I’m sure it was collective deja vu for most of us when the Michael Jackson death media coverage started. News stations were in a conundrum concerning which picture of Michael Jackson they should use for a graphic. Young Michael? Older Michael? Dark skin? Fair skin? Afro or silky straight hair? Before, during, or after plastic surgery? It reminded me so much of the controversy surrounding the creation of the Elvis Presley postage stamp. I think they even took a poll - would we rather see young, fit, dashing Elvis in jeans, or old, fat, Las Vegas Elvis in a rhinestone jumpsuit?
Which picture was the real Michael Jackson? Which picture was the real Elvis? Neither - and both.
There is not really a way to get a complete snapshot in time of anybody. In the instant it takes to press the camera button, our bodies are busy transforming - old cells dying, new cells regenerating, catabolism, digestion, repair. Each second the arteries get older and probably more sclerotic. Hair is falling out. Hair is growing. Cells are aging. Things like blood pressure, temperature, pulse, electrolytes, and hormones are constantly fluctuating from one second to the next to try to maintain homeostasis. It’s like the old joke: What time is it? 2 seconds past 3:15... no - 3 seconds...no - 4 seconds...make that 5 seconds... As soon as we try to freeze time, another second has passed and things are different. And today was tomorrow yesterday, and tomorrow will be today the next time we wake up in the morning. Past, present, and future are all blending in together roaring down in a waterfall and we can’t even tell them apart.
Our brain is involved, too, for every experience we have changes us in some way. While I was in Memphis last week, I couldn’t turn off an alarm in my niece’s bedroom where we were sleeping, so I just unplugged the clock (which was plugged into an electrical strip on the floor). As I was rising up, my upper arm hit the corner of her dresser top covered with a glass protector - and immediate pain was the result. I knew I would sport a lovely bruise by the next day (I did) which would last for several days (it is), and I remember thinking to myself, what did I expect, I’m such a klutz, why can’t I watch what I’m doing, etc. I changed that fast through that experience - One minute, I had no bruise, the next second, I had an injury and beginning bruise, and the next second, I was reminded yet again of how clumsy I am and how prone I am to injury. I realized before this that I was a klutz, but every time I demonstrate that fact, my brain sort of underlines it. Again and again. In a split second, I changed my physical, mental, and emotional landscape.
I got to walk down Memory Lane on this trip to Memphis - but Memory Lane has been primarily demolished and rebuilt. It’s true you can never “go home.” Old is replaced by new. Oh yeah, the Luau Restaurant used to be there. How long has it been gone? Let’s see, over 30 years, because our 35th wedding anniversary is next month, and eating at the Luau was one of the “to do” things on our honeymoon list and they closed it before we got around to it (that’s why we say we are on a perpetual honeymoon - we never finished the to-do list).
It’s not just buildings, of course. The people have changed. My mom is older and more feeble than when I saw her last. So are my aunt and uncle. My cousins and I stood around at a visit in my sister’s home last week, and no matter what came up in conversation, it was usually followed shortly by one of us exclaiming how old our parents - and we ourselves - had become. Where did the time go?
I look at pictures of myself through the years. Which is the real me? None of them - and all of them. One of the harder parts of aging is the realization - and acceptance - that we will never look that young or fit again. It’s easy to see that we have changed physically. But also emotionally, spiritually, mentally - and those things cannot be illustrated in a photograph. I think it’s true what they say - that, although the fat and wrinkles and gray hair, dimming eyesight and hearing, teeth problems, memory loss... wait, this is depressing... What I mean is that although the signs of aging are attributes we fight and curse, the wisdom gained in that exact same timeframe makes it all worthwhile. Even with some forgetfulness and “body adjustment problems” (klutzopathy), I feel a mental, spiritual, and emotional clarity at 54 that I never felt years ago. I feel by this time I have gained some insight into my priorities and the importance of forgiveness, patience, kindness, generosity in my life. Every encounter I have had so far in this life journey - whether it’s singing in an opera or listening to the cashier at the grocery store - has given its unique print on my life. The hurt I have given people has changed me, and the hurt others have given me has also changed me. Incredibly moving events have changed me. Things I hear on the news have changed me. Births, deaths, weddings, and divorces of friends and family have changed me. Old photographs document just a small portion of those changes. I may say that I’m not that 19-year-old in the wedding dress anymore, but I’m also not the 54-year-old smiling in the photograph with Mother and sister Joy this past Sunday, either; indeed, one second after that picture was taken, I had changed again.
So if you want to ever put me on a stamp, I don’t care which picture you use. It will be only a facsimile of the real me. (Thank goodness!)
In the house where I live, I am Dirtwoman. To be fair to him, for a long time my beloved did not fully realise that I was Dirtwoman – and in any case he was so pleased to be relieved of juggling washing, hoovering, shopping, cooking, cleaning, ironing and washing up with the demands of a very full-time job that he didn’t give it too much thought – except always to be willing to help Dirtwoman whenever asked.
Some homes don’t actually have a Dirtwoman. When the estate of my beloved’s previous marriage was split 50/50 and the family home sold, he and I cleaned through. I spent an evening scrubbing, bleaching, de-greasing another woman’s kitchen – because in that home they had Careerwoman and Intellectualwoman and Findyoursoulwoman – but they had no Dirtwoman as such.
We have lodgers share our home with us, and all of them have been very clean and tidy. They do their own laundry and washing up; they cook for themselves and keep their rooms pleasant and tidy. But it is always Dirtwoman who crawls around on her hands and knees scrubbing the floors; who cleans around and in and behind the toilet; who moves the shampoo bottles and bleaches the bits of the bath where mould grows if you don’t; who bleaches the shower curtain, and scrubs the grime that gathers in the corner of the window frames, and empties the bins, and scrubs out the recycling boxes and takes a nail brush to the moulding on the skirting boards and brushes the yard.
There is a glorious exception. In our house, my beloved cleans the oven. Last night at my request (graciously and willingly) he also took the remainder of the stew that had gone bad up the garden and buried it. When he dies, he will go straight to heaven for this. God sees.
My mother has been a Dirtwoman Extraordinaire all her life. I remember the Lost Soul feeling of coming home early from school on the last day of term – when home was not yet home as I knew it, with home-made cake and jam sandwiches, but a Grim Place dominated by floor wax, Windowlene and Jif.
I was okay with the nappies when my children were babes – though despite all my eco-principles I have advised my daughter to let go of this one Shining Act of Environmental Responsibility – stuff the terries: go for disposable. Mopping up sick, pee, spilt food and drinks: the mountains of washing up and laundry, the endless sorting of belongings – I felt this was fair enough.
Around and after the ending of my first marriage, every member of our family went through multiple moves; and we were a kind of corporate Dirtwoman as each inhabitant marched out. We bagged and boxed and carried and scrubbed and wiped and swept. I guess that was okay.
I’ve even been a Dirtwoman by trade; skivvying as a cleaner and as a care assistant shovelling in Ready Brek at one end and catching it as it came out the other. I guess that was okay: I needed the money.
When I got together with my beloved, I used at first to stay some weekends at his place, and he came and stayed some weekends with me. When I went to stay at his place I’d clean through; hoovering, polishing, washing the floors, cleaning down the bathrooms, doing the ironing. Sometimes his ex-wife would have been to stay with his daughter while he was away, and left behind some big oven dishes from a roast dinner for me to clean up. I guess it was okay. My beloved was grateful, and I do love him very much.
When I go to stay with my family, sometimes I dabble as a Dirtwoman – it doesn’t hurt to pick up a cloth and help out, and they all have their hands full earning a living or raising a family.
And just now I am getting a home ready to sell. They say, don’t they, that it doesn’t matter too much about the condition of the home you sell: hey, don’t try too hard! – the next people will want to do things their own way; they will expect to re-decorate, re-carpet, change everything to their own tastes. Will they? I am not convinced. I try to imagine myself viewing a house and thinking, ‘Oh, cat-sick stains on the carpet, toilet stained dark brown, walls in need of painting – woohoo! I was hoping it would be this way; now I can refurbish a whole house! Out of my way! Here comes Dirtwoman!’ Nah. I’d rather it was clean and fresh and ready to move into, every time.
What I would really like is to live in a shed. One small room. Almost no belongings. A brush, a cloth, flimsy curtains that wash out quick and go up on the line without a struggle, without hurting my neck and my arms; a bucket toilet. People think a bucket toilet in the shed where you live is not hygienic and not private. I think shitting in the middle of a house where everyone can hear you and smell you is not private, and you can clean a bucket a lot more effectively than a flush toilet. And cooking over charcoal outdoors, draining dishes on the grass, is clean. The stuff that accumulates in sink traps and the powder drawer of washing machines is disgusting.
But I have to choose between the way I would like to live, and the companion I would like to live with, who prefers a large house, two bathrooms, a nice fitted kitchen – and lots and lots and lots of ornaments. Memorabilia.
I have chosen the person. Not without struggle, I admit. There have been a series of moments when I have almost, almost chosen the way of life instead. For the freedom. Because I want to live with cleanliness, order and peace; I don’t want dust and moulds and parasites and grease and the stains of spilt food and drink and the stains of stuff that dropped out of the orifices of living beings: but I don’t want to be Dirtwoman any more either. I don’t want to choose between using a toilet with stuck-on bits of shit from who knows which resident, or scraping it off myself. I don’t want every day to clean out the slimy bits of onion and soya and hair stuck round the thing that catches stuff as water goes down the kitchen sink plug. I don’t want to scrub the stuck-on gunk off the wire racks on the draining board and under the washing up bowl, or poke out the slime mould that gathers under the draining board drain-holes with a knife. I don’t want to poke out the grey fluff that gathers where the radiator pipe goes into the floor.
Not now, not never, not ever again. I like to be clean, but I hate being the household dalit, everybody’s Dirtwoman.
This last time, as we move house, I will be Dirtwoman. But after we have moved, Dirtwoman will have resigned. Even while I think about it, I have no idea how I can share a home with a bunch of other people and accomplish this.
But I will. Somehow I will.
The enemy of cleanliness and order is the accumulation of possessions. Everywhere stuff accumulates there is either filth or a Dirtwoman. The gift of life was not meant for this.
Of course, I generally am an optimist by nature. Sometimes I have to work at it though, like overcoming my panicked anxiety about flying. Then I have to rise above my basic fears and start thinking logically. I am so happy I was able to do that last year.
There are self-help books everywhere telling us to seize our unlimited power to be able to control our own lives. A cursory search of Amazon.com yields titles such as Take Charge of Your Life Before It Takes Charge of You; Take Charge of Your Mind; Take Charge of Your Money Now!; Take Charge of Your Thoughts; Take Charge of Your Health....and on and on. It is true we have the power - more power than we ever dreamed. Scientists are still discovering all the capabilities of our brains and bodies have to do incredible things. We should take control of our lives, our health, our money, our environment, and whatever else we can assume responsibility of.
I think sometimes, though, we get so caught up in the quest for control over our lives that we forget there are some things beyond our control. That’s reality. As my favorite prayer says, “God grant me the serenity to change the things I can, accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I’m a great planner and organizer (not such a great carrier-outer, though!) and I like to keep control. I want to control my health, my time, how many lines I transcribe a day, etc. Sometimes I need a reminder to just let go of the rope and drop the tug-of-war game.
Flying does this for me. The only way I learned to fly without a panic attack was when I accepted the idea that, while I’m up there, I have absolutely no control. It’s that simple. When that sinks into my brain, I stop fidgeting, stop incessantly worrying, and find that calm center in myself that I didn’t know I could have when I’m 30,000 feet up going 500 miles an hour.
I’m flying today again, so I just had to write about this to remind myself. Control is good, but life’s reality is that we can’t control everything. That’s where acceptance comes in. So I take a deep breath and here I go...Memphis-bound!
Stained glass is an amazing art form, absorbing to gaze upon, because the relationship of the artefact and the context is so dynamic.
Alice’s calendar glass stands on the cill of the windows in a curving bay facing north, in a house built on a hillside sloping downwards towards the east. The entering of the light changes dramatically as the year turns. At this point of the year, the light slants strongly into bay from the western side at evening. At all times of the year light floods up from the east as the sun rises.
For privacy (the window looks onto a residential street, from which the house is separated only by a tiny garden) a curtain made from the finest Indian cotton (it’s a pistachio green sari in fact) has been hung in the window.
Some of the glass in the calendar panel is white (clear), some is old, faintly green, window glass. Two of the figures set in the panel (John the Baptist and the Christ Child, for the solstices) are glass sculpts (lost wax technique), the other two – Oestre and Michael, the equinox archetypes – are in pale porcelain clay.
As the day and the year change, the light speaks differently through the glass. When the light fades in the late evening, the glass figures of John the Baptist and the Christ Child become quite dark, and the pale clay figures appear light by comparison. As the light of morning and (at some times of the year) evening come slanting through, the clay figures recede, the light now inhabiting the translucent material of John the Baptist and the Christ Child.
The light green, the folds, and the gauzy texture of the sari window curtain, and the palest green and handblown texture of (some of) the glass panels, also interact dynamically with the light: and in some places the glazing bars of the window create shadow – though where exactly depends on the direction of the light slanting in.
Goodness me. There are so many metaphors in this that I hardly know where to begin.
Here are two things he said that I love:
"Attachment to being right creates suffering. When you have a choice to be right, or to be kind, choose kind and watch your suffering disappear."
"The measure of your life will not be in what you accumulate, but in what you give away."
I think that we could do without a lot of books and courses and sermons and discipleship programmes and commentaries and study guides if we had just those two pieces of advice and lived by them.
Another phrase that has come back to mind, as I've recently been thinking over decisions I have to make, I came across when I was sixteen, and I read a book by Charles Sheldon called In His Steps. Apparently it was written in 1896. I don't think I realised it was that old when I read it - it seemed to be up to date enough to make sense to me.
As I generally do, I've forgotten just about everything that Charles Sheldon said in his book; but I think he would be pleased that over the last thirty-five years (in the course of which I have excelled myself in forgetting almost everything everybody tried to teach me from the subjunctive to the reason for thinking about the square on the hypotenuse to Sine, Cosine and Tangent, which may have been the names of the three witches in Macbeth, or a further set of names for Ananias, Azarias and Misael - or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as their jazz names ran) I have remembered - are you still with me? - the central point his book was trying to make.
Which is that when we have a decision to make, we should ask ourselves the question "What would Jesus do?"
It's a question I come back to. During those thirty-five years, I've heard it maligned and belittled on occasion. Sophisticated churchmen have explained as to a little child that it's an irrelevant question because Things Are Different Nowadays (Jesus would never have understood) and because in any case (trump card - lean forward, permit a little triumph to enter the voice): 'You are not Jesus!!!'
But I know that 'What would Jesus do?' is a good question, and this is how I know.
From time to time I get in trouble with People In Authority. I don't know why, but as a rule with a few encouraging exceptions they don't like me. And one time when I was a minister I was in trouble with a representative of church authority. I hadn't done anything wrong, but he wasn't pleased with me or with the way I was going about things. And in the privacy and security of his office he let me know that I was using the church for my own purposes, twisting the truth, leaking confidential information, deceiving the church, and a number of equally reprehensible things that in fact I had not done, though what I had done had put him in a bit of a spot for sure (told the truth and kept on telling it).
It was a difficult and exhausting interview, and things were not going well. I was getting tired and worn down by all these accusations, and I was groping around inside my soul for something I could put my hand on that would steady me. And what came to my hand was that question I'd read when I was sixteen. So I explained to this important Man of God that years ago when I was a teenager someone had taught me when in doubt to ask the question 'What would Jesus do?'; and that when I applied it to my current situation I knew for certain that Jesus would not have spoken to me in the way this important churchman had been speaking to me - and that was how I knew it couldn't be right for him to follow this line of approach. And I said it simply. I wasn't rude.
He went ballistic - how dare I say such things to him and he was going to throw me out, terminate the conversation forthwith und so weite: and that's how I stumbled upon the understanding that this is a real question that cuts to the heart of things. "What would Jesus do?" is a question that peels back the layers and reveals the wisdom that lies underneath all the posturing and manoeuvering that belong to the power and greed fixations of the Kingdom of Mammon that has so many people unwittingly tight in its thrall.
An odd thing, that I would not necessarily have expected, is that when with an honest and humble heart I ask myself the question "What would Jesus do?" I find no difficulty in identifying the answer. Sometimes it's hard to ask the question, and there are many people who have an interest in making a person feel foolish and childish and uninformed for asking it. But it's a question that with surprising rapidity propels me up the ladders, and has a way of saving me from the poison of some of the snakes.
I asked it today as I sat quietly thinking in Fiona's little room in the tribe house. And as usual, the answer came hot on the heels of the question, and now I know what to do.
"Attachment to being right creates suffering. When you have a choice to be right, or to be kind, choose kind and watch your suffering disappear."
"The measure of your life will not be in what you accumulate, but in what you give away."
"What would Jesus do?"
Three thoughts I recommend.
When I first became a grandmother, I realized that I had never really had a grandmother role model. My paternal grandmother was a diabetic, half-blind old lady who lived in the room at the back of our house. She used to come out for birthday celebrations when my sister and I were little, but then she “took to her room” for the rest of her life, keeping her room dark, and all the interaction I had when we got older was catching glimpses of her down the hall, usually of Daddy trying to get her to take her medicine.
My maternal grandmother was anorexic, although they didn’t know about eating disorders back then, and she was hospitalized for most of my growing-up years. We traveled the 2-hour drive to see her every other weekend, take her out to lunch, etc. I remember that she loved to brush my waist-length hair, but a lot of the time she was confused or anxious. I don’t remember when she was younger and emotionally/mentally healthy.
When I became a mother, I finally got to see a grandmother in action, as I watched my own mother build a relationship with my kids. That was a fulfilling thing to see, but it’s not the same as being a child and forming your own idea of what a grandmother should be, how she should look, what she should do, how she should act - from a child’s point of view.
So through the last 6 years, I have had to figure out my own role as grandmother, and that includes learning to share the grandmother role with the other grandmother, who is a couple of decades older than I am. “Nana” has been a wonderful grandma for the kids, and we never try to compete, but instead use our unique talents and gifts to shape our own relationships with the girls.
Sometimes I wonder what Caroline and Charlotte (and any future grandkids from son Matt and his wife, Sarah) will remember about me. One day, they may write down their memories as I do. Maybe they will recall my playing the harp, or my making them Halloween costumes, or my love of Lincoln. Or, it may be just everyday things - things I can’t plan and can’t control, but things that will end up having sentimental meaning for them. Sometimes you can’t make memories; sometimes you just provide the environment and let them happen.
So, although we will take Caroline out to eat tomorrow night, and although I have a new book I’d like us to read together, this visit will be mainly unplanned and spontaneous. As a grandmother-in-training, I will pour out the love, hugs, and kisses, then sit back and let Caroline take the lead. I can only plant the seeds, and I’m sure I will be fascinated to see what comes up!
In general, 'empty' goes with 'sad and', or is a synonym for 'lonely'.
But I love emptiness.
On the telly quite often there are adverts for products for people with constipation. With contorted faces they rub their bellies and discuss that terrible bloated feeling that they all seem to have - it's odd actually becaue they are usually lithe, active types as thin as rakes; somebody may not be being quite straight with us... What are they eating? What exercise are they (not) taking, that they are having such frightful problems with bloating?
Anyway, they all agree that if you knock back this probiotic yoghourt or high-bran cereal, or whatever it is that will go to work on the bowel, you will be renewed and re-energised - because you will have had a Really Good Poo.
And who can argue with that? Emptiness brings wellbeing and relief.
Lao Tsu wrote about emptiness:
Thirty Spokes share the wheels hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes that make it useful.
Therefore, profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
(Tao Te Ching, 11.)
Getting rid of Stuff was a project that took three years to accomplish. Even now of course, Stuff still accumulates. It comes in different categories:
- Things that seem to arrive by themselves. We had a large purple towel in our bathroom. We assumed it was Ben's. Then one day Badger asked him, and he said it wasn't his. So we assumed it was Miguel's. But he didn't have any towels when he came - and when Badger asked him, he said it wasn't his either. We have no idea where it came from. A previous lodger, maybe?
- Things that people leave behind. When Miguel went back to Spain after several months in England, he had accumulated a few items that it was impractical to take - a straw hat, some bacon and a tin of spaghetti, some plastic coathangers; the tail-end of a stay. We didn't want them either.
- Things that people give you for presents. This is, oddly, more difficult when you like them and when you want them than when you don't. The useless and hideous can simply go to the charity shop to await someone with a different point of view. It's the lovely things that are the problem. And the things given by people who visit often. And worst of all, the things you asked for. I saw this beautiful skirt in an expensive shop that sells gorgeous linen garments in Lavenham. It cost £72. Let me repeat that - £72! I had no money. My mother said she would buy it for me. My sister egged us on. Everyone was buying things. I got carried away and accepted it. I could never find anything that went with it - it looked odd with all my clothes. It needed a frilly shirt. I look DISASTROUS in frilly shirts. It was see-through and needed a slip underneath it. I hate wearing slips - they make me feel claustrophobic. I kept one slip just to wear under this skirt that I never wore because I had nothing that went with it and I hate wearing slips. So I thought I'd cut my losses and sell it on ebay. I did. It went for £3.31. My mother lives in Saffron Walden. So does the woman that bought it. Oh, no! Oh, glory! Ah well - I wrapped it up nicely and put the slip in with it. Ha! Another thing gone! :0)
- Things that you thought you wanted. At one time when our house was over-run with the joyful guests of one of our lodgers, I began to get a bit desperate about the lack of privacy regarding the bathroom. I bought a Porta-potti plus associated chemicals and loo paper which altogether plus carriage cost me £100. I thought it was just the thing I needed and would make all the difference and revolutionise my life and make me happy and be fantastically useful in the Flophouse. It did none of these things and nobody else wants it either and at the present time it's advertised in the local paper for £45.
- Flotsam and jetsam. The junk mail that includes an advertisement for something that seems relevant. Instructions for appliances. Metal bookends. Scart leads. Polyfilla. Unsuccessful shampoo. Really Good cardboard boxes - and bubble wrap. An extra telephone that still works. Ringbinders. Elastic bands. That sort of thing.
These are the items that accumulate to cause Household bloat. The entire building needs dosing with Allbran and Danone, it needs to do a massive poo - because IT IS THE SPACE WITHIN THAT MAKES IT USEFUL.
When the stuff levels are strictly monitored; when I start the day in this calm, uncluttered bedroom with its huge, airy window, drinking Earl Grey tea from a plain white mug, sitting up in bed with no throws or funky bedspreads, just a duvet in a calm cotton cover, wearing one of my three nighties (one to wear, one in the wash, one in the drawer); and look forward down a day in which there is time to do the tasks that belong to that day, time to write, time to think, time for people, nothing much to be cleaned and tidied in this uncluttered house - oh glory, I feel good!
Toinette Lippe says 'Problems arise when things accumulate'. Amen! Do they not!
So I have posted what I want to say, and the pictures I want to show you, as a series of posts in reverse order, so that visually they come out in the right order. If you see what I mean. I hope you are not badly confused!!!
I started the day thinking about whether I, just one person, can make a difference to the Earth. Or not.
Then I thought about the garden at the front of our house.
When we came here, three years ago, at the front was just a dusty forecourt paved with concrete slabs.
At first we parked a car on it. Then last summer we dug up the concrete, and planted a garden instead.
The very first plant to go in was a lavender bush I'd been growing in a pot. As the bush was being settled into the ground, the first bee arrived!
A little apple tree went right in the middle.Last winter, in January, I took some photographs of the garden.
A few weeks ago, in June, six months on, I took another set of photos.
I think we just made a difference!
It's been colder after the rainstorms, so I wore a cardigan today and decided I needed something hot at lunchtime.
I picked some broad beans, just coming ready now in the veggie patch close by, and I filled the storm kettle with clean water from the bottle in the Palace Flophouse. I lit the little fire under the storm kettle, using receipts, scraps from old letters torn up, dried grass and dead twigs tossed down to me by the plum tree.
I put the beans on to cook on the top while the water for tea boiled in the storm kettle. It only takes a minute or two for the water to boil: I made the tea in the billy-can, transferring the beans to finish cooking over the little fire.
With the beans I had canned sardines and canned sweetcorn. I drained off the water from the beans into the sardine can, to start cleaning it ready for recycling. The bean pods I chucked onto the fruit beds, where they will rot down in no time.
The billy-can takes up most all the water from the storm kettle, holding enough tea for two big mugs, where I needed only one. So I used the hot tea left over mixed with a little cold plain water to wash up the cans and spork and plate.
A few sparrows were hanging around outside, so I put down some grain for them.
In the course of the morning I needed to pee three times - I emptied the bucket of fresh pee onto the roots of the young apple trees we planted. The free-draining earth here doesn't hang on to nutrients. You can buy nitrogen fertiliser from the shop to feed the plants, but as human urine is one of the richest sources of nitrogen, why waste the money and generate all that packaging, transport etc? I washed out the pee-bucket with water from the rain-butt - a lot came down in the night - and emptied that on the fruit bed.
If I'd been in the big house, I would have boiled the electric kettle for tea, cooked the beans on the gas hob, run the tap until the water was hot then filled the bowl to wash up, and flushed the loo three times (that's fifteen gallons I think).
So I guess I saved about eighteen gallons of water, plus a certain amount of gas and electricity, as well as enjoying the company of the sparrows and generally having a groovy time chilling out here in the Flophouse.
I also saved someone the trouble of manufacturing me a car and a whole lot of petrol, having exercised some determination in choosing to work freelance from home. That choice is not made without personal cost - my bank accounts are dry right now, waiting patiently for fees owed me to flow in. It took patience, effort and commitment to arrive at the place where I could get off the car-driving carousel; it didn't just happen to me by accident, the luxury of a middle-class life others would like but can't afford.
So I saved some water, gas, petrol and electricity today. So what?
Someone pointed out to me a while ago that the difference I can make is too small to be a difference. I can't stop the climate changing. Anything I can possibly do is too little and too late. I might as well just decide what I want to do, and do that - forget about trying to make a difference to the Earth.
I thought about that quite a lot, and I concluded it's both true and not true. After listening to the government man's guff at Haddenham on Sunday, I think it's fair to say that if we leave our future in the hands of our illustrious leaders we'd better start marinading ourselves ready to be barbequed now. I think almost everyone I meet makes choices that are basically selfish whatever badge they like to wear on their lapels. I do so myself, a lot of the time.
But, I also believe firmly that the value of truth and righteousness are intrinsic. In a tsunami that swept away ten thousand people, it still would be worth rescuing one child. The truth is still the truth when nobody's looking, nobody's listening, and everybody else is telling lies.
Even if the Earth is destroyed by our greed and selfishness, it matters to me that while I lived, the Earth knew I was her friend. Because I believe the Earth is not just stuff, but has being and awareness. Of course the Earth will die one day - so will you, so will I. But I would not leave your friendless in your lifetime because your lifetime will some day come to an end. And if you were suffering, if you were abandoned and persecuted, it would be more important, not less, to be on your side. Jesus said 'I was in prison, and you visited me' - not 'I was in prison and you released me': you do what you have the power to do, that's all.
Also, even if I can make no difference whatsoever to climate change, the Earth and human society, everything I do, say and think will certainly make a difference to myself. I care about that, not only for the sake of achieving what I aspire to be and do, but because I spend a lot of time alone and cannot escape myself: I am my own companion - I need to be able to like and respect the me that I have to live with.
It's worth holding in mind that it is impossible for an individual to estimate the extent of the influence and change s/he can achieve. When Jesus died on the cross, he had been tortured and broken, he was thirsty and in agony; he even felt himself abandoned by God. He never saw with the eyes of his flesh the Temple curtain torn in two or heard the centurion say 'Surely this man was the Son of God'. Maybe we also, struggling here with the futility of what we can offer, will never get to see the difference it might make. Only afterwards, when 'It is finished', will we see the thread we wove into the pattern. But even here and now, though we can't know the extent of our contribution, we can know the nature of it, and whether or not we did our best. If we were to throw that away, I can't imagine what we would be left with that could be called worthwhile.
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone."
I have always loved that description of the hedgehog travelling furtively over the lawn - it conjures up the reality perfectly for me. :0)
Today, after a day of storms and showers yesterday and a night of rain, everything is cold and fresh and wet. This morning the grass in the garden is populated with slugs and snails venturing out from underneath the sheltering plants.
I watched a large snail traversing the patch of mown, and it brought to mind a gyspy vardo making its way down a green lane, pulled by a slow grey horse: not a bow-top I mean, but one of those big angular ones, wider at the roof than the floor. The snail moved along in something of the same way, making what speed it could before it caught the eye of a blackbird on patrol looking out for furtive lawn travellers.
When we got inside the building, we found two big rooms, one with a stage where the presentation was to take place, one with hatches through to the kitchens. In both rooms tables and chairs were set out cafe-style, with pretty tablecloths too. In the room with the stage we also saw lots of stalls - ecological organisations like the Transition Town group and people who help you to get eco light bulbs etc. In the other room, lots of people were already having breakfast, so we went in there! :0)
The breakfast was amazing. There were different kinds of rolls, cereals, cheese, salami, marmalade, jam, different types of teas and coffees - everything you could think of. After a while a lady came round offering everyone soft white rolls with freshly cooked bacon in. This breakfast was for anyone who wanted to come, and it was all FREE! A donations box stood at the side, but no amount was suggested, required or demanded, and though the leaflet about Cafeplus+ on the table did mention the donations box, it was only in a small note near the bottom.
The people were kind and friendly, and several of them stopped by and chatted to us. Apparently St Mary's church in Haddenham has been doing Cafeplus+ once a month for four years. It runs from 9.30-12.00 on a Sunday morning, a presentation called Food4Thought following the breakfast.
In October (4th), when the church celebrates Harvest Festival, Haddenham Cafeplus+ is having a Food Festival, with cookery demonstrations, a chutney competition, local food producers, and possibly a farmers market.
As my In Celebration of Simplicity book will be just published then, and uses the metaphor of making bread as a way of looking at our spiritual journey, I asked if I might be able to have a stall and bring some books to sell, bringing along also some cookware for people who live simply - my thermos cookpot, sporks, storm kettle etc. They thought I probably could, and gave me their contact details. I think I might make a stand of pictures of the Palace Flophouse to take along for a backdrop display. The people were very open and welcoming.
After breakfast it was time for the presentation. It was very clearly done, with graphs and stories of the lives of individuals to help us understand the urgency of climate change.
We learned that the summer in 2003, which was so hot that upwards of 20,000 people in France died of the heat, will be normal in another 20 years, and a really cool summer in another 50 years, if we don't sort ourselves out and change the way we live.
We saw pictures and a film about a farmer in Malawi, called Andrew, and heard about his situation from the UK Director of Tearfund, who had met Andrew and seen his farm.
Andrew has two acres on which he grows maize, and that's all fine and he can feed his family on that, in normal circumstances. But things are changing because of climate change. He has much less rain, and then when the rain comes it is too heavy and torrential, and it is all full of sand that it leaves behind on his fields. So when Andrew plants his maize now, he has to dig down through a deep layer of sand. This means planting each plant takes him about 30 mins where it used to take 30 secs - and his harvest yield has halved.
Paul Brigham (the Tearfund man) made the point that though we would all be affected, it is the poorer people, like Andrew, who suffer first and most. He said that Andrew generates 0.1 tonnes of carbon per year, whereas most of us in England generate 9.0 tonnes at least per year - so we are causing the problems that Andrew is suffering.
He also said that in the predictions of how climate change will affect the countries of the earth, England is one of the least affected places - but that as there will be millions of climate change refugees and England is small, this is not a cause for complacency.
Paul Smith (responsible for environmental issues at Coca Cola UK) also spoke to us. He had a flow chart things showing how big companies had to pay attention to each stage in their sourcing, manufacture, distribution and supply, reducing their carbon footprint wherever possible. He brought along an old-style Coca Cola bottle and a recent one, explaining that the new one created 20% fewer emissions overall. His audience applauded him because they were polite but, after all we had just seen and heard, I suspect most like me were thinking that the most Earth-friendly thing Coca Cola could do would be to cease to exist.
Then a man from the government (James Hughes) came to speak about government things like 'targets', 'conferences', 'white papers', 'strategies' and many other burbly-burbly things of that nature. His basic message was that the government takes all this Very Seriously, is Trying Very Hard, but still Needs To Do Better. He had a large thick document with a glossy colour cover in preparation for a meeting in Copenhagen where all the government leader people gather like they did at Kyoto and talk about being responsible. It's happening soon; and he said we should all send Gordon Brown a postcard about this as it will make a difference. Or maybe it was the other man who told us to send postcards - the man from Tearfund; I can't remember.
There was to be a time for our questions, but that got mainly used up.
The questions had to be written down on tiny slips of green paper, on little close together lines. Most of the piece of paper was take up with large words at the top and space round the edge, but there were these little lines where anyone the size of a young ant could write a question.
I wrote on mine, 'I have a question but I would like to ask it myself'. Margot (the vicar) said I couldn't do that, I had to write it down. I said I couldn't do that because the question was too long. She said exactly, that was the point. So I said Okay, and never got to ask my question. I felt disappointed and frustrated, because the government man was there, and I really really wanted to ask him something. But even the ants never got their questions read out anyway, most of them, because they ran out of time. But I didn't stay to hear the ants' questions, I went outside and caught the bus back to Aylesbury because I was upset that I was never going to get to ask my question.
This was the question I wanted to ask the government man:
"At the end of the 1990s, I watched on the telly the pictures of the farmers in Kent ploughing their orchards into the ground because the EU directives stopped them from making their living that way any more. A few weeks ago I saw on telly that people stopped buying cars because of the economic downturn, but instead of seizing the opportunity to redirect money and people towards public transport, the government spent billions of pounds on keeping the factories open and trying to bribe customers to buy new cars they didn't want. At the current time on telly there is a government advert saying that if you forget to pay your car tax they can come and crush your car into a cube. How can the government do things like this, and then expect us to believe that rushing around talking about Copenhagen, strategies and white papers makes then envirionmentally responsible?'
Anyway, the government man came and went and I never got to ask my question. But he had a dinky little plastic widget the size of a credit card with a USB attachment that folded in and out of it, containing the Copenhagen document. Badger asked if he could have it and came home really pleased because the government man gave it to him. And it was a funky little thing - but I don't think he wants to read all about the government, I think he wants to take it to work and see if he can't get his publishing catalogue onto one of those instead of using glossy printed paper.
So I came home full of admiration for Haddenham church's generosity and Powers of Organisation, and determined to take the next step and the next step and the next step towards Stepping Off this awful destructive consumerist eco-vandal lifestyle of our society.
Margot's husband Martin is an environmental biologist, so their sphere of thinking, influence and education makes them a grand team for enlightening folks about the urgency of climate change and the responsibility we all have to respect and love the Earth.
Margot and Martin wrote a book a few months ago, called Cherishing the Earth, which Tony the Badger published. I went with him to their book launch, and was really impressed by their data and approach.
At Haddenham, Margot has what she says is a Fresh Expression of church, called Cafeplus - I think maybe that's sometimes Cafe+ which would be a kind of visual pun about being cafe style church, wouldn't it.
I say 'what she says is' because cafe church is a fairly standard style of church now, and many people seem to be calling their projects 'Fresh Expressions of church' when what they are really is standard church with a funky twist to it. But I haven't seen what she's doing yet, so can't be sure.
Anyway, at Cafe+ in Haddenham this morning they're having a bonanza do on climate change. There will be a presentation; and Paul Brigham (UK Director of Tearfund), James Hughes (Govt Head of Carbon Budgets and Offsetting) and Paul Smith (Head of Environment or Coca Cola UK) all happen to live in the village and are coming along to be part of a panel to answer our questions.
Haddenham is forging ahead well with its Transition Town status I believe, and Margot says the local Transition group folks will be there.
So that sounds interesting, doesn't it!
At the moment I'm re-reading David Edwards excellent book Free To Be Human, which forces me to face the realities of just how un-free we have allowed ourselves to become, and makes me deeply suspicious of the input of anyone who is head of any government department at all - and the concept of 'Head of Environment for Coca-Cola' sounds hilarious in a surreal and impossible kind of way. But from the standpoint of someone who is incapable of organising groups and events in any way shape or form, I admire Margot's capacity in this regard immensely, and am looking forward to hearing what the people have to say.
The other thing I am excited about today is that I have got a bowl with one of Rima Staines ( and she's here too) fab pictures printed on. This one, to be precise. I got it from Etsy. I love Rima's clocks, but just now my purse, which is of fairytale unpredictable dimensions, is about the size of a gnat, and won't allow for such a purchase. Also, I am saving for one of these at the Herstmonceux Mediaeval Fair at the end of August. But the bowl I was able to afford :0) It came yesterday and is sitting proudly in the Palace Flophouse, a good size for picking blackcurrants or pot herbs into. Glorious.
But I’ve uncovered a deeper layer I had forgotten.
When the fretting and fretting to live in a shed finally got to the point of explaining to Tony the Badger that, though I love him with all my heart and certainly want to share his company and sleep in his bed, I just have to live in a shed, and plans were made to get a second shed for the garden I knew at once that my shed was to be called The Palace Flophouse.
Now I haven’t read Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday since I was about 12 years old, so in all those years The Palace Flophouse has lain (as I thought) dormant in my imagination – but it’s obviously that that’s what's broken through to the surface. Until a week or so ago, I could have told you who wrote those books, but not a single character or happening or anything else about then. All forgotten.
When I thought of the shed as The Palace Flophouse, I felt two reservations. 1) I really dislike plagiarism and living on borrowed ideas. I would have preferred to make up a name of my own. 2) I like to call a place by a holy name – the Big House at Aylesbury is Hagia Sophia, the flat in Hastings was Gezellig, the tribe house in Hastings is Godsblessing House.
But I knew it had to be the Palace Flophouse so, intrigued, I re-read Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, and how startled I was. Because with the top layer of my mind I had totally and utterly forgotten the content of those books, I hadn’t appreciated how formative they had been, or remembered what a resonance they had found with my soul.
The two books taken together are about the best treatise on simplicity, living simply, I ever read. I’m not sure why they don’t usually get a mention. Where Thoreau’s Walden seems to be a kind of set text (I haven’t read it all but enough to get the gist of where he’s coming from), I don’t recall ever seeing Steinbeck referenced as a simplicity guru which, in the best sense, he surely is.
Reading those books again has made something immense fall into place for me. I came to St Francis after I read those, when a certain view and understanding had already formed. The one place I part company with St Francis is over his extreme asceticism – mortification of the flesh, despising of the self. Steinbeck talks of liking yourself in the same easy way you might like anyone else, and he looks steadily at human weakness and idiosyncrasy with humour and compassion and understanding – which is surely less neurotic.
It’s not often I come across a book that makes a difference, that doesn’t leave me thinking ‘Yes, but...’ and wandering off after page 23. It’s not often either that I come across a book that can effect a healing in me, or that can create a tangible wise peace. Reading these two books forty years after I last read them has done just that.
Cannery Row. Sweet Thursday. If you know yourself called to live simply; I recommend them.