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.
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.