Thursday, 21 November 2019

Writing and typing

Do you ever watch Murder She Wrote on the telly? The excellent and unfailingly elegant Angela Lansbury's character, Jessica Fletcher, is often seen hard at work in her occupation as a writer of murder mysteries. A frequent joke surfacing in the series is about insensitive interruptions and intrusions into her work. In an episode I saw this autumn, the sister of the local sheriff ran into personal difficulties and arrived at his office. The sheriff was naturally heavily occupied with his professional duties, so he had the bright idea of dropping his sister off with Jessica Fletcher, who was clearly doing nothing in particular. This is a writer's joke, and it certainly has a foundation in reality. It applies pretty much to everyone who works from home. But we the viewers knew Jessica should not have been interrupted. She was writing a book and had a deadline to fulfil. She was hard at work. At her typewriter. She had to stop typing to look after the sheriff's sister.

Some years ago I had a regular duty manning the premises of a sisterhood in a nearby town. At one point I excused myself from fulfilling this obligation, explaining that I was writing a book and had a deadline looming.

The sister to whom I explained this was puzzled. She asked me, "Can't you just bring your laptop and write it here?"

This is Jessica Fletcher syndrome, in which writing = typing. When someone is writing a book, they're hard at it, industriously typing. If they aren't typing, either they've finished or they're slacking or procrastinating.

I suppose everyone is different, but certainly in my life this is not the way writing books works at all.

Just at the present time, I am writing a book. I finished the last one in September or thereabouts, and started on this one in October. It's a short, devotional volume, not a massive tome, so only about 30,000 words. My deadline is the first week of January; my editor wants it on his desk when he comes back from his time off at Christmas.

I am never late with a manuscript, because I have a good grasp of how tight publishing schedules are, and how much pressure it puts on the editor and copy editor and marketing people and pretty much everybody if a book comes in late. Somebody has to absorb the hassle, so I try not to generate it. Besides, they've paid me.

So my aim is to have this book all done and dusted a month from now; sometime in mid-December or so. I'm well on track to achieve this.

And every day, since October, I have been writing this book. What does that look like? If you came in to the room where I am, would you find me assiduously typing, fingers flying across the keyboard as I sit in ferocious concentration at my writerly desk? If I have been writing it every day since October, surely I'd have knocked out about a hundred thousand words by now?

But writing, of course, is not like that at all. The well-worn metaphor of the iceberg will do just fine. Typing is only the very tip of the iceberg. Submerged below the surface where nobody can see it is the main body of the thing. Because by far the most time-consuming aspect of writing is thinking.

This book I'm writing has got to be good quality; that's what the publisher was expecting when he approached me to take on the project. Like all my work it's spiritual — Christian. It's written to bring to life, in the reader's imagination, the wisdom and truth of the gospel; to deepen and enliven faith. It won't do that if it's shallow tripe written in a spare moment off the top of my head. 

So what I've been doing since October is going down deeper . . . deeper . . . deeper . . . into the reflective process, immersing myself in what I am creating, like someone going down into a mine.

I concentrate and focus and burrow down into the thing, searching and feeling for the right words, for ideas, for the right feeling. What I'm shaping has to ring true, to move you and surprise you and challenge you and sometimes make you smile. There's no formula or convention for it, nothing tried and true; it is in every sense original material. That's been the trademark of my work.

And during this time, there are moments when I've got it! When the thing I want to say and the way I want to say it all come together into something fresh and alive — and if I don't get it down right then, it goes stale, goes off like manna, and I lose it and have to patiently start over again. That's when the typing comes into the process; at such moments I need to be able to get to my laptop and really concentrate until I've got it down. Sometimes that's all of one day, sometimes it's eleven o'clock at night — but it's very often at three or five o'clock in the morning. I move out from sharing sleeping accommodation with my husband when I'm writing a book, because the writing process doesn't stop during the night. The subconscious mind, which is the dreaming mind, is where books come from, so often the most vivid thoughts and expressions occur in the middle of the night.

So that means, from October to mid-December I'm drifting, thinking, drifting, thinking, avoiding people and keeping a discipline of solitude. I never go far from my laptop, so that when an idea comes together I can get it down. But often I'm just waiting and questing and exploring. I play a lot of solitaire, watch a lot of short YouTube videos — things that keep me there and available but that can easily be dropped and left.

So I am using the keyboard a lot of the time — so much so that I've semi-frozen both shoulders and I'll be heartily glad when I've got this done. I'm also very tired — from thinking, concentrating, holding my focus in place. It feels like treading water but high up in the air; maintaining an orientation of thought. Quite similar to being bored or exhausted.

I'm just over halfway through, and it really is not easy. I find it's got harder as I've got older — harder to maintain the focus and the immersion, almost like holding your breath or something. Or stalking an elusive prey.

It's not the same as typing, anyway.


Toast of New York

Do you wear lipstick?

There are varying opinions about it in our family. My daughters, for the most part, quite strongly dislike the feel of lipstick. 

I personally like lipstick a lot. Low energy and low blood pressure combine to give me a strikingly deathly appearance at times, and in my opinion lipstick cheers things up. Aye, and blusher. Though I've long since retired defeated from eyeshadow and mascara, having lost my eyes beneath hooded folds of skin some years ago.

If you do wear lipstick, what colour suits you?

I look best in either brown reds, or berry colours. 

I have one lipstick — this one (sorry, I see I should have combed my hair) —



– that is a favourite, not initially because of the colour (though happily I like that too) but because of the name. It's an American lipstick, so I didn't get to try it on before I bought it — I got it online. 

It's called Toast of New York. As soon as I saw that, my inner foolish child had to have that lipstick, would not sit down and shut up until I pressed "Send" on a purchase, and waited eagerly for the postie to bring it along to our house.

Sometimes if I'm feeling blue and looking mauve, if life feels less than attractive and so do I, then I apply a lavish helping of Toast of New York, and tell myself things have never been better and I'm probably the happiest woman who ever walked the earth.

It sets this song off, playing in my mind. Not that I have any desire at all to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep, or be top of any heap — I'm entirely happy with where and what I am — and plus I have mixed feelings about Frank Sinatra but, that aside, what a tune, eh? And what a band!

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

What does God expect of us?

In my quiet time this morning, I prayed for my family, and for you, and for some folks going through especially challenging times just now, and for our church leaders.

I suppose I should have prayed for our country, coming up to a general election of government but, I'm sorry Lord, I forgot.

I prayed for myself, too, and this I always find puzzling. I know what I want, but I'm never quite sure what I can ask. In humility anyway, and accepting that life is full of the unexpected and challenges come as well as joys, here follows what I want and what I asked God for.

First and especially I prayed about the end of my life (I pray this fairly often). I asked for a quiet and unexceptional death, for a way of leaving this earth that will not distress those who love me. That I will leave before I become a nuisance to them, so they will not be heartily glad to see me go, but that I may lay down my life in such a way that they see life can be trusted, that they can live with confidence in providence and goodness. 

Then I prayed for responsibility; that God will provide for me to pay my bills and buy my food. I prayed that I may have enough money to realistically resource involvement in society so I may keep my body active and well in old age. I asked that I might be responsible in financial management and household management and the management of nutrition and health, and that I might fulfil my responsibility of kindness and generosity to my fellow human beings who are suffering and in need. I asked for continence and lucid sanity right to the end of my life.

I asked most fervently to live the remainder of my life on earth in quietness and peace. I know that around the world many people live with war and hunger, with domestic violence and addiction, fear and anxiety, sexual violence and the scourge of ill health. I asked to be spared these things so far as possible, and I offered my life to work to eliminate these evils from the world in the small sphere within which my light shines.

I have planned conscientiously to resource and support the life of my body on earth; our eternal souls live in a physical world, and we have to manage this responsibly, realistically and advisedly. It is not sensible to throw caution to the winds. But I also know — even from personal experience — that you can plan as carefully and diligently as lies within your power, and even still the earthquakes and avalanches come that upset the fragile mandala you have made of your life. You lay the pattern, and then someone comes along and kicks over the entire board. How else would we learn courage and patience and forgiveness? 

Then I pray for wisdom and intelligence to live with such slender simplicity that there is little to set to rights when my life is thus upset — that what I have and am is flexible and easy to rebuild.

I ask for quietness and peace, for the space and tranquillity to delight in the companionship of those I love, for means enough to supply my own need and help others too. 

And I give thanks for the beauty of the sunrise, the freshness of the morning air, the wonder of stars and frosty nights, the comfort of the fireside and a hot water bottle in my bed and a cup of nettle tea — not just any cup, either, but a beautiful ceramic cup made by an accomplished potter.

My life is blessed, and may it be a blessing. But what does God expect of me? I don't know. Will God grant me the peace and the quietness my soul craves? Is it enough to live responsibly to the best of our ability, or does he want more? Is it enough to do my best to develop kindness and understanding, to remember to relieve the needs of others and provide wisely for my own commitments? Is it enough to walk the small and hidden track of my choosing, and to weave the best words I know how to do, to share and unfold the beautiful gospel of Christ? Will God allow me to spend my life gently and simply and well? Or does God expect of me the courage and endurance to face terrible things and deeper refining? I ask for peace, and a nook out of the wind's way; but I confess I do not know what God expects of me, and my times are in his hands.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

A snatch of poetry

I've been chasing an elusive quotation from William Langland's Piers Plowman. Searching with the phrases I remembered brought me no luck on the internet and necessitated a purchase in the end. Having reunited myself with it, I found it as beautiful as when, at seventeen years old, I first read it.


Monday, 18 November 2019

Astonishing apartment

Wow! Look at that! What a brilliant design.



Front and back

Macrobiotics practitioners say "every front has a back", and nowhere is this more true than in our body tissue.

Health is another word for balance: life is fluid and dynamic. If we reach a condition of stasis, we're dead. The nourishing of life is primarily about the creation and maintenance of balance (spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, communal). Giving and receiving, breathing in and breathing out, consuming and eliminating, acquiring and letting go, beginning and ending, giving birth and dying. My all time favourite quotation (Toinette Lippe), "Problems arise where things accumulate", applies.

With this in mind, I've been thinking about the body and its balancing pairs — two ears, two eyes, two arms and two legs, two lungs, and so on. Even the bones in our spine divide like wings. The pelvis, the rib-cage — the body is a complete set of balanced halves. 

In our time of foetal development, so I've read, there comes a point of tissue division that gives rise to the nervous system and the gut. Now, I suppose at that early stage of development there's a sense in which everything comes from everything else and all of it comes from the fusion of egg and sperm, male and female, creating a fundamental balance of opposites in our beginning. Even so, the gut and the central nervous system have a particular balancing reciprocity. They emerge from the same foetal tissue at a particular point of development, and are connected by the long vagus nerve that runs down between them. This is why the gut has so many neurons in it, and is the seat of much of the process we give the name "thinking".

And if you visualise them, you can see that the central nervous system and the gut remain a balancing pair, front and back.

The central nervous system, held aloft by the bones of the spine and skull, runs in a line up the back, like a flower or a gourd on a stem. Similarly, the gut is a long line, the intestinal wall in sections as the bones of the spine are in sections, the lumen of the gut encased within the intestinal wall as the cerebral tissue and fluid are encased within the spine. As the spine flowers into the brain (or is the tail of the brain, depending which way you look at it), so the intestine is the tail of the stomach. I have a feeling that the direction here is also a matter of balancing opposition – that energy flows up the spine to the brain and down the gut from the stomach, but I'm not sure about that. The gut of course is folded and cradled within the musculature of the abdomen, the back and the perineum, and nestled into the pelvis, just as the central nervous system is held within the spine and skull. Another opposing pair; soft and hard.

Along the spine is located the invisible system of energy vortices known as "chakras", and they correspond to the soft organs stationed along the body pathway — (leaving aside the top one) eyes, breathing apparatus, digestive organs, reproductive organs and eliminative organs. That last one connects everything up, because the root chakra that sits at our perineum is about nourishment as well as elimination, so it brings us back to the mouth where the cycle of nourishment begins.

The crown chakra at the top is where our dependency from heaven passes — our string to the sky that keeps us grace-full and upright. In infancy it is open and soft (the fontanelle), and even in old age we keep the crack the light shines through and are nourished by the light of heaven. Physically this is expressed in the pituitary gland, responsive to the waxing and waning of the light, governing the all-important endocrine system that determines the directional flow of our health (eg, slowing or speeding up, getting fatter or thinner, masculinising or feminising, waking or sleeping etc).

We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Every front has a back, and this is so throughout the whole natural world — even in aspects we think we have made, like politics and economics and religion. It breathes in and breathes out, gives and takes, fills and empties; and if it stops doing that, it dies and subsides to nourish new life.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

The tape measure

Growing old is measured in losses, some agonising, some simply remarked and some just casually passing.

This morning in my quiet time I thought back to 1994 — 25 years ago.

In 1979 when I came from York to live in Hastings, this town on the foot of England, I was married to Rog and carrying our first child. Straight away I sought out our local branch of the National Childbirth Trust — a radical organisation back then, that transformed the practice of childbirth. The Hastings branch was just beginning. I became its treasurer and made friends with Carole, who was expecting her second baby and training as a breastfeeding counsellor. Then, the years went on.

In 1994 —fifteen years later —I was still firm friends with Carole. We had passed the age of babies and the youngest of my five children was seven years old. I had made many friends in Hastings and was training for ministry. Some of my special Hastings friends were Kay, Freddie, Steve, Charles and Chris. I met up with these friends often; we ate together, shared our hearts together, went deep. I was also training for ordained ministry on the Southwark Ordination Course in London, an Anglican foundation that trained Methodists too. Formation for ministry is powerful and transformative; it digs down to the roots of your soul. I made some special friends on that course, whom I loved with all my heart — Giles and Paul and Michael. They and I spent weekends together in their home or in mine, they got to know my children and my husband Rog. They were so dear to me. I also loved dearly the principal of the course, Martin Baddeley, and he too came to visit this town by the sea, to offer training to our Local Preachers, whose tutor I was back then. And so my London friends and my Hastings friends and my family wove into one fabric of love. Meanwhile, up in Liverpool, Tom Cullinan was living a beautiful discipleship of faithfulness and loving care of the earth, which taught me so much at that time and meant so much to me. I loved him.

Perhaps my dearest and deepest friends were Giles and Kay. My thoughts about baptism had evolved over the years and, while my first four children were baptised in infancy, I left my youngest child to make that decision herself. In 1994 she decided to be baptised; Giles and Kay were her godparents. That's a special relationship, isn't it? One you imagine will last for ever. Giles's involvement with my life even extended to my family of origin — he bought my father's racy little MG car. My father loved his cars.

It was a time so vivid with life and hope and purpose. Relationships that went so deep. A sense of mission and dedication. I was working in hospice chaplaincy and prison ministry and preacher training. I spent a lot of time with people dying and in bereavement, and took many, many funerals — weddings too. I preached twice most Sundays. I was writing books and raising a family. So much going on.

Now here we are in 2019, twenty-five years later. My father died at the age of 82, a sudden and merciful death — a main blood vessel to his heart split. I gave the address at his funeral. My friend  Kay died of cancer a few years ago; I took her funeral, as was her wish. Tom is dead. Freddie is in his eighties now, and we keep tenuously in touch — a card at Christmas. It's the same with Chris. I saw Steve for the first time in years just recently — we bumped into each other at the opticians. He is still as kind and loveable as he ever was. We had lunch together and promised to keep in touch. But . . . maybe . . . 

My husband Rog left me for someone else. We are still friends and our paths cross occasionally. I don't know if Michael is alive or dead. He drank more alcohol than he ate food, and always did live close to the edge. Giles and Paul I never see, though I look them up on the internet sometimes, to see how their lives and ministry are evolving. My youngest child lives far away now. I don't have the money to visit her, nor she me. We keep in touch online, and we love one another. Martin Baddeley is dead, and I have no idea where Charles is. 

I married again, and my second husband Bernard died in 2004. I took his funeral.

I've written twenty or so books (lost count), ceased to be a Methodist minister, no longer take funerals, married Tony in 2006 — then my publisher of twenty years — and I'm writing what I think will be my last book.

But Carole, who was my friend before my children were born, before I trained for ministry or ever wrote a book, is still my friend. When we meet every now and then, it's as though time has stood still. We see each other's soul in the same way we always did, you know? We recognise one another.

So much changes. You lose what you thought you would keep forever. One of the things lost is the sense of self — few of us arrive at old age feeling proud of ourselves. Certainly not me. The sense of one's mediocrity settles in at some point in middle age, and takes root. The main thing I feel these days is gratitude. For every day my body doesn't hurt, I have a home that's safe and dry, I have food in the fridge and enough money to buy it, I can pay my bills and pick up clothes cheap on eBay — I am so grateful. I think of people who make shift in tents and hostels and refugee camps, people who are raped and starve, whose legs are blown off by land mines, people who are overtaken by diabetes and cancer, by Alzheimers and auto-immune conditions, the scourges of our time — and oh, my God, I am grateful. I live so quietly, I barely disturb the air; but here at the heart of my life the ember of gratitude burns and keeps me warm. I am blessed. I know I am blessed.

Time passes. What abides? So little, but some things do.






Monday, 11 November 2019

Martinmas

Today is the feast of St Martin, a very loveable saint.

Martinmas has an ambience of kindness, humility and hospitality.

Martin of Tours was a 4th century Roman soldier who saw a beggar crouched shivering with cold on a winter day. He dismounted from his horse, drew his sword (I bet the beggar was scared) and bisected his own warm woollen cloak with it, keeping one half for himself and giving half to the beggar — thus establishing a precedent of generous but sensible giving.

He had a dream after he cut his cloak in two for the beggar, in which he met Jesus — and noticed that Jesus was wearing the half of the cloak he'd given the beggar.

After his conversion to Christian way of faith, Martin wanted to stop being a soldier, but his father was an officer so they wouldn't let him. They gave in eventually, though, possibly because he adopted the habit of facing his enemies unarmed. Even his father could see this wouldn't end well. So Martin left military service and established a monastic community. There's a story that when the church authorities came to collect him to make him a bishop, he hid with the geese in their enclosure because he didn't want to go. Geese everywhere have paid dearly for their complicity, because roast goose became traditional Martinmas fare.

Martinmas is particularly associated with feasting. In the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, they hadn't yet discovered root vegetables. People ate meat, fish, poultry, milk, cheese, eggs, grain (bread and ale), fruit, and leafy vegetables like salad, onions, leeks, garlic, greens. This meant that once the summer and autumn fruit was all gone, both humans and their domestic animals depended on grain for food. At least some of the milk cows would be in calf for the spring, so their milk supply was dwindling. This meant competition for a decreasing food stock in cold weather. The solution was to slaughter any animals not necessary to regenerate the herds for the next year. As they didn't have fridges and freezers either, and salt was a very precious and expensive commodity, people feasted together on the glut of meat. Martinmas was a huge party. 

It's also the time when the nights are lengthening and the weather starts to feel seriously chilly. The winter dark and cold are drawing in.

In Waldorf (Steiner) tradition, the children make colourful lanterns and go with their teachers and families for a lantern walk as night falls on St Martin's day. It's a reminder to let our light shine, to be lights in the darkness.

Once the meat was all eaten up (meat does keep for some days on stone slabs in the cold), the party would be over and it would be time for the household of faith to turn their attention to the second great fast of the year, Advent, a time of examination of one's soul and of reflective preparation for the coming of Christ.

There's a lot more detail in this article than I've given you here — interesting and worth reading. And here's a piece about a Waldorf Lantern Walk.

There are loads of pictures of St Martin, but I like this one because it has such a lovely horse.



It must surely be the case that fellow fans of the unforgettable and inimitable Father Ted cannot hear the phrase "lovely horse" without thinking immediately of Father Dougal's entry for the song contest, My Lovely Horse. As Ted and Dougal originally imagined it here, and went on to practice it here, and then in its final performance here. But that has nothing to do with St Martin.


One last thing — Martinmas is also one of those days in the year when the wind direction is a good predictor for the prevailing wind direction through the winter; and it's a westerly wind all day today, here in Hastings.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Loneliness

Might this, on UK eBay, be the world's saddest advert for a toy?



Saturday, 9 November 2019

Another minimalist Japanese life




I've been really enjoying the videos Rhea Y posts on her YouTube channel — I love the one about a day in her life (which has a brilliant breakfast fail moment in it).

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Sjöden Böden

For a limited time only . . .

In the comment thread following the previous post, we got talking about the possibility of a fashion magazine devoted to our style of dress — American/British Vague. 

This reminded me of a daft thing some of us in our household did a couple of years back — since we enjoy looking at the Boden and Gudrun Sjöden catalogues, we made our own spoof catalogue for an imagined ladies' clothing firm called Sjöden Böden. 

I went back and looked out the photos we took. My family would lynch me if I put some of them online, but I think they'd be okay with you seeing these for now (some of them are me anyway).


FROM THE SUMMER SPICE COLLECTION






FROM THE SPRING GARDEN COLLECTION





FROM THE FROZEN NORTH WINTER COLLECTION



















I raided the archives of the same cast of characters for my Diary of an English Lady blog (see, eg this post from the blog), using the photos they took from a (spoof) Christmas murder mystery radio play they did one year, called Lord Bonchley's Christmas Party — I especially liked the decadent female nightclub singer called Débris Bonbon. 
And then there are the Group W prison breakout stories . . .

Saturday, 2 November 2019

"As you were."

Are you familiar with the UK clothing company, Toast?

They work hard on ethical sustainability and promoting the work of designers and artisans (see the web page on their approach).  Their clothes are good for the long haul, and improve rather than deteriorate with wear. Their garments are made of natural fibres, their colours are subtle (mostly) and their fabrics are comfortable, supple and soft (mostly). Several members of my family have slowly collected Toast garments — ha! pieces of toast — which they cherish.

They produce an unusual catalogue with poetry and stories in it as well as articles and pictures of what they have for sale. 

I like looking at their website, because their things are beautiful, and that's what I was doing today when my eye fell on this dress.




It spoke to my heart. This is just the kind of dress I love. Everything about it. 

I look at it wistfully, and then I have to take a reality check because, the thing is, time moves on.

When I was nineteen, or twenty-six, or thirty-two, at a pinch even forty, I'd have looked great in this dress. My body is kind of frog-shaped — wide from the front view but flat in the side view, and squashy; handy for slinking through narrow spaces and doors that won't open properly, or behind the piano when we're trying to move it. I have a very long back. I have big hands and feet and broad shoulders/ribs/pelvis. Good for growing babies. When they X-ray my chest, my lungs exceed the picture.  

In frilly, flowery, fluted dresses with lace and bows, I don't look sweet, more like a man in drag. But dresses like this Toast one, kind of Brontë style, are just right. Or they were.

But it's all different now. I am somewhat round-shouldered, with the standard elderly lady lizard neck, and my bust sits a couple of inches above my waistband. So long as I stick to what you might call vague clothes — loose, soft, knitted, stretchy, not shaped — everything looks reasonably normal. Put me in a dress like this one, with its woven fabric (not knitted) and its slightly raised waist and the effect is tragic. I know. I have personally discovered this to be true, at considerable expense.

When I look at clothes, I am on the inside as I always was — I like the same things, I am drawn to what always used to suit me. So then I have to keep my head, pay the beautiful dress inner tribute; and leave it where it is.


Thursday, 31 October 2019

Levels of woolly


Here in England there's significant variation of wet/dry and hot/warm/cold, even over a single day. In the spring and autumn, we have times when our south-facing back garden has an entirely different temperature from our north-of-the-house wind tunnel street. You would need a cardigan to walk down the street but not to sit in the garden.

In early October, if I walk up the road for groceries I might be warm enough with a sleeveless cardigan (waistcoat, tank top, vest), but in our old Victorian house I'd need a cardigan as well if I'm holed up writing all day.

Now we're coming into November, I'm wearing a cotton shirt, with a merino vest (waistcoat not underwear), and over that a cashmere cardigan. I'm warm enough. But if I go out later, I'll swap the cashmere cardigan (which is warm but relatively light) for a sturdier lambswool knitted jacket.

What I'm calling a cashmere cardigan I bought as a "cashmere shirt". It's very versatile because it can function either as a middle layer or a top layer.

In January on the coldest days, I'll probably wear a cotton long-sleeved tee, under one of the "cashmere shirts", under my most heavy duty rare-breed-sheep-wool vest, with a lambswool jacket on top. And a hat and mittens. I have merino tights and a knitted wool skirt.

All of which means I don't need to run the central heating. If it's really cold I stay nice and toasty under the duvet with a hot water bottle.

I prefer heating the person over heating the space. I am not a believer in central heating, though I do like fires. A fire is beautiful, fragrant, cheerful, promotes air circulation, and is alive. Not so central heating; and I feel a deep suspicion of all these wires and tubes and pipes connecting me to a central grid that might be run by Mammon . . . you never know, do you, when it all just comes from "away"?

I enjoy looking at people's capsule wardrobes online, but I consider these Texan types with their short-sleeved tees and mini dresses in utter perplexity, wondering, "But . . . where are your layers?"

I've even known it snow in June in England, and there is also what our weathermen call "the wind chill factor". You set out on a lovely sunny day to sit by the sea, and when you get down onto the ocean shore it can be frrrrreezing. Or else it can be normal inland and then down by the sea in town where there's a wind  blowing and no trees at all, just buildings and then the shore, the heat can be bouncing off everything creating a kind of oven in the summer — if you don't want to burn you need a hat.

And talking of hats, we lose a lot of heat through our heads because the body prioritises keeping the temperature of the brain stable over keeping limbs warm. Also, we lose heat at places where large blood vessels run near the surface (ankles, wrists, neck). So during in-between seasons where it's cold to sit on a train station but you warm up once you're walking, a hat and gloves and scarf are the first go-to, before a jacket or cardigan. If you keep your head and wrists and neck warm, you might not need a coat. Shirts and tees with collars or polo/turtle necks are handy for that. I don't have any polo-neck tops, but I do have shirts and cardigans with collars, and a couple of Indian cotton scarfs — soft and light, tuck in round my neck.

And of course — for managing temperature variation — cotton, linen, bamboo, silk and wool are your friends. Acrylic and micro-fleece are not adequately responsive to changes in heat and cold, and I can think of no useful purpose for Mademoiselle Polly Esther whatsoever.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Home

It's the end of the school day.

I'm keeping an ear out for the Amazon delivery guy, who's bringing the garden tray I have on order, for standing the de-humidifier in. That's in case the duct gets blocked and it overflows, a small but significant malfunction that can ruin a floor even worse than damp can ruin the plaster on the wall.

I've been cold and a bit dizzy today because I've been fasting — an excellent way to improve the health of just about every bit of you. I meant to do one more day and make it three, but I got woozy and cold and couldn't concentrate, so I packed it in after 48 hours.

I've had some nuts and seaweed and bone broth, and I have some fish de-frosting for my supper. I stole some of Tony's milk and made myself a cup of Earl Grey tea, and now I feel contented and more present and able to think straight again. I feel good.

I'm sitting on my comfy bed, and I put the central heating on for an hour because the days are chill now. I have this really snuggly duvet in a bright multicoloured cover that I love. It's cosy here.

Because of listening out for the Amazon delivery I paid more attention than sometimes to the sounds of the street. So I noticed my neighbour coming home in her car, bringing her kids in from school. I saw them come in, heard the door slam behind them, heard them going up the stairs to their rooms.

All that came together in my mind, and I thought — we have so much to be grateful for. Just in this moment —

  • Excellent information about health and selfcare on the internet, all for free.
  • Really nutritious food.
  • The chance to get warm and stay dry.
  • A home to go to at the end of the day.
  • Family to come and fetch us, and a car to bring us home.
  • Mail order for items the shops near us don't stock.
  • A cup of tea — if you are English this is a life essential.
  • A bed to curl up in.
  • A computer to communicate with friends all over the world.
Very soon it'll be the end of the work day, and the next door I hear open and shut will be our own, as this household begins to come home one by one.

We can watch the quiz programmes together on the telly, and catch up on the programme about the RNLI that we missed on Tuesday because we were watching the Bake Off. It'll feel friendly and cheerful, because it always does.

In a world where there are people living in war zones and tents, on doorsteps and in back alleys, people enslaved to a drug habit that's killing them, people trafficked into slavery and taken from their homes, people who are miserable and lonely and afraid — I am so very, very blessed. My heart gives thanks for the peace and contentment of my life, for the chance to live the way I want to and pass my days in peace. I have so much, and I am so grateful.

And there's the front door now. My family coming home.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Lovely Youheum talking about her clothes

Noble Silence

Noble Silence is a Buddhist term said to derive from the buddha's responses to unanswerable questions. Thich Nhat Hanh writes about the practice of Noble Silence at Plum Village here.

Although Noble Silence can imply being externally or physically quiet in the usual sense of refraining from speech, like the (Catholic, Benedictine) monastic Great Silence of the night hours, it doesn't necessarily have implications about speech.

Noble Silence comes about when a person's being, body mind and soul, is fully integrated, when inner turbulence is brought to harmony by a practice and discipline of peace. When that happens, a person's entire life becomes a yoga of peace; their words and actions follow the flow of grace.

I think it would not follow that they cease to be a source of irritation or antagonism — Jesus, prince of peace, was crucified after all. Evidently he irritated and antagonised somebody. He didn't flow unseen through the world. Where the interests of Mammon held sway, he was a sign of contradiction, as his followers will also inevitably be. Persecution always results from this — though we should be cautious, when we are in the majority and the mainstream, of identifying every instance we don't get our own way as intolerable persecution by the insolent Other.

Silence, solitude, simplicity and slowness are the watchwords of spiritual path. They belong to it and characterise it. They are habits of mind and life, a marinade of our whole being. We practice them until they permeate every aspect of who we are. It takes a whole lifetime. 

They are not in truth four things but one, facets of the single jewel of faithful discipline. They are found inside. A person can search for them everywhere and never find them, because they are not externally located — ever. Like the Pearl of Great Price in the parable Jesus told, the merchant, the one who deals and trades in such things, has to sell everything to buy the pearl. That is to say, the seeker comes to a point of refraining from trade with the world and its ten thousand things, finds instead the One — integrates, unifies, concentrates, refrains, harmonises, consolidates. This is Christ's work of reconciliation, the realisation of the pearl of great price, which forms over time in the practice of what is natural, Noble Silence clothing every irritation. Noble Silence irridesces around the grit that arises within our being or enters from outside, to make of it a jewel of patience and peace.

External silence, solitude, simplicity and slowness significantly help the development of Noble Silence. Everywhere you find teachers advising that when Jesus said you must give up everything, basically he meant of course you can own things so long as they don't own you. This is and isn't true. 

If you practise accumulation you will develop complication and various sorts of noise; then problems will occur. If Noble Silence and the pearl of great price are what you are seeking, owning little and travelling very light helps your endeavour. 

If you practice involvement and socialise a lot, it is in theory possible to preserve Noble Silence inside; but you certainly make it harder for yourself. 

If you do everything in a hurry and exclude Ma from your life and try to multi-task, there is no inherent reason why this cannot co-exist with Noble Silence, except that you would have to be a master practitioner first; you couldn't develop a silence of the heart through busyness. Well; I don't think so, anyway.

Have you ever read Herman Hesse's book Siddhartha? It is full of insight and wisdom. In response to the merchant's questions, "What do you have to give now? What have you learned? What can you do?" the central character says, "I can think. I can wait. I can fast." 

This is the practice of solitude, silence, simplicity and slowness; infinitely versatile, it maximises life's potential, and to some degree respects the uncarved block that allows the possibility in every situation, even though the unfolding of personality and occupation erode it.


Sunday, 20 October 2019

So lovely!





And, oh my goodness — abandoned houses!? What are we waiting for?

When the music stops

Did you ever play Pass The Parcel when you were little?

It was a popular party game in my childhood. I didn't go to many parties through a perfect combination of opportunity and my own preference, but I did go to a small number, and Pass The Parcel featured in each of them.

In case you missed it somehow when you were growing up, the game is that children sit down in a ring, and pass a parcel from one to the other while music plays. Round and round, passing it on, passing it on. Then suddenly the music stops. The child holding the parcel at that moment gets to open the top layer. It's a composite parcel with a wrapped gift at the centre, then layers of further wrappings each hiding a gift. So when the music stops you take off one layer of paper, revealing and receiving one gift. No one ever knows when the music will stop. It happens randomly, under the control of a hidden adult.

Just now my life feels like that game, as though the parcel has been passed round and round and now — suddenly! — the music has stopped.

For a long time I've been working on personal change. This has involved researching, reading, experimenting, accumulating, discarding — then finding the changes I'd set in motion required another (then yet another) cycle of exploration and amendment to adjust to the new circumstances I'd created. Ongoing music, round and round. This has all been to do with journeying into minimalism and simplicity, with implications for relationships, belongings, clothing, health, money, eating habits, how I allocate my time, what I read and watch on TV, how I fit in to the church — so many aspects, all in a condition of flux and change, each new configuration triggering a further phase of the same journey. Round and round; like the Children of Israel walking for forty years round and round an area of desert they could have crossed in half a day in a bus.

And suddenly, for the moment, even though there are situations still very much in process and unresolved, everything has gone disconcertingly and eerily quiet inside me. I've completed a round of what I was doing, for the moment everything's in place just as I wanted it and working as it should, all present and correct and resourced and effective. The music has stopped.  

You'd think, would you not, that when such moments come they bring elation and a sense of triumph. Made it! Done it Got it! 

But I find it doesn't work like that. My spirit, restless and questing by nature and habit, is thrown into a feeling of intense boredom, a "Now what?" of the soul.  

Happily for me, I have a book to write with a deadline falling in mid-January, so I can get on with that for the time being. And no doubt the music will start up again and the game of life will continue, new endeavours to tackle and new puzzles to solve. 

But just at this moment it's all gone quiet, as a whole series of interrelated projects have fallen into place. Those things still in process are endings, not beginnings. I have no sense at all of what the new will be, in my own life. 

I wonder what will happen next. Managing decline is all well and good as a necessary responsibility, but right up to the last breath there has to be an adventure, surely. Something to fire the imagination and inspire the soul and captivate the heart, and companions to share the vision and the journey. Duty, as a motivation, is a sullen fuel; and while I find routine soothing, it still leaves me wondering, "Is this all there is, and then the end?"

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Orrery

Where I stand just now feels like Aughra in The Dark Crystal, standing looking at her orrery, watching the unfolding of change in small exterior forms.

In my own life, in the lives of others close to me, in the life of the church to which I belong, I am watching the reluctant turning of rusted cogs unfamiliar with movement, the binding to old forms and the blind questing into the new. 

I see new configurations, and in my own path I choose simplicity, generosity, kindness, respect and faith. I choose the shelter of the Lord Jesus, his company and guidance, his Name and the protective shield it offers. As change comes and new patterns emerge, may I steadily offer simplicity and peace, the fruitful choice of relinquishment and barefoot spirituality. May what I put into the world be for nourishment, kindness and authenticity.

Just now, around me and in three places that have powerfully nurtured me, I am watching death arriving. May nothing impede its approach and may all be accomplished in peace for the birth of the new and the emergence of life.

I suppose these are private things I am writing here, but it is a kind of prayer that I need to speak before the heavenlies so that it may be accomplished, and who knows — perhaps it has resonance in your life for the present time as well. This is a moment to cast off from the shore, to act without fear. This is a time for acceptance and trust, for taking the next step, for being unfraid to leave behind what is comforting and familiar. In this world or the world of light, there will always be another chance, new forms, fresh expressions. The new and living way stands open for all of us to walk on without limitation or hesitation. The way is clear and only awaits our footfall. This is not a matter of insecurity but of joy. 

Go forth. Don't be afraid. Take the tide. The boat is ready.

That's the word that comes to me today. May Jesus bless it to your understanding and bring it safely to pass: peace to you and safe crossing into the new.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Currency, asthma, and the second book

You know what happens in an asthma attack, right? The problem is that the person keeps breathing in . . . in . . . in . . . and can't manage to breathe out. And of course that's really serious and if it's bad enough they can die of it. You can also die of constipation, which is a similar problem but in your gut. Breathing in and also breathing out, consuming and eliminating — you need both halves of the dynamic, because balance is what wellness is. Yin and Yang. We walk a tightrope through this world.

It is a sort of currency, a flow. Human society also runs on this — yes, "runs" is the right word, a flow. We harvest, we sow; we receive, we give; we gather, we scatter. That's the way of nature, which was created by God, so it's also the way of grace, the way of blessing.

I am very interested in lowliness, humility and simplicity. I find rich veins of spiritual power in the small hidden tracks and the little places under the hedge. The springs in the Valley of Baca that Psalm 84 talks about, the house martin under the eaves, the sparrow in the attic of the house of God. Frugality is an aspect of this, and it belongs to the way I have chosen. If you give away a considerable amount of what comes to you, it stands to reason you don't have a big lot left, so you have to know how to make it stretch and make it last. 

John Wesley wrote about this, in a glorious sentence in either his journal or a sermon (I forget which). he said, "I endeavour to wind my bottom round the year, " which made me stop and say, what?

In Wesley's day, of course, bottom meant something different from how we use it now. It derives in translation from the Latin word, dignitas, also translating as "substance". It meant, what you had, your substance, what you'd got behind you — which is how it came to mean how we use it now. My bottom is what I have behind me. 

Wesley earned a fair bit from his writing, but he gave away a lot and also begged in the street in support of the poor — he was one of the original chuggers, I suppose. He kept things low on purpose, living on a small amount himself for the sake of sharing and generosity. He breathed in, but he also breathed out, he kept his spirit healthy. "Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can," was Wesley's maxim. 

By "save all you can", he meant not "hoard" but "refrain from spending"; and this is where I take issue with him. Because, how can one person earn all they can if another person is saving all they can? It isn't logical. 

This winter I wanted a good hat, a warm tweedy one, with a snug fit so the coastal winds don't blow it away when I'm walking down the street. I also wanted a rain hat with the same snug fit. Happily for me, a woman has just opened a hat shop in Hastings Old Town, so I was able to purchase both. And very expensive they are too, by my standards. But, look, they're both made in the UK, and the firms (Proppa Toppa and Peak & Brim) who make them sell them online for no more than the woman in Hastings has them in her shop. I guess she gets a discount as a retailer making a bulk purchase from the maker, but she's not adding on much of a margin in what she charges her customers — and she has all her overheads in running a shop to cover before she even starts to pay her electricity bill at home and put food on the table in one of the most expensive countries in the world.

If I followed Wesley's maxim, saving all I can, I'd certainly not have bought a hat from that woman. So then what? If nobody buys her hats, the woman goes out of business, the shop closes, the women making the hats go out of business, and we have a whole new set of women living in poverty for Wesley to support by begging on the street for money for the relief of the poor. And who's going to give him the money to relieve the poor if everyone's gone out of business because nobody will buy what they make and sell? Including Wesley himself. How can he relieve the poor if everyone's virtuously following his maxim and decides to save money by not buying his writing?

As a writer myself, I know this dynamic firsthand. My fellow Christians often say to me, "I've read all your books. I got them from the library / borrowed them from a friend. I couldn't get the last one so I had to buy that myself." I don't comment, but can they not see the implication of what they are saying? It dams the flow, stops the currency, quite literally.

About twenty years ago, I wrote a book called The Clear Light of Day, which a lot of people have enjoyed. Lion Hudson first published it in the UK, then David C. Cook bought the UK rights as well as US rights to publish it internationally — and they paid me the best royalty advance I ever had as well as giving me the most amount of free copies to give away of any publisher I ever worked with. Sing "hey" for David C. Cook! 

They wanted a sequel, and asked me to write a piece about it to go in the end of the book, which I did.

From then and right up to the present day I've had people writing to me asking, "Where can I get the sequel? I want to read it."

Here's why you can't: not enough copies of Book 1 sold. Simple as that. Unless Book 1 sells, there will never be a Book 2. Publishing is a numbers game and the books have to balance, and no publisher on earth will place a bet on what they know won't sell.

Christians who only read what they borrow from friends and the library are ensuring beyond all doubt that there is no money in writing Christian books, that the Christian bookshops vanish from the high street (they have) that Christian publishers go out of business (many have), and that Christian writers can't make a living. Many authors of Christian books aren't writers. In fact a goodly proportion of them are seriously bad writers who need a lot of help in creating a publishable text. What they do have is a large public ministry as speakers or ministers, or else they are in some way prominent as public figures who happen to be Christian and have an interesting story to tell. Some publishers won't publish anyone unless they promise to buy 500 copies of their own book; they won't take the risk. The writer has to support the publisher as well as herself. Very, very few people can make a living out of being a Christian writer per se, because of the culture of frugality in the church. If Wesley were alive today, we'd have to beg in the street to support him, if he was trying to do what he did then and live by writing his pamphlets.

So that's why the sequel to my novel never itself saw the clear light of day.

There has to be a flow. Charity and giving are an important part of our discipleship, but so are earning and spending. Earning money is a lot more dignified (that word again: dignitas, "bottom") than being the recipient of handouts, and whatever else charity and welfare benefits do, they certainly ensure you stay poor. Society flourishes on currency, on earning and spending, on goods and services both provided and bought. 

Part of the health of this dynamic lies in choosing to pay for people rather than things. In my lifetime I've seen a steady rise of folk choosing the inanimate over the living. The bread-making machine instead of the baker, the vacuum cleaner instead of the char; cutting out the services provider and the middle man – with the same object in view as Wesley had, to save money.

I like to learn from videos on YouTube about living frugally, because as a Christian writer it's a skill I need to grasp firmly! I find it disappointing that they all seem to rely on others giving to them ("buy my t-shirts, give to my Patreon account"), so they can accumulate wealth without giving to anyone else. That's fiscal constipation. They want to dam the currency to create their own enormous pool. It does create a pool, just as they hoped, but what they don't seem to understand is it also creates a desert. A stream is better than a pool. If you keep the flow going, then everyone benefits, not just yourself.

Life is richer, more joyously textured, when we pay people for what they do well. When the writer is paid for writing and the dressmaker for clothes, the milliner for hats, the baker for bread, when people eat out in restaurants and hire a gardener, then the money goes round and society doesn't expire through spiritual asthma. That's the way of blessing.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Laziness, minimalism and intentional space

It's hard to imagine minimalism seen from the outside and think how it appears to people who haven't practiced it, but it occurred to me today that it may seem severe and look like hard work.

All the videos about journeying towards minimalism involve sorting and clearing, tidying and organising, cleaning and being vigilant, making choices and decisions, and saying "no". I can see that might look exhausting.

Now, my life doesn't even appear especially minimalist from the outside because there are four of us living here permanently and we also guard a space for a fifth (her belongings are here but she's nomadic). We have two freelance artists and a publisher who is also a woodworker, so they all need space for the things associated with their occupations, and all the people who are not me are also music-makers so they have many musical instruments between them.

So our house is not empty like the minimalists in Japan wiping clean their bare floors with disposable wipes. 

However, each person curates their own stuff, and then there are the common areas that we all keep clean and tidy — and this is where the minimalism comes in, because not one of us enjoys housework very much.

It would be inaccurate to say we don't like housework at all. There is a pleasing satisfaction in making a bathroom look as spotless and calm as a spa hotel. There is a peaceful, romantically monastic feeling about sweeping an empty corridor with a Japanese broom.

But if there were loads of things standing about and areas hard to get at, and piles of stuff in the way, I guarantee you every member of this household would lose the urge to clean anything, ever.

I like my home and belongings clean and tidy, but I am also fairly lazy. I prefer to spend my time thinking and writing and conversing and reading and learning and preparing for things I have to do. Added to that, I like my surroundings harmonious and although I don't in principle object to cleaning and tidying, I don't want to do much of it or very often. 

This is why I practice minimalism. Not because I love cleaning and tidying, but because I don't. If there's a clear, plain surface or floor, then yes, I'll wipe it down. If it's got load of things in the way, I won't clean either the things themselves or the surface they're on. Everyone in our household feels the same (about that). So because we want to get on with life, we simply eliminate everything we think we can possibly manage without. Then we can live in a clean, tidy, harmonious space with minimal effort. The only belongings I really have are my clothes, which all pack away easily, without cramming, into a normal clothes storage space — a small wardrobe or chest of drawers or couple of underbed drawers depending what location I'm based in at any given time — and a few odds and ends of toiletries and stationery. I have a shelf of books but mostly my library's electronic.

I devote a little bit of time each day to sweeping, dusting, wiping or washing things, but not much, because I quickly get irritated with it. And we maintain and repair and paint bits of our house on an ongoing basis as necessary, but none of us works very hard at any of this for very long.

All this means we actually enjoy our lives and our home. It always looks pretty and smells nice, and we don't have to work very hard.

It's important to us that the place we live is a hospitable space. Not many people come here, but we do — every day — and we want our home to reflect the peace and order of heaven and welcome us and anyone else who comes in as if we and they were utterly loved and treasured special guests.

A lot of our things are shabby and second hand and home made, basic models of kitchen equipment, nothing expensive. Our ornaments tend to be things like fir cones or apples from the garden or a jam jar of flowers. It still looks lovely in a homely kind of way. We light a fire, which is always welcoming and aromatic, and the art work of our household members is displayed around the place. We have a couple of holy statues. And so the space becomes not only clean and tidy but also intentional. Houses speak, and we want ours to speak welcome and peace. We want a house that's cleaned its teeth, not one with bad breath.

Years ago a lovely healer called Gillian looked after all our therapeutic needs — she could fix anything from bad backs to unhappiness, and she kept us well. When we went to visit her, she'd give us a glass of water or cup of herb tea, and leave us sitting in her (clean, tidy, peaceful) living room while she went upstairs to prepare the space. When it was ready she'd come to fetch us. And always there were small candle lanterns lighting the way, soft music playing, and an essential oil diffuser fragrancing the healing room. Her house was healing by itself, before she even did anything. I do believe creating and maintaining intentional space is one part of what keeps us well. And it's not hard to do if there are not too many things.

Part of what contributes to intentional space is have fewer items in it than there's really room for — having spaces around things; breathing room. Another aspect of it is that the things you can see speak to you about why you're there. 

In some churches, when you arrive and sit down your gaze rests on flowers and candles and stained glass, on the Bible waiting open on the lectern, on an altar and dignified architecture — maybe the curve of pillars and arches and simple stone or white walls. In other churches your eye rests on a snarling tangle of electronic equipment and training cables, with filing cabinets and stacked cleaning equipment, piles of spare chairs, and cheerful but awful art by toddlers or women's craft groups.  Each to her own, I suppose — and perhaps you find the second category of church is what leads you into worship.

It is possible, in a muddled space, to keep working and working and working on tidying and organising, reclaiming little patches of land from the incoming tide of manufactured items. But it is certainly very tiring and dispiriting. You work so hard and achieve so little. If you are lazy and self-indulgent like me, then I heartily recommend minimalism, which allows you to maintain your home as a restful intentional space, in which cleaning becomes easy and you never have to do very much housework ever again. It is so, so worth it. Well, I think so, anyway. And I don't think it even needs to be hard work to get it that way. What ever you're doing, every time you get up to make a hot drink, pick something up and throw it in the bin. Every day. If it belongs to someone else, hide it under the other rubbish. Then when the wail goes up — where's my plastic doo-hicky? — you won't know, will you? It'll be miles away in landfill, no more lost than it is in landfill right here in your own home. 

How will you manage without corkscrews and crown top openers? Stop drinking wine and beer. How will you manage without a toaster? Stop eating bread. How will you manage without an electric kettle? There's a stove top somewhere under that pile of pans waiting to be washed. How will you manage without a machine to make water sparkly? Make it a treat you enjoy at a café. How could you ever part from the movies in your DVD film library? Don't. Stream them. What will you read? eBooks. 

The world has too much stuff in it now. It's more than time humanity slowed down. There's no need to deny ourselves anything, it's all there in the public space. Don't get a paddling pool, go to the beach. Don't get a swing set, go to the park. 

And in writing this, I have had an epiphany. I have three mugs. Three. But only one mouth. But I still love the beautiful pottery one and the one with owls on that my daughter gave me. Ha! I know! I will keep them but re-allocate them for visitors, dispensing instead with the set of faceless boring guest mugs. Then we'll be six items down, not two. Excellent idea. For my own use I will keep the bamboo cup with the silicone lid that gets me 25% off at Costa when I remember to take it with me on a train journey. And if it's the one I use every day, I will remember to take it with me, won't I? Not like the last time when I forgot I even owned it, and left it at home and didn't get 25% off.

Right then, time to get on with the day.