Friday, 22 November 2013

small beauties 2

24 September
Every spider's web bejewelled with dew from the morning mist. The red leaves of Virginia Creeper and Boston Ivy draped over walls and fences.

8 October
A cat that looked like the Egyptian god Anubis. The sunshine. The reflections of the light from the water bouncing off the trees. A second and fuzzy shadow of me, made by the light from the water. Golden birch leaves, red virginia creeper, snowberries, tall lavender-coloured roses.

21 November
Green and gold leaves alternating on a silver birch. The first frost yesterday, leaves of many different shapes outlined with tiny crystals of ice. Autumnal trees, red, gold, copper. A rowan tree with blush-red leaves and berries the colour of pale peach flesh. The way the autumn sneaks up on you gradually.

22 November
What a beautiful morning. The sun is shining, the air is crisp and clear. The trees seemed almost to be glowing from within, with the gold and copper of the leaves lit up by the sun. Red dogwood stems stood out boldly against the background of a dark wood. A flock of Brent geese came down on the river, honking madly.

Monday, 11 November 2013

War and peace

An address given at Oxford Unitarians on Remembrance Sunday 2011

War, when you look at it, is a very strange cultural phenomenon. Vast amounts of men and machines are pitted against each other, and it is not moral superiority that ensures victory, but superior tactics and technology. It is odd that the outcome is determined by tactics and technology rather than by who is actually right. One might as well determine the outcome by having politicians engage in single combat in a large stadium, as it would save an awful lot of lives and resources.
Of course faith in the rightness of the cause motivates the combatants, and we would like to think that those who are fighting for the morally superior side actually have a stronger motivation – because they are motivated by love of justice and freedom and humanity, rather than by anger towards a minority, or fear of retribution by their commanders. These ideas hold up reasonably well for the Second World War, because it was fairly obvious that Nazism must be defeated – but America was still racially segregated when it was busy fighting the Nazis, and many people in Britain flirted with far right politics during the Great Depression, so there must have been people fighting the Nazis who supported segregation and right-wing politics, or who were just fighting for nationalistic reasons. The idea that faith in the rightness of the cause determined the outcome of the First World War does not hold up so well, though, because it was the last great war of imperialism, and both sides had made alliances and grabbed territory, and were squabbling over who should have the most land.
I also find it deeply disturbing that if the reparations imposed on Germany after the First World War had not been so punitive, then the Great Depression would not have had such a huge impact on the German economy, and the Nazis might never have got into power. If only the victors of the First World War had read Lao Tsu’s warning to leaders victorious in wars.  He said, “Treat victory like a funeral” – in other words, don’t gloat over your defeated enemy and demand revenge, but treat them well and kindly so that they won’t want to fight you again.
Lao Tsu’s work, written in the 6th century BCE, is partly intended as a treatise on statecraft, and its ideas are still applicable today.
One politician who might well have been applying similar principles was the much-maligned Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain was a Unitarian, and related to a long-standing Unitarian family. He did everything he could to prevent war (as is well known), but he also built up Britain’s armaments in case war turned out to be inevitable (something that is not so well-known). It was a very practical and balanced approach to the politics of the day.
My own attitude to war is fairly ambivalent. I admire the heroism of warriors, and the camaraderie of regiments, and their colourful and stirring traditions. I admire the craftsmanship and technology that goes into making weapons like swords, bows and arrows, castles and siege engines.  I find people’s personal war stories absolutely fascinating, and never tire of listening to them. On the other hand, I abhor the bloodshed and violence, the blind fury of battle, the slaughter of men, the terrible waste of humanity and talent that is involved, and the sorrow of bereavement on such a vast scale, and the tragedy of the physically maimed and psychologically scarred men that return from war. I often think of Wilfred Owen, whose poems we heard earlier, which often move me to tears. Wilfred Owen was killed in the last week of the First World War, and his mother received the telegram informing her of his death as the church bells announcing the Armistice were ringing out over the Shropshire hills.
And yet, and yet, I am grateful that imperialism and Nazism and other horrors were defeated so that we can live in freedom now. I wear a red poppy in memory of those who gave their lives for our freedom, and a white poppy in the hope that one day no-one will ever have to make that sacrifice again.
One thing that is very striking about the experience of war, is that people never seem to feel so alive as when death is so close to them. People lived more intensely and vividly, as if the saying “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” was never far from their minds. If you have ever read the novels of Mary Wesley, you will be aware of how intensely life was lived during the war – lovers did not know if they would ever see each other again, and so they gave their all. There was camaraderie and a sense of common humanity during the Blitz – although, as someone who lived through that period pointed out to me, there were also a lot of people making a fast buck on the black market and exploiting others.
On the other hand, there are wonderful stories like the Christmas Truce of 1914, and the friendship of JRR Tolkien with his batman in the trenches, which he recreated in literary form in the relationship of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings – and it is very clear that Frodo would not have succeeded in his quest if it were not for the support of his friend Sam.
I think, however, that what is happening here is the beauty and compassion of humanity asserting itself in spite of the horrors of war, not because of them. Tolkien was one of a group of four close friends at grammar school, and he and Christopher Wiseman were the only ones to survive the First World War.
If only the heroism and the craftsmanship could be channelled towards peaceful ends. If only the world was a more just and equitable place, where resources were fairly distributed and nobody thought they needed to fight for territory, or try to wipe out people who are different. It’s possible to create camaraderie and fellow-feeling by digging a fire-pit for a weekend camp – there’s no need to go to war to create it.
Imagine a world without war. Instead of money being spent on guns and tanks and fighter planes, it would be spent on improving the lives of ordinary people. There’s a well-known feminist poster that says, imagine if the army had to hold jumble sales to raise money for weapons, and healthcare was properly funded. It’s true, there is something wrong with a world where wars are automatically funded, but hospitals have to fund-raise for essential equipment.
The Quakers talk about the seeds of war. There are ideas and practices prevalent in our society that make war more likely, make it seem inevitable, even. The way boys are discouraged from showing emotion, and encouraged to regard women as objects, so that they could one day be soldiers. The way our taxes go to fund the army and the maintenance of weapons, whether we want them to or not. The way that our industry is geared towards the manufacture and distribution of weapons of war. The way that social inequality is maintained, one result of which is that the army seems like a good career for a working-class lad.
If there are seeds of war, there must also be seeds of peace – seeds that we can plant. There are practices like non-violent communication, meditation, contemplation, community-building, diplomacy, interfaith dialogue, living sustainably, volunteering overseas, all of which promote an understanding of other people and cultures, promote dialogue rather than violence, and contribute towards the creation of a just and peaceful world. But there can be no peace until there is social and environmental justice. Until resources are fairly distributed, there will always be people trying to grab land and resources, or people trying to prevent others from getting them. I am pretty sure that both the Gulf Wars and the Falklands War were about oil, and the reason that no-one has bothered to liberate Tibet from the Chinese is because it has no natural resources worth exploiting, and because China is a major creditor and trading partner of Western countries.

Let us, therefore, seek out and plant the seeds of peace. Let us seek to see things from other people’s point of view. Let us promote interfaith dialogue, non-violent communication and social and environmental justice. And let us practice peace in our own lives, as I know many of you are already doing. For as A J Muste once said, “There is no way to peace: peace is the way”.


Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bell for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes,
Shall shine the holy glimmer of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Dulce et decorum est, by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Fives-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone was still yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. –
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Fallen leaves by Yvonne Aburrow

Each year with the falling of the leaves we shall remember them
As the years drift into the silence of longing –
The longing for the ones who never came back.

A photograph, dimmed by time, is all that remains;
A lock of hair, a memory, a name, each evoking
A man that lived and breathed and laughed.

Poets and dreamers, craftsmen and lovers,
Farmers and ploughmen, boys from the shires,
Fallen leaves in the autumn, returning to the soil.

Divine Spirit, source of all being,
From whom we emerge and to whom we return,
We have gathered today to remember lives lost in war.
For it is written,
“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
We are thankful for the great love that gave us freedom and for the sacrifice of those who died that we may live in freedom.
But we wonder sometimes if our freedom was not bought at too dear a cost.
And we pray for peace among the nations, and dialogue between warring factions.
May we always remember those who died in war and persecution – not only the soldiers, but the civilians who were raped and tortured and butchered.
May we honour those who stood as a witness for peace, because they would not turn their hands to killing.
May our lives and our communities be a beacon of justice, peace and hope,
And may our words and deeds be a witness for peace, all the days of our lives.
And when we fall into strife and bitterness, may we forgive ourselves and others, and work for reconciliation and renewed trust.
We would live our own lives in such a manner that we plant seeds of peace, and not seeds of war.
We would work for peace and justice and tolerance, so that war may be prevented.
For we are held in your vast and mysterious love,
Each life a bright thread in the tapestry of being,
And all are one, and one is all, and the divine life shines in each and all.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

There must be other paths

There must be other paths
More winding, tangled
Into sweet nothingness,
Sleeping hidden, overgrown,
Darker, deeper
Rock bound paths
Misted and rain drenched,
Where with one misstep,
You might stumble,
You might slip,
If you are lucky,
Into a real life.

( J.L. Stanley)

via Walking the Labyrinth

Friday, 6 September 2013

small beauties 1

A friend on Facebook started writing "small beauties" posts, which are little snippets about lovely things you have seen, written on the day they happened. So I started doing it too, but it is easy to lose things on Facebook, so I am also posting them here.

25 June
A man slowing his car whilst a squirrel scampered across the road, and smiling indulgently as it skittered off, probably oblivious to its near miss. A front door left open to let in the sunshine and fresh air. A man with tiny dreadlocks with rainbow colours of thread wrapped round them. All seen within five minutes of each other. Also, the sunshine, the flowers... valerian and ox-eye daisies and those blue meadow geraniums.

27 June
The new cat came out from under the bed and purred. There was a tern jinking about over the River Thames. The wild roses on the river bank.

5 July
A swallow skimming very low over the river. The lacy froth of elderflower blossom. The play of shadow, sunlight and reflection on the green depths of the river.

8 July
A black-headed gull preening itself on top of a lamp-post. The blue flowers of chicory along the river-bank. The grace of a solitary rower. The candy-stripes of convolvulus. A rabbit running across the cycle path in the early evening sunshine.

9 July
A bright pink mallow plant growing among parched yellow grass. A yellow rose reaching for the sky. A man on a bike wishing everyone good morning.

3 ducklings (so pleased to see them, as they're a bit late this year). A couple holding hands and swinging their arms. Being greeted by the cat on arriving home.

10 July
The woman at the bus-stop in the minty-green salwar kameez with lovely embroidery on it, who smiled back at me when I smiled at her (and a smile can really transform a face). A collared dove, doing its best to epitomise the term "dove-grey". The high wispy clouds in a very blue sky. The silvery willow trees rippling in the breeze. Purple loosestrife flowers. The pink pom-poms of the thistle flowers.

11 July
Both cats got on my lap and purred this morning (not at the same time as each other).

The dome and minaret of Oxford mosque (on Cowley Road), glimpsed through trees from the top of Rose Hill. A bird singing fit to bust from the top of a tree. The poplar leaves turning silver.

15 July
Weekend beauties, small and large... eating dinner outside overlooking the garden with my boyfriend.

Attending M and K's religious civil partnership and Unitarian wedding on Saturday. Seeing their love confirmed and celebrated publicly. The beautiful gardens of Unitarian meeting Bristol. Seeing old friends.

On Sunday, back in Oxford - went swimming with my boyfriend, and we saw lovely little blue dragonflies skimming over the water, and were at eye-level with the coots and moorhens. And there was a young lad there who swam his first three yards or so.

Today, gloriously sunny, birds singing. The little patch of pink-and-white striped convolvolus has spread even further. And there are even more chicory flowers.

23 July
Never thought I would be happy to see clouds - beautiful silvery-grey patterns and swirls

25 July
the massed lead and silver of the clouds, ready to pour more rain on the thirsty earth. The heavy rain last night that cooled everything down. A flock of Canada geese and goslings in a field. The chicory, purple loosestrife, and meadowsweet along the river.

31 July
a red umbrella under a tunnel of green leaves. A group of cherries ripening on the tree.

27 August
Big fat rosehips, pale snowberries, ripening blackberries, and huge clusters of rowanberries. Monkey balsam. Michaelmas daisies. Autumn is coming, and it's going to be good for berries.

28 August
About six weeks ago, I noticed two small elegantly hand-painted signs, with string stretched between them, over a piece of freshly dug earth on the verge of Meadow Lane. The signs read "wild flowers".

Now the flowers have come up and are blooming - some calendula and a bell-flower.

29 August
The shiniest cleanest narrowboat I have ever seen - navy blue, shiny brass portholes, called Meandrine. A couple of sober-suited and serious-looking crows. The quiet camaraderie of the drunks on the river towpath (in contrast to the slightly uptight-looking commuters on the street).

The last few days I have been noticing a vivid red rose against a whitewashed wall.

4 September


Light reflected off the water onto the side of a building.

Trees reflected in the water, shimmery and green.

Sky reflected in the water, blue and mysterious.

A narrow-boat reflected in the river - bright and colourful.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Meditation on a death

He was every man and no man.
His death was everything
His death was no thing.
His death was the ending of a life,
the negation of all his hopes.
His followers deserted him,
all except the women, that is.
But they didn't count, in most people's eyes.
He was different - to him, they counted.
To him, every sparrow and every lily
was beloved in the sight of the All.
It was his life that meant something,
not his death. How he loved, who he loved,
the things he said, the things he did.
He was just a man, frail and mortal,
but what a man. Of course, he had his off days.
The day he was rude to the Samaritan woman,
and she showed him a better way to love.
The day he cursed the fig tree.
Those are the days where he showed his human side.
We all cast a long shadow behind us,
even as our light shines fitfully,
a flickering flame of love.
His life is what matters, and his love,
not his death. There are so many deaths.
So many brutal and dreadful ways to end a life.
Retelling the story of his death creates brutality,
as if his death mattered more than all others.
All deaths matter, all the lives cut short by cruelty.
No, we should tell stories of life,
of lives lived well, peacefully, joyfully.
Life in abundance, life and love.
Forgiveness in the face of cruelty,
joy and peace in the heart of destruction.
How to keep the flame of hope alive
in the face of despotism and despair.

(written on Good Friday)

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Jars of happiness

I like the idea of these jars of happiness -- you put in a note every time something nice happens and then pull them out at the end of the year.
Happiness jarHappiness Jar Project
Homemade happiness jars (an idea by Elizabeth Gilbert) to be filled with inspiration, joy, tiny bits of paper with things that make you happy.
New Year's resolutions and the like seem too much like yet another way to set oneself up for "failing" and then beat oneself up for it, whereas this seems like a way to boost self-esteem gently.
"Do without doing and everything gets done" (Lao Tsu)