Thursday, March 24, 2011

Art and Nature

Spring is here and the magnolias are coming into bud, just waiting to burst into flower. I love the shape of the buds in this stage and have taken plenty of photographs of them, like this one of the Hillier garden near Lymington.

Looking at them again today though I was reminded, as I always am, not of the last time I looked at the real thing, nor of a photograph, but of a painting. This particular painting hung on a classroom wall in my secondary school, so I must have first encountered it when I was ten or eleven years old. It was of a magnolia tree full of pink flowers, mainly in bud but with some coming into full bloom. The bare branches and upright flowers were set against a perfectly blue sky. There may have been a wall in the background but it is the contrast between blue and pink that I remember. Sadly I do not remember the artist and have scoured Google Images in vain!

This is one of the books I treasured

Looking at pictures has always been important to me, beginning with illustrations in books. My memory of those illustrations is more than visual, sometimes I can almost taste them, as if the child that I was used all her senses to register and remember those images. I remember nothing of the words of the various Flower Fairies books by Cicely Mary Barker but I vividly remember the illustrations.

I also loved the detail of Beatrix Potter's illustrations especially all the clothes in the Tailor of Gloucester.

I was particularly fond too of Margaret Tempest's illustrations for Alison Uttley's series about Little Gray Rabbit and I imagined being inside the house in the wood which appeared on every endpaper, even though it was in black and white.

Hope by G.F.Watts

From illustrations in books I graduated to the sheets of art reproductions which were issued as a series by the periodical Child Education and collected by my mother, a primary school teacher. She kept them between cardboard covers under a bed at home and every so often I was allowed to get them out and look through them. This must have been at about the same time as I was looking at the painting of the magnolias at school. The series was full of Victorian classics, many in sepia, but I still remember them with the same intensity as I do the illustrations in books.

 I also remember the thrill, many years later, of visiting the Lady Lever Gallery at Port Sunlight near Liverpool and seeing so many of my favourites on the walls and in full colour! 

Millais - Sir Isumbras at the Ford

For almost all of my life Art and Nature, the one complementing the other, have both fed my spirit with an intensity which roots me in the present while at the same time bringing back memories of the past. Long may they continue to do so!

Monday, March 07, 2011

How many friends?

How many friends do I have? Quite a few I think, although I had never been in the habit of counting them until I went on Facebook. That was a few years ago when I wanted a way of tracking the progress of my globe-trotting sons but also wanted to prove my husband wrong when he said I had no friends.

I have never been one to have crowds of close friends. I grew up as a happily solitary only child, isolated further at primary school by the fact that my father was also my headmaster. My parents tried to remedy this situation when I changed schools by sending me to an establishment in a different town, rather than to the grammer school next door to my father's new school. I made a few close friends there but it was difficult to cultivate friendships outside school because of the distance involved.

However, when I make good friends I do try to keep them and am still in touch with two women I have known since I was 10, Fleur and Liz. At university, first in Oxford and then in Birmingham, I made more close friends and have kept up sporadically with a few of them. At Oxford I also met my closest friend, Chris, and eventually married him. I also acquired some of his friends too. I have made friends at work, some closer than others. I have also made friends of Friends in many different contexts, often by working and sometimes struggling together.

What do I mean by a friend? Well for me friendship involves sharing, giving and receiving confidences, honesty and loyal support. It is also about having things in common - a place, a way of life, even a favourite television programme - but not necessarily about always agreeing with each other. A valuable part of friendship for me is the ability to speak and hear uncomfortable things from time to time, although I admit that I almost lost one friendship through being afraid of confrontation.

But is it possible to have virtual friendships, only conducted online and never face to face? I think it is and I have discovered this through reading and writing blogs and through Facebook. Many of the bloggers I read are not known to me in person although we have a friendly relationship online. After all, I can hold a conversation with them through comments as they can with me and blogging is often about sharing one's life as one would with friends in the 'real' world.

At the last count I had 264 Facebook friends. Many of them I know personally and meet quite frequently, others I have met a few times, but some I only know online. Quite a few live in different countries which makes meeting face to face even more difficult. I am very grateful for the opportunity Facebook gives me to connect a little with all their lives. Then there are the reconnections, people I have known but may have lost touch with until an unexpected 'friend request' appears.

The other week I visited my friend James in Leeds. I met him in Birmingham 40 odd (sometimes very odd) years ago and we were close friends and housemates then. I had kept in touch sporadically and went to all three of his weddings but Facebook allowed us to connect on a more day to day level which made our face to face meeting more comfortable. I look forward to deepening this friendship when we eventually move Up North.

I know what Chris meant when he said I did not have any friends. At the time I was in danger of isolating myself from the day to day contact that nourishes friendship. I hope that I am working towards correcting that and Facebook and blogging have helped me keep in touch, not only with friends but with myself.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wearing Labels

The Quaker meeting I am part of is a large one and it is difficult to get to know who everyone is . Our overseers have been asking us politely for some time to wear name labels to meeting and although I know this is a sensible idea I have been very resistant to it. Perhaps it is time to ask myself why.

Part of the reason lies in my last post. I am uncomfortable when asked to narrowly define myself. On that weekend, when it became obvious that I believe in God [actually I said that I know God], I was asked whether I am a deist or a theist. I have to confess that I did not understand the distinction but it appears that a theist is the more accurate description of my position. But I really don't want to wear that as a label.

On the other hand, as part of my work on spiritual autobiography, I always stress the equal importance of telling our own stories, our own truths as well as listening deeply to the stories and truths of others. To be consistent then perhaps I do have to wear some kind of label, or at least define how I self-identify myself. If I am comfortable with the way I identify myself then even if other people make the wrong assumptions about my label we have the beginning of a dialogue to pursue rather than continuing misunderstanding.

As I start to write my label I realise that it is going to have to be a large one in order to encompass the different ways in which I identify myself. I cannot say that I am different things at different times because all these labels are part of me. So I am Only Child, Mother, Granny, Partner, Friend, Worrier, Researcher, Historian, Writer, Quaker. Perhaps the Quaker label needs extending, although I am not entirely convinced of that. It could include Liberal, Conservative, Unprogrammed, Theist perhaps. Would that generate enough assumptions?

The process is a difficult one but I will attempt it. I may come back and extend my label further but as I start I will take the simple step of wearing a label to meeting on Sunday! 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Who do we think we are?

Back in January David Boulton and I facilitated a retreat with this title at Charney Manor. It was billed as a conversation on Quaker identity, unity and diversity and I was hoping for a wide-ranging exploration of the subject. In the event however most of the 25 or so participants came to explore non-theism with David and I felt myself very much in a minority. The weekend seemed to go well and I had no difficulty working with David, who I knew through a shared interest in Quaker history, but I was left feeling uncomfortable and needing to work through some of the issues that were raised for me. 

As an introduction to the weekend I gave a historical overview of Quaker diversity, highlighting the changes of emphasis, different language and different orthodoxies, sometimes leading to splits and schisms, that have happened over time and which are all influences on present-day Quakerism world-wide. One of the questions I asked at the end of this was "Are we only happy to associate with 'people like ourselves'?" In the course of the weekend some answers to this question emerged which for me were profoundly uncomfortable.

First of all I had to confront my own prejudices about the non-theist position. What I heard sometimes seemed far too rational, cerebral and defined to appeal to someone with my mystical 'supernatural' approach to faith. I had to recognise that I needed to make an effort not to dismiss what I heard out of hand but to find some common ground. I believe the effort is worth making which is one of the reasons I am writing this. I believe that it is vital for the future of Quakerism that we find ways both of telling our own stories and of really listening to the stories of others. It is what the Spiritual Autobiography project that I have been working on for many years is all about. I can see the dangers of misunderstanding and division that arise when an open two-way conversation turns into a confirmation of only one way of looking at things. For example I am deeply uneasy with developments such as the website Quakerquaker's adoption of a new strap line 'Primitive Christianity Revived Again' which tends to exclude those Friends and seekers unhappy with identifying themselves in Christian terms.

At the weekend many people said how happy they were to have found others of a like mind who seemed to be going along a similar path. I understand  this feeling of solidarity very well and have found it most helpful in different contexts in the past but I was worried that there was also an attitude from some that theirs was the 'right' way and that eventually the whole Society of Friends would see the truth of this. I felt isolated, alone and unheard. Even when, in a session in which David and I explored our different positions, I spoke about my Quaker faith and how I had arrived at it - a 'transcendant' experience as a young girl which much later Quaker worship helped me make sense of, my experience of God as my Inward Teacher and my hesitant attitude to conventional Christianity - I felt dismissed by some and deeply hurt by the experience, although I did not show this at the time.

I did react and challenge another example of the 'only people like us' attitude that arose in an earlier discussion, mainly because it reflected some experiences in my own meeting. Someone described a particularly 'difficult' member of their meeting who expressed views in the 'outside world' which differed profoundly from Quaker orthodoxy and from the views of most of his meeting. He was talked to about what he had said and asked to desist but he refused. The person telling the story then said "But it was alright eventually because he resigned and left the meeting." There have been several members of my meeting over the years who have been perceived by some as 'difficult' for various reasons and I have often heard private conversations in which a wish was expressed that they would 'just go away and leave us alone'. I am profoundly unhappy with this attitude, partly because it tries to deny that conflict exists in Quaker meetings and partly because perhaps one day I might be perceived as the 'difficult' person. My experience at the weekend only made that seem more likely so I had to question the assumptions underlying the story.

Is diversity a danger to Quakerism or can it be a strength? While recognising a natural tendency for people to seek out others who they perceive to be like themselves I hope that we can also find ways to listen to and respect one another's viewpoints. This is not the same as agreeing with what everyone says and it is equally important to tell our own stories and state what we have found to be true without being paralysed with worry that what we say will upset someone else. If I have learned anything from my experience at this weekend it is that love is the key and that we need to 'attend to what love requires of' us. Unless we learn to do this the silence of meeting for worship will not unite us by leading us to the source of that love but will become a dead space out of which we cannot grow.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Another year older

Today is my 63rd birthday and I'm really happy about that. I know I am getting older, as my creaky knees often remind me, but I would not turn back time even if I could. I love being retired from paid work and having time to pursue all kinds of projects, using my head, heart and hands. I am just making a new start as Granny Gil to Noah and baby Hope and looking forward to the future with excitement and anticipation. I have so many blessings to count and I try to remember to do that every day.

I wonder though when I will begin to feel old. I am not at all worried about my looks - partly because in my eyes that has always been a lost cause! I do enjoy clothes and what I wear certainly affects my mood. I know that if I am happy with the way I look then I look better. I like jewellery, some of which I make myself, I always wear eyeshadow and I am increasingly drawn to colour. I find some of the outfits worn by the mature women on this blog inspirational.

Does this mean that my Quaker simplicity rating is lower than it should be? I'm not sure about that. In the past few years I have tried to cut down on the number of new clothes that I buy and to combine what I already have in different ways. When I do buy something I want it to have several uses. I am recycling more, looking at charity shops more and making more. For me simplicity has more to do with not giving too much time over to worrying about what to wear than with a particular style of dress. I do know that I am not trying to dress as an old person should!

Ageing is about both the inward and the outward and I am trying to explore all aspectsof the stage of life I find myself in.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hebdomadal thoughts

Yet again it has been a very long time since I wrote on this blog. Last time I was feeling the possibility that I might start writing again but then life intervened. I now have a beautiful granddaughter called Hope, born in Leeds in November, and I had a long bout of flu over Christmas and the new year, so one way and another I have been a bit distracted. I have written on my other blog but not here.

However in this new year I have decided to try to write more regularly. The word 'hebdomadal' leapt out at me in a question on University Challenge and then I read this post on one of the craft blogs I follow. Jane Brocket is proposing cutting back from writing daily to writing weekly while I am going the other way, stepping up from very infrequent to weekly!

In order to do this I have also decided to approach this blog differently. Perhaps I have worried too much in the past over what to write here and that may have stopped me writing. Probably I have been too conscious of my strapline and afraid of falling short. I hope that writing something every week will help me to loosen up. I am a Quaker - I write a blog - so this is a Quaker blog whatever I write.

I look forward to exploring this further in the weeks to come and I hope you will join me hebdomadally.