Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Is it a Gift to be Simple?

It is a dingy South London classroom, sometime in the past - my past. In the room are at least two people; one of them is Miss O’Keefe, my teacher, and the other one is my mother. My father may also be in the room, but I doubt it.  I may have been in the room myself, but I don’t remember it.  I think of the scene happening in black and white – everything was black and white in those days, or perhaps not black and white at all, more a multi-shaded grey. More than likely I was not in the room, but waiting outside in a dark corridor on an uncomfortable wooden chair – I remember spending a lot of time in corridors. Miss O’Keefe and my mother have come to a decision - they are going to change me for ever.  It is for my own good, they feel full justification and have no doubts about the correctness of their actions. They are going to change me from a little boy who is left-handed into a little boy that is right-handed.

Today we understand that ‘handedness’ is all to do with the brain, but in those less sophisticated days of not too long ago, handedness was considered to be a matter of the hand – nothing more. Children with a ‘lazy eye’ had a pair of spectacles fitted with a plastic cover on that eye; this made the other eye work harder. To Miss O’Keefe, hands were just like eyes. Miss O’Keefe was my teacher’s real name.  I think I can safely use it as she seemed well over a hundred years old and must certainly have died long ago. To my eyes at the time, she bore a striking resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West and seemed a pretty good personality match as well!  Miss O’Keefe was not a woman to be told she was wrong - she had decided that to change my handedness was simple – just tie the left hand behind the back each day at school and the right hand would simply take over. The tying was done, I remember, with a length of stiff green school ribbon, the type used to tie school whistles around the teacher’s neck. The tying was done each morning and released only at break times and lunchtime. My mother was given strict instructions that I was not permitted to use my left hand at home and my parents complied by stopping me writing or drawing or eating with my left hand.
So simple was my response, I stopped writing, I stopped drawing and, for a while I stopped eating as well. Eventually they won the battle and I started to use my right hand. I can just picture the mean and twisted smile on Miss O’Keefe’s face when victory was assured.

Being left-handed was not my only ‘difficulty’; I was also a ‘mirror writer’. This is not uncommon – if a mirror writing child is given a sentence or a string of numbers to copy, they do it, but in a mirror image starting on the left of the page and working to the right. It is an indication of nothing very much, but to Miss O’Keefe it was a sign of extreme laziness and required a severe telling off. More than once the telling off was so severe that I wet myself – this brought even stronger condemnation and punishment.

As an adult I write with my right hand, in fact my left hand is pretty much without function except for using a mouse on the computer which I am unable to use right-handed at all. Some things that I have never mastered I blame on this ‘changing of hands’ in my early years. I cannot for instance drive a car – even lessons from a teacher of disabled drivers failed to turn me into anything other than the world’s worst driver. So what I am an environmentalist - I love public transport and the world is better for having one less driver in it, but still .... it might have been nice at least to have had the option of not driving rather than having it thrust upon me. Is this lack of ability the result of my brain having to rewire itself to being right handed? Who knows.  I am told that people that have undergone this kind of change are often unable to fire a rifle with any accuracy, but as a pacifist vegetarian who has never picked up a rifle in my life, this is no problem at all! In addition I am an awful speller, often getting the middle parts of words entirely reversed so ‘indicator’ might be written as ‘indtacior’ and a phone number with ‘987536’ might be remembered as ‘935786’. This I blame on the childhood mirror writing and cannot say how having my handedness changed affected it.

I am getting angry as I write this, thinking about why this was done to me without my permission.  I could have been less troubled by being left alone. I am so angry that I am going to burst into that room and stop the decision being made. I am going back...

The door bursts open and I enter the room.  It is so strange to be back in that greyness, my mother and Miss O’Keefe look shocked and Miss O’Keefe is about to tell me off when I start to speak. This is weird!  It is me talking, but with my five year old voice – I can feel the lack of lung capacity behind what I am saying and this makes me feel so small and venerable. I say;

‘There is nothing, NOTHING wrong with being left handed, nothing wrong at all.  Leonardo da Vinci was left-handed, and a life-long mirror writer, Albert Einstein was left-handed, Winston Churchill was left handed, plus a whole load of US Presidents and Marilyn Monroe.’  Miss O’Keefe is just starting to open her mouth - I need to shout out to stop her... ‘Jimmi Hendrix was left-handed,  and Paul McCartney.’  I can see I’ve lost them at this point. ‘Paul McCartney from the Beatles.’  No.  They just look at one another in puzzlement. I understand what has happened - they think I’m crazy.  My mother is looking under the table to conceal her embarrassment - ‘Paul McCartney is a Beatle not a beetle’ I shout, but my mother has unceremonially lifted me from the floor and I am being carried crying and screaming from the room. I have ruined my chance to change my life by a stupid anachronism  - the Beatles haven’t happened yet.

In 1964, Quakers in the UK published a statement called ‘Towards a Quaker View of Sex.’  It has a very famous quote in it; ‘One should no more deplore homosexuality than left-handedness.’ This is outstanding - such an enlightened view in 1964 – Miss O’Keefe was still alive, for heaven’s sake! What she was doing to left-handed children (presumably I was not the only victim over her long career in the classroom), psychiatrists were doing to gays – trying to make them something they were not!

If you are a parent it is wrong to try and change your children from the way they are; of course you have to feed them, clothe them, house them, educate them and  love them, but don’t try to change them. If they are left handed that’s the way they are – leave them alone. If your child is growing up gay then why not leave them alone – a list of high-achieving gays is as long as the list of high achieving left-handers. If they are boys that are too feminine or girls that are not feminine enough just leave them alone. Love them, look after them, cherish them and leave them alone. Perhaps they will grow into high achievers or perhaps just into decent, simple, happy adults.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

One of the ways to ‘be simple’ is to not make things more complicated than they need be – like bringing up children.

(C) Ray Lovegrove 2011


Famous left-handers;
Simple Gifts;
Towards a Quaker View of Sex;

What's Hay Quaker up to this week?
  • sowing some late lettuce in the polytunnel (always the optimist)
  • planting rhubarb
  • planting garlic
  • digging bean trench for next summer

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My Life as a Hedge

This weekend, during a rare sighting of the sun, I decided to get stuck into the hedge and do some work. We have about 600ft of hedge to maintain and it involves a lot of work over the course of the year.   It is as mixed as a hedge can be, with hawthorn, hornbeam, oak, holly, yew, privet and elder with a fair amount of bramble, ivy and bryony thrown in for good measure.   It forms a boundary around much of the property, but so much better than a wall or a fence. You can date a hedge (very roughly) by walking for thirty paces and counting the different, established species of shrub – each species accounts for a hundred years of hedge life. This makes the estimated age of our western hedge as being 500 years and that on the northern boundary 100 years.  Without doubt, part of it is older than our 140 year old house.

Hedgerows are perhaps the most diverse man-made environment you will find in Britain. Apart from the shrubs themselves, many smaller plants grow at the base of the hedge and many wild birds nest in its branches. Ours is a mainly dry hedge and provides housing for hedgehogs, toads and slow-worms  (as well as plenty of smaller creatures for them to eat); wetter hedges provide a home for bog plants, frogs and newts. Hedges last a long time due to the constant renewal of the shrubs themselves, but plants die or are damaged by weather, animals and careless humans.  Repairing a hedge calls for the skills of a ‘hedger‘ and a little hedgelaying - the art of weaving the living hedge into a lasting stock-proof barrier.

The exact pattern for hedgelaying varies around the country.  This design is popular in the Welsh Marches.  Remember this is a living hedge; after a few weeks it will be green with leaf and have a long lifespan.

Those who ‘do’ hedgelaying as a job are invariably weather-toughened men who have skin resembling the hides of elephants and the skill of a true artist. I have seen them working in freezing conditions without gloves, in amongst the brambles and thorns.  Carefully they turn an overgrown line of shrubs into a beautiful hedge.  For aesthetic reasons I have not included any pictures of my own attempts at hedgelaying, but it mainly involves finding a long branch of one shrub and weaving it through the stems of others. It works!

I wonder what those hedgelayers think about whilst creating their living length of knitting?  I think of Celtic knots – the comparison is obvious (well to me anyway) - the hedge is a Celtic knot! The Celts saw all things as being connected; in Celtic art this reveals itself as intricate patterns having neither starting nor end point - it all joins up.  Like the hedgelayers, the Celts realised that strength comes from interconnection.  Interconnection leads to strength through support – that’s important in hedges and important in almost anything else you can name.

In my youth I was very keen on compartmentalising my life. I had work, I had home.  I had what I studied, I had what I liked, I had this group of friends, I had this other group of friends.  Why I felt like this I cannot say, but I do remember how important it all seemed at the time? I also remember that it took a deal of organization, just in case some aspect of one ‘box’ should spill into another – this would result in personal disaster.  We change as we grow and for that I am thankful.  Nowadays, things are different; my life is messier but the interconnections are obvious and important.  Whether I am cooking, gardening, reading, talking, writing, cleaning, child caring or whatever, it’s part of the pattern.  Just like my hedge, it is hard to say what is supporting and what is being supported.

Today in my life I have no position, I have no morals, I have no ethics,  I have no point to make, I have no ‘axe to grind’, I have no politics, and I have no religion. I have instead a complex mesh of values and beliefs with long strands of simplicity, peace, equality and justice holding them together. In my life, politics and religion can no longer be separated from one another –they are just part of the pattern.  A long scarf, knitted from experience. Today  I have no family life, I have no social life, I have no work life, I have no other life - I just have my wonderful life, my Celtic knot, my living hedge – all is connected, all is interwoven, all is together.

(c) Ray Lovegrove

My hedge


For hedge lovers;
To date you hedge (go on just ask it!)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Tree Quaker

For some people, the great spiritual highs of their lives (apart from those “once in a while” things like graduating, getting married, having children etc), involve some form of religious worship, meditation, music or art. These things work for me too, but I can add one other form of spiritual involvement, enlightenment and pure joy to this list - the planting and growing of trees.

The joy comes not so much from the physical labour involved, as much as the pure beauty of them as they grow through the years, and the awareness of how long they will live. When I am dead, my plantings will live on after me, perhaps to irritate future generations or, I hope, delight them.  Any time when I have ten minutes to spare, I walk around the garden, just looking, and often touching the trees. To do this with a cup of tea in one hand on a sunny morning is as close to bliss as I can imagine.

A note for those who do not live in Britain or Ireland;   to successfully inhabit these damp and chilly isles on the western fringe of Europe, it is necessary to drink large quantities of hot tea. It is also advisable to learn to do as many things as possible with a cup of tea in one hand. If any job should require the use of both hands at once, then a cup of tea must be placed within nine inches of your leading hand for easy access. If, for instance, you are two-hand typing on a keyboard and the phone rings- then you can stop typing, reach for the phone with one hand and the tea with the other. With luck you can take a hot mouthful before speaking – if not, that accounts for the strange sounding, almost gurgling, ‘hello’ that you hear from the other end of the line!

When we first moved to our current house some eight years ago it had just three, established trees in the gardens. The gardens are sizable, consisting of the original land of a Victorian house, plus an old orchard that had been cleared and levelled by the previous owner. No sooner had the removal van moved on before I, spade in hand, had started planting. Within the first week I had added a mulberry, walnut and two apple trees; within a year several more joined these early members of the family, until, at the latest count, I had reached nineteen (not counting the original three) with two more on order for later on this autumn. Why?  Because I love every aspect of the tree - and the tree in all its forms is a wonderful thing to behold.

I find it no surprise that the original inhabitants of these isles, well before the introduction of Christianity, were tree worshippers. The Celts left very little in the way of written explanations of their beliefs, but we know that trees paid an important role in their lives. Trees are big and slow to grow.  We watch them set the pace for the seasons with bud, flower, leaf and fall; and we know that much of them can not be seen -  the roots of the tree reach deep into the darkness of the earth and draw up water and nutrients from the depths.  We love the products of the tree; fruit, nuts and wood and we love what the wood is used for; building timber, furniture, firewood and books. As if this were not enough, we should also remember that the tree gives beauty, form and structure to our natural and man-made landscapes.

Every few years or so I, for want of amusement, will do one of those on-line ‘which religion are you tests’.  Perhaps you have done the same yourself in an idle moment. First of all, I have to say, top marks for the people that set up the tests to differentiate between a ‘liberal Quaker’ and a ‘conservative Quaker’ - this is one of those things that keeps we Quakers talking for hours, but strangely enough doesn’t seem to set the rest of the world on fire. Secondly, they have produced a fairly well-constructed set of questions that avoid the obvious clich├ęs about religious groups.

These are my top three results from the latest time I have tried this test.  (By the way, should you want to try this yourself, please find the link below);

Liberal Quakers 100%, Unitarian Universalism 97% Neo-Pagan 95%.

Well - no surprise for the first one.  I became a Quaker by convincement as a teenager.  Unitarian Universalism ... again no surprise - I have a deep interest in Unitarianism and have many ‘UU’ friends.  Quakers and Unitarians share much and (in the UK) have a long history of cooperation and common causes. It was the neo-paganism that surprised me. The surprise came not in the revelation that I might have the odd ‘pagan tendency’ but that the test was so good at picking this up! How could they know about the trees!

Before you get the idea that I am a tree worshipper, or that I dance (naked or otherwise) around the trees in my garden, let me clear matters up. I cite the words of the Celtic Christian monk Columbanus in my defence.  He said:
          “If you want to understand the Creator, understand created things”.
 He was right – as was the medieval philosopher Eriugena when he wrote:
           "God speaks to us through two books: the 'little book' of Scripture and the 'big book' of creation".
Whatever your religion, and whatever your scripture, you can enhance your life and grow your sprit with a little gardening.

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2011

The religion test
The Planting of a Tree ~ George Orwell
The Apple Tree (old hymn)
For the Oak Tree Within an Acorn  (prayer) ~

What's Hay Quaker up to this week?

The old poly-tunnel has had it's day and has been stripped of its outer layer;
  • old polythene bagged up for recycling
  • remaining green tomatoes, chillies and aubergines harvested for chutney making
  • ducks free to forage over the exposed floor for slugs and larvae
  • wooden frame to be dried for wood-burning stove
  • remaining hoops to be used for a fruit arch next summer
Nothing goes to waste!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

About Tages

It’s November - not the most inviting month of the year. How is it that some months last longer than others? I know that some have thirty days and some have thirty one etc., but some are much longer than others. April, May, June all flit by far too fast – it’s just possible to get the sweet flavour of them ... and then they are gone. Even wistful September slips away from us before we can start to appreciate all that she has to offer before mellow October moves in, but November goes on forever! I can still remember as a boy, waking up and rushing downstairs to ask my mother ‘is November over yet?’ She would only look down at her feet and shake her head, saying ‘no it’s still here’. November is like an unwanted guest that comes to visit and always outstays his welcome.  

At least if you are an American you have the joy of Thanksgiving, family food and a long weekend off from work ; not in Britain, we suffer every day of November without any time off for good behaviour. We do, it’s true, have the 5th of November as a kind of celebration; it’s called ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ or, more commonly ‘Bonfire Night’ or ‘Firework Night’. This came into being not really because of the conspirator Guido Fawkes, but because the puritan Oliver Cromwell disliked the celebration of Halloween and had it banned.  As a result, people just danced around a bonfire a few nights later, calling it a different name. In recent years, Halloween has had a resurgence in the UK and Firework Night is beginning to lose its hold.
Let’s face it, the best time to have fireworks would be the 4th July or Bastille day (14th July) or even Chinese New Year at the end of January.  But no - we in Britain decide to have our fireworks in the dampest, foggiest, rainiest month of the year – November! Anyone brave enough to stand out in the cold and damp for hours on end, trying to light a firework, deserves better than to see the odd pathetic flash of light in the murky filth of a November evening. The bonfire, if it has not been soaked by the preceding week of rain, will pour out polluting smoke to make the unhappy spectators choke as they try to eat their lukewarm, damp and tasteless food. And that is only in the first week of this endless month of misery!

Quakers, as you will know, are not great ones for celebrations. The idea is that every day is a sacred gift of God and that setting days aside as ‘special’ really has no meaning. Having said this, most ‘modern Quakers’ will take breaks at Easter and Christmas as  secular holidays, because the rest of the world does so, and, after all, it’s a break. I myself as a Quaker was once very dismissive of all festivals until I came upon the strange Etruscan myth of Tages, by chance. The Etruscans lived in Italy before the Romans, and much of their mythology became incorporated into Roman mythology with time. I would like to boast that I came across this myth by reading Ovid but to be honest, it was discovered in a book of Roman myths that I was reading to my eldest son while waiting for the school bus a few years back. The story instantly appealed to me and I have woven it into my appreciation of the passing of each year ever since.

Once a man was ploughing a field and came upon something strange in the soil. At first he thought that it was a stone, but being of a strange pale colour, he decided to investigate it and found it warm to the touch. On digging around the strange object it soon became clear that this was the head of a human baby. The baby was young yet could speak like an old man. Soon a crowd gathered around the baby and it began to talk, telling of many things that would be the basis of the Etruscan (and later Roman) religions. The most amusing prophesy concerns chickens , whom Tages said hold secrets in their bodies, waiting to be laid as eggs. Killing the chickens and reading their entrails can reveal the secret but it may take many years of training to learn to do this. Tages eventually turned into an old man before dying and returning to the Earth from which he had come. One of his final and seemingly most important statements was about festivals – Tages warned that festivals must be kept because festivals are the columns that hold up the year.

I like that the idea that by keeping festivals you are maintaining the shape of the year.  Without them the year would just go on and meander along; those fixed points are important. Some things are predetermined for us depending on where we live; spring, first frost, leaf fall etc, but other things we build ourselves; birthdays, wedding anniversaries,  MLK day, Thanksgiving and even the soggy festival of Guy Fawkes Night!

So to all American readers of this blog - enjoy the build up, preparation and execution of Thanksgiving and enjoy the time with your loved ones. For those of us who just have a long month of damp days to endure, may I remind you of the words of one of my favourite Quakers who happens, (by a strange twist of fortune) to be one of my favourite Unitarians as well, Susan B Anthony who writes about ordinary days.

"Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these."

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2011

More about Tages
More about Guy Fawkes
More about Susan B Anthony

Thomas Hood poem about November

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Beating the Clock

It is no longer summer, fairly soon it will be no longer autumn either and the winter will be upon us. People prepare for the change in seasons in various ways and I, perhaps like you, give such preparations a deal of thought. It is not the coldness of winter that I think about (though in our old stone-built Victorian house, coldness is very much a fact of life every winter), as much as the darkness. So, as well as getting plenty of logs chopped and providing protection for the overwintering plants, I take trouble to prepare myself. Winter clothing for sure but also I need to dust off my light-box and stock up with 5-HTP and St. John’s Wort. Winter for me, as you might have guessed by now, means the almost inevitable return of ‘SAD’ (Seasonal affective disorder).

Please, don’t think that I am going to relate my symptoms to you or describe in any way the effect that it has on my life, because I’m not going to do that at all. Neither am I going to theorize about why I, and millions of others, suffer from this (except I do blame my Scandinavian ancestors fully). I only intend to mention it as one reason why the change in season is so important to me and how I live. Once I worked and lived in a city and the changing seasons meant something to me, but now I live and work in the countryside and the changing of the seasons means so much more.

Darkness starts to creep into my life from mid-September and, by the end of October, its effects are very obvious. In the UK we do something strange at the end of October - we ‘put the clocks back’ as a method of reversing the daylight saving time of summer. I know in North America you do this a little later – into November. What this means is that ‘early wakers’ like me find themselves roused from sleep in the early hours of the morning - and thus tired out by early evening – it takes me several weeks to settle into a new pattern. Add to this the fact that various children and animals around the house and garden all get hungry an hour earlier than they are due to be fed, and get ‘tired and emotional’ from late afternoon onwards. I have met people that claim to hardly notice the effects of this tampering with time, but for me, it is hard.

This gets me to my real point – it is about that darkness. As far as I’m concerned, you can forget that ‘hello darkness my old friend’ line. If we read material from the days before electric lighting, we find that light becomes all important. In religious writing, terms like ‘lighten our darkness’ and ‘light of the world’ are charged with an emotion that our modern ways may well have divorced us from. Poems, hymns books and paintings all stress the importance of light to us humans. Has that importance really been overcome? Are we somehow kidding ourselves? Does clicking on our (energy-efficient) light bulb when we enter a dark room really provide us with the kind of light we need? Is artificial lighting any kind of substitute for one of the most wonderful things in the world – the pure bright sunlight of summer?

Darkness is imposed upon us; it stops us doing what we want when we want, it stops us growing the kind of crops we want to grow and generally gets in the way of our free-flowing existence. The industrialization of the world depended on that fairly simple device, the light bulb, being developed. Of course we are thinking of darkness that is outside us - a simple lack of light - but there is also an inner darkness which has just as profound an effect on our existence. No light bulb can help with this one – it is pitch black and it doesn’t only affect us at night, nor only in winter. Loss, pain, disappointment, grief, betrayal, poverty and lack of hope all contribute to this inner darkness and many of us find ourselves overwhelmed by its ability to block the light from our lives, even when the sun shines.

It is unusual for a ‘Quaker blog’ to quote Richard Nixon (can anyone guess why?), but that is just what I am going to do. At the very dark time of Nixon’s leaving of the White House he said in his resignation speech, “only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be at the highest mountain”. Could we reasonably draw from this the idea that without darkness we can never ‘see the light’ and does that stand for internal as well as external darkness?

Quaker Elizabeth Watson wrote;
"Darkness is no less desirable than light. It is rather, a rich source of creativity… First there is the darkness of the earth in which the seeds wait all through the winter. Second, there is the darkness of the womb in which the young mammal grows into sufficient viability to be born and take its place on earth, as a separate being…. And third, there is the darkness of night, when the garish sun has gone down and the things of earth are blotted out, and we may glimpse the vastness of the universe of which we are part…

We say that God is the Inner Light, but I want to affirm that also the Inner Darkness, and I do not mean desolation or evil, but a quiet waiting and creativity. 'The darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to thee*.'"

(c) Ray Lovegrove 2011

*Psalm 139:12 'Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.' King James Bible.