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More than dust

The testimony of outward simplicity began as a protest against the extravagance and snobbery which marked English society in the 1600s. In whatever forms this protest is maintained today, it must still be seen as a testimony against involvement with things which tend to dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity.

Excerpt from Faith and Practice, North Carolina Yearly Meeting, 1983

…When I have something very difficult to face that I know I can’t cope with, then I turn desperately to the source [the Light, the seed, God, the holy spirit…]. One of the things I find most infuriating about myself is that I often let the contact go when the emergency is over and flounder along without it for months on end when my everyday existence could be transformed by it. It is as if I opened the blinds in my house for only an occasional hour when – for example – I had an important visitor, or a cable arrived, or I had to sweep up some broken glass; and afterwards allowed the blinds to fall closed again. So that for ninety-per-cent of the time I bumble around, do my housework in semi-darkness, strain my eyes trying to read and can scarcely discern the feathers of those to whom I talk. More than anything I want to learn to live in the Light. So I think, anyway, but in fact I perhaps don’t altogether want to take the demands involved, don’t want to see all the dust in my life.

Quaker Faith and Practice, Fourth edition, (20.05), Jo Vellacott, 1982

Working for and with people with cancer, I have regular reminders of what matters. When the diagnosis comes and the worst is true – you have cancer; it has spread; there’s nothing more we can do – it can be the first day of the rest of your life. An awakening. A rebirth. A chance to live before it’s too late, to move beyond existing as you did before. I’ve seen bankers transform into marathon runners and poets, living their last years more fully than perhaps all the years before.

And it feels shameful to squander my health, my relative youth, my children’s early years, on distractions which ‘dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity.’

Yet I do just that.

Dentist appointments. Updating wills. Renewing passports. Boiler maintenance. Paying off my credit card. Vacuuming. Complaining to the bank. Delayed trains.

We are a “quintessence of dust” indeed, to quote Hamlet, when we live our lives this way.

That’s not to say that life is only meaningful when we don’t have to deal with these things. Of course, I have to make dental appointments, update my will, pay off my credit card. I have to work a day job that pays the bills, and it’s hardly my choice whether the trains run on time.

Perhaps this is why the quotes at the beginning of this article struck such a chord with me. Pulling back the curtains and letting the light in allows us to see the room for what it is, dust and all, so we can choose what we do with it. And hopefully see what is the furniture in the room – the stuff that matters hidden amidst the dust.

Not that this is easy. A simple life may be demanding. Freed from the distractions, what is left? Love. Truth. Justice. Self awareness. Compassion.

These are demanding. They are hard work. But they are the opposite of the trivial and mediocre life.

Journal prompts:

When I pull back the curtain and let in the light, the dust I see is…

Without this dust to dilute my energy and scatter my thoughts, what’s left is…

My simplicity is a protest against…

My simplicity allows more _______ in my life, which this week will look like ________.

You can fill these in as many times as feels right.

Example:

My simplicity allows more kindness in my life, which this week will look like prioritising the projects at work that will help people the most.

My simplicity allows more love in my life, which this week will look like being really present with my children.

 

A social media experiment

As many of you may know, I’ve drastically limited my time on social media.

Then recently, whilst at home sick with a high fever and flu-like symptoms, I ended up posting on facebook for the first time in nearly a year, which led to me checking back regularly to see if I had any comments. I then would peruse my newsfeed as, being bed bound, I had lots of time on my hands and nowhere to go and no energy to do much more than scroll.

But after a few days, I started to feel down. I can chalk this up in part to being isolated and feeling poorly, which always tends to leave me feeling out of sorts and a little blue.

Yet alongside the familiar sickness-blues was another familiar sensation that I experience from time to time and have come to associate with social media: a sense of being left out, or not belonging, or needing to do more.

Basically, by the end of my illness (and therefore, the end of my social media usage), I found a number of drawbacks to having used it.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that social media is “bad” or that I’m somehow a better person for not using it (hardly). As with a lot of things, there is no inherent value or drawback in the thing itself; it depends on how you use it.

But I did find it interesting, so here is what I’ve learnt following this unintended experiment in the pros and cons of social media. Continue reading “A social media experiment”

Lessons from trees

Wangari Maathai was working on women’s empowerment and preparing for a UN conference about women and the issues they faced globally at the time. Listening to rural women talk about the problems they wanted to solve, she heard them talk about water, food, energy, and a means to earning an income themselves.

As a child, Maathai remembered her mother teaching her not to chop down the fig trees, as these were sacred in their traditional worldview – something that imperialism and missionary work hadn’t quite fully unrooted (yet).

Fastforward several decades, and Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work founding the Greenbelt Movement responsible for planting millions of trees across Africa and beyond. She realised that trees could solve the root issue (no pun intended) behind many of the problems women expressed around livelihoods and quality of life, as well as helping ensure security and reduce likelihoods of human conflict over limited resources, by increasing those resources.

She also learned that those sacred fig trees that were ripped from the ground after living there for hundreds of years had actually been holding the ground together with their deep and widespread root systems. She deduced that if ripping them from the ground led to increases in landslides and flooding, planting them back and protecting them might reverse the trend. And she was right. There was wisdom in the traditional beliefs, regardless of whether we explain this as god or ecology.

So why do I share this? Aside from inspiring us all to plant and protect trees as quickly as we might try to save a more apparently sentient being, this story holds a key lesson: an elegant root solution can be more powerful and practical than numerous patches. Continue reading “Lessons from trees”

The cult of convenience

I’m going to say something here that is not popular and may be controversial: convenience has no inherent virtue.

The value of convenience is the time/effort/attention it saves us that we can devote to something else more meaningful.

Yet sometimes it seems we’ve fetishised convenience so that it has become an unquestionable end in its own right.

There are three main problems with this that impact on happiness. Continue reading “The cult of convenience”

Lessons from the sun

Whenever I go home to Florida, I make sure to watch at least one sunrise on the beach. It’s a natural balm to an itchy nervous system.

It also acts as a felt metaphor, with the impact absorbed first while the brain catches up with the words a moment later.

It’s paradoxical, because the sun rises every day – one of a countless many – and yet, each one is subtly different and irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind. Like a human life. Or a moment in time. Continue reading “Lessons from the sun”

Examining privilege

Privilege is so often inherited or bestowed, not chosen, nor easily (or even possibly) relinquished.

It is not absolute; it is a luck of the draw how society decides what is privilege and what is a shortcoming, what can become a reason to be dis-empowered.

The world without privilege is the world where everyone can bring themselves into the world without fear.

It requires knowing and recognising the goodness in ourselves.

To feel.

We cannot choose to accept or reject our privilege. Eating everything on my plate will not feed the starving child in China.

Nor will starving myself.

What do the promptings of love and truth in my heart demand me to do with my privilege? Continue reading “Examining privilege”

Life, love, and death

Life can be full of false dichotomies, the most profound of which, it would seem to me, is the way we have come to draw a big black line between life and death.

I’ve been thinking about death, as last week a friend passed away. We knew her time was limited. Cancer. She was 81 – though age, I find, is not the comfort it once was when I was a child and learned of death. For we are all human, and with each passing year of adulthood I find that the idea of maturity is somewhat a myth; I increasingly see the frail child inside each person, myself included, behind the veneer of adulthood.

I am saddened by the thought I won’t bump into her at the shops or see her with her granddaughter when we meet up for the kids to play together. Our friendship was not an especially close one, so I can only imagine how those closest to her are feeling the loss. So without in any way taking from their plight, I want to say honestly how the world does seem a little less joyful as it continues without Dinah in it.

In times of death and mourning, I have returned to this excerpt from Natalie Babbitt’s charming book, Tuck Everlasting, about a family who find a spring that gives eternal life to those who drink from it. When a girl named Winifred finds the spring and discovers the secret of the Tuck family, who drank from it years before, they try to explain the reality of living without death.

“I don’t want to die.”

“No,” said Tuck calmly. “Not now. Your time’s not now. But dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it’s useless, too. It don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”

It’s hard being on the wheel, and saying goodbye. Continue reading “Life, love, and death”

Holding onto your self in the sea of life

I recently met up with a friend who is going through a divorce. When I saw her, the first thing I noticed was how amazing she looked.

As we sat down with our drinks and I started to take in the details – hair recently dyed to cover stray grays, eyebrows thick and neatly waxed, a cool outfit – she said, “That’s something that’s changed now he’s left – I will not sacrifice my self-care.”

Continue reading “Holding onto your self in the sea of life”

My week as a solo parent

recently spent my first week without my husband to co-parent our two boys with me. While  he was visiting some of his family in the US and having a short holiday for a week, I’ve been home, taking care of the boys, keeping house, and working my job.

I’ve always wondered how I’d fare, as I’ve been fortunate enough that neither my husband nor I ever travel overnight for work, so we’ve always been in it together.

One thing that surprised me was that it was easier than I had imagined it would be.

Of course, it’s a bit like the woman in the Pulp song Common People: I’m fully aware that spending a discreet time period as if I were a solo parent is not the same as being on your own with no end in sight. I still doff my cap very much to all the solo parents out there.

But being a solo parent, even for a finite time, meant that I had to be on it, every evening. There would be no one to tap in to help with bedtime or doing the dishes. My evening routine changed and had some surprising benefits.

And yet…in some ways, I found the experience enriching and has given me so much that I want to incorporate in my normal, happily married, co-parenting life.

Continue reading “My week as a solo parent”

When ‘as if’ starts to become reality

I’m reading Richard Wiseman’s book Rip It Up, and have been fascinated by the numerous studies linking facial expression to emotional moods in participants, from John Laird’s initial studies to studies around the world over decades, each with slightly different approaches yet gleaning similar results.

To summarise, smiling (or simulating isolated facial movements related to smiling, such as holding a pencil in one’s teeth) left people feeling happier (even if they weren’t sure why) and frowning or making angry faces (or again, mimicking aspects of these expressions) left people in more negative emotional states at the end of the studies.

This reminds me of something Gretchen Rubin often says, that the opposite of a profound truth is also often true. So pretending and acting happy isn’t the same as being happy…but can acting happy lead to real happiness? Continue reading “When ‘as if’ starts to become reality”