Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Japanese Paper

One of the triumphs of the industrial age is the ability to produce thousands of reams of identical sheets of paper, all exactly the same size, weight, thickness and shade. On these, one may, if one wishes, print thousands of identical copies of the same document. On the other hand, in Japan (for example) you can learn how to make paper, one sheet at a time, incorporating whatever interesting materials come to hand, such as lovely colourful maple leaves. No two sheets are the same. Each has wobbly edges, different thicknesses, no doubt different absorbencies. On these, one may draw a picture, or hand-write a personal letter, a beautiful thought or a charming haiku. I just thought I would mention this.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Magic Eye

Back in the 1990s, someone brought out the Magic Eye books – maybe you remember them. Each page had a complicated pattern, with shapes of leaves or abstract images repeated, like brightly coloured wallpaper. However, designed with a computer, every so often there was a subtle tweak in the pattern, that you couldn’t consciously see. The knack of it was, if you didn’t focus on the pattern itself but gazed through it, a hundred feet past it, so to speak, then somehow your brain reconstructed the pattern and you could see a totally different image, a deer or a teddy bear or goldfish, emerge as foreground with the original pattern as background. It was clearly visible once you got it – almost in 3D. You could virtually look it up and down. I’ve said it was a knack. What you did was, you stopped consciously looking. You gazed, soft focus, and didn’t try to see it. You relaxed all conscious effort, let your eyes freewheel and your mind run down, and your brain would do the job for you. Your contribution was simply to know that it was possible and to expect it to happen. When the new image emerged, you could gaze on it in wonder. Maybe you can already see where I’m going with this: Regarding the Spirit, you can stop consciously striving. You don’t try to believe. As Yoda tells Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, “Try not. Do or do not – there is no try.” If you relax the effort, let your mind freewheel until it has run down, just let your inner self get on with it, then you may get hold of a new awareness, which is quite different from the everyday awareness, and stands out from it in high relief. The caddis worm potters about on the bottom of a stream, incorporating whatever bits and pieces of material happen to be around into its DIY tube, which protects it from harm. I believe that we can potter through life, sifting our experiences, gazing past the everyday bustle and sometimes catching a glimpse of the beyond, on which we are able to gaze in wonder. The world is our stream bed. We are here, we have to live here, we have to acknowledge the world, but we don’t have to take it too seriously. Live in it, use it wisely, be a good steward, pass it on to the next generations in better shape than you found it, if you can – don’t get stuck in it. The world is your paper: write on it, draw on it, fold it into beautiful shapes, or a paper plane and fly it.

Friday, 1 June 2012

On being a Quaker

Britain Yearly Meeting have got a new badge. A Quaker Q with writing round the edge:  I’m a Quaker ask me why.
It’s an outreach effort to get Friends to ‘come out’ as Quakers and open up conversations with people who might want to know more. I work for the outreach team and our aim was to get everyone to leave Yearly Meeting wearing one. So although I’m not a badge wearer I put one on.
The Yearly Meeting session on Sunday afternoon was on the topic of ‘What it means to be a Quaker today’ and was the start of an ongoing process that Quakers in Britain will be exploring for the next few years. The questions behind this are important for us to explore – What does it mean for my life to be a Quaker? What have we got to offer? How do we reach out to those who would like to be with us but don’t know it yet? – and the introduction by Geoffrey Durham was engaging.
He urged us to think deeply and explore adventurously. To value highly the benefits of Quaker discipline and experience and to take what we have found out into the world positively. We have riches Friends, we have much to offer. But the rest of the session didn’t speak to my condition. It felt to me that people got distracted with ideas rather than speaking from their own experience.
I left at the end of the day tired, a bit confused and without really thinking that I was still wearing my badge. And then at the bus stop a young woman asked me about it, asked me what it said and then challenged me with my own question.
‘Go on then,’ she said, ‘why are you a Quaker?’
Internally I flailed slightly but managed to keep my balance.
‘Well, I guess it’s because I love being a Quaker.’
She didn’t know about Quakers, she hadn’t heard of us at all but she wanted to talk and within her limits she was willing to listen.  It turned out she’d just had a difficult encounter with someone who said he was a Baptist and who had told her that she was going to hell because she wasn’t saved. This was a vulnerable young woman, who as our conversation unfolded disclosed past abuse by her father, whose eyes filled tears when she thought about her foster mother having survived cancer three times and who is currently out of work, behind on her rent, playing poker for money and thinking of returning to lap dancing because the money is good.
We got on the same bus and she came to sit next to me to continue talking. She was well turned out but had the translucent skin and sculpted cheekbones of someone who doesn’t eat enough. She judged herself for her ‘badness’ whilst holding out hope of a God she does believe in ‘more like a spirit though, something inside me’. 
She talked, I listened. Where I could I gently encouraged the possibility of a loving message, of ‘that of God in everyone’ and of a continuing process of turning towards the light. I didn’t at any point try suggesting she should come to Quaker meeting or go into any details of what it’s like or what I have discovered there. Not because I don’t want her to come to one, but because I had the sense that it was more important just to be with her, offer my listening for free with no pressure. To hold her in the light as a precious child of God for the short time we had together.
As I got off the bus I said that it had been good to meet her. ‘Vanessa isn’t it?’ I checked, and she nodded. I put my hand on her shoulder. ‘I’ll remember you Vanessa,’ I found myself saying.
She’d probably be surprised how important our meeting was for me. She brought me right to the centre of why it is that I am a Quaker. My conversation with Vanessa didn’t just let me talk about why I’m a Quaker, it allowed me to be more fully Quaker. Because through being a Quaker I have experienced the transforming power of God’s love and our conversation arose from and was imbued with that love.  
If wearing a badge can help open me to opportunities to be a more faithful Quaker then for me, that’s a badge worth wearing.