are hard and old and knobbly and I don’t  like them. The ones at Marks and Spencer are fresh and succulent and delicious — and packaged in plastic. What to do?

Likewise, we try to eat a high proportion of organic food because of the glyphosates that are going to ruin the lives of everyone, human and animal alike. But of course, the fruit and veg sold loose at the supermarket aren’t the organic ones — these are wrapped in plastic. The greengrocer has paper bags and loose fruit and veg, but doesn’t sell organic produce. The whole-food store sells organic produce in plain paper bags, but their stuff is often old and wrinkly and usually very expensive.

Linda McCartney veggie ready-made things are sold in cardboard packaging not plastic, so that’s good. But they all include rapeseed oil (which, ingested over time, apparently impairs breathing) and palm oil (no friend to orang-utans or anyone else who lives in the rainforest — and trees are the lungs of the Earth). 

Butter is impossible to get wrapped in paper any more, and is not cruelty free. Margarine does your heart in. Oil is the best thing — and I must remember to get the sort sold in glass bottles not plastic. Our cider vinegar comes in glass bottles, though they do have plastic tops.

It seems to me there is no counsel of perfection and — as usual — the best way is to live as simply as possible so there are fewer choices to make at any given time, moving forward incrementally like a slug towards Better Habits. Oh — talking of slugs — that’s another thing we can do of course, and are doing increasingly; growing our ow food. Then there’s the question of what to pack in it to store it in the freezer . . .

Monday, 30 October 2017

Thoughts about affluenza

One of our friends who reads here sent me a link to this article about ‘affluenza’ — consumerism, materialism, addiction to shopping — and the imperative responsibility of getting free of that to protect the health and integrity of the Earth. Good article.

I’m not sure I’ve finished separating out my thoughts about it into something ordered and coherent — but here are some in process.

For me, purchases of items I haven’t kept often related to acquiring kit to become someone I was not — buying a persona. I have become wary of purchasing anything that is ‘like’ something else. I look for the word ‘like’ in my motivations, and draw back if it’s there. 

So, for example, for a season I wanted to dress ‘like’ the Amish (and other Plain dressing people) because I loved their simplicity, wisdom and closeness to the Earth. I am not Amish and never will be. It was costume, not authentic, I made myself odd, and I sensibly got rid of the things. Same with the robe-‘like’ garments that attire my longings for the worlds of Zen and Earthsea.

I have a strange relationship with my mother, and from time to time, under her critical eye, have bought clothes ‘like’ hers. They don’t suit me, don’t feel right, I don’t keep them. My physique, colouring and personality are different from hers. She always looks lovely, but generalising from that specific doesn’t work.

Sometimes, seized by fear of economic collapse and prepper-mania, I have bought bushcraft items ‘like’ Ray Mears and other intrepid types  — just in case. Pocket knives, fire-flints, Kelly kettles and extreme-water-filtering bottles are, I have determined, fairly redundant in a Victorian semi-detached house with a small garden. I mean, it’s true you never know, but . . . hey.

And sometimes I’ve wanted to dress ‘like’ a smart, chic, urban lady, in high heels and suits. Hahaha. That never lasted long. 

I’ve realised that a key to cutting consumerism is understanding who I really am, in my real circumstances, and making peace with that, not trying to be ‘like anyone else or dressing to fit in. I hope if I ever meet an Amish woman or a Zen monk or a film star or a genuine wizard from fairyland, that person will be able to accept me as I am in an encounter of mutual enjoyment and respect.

Another motivation for shopping, in my life is, oddly, that my income is small. ‘Spend money on experiences not objects, the minimalists advise you — but if you are a low-energy older woman, that can have its challenges. Experiences are — in my experience — expensive. I would love to make a retreat on a regular basis, but that costs a lot. I would love to go to concerts, interesting films, dance performances — but, again the high quality ones are very expensive. I would love to eat out more, but the cost is considerable. Well; lunch at Asda is cheap, if you don’t have a drink. I’d love to travel but that’s way beyond my purse, even in England. 

I have found belonging to groups is expensive too. Even church. The raffles, the pasta bakes, the constant requests for donations, the auctions and extra collections, the fundraising drives and bazaars, the lunches and outings and away-days and special events . . .

By comparison, shopping is cheap and cheerful. A £2 second-hand top on eBay, for example. Searching for something I like is fun, getting a bargain feels triumphant, anticipating the parcel arriving in the post is enjoyable (just like the article on Affluenza said). I don’t go High Street shopping; for that, there’s the cost of getting to the shops (train, bus, or petrol and parking fees) even before any purchases are made. And the price of something bought new in a shop is . . . shocking. And then I get hungry and want lunch.

Looking back over my life, one time stands out when I spent almost no money at all — when, aged 18, I lived for a while with some monks and an ever-changing group of volunteers in a place offering country holidays for inner-city children in Devon. We had no car and no shops, but we had each other, a small-holding, a cow to milk, a tractor to drive, a household and Post Office to run, fire to sit by, a goat to care for and a veggie garden. Our place included 2 cottages, the village store and Post Office (I lived in a caravan in its cabbage patch round the back), a derelict chapel where we stored jumble sale stuff, and a farm. The interest and variety made consumerist activities completely unnecessary. Many people shop when they are bored and lonely. Me too. It offers something to think about.

Another cause of shopping is continual disruption. Illness, bereavement, job loss/change, house moves, and divorce, whether one's own or other people's, all can create situations where you have to either get rid of stuff or acquire it — sometimes both. Sometimes I’ve had to squidge down into circumstances where there just wasn’t room to store a coat, or boots as well as shoes, where I couldn’t keep that chair I loved, or any books. Other times, things eased up and I had space for a little bookshelf, had a wardrobe, had a room of my own. Then something changed again and I had to give them up. Sitting light to possessions, being willing to get rid of stuff, enables flexibility. The journalist who wrote the article, encouraging us to keep our things, to repair things, assumed a level of stability not all of us have enjoyed, I think.

And then there are the mistakes. I have spent several hundred pounds trying to get my sleeping arrangements right — trying this, trying that — because my room is really a box room, wide enough to accommodate a bed but not wide enough to take the angle as you lower it to the floor (divan), not wide enough to get your hand in to screw the head and footboard onto the side rails (wooden bed). I’ve slept on the floor a few years, then craved the sense of normality a bed gives me (and the view of next door’s tree through the window). Look — this is my room now.

And with inhabitants.

At every step of the way, I kept costs right down, looking for the lowest and the least, and where possible the second-hand and the free. Except for my very expensive MacBook and iPhone, which my husband so generously paid for.

I believe in God’s grace and provision, and I believe in the grace/gift economy. I like giving things away not selling them, I like working for free and helping for free, swapping and sharing. I don't regard my money as wasted if I give away something on Freegle/Freecycle, or if a charity shop can sell it to raise funds for the hospice or animal rescue or homeless shelter. I'm happy for my ill-advised purchases to redeem themselves by that cause. I like frugality, and in a world where some people daily face bitter struggle and even have to sell the children they cannot feed, I understand and appreciate just how very, very much I have. A room of one's own, and the luxury of being able to make mistakes; is that not riches? I like freedom and quietness, peace and being at home. I live happily on a very small income. But sometimes, let me be honest, I do enjoy shopping for second-hand bits on eBay and second-hand or Kindle books on Amazon, or such small things (a mirror, a clock, a comb, a pair of earrings) as I think might improve daily life. And the thing is, though I have all I need and all I want now, who knows what the next reversal will be? Someone may need my room, I may lose my home, life might all change again. And in the changes I might need to dispose of some possessions and acquire other things — even some that I had and got rid of before.

*       *       *

This article, rather vast in its scope, also intelligently and thoroughly addresses the problems of affluenza.. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

Long tails

I’m a Methodist. In our denomination (I expect it’s the same in yours) any of us who hold a responsibility must undergo regular checks and training as part of our Safeguarding procedural requirements to keep children and vulnerable adults protected from harm. The many (unsurprising to those 0f us who’ve attended church a long time) revelations of abuse perpetrated within a church or other institutional context make it absolutely essential to have such Safeguarding measures in place.

But there are some aspects of it that cause me unease. 

One is that our emphasis is on detecting and dealing with perpetrators, and protecting vulnerable individuals from them, rather than on strengthening the individuals to make them less vulnerable to abuse. This is in keeping with the present trends of approach to the problem of rape culture (prevalent in most societies of the world). In the past, the approach to protecting vulnerable individuals against rape culture has been to encourage those individuals to cower out of sight of predators - to dress modestly lest their clothing invite attack, to stay at home at night lest being out late should invite attack, to lower the eyes and behave submissively lest boldness be misinterpreted as invitation, to avoid intoxicants lest drunkenness render one unable to detect attack and defend oneself against it. Etc. The current movement to re-focus attention on the perpetrator - teaching sexual aggressors that other people are not commodities for their opportunism under any circumstances, is long over-due.

But there is a third way that I think is under-emphasised. Not catching perpetrators, not teaching the vulnerable to be good in the hope of escaping predation - but helping the vulnerable to be both vocal and strong. We are not good at that.

To pay attention to our children’s reluctance to be in the presence of certain adults, to allow our children to refuse unwanted kisses and embraces from adults (aunts/uncles, grandparents, family friends etc), to encourage our children to believe they can be courteously assertive and protective of their personal dignity; this is still lacking. The approach of strong authorities leaping to their defence to detect and remove predators actually enhances weakness and vulnerability. Oh, what would I do without big strong you there to protect me?

Another aspect of Safeguarding, as it really is, that concerns me is the matter of untidy consequences left lying about all over the place to trip us up. Experiences with long tails.

What if it is the institution itself that has made an individual vulnerable and damaged his/her mental health? What if the individuals delivering the Safeguarding training bear a strong resemblance to the perpetrators and have many characteristics in common?

In every institution I’ve come across, from the family up and out, it is the whistle-blowers who are punished. “Don’t rock the boat,” as my mother used to say. When, as a teenage care assistant, I saw across the garden the priest run his hands up the leg of the attractive resident of the nursing home, and saw her discomfort and bewilderment, I knew better than to tell the nuns who ran the place. Actually, it didn't occur to me. In the 1970s, that’s what girls were for. I didn't know abuse was abuse, and I strongly suspect the same is true of the Jimmy Saviles and Rolf Harrises of this world. We are to a great extent products of our times and our society.

I know more than one excellent teacher who has been bullied into mental breakdown within the professional structure of public (and private) education, then made to sign a vow of silence in return for the handout standing between them and destitution.

Edward Snowden, David Kelly, Chelsea Manning – these and no doubt countless silenced individuals – bear witness to the reluctance within the political institution to take responsibility. Hushing things up is how institutions invariably deal with their own wrongdoing.

But, what do we do with these long tails? With the unacknowledged hurt, the still aching scars of those whom the system has wounded but who for one reason or another still wish to operate within it? Those who, for example, still feel the imperative to preach the Gospel and make common cause with the Christian faithful, but whose souls bear the thumbprint of institutional ineptitude or worse?

What do we do with the long tails? Is it always only about being tidy and authoritarian? Will we never progress to the place where the people of God organise into a circle not a pyramid, where the voices of the anawim (the little ones, the lowly, the poor and marginalised) are no longer silenced and disregarded? Will we never find a way to get past shame as the principle tool of control? Will we never realise that control is not a worthwhile aspiration in the first place? Healing is better.

And how do I deal with the long tails in my own life? I don’t know. I don’t know.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Thinking about a very busy man

A few months ago a friend I rarely see crossed paths with me, and began to say how nice it would be to meet up. The opening words used were “I know how busy you are, but . . .”

I had (not rudely I hope) to counter that description. “I’m not at all busy,” I replied. The friend in question has a full life with many responsibilities. Her time is already committed. I think it unlikely in reality we will take time to drink tea together often, not because she is “busy” but because she is responsible, and she has given her time to people she loves who need help and who she feels deserve her commitment. I also know she is fond of me. I don’t mind that we so rarely see each other; I understand very well how women prioritise their time – family first – it’s true of me too, except I leave spaces the size of the Nevada desert in mine or else I disintegrate. I’m not busy. I spend a lot of time alone, a lot of time thinking.

Then today I read the minister’s letter in the church magazine of a nearby congregation. It expressed the intention of inviting another minister to preach in their church, adding that they could ask but “he is a very busy man.”

I thought about him, brought to mind his name and his face. I met him once. I noticed his kindness, his reflectiveness, the way he stopped to examine a thought that troubled him, his gentle (but real) enthusiasm. We were in a one-day course at which I was the lone representative of a particular strand of study - the one he’d come to teach as it happened. So I had the privilege of a while in his company, learning from him one-on-one. We sat close together to apply our attention to his laptop where the necessary information was. It is not easy for me to learn from a teacher, because the consciousness of their spirit looms so large for me that it obliterates the material I’m meant to be learning. Almost everything I know I learned by myself or just living alongside and observing. But that particular man was patient and quiet, and I was able to learn from him. I liked his presence; I found him peaceable. 

I thought about the letter in the church magazine that summed him up as “a very busy man”.

Two of my family are letter-cutters in a monumental masonry. I imagined them, at the end of that man’s life, carefully drawing out and cutting his name – into slate, or granite perhaps – and adding the dates of his life below it, and then under that the inscription, “He was a very busy man.” And I wondered if that’s what he would have wanted.

The freedom of simplicity has to be guarded very jealously. Times and seasons, events and moods, ebb and flow in our lives, and the retreat of every ebb tide (in our social climate of consumerism and mass-production) leaves its debris on our beach, the gadgets and garments, the bric-à-brac and baubles, belonging to this mood or that interest while its tide was in flow mode. Keeping one’s house in order is a patient, constant task. Like gardening with its pruning and weeding. For one’s environment to be beautiful, wholesome and clean, it is essential for it to have few objects, and those lovingly and faithfully curated.

It’s much the same with time. Especially if you are a maker – a writer, and artist, a composer, a philosopher, a pray-er or preacher. And if you are a practitioner – a healer, a musician, a worker in wood or clay, iron, glass, cloth or stone. Also if you are a doula, a parent, a companion, a spouse, a friend. One has to guard against the accumulation of debris washing up on the incoming tides of time. It is a patient, ongoing work, the maintenance of freedom, peace and space - and with them the flexibility to respond and to listen. But unless you do it the quality of what you can offer atrophies. “Busy” becomes “shallow” in the long run. And it leads to dishonesty too, I’ve noticed, because it brings guilt in its train. Accumulation creates problems.

1 Thessalonians 4.11. This is still the richest advice. “Make it your aspiration to live quietly, working with your hands just as we told you. That way you will be worth respecting and you won’t be a drain on anybody.” My paraphrase of a variety of translations.

It would not be acceptable to me to imagine my daughter, focused and careful, cutting the words “She . . .  was . . .  so . . . busy . . .” into my gravestone (though in parenthesis – I won’t be having one; my ashes will be scattered after my cremation by the crematorium staff; no memorial left behind). But “She . . . lived . . . quietly . . .” would do okay.

I have time. And if you need me – though you probably don’t – I have time for you. I’m not busy.