I’m not sure why… maybe it’s the increase in activity with the easing of lockdown restrictions, and the surging back of stuff in the diary? But I have felt like I have been greeting myself passing lately. Apart from moments of delight on occasional walks, or in times of meditative stillness with others or on my own. Then, I arrive, I am 100% present in the moment.
This poem is helping me to come home to myself in a wonderful way. Short but profound:
Imagine if every tweet, every social media post, text message, email, came to you in the form of someone speaking directly into your ear. Even as you scroll through a newsfeed or your emails, everything you half look at, spoken out loud into your ear. It might sound something like this:
This YouTube recording comes with a warning and an invitation. The warning is that it’s a recording of ten whole hours of people talking. The fact the creators felt the need to warn us should tell us something about the impact of listening (or even half listening) to that much conversation! The invitation is for people to listen to it all the way through and post in the comments when they’re done. Judging by the 2.6K comments, some must have managed it.
I think the amount of communication we are exposed to in an average day is really quite like listening to this. No wonder I sometimes (who am I kidding – often) feel overwhelmed with the sheer volume of talking. Even though in the past year of global pandemic I guess a lot of people have missed the babble of being in a crowd. (One comment on the YouTube recording poignantly asks, “Who’s here during quarantine trying to remember what people are?”)
Yesterday we had one of our monthly Quiet Days. It’s the first time we have been able to invite people to come round since the pandemic hit last year. The Great British weather was predictably throwing it down by mid morning, so it was great to be able to be inside the house, albeit with the windows wide open for ventilation to reduce the risk of Covid-contagion.
It’s no wonder I increasingly find these set aside times for being quiet so essential. I normally turn off my phone or put it on aeroplane mode for the day. At a couple of points during the day for quite a while the building work next door stopped. Listening to the birds and the rain was glorious. And going outside and being in it, doing some careful weeding to give some impossibly blue flowers space to breathe, touching the earth and smelling the wet grass was so good.
Freeing up my attention to notice and enjoy all these things was such a necessary thing. As is often the case, turning my attention completely away from my phone, and any form of communication other than with myself, with the earth, with other living creatures, with the divine, was a joy.
Yesterday I also enjoyed doing this in a shared physical space. We have had Quiet Days in the past year where we connect with people for short video calls a few times through the day which were OK. But there is a particular gift we offer one another by physically being in each other’s presence but not speaking to each other or expecting anyone to speak or to listen to us. It’s a rare social environment where we agree to offer one another the gift of silence. We are considerate of one another in how we inhabit the space, but the consideration is silent.
We broke the silence for lunch together which was also a delight. And at the end of our time people could share whatever had come to them in the silence if they wanted to. There were just three of us this time. A lot of people say they want to make time for this sort of day, but it seems really difficult practically for people to do it, for a whole host of good reasons.
But I am thinking this sort of time (maybe not a whole day for everyone) is only going to become more necessary, given the extreme demands on our attention…?
A friend recently shared the poem « The wrong beds » by Roger McGough. It’s a brilliantly observed piece reflecting on life as a hospital ward. It ends with the line « We didn’t make our beds. But we lie in them. » There is such a lot to ponder in that…
A day or two after my friend had shared the poem, I accidentally knocked my favourite little milk jug on the floor, and the handle shattered. I bought this funny little jug on holiday, and although it has always annoyed me that it won’t go in the dishwasher, it holds sentimental value for me. It reminds me of the friends I was with when I bought it. And it has made a lot of people smile since.
The timing of discovering the poem and breaking the jug made me wonder about blame. We often assign blame saying, « You’ve made your bed. Now you’ll just have to lie in it. » or « I suppose I’ve made my bed and now I’ve got to lie in it. » I immediately berated myself for being so clumsy and knocking over my jug. But I was so tired when I did it, it’s not a surprise. And was it my fault that I was tired? Maybe partly. Maybe not wholly…?
What I love about McGough’s poem is the thought that maybe we didn’t actually make our own beds. And if we had had the opportunity to make them, we wouldn’t have made them here, or like this. They are in the wrong place, always, it seems, no matter where they are.
When we’re in hospital we don’t make our own beds, but we know we should be so grateful for those who make them for us. (And even saying this here makes me remember how grateful I must be that in the UK we have hospitals and people whose job it is to make the beds in them. Not something all of the world’s population experiences, which fact the pandemic has brought more to our attention lately.)
So when we lie in a bed that we didn’t make for ourselves, but which we somehow ended up in anyway, what will be our response? When through no fault of our own, we find ourselves ill, living with a health condition we never asked for? Or we are misunderstood, disbelieved, or something is missed and as a consequence, we suffer? What then will be our response? We sometimes have to lie in the bed that is made for us, whether we like it or not.
And that goes against the grain in a capitalist society where we are constantly bombarded with adverts telling us we can have whatever we want. This is a lie, in fact. And even those with vast stores of wealth often do not have what they want. In fact, I wonder whether many of us even know what it is that we want or need most deeply.
Perhaps people who have less material wealth will teach us something about what is most needed? Certainly they would know more about that than the makers of adverts, or the publishers of glossy magazines, I think…?
« We didn’t make our beds, but we lie in them. » When there’s a fight to be fought in the name of justice and peace about the beds we find ourselves in, may we find others to join us for the fight and give us courage to speak out. And when the beds we lie in are actually a real gift, may we appreciate them as such, and may those whose hands have made them for us be blessed.
I am a musician and have always loved music. It has come to me as a gift, always. Recently, I had the rare opportunity to enjoy quietly sitting with a couple of friends and listening to some of my favourite music together. This is something I have only done a few times in my life, but every time, I have found it so moving that a friend has been happy to let me share some of the music I love with them. And that they’ve found the patience to keep listening to the end.
The last time I ever saw him, a good friend who was dying of cancer some years ago asked me what I’d like to do. We went for a posh coffee and some quality time, then I drove him home, and while we waited for his wife to return, he suggested we listen to some classical music together. He said he knew nothing about this kind of music but he enjoyed it, partly because he knew I loved it. As we listened, we fell silent, and this last time I spent with him was such a gift to me.
Here is a short but, I think, exquisite little piece from Walton’s film music for Henry V; a film of the Shakespeare play. The scenery in the video is beautiful but not particularly linked to the music, although I suspect it is of English countryside, and this music is very definitely English. The title is the cue “Touch her soft lips and part”:
« Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity »
Simone Weil (published in the posthumous collection of her writings, Gravity & Grace, 1952)
I love that thought. Being truly generous is important, I think. It’s such a joy-bringing thing. And I think I recognise from experience how precious the gift of attention can be. Attention to another human being; total, kind, open and generous attention. And also attention of the same sort towards other creatures and the whole natural world.
Having a rescued cat has drawn my attention more deeply towards other creatures (including plants, trees, rivers and stones). Or perhaps has reignited the way I used to attend to the natural world when I was a child? And, along with the poetry of Mary Oliver, has deepened my attention to everything. And this whole process has deepened my gratitude for the wonder of it all; for the natural world and for my fellow human beings.
All of which, in a time of climate crisis, is so important. Weil continues:
« Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.
« …For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it; if only we’re brave enough to be it. »
Amanda Gorman, at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris
This week, I « went » to the webcast of a funeral of a friend, who died far too young, leaving his teenaged daughter and wife behind. It was of course a really sad occasion, but it was also marked by a kind of indefatigable faith, hope and love. His daughter managed to speak so well and she reminded me so much of her Dad, with her courage and her naming of that faith, hope and love as the greatest gift her Dad had given her, and the most important thing now. She was like a blazing light. As Amanda Gorman was like a blazing light reading her poem at the Presidential Inauguration. So today, in the midst of so much anguish across the world, I think it’s not the trite platitude it might seem to be to say there is always light.
I met some other young women the other day, too, at an online community dialogue, facilitated by women. The topic of our dialogue was Covid-19 and the divisions, struggles and positive things that are emerging in our local communities because of it. During the call, one young woman talked about how she’d been made redundant due to Covid, then had applied for a Masters degree, and begun it only to have to immediately relocate back to her parents’ place to study for it online. She talked about her struggles with anxiety and with leaving the house, and how she hadn’t left the house as a result. Then she told us how older relatives and friends of her parents kept blaming her and her contemporaries for causing the spread of Covid, even though she hadn’t left the house. She was justifiably angry. But by the end of the dialogue, she had decided she would post real facts about Covid on her Facebook page, knowing that a lot of her parents’ friends might see it, and they might challenge some of the « fake news » about the pandemic they’d been talking about.
These brilliant young women, like Amanda Gorman, like Greta Thunberg like my friend’s daughter at her Dad’s funeral and like so many of the young women I met on my world trip in 2019, bring me hope. Let’s keep listening to them, keep amplifying their voices and retelling their stories. « There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it; if only we’re brave enough to be it. »
I was stunned recently by this quote by Amy Hall in The New Internationalist:
“A mammoth 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work is carried out by women and girls each day – equivalent to 1.5 billion people working eight hours a day, without pay. It is estimated that women’s unpaid care work adds $10.8 trillion of value to the economy, while most of the financial benefit is felt by those who are already the wealthiest.
Still, public spending on care is treated as a cost rather than an investment…”
‘The Hidden Debt of Care’ by Amy Hall (in The New Internationalist magazine, Nov/Dec 2020)
This is not a surprise to me. But it’s the scale of it. Even though these figures must be estimated, they are almost certainly under estimated, given the way we have systematically ignored the contribution of women and racialized people in this way to the economy for generations.
There are currently something like 7.8 billion people in the whole world. So this is equivalent to a quarter of the world’s entire population working full time and getting no money for it at all.
A couple of friends shared things on social media today that resonated with this. One is a lady who is struggling in lockdown to care for and educate her youngest children (who both have significant special needs) at home. she shared a post from Adoption UK saying,
“Working, parenting and teaching are three different jobs that cannot be done at the same time.
It’s not hard because you are doing it wrong. It’s hard because it’s too much. Do the best you can.”
Emily W King PhD for Adoption UK
Another was from a man pointing out the obscene discrepancy between how much he was ever paid as a professional musician with extremely high qualifications and experience and the hourly rate charged by a solicitor he came across recently. This led to a whole thread considering the injustice of the situation we are now in regarding how we value and pay one another.
I find it really odd how we value (or don’t value) one another, and what we pay one another, and ever more so, having become self employed this time last year. It seems to me there is precious little connection between what is really valuable to human life and to the life of our planet and what we pay people for their work. For example, cleaners and refuse collectors perform some of the most vitally important work. They are the ones we still need to work during the pandemic lockdowns. And yet, what do we pay them?
When I was younger, I used to think music was just a luxury for those who could afford it. I studied music myself and have always loved it, but didn’t pursue it beyond a certain level partly due to limited ability, but partly also out of a misplaced sense that I ought to be doing something more “worthy” to somehow help to address the wealth and poverty gap. Now, with a bit of life experience, I’ve come to realise that music, comedy, drama, art, film… all these things are what enable all kinds of people to survive and thrive, particularly when they’re up against it in terms of poverty or many other adversities.
It’s tricky to imagine how you could work out the value of music. It is in fact priceless, I now realise. But it would be nice if we paid people who make music and teach it something realistic. And if we made some kind of provision for them in these times when their livelihoods have mostly been decimated.
I was shocked when I went through cancer treatment by the amount of unpaid overtime the nurses (who were almost entirely female) were routinely doing. They thought it was what people expected of them, working in a caring context. I don’t expect that.
Around the same time, the then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a plan to recruit a load more doctors to reduce waiting times in hospitals. My own experience made it absolutely clear to me that, practically speaking, there was no point in recruiting more doctors if you didn’t also recruit a load more support staff and extra equipment and building space. What good is a doctor when you’re needing hundreds of blood samples to be processed in a lab, in order for the doctor to be able to diagnose what is wrong and treat the patient appropriately?
Then there’s all the people who can’t work. Who are nonetheless just as valuable as those who can. How can we honour and respect one another appropriately in how we share our money? Having a universal basic income could be one way, perhaps?
Another friend of mine pays her cleaner the same rate that she herself earns. And another friend is beginning to invite people to pay her on that basis, too.
I recently bought a book online on a “pay what you think it’s worth” basis. The author wrote inspiringly about the gift economy and finding a better and more ecologically sustainable way to enable one another to offer our gifts to the world.
I am currently the grateful recipient of several people’s regular financial gifts, which are enabling me to focus on what I think is most important at the moment and grow my coaching, writing and other work on sharing spiritual practices and ideas. These could be a few ideas of how to grow a better money system, perhaps…?
While we experiment with these and other ways of sharing resources and money more equitably, all the women and girls out there and all the racialized people, working their backs off in low or unpaid roles, I salute you. As a human race (we are all in the same race after all), we wouldn’t survive without you and the work you do. Your work is precious and so are you. May you find or be given everything you need and more.
This phrase came to me as a gift from a nun who had heard one of her sisters say it during the first lockdown. It inspired our « Advent window » for a local advent calendar window trail, and the theme of stars has lingered in my mind in the run up to Christmas. Anyway, here is our rather magnificent window (if I do say so myself):
Spot Godzilla’s long lost cousin, and a rogue tree…
It took 3 of us adults about 4 days to design and assemble this window. I realise that, before I had cancer, I would never have allowed myself 4 whole days off work to do something this creative. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have had enough time off work to have cultivated such a level of friendship with people around me who would have the connectedness locally to have heard about this and the artistic skills to be able to inspire something this fabulous.
I am grateful for the rearranging of priorities that continues in my life. Having cancer was obviously an awful thing. But being made to stop and drop everything for a while, including others’ expectations of me and my own expectations of myself; that was A Very Good Thing.
In my experience you have to stop for quite a while before the dust clears enough for you to be able to see what’s important.
Anyway, for now, I wish everyone reading this a good Christmas season, and maybe at the end of this strange year perhaps some time to stop and re evaluate whatever needs re evaluating. And may all those who are lonely somehow find some point of connection 🙏💕
I’ve been meaning to write a blog post for ages – since the results of the US elections came in, in fact. I had failed to grasp the process by which election results are announced in the US, though, so ended up putting off posting any comment until some kind of official definite result was confirmed, by which time I had so much to say about it all (and everything else too), I barely knew where to start
So, I’m not going to say anything about the US election, after all.
It’s funny how having so much to say can lead to silence. For me, there comes a point where it feels like words can’t contain the amount of things I have to say, or adequately express the subtleties of all my thoughts and feelings. So I lapse into silence.
Sometimes this is a good silence. A kind of holy moment of waiting, feeling more than thinking, being present. A space in which humility can fall, reminding me I only have one angle on what is happening. There is surely always more going on than meets the eye.
But sometimes it is a bad silence. A silence that leads to the frustration of unexpressed thoughts, opinions or ideas. A sullen silence, sold out to the idea that no one would listen anyway, even if I found words and managed to string them together adequately.
Recently, I heard someone quote the following. It’s attributed to Maya Angelou, whose writing I love:
“There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”
Lately, the penny has been dropping, and I have been remembering some of the untold stories I have inside me. Maybe 2021 will be a year to begin to get them out into the ether? I hope so!
I wonder what untold stories you are harbouring or lugging around, or wondering whether you could find a way of sharing? May you know the joy of being listened to deeply, if or when you come to the point of sharing them. Our stories, real and make believe, are more precious than we know, I think…