Not the post I set out to write

This is a honed version of the post I put up yesterday, and then took down.

I went to a memorial service in London on Saturday. The person whose life was celebrated was the erstwhile vicar of the church I attended in the 1980s, and that’s where the service was held. The order of service was prefaced by a short poem by Joyce Grenfell, which I have always loved. Good, I thought. The programme also suggested the possibility of spontaneous contributions and silent reflection. Good again, I thought, having attended a few Quaker memorial meetings, where time for reflection and spontaneous contribution is all there is. Barry and I have both agreed that when the time comes, we want funerals of this kind for ourselves and each other. They are extraordinarily moving and healing, in our experience.

I very much enjoyed belting out some classic hymns, listening to some more well-chosen poetry and some beautiful music, and to anecdotes about the dear departed.  I am very glad I went. It was a joyful and thankful occasion, a fit tribute to a life fully lived, and to a priest and pastor who was a significant influence on my early adulthood. But I found it so busy. As it turned out, on Saturday, there was so much planned in the order of play that there was barely time for impromptu offerings; and if there was time for silent reflection, it was so brief that I missed it. To be fair, the dear departed was a larger-than-life and multi-faceted character: there was a lot to be said. And it was, several times over, for more than an hour and a half.

At the Quaker memorial meetings I have attended, despite quite lengthy silences, there has still been time for honest, heartfelt, poignant and sometimes funny contributions in an unhurried atmosphere. And all within an hour. Is this what has been called, “the amazing fact of Quaker worship”? The difference is that the words arise out of the silence. The silence is where we start from, and is not an optional extra which gets cut if we are running out of time. Even if (as happens at memorial meetings) not all those who speak are familiar with Quaker ways, the meeting is somehow held by the collective presence and practised discipline of those who regularly sit for an hour on a Sunday: an hour in which words (if they come) are both wrapped in silence and tempered by it. It is only rarely that I feel someone has spoken for too long in Meeting, even when I don’t feel the “ministry” speaks to me.

This is not the post I thought I was going to write. I have surprised myself. I may even have surprised myself into going to Meeting more regularly —


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.

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: