reflections

Second life

Posted on Updated on

Nine years ago today I nearly came a cropper in a freak accident on the road – freak mostly because of my extraordinary luck in escaping my upturned car with barely a scratch, considering the number of trees and roadsigns that might have brought the vehicle to a sudden and deadly stop instead of the relatively soft hedge that was the final resting point.  I had bounced off a 4×4 that had pulled into the road too soon causing my small car to flip over against the kerb and send vehicle and driver spinning through the air in a state of shock and bewilderment.

These events are traumatic but can have meaning if we want them to.  For me, my immediate realisation that I needn’t replace the car, since my living situation didn’t demand one was a huge relief.  Over time, however – and quite a short space of time – something much more significant dawned on me.  This event could be a turning point: a chance to reappraise my life, stop taking it for granted and above all stop waiting it out with no direction, no hopes and no sense of what I wanted to achieve.

It was then that I stumbled across my local Quaker Meeting.  I had long since stopped attending churches through lack of interest in most of the ideas and traditions they appeared to represent (although I’ve a somewhat more rounded view now).  In the silent hour’s meeting which I approached with some trepidation – not to say scepticism – I found an astonishing centredness that helped me both consider my own condition and turn outwards to the world.  No longer did any particular belief system, rituals or traditions matter: only the unquestioning acceptance and openness of the circle of people in the room, whose individual ideas, longings and preferences could co-exist without hierarchy or favour.  It was a revelation.

But the aspect of Quaker culture that spoke to me most profoundly and still speaks to me today was the idea that we should ‘live adventurously’.  That I take to mean in its most complete sense – not the self-gratifying pursuit of exploration and thrills (though there’s nothing inherently wrong in a bit of that); instead owning the sense that if life has a purpose it is to be lived: to explore, yes, and to discover, but also to answer need, become vulnerable, build without knowing whether what you build will last, plant without knowing the tree will grow, express oneself creatively without needing the approbation of others, and to experience the marvellous in the colours, sounds, touch and smells of every day.

I often forget all of that.  Fortunate then to live in a part of the world where I only need to step outside to be reminded of the glorious brilliance of being alive – and in the very spot that people have practised that consciousness for hundreds of years in the shape of the Quaker meeting and its predecessor dissident groups that first met here in the ‘barn in a field’ when that simple act was considered by the rest of society to be seditious and wrong.

So I thank that other driver – and the hundreds of people I’ve been inspired by to live adventurously over the intervening years – for giving me an entirely fresh perspective on life and above all, countless reasons to live it to the full.

Wrought by light

Posted on

It’s said that the farther north you travel, the greater the quality of the light.  Yorkshire may not be as far north as the regions to which that might normally be thought to apply but there are days when the slopes of Malhamdale seem washed in transparency, a cool light picking out every detail of the terrain and making a personality out of every hillside.

Catch a sunrise at Malham Cove and you’ll see the epitome of nature’s dance between sunlight and landscape, fire and earth.  One morning, approaching the Cove just as the sun appeared I was treated to the spectacle of its great limestone face lit up like gold foil by near horizontal beams of light that also seemed to burnish the pastures on either side to a reddish yellow ochre.

‘Early sunlight on the Cove’, Simon Watkins 2018

The transformative power of light is a cultural constant, understood by people of every age and place both as something to be mimicked whilst at the same intangible, impossible to pin down.  Faced with charges of blasphemy and sedition, early Quakers modified their talk of God being present in everyone, turning instead to light as a metaphor for the good they strove to identify in each other and in anyone with whom they interacted.  More recently, it may be the generality of this concept of light as opposed to the adherence to specific religious terms that makes Quaker meetings comfortable places for people of any religion and none – in its liberal European manifestation at least.

But can the light concept be more than merely a cosy and convenient metaphor for good?  For anyone attending a Quaker meeting for the first time (or even the hundredth!) the idea might seem a little abstract and ungrounded.  Every now and then, however, I’m reminded of the power of an idea to transform the lived reality of people and the societies in which they live.

A few years ago, some work by Quaker Peace and Social Witness’ (QPSW) East Africa programme brought together the life stories of individuals who after undergoing unimaginably difficult experiences in conflict zones chose reconciliation over violence and reached out to their erstwhile enemies.  Publishing the stories in exhibition and book form, QPSW titled the project after a description by one of the participants of what motivated her.  ‘This light that pushes me’ is more than moving – reading the words of real people who have engaged in peace building under the most extreme of circumstances is itself transformative.  The contributors’ portraits look straight out at the reader, ordinary people every one of them, willing us to identify the same capacity for courage and hope in ourselves as they were led to find in themselves.

In my own travels I’ve come across similar extremes of human reactions to conflict – most clearly for me in the West Bank, where from amongst people being systematically disempowered and dispossessed of their land I’ve met individuals who out of faith in the humanity they share with their enemies continually reach out across the gulf of competing interests and misunderstandings, making friendships and challenging the order imposed by the occupying authorities.  We don’t hear these stories in the media, because by and large the media isn’t interested in light; but it’s not only in the factual sense that lack of positive narrative keeps us in the dark – it also tends to underscore natural pessimistic tendencies and lead us into a sense of hopelessness.

This is where I believe Quaker worship can help.  I was reminded of this recently on a visit to the Woodbrooke Study Centre in Birmingham.  In the large meeting room a stunning triptych hangs – an abstract by Adam Boulter, Anglican priest, titled ‘Dawn of Creation’.  Not knowing that title I might have guessed the general theme but also might have kept guessing: the canvas is alive and fluid with almost tangible forms to which any number of meanings could be attributed.  On that visit, during a period of silent worship I became so engrossed in the piece that it seemed to pulse with life.  On the left is a darkish column – the sea perhaps – in which the dim image of a red circle floats under a pale sky.  In the central, main panel, streaks of red and gold swirl across the ‘sky’ and mingle with the ‘sea’, churning it into a boiling mass of colour.  The right-hand panel contains another circle, this time of white and from which strands of light trail across the view against a background of yellow and orange.  Not knowing the title my musings on this extraordinary imagery were free to roam.  What I saw was a kind of restitution: from stillness to movement; from entrapment to liberty; from despair to joy.  And in every such interpretation the central panel was essential – far from moving straight from one state to its opposite, the transformation, wrought by light itself, was the location in which the viewer is poised, just as throughout life every person is in a state of continual transformation.  The question of what kind of transformation we aspire to is the one we ask ourselves in the silence of a Quaker meeting; and what we’re seeking in that same space is a transformation of ourselves and society wrought by light.

‘Dawn of Creation’, Adam Boulter 2001, hanging in the Cadbury Room, Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Bournville (photograph Simon Watkins)

Read more about ‘This Light that Pushes me’ here.

A better image of Adam Boulter’s original painting as well as more of his work can be seen at www.adamboulter.co.uk.

Look in, look out!

Posted on

Airton in the snow

In the spectacular landscapes of the Dales, the eye is constantly being drawn in every direction, pulled between the far distance and the nearest objects, fascinated by exquisite details and overwhelmed by the sweeping grandeur.  A covering of snow brings new clarity, revealing contours previously veiled under the dun colourings of grass and stone, so that it looks like the earth is newly born; and for a short, silent moment of amazement, all the rough edges and muddle of the world is forgotten.

The time seems ripe for such a moment.  After the noise of 2017, peppered with fearful and appalling events, as well as the compassion shown by the ordinary people who responded to them, we need to catch our breath.  Christmas always feels to me like a collective pause (at least once all the shopping, singing, decorating and cooking are over!) when the noise stops all too briefly and we each – consciously or unconsciously – look around to see what our world looks like today.

It can also become rather exclusive: a time when families gather, yes; but when those on their own become even more isolated.  This year, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness has collated evidence from a range of organisations researching the prevalence and effects of loneliness in our society.  The results are worrying: people in all age groups and in many different situations experience loneliness, impacting on health, happiness and productivity and placing a burden on public services.  Loneliness can be physically painful – a continual knot in the stomach – like the faint echo of a bereavement for something that was never there.  For those on their own Christmas often doesn’t help.

But in the space that Christmas can at its best create, there is opportunity to reach out and include isolated people.  The family ‘unit’ beloved of back-to-basics politicians really is a modern invention, on its own a fragile thing; put it in a community, make it porous and outward facing and it becomes resilient, nurturing not only itself but the community at large, and receiving nurture from that community.  There are 52 weeks and 365 days in the year; having people from outside the immediate family round the table at Christmas can contribute to making that one meal the special celebration of community that Christmas has always been.

Can, but not ought.  It’s also right that each of us decides how to celebrate and whether we want to be together or to enjoy this time as a pause in our everyday proceeds and simply stand and take in the view.  Look closely enough and we might see something remarkable.  Listen and we might just hear the faint cries of a small baby inviting us to love for love’s sake and in that invitation, lead us simply to the surest hope available to our broken and confused world.

A joyous Christmas to all!

Getting used to nature’s timetable

Posted on

A new resident finds its feet in Malhamdale

Spring is at last well under way as Malhamdale glistens like a many faceted jewel.  Is it me or is the sunlight somehow cleaner than it’s been for months; cleaner here than anywhere else I’ve lived?

I say ‘at last’ as it seems to me in my impatience that my sowings and plantings are taking their time this year.  Moving north by 150 miles last autumn I should of course expect things to wake up more cautiously in this part of the world although weren’t those crocuses on display just as soon as in my home in the midlands?  The ‘early’ potatoes are particularly slow; in spite of weeks chitting followed by weeks in the soil, pre-enriched and pre-warmed under black cover, not a single shoot is emerging.  Broad beans are almost as shy.  I’ve all but given up on some shrubs and herbaceous perennials completely; but at least the Hostas in the bog garden I made after Christmas are sending up determined spears and will soon make a great show of leaves – if the slugs don’t stop them.

King Cups in the recently replanted bog garden

I shouldn’t be so impatient but that’s the kind of gardener I am: I want to be out making things happen to my timetable, testing nature’s boundaries with schemes to warm things up, catch the light, beat the pests, put on a show.  Nature, on the other hand, is quite happy with its own plan.  The scattering of flowers growing around the Meeting House without any intervention from me is proof of that.  Best be guided by its schedule rather than trying to control everything; grow what wants to grow when it wants to grow and not what doesn’t even if it’s feasible with large amounts of energy and inputs to force it.  That doesn’t stop tinkering of course.  In fact, it’s almost the first thing to do in a new place – otherwise how do you find out what will work?

One of the most useful pieces of advice from the world of permaculture is to ‘observe and interact’.  Both are crucial to discovering how to work with any particular environment.  We need to watch what happens naturally, then watch what happens if we move a pebble to know if moving pebbles is a good idea.  All very scientific and all quite challenging for impatient types like me.

On the money – Lunaria in flower

It doesn’t just go for gardens either.  Leaders of any description do well to wait a while before suggesting any changes to the way their teams, groups or movements go about things.  And in everyday life, moving to a new place prompts a great deal of finding out about how things tick, the better to find one’s place in the community.

What’s more, observing and interacting don’t need to stop; in fact they should never stop if we’re to be successful gardeners, group members, creatives, people.  Why?  Because like it or not, things evolve.  We only need to look at the state of the world in 2017 to verify that.