Vegetables and sadness

How should we feel about trying to save the planet?

A joke has been doing the rounds again on Facebook. It’s a conversation between two people: the first one says, “Wakey wakey eggs and bakey.” The second ones says, “But I’m a vegan” and the first one replies, “Wakey wakey vegetables and sadness.”

It’s a joke about how delicious bacon is, right? It’s a joke about how vegans are depriving themselves of good things because they’re… what? Sanctimonious? A lot of things like this aren’t funny unless some people think they’re true, and when I read this joke for the umpteenth time I suddenly realised that at some level it’s about this post, which I have been trying to write for a while.

When I write or talk about wanting to change my lifestyle to have a lower carbon footprint, there are people who are supportive and people who aren’t – but in both groups, I find there are some people who want to tell me how to feel.

(Hint: telling me – or probably anyone – what I should feel about anything is basically a hiding to nothing. That has, in my experience, never stopped anyone trying.)

There are the people who want me to be happy, and as a consequence suggest that I should eat eggs/bacon/whatever makes them happy. (Here’s a food which makes me happy: Linda MacCartney sausage rolls. Vegetables and sadness indeed!) There are people who want me to be happy, and as a consequence are very worried that I might be feeling guilty about something. (A bit of guilt isn’t that bad. If it’s crippling or out of proportion, that’s a problem. If it’s information for the decision-making process about the cons as well as the pros of, for example, flying across the Atlantic for a conference, then it’s just that – information.) There are the people who don’t want to do whatever I am doing or proposing to do at that moment, and consequently need me to admit that whatever it is does or would make me feel bad. (The people who couldn’t live without a car are a good example. Does being a non-driver affect my transport choices? Absolutely. Do I dislike it? Only when some ridiculous planning scheme means there’s no way to get to the cinema by public transport. You know who you are, Silly Local Council and Failure of a Bus Service.) And there are the people who want me to be happy, and consequently want me not to worry my pretty little head about the environment, and definitely not to make the difficult lifestyle changes which actually cutting one’s carbon footprint might demand.

I am experimenting with the following radical proposal: it’s okay to choose to do things which make me feel bad sometimes. As outlined above, a lot of the things which people think would be difficult actually aren’t – being a vegan does not equate directly to sadness if you eat a wide range of plant-based foods instead, and not owning a car does not equate directly to loneliness if you are able to access a good public transport system. But some things are still difficult – refusing to fly to see friends, for example, when that would be cheaper or even the only way to make it possible. And that’s okay. That’s a case where I’m clearly allowed to choose, and there comes a point at which I’d rather name and own, and respect, that sadness than have the guilt of flying when I didn’t really need to. Guilt that someone would probably tell me I shouldn’t be feeling.

Next time someone says that sort of thing to me, maybe I’ll ask them: whose feelings are you trying to control? Mine? Or yours?

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Shoes

I need new shoes.

I need them to:
* fit well (on feet which are not the shape of the last they use for ‘normal women’ feet, so to achieve this I need a wide-fit option and/or to buy from the so-called ‘men’s’ range),
* have genuine arch support (so that it passes inspection by doctors and physios),
* be hard-wearing (I walk an average of perhaps two miles a day and hate shoe shopping), and
* be waterproof, and black, and smart enough to wear to work.

Ideally, I want them to be:
* ethically produced
* climate-friendly
* not involving the death of an animal.
I eat mainly vegan and people think I’m a hypocrite when they realise my shoes are leather (although I would also feel like a hypocrite if I had plastic shoes which turned out to have a higher greenhouse gas emission).

Ideally ideally, I’d also have some choice about what kind of gender markers my shoes display, but fit and comfort and ethics all tend to come first.

Usually, in order to fulfil the first list I end up at Clarks again, but obviously this doesn’t meet the requirements of the second list. At the moment I am wearing my old pairs of Clarks shoes to death, but I can see the end coming. People who are interested in the second list mainly seem to buy shoes online, but I suspect I’d spend a lot of money on return postage before I met the first list’s requirements that way. (I don’t mind spending good money for good shoes, but I’d rather spend it on shoes than on returning pairs of shoes that don’t fit!) I have needed new shoes for some time, but I hate making this kind of decision.

Actually, I had written most of this post when, a few days ago, my current shoes seemed particularly worn and I happened to be passing a Clarks shop. I found a pair which looked about right, tried them on, tried them on a wide fit – and said to the person who was serving me, “They still seem a bit narrow,” expecting that I wouldn’t be buying any shoes. But this salesperson said, “We have them in a extra wide fitting.” Extra wide fitting! Wonder of wonders! Shoes which are wide enough and not too long and comfortable and black and even slightly femme! And made of leather and plastic. And from a brand which is reliable and hard-wearing. Needless to say, I bought them, which has staved off this problem for another few years while I wear them out.

I’m not sure whether this was the decision making itself for me in a positive way (shopping always seems to me to contain a fair amount of luck/intuition/space for Spirit), or me defaulting to a bad habit because I haven’t the commitment or imagination to escape, but there it is. Invective about how I hate animals and the planet (and support sexist shoe design and all sorts of other terrible things I’d know about if I subscribed to Ethical Consumer) on a postcard please.

Single use plastics

A week ago, I started out with an empty bin. Today, I spread out on the kitchen floor all the things I’ve put it during the week, and photographed them. I haven’t included my recyclables, just the ones which will go straight to landfill.

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This has become a fairly standard exercise in some environmental activist circles, and I knew what to expect. The aim is to motivate giving up single-use plastics. The problem, as a quick inspection of this photograph will reveal, is that to give up single-use plastics pretty much means giving up eating.

In the photograph there are sixteen individual plastic items. Fourteen of them are food wrappers – including the Lockets packet, which is bordering on medicinal. One is the blister pack from some painkillers. One is a train ticket – mostly cardboard but with a plastic/magnetic strip on the back.

Some things I’ve already swapped. The three apple stickers in the picture came from organic apples bought in a paper bag, so that’s less plastic than it might have been.

Three of these items are bread, and if you are about to say that I could have baked it myself using flour from a paper bag (and yeast from a plastic bag, but at least it would be less plastic) you are right. However, I am also a lazy so-and-so whose past attempts to eat only homemade bread have resulted in just not eating bread.

Not shown here are some packets which last for a while – this happened to be the week when I finished a bag of frozen sweetcorn. That usually lasts me over a month and is much more efficient in terms of food waste than buying fresh veg for one person with a moderately unpredictable schedule. I also ate pasta and rice and all sorts of other things also stored in plastic bags.

Also not shown here is the growing pile of damson stones which I will probably end up putting in landfill because there’s no way they’ll compost in my little bin. Since the damson tree is providing a large amount of plastic-free fruit, though, this might be a trade-off of some kind.

This post does not have a happy ending. It has a pit of despair – how will I ever help to save the planet if I can’t feed myself while I’m doing it? – and some questions. To what extent is this my fault, as an individual, and to what extent is it a structural failing in the system within which I live? How much am I cheating by not including recyclables? How far can I get outside this system, and how far can I work to change it while I’m also supporting it by buying these products? How long can one live on nothing but organic sweet potato?

Personal and social transformation: should we share more of our struggles?

What am I going to do about it? This is a recurring question when people bring up this big issues of the day – and I suppose I mainly have climate change and climate justice in mind here, although other forms of social justice will be close behind. Coming away from Yearly Meeting Gathering, a week in which I have heard many people urging the community to act and act quickly, many people talking in more or less abstract terms about movement building, and, as someone put it in conversation, many “impassioned pleas for something”, it seems like an important question.

My instinct is to look for something clear and preferably dramatic to which I can commit in my own life. Change made, rules nice and simple, done. That’s what I did in 2011, when my Quaker community made our original commitment to being a sustainable community and I went vegan as a result. Of course, being vegan isn’t actually a single change, and the rules are neither clear nor simple, and it’s never done. There will always be a time when there’s no vegan option, and an argument about why it would be more environmentally friendly/socially just to eat local venison/sheep’s milk/misshapen avocados/nothing but water, and the eternal shoe problem, and someone on Facebook who thinks I’m the scum of the earth for eating Lockets with honey, and compromises to make even within plant-based food (like this: organic soy milk and a vitamin tablet, or fortified but non-organic soy milk?). For just as long, I’ve wished I could commit to going plastic-free. Wouldn’t it be clean, and simple, and give off the impression of being morally good, to not have anything to send to landfill?

It would also have the consolation of being extremely difficult, taking up a lot of time and energy and attention and thought, and being easy to explain to people and show off about. It would be satisfying because it would be entirely within my control – and its effects would be very minor, because it would involve going to considerable lengths for results which only affect my life. It is, if not a selfish answer, then at least an introverted one. Like other ways of shaving a tiny little bit off one’s own environmental impact, it lends itself to lots of research (and a certain amount of arguing on social media) and not to reaching out or making common cause with others.

(This might, of course, be just another excuse for not doing it, because it’s difficult and tiresome. But I think it can be an excuse AND genuinely onto something about why it appeals.)

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Allotment produce. Easy to brag about on social media, difficult to live on.

When I think about trying to break out of this way of thinking – moving the focus away from controlling the effects of my own life and towards working with others to change the world – I don’t really know what I’m aiming for. I am rather inclined to tell myself, for example, that I don’t really know any people, or that I don’t know the right people, or that I can’t do anything because most of the people I know don’t live in the same city. These things have a grain of truth – but I also have nearly 600 Facebook friends and my blog posts often have fifty to a hundred readers, so my sense of shouting into the void is mainly an illusion.

One of the things which creates this illusion is the choices I make about what to share and what to keep private. Sometimes I think this is right – my online presence is, among other things, a professional one, and some things about my life should be left out of that (everyone moans about work sometimes… except me, obviously, this is still a public space!). Sometimes it’s just a personal choice – I could tell you about the train wreck which passes for dating in my world, or my invisible illnesses, but I don’t think either of us would gain by it. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to post things which are good for my ego – look, I did this and that; look, I got published; look, still vegan; look, no hands! – and keep the moral dilemmas and hard work which underlie these things all to myself. A first step to building a movement around something has to be to talk about it, or I (and you?) will keep imagining being alone with the issue.

That being so, perhaps my next series of blog posts will be about my open questions, the problems I haven’t solved yet in trying to live a sustainable and just life, and the cases where there may be no single right answer. Would you read them? Will you share your own struggles, in writing or in person or somewhere else? (Is it too clear and simple? Too me-focused?)

A place for nerds in the Society of Friends?

One of the questions asked in this year’s Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting is:

  • Do you consider yourself to be ‘spiritual’, or an activist? Do you find the distinction helpful in considering your own journey and experiences?

My answer to this is: neither, and therefore, no.

When I picture an activist, I think of people who do things for which I don’t have the time, energy, or social skills. I do little bits of activism – the kind of things which get mocked in internet articles – like signing petitions, discussing politics with friends, and donating a bit of money now and again. I very rarely go to demonstrations, I almost never hand out leaflets, I’ve never been arrested, and the ways in which I’ve changed my life to bring it into accordance with my principles are mainly invisible. I’m often practical, but I’m by no means an activist.

When I picture someone who is spiritual, I think of people whose spiritual life works in a way which mine doesn’t. I’ve been going to meeting for worship my whole life and I’ve never really been able to ‘centre down’. I don’t have a prayer life to speak of, I’m immune to whatever people get out of sacred music, I like to look at religious art but rarely get beyond looking, and when I read scripture I come away with more questions than answers. I do sometimes have experiences which I can only describe as ‘spiritual’, and I value being in an organised religion because some of our structures help me feel spiritually connected, but whatever ‘being spiritual’ involves, I feel outside the category.

So, what I am? I’m a nerd, a swot, a geek, an over-educated over-thinker. This is, as that link suggests, common among Quakers – but it also, often, unwelcome. In a time when rationality has been staked out as the realm of atheism, there seems to be a trend among the religious towards rejecting thought and rigour. I’ve considered it carefully, and concluded that this could be a terrible mistake. However, because I’ve ‘considered’ and ‘concluded’, I suspect my ideas are liable to be thrown out without being heard, on methodological grounds.

When I call myself a geek or a nerd, people sometimes tell me off for putting myself down. This tells me that these words still have a power which can be reclaimed. After years of bullying and social exclusion for being ‘weird’ and ‘clever’, for being articulate enough to give right answers in class and bothering to do so, for enjoying learning and working hard at it, I’m not going to start pretending not to think. I admit it: I think about things at home, I think at work, I even think in Meeting for Worship.

I’m not suggesting that you should do this too (unless you want to). For me, though, prayer and philosophy are closely connected. To think something through, to consider it from all angles, to ask questions like “what do I really know about this?” or “what assumptions underlie the way I am approaching this?” is a way of holding an issue in the Light. Sometimes this leads to activity: “if I hold this view, and this view, then I ought to…” Sometimes this lead to spiritual perspectives: if God loves me as I am, then She’ll love me even if I ask the hard questions.

I am neither spiritual, nor an activist, but approach the world through questioning, thought, and wondering. My Quaker journey is strongly shaped by that even – especially? – when it seems unpopular.

My experience of Meeting for Clearness

I was teaching about Meetings for Clearness the other week – offering people the chance to try it out for themselves using a ‘mini Clearness process’ in which a small group takes it in turns to be the focus person – and that led me to notice and reflect on the extent to which I use my own experience of having a Meeting for Clearness in teaching. In particular, I try and give people the chance to have an experience of the process something like my experience. Even if I don’t, can’t, achieve that, it’s guiding my decisions about how to describe the process and how to introduce people to it.

It also led me to reflect on the fact that I haven’t come across detailed descriptions of individuals’ clearness processes. There are some sets of instructions around, but – perhaps because the process is both relatively unusual, and where it is used in its full form it’s mainly for very personal things, like ‘shall we get married?’ or ‘should I have major surgery?’ – not much in the way of accounts of experience. (If you know of a published account of someone’s Meeting for Clearness, please do let me know in the comments!) That being so, I offer my story here.

I asked for a Meeting for Clearness as part of a wider process of discernment. I was applying for funding to offer my PhD work in Quaker Studies as a workshop which would be free for Quaker Meetings. The funding application called for a ‘market research’ exercise with a Quaker meeting, which I carried out, and for references, which I had; but I felt that this process was a bit thin on its own. The formal demands of the funding application were, for excellent reasons, entirely secular, but the work I wanted to do felt like ministry, so I asked for a Meeting for Clearness in order to bring some spiritual depth to my process of deciding to apply.

I was serving as an elder in my local meeting at the time. I discussed my idea with some other elders – if I remember rightly, this was done informally, and didn’t appear in our minutes. One person agreed to act as a convener (although my impression is that I invited people, double-checked times, etc.). Another offered her house as a venue – my flat was too small, and I was very grateful to be offered hospitality rather than worrying about cups of tea and things on the day! The final group were all people from my local meeting, and included elders, at least one overseer, people with experience of clerking and minute writing, at least one person who had used a Meeting for Clearness for an important decision of her own, and a friend whose similar academic background helped him understand the specifics of the question I was facing. On the day, one person volunteered to write a minute at the end of the process.

I had read up about the process in advance, and talked to some people about it, but in the end we made some adaptions on the day. The one which stands out in my mind is that where much advice suggests that the focus person should listen to but not try to answer open-ended questions which seek to shed light on the issue, I decided to answer them as best I could. We had allowed plenty of time for the process, which made this possible. My answers didn’t lead to a discussion as such (although sometimes there was a bit of back-and-forth), but relieved me of the need to try and remember my responses for later, helped me to find out what I really thought and felt (on the spot responses can be much more revealing than later ones!), and enabled later questions to go deeper rather than working off assumptions about my responses to earlier ones.

We did follow the usual process in other ways. We used silence at the start, at the end, and between contributions. I, as the focus person, explained my question and why I was seeking clearness, uninterrupted. People asked questions which probed my feelings and approach, but didn’t try to relate the issue to their own problems or the needs of others. Perhaps the most powerful part – certainly the part I hope I can reproduce for those who try out ‘mini’ versions of the process – was the feeling of being the centre of attention in a wholly positive way, heard, accepted, lovingly challenged, and supported.

Potential problems and negative feelings were held tenderly rather than glossed over, and, unusually for me, I spoke extensively without going away afterwards thinking ‘I shouldn’t have said that’. (It’s not unusual for me to talk a lot, but I normally spend a lot of time in the middle of the night regretting things I’ve said.) In some ways, it healed wounds from previous Quaker processes where I felt important things had been ignored.

Most of the specific questions have faded with time – this was four years ago now – but one stands out in my memory. Someone (I remember who, I can still see her face) asked what I would do if I applied but didn’t get the funding. I said, roughly, that I would be disappointed, but that I would look for other ways to do the work. I have thought back to that answer many times since then, especially when the work is difficult or frustrating. The final minute says, “we are clear that Rhiannon is led to take this work forward in some way; and we are clear she is the right person to do it”. When I’m stuck with it – even now, well after the end of the funding which prompted the initial process and when the work is taking on new forms – I can come back to this and think: it isn’t just me. Other people, joining with me and paying close attention to pick up even the faintest signals from the Spirit, have seen that there will be a way forward.

As well as producing a minute, the Meeting for Clearness brought me closer to the five Friends who met with me, and offered a support structure for the work in the early stages. I’ve moved away from that local meeting and am no longer in regular contact with all of them, but for some time afterwards people would check in with me: how’s it going? how many workshops have you done? what next? Because they understood that much better what I was doing, they were able to ask more specific and deeper questions, which helped me to feel fully part of that community in a way that routine small talk never seems to achieve.

In Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment, Meeting for Clearness is routinely used in many Area Meetings for couples considering marriage, but rarely for other purposes. I found it so helpful that I think it’s a shame we don’t use it more. What could you benefit from bringing to a Meeting for Clearness? Have you had one before, and if so, was your experience similar or different to mine?

Is it irresponsible to claim that spoken ministry comes from God?

At the Nontheist Friends Network conference, in the questions and discussion after my talk, a friend asked about my approach to ministry. Most of the question was about how we understand ministry in meeting for worship, but along the way he raised a very interesting point – he said (and I paraphrase here, but hope that his point is clear and made in terms he would accept) that he wouldn’t want to claim that his spoken ministry came from anywhere but himself, because so much damage is done in the world by other people who claim that their instructions come from God.

He contrasted this, correctly, with some statements I made in a recent Friends Quarterly article about afterwords and spoken ministry. (No link, sorry; it’s a publication which has yet to reach the internet age.) In exploring the difference between what should be said in afterwords and what should be offered as ministry during worship, I draw a distinction which I think is well-founded in previous Quaker writing, namely between what is inspired by God and given through us, and what comes entirely from us. My questioner at the conference doesn’t think that there is any God external to the world from which such things could come, and in my response in the moment I answered that aspect of the question by suggesting that we may be able to locate God within the community, in such a way that the collective awareness of the people met for worship together hear ‘that of God within them’ into speech. No supernatural; perhaps nothing transcendent, depending how far up/out/down you want that term to go; but a bit more here than us chickens, if you will.

There are other possible answers, but for this post I want to set aside the question about God and focus on the question about the claim I make when I give ministry.

I hope we can agree that giving spoken ministry during Quaker worship is different, socially and experientially, to other forms of public speaking. Even prepared ministry isn’t the same as giving a presentation or making an announcement. It feels different: people talk about being led to speak, finding themselves on their feet, their hands shaking. For me, a pounding heart is usually the first clue, together with a few phrases or a sentence which I keep returning to, which present themselves as needing to be said whether or not I have fully understood them and connected them to what else is going on. It’s also socially different. There are different rules (from the structural, like not speaking twice, to the content, like restrictions on political material) and the reception is different. That goes beyond ‘nobody claps’ to a sense that what is said is weighed and taken seriously.

There’s a connection here to previous conversations on this blog and around Facebook about judging ministry. If we’re taking it all that seriously, of course we want to discuss and judge it and have the best quality ministry we can have – something we often express in terms of wanting it to come from God and be supported, rather than overriden, by the minister’s personal input. What if that’s a terrible mistake? What if, by accepting and using that distinction, we are reinforcing a pattern of social acceptance for anything which is claimed to come from God, even where it runs against our morals? I take this to be the core of my questioner’s worry here.

Firstly, there’s the matter of truth and truth-telling. If I experience my ministry as given by God/dess, I should say so, even if I then need to go on to explain more about what I think that means. That’s truth-telling on my side. Then there’s truth-telling on the other side: who are all these people, out there in the world, claiming to have messages from God, and are they telling the truth about that? Well, it seems reasonable to think that some may be lying. But while I’m prepared to make the claim myself, it seems unfair to say that everyone else, or everyone who’s not a Quaker, or everyone I disagree with, is lying. (Atheists might say: you are all lying. Please allow me to assure you that I may be mistaken, but I do believe what I’m saying! I might be mistaken – fair enough, but I think my evidence, my experience, is enough to run with this hypothesis for now.)

So: I need to say that my ministry comes from God. I need to believe that at least some other people, probably including some I disagree with, are also telling the truth about their experience of this. I had abandoned this blog post around this point, stuck to resolve this, until I heard some ministry which suggested to me a third category of ministry – ministry which acknowledges God but does not come straightforwardly from God. This third kind of ministry of spoken prayer.

In the kind of ministry I was thinking about when, some time ago now, I began writing this post, the minister does not speak to God, and rarely speaks about God. Rather, the minister speaks prophetically, for God or in God’s voice – or, more modestly and more commonly, in the minister’s own voice but sharing something which God has revealed, from God through us. More “and I experienced a great feeling of love” than “God says, She loves you.” (Examples fictional but I hope plausible.) Taking God out of this kind of ministry leaves us with the puzzle outlined above, in which it’s not clear why these things are worth saying, or can’t just be said in a chat over tea, if they don’t have the authority of revelation behind them.

In spoken prayer, though, the minister does not share what God has revealed to them, but rather reveals their own understanding of God’s nature by speaking to God: the words and ideas of the prayer come from us. This is much more like my nontheist friend’s idea of ministry – except that it addresses directly a God whom my friend would take to be a metaphor or useful story. It points, however, to a way in which my initial picture of ministry was too narrow – things which are not from God can still be God-involving ministry, in a Quaker tradition which predates the word nontheist if not the concept. Spoken prayer is uncommon now in British Quakers meetings, but perhaps it can enjoy a revival of sorts if it provides a theological model for the inclusion of nontheist understandings of ministry.

Where would this move leave the question of responsibility? I and my nontheist friend retain equal responsibilities to the truth, to name as best we can the sources of our words. Both of us, and the minister who offers spoken prayer, have a responsibility to our Quaker tradition to speak faithfully as we are led – accepting that we are led by we know not what! The minister who, as I sometimes do, speaks as much on God’s behalf as my own, has a responsibility to acknowledge that other people get apparently contradictory messages from the same source. Beyond that acknowledgement, perhaps I also have a responsibility to engage seriously and positively with the implications of that conflict: to try, for example, to bring other evidence of the holy source of my words. (There’s a whole other post about the fruits of the Spirit in there – especially if I think I can point to them as well or better in the life of my nontheist friend than my own!) The form of spoken prayer, though, points to a way I might engage with that responsibility: by bringing my needs, questions, and struggles before God and the community – or God-within-community if you will – for testing and support or challenge. In that way, I am no longer a lone voice crying in the wilderness, with a message which may be from anywhere, but part of a group who pool their measures of Inward Light, their wisdom and experience, and access to whatever is more or less metaphorically Divine, and can claim to know what God wants us to do.

Finally, note ‘us’. I have observed that in my own experience, my Goddess does not tell me what other people should do, but how I and my community should behave. Although sometimes frustrating, perhaps this is a blessing in the form of a limitation of responsibility for true prophetic calls.