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.