Monday, 29 April 2019



"Karma" is a word treated with profound suspicion in Christian circles, I suppose because Christianity is a highly territorial religion that reacts with visceral dislike to anything that doesn't proceed from itself.

That's a pity because you can learn a lot from other people with different perspectives on life.

Besides, karma as a concept (as distinct from as a word), the law of cause and effect, is definitely present in the Bible:

"They sow the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind" (Hosea 8.7)

"Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap." (Galatians, here.)

This is karma without the label.

"Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days." (Ecclesisates 11.1)

As others have put it, "What goes around, comes around."

And I was thinking about this with particular reference to what we eat.

There are many instances that come easily to mind, especially if you disengage from the particular specifics of the crop or produce, and focus instead on the moral principles implicit in the method of production.

An obvious example is poor animal husbandry. How could anyone imagine the dreadful suffering imposed on animal reared in concentration-camp-like conditions could fail to bring karmic consequences? Suffering is hard to quantify but its presence manifests into our physical tissues; it is not merely confined to being a feeling. Or to put it another way, a feeling also has a physical dimension to it, so that wellbeing or the lack of it affects our body tissues. Eating an animal exposed to stress and suffering, and even torture in some cases, will not contribute towards building good health. If we include animals in our diet, and want to be well, then those animals had better be pasture-raised and free range, peaceful and contented, compassionately slaughtered.

Another example is that arm of Mammon evident in the patenting and genetic manipulation of arable crops. Stephanie Seneff's research into this certainly gives pause for thought. So does Vandana Shiva's ("There's one health because there's one planet and one humanity").

But the example that's been especially on my mind, that fascinates and intrigues me, is sugar — in particular its addictiveness.

Gary Taubes (using a term coined by Sidney Mintz) describes sugar as a "drug food". It is unquestionably mood-altering and highly addictive, and plays merry hell with the adrenals just for starters. Robert Lustig is good on the chemistry and physiology of how it all works, too. 

But what's caught my attention is its origins (concerning which Taubes goes into considerable detail in his book); because sugar could not have been brought into production on a significant scale without slavery. The escalation of slavery and the spread and development of sugar production are inextricably linked, hand-in-glove, inseparable. They belong to one another.

And it fascinates me that slavery, upon which the sugar industry was built and out of which it grew, remains integral to the sugar itself. It came from slavery and it creates slavery. The capture and enslavement of human beings was a necessary component of sugar production, and the enslavement of human beings is the result of its consumption too. 

Sugar, "pure white and deadly" as John Yudkin called it, is karma in its most straightforward form. You cannot have the substance without the slavery, in its history, in its manufacture, and in its consumption.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

The quiet eye


Something I have gradually noticed afflicts those of my acquaintance who have a competitive spirit, is that competitiveness fosters stupidity.

I don't like to show people up online, so it's hard to give examples! I'll try to describe what I mean.

Suppose (to give a fictional example), a woman were to say to her friend at church, "In thirty years of making cakes I've found that using fresh eggs and fresh baking powder gives you a better rise than using old ones." And suppose her friend has a competitive spirit and replies hotly, "Well, I've been making cakes for my family every week for nine years and mine are perfectly satisfactory, thank you!" 

She does listen, but what she hears is a competition starting up. She hears the other woman saying, "My cakes are better than yours." So that's what she responds to.

Except, that isn't what the woman is saying. She wasn't starting a competition, she was sharing a life lesson — which the competitive woman didn't benefit from because she missed it. She was too busy staying at the front of the race. She missed the point and she missed the opportunity to learn. All she ended up with was the reassurance of "I'm as good as she is."

A competitive spirit divides our attention three ways — how I'm doing and how she's doing (who's winning), and the subject matter in hand. It's hard to learn something new when there's clamour in your head, and hard to notice and evaluate accurately when you're tense and anxious.

Humility has a quiet eye — it observes thoughtfully and maintains the interior spaciousness to take new information on board. Humility is its own form of minimalism, preserving an uncluttered mind.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Laundry Line

Our garden is so pretty.

Today, the breeze from the sea is blowing and the birds singing, the day is bright and clear and full of sunshine. It's just lovely.

We planned it with loving the Earth in mind. We have a little pond for the amphibians. We feed the wild birds and the foxes and squirrels  and they love our garden and feel safe here. We keep the wild plants in check, but we do let them grow — for the health of the soil and for the diversity and for the pollinators, but also for ourselves. Bittercress, cleavers, dandelions, plantain, feverfew and so many other plants are good food and good medicine. We have planted as many trees as we can cram in, because trees are the angels of life, slowing down the movement of water through the landscape, protecting against drought and flood, protecting us against extremes of wind and sun, moistening the air in the summer heat. What would we do without trees?

I've never had a lot of money, and every home I've lived in has been chosen with a view to having a Plan B in case I completely ran out. So in our garden here we grow apples and pears, plums and blackcurrants, gooseberries and blackberries, ramsons and different kinds of herbs for teas and seasoning and medicine, as well as the vegetables we plant year by year. And we always have laundry lines, water butts (and filters for the rainwater so we can use it for ourselves as well as for the garden and the toilets), an open fire and a wood stove. We set all our cardboard packaging aside to make short temporary fires so the house walls stay dry, the rooms aired and the chill taken off. Our house is old (Victorian) and damp, with shady rooms so we can stay cool even in the hottest summer without air conditioning. We have an attic room which is sunny and hot, good for drying washing when it's raining outside. We have solar tubes to heat our water on the roof and solar panels for electricity (both for our own use and to sell to the government).

It's not a great big garden, just a modest urban plot. I think it might be eighty feet long, maybe less. We save pee and use bokashi bran to make humane composting safe, as well as composting any food scraps we generate. So our garden is well fed and lightens the burden we place on the watercourses and landfill sites.

Every day when I go out into our garden, all year round, every day of every season in any weather, it lifts my heart and fills me with joy and I think, "This is so, so beautiful."


Seagulls are anxious, jealous, nosy, competitive, greedy, cunning and persistent.

Crows are watchful, collaborative, playful, patient, intelligent and inclined to withdraw.

They are both highly observant: “Watch and learn.”

All the above characteristics mean it is a lot easier to get a close-up photo of a herring gull than a crow.

I prefer crows.

Friday, 19 April 2019

The tree outside my window

I'm going to keep a track of this on Instagram, it's so beautiful!

The tree is an ornamental cherry that grows in my next door neighbour's garden.

In general I'd really rather sleep with my head at the other end of my bed, but I choose this way round so I can look out at the tree.

To remind you, here was the tree outside my window last November.

Then, on a day of lucid early spring sunshine in the second week of February, it looked like this.

On the eleventh of April — just a week ago — it looked like this.

We'd had some chilly days when the wind was cold, but you can see the leaves just emerging and the flower buds ready to break.

Then yesterday was really warm, so by the middle of the night above the streetlamp it looked like this.

And in the lovely light of advanced sunrise, like this.

It's a beautiful day with a slight breeze, and the blossoms have continued to unfold. By mid-morning it looked like this:

And I do believe it was even gloriouser by lunchtime.

You can sit here and watch the leaves unfurling and the blossom opening in the sun! Every time I look at it, it's even prettier.

May you always have a tree outside your window, to make your heart happy.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Songs of freedom

So I posted last night about sitting by the fire in the evening listening to the Clancy brothers singing, nothing changed in fifty years. And this morning I was thinking about the influences that come into our lives and the difference they make.

Unlike the Dubliners, the Clancy brothers are not so well known on the British folk scene, because they rose to fame in America. Apparently Liam and Paddy Clancy emigrated on a ship carrying them, the crew and four hundred war brides!! Tommy Makem and Bobby Clancy later came out to join them, and they knocked around being Irish and trying to make life work until the American folk music world fell in love with their songs.

And I was thinking about Julie B and her daughters, who call themselves Irish girls. That gives its name to Sharon's yarn website and her photography website too. I suppose they must be descendants of some of those settlers who came on ships from Ireland.

It's interesting, isn't it, this identity thing? Who we are and where we came from. I wondered what would happen if we got the chance for a reset and could all go back to the place of our DNA. Where would we go? I'd be back in Yorkshire, and very happy to be there. But my father's name was Stephenson, and he came from the East Riding of Yorkshire — Scarborough. There's discussion now about the origins of that name. It may be the anglicisation of Skarthaburg, from the fortress settlement of the raider Skarthi. But this has been questioned by people sceptical of the whole story of Viking settlement there, who say the name comes from the Old English meaning "hill with a fort". Whose fort, though, if not Skarthi's? 

Anyway, my grandparents thought differently. They took me up onto the hills above the sea where the land slopes down to the cliffs, and showed me how it's formed into ridges with deep clefts between. And the Old Norse word Skar meant cleft, and my grandfather said that's where the name Scarborough came from. "Scarborough" means "the place with clefts in the hill".

Stephenson is a name of Norse origin. When I was a child, we had a book about Norway, with loads of colour photos showing the people and places of that country. Looking at the pictures of the fishermen was interesting because you could have put my father down among them and he would have fitted right in. And he loved Norway, and spent a lot of time there.

So maybe my deeper roots are Norwegian not just Yorkshire, and if you resettled us all I should be sent back there. I think I'd like it.

And then my thought wandered on to the influence of music in our lives, and the difference those Clancy brothers and their songs made to me.  

My father travelled the world, and used to bring home with him vinyl discs of the music of places he'd been to. And at some point he brought home this EP of the Clancy brothers' songs. An EP, for those born more recently (!) was like single but a bit longer. Stood for "Extended Play", so it had 2 songs on each side, not just one, but was only the size of the discs with a single song each side. The big discs with whole albums on were called LPs (Long Players).

I loved listening to the music, which we played on a record player my father made from a converted bathroom stool with an old polo shirt of his transformed into a speaker cover and a kit for playing records built therein. 

One of my favourites was that Clancy brothers record, and on that my mother's favourite was the song about Roddy McCorley, an Irish nationalist from County Antrim hanged by the British on the Bridge of Toome for his participation in the 1798 rebellion. They dismembered his body and buried it under the gallows.

I grew up during the time of the troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1960s — divided towns and British military presence and IRA freedom fighters and bombs in London and all of that. It was quite a big thing, and still is. A friend of mine still hates Jeremy Corbyn because Corbyn went to a commemoration for IRA fighters who had been killed, and because he was willing to be in dialogue with Sinn Fein.

Now, my parents were (and my mother who is still alive remains so) the most politically conservative people you could imagine. True blue all the way. They weren't very interested in policies as such, their vote was Conservative; end of.

But it was my parents who introduced me to the Clancy brothers talking and singing about Roddy McCorley, his courage and anti-establishment defiance — 
"There is never a one of all your dead more bravely fell in fray, than he who marches to his fate on the Bridge of Toome today; 
true to the last, true to the last he treads the upward way, 
as young Roddy McCorley goes to die 
on the Bridge of Toome today."  

That difference of perspective, and the understanding that there are two points of view about British rule, and the realisation that the country of my birth is only intermittently and partially benign, and acts with ruthless brutality and self-interest a lot of the time, started from listening to that song. It went deep into my soul as a child and had a profound effect on me — formed my thinking and my attitudes. So my intensely Conservative parents all unwittingly grew their own little socialist. There's power in music, and folk songs have carried the politics of the people and been the voice of the voiceless since forever.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Time standing still

Odd, isn't it, how things change but stay the same — the years go round and life moves on, but then there you are, just like always.

I'm nearly 62. And here I am, this evening, sitting quietly on my own in the mail light by the fire, happily listening to the Clancy brothers singing Port Lairge and Roddy McCorley and Tim Finnegan's Wake and The One Eyed Reilly — exactly as I used to fifty years ago. 

Utterly content.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Notre Dame

Sorrow for the terrible fire at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. 

A place of such history and beauty. So very sad.

Competitions on the telly

In our household, we really enjoy watching the TV competitions like The Great British Bake-Off, Strictly Come Dancing, The Great Pottery Throw Down, The Arts and Crafts House, Bake Off Crème de la Crème, and several others.

Recently we watched Project Runway, and a series called Glow Up which is for make-up artists, and Buzzfloyd put us onto Zumbo's Just Desserts. 

We've also seen (but stopped watching) BBC's Big Painting Challenge.

And a couple of years ago we saw — and loved — a series of Australian Masterchef. We don't like the British version.

I've been intrigued by the difference in ambience, created by the demeanour of the judges, between Australian, and the US/UK.

The Australian programmes we watched — Zumbo's Just Deserts and Australian Masterchef — were such fun, because the judges were courteous, encouraging, respectful and kind. They were candid and forthright, of course — what else would you expect from Australians? But the critiques felt like simply person-to-person assessments of the work.

By contrast, the judges in the American Project Runway, the British Glow Up, and the British Big Painting Challenge, excoriated and humiliated their contestants with the most withering and contemptuously dismissive critiques; rude, scornful and unkind. They made me think less of the judges, not the contestants. 

One aspect of it that came across very forcefully was the unwillingness of the UK/US judges to hear the contestant's point of view. These judges came over all "how very dare you" at the slightest attempt by the contestant to defend him/herself. There was a strong sense of hierarchy, of the successful celebrity separated from the hopeful aspirant by a chasm that could only be bridged by approval from the judges — to gain which, grovelling gratitude was required as well as excellence. The Australians seem much more egalitarian in their culture: and in my world at least, those who show respect to others are worthy of respect from me.

One complete exception to all of this is the extraordinary and intriguing judge of Bake Off: Crème de la Crème, Cherish Finden, who came to the UK from Singapore. Direct, frank, passionate, exacting, childlike, focused, whimsical — I didn't know what to make of her at first, but grew to like her more and more. What finally won my heart was the occasion when a contestant was reduced to tears as his wonderful creation was ruined (I can't remember what happened, I think it fell over and broke) and Cherish darted across and flung her arms round him, then stepped back with a murmured "Sorry!" It made me see the gap between the persona she felt to be required of her as a judge — strict, standards of excellence, school-teacher-ish — and the person she really is. And she is the perfect foil for the urbane and oh-so-very-French Benoit Blin.

I'm not very interested in winning and losing — I don't really believe in either as a concept — but I love to watch craftsmanship and people trying their best and human interaction. That fascinates me. 

Two things that really turn me off, though, are humiliation and unkindness, which is why I stopped watching the BBC's Painting Challenge — couldn't stand the cruel and acid judges.

And that's why, on Project Runway, I (along with everyone else) really like Tim Gunn, but Michael Kors with his lovingly-hatched condemnations of fellow human beings so lavishly laced with contempt, not so much.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Good Friday

Over the course of time, I've written two books for people to read during Lent. One was The Wilderness Within You, which is about encountering Jesus in the context of everyday life, and the other is the fourth in a sequence of nine novels under the collective series title of The Hawk and the Dove. The Lent one is called The Hardest Thing To Do, and is mainly about seeing things from someone else's point of view.

It tells the story of Lent unfolding in a Yorkshire monastery one year in the fourteenth century. The community has elected a new abbot, Father John Hazell, who has a not altogether easy beginning to his new role. 

There's an entry — not a chapter exactly — to each day of Lent, so that it can be read for lenten spiritual devotion. Here, for your enjoyment, is part of the Good Friday section:

Abbot John listened to the chapter, watched the reader return to his stall; and began to speak.
‘On Good Friday, I have nothing original to say.  This seems to me not a time to be clever or innovative – to try to improve the tradition with audacious new thoughts of my own.  I have no new thoughts.  All my sight is filled with Christ upon the cross, nailed in stark suffering, waiting through agony for a glory he has almost lost sight of: “Eli, eli, lama sabachtani.
‘Of all the Good Fridays I have sat in this Chapter House, keeping watch with you, my brothers, the one I remember most was five years ago.  Before Father Peregrine was taken ill.
‘I remember him talking to us quietly, the way he always did.  He spoke about how Jesus opened wide his arms for us on the cross; an embrace, Father said, that was big enough for everyone in the world.  He said that the thing about being nailed to a cross, wide open like that, is that you are brought to a place where you can no longer change your mind.  Do you remember that homily?
‘Father got a bit scholarly at this point!  He spoke about the holy Name of God in the Scriptures: I Am That I Am.  He drew our attention to the numerous times in the gospels – especially the gospel of John – where Jesus takes to himself that holy Name of God.  I Am the Good Shepherd.  I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life.  I Am the Bread of Life.  I Am the Light of the World.  Father said, Christ was consciously aligning himself – for our benefit – upon the pattern of God’s nature and identity.  He was conformed to the being of God the Father; by his choices, by his attitudes, and by who he essentially was.
‘But then, Father Abbot said that the heart of all this, the perfect living icon of God-in-Christ, becomes clear to us when we gaze upon Christ on the cross.  Helpless, hurting, his arms spread wide; no longer able to even see or feel the presence of his God, no longer able to teach or choose, to challenge or heal, he is just nailed there.  And his body announces the real presence of God, saying: “Here I Am”.
‘Father said, Jesus had stopped choosing for himself – he said when Christ opened wide his arms for us on the cross, that was anyone’s hug: friend, brother, enemy, betrayer – Christ was just there; it was over to us now to respond.  This was the finale; the moment we decide whether we are religious sight-seers, pausing to look and then moving on – or whether we will stop, and hug him back.  He reminded us, Christ is nailed to that cross.  Those who jeered at him to come down from it saw no miracles.  So anybody who accepts that embrace, hugs him back, has to accept the cross as well as the Christ.
‘Father said, we are the body of Christ, and we go the way of the cross.  If we are drawn to him, if we are in love with him, what we do is embrace each other – without question, exception or reservation.  In embracing each other, we find we have embraced the cross, but also the Christ.
‘He said; “Jesus opened wide his arms for you on the cross.  It’s up to you.  In each other, you have the chance to hug him back.”

‘I always remembered that.  I can’t put it any better.  It’s what seems to me to be true.’

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Blog post comments and bloggers in general

If your blog is on the roll in my side bar, I read it. You may not know this, because my comments seem to vanish.

At first, I thought it was that people have to accept and post a comment manually, as I do, and haven't checked to see what comments have been left. Then I wondered if I am doing something wrong. Then I concluded I have no idea.

So, just because it's sad for you to feel ignored, here are a couple of my recent observations.

About your adventure in making wallets, Beth — I am amazed at your skills; well done! This is what I posted as a comment (but I think it may have vanished):  
Before I married Tony, I was widowed. My previous husband was Bernard. Before I married him, he was widowed. His previous wife was Anne. She was an artist. A big headache for Bernard was what to do with the numerous paintings Anne left behind. He made really nice frames for all of them, sold as many as he could so her work would be more widely appreciated, got some accepted in an art gallery's permanent collection, and gave some to friends who liked them. But he still had about forty left. In the end, it came to him that the important thing about Anne's work was not the painting but the making, not the 'products' but the skill and joy and creativity and delight. He realised those things could never be lost and would remain part of her life for ever. So he made a bonfire of the paintings.
 About your gardening efforts, Kat — I am so impressed by the determined inroads you made into your exuberant plant growth, delighted by your badger city, and I commented to say that I absolutely love your pond.

But my comments don't always get lost and, whether they do or not, I always enjoy reading your posts. 

Lesley, I follow with breathless fascination the doings of your Aged Parent, and look out for your recommendations of books, TV and films. Somehow, my comments do get through on your blog.

Rose, I hope you're recovering from your sneezes.

Michelle, I'm waiting patiently for photos of the inside of your new home.

Bean, I love reading about your family and your home, and am always curious to know what you've been eating.

Lynda, you are my favourite next door neighbour on the other side of the world. I look up the books you recommend and I love your crocheted blankets.

Rebecca, I fell in love with that vision of blue glass. And this is Rebecca, too.

Julie B, I certainly hope you will be taking some photos at that retreat where you're speaking, and will be letting us know how it went. That retreat is THIS WEEKEND friends — please, if you have a moment, pray for Julie as she prepares and gives her addresses.

San, your stories of home education and faith-filled family life are completely absorbing and make me happy.

Elizabeth, your book reviews are so helpful and have introduced me to writers I didn't know. Ooh, look — this was a good review, wasn't it!

Buzzfloyd, I wish you wrote a blog. I am entirely sure it would be brilliant. And funny. And wise. How could it not be?

I love your blogs, friends. They are my newspaper.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

God bless your day

is a small word
compared with You
is all alone until You make it two.
We is always together,
and is sometimes You and Me;
but sometimes We is more than that
when She makes three -
or even more
when He comes two
without saying who four.
And I is never lonely
when They is here with Me;
that’s I and You and He and She,
becoming Family.
And I is never really lost
when You has made I We
I has become a multitude
when They stands strong with Me.

© Penelope Wilcock 2008

"Hmm. Better when you read it aloud."