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.

Satisfactory

wise men

We were at the school carol service on Thursday night. The quality of the music was astounding, and I am so glad that both our daughters have had the opportunity to be part of such good choirs and ensembles. Our younger daughter was down to read “The Night Before Christmas”, but to our relief – and hers – this item was pulled from the programme. Our daughter said it would be social suicide for her to read it with any degree of animation; and we ourselves think it is a piece that is over-used, given its dubious literary merit.

She was also reading a commentary on a couple of scenes from “A Christmas Carol”. The literary merit of Dickens is less open to challenge; I do quite like the book, and part of me still buys into the sentimental, sugary Christmas of the Victorian era which lies behind so many of the traditions. I love the candles and the carols; but the words even of some of the best-loved don’t really bear much scrutiny. For instance, just check out the view of childhood in “Once in Royal David’s City” —

So there wasn’t much challenge or new thinking in the school carol service, and maybe I shouldn’t have expected it there. But hasn’t anyone written anything worthwhile about Christmas since Dickens? Well, yes, they have; and to be fair, the piece I want to talk about is far from new either. It may even fall into the “overused” category itself. But I think it’s more real: it’s about expectations and the actual, and, far from being florid and over the top, it’s understated. It’s T S Eliot again, borrowing shamelessly from other writers as usual, but coming up with “The Journey of the Magi”. In case you don’t know it, here’s the link to it:

http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070.

I think this is full of great images, and I especially love the rhythmic tension in the last stanza. However my focus just now is on the line:

It was (you may say) satisfactory.

After all that journeying, searching, waiting and effort, that was what it came down to for Eliot’s wise men. They were clearly changed by their journey and their meeting with the Christ child, returning afterwards only uneasily to their old lives, uncertain about the experience they had had. But “satisfactory” was the only word Eliot gives them for that climactic moment which (presumably) they had longed for.

Feels a bit like Christmas to me – the long run-up to it, and the flat bleak days of January that follow after you take the decorations down. And given that I can’t re-capture the Christmasses of my childhood (when the tinsel and the paper chains were so beautiful, and Father Christmas was a fact); nor those of my believing days (and that was something – grappling, amazed, with the notion of God incarnate); nor even those of my children’s early years now, it’s not going to live up to the hype, is it?

I’m done with Christmas expectations, so I’ll settle for “satisfactory”: listening to, singing and maybe even playing some lovely music; a party or two; a few treats; relaxed time with those I love. And maybe just a hint of mystery and wonder. Because on Christmas Day, by late afternoon, it seems to me that the whole world holds its breath. There’s a stillness: everything stops. We down tools, and for a short while there is nothing we have to do. It’s a moment of rest, perhaps, before we pick up our baggage again to meet the coming year.

Today is the Winter Solstice. I always feel a small sense of relief when we get here. This is as dark as it will get. I know that it (and possibly I) won’t feel perceptibly brighter for quite a long time yet – not till February really; but after today, the light is on its way back.

Lucky

This blog post has been brewing for some time. I think I have been waiting to see if the feeling goes away. However, for the past two or three weeks, I have consistently been feeling lucky.

This is extraordinary. I have already used the term “annus horribilis” to describe 2013, and the facts haven’t changed. Firstly, my father died fairly suddenly a week into the New Year. He was old and ill, and we had been losing him slowly and painfully for a long time; but nevertheless, final goodbyes are very hard.  Sounds a silly thing to say at my age, but with his death I felt that my childhood really was over. 

In the same week, I started the university lecturing job that proved to be such a nightmare for the first half of the year. My colleagues were nice, but I hardly saw them. Everyone was frantically busy. Having your own office sounds grand, but mine was in the Geography department (why??), near nobody I worked with.  It was lonely. The induction process was woefully inadequate. The hours (though they added up right on paper) were in practice unreasonable. I had to work all the time to stay ahead and feel well-prepared. Many of the students were very hard work. The job sapped my energy and any enthusiasm I had left for the education system. Most of all, it drained my self-confidence. I felt a fraud rather than an expert, even more than before. I couldn’t see my situation getting any better, given the wider stresses that the university was under. So, in late April – and with the support of my family, I handed in my notice, with no clear idea of what I might do next, but with a sense of failure on two counts: for misjudging the job and ever thinking it would be a good move; and for not being able to hack it.

And about six weeks later I got a diagnosis of breast cancer. The rest of the story you can find elsewhere on the blog.

So how, after all that, can I find myself feeling lucky?  I feel lucky because:

  • I got the best kind of breast cancer (let’s leave aside issues about overdiagnosis for a bit) – the most treatable kind with the best prognosis.
  • I didn’t have to have either chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
  • I have had stacks of support and love from very many people, from B outwards. Quite unlike the job experience.
  • At the time of my decision-making and my surgery, I wasn’t in a job. So I didn’t have any pressure to get back to work. I didn’t have to feel guilty about colleagues carrying my load. I didn’t have to compromise my recovery by overdoing things.
  • And now I don’t have to find another job at all costs. In fact, B is discouraging me from rushing into something for the sake of it. He has said repeatedly how good it is to have me relaxed at home – and indeed even able to hold the fort more flexibly than in the past.
  • And if/when I do apply for a job, there is a convincing reason for the gap on my CV. The co-incidence of Career Crash and Cancer – neither of which I would wish on anybody – has positives as well as negatives.
  • (And I do in fact have a little bit of research work and study to keep me going just now).
  • I am feeling well. To date, the dreaded side effects of my follow-up treatment for cancer have been negligible. To date, I am still thin!

I know all my feelings may change. I may get more fearful of cancer coming back. Side effects may kick in and throw me off balance. I may not yet have finished with rage. I may start to feel useless. And please don’t you try and call me “lucky”, as someone did on a breast cancer forum in July. It’s a feeling that is only valid because it emerges from within.

But, for now, here I am in the middle way, but not so much in a dark wood just now. Less lost, than feeling that it is all right to take a break.  In a spiritual exercise that I have tried a few times, you ask yourself, “What time is it in my life?” (a bit like thinking of the Doomsday clock, but not necessarily as sinister) and see what time suggests itself. I asked myself this in May – between Career Crash and Cancer – and I think the same answer still holds now. It’s about half-past three. Maybe the end of the school day. Time for a cup of tea; time to pause. Still time left to do quite a lot. Haven’t decided what yet. That’s OK.

I’d like to refer you to another cancer blogger (I reblogged one of her posts a little while ago). You can read her blog at http://www.positive3neg.wordpress.com. I have not met her, though we have sent each other one or two messages (she is in Australia). She is, on the face of it, less “lucky” than me – she has “triple negative” breast cancer, which is often aggressive and difficult to treat. But I don’t know how she would describe herself. Her writing is fantastic, and suggests a wisdom and even a serenity that is enviable.  Strange as it may seem, we are both agreed that the cancer experience is not all bad.  

Raid On The Inarticulate

In my last year at university, I wrote a long essay on T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (I may still have it in a box in the garage somewhere). I don’t know why I chose the topic. I think I would have found TSE a deeply unattractive character, and I still have only a tenuous grasp on his poetry. Eliot was an American by birth, but I think he really wanted to be English and European. As his religion, he chose Anglo-Catholicism, which gave him the chance to hook up both with English history/culture and that of the wider Catholic European tradition. He desperately wanted roots. So the poems are shot through with literary and cultural references, some deliberately obscure. In a way they’re an exercise in intellectual snobbery. Maybe that’s why I chose them to study: I admit there’s more than a bit of intellectual snobbery in me (deeply unattractive, I’d say, and it hasn’t escaped my notice that this post might be a bit of showing-off too. But what the hell).

You might ask what has brought poor old TSE into my mind to be slated like this. Whilst I still find the “Four Quartets” opaque in some ways, Eliot’s themes really resonate with me. He is preoccupied with the difficulty of words and word meanings. How language is fluid, and how hard it is to “fix” a meaning. For me there are two recent triggers for some thought about this. We went at the weekend to another wedding (weddings are like buses, etc.) – this time of a young couple – son of university friends of mine and his fiancee. Lovely, happy occasion – attractive and talented young people clearly utterly committed to the idea of a life together – and both of them (as is the wider family at least on the groom’s side, and probably on the bride’s too) – Bible-believing Christians. Even the presiding minister commented on the fact that the couple had insisted on three Bible readings, not the customary two. Moreover, the readings they chose were those which, in evangelical circles are interpreted to support a very, very traditional view of gender roles in marriage. It’s a view that I have to acknowledge seems to work very well for many of those who sign up to it; but I myself have some problems with the words, handed down through the centuries, which now seem so at odds with contemporary ideas about equality and self-determination. And I wonder what the true cost is to the woman in the partnership in particular.

By way of comparison, the national body of Quakers is currently asking itself if it’s time to revise a book called “Quaker Faith and Practice”. This book is an anthology of Quaker thought, with contributions by a range of authors, from the well-known to the obscure, grouped by themes. It’s also a handbook about how to run Quaker business etc., but that’s not the bit that I’m talking about here. It gets revised (a slow and careful business, involving wide consultation) about once every generation, in order to ensure that as far as possible it continues to reflect the concerns and commitments of Quakers in Britain. So it’s not static – it changes. Quakers love their time-honoured phrases as much as the next group, but some of these may get dropped from the next edition, and new material may be included.

So – what value do we place on old words? Do they stand for all time? Are their meanings not tied to the time/culture in which they were written? Should we be re-interpreting, re-formulating, or not? Should we use words – as best we can – to articulate our experience, or should we start with the words first and use them to frame our lives or even guide us?

The overarching theme of the “Four Quartets” is that of time, and how we are both in it and somehow need to transcend it. (There’s also sub-theme about counter-factual thinking – about all the roads not taken which somehow exist in parallel in our consciousness. This is particularly relevant to me at the moment in relation the One Lump Or Two experience.) I felt as if I was in a time-warp at the wedding. We were in the city and among people whom I knew thirty years ago. It is always a bittersweet experience going back to Cambridge, which on the whole looks so very much the same. Quite a lot is probably invested in keeping it so. I think about happy times now past, but also about all the opportunities I missed (and am glad that our student daughter, in her turn, seems better equipped to seize some of these than I was). I still expect to see friends cycling around on their way to lectures. But the reality is that here they are now, middle-aged like me, and witnessing the marriage of their own recently-graduated children. So somehow the past meets the present, and it makes me think about how our lives – so closely and intensely linked in student years – have diverged. And how some of us have moved on and changed; and yet for some, the old familiar words still seem to mean the same as they always did. I am left with a confused sense of loss and nostalgia.

But I would never go back. I don’t look like an adventurous person. I have never had the travel bug, and my nearest and dearest know how physically risk-averse I am. But, even while I don’t quite know what he means, I am with Eliot here:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

And that’s the final thing I want to say about TSE’s poem sequence: in it he wrestles to articulate the paradoxes I think we need learn to embrace (something I have written about in some of my earlier posts). The strange truth, for example, that the more you learn, the more you are aware of your ignorance; or that you have to “let go” (= make yourself vulnerable) in order to live. Like Eliot, the struggle for articulation sometimes take me back to traditional religious imagery with a new appreciation, even while the gods seem alien to me now.

I wanted to include many more quotations from the “Four Quartets” to illustrate my comments. But I found so many compelling, memorable phrases and images that I couldn’t choose. I take it all back, TSE. You wrote some wonderful poetry. And here is a link to the whole sequence, for those who care to look: http://www.davidgorman.com/4Quartets/index.htm

“The Power of Vulnerability”

I was trawling for TED talks on the pluses and minuses of modern medicine (and I may yet come back to this), when I was hooked by one by Brene Brown. Because I have recently got interested in qualitative research, and have long been interested in the power of story-telling, her description of herself as a “researcher-storyteller” would have reeled me in anyway. But there is more.

http://www.ted.com/playlists/77/new_to_ted.html (scroll to Talk 7).

It is about 20 minutes long – so if you are going to watch it, get yourself a cup of coffee first. I found myself thinking “Yes, I agree, I agree” so many times.

Her main point is that in order to feel connected (“Connection is why we’re here”), we have to have a sense of worthiness; and that sense is founded on courage (= whole-heartedness – the “willingness to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart”) and compassion towards oneself first, and then others. And that those who have a sense of their own worth have understood that vulnerability is necessary, because we have to make ourselves vulnerable in order to connect. Only that’s difficult, because we also have a drive to control, order, predict. If this doesn’t make much sense, she puts it much better than me, so watch the talk —

Brene doesn’t mention the God word once. But I feel she makes so many connections with the spiritual truths taught by so many traditions, though I myself can only really refer with any great experience to Christianity. Think of those exhortations about denying yourself and taking up your cross; about losing your life in order to save it. I have in the past thought of these texts as potentially quite dangerous – particularly for some women who may be culturally and historically conditioned to put themselves second, or even last. But maybe they are trying to say something about this paradox (here we go again) – that in order to live richly, you have to risk the loss that might come with laying yourself bare.

I’d like to think that that’s what the Blogging is about. I have been aware for a long time of my desire to be “real”. I hate to suspect myself of hypocrisy, and squirm when others point out my inconsistencies. But isn’t it hard really to be authentic? And as for the Blog, I know that by doing it I am both presenting quite a carefully crafted persona to the world, and am trying to say it how it really is – possibly at the risk of losing some friends who may disagree strongly with me, or whom I may offend. Perhaps the breast cancer experience has, so far at least, given me a bit of courage to try to tell my story wholeheartedly. But then again, maybe it’s just given me an excuse to indulge myself a bit.

Back to self-denial: B sometimes reminds me not to be a “Burnt Toast” mother. This phrase entered our household vocabulary several years ago following a TV interview we saw with the actor who plays the ditzy accident-prone Desperate Housewife (yes, we do watch some rubbish). Wiser than her on-screen character, the actor used it to denote the kind of woman with an overdeveloped sense of martyrdom who always has the smallest slice of cake, or forgoes it so that there is enough for everyone else, or eats up the wrinkly apple languishing at the bottom of the fridge.

Not a whiff of Burnt Toast for me at the moment. Maybe I’ll keep it that way.

Tensions

“Tensions”(1976) is the title of a book by H.A.Williams – another brilliant but in real life probably very irritating churchman. I first came across his work in the mid-eighties, when I first started to think about the paradoxes we live with, rather than thinking in terms of polar and mutually exclusive opposites. Hate/love, doubt/faith — it’s in the book. I have got to read it again, as in dusting it down in order to check its publication date, I noticed the part about dependence/autonomy, which could be relevant.

I have noticed a tension or paradox in my own recent thinking. On the one hand, I accept the Darwinian take on the pitiless-ness of the natural order, which means that the individual organism (like me) is of little account; on the other, I express outrage that the medical establishment appears to disregard my precious individuality, processes me through a system, and (perhaps) uses me to shore up its own illusions (hitting the target for getting a high percentage of women through the bc screening programme, and hitting the target again for earlier diagnosis, and hitting the target yet again – probably – for high survival rates).

So what value do I put on the individual life? Or do I value it differently when the life is mine (how self-obsessed is that!). I don’t have an answer to my inner contradictions. Maybe that’s the just the nature of paradoxes. We have to live with them. But the final chapter of the annoying* H.A. Williams’ book does suggest a way of resolving tension. It is laughter. And certainly, in a tense group discussion or decision-making scenarios, I have often seen my very skilled husband lighten the mood and bring about some rapprochement with a well-chosen joke. So that’s my justification for humour at difficult times – it releases the tension.

Watch this space for some bad jokes.

*Read his autobiography, “Someday I’ll Find You”(1982), and you’ll see what I mean. Though he also speaks a lot of truth.

Victorians

Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach” (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/dover-beach/) has been going round in my head for several days. I have always thought it quite a patchy poem, with one or two rather weak lines (“Ah love! let us be true to one another”), but also with some absolutely blinding images and a stunning ending. Then I caught on iplayer a BBC4 programme about it which went out on Sunday night (18th) – worth looking at if you are into your Victorians – on which the presenter explained the ebb and flow of the language from cosmic to personal as being part of the poem’s genius. I buy that. Also, it transpires that Arnold was on his honeymoon when he wrote it, so I will let him off the personal references on that count too (and I do hope he cheered up for part of the week!).

It is a bleak poem – strange how finding your bleakness well expressed by another can be such a comfort. But I think that’s how it is. And the part that came back to me first was the ending: the “darkling plain — where ignorant armies clash by night”. People are often said to fight a “brave battle” cancer. I can see why – but to me there’s not much brave about it really – just got to do it one way or the other, and the “battle” seems to me to be cloaked in uncertainty, if not entire ignorance.

Another favourite Victorian of mine is Darwin, who suffered the death of his nine year old daughter Annie (” a dear and good child”) at about the time he was thinking of publishing his “On the Origin of Species”. One of Darwin’s insights was not that nature is cruel, but that it is simply indifferent to the fate of the individual organism. And again, this makes sense to me. I don’t believe I’m either being punished or being cared for by a higher power. It’s just what happens.

I have a lot of affinity with these Victorians, for whom the world was no longer safely encircled by the “Sea of Faith”, because that is a journey I have made and am making. I am also fascinated by Cardinal Newman – also mentioned in the BBC4 programme – who went the other way, seeking a harbour in tradition and authority. Why did he do that?

In fact, today I am not feeling at all bleak – maybe that’s why I can write it down. Had a great visit from two university friends, as well as a continuing stream of messages, and the continued steady care of B; and it’s that, isn’t it – the love and support offered by others – which remains to us. If some privately frame it to themselves as the channelling of the love of God, that’s fine by me. It’s the doing it that counts.

“Leaving Alexandria”

The Kindle B gave me for Christmas has really come into its own – easy to read in bed, and I have been enjoying ex-Bishop Richard Holloway’s “Leaving Alexandria”. By his own admission, he is a self-conscious but skilled performer/writer, brilliant, I think, but I bet difficult to live with. He says much that I want to assent to, and which I think is not unrelated to my current experiences. His theme is the (false) certainties of religion, the cruelties these can lead to,and his own uncertainty; and I am up against the (false?) certainties of medical science as they have been presented to me, the cruelties these can lead to, and my own uncertainties.

Generally, post-op is proving at present to be less psychologically tough than pre-op. This is down to the fantastic support and love of B in particular, as well as the kind messages I have had from so many of you. Also probably down to the fact that I am simply busy getting physically better most of the time, and enjoying being pampered. The knowledge that I am categorically forbidden to iron or to vacuum for the next 6 weeks is cheering (though to be honest the ironing basket is used to this level of neglect –). But I am easily tipped into tears, and on and off experience a sense of failure for not holding out against the medical establishment. Almost as if I have been hypocritical in the end. B says that what I did was take an impossible decision, and I think that’s helpful. I’m trying just now not to think about further impossible decisions that may need taking in the future.

The Blog is going public – I am curious to see what happens!