“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, 29 November 2013

A Sense of Place

A few days ago, I spent the day exploring the land around Pendle Hill in Lancashire with my good friend. It is a new part of the world for me, and very beautiful, with its narrow winding roads bordered by dry stone walls, the autumn gold, yellow, green, orange, brown and bronze of the fields and trees, and the deep, deep blue of the sky.

image: www.fatgoatwalks.co.uk

And always, wherever we were, Pendle Hill, there in the background (or the foreground). It is a very distinctive part of the landscape.

The thing I found most interesting was how grounded my friend felt, here in her own place. I have never seen her so relaxed and settled. It is fascinating how much of an influence a place can have on a person. Sometimes it is only when we see people "on their native heath" that we see them whole. And it is something I feel in myself too - for example, as soon as I come within a couple of miles of the Nightingale Centre and Great Hucklow, I can feel a deep peace begin to settle within me. It is very much my spiritual home, the place where I feel at rest.

As usual, John O'Donohue says it best: "When you find a place in nature where your mind and heart find rest, then you have discovered a sanctuary for your soul. ...Perhaps nature senses the longing that is in us, the restlessness that never lets us settle. She takes us into the tranquillity of her stillness if we visit her. We slip into her quiet contemplation and inhabit for a while the depth of her ancient belonging. ... Nature calls us to tranquillity and rhythm. When your heart is confused or heavy, a day outside in nature's quiet eternity restores your lost tranquillity."

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Taste of Words

When I was a student, I had a poster on the wall of my room, which showed a bookworm, eating its way through a pile of books, with the quotation by Francis Bacon: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."

image: fromsmilerwithlove.com


I have always loved that quotation, because it describes so exactly what I do. When I have a new book to read, particularly if it is the latest instalment in a series, I devour it, avid to discover what happens. I sit and read and read and read, and don't stop until I've finished. Then I go back for a more leisurely second reading, savouring the words, rolling them round in the mouth of my mind, and enjoying them more deeply. I know some people who never read a book twice, and I simply cannot understand this. For me, the best books are to be read and enjoyed, over and over, until they become a part of me, "chewed and digested". They are food for thought, and some are food for my soul.

I have only recently noticed that I often think about reading in terms of taste - I will read some words and think that they are delicious. And all the words I used about reading in the previous paragraph are taste-related. Which is odd, since reading is done with the eyes, not the tongue or the teeth. Perhaps it is the internalising process that I go through when I find a book that I love - it becomes a part of me, and that is a fully sensory process, involving sight and taste and even smell (the smell of a new book is one of my favourite smells!) so that the book becomes part of my heart and mind forever.

Food for thought, and food for the soul, that is the taste of words. And I count myself blessed, that reading and books are such a huge and important part of my life.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Why I Am A Unitarian

There are two ways of explaining why I am a Unitarian - how I became one, and why I have remained one for the past 35 years.

In the first instance, I blame my father! When I was a teenager, it was our family's custom to eat one meal a week all together, Sunday dinner. (The rest of the week he was working late, and we ate earlier, with Mum). During this meal, we would talk about life, the universe, and everything, and it was a treasured and precious part of my life.

One Sunday evening, the conversation turned to Christianity, and I started to sound off about some of the Christian doctrines or beliefs that I couldn't understand or was unhappy about (e.g. the Trinity or the Atonement, or original sin). Dad explained that there was an alternative to mainstream Christianity, which allowed each individual to follow their own reason and conscience, and did not require you to suspend disbelief. He gave me a copy of Alfred Hall's book Beliefs of a Unitarian, and by the time I had read the first two pages, I realised that I was home. The whole book had a profound effect on me, and still does.

Thirty-five years later, I am still a Unitarian, because I find it utterly satisfying as a religious path. It has allowed me to find out about and explore different religious belief systems and traditions, and to take from them the elements that "speak to my condition", to use a Quakerly phrase. Within a Unitarian framework, I have been able to forge my own unique system of beliefs and values, on the basis of which I can live my life, trying to be the best Sue Woolley I can be. And I can be open to new revelations and insights - Unitarianism is not a closed faith. And that is so precious.

My Unitarianism has been influenced by writers who follow many religious paths or none  - Unitarians such as Alfred Hall, Cliff Reed, Philip Hewett and Forrest Church, not to mention some of my fellow ministers; Quakers, Pagans, and an eclectic mix of others, including John O'Donohue, Lionel Blue, Rachel Naomi Remen, Karen Armstrong, Marcus Aurelius, Lao Tse, Vera Brittain and Philip Pullman.

Unitarianism gives me the perfect freedom to work out what gives my life meaning, and a safe and welcoming and enquiring community in which to do the working out. What could be better?

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Thinking Space

Today I received an e-mail which annoyed me. Something that I had counted on was cancelled at short notice, and I was really cross.

My first reaction was to fire off an instant reply, venting my annoyance and disappointment. Fortunately, when my mouse was hovering over the Send button, my guardian angel stepped in and said: "Stop right there! Think about this. You are more than a reflex reaction." I also remembered the wise words of fantasy and science-fiction author Anne McCaffrey, who once caused one of her characters to say: "Make no judgements where you have no compassion."

"Make no judgements where you have no compassion."
In other words, walk a while in the shoes of the person who has irritated you, and understand why they acted the way they did, and then think about whether you can find any parallels in your own life. Don't be so godd*mn self-righteous!
And of course, when I thought about it, there had been a time, fairly recently, when I had acted in a similar way, for reasons which seemed good to me.
So I am glad that I didn't fire off that hasty e-mail. And glad that my guardian angel dictated some thinking space, to make room and time for some compassion.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Making a Sober Choice

Two months ago today, I made a solemn promise to God to quit drinking. I came to recognise that while most other people I knew could easily moderate their drinking, having a glass or two as and when they wanted, I could not. So I decided to bang it on the head while I still could. And having hit the two month mark, it seems like the honest thing to do to share my journey with others. It's not that I'm trying to convert anyone else to a life of sobriety, just explaining why it is right for me.

image: www.designofsignage.com
It took me a long time to recognise that I had a problem with red wine, because I rarely had a proper hangover, and tended to get tipsy rather than drunk, so did not experience the nastier side effects. So I carefully ignored the warning signs - the fact that if I couldn't get my beloved red wine, I'd drink a bit of whatever was around; that I would 'have' to finish the bottle; that I was often drinking at home, even if my other half wasn't; and that every morning I would wake up feeling dried out and under par. But it wasn't affecting my life or my work or my family, so I pushed it to the back of my mind. After all, most of my friends drank wine, and they certainly didn't have a problem, so obviously I didn't.

I first scared myself in March 2012, when, having read an article about alcohol problems in the paper, I sat down and worked out that I was drinking between 2.5 and 5 times the recommended limit per week, and rarely having a day off the booze. But I decided that I could moderate, and drink only at weekends, and see how it went. I was still in denial.

It worked for a while, then I drifted back to my accustomed habit of between half a bottle and a bottle of wine most days. In January 2013, I again tried to moderate - this time I was only going to drink "outside the house." But that didn't work either. I still hadn't realised that moderation only works for people who don't have any kind of emotional dependency.

Then in July 2013, push came to shove. I got pissed in front of people whose good opinion I respected, and the fact that they had been amused by my slurring speech somehow made it worse. After a long talk with my spiritual director, I spent some hours sitting with the shame of it, and faced up to exactly how I felt about continuing to drink - frightened, uneasy and ashamed of my lack of control. During the first week in August, I worked through the process, and made the decision to quit at the beginning of September.

At this point, God got involved, and I decided to make a commitment to Him and to some ministerial friends at our annual conference on 2nd September. Which I did. It was a powerful ceremony. A Bah'ai friend, who gave up drinking over 30 years ago, and who I had gone to for advice, said: "If you've made a promise to God, you can't break it, can you?" The Quaker Advice about "A simple lifestyle, freely chosen, is a source of strength' is also proving very helpful.

And that's all. I have made the choice to stay sober, and intend to stick to it.