Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Spiritual Care book

For those of you who are interested in and enjoy my writing, I just wanted to flag up the now limited availability of a book of mine going out of print (I've linked the image to Amazon UK, where you can read what reviewers say, though there's no Look-Inside for this book).

There are two reasons you might want to read it.

Firstly, it's very useful if you are in any kind of Christian ministry. It's a practical guide to, and exploration of, what it says on the front — spiritual care of dying and bereaved people, looking at various different facets of loss including other reasons than death (eg job redundancy, loss of integrity, divorce, etc). It also includes a chapter in which I've given detailed advice for the officiant at a funeral. I've given templates for funeral prayers and committals covering the different religious backgrounds (atheist, agnostic, New Age and low-key Christian) that you may have to work with because they have no obvious designated officiant of their own.

Sometimes people write to me saying how helpful they have found it, especially if they become involved in hospice chaplaincy.

Secondly, you might want to read it if you are curious about me as a person, because it has more autobiographical detail in it than anything else I've written anywhere.

The publisher contacted me the other day to say sales have slowed so they are now letting it go out of print. They have 84 copies left, which they are selling off in the next few weeks, after which any left over will just be trashed I suppose.

The publisher only made paperback copies, not e-books, and currently does not offer it on print-on-demand, so once it's gone, it's gone.

I guess from time to time second-hand copies will be around, but I have no copies myself and I don't think a huge amount were ever printed — it's a bit of a specialist book.

So I'm just letting you know, because I do think it's worth reading, especially seeing as we all die at some point and so does everyone else we know.

I hope you don't mind the publicity: I usually prefer to stick to conversation and thinking here, but once in a while . . . This is not me making money, because even if they sell every copy they still have in stock, it won't take it past the (small) royalty advance they paid me. This book just didn't sell very well, but the people who read it were glad they did.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Saying what cannot be said

In writing a book, especially for the Evangelical marketplace, some things cannot be said, and this can be awkward.

The three dodgy areas are profanity, vulgarity and sex.

My own fiction writing has included a series of novels about Catholic monks.  One big difference between Catholic monastics and Evangelicals is how they use the name of God. There is no problem for a Catholic about exclaiming"My God!" as an expression of pain or surprise or outrage — but Evangelicals often classify this as blasphemy, unless it is clearly part of a prayer.

I do not personally consider it blasphemous or profane. A Catholic monastic is so profoundly steeped in God's company that every breath belongs to and refers to the holy, and it is hard to write about monastics without including this quirk of speech. Fortunately, in the Evangelical wing of the church there is no high regard for Our Lady or for the Mass or any of the saints. So the way round the problem is to use their names instead. The outraged monk is allowed to exclaim "By the mass!" or "Sancta Maria!", even if his distributor is going to be Kregel.

Vulgarity is also a difficult issue. It's not easy to write about the Middle Ages omitting the word "piss". Shit is also big in any human life — and fiction has above all else to be truthful — but you cannot say that either. So you have to open the thesaurus and be a bit inventive.

Thus, I might have a character say: "I've been sent down here to dig out the gong. For my sins, I generally get to be the man who has to shovel the smelly stuff. I've been shifting ordure all morning, and right sick of it I am."

Please note the avoidance of repetition as well as of words that might give offence. Nobody says "shit", though that is evidently what he means. "Shovel" is not used twice, the second time he says "shift". "Ordure" and "the smelly stuff" are used to create alternative instead of repetition. 

In my early days of writing I'd have simply let "the gong" stand. Nowadays, arcane phrases the reader probably won't know annoy me — so I'd either footnote it or put it in the glossary. The gong is the accumulated pile of shit you get in the garden, just outside a house beneath the outlet of the drop toilet in the bedroom. 

Then there's the delicate business of writing about sex. 

Have you ever heard of a demi-sexual? It turns out I am one. I have an aversion to graphic or overt expressions of sex outside the context of close personal relationship. If sex scenes come on the telly, I have to shut my eyes and put my hands over my ears. If sex scenes are included in books, I stop reading right there and get rid of the book.  However, I am entirely comfortable with my own sexuality, and have no sense of inhibition within the context of my faithful, monogamous, personal sexual partnership. I know. Odd, isn't it?

That's just specific to me, but as I writer I must also work with the parameters of my publisher and marketplace. 

The publishers I have met seem to have little or no problem with sex in novels (less than I do myself), and enjoy what they regard as "a bit racy". Everyone uses this phrase to describe Catherine Fox's writing, but I cannot comment — because they all say it's racy, I've never read her work.

The gatekeepers when it comes to the marketplace (I'm talking about Christian fiction now) are the distributors and retailers, and they have definite and rather fierce standards about sex in fiction: there mustn't be any.

I'm okay with that as a writer — but the thing is, humanity is sexual, and that's just the way things are. You have to find a way to give it expression somehow. You have to say it without saying it. 

Actually, it brings to my mind a poem penned by D.H. Lawrence, deeply fed up after they burned his Lady Chatterley:
Can you tell me what's wrong
With the word or with you
That you don't mind the thing
But the word is taboo?

I must say, I think he did have a point.

The line in the sand is differently drawn depending where you are. 
There is real life, then there is UK Christian fiction, then there's US Christian fiction.
My book The Clear Light of Day was first published by Monarch for Lion Hudson in the UK. At the end of it, two people share a bed. They are romantically involved with each other, but because this is Evangelical Christian fiction they must not have sexual intercourse. So they don't, though in real life they (probably) would.
But when later David C. Cook, a US Evangelical Christian publisher, picked up that book, the last chapter had to be re-written so that the two people in question did not share a bed; one of them had to stay downstairs on the living room sofa. It was okay. The character didn't mind. He was happy to make that alternative choice, and it was his sofa.
I think either version of the story worked all right — but I was intrigued by the variation in requirement.

Elsewhere, I sometimes used terminology we often associate with sex to describe a character in a non-sexual setting, thus establishing their physicality and sensuality, to make their humanity properly rounded and give it depth.

In my book The Long Fall, one of the characters who is celibate because he's a monk, and is also substantially disabled by a stroke, is taken for a walk in a wheelchair by his friend, at night:

‘Are you all right?’ Tom asked quietly, releasing his hold on the handles of the barrow and resting his hands lightly on Peregrine’s shoulders.
‘Y-es. Oh ... T-om ... th-th-th ... s-s-stars.’ His voice was filled with the sweet agony of his yearning delight. ‘I l-l-lo ... m... .’
‘Yes. I know. You love the stars.’
In silent consummation Peregrine drank in the beauty of the night; the wide enchanting wilderness of stars, the close enfolding of the secret dark, losing himself in the music of loveliness. He closed his eyes and lifted his face hungrily against the exquisite kiss of the night air. ‘Oh, le bien,’ he sighed. ‘Oh mon Dieu, comme c’est bien ...’
Tom stood a long while, perfectly still, unwilling to intrude upon this silent communion. Then he took the handles of the chair again, and pushed it along the path, slowly, among the scented plants. He stopped beside a rosemary bush that had grown out across the path so that it brushed against them. Peregrine leaned over and buried his face among the thrusting young shoots.
‘Oh, mon Dieu ...’ He breathed in the heady, resinous aroma; ‘Oh le bien!’ He reached out his hand and rubbed the fragrant leaves against his face until the air was suffused with the scent.
‘Smells so clean and good, doesn’t it?’ said Brother Tom. ‘It makes you feel more alive.’
‘M ... y-es. Oh y-es.’ He righted himself in the chair, and they continued slowly through the fragrant paths of the physic garden.

Nothing sexual takes place here — but the component parts (intimate friendship, night-time, losing oneself in intense sensory experience, the semi-articulate expressions of pleasure and delight) would all be at home in a context of sexual experience. It's a way of writing a sexual being (character) without writing sexual doing (event).

The same was true in writing about the abbot's attraction to a married woman in my novel The Beautiful Thread. One way of proceeding is to stay with the character's emotions and impulses, without taking them through into any form of physical expression. This can even intensify rather than weaken. Like this:

"The last light shone from the west and though the sun had not yet gone down, the shadows began to gather in the hollows. John turned his head to look at Rose. To his consternation, though he did not move, his hands could feel the warmth of her shoulders and the texture of her linen dress, his mouth knew the feel of her cheek as if he had kissed it. The sense of intimacy and immediacy jolted through him like a shock, something more than he could assimilate. He felt the power of it travel through his whole body. The loveliness and gentle wisdom of this woman. He looked away again. In the grass, a forget-me-not, ardent sweet blue, just coming into flower. He wanted to pick it and give it to her. Caught in the confusion between the insistent clamour of warning arisen with him, and the anguished rebellion of his heart, he did not move. He sat as still as a stone.

Resonant upon the dying light, the bell rang out for Compline, calling the community to put the day to rest. Rose stood up, turning to look down at John as he still sat on the step. ‘Father John?’ she said. ‘Time to go.’ And so it was."

In other contexts (for instance, The Breath of Peace, which is actually about the marriage relationship) it would have been seriously incongruous to not include a sex scene. Even so, publishing into an international (primarily UK/US) Evangelical Christian marketplace, the cautions and boundaries remained, and had to be honoured.

So there are always paths around these obstacles, and part of the interest and enjoyment in being a professional writer is figuring them out. Writers and publishers for the Christian marketplace often rail against them, wanting fictional characters given freedom to swear, to use vulgar expressions, to engage in fully expressed sexual congress. Is this not all part of being a grown up human being? Isn't it real?

Somewhat to my surprise, I have come to value the peace and respect implicit in working within these established boundaries. Some readers (me, for example) may find it invasive and unwelcome to be confronted with strong vulgarities and explicit description of sexual congress. And it isn't necessary. We, being ourselves real, understand what is implied; we don't need it played out in full graphic detail righter there in our faces.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Editing repetitions and clichés

The fault of repetition besets all writers. It comes in four forms — the favourite, the oral, the recent and the vivid.

All writers have favourite words or phrases they over-use. One of my own is "little".  I've got wise to this now, but look at this passage from the opening pages of my first novel (and the first book of any kind I wrote for publication), The Hawk & the Dove. I've highlighted "little" in red. Ignore the blue for the moment:

My mother. She was not a pretty woman, and never thought to try and make herself so. She had an uncompromising chin, firm lips, a nose like a hawk’s beak and unnerving grey eyes. Eyes that went straight past the outside of you and into the middle, which meant that you could relax about the torn jersey, the undone shoe laces, the tangled hair and the unwashed hands at the dinner table, but you had to feel very uncomfortable indeed about the stolen sweets, the broken promise, and the unkind way you ran away from a little sister striving to follow you on her short legs. My mother. Often, after tea, she would stand, having cleared away the tea things, at the sink, just looking out of the windows at the seagulls riding the air-currents on the evening sky; her hands still, her work forgotten, a faraway expression in her
Therese and I would do our homework after tea, sitting at the tea-table in the kitchen. The three little ones would play out of doors until the light was failing, and then Mother would call them in, littlest first, and bath them in the lean-to bathroom at the back of the kitchen, brush their hair and clean their teeth, help them on with their nightgowns, and tuck them in to bed.
This was the moment of decision for Therese and me. Ours was a little house in a terrace of shabby houses that clung to a hillside by the sea, and we had only two bedrooms, so all five of us sisters slept in the same room on mattresses side by side on the floor. Mother hated electric light—she said it assaulted the sleepy soul and drove the sandman away, and when the little ones were ready for bed, she would tuck in Mary and Beth, and light the candle and sit down with Cecily, the littlest one, in the low comfortable chair in the corner of the room. If she put them to bed and left them, there would be pandemonium. Cecily would not stay in bed at all and romped gaily about the room, and Beth and Mary would begin to argue, starting with a simple remark like ‘Beth, I can’t get to sleep with you sniffing,’ and finishing with a general commotion of crying and quarrelling.
So Mother resigned herself to stay with them as they fell asleep, and she sat, with the littlest one snuggled on her lap, in the room dimly glowing with candle-light, softly astir with the breathing and sighing and turning over of children settling for the night.

Therese and I, at sixteen and fourteen years old, had to choose between staying alone downstairs to read a book or paint or gaze into the fire; and creeping upstairs with the little ones, to sit with Mother in the candle-light, and listen to her lullabies.

And that was the final published version after my editor had pointed out I over-used the word "little" and I went through the text pruning it out!

When you write, look out for your own favourites and prune heavily. If you self-publish, it can be most helpful to recruit a second pair of eyes to look over the text — it's surprising how oblivious we are to our own predilections.

Repetition based on oral usage crops up frequently in the work of writers who are also preachers or otherwise public speakers. When addressing an audience, repetition is helpful for anything you want to stress — but other forms of emphasis are better for the written word. In the Hawk and the Dove passage above, I've picked out in blue an example of this. If you were telling the story, repeating "eyes" like that would create a heavy footfall on an important point to draw attention to it and linger on it. In written prose, it's merely irritating. I'd have done better to re-phrase "unnerving grey eyes. Eyes that went straight past" simply as "unnerving grey eyes that went straight past".

Then there's the unintended repetition of words or phrases used recently — and again, all writers do this, so a second pair of eyes is almost essential to weed out instances of it.

An example might be:
"I like to wash my hair in gentle shampoo, especially in the summer when my hair gets especially dry."

There, the word "especially" is the unconscious repetition. In editing it, I'd suggest swapping out one of them for "particularly". But notice there's also the prose-clogger of repeating "my hair". For that, I'd suggest either changing "I'd like to wash my hair in," to, "I like to use," or else swapping out the second "my hair" for "it".
So you'd end up with:
"I like to use gentle shampoo, particularly in summer when my hair gets especially dry."

Then there's the repetition of vivid phrases. These are the unusual expressions that stand out and stick in the memory. They do so for the writer as well as the reader, and can lead to unintentional repetition.

An example might be: 
"He had not only helped himself to half the plate of bread and butter and eaten all the coffee cake, but taken a stonking great hunk of the fruit loaf as well."

Two paragraphs further on, or later in the same chapter, or early in the next chapter, you come across something like: "Trying to walk five miles in Wellington boots left her with a stonking great blister on her left heel." Pleased with the unusual turn of phrase, the writer has unintentionally repeated it. God bless the editor who's paying enough attention to spot it.

There are some phrases you can only use once in a lifetime, never mind once a novel.

One of my favourite writers to read and learn from is Raymond Chandler. His style is so sharp and infused with humour, his phraseology so vivid. In his novel Trouble Is My Business, he says:
"But he's in a racket and he knows people. Things can happen a long way off from where Marty is. And Marty is no bath mat. He gets up and walks."

I have treasured that passage for a lifetime — I mean, how brilliant is that? "No bathmat"! It still makes me laugh. But you couldn't use it twice could you?

It's often the vivid and funny turn of phrase that passes from person to person until it fossilises into a cliché. "No pressure!" is a sterling example of that. "For Pete's sake think of something different to say," I mutter as contestant after contestant parrots it on TV competitions. "No pressure, then! No pressure!" Yawn.

One time when I was editing somebody's book of pastoral theology, I came across his observation that organising his congregation was like herding cats. I stopped, and added the margin note, "This phrase was once amusing but has become boring through overuse. Think of an original image." 
He came back with the fresh and delightful phrase "packaging clouds", and the book was better for it.

As well as words and phrases that are overused and unintentionally repeated, there are some you can never say — you have to find ways to walk around it. But let's have a look at those next time, because I expect you have some other things to be getting on with.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Editing for publication

Not everyone who reads here is a writer, but many of you are, so I thought you might be interested in further thoughts about editing your own work or other people's.

Here are some things I look out for.

Word count is a big issue — many are the novelists who turn in a 100K manuscript when their contract says 65K. It comes back to them to be cut drastically, and this is hard work. If it's a magazine article you're writing, and they asked you for 400 words and you sent them 496, the editor will have to shorten it — and who's to say if the 96 words taken out are the ones you would have chosen to lose? If you're basically lazy like me, get it right the first time; if the content matters to you, see to it that you won't imperil it by sending in excessive word length. 

If you follow the system I described in the previous post, problems of word count will simply go away.

De-coking the prose is an inevitable task. Let me give you some examples.

Suppose you get a passage like this:

Whether editing someone else's work or my own, here's how I'd tackle that section:

First I'd look for, and eliminate, flocks of thats (given in red).

Every writer overdoes the thats, even skilled and famous ones. Look, for instance, at this famous prayer by Thomas Merton:

Beautiful, isn't it? I love it. But it does have a flock of thats. Had I the privilege of editing it for him, here's what I would do:

You may need to click on it to see properly, because all the thats are identified in red, but I've left some in and taken the extraneous ones out. I think the rest is fine.

So get rid of the flocks of thats.

Back to our passage again:

In green I've shown small and weak words. Some may be essential, but — like the weak cross-shoots in an apple tree — they'll need pruning. 

The purple word — 'has' — is a repetition. Repeating boring little words slows down your prose. 

In blue, I've identified instances of the verb "to be". Limit it.

In pink, are the qualifications hesitant people insert into what they say. Mine usually diminish: I'll say, "It's a little bit chilly today," or, "I'm rather hungry." I find it hard to convince myself that the "little bit" and the "rather" can just go.

By contrast, some writers/conversationalists pump up their content — everyone they meet is EXTRAORDINARY or AMAZING. So, "Simon has done the most EXTRAORDINARY work in the AMAZING orphanage he's started."

Irritatingly, you learn nothing there about the orphanage (except that it exists), and not much about Simon (except that he started it). Instead, you are fed your own response. This is mere marketing.

So, I might reduce our passage to this:

But then I see I've lost something (literally). Look at the original:

The first three black words are "Something . . . important . . . me".  
The writer is telling us about herself, not about architecture. How I rendered the passage —

— puts the house first and the person second, which is wrong for the feeling the writer intends.

So I might try this:

That's better. The prose is crisper than the original, given interest by  breaking it up into question and answer, starts with the person and lets the house follow, and includes the important addition of why the windows are important — not for the look of the building but for the light they let in.

Three other essential considerations: repetition in its various forms, clichés and Unmentionables. I think I'll come back to those tomorrow, though, or this post will become a little bit  indigestible.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Writing tip — Wednesdays

In case anyone who reads here is involved/interested in professional writing, or just in honing creative writing skills generally, for what it's worth I thought I'd share with you something I've noticed and found personally helpful.

When I'm editing people's novels, I often come across a problem I've experienced in my own writing of fiction, which is what I think of as a Wednesday.

Let me explain.

As a schoolgirl (I hated school), I found Wednesday the most difficult day of the week. I'd already lived through Monday and Tuesday, but we weren't nearly through — there was still Thursday and Friday to go before we reached the weekend. Wednesday was the week's nadir.

When you write a novel (or for that matter a non-fiction book, even a chapter or an article), if you just start at the beginning and work through to the end, you almost inevitably create a Wednesday — a slow, heavy, boring bit in the middle. Like the middle of a Yorkshire pudding, or a cake that sinks. 

The way to avoid this — I apologise if this seems so obvious to you you wonder why I'm even saying it — is to structure the piece you are writing into very small sections.

For example, recently I had to write a medium length article about a rather complicated thing. To stop it bogging down into a Wednesday as I lost my way and sank in the morass of information, I categorised it into three main sub-headings, then also allocated a short word length for an introduction and for a conclusion. That way, I was able to create a rhythm of rise and fall throughout the piece. It also kept the informational focus sharp, because I wasn't trying to write about all the elements all the way through.

It's like stashing your grocery shopping in bags, instead of trying to pick up the whole pile of loose items in your arms to carry them home.

If I'm writing a novel of, say, 65,000 words, I leave 1000 for a margin to expand into. Then I divi up the 64,000 into 8 chapters of 8,000 words each. I take the trajectory of the narrative and divide it into sections, with one important episode allocated to each chapter — something with emotional intensity and personal encounter. I write each central episode separately, so that each chapter has a mountain instead of a valley as its emotional structure. Then, to give readers a rest and create a rhythm in the book, I write the edges that join the mountains together — and these include contextual detail (that creates interest but without intensity), and humour (that rests people from emotional intensity).

By structuring the book in this way, it is possible to completely avoid falling into a Wednesday — there simply isn't one, because the book is structured section by section instead of as a whole; and the sections don't have Wednesdays either, because they're shaped as mountains, not as valleys.

I commend it to you as a useful way of making it less tiring and less daunting to write a novel, and to create a rise and fall like breathing that carries your reader through.

I hope you find this helpful, not boring or superfluous.


Thursday, 17 January 2019

A lovely day

It has been such a lovely day.

When I blogged about Pearl yesterday, so many friends blessed me, and said they were praying for me; it's been like spiritual sun-bathing!

Here in the edge of England, after a night of rain, the sky cleared and the sun came out this morning, shining through myriad raindrops like a humungous chandelier. So beautiful. 

And I made myself a sensible lunch that came out really successful — I had some gravy in the freezer to defrost, and my potatoes were cooked just right, and the Brussels sprouts were delicious and I had a bit of orange juice left over and some ice cubes to make it just right. 

And some work had come in that wasn't eye-crossingly difficult but something I knew about and could easily do. So I was neither bored nor terrified. I just felt happy.

Then another writer has given me a copy of a book she's written that was on my Amazon wish list — and I'm so looking forward to reading it by the fire while everyone else here is out at their choir this evening.

And for my supper I have some really good bread from the whole food co-operative in Hastings, with some cream cheese that has smoked salmon in to go on it.

Really, life couldn't be more utterly perfect. 

Er . . . I hope your day has been okay too, and I haven't made you want to go out and shoot yourself now . . .

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The histories we carry.

As the saying goes, "you can't turn the clock back".

When I think of myself in my teens and twenties, I had such a different perspective. Passionate and idealistic, full of faith. I listened so eagerly to preachers then, and thought they were wonderful.

So much has happened, and most of it has worked disillusionment until disappointment has ceased to be a feature of my world view, and I am surprised more by integrity and conscientiousness.

It's like when you learn to drive, and can never really relax as a passenger again; or when you become a writer and every book you read for evermore you now read with an editing mind ("that's a repetition; that's not what you said on p.106"); or when you become a preacher and every sermon you hear, you critique for excellence ("don't start off by telling us you preached this at your brother's ordination, man, nor that when you sat down in your study to prepare this you couldn't think what to say — just cut to the chase and give us some theology").

I've just got so used to lies and evasion, jealousies and resentments, self-deception and vain clutching at self-image. 

I count myself utterly blessed that I share a home with the truest, humblest, kindest, wisest people on God's earth. I can go to them for good counsel, and count on them for honesty.

And today, we lay the body of my friend Pearl to rest. You could not have found a soul more gentle and brave and loving. Such sweetness of manner and attitude. Unfailingly encouraging, she thought the best of everyone.

You would have thought, would you not, that the church would have been her natural home, but it was not so. 

Christmas was Pearl's favourite time of year. She'd lived through long stretches of poverty in her childhood, and she said her best Christmas of all was the one where they had no money whatsoever for presents. Her mother, who was a Wise Woman and a healer, sat Pearl down (she was seven years old, I think) to explain this. Together they drew up a list of the presents Pearl would have really, really loved. They spared no cost and made the best list ever. And then her mother made it come real in Pearl's imagination — the beautiful doll, the puppy, everything she wanted — and those imagined gifts exceeded all material expectations, remaining for all time the best presents Pearl ever had.

Pearl's mother influenced her deeply. Pearl never forgot the time they had just one sixpence left on the mantelpiece to buy a loaf of bread; but her mother saw a ragged tramp passing by, and made Pearl take that sixpence and run after him with it as a gift, because he had nothing and they at least had a home.

And Pearl's mother instigated in their home a practice of thank you notes. She kept a little box on the mantelpiece, and all through the week wrote notes on scraps of paper giving thanks for life's blessings. Pearl and her father joined in, and once a week they all  sat down at the kitchen table together, to open the box and read them out and say "thank you". 

Pearl was their only child, and she became a (much beloved) teacher when she grew up. She paid for their home with her salary, and she began with her school pupils her mother's practice of the "thank you" notes — it caught on right through the school. She also cared for her mother in her last illness and was with her when she died — when she said the room filled with a wonderful fragrance.

She cared for her father too, in his old age — he had a stroke and was a long while disabled — so he could stay in their own home until he died. She would come home in the school dinner hour to give him his lunch, back again at the end of the day to make his supper and wash him and put him to bed, up early to get him ready for the day before she set off for school, where she became the deputy head.

Pearl loved Christmas so much, and every year used to watch her video of It's A Wonderful Life (her favourite, alongside the one she had of the life of St Francis). Then, every New Year's Eve she kept watch until midnight. She lived alone in her cottage in her old age, and had no visitors at New Year, but as the old year passed away and the new year began, on the stroke of midnight she would open the cottage door. She had a treasured picture of Jesus, and she would carry it in through her door from the midnight garden, to give him the first footing into her home.

Like her mother, Pearl was a healer, and had a particular place in her home (in front of the hearth) where the confluence of energies brought strength and peace. She laid her hands on animals and humans alike, and brought healing and blessing and peace.

She loved the living earth and made a small outdoor chapel in her garden where she sat to allow God's love to enfold her. She loved the birds that flocked to her bird table, and she loved her trees. She had a statue of St Francis, who was one of her heroes.

But her main hero in life was Peter Goldman, whom she held at her heart's core with a deep, true, abiding love. He taught her about the healing frequencies of colour and sound, and she incorporated these into her own healing practice. She found her faith community at White Lodge, which he taught and led. There she was loved and honoured.

The church, not so much. Pearl loved any place that revered the name of Jesus, and over the years she came and went at churches local to her neighbourhood. But they hurt her. On one occasion, she went to help decorate the parish church for Christmas Eve, and the vicar's wife asked if Pearl would be attending Midnight Mass. But Pearl explained she could not go, because her disabled father needed her with him through the night. She was his carer. The vicar's wife told Pearl she could not be a proper Christian, then, if she was not going to be in church on Christmas Eve — and this rejection went through Pearl's heart like a knife. She never forgot it.

This same church participated in a mission, with the name "Walk of 1000 Men". And some of the fine Christian men in question came knocking on Pearl's door. With her usual loving hospitality, she invited them in and served them tea and cookies. While she made their pot of tea, they sat in her living room waiting, and wanted to know when she brought in the tea, what was the small colour wheel on the table nearby. So she explained about the use of colour frequencies in her healing work (it really does help people get better). And these men then started on at her about how she and her healing work belonged to the devil. They were the only people I ever knew Pearl to throw out of her house. Courteously, yes, and respectfully; but she asked them to leave.

It was her dearest wish that her funeral would be jointly conducted by her beloved Peter and me. Because she was a woman of faith, her executors understandably chose the parish church as the location that seemed obvious to them for her funeral. And wouldn't you know it, the clergyman with oversight of this church (they are temporarily without a vicar), though he permitted Peter to give a eulogy (thank goodness) would not allow me to conduct the service there — though he very graciously did say I could read some prayers or give a reading or address; he did not shut me out, but I declined his offer, kind though it was. They showed me some of the prayers to be included in the service, and I think what they have chosen is just right; it will be beautiful. 

I have a history of my own with that church. In past years, when I was pastor of the Methodist Church in that place, the incumbent at the parish church refused to participate in an ecumenical mission if I had anything to do with it! I didn't want the mission to be spoiled, so I withdrew. But back to today — the committal of Pearl's body will be not there but at the crematorium, which is an open space over which the clergy have limited domination (though in my years of taking funerals there, I have seen the church of England clergy make a power grab, taking from the funeral directors to themselves jurisdiction over all funerals where the deceased had no particular religious affiliation).  So I have been left the precious honour of there laying my dear friend to rest.

And this day, I have so many mixed feelings. Of the gradual disillusionment wrought by decades of association with the church, of gratitude for the many Church of England clergy who, over the years, have graciously bent their rules to make space for me to officiate at funerals in their churches, of gratitude that this space and opportunity has been given to me to bless my Pearly queen as her little boat docks on the further shore, of thankfulness for souls good and true, whose work is for healing and peace and spiritual mastery, and — I confess it — of contempt for the efforts of those who take the name of Jesus and try to make of it a platform for their own advancement and empire-building, who try by exclusion and rejection to gain a monopoly on the goodness and truth which shine with such a dim and grubby glow in their own witness.

Think of us today, if you will, friends, as we lay this beloved, unusual, holy woman to rest. The Force was strong with this one, and that's the truth!!

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Laughter and the green fleece.

I am conscious when I look in the mirror or at photographs of myself, that there is a sort of madness in my eyes. It isn't surprising, there's a lot of it in my family, and I try to limit the problems it can create by padding about softly and mingling in society as little as possible. I dislike conflict or other forms of personally directed attention, and where I see signs of it brewing I sink into the margins, lying low like a flatfish just as our Hebe said I should.

I wear quiet colours, most of the time — greys and blues, the colour of shadows and in-between times.

I like this colour palette I saw online — very pleasing; it was called The Druid's Tea Party, and I liked that too.

Several of those are in my wardrobe, also dark blue and deep red. I like the colour palette of this painting Hebe made —

The colours of the landscape, of the moor and the forest and the seashore.

But sometimes another consideration intervenes. About a year ago, when I had a deep emotional shock, I applied colour for healing, surrounding myself with all the strength of the rainbow, the jewel colours of India. They comforted and restored me. And then, I buy most of my clothes second-hand on eBay, or at the tail-end of the sales when prices are reduced right down. So there often is little choice, and if the cut and fit and fabric are right, the colour may not be.

When my children (I have five daughters) were small, they wore party dresses almost the whole of the time. That was because you can get dresses second-hand easily, whereas practical trousers and sweaters tend to get worn out by their first occupant. In the same way, it is easy to buy clothes in hot pink, safety orange, lime green and winter white, and of course you can always get black. But soft greys and muted blues and greens (in the right cut, fit and fabric) present a greater challenge.

So it came about that I bought two second-hand Lands End fleeces on eBay at a very low price; in a fuchsia pink and a strong shade of green.

These two fleeces were a bit big for me, but looked okay over a full skirt. 

However, I went to a church meeting one evening with my husband. I didn't really look at him as we left the house. It was very cold, and we were both wrapped up warm in fleeces and gilets and cosy winter trousers.

Only when we arrived at the meeting and were greeted by gales of laughter and cries of "Oh, bless!" and comments to the effect that we were dressed the same, did I look at him properly, and register that he also was wearing a fleece in a strong shade of green (he wears it most of the time), teamed with navy blue cord trousers and a black gilet (I had on a pair of navy fleece trousers and a dark blue gilet).

I was so startled and taken aback by being suddenly noticed (I rarely am) and by finding myself the centre of attention, that as soon as I returned home I put both that and the strong pink fleece out for donation. I really can't be doing with that level of visibility.

In the morning, having spent a while in my pyjamas, thinking about the weather and wondering what clothes to put on . . . remembering the cries of "Oh, bless!"  . . . accepting that I have no idea what my husband is wearing . . . and don't want to spend time checking, I just think, "What the hey". . . and put on whatever I was wearing yesterday. 

I'm better off without that green fleece, and a lot less visible.

Saturday, 12 January 2019


I believe in housework, but I do not enjoy an excess of it.

From my teens onward, monastic thought influenced and shaped my life — also buddhist and taoist thought.

There's a wonderful story (buddhist? taoist?) of two monks walking along a mountain path that goes past a humble stone dwelling alongside a clear stream. 
As they approach the little house, the first monk says to the second, "A sage lives there, a holy man." 
Then they notice a lettuce leaf bobbing on the water of the stream.
The second monk remarks: "He can't be either holy or wise, or he wouldn't be polluting the stream and wasting that lettuce leaf."
The words are scarcely out of his mouth when a skinny old man with a long beard, dressed in an ancient and tatty (but clean) robe, comes tearing out of the door, and runs at top speed to the stream to retrieve his lettuce leaf.

In monastic thought of every religion, cleanliness and frugality are prized.

"Cleanliness is next to godliness," as John Wesley said. 

The monks I lived with in my teens had a little booklet setting out their rule of life: it included the observation, "The priory should reflect the peace and order of heaven."

Cleanliness and order belong to the kingdom of God, because they promote God's shalom. Where there is clutter, dirt, bacteria and mould proliferate, and insects and rodents take refuge. In their wake comes disease — respiratory tract problems (asthma and infections), gut infections, skin infections, all sorts. Our discipleship requires us to extend the reach of Christ — the kingdom of God, the spread of God's shalom; and cleanliness and order are part of this.

It is important that we undertake it ourselves, not personally be the source of dirt and clutter while passing onto others (paid or unpaid) the responsibility for clearing it all up.

As a teenager, I remember reading about the spiritual formation of Carmelite nuns. They are contemplatives, their work is prayer and art and writing. They don't teach or do social work. They are enclosed. So you might expect that their formation focused on spiritual and intellectual exercises. It made a strong impression on me that for their first year (postulancy and novitiate) they are required to do no intellectual labour but housework and gardening and cooking — manual work, which is an essential component of our spiritual formation. Scrubbing floors develops the soul.

This ongoing responsibility is an exacting requirement, but the task is made immensely more daunting if we have many possessions. 

You don't have to be a minimalist to live simply, but it is much easier to live simply if you are a minimalist. The practice of simplicity requires you to be mindful about all the threads and connections of your life. The garments you wear, the groceries you buy, the fuel that lights and heats your home, all the myriad daily choices — the simplicity of faithfulness lays upon you the discipline and responsibility of becoming aware of the sources of these connections with the wider world, ensuring that so far as it is possible your end of the engagement promotes compassion, honesty, social justice and the wellbeing of creation. It is an enormous task. The less we have to think about, the easier it is to carry it out faithfully.

When it comes to housework, up to a point I enjoy it. There is an interest and pleasure in, for example, hand washing pyjamas and hanging them on the line to dry (as I did this morning), or carefully cleaning the accumulated grime from the touch of many fingers from the edge of a door or drawer or from a banister rail. It's pleasing. But if there is clutter everywhere, more than you can possibly deal with, it becomes merely overwhelming and one is discouraged from even making a start.

So keeping ones possessions strictly limited to a small number promotes the likelihood of keeping one's home tidy and clean. When I say it, that sounds like stating the obvious, doesn't it? But it's surprising how many people don't get it. I've had people say to me that they don't want to tackle their accumulation of possessions and dirt because they don't like housework; I say it's essential to keep it all under control for the very same reason. A minimalist lifestyle is brilliant for a lazy person.

Friday is meant to be cleaning day in our house, but the time got filled up with other duties, so we set about it today — Saturday — instead. We three women who live here full-time each give an hour to cleaning on the same day at the same time, and three hours is all that's needed to keep things in good shape. There's also a man who lives here and he also cleans, but on his own schedule because his patterns of responsibility are different.

So today, my job was vacuuming and dusting through the common ways, and cleaning my room. I want to show you what I had to clean.

The lower stairs to the attic (above that is the responsibility of the person who lives up there, and she isn't here at the moment) —

The landing (upstairs hall) —

The main stairs —

The downstairs passage (hall) and the front sitting room —

I swept the kitchen too, but the one of us who had the task of cleaning the kitchen pulled out the cooker and freezer to clean behind them —

The back sitting room —

— including the hearth —

— and all surfaces —

— and then the floor and surfaces —

— in my own room —

What I want you to see is how phenomenally easy it is. There is one hurdle to overcome — only one; getting rid of possessions, bringing the number of items one owns down to a minimal level. After that it's a breeze forever — and the older I get, the less energy I have and the more I appreciate it. In the years left to me on this earth I want to enjoy being by the sea and in the garden, to look at sunsets and smell roses and sit by the fire — not sift through mountains of clutter trying to find my tweezers!

Friday, 11 January 2019

Time, space, money and things

A thing, surely, is as big as it is. It takes up the space it does and that's all there is to it. 

In the same way, a person has a certain level of income and capital, and a certain level of financial commitment — and either they have enough money to pay their bills or they don't, and that's the end of it.

On the face of it, those are self-evident truths. 

Raising a large family, on a modest budget in a small-to-medium sized house, caused me to look very deeply into the challenges posed by the economies of storage and money. I like puzzles, and managing a home is very similar to an unending game of strategy, a puzzle.

Something I learned that goes on surprising me even though it is by now a very familiar phenomenon, is that how you store something affects the space it takes up, and when you spend money affects how much you need.

Time and again I've looked at my budget and had to concede it simply doesn't work — there isn't enough money — only to find, if I went on looking and thinking, and thinking and looking, I would eventually see a way to make it work by timing. I would set money aside to pay the various different bills we incurred, and there'd be a shortfall. But I discovered I had to look at it like a dance or a piece of music. I had to take the timing into account. If I took some money from over here and put it over there (borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, as they used to say), then there'd be enough money to pay the bill as it came in. Then when a payment for some work done came in, it would be in time to ensure the account from which I'd borrowed was topped up. It's crucial, and it never ceases to surprise me. There is almost always a way if you factor in timing as well as income and capital. For most of my life I haven't had enough money to do the things I've done; you don't need as much as you think you do — it's all about managing the flow.

And the same applies to managing the space, in setting a house in order. When I sit on my bed and look at my clothes, now I've put them away KonMari-style, I find it hard to believe how little room they take up.

My wardrobe (closet) is about four foot wide (slightly less). My aim was to have ten clothes hangers, but in reality I used to have between twelve and fifteen. On each hanger I had approximately three garments — a t-shirt, a cardigan and a skirt; or a pair of trousers, a t-shirt and a fleece. Some had more, because I hung them in outfits. So there might have been a pair of trousers, a t-shirt, a sweater and a cardigan. And my wardrobe looked rather full.

Meanwhile I also had a set of shelves to accommodate everything that wasn't clothes-on-hangers — so, underwear, toiletries, books, glasses, etc., etc..

But when I folded my clothes up like Marie Kondo shows you, they take such a startling amount less space that I could put not only the clothes but also the shelves away in the wardrobe.

It really surprised me. The clothes had been hung up very neatly, more than one garment to every hanger — how could it possibly be that they take up so very much less space when you store them in a different way? 

It's the same phenomenon as the money thing — the impact on your life of what you have, is determined by how you manage it.

And I think that isn't obvious, or necessarily what you'd expect.

Of course if you simply live beyond your means or keep adding items into your home without taking any out, then it will all go horribly wrong. A house is only a box of a certain size, and even cleverly managed money can only go so far. But there is a kind of astonishing magic in the management of space and flow, that never ceases to evoke in me a sense of childish delight — when something should be impossible, but somehow it's not.

And to me, it's part of the duty and delight of loving — it makes even really very modest resources stretch a long, long way. Suddenly you have enough to share.

I remember my mother making a somewhat acid remark to my sister — this was decades ago: "I think Penelope must have a private income." It made me smile, because it felt like that to me, too — like Mary Poppins' bag. But really it was just a matter of understanding space and timing. It's not the what, it's the how.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

More domestic detail

I wanted to show you a few other bits and pieces from my pared-down life.

In the modern world (have you noticed?) we have electronics. These bring great blessing. Because of the internet, I can work from home, and live the secluded and quiet life I longed for, and I am grateful for it. I can also connect with people all over the world, whose friendship brings me joy and delight, and I am grateful for that, too. I love that my camera, my torch, my files, my music collection and my book collection all fit tidily into a smart phone, a Kindle and a small lightweight laptop that even with my floppy wrists I can lift in one hand, easily. I love that my bedroom lamps are cordless, so I can charge them from the solar panels during the day, and carry them wherever I need them in the dark hours — which means I need only two lamps, an angled one for close work and a general-purpose lantern. The blessings of electronics are manifold and I am profoundly grateful. However, I dislike the sight of trailing cables.

So I keep my charging station —

— down at the foot of the bed, out of sight.

I don't even like the sight of wall sockets —

— so our Tony kindly make me a little cover to hide them.

That writing there is in the language of Tibet — Buddhist words to keep Sticky Buddha company: Om Mani Padme Hum (I think; I don't really know, because I don't speak that language, but I do think the culture of Buddhist thought is beautiful. Ladakh, Tibet, especially). Sticky Buddha is also in charge of my oil diffuser — its a really good one that I got from NHR Oils in Brighton.

And I have a small folder to keep my earplugs and all my household, personal and professional files tucked away.

I really love my lantern —

— and look, you can see my rosary reflected in the mirror! That rosary was made by the Carmelite nuns in Notting Hill, and has a little picture of Teresa of Avila on it.

The lantern is by TaoTronics, which makes me happy. They have a little logo of the Tao on the things they make and sell. I love the Tao Te Ching, which has influenced and shaped my thinking over four decades, and I like to have the mark of it there on my lantern.

On my shelf there by the lantern and the mirror is my comb. It's a really special one, very beautiful. It's made of pear wood.

The Sikhs — who surely know all about long hair — say a wooden comb is best; it protects the hair against damage. I don't know for sure if this is so, but I respect their judgement.

By the lantern and the comb I keep this tiny jug (Judith Rowe's work) and bowl —

— which I use when I Hopi-candle my ears, or fetch water to top up the oil diffuser.

I wanted to show you my hankies too —

— because I am a firm believer in bathroom cloths and coffee-straining cloths and washing/drying-up cloths and nose blowing cloths that are not the disposable sort but the washable sort. The years of menses have long since ceased for me, thank the Lord, but the younger women in my house have washable, not disposable sanitary cloths. They do that because they love the Earth and they love trees, and want to honour that love.

I have an altar in my room, up on the wall —

I have some permanent intentions on it, and then sometimes if I have a formal request to make of the Ancient of Days, I add them on.

This is the main theme of my altar —

This calligraphy was made for me a couple of decades ago by our Rosie, and has travelled with me everywhere. It's the second verse of Charles Wesley's hymn Captain of Israel's host

When John Wesley died, on his death bed he told his friends over and over how much he loved them, and bade them farewell, but his very last words were, "The best of all is, God is with us." These words that dominate my altar express that view.

Next to it is this little druidic prayer —

The honest truth is that I put it there because I tore the wallpaper taking down a redundant plastic stick-on hook badly. But I do love the prayer.

Then, actually on my altar are these things —

— I'll tell you what they are. The sign at the back left is a prayer protecting the Earth against the evil of fracking. The one on the right is the sign of God-rays, the Light of the holy Trinity that protects and empowers us, the Light of God's countenance shining down on us.

Near the front is my wedding ring. I don't wear it because my fingers swell and shrink easily, and I lose rings in the frozen food compartment in the supermarket and then they get unbearably tight on hot days. But it's my way of lifting my marriage into the light of God.

On the left there is a lovely bangle. It is made of three metals and has Sanskrit words on it — Om Namaha Shivaya — which is an ancient Hindu prayer expressing the manifestation of, and immersion into, devotion to the Absolute Reality from which all life emerges. 

That particular bangle was given me by our Fi when she was about seven. We went to the Big Green Gathering in the West Country, and gave each of our children ten pounds (which did not buy much even back then, about twenty-five years ago) to buy whatever they wanted on the lovely stalls. On one stall I saw these bangles, and loved them because I love the Om Namaha Shivaya mantra; and our little Fi immediately spent nearly all her money (the bangle cost about seven pounds) buying one as a gift for me. I have not kept many things in my life, but I keep this as the treasured memory of a little girl who gave everything she had as a gift of love to her mother. It stands for what is precious in this world, and that's why I have it on my altar — a symbol of generous, unhesitating, lavish, childlike love.

Sitting inside the bangle is a tiny brass Ganesh that our Alice gave me — a Hindu expression of the creativity, playfulness and inspiration of God, the part of God that is expressed in art and poetry and writing. Ganesh sits on my altar as a prayer to the Ancient of days that through me the creativity of the Spirit may be manifested, making Jesus known and loved in the hearts of everyone who reads my work.

There's a purse on my altar, expressing my belief in flow — as Jesus said, "Freely you have received, freely give." It has a little money in it, not much but some, because of the words in the book of Proverbs (30.7-9, GNT): I ask you, God, to let me have two things before I die: keep me from lying, and let me be neither rich nor poor. So give me only as much food as I need. If I have more, I might say that I do not need you. But if I am poor, I might steal and bring disgrace upon my God.

Only this last year, I parted company from a publisher who required that I suppress truth, and this was a very serious thing, because I was writing about the Scriptures. So without hesitation I parted at once from that source of income. It is God, not the commercial forces of Mammon, who supplies my need and is my master. The purse on my altar keeps my financial priority in mind, and respectfully reminds my Lord of my daily need for his sustaining.

And the last thing on my altar is a frog. The thing about frogs is that they always come home. I keep it on my altar for my tribe, my kindred, that we will always find each other in this wide world, and also for my soul, that it will safely return to the God who made me, the Christ to whom I belong.

So that's my altar. And one last thing I wanted to show you today is my curtain —

I used to have white, gauzy curtains  . . . er . . . these (that photo was taken in the summer. That's Cyan; he's out on loan) —

— but I keep my window open most of the year, and my window looks out on the street and we live by a bus depot, so the air can be grimy despite the best efforts of the sea and the trees to keep it clean. So my curtains got grubby and I am not enthusiastic about housework. So I took them down and washed them, then used them to swaddle the Christmas-time baby Jesus (I must show you him at some point). So I didn't have any curtains but, as my room is small, when I get undressed I am very visible from the street. Therefore I hung up this lovely shawl Buzzfloyd gave me for my birthday, to be a cheerful curtain lending privacy, and easy to take down and wash.

So — waving from Hastings in England's East Sussex. Be blessed today. xx