Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Memories of circular living

I was raised in the Church of England. Our family only rarely attended church during my childhood, when we lived in a small market town in Hertfordshire. We moved from there to a country village nearby when I was eight – and then we began to attend church, principally because my sister (five years older than me) chose to be confirmed as a member of the Church of England. I followed in her footsteps at the age of eleven.

In my late teens I took a weekend and school-holidays job with some Catholic nursing nuns caring for women and children living with a range of conditions and disabilities. With them I (who have never travelled much in my life, so each trip felt significant) went on pilgrimage to Lourdes.

When I finished high school, I went to live for some months with a small community of Anglican monks in the West Country, then returned to live and work with my nuns full-time.

In the meantime I’d applied to go to university, and got a place at York. There I met – and loved – the Poor Clares in Lawrence Street. In those days the influence of Pope John 23rd had encouraged greater openness, so the York Poor Clares had a prayer group every week in the parlour, and I went to that as well as to Mass sometimes. To me, who had in my mid-teens discovered and taken to my heart St Francis of Assisi, this felt very special; I treasured the relationship.

I spent a lot of time at the Roman Catholic chaplaincy of the university, where I met Father Fabian Cowper, an Ampleforth (Benedictine) monk who became a dear and beloved friend. He acted as chaplain for an inter-denominational lay community a group of us began, which lasted a couple of years but foundered on the usual rocks of human frailty. We were not very old.

During those years, at the age of nineteen, I was received into the Catholic Church (by Fabian). I wondered about asking if I might become a Poor Clare, prayed about it, but got married as it happened – and moved far away from York to Hastings, where I raised my family.

When I had a toddler and a new baby (I was then about twenty-three), I found church attendance something of a challenge. My husband had landed a paid Sunday job as an organist in an Anglo-Catholic church – so we worshipped there; but the Mass was formal and long, a difficult context to manage the different requirements of a newborn and a small  - ambulant, curious, determined – girl.

So I relocated to the Methodist Church where my parents-in-law worshipped, in search of help with the little ones. Over time, I put down roots in that church community, and the minister asked if I’d like to become a member. I hesitated. I asked, could I be both a Roman Catholic and a Methodist? The minister said I could – which surprised me; so I agreed, provided I could be a Methodist without turning my back on the Catholic church. It hadn’t occurred to me the man would actually lie to me – and I remember still the shock waves of horror and grief when in the Sunday service he announced that I was transferring from the Roman Catholic Church to the Methodist. I felt so sad; but it was done.

I remember, at the end of my teens when I became a Catholic, the parish priest of the Anglican church where I grew up (who’d been a close personal friend) asked me why. He felt hurt and sad at my decision. I tried, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to explain. What attracted me to the Catholic church was exactly its catholicity – that I’d be making common cause with people of many different walks of life, aristocrats and peasants, people whose languages I spoke and many I did not – people who could not speak at all but lay twisted in beds and wheelchairs but yet partook of the mystical union of Christ’s perfect body. “Ah,” he said, “the attraction of numbers,” which annoyed me, because that wasn’t what I meant at all. It was the commonality, the sense of one people under God, the connection, that I loved.

In Lourdes, in Rosary Square, I watched the torchlight procession, thousands upon thousands of people bearing their lanterns, a river of moving light streaming down the hillside, their individual faces illumined by the lights they bore as they took their places side by side in the darkness. And they, an international crowd, lifted up their voices as one in the Latin Mass, declaring with one voice “Credo!” – we believe. It wasn’t the size, but the abolition of the barriers that divide us, that drew me to the Catholic church.

Still, by the same token I loved the democratic organization of Methodism – that each person had a voice; or that was the ideal anyway. Over the years I learned it isn’t quite like that. Methodism too has its hierarchies and knows how to silence and marginalize as all human communities do.

The Anabaptists of the Bruderhof also influenced me strongly as a young woman – I spent a lot of time with them when my children were little. Our family almost joined them – went to the brink of doing so; then drew back when we realized the absolute severance they expected, from the families we came from and the friends we’d be leaving behind. They also expected us to uphold the view that homosexuality is a sin; and we would not. Neither would we deny the gifts of the Holy Spirit – of tongues, of healing and so on – nor suppress them. So we didn’t join up; but we loved them and learned a lot. Especially I learned a great deal about how to talk to children – simple and honest and straight, none of this coaxing TV-presenterish cutesiness you see so much of.

And as my family grew up around me, they became a kind of community – a spiritual entity in a way. I believed in human organization in circles, not pyramids. Anarchy, in the sense Gandhi espoused it. No one more important than the other. No one’s needs elevated or preferred.

If anything came up – an expense (musical instruments, sports equipment, a school trip) or a job opportunity and consequent house move, or who would sleep where in the house or whatever – then we considered it together and decided on the basis of the common good. There was leadership. The parents led – me and the children’s father – and how we led was by example. We required of the children nothing we would not accept for ourselves. So for example, if the “adult content” (ha!) of a movie made it unsuitable for children to see, then we took it to mean nobody should be watching it, parents included.

When chores had to be done, we did them together. We considered  the Boys Brigade style of work rota the children’s father grew up with. But I didn’t like that. I think it encourages people to do their allotted task then stop, regardless of what still needs doing. I preferred the monastic system, where you pay attention and notice and take responsibility. So we did that, because it fostered kindness and helping and being alert to the needs of others.

We lived in a house basically too small for our family of five children. Another lesson learned from monasticism is that privacy is our gift to each other – doing things quietly, leaving each other in peace, retiring early at the day’s end. So our home was always filled with peace – as every single visitor remarked. As the children grew, we felt they needed their own rooms (our twins were the last to have that luxury), so we parents slept on the living room floor, or on boards in the attic reached by a step-ladder propped against the wall, or in a garden shed. This is Christian leadership, as we understood it – to give the best and to take the lowest place.

I am not a big fan of out-sourcing childcare, so we accepted the financial challenges of being a one-income family. It taught our children to pray. Each month as the money ran out, we asked them to pray, and they did, and their needs were met.

All troubles, all difficulties, all decisions, we discussed frankly as a whole group; our children’s views were always heard and respected, taken into account.

We never locked our house and much of the time the door stood physically open. Neither did we lock our car, and people often slept in it – we knew by the fag butts they left in the ashtray; and sometimes the overnight inhabitant would borrow the dog-walking coat we kept in the car. All sorts of people lived with us when they fell on hard times, and when we came home we never knew who we’d find in the house. A friend who was a burglar (we met him at the prison chaplaincy meeting we helped to run) confirmed our suspicion that we had nothing worth stealing so it was quite safe to leave the place unlocked.

And I have found this approach to life works very well. To include, to listen, to choose what is humble and lowly. To serve and to help, to respect even the youngest and smallest. To sleep on the floor and give things away, to say “help yourself”, and make nobody a despot or a chief. To have no lord but only Jesus – and him you find always in the company of the lost and the lowliest and the least. It is not a hardship, to live this way. It’s just nice. I like it. And I’m so grateful to the monastics and the Anabaptists who showed me how to do it, by the unassuming example of their self-disciplined and practical love.

Friday, 11 August 2017

For the Earth our home.

Oh dear.

Apparently, by the beginning of August, we had already used up the resources the Earth is capable of renewing in a year – the trees we cut down, the water we consumed, the fish we took out of the sea; all that sort of thing.

Time to redouble our efforts, dears, as we don’t have the extra planet Earth we’ll need if we go on at this rate.

What to do?

As usual I feel semi-powerless, but recognise I do have options, and an obligation to take what action I can.

So these are the steps I thought I’d take (I do these things already but I could do them more often or more consistently) ~

1) Buy second-hand – furniture, china, clothes, shoes, jewellery, books, kitchen equipment, bags and baskets, cars, hats – pretty much any manufactured thing I can think of is available on eBay or in charity shops or on Freegle for significantly less than the same version of it new. I recognise this will damage retail sales – and as someone who writes books I understand the implications of that well! Book 2 never gets published if Book 1 doesn’t sell. Happily e-books are a possibility in the particular case of publishing.

2) Electronic gadgets have enabled us to share living space more efficiently, cut down car use significantly and reduce the amount of paper needed radically – and paper is heavy to transport and store. Thoughtful use of electronics can reduce the amount of resources we take up. However the gadgets themselves use resources (and often slave labour), so those we choose to have we should treat as precious and handle responsibly so that they last and remain undamaged as long as possible.

3) Cut down packaging. Buy unwrapped bread from the baker, veggies straight into the bag from the greengrocer, dried legumes in simple cellophane wrap with no dyed labels from the wholefood co-op. And where possible gather direct – from the garden, the fields and woods, with no resource-hungry manufacturing or transport at all. Store rainwater for the garden and for any not-potable use. Cook at home with basic ingredients using minimal packaging rather than ready-meals and ready-make cakes. Eating out, choose restaurants that serve food on china they wash up, not in disposable trays and beakers. No lids, no straws.

4) Share as much as possible – houses, cars, machines. So each phone, TV, furnace/boiler, freezer etc is for a group not an individual.

5) Go for renewables. We were so, so blessed that my father died the year he did, and left us some money – we used it to put solar panels and solar tubes on the roof, which heat our water and generate our electricity. The particular year we inherited that money was the year of the highest government tariff for selling electricity back to the National Grid – so it augments our income too.

6) Do things without machines where possible. Have hard floors not carpets and sweep with a broom rather than use a vacuum cleaner. Never, ever use a tumble drier – line dry clothes and fix an airer over the stairwell. Fix hooks in the bedrooms to string up camping clothes lines. Walk to the grocery store.

7) Live small and simple. Enjoy holiday time at home, walking and chilling out together, instead of air flights or cruises or boat holidays. Go camping.

8) Compost leftovers and veggie scraps. Use fresh urine and wormery juice to feed plants, not store-bought fertilizer. Bokashi bran neutralizes excrement (zaps the pathogens) for composting.

9) Take steps to disconnect from money. The whole money world is strongly linked to the activities of Mammon and the destruction of creation. The amount of money I need for my lifestyle is connected to my level of consumption. Cultivate the grace (gift) economy. Give things away. Do things for free. Share, refrain, forage and scavenge.

10) Aim to own less.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

So that was another good day.

This has been such a good day.

On Thursday we get out our housekeeping money from the bank. It’s not quite straightforward because six of us live here all together, with somewhat different food requirements. And two cats. The cats have their own housekeeping purse and money, and save up when they can to contribute a donation to improve the lots of cats less fortunate than themselves. Cunning choices must be made in selecting their food, to prevent them misreading our circumstances as a shortage to be remedied by them swinging into action to augment the family provision with dead/alive rodents and birds. Frogs, even. This creates a degree of culinary tyranny but we consider it worthwhile.

Anyway – sticking with the humans for a moment – one of us is currently away, so we decided to decrease our housekeeping money by £20 (representing her share) last week. Then last week we got the money out on Wednesday for reasons too tedious to mention – so we had a long week to cover. And the window cleaner came and he costs £15. But when Thursday (today) came round, we still had some money left over – so hooray us! That was pleasing.

Cabbage and beans feature prominently in our diet, which keeps the costs down, but also this has been a good year for fruit. In the last week we’ve been blackberrying several times, and got a good haul. Some to eat and some in the freezer. I looked in Asda and saw a small punnet of blackberries only 2/3 full cost £1.74, so I felt very impressed with our freebies.

We didn’t mean to go blackberrying today – we went for the pine cones. Often people don’t think about pine/fir cones until winter, but they ripen and drop in August, and if you gather them now they make brilliant kindling later – and kindling costs £4.50 for a small bag, so why wouldn’t you?

Up the hill from us the road is lined with Scots pines, so we took our foraging bags and went in search. We got two bags bulging full – and unexpectedly came across a lot of blackberries we didn’t know were there. It was annoying we hadn’t brought a receptacle for fruit – then I spotted someone had thrown away a spring water bottle – one of those that holds about half or three-quarters of a litre. The top was wide enough to drop in the blackberries, and we got a whole bottleful. When we got it home, I cut off the top part so it was easy to get the berries out to wash.

A few years ago we went from mainly vegetables to mainly fruit trees in our garden – because fruit trees also leave space to walk in whereas our veggie beds used to resemble the Amazon jungle. Also we wanted to help the bees, and we grow meadow flowers round the trees with paths mown through. This year has been splendiferous for fruit. Our Worcester Pearmains are just coming ripe, and the Russets too. We have pears coming on well, and we’ve had some lovely plums, and our greengage tree is laden with fruit this year, on the verge of ripening. So we picked a lot of apples and made enough apple and blackberry crumble to have some at lunch time and tea time, as well as stowing another punnet of blackberries in the freezer.  This year I also got round to freezing a box of mixed chopped pot herbs – not so essential because the sage and rosemary and bay continue through the winter of course – but nice to have the thyme and mint and marjoram and lemon balm and parsley mixed in.

After we got the first lot of pine cones we went up to the cemetery, where they also have some Scots pines, and found lots more cones – another two big bagfuls. There used to be a couple of trees there that made ENORMOUS cones, but sadly the cemetery people had them cut down. Because – I can hardly believe this – they dropped enormous cones. The human race bewilders me at times.

Then a skirt I bought for a tiny sum on eBay came in the lunchtime post – and (to my immense satisfaction) finally I’d found one that is both the right length and fits me. I would never have guessed it could prove such a challenge to get hold of a simple, plain, navy skirt that fits. I’m not grumbling though because in the course of one of my failed attempts I made a really nice new friend. Buying and selling on eBay and giving things away on Freegle/Freecycle has put me in touch with some lovely people. I recommend.

And every day for a couple of weeks now my little row of pole beans has yielded a handful of runner beans for my lunch. I love runner beans. They attracted the attention of blackfly earlier in the summer, but diligent spraying with water containing crushed garlic and a smidge of washing-up liquid soon persuaded the blackfly an alternative location would suit them better.

It makes me happy when I can achieve the Ayurvedic ideal of eating food that has gone from growing to eating within two hours – but that was true of (some of) what we ate today.

And our Alice has (after months and months of work) finally finished a huge commission of stained glass panels for the hospice, and been paid – which means we can get on with having our floors sanded.  Then in a final moment of joy, our Rosie has managed to bag a really good, well-made trombone. Hers is on its last legs, and is a vital tool of her trade. It was made at the end of a trombone-making era, since when the manufacture has been altogether less satisfactory. But there are these few trickling in if you’re in the right place at the right time and able to say ‘yes’ without hesitation. Both a joy and a relief to have found one.  It’s just before midnight as I’m writing this, and I can hear her coming in after a long rehearsal – I think if she investigates in the kitchen, there might still be a little bit of crumble and custard left over.

So all in all it’s been a very good day.