Monday, 31 January 2011

Zen and the Art of Simplicity (and motorcycle maintenance)

I find the website to be incredibly helpful. There are lots of good articles about decluttering and living simply. It has to do with time and outlook on life as well as stuff.

I found the articles about possessions really intriguing. When we moved to the UK we had to really prioritise what we thought was worth keeping. What books make the cut? What trinkets and ornaments? What stuff? I think we got everything we thought that was worth it into something like 11 boxes. This included our childrens books (both the books themselves and ones about the authors/illustrators), reference books (like Masterplots), books about the Pre-Raphaelites, my Oz collection, a few theatre books, fairy tales, books about Star Trek and The Prisoner (those were Spidermans), books about spiders (obviously)  plus a handful of fiction that we turn to again and again like Watership Down or the short stories of Jack Finney. We had lots of mini collections but we narrowed it down to hedgehogs, rocks and minerals, spiders and Oz (as far as having lots of items under one theme) as well as autographs. Oh and glass bottles. We  like to collect old unusual shaped bottles with glass stoppers and fill them with coloured water. They really brighten up a room. But the rest of it--gone. There was no way I was giving up my Oz Barbie Dolls. Have I ever mentioned that I own Oz Barbie dolls???? Well I do. Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion and Glinda plus 3 munchkins. And Dorothys ruby slippers light up and says Ive a feeling were not in Kansas any more! and Theres no place like home! These are possessions I treasure and would never part with.

Since weve moved here weve added here and there to collections. And books. Weve bought more books. Hundreds of books--but all within the above guidelines. Not just any book. Any book that looks interesting is borrowed through the library or from a friend to try it out first and the rule is As long as there is shelf space it can be bought. When the space runs out, the choice is to get rid of something else to make room or do without it. In the past we would have just bought another bookshelf. The same goes for CDs and DVDs. When the storage containers are full--they are full. When you want something, it is time to get rid of something you dont need to make room. Simple.

I find 99% of the time we really only buy what we need. My first question is always Do we actually need it? If the answer is yes then I ask Can I make it myself? This has worked when I need a backpack and a new key chain and when both Spiderman and I needed new wallets. This also works if I need new clothes.  Then I try to look second hand first to see if I can find it that way. Ive found all sorts of useful containers for less than £1. We are working hard to have a place for everything and everything in its place. If it doesnt have a place, then it doesnt belong. We have just bought 2 more sets of shelves--one each--to be for storage for ongoing projects and craft materials. 

How cluttered are you? Are you weighed down with stuff? We have been conditioned to believe that luxuries are a necessity, that we need things that most of the world doesnt even dream of having. Theyd be happy with clean water, shelter, some food. How much do we really need to be happy? See my next post about the 100 things challenge!  

Sunday, 30 January 2011

T’is a Gift to be Simple

The Quaker Testimony of Simplicity is the one I strive towards the most. When we lived in Louisiana we were wasteful, living a huge house (Oh, it was a lovely house!) with lots of things (ah, they were lovely things!) and lots of stuff that just was there taking up space because we had the space to keep it. And there was stuff that had no space and was stacked on the floor. Stuff. We never seemed to throw any thing away. We used to save back the jam jars to use as drinking glasses. I think we got up to 27 glasses for 2 people! And we always let all 27 get dirty before we washed. Why? Like Mt Everest--because they were there.  We also used to buy any old thing that took our fancy. And then brought it home where it sat collecting dust. Nowadays, we just show it to the other person in the shop, say Awwww and walk away.

Advices and Queries 41 says:
Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford. Do you keep yourself informed about the effects your style of living is having on the global economy and environment?
Quakers are concerned about the excesses and unfairness of our consumer society, and the unsustainable use of natural resources. We try to live simply and to give space for the things that really matter: the people around us, the natural world, our experience of God. (from the leaflet: Living What We Believe- Quaker testimonies: a way of living faithfully)

This is one of the main reasons that plain clothes work for me--not being fussed about what I wear as it is the same every day--dress, apron, shawl, mob cap--leaves me infinite room to serve my fellow travellers who tread upon this earth with me, drink in the glory of the natural world and spend time in the warm Light that is Gods love.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Light in the Soul

This Chinese proverb manages to say in one what I took 9 paragraphs to say. Well done. But I liked it so much I thought I would commit it to memory and recite it every day to myself as a reminder of what I desire.

If there is light in the soul, there will be beauty in the person. If there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the house. If there is harmony in the house, there will be order in the nation. If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.

Truer Words Were Never Spoken

Just a quick funny from school:

I was working with a child today and we were practicing irregular past tense verbs. When I do this I normally say something like:

Me: Today I ride the horse but yesterday I ----
Child: Rode the horse.

But today I said:

Me: Today I know the answer but yesterday--
Child: I did not know the answer.

Funny and very probably true.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Peace In Every Step

It is good to think of global peace and about finding an end to war. These are external ways of living the Peace Testimony, but what about internal ways? Can we have world peace when we ourselves are in turmoil?

Mathew 7:3 says: And why do you look at the speck in your brothers eye and do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Its all well and good to be out there campaigning for peace, but we need to start a bit closer to home to really make an impact. This was a mistake I made for many years. I wasted lots of time dwelling in the past--replaying old tapes of bad situations and always lamenting what I should have done which usually culminated in some rather cruel self talk about what a physically repulsive dumbass I was. So yeah. That doesnt really help. And when I wasnt dwelling in the past having a jolly good self bashing I was living in the future and crossing bridges and getting stressed over situations that might never come to pass, but I had to angst over them as if they really were about to come true. This made life exceedingly hard when a real serious situation came my way (e.g. Spiderman getting cancer) but it taught me some great lessons. Mathew 6:34 says: Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Easy to say, not so easy to do. Here is where practicing mindfulness can help.

What does this mean? Thich Nhat Hanh Buddhist monk and author of books such as Living Buddha, Living Christ and Peace in Every Step says this:
Practice mindfulness in each moment--to know what is going on within and around us. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, we are always understanding, full of acceptance, love and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy.

Trying hard to be present in every moment as we do things can be difficult, but it doesnt have to be. When walking home today from exercise class the temperature had dropped and the air was cold and heavy with the feeling it might rain any minute. The ground was sticky with molasses like mud everywhere I trod. I reached into my pockets for my gloves, but then I remembered they were in my backpack. I was walking and grumbling and thinking ahead making a list in my head of all the things I needed to do when I got home when I realized I was miserable and needed to be mindful. I stopped. I took a deep breath and I begin to talk myself though it, being aware of all that was around me. It went something like this:

I am walking home, tall and strong from pilates. I am tired, but it is a good tired from having worked hard to make my body strong and flexible.
The ground is muddy, but through the earth I can see the scallion shoots of daffodils poking their green tips up.
The air is cool but my scarf and coat and hat keep me warm. There are many who have no coat or scarf to keep warm. Let me remember then in my prayers and do what I can to help them.
I can hear an orchestra of birdsong from over the hedge by the churchyard. I wonder how many different types of birds there are?
I can see a beautiful, unusual bird with distinct black and white markings. I dont know what kind it is--Ive never seen one before. It is so small and frail I am sending it love and warmth and food over the cold January weather.

Before I knew it I was at my door, feeling relaxed and prayerful and happy and realized if I had stayed grumping and stumping and making lists I would never have heard the birdsong or seen the wee black and white bird or noticed the daffodils. 

I find this is also good when cooking. Hare Krishna food tastes so good because they believe they are preparing it for Krishna and so they cook with hearts of love because the food is for God. They put some on a plate and offer it to God first, then serve the people the food that has been lovingly blessed and received by God. When you cook, food tastes better if you prepare it mindfully and with love. I like to focus on who I making it for and picture their bodies being nourished by my vegan food knowing that no animal had to suffer for us to eat. I like to think about the food as I prepare it. You might see just a carrot, but I can see the whole universe. The sun and the soil and the rain and love and energy from the farmer who grew it. When I chop vegetables I like to say things like. This is a carrot. It grows underground. or These are peas, they grow in a pod on a vine. It just helps you connect with the food and where it comes from and where it is going.

It is easier, I think, to be mindful about your food if you are vegan. If you had to say, This is milk that comes from a cow that was forcibly inseminated and then gave birth to a calf that was stolen away and she then was milked until her udders were distended and infected with pus as she cried and mooed for her child or This is chicken that comes froma chicken who lived 45 days in an airless shed that had a tiny door at one end so they could call it free range but it never got out. It grew so quickly its legs could not support it and in the end it was dunked still alive in a vat of boiling water to strip the feathers off where it shat itself and then was killed with no stunning so it could end up on my plate. Somehow I think if I had to trace back those ingredients they would lose their lustre and I would lose my appetite (and possibly my lunch). Thankfully being vegan makes you mindful all the time as you are aware of the suffering of animals and you do not choose to participate in the cycle of suffering. There are so many things in the world to eat that do not cause pain and suffering to our fellow creatures.

Eating mindfully is also worth a try. Instead of golloping your food as you zone out in front of the telly really pay attention to what you eat and the tastes and textures. It will slow you down and help you to eat less. Still working on this one. But with a deep breath, trying to be mindful every day, anything can happen. 

Monday, 24 January 2011

Ride on the Peace Train

This month marks the 350th anniversary of the Quaker Peace Testimony. For those of you not familiar with Quaker testimonies let me just say that while many religions have creeds to declare their beliefs (think the Apostles Creed or Nicene Creed) and sacraments such as baptism or communion and a Pastor/Vicar/Priest to perform these rites, Quakers strip away all that artifice and attempt to have a deep, personal relationship with God without someone there to be a conduit between us and God and without ritual that might get in the way of hearing “the still small voice“ as it speaks to us. My friend Gemma the Hare Krishna nun said it best when we were discussing what we wanted from life:
We are trying to cultivate a relationship with God so we can make a connection on a transcendental level, soul to soul.

Quaker testimonies have a long history. For example, we have worked for the abolition of slavery and are still involved in racial justice issues. Many early Quakers wore undyed clothes and refused sugar for their tea because both indigo for dyes and sugar were both associated with the slave trade. Quaker testimonies exist in spiritually led actions rather than in rigid written form.  (from the leaflet: Living What We Believe- Quaker testimonies: a way of living faithfully)

But back to the Peace Testimony. As I said Quakers dont have creeds--we have testimonies. The Peace Testimony is the oldest. In 1661 a group of Friends (as Quakers refer to themselves) went Before King Charles II with a document  that explained their position. Quakers believe in “that of God in everyone” and if everyone is a child of God then who are we to kill them? 

This is an extract from the original document but written with modern lettering --the original was really hard to read because the letter s looks like an f. That could cause some real confusion if not careful.

We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons for any end or under any pretence whatsoever. And this is our testimony to the whole world. The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.

Many Quakers were conscientious objectors in the 2 World Wars. This did not mean they did not serve their country--it simply means they refused to take up arms. The Friends Ambulance Unit worked on the front lines caring for the wounded, but never wounding anyone. They also worked hard after both wars with peace and reconciliation.

Quaker Advices and Queries 31 has this to say about it:
We are called to live 'in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars'. Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? Search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war. Stand firm in our testimony, even when others commit or prepare to commit acts of violence, yet always remember that they too are children of God.

Blessed are the Peacemakers

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Vegetarian Vampire

Anyone remember Count D-D-D-Duckula? He was a spin off from Danger Mouse. Well he was a vegetarian vampire duck. This is the season that makes me feel more like a vegetarian vampire (but less like a duck). Can you guess why???? Because it is Blood Orange season! Never had a blood orange? Oh what you are missing. The outside peel looks deceptively like a regular orange, but peel back the peel (??) and the deep ruby fruit is exposed. The colour of a blood orange is a deep crimson and the taste beyond compare. Richly sweet, then tangy and sour then a musky hint of bitter and then back to marvelously sweet. And juicy, always juicy. The scarlet liquid running down your chin like rivers of blood from the neck of a virgin. Then licking the vermilion juice that stains your lips and fingertips. Bliss.

I have a confession to make. I cannot peel a blood orange--or any orange for that matter. The peel refuses to come away and I grip the orange tighter in frustration causing juice to run down my wrist and up into my sleeve. What I get is a bloody mess rather than a blood orange. Thankfully, Spiderman to the rescue here. He peels my fruit  and tucks it safely into a wee Rubbermaid box so I can bring it to school for my snack. I’m like an over grown kindergarten child with a lunch box packed by my dear old dad. But, hey what ever works.

Spiderman does not share my rapturous desire for blood oranges. He prefers regular ones. More for me then. I love their taste and texture but also they are just a jolly good excuse to dust off the old thesaurus, ya know? And don’t be fooled if someone tries to sell you a blush orange. They are just a regular orange with a few streaks of red in them. Wait for the short season when real blood oranges are available and you won’t be sorry.

What food makes you reach for the thesaurus?

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Appetite For Reduction

Its a cookbook and a pun rolled into one! I have been waiting (im)patiently for this cookbook by Isa Chandra Moskowitz to be released on our side of the pond. Then last week it came! And the heavens parted and the angels were stirring up their pots of veggies and singing and all was right with the world.

I love to cook. I do not collect many cookbooks as I prefer to get my recipes from blogs and  websites. But there are some cookbooks I like to have around. Anything by Dreena Burton. I am a follower of her blog   and own all her cookbooks.  I am doing a wee-wee dance in anticipation as I wait for her new one to be released. But Ill have to wait a while before it comes out. I dont even think it is to the publishing stage yet. Nooooooooooooooooooo!!!

But I also like Isas blog  and recipes. I like her chatty, sarcastic tone as she writes comments about the recipes. But many have been higher in fat than I like. She wrote a whole book on cupcakes, for Friths sake. And even if the cupcakes are smack your Granny delicious, I just cant justify ¼ cup vegetable shortening plus ¼ cup margarine--and that was just the frosting. So whats a vegan girl to do who needs big flavour but lower fat? Wait for Isa to make a cookbook called Appetite For Reduction, thats what.

The book looks amazing. I could spend hours just reading the recipes and drooling and wanking. Figuratively speaking. But the descriptionsoh myand the ingredients..and the flavours.Ah……..I can hardly wait to start cooking. It is agonising what to cook first. This week it will be Trattoria Pasta salad with White Beans--basically pasta, white beans, rocket (arugula to my US peeps), red onion, roasted red pepper, olives in sun dried tomato and walnut dressing. Does that not sound like a party in your mouth???? Well also be sampling Chili Lime Rubbed Tofu (exactly what it says on the tin) as well as Arabian Lentil and Rice Soup a delicious Lebanese dish made from red lentils, brown basmati rice and lemon juice plus lots and lots of cumin. And finally Yam & Black Bean Soup with Orange and Cilantro (or coriander as we call it here) The name says it all really. There are simply LOADS of tempeh recipes to try but my local Health Food Shop has not been able to get it in for a few weeks. But when I get some I plan to try Irish Stew with Potatoes and Tempeh. It was meant to be made with seitan but that is 100% pure gluten which gives me a tummy ache and makes me a very cranky Spidergrrl. But I can sub the tempeh to make a hearty Irish Stew with tempeh and potatoes cooked in beer. Yum! I also cannot wait to try her Cajun Beanballs and Spaghetti. The bean balls are made from black eyed peas, tempeh and Cajun spices in a spicy tomato sauce. Yes, please.   

So now that I a finished with Boudicca until next year, Ill be working on my next project and spending my days in the kitchen. Bon Appetit!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Big Top of Death

Recently, an article appeared in The Onion about the Circus. For those of you who know anything about The Onion , it is SATIRE, repeat SATIRE. Many people I know take it for Gospel and get all offended, but belts and braces approach--it is SATIRE.  However there is often an element of truth in it. In this case much more than an element.

Circus that keep animals are filled with hidden cruelties as this article reprinted from The Onion  website shows.   Look here if you want to read the original article from whence it came.,17534/     (I don’t know why it refuses to become a hot link—but if you paste it into google you can see it)
Children of All Ages Delighted By the Enslavement of Topsy the Elephant
. TUCSON, AZCheers, laughter, and applause filled the big top tent at the Ringling Bros. Circus Saturday as children of all ages were captivated by the savage enslavement of Topsy the elephant.
Whether young or just young at heart, thrilled audience members watched with glee as a circus trainer forced the frightened Topsy to perform tricks by brutally poking and prodding the traumatized 4-year-old pachyderm.
"He's such a funny happy elephant," said 8-year-old Madison Helms, referring to the abused creature that spends the majority of his time chained up in a cramped, feces-covered enclosure. "He loves being in the circus!"
The crowd reportedly let out loud gasps and vigorously clapped when Topsy stood up on his hind legs, an unnatural and excruciatingly painful movement that stresses and permanently damages the 8,000-pound elephant's joints.
Topsy also delighted the audience after the trainer repeatedly thrust a hooked rod into his skin, causing the miserable animal to lift one leg and his trunk to simulate waving.
"Aww…" said the assembled circus-goers, who were taken by the cuteness of the barbaric spectacle.
Branden Helger, 9, said Topsy was his favorite performer at Ringling Bros. because the elephant knew how to do neat tricks like pretending to limp. The third-grader also excitedly pointed out the "cool necklace" clamped on the animal's foot.
Topsy and the other elephant performers, who are separated from each other at all times, preventing the socialization that's so crucial to their well-being, received a standing ovation from the crowd when they marched into the center ring, nervously rocking back and forth.
"Look, they're dancing," said 5-year-old Jonah Meeks, mistaking the elephants' constant swaying for something that wasn't a maladaptive behavior caused by serious psychological trauma. "I can dance like an elephant, too. Look at me!"
Unaware that the elephant was terrified of the glaring stage lights, deafening crowd noise, and constant beatings, Phil Wingren, who brought his family to the circus, remarked that Topsy must relish being a star.
"Boy, that Topsy's got it made," Wingren said to his children, referring to the mistreated, severely neglected creature, who is exposed to numerous diseases and receives no medical attention except when dirt is rubbed into his wounds to hide them from the public. "Always in the spotlight and everybody pampering you. That lucky elephant."
"Look, he even has his own ball," continued Wingren, referring to the most hated object in Topsy's life.
Attending the circus with her grandparents, Gretchen Anderson, 4, was delighted by Topsy and by the other pachyderms as well.
"There's his mama," Anderson said of an elephant unrelated to Topsy, who has not seen his parents since being torn away from them shortly after birth, and last nestled up to his mother when he tried to suckle at her corpse shortly after poachers killed her. "They have a big happy family."
Eyewitnesses who spotted the trainer patting the side of Topsy's body during the final trick were convinced the elephant and the man were best friends, though in fact the look of reverie on Topsy's face was the result of his daydreaming about stomping and crushing the cruel asshole's head like an overripe melon.

Many vegans I know also boycott zoos. I say it depends on the zoo. The zoos of my childhood where animals paced back and forth restlessly on concrete floors--that was cruel. But I feel zoos like the London Zoo work hard to provide as close to natural habitats as they can and even hide food so animals are mentally stimulated as they try to hunt for it. They work hard to educate people about living  animals as well as the death of animals through the illegal sale of skins and ivory. They work on conservation and maintain breeding programmes to ensure that certain animals facing extinction have a future  Spiderman volunteers there 2 Sundays a month and from what I hear the Squirrel Monkeys have made him their God.

When the Bible talks about dominion over animals it does not mean hunt them to extinction or chain them up and whip them if they refuse to do tricks. Dominion has more to do with caring for Gods creatures as He would care for them rather than doing what we please to them because we can.

This is one reason I am a vegan. I want to care for all Gods creatures--human and animal. How can I say I must look out for the poor, the homeless, the friendless--those who can ask for help and neglect those who cannot speak with words to ask for the pain to end?

What’s in a date?

January the 18th or the 18th of January. However you write it, it is significant. It was on this date in 1990 that Spiderman and I arrived in England, fresh faced and eager, to begin our semester abroad as part of the LC/MC overseas programme. Within a month we would be engaged and by the time our semester was over in April we both knew that England felt like home.

We were lucky enough to have attended a college where there was an overseas study programme. We were lucky to have signed up individually before we started dating and extremely lucky to have both been chosen to go together. There was so much to DO. Lectures by the best English teacher Dr Connie Douglas and science with Dr Snaz. (both American)  There was art with “Gallery” Warren (real name Valerie), drama with Jean Elliot and culture with Peter Buckroyd (all British)

Every  Monday we went to a different art museum for a tour and lecture. It is one thing to see photographs or slides of great paintings, but to see them in person--is an experience that moves your soul. 3-4 times a week we went to the Theatre to see plays. Some at high class places like the National and some Fringe theatre in pubs. But all amazing in their own way--including the WORST production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest we have ever seen and still laugh about today. We even had a famous, but rather prickly, playwright Howard Barker and dishy actor Richard McCabe (fresh from playing Puck in a fantastic Midsummer Night’s Dream) come and speak to our class! Learning about culture and current events and British slang was great. It was all so good. We soaked it up, every last drop.

Living in Louisiana I often felt out of place. Like some sort of rainforest flower stuck in Dry Gulch. Being in England was like feeling the rain for the first time. Spiderman and I knew that someday we would return. England just felt like home.

And interestingly enough, this day is also significant in that one year ago today we were given “indefinite leave to remain” after passing the written Life in the UK exam and paying the first of 2 eye wateringly high fees. It is now a year later and we are eligible to proceed toward the claim of citizenship. There are forms to fill out, documents to locate and referees to ask (people to be a reference not people to run up and down the field blowing a whistle) The forms are the worst bit. All those write -in- all- caps- one -letter -per -box instructions give me the heebie jeebies. It’s like I get some sort of written Tourette’s Syndrome.


It’s like when I go to unplug the toaster, but right in the next socket is the washing machine plug. I have this terrible irrational fear I will somehow unplug the wrong one. I feel like that even though I am saying, “Toaster, toaster, TOASTER!!!!!” my hand will wilfully just unplug the washing machine plug while I, in slow motion, holler Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!  Anyone else like that? Just me then.

But yes, today marks a special day--the day we first arrived and the day that I hope will begin the process to seal our fate and allow us to stay in the country that is our home.

Now where did I put my pen?

I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees

It happened. It finally happened. They pollarded our trees. We knew the day would come, but it was a shock nonetheless. We live opposite a Medieval church and our front window looks onto the Cloisters--a green sanctuary of trees and a few graves. We have named all the trees after people from the Bible--it seemed fitting somehow being opposite the church. But now Jesus, Mary and Joseph have been pruned back. When you pollard a tree you leave the trunk but cut all the branches. It leaves a very awkward looking tree for a time until it grows back.

I am sad that these beautiful, majestic trees have had to be cut back so severely--and quite so ugly. But it needed to be done. They were smack up against the flat and were causing all sorts of trouble such as clogged gutters which caused a leaky roof and  mildew on our ceilings. We also had no light coming through the bedroom window making early mornings a bit of bother.

But now, they are gone. Well not gone, but  unrecognizable as trees. It is no wonder that the character from Little Britain is named Vicki Pollard--it is an ugly sight. But all is not lost. Cutting back will make them grow back thicker and more beautiful. It may take time, but they will be trees once more. And at least we still have the Disciples to look at.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Talk about Suffering

The Boudicca monologue has really got me thinking about suffering--specifically why we suffer and where is God when we do. She and her daughters suffered terribly at the hands of the Romans, but then caused the suffering of thousands of innocent men, women and children in her revenge. Then the Romans destroyed her army and they suffered terribly. Where were the Gods when all this was going on? Boudicca felt she had firm assurance from the Gods that they were in the right and would win.

Where is God now when we suffer?  I have been reading some Bible commentary to see what are the Biblical views of suffering and the answers were surprising. There is a lot of talk of “we suffer because we are sinful.” We have done something wrong to deserve to be punished. The God of the Old Testament sure thought so. He compared his people to a whore and wiped out whole families and cities because his children were disobedient. In the book of Job, God inflicts pain and suffering but won’t say why. I find it hard to identify with a God who would beat, wound, torture and kill people and then refuse to explain himself just because he could. Some people say that God is a mystery and we can’t or don’t need to understand. He abuses us and we are supposed to love and obey him unconditionally. If that were a child in my school, we’d have called child protection services.

 Quite frankly,  I always found the God of the Old Testament to be a bit of a dick .I have been told before many times by well meaning Christians that my husband got cancer 15 years ago because he must have done something to deserve it. A lack of faith or some other transgression.  I can’t believe in a God who randomly picks people off for his pleasure. But then I think about all the suffering people in places where there are crippling droughts or floods or famines . What did they do to deserve it? I once had someone tell me it is because they don’t know Jesus as their saviour and God is punishing them for their lack of faith. That’s bollocks. I’m sorry--for a talk about God there seems to be lots of swearing going on. But I feel that strongly.

I do sometimes think that perhaps God is punishing the wrong people. It is the western world’s decadence and waste that is causing the ozone layer to disappear and furthering Global Warming which in turn affects the poorest populations with drought, disease and famine. They are punished vicariously by our wastefulness. Is it God who is punishing them for our foibles or is it Nature? And why do THEY suffer when WE are at fault?

Some people believe that suffering is  because “we have free will.” God does not always protect us from our own or other’s mistakes. (see above: Global warming causing drought and famine) God gives people the freedom to smoke cigarettes, eat fatty foods, and overindulge in sweet treats.  Then people are angry when they get lung cancer or diabetes or heart disease and blame God. But a lifestyle freely chosen that increases your chance of getting one of these illnesses is not God’s fault. You are suffering because you chose to have that third Big Mac. But what about people like my Mother-In-Law who died of lung cancer and never smoked a day in her life? How do we reconcile that with the idea of “they were sinners and got what they deserved?” God gives people the freedom to drink and drive.  If that drunk driver kills my loved one are they being punished for the sin of choosing something harmful? Why then am I punished? And what am I going to do about it?

Some people think that suffering is blessing to draw us closer to God. Or those who are chosen to suffer something really horrific it is because God is testing them. If that is the test, I am not sure I want to take part. I do think suffering can draw us closer to God. Sometimes all we have is him. When Spiderman had cancer we had been married for 4 years and I was seriously looking at the possibility of widowhood at age 27. I was absolutely paralysed with grief and fear and sometimes God was the only thing holding me up. But I  recall not being able to say the Lord’s Prayer. The words “Thy will be done” stuck in my throat like a fishbone. If I said them it was like giving God permission to let him die. To paraphrase The Muppet’s Christmas Carol: And Spiderman? Who did NOT die! Gee, that’s swell! He survived and the disease really changed our relationship. Our marriage grew stronger and suddenly it was abundantly clear to not sweat the small stuff. Little things were not worth stressing about. To spend every day deeply in love as if it was our last. And then a few years later when my beloved father got brain cancer, the experience with Spiderman gave me strength to help my father die with dignity. Without the suffering I would never have been able to cope with the death of my father and I would not have had the strength to support my mother. And since that time I have been able to be compassionate and help others who have suffered with cancer and give them hope. I was very lucky to befriend a young girl who spent 2 years fighting bone cancer and finally died at the age of 15. She was able to talk honestly about her illness and her fears--not of dying but of the profound grief of her mother and the pressure she felt to hold on for her sake. She enriched my life deeply as I hope I enriched hers.

I genuinely still don’t know why there is so much suffering in the world. Some things I think we cause like famine and drought and tsunamis and floods due to our output of greenhouse gasses. Some things I think we could prevent like that clearly mentally ill man who needed help and instead was sold a gun and shot that congresswoman and several bystanders. Sometimes we turn a blind eye because it is easier. Some things just seem so random. But does God turn a blind eye? If he does not CAUSE these things to happen or PREVENT them from happening---then what is his role in all this?

Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life.  Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we learn.  Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment.  Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened.  God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved.  Suffering can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.   Seeing Gray in a World of Black & White by Rev. Adam Hamilton

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Rabbi Harold Kushner  says:

We too need to get over the questions that focus on the past and on the pain--"why did this happen to me?"--and ask instead the question which opens doors to the future: "Now that this has happened, what shall I do about it?"

Will I use my suffering experience to empathise with people? Will I help relieve the suffering of others as much as I can? Will I work hard to reduce my carbon footprint and educate others on doing the same so that we may halt Global Warming and save the planet from destruction? 

What else can I do? What will you do?

Friday, 14 January 2011


I was treated to a song about Boudicca (complete with hand motions!) by one of the classes that I performed for yesterday. It was wonderful—they truly put in a huge amount of effort. Their enthusiasm reminds me why I love to work with children.

After the show yesterday I had my photo made with both classes. All those eager faces with me in the middle as a tall and fierce warrior queen! But Spiderman so kindly pointed out that I was only head taller (if that) than the group of children. These are year 4 (US 3rd graders)!! Sigh… so much for tall and fierce.

The other class made me cards—all beautifully decorated. The girls mostly drawing me as very glamorous with my long hair and costume and the boys mostly drawing the weapons (I have provided translations for those who cannot read invented spelling)
 Some of favourite cards were:

My favrit part was evrythink. You looked very pritty on stag.
(My favourite part was everything. You looked pretty on stage.)

Another vote for my good looks:
You looke verey pritte and I love your coychum.
(You look very pretty and I love your costume.)

I started the play with my back to the audience. Here is my favourite confessional:
Then you terned around and if you herd a voice that was me. So sorry for that.

The time management award goes to:
Thank you for wasting your time for us you were the best prfomer (performer)

The I should be on telly comment:
You cold have won Britan got talent whit that prfomance.
(You could have won Britain’s Got Talent with that performance.)

The cheeky bugger award:
Kill the romans! Can I have your spear?

But my favourite (and not just because it is articulate run on) has to be this one:
I learned so much from the show it looked like you had practised that one million times a day you answered so many of the questions that were in my head about boudicca and some things I didn’t no like eating the leaf of a eue tree (Yew tree)

At the end someone asked about my dagger I showed them it was plastic and then stabbed myself with it—everyone GASPED!!!!! Because it is a trick dagger with a retractable blade. I had many comments like this:

When you pretendid to stap youself i thout you had achelly did it.
(When you pretended to stab yourself I thought you actually did it.)

Even today many children stopped me and asked a question about Boudicca or the Romans. To get children interested in history makes it worth it indeed.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Boudicca Tells Her Story

Today at school I am portraying the ancient Celtic queen Boudicca (sometimes spelled Boudica)  who single-handedly raised an army against the Romans and completely destroyed three cities, killed all their inhabitants as an act of revenge before she was defeated in 61 AD. She is really famous here (sort of like Joan of Arc is to France) so much so that there is a statue of her in her chariot waving a spear in London. Click on the picture to get the full detail (but please ignore all the crap on the table)

We know little about her life. What we do know comes from 2 Roman sources--the accounts of Tacitus and Cassius Dio. But little to nothing is known of her early life, not the year she was born or the tribe to which she belonged. We do know she married into the Iceni tribe when she wed an older man king named Prasutagus and had 2 daughters--but there is no record of their names.

When the Romans conquered Southern England they allowed them to become “Client Kings”. This meant that the Celts would bow down to the Roman ruling class, but when not in the presence of any Romans could live and worship as they pleased. To seal the deal the Romans gave then gold and gifts. Then Nero became emperor and it all went pear shaped. He demanded back the loans the Romans had given them. Loans? What loans? I hear you say and quite rightly. Those gifts of gold and gifts were being demanded back with interest. The stress from it all caused Prasutagus to shuffle off this mortal coil leaving Boudicca right in the thick of it. Nero sent soldiers to strip their household (and the households of the rest of the Iceni) of all possessions. Then he took Boudicca and her 2 daughters to a public place and stripped Boudicca and whipped her while soldiers raped her daughters. And as my mum said, “Then she really got pissed.”

Boudicca raised an army of Celts and they attacked 3 Roman cities. First Camulodonum (now Colchester) then Londinium (now London) then Verilamium (now St Albans--which has a cracking Roman museum by the way) They slaughtered everyone--men, women and children and burned ever building to the ground. It all happened so fast the Romans didn’t know what hit them. They tended to cut the heads from the men and hang them from their chariots as trophies and they are reported to have cut the breasts from the women, stuffed them in their mouths, sewn the mouths shut and then impaled them on spikes for good measure. I can’t quite see Boudicca and her emergency repair kit sewing up these women’s mouths but that is the report from Tacitus. Why didn’t the Roman army fight back sooner? Well, their military leader Seutonius was off on the Isle of Mona fighting the Druids and without a leader to tell them what to do the army was just wiped out with the rest of them. The Celts were fierce warriors who fought savagely, screaming the whole while to freak out their opponent. Many of the men fought naked, their bodies  painted up blue with woad. A naked, hairy, blue, screaming Celt running towards me with a sword? You bet I’d be scared.

But finally Seutonius returned and find the perfect place to do battle. A river surrounded by forest. Boudicca’s troops crossed the river and tried to attack but hadn’t realized that the valley narrowed inwards so much. Basically, the got stuck. The horses and chariots couldn’t move forward--they were wedged between a rock and hard place. Literally. The Romans picked them off with ease with spears. The Celts needed hand to combat and close quarters to kill you and they couldn’t get anywhere near the Romans.  So what happened to Boudicca and her daughters?

The truthful answer is no one really knows. Roman records say she poisoned herself rather than be made a slave to Rome. But how do we know this? And if she did it, then how did she do it? What sort of poison did she use?

This is where I had to be creative in my research. I could not believe that she would have carried a vial of poison into the final battle because I feel certain she believed they would win. So what then? My research showed that the ancient Celts were very knowledgeable with plant lore and used herbal medicines. I figured she would know what plant you could find in the forest to do yourself in. I tried to think of every poisonous plant I could think of--but none of those could be found in the region of where we suspect the last battle to have taken place. Some of them weren’t even native to England. But I finally decided on the Yew tree. It is probably the most poisonous tree in Britain. Every part is poisonous--leaves, bark--and even fallen leaves and clippings can kill you if ingested. If you are using the wood in a woodworking project, even the sawdust that you breath in can kill you. According to the book I read One mouthful is enough to kill you! Plus you die a really quick death from muscle tremors, staggering, difficulty breathing, collapse and finally heart failure! I could act that out! Plus having the added bonus that the Yew tree was considered sacred by the Druids, so a bit of irony interposed into it.

   The hardest thing for me, being very uncoordinated, was to wield the weapons as if I knew what I was doing. I had to use a sword for slashing and decapitating, a dagger for stabbing, a spear for combat and impaling and lastly a sling. When I hear the term sling I think sling shot--like Dennis the Menace always had hanging out his back pocket. But no, this was like the sort of sling David killed Goliath with in the Bible. You put a rock in it, whirl it round your head and let go and the rock flies out killing someone. Well, let me say, if I had used a real rock I probably would have killed someone. My sling was weighted to make it whirl better and I have lots count of the number of times I hit myself in the head with it.

I like these monologues I do for my school. They give me a chance to do many things I love--research, write, sew costumes, perform. The show is followed by a Q&A with me as Boudicca answering questions. Then I talk as myself discussing the research and how things were put together. The whole thing lasts an hour and is a good fun and great learning experience to finish a history unit.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The Spirit of God at work

I recently had the pleasure of spending the day at the Bhaktivedanta Manor--the Hare Krishna Temple and dairy farm. I’ve told you all about the cows, but there was much more to it than that.

Quaker Faith and Practice includes a section called Advices and Queries. They are a reminder of the insights of the society and are there to help us question ourselves and take stock of our relationship with the Divine--whatever we may call it. They help us to think about our lives and ask the deep questions of the soul.

Advices and Queries 5 begins with:

Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light.

My friend Gemma is a Hare Krishna. Her experiences are like mine and unlike mine. She has a deep and personal relationship with her God just as much as I have with mine. We spent much of the day talking about how God shines in our lives and how we want to know him better. She would tell me something from her Holy Book about Krishna and I could find a similar saying from the Bible. We were speaking the same language, just calling Him by a different name.

Advices and Queries 6 says:

Do you work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals? While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship.

At school, I work primarily with Muslim children. I have found great strength in my friendships with them. Their faith is deep and abiding. Their love and devotion to Allah real and warm. We have often talked about our similarities --many Old Testament stories are in the Koran and Jesus is revered as a prophet. Children know they can speak to me about their love of God because I radiate a love for my God. Visiting Gemma seemed the most natural thing in the world. I wanted to participate in her devotional life for a day. I wore a sari and attended a service where we bowed down as the Muslims do with their forehead to the floor and then sang and chanted joyously to music. We spoke together of our common beliefs--that eating animals is wrong and that we must care for the earth. That we want a life where we spent time with God every day--hers chanting his name with the Hare Krishna mantra and me in quiet time.

We talked of the common feeling of sometimes not being able to settle into prayer. A distracted mind that wanders with each outside disruption and the gentle pulling back and gaining stillness again. 

Advices and Queries 12 says:

When you are preoccupied and distracted in meeting let wayward and disturbing thoughts give way quietly to your awareness of God’s presence among us and in the world.

We spoke of the need for simplicity. How many people hate their lives, hate their jobs? They work at something they hate and are angry and unfulfilled and try to fill that empty space with material possessions. This just brings about more debt and more feelings of hopelessness and hate. What they really need is God. Gemma is a nun. Her needs are managed by the Temple. She lives and works there tending the cows in exchange for food and a roof over her head. Spiderman and I have chosen to live simply. When we lived in Louisiana we had an enormous 3 bedroom house and 2 vehicles and lots of STUFF, but we weren’t really happy. We moved to England to change the way we lived. To tread lightly on the earth, to join the Quakers and to live within our means in a place appropriate for 2 people. We chose not to drive and are blessed to live in a town that a person can walk to work and to the shops. We don’t have a television or the internet at home and we don’t own a mobile phone. We do have a DVD player because we like to watch films, but to pay for  a TV Licence when there is so little of value to watch is a waste of money and time. I have chosen to dress simply to reflect my Inner condition and to avoid clothes made in sweatshops. Gemma wears a sari to worship but old clothes when dealing with the cows. It is not about how we look, but how we feel inside. We talked a lot about wants versus needs.

Advices and Queries 41 says: 

Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford. Do you keep yourself informed about the effects your style of living is having on the global economy and environment?

I found myself deepened into prayer as she deepened into prayer. I was greatly blessed by my time with her. We call him by different names, but God is God.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The most beautiful cows in the world

This is what my friend Gemma said to me when I went to visit her at Bhaktivedanta Manor --the Hare Krishna temple and dairy farm in Watford. She is a nun and a devotee of Krishna who has found her calling as a cow girl. She cares for their cows with the love and devotion of a mother. She knows all their names and they clearly look forward to her visits when she grooms them and feeds them and loves them and milks them. I would love to show you pictures, but alas the computer hates me and refuses to link them from her phtobucket site. But all is not lost! Here is a link to her blog where you can read all about the cows and how they are cared for.

I gave up dairy in 2004 when I realized what the dairy industry was all about. Overcrowded, cramped conditions. Cows indoors on hard concrete floors year round. Growth hormones and then antibiotics to repair the damage that growing too fast brings. Forcibly inseminated year after year so they continue to produce milk. And every calf born take away from the mother within hours of birth. Female calves to grow up to have swollen, distended, painful udders covered in sores that drip pus in milk (and the need for more antibiotics) and male calves turned into veal . Cows worn out after a few years from over milking and disease then slaughtered and turned into cheap beef. I have not had any milk or cheese since really understanding that store bought milk is blood milk.

These cows are different. They are well treated. They live in luxury. Well, they live the old fashioned way--the way Spiderman remembers cows grazing happily in a field near his house when they lived in Clinton back in the 1980s. No animal is given drugs or unnecessary medicines. Their udders are all quite small. This was shocking. I have only ever seen pictures of cows with huge  udders distended with mastitis. Their udders are hairy! Who knew? When they start to collect straw that has dung in it that might get into the milk and contaminate it, the udders are shaved with electric clippers.  In winter the live in a warm barn with plenty of hay and plenty of space to be themselves. In summer they are taken afield to eat the grass. Older ones with arthritis are segregated so young and frisky calves don’t topple them when playfully running around. ALL calves born are kept. Male and female alike. They are allowed to stay with their mother until they are weaned. The cows are milked but always there is enough milk for their babies as well as the Temple.  The males are working oxen ploughing the land, spreading the dung that is collected with the hay from the cows in the winter barn and pulling the cart that carries Hindu children (or school children) who visit the farm and want a ride.

I had a really enjoyable day there and was happy to eat the food which included milk and paneer cheese made from their cows. This is probably the only place I would feel comfortable eating dairy. Gemma was right--these really are the most beautiful cows in the world. They were all so big--so much bigger than I imagined. Especially the bulls! They have the most soulful eyes with long eyelashes (how I would love to have lashes like that!) and such kissable noses. Yes, you heard me correctly. There was one cow that Gemma said “She has such a kissable nose” and I thought, “Yeah, right” but when I saw it--it really was a kissable nose. I didn’t kiss it for fear of my allergies flaring up, but I would have.

I had a wonderful day with Gemma and the cows and even got to wear a sari! I was deeply moved by the presence of God all day. Like St Francis caring for the animals, Gemma has found her calling.

Monday, 3 January 2011

How can you get your name in lights all over the world?

Answer: Change your name to Emergency Exit!

Happy new year, one and all. I thought I’d start the new year with a joke because laughter really is the best medicine. Unless you’re Spiderman, in which case these jokes make you groan and shake your head.

Christmas Crackers are a British tradition. They are a wrapped tube filled with a paper hat, a joke and as our friend Matazone Haggis would say, “a cheap plastic toy with limited functionality.” But the best bit is they contain a strip of paper called a snap that contains a small amount of gunpowder. When you pull the cracker it goes BANG! And emits a slightly woodsy burned smell like a bonfire. That part is the best. Or not if you are Spiderman. He hates the BANG! It makes him wince. You cannot sell snaps (and I assume crackers as well) to minors as they are considered a firework. It has very strict instructions to use only one snapper cracker unless you are Mr Bean. He uses a bunch and blows up his house in a funny cartoonishly violent way.

For years I tried to buy them in the shops. They range from very cheap to very expensive. But they all contain plastic of some sort. I once spent £10 on Fair Trade ones from Oxfam that came with wooden toys inside instead of plastic but all the external wrapping bits and the hats were that weird foil that’s not foil and can’t be recycled. The whole pile of non-recyclable debris after Christmas made me sad. So what is a Spidergrrl to do who wants the joy but also the ability to recycle? Make them herself!

You can buy a packet of snaps here at craft stores. Everything else is stuff from around your home.

You need:
A packet of snaps (if you can’t find some you’ll just have to shout BANG!)
Toilet rolls
Coloured newspaper--like the funny pages
Sticky tape--this works even better if you have a groovy tape dispenser like I got for my 40th birthday. Thank you Spiderman!
Some funny jokes and scrap paper to write them on

You will notice that Spiderman has helpfully relabelled my packet of snaps. It used to say Cracker Snaps but he has changed it to Snacker Craps. Thank you, sweetheart.

Make you some paper hats. If you can fold them like a boat the way Curious George does in that book, then do so. I tend to cut more of a crown shape and then tape the ends together.

Find you some jokes and write them on scrap paper. If you google Christmas cracker jokes you will get literally hundreds of jokes to make you laugh until you cry (or make you shake your head and think about having your wife committed if you are Spiderman) Here are some to give you an example:

What did the dolphin say to the penguin?
You did that on porpoise!

How did the Vikings send secret messages?
By Norse code!

What did one snowman say to the other?
Can you smell carrots?

Find some good quality jokes and write them down. You may have been wanting to ask me, but hadn’t wanted to be rude and point out the obvious. Um, Spidergrrl you do realise Christmas is over now, don’t you? Why are you making these NOW? Well, I’m glad you asked. On New year’s day I like to do a little something of all the things I hope to do over the upcoming year. This includes paper crafts, laughter and being the Tigger to my beloved Eeyore. Besides if I make them a year in advance I can’t recall what jokes I put in and they are all the funnier when we open them up next Christmas. So there.

Finally, tape one snap into each tube then fill with a hat and a joke then wrap up with coloured newspaper. I use the covers of the G2 because Spiderman gets the Guardian at work. The covers are brightly coloured and have unusual designs. Like the black and white one with Medieval skeletons (it was an article about history but I like the look of the skeletons) or the yellow one with the atom jumping around (it was an article on science) There was also one that had a stack of books and another with a tree in winter. The last one was a lovely silhouette that looked like an illustration by  Jan Pienkowski.

The best bit is after you open and laugh at the joke and wear the paper hat (or not in Spiderman’s case. He will wear the hat but only under duress) you can recycle the whole lot! Or not as it were. The hats we had last year were still in good shape so I saved them back to reuse again until they fall apart. Hoorah! And happy new year!