Saturday, 29 June 2019

It would make your hair curl

Now here's an odd thing — at least, I think it is.

When I was a young woman, I had long, straight(ish) hair. Allowed to dry naturally, it had a very slight wave in it. That's how it was.

My life went along being itself right up to 1998, at which point a season of radical change began.

From the winter of 1998 I entered an increasingly turbulent time, not within myself but in my circumstances. It gathered force, until by the winter of 2001 I had lost my job, my marriage and my family home, while still bearing responsibility for a family on the verge of fledging.

In 2003 I remarried — to Bernard, who developed an auto-immune disease that destroyed the mucus membranes of his gullet and mouth and trachea. I (and my daughter Hebe) looked after him at home until he died at the end of August in 2004. Bernard was a tempestuous man, who before me had been married to the love of his life, Anne. When I moved in to his cottage, it was still furnished for the two of them; he was willing to make available for me one cupboard and two drawers. This was a useful stage in my journey into minimalism, but not especially easy. His illness was terrifying. At the same time I had returned to working as a minister, and bore increasing pastoral responsibility over a widespread rural area — long hours, a lot of driving; It was very tiring.

During these years I was often at my wits' end, exhausted, drained, bewildered, just keeping on keeping on.

About a year and a half after Bernard died, in the winter of 2005, I entered the life partnership I am still in, with Tony. We married in 2006. Though this brought me joy, life remained  . . . terrifying. I met immense hostility from my new step family, my family of origin, (never easy) was in melt-down, and my new marriage meant a move hundreds of miles from the last shreds of continuity and stability my life still held. I was happy in my marriage, but otherwise immensely lonely and continually attacked and rejected by new and old family members. I was too wrecked to work.

Around 2002 I wrote a book called The Clear Light of Day, and in 2007 somebody interviewed me in connection with that novel. They wanted a bio photo for the article. Here's the one I provided —

It's how I looked when I left my hair to dry naturally.

In 2008, I decided enough was enough and it was time to rebuild and heal my life.

We moved back to be near my family (my children). I left the Methodist ministry. I withdrew from social contact with almost everyone. And since then, over the last decade, I have travelled deeper into minimalism, making my schedule, connections, income and possessions smaller . . . smaller . . . smaller . . . modelling my life on the hazelnut Jesus holds in the palm of his hand in Julian of Norwich's vision. I've also chosen to minimise the time I spend with people who have made it clear they don't like me, and with people whose energy is so turbulent they overwhelm me.

At some point along the way I saw a Body Talk therapist. It proved to be a very short session because, she said, my body didn't want to tell her anything except that it had horror in its bones. I'd say that was about right.

I've spent the last few years cleansing, healing, restoring, and making myself well again.

Here's a photo of me today —

My hair has stopped curling. It's gone back to the straight-with-a-slight-wave it used to have when I was a young woman.

Now, I have known since childhood the expression "It would make your hair curl!" to describe something horrific or terrifying. I always assumed it was just a saying that didn't really mean anything, but apparently not. It's actually something that can happen. Straight hair that changes to curly is mostly caused by hormonal change or by drug intervention (chemotherapy). Evidently stress can do it as well.

Who knew? I found that interesting, and a good way to evaluate the effectiveness of the healing journey I've undertaken.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Rob Greenfield

Inspiring man — lots of food for thought and interesting daily-life detail in this video — fusion of minimalism and simplicity (not always synonymous) with frugality, humilis, willingness to share and abstain from ownership, radical minimisation of waste, re-use and re-cycling, maintaining focus, acceptance of the loneliness of his disciplined path — this is such a complex achievement, I take my hat off to him!

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Writing purdah

Okay, here I go into writing purdah for a little while, because I'm having trouble getting my mind into the level of focus it needs to concentrate properly on the book I'm writing. It's all planned out and I've made a good beginning, but I need to immerse myself in it for a while. Happily I have no preaching appointments in the calendar, I've written my magazine article for this month, and I have only one speaking engagement of significance in the near future.

So I'm going to hole up and write.

I'm still here if you want to get in touch — your emails or comments here on the blog will still find me. 

But other than that you'll know a looooong silence doesn't mean I've finally been murdered and fed to the cats by my long-suffering family, I'm just buried in text entirely of my own volition.

Lonnie Donegan! How does he even do it?!

Here he is live in 1961 — one of my favourites.

But that naughty train driver! I bet they never let him through again. He should have kept quiet about his pig iron.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Quietly during the night

I generally wake around five o'clock. Every other day I get up then for a bath before the rest of the household is stirring, and the alternate day I stay peacefully in bed and watch the morning rise.

Yesterday, I woke at a quarter to four. 

Around 2007, a time of considerable struggle for me, after a battery of medical tests I had a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. It doesn't bother me much these days because I keep a strict discipline of life and diet. But if something very stressful crops up, I do get a flare-up.

Recently, after a few turbulent months that have prompted me to make some changes and tighten up my practice, I've come out of a patch of illness and started to feel much better. I've felt peaceful and (for me) relatively energised, with improved stamina and focus. 

So I was surprised when I woke at a quarter to four to notice familiar signs of inflammation in my neck and hands and feet and limbs generally. What could this be? Was it an infection, a cleansing reaction, or what? I hadn't eaten any of the food that could set it off, I'd been very careful. I suppose I got tired preaching at the weekend, but that was two days before. I felt momentarily puzzled, and drifted back into sleep. And when I woke up properly an hour later, I felt fine.

Over breakfast I mentioned this to Hebe and Alice. It turned out they both sometimes experience the same thing. One of them said she occasionally wakes up in the (too) early morning with painful tonsils and a general sense of inflammation in her throat. She knows if she goes back to sleep then when she wakes up properly for the day the problem will have gone. The other one has rumbling auto-immune issues, that make her joints flare up and swell from time to time. She likewise said she sometimes wakes early to find her joints hurting and inflamed, then drifts off to sleep again and finds they are better once morning has come.

We concluded this is part of the body's repair work during sleep, that we had inadvertently surprised by waking before it was done. The toxins of stress or diet, or just part of our rhythm of nutrition and disposal, the healing of wear and tear and investigation of incipient problems — these are dealt with in all our body systems by our inner repair angel, our own personal Rafäel, as  we lie deep in sleep. Waking too early, we can find ourselves walking in on a surgical operation of sorts — "You aren't expected back yet, please go away." So our astral selves clear off again and leave the angel to the patient healing work. And in the morning, "All done! House is ready for you. It's okay to come back in again now."

Does this happen to you?

Monday, 17 June 2019

One thing at a time


Do I look slightly stressed?

The evening goes like this.

I put the frying pan on a medium heat, starting off some chopped onions to cook in olive oil as a starter for the meal I intend to prepare.

I go out into the garden carrying scissors to pick a big handful of herbs to add to the supper I'm cooking. 

I cut bay leaves, marjoram, sage, mint, lemon balm, thyme, rosemary and parsley. I have the scissors in one hand and the herbs in the other. This takes a while, because the mint is right down at the bottom of the garden growing in the shade, I need to circumnavigate trees and step over a fallen rose stem to get at the bay tree, and the parsley is at the top of the garden in the veggie patch. I make a mental note to come back and tie up the rose stem.

The little apple tree next to the veggie patch is in full leaf now, and several self sown herbs are growing on the path. I have to step carefully round them, and cautiously use the stepping stones on the veggie bed to get at the parsley so I don't tread on any plants.

I notice the cherries are plumping out nicely and wonder how to go about picking them as they're so high up.

While cutting the parsley I notice the wind has dried out the ground despite recent rainfall. The baby kale sprouts are coming through and today has been hot and sunny so I really ought to give them some water.

Once my supper is cooked I want to sit down and relax for a while; I'd rather have done the watering before I eat.

One of the foxes that comes to our garden has mange, so I need to bring the foxes' dish up to the house to get their supper, so we can add the homeopathic mange drops to their food. It takes two of us to feed them at the moment, because our herring gull pair has become bold and insistent. One of us feeds the gulls their scraps, and while they are guzzling it down the other of us nips down the garden and hides the fox food under the low-growing hawthorn cover. If the seagulls see us put the fox food down, they come and eat it the minute our backs are turned, so this stealth is vital.

I'd rather have fed the birds and the foxes before I sit down to eat my supper, because once I've eaten and washed up, I just want to relax and watch TV with the rest of my household. I like the quiz programmes, and they'll be on in ten minutes.

I look at the dry veggie garden and the scissors in my hands and think about the onions cooking on the stove and hesitate. I put the scissors on top of the water butt, making a mental note not to forget them after I've done, and water the veggie garden with the two watering cans I filled up earlier. I need to refill them. The taps on the water butts are stiff when the butts are full of water — pressure from inside — so I need both hands. One of my hands is full of herbs that I don't want to crush. I have to be careful. The parsley and thyme stems are a lot shorter than the other stems. I have to be careful not to drop them. 

I go across the veggie patch to the path, stepping only on the stones I put down for the purpose so as not to tread on any plants, then round the self-sown herbs and the apple tree to the back door. As I approach the door my gaze falls on the tomatoes growing in their planter. They absolutely must be watered, tomatoes need consistency of moisture in their compost. I water them with their own little watering can that stands alongside them that I filled earlier for this purpose. I used some this morning, so now it's empty, so I should go back to the water butt to refill it. I decide to approach the water butt from the quick, easy side that doesn't involve the circumambulation. I can do it but only by getting a faceful of miniature ornamental cherry and reaching round to turn the stiff tap with both hands but very carefully so I don't crush the herbs. Damn. I forgot the scissors.

I straighten up, push past the little ornamental cherry to reach for the scissors. The tomato-watering can is only small, so it overflows spectacularly while I'm doing this. It doesn't really matter, the water just flows into the veggie bed, but it's irritating because I don't like wasting water. I'm worried about the onions. Are they burning? I'd have liked to add tomatoes and garlic at an earlier stage than this so they could reach the same stage at the same time. It takes forever to peel garlic, you have to be very patient, and I haven't even begun.

I turn off the stiff water butt tap with the scissors in one hand and the herbs in the other. I'm careful not to crush the herbs but I do hurt my hand. I take the refilled can back to leave by the tomatoes and go into the kitchen. Damn. While I was out in the garden someone else has come in to cook their own supper. Now they will be standing in front of the places I need to get to in order to whirl round and chop tomatoes and peel and chop garlic to add to the onions before they burn to a cinder. The quiz programmes start in two and a half minutes. I begin to feel very irritable indeed. 

"Did you mean to leave these onions cooking?" asks my housemate. Yes, but I didn't intend them to be very nearly black.

I try to be patient enough to respect the fact that now we are both using the same space in our rather dinky little kitchen. I snatch the onions off the heat, peel the garlic badly, fling tomatoes in unchopped. I look at the herbs, deciding I'll just eat the greenfly not rinse them off. I grab an aubergine (eggplant) and chop it up at lightning speed, ditto a courgette (zucchini), and fling them in. 

I break three eggs into a bowl and beat them up as quickly as I can, tossing in a random amount of seasoning. I wonder why I feel so ill and realise I stopped breathing a while ago. I feel dizzy now.

Eventually, being scrupulously polite and friendly to my housemate, I manage to cobble together a disappointing omelette incorporating burnt onions and underdone aubergine and courgette, and greenfly. I wanted to finish it under the grill but that's all part of the oven, which the other person is now using so I can't.

The quiz programme began fourteen minutes ago. I'm annoyed that I missed it. What about the seagulls and the fox? Breathe.

I run down the garden to recover the foxes' dish left under the hawthorn yesterday. We put the food and medicine in their dish, gather up the scraps for the gulls, go outside to feed them, successfully duping the gulls.

Coming back in, I realise I haven't washed up the frying pan or spatula or scissors. I do that, dry them up and put them away (our draining board is minuscule, our pans are few, and four people need to cook their supper — you can't leave unprocessed items lying around).

I take my cold, rubbery, badly seasoned omelette with its burnt onions, greenfly, undercooked courgette and aubergine into the sitting room, just in time for the last round of the quiz programme, on football, about which I know nothing and care even less. So I've missed the bits I like, about arts and books and science and geography and history. 

Breathe. I sit down quietly, across the room from another of my housemates, who has been peacefully watching the quiz with a cup of tea. I am really cross, but I don't say anything.

When I was a child, in the little book of proverbs my mother gave me for Christmas, was one that said:
One thing at a time
And that done well,
Is a very good rule
As many can tell.

Oh, yes. That must be why Thich Nhat Hanh drums it into his novices to breathe and smile and only do one thing at once. I must try to remember. However does he find the time? How early does he have to start supper?

Damn. I haven't tied up that rose stem.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Willie Nelson redefining what it means to be 86!

Slugs, shells, snails, hermits and minimalist living

I try to be cautious and respectful about using other people's material online, but there's this captioned picture I wanted to share with you that I found and kept (because it made me laugh) a couple of years back. I've linked it to the place it originated, not particularly as a recommendation (or not) but just because it ought to be credited.

Here it is.

I love it.

It came back to mind because I was thinking about where a person's sense of identity comes from.

Our household has been immensely enjoying Sally Wainwright's new serialised TV drama, Gentleman Jack, about the Victorian landowner Ann Lister, who lived at Shibden Hall near Halifax in Yorkshire. Ann was comfortable with being a woman, but ill at ease with many of the trappings associated with femininity — all the lace and bows and so forth. She worked out her own style of dress that expressed herself — and the clothes she wore were (of their time) both manly in style and yet still appropriate for a woman.

Of course she would still have been the same woman on the inside in a frilly pink silk dress with pearls and lace sewn onto the bodice, but she wouldn't have felt comfortable because it would have been the wrong outer shell for her inner snail. Perhaps like a hermit crab looking for a house in someone else's discarded shell.

And I've been thinking about our identity, personas, dress, belongings, homes, reputations, occupations — the shells we put forth for our protection and in which we take refuge, and the relationship they have with the snail inside. And the effect it has upon us as we go deeper into the practice of minimalism.

Jesus was a minimalist. 

There's a verse in John's gospel (14.30) where Jesus says: "...the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me." I chose the KJV translation because the wording brings out the thing that interests me, which is that it always reminds me of that verse in Ephesians (4.27) about how to manage anger, that says (NIV) "do not give the devil a foothold."

When John Wimber came to the UK back in the 1980s to teach about signs and wonders, we at the Ashburnham Stable Family (an East Sussex charismatic Christian network) studied these things in some depth, very helpfully and instructively. One of the subsections of our study was cursing and blessing, and I tucked away in my inner filing system the teaching we received that a curse cannot be effective without a foothold — it must be justified; which I found an interesting thought. If it has no foothold, it simply rebounds. This ties in with what Jesus says here about peace, so perhaps it's true about blessing too. It seems likely.

And he practised minimalism entirely, holding on to nothing and no one, not even holding on to his life. Nothing had any foothold in him — you got the uncompromised unadulterated complete Jesus when you met him.

I think in some ways our clothing, occupation, reputation, and material possessions are footholds — not for cursing and blessing, I mean, but for establishing identity, giving other people a handle on who we are. And then beyond that, all these give us ourselves an idea of who we are. We feel a strong need for the external to be congruent with the internal. This can be seen vividly in the journey for self-expression of transgender people. Each individual is unique of course, and what is true of one may not be true of another, but I have wondered whether some transgender individuals might not feel so intensely that they are driven to the pain and expense of surgery if our society were in the first place less binary in its expectation of sex and gender roles and appearances, choices and self expression. If every single person in the world had long hair, no make-up, and a simple linen long-sleeved uni-sex tunic with a standard neckline and a plain loose wool coat for the cold, with no colour or style variation, would fewer people feel desperate about their physical sexual characteristics?  We shall never know.

— that picture's from here (Hebe's work)

One of the things that struck me (and has stayed with me) when I was involved in a prison chaplaincy fellowship back in the late 80s early 90s, was the sense of personal freedom I encountered in the men I got to know in the prison. There they were, convicts, and yet almost without exception there was about them an honesty and simplicity in the way they related with me that I did not find outside the prison gates. I emphasised that it was in how they related with me, because I am fully aware that a prisoner might try to take advantage of someone who offered a link to the outside (eg could be a mule), there can be opportunism, and lies (I remember one convict saying to me with a wry smile, "Oh yes, everybody's innocent in prison!")

But in the interpersonal quality of the encounter, there was indeed this honesty and simplicity, and I came to the conclusion it was because they had lost their good reputation. Like St Francis saying "We must be content not to be good and not to be thought good" — well, they were. As human beings (and locked away from easy access to drugs and alcohol) they offered some of the freest, simplest, most human encounters I have ever known. Another place I found this in a different way true was the hospice, where everything was getting up and leaving the people I met there. It encouraged honesty.

By contrast, most of us take refuge in and rely on what we own and what we wear, our gender and marital status, what we have achieved, our certificates and trophies and medals, our social accreditations of various sorts, and our material possessions, to tell ourselves and those we encounter on the journey who we are.
I think this is why minimalism feels so peaceful and free — especially if you practice it in terms of humility as well as material possession, being content with the lowest and the least, being unrecognised and unacknowledged, of no reputation and no account. There you are in the world, just you and God, with a place to stay and simple clothing to keep you warm and something to read and something to eat . . . and that's it.

Perhaps all those shells I see in the garden are, after all, nothing to do with predatory blackbirds and thrushes, but are the discarded identities of snails who espoused minimalism, refusing to be consumerist commodities any longer, entering the unadorned world of the slug.

Jeepers, it's time I got out of bed and got dressed; I need to focus my mind on chapel this morning because there's hardly anybody there and I'm the preacher . . . see you later, fellow slugs . . .

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Less stuff, more happiness | Graham Hill

Truth, there.

Concentrate not on the specifics but the principles. I personally have all sorts of reasons why I would not enjoy a living space like Graham Hill's, so I've chosen the different approach of several people sharing, all keeping a minimalist discipline — this enables the same principles to be lived by different means.

Here's another way of approaching the same basic idea — the Simply Home community in Portland, Oregon — and again here.

The central thesis holds good, I think — that editing is the skill for this century. Check out the many Sharing Systems ideas on Graham Hill's LifeEdited.

Friday, 14 June 2019

Gallery of Minimalist heroes

Here follow some minimalists in whom I rejoice.

St Francis, my hero for nearly fifty years —

I love that he said: "We must bear patiently not being good and not being thought good."

Our self-esteem and the positive regard of others are cherished possessions; it is not easy to let them go. Finding humility is a descending stair cut roughly into the rock and clay of life, taking us down to the bedrock of peace. It involves letting go of all bolstering opinion, whether our own or that of others. It is part of our invisible minimalism.

Diogenes, my favourite philosopher —

He slept rough here and there, but often in a large disused water jar in the market place, and he begged his food. He saw himself as a citizen of the world and distanced himself from partisan tribalism. He famously had no possessions but his staff and bowl — then one day when he say a boy drinking from cupped hands, he realised he didn't need the bowl and threw it away. Diogenes was an essentialist to the core. In our household we felt surprised that he saw the staff as more useful than the bowl, and we spent a while talking about that. By the end of the conversation we'd decided we could all do with staffs!

I delight in Bashō's student Mizuta Masahide (17th century Japanese physician), for the little poem he wrote —

— that says when his house burned down it gave him a better view of the moon. I don't know if it really did, but Bashō liked the poem and it offers us the clearsighted courage of minimalism expressed in a nutshell.

I love St Martin of Tours —

— not only for cutting his cloak in two and giving one half to a beggar on a cold day (a model for minimalist generosity, sharing the one thing you have), but also for hiding in the poultry run when the church dignitaries came to make him a bishop.

I cherish the teaching of Bodhidharma (said to have brought Zen Buddhism to China), not least for his portraits —

Just when we might have thought nothing could be more minimalist than buddhism, Bodhidharma provoked us into seeing we had a way to go yet, teaching that the essence of the way is in no longer being attached to anything, even words and appearances, finding enlightenment simply, directly, in and through everyday experience. Giving yourself up without regret, using everything without using anything, travelling all day without going anywhere at all. Bodhidharma expounded the zen of the minimalist mind.

And I am enjoying my newest friend, Ryokan Taigu —

— who put it like this:

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Spirals and Streets

When I wrote about spirals and mistakes the other day, Lynda came by to join the conversation about it, and wondered if the concept of spirals had too much of the feeling of going round in circles and not enough of moving on or progression. This was typically gentle and encouraging of her — but in truth I actually do go round in circles, revisiting immersion in the same imaginative experience (and then emerging from it) many times before I leave it behind. Because it feels protective, I want to be right inside it, even though it isn't really me.

Thinking about this, when I was chatting with Lynda in the comment thread, brought back to mind this wonderful story by Portia Nelson, called There's a Hole in My Sidewalk: the Romance of Self-Discovery — I first came across it in Wayne Dyer's work. Click on it and it'll enlarge for you to read easily.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Thoughts on Stoicism

In my wanderings through the world of minimalism, I came across someone who'd embraced Stoicism as his personal philosophy — the Stoics being Zeno (who owed a lot to Diogenes), Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius und so weite.

I'd heard of Stoic philosophy and even had to teach about it a bit when I was a school chaplain and discovered this involved taking responsibility for the HPSE (Health, Personal and Social Education) programme throughout the school, including their sex education, how to defend themselves against attack and the the various schools of philosophy. Who, me? Oh, all right. But I found out only what I had to, which was about a paragraph really. So, intrigued by this minimalist, I looked up Stoicism, and at first felt a strong accord with it, until I dug a little deeper, at which point I got bored and wandered off.

The first principle, so I read, of Stoicism, is to discern between what you cannot change (your external, given circumstances) and what you can change (your internal circumstances or responses). Yes, this made sense. I read on. 

The Stoics built their philosophy upon three principles: discipline of perception (taking responsibility for how we see what comes our way), discipline of action (taking responsibility for the choices we make) and discipline of will (discerning what we can and cannot change and taking responsibility for understanding this and dealing with what cannot be altered). I like that.

Then followed a list that seems to have been faithfully transcribed all the way from Epictetus to the present day, of those things you can and cannot change, those aspects under your control and your unalterable externals.

Epictetus says you can control your opinion, choice, desire and aversion. He says you cannot control your body (and any of its parts), property, reputation, position, parents, siblings, children, country — these are the given circumstances to which you can control only your response.

When I read this I stopped. Wait— what? You are so kidding me! Your brain, your central nervous system altogether, your gut, your skin, your vascular system, your teeth, eyes, liver — you can indeed control your body, indeed your body depends heavily on your choices — they literally form it. And the decisions you make in forming and developing your body will substantially affect the mind you bring to making new choices and the quality of responses of which you are capable. Fair enough, you might be born without eyes or arms, or with cerebral palsy, or you might lose your leg in an accident, so it's true circumstances beyond your control can affect your body. But the notion that your body and all its parts are beyond your control is simply inaccurate. I mean, there are some people whose proprioception has got up and left them who depend entirely on the control of will and intention even to pick up a cup of tea.

You can also, surely, control your property, using the best of your intelligence to make it yield the best good for the most people (or simply getting the least out of it and keeping it all for yourself). Minimalism and simplicity offer a very good means of deriving the greatest benefit for the most people out of the property available at any given time.

You also, to some degree, control the choices and actions of those close to you; ideally not by insistence and domination but by influence and example. Ever caught yourself channelling your mother when explaining something to your children?

Your reputation is substantially affected by your own choices and actions; there is certainly an interactive interface with the society in which you are set — but you can change that too, either by influencing it or moving on.

And your position, yes you can leave it just as once you attained it.   

For all I know, Epictetus spoke God's own truth when he formulated this list, but I regard its application in the modern world with scepticsm.

And, can you control your opinions, desires and aversions? Or just the expression of them?

There's a sex and gender aspect to it as well. This is to a hefty degree a straight man's list.

I can imagine that a Roman philosopher might well feel he had no control over his children; his life probably played out in a sphere peopled by other adult males. Women, by contrast, influence their children to a massive degree, because they are with them. In my life, all the people I have substantially influenced were those with whom I walked closely, the members of my household. The ones who remained indifferent or unchanged were also the ones who never really knew me.

And we can have control over our given circumstances of family. LGBT people are thankfully better accepted integrally into society than once they were. During the 1990s when things were very different, I observed with great interest my LGBT friends' ability to create family from those who were not blood relatives — their families of origin having oftentimes distanced themselves, rejected them, or just never taken the trouble to listen and understand.

And then there's this notion of one's body and any of its parts being beyond one's own control. As our Hebe remarked when we were discussing this at home, she could well see why it might suit a straight man to think his body and all its parts were completely uncontrollable. But, as she went on to say, women grow up used to the idea that controlling your body is definitely your responsibility, and living with the consequences of whether you do or you don't.

So, though I found some of what the Stoics (modern and ancient both) had to say accorded well with my outlook on life, I think their list needs attention; there's no need, in my view, to be so fatalistic. Very little happens to us that we cannot change and improve. I would venture to suggest that this may even be the task of life, not only taking responsibility for how we think and feel about our circumstances but also bringing the best power of our strength and intelligence to shape and improve them. You can build your liver, your finances, your position in life and the outlook of your children — for good or ill, and even if you don't think you can.

I respect, of course, your freedom to disagree!

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Call to worship

Anyone fancy a weekend in Sussex?

It's Trinity Sunday this coming weekend, and we are spectacularly thin on the ground at Pett Chapel.

Summer has the usual connotations of holidays, going camping etc — plus this Sunday is also Father's Day with the associated extra family commitments.

We have a good act of worship lined up, with much food for thought and I hope spiritual nourishment too, just a bit short of people.

So, if you were wondering what to do with your time this weekend, please do come and join us — we'd be delighted to welcome you into our fellowship and conversation.

Spirals and mistakes.

The people in my household say interesting things. At breakfast time two days ago, Hebe identified something that had caught her attention in a YouTube video I shared with her, about a woman living in a caravan modelled on a gipsy vardo. Hebe noticed something she said that I'd completely overlooked — that in making her way to the life she now lived and building her bow-top caravan home, she'd made a lot of expensive mistakes. And Hebe pointed out that was important to acknowledge, and a lot of people don't — they just show you the fait accompli and let you assume they're perfect. Good point, I thought. Good point.

And it set me thinking about my own circuitous route into minimalism and simplicity, my roving winding way with its insistent mantra, "Not this . . . not this . . . not this . . .", turning away and turning away and turning away, chucking things out, giving things up, watching everything slowly trickling out of my life and crumbling away, evaporating. Very interesting.

I read once, and it amused me and stuck in my mind, though I cannot remember who said it — that the children of Israel spent forty years wandering in the desert over a distance they could have  covered in half a day in a bus. 

The thing is, though, the distance may be the same but the effect on the people is not. I think I, too, have spent my life wandering round and round territory I could have traversed in fifteen minutes as a passenger in a high-speed train.

Like a pole bean, I've lived in spirals, but (I hope they are) going upward, not nowhere. It's not the same as a tethered animal trudging round and round the rut of the same old track. There is, albeit minuscule, progression.

I notice it mostly in my clothes (perhaps because I no longer have much else). 

There was a time in my life when I got rid of all the clothes I had except saris and just wore those.

There was a time in my life when I wore always and only Plain dress and had no other clothes.

There was a time when I conscientiously covered my head.

It was a journey, an exploration. Looking back now it reminds me of the thing in the gospel when Jesus said, if people say to you this is the way, this is the Christ, here and nowhere else, don't believe it. 

Not that anyone ever said to me saris were a salvific way — I just noticed how small they would pack down, so easy to store, I could keep them in one under-bed drawer, and I could wear them equally well to scrub the floor or preach in church or lead a retreat or go to a party or walk into town for the groceries. I think they would have done as well as anything, to be honest. I could have kept those saris and worn them still. They were beautiful, too. But I felt conspicuous in them, and they made people stop and stare and ask questions and I didn't like it.

I loved the Plain and modest dresses, too; my idea of beautiful — and again I could perfectly well have stuck with those. But again, they made me stick out like a sore thumb, strike a jarring note. They even made some people positively angry (I can't for the life of me think why, but they did), so I think it was as well to lay them aside.

I made a nostalgic foray back into those beautiful modest dresses last summer —

— but as before, they caused endless comment (even shouted from passing cars would you believe?) which embarrassed me. And then I lost so much weight and they didn't fit any more, and in the end I got tired of the whole wardrobe endeavour — just bored myself into essentialism, in refuge from internal psychological noise and trying to get it right.

As the Zen saying goes, the obstacle is the path. As the years passed, I acquired and discarded, acquired and discarded, and spent a heck of a lot of money on it, too. Mistakes, no doubt, but money not wasted, I think. What I acquired mostly came from individuals often selling hand-made (or second-hand) clothing, making an honest living, none too affluent either. And what I've discarded either went to individuals delighted to receive it or to raise money for charities (Shelter, for homeless people is one of my favourites).

Expensive mistakes, yes, like the vardo lady said. The children of Israel wandering round and round looking for their promised land. I was looking for simplicity, for one-thing (one style of dress, one way of being). 

And over time, it's kind of dwindled away. I tried all those things — personas, really; costumes I suppose. In search of adherence to an ideology, attachment to a tribe. They proved to be not what I was looking for. Like St Augustine said, "This also is Thou; neither is this Thou." God both is and is not in the Amish, in the Conservative Quakers, in the way of Gandhi-ji, in monks and nuns, in the Catholics and the Methodists and the Church of England. None of it is God, but God is in all of it. I found beauty in all of them, but in each ideological package I found discordancy — be that subjugation of women, or stifling of individual expression, or rejection of LGBT friends, or hierarchies of power and élitism. Their uniforms of observant dress fascinated and drew me — the peace of laying down the struggle of making a path through the world, just joining theirs — but . . .  yes, there was always a "but".

I think I tried every possible sartorial (modest) variation. I came to see that all I ever really needed to be was myself; but who is that? I'm not sure at all. And how might myself find the strength to be in this world with no struts and props, no carapace, no hermit shell to hide in? What will armour me against the excoriation and corrosion sustained in living? What could give me strength for the day?

I am still spiralling, though I no longer own anything in particular — and of clothes just a small repertoire of garments to keep me comfortable and warm, on ten hangers, mostly in dark and peaceful colours, chosen to be unobtrusive and modest and not draw anyone's attention.

I do have some bright clothes. I have a pink cardigan, and a yellow one. I keep them hidden from view, to stop myself being worn out by their brightness and having to throw them away. 

Because sometimes, on a summer's day, the jollity of pink or yellow feels like just the right thing.

In the spring, I got dresses on eBay very cheap, but I didn't keep them. Too loud, too eye-catching, too tiring. It felt as though I had to live up to them. And seriously, live up to a £15 mass-produced synthetic dress? What would that even mean? So I've just hung on to a couple of dark skirts for the formal occasions, and then my everyday clothes — soft and furry and dark. Cotton and cashmere,  alpaca and sheep's wool, in deep blue and aubergine and forest greens and storm grey. Easy to wear, an invitation to be quiet.

That's right.

I made another clothes box, actually, because I gave one away as packing for a parcel I needed to send. This is the top of the new one —

Latin. It means, "what you own, owns you." Truth. I am still looking for ways to minimise. Every time I think, "Now I'm done — I need everything I have left," I come across something else I've been hanging onto that I don't even want.

On the side of the box it says this —

That's a quotation from Stephen Spielberg's wonderful film Bridge of Spies, in which the Russian Rudolf Abel is superbly played by Mark Rylance, my very favourite actor. It's one of a small handful of films I can watch again and again.  Here's another.

I doubt if the urge to dress up and inhabit other people's personas has left me, but the path into minimalism gets narrower and deeper, fixing and framing my choices more surely (I think — I hope). A small and frivolous detail of the principle Jesus mentioned, perhaps. This I know, that the kingdom of God is within you not in what you possess or wear, that the doorway passes through the inside of you, that we are here to offer one another the way in, by our love and our truth, by patience and kindness, by understanding. And mostly, if I'm honest, I don't, because humanity (mine and other people's) is . . . well . . . baffling, innit. But my idea is that if I can skim away and skim away unreality, ignoring disappointment and learning from mistakes (expensive or not) and moving on, perhaps I can distil some kind of wisdom into clarity of peace, catch it like attar of roses, like a fragrance distilled down from thousands of petals into a few definite drops. But will even those, in the long run, not evaporate or go rancid, unless I pour them out on the feet of whoever I conceive to be Jesus?

I have a feeling that in the end, if I can keep following the spiral as it gets smaller and smaller, discarding the acquiring and discarding the discarding, owning as little as possible, in the end what I might come to is something comfortable and kind, acceptance and understanding that is friendly and puts people at ease — something that doesn't mind one way or another, but is simply willing to listen. A place free of tension, where nothing matters specially, and lets people breathe easy, come to know who they really are. I hope so. That would be a good kind of minimalism, I think.

What my friend Juanita wrote on a piece of paper.

At the end of his life, our Granddad was much like that. He kept his dignity and his faith, his acceptance and his gratitude. And everything that wasn't that, he just let go. He reached the end of his spiral, and it took him quietly home.  He ended up just loving.

And then there is this poem by Ryokan, to whom Greta introduced me yesterday —

Beyond cloth, beyond threads . . . a keeper of the robe. 
May it be so.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Mind voyagers

We don't all eat the same food in our household.

People sometimes ask us who cooks, but we don't cook or eat as a group. I don't eat the same food as my husband and we don't even eat at the same time or even in the same place. There's a table in our kitchen, and we sometimes eat there — often not. We have different shelves in the fridge and store cupboard, and mostly don't even know what the other has bought or is currently eating. We have different tastes. Sometimes, if one of us is very tired or busy, or if one of us has bought something extra delicious and wants to share it just for joy, then we do. Usually not.

In the same way, our minds live in different places.

Yesterday, instead of going to our own chapel community in the country at Pett, I went with my husband to a different chapel where he was the preacher appointed for that day. Later, after we'd eaten our (separate, different) midday meals, he and I sat and chatted, just to enjoy each other's company. 

He asked me if I'd seen anything of the new TV drama Back To Life, saying he'd found it fascinating — captivating and somewhat disturbing. I'd seen trailers, but it looked like a programme I'd rather avoid. He said he'd gone on to watch Killing Eve — had I seen that? No (nor wish to).

While my husband, in his spacious, rather Sherlock-Holmes-y room, on his iPad, had been absorbed in the tension of tightly-written dramas, I — on my Macbook, in my tiny cell of a room — had been watching short videos about people who live in vans and RVs, or in tiny houses and bow-top caravans, in cob houses and mud domes, about foragers and minimalists and those who embrace voluntary poverty.

Listening to him I realised that though our bodies inhabit the same geographical space, our minds do not. We swim in different seas, we wander through different territories; we haven't been in the same place at all, not whatsoever. Like people sleeping side by side in a big bed, each on their separate astral travels, wandering in different dreams.

This is an intriguing feature of the electronic age. Back in the 1970s, even if you were in a quite different room while a member of your household watched, say, The Wednesday Play on one of the three/four TV channels then available, you would overhear — you would be aware of the imaginative territory into which they had explored even if you hadn't travelled with them. And if they had been investigating new thoughts or ideas in their reading, you'd have seen the books lying about even if you'd not read them yourself.

But it's different now. Unless I tell him, my husband hasn't the faintest idea what voyages of the mind I've undertaken, what realms I've explored. Most of what we listen to comes into our heads through earbuds, there is no overlap, no possibility of a Venn diagram describing interlocking worlds of experience and imagination.

It could be the easiest thing in the world to live together as polite strangers, forgetting what any kind of intimacy might have meant. Because we don't want that to happen, we talk to one another. Sometimes the conversations are somewhat curtailed — "Have you watched Killing Eve?" "No." "Are you likely to?" "No." — but often, as today, we talk about threads and exchanges he's wandered through on Facebook, and I show him my latest blog post, and we enjoy each other's company. 

As a counter-weight, it means a lot to us to enter the physical world together — to go together to chapel on Sunday and belong to the same housegroup. Actually that's most of what we do together because his hours are primarily occupied by professional commitments and I am extremely reclusive and live like a toad under a stone. We are fond of each other, though, in our solitary ways; we both value and cherish the quiet paths threading their way around and alongside the world with its hubs and throngs and grand central stations.

Wandering off. What I do instinctively. I have to remember not to.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Extra humans


Today I wanted to tell you about an important resource I've had since early childhood — an invisible supply of extra humans — that I thought might also be useful to you.

My family and friends, and the people in my church, are the most kind and loving tribe imaginable, but even so there are times when I need more support than they can offer me, and this is when my secret supply of extra humans comes in handy.

I began making up stories with imaginary friends when I was a very small child, and peopled my hours and days with their company. My first set of characters (at about four years old) was derivative — 'Melia, Pip and Roundy, lifted from Enid Blyton's Amelia Jane stories. Aged around seven, I moved on to people of my own creating, at that age a cowboy called Bob with a sinister antagonist who went by the name of Mr Beesley. I severed deliberately from Bob in my early teens and went on to a new set of friends, wild gangsters about whom I wrote my first (thirteen-year-old), attempt at a novel. I left them all behind, and tossed adrift on life's turbulent waves all on my own, until I had just turned thirty, a young mother, somewhat marooned and isolated from adult company by the daily responsibility of five small children to care for. 

I imagined, for the consolation of their company, the monastic community of St Alcuin brought into the wider world in my Hawk & Dove series of novels. 

I completed that series of nine books a few years ago, but the community continues to travel with me through everyday life. We still share our problems just as we did when I was writing the stories, and find solutions together. All kinds of things have happened to them since the events stopped being written down.

During this last year I've been working hard (and successfully) to address health challenges, and my supply of extra humans has helped me. For example, I know I should walk and exercise more than I do, but for reasons beyond the scope of this post that's not always easy. Recently I hit upon the solution of walking with Abbot John. He's quiet and calm and cheerful, nice to be with. He walks slowly enough for me. He makes an excellent companion. One day I think I will go for a walk with Father Theodore, because although he doesn't say much his insights are always worth hearing. I think I might learn from him as we walk along.

They are always willing to go with me when I have steep challenges to face like preaching or taking funerals. Sometimes they will even do it for me, which is restful.

Father William helps me with finance and Brother Cormac is very practical — and honest. Brother Conradus is always willing to listen and has a cheerful outlook on life. I think if I ever have to go to a party (this rarely happens, I am very reclusive) I might stealthily send Father Francis instead of myself; no one will know I have done it, but the event might more smoothly proceed.

For you, to understand your particular life challenges, a woman may be a better companion than a man. My story called The Clear Light of Day has Esme and Seer Ember in it, and they are interesting friends to walk with; but I still find Jabez gentler company — more helpful really — though Ember is certainly brisk and bracing!

I do sometimes wonder if this may be some kind of dissociative disorder (cf Martha Stout's work etc), but at least, if so, it seems to be constructive and benign.

I have a tap root of longing for my sangha, my community, and have always been attracted to groups with strong binding identities, like the Amish or monastic foundations or other intentional communities. I feel strongly drawn to those who have uniform observant dress; I can see that it allows a person to rest quietly inside the communal identity as a protective shell. I detect in myself longings and regrets for tribal versions of such an identity in the family into which I married and the branch of it I raised. But the tribe moved on and left me behind, and the ones I raised turned out strong-minded and highly individual — they did not want to move through life as a shoal. So, as one must, I lifted my desires off them and let them all go. But still I carry my invented community inside me, and wherever we go we all travel together and arrive in a posse; and this strengthens me.

I'm telling you all this in case you too are HSP, or an anxious or low-energy person, and find life momentous and hard to do. If that's you, then either you may be able to find some extra humans to come alongside you in my stories, or if those don't work for you then you may be able to people your inner world from the resources of your own imagination. It helps, and is handily quiet and invisible so that people don't think you have gone mad, as they might if they found you in a corner muttering to yourself, "It's okay. Keep calm. You're doing fine", etc..