Tuesday, 11 June 2019

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 √©litism. 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.


Rebecca said...

Spiraling myself, I've observed YOUR spirals... You've put words to my spiraling here. Thank you.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Rebecca! Waving!

Buzzfloyd said...

I think all learning and all life spirals. It is helpful to acknowledge it, and to be OK with the mistakes.

Also, all the years of my adulthood when I've had no money spare to buy clothes, I would have been in very shabby things indeed if not for being comfortably clothed in things you've given to me! So thank you for your expensive mistakes that have been my free comfort. :-)

Pen Wilcock said...

Good point! We pass 'em along. And then there's the shoes. I have a treasure store of shoes that I prize greatly, because I they are so hard to replace for shape and fit, and lightweight enough for hyper-mobile feet. I think part of my journey into minimalism involves (like Goldilocks) finding not something that will do but something JUST RIGHT, like a snail's shell. Or like that old Donovan song, "I love my shirt".

greta said...

oh, gracious, everything you said . . . been there, done that. trying on all the different 'styles' whether it be clothing, religion, home decor, diets. sigh. it's been exhausting, all that wandering about. now, at 70, i'm tired of it all. like you, i want to get simpler, smaller, less visible.

ryokan says:

i sit quietly, listening to the falling leaves -
a lonely hut, a life of renunciation.
the past has faded, things are no longer remembered.
my sleeve is wet with tears.

Pen Wilcock said...


Anonymous said...

Ah Pen,
If not for your Plain Dress phase how would I ever have found you? or your work here? or your lovely book world?????

The spiral touches many lives along the way.

When you have a few moments for a down-the-rabbit-hole adventure check out my daughter's friend Danny Weddle's tiny house building at www.carpenterowl.com He does lovely inspiring work, and more to the point for us, he posts lovely pictures!!!
And typical of the spiral thing, I'd never have heard of him except my daughter once joined a contra dance group and he and his fiddle were there.

Life is so amazing <3


Pen Wilcock said...

Well now, there's a good point! So many dear friendships formed along the journey, treasures of the way. Off to check out Carpenter Owl . . .

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh my goodness — aren't those just lovely!

Rapunzel said...

I knew you would like them, they have such heart.

Pen Wilcock said...

They do. Remind me of the Handmade Houses book from the 70s.


Lynda said...

I don't know, that word 'spiral' just doesn't seem right. It connotates...that's probably not even a word, but I'm sure you'll tell me Pen :)… a going around in circles, or up or down, but not really getting anywhere.

I prefer 'journey'. Not a straight road, but still moving forward with little detours on the way.

I've had similar 'detours' as you Pen, but I think I've actually narrowed my focus by taking them. So that I can now see more clearly who I am. It seems I keep spiralling back (ok...ok...maybe that is a good word after all) to certain lifestyle choices, and as I look back I think the ones I keep repeating are probably who I am. And I am feeling more comfortable with 'me'. My choice of clothes (mostly second hand and mostly grey...grey...grey) and my shoes (not second hand, and not cheap, but 'just right') and my hairstyle (very, very short), but I feel comfortable with this me. Most of the time :)) xx

Pen Wilcock said...

About the spiralling — well, sometimes (like getting modest dresses again last year after having not kept the ones I had before) I've felt I was going back over the same ground. But — though this certainly feels wasteful — the second or third time round I don't stay there so long, and usually by about the fourth time I can recognise that though this attracts me I won't stay with it and I shouldn't spend the money. Spiralling is going round in circles, but each round brings you on to a different place.

Just at the moment I want to buy some socks but can't really afford to. Another spiral for me has been spending more than I should then ending up worried about how to buy the basics. So *this time* I am recognising the spiral and deciding to carry on with my husband's cast-off socks that I don't really like until some more money comes in (which it will if I am patient).

In the pictures of you on your blog these days, Lynda, I think you look comfortable in your own skin. I can see why you loved and embraced the conservative Mennonite church — such lovely people and such a lovely path — but I also see why it was important you find your way to a true expression of who you were made to be.

Lynda said...

Thanks Pen, I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

It's a process, this life thing, and I sort of hope I continue to 'evolve', because it makes life interesting. I don't really think I want to arrive at who I am completely, but I also don't want to stress about trying to find who the real me is.

I still miss the Mennonites, but I don't think it's fair to them (even though I'm sure they would welcome me) to keep going back knowing I can't make that final step. So in the meantime, I continue to read Anabaptist literature, enjoy to their beautiful singing, and listen to sermons online, while also knowing I have the freedom to be me. xx

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh, the singing especially, for me!

Lucie said...

Thank you as always for bringing to fruition in words a process which to the one living through it, often appears without structure or meaning. For years I dressed for the benefit of whoever I was meeting: if I was seeing a ‘posh’ friend I dressed up in skirt and heels. If I was meeting a more laid back friend, my jeans would do. It had been drummed in to me to ‘please’ people and it was unbearable for me to think I had upset anyone for any reason. I am ashamed to admit that even recently I was shocked when at our dressy Christmas choir concert a singer arrived in black jeans, old t shirt and trainers. It was an awakening for me because what I felt was anger, and after looking at my anger recognised it as envy for her strength to have come to fit her own circumstances ( sick children, no sleep, hence last minute clothes for concert). Ever since then I have worked to think hard about what I want to wear and why. It is my own path to self identity with many obstacles to lead me on my way! Thank you Pen for helping out so much of this into words.

Pen Wilcock said...

Ooh, Lucie, that's so interesting! Isn't it difficult to distinguish between, and disentangle, a courteous respect for the feelings of others and being trapped by the need to seek approval?
For years, one of the biggest challenges to me in the way I dressed was visiting my mother. She would often comment on my appearance, and as my tastes and what suited me are rather different from her own preferences, this could sometimes be uncomfortable. I have occasionally actually *bought* clothes I didn't really like because I thought my mother might!
This whole area is also one of the attractions for me in observant dress. I thought if a person wore clothing that expressed their life path — like monastic robes or Plain dress or whatever, then they wouldn't have to worry, they could just put on the clothing that belonged to the chosen path and that would be the end of it. In fact, that's what the friends I knew who dressed Plain all said was the case. Only of course (I can't understand why I didn't think of this) it only works if you actually *are* a nun or an Amish woman, or at least live in a society that recognises the dress code. If you are in every other respect a standard member of society, people just think you're really strange — possibly with justification!