Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Reverence, veganism and the violence of life

Father Tom Cullinan, a Benedictine monk, lives in a wood on the edge of Liverpool. He follows a path of wise simplicity, grows vegetables and keeps sheep. 

The first time I met him they had just, that day, slaughtered one of their sheep. The young man who had killed the sheep was sitting quietly and thoughtfully, drinking a cup of tea, sobered and somewhat shaken by this taking of a life. He had raised and loved this animal, caring for it every day. He and the sheep knew each other as friends. He had kept faith with the sheep by slaughtering it in this manner — quietly, gently, without trauma, in its home.

I read somewhere that Islamic recommendations for slaughtering sheep say you should hold the animal peaceably, so that it is calm and relaxed, then slit its throat with a sharp knife and hold it as it dies.

It sounds horrible, doesn't it — shocking? But if we stay with the idea and look more deeply into it, it holds up well in comparison with the alternatives.

We kept sheep when I was a child. Every year we had orphaned lambs and raised them for meat. My mother bottle-fed them, and they lived in our five-acre garden. We cared for them with watchful diligence. Any sign of blowfly or footrot (the two diseases that plague sheep) and we were onto it at once. We dipped and dosed them, keeping them free of ticks and other parasites. 

When the time came to slaughter them, my mother personally loaded them on to the lorry taking them the short journey to the local slaughterhouse. Once she took her sheep to market, but when she dropped by during the day to check all was well with them, they heard her voice and called to her. She felt terrible to leave them there, and never did that again.

A few miles away from my home there's a farm shop where they sell the meat of their own sheep. You can see the sheep — with new lambs just now — outside in the field in the sunshine. They are well-cared for and content.

When I came across the work of Will Tuttle, I read his book arguing the case for veganism. There are several reasons why a person might be vegan. According to the findings of Max Gerson, whose clinic has good results, cancer is stimulated by eating meat; so one might wish to be vegan for health reasons. Where livestock animals are kept in feedlots or indoors, it takes a phenomenal amount (pound for pound) of grain and water to raise them for meat; so one might want to be vegan as an act of responsibility against world hunger and water shortage. I have read that livestock, through a number of causes (eg methods of animal food production, cutting down rain forest to raise animal feed, methane from animal digestive processes, etc) contribute significantly to climate change; so one might want to be vegan for ecological reasons. I believe it was with this in mind that Thich Nhat Hanh decreed his community should be vegan rather than vegetarian, in his Blue Cliff letter a few years ago.

But even when someone has accepted that pasture-raised animals, grazing on traditionally open grasslands or hilly areas, may actually be carbon-neutral and not injurious to our health if eaten in moderation, they might still choose to be vegan for reasons of compassion.

Will Tuttle wrote in his book about an occasion when, as a boy, he witnessed a cow being taken for slaughter. It went deep into his heart. He saw her reluctance at being pulled by her rope along the track, sensing (as animals do) the intention and destination. He said he just wanted them to let her go free, but they did not.

Most of us, I think, have a similar immediate response. It is intensely sad when an animal is slaughtered. On the day my aunt's family slaughtered a pig on the farm, in the morning their dog would go and hide in the bedroom. It is a deep and grave action that we take, when we put a living being to death in this way.

But what are the alternatives? There are two practical ones that I can think of. 

One is for these livestock animals never to be born. No more pigs. No more sheep or cows or chickens. Only wild animals living free and unmolested by human beings. Then we have to ask ourselves, is it better for a creature to live, to give birth and suckle her young; for an animal to graze in the fields or rootle in the woods and by the stream, even for a short time, or never live at all?

If we do eat any animal products, I believe we have an absolute responsibility to make as sure as we can that the creatures who provided our food were well and kindly cared for.

The second alternative is that animals should live free. Does this make their lives better?

There is a picture — it's here, but I warn you, it's sad; I read that the photographer became depressed as a result of taking this photograph — of a mother deer in the moment of being surrounded by three cheetahs moving in for the kill. She had stopped, and given herself to them so that her fawns might escape them. In the photo she stands steadfast and full of courage as the predators' teeth meet her throat and hind quarters.

Obviously farming livestock doesn't stop this happening, but when one considers that a sheep or goat or cow is protected by the farmer against the suffering of the wild hunt, it doesn't seem as bad as it at first might appear.

I think the option of grazing protected and in peace, with parasites and diseases and obstructed births all tended to, might well, for a sheep or a goat, a deer or a cow, be one of the better available options.

Likewise with poultry and egg production. It must surely be better for male birds to be raised for meat, giving them a chance at life, albeit short (and properly free range, please), than to be gassed en masse at a day old so only the egg-producing females are allowed to live.

For some people, the whole thing is too heartbreaking to bear. They — like the Jains in India — forswear all violence, all hurt to any living being. 

But . . . every time I tread on a snail by accident when I go for a night walk, or see the multitudinous corpses of tiny flies on the summer windscreen after driving on the motorway, or consider the disposal of slugs and blackfly and greenfly in raising vegetables, or remember the flea treatment for our rescue cats and the worm medicine given to little children, I know a truly vegan path is not going to happen. Are we really going to let the guinea worm and the mosquito breed and thrive?

Violence, it seems, is an integral part of life. Veganism, I believe, can never be fully realised. But what I do advocate, with all my heart, is reverence. 

Like the reverence with which Father Tom's friend took the life of the sheep, gently and without trauma, accepting and absorbing the sorrow. 

I loathe and abhor the "funny" photos posted of turkeys at US Thanksgiving and UK Christmas, dressing them up and making them dance or move, in a shameful comedy.

I believe all livestock should be farmed compassionately and with kindness, respecting the animals' needs and nature, giving them shelter and freedom to roam. Not cooped into featureless fields with no variety and no byre offering shelter from wind and snow. They should be known and loved, ideally kept in herds small enough to be watched over and the individual animals known. They are not human, but they are people, with relationships and personalities, yes and souls.

Let them live in contentment and fulfilment. Let them die with compassion and dignity — a swift and calm end. Let us know them, give thanks for them, and receive their sacrifice soberly and with gratitude.

Death is not a bad thing. Everything that lives must one day die. I too will die, and I have no wish to live as long as I possibly can. An earlier, less protracted end is what I have prayed for. A quiet, dignified, private, unexceptional death.

Death is not life's opposite. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal, and death is a part of it.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Grieving for Syria today

So, on today's news I hear with heart as heavy as a stone that the UK cabinet, without responsible democratic process, has joined with the Trump administration in America to bomb Syria again.

My soul feel sore and bruised and my whole being is full of grief. 

I am ashamed of my government that lies right and left, abandons the poor and disabled. I am ashamed of its violence and cruelty. I am ashamed of the rapaciousness of the Western powers.

I think of the refugees from the theatres of war, trying desperately to reach safety here, sheltering through this harsh winter in the woods of Europe, harassed by police, walled out by the UK, even the children turned away.

I am so ashamed and my soul rocks in grief. This cannot come to any good.

Not in my name.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Jeepers! What a day!!

So I guess this all starts about a fortnight ago.

My Mental Elf, an unpredictable companion — he and his Black Dog — at the best of times, got an unexpected kicking two weeks ago, since when I have been doing what I can (primarily the application of lavish amounts of beautiful colour) to get everything back to a condition of harmony and peace.

My husband was planned to preach in our Methodist Circuit today, then decided to go to Minehead Spring Harvest (which overlapped this Sunday) so I said I'd pick up his preaching appointment. But then wasn't well enough, so another preacher kindly did a swap for him.

My daughter Buzzfloyd was also on the Methodist preaching Plan for this Sunday, at the community centre up on the Ridge. As I was now free I said I'd take her there.

Meanwhile the Novovirus currently stalking Hastings made a direct hit on her house. Husband, kids and mother-in-law all throwing up, only Buzzfloyd left standing. They began to recover and it seemed to have passed her by, but I said if she ran into trouble I'd catch her preaching obligation for her.

So she prepared her Sunday worship and emailed the hymns and order of service off to the steward. So far so good.

This morning around 5.30 my phone pinged. Uh-oh. Buzzfloyd was throwing up. Right. Into the breach.

I got up and had a bath, washed my hair, and started to dry it; at which point the blowdryer packed up. Not sure of the cause, I went downstairs to the cupboard where the fuse box is to see if it had tripped the system. I switched the cupboard light on and the bulb blew.

Happily I had a good bulb upstairs I'd just taken out elsewhere, so I put that in and — phew — it worked (better than the old one); and the fuse box switches were all set to 'on'.

So I went back up and tried the dryer in another socket — no joy — and plugged my computer into the now vacant socket; yes, worked okay. So the (small, cheap) dryer was dead. No worries. I wrapped up my hair in a cloth and got dressed. 

All good to go except for printing off the service that Buzzfloyd had prepared and emailed through to me.

A few weeks ago our printer began to signal that the ink levels needed re-setting. I understood that to mean 're-fill the ink', which my husband at my request accordingly kindly did. I thought that was the solution but apparently not. This morning, after printing off the first three sheets, the printer stopped and would do no more. It wanted its ink levels re-setting and refused to print another word until this happened. Unfortunately I had no idea what this might involve (since it now had plenty of ink) and I had no time to read the manual as faffing about trying to get the hairdryer working had used up the time.

I grabbed up the pages it had printed before it died, got an extension lead and the computer, stuffed everything in a bag and hurried out into the car.

Breathe, I thought to myself; calm. And (crucially) check. I went through my bag to be sure I had everything. Oh no. Where were my glasses? Where did I put them down? I tore back indoors and searched for them — I'd left them in the bathroom — then scooted back out to the car and set off with just enough time to get to church with a few minutes in hand.

The community centre is a hive of activity on Sunday. As I drove along breathing down the neck of the v e r y  s l o o o o o w w w driver in front of me, I prayed and prayed there would still be a parking space. I didn't now have time for a Plan B.

Well, between a huge SUV and a stout family car, there was one thin little parking space left, adequate for my fortunately very narrow car. I slipped into it, just, but had to climb into the back seat to get out of the vehicle.

I found my way through the maze of rooms in the community centre to where our people meet for worship. As I came in they were singing, a joyous and lovely hymn accompanied by guitar. So beautiful.

Our printer churns out documents last-page-first, so though I had the blessing and the second half of the address, I didn't have the order of service. As it turned out, the steward to whom Buzzfloyd had sent all the details had gone off to Spring Harvest as well — so the organist had no hymns and no order of service and nobody had any readings.


But Buzz had also sent the bumph through to another preacher who worships there, so she had made a note of the hymns (I snatched the list off her and gave it to the organist). 

This preacher also had made a note of the first reading, which Buzz had asked her to read. As it transpired, I was so thankful for this — some of the teaching depended on it, and when I'd looked it up in a hurry to get the text of the readings, I misread the reference and left off ten verses! She, thank God, had it right.

Well, the service went okay — the people all kind and good-humoured and loving as they always are, and the material Buzz had prepared as brilliant as ever, and perfectly timed.

Afterwards, having agilely climbed back into the driver's seat of my car again, I went to the supermarket to pick up plant milk for the humans and a box of dog food for the hungry foxes (I think they must have cubs). At the checkout, the cashier picked up the box and the underneath gave way and out dropped 48 pouches of dog food.

Right, that's it, I thought. I'm going home and staying there. Please God don't let the car break.

When I got home, the rest of the family had been hard at work cooking the most splendiferous Sunday lunch — roast potatoes and gravy and everything delicious.

At the end of the church service, before I left, the preacher who'd read the gospel said to me, 'We have to hold onto our joy. It's precious. Satan wants to steal our joy. We have to make sure we keep it.'

Amen, sister.

Quotation about being calm an adaptation of words by Matt Haig in his book Reasons To Stay Alive.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Skin Fur Light

In 2008 I made a resolution (which I have kept) never again to do anything but what I was sent here to do. 

The question was, what might that be? It began an ongoing exploration into why I am here.

I asked a similar question back in 2002 — "What is the purpose of my life?" I knew from my Anglican childhood that the purpose of humankind was to love and serve God for ever, of course, but that held for me a pious falsity that didn't quite cut the mustard. Tentatively, I found a workable answer in my family — to be specific, my children — that doing the best I could for them felt my nearest to an authentic sense of purpose. But I held in mind the observation David Whiteland made in his brilliant Book of Pages — that having a purpose is the difference between a machine and a living being. A being is simply (gloriously) alive. It needs no purpose. Purpose is derivative — secondary to a user. Perhaps I didn't need a purpose (?)

As I've thought about what I came here to do, the answers that rang true have become less and less moral, dutiful and institutional.

Today, watching TV, for no reason at all, I rested the flat of my hand on the skin at the top of my chest beneath my throat, and it struck me how soft it felt.

I am glad I had the chance to live in a physical body and feel that particular sensation of softness.

Watching my body age intrigues me. The skin where my forearm comes to the inner side of my elbow is crepey now.

The skin of my face is lined and lived-in.

How interesting, how physical and earthly, is skin.

I came here to experience skin.

I am also thankful I had the chance to stroke fur.

To look at the noses of animals.

To watch light move through the house, interacting with everything as it falls and glances, making glints and shadows, mystery and glory. Light is the nearest thing I know to holiness made visible.

I am not sure I wholly get the hang of loving. Truth ebbs and flows like the sea, and is equally elusive to my grasp. I am the most useless person I know (in the strictest sense); reclusive, uncooperative, hard to see. I won't even answer the phone. It seems that was not what I came here to do.

But to see and to touch and to listen — to open my senses unto full stretch, allowing the inflooding of music flying up and up like a skylark rising — Mozart, Handel — or hear a nightingale or watch the colours of the dawn and the moon on a winter night. To behold the amber gaze of a vixen and engage in conversation with a crow. For these I am glad with the whole of my being that I had the chance to be here. To feast my eyes with ravenous joy on the sundance sparkling surface of the ocean.  

That's what I came here to do.

About bitterness

I try to keep numbers of Facebook friends to a reasonable low, but even still I have several friends whom I know hardly at all — people whom I’ve never met offline, who live far away and whose perspective on life is not mine.

What I think they all have in common is living in the light of something greater than themselves — faith in God, spiritual practice, political commitment, a passion for the wellbeing of the Earth and the myriad living beings for whom, like us, it is home.

Consequently, my Facebook feed presents a constant stream of posts urging me to help, to give, to improve myself and to adopt a better attitude.

One of my Fb friends is staying just now at the same Christian conference as my husband is attending, and she is giving us a wonderful window into the inspirational impressions that catch her attention as she attends workshops and worship.

One of them caught my eye particularly:
“Bitterness obscures our ability to see clearly.”

How true that is!

I turned it over and over in my mind, reflecting upon it.

I have known bitter people. I think I harbour a fair degree of bitterness myself. 

I do believe I may have developed some opinions about bitterness. Here, for what it’s worth, they are.

I thought: some herbs are bitter. Dandelions, for example. Bitter herbs are usually very good for the liver. They are included in the Jewish Seder plate at Passover, reminding the people of Israel about some of the bitter experiences they passed through in their life’s journey. Bitterness, then, has its place; it is part of both our medicine and our memory. It is not possible to eliminate bitterness from life; it cannot be all sweetness — to hope for that would be unrealistic. Perhaps (like dandelions for the liver) one just has to know how to make use of the bitter weeds that grow unbidden in the garden?

I thought: how useful is it to reproach or look down on someone for bitterness? I don’t mean my friend or her Facebook post did, but I know that it can happen. Some of the most bitter people I know have suffered considerable injustice; the bitterness developed in its wake. Is the bitterness, then, or the injustice, the root problem? Bitterness can also grow in the compost of disappointment; we speak of being “bitterly disappointed.” To be overlooked, passed by; to see lesser work done by more privileged people fĂȘted and praised while one’s own good work is disregarded — this can turn to bitterness. Then is the bitterness or the lack of affirmation the real problem?

And I thought of the many times in my life I have watched while onlookers comforted the perpetrators of injustice. The man who cheats on his wife — “Oh, it was because she worked night duties, poor man; she should have found a different job.” The person who is cruel and destructive — “Oh, it was because they had such an unhappy childhood, poor thing.”  In the church, where the practice of forgiveness is a central aspect of the Way, it is easy to become so focused on understanding and compassion that those who suffer injustice get completely forgotten. As a minister I knew said to someone who had lived through a series of bereavements and traumatic events: “You must be used to it by now”; when of course in reality, seeing one's life systematically trashed is not the sort of thing a person can get used to. In these bombsites the weed of bitterness seeds and flowers and establishes.

Bitterness does obscure our ability to see clearly. But, since bitter people are always unattractive, sometimes it is not the bitter people who cannot see clearly, but their bitterness obscures our ability to see them clearly. The bitterness is evident, but not always the injustice, the disappointment and the cruelty.

I don’t think I have a message or a lesson or a pointer to show a better way. I’m just saying — but this I do know for sure; where bitterness is apparent there is always hidden pain.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

On Synesthesia

Friends who come by here often will surely have met Fiona Merrick in the comments threads. 

Fiona is one of several people I've been delighted to meet through writing and blogging whose perspective always encourages and illumines.

Here she is.

In a recent post, she commented on her own experience of synesthesia, and accepted my invitation to write a guest post telling us about it. 

So here, in her own words, is Fiona talking about what it's like to be a synesthete. Thank you so much, Fiona!

Social media is undoubtedly a mixed blessing, as we’re increasingly discovering, but one of its more enjoyable features is the opportunity it provides to giggle in community at entertaining photos of our pets. So last week I shared online a photo of our cat, Tabitha, standing triumphantly atop the wall-mounted television, having leapt up there via the piano.

Tabitha (who is a tomcat, but was named as a tiny kitten when we wrongly believed him to be female) is well-known among my friends for his household antics - he stripped and dismantled our Christmas tree last Advent, and regularly climbs inside the dishwasher while it's being loaded - so we all had a good laugh at his alpha-cat stance and endless thirst for adventure, after which the conversation turned to the colour-coordinated books underneath the TV, with opinion divided as to whether my arrangement was beautiful or bonkers. One friend, a highly efficient gentleman who organises his own books chronologically and alphabetically, asked incredulously, “How do you ever manage to find whichever book you’re looking for?” 

I’ve known for as long as I can remember that Monday is dark red, that certain musical key signatures are infused with citrus and that most letters of the alphabet and some numbers have their own inexplicable but definitive coloured identities. For decades I attributed what I experienced to nothing more than oddness as a person, and only realised about five years ago that I had a diagnosable neurological condition called synesthesia; this is a perceptual phenomenon in which the senses are more intimately connected than usual, weaving ribbons of colour, scent and taste through otherwise everyday, even prosaic, experiences and concepts. Some synesthetes actually see colours when stimulated by particular sights, sounds or notions - the timbre of a bass clarinet, for example, might “look” a rich chocolate brown - whereas others experience a strong but less literal association between the senses, meaning that the essence of what comprises a particular word or letter might include a coloured “aura” as well as its unique shape and sound; some inanimate objects can even possess human characteristics such as patience or bad-temperedness in the mind of a synesthete, whether or not they can precisely articulate or justify why this should be the case.

My own form of the condition is known as grapheme-colour synesthesia, and is positioned at the opposite extreme from colour-blindness: for me, certain types of information are perceived, stored and retrieved in colour-coded ways over which I have no control or influence. I taught music in secondary schools for a decade, and can still remember years later the form groups to which many of my pupils belonged, because each class - named after different letters of the alphabet - allocated itself a separate colour in my mind and facilitated a strong association between the groups in which they were taught and the colours of their letter names. As a musician, I find that sharp key signatures are associated with oranges, lemons and limes - collectively rather than specifically - whilst their flat counterparts conjure up visions of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, although I don’t experience any accompanimental tastes or odours whilst playing or singing. And each day of the week assumes a particular colour in my mind, though if there’s any rhyme or reason to each shade and hue, it eludes me; Thursday is a deep purple, but I have no real idea of why.

I know at least five other people with synesthesia, and our different daily experiences of living with it are quite varied: one friend encounters tomatoes as black whilst fully acknowledging their physical reality as red, another “sees” the key of E minor through a lens of sparkling white, and someone else strongly associates digits with distinct colours, which can cause a degree of havoc when performing mathematical calculations. For some synesthetes, the condition can be a bit of a curse, with certain flavours and scents causing more revulsion than might otherwise be the case, or particular colours arousing negative emotions or feelings. For others it’s useful, certainly in the memory department, and often leads to odd quirks of behaviour such as arranging books by colour; even if I can’t bring to mind the author or title of a specific book, I can almost always recall the shade of the spine and therefore easily locate it when it’s ordered within a spectrum, which is how I answered the friend who questioned the logic of my rainbow bookcase. What’s common to us all, however, is the fact that the condition impacts the life of each synesthete in unusual and unique ways, and can explain something about the choices we make in our daily lives, whether or not those choices seem odd or whimsical to others. 

Pen writes here sometimes about the sartorial decisions she makes, and the reasons why she opts for comfortable fabrics and unobtrusive colours which encapsulate simplicity, modesty, quietness and a focus elsewhere than upon the wearer. If we’re to live authentically and peacefully as ourselves, it doesn’t make much sense to invite sources of physical, mental or emotional chafing into our personal spaces, or to allow them to irritate and weary us if a better, less draining alternative is possible. And the recognition of what encourages our own personal tranquility of the mind helps to inform the choices we make about our surroundings and the things we can countenance having nearby, whichever of our five senses might be particularly affected by what’s around us, and to what extent.

I’ve come to understand - and have gradually learned to connect this fact with my synesthesia - that certain coloured elements of my environment will promote quietness in my soul and mind, whilst others have the potential to provoke turmoil and overstimulation instead. My books are sorted by colour mostly because they’re easier to find when organised in this way, but also because I find the effect to be soothing, which is beneficial for me and, in turn, for those around me.

I feel far more at peace when there are fewer colour-related demands made upon my sense of sight, which is why the bright orange Sainsbury’s carrier bag (housing plastic packaging waiting to be recycled) and my sons’ royal blue PE bags (ready to receive freshly laundered sports kit when the school term begins) are, when hanging together on a hook, kept out of sight behind the utility room door rather than visually troubling me several times a day on account of their clashing colours. I often drive past a mustard-yellow tub of winter grit sitting next to a rust-brown fence up which a beautiful pale-pink clematis grows in warmer weather; I know that this is not a trio of shades with which I could comfortably or happily live for long, in either house or garden. I work at home and spend far more time there than does anyone else in my family, none of whom are especially attuned to or affected by the various hues and tints of our living area, whereas I am somewhat at their mercy as a synesthete, and feel noticeably more comfortable when dwelling among some colours and combinations than alongside others. 

So the communal areas in our house are decorated in neutral and natural tones, our framed photographs are printed in black and white, and the garden fence is a restful shade of Forest Green which complements lavender and buddleja and heather rather than competing with them, while the bedrooms are painted, accessorised and organised according to the respective tastes of each inhabitant. My own desire for visually peaceful surroundings is accommodated in this way, alongside my small sons’ Lego and love of primary colours and my husband’s preference for sorting his own books by genre and size. Through the inclusivity of awareness - of both others and self - a compromise of sorts can thus be reached, as indeed it must be if a shared living environment is to be rooted in mutual respect and to provide a sense of individual contentment for every person living there. And I think it’s always good to try and meet each other somewhere in the middle if we can, whatever our individual contribution to the fabric of humanity, since that fabric is formed by the weaving together of an endless number of fascinatingly diverse threads, taking all sorts to make a world.