“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Friday, 27 March 2015

Policies, Not People

I've just sat and watched the Head-to-Head That Wasn't; the programme on Channel 4 in which Jeremy Paxman interviewed David Cameron and Ed Miliband in turn, and each politician also answered questions from the studio audience.

And it was dire. It all seemed to be so set up, so fake. And the fact that there was no debate *between* the two men was a disappointment.

But what really fed me up was the personalisation of it all, particularly in the case of Ed Miliband. At one point the Sky presenter, whose name eludes me, asked him whether he thought he was the right person to lead the Labour Party into this election, and whether his brother David would have been better. She then asked some totally irrelevant personal questions about Miliband's family - had the leadership contest caused friction? How did his mother feel? It made me feel sick.

I wouldn't usually use this blog to comment on political matters. But it seems to me very sad that members of the British public are deemed by the media and the politicians to be incapable to making up their minds about who to elect to lead them for the next five years, on the basis of what policies each party espouses (or allegedly espouses, because we all know that to promise something in a manifesto is one thing; to deliver it once you have been elected is quite another).

It all seems to be about personalities. MPs and MP wannabes are out and about, making the most of photo opportunities, while the smallest and most irrelevant details of their private lives are hauled up for public scrutiny. Of course, I'm not saying that our Members of Parliament should not be people of integrity, with honest, upright lives. Of course they should. But I cannot believe that how Ed Milliband eats a bacon sandwich (for example) is in the slightest bit important, or should have the least impact on voter choice.

It's a funny old world.

I for one will be reading the campaign leaflets that come through my door (if any - I live in a safe Tory seat) and looking on the websites of the parties concerned, in order to make up my mind. Or I'll check out the website Vote for Policies, which will at least give me a chance to evaluate what the different parties *say* they believe in. And yes, I will be voting - it's my duty.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Celebrating the International Day of Happiness

This morning, when I turned on Facebook, a friend announced that today is the International Day of Happiness, and asked: "What makes you feel happy?" And it was lovely to stop and reflect about, and be grateful for, the many things that do make me feel happy. I found that the things that make me feel happy are a regular mixture of mundane and more uplifting:

the Bluebird of Happiness

  • a good stretch, whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual
  • a mug of coffee and a bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolate (yes, I have plebeian taste in chocolate, and I'm proud of it!)
  • spending Boxing Day (or Christmas Day Number Two, as my mother calls it), with my parents, our family, and my sister's family
  • sunlight sparkling on water
  • getting my teeth into a fresh to-do list
  • a good book, and time to curl up and lose myself in it
  • a handclasp or hug from a friend
  • the glingle on my phone that means a call or text from my DB or my children
  • walking through green woods and meadows
  • talking about my beloved Unitarianism
  • the poetry and prose of John O'Donohue
  • an unexpectedly cancelled meeting
  • the sight of mountains or the sea, taking my breath away
  • the satisfaction of seeing a picture begin to take shape out of the cross stitches
  • being listened to or listening, respectfully and deeply
  • the weight of a purring cat on my knees and the feel of her soft fur beneath my hand
  • the gift of writing
  • being absorbed in a zen doodle
  • lying back in a hot, soaky bath, with a good book
  • exploring a new city with my best beloved
And I am so very grateful for all these things. Having thought about them, and written them down, I hope I'll be able to revisit them if ever I feel down, and smile at the thought of them. Your list will no doubt be different. On this special day, what make you feel happy?

Friday, 13 March 2015

Ways of Remembrance

Earlier this week, my husband and I visited the National Memorial Arboretum, near Lichfield. I had had qualms about doing this, as I had expected it to be very much about "remembering our glorious dead", which as a pacifist, I struggle with.

But how wrong I was. We arrived about quarter to two, having spent the morning in Lichfield, and saw on the notices that there is a daily talk in the chapel at 2.00 pm. So we hung around the gift shop for a few minutes, where you could hardly move for things with red poppies on, and then headed over to the chapel.

Outside the door, there was a beautiful prayer for a better world, written by a 13 year old named Anna Crompton, which was not what I had been expecting. Here are the words:

The NMA volunteer told us a little about the history of the place, and about some particular memorials to look out for. And then we were free to wander as we willed.

Like most folk, we headed first for the main Armed Forces Memorial, which commemorates all the service men and women who have given their lives for their country since 1945 - since we have been "at peace". It consists of four concentric half circles, two on each side, and the names are arranged in chronological order, and then by service. So for each year, there is the list of names for Army, Navy, and Air Force. It has been designed so that on 11th November each year, the light of the sun focuses directly on it at 11.00 am. I found three things very poignant:

1. they have used up 227 panels so far, in the years since 1945.
2. there is a lot of blank wall left for future deaths.
3. to spot the name of Private Lee Rigby among the dead in 2013.

I felt tears pricking my eyes for the first time.

Then we wandered fairly randomly, stopping to look at whatever attracted our attention. One of the first I saw was a memorial to all the Jews who have laid down their lives for their country - Britain, not Israel. It had been dedicated a few years previously "350 years after Jews were readmitted to England", which I found terribly sad.

One thing I had spotted in the list of memorials on the map we had bought was a memorial to the Quaker Friends Relief Service, so we headed out to find it. When we got there, I was so filled with joy. It takes the form of four high-backed, stone settles, arranged in a loose circle, so that one could have a meeting for worship right there. On the facing part of each settle, the Quaker values of Peace, Simplicity, Truth and Equality are engraved, one on each.

There was also a beautiful memorial for individuals, divided into twelve monthly sections. Any family can buy an eternal poppy, and add the name of their loved one to the display. I found this really moving.

Of course, most of the memorials were military, and it was fascinating to see how beautiful and appropriate most of them were. The Signals Corps had a statue of Mercury, the Royal Welsh a great slab of Welsh slate, the Navy one of different colours of blue glass/perspex with a yellow panel representing the rising sun and an orange panel representing the setting sun, and so on. But there were also other memorials for those who had played supporting roles in times of conflict - the Women's Land Army, Bevin's Boys, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and memorials for dogs and horses, who had also given their lives.

As the afternoon wore on, we got tired, and headed back to the Visitor Centre for coffee and cake. And then realised that we hadn't seen a couple of memorials that the guide at the beginning had particularly mentioned, so we set out again. And I am so very glad that we did.

On the way, we came across one of the newest memorials, to the service personnel who had lost their lives in Iraq. And that was so sad to see. And then on to the lovely memorial for all the thousands of Poles who had given their lives for the Allied cause in World War II, when their own country didn't exist any more.

And we also came across some beautiful gardens of remembrance which had nothing to do with war at all - any member of the public can subscribe to buy a tree to remember a loved one. And there was one terribly sad section of trees dedicated to babies "born sleeping", or who had lived only a few days. And I saw one tree with two signs, for a husband and wife, who had died within eleven months of each other.

But not all the individual trees commemorated a death - one sign I saw celebrated a 65th wedding anniversary - how lovely!

Finally, we came to the new Shot At Dawn memorial, which is set in a corner of the 150 acre site, so that it is the first point to be touched by the light of dawn each day. It commemorates the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were shot for cowardice or desertion during World War I. It consists of a single statue depicted with his hands tied behind his back, and a blindfold on, and behind him, the 306 individual stakes, each with a name. Once again, I was in tears.

And there was so much we didn't see. The NMA's strapline is "Where our nation remembers", and it is certainly that. I thought back to our morning visit to Lichfield Cathedral, with its memorials to the war dead of Staffordshire, and the long entombed bishops, and reflected on how life has changed. Today we commemorate our dead with living trees, in a secular, but most sacred, setting.

Friday, 6 March 2015

The Power of Dreams

Human beings are born with a great capacity for belief. Small children believe everything their parents say, which is how they construct a meaningful picture of the world they live in. In our particular culture, this also usually involves belief in what Terry Pratchett calls "anthropomorphic personifications" such as Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. How many of you went to see Peter Pan in pantomime as a small child and clapped to save Tinkerbell's life? - I certainly did.

But as you get older, your parents start to introduce you to "the real world", in which money is not in infinite supply "D'you think money grows on trees?" and someone in the playground will tell you that "Father Christmas is your parents really." This evolution of belief is necessary in order to fit into our complicated modern society - it is generally accepted that if you believe in too many things, you are bound to become disillusioned in the end.

I find this widespread cynicism quite sad, and ask myself the question "Whatever happened to people who believed in things?" I think that there are very many people who used to be idealistic and believed that the world could be made a better place, but there are also many who have become disillusioned over the years, and who dare not believe in anything much any longer, in case they are let down.

Leonard Nimoy, whose recent passing saddened me, once wrote "I am an incurable romantic:I believe in hope, dreams and decency. I believe in love, tenderness and kindness. I believe in mankind." He proved this with his life.

Daring to believe that way involves trust and faith. If you have those, anything is possible. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. "I've decided that I'm going to do battle for my philosophy. You ought to believe something in life, believe that thing so fervently that you will stand up with it till the end of your days." Fifty years ago, we saw how far that philosophy took him, as a champion of human rights, whose leadership changed the whole course of history, brought a new dimension of dignity to human life, new hope for freedom and the community of man. Such people are inspirational, because they have dared to dream, and then spent their whole lives working to make their dreams come true.

This weekend, friends and colleagues from the Unitarian Universalist Association will be marching from Selma to Montgomery, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the marches in 1965 which led to the passage that year of the Voting Rights Act, an important achievement of the American Civil Rights Movement. To quote Wikipaedia: "Activists publicized the three protest marches to walk the 54-mile highway from Selma to the Alabama state capital of Montgomery, as showing the desire of black American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote, in defiance of segregationist repression." Very many white Unitarian Universalists and other activists joined their black brothers and sisters on the march.

The dream, or the vision, or the ideal, is only the beginning of the process. To turn that dream into something concrete and real involves a lot of hard work. It is very easy to lose sight of the dream, and to give up half way. But if your belief in your cause or vision is strong enough, then anything is possible.

People need something to believe in , something to strive for, something to give life a deeper meaning. Fifty years ago, on the road from Selma to Montgomery, that became real.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Questions and Challenges

I have blogged on here before about the influence that the Quaker publication Advices and Queries has had on my life. But I'd like to share a little more about why it challenges me so much.

I met my F/friend Yola almost thirty years ago, on Platform 1 at Northampton station. At the time, we were both commuting to London, and happened to catch the same trains every day. It was she who introduced me to a tiny (filofax page sized) booklet called Advices and Queries, The forty-two advices and queries cover just twelve pages.

Yet I cannot think of many other books that have had a more fundamental effect on the way I think and on how I live my life. Alfred Hall's Beliefs of a Unitarian, perhaps, but few others. I keep a copy in my handbag, and am currently on my third one, having literally read the first two to pieces.

You may wonder how such a slim volume could have such an influence on anyone. It is a good illustration of how quality is so much more important than quantity. Each advice or query is written in the simplest terms. Each is a profound challenge to me, personally. Each calls me to be the best Sue Woolley I can be, and to live my life in as authentic a way as possible. Let me share some luminous sentences that have made me think deeply about what I believe, and, more importantly, about how I live my everyday life:

5. Take time to learn about other people's experiences of the Light ... As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained?

7. Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us ... Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come?

17. Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God, and each must find the way to be true to it.

27. Live adventurously. When choices arise, do you take the way that offers the fullest opporunity for the use of your gifts in the service of God and the community? Let your life speak.

32. Bring into God's light those emotions, attitudes, and prejudices in yourself which lie at the root of destructive conflict, acknowledging your need for forgiveness and grace.

37/38. Are you honest and truthful in all you say and do? ... If pressure is brought upon you to lower your standard of integrity, are you prepared to resist it?

41. 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.

Such short, simple sentences. Such huge, complex challenges. Each time it's not just a declaration of belief, it's a challenge to do something about this in your own life. This is what I find so powerful about Advices and Queries. And why they have become, in a very real way, my personal 42 commandments. Living up to them may take the rest of my life.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Three Sides of Lent

This year there has been quite a flurry of interest among Unitarian friends about Lent, and what they are planning to "do" for it. Which has made me look at this Christian season more closely. On the one hand, there is the self-denying, penitential aspect, which (interestingly) many secular folk have also latched on to. Even my avowedly-atheist son knows that you are supposed to give up something for Lent. And on the other hand, there is the life-affirming, positive aspect of using the period of Lent to intentionally establish a new spiritual practice, which I rather like. And in between these, there is the idea of giving up something as a positive practice, rather than as a penitential one.

So let's look at these three approaches to Lent, and perhaps pick one that appeals to us, and resolve to do something about it, now, here, in 2015.

First of all, giving something up as a penitential, self-denying practice. I had toyed with the idea of giving up chocolate for Lent, really as a way of losing weight, when I read a post from Unvirtuous Abbey "For those who think that the season of Lent is The Biggest Loser - Jesus Edition, we pray." And winced. I cannot enter into the "proper" Christian self-denying head space, so I think it would be disrespectful of me to give up something for Lent just because.

And anyhow, I don't really want to.

However, there is another aspect to giving something up, which may be more appealing to Unitarians, because it could be done for what we might consider to be "the right motives." That is, to decide to give something up for Lent for a positive reason. For example, if you have played with the idea of giving up meat and becoming vegetarian, you might swear off meat for the period of Lent as a dry-run at making a beneficial change to your lifestyle. But this will only work if you had thought about it before, rather than doing it just for the sake of it.

The approach to Lent that really speaks to my condition is that of adopting a positive spiritual practice. They say that it takes twenty repetitions of a particular action / renunciation to form a new habit, so the forty days of Lent should be ample time to form a fairly solid new spiritual practice. Last year a friend started a Facebook page, Photography as a Spiritual Practice, which he and other folk who joined him have maintained ever since, with a different theme each week.

In my case, I have decided to really get to grips with centering prayer, a spiritual practice which I have started innumerable times, but not managed to stick to for more than about a week, before the excuses started. In a way, it is the simplest spiritual practice of all, as it consists of sitting in silence, waiting on God. Just that. Just sitting. Just. Sitting.

But let me tell you, it is the hardest thing in the world. At least for me, because I find it so hard to still my mind. To let go. To just be. Yet so many people whose opinions I respect have talked about the benefits to be derived from this practice, that I am giving it one more try, during this Lenten season. I started yesterday, on Ash Wednesday, and intend to sit for 25 minutes every morning until Good Friday. By which time, I hope, I will be starting to get some benefit from it.

May your Lent be beneficial to your spirit, however you choose to mark it.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Don't Forget To Love Yourself

Recently, I have been re-reading books that have meant something to me, on my spiritual / religious journey. And one of these is Mister God, This Is Anna, which I first read over 30 years ago. It is another slim book - only 190 pages - beautifully illustrated by Papas, which adds to its enchantment. Set in the East End of London in the 1930s, it tells the story of a remarkable child called Anna, who sees the world differently, and who has an intimate and wonderful relationship with Mister God. It is told from the viewpoint of Fynn, who finds the five-year-old Anna homeless on the streets, and brings her home to join the family. For the three and a half years before her premature death, she revolutionises his thinking about God and human beings in relation to God, and about the world we live in.

One of my favourite passages records a conversation with the local vicar, who must have found her hard to cope with:

"'Do you believe in God?' 'Yes.'
'Do you know what God is?' 'Yes.'
'What is God then?' 'He's God!'
'Do you go to church?' 'No.'
'Why not?' 'Because I know it all!'
'What do you know?' 'I know to love Mister God and to love people and cats and dogs and spiders and flowers and trees' and the catalogue went on, 'with all of me.'

There's nothing much you can do in the face of that kind of accusation, for that's what it amounted to. Anna had bypassed all the non-essentials and distilled centuries of learning into one sentence - 'And God said love me, love them, and love it, and don't forget to love yourself.'"

This week the shops are full of red and pink - Valentine's cards, Valentine's chocolates, Valentine's drink, Valentine's perfume, Valentine's cuddly toys. It is the one time of the year when love, particularly romantic love, is almost deified, and the many people who are not in a romantic relationship, or who have just lost somebody near and dear to them, are made to feel lacking, and sad, and out of it. Like Christmas, there is only one media message, and if your particular circumstances don't fit, it can be a very painful time.

So this week, I'm going to try to take on board the last bit of Anna's advice "Don't forget to love yourself." We are all human, we are all children of God, we are all worthy of love. And we all need to learn to love and accept our whole selves, not just the bits we allow other people to see.