Tanglements

“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!’

Snugs, songs and tearooms

Elspeth stood up after choir practice the other night to announce it would be her birthday20170212_140827.jpg shortly and she would like to invite everyone to come on a walk and sing around Sefton Park in two Sunday’s time.

So, I did. I made a good start on the way as a kingfisher sped past me along the stream, stopping to perch on a branch overhanging the bank, twenty feet away. I bid it good morning before it darted off back and, further on, a second kingfisher, resting in a bush, watched me curiously – peep – and, not long after that, a robin nodded in my direction.

Inside the hotel function room, around thirty of Elspeth’s friends were gathered. We quickly got to the warm up work – all tongues and tums; a lot of up- and down-reach, which always makes people laugh, especially when in a collective. We sang ‘Happy Birthday…Ha, ha…ppy birthday!’ and all got there in the end.

Members of Liverpool Voice and Liverpool Socialist Singers choirs and from none had come together to practise – This Land is Your Land, Rolling Hills, Down to the Greenwood and others…a special programme put together to honour the park by Elspeth and her husband, Martin. When we were all confident of our words, rhythm and parts, we set off into the chill, dry parkland, once the home of roaming deer, the hunting targets of royalty and their friends.

20170212_115308.jpgWe paused by a cave to sing ‘This Land is Your Land’. At the bandstand, we sang ‘Building Bridges’ and ‘Hey ho to the Greenwood’ and a round of ‘Happy Birthday’ in as many languages and tunes as we could muster. Impromptu dancing and smiles broke out on the floor to celebrate our friend’s birthday as well as to keep warm. Hot grog was dispensed and no injuries, thankfully, were reported.

On the way, I fell in to walking with Elspeth, telling her what a good idea I thought singing and walking was. ‘You know, I was talking with my GP last week (she’s also interested in singing, though too busy at the minute to join a choir) and told her how, over Christmas, I had felt a real sense of wellbeing, which stood out from previous ones. I even cooked Christmas dinner for four people for the first time ever and enjoyed it! I asked myself what had changed and the only thing new I could think of was singing in a choir. With concerts, rehearsals and listening to music all the time around Christmas, I was filled with music and singing.’

20170212_115320.jpgIn turn, Elspeth told me about her singing and cycling holidays.  And she and Martin had been on a singing holiday along the Settle to Carlisle railway. Much of this involved singing rounds of song, repeated, in carriages, tea rooms, and pubs. Another seed planted, then, I thought, to go with our wildflower seed bombs, lovingly assembled by Ingrid and her friends.

We arrived out of the cold at The Palm House and the relief of toilets! Here, we sang ‘Rolling Home’ and ‘Keep You in Peace’ rather beautifully for ‘two choirs and none’ who had never performed together before and for whom some of the songs had been completely new just an hour earlier.  We even had an appreciative audience.

Chatting with a friend while eating vegan scouse later, I told her about a Facebook posting I’d read about learning music. It explained a lot about why I had been having difficulties in the choir at the start. My usual way of learning was to take the long view and practise and keep going till it comes together, making mistakes along the way and learning from them or not. But with a carol concert just round the corner, you don’t have the luxury of time. And it was forcing me to learn in ways I only used when I had to, using concentrated bursts of thought and energy. The posting spoke of how scientific studies show we use different parts of our brain, areas which are often underused, while learning music. I certainly felt this as my head was often hurting leaving our weekly practices. Still, it is doing me good, yes..? And yes, it’s getting better. Hope so!

20170212_131241.jpgOur last stop before returning to the hotel was at the Meadows, where we belted out ‘We all love the Meadows’ along with spontaneous outbursts of ‘Turn Your Partner’!

Another friend at our table spoke of having her enthusiasm for singing rekindled by today but she was nervous. She’d not studied music for many years. ‘Ah,’ I told her, ‘not everybody reads music in our choir. Quite a few record the songs in the room. But, once you know which line you’re singing for which part (alto, tenor and so on), then, as long as you’re given the first note, you can learn to follow the notes; sing higher when they go up, lower when they go down and on the level when they’re flat. And you begin to learn the rhythm, to count the number of beats in time too. And you can usually find the song with the arranger on youtube and listen to that as well as downloading midi-files for the different parts; often a backing track with a keyboard playing your part. I’ve found this very helpful,’ I told her. ‘Maybe, I will come along then,’ she said.

20170212_140833.jpgIt had been a memorable morning; a great sing and hearing new songs and old. Doing something different was amazing. We really made a thunder under the greenwood trees! And what did the birds and the park visitors make of us? Hard to say with grown-ups but their children gave us their smiles and the ‘thumbs up’!

Just remains for me to say thank you and ‘Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha-ppy Birthday, Elspeth!’…and wonder when and where we are going to go walking and singing next time?

20170212_173328.jpg

Answering that of God in everyone

20161014_143707.jpgAt the beginning of his talk, Alex Wildewood asked us two questions: ‘What might be the Quaker contribution to the evolutionary shift of consciousness that many prophetic voices believe we are called to in this time?’ and ‘What gifts, skills and talents can I personally bring to the transition to a just and sustainable future for all beings?’

We met in a Quaker context, he said, but these questions relate to everyone. And responses flowed. At the end, one friend asked how would she take all that she’d learned back to her Area Meeting (AM). What about all the hand-outs? Who would she give them to? Well, they’re sent to directly to all AM clerks, so that answers that point. Would anyone else read them? Her companion asked her simply. ‘What brings you joy, friend?’ A strange question, ay! ‘Discover that and then take that back to your meeting.’ ‘It’s such a daunting subject’, she went on. ‘Listen, you don’t have to give answers. Sit with the question, whatever that is. Wait for the question in the garden and answers will come.’ ‘Really? Can I do that? Is it that simple?’ ‘Yes,’ her friend smiled, ‘I know this from my own experience’.

Funny the things you pick up on at Woodbrooke. I had arrived there with a troubled mind. ‘I’m only really here for the singing’, I told friends cheerfully and truthfully. ‘Oh, and the fellowship…’ Actually, the subject matter explored during the weekend at Rep Council takes you to a deep place. It is genuinely challenging and also provides you with tools and ways for leaving with a lighter step, hopefully. It’s not true for everyone and not always for me either.

The reason I was troubled had been my perceived lack of involvement in planning campaigns at my local meeting. On the one hand, I looked at my way of life now and I have taken many steps to live more simply and sustainably. On the other hand, I could play a more active role, planning and supporting initiatives in my meeting, such as Buy Nothing Day and actions against the militarisation of schools. But I want to play guitars with my two friends on Tuesday nights and sing in my local community choir on Thursdays. Had I grown accustomed to being me, valuing my own identity above that of the group? If that were so, how then did I find my way into adult education, into active trade unionism and become a facilitator for avpbritain, not to mention bringing up a family? Life is complex, isn’t it, friends? Many different questions and responses pop up for us at different stages of our lives. And the more I sit with this question, I wonder how do we use all our proven methods, such as meeting for worship for business, for clearness and threshing meetings to discern our way forward as a community?

20161014_143707.jpgDuring my Equipping for Ministry course at Woodbrooke a helpful phrase was given to me. ‘By being born, you have already changed the world.’ So, while I do worry about all kinds of things, I needn’t ‘worry’. And my ministry turned out to be quite unexpected. It is to tell stories. Not much more than that, really, though some say ‘blessed are the storytellers’, don’t they? Don’t they? So, I write a story for my AM report, for Hardshaw and Mann, which pays quite a lot of money for me to be here. I rarely attend AM for worship for business, not because I don’t want to. I value greatly the connection with friends in the wider AM. I’m afraid, life’s events or just tiredness after a long week prevent me too often from going. Yet, I always hope I’ll be there. Anyway, I write a story as my report just for one person. I just don’t know who that is. And it’s for God, of course. And that’s ok, I hope. Till someone tells me otherwise but, by then, I will have written enough stories on Rep Council and it will be time for another friend to share their gifts with our AM.

During one session in our home group, we spent time discussing whether we now need a fifth testimony of Sustainability. Many friends say it is already covered by our testimony to Simplicity?  One friend spoke powerfully and truthfully that she had come to the view that they were not the same. She felt it was important that we sustain ourselves first and that this was not the same as living simply. The problems of the world were overwhelming for one person or even one group. We can easily be lost. We cried a little. She went on ‘We need compassion for ourselves. Only then can we look out further.’ And who else is out there? Do we know what they’re doing? And is there a role for you, for us to play? Might you even initiate something, if you feel called, if you have a concern with your meeting? I thought of Liverpool Storytellers and my involvement in its early days.

20161014_143707.jpgStill, wagging fingers point straight at me. ‘You’re not doing enough. The planet is grieving. The earth is crying. It is breaking and you sit here singing in the garden!’

One response came to me on the labyrinth, helping to facilitate two consecutive groups on the Saturday afternoon. There were about eight in the first one in, plus three facilitators, and more in the second, perhaps a dozen. With the first group, I hung back till most had entered before walking in. I was mainly aware of my own thoughts, of my own journey on the way to the centre. On the way back, however, I became more aware of the others walking with me, around me, sometimes beside me or coming towards me. We seemed far apart at times and I needed those gaps (well, I am a Quaker, after all. Don’t we all! Perhaps, it was the gaps that drew me and which keep me here?) On the labyrinth and reflecting afterwards, I realise how important it was to make my journey but that also, by being part of it, I was connecting with others in a very deep way. We were all on a journey.

I wanted to observe this more carefully on the second walk. I went in early this time and was surprised by what gently happened. I brought myself back at times to observe but mostly I was given to the labyrinth. It was a joyful experience to walk the labyrinth with a group, united by having spent time together over food as well as discussions in the home group; by tears… The labyrinth at Woodbrooke is a wonderful gift and I had spoken briefly beforehand to the groups about its spiritual qualities for me. ‘It helps me settle, to see a way forward when all roads look blocked.’ One friend commented afterwards that it felt like being in meeting for worship.

20161014_143707.jpgWe gathered the threads together on the final morning of the weekend. What I bring back with me is not only the singing but also the warmth and fellowship, the love of over 100 friends present from all the AMs in Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM). I do not feel personally responsible for the whole burden of how we care for our earth. I have taken time through Equipping for Ministry and life’s experiences and opportunities to discern that the path I am on is the right one for me and, as best I can, to practise my gifts. Doubts perturb me from time to time and this is a good thing. At the best of times, I know why I’m here, friends. And it is liberating.

I will also take back with me the image of a tiny sapling breaking through the tarmac, and of my bare feet walking on the grass, planted on the ground as well as a sense of feeling ‘like a box that can burst’. As Joanna Macy writes, ‘The heart that breaks is the heart that contains the world.’

And during the final meeting for worship, just before we parted, I felt moved to minister and tell the story of the eagle that hatched with the chicks and thought all of its life it was one …adding that some of the chickens left the hen house and hid in the forest, where their wing feathers grew  and one day they all flew high into the sky, like an eagle flies.

And a friend sang in ministry, ‘Here comes the Sun…’, not a bad way for an ending or a beginning. So, with no little fear, yet with great heart, I hope, I go back into the world and return to my Quaker community to offer this story. I hope it is enough, friends. I can give no more right now.

flower-concreteFurther Reading:

Joe Farrow and Alex Wildwood – Universe as Revelation, an ecomystical theology for Friends

Quaker Faith and Practice (QF&P 26.30)     What is love? What shall I say of it, or how shall I in words express its nature? It is the sweetness of life; it is the sweet, tender, melting nature of God, flowing up through his seed of life into the creature, and of all things making the creature most like unto himself, both in nature and operation. It fulfils the law, it fulfils the gospel; it wraps up all in one, and brings forth all in the oneness. It excludes all evil out of the heart, it perfects all good in the heart. A touch of love doth this in measure; perfect love doth this in fullness.

Isaac Penington, 1663

Advices and Queries 42 We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will. Show a loving consideration for all creatures, and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world. Work to ensure that our increasing power over nature is used responsibly, with reverence for life. Rejoice in the splendour of God’s continuing creation.

Let the spirit breathe you

20150419_104802Oh, what a relief it is to get back to my journal! I know there are lots of things I want to write about – my family, the EU referendum and the City of Sanctuary event I went to recently, for some. But are these really what I want to explore right now? I don’t think I do. These are all ‘doings’ and what I really want to delve into are my feelings.

To be precise, this practice I’ve been following over the past two months of noticing how I am inside my body. You see, the ‘problem’ was that on the last Fooling course I was on, only a couple of months before, I recognised that I was still 90% inside my head, despite all the work I’ve done on myself. Words, words, words…all whizzing, fluttering, spiralling inside my head, exhausting.

Try as I might with my practices, and these include early morning breathing prayer, breathing exercises, journaling, walking, even playing bass guitar and singing and cooking, my head still determines my actions (or so it seems) and I am unaware of my deeper feelings. It was made worse realising that my ego had taken this moment to attack me. ‘Failure. Not good enough. Failure! Failure! Failure! You’re a failure! You’ll never be good enough at this’, it assailed me. My doughty, little friend, where have you been hiding?

I was at a low point in my life. My mum had just died and I was grieving for her. And old fears of ‘not fitting in’ with the others on the course re-emerged. My ego took full advantage. Or tried to. Thankfully, I am self-aware enough to know what it sounds like. I can set it aside, at least for a time. And I did so. I could see what it was trying to do, undermine me, so I put it in a boat and let it float away on the stream. It still gave me a scare.

At the end of the Fooling course, the tutor told us a story about a friend of hers who had just completed a daily practice spending five minutes each day for three months ‘being inside his body’. He practised it, noticing how the various parts of his body, including his head, were feeling. Be prepared for amazing results, if you persist, apparently, she told us. Oh, really? I didn’t give it much serious thought. I told myself I’d just see how long I would last, even surprised myself starting out. Just go for a few days without telling anyone… and see.

20160729_121433The first question was obvious. When would I find 5 minutes each day? It seems the old adage if you really want to do something, you will find the time is true (QF&P 2.32). For me, it means on waking up, often before the alarm goes off, to ask myself, well, how am I?

When, after ten days, I found I was still practising, I decided to let other people know. This matters, apparently, as also does paying a forfeit, if you miss a day, according to your means. I chose to give to unicef uk and so far owe £10 for one day’s forfeit.

So, what am I learning, as I write two months into the process? Well, I had already been practising thirty minutes of breathing prayer in the mornings (Mon-Fri, anyway) for a few years now. I was finding the alarm was going off just as I was reaching the still, calm centre and, hopefully, God. My mind immediately fills up with the daily tattle of tasks and conversations. Although I am using mantras and breathing techniques to centre down, they work as long as I stay focused on my breathing. The problem was that I all too easily lost focus.  I think it is Curt Gardner, who observes In his book, God Just Is, how wonderful it is to have that first encounter with God, and how hard it is to repeat it.

I had had one insight. In centring down, I had understood I was trying to find God and let him/her in.  What I discovered is that God is already here, waiting expectantly, patiently, endlessly patiently for me. What I needed to do was open up to God already present. It turns out it was me who was absent.

Would the new practice help make a difference? For five minutes each day, waking up, I ask how my various bits are feeling, starting with the head. Usually, the answer is ‘sleepy and fugged. Just waking up, what do you expect?’ An advantage, then, I thought, in quieting my little ego.

In sinking down, aiming to join head, heart and gut inside a single breathing chamber, I learn to hear my still small voice again. I call this my ‘teacher voice’. In the clatter, the ego was drowning it out. But there it was, clear, calming and wise. I’d first noticed it was there during a long distance walk over the Wolds Way in Yorkshire . I do feel this connection too during meeting for worship. While I often have this sense of togetherness, there are still enough times when I feel only shallowly present during meeting. And while this has improved as a result of my daily practices, it still comes as a surprise to learn I can still be 90% in my head and not know it! What’s so wrong about being ‘in your head’? Surely, it’s a good thing, isn’t it?

20160729_121433Oh, I know it’s not only my responsibility for what happens in meeting for worship. Everyone has a responsibility to be ‘present’ for us to become ‘gathered’. With time, I am learning to deal better with my ego, ‘Go to your room’! But I don’t claim to control it. It’s far too deeply buried inside feelings I cannot reach or understand.

So, what happened? I was still continuing my breathing prayer but decided to shorten it from thirty to twenty minutes to try to focus more quickly and clearly. This had an effect. I didn’t dawdle. As part of the five minute practice of waking up, I have come to see that the still small voice inside me and the chattering one are connected. Quite how or why I’m unsure but I feel one comes with the other, that you can’t have one without the other. This was insight number two for me.

Paradoxically, I wrote to a friend about my experiences of being on the Fooling course. She wrote back to me, expressing wonderment at how aware I was of my own feelings. Well, maybe I was by the end of the course but it was certainly not the case nearer the start. It feels like my regular morning breathing prayer, despite the frustrating chattering in my head, is leading to a more contemplative approach to problem solving. Two recent experiences illustrate this. On holiday this year, I volunteered along with another friend to coordinate an evening of storytelling and song. One of the ‘tellers’ came to me, saying it was impossible for her to tell both her story and perform her song in the time allotted. ‘You must feel stressed?’ she told me. I did a quick self-check. No, not really. Well, perhaps a bit but it was enjoyably hard work to organise the show. I split her two offers into first and second half and she was brilliant in both!

20160729_121433The second, on the same holiday, was sharing a room with four other men, sleeping in bunk beds. Over the five nights we stayed, everyone snored at one time or other but, on the last night, they all, to me, at least, snored together and in harmony. It felt peaceful. I noticed how these responses were different from previous behaviour.

Insight number three came soon after. Rather than rejecting my ego, it being no good for me, I suddenly saw it as someone or something needing love. I felt so sorry for it, I wanted to give it all my love and a big 20 second hug; the last thing my ego wanted! I began to sense the possibility of completeness with all my ‘gaps’.

The chatterbox is still here. I still have difficulties centring down, finding my attention all over the place. I have upped my breathing prayer a little to 21 or 24, 25 minutes, depending on time available. Just as I’m getting to a very deep place where God waits for me, the alarm goes. Oh, please, just one more minute!

20160729_121433Meanwhile, I notice something curious. The more I enquire within, the less I seem to know about what is happening inside my body. How strange! For example, how is my knee feeling? Well, how does a knee feel? At rest, tight, sore..? Do I have the words for this?

I began to wonder if it is difficult because my head is asking all the questions. Ironically, I realise I’m not in my body at all. I’m back in my head! How tricky this is! And phew, lucky for me, I spot this, else I might have got to the end of this 5 minute practice, believing it had not worked. My ego had tricked me again and I wasn’t doing the work at all.

After that, I started lower down the body rather than in my headspace during these early morning check-ins. How’s my stomach, my heart and so on, finishing with my head? I try to identify the feelings beneath the initial reply. Not just the first one. And it’s also been revealing to accept that a part of me can feel upset while another bit of me isn’t. It is difficult. I do struggle to find the words for the feelings. I’m not used to doing this, despite my headspace conga!

Sometimes, what works best is if I don’t try to find any words at all, just focus on a part of my body and breathe. Feel what happens there…I am improving with practice and trying to be honest with myself. Wait for your teacher voice to speak. That’s the one I trust. The one I can’t evade or elude.

So, with a month still to go, and who knows, maybe the rest of a lifetime’s practice ahead, I look forward with interest to noticing what’s happening in my body in the simplest way I can, by feeling, not asking. I wonder if this practice will deepen my awareness during the final month. I hope so. I feel my head needs a rest. So much energy, so many words are stuck here and whirl round and round inside with no channel towards God, who understands all things. It needs a rest so I can bring it back in, part of the whole of me.

20160729_121433Quite often at Woodbrooke, the Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, I walk the labyrinth. I usually wait for something to pop up for me to reflect on before entering. On my last visit, when I was on a singing course, I decided instead to wait for the question. And it wasn’t one I expected about centring down to hear my teacher voice. I know I can be self-conscious, aware of other people watching me, as I walk slowly round the path. I have watched others for a time and wonder what question they’re asking. I can flatter myself, thinking how wise I must look, how calm and how deeply spiritual. It seems to me that this is not a helpful way, if I really am trying to grow spiritually. As I walk, a still, calm voice speaks to me and tells me in reassuring tones that I really need to let go of such feelings. I become much more inwardly focused and the experience grows deepening.

For the time I spend walking, I forget about other people. It feels like I am becoming me; the ‘me’, whom God wants me to be, if only I can hear his or her voice. And time passes…I’m not sure how long I spend on the labyrinth. The usual time, I expect. Nearing the exit, I allow myself a glance across to see if anyone is watching me. No-one is. And I smiled.

Later on our course, I sang loudly, unselfconsciously, in tune and out of tune. We created wondrous melodies and horrifying screeches. I am capable of both I’m glad to say. And it was a life affirming experience, in which the negative aspect of my ego played no part. Maybe, that hug is starting to work? I need my ego.

20160729_121433Many of us do have spiritual practices, which we carry out during the week. Singing might be one of them! I wonder do we regard them as preparation for meeting for worship? And centring down towards a ‘gathered meeting’, how do we learn from our common and shared experience of how to practise in the manner of friends? Each generation rediscovers the way for itself, apparently. And that’s a good thing, yes? I think so. But it took me over 20 years of plugging away before I found the right path. I wouldn’t wish that for a new attender. Isn’t it all in Quaker Faith and Practice? And give David Johnson one more plug for his book, A Quaker Prayer Life. He does a very good job in bringing the practices of early friends together in a way we can use today.

Early friends learned from each other and shared their amazing experiences of gathering together in the stillness to worship, discovering how to do it. It also involved regular daily periods of prayer during the week. Perhaps, each of us needs to rediscover how to ‘pray’ before we gather in worship together on a Sunday, coming ready with heart and mind. Perhaps, like early friends, we need to share more of our experiences of ‘sinking down to the seed’.  Then, we will know our strength and discover our voice.

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

Isaac Penington, 1661

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References

A Quaker Prayer Life by David Johnson, Inner Light books (2013)

Quaker Voices, Volume 5 Number 6 (November 2014), p.33 for my review of David Johnson’s book

Into the Silent land by Martin Laird

Silence by Pierre Lacout

God Just is by Curt Gardner

The Worship Kit by John Lampen

With Open Hands by Henri Nouwen

Deepening the Life of the Spirit by Ginny Wall

Quaker Faith and Practice (QF&P), see prayer in index

Living Our Beliefs, An Exploration of the faith and practice of Quakers, Developed and edited by young Quakers with Graham Ralph

Journeys in the Spirit – http://www.quaker.org.uk/children-and-young-people/work-quaker-setting/resources-children/journeys-child#heading-1

The Fool Story – http://www.thefoolstory.com/

Off the Map – https://weafish.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/off-the-map/

Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Birmingham, UK

Playing like ostriches

credit: creative commons Zala Zbogar

credit: creative commons Zala Zbogar

I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to visit the European institutions, Ypres and surrounding area. Our party contained both people who voted to remain and to leave in the recent referendum, Brexit. How infantile, yet effective a banner.

There is a lot to be said for getting your message right and I’m mindful of how easy it is to be swept up in the EU messages. The area in central Brussels is very imposing with big boulevards and marble-dressed buildings. They reminded me a little of Stalinist architecture in Moscow. Built to last but will they? Ask Ozymandias.

It was disappointing not to observe the Parliament in session. Many of us thought so.  However, the meetings with MEPs present and the presentations by Commission staff were excellent, though placed in a helpful context we could understand by additional sessions we had at Solidar and with eulobby tours. The latter gave us a more rounded picture of the workings of the EU institutions and the pressures individuals come under. The EU people we met almost seemed surprised that many were increasingly disenchanted with what they perceive to be heavy handed treatment of some member states, particularly Greece, even if it has to take a great deal of responsibility for its own problems. The solution imposed there was draconian. ‘How will a women just about to take her pension be affected by these austerity cuts?’ Badly, there has to be more than one way to tackle these problems.

One speaker at the Commission asked us what was the main reason for the EU. My hand shot up, ‘Peace!’ He shook his head and smiled. ‘Ah, that was at the beginning, then. Now, it is more about economic growth and prosperity.’ For whom? We are all for prosperity but it feels it needs spreading around a bit more fairly. I know, ask our UK Government about their plans too. It made me wonder if, inside the ‘Brussels Bubble’, a phrase we heard repeatedly (what does it mean?), are people forgetting that peace underpins all our prosperity and needs to be worked still to keep it?

I still naively hope that Britain will find a way to remain ‘BritIn’. But then I am a group person. I enjoy working together with different people towards a common purpose, a bit like our study group, in fact. More can be achieved this way than by acting singly. I feel the EU has contributed so much to developments in the UK in infrastructure, culture and education.  I am from Liverpool! Only yesterday, I walked past a new technology building nearing completion close to the city centre, funded by ERDF. I smiled at the yellow stars on the blue flag, the long goodbye. But I also find it helpful, taking time to reflect on my own by walking, writing and telling stories. Can I ask you what is your story now to the people of Britain (and Europe?) as we’re leaving? Do you hear the stories coming from the UK?

I don’t envy you your task. Listening and communication are key and most problems arise when these falter or fail. I wish you well in balancing the competing demands of finance and the economic sectors with social and environmental support and safeguards. Don’t forget about us, the people. We need to feel part of, included, our voice heard or else we turn away and, in the end, everything turns to dust.