“Turned out raining again”, I said to the paper seller in the shop. “We need rain”, he said and that was all. I nodded in agreement. It was raining heavily. Over the weekend, a goodly number of us were gathering to look afresh at our Quaker Testimonies for living today.

Friends (or Quakers) from Hardshaw and Mann Area Meeting gathered in the conference room for the first session after dinner – an introduction to our Quaker Testimonies – and I’d like to tell you what went on and I would have done – something about living faithfully today is challenging to authority – had Elizabeth not come up to me during dinner to say Jai had been delayed and would I take the children; do something on storytelling. There were four of them – wild, stone short people with pointed nails and sharp teeth (I was to find out only too ruefully later they also had the power of DAB moves and ‘mannequin’). So, in we went to the Lounge at Glenthorne where one of them started telling a story…

‘There once was a grandma, who, distracted by a team of young and fit professional football players, left her handbag on the train. The sliding door told her it was too late as she realised and watched the train pull away. How then to get to Grasmere without any money or cards? A kind woman gave her a £20 note. Not enough to get to Grasmere but a kind taxi driver said he would take them anyway. The following day, another kind woman drove grandma back to Oxenholme to collect her handbag, returned from Glasgow, with everything still in it.’

I then played a recording of Tué, Tué (Rice Cakes for Sale) on my phone to get everyone moving and tried to interest them in a story I’d written, ‘Kids, Yer Tea’s Ready (Part 1)’ but already they were not interested. Rather, they were itchy, restless, searching, seeking out playful adventures. And that is how they came to meet The Borg for the first time.

The Borg lives inside a cupboard in a big house and loves to chase Short Ones when it smells them coming. And when it captures one, the poor child becomes Borg too, increasing in number the bubbles on its enormous belly by one. Or it will eat them whole or, not hungry, more mischievously, pull an arm off for a juicy snack later, before returning sated to its cupboard. And Long Ones cannot tell the Borg (very few, anyway) and this is probably just as well.

What happened to the four Short Ones is told in a separate tale, not here. As it was the national day of Healing, the Saturday morning saw us in meeting for worship with our friend, Elizabeth, offering touching shoulders and forehead. It felt comforting. Well, it is. A friend commented so many of us live alone and never give or get a hug…

I next ran a session on Quaker Life (QL). It seems most of us have very little idea of the work of QL. (see Quaker Faith and Practice 8.08 for an overview of QL Central Committee). Now, here is a question for you. Which member of our Area Meeting serves on QL Central Committee? Well done, all of you. The answer is, of course, Isobel, of Southport Meeting? And if you read 8.08, you’ll be surprised by the range of support and service QL offers, seemingly,  from birth to death and everything inbetween. And this may be why it seems so nebulous; even why friends may feel in some meetings it feels like an unnecessary encumbrance.

In the afternoon, in spite of the rain, a small party of nine (five Long Ones and four Short) set off for Eskdale Tarn, high above us in the hills. Although we never got there, turned back by the clock as much by the rain and chill and the prospect of cake and hot drinks, and by France v Wales on the tele, we had such a good walk together. ‘Don’t go straight through that puddle…oh, fair enough, go straight through it then…’ Oh well, we were all wet through by this time, anyway, and we sang Ten Green Bottles and The Grand Old Duke of York and, bizarrely, You’ve Got the Cutest Little Baby Face in two-part harmony on the fells. Who says Quakers do not sing in ministry?

Later that evening, our friend, Julia, took us through our testimony to Simplicity. We spoke of the challenges we face, arising from status and peer pressure, particularly on children. Big car, little car, gadgets…’I’m bored!’ one of the children had said early on, as two of the others played games on their devices. I suddenly felt the need for solitude and fresh air. On the path outside, I paused to look at a border of plants and shrubs; each one different, in shape, pattern and colour, yet fitted together beautifully in an overall form. Who was the gardener, I wondered? Each plant was made up of its roots, stem, branches and buds in a simple, repeated pattern. My vista opened up across the valley. These simple patterns were repeated right across. But what about us…have we forgotten that we’re simple too? Striving too hard for individual advancement, what has happened to the idea of working for the general good? This is why our Testimonies to Equality and Peace, Simplicity and Truth are still radical, friends. They challenge us to challenge ourselves and others.

And after that, for all the time we spent there, I never saw any of the children play on a SMART phone again. They were too busy inventing games and playing together, when they weren’t working with Jai, the Children’s Programme Coordinator, or terrified by the sudden appearance of The Borg. So, how do we connect our children and young people in our local meetings and further afield,so that we get to know one another..?

On Sunday morning, following a deeply ‘gathered’ meeting for worship, our friend, Ed, led us to consider our Peace Testimony. Many Quakers are peacemakers, yes. It is what draws some us towards becoming Quaker. For others, it is a barrier. We heard about Conscientious Objectors. We didn’t hear that roughly a third of Quaker men enlisted straight away at the outbreak of the first World War. We are human, after all. And we spoke of working through our own personal conflicts at work or in meeting or elsewhere.  In Quaker meetings…surely not? Quakers are peacemakers, after all. But we don’t have a monopoly on peacebuilding. Other individuals and organisations do it just as well or better.

And some Quakers are not good at all at peacemaking, avoiding raising difficult issues. Indeed, a wise friend once told a story about some friends not dealing with a situation in their meetings, because it meant stirring up strong emotions…so better left unsaid…perhaps, it will sort itself out in time…and sometimes this can go on for years. Or tensions can arise over who has ‘Power’; not wanting to let go. “How bumpy are our carpets, friends?” she asked.

 I mentioned avpb, a charity, which runs workshops enabling us to talk more freely about difficult subjects in a healthier way. And yes, we are peacemakers too.

Our friend, Ed, had gone for a walk up the valley on the first morning and had seen two red squirrels, a heron and a hawk. I felt envious. Glad to say, on my own walk on Sunday afternoon, I ‘bumped’ into a plump red squirrel, stuffed with nuts on a garden feeder. So used to walkers passing by, it simply moved round the trunk of the tree and vanished. I cautiously moved back and forwards to try and see where it was. And then it was there, with unmistakeably fluffy red tufts, straight out of Beatrix Potter. It ignored me completely but let me admire it from a respectful distance.

I was retelling this story the next day to a couple from Coventry at breakfast when a red squirrel danced delightfully across the lawn towards a bare, reddish bush. We turned to face out of the window, looking and smiling. Another friend walked slowly down the path towards the bush, carrying a breakfast tray to his wife, who had a poorly sprained ankle. Would he notice the squirrel in the bushes..?  He hesitated and turned towards us, gesturing towards the bush…and we all replied with thumbs up in an excited and slightly crazy manner that only seeing a red squirrel can induce. It felt we were suddenly joined together, friends, by the invisible strings of our ‘tanglements’…for good and for ill, for light and for shade. Let us believe and take heart in the goodness inside all of us and continue working for a better life for you, for yours, for mine and ours, and for theirs; especially for theirs, while our portions grow so unequally.


Book review of Close Your Pretty Eyes by Sally Nichols

close-eyes-1of2You have 15 minutes to write a review of Sally Nicholl’s book, ‘Close Your Pretty Eyes’.

What?! I can’t do that. I can’t do it. It’s impossible. How do you do justice to such a cracking read in 15 minutes?

Under 15 now. Get on with it.

I love Sally Nicholl’s books. This is the third I’ve read. On Equipping for Ministry at Woodbrooke, I was looking for something I thought a little lighter from Swarthmore lectures and the rest. My eyes lit on her first book, ‘Ways to Live Forever’ and I loved every word of it, despite it dealing with the death of a child with cancer. She does wring your heart out with her words. ‘So, not that easy a read, then?’ They’re page turners. What I like is that I quickly read 50 pages at a sitting. I never do that these days.

‘Close Your Pretty Eyes’ is a ghost story. It deals with domestic abuse of children, neglect, the attempt of the social services to support the child, the efforts and dedication of social workers, the different experiences of foster carers. It’s quite a mountain to climb. The central character is Olivia, a small child, who develops ways to survive, which are not helpful to building relationships. Liz, her social worker and a constant, is a support. You ask yourself, what would I do? How would I cope? If I were in Olivia’s shoes. In the foster carer’s and their family’s shoes?

By the time I finished this book, my eyes were fully open. God bless, Olivia, wherever you are today. I hope you made it. And God bless all those carers too. And I look forward to my next Sally Nicholl’s book (all of which I’ve donated after reading to our Local Meeting library), whenever it falls into my lap. They’re that kind of book. She’s that kind of author.

‘Time up!’ No, two minutes to spare…close-eyes-2of-2

‘Time up now!’