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.

Yes and No

B and I sometimes have a conversation that goes like this:

B: “Shall we /what if/ how about ——?”

Me: “No.”

After some further discussion and negotiation, sometimes my “No” changes to “Maybe” and even sometimes to “Yes” (and sometimes it is still “No”). The matter maybe local and transitory (“Shall we invite X and Y over for dinner?”; “Shall we go to the pub?”). Or it may be life-changing (“Shall we move house?” “Shall we sell one of the cars”?). But very often my first response is to say, “No”. One of my sisters raised my awareness of this tendency recently, because she thinks that her default position is “No”, too. It might be a family trait (our Mum often does it too).

So why do I say, “No”? I think sometimes it feels that saying yes – even to something fun – is too much effort. It’s easier to stay at home (especially in November) on the sofa with the knitting and a cup of tea than it is to get up and out to the pictures, even if the film is very enticing. That’s quite an admission isn’t it – how lazy!

Maybe I’m also in a bit of a time-warp. When the kids were tiny, an adventure with them did entail massive amounts of organisation and effort. Transport. Nappy bag. Spare clothes. Amusements. Getting them togged up. Jollying them along (though they were adaptable and tolerant, most of the time). And a trip out without them involved finding and paying babysitters. Even a dinner party at home involved getting them into bed and then starting the cooking and entertaining. However did we do it (and we did do it quite a lot)?? Now I have less excuse, and I’m still saying no. Maybe the memory of all that effort lingers, along with the memory of the fun.

Caution is no bad thing, particularly regarding big decisions, and especially when your partner (like mine) has an impulsive streak.(Paradoxically, he thinks I’m sometimes prone to saying yes – being too eager to please, when I should say no. And he may sometimes be right). But an encounter with a potentially life-threatening condition makes you realise that your time is limited. My life expectancy has not changed as a result of recent events; it’s just that now I know my days are numbered. And thirty years to go (say) doesn’t seem all that long, so knowing when to say yes and no is important. I have in the last few months said, “Yes” to the co-housing venture. Is that risk going to pay off? And I have said “No” to the job I found so difficult. Was that a good, well-judged “No”? (“Some complain/Of strain and stress/The answer may be/No for Yes.”)

In our house, we have often noted that I don’t readily do spontaneity. Yet I love the eager, slightly reckless, even flippant spirit of the following poem. Seems to me the default setting here is “Yes”. Maybe now I should set my own Yes/No dial a bit further in that direction.

Yes

It’s like a tap-dance
or a new pink dress,
a shit- naive feeling
Saying Yes.

Some say Good morning
Some say God bless–
Some say Possibly
Some say Yes.

Some say Never
Some say Unless
It’s stupid and lovely
To rush into Yes.

What can it mean?
It’s just like life,
One thing to you
One to your wife.

Some go local
Some go express
Some can’t wait
To answer Yes.

Some complain
Of strain and stress
The answer may be
No for Yes.

Some like failure
Some like Success
Some like Yes Yes
Yes Yes Yes.

Open your eyes,
Dream but don’t guess.
Your biggest surprise
Comes after Yes.

Muriel Rukeyser

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 http://www.positive3negative.wordpress.com, 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.

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