Small Change

You can’t set your store with 2p or can you? I’d been into a shop to buy some bread and miscued my pin number. I had to re-enter the numbers. ‘Of course, it could be I’ve just run out of money!’ I half-joked. The woman behind the counter smiled too. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘ I get paid weekly and, after clearing all my debts, credit cards and so on, I had 2p left for the week. How’s that for a woman of 44!’

‘Ah, but there’s a lot you can do with 2p.’ I answered. ‘You can…and I really struggled..write a poem… or a song or you can make a work of art. Tell a story even…’ I left with my bread in the string bag and, while walking along the road, I thought, well, what story would you tell for 2p?

There was a story once of someone who started with a really low sum, who, through various barterings and exchanges, made more and more money. Of course, you can’t make a living with 2p so what can you do with it? I’ve also heard of an artist who got rid of all his possessions, only to start over again., living in a garage.

My story

She gave me 2p in change. A single coin. it wasn’t shiny or new but neither was it brackish or crusty. A simple 2p piece. I put it in my back pocket and left.

Why your back pocket? Don’t you put your small change in your side pocket? Well, yes, I usually do but, after more years that I realised, the trousers have developed holes. If I put my change in some of them, there’s every chance it won’t be there next time I look. Hence, the back pocket. Sitting in my chair at work, I become aware of the shapes of the small discs pressing my backside. I shift in my seat and carry on working the computer.

When I get home, I always put my change in the same place inside a roll of sellotape on a narrow shelf by the kitchen. There just happened to be a useful roll of sellotape to hand when I moved in. And it does keep my loose change in one place. I’m on my second roll. It just seems to go with the shelf.

In the morning, I often take the train into work, passing a busker playing in the underpass. He has to be the worst busker in the world but I love him. I would kill to do what he does each day. He plays music to a live audience . Most of them walk past. I’ve heard people mock him because he only ever plays the same few bars over and over. If the song has words, his mumbled singing never gives them up. I complimented him once one day not long after he got a harmonica. There is something plaintive in his singing. Something that speaks directly to the heart. And for whatever reason, I always give him the lowest value coin in my pocket. This could be a penny; at other times, a 5p. As I approached him, I reached into my back pocket and took out a 2p.

There is a trick to flicking the coins, I’ve found. A couple of times, I have dropped them only to see them bounce wildly over the tile floor.  If I flick it just right, the coin whirls upwards, round and round before falling over and over again onto the target. Safisfied with my success , I continue past with only a glance. He says a gruff thankyou before carrying on strumming, or not. He pauses too,often, then starts up before pausing again, like many a guitarist before him till it’s just right. I have come to enjoy those few moments of silence till I leave the sound of the tunnel.

The Busker’s story

I’m a busker. I noticed the swirling 2p coin and muttered my thanks, wishing its colour silver or even gold. But you can’t find gold anymore. Not in coins anyway and I’ve yet to find any buried in the streets of Liverpool, though it won’t stop me looking.

The man who tosses the coin in the air never looks me in the eye. He glances but he’s regular anyway. More than some, most really. Most rush past on course for someone, some place else. Me? I stay here, a fixed point.

I get here early, before 7. Someone else will take the pitch and it can be trouble getting it back. I’ve been coming here for 5 years now, I think. It’s good. I enjoy it. Better than a job. You get some comments like ‘Go home, why don’t you!’ or ‘Birds sound better’ but it’s all in good fun. I think people appreciate me being here.

Unless anything gets in the way, I’m here every day. I need to be here. It keeps me sane. I love music, you see. I love talking about it with others. Sometimes, other lads, guitar players, like , come round and we talk about what’s going on.

And I sing. I sing about a woman I used to know and someone I’d like to meet again, only I can’t. It will never happen. Nor would I want her to see me now. The song I sing  is sad. Once, I was married, you see. I’ve got a daughter somewhere but she was taken into care when we split up. But I’m better now, much better. As I say, busking keeps me sane. But my glances, side to side, are for her, seeking her out in the crowds.

I usually buy an Echo on my way home,paying for it out of my day’s takings. There’s a newsagents by my place. ‘Thanks, Mohamed’, I say, handing over the money, counting out the change..and 2p. ‘Thanks,’ and off I pop. Be back in the same place tomorrow, busking.

My name’s Abdul. I’m the newsagent and this is my story.

Abdul’s story

I spend the whole year here, then go back home. My business partner comes and takes over for the next year. I can make money here, more than back home. My eldest boy is here with me, studying in the local school. His English is good, better than mine. Though I wear well, I think. I have two wives, both back home. I work hard to keep them. They know how to give me a hard time.

I’m up at 5am each day to sort the papers out. It’s a long day. My view of the outside world is through my store-wide, pane of glass. The customers talk mainly of the weather. They call me Mohamed. We may  talk about what’s happening in the news that day. There can be floods and droughts and threats of terrorist attacks during the Olympics. I stand on my feet all day, counting the days till I can go home.

People are shocked when I tell them I have two wives. When I get tired of one – they’re always going on at me over something – I go with the other. It is good. I let them know who’s the boss. I think about my son. He’s got to learn. Life is easy for him here; taking four showers a day. Back in my country, you’re lucky to get one a week. Water is precious. I know his ‘friends’ come in and take from the shop. I can’t stop it. I need to rest sometime and he has to take some responsibility, serving for a few hours.

I keep in touch with my family and friends back home via mobile. Five months, two weeks till I go back. Here’s one of my regulars, Bill. He wants his cigarettes and newspaper. ‘Here’s your change, Bill…and 2p. See you later, have a good day.’

My name is Bill. I live down the road, have lived in this area for over 40 years, since we were married, in fact. My wife, Anne’s, got alzheimers and this is my story.

Bill’s story

They called it five years ago. We’re still together and I won’t let them take her. Not while I’m around. The cigarettes are not for me. They’re for her. She used to smoke when we were kids. We all did then. But she needs them now to calm her nerves. And after all, what harm can it do her?

We met in school, grew up together, got married. She brought up the kids. I was useless at it. Birthdays, holidays, feast days, you name it, we did everything together. That’s a lot of time. Some of it’s still there for us. Now and again, we connect. She’s still my girl and I’m looking after her now. I won’t let her go. ‘Over my dead body’, I said. ‘She’s staying here. You can bloody well put a downstairs loo in. She’s going nowhere, understood?’ It’s cheaper, anyway, I argued. They gave in in the end.They had to but I know it’s a hopeless case.They’ll be back one day. I just hope God takes her before she disappears completely. Takes the pair of us…

Who’s that at the door now? Oh, it’ll be one of the carers. ‘Come in, Sandra. She’s upstairs in bed, as usual. I’ve put the radio on for her and was just about to make her a cup of tea. Do you want one? Oh and wait a minute, here’s the money we owe you for the milk. Go on, take it…and 2p. Thanks’.

My name is Sandra. I’m a carer and this is my story.

Sandra’s story

It’s my job to care for people. I’ve been doing it now for over fifteen years. I do it because I love the people . It’s not just a job to me. I used to be with the council but then we got tuped over. This lot’s not bad. I’ve heard of worse.

No, it suits me. I work mornings and evenings. I’ve got the kids to see to and you can fit your work around them. Some of my old dears are really nice to talk to but it’s so sad when they lose their memory. Something goes, well, everything, really. They’re just not the same people.

If they need a pint of milk or a loaf, I get it for them. They’re worth it. I do all sorts. Put washing out, bring washing in, bath them, take them to the toilet,, give them their tablets.You see, with dementia, there’s something in their nature that comes out at times. People can get nasty.

I meet the families sometimes. It takes them differently. Some don’t seem bothered. Others carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. You see them thinking it happened to mum. Will it happen to me?

You can’t spend a lot of time with them. You have so many to do in a day and they don’t always need you there. I have to admit, I do like to sit down with some of them. Some can be horrible, really nasty. But I do like having a cup of tea. They tell you things. They talk about what they did when they were younger. Dancing, dating the yanks, round the pub singing all the old songs together. ‘Your turn, Kathleen’! A lot of it’s jumbled up, so you never know how true or far fetched it is. But, as I say, I like the people, on the whole. The best thing about the job is often that cup of tea.

Here’s me son, Tony. He’s a good lad, wants to play football like his hero, Stevie G. He plays for the academy team as well as his school. I’ve warned him about that hoodie. ‘Gonna get you into trouble,’ I tell him but he takes no notice. Here, son, go and get yourself something from the chippy for your tea. Here’s the money…and 2p. I’ll see you later

My name’s Tony. I’ve not long turned 13 and this is my story.

Tony’s story

I want to be a professional footballer when I grow up. My dad says I need to work harder and practise every day. I know my coach thinks I’m too small, I’m not going to make it. But look at Messi or Xavi or Iniesta. They’re only small too. Dad sometimes comes to watch me play but he’s embarrassing. Shouting stuff at the other kids. Lucky for me, he spends so much time at work, he can’t come to many games.

My mates are ok too. We have a laugh at school, break times and that. The young kids don’t like us flicking water bottle tops at them. You see how nervous they are walking up to us, then sprinting through the line. It’s mad, our school. Everyone sort of sticks together in their own groups. I didn’t like it when some lads followed me off the bus one time. I was going to football practice. One of them looked like he had a knife and they took everything I had, including me boots. Dad was mad at me for weeks.

Here’s the bus. Hope it’s the Polish, blond bird that can’t speak English driving. ‘Town.’ and I put the fare down, coin by coin..and 2p.

Hallo, my name is Lyuba. I am from Latvia and I drive this bus. This is my story.

Lyuba’s story

What brought me to England? That’s a good question. How long have you got? An hour? I miss the contact with my friends and family back home. Taking my son to nursary, you would stop and talk to everyone you know. There was more time for talking, for catching up, for finding out how everyone is.

I was a nurse. It was a good job but the pay was little. Here, I drive a bus and the pay is good. I went to classes to improve my English. And it is a chance for my boy. He is at school here. It was hard for him at first. He didn’t have any friends but now his English is better than his Latvian.

We will go back soon. Two more years and I will have saved enough to buy an apartment. My parents will come to live with us. I worry about them. They are getting old.They still worry about me, like I was their little girl. ‘Lyuba,’ they say, ‘why risk everything going to a strange country? You don’t know anyone there. England is not such a good place. We hear awful things. You will end up on the street with nothing to eat. Or worse. Think of your son. Think of us.’

But it’s ok really. A few of the drivers tried it on with me at first but the manager was good. He helped me. So now I drive this big double decker. If anyone told me one day I’d be doing this, I think you must be mad. But when the hospital closed, I’d nearly used up all my savings and I was desperate. What could I do? It seemed like the answer to a prayer, when I saw the advert asking for drivers in UK.

Andrei, my husband, isn’t so keen. It took a lot of talking for him to come round. He looks after my parents as well as his own. We see each other as much as we can. Flights are cheap these days. But I’m pregnant again and I haven’t told him. I want him to come over but he’d never last. He’s a technical engineer but he’d never be happy with a cleaning job.

I don’t know what I’m going to do. I feel sick this morning. I’ve not had a day off in three years. And I like the job. The people are friendly. Everyone says ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’. You get the odd one who says, ‘Speak English!’ English, I speak English better than you, you ignorant mulehead.

The roads here are full of holes. And what is with English people crossing roads wherever they like? The students are worst, especially on bikes. You have to watch out. They make me laugh, joking with their friends. ‘Can I have my change, please?’, says one. ‘I’m getting off now.’ She counts out the money…and 2p, placing it in my hand. ‘Thank you,’ I say and step off the bus. My name is Tanny. I’m a student here and this is my story.

Tanny’s story

I’m in my second year, studying sociology and history. Yeah, I know! But it’s so cool. There is so much going on. You have no idea. It’s great to get behind the stories in the news. One of our tutors takes a big story and gets us to look at it from all sides, using what we’re learning and what we know.

It is hard though. I worry about my debt growing. Try not to think about it but if I get a good job, it will be ok then, I hope. There should be a better way of doing it  than giving us loads of debt just as we’re starting out. That’s if I can get a job. I can think of one person who graduated last year who has managed to find a full-time job. Loads of them are still hanging round the uni doing barwork or security or both!

So, why do it? Because I love learning, always have done. I love to listen to someone who really understands what they’re talking about and can put it across, say, like Richard Feynman. Let him tell you why magnets attract. Or read a book three times before really seeing what lies between the layers. Or when you’re walking along the road and suddenly you have this great idea that nobody in the whole world  has ever had before (alright, it’s the first time I’ve thought of it). It’s just amazing. I love it.

It’s two worlds though. There are a lot of ‘Harry’s and Alexandra’s’ knocking round. My mum and dad are proud of me. It surprised them when I said I’d applied for uni. ‘Well, it’s either Uni or singing!’, I said and it was never going to be singing, if I’m honest. I do sing in a community choir. It’s fantastic, I love it! We give free concerts in the local park or at the day centres. It’s great. It was Mr Coates in 6th form, who encouraged me. He said I could do it and here I am. Look at me!

I work here. It’s part-time and I love it. Everyone’s so friendly and helpful. It’s a food co-op. I wouldn’t mind working here full-time when I finish. I learn almost as much here as I do at uni.

‘Here, Joan, here’s the money I owe you.’ I call across. I hold the money out towards her in the palm of my hand. She takes up the small change…and 2p. A man in the queue – he comes in now and again to buy local honey, says it’s the best he’s ever tasted; he must be French, he wears a beret…anyway, he says, ‘Hey, that 2p, better check it’s not an 1983 one. Could be worth a few bob, that one, if it is.’ The three of us look at the coin, at each other, then back at the coin and burst out laughing. Now, that’s got to be worth 2p, hasn’t it?

Making Pizza Dough

Making pizza dough

Reflections of Curt Gardner’s Book, God just is

Yesterday, I was making pizza dough, for me and my eldest son, David, who was coming round later for his tea. I hadn’t made this for ages but have come to enjoy the process. Usually, I start the dough off about 2 o’clock and pizzas will be on the lap for 7ish. But yesterday, I started at 5. Then, shock! I found I didn’t have any flour in the cans. Luckily, there was some barleycorn left over in a bag. I was feeling quite anxious, tensing about getting the pizzas ready in time, when, something happened. I told myself I was making these pizzas for me and my son out of love…and let something go. Whoosh! From then on, it came back again, the pleasure and fun it is, all covered in flour and olive oil. ‘How do you like your pizza, son?’ ‘It’s the pizza of all the colours’, he replied. It was and it made us both smile.

So, what does this have to do with Curt Gardner’s book? Well, everything for me and probably not so much for you. And that’s the whole point. Each of us is different and finding our own way to God or the Great Spirit (I’m reading the ‘Feathered Friends’ story, in readiness for children’s meeting in a couple of week’s time, so I’m well into the Great Spirit). He writes, that’s Curt, not me, ‘for that instant…if you focus on what you are doing, the ‘I’…disappears…and the activity becomes simply [making pizza]…and you find yourself at the point when you just are.’(Pp 91-2)

And this was how it felt for me. I was aware of each moment of kneading and spreading the toppings on and the pleasure I was having from wearing my ‘Grumpy Old Man’ pizza-defence apron.

I had been a little dubious when a friend from Quaker Life urged us (or challenged us?) to buy this remarkable book for the insights shared by the author. Was it a marketing ploy? I found myself buying it anyway for my meeting, just in case, and settled down to read it. The writer’s way has been along a mainly Christian path while also taking in Eastern Orthodox beliefs. Yet, he’s clear that other spiritual disciplines are open to us from other sources if we seek them out. Find what works for you. It was interesting to note that I didn’t have the heebeegeebees about Ignatian visualisation practices. The opposite being the case for me as they involve stories. He quotes Advices and Queries 7, ‘Are you open to new light from whatever source it may come?’ The light may shine on you from unexpected places.

What I found was this. There is a lifetime’s experience of finding and then trialling many forms of silent worship here while bringing up a family, working full time, travelling and entering into retirement. That’s what I hadn’t realised. How much we change over a lifetime. We’re not the same people at 20 as we are at 50 or 80 in terms of our needs and awareness of God.

Bus rides

I experienced a beautiful moment while riding on the 68 bus reading a bit of his book. I won’t say which bit but I just thought and felt, ‘Is that what it is…? Yes.’ And felt a sense of peace and love. You might say I heard my breath. It was lovely and I’d like some more, please, God, when you’re ready. I hope you’ll find me waiting. But I do need to practise and for that I need to explore what practices work best for me at this stage of my life.

The ‘Quaker Life marketing guy’ got it spot on. Above all, I thank Curt Gardner for taking the time and trouble to record and pass on his experiences of a lifetime’s waiting quietly, practising techniques he has found helpful, being gentle with himself and with others and putting his learning at the service of the Society of Friends and beyond.

This Fool’s Awakening.

This is an email I sent to two friends from Easton Meeting House, county of Saratoga, New York state, who helped me with background information about the story known over here as  ‘Fierce Feathers’ but which they prefer to call ‘Feathered Friends’. Bill is clerk of meeting.

Hello, Bill and Margaret,

I told my story on Sunday at Children’s meeting (for worship). It was wonderful. I am still buzzing. I hope to be able to send a photo to you showing the meeting room threatened by warriors and scouts. I changed the emphasis to be a lot less fierce and more friendly when telling the story.

We had butterflies and singing. The photos and drawings you sent were perfect. Everyone enjoyed them.

The children made headresses using curtain tape and feathers. I know, I’m sorry, you said american indians in that area would not have had feathers but I’d already got them and the children (and the grown ups) loved making them. We put face paint on (me included. I made people smile). We called it ‘Peace Paint’. Bows and arrows cut out of cardboard were coloured in, left at the door of meeting, thankfully, and later, we learned, made excellent rocket ships when propelled downstairs.

I never would have guessed when I picked up a white feather to reflect on during ‘Do Something Different Day’, a workshop on spirituality at Britain Yearly Meeting, last summer that it would lead me so far.

Thank you so much. I’m still smiling.

In friendship,

I would add a postscript here. The tale can be traced back to an actual event, recorded in the journal of Rufus Hall, who had bought land in Easton in the autumn of 1773. He writes: ‘One day the Indians came to our meeting just as it was breaking up, but they offered no violence: their warlike appearance was very shocking, being equipped with their guns, tomahawks and scalping knives: they had a prisoner and one green scalp taken but a few hours before.’ Hall continues, when the intruders ‘understood the Friends were at a religious meeting, they went to one of their Houses, got some victuals, of which a prisoner with them partook, and they quietly departed.’
Quoted in ‘Feathered Friends: History and Representation in a Quaker Fable’ by Christopher Klemek, Ph.D, Assistant Professor of History, Florida International University.
The photo is of the present day South Meeting House at Easton, County of Saratoga, New York state, built on the site of the old one, mentioned in the story.