Saturday, 8 March 2014

Saturday 8th: Feel.

I was just grumbling to myself about how much I dislike changing my sheets.

Because it is a hardship to have to do a small amount of work in order to have a ridiculously comfortable and warm and safe place to sleep, right?

Here's what I will be lying on and under tonight:  a decent sprung bed.  An orthopaedic mattress.  A memory foam mattress topper.  A quilted undersheet.  An expensive soft smooth brushed cotton sheet which will not shift around and get wrinkled.  Any two of four pillows of a variety of softnesses, depending on how I feel.  A feather duvet, also flannelette covered, also soft and smooth, also one of two I have to choose from.

Here's what some people will be sleeping on and under tonight:  pavements and filthy blankets.

Feeling guilty about my absurd luxuries isn't helpful, and I don't.

Being aware of how blessed I am to be able to pay such minute, pampered attention to my physical wellbeing and to how comfortable or otherwise I feel while I sleep is helpful, and I am.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Friday 7th: Listen

Today's photo-a-day topic is 'listen,' and I have posted a picture of a section of my kitchen (actually, if you've been round mine, you'll know it's a fairly large proportion of the entirety of my kitchen). 

Something I quite like doing is just sitting in my flat and becoming aware of the noises that are going on. 

I live in the city centre, so it can be quite a long list.  Right now, for instance, if I concentrate: 

*  my fingers on the keyboard (though maybe that doesn't count because it's all a bit meta)
*  a motorbike
*  a blackbird
*  the oven fan
*  cars, about one every ten seconds
*  a different bird
*  someone either pulling a wheeled suitcase or going very slowly on a skateboard
*  a train whistling*

I live in the sort of building that's used in TV dramas to show that This Is Grim.  Ninth floor, council tower block, city centre. 

And I blimmin' well love it. 

I love the view and the airiness and the not-being-overlooked and the thing where there's just enough of a community without it feeling jollied along and forced.  I love the fact that my neighbours are an incredibly mixed bunch of people - some of them horrid, some of them a bit scary, some of them hilarious and flirty and some of them just shy, one of them absolutely the best breakfast-in-a-cafe companion, some Eastern European and some so utterly rooted in Norwich that if this were London they'd be pearly Kings and Queens.  

And I even quite like all the noise.  We tend not to hear each other - I can hear next door coming in, because his front door is at right angles to mine, and sometimes you hear people waiting for the lift, but pretty much the noise you hear comes from outside (yes, yes, I know we're meant to be constantly plagued by other people's dub-n-bass at all hours, but I'm afraid it's not like that).  

Occasionally you overhear the best conversations from down in the street (yes, you can sometimes make out chat).  There's a fair amount of normally good-natured drunken bellowing at weekends.  And once I heard an exchange so shockingly hilariously inappropriate between two people who were having a very loud argument that I still grin bemusedly whenever I think about it.  But it involves language nice girls don't use . . .

Hm.  This was meant to be about 'listen' and has gone a bit stream-of-consciousness about living in a tower block.  And it's not one bit spiritual.  And I don't care.  I'm rebellious.  

* when I was small I sort of assumed that a train whistle blowing was just the train making an "it's good to be alive" noise.  Just a sort of spontaneous whoop of trainly joy.  In my head it kind of still *is* that.  

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Thursday 6th: Worship

I was torn between this picture, and one I love from the Octagon Facebook page of one of our Sunday club being fascinated and delighted by one of the dogs who joined us for the pet service. Fear not - you might getting Lizzie and Dottie someday soon.

But this one won, clearly.

Creating worship is one of my very very favourite things to do.  There's something incredibly special when it works well.  That feeling at the end of a service or after a ritual when you know something has changed and everyone has 'reached' something is a real gift (I mean, yeah, obviously, it's not about the ego, but . . .)

I have a bit of a 'thing' about train-spotters.  I like them.  I love that single-mindedness and that passion. From the train the other day I saw a man pelting up the opposite platform at Ipswich station, which I thought was odd, given that there wasn't a train there, til I realised he was trying to get level with the front of the train I was on, to take a photo of it (no, I have no idea what was special about it, or whether he just hadn't seen it before).  He didn't make it in time, and looked so upset and disappointed that I nearly got a bit weepy myself.  Seriously.

That doesn't sound terribly like it has anything to do with worship, admittedly.  But it reminded me an incident a few years ago when my then partner and I visited the National Rail Museum in York (that it is an amazing museum is proved to me by the fact that I adored every second and have hardly any interest in trains at all, other than as a normally-pleasant way of getting to places).

Out of nothing more than idle interest we went inside, I think, a Japanese bullet train.  Just the pair of us.  And it was pleasant enough and we walked up the carriage feeling mildly interested and mildly puzzled about what all the fuss was about.

But then a man got on as well.  And the expression on his face was just one of complete awe.  This was clearly a very, very special moment for him.  Everything about the way he moved, the way he looked round, the way his face changed suggested worship.  Without discussing it, the two of us just left.

When we talked about it afterwards we both agreed that the moment the man had come onto the train we both felt gauche and out of place.  Like we were behaving disrespectfully in a temple.  It would not have been right for us to stay there going "oh, right, train" when this other person was experiencing something so utterly special.

I wouldn't have been a bit surprised if we'd found out later, somehow, that the man on the train had knelt down after we left.

He was worshipping.  I have no doubt of that.

I don't feel like that about trains.  I like the bacon baguettes you can get on the Norwich-London ones, and I like the fact that you never know if you're going to strike up a cheering conversation, and I like the fact that you can see the English countryside so well from them, but that's as far as it goes.

But I do feel that way about . . .wait for it . . . God.  (Caveats . . . )

And when I've attended really good effective worship, I've felt like that man looked.  Like I was finally seeing and touching and feeling something I'd been waiting for for a long long time.

It doesn't, honestly, happen often.  And when it does it doesn't always last that long.

Amongst other places, I've found it walking a labyrinth, and sitting in silence on a hillside in Derbyshire, and at a Taize worship session.

I've never found it whilst leading worship.  Not once.  And I think that's appropriate:  leading worship isn't about feeling that yourself, it's about opening that possibility.  And a few times I've had a feeling of "this is doing what I want it to do" wash over me (and that's how it's felt, like a washing-over), and once, only once, I felt an almost physical jolt when it felt like it was no longer me doing the talking, but something else far, far beyond me (not in a talking in tongues way, just in "something special is happening here, and I'm not doing this on my own" way).

I would love to think there were times when I've allowed other people to come close to that feeling though.  Even if it were only once or twice:  that we be a good gift to have given.

And is it only me who thinks the book on "Making Liturgy" looks like any number of aromatherapy/massage/home-decoration books?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Ash Wednesday: Connection.

Today's topic for the photo-a-day Lenten spiritual practice was 'connection.'

My choice of picture for the day possibly looks a bit mundane and facetious, but it's actually not, not really (though if it were mundane or facetious that would probably be okay - it won't surprise you to know I don't think religion has to be gloomy).

But yesterday when I was packing to come away for two nights, I was thinking how good it is that we don't now have to pack shedloads of books for even a short journey, because we have Kindles and the like, and then I realised that I now pack quite a heap of electrical chargers when I go away for even one night (netbook, phone, Kindle-and-dongle).

And while on the one hand that's probably a terrible modern morality tale about how tied we all are to our technology, the reason we're tied to our technology is pretty much that it keeps us connected.  I bring all that stuff with me so that I can be in touch with my friends while I'm away.  I like my friends.  I think it's a plus that I don't have to miss them or not know what's going on.

I get people's reservations about social media, honestly I do.  Though, I guess the people who have those reservations aren't here to hear me graciously tell them so.

But I like Facebook - it's just how it is.  I find it amusing, and I like finding out what people I know are up to, and getting to know people I don't know well.  Because I firmly believe you can get to know people well over social media.

I have friends who I haven't seen for years, but who still feel close to me and are still important to me (Alice and Ryan, I'm talking to you).

I have made friends over Facebook who have become for-real friends.

A few years ago on a Facebook page about Antonia Forest books, I got to know Aileen.  We wouldn't have known each other otherwise, and I grew to love Aileen very much.  I met her, twice, and I'm very glad of it, but had we not met in real life, Aileen is still one of the people I would have counted as very dear to me.  Aileen died a few years after I got to "know" her, and I was honoured and moved beyond words that her beautiful partner Pam asked me to read at her funeral.

In Aileen's last few days of life, Facebook played host to what I can honestly only describe as a vigil.  It felt real.  It felt palpable.  People talked about her, and prayed for her, and let Pam know that they were both in the thoughts of a lot of people, and that they were being held in love.  The "people of the wall" connected over their love and admiration of Aileen.

And I now count Pam as a friend, and Aileen's friends Rose and John . . . I wouldn't have known them without Aileen, and I wouldn't have known Aileen without Facebook.

That was not the internet making for a sense of disconnectedness and loneliness.  That was the internet working in a very real way to connect hearts and souls.

When my father was dying, and when he died, and in the odd time after the death of someone you love, Facebook let me stay in touch with everyone who might care, and to ask for, and get, support and prayers, without having to ring round or text everyone.  And believe me, it helped.

Connections are good.  Complicated little bits of plastic and rubber and wire are good (those sentences are connected.  The last one might sound dodgy, but I just mean computer cables . . . )

And the first 24-hours of no-sugar have been mostly fine.  I'm a bit cowed by a friend who not only started a week ago but is also not doing fruit or bread, but that's fine, that's her practice.  I successfully negotiated the tricky "St Hilda's college has really good hot chocolate at breakfast time" hurdle, and the orange juice was delicious.  I did catch myself thinking "I want to go to the cinema, but I can't have popcorn or a drink . . . " but then realised it is actually legal not to (note:  when I do have those things at the cinema I buy them before I go in.  Saves a fortune).  And the film (The Book Thief - does the book justice) was fine with an accompaniment of water.

And I might well have had the slight headache anyway.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Is this a fast?

Right.  So.  Lent. 

 I’m “doing” Lent again this year. 

I am giving up sugar.  Not manically, but fairly comprehensively.  I won’t be adding sugar to things, I won’t be eating sweets, cakes, jam or chocolate, I won’t be eating things like baked beans or ketchup or fizzy drinks (no, not even diet ones), I won’t be putting sweet sauces on foods and I won’t be  . . . well, anyway.  You get the picture.  I won’t be doing added sugar.  I’m also not going to use the more obvious sugar-replacement things (I haven’t yet broken it to my flatmate that in my head, sugar-free Angel Delight doesn’t pass the ‘exclusion’ test). 

I won’t be giving up things like bread, though I know it contains sugar.  I definitely won’t be giving up fruit juice, fruit itself, or vegetables (even sweet vegetables like carrots). 

Neither, I hope, will I be making a nuisance of myself if I’m being fed by other people.  I will say no to dessert, probably, but I won’t be checking their recipes or their cupboards to find hidden sugar in the ingredients. 

I’m also doing a “positive” Lent practice.  The UUA in the states (the Unitarian Universalist Association) have suggested a Lenten practice of taking a photograph each day on a specific subject (connection, worship, listen, feel, struggle, think, laugh, trust, grow, hospitality, generosity, heal, compassion, curiosity, memory, mindfulness, creativity, courage, community, purpose, joy, honesty, passion, play, wonder, spiritual practice, vulnerability, love, unique, beauty, humility, blessing, devotion, freedom, imagination, justice, wonder, hunger, solitude, change, hope, commitment, holy, transcend, surrender, prayer, rejoice). 

When I first read about the project, I wasn’t sure how much of a Lenten thing it was.  After all, it’s doing something a lot of people enjoy.  It’s pretty much taking up a hobby, and I’ve always got a bit cross with people who mark Lent by taking up a hobby (because I’m fairly sure Jesus didn’t go into the dessert for forty days and forty nights in order to perfect his macramé skills). 

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought “actually, this is rather good.”  By looking out for those virtues, by looking for some tangible sign of them which can be captured by an iPhone (be reasonable, I will not be remembering to take a camera out with me every day), I’m hoping to become more mindful of them.  Spending tomorrow being aware of ‘connection’, for instance, cannot possibly hurt. 

But why sugar?  Last year I gave up drinking anything-except-water for Lent.  (Not, as my flatmate took to telling people, “only drinking water,” which alarmed a lot of people who thought I was perhaps taking things a bit far).  The reasons for that were a bit clearer:  by drinking only water for forty days (okay, I had a hot chocolate on my birthday.  I didn’t ask for a birthday which would always be in Lent, did I?  And in case Nick’s reading, yes, I forgot that day when he had breakfast and downed a very delicious glass of orange juice) I became very mindful of the blessing it is to be able to make that choice.  It’s a very Western privilege to be able to say that drinking nothing but as much clean fresh water as you like is a sacrifice.  I think most of the time when I drank something during Lent I was able to be grateful for it. 

That seemed like a meaningful thing to do for Lent.  It was enough of a challenge to be worth doing, but it wasn’t going to make me miserable, and it helped with a mindful practice. 

Sugar, though.  Well, like most of our modern Lent practices, there’s a very definite health benefit to seeing this one through to the end (birthday cake caveats apply).  I think we’re deluding ourselves if we don’t admit that a lot of what we do for Lent benefits us physically as well as spiritually.  And that’s fine. 

So part of it, yes, is that I eat way too much sugary stuff and need to stop it.  I could, of course, just stop eating sugar at any point in the year.  But by doing it at Lent there’s less of a need to explain, and more of a likelihood of taking other people with you. 

I’m blessed that my flatmate has also decided to join in, partly in support of her girlfriend, who has diabetes.  And two college colleagues also fancied the idea, so they’re doing it too.  (We did have one amusing-in-hindsight conversation about how it might be hard when we’re all on a long weekend trip to Romania, on account of having to explain it.  We’re visiting a theological college.  It seems highly likely to me they’ll be comfortable with the concept!)

Are there spiritual benefits?  I think there are.  If you think there aren’t, that’s fine – there wouldn’t be for you.  But I think there are, for me.  Most of us never have to really think about what we can and can’t eat.  If I become conscious, when I want sugar, that I can’t have it but that I can have something else, and that that makes me, in world terms, bloody lucky, and if that reminds me to be grateful, then that’s a spiritual benefit. 

Do I think God (terms and conditions apply with this term, as most of you know) cares whether I give up sugar for Lent or not?  No, I don’t.  Not much.  I think he might care if I become more mindful of my preposterous good fortune, and more concerned for those who don’t share it. 

Do I think it would do my relationship with God good to have some time to meditate on all this stuff?  Yes, I do. 

I do think that if you’re going to do Lent, it does have to involve some sacrifice.  That may be a challenging word, and it may not be a very Unitarian word, but it’ll do.  I could just give up chocolate, but I can live without chocolate fairly easily, if I’m honest.  I already don’t drink or smoke or gamble or spend vast amounts on clothes, shoes, or beauty products (I’ve only just discovered the joys of nail varnish, and that’s half-vanity, half nail-biting-prevention, so that’s staying). 

I can’t do a “proper” fast.  Though by “can’t” I probably mean “don’t wanna.”  I don’t think I have the physical or the emotional or the spiritual stamina to either fast during daylight hours and eat at night or to eat only what I strictly need to stay alive.  And yes, I know how lucky I am to have that as a choice. 

But also, I don’t think Lent should be about misery.  In a service I did at the Octagon a few years ago I had this poem as a reading (I’m specifying that, because it was read in a Radio Four programme very recently and I’m insecure enough and enough of a show off that I want to be clear I knew it before then!): 

To Keep a True Lent, by Robert Herrick 1591 – 1674

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No ; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate ;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent ;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin ;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

But marking Lent is important to me.  Because the Lent-and-Easter story is important to me (later on, if you stick with it, you might hear why).  I’ve been asked what’s the point of a Unitarian bothering with Lent – and it’s a good enough question.  I may answer that more fully, too. 

Tonight, after dinner and before bed, I am going to be slowly and mindfully eating the very bag of Revels pictured above.  And because I am a theist, and the sort of theist who believes that God loves me – me, personally – I am quietly confident that God will not arrange things so that the last sweetie I eat before Lent is either a peanut one or a toffee one.  I won’t try and hold out for an orange one though.  I’m a realist too.