C is for Chill

It has been a difficult week at EBL Towers. I had taken a lengthy break over Christmas and New Year so I thought I was ready to go back to work. It was with some surprise that I found myself on my first day at the desk sitting and having a minor panic attack. I was tearful and felt sick and couldn’t concentrate. I girded my loins and by the end of the day I had wrangled that inbox into submission and felt like the very gods. The next day I had to go to Head Office and while I was there had a catch up with my boss. I confessed how I had felt and she said she was already concerned I was not really right so I am taking a few days off to try and chill.

It seems appropriate to include this post under the alphabet project because for my last post I wrote somewhat from my heart about being Busy. I think I was already feeling the strain so today I am going to talk to you about chilling. There are times in our lives when we need to do so. In the past I have pushed on, feeling that stopping for exhaustion was a sign of weakness. Looking at that from the outside I have to say it seems an extraordinarily short-sighted attitude. Certainly if one of my team suggested it to me I would tell them not to be so foolish and to take a break. So now I am allowing myself the same luxury. Go me.

The thing about being busy is that it is value loaded. The Puritan work ethic means that sitting idly is synonymous with sin. So I see taking a break following a period of extreme busyness at work as a failure. In society we brand the unemployed as scroungers. Retired people are a drain because they do not “contribute”. Parents who work part time or stay at home are not committed enough or are not actually working: although I think a moment’s reflection will confirm that childcare is hardly a relaxing option. As Quakers we often feel guilty at not doing our bit, at failing to change the world, at being human. We are not alone in this. It is pre-programmed into our culture.

So I am taking a few days out.

At least I thought I was.

I got home from a site visit on Friday evening to find a letter from the hospital to say they had a slot for me next Wednesday for my shoulder operation (the one that was cancelled before Christmas because they were caught by surprise when more people got ill in winter).

Having spent a couple of days convincing myself it was acceptable to take time out and relax with some knitting and reading and films, I am now irritated to find my time is cut short and I have to sort out blood tests and arrange transport and complete various jobs in quite a limited timeframe. Well, woe is me.

I also have to admit to being a little anxious about the operation and worried about how I will manage in the immediate aftermath. Sigoth is of course primed and ready; when is he not? He will take me to the hospital at the crack of dawn and collect me the next day. He will look after me if I need help for as long as it takes (hopefully only a day or two before I can manage most things). He will be amazing.

I, on the other hand, will be a pain in the neck. I am a terrible patient, in that I am not patient at all. I will moan about the discomfort and try to do things I shouldn’t and whinge. I will get frustrated that I can’t turn somersaults and lift weights and conduct the London Symphony Orchestra with vigorous waves of my baton. I will discover a yen to practise semaphore and to walk on my hands as a matter of extreme urgency. I will generally complain and be even more unpleasant than usual to be around. Sigoth will manage perfectly well and tell me off when I get too silly and eventually the soreness will subside and all will be well.

Meanwhile tomorrow I have to clerk Preparative Meeting. It’s a Quaker thing, this business meeting, and a thing of beauty. I am not going to write about it here and now, but the Quaker business method is one of the things most worthwhile about the whole enterprise in my opinion. Nevertheless, preparing for it, doing it, and following it up are all potentially demanding tasks when one is not feeling completely on top of one’s game. Yet it needs to be done. It is another thing I have promised to do. Quakers are very keen on your yes being yes, and you no being no. So I will do this job at least.

None of this is chilled. None of it is reducing stress. It is teaching me that I have to slow down more emphatically. Rather than letting me get away with a week at home reading Neil Gaiman and knitting, all of which are things on a To-do list, I will learn enforced stillness, enforced patience, enforced gratitude for help and support. I have spent a half century learning the lesson of being busy and valuing activity. Now I have to learn dependency and patience and slowness.

It may make me a better person, if I am lucky and manage to take the lesson on board.

May you find times to be busy and times to be quiet.

Namaste.

B is for Busy

The Quaker Alphabet Blog Project in 2014 aims to encourage a post a fortnight about some aspect of Quakerism in alphabetical order. No doubt I will eventually rebel and start posting out of order, but as it happens this time I want to write about Busy-ness and that happens to fit in nicely with needing to do a B post. Lucky me. Meanwhile, sit back and prepare for an incoherent babble about how unfair life is. I may inadvertently be channelling a teenager.

It seems appropriate to talk about being Busy because it is the beginning of another artificially induced time segment, known as a year, at which point there is enormous upheaval in Quaker meetings up and down the country. This upheaval is caused not by shifting tides or phases of the moon, nor by reaction to New Year’s Honours or the publication of secret papers. It is instead caused by the fact that almost the entire Society of Friends changes roles and responsibilities, and does a kind of sideways shuffle. December is a frantic blur of last minute nominations for jobs:

“EBL – we really need an Assistant Treasurer! It won’t mean much more work.”

“Well, alright, I’ll do what I can…I am taking on clerking too so…”

“Great! The Treasurer is going to New Zealand for 3 months. You’ll manage won’t you? Thanks again!”

“…urk…”

Then January sees the traditional floundering of people trying to pick up their new roles (probably the same role they did 3 years ago and to which they have now returned on what I like to call the Quaker Merry-Go-Round of Jobs). So as I have also agreed to work on the clerking team I found myself yesterday planning an agenda for our first business meeting of the year.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am happy to do my bit. I am happy to clerk because I have done it before and it was OK most of the time (see the pretty Merry-Go-Round). Everyone helps out with wording things and another Friend will be handling the correspondence and notices, which is the bit I find hardest. But, and there had to be one, I am painfully aware I have just spent a couple of hours pulling everything together and being thankful I booked an extra day’s leave after all.

Along with many other church and community groups up and down the country, the Society of Friends is a dwindling population with a fast-growing list of Jobs That Must Be Done. There are increasing regulations and costs around insurance, risk assessments, CRB checks, financial probity and goodness only knows what else. At the same time I find other members of the meeting saying things like “I’m really sorry I have to give up doing X Job, but now I’m in my nineties I do find it a little difficult.”

I’m quite serious. I have replaced someone in her nineties because she felt it was getting a bit much. And she feels terrible at letting people down.

Sometimes I think Quakers live to such ripe old ages not because they are (broadly speaking) affluent and middle class, but because they simply don’t have time to die or don’t wish to inconvenience other people by doing so before their agreed term of office ends.

I find myself asking “is it all, when you get right down to it – actually necessary?” I am not comfortable about putting such expectations on older Friends or on younger ones, like me, who feel unable to use long work hours as an excuse when the alternative is that dear old Prue, who was 93 last week, will feel obligated to carry on if I say no.

Sometimes at meeting we talk about SQUIFs. What can I say, it’s a Quaker thing. It means Single Quaker in the Family. There are particular pressures on those who participate in a meeting but whose family do not. We have a debate about whether we get more or less of their time as a result.

One camp thinks we get less, because they need to find time to spend with the family apart from meeting, and have to balance the demands of meeting with competing demands of partner, children, siblings, parents etc who don’t quite understand what this strange “meeting” is all about.

On the other hand, some feel we get more, because being a Quaker Couple, for example, means that both partners can’t devote all their attention to meeting as they still have to do other, more worldly activities, such as working, childcare, shopping etc. In addition having a Quaker couple means the meeting is more constrained in the permutations and combinations of roles it can work with. For example, Sigoth and I would not both be asked to serve on the clerking team at the same time to prevent us appearing to have “taken over”. chuckle brosI suspect we will cox and box through roles as a result in a Chuckle Brothers fashion (“to me, to you, to me!”) as we take It in turns to carry out various jobs and possibly get jammed in doorways with hilarious consequences as a result.

Either way I feel quite bleak about the future of these roles. Not only do we now have the situation where it is unlikely that a couple can afford to have one partner at home full time, or even part-time, by choice; also we are faced with people working for longer as pensions contract. Whereas I once thought I would retire at 60, still vigorous and able to volunteer whole-heartedly, now I will have to work for longer and be less fit when I do retire. And that’s assuming I ever get that far, given that my father died in his sixties while still working to support the family.

In fact, “bleak” barely scratches the surface. Perhaps I chose the wrong B word for this post.

So let’s Brighten up and count some Blessings!

  • It is likely I will live longer and be healthier than previous generations.
  • I should be able to retire by 70, leaving me a good 20 years of voluntary happiness ahead (based on Prue).
  • If the worst problem I have to face is how much time I can give to meeting, then I am pretty fortunate.
  • If no one clerks the meeting, I suspect no one will die. Or even be maimed. Or possibly, whisper it, even notice.

While none of this addresses the underlying problem facing our and other societies and groups, I think today I’ll let the world manage without me. It will sort itself out or it will not; I will do what I can and not what I can’t, and hope for the wisdom to know which is which.

Looks like I may have to move on to C for Catastrophising (and why I really should stop) in the next post.

Saying “No” – how do you do it? Or don’t you? If the latter, please join your local Quaker meeting!

Namaste

A is for Afterwards

This year I have committed to participating in the Quaker Alphabet Blog Project. I have created a separate page with a little more information too. What it means is that I will try to post a blog for each letter of the alphabet thoughout the year, interpreting this theme as it takes my fancy and reading what others write. I must be a glutton for punishment: I barely managed the Bloggers for Peace monthly post in 2013! Still, EBL is always up for a challenge. Either I can feel a great sense of achievement or have fun beating myself up for failing. What’s not to like?

So today I start with A for Afterwards. Because when you start something I find it pays to think a little about what happens afterwards. I am a project manager. I get paid to do this kind of stuff.

I suppose Afterwards is in my mind because in starting this project I am already thinking about what more I will be committing to doing in 2015. That’s the way the EBL brain works I’m afraid. Never focus on today when there is a hypothetical future to take all my attention and energy away from the moment.

“But EBL! This is supposed to be a Quaker Alphabet!” I hear you cry.

Oh, alright. Let’s get down to it.

One of the things that appealed to me about Quakerism when I came across it in the green of my youth was the lack of going-on about an Afterlife and Heaven and Hell and all kinds of similar dubiousness. I liked very much the focus on practical doing and thinking about how to make our current and shared existence a better one. (And yes, I am aware this is in painful contradiction to the earlier paragraph where I confessed to focusing on the future at the expense of the present. I’m only human you know. It’s an ambition to be more present, rather than an actual, you know, achievement.)

Back to the Quakers though. People are what can make a difference. They make it not only in their contribution to community and the wide world, but also in the odd comment or conversation which can affect other lives. I was a member of a particular Quaker Meeting on the outskirts of London where I met a very special Quaker who once spoke about her understanding of the Afterlife.

Have you had the experience of finding someone who articulates for you what you wish or hope were true. Life after death was not a regular feature of the discussion I had been participating in, so I was not entirely clear what other Quakers thought about it. It was therefore with the most wonderful feeling of relief that I heard this learned and respected person tell me what I felt in my heart to be true.

“I don’t care about what comes after I die,” she said. “I’ll find out if and when it happens. Life is more important.”

This for me summed up what I felt to be important in my faith: life, in the here and now, was the most important thing to think about. Not hypothetical future events of a frankly superstitious and unverifiable nature.

And so, my dears, it is. We live this life together, as many times as fits your personal belief framework, and we can but help each other along the way. There is no After that is not Now.

I wish you all a beautiful year, and thank you for keeping with me on the journey so far.

Namaste.