Plain dress November ends

Plain dress November is at an end. I have really enjoyed getting to know y’all better. Thanks for stopping by with your comments.

Advent has begun.
I did read Magdalena's post about Advent, and I do know - Second Coming... Christ the King... the Judgement... yes I know...
I am wildly excited.  I love Christmas.
Time to read U.A.Fanthorpe's The Invitation.
Time to sing All Poor Men and Humble (O Deued Pob Cristion, which sadly I cannot find for you to listen to online - it has such beautiful harmonies) - and Stille Nacht (worth double-clicking on this and then bringing it up to full-screen mode).

Time to get ready, waiting into the cold and dark for the first signs of the Seed of the Light's appearing:
 "...this faint evidence, at the borders of nothingness."
                                                                                         (Leonard Koren)
"Where is the darkness?
Darkness is all around us.
If Darkness is, then Darkness is good."
                                                                   (Mbuti song)
Even though November has come and gone, the Plain way meanders on in peace.  It's the kind of track a person might easily miss, leaving the highway and wandering off through the houses, going who knows where?  It is a path of blessing, unregarded and quiet.  It draws contempt and ridicule, and seems too insignificant to be going anywhere worth paying attention to.  But you and I know better.  We know this road.  A star shines on it.  It goes to Bethlehem.


What do you think of when you think of a life of privilege? Being wealthy? Being famous? Being born with a silver spoon in your mouth? Being high up in society? Having the best of everything?

Sometimes I don't consider my life a life of privilege, but when I think about it, it truly is. Of course, I lead a middle-class existence, but in this country, middle class can be called privileged, because, after all, I have a roof over my head, all the food I want, warmth in the winter, and a car to get me to work. Plus extras, like cable TV, a computer, a sewing machine, and many other things add niceties to my existence.

Today, however, I'm thinking of privilege in a different way. While we had our 7-year-old precocious granddaughter Caroline over this past weekend, I marveled that I have been privileged to have the opportunity to know my grandchildren, privileged to see my children get married, privileged to have lived long enough so far to watch my nieces grow up. You see, many of my high school classmates did not make it this far, even to my relatively young age of 56. Kathleen Capon White, Mark Williamson, Debbie Henrich, Debra Boone, Woody Phillips, Debbie Kaplan, James Galey...they died too young. My dear cousin Mike McDonald, a few years younger than me, died just a couple of years ago. Cancer, murder, heart disease, hepatitis, auto accidents - for whatever reason, they are not here and I am. Mark never got to see his only child reach adulthood. Kathleen, who adored babies, never saw her kids marry and never got to cuddle a newborn grandbaby in her arms. All of them were kind, smart, talented people - yet they are gone, and I am still here, enjoying life with those I love. There is no reason for this set of circumstances, and it is beyond my power to control. Yet I can't get over the fact that they are gone, and I am still here.

My wish is that I never take for granted the precious time given me on this earth. I live for those whose lives were cut short. I live for all the experiences they missed, all the grandchildren without their kisses, all the sunrises and sunsets and snows they didn't see, and all the Thanksgivings and Christmases, weddings and births and graduations that they didn't have a chance to participate in. I pray that I live my life as I know they would have lived theirs - with dignity, compassion, and joy.

There are no guarantees. Death comes unannounced and it comes for everyone. While I still breathe the air of this good earth, though, I realize I am indeed living a life of grand privilege, a life of wealth that has nothing to do with money, and a life of remembrance of friends and family who left us too soon.

Plain dress November - Plain friends online

Walking the Quiet Way, I have met some fab individuals online - people who really rejoice my heart.

I am totally in love with the Burrell Family, whose picture appears at the top of this post.  Check them out on YouTube - they are starting to post videos of teaching and singing.  The first one  that went up had the sound and picture out of sync, which was slightly hilarious - but it was so beautiful I watched it over and over. Hope the link works for you OK, but if not from here, check out Shepherds Hill Homestead on Facebook, or look for the Burrells at Mindspring - Sarah Burrell at Tabitha's Legacy is a darling and made some excellent kapps and aprons for me.  Her Amish faceless dolls look lovely :0)

Then there's this beautiful YouTube video of Safe In The Arms Of Jesus - I love it, I love it!  If you like it too, you can see the lady in the video, Sherry, singing more songs of faith at Pilgrim Hymns on YouTube.  I owe a big thank you to Michelle who often posts on here, for introducing me to this lady's singing by putting this lovely song on her Facebook page :0)

And Anna Cory's video blog posts on YouTube (she's there as Veiled Glory), and Martin Kelly's excellent work on Quaker Quaker and Quaker Ranter, creating community online - as Kevin Roberts does too, at his own blog Quakerthink, and at Conservative Friend - check out the photo galleries there - they lift my heart :0)

It means so much to me, making friends with Michelle here, to be able to see her hands, see her move and hear her sing.  Like it means so much reading Quaker Jane's website to be able to go across to Conservative Friend and spot her at the Yearly Meeting gatherings.

I ponder often about the Amish prohibition on internet and all the electronic wizardry, and I do get what they're saying.  When you cut down a tree, and see the rings by which you can count the years of its age, the reason the body of a tree had rings is because of the changing seasons - winter growth and summer growth alternat, showing up as rings.  The summer growth is quick and easy, and gives flexibility because it is less dense; the winter growth is hard and slow, and gives strength because it is more compact.  In this Plain tree of life and love we are growing, I think the Amish and similar traditional Plain groups may be the winter growth - our strength, slow and patient, traditional, doing things the small, hard way, reminding us of the scripture (Jeremiah 6:16):
This is what the Lord says: "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls."
But this internet connection we are making, that allows us to live all kinds of interpretations of holy Plain and simple, is like the summer growth of the tree - fast growing and more open in texture, giving flexibility and advancing the pace at which the tree can grow.

I love the Amish, and the Old Ways, and I have learned so much from what I have read and the pictures I have seen - I really cherish that. But I have never met them, and probably never shall, because of where I live and where they live.  It is the online community that has brought them to life for me, and allowed me to find fellowship in learning to walk the Plain way.  A moment of silence for the Amish and for Plain folks online: and a humble, quiet 'Hurrah!!!'

I wish you could see my skylight windows here in this attic. They are freckled with thick, loose clumps of snowflakes that fell as the sun was rising.  Behind that, is sheer giddy sapphire azure blue.  Glorious.  Everywhere is as cold as can be and alight with singing sunshine.

Plain dress November - Plain peace and simplicity

This morning, watching the snow falling on our skylight window, I was wondering what God thinks of me.  I mean I know God loves me and all - but I was wondering what He thinks.  One of the things I have found difficult about the way of faith is trying to puzzle things out by myself.  I know I have the Holy Spirit sent to help me, and the advices of faithful friends, but I also know I am more than capable of substituting bright ideas of my own for the Holy Spirit's wisdom, and I know that the faithful don't agree with each other most of the time about the thoughts and direction and attitudes of God.  I also know that many of the faithful think that if I don't happen to toe their party line I can confidently expect God to throw me into hell, and that doesn't help much, either.

The years I lived in Aylesbury I spent de-tangling my life from the most colossal emotional and moral briar patch.  Then there was all the upheaval of selling up and moving here (exactly a year ago), extensive house renovation works, my father dying, getting four books written etc, so everything's been spinning a bit.

Finally most things (I say this with caution!) seem to be settling down to a new normal.  And now this is my difficulty.  Am I complacent?  Am I insular?  Is my life self-serving?

I spent the Aylesbury years methodically divesting myself of all the barnacles on the ship - getting rid of possessions, affiliations, any kind of schedule or commitment whatever.  Since moving to Hastings I've consciously added some new things in: it's my hope, as soon as I've managed to work through the seemingly bottomless pit of editorial consequences to the year's crop of books, to spend time with my mother and with one or two friends who are frail or old, and to make time for close friends and my family, for my grandson as he grows up, to continue to write and think, to attend Quaker meeting and participate in the Badger's church too.  Like everyone I have groceries to get, laundry to wash and iron, housecleaning and tidying, and garden chores, all to do.  I recently promised to edit the NCT local branch newsletter.  I do odd bits of writing, and I take funerals - in both cases, some paid, some not.  I write my blog and I make the weekly housegroup happen most weeks, and the twice-a-month children's church meeting.

The thing is, I find my life to be full and more than full with these things in it.  In pursuit of simplicity I cut both income and security to shreds, and that felt like an imperative.  I resolved - more than resolved actually; it felt like I had no choice - to do, and do only, what I was sent here (to earth) to do.

But then today I wondered - what does God think of all this?  I thought about the letters to the churches in the book of Revelation; you know, that one to the church at Laodicea, about spitting them out of His mouth because they were lukewarm: and I wondered, is that me?

I spent so much effort, and gave up most of my earning capacity, to make my life spacious and peaceable and free.  Might God think me just lazy now, and lacking in commitment, I wonder?  How would I know?

What I do know is, during the times in my life when I worked at full tilt and gave myself unstintingly, I think it made me a less pleasant person - tired and harassed and rather volatile.  And I had no time to write or pray or think or read.

I took these thoughts with me to meeting this morning.  I love the Hastings Quaker meeting.  The people are amazing. Like most Quaker meetings, they look not quite of this place and time - beamed in from the Dark Ages or something.  Very honest and uncompromising faces; dark, quiet clothes and sturdy footwear - something very strong and powerful and of the earth in the gathering; forthright and dignified, and funny, witty.  A lot of hair.  And very, very kind.

So I sat in meeting, not focussed at all, letting my thoughts wander, planning a book mostly.  For a long time no one spoke.  After about twenty minutes or so of total silence, someone tuned their hearing aid, which amused me (only at Quaker meeting...); then more silence.  Then someone read from Quaker Faith and Practice, section 21.22.  This is what it said (it's a quotation from Caroline C. Graveson 1937 - living in Hastings, where we still have a fishing fleet, it seemed especially apposite):
There is, it sometimes seems, an excess of religious and social busyness these days, a round of committees and conferences and journeyings, of which the cost in 'peaceable wisdom' is not sufficiently counted. Sometimes we appear overmuch to count as merit our participation in these things... At least we ought to make sure that we sacrifice our leisure for something worthy. True leisureliness is a beautiful thing and may not lightly be given away. Indeed, it is one of the outstanding and most wonderful features of the life of Christ that, with all his work in preaching and healing and planning for the Kingdom, he leaves behind this sense of leisure, of time in which to pray and meditate, to stand and stare at the cornfields and fishing boats, and to listen to the confidences of neighbours and passers-by.
Most of us need from time to time the experience of something spacious or space-making, when Time ceases to be the enemy, goad-in-hand, and becomes our friend. To read good literature, gaze on natural beauty, to follow cultivated pursuits until our spirits are refreshed and expanded, will not unfit us for the up and doing of life, whether of personal or church affairs. Rather will it help us to separate the essential from the unessential, to know where we are really needed and get a sense of proportion. We shall find ourselves giving the effect of leisure even in the midst of a full and busy life. People do not pour their joys or sorrows into the ears of those with an eye on the clock.
I thought that was maybe what God thought too.

Plain dress November is nearly over

Just a few more days of Plain dress November!

Have you had any new thoughts about the Plain way as time has gone by?

The main thing I will go into December and the New Year with, is the resolve to pay attention to how I speak and what I say - gently, slowly, softly, kindly, truthfully, with the savour of the Gospel - that will be my resolve; and to remember to think globally and act locally.

Right now I am up to my eyes in the editing of my novel The Hardest Thing To Do, which will be published by Crossway next July - more info once the cover is designed and it's up on Amazon.  The editing amendments are proving a very exacting task, and I am worn a bit threadbare by all 2010's writing efforts already - just longing for a stretch of time to read and be a housewife in!

Looking forward to going to meeting tomorrow morning; I have told our clerk I do want to be a member of the Quaker meeting, and it feels such a relief to be finding a niche where I seem to fit.  I also love the church, St Johns, where the Badger worships, and I shall continue to go to the evening services there.

Advices & Queries No.10
Come regularly to meeting for worship even when you are angry, depressed, tired or spiritually cold. In the silence ask for and accept the prayerful support of others joined with you in worship. Try to find a spiritual wholeness which encompasses suffering as well as thankfulness and joy. Prayer, springing from a deep place in the heart, may bring healing and unity as nothing else can. Let meeting for worship nourish your whole life.

Plain dress November - the work of our hands

This has been a full-on kind of day.

On Fridays, the Badger works from home and Alice doesn't have to go in to her job at the library.  Hebe had painted two coffin plates, so we took those down to the funeral director to be checked and handed in, and then went across to the stone masonry, where she works as a letter-cutter.  She is self-employed, and fits her free time around the jobs that have come in to the masonry, and what needs doing by when.

Hebe likes working at the masonry.  She can't bear the idea of a nine-to-five job in an office, she always wanted to work as an artisan craftswoman, making things with beauty and skill.  Her dad runs the masonry, and she loves working with him - socialising creates a far more superficial bond than living or working with someone. 

The masonry belongs to Towners funeral directors.  Ed Towner owns the firm - it is a small family firm with a well-deserved reputation for excellence.  Ed is a faithful evangelical Christian, and his faith informs the way he works and treats people.  There is professionalism in his approach, and a certain panache, a meticulous attention to detail, and an underlying kindness and compassion which makes all the difference. 

When we'd dropped off the coffin plates and been to the masonry, Hebe and Alice and I went to the farmers' market at Brede, for meat and vegetables.  I've changed my approach on that.  For the last year I've been eating mostly vegan with some fish.  Hebe, Alice and I all have a dairy allergy, but not eating meat has been for the sake of the animals and because farming animals takes up way too much cereal and water.  But recently I've been thinking that processing food (vegan protein foods are sometines highly processed) and the environmental cost of food miles are issues I have to consider.  I've been thinking I might do better to take an approach that cares for the earth the animals live in more than the individual animals, if you see what I mean.

So I bought some meat at the farmers' market - sausages from wild deer, and feral pheasant.   And some tiny brown shrimps and crab from the fishermen at Rye Bay.

There's an old man there who sells delicious vegetables - and we bought swede and Pink Fir Apple potatoes, carrots and parsnips and broccoli and a big cauliflower, and some Rosemary Russet apples.

When we got home, we had lunch together, then I worked on the re-draft of my novel my editor has asked for, and went out in the afternoon to see a young man whose mother has died - not someone personally known to me, but I will be taking her funeral.

When I came home I prepared the supper for everyone, which is cooking now, and when we've eaten it will be time for our housegroup.  We're going to take a look at my new book, The Road of Blessing - the first copies are just through yesterday. 

Hebe probably won't make it into the housegroup as she's cutting a stone for her cousin's wedding present, a bautiful rough-hewn chunk of slate that will say 'Luke & Esther' on the front, and a picture of an acorn and oak leaves.  Their marriage is coming up soon, and she wants to get it finished.

Tony is just putting his day's work to bed (he publishes Christian books), and Alice right now is getting to know her new MacBook Pro that she has been saving for ages to buy.

The Maha-Mangala Sutta of the Buddhist faith sets out the Buddha's teachings on the way to live that brings blessings.  It's a very wise and thoughtful discourse giving guidance to householders.  It includes the advice that living in suitable places and engaging in peaceful occupations, cherishing and caring for one's family, are among the greatest blessings.  That seems to me to accord well with the Plain vision of home-based employment, where families lives and work closely together and eat home-grown and home-cooked food together.

An important aspect of keeping things small and simple is that we earn money in very direct ways, and purchase goods in very direct ways as well - and this increases accountability.  If we do a good job, the customer comes back.  If the veggies are good, we go there again - it is a sounder way forward than the big corporation where those we would hold to account cannot be contacted.

So - the pheasant is roasted, Hebe has mashed a pot of root vegetables, the gravy is done and the brussels sprouts have finished steaming.  The folks will be here for housegroup in an hour - better go and feed the family!
Travelling today - many thoughts, but no time to write them down.   I'm going here, which is here.  This is not normally where I would be having supper.  Our kitchen is a lot Plainer than that.  Looking forward to seeing the kind and dear friends who are treating us with such generosity.

So I leave you with this, friends:

Advices & Queries No.27
Live adventurously.  When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opportunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community?  Let your life speak.  When decisions have to be made, are you ready to join with others in seeking clearness, asking for God's guidance and offering counsel to one another?
God bless your day.

Plain dress November - growing old in the Plain way

Sometimes I feel really old now.  I am 53.  Whatever I feel like, unless I die prematurely, I have a lot of growing older to do.  The journey to death is similar to the journey to birth.  The young woman in labour for the first time thinks this feels pretty tough, she must be nearly there now; the midwife looking on sees her composure and knows she ain't seen nothing yet.  I guess it's the same with growing old.  But already I am shocked by the extent of the range of things that hurt, and that I look like an old witch, and the extra weight I carry, and that I can't lift the heavy things I used to shift with no bother, and that somedays the skin on my face feels too big.

Old age confers some things - it is kindly said to bring wisdom, but for sure it doesn't guarantee it.  It seems to bring a certain confidence - the old people I've known become less anxious than when they were younger; care less about the impression they make and what other people think of them, find it easier to speak up about their preferences and opinions.

Apart from that, old age seems to be a steady process of stripping away - strength, beauty, speed, discretion, teeth, hair, continence, health, esteem.

Eventually almost everything goes.

I remember an old man I knew, who had various memories and concerns he liked to share: the weather, his responsibility taking up the offering at evening worship, his painful feet, his memories of his evil wife who had left him, and his time in Burma during the war when two special things had happened - he had come face to face with a tiger cub, and he had met a beautiful actress who had come to entertain the troops and sing to them.  She had, he thought, taken quite a shine to him.  She had spoken to him, and he felt proud of, and encouraged by, the attention she showed him.  A fleeting encounter, but treasured for about 45 years.
Time went by, and his health waned further.  He went to live in a care facility, where I used to go to visit him.  Bit by bit he forgot almost everything, until only two things remained - the tiger and the actress.  He told me about them every time I went to see him.  And then he died.

It seems to me that what life leaves us holding (after everything else has one thing after another been taken away) is our habits.  As the brain ages and synapses open in its structure, we lose our capacity to discern and filter out what is best left unsaid, and we start simply to say what we think.  Habits of thinking kindly and gratefully and humbly will stand me in good stead once the day comes that I start talking through the gaps in my brain.  Habits of mind, habits of life and of speech - little by little everything else will leave me, but these will remain.

I'm not sure: it may be that at 53 it is already too late to learn; perhaps I am already too set in my ways.  But I'd like to try, in the time that lies ahead, to lay down Plain habits of speech and mind and life: humility, kindness, honesty, quietness, faith, gratitude, simplicity.  Then, whatever else I may lose - my eyesight, my hearing, control of bladder and bowel, bone and muscle strength, vascular functioning, whatever -  I will be left with those beautiful treasures to share and show.

Plain dress November - raising children in the Quiet Way

My thinking about raising children was shaped and influenced by some life experiences and some reading.

I was raised by a mother whose approach was to be very firm about what I did all the while she could see me, and turn a wise blind eye when she could not. So my upbringing was both very disciplined and very free. I also knew beyond doubting that I was loved: my mother, my father, my sister – always in every moment I could feel their unswerving and unfailing love. It has given me a core of confidence and strength, a bulwark against the inevitable adversities of life’s journey.

In my teenage years, we had moved to a house with a big garden – five acres. It had a wood and a river, an orchard, a walled garden for vegetables, and a big field for sheep and hens.

We had dogs and cats too.

I learned a lot about raising children by watching dogs and sheep with their young. A ewe and a bitch have almost infinite patience. When a puppy oversteps the mark, mother will signal her displeasure with flattened ears and an unhappy expression. She will get up and walk away. If the puppy continues to bother her, she will get up again and walk away. She puts up with it, but she signals that this is not great.

A ewe will put up with a lot from a lamb. She will let it stand on her back, feed on demand – do most everything it wants. But if it’s really irritating her, she kicks it.

Later, as an adult with a family of my own living in a manse, I watched an urban vixen bringing her cubs through the streets in the early morning, before the cars and people were about. She had two cubs, one bold and adventurous, wanting to run ahead the way they always went, the other inquisitive, wanting to tarry at every interesting scent. I watched her sitting on the street corner, one eye to the laggard, then turning her head to check the enthusiast, and alert all the time to the three roads that ran towards the corner where she was sitting.

I remember a badger mother taking her youngsters out foraging in the woods. One of her children had strayed to some distance, and came to rest at our feet, gazing wonderingly up through myopic and beady black eyes at the unfamiliar beings it had found. We stayed as still as statues – but suddenly mother knew. Her head jerked up from the roots where she was snuffling, a sharp call, and the little one obediently returned to her and the rest of the family.

So from my own experience I learned that little ones need love but also boundaries, discipline and also freedom; they need authenticity of response, and they need to be able to believe in you – not endless dreary rules, but the sharp call that means ‘Danger now!’ They need patience, but also to understand the concept of ‘Enough!’ They need the security of a world that seems infinitely kind, but is guarded by a parent who is definitely in charge; it is not fair to ask a four-year-old or even a ten-year-old to rule the world. Boundaries are comforting.

I am not in favour of punishment ever, at all; but I am in favour of consequences. The child who makes a mess is not punished, but the child who makes a mess (within reason) clears it up. The child who shouts at other children and shoves them about is not deprived of sweets; but that child cannot be taken to the party until she has learnt better ways.

I am not in favour of beating children, or the ‘Wait until your father gets home’ threat. I would never hit a child to bruise it. But I am not against some slaps on the nether end to a child who has exhausted my patience.

I am in favour of respect: each one of us holds equal place in the family circle from the day we are born. No-one’s needs are of greater importance than anyone else’s, and each of us has different, unique needs – and those are to be respected.

In my reading, I learned from Frederick Leboyer, from Ina May Gaskin, from Sheila Kitzinger, from A.S.Neill, from John Holt (especially How Children Fail and Teach Your Own) and from Rudolf Steiner.

And I learned a huge amount from watching the place in community of the children in the Plain community we knew and loved to spend time with.

They held childhood innocence in very high esteem. One of their founders, coming from a background of the strict and austere German society of his day, had made a radical departure from the traditions he knew by reversing the order in which people were served at table. In his childhood, Father came first, because he was the head of the family, the most important. This was changed in that Plain community: the children were to be served first, because they were the ones least able to wait.

Those children were not indulged. They were spoken to in sensible, quiet voices. No-one wound them up until they were hyper and silly. They had space to play and big toys – swings, climbing frames – to exercise their muscles and expend their energy. If they were loud or inappropriate (I never saw this) I think they would have been removed quietly and without fuss from the gathering. They had songs and stories, they had the attention of both parents, they were loved and accepted by the whole community, they had a welcome of unconditional love. They also had chores to do and a contribution to make.

I learned with my own children to expect something of them, not to do everything for them. They were expected from a very young age (four, maybe?) to make their own sandwiches, get their own drinks, dress themselves – and to help each other.

I learned from the Plain mothers to speak to them very directly and seriously – not to be too smiley and cutesy with them; very clear about what I wanted and what was allowed. I learned to speak quietly and expect them to listen, not to ask more of them than they were capable of; but having asked something of them, to expect, and see to it, that it was done.

Children have a honoured place in the Plain way – abortion and abandonment are not Plain options. Every child is welcome, every child is known to be God’s blessing, the miracle of life with all its uncertainty, all its responsibility.

I thank God for those who have taught me about raising children. I thank God that the teaching came early enough: there have been things I did that I regretted, but the essential things – natural birth, breastfeeding, wholesome diet, letting them play with earth air fire and water, giving them freedom and giving them boundaries – these I had discovered before they arrived.

And I am glad for the teaching that gave me to understand, when each one arrives, yes, they have to learn language, learn to walk, learn how we do things here, learn motor control and what things are – what is hot, what is dangerous, what is and is not safe to eat; but the soul of the child, the core being, comes fully fledged from the world of light. I am honoured with the trust of walking alongside that soul, but it is not mine. It is neither my possession nor my responsibility. The soul of the child is free and belongs only to God.

My children had the great blessing to have in our family a special aunt - Auntie Bean, their grandmother's sister.  While I was busy feeding them and bathing them and generally ordering them about, Auntie Bean was praying for them, and for us.  She never stopped. 
Auntie Bean died about ten years ago.  After she died, I remembered her praying for us all.  I don't do it every day, but I still keep faith with her, and pray through every one of the family - her children and their children, her nephews and nieces and their children (which includes my children and their father and his new family - the list expands!), and the new generation of which my grandson is the first little sprout! And by this means I can still hold hands with Auntie Bean in Heaven.

Plain dress November - thinking about hearth and home

I really recommend this book, After The Fire by Randy Testa, which reflects on lessons learned and time spent with Lancaster County Amish people. I read the book three years ago, and it’s coming up to the top of the pile to read again, because it’s so good. There’s one bit that arrested my attention and stuck in my mind, that has stayed with me in the intervening time since I read it. It’s part of an extract he quotes from the editor’s introduction to a 1989 Amish Directory:
“When our fathers implanted our church in Lancaster County it was their will, even a part of their faith, to live on a farm to raise their family, to live together and work together. The immigrant Stoltzfus family was the backbone of the establishment of our community here. They had an unwritten motto to live together, worship together, stay together and die together. That cohesiveness is one fundamental that built our churches to what they are today…”
Those words resonate at the deepest level for me.

I believe in homes where people are actually living and working, not just returning to sleep at night.

Psalm 68:6 says “He setteth the solitary in families”, and I believe in the supportive web of life woven by families who live and work together.

I recognize that some families are abusive and cold, and there are many individuals whose family life was hell on earth, who would rather live on a doorstep than live with their families, or who have created family by drawing together lone and isolated individuals. I recognize too that a person’s kindred are not necessarily the same as the individuals that person grew up with.

And I remember that when the mother and brothers of Jesus came and stood outside the house where He was teaching, wanting to establish prior claim on His time (and, according to Mark’s gospel, wanting to take charge of Him because people said He was mad), He did not submit to their claim but indicated his group of friends and disciples saying, “Here are my mother and brothers; for whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

So the strength of family life in the way of faith is not about closing ranks or developing a secret language and an exclusive attitude. It is about the mutual supportiveness that creates enough energy and security and stability to offer hospitality and kindness, to respond positively and practically to situations of hardship and need. When people stay together, household matters can be taken care of with a greater economy of time and money, the household members each having the comfort and support of being looked after, and each having the character-building responsibility of being expected to make a contribution. Last night Alice was sitting knitting me some fingerless gloves as we sat and chatted by the fire. We had just eaten the supper we cooked together – baked beans and the vegetables we bought at the farmers’ market. Alice is an adult, and our family ways have attracted some criticism from onlookers in that we continue to live together after our children reached adulthood.

But how much sense it makes: if we lived apart, that would be two cars going to the farmer’s market each with one person in (and each attracting road fund tax, fuel costs, servicing costs and insurance fees), there would be two sets of gas stoves going to cook the supper, two fires burning to warm separate homes. And in each separate home a lonely woman would be doing her knitting. How would this be an improvement?

We live in the main family house, which is big; so yesterday Buzzfloyd was able to have all her friends here for a children’s book party, as her home is a smaller one suitable for a couple with one young child.

While the party was on, those of us who live here went across to Rosie’s house, which is just down the street, and spent the afternoon there with her and Jon before going on to church in the evening and coming home to find a house left beautifully tidy by the departing toddlers.

It works because we are all near together. We can look after each other. One of us works in Canada part of the time, and we can keep her room warm and clean here, ready for the stretches of time she is home. And when she’s home and needs work, her sisters in their nearby homes enjoy the blessing of some spring cleaning being done for them.

We worship and pray together. We help each other. We can live simply on low incomes and ensure that there is actually someone at home most of the time. I take in parcels for my neighbours on both sides and beyond, who are out at work all day.

To live this way increases our chances of making ethical and sustainable choices. Getting our groceries from small local businesses rather than one-stop shopping at a supermarket, eating home-made food rather than processed food, having home-made socks and gloves and hats (and hopefully we shall progress to greater things!), these are all made easier and more feasible, as well as more enjoyable, by sharing.

The Badger works all day in an office, publishing books about the Christian faith, so though he believes in supporting what is small and local, and keeping things clean and tidy and eating fresh home-cooked food – well, by the time he gets home he’s tired and the little shops have shut. The mixture we have of two of us working part-time in the neighbourhood, one of us working from home, two working in a different part of the country or overseas, means that we don’t have all our eggs in one basket financially and our daily rhythms vary so between us we can cover all the bases of home-making.

There are as many ways to walk the path of faith as there are individuals on it, but shared homes and lives and strong families offer great stability and security to the household of faith, which is why Plain people have traditionally opted for this way of living.

Plain dress November - thinking globally and acting locally

Among the comments on my blog post yesterday, someone made a really interesting and fair point that I wanted to respond to more fully than my comment allowance would permit - I so I thought I'd take it up here.

The point I wanted to respond to is this:
I don't quite understand the desire to buy local. If something can be produced better, cheaper, or faster by someone else, why would I want to do it inefficiently here? Yes, I could benefit the local shop owner. But I do it at the expense of someone who needs the money more. And the local shop-owner can do something that can't be produced better, cheaper, or faster by someone in Taiwan.

The issue at stake here is what can be called 'the journey of the pound in my pocket'.

In the Bible, blessing is always seen in terms of increase, be that prosperity or fecundity. Spending money is a form of blessing, so we have to think carefully about where we want to direct our blessing.

For the Christian, an important principle of spiritual obedience is Christ's command to love our neighbour - and of course He took that from the teaching of the Jewish Torah.

So in spending money we are mindful to remember to bless our neighbour.

Here are the reasons I try to shop locally.

1) I can watch that the producers I am blessing and supporting are compassionate. I can visit the farm or the shop and see how staff are treated, or if I am buying animal produce, how the animals are treated. When I lived in Aylesbury we bought eggs from a place where you went to the shop along a track through the fields where the hens were, and could see their conditions for yourself. In a supermarket, there are only eggs on a shelf from a place far away out of sight that I cannot check.

It is important to me that the goods I buy are produced with compassion and integrity, and I do not believe an unscrupulous producer would tell me the truth. I like to be able to see for myself.
2)  If I buy from a small local business, a high percentage of my money stays in the community (depending where the goods are sourced). Part of the reason the US is in debt is because the US buys a high proportion of goods from China, but because of Chinese currency kept artificially low, the Chinese have no reciprocal need to buy from the US. So there is a steady leakage of financial advantage to China. Enriching China is not necessarily a problem, but rising debt in the US is. Sourcing goods from one's own country creates stability and prosperity. This was Gandhi's point about Khadi cotton.

So if I buy my potatoes from a local greengrocer, sourced from a local supplier, both of them employing local staff, the money I spend will roll around within the community where I live, creating stability and prosperity. It is a form of loving my neighbour. Also in that small owner-run shop, the greengrocer can have his kids in the shop with him if his wife has to go for a hospital appointment, and he can choose to make room in his staff for his cousin's son with Downs Syndrome, and his elderly dad can mind the shop for the day while he takes his family to the fair. He also has the intellectual stimulus of autonomy and responsibility in running his own business - and if he wants to he can tithe to charity, maybe putting 10% of my potato money in the Quaker meeting collection for poor and destitute people :0) .

If I buy my potatoes at the supermarket, I know that the hardnosed supermarket people have cut the suppliers to the bone. The supermarket chooses the bargains, but it is the suppliers not the shop who stand the cost of special offers. The staff who work there are only units - they cannot bring their children to work or have their elderly dad stand in for them. The staff will spend their money in the supermarket probably (they will have incentive schemes), so though in one sense they spend their money locally, they mainly spend it in that shop. So only a tiny percentage of my pound returns to bless my community - most of it is barrowed away to increase the bank accounts of shareholders and big businessmen. That is not unethical per se, but it is not how I wish to spend my money.
The goods on offer in the big, cheap supermarket are cheap either because they pay our producers so little they are putting them out of business, or because they have sourced them from overseas in conditions which sometimes represent our export of exploitation, poverty and abuse of human and animal life.
Cash crops grown overseas are often a short-termist and unsustainable way of dealing with poverty, creating social and financial vulnerability, removing the freedom of indigenous peoples to make real decisions about the use of their land, and often resulting in serious impoverishment of the community and the environment - like the prawn farms that have ruined the agricultural lands in some parts of the world, or the rainforest that has been cut down to the detriment of all of us to create cattle ranches for cheap beefburgers sold by food giants.
I don't think it can be the case that all supermarkets are bad or that all their products are unethical - but I do know that it would be extremely difficult for me to verify.
3) There is also the issue of food miles (or the transportation of any manufactured goods), which does immense environmental damage that we ought to take seriously. As the time of Peak Oil comes upon us, we have to take this seriously.  The more locally to their point of consumption goods are sourced and produced, the lower is the environmental impact their production creates.

Modern life has become so complex that I don't find it easy to uphold a principled way of life.  Sometimes, for example, a big chain out-of-town supermarket may sell very ethical goods (eg British organic vegetables or Alpro non-GM soy milk) where the corner shop has only goods at higher prices than I can afford made by corporate giants whose business practice I distrust, and wilting vegetables long past serving much nutritional purpose. 

Shopping carefully is something I regard as one of the largest ethical responsibilities of the household.  It is a spiritual thing, not just a chore.  It's one of the reasons I choose to live very simply, because that gives me the spaciousness in my life to make the decisions of household management as if they were not merely a task to be done, but also a form of blessing, a testimony, a witness, a creed and a prayer - all of which I believe they are.

Plain dress November - the Plain way seeks the local, the handmade, the small.

Most disconcerting moment of the day by a long street: sitting in the audience of a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, watching the scribes and Pharisees and Temple priests eliciting of Judas’ betrayal and their responses to his torment, and thinking: ‘Goodness me… I know these people…’

At the age he was when he wrote the libretto, how did Tim Rice manage to get his observations of humanity so note perfect? I’d take my hat off to him if it were not held securely in place by Kirby grips.

Plain dress has challenged me in so many ways. In my reading online and offline of Plain writers and thinkers, the Spirit has nudged me again into remembering what I know full well and find it more convenient to forget, that the wellbeing of humanity lies in community, and that community is sustained in part economically, and that means every time I spend money I should be thinking globally and acting locally. I should be choosing what is locally (and compassionately and sustainably and responsibly) produced. Every time I open my purse it should be with justice and peace and the wellbeing of creation in mind.

This weekend a huge supermarket has just opened its doors in the little parade of shops that serves the local community where I live. I felt sad to see the knots of people leaving the new store weighed down with its plastic carrier bags bulging with shopping, waiting at the crossing for the lights to change so they could go back across the road and return home past the smaller shops that stood unusually empty.

Today was the weekend for the Farmers’ Market in Battle (as in, Battle of Hastings), five miles inland from us, and Hebe, Alice and I had a merry time buying handmade Christmas presents, excellent vegetables, perfect bread and buns and – joy of joy – cake free of dairy produce; but otherwise entirely normal!

When we got home, Hebe made a big pan of veggie soup, then she and Alice went off to their archery class and I holed up in our garret making hats and re-hemming a dress that had shrunk fractionally in the wash.

The Badger got the fire going later on, and I started some knitting (having rung my mother to remind me how to do moss stitch) before we all clattered of to the theatre to see one of our local amateur operatic and dramatic societies put on a fine production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the theatre in Bexhill (5 miles west along the coast).

So it’s been a day of celebrating what has been grown and made in our neighbourhood community, or made at home with our own hands. It rejoices my heart that the Plain way is wise to the reality that the wellbeing of humanity is served well by protecting and nurturing the small and the local, the ways that are immediate and earthy, the work of our hands and the lifting of our voices in song. The Plain people have always spoken for the shy and the wild, the wonder of earth and sky, snow and sun, wind and weather, the grain in the fields and the beauty of the woods and the hills.

Plain dress, this clothing that speaks softly to me as I go about my day, has been a reminder to consider the journey of each coin I spend and see that it blesses my community, to listen to the voices behind each product I purchase – are they vibrant with the confidence of a good job done well; apples harvested at just the right time, baked goods made on the premises in the old-fashioned way, textile goods sewed with artistry and imagination? Or are they capable of expressing nothing but the wailing of the dispossessed, the broken, and the downtrodden?

This – in everyday life – is where the Plain Quaker Eucharist is: in the testimony of every decision I make; in the ways I spend my time, my energy and my money, Christ whispers, ‘Remember Me. When you eat, when you drink, when you gather together – remember Me.’

This is why the Plain way is a slow way, accepting what is small and humble. The hasty, swollen, hustling rush and tear of Mammon leaves us no time to notice, no time to reflect. It grabs for the most money, and hands over its precious gift of time with eager hands to get a higher rate, and for what? Mighty White bread in plastic bags, holidays with Ryan Air and Easy Jet, and lovely injection moulded plastic toys to give the little children. The cheapest of everything in exchange for the dearest possession we have: our time in this beautiful world.

I thank God for the Plain way that tells me to forbear, to let things go, to move slowly, keeping rhythm with the seasons, loving the earth and blessing the community. I thank God for the Plain way that reminds me the joy of childhood is not in a sliding heap of toys mass-produced in a factory to sell in a chainstore, but is in mud pies and rockpools, a family’s voices raised in song, helping to make pastry and learning to be gentle with animals, laughing at silly jokes with Daddy and settling down to share a story book with Mummy. So is evil weakened and the good raised up.

And I thank God that tomorrow will start with Quaker silence in a circle of faces I am learning to love.

The In-Between

Most of the time I don't enjoy being out in nature (bugs, heat, cold, wind, sunburn, etc.) but I love taking photographs of nature - especially Nature at her finest. The blue ocean bay at the height of summer with the sun glistening off the tide; the amazing fall foliage; the snowstorm that brought 2 feet of snow, with the evergreens hanging onto what snow didn't make it to the ground. I appreciate beauty, and I love to document it. At various times, I have been know to stop the car so I could take a picture of a scene that took my breath away.

I don't do that much in November, though. November is not a beautiful month. The trees, who a month ago sported their incredible fall colors, are bare and lifeless. The grass is dead with no pure white snow to cover the landscape. On top of that, it gets dark so early that I wouldn't have much time after work to take a picture anyway. November is the in-between season. Nature in-between her beauty, intermission between acts, while she's changing clothes to get ready for the next scene. Mother Earth can be extraordinary at times, but in November, you can just drop the "extra" out of that word. That leaves ordinary.

I think it takes a little extra effort to see the beauty in ordinary, but it's there if we are open to it. I look back on my photo-taking life. There are the usual photos - the Christmas pictures, the birthday pictures, the graduation pictures, the new baby pictures, the vacations, the zoo visits. I have found, though, that some of my most treasured pictures are ordinary, taken in the in-between times. On the surface, they aren't special. The ones above are examples. They were taken after I had gotten married and moved out of my parents' house, the only home I'd ever lived in. I had an extraordinary emotional push one day to capture the scenes of my everyday life, that one day I would not have my beloved parents anymore, and I wanted to remember them, not just in posed pictures on important occasions but in the in-between times, the un-special times, the non-holiday times. Here are two of the photos - Mama holding Mike the cat in her lap, as was her habit, and a picture of Daddy just coming in the door from work. These pictures derive their beauty from their sheer ordinariness. They're Mama and Daddy, as I remember them, in familiar surroundings, doing familiar things, in the familiar house in Memphis.

If I really think about it, some of my most joyous times have been the in-between times - giving or receiving an unexpected gift "for no reason," seeing a deer on our street on my way to work at dawn, laughing at my DVD "Lancelot Link Secret Chimp" when I'm feeling blue, or hanging out with my adult children and watching them interact with their own kids. Sometimes the love in my heart just explodes at the beauty of life. Yes, even in the in-between times. Maybe especially in the in-between times.

So before we know it, the snow will fall and Mother Nature will put on her usual spectacular show. In the meantime, though, it's November - and it's beautiful.

Plain dress November - Plain love.

This beautiful picture is one of the series that Sherry Gore (Beachy Amish writer of the wonderful cookery book and window into Amish life, A Taste of Pinecraft) posted on Facebook, in celebration of the marriage of her daughter Shannon to Richard. Sherry says that in the early days of their courtship her fourteen-year-old son Tyler, having not yet fully accepted the idea of accepting Richard into the family, asked him in front of everybody: ‘If there was one thing you could change about my sister, what would it be?’

Sherry says that without missing a beat, Richard answered: ‘Her last name!’

I love this photograph of the two of them. You can’t see Shannon’s face but her whole body radiates love for her new husband. And him? The love and tenderness is so plain to see. Such a joyous moment. If one of my daughters were getting married and I saw that look on the face of her new husband, it would be a load off my mind. There could not be a better beginning.

But you know and I know, everybody knows, that it won’t always be like this. However good the beginning is, and however good the marriage is, everything will stand or fall on whether these two young people can hold the light within them steady.

They will have to have the humility to admit when they are wrong, or confused or lack the knowledge, experience or ability to tackle something. They will have to have the forbearance to live graciously with each other’s irritating habits, even when they are tired or unwell. Sitting reading together in the evening, while the other goes sniff… sniff… sniff… the one getting jaw-ache from gritted teeth will have to remember gracious forbearance.

They will each have to have a lowly enough spirit to apologise humbly and honestly when they have gone wrong – been arrogant, spoken out of turn, been selfish or unhelpful or unkind. And that will require self-reflection, and the ability to see oneself through the eyes of another.

They will have to do what the letter to the Romans calls ‘preferring one another’, which is to say treating each other always with respect but, more than that, celebrating the other’s successes and abilities and strengths, rejoicing in those rather than seeking the limelight for oneself. Never competing, always stepping back courteously to allow the other his or her moment of glory.

They will have to hold on some times to St Paul’s advice never to let the sun go down on their wrath – but finish a difficult day with a hug and a kiss; and remember that making love in a marriage is a joy and a privilege but is also in some moments a duty. In my second marriage, when my husband was dying of a terrible illness that stripped away the skin of his mouth and throat, and those mucous membranes were in over-production trying in vain to protect themselves, and he said all he could taste all day was his own flesh rotting, one of the most difficult things to do was kiss him as though I meant it in those weeks before he became too ill to want a lover’s kiss.

They will maybe know – but if not it will help them to learn – that a gentle touch and a little kiss is even more important when a quarrel happens. To withhold tenderness as a form of punishment because of a squabble is not the way of Jesus. There will inevitably be points of friction and disagreement, but there must be no question that the issue is ever the relationship itself. Once they have given themselves, that must be for life. It can never be taken back.

But what if it is taken back?  What if, God forbid, twenty years down the road, one of them says, ‘You are no longer my sunshine, my only sunshine – somebody else is now’? What if they have to go through the grinding, wrenching tearing apart of the one-flesh, that divorce is.

Even then, it would be important to hold firmly before their eyes that the way of Jesus is a way of love. When my first husband found a new partner his soul longed to be with, and my first marriage failed, I thought at first that all was lost. I’d lost my lover, my best friend, my life companion. I’d lost the mainstay of our family life – our marriage – and the person who understood me and would be travelling with me into old age. I’d lost the worship leading team that we were, that could make people’s souls sing and call them to worship when they had wandered away and stopped coming. It all broke my heart, of course it did. But then it occurred to me, losing some things, even though they be big things, didn’t automatically mean losing everything. He was still in the world with me. You can go on loving someone, and let the relationship change. He would no longer be my husband, but we have five children together, so he would always be a blood relative, a member of my family. I have no brothers. He could become my brother, or my cousin – and still be my friend. And so he is. I am happy in my present marriage. I no longer miss my first husband – in fact I thank God that things have turned out as they did. I am entirely content. I am glad that the lady for whom he left me has him by her side. Her health has not been good. What a lonely struggle it would have been by herself. God bless them. I know to the centre of my heart that he is still my relative, still my friend. I have no doubt he loves me still – not as a wife and husband love, not as a lover loves, but as an old friend and family member: and in that way I also love him. When there must be a divorce, there is no need to let one’s whole life go to the devil, burrowing like a gnawing worm inside, establishing bitterness, hatred, resentment: at that time most of all it is important to hold the Light high.

I have just finished writing a trilogy of novels (first one will be out in July of next year). In these novels I set myself the task of dealing with some issues that had seriously messed up my heart and heart and life.

In marrying the Badger I stirred up a hornet’s nest of fury in his family. When my first husband married again, I found myself shut out of the gatherings of the family that had been my family for 24 years, and it hurt badly. In my family of origin there were rows and hatreds and spiteful resentments. Standing in the midst of all this, torn from every side by claws and teeth, I could not keep my equilibrium. I needed the whole space of the sky for the indignation that was growing inside me. I could no longer face my work as a Methodist minister, I no longer had anything to say as a preacher. I knew I had to take everything back to ground zero, and sort myself out with God. I left the ministry, and became a kind of recluse while I took up the work of trying to sort out the chaos in my heart. For two years I could not see what to do, but meanwhile I had proposed to my US publisher the idea of a new trilogy of novels and they had said, in principle, yes.

So I wrote my dream of healing and transformation in the novels. I wrote a world in which people have the stamina to forgive and be reconciled, a world in which kindness protects and prevails. I wrote about the struggle and the healing power of learning to see things from the other’s point of view. I wrote a story in which people learn loving respect for each other, and this is what makes things come out right in the end. And I got all that bad stuff out of my system.

And then I hearkened to the insistent call to Plain dress. I obeyed what I had ducked out of before, and accepted the oddness, and took the Plain way. And I found myself clothed and strangely protected. I found that the me that is such a muddle of fears and anxieties and vulnerabilities and terrors was safe inside the Plain dress. Laura Harris posted on Facebook the other day:

Wearing a bonnet doesn't make you a Quaker anymore than whistling makes you a tea kettle. As the chronicler of Quaker fashion history says, "Live up to the bonnet."
Plain dress gently espaliers my soul, training me into living up to the witness it announces. Sometimes I manage it, sometimes I don’t. And when I get it wrong, God forgives me.

Something Plain dress has helped me immensely with – and I hadn’t expected this – is the setting of boundaries. Part of the Quaker Truth Testimony (the commitment to a way of integrity) is remaining true to myself and my beliefs even when others don’t like it. It involves treating others with respect but also ensuring that in the territories over which I have dominion within the Peaceable Kingdom (be that the home where I am mother or the classroom where I am teacher or the party where I am host – whatever), people will be required to treat one another with courtesy, respect, understanding and kindness. The Truth Testimony involves the setting of clear and firm boundaries, and even the holy duty (do it with humility and trembling) of admonishing sisters who wear the covering when they overstep the mark and are strident or rude or vulgar or unkind.

Love has many faces, but all of them shine. I am gazing at the face of that young man embracing his bride, up at the top of today’s post here, and rejoicing that his love, like all love, is so moving and so extraordinarily beautiful

Plain dress November - Hebe's chant on perception

Back in January I posted something my daughter Hebe wrote; she calls it "A Chant On Perception".  I wish you could hear her actually chant it, because it is beautiful.  Reading through the comments that some of you left yesterday, and thinking of a conversation with a friend today about a hospital procedure she must undergo tomorrow, these seemed like the right words, even though I have posted them before.  I hope they bless you as much as they bless me.

Seeing yourself – a chant on perception

When you see your face in the mirror,
Don’t be dissatisfied with what you see.
For your face is only one part of you.
There are parts of you that you cannot see.
There are parts of you that you will never know;
You cannot know how beautiful you are to others.

There is also a part of you
That others can never know;
The part of you that is only for you to see,
And it is beautiful in its mystery.

I believe there is a God,
And he knows all of you and me.
He knows the things that I cannot know –
The parts that only you can see.

But he also knows what I know,
And the parts you can never see,
God can see the whole of us –
Even that which is a mystery.

When you look at your face and your body,
Don’t be dissatisfied with what you see;
For beauty is not only in that which is visible,
But also in parts that are not seen.

And do not think that any part of you is ugly,
Even the inside part of you:
For part of the beauty that is you
Is when every part of you is together.

A body is far more beautiful alive than when it is dead;
But, when all is said and done,
We cannot know how beautiful we are
’Til we see what God sees.
And do not be afraid when you are changing –
Your face or the inside of you;
For that’s what it is to be alive.

If you ever feel misunderstood,
Ugly, or even invisible,
Know that, because I have seen you and known a part of you,
There is a part of you that is a part of me.

Can you see that we are a part of each other, then?
So what you see in the mirror is not all of you:
Don’t be trapped by feelings of inadequacy;
Let it be a mystery, and let it set you free.

So do not be unhappy with your body –
Love it, for it is part of your wholeness;
And if you cannot do that,
Love it because it is part of mine.

(Words of chant © Hebe Wilcock 2006)

Plain dress November - Plain beautiful

Let me put together a few apparently unrelated paragraphs for you, in the hope that you will see where my muddled mind is going.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and I think I look just awful. Old, grim, overweight, and kind of slightly sour. Blessed with an overall vaguely purplish hue. Dear me. As things were, when this happened, I used to try to do something about it – lose weight, change my hair cut, put on make-up, buy some new clothes. And what was the result? I looked in the mirror and saw – an old, grim, marginally thinner, slightly sour face surrounded by a different haircut and new clothes that didn’t look quite how I’d imagined they would. What a waste of money. A facelift? Would a facelift do it? We should have asked Michael Jackson while we had the chance.

Sometimes when a woman has a new baby, it won’t stop crying. Having jiggled it and walked it and patted it, she (and all her advisers) decide to change its food. ‘Put him on the bottle, dear.’ She does. He still cries. But she feels a bit better somehow, like there was something she could do.

We are what we are and things are as they are. What we wear won’t make us beautiful and bottlefeeding won’t make cranky babies peaceful. Changing things gives us a temporary feeling of power over our situation that makes us feel better for a while.

I love Plain dress. I think it is beautiful; but I have to concede that it doesn’t make me beautiful – I look in the mirror and I just look like me, only in Plain dress.

I have met quite a few people now who think Plain dress is not beautiful, and nor is anyone who wears it. They find it disconcerting and vaguely threatening too. My mother came to stay a few days ago, with a friend. As they walked in my house, with no preamble, the friend said to me:

‘You’re looking very… er… very… well, shall I say traditional, today!’

‘Very austere.’ (my mother’s contribution).

I was wearing a green poloneck soft fleece top, a taupe jumper (pinafore dress UK) with dark red buttons, a green and cream checked kapp, and a red and white checked apron. Jazzy, possibly – but austere?

The last retreat I took, we had a session about Plain dress and some of the people in my group left me in no doubt of their views – ugly, frumpy, inconsiderate (because other people have to look at us) etc etc. What surprised me, and I had to be very careful in my response as a result, was that the people so loud in their criticisms evidently thought they themselves looked elegant: I know this, because they said so. They told me that they (unlike Plain dressing people) took great care over their appearance and felt it a responsibility to society to do so. The thing is, had they not told me so, I wouldn’t have known.

Joanie wrote a comment here a few days ago with a little cry for help. She was feeling frumpy, and Plain dress wasn’t helping. Her determination was flagging.

Some days I feel frumpy in Plain dress, but I have looked at other people and my own eyes tell me that hair lacquer and dye, crusts of mascara, artificial colour in my cheeks, red lipstick, and drifts of face powder                                             
a r e   n o t   t h e   a n s w e r
It’s not the Plain dress. It’s the woman. Look at this person. Would she look better in tight jeans and a crop top? I ate out at an Italian restaurant the other night. A crowd of teenagers, excited and voluble were out together having a party. One young lady stood up to shout across the room at her friend. She was wearing a bright red backless mini-dress with, somewhat surprisingly, her regular bra underneath. She has advice to give Amish teenagers on dress and deportment? I think not.

Some days, we just feel ugly and inadequate. I don’t know why. It’s being human. That’s the deal. As we get older we sag, we lose tone, our skin and hair and eyes look dull, everything slides south. We can stay thin, which is good for us but looks a bit ascetic, or we can get fat, which looks plump and cheerful to other people but makes us feel like failure writ large.

What makes us feel good is being loved, being liked – friendship and affection and acceptance. What makes us look good is kindness, laughter, gentleness and joy in life.

Sometimes we worry about our menfolk. The first time I had a serious go at Plain dress, I became seized with anxiety that my husband didn’t fancy me any more. He probably didn’t, but it was more likely because he was tired or worried about work or something. I thought the problem was my clothes, so I should fix it by wearing different ones.

I don’t think that any more. I think it is likely that while I was anxious about it I was probably crabby and defensive, going round with a haunted look on my face. This is dramatic but not attractive.

I think now that I can wear what I like and it won’t make much difference to my marriage. What makes me attractive is if I am joyous and cheerful, kind and loving, patient and fun – and if I am interested in him and laugh at his jokes and admire his achievements.

It isn’t the clothes. They say men respond to visual stimuli, and so they do – but it isn’t the clothes. It’s the look in the eye and the way a woman carries herself and the aura about her. Sofia Loren could swap with Norah Batty and it still wouldn’t make any difference.

A couple of years ago, after my first failed go at Plain dress, we were going away on a Christian conference and I was feeling nervous. I am very shy, very solitary and I don’t like leaving my home. So (some of you will empathise with this logic, others just feel bewildered) to make myself feel better I cut my hair. It had been growing quite nicely, and was shoulder length or so, and I cut it off into a chin-length bob. I thought it looked nice, and I was impressed I had cut it so well. Four days later it was time to go to the conference. Our travelling companions arrived, another couple. The man said ‘hello’ in a genial kind of way, the woman said: ‘Oh, I like your new haircut!’

New haircut? My husband looked at me bemused. ‘Your hair is different?’

Yes, men do kind of respond to visual stimuli; but maybe not the stimuli we’d had in mind.

Feeling frumpy – it comes and it goes. You can look beautiful in Plain dress and beautiful without it. Either way the beauty is not the gift of the clothes.


Having said all that, there are some things worth saying.

1) If you are very overweight, it is helpful to lose a few pounds. It’s good for health, good for morale, and it will make you feel less frumpy.

2) It is important to wear the colours that are right for you. Image consultants may not be very Plain, but they can advise you if you need it. Some colours will suit you, others will not. If you wear the colours that suit you, the effect is transformative.

3) Shapes need balancing. A big flappy skirt needs a neat top and a neat head. A big flappy skirt with a big floppy cardigan and a long flappy veil looks like an ambulant rummage sale.

4) A kind face, a ready smile and a joyous heart are always beautiful.

5) Even women who dress Plain have their unique style. Some tie their kapp strings tight, some leave them dangling; some go barefoot while others are in ankle boots. Some have faces beautiful because of the sweet seriousness of their composure; others are attractive because of the twinkle of laughter that’s always in their eyes. Even among old people – some have plump, soft, peaceful faces full of kindness; some have carved austere countenances full of quiet dignity. Make-up would not improve any of them. Find your style. Find your beauty. Accept yourself as you are.

Those of us who choose to dress Plain as a witness, as a spiritual discipline – observant dress – but are not members of Plain communities or fellowships, must expect to experience discouragement and distraction (well – like everyone else, I guess). I posted this back at the end of August, and the article I was quoting has helped me again and again when I have felt embarrassed or discouraged in dressing Plain.

In case the way it is expressed seems a bit weird and esoteric to you, what it is saying can be re-phrased as follows:

If you want to make a permanent change in your life, there is a series of steps to follow.

1) You come to a clear and certain mind about the new attitude or habit you would like to develop.

2) You read about it, find others who already practice it, look at pictures that make it vivid for you – fill and flood your imagination with the new state of mind and being.

3) You lock that into place in your imagination, holding it firmly before you, identifying yourself with it.

4) You make physical actual changes to bring it into physical reality (in the case of Plain dress, maybe chucking out your make-up and jewellery, beginning to dress Plain, sending your former garments away to someone who will appreciate them), burning your bridges.

5) You persevere. This last one is crucial. In this fifth and last step, you have to hold firm the new vision installed in your imagination, every day making choices consistent with it and keeping going in spite of remarks from other people, inner wobbles of your own, boredom or weariness. You keep going. In time it will become your habit – it is the point at which choice has grown into habit that you truly have made the change.

Choosing the Plain way attracts discouragements. Discouragements are cling-ons that pull you down. Combat them by reading, pictures, fellowship that will re-encourage you; and keep going. Make it hard for yourself to do otherwise, by getting rid of your former garb and life patterns. Keep going. Persevere.

Eventually you come through the tunnel. Eventually you can say, ‘I look frumpy dressed Plain? Yes. I probably do. So what?’ And maybe one day you will be able to get rid of the mirror.

Plain dress November - the Plain emphasis on community

After my post 'More Thoughts On Money', Anna Cory sent me this link to a very interesting podcast by a lady called Frederica, on the link between economy and community.

The thesis of the podcast is that economy is an essential component of community, and real experience of community is what holds us together, makes people flourish.

In connection with that, I recommend reading T.S. Eliot's Choruses from the Rock, which deals powerfully with this theme.

Frederica in her podcast points out that in a community, people are bound together by lack of choice, or by an original choice (to belong to the community - eg joining a monastic order, perhaps) which implies the sacrifice of future choice.  She speaks about how life in a small town created moral pressures upon people to conform, and they did so because they needed one another, they could not manage alone.  Where people can manage without each other economically, community destabilises. 

A clear example of this is the rising incidence of divorce.  Families were once kept stable by economic necessity.  Women were financially dependent on their menfolk.  Once that ceased to be the case, though divorce undoubtedly imposes finacial hardship, neither the women nor the men had the pressure of necessity that obliged them to stay together when they had no other incentive to do so.  Whether a good thing or a bad thing, it is so.

But people flourish in community, and standards are maintained by the pressure of community.  Shame and guilt, like all kinds of pain, have a real and positive function, and anonymity and distance allow people to abdicate from responsibilitues and positive behaviours they would otherwise have upheld.

Reading through, and thinking through, everyone's comments about politics and money over the last few days has led me to some small conclusions.  They are only small, and will not fix the national or global economy - sorry about that - but they do at least give me enough light by the little lantern I hold high, to see the next step forward for me.

One of the ethical standards I believe in is that of shopping from small local businesses.  Sometimes they can be small and local and abroad, if you see what I mean - for example, my clothes are made for me by Daina Lottice at The Kings Daughters and Sarah Burrell at Tabitha's Legacy.  These are both Christian ladies working with their own hands to make a living for themselves that allows them to follow the family-based Christian lifestyle they believe in and an occupation that promotes the good and does no harm.  So I am happy to buy directly from these ladies: no giant global corporations, no sweatshops, no enslavement of little children, and family-based Christian lifestyle supported.

But I confess that I have let my commitment to the small local firms, where I actually live, slip.  It is more convenient and cheaper to go to the big supermarket.   I should be buying foodstuffs from the little greengrocer in Silverhill where I live, and dry goods and bread from Trinity Wholefoods (a co-operative) and Plenty (a shop with the vision of supporting the small farmers and market gardeners in our local area).

The thinking I have done, and the comments you have left, have steered me firmly in the direction of supporting small local businesses, in this town of such poverty, where much of the employment is in the public sector (which is a good thing but destabilisies the economy if it becomes too big).  So I intend to put that right.  No more supermarket shopping.  If the food from the small local businesses is too expensive, I will just buy a cheaper type of food.  And I might investigate again the possibility of keeping hens.

Frederica in her podcast points out that for community to be real community, it must include the feature of the economic interdependence of its members.  She says that if there is choice, the economic interdependence is not real and therefore the community tends to be fragile, its ties superficial.  She cites the fragility of modern social relationships, in which niceness is the tie that binds, and where any criticism is voiced, people sever connection.

These thoughts have turned my mind back to the Amish, whose adherence to a low-technology lifestyle is because of their commitment to community.  Asked why he stays with teams of horses for ploughing and harvesting, rather than using a tractor which would do the job with greater efficiency, the Amish farmer is likely to explain that his horse teams keep him dependent on his Amish neighbours.  With more sophisticated machinery he could manage much more alone - and that's exactly what he is aiming to avoid. 

Same with television.  When our children were young we had no television.  We had some friends round the corner who also had no television.  In the evenings they got a bit bored and lonely sometimes, so they used to come round and chill out with us, sing songs with the guitar, chat, drink coffee.  Then they bought a telly.  They didn't come round any more - we stayed good friends, but....

And it's the same with the computer.  My principal experience of fellowship is this diaspora of Christian friends with aspirations to Plainness scattered around the world.  I am content to be the odd one out where I live because my chosen way is strengthened by the support and companionship of friends online.  Well, I think that's a good thing - but so, presumably, does the paedophile, the terrorist, the suicide junkie, the gambler and the misanthropist.

I'm going to let these thoughts on money rest now.  For the remainder of Plain dress November we'll move onto other things - tomorrow I want to post about something Joanie asked me.  But what I have learned from this thinking is that in the private sector lies our economic strength, and I must support it.  I have been reminded that where I spend my money I will bless, and so I must choose carefully in spending.  And this has recalled me to the ethical responsibility my local community in being physically present around the local shops - being there, actually being in the community - amd spending my money there.

Anyone who is interested in exploring this further I recommend investigation of the Transition Town movement (also here and here).

Plain dress November - Plain peace

‘Will this bring me peace?’ is a decision-making question I learned from Wayne Dyer.

When I have shared this with people, they have looked at it askance sometimes, if they understood it to refer to an ‘anything for a quiet life’ kind of peace. It seems selfish if you understand it to mean, ‘Which way will give me the easiest ride?’ That’s not what it means.

If I have a choice to make, or if I face a puzzling situation, the question, ‘Will this bring me peace?’ reveals which way has resonance for my true nature.

To take an example: if someone has been rude to me and I am planning a confrontation, amassing smart replies and stinging put-downs, I might ask myself, ‘Will this bring me peace?’ It would bring a short-term sense of satisfaction, and a smug feeling of victory, but it would also damage the relationship further and take me a step nearer to being the kind of person I never meant to be. It would not bring me peace.

On the other hand, suppose someone has been bullying and harassing me over an extended period, and finally they do something that oversteps the mark; it’s time to sort things out. I consider whether to continue to let things go by in silence, or whether to deal with the matter. ‘Will this bring me peace?’ They have overstepped the mark in a way that is disadvantageous to my family; I am neglecting my responsibility if I continue to let it go. Without being rude, without losing my temper, without being quick to raise antagonistic issues but answering thq questions as they come, I am candid about what I see as the problems, and clear in my request for a change. Though the exchange is scary and takes courage to initiate, once it is done matters that would have festered into resentment are voiced and can be laid to rest. Dealing with it has brought me peace.

Plain dress has brought me peace. It is a constant reminder to me of how I should act and speak, what I believe and who I want to be. I feel less troubled than I did at first about the lack of comprehension with which it’s met. I don’t encourage questions, and I find that even in the UK, where the term ‘Plain’ has not entered the language, people respond with an oddly instinctive knowing of the kind of person this must be. The abdication from attempted sexiness, chic-ness, elegance, youthfulness and sophistication has been like a weight rolling from my shoulders. In Plain dress I have an auric mantle all around me that says ‘Holy unto the Lord’ – only in my mind, but that’s the place where it counts. And not ‘holier-than-thou’ – that’s something quite different.

The books I read, about the Amish way of life and Quaker spirituality bring me peace; they remind me of the way I am called to tread.

The peace I am talking about is not the right to an easy life – though the way I have chosen nurtures quietness and spaciousness in everyday living and in my mind. This peace is not complacency, far from it. The Plain way brings with it continual review, searching my conscience, seeing that I have been strident or unkind, that I have neglected to pray, that I have made choices out of step with my values, that I must say ‘sorry’, retrace my footsteps, start again.

This peace is the sweeping clean of the inner chamber of my soul, and setting a lantern there. It is tending the flame and singing the simple melody of Life.

‘Will this bring me peace?’ is worth asking – before an expensive purchase, before a house move, before accepting a marriage proposal, before sending off a job application, before going to that hen party or watching that television programme or buying that magazine. Peace that is not the absence of struggle but the presence of love; peace that belongs to aligning my life the best I know how to do with what I have seen in Jesus.