Circle of life

Time to update regular readers on EBL family affairs.

You may recall from earlier posts this month that my mother was not doing too well. Unfortunately she died on 17 December. The chest infection was not a chest infection at all; it was simply lung disease and stress and old age. It was life fading and slipping away. It was, in the raw, the circle of life.

Sigoth, two Offspringses and I were with her for her last hours and watched her through to her last breath on earth. She was not really conscious. We held her hand and smoothed her forehead and moistened her lips. Then we said goodbye.

She believed in life after death and probably reincarnation. Her beliefs were different from mine. Possibly she was right and somewhere a squalling infant is her new home. I’m pretty sure, from a Buddhist perspective, she will make it back as a human. She did little harm overall and meant none at all. She was a nice person.

If that sounds like faint praise I suppose it’s because her ups and downs, her achievements and failures, her light and her darkness are not really for public consumption. Her generation did not live its life publicly, as people do now. Family is family. The rest can mind their own business.

What I felt during those last hours was love around me. I have been humbled by the way people have mourned her loss. Carers at the residential home and nurses on the ward were tearful and genuinely sad at her passing; they had known her only for a few months, or even days. She touched their lives in positive ways, which is a great achievement. Her friends have shared their memories with me, as have my friends, some of whom have known her almost as long as I have.  Universally they remember her as kindly and welcoming and caring. There are worse legacies.

First Christmas

This picture is of her and me around my first Christmas. I apologise for the gratuitous nudity. Obviously in those days colour had not yet been invented although later it transpired the tub was pink, as am I although a slightly different shade.

To life, my dears, and what we make of it, and all we leave behind!

Namaste.

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Fragile

“Your turn in the chair next time,” said October. “I know,” said November. He was pale and thin-lipped. He helped October out of the wooden chair. “I like your stories. Mine are always too dark.” “I don’t think so,” said October. “It’s just that your nights are longer. And you aren’t as warm.” “Put it like that,” said November, “and I feel better. I suppose we can’t help who we are.”
― Neil GaimanFragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders

source: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/3262727-fragile-things-short-fictions-and-wonders?page=3

As we huddle shivering in our homes on All Hallows Eve and the ghouls and ghosts cavort in the midnight skies, our primitive selves acknowledge how fragile we are. Like porcelain, like butterfly wings, like a head of dandelion seeds about to scramble in the breeze, like a bubble, like a house of cards. We may break and tumble and fall down shattered.

pumpkin lantern

This time of year, Samhain, Hallowe’en, when night has decisively wrestled the majority share from day, half way between solstice and equinox, is when we recognise our vulnerability, confront our fears and make peace with our ancestors.

Tonight our house will be strangely quiet, as Sigoth and I munch pumpkin pie alone. But the gate will squeak and small children will stumble up the dark path to the pumpkin lantern and knock on the door in full expectation of chocolate. And it will be so.

Humans are amazing. We turn frights into fun, and joy into fear, as if alchemy were nothing to be wondered at.

Namaste.

K is for Kaiser Bill, Kitchener and Killing (and Conscientious Objection)

quaker alphabet project

Here we are again at the Quaker Alphabet. I have committed to posting 26 entries at least for each letter of the alphabet on my life as a Quaker in 2014. You can read other blogs in this project by going to the tab at the top of the page.

It’s taken me a while to get this post sorted out. I had quite a time thinking of a K. I toyed with Kinship, but bored myself writing it, so be grateful that that particular draft will not be seeing the light of your screen. I feel quite strongly about the Quaker Family but don’t seem to be able to express anything about it in less than mind-numblingly tedious terms. What else could I choose: kaleidoscopes, knitting, knights or knickers? I looked up the index of phrases in Quaker Faith and Practice for inspiration and found the only K was about Keeping the Meeting. I could cover that I suppose but probably rather less successfully than Kinship.

Then I suddenly remembered there is an anniversary of something this year which means that many people are focusing on Killing, although some are instead trying to focus on the alternative to that, by talking about Conscientious Objectors. A number of these people are, of course, Quakers, who have strong words to say about Peace and not fighting each other and finding more grown up ways to sort out differences.

The Quaker Peace testimony dates back to the beginnings of the Society, in the seventeenth century, and its first formal expression is usually associated with a lengthy document addressed to King Charles II following his Restoration. Entitled

“A DECLARATION FROM THE HARMLES & INNOCENT people of GOD, called QUAKERS, Against all Plotters and Fighters in the World”

a snappy title that rolls right off the tongue, it was delivered on 21 November 1660 and was intended to make clear that the king was not going to be at any risk from plots and insurgency against him by this particular group of religious reformers so would he stop banging them up in prison please.

Most memorably it includes the phrase

All bloody Principles & Practices … we do utterly deny, with all outward wars & strife, & fightings with outward Weapons, for any end or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our Testimony to the whole world.

This phrase is frequently used as the short-hand for the testimony itself, and encapsulates a firm and unequivocal opposition to bearing arms. Life is rarely that straightforward of course.

Let us scroll forward through history to the early 20th century.

20,000 men were conscientious objectors in the 1914-18 war in Britain, following the implementation of conscription in March 1916. They included socialists, religious groups such as Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others with an ideological opposition to the war and its causes. The story of conscientious objection is told on the Peace Pledge Union website, so for more details please start there.

At the time of the 1660 Peace Testimony it was considered appropriate to wear a sword by default, if you were a gentleman, and so giving up swords was a contentious issue. Famously, William Penn is often quoted as advising his fellows to “wear it as long as thou canst”, meaning “until you feel unable to do so”. In a sense this was the dilemma facing Friends as the war in Europe loomed and then erupted. Friends played an active role in the protests against conscription, but I learned recently this was by no means a unanimous approach. A significant number were willing to serve in the armed forces; the Society was split in its views for and against the war. Some buckled on their metaphorical swords.

Other Friends established the Friends Ambulance Unit, being willing to serve in non-combatant roles. The FAU was a volunteer ambulance service, founded by members of the Society of Friends as a practical expression of the Quaker peace testimony. It operated from 1914 to 1919, 1939 to 1946 and 1946 to 1959 in 25 countries around the world, and its members were chiefly registered conscientious objectors.

Even this was viewed in some circles as tacitly supporting the war effort and so a third group opposed to supporting the war in any form served in prison or were executed.

Conscientious objection is more fully recognised now than in 1916, although not easily and certainly not universally. For myself I have never had to make the choice, and hope I never will, as to whether I accept military service or not. I would like to think I would be brave and stand firm but I don’t know and am now fortunately possessed of sufficient age probably never to have to decide. The Offspringses may yet have to make their choices.

Although I don’t agree philosophically with those who did wear their swords once more, nevertheless it pleases me that the Society of Friends was able to work out its differences around what is a fundamental principle of its belief system. Quakers can be a tricksy lot to get to grips with. As a former Bishop of Durham is quoted as saying “I wish Friends would preach what they practise.” We can be a bit vague at times and too often answer with “it depends…”. That is because we are Seekers of Truth not Purveyors, and, as we all know, the Truth can be complicated.

Namaste.

 

 

J is for Justified

Throughout the year I have committed to producing blog posts for each letter of the alphabet about Quakerism, in my case primarily my own experience and interpretation of being a Quaker rather than any piece of beautifully researched or well-read prose.

The Quaker Alphabet project has now reached J here in EBL Towers. In honour of this wonderful letter, I decided to write about Margaret Fell’s 1666 (or 1667) pamphlet arguing that women should be allowed to preach. You can read the full text of it here.

womens-speaking-justified

Margaret Fell was involved in founding the Religious Society of Friends through her work with George Fox and others. Her pamphlet setting out the view of women’s right to preach and speak in church was extremely influential. Quaker women were often literate, and indeed research into the lives of women of this period, such as by Antonia Fraser in “The Weaker Vessel“, may depend upon their journals for insights into people’s daily lives and routines of the period.

The role of women in the life of a religious community will differ from church to church. However, the Anglican Church (Church of England and its related churches around the world) and the Catholic Church are still struggling with the question, some 350 years after Margaret Fell summarised it. It’s not just Christian faiths either that are finding the question challenging.

Clearly I have my answer provided thanks to Margaret Fell, although I might use slightly different language, arguments and examples updated for a more modern audience; in retrospect that might be the wrong approach for churches still mired in historical and apparently antiquated mind-sets.

For me, and as I suspect for a number of other Quakers, the question of women’s speaking simply does not arise. Some years ago, when the Church of England was discussing appointing female ministers, I attended a workshop on feminism and spirituality. It was led by a woman who planned to become an Anglican priest if the vote was carried in favour of such appointments. She sat down with our group of Quaker women and gave a deep sigh and said, “I can’t tell you what a relief it is to be with a group of women who aren’t talking about female ordination!”

We all looked a bit bemused and admitted it was not something we really thought about.

“You don’t have priests…” she started.

“We are all priests,” someone corrected her gently.

And that is the way of it; without a recognised and separate clergy, we all have the responsibility and the opportunity to be priests to and for one another. Essentially every individual has a direct relationship with the Divine and we learn and worship together as equals. Of course there may be barriers preventing people standing up in a meeting for worship and speaking the message they feel they have received. We also are all members of a wider society with its own rules and challenges.

I know and recognise that Quakers are not exempt from sexism (or any other -ism) in thought or word or deed. I know we are not perfect. It’s just that for me I have a community of seekers of the truth who are open to trying not be discriminatory to the best of their ability and in at least this area have done a fair job of it so far.

It’s so easy to slip into self-recrimination, and so I want to celebrate our commitment and value its longevity as well as appreciate and exult in more recent witness (around eg same sex relationships and marriage).

Namaste

 

I is for Introversion

As part of my 12 month mission, I am writing posts in approximately alphabetical order about what being a Quaker means to me. It’s part of the Quaker Alphabet Project 2014 and more information can be found over on this page about it.

This month I have made it as far as the letter I, which is brought to you by Introversion. Get me in my Big Bird outfit!

You see, my dears, I have a bit of a theory. It’s not a big theory, or even a well-considered one. It’s one born of the need to find a word beginning with I and the fact that I was reminding myself about Myers-Briggs indicators the other day. You might say it’s less of a theory and more of an early hypothesis.

Are Quakers predominantly Introverts?

I am, of course, referring to Quakers in the British or similar tradition of silent, unprogrammed worship. We sit still for an hour and wait to see if anyone feels they have a message to share. There is no priest or pastor or vicar or cleric (except that we all are priests in a way), and there is no programme of worship, just a willingness to sit down together and see what happens.

In Myers-Briggs one of the “preferences” (there are four in total) is Extraversion – Introversion. By completing a questionnaire you receive a score along the scale indicating which side you are on and how strongly.

EBL's introversion score

As you will see, it turns out I am fairly introverted.

The extraversion – introversion scale measures where a person prefers to focus their attention and where they get a boost to their energy. So in this case, it would imply that:

  • I am drawn to my inner world
    • This is true. I enjoy mental challenges: crosswords, quizzes, meditation, academic work, genealogy, writing and reading about Ideas. It’s one reason I like science fiction as well as science.
  • I prefer to communicate in writing
    • I would certainly rather email than pick up the phone, also I blog a bit.
  • I work out ideas by reflection
    • I mull things over and let a conclusion arise, I expect my team to be psychic because it’s all going on in my head.
  • I focus in depth on my interests
    • I interpret this as obsessing over the minutiae of my hobbies rather than having a broader range of more general interests. I want to be an expert. Good enough is not good enough!
  • I am private and contained
    • Despite the fact I am sharing this with you, I blog under a pseudonym. I don’t mind if you work out who I am – I wouldn’t say anything here I would not say in public. I just prefer not to use my name because you don’t need to know it.
  • I take the initiative when a situation or issue is important to me
    • Do I wade in and interfere when I think it’s needed? Why yes I do.

It also indicates I restore my flagging energies by taking time out alone. Absolutely. I have to have time on my own, which is why I find regular meditation so helpful.

What it does not mean is that I am shy (although I am in some social situations – at work I am completely the opposite of shy).

So, EBL, what is this to do with Quakerism?

I’m glad you asked, dear reader. It’s because of the silent worship.

You see, those of us who take time out to participate in it tend to say we find it refreshing, restorative, energising. We think of it as the time we recharge batteries, mull over issues, get back in touch with our inner light.

I invite you to look back at the definition of Introversion. I see a link, and I wonder if you do too?

Well, what does that mean? Why does it matter? It’s because only half of the population at most fall onto the Introversion side of the scale. Obviously the rest are extraverts. I suspect they would always struggle with silent meetings for worship, no matter how spiritual they are as individuals.

Don’t forget the scale is a sliding one, so someone in the middle would not be strongly inclined one way or the other; it will be a normal distribution curve. However, a significant proportion of the population is unlikely to find silent meetings for worship as strengthening as we firm Introverts do.

Does this mean Quakerism is not for them? Well, that’s kind of up to us, isn’t it? If all we do is based on silence and reflection, then we will only attract and keep clear introverts. Our community will be biased. If we choose to engage in a range of activities, events and opportunities which satisfy all tastes and preferences, then we can be more balanced and whole by including everyone. We often debate in our meetings how to include children, young people, and so on. Perhaps we should redefine what we mean by inclusion and who we think we are failing to nurture.

Just a thought, dear Friends. I would be interested in your views. (Although perhaps we don’t need to debate MBTI in detail …I have used it as a starting point only!) For all I know there is a Woodbrooke programme for just this kind of thing.

Namaste.

 

H is for Honesty

In my ongoing mission to complete the Quaker Alphabet Blog Project in 2014 today I bring to you Honesty.

800px-Lunaria_annua_flowers

There is an old joke in Quaker circles that you always find Honesty in a Quaker garden. Give us a break – we’re not professional gag writers for the most part.

However, one of the attractions, and possibly also scary bits, of being a member of our small but beautifully-formed community is that we try to speak honestly in all our dealings. Naturally we aren’t always good at it, and tie ourselves in knots trying to avoid being hurtful while keeping to the truth. A recent meeting was a good example.

I have mentioned in previous posts on this project that it can be quite demanding being a Friend, because there are so few people and so much work including managing our crumbling meeting houses, conforming to charity law and simply maintaining the day-to-day business of our worshipping groups. There are so many things to do that we have a rather esoteric process called “Nominations”. There is a committee, naturally, whose job it is to find people to do other jobs, from treasurer to conference goer. [As an “interesting” side note there are also Nominations Committees to appoint people to Nominations Committee and, in our geographical Area at least, a Search Group to find people to serve on Elders and Overseers, separate from the Nominations Committee, whom you might expect to be asked to do that. As it is, Area Nominations Committee has to find over 60 names a year to do all the things we want to do so the Search Group is intended to spread the load.]

Yesterday was Area Meeting, the time when we get together with folks from all the local worshipping groups in our geographical Area, to share, learn, celebrate and even do business. One of the items of business was Nominations, and how we can improve the process so it is clear to everyone. The current committee had asked us to think about treating their recommendations more thoughtfully, rather than rubber-stamping them, and to be ready to discuss a person’s suitability for a role.

Well, that was all well and good when we wanted to hear about how wonderful each other are. How many skills, how much experience, how long-standing and dedicated a commitment. But what about when someone felt obliged to stand up and say those fateful words “that name would not have occurred to me”? This dread phrase, or something like it, is the equivalent of “Good grief! Are you barking? You can’t let Gladys do Catering, not after the incident last year which resulted in several hospitalisations for listeria-induced comas and food poisoning!” Worse yet, the name may be for something even more sensitive than catering, such as Children’s arrangements or Safeguarding or Finance and Property.

Quakers seek to find the best in everyone, to recognise the Light within, and to accept the whole person, but we aren’t stupid. We also practise tough love and will face up to behaviours and actions which are hurtful, and will hold the person to account in a loving and supportive way. At least, at our best we do and the rest of the time we try to do so. It’s a thing I like, even though I like it a bit less when I am the recipient of that tough love. After a while I get over it and am grateful someone was caring and brave enough to tell me.

As a result we may have people among us whom you would never put in charge of certain functions, such as children or money, while still loving them as cherished members of the community. You might put the embezzler on Children’s Committee so long as they didn’t manage the budget for wax crayons and glitter sticks, but you would do it knowingly.

Here’s the rub. How much of a discussion should be expected in an open forum about why the worried Friend has stood up and uttered this phrase? You have to be sure and you have to be quite brave to do it; but you also have to be justified.

We want to be honest and open. We need to know if there is a reason someone should not be appointed, but only one or two people may be aware of that reason. In a meeting I used to belong to last century we had a rule that you could only be invited to help with children, not volunteer. It seemed best to introduce a rule before there was any issue about suitability, rather than make it up on the hoof. It didn’t stop anyone making known their willingness to help out, but it did give peace of mind to all concerned in a large group where not everyone knew everyone else well.

Back to our Area Meeting then. We sat and thought about it for quite some time, trying to discern the right way forward. We wanted to be able to raise concerns but there was a balance required between confidentiality and transparency.

I’m not saying we are geniuses in settling this old debate. In fact we fudged it quite a bit and agreed we would not expect to go into detail but would discuss the issue between the person raising it and the Nominations Committee. If the objection was over-ruled it would come back to next Area Meeting, unless there was a time constraint in which case the committee could make the decision. It’s a bit fuzzy. People may still be upset. We are in danger of making the process slower and more complex than necessary. For me the important thing is we faced up to it and talked it over and generally tried to work out what love required of us.

I think we were honest because we recognised that we need to be able to say that a candidate for a job is not right in a safe and supportive way. We need to be able to be able to have and deal with disagreements. We need to be honest about decisions and not just take the easiest path in the name of not hurting feelings. By setting an expectation that our decisions are not automatic, that we take them seriously, and that we will welcome challenges, we make honesty the norm.

I am reminded of a cartoon I saw recently, probably a meme. It was about someone being interviewed.

“Tell us what you think is your worst quality,” said the interviewer.

“Honesty.”

“I don’t think that’s a negative quality!”

“Honestly, I don’t care what you think.”

Namaste.

B4Peace: Once upon a time in TV land

Welcome once more to the Chronicles of the Young EBL. Today I am responding to the monthly Bloggers for Peace prompt set by Kozo over at everydaygurus.com. Kozo has asked me, personally, to explain what influenced me as a child to become the kind of person who posts for Peace. Feel free to join in. It doesn’t cost anything and contributes to the greater sum of human happiness.

Let’s focus on children. How can we teach children to prioritize peace? How did you experience peace as a child? What in your upbringing made you a Blogger for Peace?

Well, my dears, I have been thinking and thinking about that last sentence for a few days, and now I have thunk I am here to share it with you. Come with me back to the wondrous world of the 1960s.

I was not a particularly pacific child. I got into fights and scrapes more often than a Sixties girl was supposed to; we were all sugar and spice back then, and that meant fighting was for boys. Boys were slugs and snails and puppy dog tails.

I had some friends who were boys, because I am subversive like that. The twins down the road, a son of my mother’s friend, a couple of boys from school who were not too fussy about gender if you genuinely liked Dr Who, and so on. Often we ran about the parks in packs and I had no idea who half the children were. It didn’t matter. We were a gang for the day, catching stickleback in the stream or throwing sticks into the chestnut trees to get the conkers down.

Idyllic, eh? Well, it was pretty sweet. I didn’t have a traumatic childhood apart form minor hurts and crises, and I am thankful for it.

So when a boy did try picking on me in the playground I felt quite entitled to punch him hard and then tell teacher. As I said, not very pacific.

My Dad had served in the army towards the end of the Second World War and in Germany in 1946. He had lots of happy memories of friends and people he met. He even wanted to marry a German girl but that was never going to be allowed. Otherwise I would now be something like Die Elektronischetaschefrau. Actually that sounds quite good…

Leider habe ich zu viel vergessen, auf Deutsch zu schreiben.

Now then, get back to the purpose of this post, EBL. Keep on track!

While I was living the dream paddling in the stony waters of the park, or picking leeches off my legs when I ventured into the mud, or skinning knees and elbows climbing the trees, or breaking my ankle trying to roller skate; while all this was going on other influences were at work for the very possession of my heart and soul. How very sinister that sounds! In fact, it was no more than normal socialisation.

My parents were prone to the casual prejudices of white English people, but also were fair and helpful and kind to individuals they met without being particularity interested in how those other people looked or acted. So I played with the children avoided by others, such as Elizabeth, who was black, or Cindy who had Downs Syndrome, or Nick, who was a very bright boy my age in a baby-sized body, or Lee, who had cerebral palsy. There were quite a few children about who were the survivors of thalidomide, but I didn’t know any personally. So I just thought everyone was a real person.

Then there was Sunday School. Initially my mother sent me to the local High Anglican church where I coloured in and recited the Ten Commandments. At that stage I took things literally, so “thou shalt not kill” meant just that, at least for humans. After I was too old for colouring in, I found the big church too scary on my own, with the high roof and smelly incense and lots of adults I didn’t know. My family didn’t go to church; my mother sent me on my own because she thought it would be good for me.

After I refused to go any more, my friend’s mother took me to their church, a fundamentalist Baptist congregation with a sliding floor over the pool for full immersion baptism. I thought that was very exciting, but eventually was thrown out of that Sunday School because I asked too many questions about science and cosmology. Still, I did learn that God was Love, even if some adults weren’t.

Those early explorations into religion would not be the main foundation for a later commitment to pacifism though, only an initial blueprint. No, the final keystone of the whole edifice came through the miracle of television.

The daily routine in our house was for me to watch children’s television until the Magic Roundabout had finished, and Zebedee had boinged the youngest children off to bed, and then for my parents and grandmother to settle down in front of the evening news. The television was left on for this while we ate tea, so as I chomped my way through cheese sandwiches and a slice of cake, and slurped down a cup of tea, I watched what was happening in the world. Mostly it was boring and incomprehensible. There were men talking in long words, and sometimes shouting, and occasionally there seemed to be a lot of concern about long haired people who liked grass. It was quite confusing.

my_lai_massacre

http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2013/06/when-the-war-criminal-is-one-of-us/
I don’t think it was My Lai that I saw, but it was similar

One day there were bodies.

I’m sure there were bodies other days, but this must have been a particularly traumatic massacre. My mother turned the television off in a hurry but not before I saw rows of people lying in the dirt street somewhere foreign. My grandmother was crying a bit, and my parents were very hushed.

I knew, with a real sense of freezing clarity, that those people were real-dead, not pretend-dead like Cowboys and Indians, or Daleks. They weren’t going to get up and walk away once the cameras stopped. They were never going to get up and walk away. Never. Some other men had come with helicopters or tanks or jeeps, and killed them. They were just people, children like me, old ladies like grandma. Dead.

It was wrong.

And that was it. A moment in time when I simply knew it was wrong to kill people. A black and white, no nonsense, don’t even try to argue moment.

Nowadays I might think about justification for conscientious objection because apparently some people do not see this obvious truth. For me, there is no need for argument. It’s not about who has the best words or most unassailable logic. It’s about not killing people, because there is no way back from that, and dead is dead without distinction of good or bad. You don’t get different kinds of dead. There are no more chances, or room for error, or time to say sorry, or hope for a better tomorrow. One day we will all be dead. There’s no need to rush. I knew it then, in the way a young child can be certain and an adult can’t. I know it now, in the same way.

I don’t even know who those people were, or where, or when, least of all why. It would have been late Sixties, but probably not early Seventies, because I was quite small. I suspect it was Vietnam but can’t be sure.

In my cynical teenage phase I watched M*A*S*H and cemented my resolve. Killing people is wrong.

I conclude, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that television can be the conscience of us all, and now perhaps Face-twit and Tweet-book as well. Even, dare we hope it, blogging. You know what, if we all blogged about why killing people is wrong we could start some kind of Online Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacre Movement…..

Why Kozo – you clever, clever man!

Other bloggers who have cottoned on to this idea include:

http://sarahneeve.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/march-b4peace-post-a-peaceful-resolution/

http://peacegarret.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/a-peace-lesson-for-children-from-a-nazi

http://klamiot.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/peacemusic

http://janetkwest.com/2014/03/05/dad-the-faithful

and of course, Kozo’s original post

http://everydaygurus.com/2014/03/03/monthly-peace-challenge-peace-child/

Namaste