All Saints and All Souls: A Last Beatitude

All Saints and All Souls: A Last Beatitude. (please click on this link).

We had a lovely “Day of the Dead” pot-luck supper in the Common House on the night of November 1st. It was lovely because lots of us were there, and we all sat down to eat together. It was also lovely because a wide range of dietary needs, tastes, preferences and principles were accommodated. There was vegan and vegetarian food as usual, but things were arranged so that meat dishes could also be enjoyed in a way which (I think and hope) was sensitive to the non-meat eaters.

This may not sound like a big deal; but who eats what in the Common House is a hot topic at present, as we try to hammer out our policy and practice now that we are all living here (lots of policies were first drawn up in the “build phase” by those who pioneered the Lancaster Cohousing project). It seems to me that two of our community ideals are sometimes in tension: the ideal of being inclusive and that of trying to live sustainably. It turns out that eating a regular diet with a low-carbon footprint (vegan, veggie, heavy on pulses and carbs) does not suit the health needs of a significant minority of us, including those with diabetes, those with allergies, and some with digestive difficulties. Then there are those with strongly-held dietary principles, who not only avoid meat and fish (and in some cases all animal products) for themselves, but are really uncomfortable if such products are served in their presence. And then there are those who really like meat (though they might think carefully about where it came from and about animal welfare), and don’t want common meals to have such a strong vegan/vegetarian bias.

I don’t fit any of these descriptions. I am happy and able to eat most things, and while I like meat and fish, I don’t hanker for it if it’s not on the menu (I should point out that in our own houses, we all eat whatever we like). But, inasfar I hold a position, I think, for me, striving for “inclusion” probably just trumps striving for “sustainability”.

The link above prompted some further thoughts about inclusion and our “intentional community”. And at our pot-luck supper, I was appealed to as one who might know about the ecclesiastical calendar (what does “Hallowe’en” actually mean? What is remembered on All Saints and All Souls Day?). Though the language in the link is traditionally Christian, I found myself agreeing with the message about inclusion, and then the message about the quiet workers who do the unglamorous jobs which keep a community going.

Among us co-housers, there are the high-profile ones – the ones with clout, the ones who are visible. Even though in principle and on principle we aim to share out the mucky and unpopular jobs (like cleaning), somehow, still, some are more equal than others. Maybe it’s the same in any group. There are those who say less, but graft away quietly at the little unseen jobs. And keep going. A lot of what life is about seems to me to be just about keeping going.

Among us co-housers, there are several who would call themselves Buddhists or Quakers, and one (at least) who is Jewish. There are lots who don’t have any affiliation. I am not aware of any traditional Christians (maybe they are there, quiet and unseen). But, whatever, I think that this take on All Saints and All Souls has something to say to us, and it’s simply this. There may be key players and those on the margins, those who voice their opinions and those who don’t, but we are all in this together. Let’s keep going.


First Swim

First Swim

This is our river, in which yesterday – after several days of lovely warm weather – we took our inaugural dip in the company of some of our neighbours. A yurt (which makes a good changing room) has been pitched for the summer conveniently near a good getting-in spot. The water was cool – this is after all North West England – but not as bad as I expected. I made it all the way in and swam around a bit, getting out quite quickly not because I was cold, but because I was uncertain of the depth. B. made it right across the river and back again. What a wonderful facility to have on your doorstep.

It was also my first swim since surgery. I have not bothered with a specially adapted swimming costume. We were only a small group, but I just went for it. I have no idea whether my neighbours noticed my lack of symmetry or not. I felt OK. In some ways this was a warm-up for many more swims to come this summer, some probably in the company of strangers and probably with more on show (or less, on the right side!).

The anniversaries have come around. I have had a cancer diagnosis for a year now, and its low-level effects rumble on. I got some eye-watering quotations when I tried to buy travel insurance, but finally was able to go with our regular insurer, who sensibly agreed to insure us against most contingencies, but not breast cancer. With the summer weather and summer parties, I also notice the constraints on my wardrobe, even though I’ve never been one for plunging necklines. And (this may be too much information) I have discovered that a prosthesis is damned uncomfortable when it’s hot: heavy and sticky. Think wearing a plastic bag full of dough.

Because it’s anniversary time, I have also had a call-back to see the consultant, although, with her holidays and mine, we can’t seem to make a date for a couple of months. This was much to the discomfort of the poor clinic booking secretary, who I think is trying to hit some targets. I could myself go for an appointment any time soon – but I need B. to go with me, to help me say what I want to say, and not to succumb to the pressure to have a mammogram. Which I will not be having. And if I am told it’s better to be safe than sorry, I plan to reply that my perception of risk has turned out to be different from that of the advocates of screening – or even monitoring, which is what they will say the mammogram is at this point. I would rather risk missing something really nasty (and finding that out a bit later, when having treatment would be a no-brainer, but the prognosis highly likely to be no worse), than risk the psychological torture of finding another small asymptomatic (and maybe harmless) lump, and having to decide whether to treat it or not. I went there last year, all unknowing at the start. I’m not going there again.

It’s a pity that for the next few years (if I stay with the programme), I will have to revisit the cancer thing in July and August. Why couldn’t it have been February?! I don’t think I’m an ostrich: but, in the interests of more happy river swims and weeks camping in France, as far as mammograms and their findings are concerned, I’ll settle for ignorance. As near to blissful as I can get.

Intrusions and hostilities

Once, I was given a bunch of flowers which I almost immediately gave back. The bouquet was not a romantic gesture: it came from someone in my social circle who (I think) was not very well: she tended to make slightly inappropriate gestures, and not only to me.  I was far too fragile myself graciously to accept the flowers and the ostensible message (= “I can see you are having  a hard time”). Instead I responded to what I thought was the subtext (“Please be my friend”). Not having the emotional energy to say yes, I gave the flowers back.

I have been similarly harsh on a couple of would-be boyfriends. There was the one at university who, in the days before emails and texts, put a note in my pigeonhole inviting me for dinner. What annoyed me was his blithe assumption that I would be delighted to accept. I recall that he was working on a PhD in astrophysics. He had a Friar Tuck haircut and a lisp. I did not find him attractive in any way, though doubtless he had a very fine mind (and, hey, he probably knew Stephen Hawking). So I turned him down very brusquely. I hardly had the grace to maintain civil conversation with him after that, let alone a distant pleasantness (and was eventually taken to task about my rudeness by a mutual friend).

And then there’s B’s teaching colleague from former years, whose intrusions started when she phoned my mother up (never having met her) to offer advice shortly before our wedding. A couple of years later, she informed us that she had arranged a disposable nappy delivery service for the first six months of our daughter’s life (we had already bought a stack of terry nappies and a large box of Napisan). Last year, assuming that my parents-in-law were living in inadequate and cramped conditions (they weren’t), she started meddling in their housing arrangements. She sends us greetings cards which I find over-effusive and cloying. We have not told her about the breast cancer.

It was our wedding anniversary on Saturday. We are normally quite low-key about this, but we did make a bit more of it this year. During our celebratory trip to the cinema, B said, “Thank you for twenty-one happy years” – we have been married for twenty-two (though actually, in common with my fellow-blogger at, I think that the cancer experience – if not exactly happy – has had positive effects on us). 

Then through the door comes another sentimental home-made card full of platitudes. I am so riled – both by the assumption that our life together is one of unclouded, blissful, rose-tinted happiness; and by the assumption that this friend of former years is close enough to us to mark an ordinary wedding anniversary. I am so riled that I actually rip the card up.

Why do I react with such hostility when some people try to come so close? It’s not that I keep everyone at bay. My animosity is very selective. I think it’s the Groucho Marx factor. I don’t want to be a member of any club that will accept me as a member. I don’t want to be associated with the emotionally needy – the bouquet-givers and the card-senders. I don’t want to be associated with the geeky and the unattractive. I don’t want to go to a club for breast cancer “survivors”. Because I’m not like them. Am I??

Over the years I have been on a number of retreat weekends – often silent, but not always. The context has varied – from Anglican or Catholic convents, to Quaker contexts more recently. Something very strange happens on these weekends. I have noticed that almost invariably on the Friday night, I look around at the others in the group and think what a weird, dysfunctional, irritating lot they are, and I wonder what I am doing among them. But by the end of the weekend – whether or not we have actually spoken to each other much – I usually find that I feel quite differently. The others seem nicer, easier, and their oddities seem less maddening and more endearing.

What I think goes on is that in a reflective space, I have the chance to come to terms with myself and my own vulnerabilities a bit, so that perhaps by the end of the weekend, I love and accept myself a little better. And therefore I am not put into flight so acutely when I see my vulnerabilities in other people. I don’t need to protect myself so fiercely.

I have long lost touch with the bouquet-giver and Friar Tuck. And I still can’t honestly say that I have any enthusiasm for fostering my relationship with the card-sender (she lives at the other end of the country – that’s my excuse). But as we plan to move into an intentional community (Lancaster Cohousing), maybe I should think a bit about how to handle my hostilities. After all, there are bound to be a few weirdos, geeks and irritants.

Maybe it’s time for another retreat weekend.

Maybe I should even join a cancer club.

Meanwhile, back in the rest of my life —

There can’t be many people who have major surgery one day and complete on the purchase of a house the next —

Our association with Lancaster Co-housing (click on the link above) began much earlier in the year, and our decision in principle to give up the country estate and move towards Lancaster was taken much earlier than that. Lake House Barn is a great place to recuperate in largely good weather, but the transport challenges -in the wint er especially – have seemed increasingly onerous. If the roads aren’t icy, they’re flooded, and even when the sun shines, considerable flexibility is needed to take advantage of what extortionately expensive public transport there is. Hence the reluctant running of two cars. Also, not being eco-warriors, we need all the help we can get if we are to live more sustainably, and LCH is well set up to support the weak-minded like us to do just that (though we are relieved to know that among our new neighbours there are a number of unreformed meat-eaters etc., with whom we can share the occasional braai.)

So after considerable thought and one bad attack of cold feet, at the end of May we finally put in a firm offer to buy a little (very little!) freehold house in association with LCH. It’s on the banks of the Lune, one of 6 in a terrace, a new-build of “Passivhaus” construction, part of an inspirational and award-winning project in which each household has its own space but shares some common facilities. Our particular arrangement is such that we could just shut our doors and keep ourselves to ourselves; but why would we do that, with an art lecturer and a magician living on one side of us, and (for me) fellow-Quakers three doors away? – And with the opportunity (but not the obligation) to eat several communal meals a week prepared by someone else? – And to share all those things we hardly ever need but want to have occasional access to?

By the time the bc diagnosis came, we were on the way to exchange of contracts, and could not see a reason to withdraw given that we are in a position not to leave our current house until it sells, and so can take the move slowly. It may just take us a bit longer than it would have done to get the shelves up and the goods and chattels transferred over (so far, all that we have there are two camping chairs). The challenge here – unchanged – is that we have a huge de-cluttering and downsizing exercise to do, which I am both dreading and anticipating with relish. Also, of course, we will be leaving a number of very good friends in the immediate area. But we are not emigrating – we’re moving about 10 miles – and the warmth and welcome of the intentional community we are joining is somehow humbling. We will without doubt make new friends, as well as keeping and treasuring the old.