Saturday, April 18, 2015

plain dress

At WGYF 2005 there was a special interest group about plain dress and it's place in modern Quakerism. Had I been a participant rather than the somewhat preoccupied administrator I would've gone to it. I did manage to get a few interesting conversations with those who had been though and it has since been a topic that rumbles around in the background for me and occasionally prompts further change in how I approach the issue.

Whilst there are still some Friends who wear traditional 'plain dress' mostly in the USA (think Amish style clothing and that is close enough, oh and 'dress' means how one dresses rather than just an item one wears!), there are many more who have adapted what it means for them and typical of modern Quakerism, they've made it their own. So for some it might mean only wearing certain colours such as green, or black & white; for others just buying secondhand clothing; or having a small wardrobe of garments that all go with each other; or just buying a few good quality items and making sure they last; only buying fair trade/handmade/tailor made/made in their home country items etc.

Going through Thailand to Burma with my uncle Jack in 2004 to visit refugee camps full Burmese refugees coupled with the fact that for three months I'd lived out of a rucksack made me totally re-evaluate my possessions when I got home, and how much I actually needed to get by. One village headman of a community of displaced people we met only had the clothes he stood up in, and Jack was pretty sure it was the same t-shirt he'd been wearing three years earlier when he'd last been there. It made the amount of clothing I had back in the UK seem obscene.

Several clearouts and eighteen months later I emigrated. There's nothing like drastically relocating to effectively change your shopping habits! There's also nothing quite like having a fixed amount of money to last an indefinite amount of time to make me more prudent with it either. Want didn't have a hope, need took precedence.

For the first few years I treated myself to one good quality merino top each year from the sales bought with my birthday/christmas money. Over the years that broadened to include other things I needed to replace, such as finally buying some new jeans that actually fit well rather than just working my way through various pairs of 'near enough' ones from op/charity shops, each time getting a good lasting item - it had to be fairly plain from a certain range of colours so it would go with more things I already had, of a cut that I'd be prepared to wear for years, physically durable and preferably something that could be mended easily, or re-soled when it came to footwear.

For many years, dating back long before I went went travelling in 2004, I'd had a 'something comes in, something goes out' policy when it came to clothes, and often took more to the charity shop than I'd brought home (and only once came close to buying back something I'd donated!). That policy has continued, and once I stopped needing a set of 'play clothes' for wearing to kindergarten I've cut back my wardrobe even more. I end up wearing more different clothes these days as now as I can see what is there far more easily!

As I was in the process of consigning several former kindergarten tops to the recycling pile (to be repurposed through crafting etc) and thinking about clothes, I spotted a challenge on a local 'green issues' Facebook page I get notifications from - someone was challenging herself to buy only secondhand clothes this year with the exception of underwear, did anyone want to join her? By now I'd heard a couple of friends say that this was what they did already so I figured that given I had a clean slate on that score so far this year (having only bought underwear new) why not, I'd give it a go.

In many ways this is an easy year for me to do this. In relatively recent years I've replaced my winter coat, winter boots, several tops, and most pairs of trousers/jeans with ones that will hopefully last me for years. I've been making quite a few of my clothes for some years now and especially over the last two years I've generally tried to use what cloth I already have rather than go out to buy new. I've yet to decide where making things fits in the current scheme - remodelling things I have and using cloth I already have or buy from op shops I think is safely within the scope of the challenge as it is based on not consuming new stuff. It does mean though the roll neck merino tunic I'd been planning to make became a dilemma as I hadn't yet bought the fabric! Darn it... ah well, chances are I wouldn't have gotten around to it until next year anyway... I'll just put the pattern to one side, do the challenge as it stands this year and then set my own guidelines for the future.

Aside from a testament to simplicity and environmental reasons I came across another good reason for reducing one's wardrobe - decision fatigue. The more things you have to chose from the bigger a decision it becomes and when your head has enough else to deal with thank you why add needless pressure. Given the way my head has been for the last 16 months I'm all for giving it any extra breaks I can.

Additionally as I read more and more articles about tiny houses, and have more discussions about making living in shared accommodation and/or an intentional community (possibly in my own tiny house) a long term plan, the more incentive there is to downsize my stuff even further. My current aim is to get all my belongings in one place, although getting the rest of my books here from Edinburgh is a tad more challenging than the rest of my boxes etc from Pukepoto which is a mere 8km up the road! My aim is to fit everything except kitchen stuff in my current bedroom, if I can do that I'll be doing well. So there's another reason to ensure I only keep the clothes I need to if I want to be able to keep even half of what is still currently in storage!

I don't think there is the same issue here as in Western Europe of donated clothing inundating the market in African countries making it nigh impossible for local production to thrive, we don't have the same quantities of donated goods plus higher costs to ship them anywhere. But it still bears thinking about when deciding what to do with surplus items. However pretty much anything is better than them becoming landfill. Our local op shops sell sacks of rags made up from donated clothing etc not fit for sale as received, mechanics seem to be the main users of these plus they get used for animal bedding etc. I'm trying to use up as much of my own cloth 'waste' but it's good to know that I have another option if supply outstrips my ability to use it up!

So as with most things trying to implement a testimony to simplicity of clothing is a complex issue, with many things to consider. No doubt my journey will continue to meander along with varying issues taking their turn as the predominant one. But for now I'll continue to refine my wardrobe down to a smaller collection of things that can easily be interchanged, but without buying anything that is new for the remainder of 2015. I'll let you know how I manage at the end of the year!

Thursday, April 16, 2015


For most Quakers A&Q stands for Advices & Queries. There are various versions around the world, often starting off quoting the advice from the elders of Balby:

Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all, with the measure of light which is pure and holy, may be guided; and so in the light walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life. 
(Postscript to an epistle to ‘the brethren in the north’ issued by a meeting of elders at Balby, 1656)

But today for me A&Q took on a whole new meaning as I labelled up another tub of stewed Apple and Quince for the freezer on a label too small for whole words! Combining our own abundance of quinces with someone else's over-supply of apples has provided (along with the feijoas from over the fence, still no new neighbours...) an alternative for the year to come to the ridiculous amounts of stewed peaches from our own garden. Whilst it was lamented at the time that the plum tree didn't fruit much this year it is probably just as well as we've now reached the stage where we have to start eating the other things in the freezer on a regular basis in order to make room for more fruit. The rest of the household is gutted about having to eat up the ice cream as you can probably imagine, we also need the emptied ice cream tubs to put more fruit in so the pressure really is on!

The task and writing A&Q did bring some of our Advices & Queries to mind though:

C14: Even the mundane and the everyday can be performed as a form of worship

D14: Aim to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Value beauty in all its forms. Share what you have.

D17: Certain times of life bring energy and activity; other times bring a need for rest and renewal. Do you respond to the rhythms of your life, accepting or declining commitments without an undue sense of pride or guilt?

D17 resonates particularly. There have been many tasks lately that have been a response of the rhythms of the seasons, yet I have to remind myself when feeling guilty about not taking on more that the rhythm of my own life means I still don't have as much energy as I'd like to. I need to remember the fact that I've managed to do as much as I have is a huge improvement on this time last year, but unless I factor in enough 'rest and renewal' there isn't going to be enough energy for more activity!

ps Could anyone use some quinces? We've given away as many as we can find homes for and still have plenty to spare!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

clearing out (again...)

I'm having another of life's clear-outs. Slowly but surely I'm plodding my way through the remaining boxes in the shed at Pukepoto, bringing them in to town, going through them and absorbing what remains into my current space in the world. I'm determined not to add any boxes to the garage here, not that there's really any space to do so anyway as it is full of J&O's stuff!

Also over most of the last year I've been having a mental/emotional clear-out of stuff that is unhelpful through counselling. So it was somewhat bemusing to come across something I wrote about fifteen years ago about much the same thing, and how useful it had been. So in order to be able to clear another bit of physical clutter out of my life, here is what I wrote so the pages can hit the recycling pile...

[For those of you out there who were regular readers of YQ at the time and are thinking 'I don't remember reading this before' don't worry, it isn't old age taking it's toll. You most likely haven't. Just because I said I'd write something, which I finally did, doesn't mean I'd also actually get around to sending it in, which I suspect never quite happened!!]

Some time ago (er... May '87 to be honest - Kendal YFCC!) I promised then YQ Editor Jonathan Kemp that I'd write 'something' for YQ, 'after my exams'. Thankfully I don't remember specifying which exams, but having sat the last ones in '92 I feel as though I'm still somewhat overdue in writing!

So what has prompted me after all these years to finally get around to it?

Guilt. Plain and simple.

Over the last six months I've ended up having to do a lot of looking back over my life. Trying to figure out why I am where I am today, who I am, and what on earth am I doing with my life. You know, all the nice easy ones.

Part of the process has been counselling after it finally sank in that my head can only take so much without a good clear out. The amount of stuff that had just been pushed to the back of my mind 'for now' had built up to the point where if anything even vaguely difficult or challenging occurred I couldn't cope. Not a good situation to be in when you work with people with challenging behaviour.

So off I went, somewhat reluctantly at first, to counselling. Deciding to go was a big step in itself. If I had a pound for every time in my life someone had said to me "You're coping so well", "You always seem to manage, how do you do it?" etc etc I could retire tomorrow. When the world thinks you are coping it is very difficult to turn around and say well actually I'm not, can you help? Especially if they've just said that they couldn't do it themselves!

I'm getting there, but it's not always easy to bring out painful memories and look at them again. At least there's some more space in my head again though and I don't throw a wobbly every time someone else does!

Another part of the process has been physically having a clear out. As anyone who's ever visited me knows I've got rather a lot of 'stuff'. Due mainly to being put in a 'take it or it goes' situation when my parents moved house some years ago. So whilst most of you have children's books, teddies, jigsaws and toys safely stowed away in attics and spare bedrooms elsewhere, mind were under my bed, on top of my wardrobe, and fighting for shelf space along with my university notes. Like the ever promised article, I never quite got around to sorting through it all.

Then suddenly, a couple of years ago, I had to shift all my stuff several times in as many weeks, up and down far too many stairs. My life had changed, my future was unclear, but one thing was certain, some of the stuff had to go. Slowly but surely over the next four months I started to whittle it down. Another house move, still too much stuff - keep going! A year on and like all good resolutions I'd slowed down to a virtual stop, but then came the promise of a new home - somewhere stable, permanent, but small.

Bin bags were filled, boxes cleared, endless carrier bags dumped exhaustedly at the Shelter Shop. The big move came - would it all fit in? Well sort of, ish. So more had to go but but was getting harder. All the easy to part with stuff had gone. Then one day hiding from the rain in a bookshop I found my saviour 'Clear your clutter with Feng Shui' by Karen Kingston. You wouldn't believe what I've managed to do since reading it.

Clearing out clutter is in itself very theraputic - as long as you manage to throw things away and not put them back 'for now...'. In so many ways we are defined by our possessions and the things we surround ourselves with. I had an incredible amount of stuff which I'd felt I 'ought' to keep rather than wanted to. The old 'it might come in handy one day' kind of thing mixed up with 'but so-and-so gave me that'. Are my memories of people and my past so fragile that I need to keep everything? It's quite a question to ask yourself.

I compromised and started a scrapbook, it's got old tickets from concerts and the cinema, some train tickets, old NUS cards, railcards and so on so I can cringe at old photos of me, mementos from events and people. It's been good fun doing it. It satisfies a childlike instinct to play with scissors, glue and sellotape too! If I can't remember something when I find it in my sorting out it goes.

Yet with my dread of amnesia quashed with the scrapbook and so much more parted with, I still haven't finished. But there are now just a few hats on top of the wardrobe instead of a precarious pile to the ceiling, there's space in the cupboards and no longer a pile of boxes lurking in every corner of the flat.

So where has all this got me? My head is being cleared out, the flat is being tidied up, but there's still a pile of stuff that remains to be dealt with, the 'pending' tray in life. That's where this article came in. No matter how hard I 'd tried to forget that I'd ever said I'd write anything the memory kept coming back to haunt me. There are a few other things in the tray too, and I'm trying to get it emptied by the end of the year, clear it out and not let it get so full again.

Maybe someone will read this and realize that they can sort things out too. I hope so. It always seemed like such an enormous task, too big to tackle, But if you break it down into little bits, like writing an article for YQ, it can stop being so daunting, and you might even find you enjoy it!

Post script, fifteen years later...

I laugh now at the thought of that flat being small. Sure it was for the amount of gubbins we crammed in to it, but having lived with far less stuff for many years now, and spent rather a lot of time reading articles about Tiny Houses, I have a somewhat different perspective these days.

I was in that flat for four and half years before life got turned on its head yet again. Not that I'm complaining as it was the beginning of the journey that led me to a life in Aotearoa NZ, but I think had you told me what was coming back then I'd've baulked at the thought of it. Well that is once I'd picked myself up off the floor and gotten over a stitch from laughing for long enough to ask 'Are you serious?'

So no, life hasn't exactly been plain sailing since then, and it is amazing how much extra internal clutter one can acquire in fifteen years, even if you've got better at keeping the physical stuff under control. But over all I still believe what I wrote then, I just wish I'd reminded myself sooner...

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

'If language were liquid... would be rushing in, instead here we are in a silence more eloquent than any words can ever be'
Suzanne Vega, 'Language'

Proof (as if any were needed) that it isn't only Quakers who find silence can speak louder than words! When trying to describe silent/waiting worship I often ask if the enquirer has ever been part of a one or two minutes silence in remembrance, especially as part of a large gathering such as at a sports stadium or an ANZAC Day dawn service etc. Then try to imagine that feeling lasting a whole hour... Okay, so it isn't always that intense/amazing/gathered but it can be. And yes, it can be more eloquent than words can ever be.

A few things have caught my eye via Facebook and television recently that made me think about the phrase 'divided by a common language', and if native speakers of English can get confused by each other heaven help those learning it as a second or other subsequent language. In some ways we have one of the most versatile languages drawing as it does on many historical roots. But we also have one of the most confusing to interpret due to the number of idioms that certainly shouldn't be taken literally!

One of the advantages of moving around in life for me is that I've picked up the local lingo in several English counties in addition to 'Embra' Scots and understanding both the West Coast and Deeside versions (plus a smidgen of Doric and Gaelic, just don't ask me to spell any of it though!), and of course the more recent addition of Kiwinglish. There have been a couple of adverts in the States with Kiwi basketball player Steven Adams in them (this and this) which as he'd say are pretty choice, but just prove the point that if you want to be understood locally you have to go with the flow and adapt, as subtitles are hard to reproduce for everyday conversation.

But whilst understanding many tongues is a blessing, it can be a burden if you try to use them all at once as you end up faced with a lot of blank looks and requests to translate. At least Marion and I have each other here who have both lived in Yorkshire, Scotland, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Aotearoa NZ, plus she's lived in Cumbria and that's where my Mum is from (albeit the bit that used be Lancashire rather than Cumberland) and since my Māori got up to speed enough to understand those words too we know we don't have to worry about which ones we use when talking to each other. Bi- and multi-linguists will understand, you have the perfect word in your head, but it is in the wrong language for the conversation and sometimes your thinking is like this... especially when you're too tired to untangle it!

I really appreciate having friends on Facebook who regularly use the dialect/language of their locality that have made up part of my past. Otherwise it isn't often I hear anyone described as a daft wazzock these days, or talking twaddle. There's plenty twaddle around, it just doesn't get called that here, nor codswallop either. Seeing such words, or being with people from places in my past generally tends to have the effect of veering my current lexicon of words temporarily back in that direction again, so in many ways my everyday language is liquid, with ebbs and flows and underlying currents. I still haven't really got the hang of eloquent though, but maybe I shouldn't worry about it and leave that to the silence.

Friday, April 03, 2015

the post-gathering blues

I read this post by Robin recently and wished I'd had something like this 30yrs ago to explain why, if my weekend had been so wonderful, was I now in tears. Why, over the following few years, I'd come home from various events completely exhausted, emotionally and physically wrung out, completely unable to articulate why and desperate for the next gathering to come round. Why I couldn't find it in me to be pleased to be back home.

As the years have passed I've learned that those early experiences of Quaker gatherings were far from unique and whilst no there never will be quite the same combination of people together again, the same intensity, the same depth and the same connections can be found time after time after time. Some of the older and more seasoned participants were sharing wry smiles with each other at the outpourings of emotion at the end of the World Gathering of Young Friends 2005 as we all went our separate ways around the globe. Even then email and text meant keeping in touch with those far afield was an absolute doddle compared to the days when snail mail and expensive toll calls was all we had. And now with Facebook, Twitter etc it is even easier.

But no matter how much easier it to keep in touch with those you've shared the journey with (literally and metaphorically) the bit that doesn't seem to change is that time of 're-entry to reality', adjusting back to the everyday stuff that fills up the days between gatherings. Many a conversation has been had as to which is 'reality', that which we were usually in the process of leaving behind at the time on the long journey home, or that which we were heading to? Being part of a household with others going to the same things helps that transition, if nothing else they are as knackered as you are and they at least get the in jokes. But even if the home environment is full of fellow weary travellers, the outside world isn't. So you find yourself having to get used to not being able to just drop into deep and meaningful conversation with the person next to you even if you've never met them before; remembering that actually if you want to eat tonight you'd better think about cooking rather than just stand in a queue and be given a plateful; adjusting your conversation back into normal everyday language rather than a plethora of acronyms and 'Quaker speak' (jargon?); and not expecting everyone in sight to be wearing a name badge.

On the plus side there is your own bed, no (or a much shorter) queue for the loo and shower, and literally all the comforts of home. You know you should be glad to be home, to those who you've missed and have missed you, and most of you is, especially the sleep deprived and possibly also jet-lagged part of you. But no matter how many gatherings you go to there is always that window of readjustment from one set of routines to another, and no longer having the day's carefully timetabled programme on a piece of paper in your bag or pocket to refer to when in doubt as to what comes next. There are very few who readjust back without some size of a dose of the post-gathering blues. There are many different coping mechanisms, generally mine is to retreat from the world and try to process what I've just experienced within my head rather than by talking about it. I never seem to be able to find the words to explain why it was so *wonderful, deep, moving, exciting, energising, heartbreaking, etc etc etc (*delete as appropriate), which I acknowledge isn't easy on those who didn't go who are trying to get an idea of what I experienced.

Depending on the theme or purpose of the event 'real life' can seem incredibly trivial when you get back to it. It can be hard not to get judgmental about those who are getting wound up about the latest tv reality show when you've been hearing first hand experiences of genocide and incredible stories of survival and forgiveness. It can also be hard (especially when still a teenager/young adult), to convey how humbling and inspiring it is to meet such people, or those working in reconciliation work closer to home; or standing up for their beliefs to the point of being imprisoned for it; to meet people who appear on the news reels; to learn from some incredibly talented and wise folk and so on without it sounding like those who lead more everyday normal lives 'back home' are an inferior breed that you suppose you'll just have to put up with until your next exciting adventure... Sure you could go home and complain about the snorers in your dorm, the food, the weather, the uncomfortable and/or squeaky chairs/beds/floor, that your flight/train/bus was delayed, and there are those who do just that, and you get the impression that the thing biggest importance of the last few days was not having the right breakfast cereal and they'd had a thoroughly miserable time. The latter of which occasionally is true but generally such reports are simply another coping mechanism. It's far easier to complain about cultural differences and expectations than it is to describe a deep spiritual experience or feeling of inadequacy for the task you are feeling called to take on, and it is often much easier for the listener to understand.

It's reassuring in many ways to read posts like Robin's, someone who goes to such events for work as well as leisure, it is a reminder that such feelings are normal. I'd like to think that after 30yrs of gatherings I've got better at getting home afterwards, but I know it is something I still need to make more effort with and at least have a few coherent sentences on hand to describe my time away other than 'Yeah it was good. I'm off to get some sleep...'