D is for Difficult, Distress and Diplomacy

Well, this wasn’t the post I was going to write for the letter D in our Alphabet Soup of Quaker blogs. As a result I may yet complete the other one I was considering. Double D-licious postings!

This post though is a more difficult one, so I ask you to bear with me. Indeed, for those not familiar with British Quakers it may not make a huge amount of sense. It talks about Concern, and that is a bit of jargon that needs a lot of explanation. If you do care to read more, you can do so at the on-line version of Quaker Faith & Practice.

As Quakers we like to think we do our bit. We serve on committees, both Quaker ones and for other good causes; we campaign; we write letters; we hold vigils and prayer meetings; we try to practise what we preach as far as we are able. Some of us are very active physically in the community, others spiritually. Some of us just try to hold the daily grind together and support the rest with tea, sympathy, a chat or call, a hug or smile. We each do the best we can.

I have posted before in this series about the demands on meetings and their members.

Meanwhile, picture a Friend with a Concern. It’s obviously an important one. Friends don’t take these things up lightly. A Quaker Concern is a fearful burden. It means that we have been led to see that we must act, and this leading is directly from God. “No” is not an option. Quakers distinguish between a Concern in this sense, and being “concerned about” ie things that are important and necessary but lack the dynamic spiritual directive of a personal Concern.

There are Quaker Testimonies to some of these Concerns, formed early in the life of the organisation, such as Simplicity and Peace. More recently British Quakers have picked up at a national level a commitment to sustainable living, and not so long ago were challenging the payment of that part of tax which funded military endeavours as a breach of our right to conscientious objection.

They are not absolute rules, but in general if they don’t fit broadly with your view of the right ordering of the world, it is likely British Quakerism is not for you.

But back to the Ds of Difficulty, Distress and Diplomacy.

How do we present an issue about which we are passionate, driven, almost out of control in the fervour of our leading, in such a way that the rest of the meeting is not frightened, humiliated, or intimidated? When we start to speak we are emotional, feverish, excitable. We are unlikely to be in control of our language or aware of the reactions around us. Ministry is hard enough in the normal course of events. Under the force of a nascent Concern it is likely to be wild and dangerous.

Meanwhile the peaceful meeting for worship has been ruminating on various issues. Ministry of Concern may come like a bolt of lightning, out of the blue, and strike with emphatic force. We didn’t expect this when we had breakfast this morning. We didn’t know that our lovely, quiet, meditative hour was going to be shattered.

It’s unlikely the individual quite knew either, but they will probably have been thinking around the subject already, and of course they now have the direct and personal experience of the message. Unfortunately the rest of the meeting may not. The individual has to convince their disrupted audience of the validity of what they have felt.

But when you are not thinking quite straight, when you have had the kind of kick this leading can give you, you might not be entirely aware of the impact of your words. As a result you can cause real and prolonged distress to anyone vulnerable to the particular message you have to give. Are you talking about mental health? Don’t forget the Friend whose child killed herself. Is the leading about abuse in care for the elderly? Remember the Friend who cares for a challenging and disabled parent. Are you called to act on some injustice of the penal system? Consider the Friend whose son was convicted of X or Y. Is it racism? Beware white privilege (if you are white), or similar distortions.

In other words, in presenting our dramatic new message how can we speak in words that can be heard without inflaming resentment or guilt or genuine anger because we blunder in? The point is that acting under this kind of imperative may rob us sometimes of our empathy. Yet in some cases hard truths need to be acknowledged and we cannot shy away from facing up to unpleasant facts just to avoid hurt feelings.

I don’t have answers of course. But there are times when going to meeting for worship can feel like sitting on a keg of dynamite with a fuse fizzing away for an hour as we seek to know how we can make the world a better place. Most of the time those routine and recognised activities of committees, kindnesses and small deeds are enough. But for those other times, the rarer, wilder, over-whelming times, then small deeds have to expand and kindness has to amplify exponentially and committees may have to reconsider or be forgotten, because the meeting is there to handle the powder keg as best it can.

That is the strength of a Quaker meeting.

Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.

Isaac Penington, 1667

Namaste

 

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.

Half a century of inspiration

I know, I know, serious minded individuals have been poring over the meaning and legacy of the Kennedy assassination for days and weeks. It was important I am sure. I was a toddler, so I don’t remember; it’s all history to me and to be honest I find the impact of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand more distressing. It may be sacrilege but I suspect the Sixties would have panned out pretty much the same regardless of JFK.

Forgive my vacuous frivolity but I was more interested in a different 50th anniversary this weekend. The Doctor’s. Again, I missed the initial broadcasts, for the same reason as the Kennedy event, and didn’t really watch until Patrick Troughton had appeared. Even then it was tricky because my mother was determined it was unsuitable and turned it off if she could. My best hope was that she was making tea while she thought I was still watching Basil Brush. So it wasn’t until Jon Pertwee that I really was able to establish a regular liaison with that most British of heroes (and most heroic of Brits – albeit with dual Gallifreyan nationality).

If you don’t like Dr Who, I suggest you go and do something else because this post is unashamedly a fangirl production.

And yet I will try to leaven it with some pop psychology, in the time-honoured tradition of the amateur blogeuse, because otherwise I could simply reduce this post to tweeting “OMG! LOOOVE DR WHO! #savethday”, which is barely comprehensible even to me, and I wrote it. Already I can see John Hurt quirking an eyebrow and stirring impatiently in his War Doctor persona.

So, what’s the pop psychology then, EBL? Get it off your chest, love.

I’m glad you asked! It’s about Inspiration.

The reason I am talking about inspiration is that yesterday was not only the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, but also our local Quaker Area Meeting (a geographical cluster of local Quaker groups). Obviously it pales by comparison, but Sigoth and I attended for the day because (a) it had an important item to consider on the agenda, and (b) we knew it would be over in good time for Doctor Who in the evening. I hesitate to suggest that in a tussle between Area Meeting and the good Doctor, Area Meeting may have come second. It’s hypothetical. Nevertheless I think I know which way it would have gone.

The important thing in the meeting was about increasing the number of people in our local meetings who also take part in the Area Meeting and take on various jobs and responsibilities. It’s not a new problem either for Quakers or other church groups. Things are kept running by tireless volunteers who are predominantly elderly and frail, and whose numbers inevitably are decreasing without the next generation taking up the strain.

Essentially we discussed the purpose of the Area Meeting and as a starting point took away the idea that it is there to nurture our spiritual life of our members. It was exciting to be part of the mighty Quaker Business Method in action. I’m sure you can google for more information (or read about it at the Quaker website here); this is not a public service broadcast for Quakerism. As I said, it’s actually about Doctor Who. Nevertheless, when rightly held Quaker business blossoms before your eyes, it is a bona fide miracle. It is, to me, inspiring.

So, feeling inspired I went home to watch the TV, and reflected that it had been a good week for inspiration. There had been a WhoFest of mega-proportions, and Sigoth and I revelled in every lovely second. Our people have risen and had their say. Most impressively there was a whole Culture Show dedicated to looking at Dr Who as a cultural phenomenon. The presenter, Matthew Sweet, interviewed important people about why it was all so significant, with serious music and references. But the bit that struck me was when he was speaking about a time he and his friend were about to be beaten up by school bullies and he shouted out Patrick Troughton’s catchphrase of “When I say run, run, …. RUN!”, and off they dashed to safety. The Doctor gave him permission to run away and deal with the problem differently. I know this sounds a little anti-climactic, but I think for a child to know it’s OK to run away when confronted by overwhelming odds, rather than either getting beaten up or feeling a coward, is actually positive. Boys in particular need to know there are alternatives to knocking seven bells out of each other.

Doctor Who had a profound impact on his young and impressionable fans, dealing with difficult situations in creative and predominantly peaceful ways. Although to be fair he was also fond of Venusian Aikido and blowing up Daleks, preferably in large numbers.

In the 50th anniversary episode there is a key scene (if you haven’t seen it yet look away now – spoilers, darlings, spoilers) where Clara reminds of the Doctors present of why those chose to take on the name and role of the Doctor.

Clara: You told me the name you chose was a promise. What was the promise?

Tenth Doctor: Never cruel or cowardly.

War Doctor: Never give up, never give in.

But the Doctor has been inspiring children with more than running away for far longer. When I was a a mere Electronic Bag Bairn, this is what my Doctor, the Third Doctor told us:

Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened, you know. It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.

It was something I understood, and watched him live up to (albeit as a television story). I don’t always succeed in following his example, but I try my best. When I am nervous of speaking up or standing up or facing up to bad things, something like Jon Pertwee’s voice will often run through my head reminding me of the meaning of courage and give me a push. For such positive early influences on my life, I am grateful.

I also learned all my science from Star Trek, but no one’s perfect.

What influenced you as a child to make you who you are?

Namaste.

 

Pearly King and Queen

There is a Cockney tradition of Pearly Kings and Queens. You can look it up through a search engine or on-line ‘pedia of your choice. My granny used to tell me all about them when I was small.

Well, on 1 October 2013 Sigoth and I will be a Pearly King and Queen, albeit not of a Cockney variety, and we will be in Copenhagen, not London, for we are celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary by spending a few days in the land of top-notch knitwear and construction toys.

Hopefully if I have sorted out the scheduler you will be able to wish us “skål!” on the day itself (subject to the rotation of the earth and your own regularity with WordPress reader or whatever you use). To which we reply “thanks, my dears, and cheers to you too!”.

I met Sigoth at university in Freshers’ Week. I thought he was rather sweet and we used to cross paths every Wednesday evening as we both dashed out of the labs where we were doing practicals to rush for the bus back to Hall. Different labs, different Hall, but same general timing and direction, and friends in common.

Then there came the inevitable Christmas party, the day John Lennon was shot, and so we became an item. Cautiously at first, then more confidently, we grew into each other’s ways and have never yet grown out of them.

We got engaged on the night of one of the university Balls, in February 1982. We only told one friend in advance, confident she would have the news around the rest of the university before we had had our first dance. Imagine our horror next day when we wandered into the bar to meet up with the usual suspects for lunch and no one knew a thing! For the only time in her life she had decided it was a secret and told no one, so we had to broach the news ourselves, with great embarrassment.

The wedding was a home-made affair. The night before the great event my friends came over and we made sandwiches. Another friend made the cake for us, having practised the icing pattern on her mother’s Christmas cake, and it was beautiful. My mother’s friend, Aunty Sheila, did the flowers having taken a flower-arranging course.

On the day itself it was cool and a bit wet. I left the house in my best friend’s father’s car, with my Dad, windscreen wipers going, and worrying about the dress. It was my mother’s wedding dress, which we had cleaned and spruced up, and it looked fine although something happened to the hem in the cleaning process so it was a bit crooked. No one cared.

The rain stopped by the time we arrived at the meeting house, and during the meeting for worship a blackbird sang its heart out in the garden. As Quaker weddings were quite unusual we had a lot of Friends join us, almost all of whom we had never met, but they filled out the room and contributed their worshipful silence.

Meeting house where we married

The wedding vow for Quakers in Britain is a simple one:

Friends, I take this my friend Sigoth to be my husband, promising through divine assistance to be unto him a loving and faithful wife so long as we both on earth shall live.

Sigoth said the same thing, with appropriate amendments for name and relationship. After that we signed stuff and had cake and drank juice and took photos. In a Quaker wedding all those present sign a certificate, which contains the time/date/place and promises we make to each other, and may be either a poster sized document or a booklet (ours was the poster version, and is framed in the hallway). Then Sigoth and I went away to Germany while everyone else went to the pub.

We were young and a little insane. We had no money or jobs – it was 1983, so no one had jobs – but we decided to start a family straight away. Offspring #1 arrived 6 weeks before our first wedding anniversary.

The bare bones are not so interesting really. What makes it special is that my stomach still gives a lurch when I see Sigoth. My heart still beats a little faster while he sleeps beside me, and I feel the warmth of his breath and the beat of his heart. Every day he is there for me and will be so long as both on earth shall live.

I wish you happiness and joy in your relationships, whatever shape or form they take.

Namaste.

 

My Syrian tantrum

I have been struggling since I learned of the chemical attack in Damascus. Struggling with the images and the rhetoric and the desire in myself to do something violent and pain-inducing and retributive to whoever made that attack happen. I wanted to see deadly force used against those responsible.

It’s easy being a pacifist when the biggest challenge is dealing with the supermarket running out of my preferred yoghurt, or a colleague disagreeing about how to resolve a problem or a n able-bodied individual sitting in the disabled seat on the train leaving a wobbly, walking-sticked pensioner to stand. Then I can take a deep breath and try to contain my irritation and think loving thoughts until everything falls into perspective. (I’m not saying I always manage to do it, but I try.)

Chemical weapons, any weapons, are not a source of irritation though. They are far more. They are unforgivable.

No, wait, aren’t I supposed to forgive?

It makes my brain hurt to try and understand why people would use them. And I certainly wanted to go storming over to Syria and send them to their room to think about what they had done.I tworked with our children who have become sensible adults.

Yet these are people who have very clearly thought long and hard about what they planned to do, and then did it. In fact they are dangerous, mad-as-a-bag-of-frogs bullies. Bullies need to be removed from the situation and dealt with, patiently and exhaustingly, but crucially removed until they are safe to be around others.

Then I realised I was being sucked in to all the nonsense about crossing lines and standing up for whatever good word came to mind: freedom, justice, peace.

If before I thought it was wrong to kill people, why was I even giving it time of day now? Because the cold, hard truth is that pacifism is not easy. It means dealing in the long term, not the immediate, knee-jerk present.

In my primitive brain I had a fight or flight response to danger: shall I kill someone or run away and hide? I want to be a more sophisticated life form than that. I want to use thoughtfulness, and compassion. Yet that means not rushing in to save the day as if I know best. It means, with awful certainty, waiting. Waiting for more deaths but working to remove the cause of future deaths, rather than stepping in and introducing new reasons to hate and fight and murder other people. It means being unfashionable and unpopular with those suffering. It means taking the hard path.

Today in meeting for worship at my local Quaker meeting we shared our pain and sense of powerlessness and, indeed, our joint struggle to adhere to our core values. This is what our corporate response to the crisis says; it was published last week just ahead of the Commons vote.

Today in meeting for worship we shared that statement and also asked ourselves through our Advices and Queries to think about how we respond as individuals. Advices and Queries is a document used by Quakers and Quaker meetings in Britain as guidance, prompts and challenges to the issues we confront in the wider world. They are not a call to increased activity by each individual Friend but a reminder of the insights of the Society. We are all asked to consider how far the advices and queries affect us personally and where our own service lies.

The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. Advices & queries.

The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. Advices & queries.

I know I have to take the hard path. I hope to have your company along the way.

Namaste.

Together we are stronger

This month’s Bloggers for Peace topic asks us to consider our relationships. My brain ferments such questions. Today I uncork for you some early brewings.

You know how it goes: one minute in the privacy of your head you are thinking deep and meaningful thoughts; the next, someone else, outside your bony skull echoes them in public. It happened today.

To start at the very beginning: I am reading a book. I know, who’d have thought it? It’s about the Civil War, by which I mean the English Civil War in the 17th century. The book itself is a peculiar mix of history text book and historic fiction. It’s a bit peculiar but fascinating.

As you will no doubt be aware, there is nothing civil about a Civil War, and the English variety was no exception. It tore apart the country, respecting no person, destroying trade, harvests and cities, families and friendships. It was as uncivilised as war can get, with civilians being used as human shields or hostages, or just target practice. Your immediate neighbours, with whom you had lived cheek by jowl all your life, might suddenly mutate into the Opposition. One man was for the King, his brother for Parliament, and they were followed for better or worse by daughters, wives and children. Both armies, and their camp followers, slogged through ice and snow, rain, sun and mud, starved, died of fever, disease and trench foot (this war was fought in trenches in some cases, just like the calamity in the Somme in the early 20th century), as well as wounds and quaint medical practice.

At the end of it all we, the people, killed the King for treason. We had a contract, you see, where in return for his life of privilege and riches, we could expect his service through good governance and a dedication to our collective welfare. He believed he had a Divine Right, but it turned out he was mistaken, fatally so.

The execution of the reigning monarch would have sent shock waves through an already fractured society and across the Channel throughout Europe. As everyone returned wearily from the years of war to try and rebuild their lives, it would have been hard to trust their neighbours again. During this period a number of extravagant and radical religious groups flourished, in part by offering to replace the lost trust and sense of community desired by a shocked and stricken populace. Among them were Quakers.

It didn’t last, of course. In the end we brought back the king, a new one, whom we held to account. Well, it was that or give up Christmas, and as Narnians will tell you, that is not much fun. The English reserve as their inalienable right the opportunity to celebrate a mid-winter festival. It’s the long, dark nights, you see. You have to take your mind off them, preferably with alcohol.

In my more old-fogeyish moments I sometimes feel we are experiencing similar upheaval today, as communities fracture under the pressures of modern life. There seems to be a lack of connectedness which, I think, can result in the total lack of love for others evidenced by bankers, care workers and certain celebrities. Obviously, many bankers, care workers and celebrities are kind, nurturing people; it’s just we hear about the others. Equally these behaviours are not new.

Whatever the causes, or not, and whether it’s true, or not, people do like to feel part of a community. Some communities may be closer than others, but no one likes to feel alone always and forever.

So there I was, sitting in Quaker meeting and thinking about how we are the same as those distant forebears of the 17th century, when someone stood up and said:

How can we make the meeting a community in which each person is accepted and nurtured, and strangers are welcome? Seek to know one another in the things which are eternal, bear the burden of each other’s failings and pray for one another. As we enter with tender sympathy into the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives, ready to give help and to receive it, our meeting can be a channel for God’s love and forgiveness.

Well now! There’s a thing. Because I had been brooding over Isaac Penington’s letter from 1667, which begins like this:

Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall

Isaac lived through a terrible period of history and he, like others, wanted to leave behind all war and occasion for war. He was a religious man, and saw love and peace and tenderness as a calling from God.

These times are not as religious as then, although it seems superstition is rife instead. We have learned so much and most of it is magnificent, as Professor Brian Cox likes to point out in excited tones.

Reason is a mighty instrument, but reason without love is empty. Reason does not soothe tears or smooth away bad dreams. Compassion and wisdom, as some might say, are the way to enlightenment. Or as Bill and / or Ted would have it:

Be excellent to one another

Namaste.

 

Bloggers4Peace: Children

Kozo set the Bloggers4Peace challenge for April to focus on children.I will be honest my dears: I have struggled to write this post this month – because I can’t solve the problem. This is my fourth attempt and I have decided that time is running out so here it is. You see…

I know what I want to say about respect and dignity and broad horizons and love and hope.

I know I want to talk about children observing that the actions of adults are reflected in the words they speak; that my children see me walking the walk, or not; that those of us who claim to be for peace genuinely have to live our testimony to peace and justice and environmental awareness.

I know I want to quote helpful and inspiring people like the Dalai Lama on building world peace by teaching all children to meditate. (I think that’s right – if not, it should be.)

Oh my dears – I so want to say those things. But the hollow truth is that I don’t live up to those ideals, and all I can do is share my struggle. I have no answers to the difficult questions children ask about bullying and hitting and fighting and war. I can only say I don’t agree, and sometimes I can say why, but often I cannot even do that.

While the Offspringses were growing up we focused on peaceful actions and words, and attended Quaker meeting. We read about the awesome Ferdinand the Bull and avoided stories where violence was presented as a solution. We tried to live peace and sseriously explain war when they saw it on the news.

But school and TV and friends intervened. There’s a moment when your child leaves you to go to nursery or school and then returns a different person. Suddenly all the games are good guys vs bad guys and shooting and shouting; parental intervention is boring old news. I was glad of a classical education so that I could compare myself to Sisyphus. There were days it felt that bad.

Of course I don’t have to worry now. They have grown up and left home. Oh, who am I kidding? Of course I still worry; it’s in the job description!

My children do not appear to be psychopaths, so that is a good sign. They are articulate and rational, so that is a good sign. As parents we cling to such signs of hope.

I believe they have to discover their own truths, not just repeat mine, but I have made clear they can pursue any career with my blessing except a military one. It’s my line in the squelchy, North Yorkshire ground. So even my love appears conditional, although I have tried to explain I would still love them if they signed up, yet simultaneously be very, very disappointed. I’d have the kind of disappointed face you see on a small child who discovers Santa is not real and the puppy he thought he was getting for Christmas is actually a pair of socks knitted by Aunty Gertrude, who appears to think he is bilaterally asymmetric. Imagine that face. It would be mine if one of the Offspringses announced their new career in the machine of death. Honestly, they could even be an estate agent, I could cope with that.

So who am I to teach children peace? All I can do is admit it’s hard.

I’m just not sure where that gets us. Read these other posts for more constructive ideas!

Namaste.

Hopefully

Hopefully, my dears, I will be posting this to you soon. I travel in hope as I write this, as WordPress has decided to block my ability to post because my blog content is causing concern.

Well, how very exciting! I haven’t felt this excited since being phone-tapped in the 1980s for being undesirable. It makes me feel positively young again. The phone tapping thing was because we were caretakers at the local Quaker Meeting House, and I also worked at Friends House in London. I suspect they just listened in automatically. They would have been treated to some very mundane conversations, but obviously it was all code.

“Hello, Someplace Friends Meeting House.”

“I’d like to book the hall for Saturday 5th all day please, in the name of Someplace Embroiderers.”

“Oh, hello, you’ve booked before, haven’t you? That’s fine, it’s free then. Is that all day or just half a day?”

“All day please, with access to the kitchen.”

“OK, that will be an extra £10. Please be aware we do not allow alcohol on the premises.”

And so on. Clearly all a deadly plot against HMG. At no point did we discuss the geese flying south for the winter, or the clouds hanging low over London, although it was tempting.

The Embroiderers are not a joke though. We also hired out meeting rooms at Friends House and the National Front was always trying to book the large hall because it was cheap, capacious and handy for various stations. We had them blacklisted but they remained hopeful too. They booked once as an Embroidery Guild and we only realised when lots of shaven-headed young men in bovver boots arrived for the meeting. Now I don’t mean to be stereotypist here, but generally such sartorial elegance is negatively correlated with a keen interest in artistic sewing. Upon challenge it turned out they were, in fact, not the Embroidery Guild and so were asked to leave.

So here I am, writing to you from the equivalent of Solitary Confinement until WordPress respond to my cries for help. If they take too long there will be a mighty storm of posting to catch me up. I look on it as a way to learn patience. I’m learning as quick as I can! Hopefully.

Namaste.

And thanks to the Kindly Elves at WordPress my account was restored in under 24 hours. Thanks, guys! Although can I say I am slightly disappointed not to be considered a radical threat to society after all…