You can learn a great deal just by observing nature; and my favourite classroom is the window by the bird feeder. Watching the parade of songbirds, corvids and doves flit and flap their ways across the road then perch, peck and posture in their individual ways is endlessly entrancing – to say nothing of the psychological battles with squirrels who given half a chance would tear the peanut feeder apart and spoil it for everyone else.
Every creature, squirrel, bird or the vole that lives in the border under the feed station, has its own habits and seems equipped with the intelligence needed to make its living. Today I watched a scruffy Coal Tit worry away at a few peanuts, deftly switching from upside-down to sideways on and back, before flitting across to the empty squirrel proof feeder to see what was for dessert. Empty for a few days now – as I’m really not a good avian dinner host – but, it seemed, worth a try. Finding nothing doing it just as quickly flitted off to look elsewhere.
Before trying its luck at the empty feeder, this tiny bird must have known that it was somewhere that food could often be found. It was following a pattern – one that normally served it well. Except this time the pattern was broken and there was no point hanging around in the hope that normal service would be resumed soon. It adapted its plans and followed a new path.
Where do we look for nourishment and what do we do when the usually reliable sources are no longer serving? We can ask the question about food (I’ve not been able to get hold of my usual type of yeast since the shelves were cleared of the last tubs of it in early March) but we can also ask it of the less tangible things that support us in life – culture, learning, closeness to others. And it’s been a pressing question for the past four months for everyone on the planet, as the constraints imposed by the very real threat of disease have put a stop to countless events, social engagements and what used to be normal human interactions.
There have been partial solutions of course – heroes of the hour in the form of voice-over-internet software. Some activities have found a new lease of life online. Communities have pulled together to support the vulnerable. Many people have found the solitude itself enriching. What’s clear is that we’ve all needed to find new ways to meet, share stories, express ourselves creatively. What is less clear is whether our institutions can be as adaptable, and therefore survive.
Today we held our first Meeting for Worship in person for the first time in over four months. Carefully signposted, precautionary information provided, sitting 2m apart, many wearing face-masks, keeping our voices low, not sharing drinks afterwards. It felt simultaneously a longed for rebirth and also something strange and unfamiliar. We can hope that things will relax further in due course but for the time being this is the only way gatherings can take place.
In the coming weeks, adapting our expectations as individuals will make the difference between the survival of the organisations and networks to which we belong, and their demise. It won’t be back to business as usual for a long time to come; but if we’re prepared to look for new ways to nourish ourselves and each other, our communities and culture will live to thrive again.
Now I think there’s a bird feeder that needs topping up…
Just over a year ago we acquired a piano with the help of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Sustainable Development Fund. Perfectly normal for a venue of course but something of a departure for a Meeting House that has been host to silent gatherings for nearly 4 centuries.
Silence is a valued commodity for Quakers, so what was the appeal of a piano for the small group that regularly meets here? After all, we don’t make much use of the instrument ourselves – a fine thing though it is.
In the past year we’ve been treated to a wide range of work – jazz, new compositions, spiritual songs and stories, solo and chamber choir recitals, as well as drama and monologue – some private, some public. From the notes in the visitors’ book, the occasional tourist scratches a musical itch by playing the piano as well.
For me, music is part of the fabric of living: woven into heartbeat and breath, available to help express instantly the desires, elations, traumas, rages and reliefs of the soul. Growing up as a piano student, my piano quickly became confidante and mouthpiece: a prosthetic emotional sounding board. The immense value of this particularly to young people can’t be overstated and it saddens me greatly that music has been one of the first casualties of cuts in education budgets.
The 19th century Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the verses which included words that would become the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ – somewhat ironically as it would turn out – as an entreaty to people to ditch elaborate ceremonies and noisy hymns in favour of the benefits of quiet reflection. But the experience of listening to or participating in music is such a richly rewarding one, so why would anyone want to exclude it from the heart of community life?
I don’t have an answer either for Mr. Whittier or for anyone who finds Quakers’ aversion to music in worship odd. But I do know what music can do and what at best it represents. As with all the arts, music somehow expresses truth more eloquently than a whole library of words. Melody, harmony, rhythm and texture all speak to the soul, giving voice to inner longings, joys and regrets, grounding the listener’s experience in the shared humanity of composer and performer. A well-crafted piece of music appeals across cultures and throughout time, dissolving perceived boundaries of place or people; and when performers join together to create music, it demonstrates the heights to which people in co-operation can rise.
And that would perhaps be all, except for one component of music that’s often forgotten. The truly heart-stopping moments in music often come when the instruments stop playing, if only for an instant. Every great performance is framed by silence, permeated by musical silences and in fact at its most translucent when silence is part of its texture. Those silences are the canvas on which the piece is painted, the questions it attempts to answer and the material out of which it is carved.
So amidst all the beautiful, inspiring and uplifting music of religions from around the world, perhaps there is after all a place for a kind of faith that is expressed in silence: one which offers an uncrowded space, in which the music of the soul can flow unconstrained and in which we are all performers regardless of the instrumentation of our lives.
If people in general know anything about Quakers it’s that we tend to sit quietly a lot. I mean, really quietly. The recent, hilarious depiction of a Quaker Meeting on the BBC’s ‘Fleabag’ by genius comic writer-actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge sort of celebrates whilst gently teasing this quirk of Quaker worship, brilliantly showing how counter-cultural it is to sit in a room together not talking.
Silence is something in abundance in this part of the world – in the evenings, anyway – so much that sometimes the whole place can feel like one extended Quaker Meeting. But listen hard and there are plenty of conversations going on: bird to bird, fox to fox; planes transmitting souls across the sky; climate and soil in the endless dance of life. All players making themselves known, all asking questions, some receiving answers. But apart from the ticking clock and the scuttle of fingers over a keyboard, my world is silent this evening.
For most people in our society, silence is in far shorter supply. We’re bombarded with information, data, opinions, noise. Things we must know, ideas we should follow. The world says ‘Listen to me! I know what you need, even if you don’t, and I have the answers!’ Except mostly it doesn’t. Then it gets demanding: ‘Like me! Decide what you think! Make a choice!’ The only way to shut it out is to confront the wall of sound constantly bearing down on us by turning up our own volume – of speech, noise or music – making our own definitive statements, finding better arguments than the ones that are trying to win us over, or just bore us with their noisy irrelevance.
There would be more than enough of this noise if it only came from politics, work, fashion and entertainment; but into this cacophony steps religion – another voice, insisting on another set of beliefs, practices and choices. So with the world in a state of confusion, as soon as someone enters a service of worship, they’re given yet another position to agree or disagree with above and beyond any ethical standpoint they might have formed on their own. Lines are drawn and the question is asked ‘are you in or out – with us or not?’ Whilst valuable for some, for many people this extra layer of certainty is the turn off that stops them questioning at all.
Which is why I’ve come to appreciate the silence of Quaker Meetings more than any other aspect of Quaker life. A natural fidget, it takes me a good while to get settled but once I’m in the space so to speak, I find the noise of my thoughts start to diminish, my petty concerns one by one unravel and my sense of appreciation increase – for the good things of life, for the hopes I carry and crucially, for the people in the room with me.
Occasionally, someone will share a thought they think might be useful for the others (something a bit more profound than ‘I think I’ll go home in November’ – funny as that was Phoebe!) and then the disturbance to one’s own thought processes becomes valuable in its own way; but often the silence continues for the whole hour. And afterwards, calmer, happier, stronger I’m better able to articulate the things that need to be said, take part in the discussions that need to be had, act on what needs to be done.
So that’s why in my view, in times of social tension, political challenges, economic turmoil and ecological breakdown, the silence of Quaker Meetings might just be a radically important offering that Quakerism can make to society in general. No doctrinal demands, no complex ritual practices, no hierarchical powerplay – just a space in time when everyone is equally valued, equally significant and equally eloquent. A space into which all are welcome and from which all can exit equipped by silence to participate in the work that reconnects people with people and people with the universe we inhabit.
The Yorkshire Dales wouldn’t be the same without its rustic drystone walls, winding alongside roads and trackways, zig-zagging precariously up improbable slopes, patchworking the landscape in patterns often indecipherable to the amateur eye. Stone on stone, carefully placed and replaced generation after generation, until for some the need for the wall disappears and time undoes the years of labour, leaving a slowly dissolving trace on a hillside reclaiming its substance for itself.
Walls give us definition and function, within an otherwise unscripted landscape. In the presence of walls we know where we stand and whether we’ve the right to stand there. Before the enclosure acts of the 18th century, walls and hedges were less common; according to the late Oliver Rackham, historian of the British countryside, as many field boundaries being created between 1750 and 1850 as in the previous 500 years*. Then the 20th century fell out of love with them, with hundreds of thousands of kilometres of hedgerow being grubbed up between the 1980s and the present day.
We may be less enamoured with the old materials for boundary-marking but the urge to define and defend boundaries seems stronger than ever in the present age. And the walls and fences being erected around the world in the name of that definition are higher, less bridgeable and more aggressively defended than ever before. From the convoluted security barrier winding through the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank cutting communities off from their farmland, neighbours and key transport routes; to the barbed wire migrant fences erected along the national borders of European countries in 2016; and the proposed wall-that-must-be-built for the United States to cower behind in apparent fear of the neighbouring states to the south – our love affair with national definition and protection from the other seems to grow in intensity the more we discover that in human terms there actually is no such thing as the ‘other’.
We’ve been here before of course – Berlin, Hadrian, the Great Wall of China: monuments to fear, control and yes to some extent the necessity of security. But the reasons behind all historic walls have proved as transient as the people whose movement they sought to prevent.
I will always remember the reply of my Berliner host family in 1987 when, too young to know how little I knew, I asserted that all empires and governments fall, so the wall would eventually come down. ‘No, this will never happen,’ they said. Two years later I stood transfixed in front of the TV, tears streaming down my face as I watched a human wave break over the hideous structure, carve chunks from it and roar in triumph as they deprived it of all meaning.
And so we can again with the walls of our time – if we remember that the people on the other side of them are as perplexed, anxious, hopeful, loving, creative, determined and ordinary as we are. That starts with hearing their stories. When Leeds based Sound Company Choir visit us on Saturday 23rd February we’ve a chance to do just that. Come and listen at the walls – you might be surprised what you hear.
*The Illustrated History of the Countryside, Oliver Rackham / Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd 1994, p.81
Spend any time walking in the Dales and the frequently vaunted claim that ‘Britain is full’ can start to look faintly absurd. Of course, it’s not as simple as that but even a cursory analysis of a map of these islands reveals that only a tiny proportion is built over, the rest being taken up with agricultural land and semi-natural wilderness.
The other side of the coin is of course that for the vast majority of people in the UK, their everyday experience is lived out in densely populated urban areas, using what seems increasingly creaky transport infrastructure to move between cheek-by-jowl homes, bustling workplaces and crowded shopping centres.
Then there’s the economic challenges preoccupying both government and households – skyrocketing house prices, high education fees, under-investment in public services. It all seems like we’re barely coping as a nation. Just about managing perhaps.
Yet the UK still boasts the fifth largest nominal GDP index in the world; and per head of population we have more financial resources than just about any medium sized country on the planet. They’re a long way from being evenly distributed but that alone ought to give pause for thought about what ought to be possible for us to achieve as a nation. It should surely be a matter of choice.
But something is wrong, and not just with the country’s economics. While we’ve been mesmerised by government efforts to fix the deficit and arrange an orderly exit from the EU, a change of political culture has slipped by almost unnoticed: one which lays the responsibility for economic failings not at the door of those who manage the economy but at the poorest and most vulnerable in society. One which identifies an idealised corpus of acceptable hardworking Brits around whose aspirations everything should be designed whilst casting the unemployed, homeless, long-term sick and immigrant as feckless and deserving of little or no support.
I want to tell you about someone I recently met. Born in a Commonwealth country, she arrived in the UK legitimately with her parents fourteen years ago when her father was invited into a mid-management position by a UK employer. The family established their life here, her and her siblings attended university (she took both an undergraduate degree and a masters) and she began to work.
After such a long time in this country, the UK is to all intents and purposes her home. She has no ties to her country of origin, little understanding of how to get by there and no prospects of employment. Yet recently owing to a technical change to her father’s visa, all of his children were served notice to quit the country and their right to work was rescinded. Naturally they each appealed but with mixed success. In the case of my friend, she was told earlier this year by the presiding judge that although he agreed that she ought to be allowed to stay, he had no choice but to refuse her leave to remain.
A few weeks later, on a routine visit to a reporting centre, she was detained, her mobile phone removed from her and she was locked in a cold room for several hours with no access to food or drink. She was searched, bullied and threatened with immediate deportation. Mercifully, she had been quick-thinking enough to send a panicked text to her parents before her phone was taken, so they contacted her lawyer and were able to put a stop on proceedings. But the incident left her terrified, convinced that she will be plucked from her home and sent to a country of which she no longer has any meaningful understanding.
This is the outworking of the ‘hostile environment’: a brutal, inhumane system designed to purge the country of anyone who doesn’t fit the precise criteria that the Home Office see fit to impose on our national hospitality. It is cruel, mean and scandalous.
This is not the Britain I recognise, care for or am proud of. My country is one – has always been one – that welcomes guests, celebrates diversity and enables meaningful integration between cultures. It’s a nation that stands up for, not persecutes the weak. It’s a country that knows how much there is to gain from engaging the skills, energies and aspirations of people from all around the world. Finally, it could be one that takes responsibility for its past misdemeanours in the form of empire to offer mutually supportive relationships with parts of the world that need assistance with their economic development.
Could be, but as things stand, the UK seems to be disappearing in a hall of mirrors of its own making, turning inward, jealously guarding its borders and baring its teeth to neighbours and friends, like a wounded, cornered beast.
The question is, how do we break our collective conscious out of this spiral of erosion and restore a more constructive, positive mindset? I suggest by looking to the most vulnerable members of society – the homeless, long-term sick, elderly and yes, immigrants – and designing our administrative responses to their needs as humane, compassionate and adaptable to individual circumstance. Not easy, and not without contradiction. But please let’s dispense with nastiness, treat people with respect and never, ever, attempt to strip them of dignity just because they haven’t yet received their official welcome from the state.
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