Saturday, 30 November 2019

I recommend

Seriously, this does not often happen. 

I am quite picky about what I even embark on trying to watch on TV, or go to the cinema to see. Every now and then there's something I like, but only once in a while. A lot of what's on offer I'd actually go a long way to avoid and pay to miss, and even the good stuff usually has its disappointments, strikes a bum note.

On Wednesday the women of our house sallied forth to see Frozen 2. In all honesty I went just because it's fun to do something together. Disney animations are unlikely to be something I'd chose to view left to myself. But I wanted to go because the others were going.

But Frozen 2 is brilliant. Braced for it to descend into cliché and mediocrity, as it unfolded I found myself cautiously realising, "but this is good!" It was. All the way through. When it got to the end, my inner child was already clamouring, "Again! Again!"

I wholeheartedly recommend it. 

But wait, there's more!

A few years ago we stopped doing Christmas and birthday presents in our household, but things have changed since then. Of my five children, two are twins who live in the same house as me, and they always like to give each other presents. One has moved far away from here and doesn't always get back for Christmas, so we like to pack up a box of happiness because she's all by herself where she is. One has moved into her own apartment and has nobody but us to put presents under her tree and put the happy into Christmas. The remaining one is a Mother, and as we all know that means Putting Others First, which can be a bit tedious so you need your people to redress the balance. And then of course there's also the grandchildren, for whom it would be unthinkable to skip presents, and my mother who is making clearer with every passing day what the phrase "second childhood" means; obviously she needs a present on Christmas Day. So presents have snuck back onto the menu.

But my brave husband has stuck to his guns and isn't doing presents, and we all think that's absolutely fine — we're on the trail of happiness not obligation.

So then he came home today and told me he'd got a present for me, but he wanted to give it to me now because he didn't want to start up Christmas presents all over again — he said he just got it because he knows I like beautiful things. Which, of course, I do.

And he gave me this book, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy — which, just published, is already almost at the top of the Amazon best-seller list, and people are buying in multiple copies for Christmas presents. It's easy to see why.

Oh, my goodness it is lovely! It's just the best book ever! Note perfect, this book will be a classic as beloved as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince.

It is full of gentle and healing wisdom, funny and delightful.

And beautiful.

The publisher's blurb describes it as "A book of hope for uncertain times", and that's exactly what it is.

And how often would that happen — to come across not one but two such delights in one week?


Friday, 29 November 2019

Loving too little and too much

I was received into the Catholic Church forty-three years ago. The road has been long and winding since that day, and I fetched up in Methodism almost by surprise. I suppose I must have made a conscious decision to bring that about but it felt more like something that arrived in my life incrementally, an unlooked for tide coming in. And here I am.

But in 1976, when I was nineteen, I became a Catholic — and that was a clear and glad choice.

I remember the day. It happened at More House, the Catholic chaplaincy of York university, where my friends lived or gathered and I spent most of my time.

Father Fabian Cowper, an Ampleforth monk, was our chaplain, and I loved him very much. He was a man whose life shone with Christ's kindness.

I was sitting in the kitchen, chatting with whoever else was there, when someone came in and said, "Fabian's waiting for you upstairs."

There was about the remark that faint ambience of injured surprise and reproach — I saw immediately that I should somehow have known and been somewhere else, that I'd been remiss and got it wrong. I think I was expecting to be received into the church at Mass, and hadn't grasped I was supposed to have an audience with Fabian first. But this must have been discussed at some point, because I remember my feeling of panic as I ran up the stairs, racking my brain for what to say in this, my first confession.

I knew I was meant to lay my sins before my confessor, and he would absolve me. 

But in those revolutionary and radical days of the 1970s, as spirituality was increasingly seen through a psychological lens and moral norms were being rapidly reinvented, I no longer felt certain what was and wasn't sin. I couldn't think of anything to tell him. 

I have always been an instinctual person, at least half troll and the rest more animal than human, and I had no idea how to operate my moral compass or evaluate the ethics and integrity of my choices and actions. I just did what came most naturally from moment to moment, trying to fulfil the expectations of others, escape disgrace and somehow blunder through. 

Very often, as on that particular day, I found myself in situations where I had disappointed someone or got into trouble, mainly because I hadn't been paying attention at some crucial point. My mind had wandered, strayed too far, and let go of the threads that tied me into the fabric of whatever was going on.

Consequently, when I hurtled late into the room where Fabian sat quietly and patiently waiting, the only thing I could think of to say was, "I just don't love people enough."

He made the best of it he could and kindly affirmed that, yes, loving people is very important.

Thinking back to it now, I do believe I put my finger — entirely by mistake — on something very real. I don't attach, I wander off, emotion and connection drain me; I just don't love people enough, even after all this time and effort.

It's not that I lack awareness, or that I don't care. It matters to me immensely that people should not suffer, should have enough to eat and enough money to live on, should be housed warm and safe, and have their time in the sun. I just want them to have all that without the claustrophobia of too close an interface with me. 

I think of friends who foster children needing loving homes, or of people I've read about who welcome refugee families to live with them. I couldn't do it. I just could not. I don't have too much trouble understanding and accepting people; I just don't want to spend all that much time with them. I need space, I need solitude; I just don't love people enough.

But there are some people I've met who, in my opinion, love too dearly and deeply and intensely. 

I had a friend (she's dead now) who, if I went to visit her, wanted me to stay for two hours or three, or a whole day, or better still go on holiday together and arrange the next meeting before the first one had even ended. I used to go home feeling wrung out and sucked dry, almost frantic with emotional exhaustion. She could never get enough of me, though heaven knows she tried.

I had a friend who wrote to me, brought me flowers, wanted me to meet her family, wanted me to visit again and again. It's not that I didn't like her, she was a sweetheart; but the power and strength of her love all about wore me out.

I had a friend (also now deceased) who gave me the keys to her house and wanted me to go there to write. Every time I was speaking anywhere, there she'd be, tiptoeing to my side from some oblique angle to discuss her love life with me in every single space between each session. I would visit her at home as often as I could stand it, and after I'd been there two hours and was thinking it was not rude to leave now, she'd get to her feet and announce a cup of tea and scones, cakes, cookies (oh, no!). I realised it would be at least another hour before I could leave.

When I was a Methodist pastor, I faithfully visited everyone in my congregation. Times without number, after I'd sat in their homes chatting affably for forty-five minutes, as I began to make noises about leaving they would say: "You must come back for a proper visit soon." What?

I had a friend who went through the horrors of a messy divorce. Subsumed into his ex-wife's life and under the power of her influence, his bewildered children no longer wanted to see him. He besieged them with phone calls and texts, he poured out his love to them on every possible opportunity, petitioning for increasing and deeper connection  He bought his teenage daughter roses for Valentine's Day. The more he suffered and longed for his children, the more they recoiled and withdrew. He loved them too deeply, too passionately, too devotedly — he just loved them too much. And he felt terribly hurt and bewildered that the more ardently he desired them the further off they took themselves.

Jesus had the art of loving people, and I do my best to glean what I can from his ways. He was simple, candid and direct in his conversation. He let people come, and he let them go, and he never made it all that easy for them to find him — the love of Jesus is not the suffocating variety. He saw where they were suffering or trapped, and he did something about it. When they were lost and ostracised, he went and found them. And then he went on his way. When the crowd got word of his whereabouts and came jostling down to the lakeside by the Sea of Galilee, he borrowed someone's boat and took off for the other side. He lived on the road, he walked in the hills, he didn't settle. When someone tried to pull strings, he said, "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" And that was his own mother.

Jesus loved people enough. But not too much. That's why he is so very peaceful to be with.

Thursday, 28 November 2019


An aspect of modern life I find intriguing and, in its own way, quite thrilling, is purchasing things from far away in the world.

I love when they are sent tracked, and I can follow their progress across land and sea or through the air, see the post office where they were first sent on their journey, watch them travel from place to place, pass through customs, gradually advancing in my direction. 

There are some couriers who offer really detailed tracking of their progress, so that you can follow on the map of your own local area the progress of the delivery van round the town — where he is and how many stops he still has to make. Eventually yours is the very next one, and you can look out of the window and see him driving along the road to find you.

On the 11th of this month I placed an order for a Sori Yanagi kettle.

This is Sori Yanagi:

I have linkified the picture so you can read about his work.

He is known for the elegant simplicity of form in his design of household implements and objects.

His Butterfly Stool is famous:

So is his Elephant Stool:

His kitchen utensils are lovely:

His stainless steel bowls and strainers are so pleasing:

He died in 2011, so there will be no new Sori Yanagi designs in this world ever again. But in Japan, his beautiful work has been enshrined as classic household pieces, still continuing to be made.

In Niigata, there is a factory where they make his lovely kettles.

And one of Sori Yanagi's kettles is on its way to me in England.

To save money on postage, there is no tracking provided with the parcel, but I have been sent a photo:

The title of the photo is "写真". I looked that up. It means "photo".

I placed my order on November 11th, and the kettle was dispatched from Japan on the 15th. 

They sent me a polite message explaining that customs takes ages to clear (yes, indeed) and I should expect it to take 2-5 weeks to reach me — most probably 3 weeks.

They suggest that if hasn't arrived after 3 weeks I should check with the sorting office, to make sure it doesn't get stuck on a shelf — and sent back to Japan! 

I will.

My kettle has been travelling across the world for two and a half weeks. Soon it will be here. And I love the idea of an ordinary kitchen thing we use every day having been designed by a Japanese man of consummate artistry, who was with us for a while and is now gone into the world of light leaving only his work behind — like a fragrance or a smile.

Got it!! Perfect.

Boundaries, space and peace

In the blog post before this one, I wrote in part about how we live in our household of four separate adult individuals. DMW, one of our friends who comments here, wrote this in response (in the comment thread that developed):

"Why are we so stuck in the conventional? I love it that you have found a way to allow your lives to be so separate and individualized, yet so intertwined! It seems you are all very respectful and mindful of each other, and each other's needs. I suspect that took a lot of cooperative trial and error to get to! I don't know that I could do it without a good chunk of space of my own. I seem to need a lot of space, and a lot of my own things around me. Of course, I've had that luxury for a long time, but may not have it much longer. Have thought of combining with grown children and their children. Kids would shift that dynamic significantly though, I think!"

There was so much in that interesting and thoughtful comment, I felt I couldn't do it justice in commenting back. I wanted to pick it up here and consider it at greater length.

"so separate and individualized, yet so intertwined!"
That is a perfect description of our lives here!

"I suspect that took a lot of cooperative trial and error to get to! "
Yes — it is actually a balancing act that we do find challenging and difficult. One of us, Hebe, sometimes comments that the daily struggle (that's not overstating it) to live together in peace and kindness is something very nourishing for our souls. She says when we experience intense irritation and find each other unbearable, the problem is never "them" and always "me". It gives us a chance to notice reactions in ourselves we'd likely remain blissfully unaware of otherwise, and gives us a chance we might otherwise never have to notice to develop patience and forbearance towards one another.

We are also careful to discuss any changes or developments fully and make decisions slowly. One example is the plants in the garden — there is an overall shape and plan to our garden, but within that we have fitted all our individual special requests and requirements. For instance, Alice wanted to grow roses, I wanted to grow vegetables and herbs, Hebe wanted us to leave in place some wild plants we might otherwise have weeded out (eg Heal-All, Dandelion and Yarrow) as they are powerfully medicinal, and Tony wanted a pond. But we all agreed on planting fruit trees in a grassy section sown with wild meadow flowers, both for the bees and butterflies and also so our small garden could be both a place to sit and relax and wander, and return a food harvest. Going for trees in effect made our food patch aerial and still left us grass to sit on that simultaneously offered the planting variety pollinators need. As our garden is not very large, that took a lot of discussion and consultation.

"I don't know that I could do it without a good chunk of space of my own."

I think you put your finger on something important here. This is an issue many minimalists pick up. Marie Kondo (KonMarie) speaks of the necessity to zone homes so that each person has his or own space. This cultivates responsibility. I have noticed that in homes where there's a lot of clutter putting pressure and stress on the people who live there, the household members typically blame each other and fail to identify their own contribution to the problem of accumulation. Zoning the home and restricting a person's storage of possessions to that person's own zone very quickly makes clear who has issues of accumulation, dirt or untidiness to address. 

In our household, though we are by nature people who dislike confrontation and conflict, all of us having a strong need for peace and harmony, we have nonetheless learned to be more candid and direct than we naturally feel comfortable being, to make sure when there is a problem it doesn't escalate. At first this could be misunderstood as hostility or criticism, and we've had to learn to keep our nerve and insist on speaking up when we have an issue about something. This preserves clarity and peace between us. It defends a mental "space of my own". As it's said, good fences make good neighbours.

Some other minimalists and tiny house dwellers speak of the importance of having one's own special place of retreat — even a shed or an attic or a cupboard will do. The fewer possessions one has, the more realistic this is. A place for quiet time, a place to reflect and be still. If you live with other people, it is essential to have a refuge for withdrawal. This is true even for people who feel no need of it — because others need a rest from them. I remember when our friend Giles used to come and stay as a weekend guest, while our children were still young. He'd make a practice of withdrawing to his room to read for stretches of time during the day, which gave him space from us and us from him. An excellent guest! And by 8pm every evening I would require my children to go to their rooms — we in effect practised the monastic Grand Silence. Often one or other would protest she wasn't tired, and I'd explain that, while that might be so, I was tired of the company of other people, and keeping peace between us was achieved by keeping space between us. So, some forms of quiet space are achieved by timing and silence as well as house layout.

"I seem to need a lot of space, and a lot of my own things around me."

Yes, I also feel the need to have my own things around me. I have tried hard, several times, to manage without a space to call my own. Though I can keep it up for a few weeks or months, it does wear me down over time. I have very few possessions, but I do like them to be where I can see them all in one place. For that reason, I actually prefer to have fewer things and a smaller room, because if I had a whole house to myself I would never have my own things around me — they'd be scattered throughout the rooms of the house. I am always willing to give up my belongings, that's a discipline of simplicity for me, but I do treasure and enjoy them.

"I've thought of combining with grown children and their children. Kids would shift that dynamic significantly though, I think!"

With my own children (when they were young), I was immensely indebted to what I'd learned and observed in monastic and other community settings. Instead of rotas and allocated chores, we adopted (at my preference) the monastic way of noticing what someone needs or what needs doing. Rosters and allocations tend to leave untended unallocated margins and encourage a "not my turn" attitude, which feels cold and unloving.
I realised, too, that the monastic practise of "custody of the eyes" (similar to minding your own business) gives other people breathing room in densely populated settings. You maintain Chinese walls. You chose not to hear and see. In a communal setting, the privacy of each of us is the gift of all of us.

There are also rabbit holes down which one can disappear — eg the bath, a book, a computer — allowing one to be present but not present, so obtaining the advantage of non-geographical space.

When my children were little, we began the practice of being honest and open with them about whatever was happening in our lives — rather than drawing battle lines between children and adults, where the adults present a solid front against the children, issuing edicts and fait accomplis. If there was any matter over which it proved impossible to reach agreement and accommodation (this happened over television at times), we simply removed the source of contention from the household altogether. 

We also, with children, adopted the approach of cauldron magic rather than sword magic. That is to say, we followed the feminine (uterine) energy of the circle in which each person's place is equidistant from the centre, each one of equal status and worthy of equal respect. Of course the needs of a two-year-old girl are not the same as those of a fifteen-year-old boy; but they are equally to be respected and considered. No one is more important than anyone else. Discipline is a matter of self-control and of natural consequence. That's cauldron magic. Sword magic is the other kind of energy — masculine (phallic), top-down, hierarchical and authoritative, with an emphasis on leadership, obedience and command, and discipline achieved through reward and punishment. We chose cauldron magic. We liked it better.

One final thing — a comment about kids.

I found it demanding but do-able to run a household as a young woman. I had five babies within six years. We lived in a small (3-bedroomed) row house. We often had stray adults living or staying with us. Making it all work was not easy, especially with church work and writing etc as well. But I could do it.

However, in the second half of my adult life, as a grandmother, as a stepmother, and as the adult daughter of an aged mother whose memory is failing and whose choices are increasingly less shrewd, I have found the only effective and respectful course of action was to more or less withdraw. My ideas of how to raise children and run a home are substantially different from my daughter's; we have different priorities. It is not appropriate for me to impose mine on her, nor would I find it acceptable to have hers imposed on me. My mother asked of me what I could not give, and refused what I did have to offer. At this stage of her life, it would be very helpful for my mother if I were to move in with her — but I couldn't do it. I have found that distance and space have protected these relationships which are very important and precious to me, where too much intimacy and proximity would have led to deterioration and conflict.

For this reason, I personally would not be in a hurry to move in to an already formed household structure (including children). I know it can be done — my daughter's mother-in-law has moved in with my daughter and family on a permanent basis. They make it work because they are all exceptionally kind and gracious people, but I think it's quite a challenge in their small house. They have very little personal space, and a lot to fit in. I think you're absolutely right that kids shift the dynamic, but I think it may be having two mothers under one roof that creates the problem, not the kids as such.  It's hard enough running the thing with just your own approach, without having to constantly factor in somebody else's — unless the home is big enough to zone into territories.  Some people are very comfortable with a three-generation household, but it either needs agreement over what kind of magic to use (cauldron or sword), or serious and possibly unequally weighted forbearance.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

The beauty of holiness

Thoughts about living and dying and belonging

In our household we are particular about avoiding roles. Four of us live here full time. Besides me, there is my husband Tony and my daughters Hebe and Alice. 

People are understandably inclined to read our set-up in terms of familiar conventions. So, for a long time they used to see Alice and Hebe, who are in their mid-thirties, as "still living at home with their parents", and tradesmen working on the fabric of the house would sometimes enquire, "is your mother there" or ask "to speak to the home owner".

In actual fact, legally speaking, though it is the home of all of us by common consent, the house belongs to Alice and Hebe. We pay them rent. (Hey, that rhymes! And scans, sort of.)

Like many twenty-first century tribes, ours were torn apart and what we have now is a patchwork family. Crazy paving. Tony has children and grandchildren from his first marriage, as do I, but we didn't become a couple until he was in his 50s and I in my 40s. So though we are technically a large step-family, my children think of him as "Tony" not as a new father, and the lives of his children and grandchildren do not interweave with mine — though I am interested in them and I like to hear how they're getting on.

Tony and I lived together near Oxford (where he worked) for a while, with different family members coming and going, living with us on and off. Then we came back to Hastings (my long-time home) and set up house with Alice and Hebe — but on the understanding that the household would be made up of four separate and equal individuals.

We cook separately, and shop separately (though Alice and Hebe usually make common cause in cooking and shopping), we pay equal amounts of the household bills, and we make decisions by mutual agreement. If something that costs a big sum of money arises, whoever has the most will usually offer to pay it, or we just wait and save up.

Though we enjoy each other's company, our household does not have the comfortable tacit agreements about relationship that traditional families have. Even though we've been married since 2006, Tony and I still bring very different sets of assumptions and expectations to our daily living, and he is profoundly absorbed in his work as I am in mine. We have never meshed together in the way you do with someone you marry at the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. We love one another dearly, but we view each other from a certain distance, and in our household every     single    thing    has to be negotiated, which takes a considerable amount of emotional energy    all    the   f-ing   time. That's the price we pay for choosing the unusual, but for all sorts of reasons we think it's worth it.

We each have our own rooms and this morning, walking back to my room from the bathroom, carrying my own towels (we each have our own set, not a common bathroom set like a normal family) and my large plastic box of toiletries because we keep our own things in our own rooms not in the bathroom, I was reflecting on what this might mean in time to come.

Walking along the passage, I felt conscious of my good balance and sure footing. Old people don't always have that — they become more precarious as their muscles weaken, more inclined to fall. I felt conscious of my hand holding the large plastic box with heavy things in it — I have cream for my legs in it, and a massive pot of coconut oil infused with a variety of essential oils, as well as shampoo and a toothbrush, and the essential oils I use instead of toothpaste and deodorant. I noticed how easy it is for me to hold it. Such a simple thing, carrying something heavy in my hand and walking easily along the passage after my bath.

What will happen if I live to be 85 . . . or 95 . . . ? Who will help me? In traditional families, the roles prepare the individuals to support and care for one another — create an understanding of how to look after each other without the people even realising it. Think, for instance, of how we sometimes say in casual conversation, "I'll be mother" about being the one who pours the tea from the pot into the cups of the people sharing it. Do people know how to be mother if they are used to a basis of simple individual equality? How will they gradually learn the skills of underpinning the weakness of other people if they are used only to being either supported themselves by someone else, or of each person pulling their own weight?

Because my husband is older than me, and I take care of my health and come from a constitutionally strong family, it seems likely that he will pass through frailty and death before I do, as my previous husband did. My expectation is that I will be the one who sees him through. And then what?

My father left my mother to live on his own after 49 years of marriage, though this was not so deep a rending as it sounds because he'd spent his entire adult life roaming around the globe away from home, and was always only loosely connected to absolutely everybody. They still holidayed together after he moved out, and went to coffee shops and exhibitions together, and talked on the phone every day. He just didn't live with her. She gave him the dog so he wouldn't be lonely. And he died alone in his cottage, quickly and simply, without warning. How extremely helpful and convenient, for him and for us. When I found his body it was neatly dressed and lying on his bed. He'd left his front door propped ajar, so maybe he had an inkling.

And if I could have my druthers, as my friend Julie says, that's what I'd choose for myself, whether it be tomorrow or in twenty or thirty years time — fast and uncomplicated.

My mother has also chosen disconnection — dismantling the power of attorney we'd set up for me to look after her, insisting on living alone even though she can no longer remember anything and moves in and out of a dream world and is entirely housebound. She has a carer, but no plan exactly. She's just hoping it will all somehow go away. Improvisation R us. I get intensely anxious about her. It's like watching a clown with an umbrella and a string of floating balloons and an improbable jaunty feather in his hat walking across a tightrope over Niagara Falls ("good luck, good luck, good luck, dearest — please make it over in one piece").

We live in strange times, do we not? We wander in unfamiliar territory, and have to make life up as we go along, without the structures and guidelines of the ties and conventions that wove the safety nets and supportive hammocks, of traditional society. It's exhilarating, I suppose, but it is very demanding as well. It allows us to make the best of our losses and partings, but it's tiring too. Sometimes I do deeply miss having the old unquestioned ways of belonging to rest in. You knew who you were. You didn't have to invent it every passing day.  In what I know, in how I relate — even in the nitty-gritty detail of how I eat, drifting further and further out to sea, away from the comfortable rhythms of familiarity that once upheld my life; accepting impermanence. Living is a process of ever deepening loneliness. Beloved Rumer puts the feeling of it well.

Sunday, 24 November 2019


Today in my quiet time an analogy came to me that I find helpful — so I'm passing it on in case you find it illuminating too.

I have never been quite sure what I can ask or hope for, in my prayers, in terms of resources and benefits. There is that strand of New Age thinking that says we deserve the good things in life; that we are part of this world and deserve its blessings. I see where they're coming from, but that doesn't really resonate with me. I cannot honestly say I feel I deserve anything whatsoever. Why would I in particular deserve my own bedroom in a centrally heated home in a beautiful town by the sea, while someone else gets a miserable rat-infested shack with no toilet, or buried under the rubble caused by a falling bomb? It doesn't make sense.

So I think of the blessings of my life as undeserved grace, because that's what they are. I am so grateful, and I take none of it for granted.

But then it's always been a puzzle to me what I can ask for, or work towards, or keep. I was chatting to my Lord about it this morning, and an analogy about driving came to me. It's a bit like the parable of the talents. In this analogy, the car stands for your given circumstances right now.

You have this car. Maybe you are a driver, maybe not, but God has given you this car. If you like, you can just sell it or give it away.You could take driving lessons so you get to benefit from it and use it to the fullest. Let's say you do. So now you have taken the trouble to learn how to drive it, and off you go.

The car comes with responsibilities — there are bills to pay, and maintenance requirements, and it's up to you to take care of those. You have to keep it clean and tidy as well; again, that's up to you.

What will you do with your car, and how will you use it? It can bless so many people beyond yourself. 

For starters, when you are out driving you can behave kindly and considerately toward other road users. Don't blast your horn at someone who does something foolish — be understanding. Keep an eye out for animals or children or drunks wandering into the road. Don't park on the restricted areas by junctions where you'd impede visibility for other drivers. Stay inside the lines in a car park and leave space for other people to get in and out of their cars. Give the driver in front of you breathing room, don't sit on their tail. Use your indicator (turn signal) in good time. Where traffic is congested, let someone join the flow in front of you from a side road. Be aware. Be kind. Be respectful. Be tolerant. Be responsible.

And how about passengers? You might want to be careful who you invite into your car. If you are a woman, you might leave it to someone else to give a male stranger a lift. But you can greatly ease the burden of other people's lives if you give them a lift in the cold and rain, or take them to the grocery store so they don't have to struggle home on the bus with their shopping. Your car, though, will have room only for four or five passengers. You can't cram the entire walking world into your back seat; you only have room for a few, and that's okay. Just do what you can.

And having a car allows you to reach places you couldn't access on foot. You can get to the farmers' market or the artisan potter. It lets you support the work of independent family firms instead of being solely a customer of the big conglomerates. This will bless your local economy and support social resilience.

You can help people in emergencies or in trouble when you have a car. If you have an elderly, housebound relative, you can respond if they have a fall and need someone quickly, or visit them in the evening when the buses aren't running, or get their groceries for them, or take them to a hospital appointment. 

Last but not least, your car can bring you a huge amount of fun. You can drive down to the beach or out into the countryside for a walk in the woodlands — and you can take a friend or a dog or a picnic. You can fill your car with friends and family and go to the theatre together. Or you can visit someone you love. 

In case you are tempted to think, "Yes, but I am not a driver and don't have a car," well, this is an analogy. There's that theosophist terminology that refers to our bodies here on earth as "vehicles", and that's what I mean. That's the point of the analogy. That here we have both limitations and opportunities; we have resources which bring responsibilities and also blessing. We can do a lot with them, but we can't do everything. It is the gift of God's kindness to us; but what we make of that gift is very much up to us. It can just sit by the roadside and be used only for ourselves and driven very selfishly and thoughtlessly, or it can create an immense amount of cheerfulness and kindness, easing a lot of burdens and making all sorts of people feel looked after and loved. Life is both God's free gift and also up to us. It depends how we drive it, which is limited to some degree by what we are capable of, but is also a choice and is something we can always think about carefully and work on improving.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Setting an Angel Watch

This is a prayer for Mary, whose days this time are ending, and whose pathway out of this world is slow and arduous and lonely. She is having trouble crossing the bar.

That the Lord will come and lift her soul to himself.

That she may see her way clear and not be afraid.

That those she has loved and who loved her will come back to collect her and bear her home.

That her soul will arrive in peace.

That everything unresolved may settle into peace within her, so she may be free indeed.

God speed, longtime friend and companion. Go well. Don't wait. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is lost.

Hold the way clear for her, beloved Lord, take her by the hand, into green pastures, beside still waters, may angels attend her.

May she be peaceful, may all be accomplished, may she be free.


Thursday, 21 November 2019

Writing and typing

Do you ever watch Murder She Wrote on the telly? The excellent and unfailingly elegant Angela Lansbury's character, Jessica Fletcher, is often seen hard at work in her occupation as a writer of murder mysteries. A frequent joke surfacing in the series is about insensitive interruptions and intrusions into her work. In an episode I saw this autumn, the sister of the local sheriff ran into personal difficulties and arrived at his office. The sheriff was naturally heavily occupied with his professional duties, so he had the bright idea of dropping his sister off with Jessica Fletcher, who was clearly doing nothing in particular. This is a writer's joke, and it certainly has a foundation in reality. It applies pretty much to everyone who works from home. But we the viewers knew Jessica should not have been interrupted. She was writing a book and had a deadline to fulfil. She was hard at work. At her typewriter. She had to stop typing to look after the sheriff's sister.

Some years ago I had a regular duty manning the premises of a sisterhood in a nearby town. At one point I excused myself from fulfilling this obligation, explaining that I was writing a book and had a deadline looming.

The sister to whom I explained this was puzzled. She asked me, "Can't you just bring your laptop and write it here?"

This is Jessica Fletcher syndrome, in which writing = typing. When someone is writing a book, they're hard at it, industriously typing. If they aren't typing, either they've finished or they're slacking or procrastinating.

I suppose everyone is different, but certainly in my life this is not the way writing books works at all.

Just at the present time, I am writing a book. I finished the last one in September or thereabouts, and started on this one in October. It's a short, devotional volume, not a massive tome, so only about 30,000 words. My deadline is the first week of January; my editor wants it on his desk when he comes back from his time off at Christmas.

I am never late with a manuscript, because I have a good grasp of how tight publishing schedules are, and how much pressure it puts on the editor and copy editor and marketing people and pretty much everybody if a book comes in late. Somebody has to absorb the hassle, so I try not to generate it. Besides, they've paid me.

So my aim is to have this book all done and dusted a month from now; sometime in mid-December or so. I'm well on track to achieve this.

And every day, since October, I have been writing this book. What does that look like? If you came in to the room where I am, would you find me assiduously typing, fingers flying across the keyboard as I sit in ferocious concentration at my writerly desk? If I have been writing it every day since October, surely I'd have knocked out about a hundred thousand words by now?

But writing, of course, is not like that at all. The well-worn metaphor of the iceberg will do just fine. Typing is only the very tip of the iceberg. Submerged below the surface where nobody can see it is the main body of the thing. Because by far the most time-consuming aspect of writing is thinking.

This book I'm writing has got to be good quality; that's what the publisher was expecting when he approached me to take on the project. Like all my work it's spiritual — Christian. It's written to bring to life, in the reader's imagination, the wisdom and truth of the gospel; to deepen and enliven faith. It won't do that if it's shallow tripe written in a spare moment off the top of my head. 

So what I've been doing since October is going down deeper . . . deeper . . . deeper . . . into the reflective process, immersing myself in what I am creating, like someone going down into a mine.

I concentrate and focus and burrow down into the thing, searching and feeling for the right words, for ideas, for the right feeling. What I'm shaping has to ring true, to move you and surprise you and challenge you and sometimes make you smile. There's no formula or convention for it, nothing tried and true; it is in every sense original material. That's been the trademark of my work.

And during this time, there are moments when I've got it! When the thing I want to say and the way I want to say it all come together into something fresh and alive — and if I don't get it down right then, it goes stale, goes off like manna, and I lose it and have to patiently start over again. That's when the typing comes into the process; at such moments I need to be able to get to my laptop and really concentrate until I've got it down. Sometimes that's all of one day, sometimes it's eleven o'clock at night — but it's very often at three or five o'clock in the morning. I move out from sharing sleeping accommodation with my husband when I'm writing a book, because the writing process doesn't stop during the night. The subconscious mind, which is the dreaming mind, is where books come from, so often the most vivid thoughts and expressions occur in the middle of the night.

So that means, from October to mid-December I'm drifting, thinking, drifting, thinking, avoiding people and keeping a discipline of solitude. I never go far from my laptop, so that when an idea comes together I can get it down. But often I'm just waiting and questing and exploring. I play a lot of solitaire, watch a lot of short YouTube videos — things that keep me there and available but that can easily be dropped and left.

So I am using the keyboard a lot of the time — so much so that I've semi-frozen both shoulders and I'll be heartily glad when I've got this done. I'm also very tired — from thinking, concentrating, holding my focus in place. It feels like treading water but high up in the air; maintaining an orientation of thought. Quite similar to being bored or exhausted.

I'm just over halfway through, and it really is not easy. I find it's got harder as I've got older — harder to maintain the focus and the immersion, almost like holding your breath or something. Or stalking an elusive prey.

It's not the same as typing, anyway.

Toast of New York

Do you wear lipstick?

There are varying opinions about it in our family. My daughters, for the most part, quite strongly dislike the feel of lipstick. 

I personally like lipstick a lot. Low energy and low blood pressure combine to give me a strikingly deathly appearance at times, and in my opinion lipstick cheers things up. Aye, and blusher. Though I've long since retired defeated from eyeshadow and mascara, having lost my eyes beneath hooded folds of skin some years ago.

If you do wear lipstick, what colour suits you?

I look best in either brown reds, or berry colours. 

I have one lipstick — this one (sorry, I see I should have combed my hair) —

– that is a favourite, not initially because of the colour (though happily I like that too) but because of the name. It's an American lipstick, so I didn't get to try it on before I bought it — I got it online. 

It's called Toast of New York. As soon as I saw that, my inner foolish child had to have that lipstick, would not sit down and shut up until I pressed "Send" on a purchase, and waited eagerly for the postie to bring it along to our house.

Sometimes if I'm feeling blue and looking mauve, if life feels less than attractive and so do I, then I apply a lavish helping of Toast of New York, and tell myself things have never been better and I'm probably the happiest woman who ever walked the earth.

It sets this song off, playing in my mind. Not that I have any desire at all to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep, or be top of any heap — I'm entirely happy with where and what I am — and plus I have mixed feelings about Frank Sinatra but, that aside, what a tune, eh? And what a band!

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

What does God expect of us?

In my quiet time this morning, I prayed for my family, and for you, and for some folks going through especially challenging times just now, and for our church leaders.

I suppose I should have prayed for our country, coming up to a general election of government but, I'm sorry Lord, I forgot.

I prayed for myself, too, and this I always find puzzling. I know what I want, but I'm never quite sure what I can ask. In humility anyway, and accepting that life is full of the unexpected and challenges come as well as joys, here follows what I want and what I asked God for.

First and especially I prayed about the end of my life (I pray this fairly often). I asked for a quiet and unexceptional death, for a way of leaving this earth that will not distress those who love me. That I will leave before I become a nuisance to them, so they will not be heartily glad to see me go, but that I may lay down my life in such a way that they see life can be trusted, that they can live with confidence in providence and goodness. 

Then I prayed for responsibility; that God will provide for me to pay my bills and buy my food. I prayed that I may have enough money to realistically resource involvement in society so I may keep my body active and well in old age. I asked that I might be responsible in financial management and household management and the management of nutrition and health, and that I might fulfil my responsibility of kindness and generosity to my fellow human beings who are suffering and in need. I asked for continence and lucid sanity right to the end of my life.

I asked most fervently to live the remainder of my life on earth in quietness and peace. I know that around the world many people live with war and hunger, with domestic violence and addiction, fear and anxiety, sexual violence and the scourge of ill health. I asked to be spared these things so far as possible, and I offered my life to work to eliminate these evils from the world in the small sphere within which my light shines.

I have planned conscientiously to resource and support the life of my body on earth; our eternal souls live in a physical world, and we have to manage this responsibly, realistically and advisedly. It is not sensible to throw caution to the winds. But I also know — even from personal experience — that you can plan as carefully and diligently as lies within your power, and even still the earthquakes and avalanches come that upset the fragile mandala you have made of your life. You lay the pattern, and then someone comes along and kicks over the entire board. How else would we learn courage and patience and forgiveness? 

Then I pray for wisdom and intelligence to live with such slender simplicity that there is little to set to rights when my life is thus upset — that what I have and am is flexible and easy to rebuild.

I ask for quietness and peace, for the space and tranquillity to delight in the companionship of those I love, for means enough to supply my own need and help others too. 

And I give thanks for the beauty of the sunrise, the freshness of the morning air, the wonder of stars and frosty nights, the comfort of the fireside and a hot water bottle in my bed and a cup of nettle tea — not just any cup, either, but a beautiful ceramic cup made by an accomplished potter.

My life is blessed, and may it be a blessing. But what does God expect of me? I don't know. Will God grant me the peace and the quietness my soul craves? Is it enough to live responsibly to the best of our ability, or does he want more? Is it enough to do my best to develop kindness and understanding, to remember to relieve the needs of others and provide wisely for my own commitments? Is it enough to walk the small and hidden track of my choosing, and to weave the best words I know how to do, to share and unfold the beautiful gospel of Christ? Will God allow me to spend my life gently and simply and well? Or does God expect of me the courage and endurance to face terrible things and deeper refining? I ask for peace, and a nook out of the wind's way; but I confess I do not know what God expects of me, and my times are in his hands.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

A snatch of poetry

I've been chasing an elusive quotation from William Langland's Piers Plowman. Searching with the phrases I remembered brought me no luck on the internet and necessitated a purchase in the end. Having reunited myself with it, I found it as beautiful as when, at seventeen years old, I first read it.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Astonishing apartment

Wow! Look at that! What a brilliant design.

Front and back

Macrobiotics practitioners say "every front has a back", and nowhere is this more true than in our body tissue.

Health is another word for balance: life is fluid and dynamic. If we reach a condition of stasis, we're dead. The nourishing of life is primarily about the creation and maintenance of balance (spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, communal). Giving and receiving, breathing in and breathing out, consuming and eliminating, acquiring and letting go, beginning and ending, giving birth and dying. My all time favourite quotation (Toinette Lippe), "Problems arise where things accumulate", applies.

With this in mind, I've been thinking about the body and its balancing pairs — two ears, two eyes, two arms and two legs, two lungs, and so on. Even the bones in our spine divide like wings. The pelvis, the rib-cage — the body is a complete set of balanced halves. 

In our time of foetal development, so I've read, there comes a point of tissue division that gives rise to the nervous system and the gut. Now, I suppose at that early stage of development there's a sense in which everything comes from everything else and all of it comes from the fusion of egg and sperm, male and female, creating a fundamental balance of opposites in our beginning. Even so, the gut and the central nervous system have a particular balancing reciprocity. They emerge from the same foetal tissue at a particular point of development, and are connected by the long vagus nerve that runs down between them. This is why the gut has so many neurons in it, and is the seat of much of the process we give the name "thinking".

And if you visualise them, you can see that the central nervous system and the gut remain a balancing pair, front and back.

The central nervous system, held aloft by the bones of the spine and skull, runs in a line up the back, like a flower or a gourd on a stem. Similarly, the gut is a long line, the intestinal wall in sections as the bones of the spine are in sections, the lumen of the gut encased within the intestinal wall as the cerebral tissue and fluid are encased within the spine. As the spine flowers into the brain (or is the tail of the brain, depending which way you look at it), so the intestine is the tail of the stomach. I have a feeling that the direction here is also a matter of balancing opposition – that energy flows up the spine to the brain and down the gut from the stomach, but I'm not sure about that. The gut of course is folded and cradled within the musculature of the abdomen, the back and the perineum, and nestled into the pelvis, just as the central nervous system is held within the spine and skull. Another opposing pair; soft and hard.

Along the spine is located the invisible system of energy vortices known as "chakras", and they correspond to the soft organs stationed along the body pathway — (leaving aside the top one) eyes, breathing apparatus, digestive organs, reproductive organs and eliminative organs. That last one connects everything up, because the root chakra that sits at our perineum is about nourishment as well as elimination, so it brings us back to the mouth where the cycle of nourishment begins.

The crown chakra at the top is where our dependency from heaven passes — our string to the sky that keeps us grace-full and upright. In infancy it is open and soft (the fontanelle), and even in old age we keep the crack the light shines through and are nourished by the light of heaven. Physically this is expressed in the pituitary gland, responsive to the waxing and waning of the light, governing the all-important endocrine system that determines the directional flow of our health (eg, slowing or speeding up, getting fatter or thinner, masculinising or feminising, waking or sleeping etc).

We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Every front has a back, and this is so throughout the whole natural world — even in aspects we think we have made, like politics and economics and religion. It breathes in and breathes out, gives and takes, fills and empties; and if it stops doing that, it dies and subsides to nourish new life.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

The tape measure

Growing old is measured in losses, some agonising, some simply remarked and some just casually passing.

This morning in my quiet time I thought back to 1994 — 25 years ago.

In 1979 when I came from York to live in Hastings, this town on the foot of England, I was married to Rog and carrying our first child. Straight away I sought out our local branch of the National Childbirth Trust — a radical organisation back then, that transformed the practice of childbirth. The Hastings branch was just beginning. I became its treasurer and made friends with Carole, who was expecting her second baby and training as a breastfeeding counsellor. Then, the years went on.

In 1994 —fifteen years later —I was still firm friends with Carole. We had passed the age of babies and the youngest of my five children was seven years old. I had made many friends in Hastings and was training for ministry. Some of my special Hastings friends were Kay, Freddie, Steve, Charles and Chris. I met up with these friends often; we ate together, shared our hearts together, went deep. I was also training for ordained ministry on the Southwark Ordination Course in London, an Anglican foundation that trained Methodists too. Formation for ministry is powerful and transformative; it digs down to the roots of your soul. I made some special friends on that course, whom I loved with all my heart — Giles and Paul and Michael. They and I spent weekends together in their home or in mine, they got to know my children and my husband Rog. They were so dear to me. I also loved dearly the principal of the course, Martin Baddeley, and he too came to visit this town by the sea, to offer training to our Local Preachers, whose tutor I was back then. And so my London friends and my Hastings friends and my family wove into one fabric of love. Meanwhile, up in Liverpool, Tom Cullinan was living a beautiful discipleship of faithfulness and loving care of the earth, which taught me so much at that time and meant so much to me. I loved him.

Perhaps my dearest and deepest friends were Giles and Kay. My thoughts about baptism had evolved over the years and, while my first four children were baptised in infancy, I left my youngest child to make that decision herself. In 1994 she decided to be baptised; Giles and Kay were her godparents. That's a special relationship, isn't it? One you imagine will last for ever. Giles's involvement with my life even extended to my family of origin — he bought my father's racy little MG car. My father loved his cars.

It was a time so vivid with life and hope and purpose. Relationships that went so deep. A sense of mission and dedication. I was working in hospice chaplaincy and prison ministry and preacher training. I spent a lot of time with people dying and in bereavement, and took many, many funerals — weddings too. I preached twice most Sundays. I was writing books and raising a family. So much going on.

Now here we are in 2019, twenty-five years later. My father died at the age of 82, a sudden and merciful death — a main blood vessel to his heart split. I gave the address at his funeral. My friend  Kay died of cancer a few years ago; I took her funeral, as was her wish. Tom is dead. Freddie is in his eighties now, and we keep tenuously in touch — a card at Christmas. It's the same with Chris. I saw Steve for the first time in years just recently — we bumped into each other at the opticians. He is still as kind and loveable as he ever was. We had lunch together and promised to keep in touch. But . . . maybe . . . 

My husband Rog left me for someone else. We are still friends and our paths cross occasionally. I don't know if Michael is alive or dead. He drank more alcohol than he ate food, and always did live close to the edge. Giles and Paul I never see, though I look them up on the internet sometimes, to see how their lives and ministry are evolving. My youngest child lives far away now. I don't have the money to visit her, nor she me. We keep in touch online, and we love one another. Martin Baddeley is dead, and I have no idea where Charles is. 

I married again, and my second husband Bernard died in 2004. I took his funeral.

I've written twenty or so books (lost count), ceased to be a Methodist minister, no longer take funerals, married Tony in 2006 — then my publisher of twenty years — and I'm writing what I think will be my last book.

But Carole, who was my friend before my children were born, before I trained for ministry or ever wrote a book, is still my friend. When we meet every now and then, it's as though time has stood still. We see each other's soul in the same way we always did, you know? We recognise one another.

So much changes. You lose what you thought you would keep forever. One of the things lost is the sense of self — few of us arrive at old age feeling proud of ourselves. Certainly not me. The sense of one's mediocrity settles in at some point in middle age, and takes root. The main thing I feel these days is gratitude. For every day my body doesn't hurt, I have a home that's safe and dry, I have food in the fridge and enough money to buy it, I can pay my bills and pick up clothes cheap on eBay — I am so grateful. I think of people who make shift in tents and hostels and refugee camps, people who are raped and starve, whose legs are blown off by land mines, people who are overtaken by diabetes and cancer, by Alzheimers and auto-immune conditions, the scourges of our time — and oh, my God, I am grateful. I live so quietly, I barely disturb the air; but here at the heart of my life the ember of gratitude burns and keeps me warm. I am blessed. I know I am blessed.

Time passes. What abides? So little, but some things do.

Monday, 11 November 2019


Today is the feast of St Martin, a very loveable saint.

Martinmas has an ambience of kindness, humility and hospitality.

Martin of Tours was a 4th century Roman soldier who saw a beggar crouched shivering with cold on a winter day. He dismounted from his horse, drew his sword (I bet the beggar was scared) and bisected his own warm woollen cloak with it, keeping one half for himself and giving half to the beggar — thus establishing a precedent of generous but sensible giving.

He had a dream after he cut his cloak in two for the beggar, in which he met Jesus — and noticed that Jesus was wearing the half of the cloak he'd given the beggar.

After his conversion to Christian way of faith, Martin wanted to stop being a soldier, but his father was an officer so they wouldn't let him. They gave in eventually, though, possibly because he adopted the habit of facing his enemies unarmed. Even his father could see this wouldn't end well. So Martin left military service and established a monastic community. There's a story that when the church authorities came to collect him to make him a bishop, he hid with the geese in their enclosure because he didn't want to go. Geese everywhere have paid dearly for their complicity, because roast goose became traditional Martinmas fare.

Martinmas is particularly associated with feasting. In the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, they hadn't yet discovered root vegetables. People ate meat, fish, poultry, milk, cheese, eggs, grain (bread and ale), fruit, and leafy vegetables like salad, onions, leeks, garlic, greens. This meant that once the summer and autumn fruit was all gone, both humans and their domestic animals depended on grain for food. At least some of the milk cows would be in calf for the spring, so their milk supply was dwindling. This meant competition for a decreasing food stock in cold weather. The solution was to slaughter any animals not necessary to regenerate the herds for the next year. As they didn't have fridges and freezers either, and salt was a very precious and expensive commodity, people feasted together on the glut of meat. Martinmas was a huge party. 

It's also the time when the nights are lengthening and the weather starts to feel seriously chilly. The winter dark and cold are drawing in.

In Waldorf (Steiner) tradition, the children make colourful lanterns and go with their teachers and families for a lantern walk as night falls on St Martin's day. It's a reminder to let our light shine, to be lights in the darkness.

Once the meat was all eaten up (meat does keep for some days on stone slabs in the cold), the party would be over and it would be time for the household of faith to turn their attention to the second great fast of the year, Advent, a time of examination of one's soul and of reflective preparation for the coming of Christ.

There's a lot more detail in this article than I've given you here — interesting and worth reading. And here's a piece about a Waldorf Lantern Walk.

There are loads of pictures of St Martin, but I like this one because it has such a lovely horse.

It must surely be the case that fellow fans of the unforgettable and inimitable Father Ted cannot hear the phrase "lovely horse" without thinking immediately of Father Dougal's entry for the song contest, My Lovely Horse. As Ted and Dougal originally imagined it here, and went on to practice it here, and then in its final performance here. But that has nothing to do with St Martin.

One last thing — Martinmas is also one of those days in the year when the wind direction is a good predictor for the prevailing wind direction through the winter; and it's a westerly wind all day today, here in Hastings.

Sunday, 10 November 2019


Might this, on UK eBay, be the world's saddest advert for a toy?

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Another minimalist Japanese life

I've been really enjoying the videos Rhea Y posts on her YouTube channel — I love the one about a day in her life (which has a brilliant breakfast fail moment in it).

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Sjöden Böden

For a limited time only . . .

In the comment thread following the previous post, we got talking about the possibility of a fashion magazine devoted to our style of dress — American/British Vague. 

This reminded me of a daft thing some of us in our household did a couple of years back — since we enjoy looking at the Boden and Gudrun Sjöden catalogues, we made our own spoof catalogue for an imagined ladies' clothing firm called Sjöden Böden. 

I went back and looked out the photos we took. My family would lynch me if I put some of them online, but I think they'd be okay with you seeing these for now (some of them are me anyway).




I raided the archives of the same cast of characters for my Diary of an English Lady blog (see, eg this post from the blog), using the photos they took from a (spoof) Christmas murder mystery radio play they did one year, called Lord Bonchley's Christmas Party — I especially liked the decadent female nightclub singer called Débris Bonbon. 
And then there are the Group W prison breakout stories . . .