Life and death

I’m sorry about this one, O cheery reader. But dark days seem to call for dark stories, told around a fire with the gloom and the shadows surround you, while the wind howls outside and Jack Frost’s fingers creep under the window towards your neck. Stories about forests and wild things with big teeth, and magic and monsters and ghosts and death. Sorry.

My journey to the office finishes with a walk through a graveyard. Twice a day, at least, I walk past memorials to Georgian and Victorian Presbyterians who were once members of the church where I am now minister. Most of their bodily remains were removed to a cemetery on the edge of town when the church building was redeveloped in the 1980s, but their headstones are still there, around the edge of what we now call the garden.

img_20170103_142115When this church was built, in the 1820s, it was common for churches to be surrounded by their dead. Until the rapid growth of the towns in the early nineteenth century, people living in villages would go about their daily lives with their ancestors in the centre of their community. They would walk past those ancestors on their way into church to join in worship with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” Life lived in the company of the dead.

I was particularly conscious of this at Christmas. For the first time in over 10 years, on Christmas Eve I was able to listen to the carols from Kings College while preparing vegetables. I realized that the last time I had done this, it had been with Dudley, my dear friend who always came to us at Christmas and who died last winter. I had to wipe away a little tear, especially as the Dean on the radio intoned those beautiful words in the prayer that begins the service: “Let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light.” On Boxing Day, sitting at the table with my extended family, we gave thanks not only for the food but also for loved ones who used to be with us at Christmas but are with us no longer, very mindful of course of my nephew, Dan. It felt to me that the celebration was richer for acknowledging our dead loved ones, still loved.

As towns grew and space became scarce, dealing with the dead became the business of the state rather than the church and was done at the edge of town, or even in a different town, rather than in the centre of the community. There was no need for churches to be surrounded by graveyards, although memorial tablets still filled up the internal walls. Nowadays, many churches (like mine) have refurbished and have removed the memorials to the long-dead whom no one remembers. In our drive to be modern we have cut ourselves loose from the past. We don’t hold bibles or hymnbooks in our hands but read selected words on a screen that might also show a picture of the natural beauty that’s out there somewhere beyond our frosted windows. We sing words that were made up just the other day. And we don’t acknowledge the dead.

Talking with colleagues, we remark on how funeral practice has changed. These days it’s more common to have a small committal, perhaps with just immediate family, and a thanksgiving service quite separately. Sometimes no one goes to the committal, as it’s the other side of town and by the time you’ve gone and come back, the sandwiches and half the guests have disappeared. The thanksgiving service is often promoted as a celebration of the person’s life, with several tributes, often humorous, by family members. Talking with colleagues, we agree that it’s good that these occasions are so much more personal than they used to be. But we can’t help feeling that it’s not just the ministers who are being sidelined, it is death itself.

In a fascinating blog on the Dark Mountain website, Charlotte Du Cann writes about the sense of the layers of dead under her feet in her Suffolk village, and imagines their rage against the destruction of the countryside and of village life. She writes, “We are in a spiritual crisis, an existential crisis. We don’t know what it means to be human anymore. We have lost contact with the meaning of our time, our presence here.” In a society that has cut itself loose from history, that doggedly ignores the ancestors, that has built a deathly yet death-denying civilization out of death (dead trees fossilized into coal and dead animals fossilized into oil) and where our pursuit of life can only be at the cost of felled forests and poisoned soil and gaping mines and a greenhouse atmosphere and the mass extinction of wildlife, are we really still human? We have lost contact with our humanity as we have lost touch with the humus, the layers of death that are no longer present in the exhausted earth. We are no longer people of the land to which our ancestors belonged. Instead the land was enclosed, stolen, commodified, sold, exploited. So where do we belong now? Without roots in the humus, who are we? Without roots in God (because there’s no need for God since we nature-defeating, death-defying biological androids think we’ve become gods), who are we, really?

I remember, long ago, my theology teacher, Heather Walton, talking about an ancient African statue she had seen in an art gallery. It was titled “The Prophet” and was a figure of a human, clothed in some tight-fitting costume, with its mouth disturbingly wide open. As she looked closer, Heather recalled her horror to see that the figure was actually clothed in the skin of another human being. She said perhaps all prophets speak from inside the skins of the dead.

What message would we speak from inside the skins of extinct animals? What curses should be screamed?  What prophecy spoken to a death-denying yet deathly civilization?

To ignore the dead is to deny life. If we are to find life – and ways of living – in these dark days while our civilization unravels and the ice melts and the soil shrivels and extinction advances, we need to acknowledge a number of things:

  • We need to acknowledge the dead. We need to own our losses and name our dead and own up to our relatedness to them and show them some respect. We need to find ways of doing this, perhaps in renewed Eucharistic liturgy or other rituals. When we no longer walk past them in their graves and when our feet no longer tread the same paths and work the same land, we need new ways of connecting with our ancestors, not least because that enriches the value we place on those loved ones still living and those yet to come.
  • We need to acknowledge the darkness and the pain in so many lives today. We can’t settle for dealing with problems in the abstract. We need to know names. We need to sit in the darkness with brothers and sisters. If we won’t wear their skins we should at least sit with them. We can hear and re-tell their stories. They are not ‘the poor’ or ‘the refugees’ – they have names and we are related.
  • We need to acknowledge the dead species that will never again live on earth. We need to scream out this tragedy, this crime, this waste, so that it might perhaps stop.
  • We need to acknowledge that we are not likely to solve all the problems that face us. But if we can become human again and know again what that means, the new world that emerges from the ashes of the old might at least have some humanity about it.
  • And, I think, we need to acknowledge God and find ways of articulating spirituality, because I think that connection with God is as important as the connection with the earth for connecting with and receiving a new humanity. While this spirituality will need to have roots in history and learn from ancient traditions, it will also need to be true to the darkness of our present situation. It will need to refuse to collude with philosophies of power or privilege. It will need to resist domesticated or utilitarian views of God. I am increasingly convinced that it will be a spirituality that finds God in nature, in wildness not romance; on a cross outside the town rather than in a tidy garden, even if the garden was once a graveyard.

 

 

 

Banjo

This is my new year resolution.There are many worthwhile issues in my life and my behaviour that I could address and maybe, by so doing, make a little positive difference to the world. But, as Rose Schneiderman put it, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.” So I’m going to learn the banjo.

img_20161231_200037I bought this banjo 3 years ago with money I was given by the churches I was leaving. I enjoy hearing the banjo, especially in bluegrass music, and I’ve been picking a guitar most of my life, so I thought, How hard can it be? The answer is, Very. I have struggled with the open G tuning and I can’t get my head, let alone my thumb, around the chanter string. I’ve wondered about taking off the chanter, tuning the top string up to E and just playing it like a ukulele (but in a different pitch, obviously). I’ve thought about trading it in for a 6-string banjo and playing it like a guitar. I’ve even thought about just giving up and getting rid of it.

But – full of new year’s resolve, I am not going to be beaten. I am going to set aside some time every day to practise and I am going to learn to play the banjo. I’ll report back to you in due course.

In the new world, we’re going to need stories and art and poetry and music, otherwise what’s the point? We’ll need bread, sure, but we’ll also need roses.

 

Loss

I have been to three events in recent weeks that seemed to me to reflect the sense of loss I’m feeling in this post-Brexit, post-US-election, post-sabbatical world.

The first was a local gathering to show solidarity with the protectors at Standing Rock. I’m against unconventional oil extraction and the infrastructure that makes that oil accessible. If we are to keep global temperature rise to less than 2 Celcius, we need to keep most of the known reserves of oil in the ground, let alone develop new sources. img_20161112_135113There are all sorts of other reasons to oppose pipelines like Dakota Access, carrying tar-sands bitumen thinned down in a cocktail of dangerous solvents across wilderness, under the Missouri, etc. The risks to life from inevitable leaks are just too great. Anyway – about 100 people gathered in Brighton in the rain to express our solidarity, and it was a very moving and spiritual time.

The second event had a similar theme, but closer to home. It was a picnic on Leith Hill, the highest point in southern England, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the proposed site of an exploratory oil drill. Most of the Surrey/Sussex Weald has been carved up for oil and gas extraction licences. Some drills have already gone ahead, but Leith Hill has become a major focus for protest.img_20161203_115909 It’s a stunningly beautiful part of the North Downs countryside, heavily wooded, where vehicle access is along narrow ancient sunken roads with mature trees growing out of steep banks. The thought is that if they can drill for oil here, nowhere is safe. (It would be fracking if the Government hadn’t changed the legal definition of fracking). I grew up not far from here and often came to Leith Hill on walks or cycle rides and so I admit to a sense of sentimental attachment – I don’t want this beautiful woodland and farmland ripped up to make way for concrete pads for heavy industrial equipment or the roads widened and new roads put down for heavy trucks to access the concrete pads. I particularly don’t want that destruction to be for the sake of oil that, if we burn it, will contribute to all this dying anyway, while some rich people get richer as a result.

The third event was more explicitly about loss. November 30th was a day of remembrance for lost species, with events held all over the world to mark and mourn this 6th great extinction event (and the first in human history) in which we are living.img_20161130_185433 In Brighton, we processed through the town with a model of a Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), made in the form of a Chinese dragon. The last Thylacine died in 1937. On the beach, we gathered around the Thylacine. We named some species that have become extinct, and others at risk of extinction. We also named people, plants and animals, for whom we are thankful – including the environmental protectors at Standing Rock and Leith Hill. Then we cremated our Thylacine. It was, again, a very moving and spiritual occasion.

I think I live in a death-denying culture. At many funerals now, people are encouraged not to wear black, and the mood is often one celebrating a life rather than mourning a passing. In some ways, that’s a good thing, but it leaves a great truth unexpressed – that I have lost someone I love deeply, that they are no longer here, that the manner of their passing may have been cruel, painful and undignified and this gaping loss has ripped my world apart. It feels as if acknowledging this is a heresy against the Myth Of Progress that underpins the modern worldview. But, sometimes the darkness needs to be cursed, even if at the same time you light a candle.

I think we need to name and curse the darkness. We need to own up to the loss we feel as the world changes. Grief will come out some way or other and maybe that is one way of explaining, at the wide level of society, the anger that has been expressed in the ballot boxes this year in the UK, USA and elsewhere.

In particular, I think it is important that we name and mourn the evil that is the extinction of so many species of animal and plant. This autumn’s report issued by Zoological Society of London and the World-Wide Fund for Nature estimated that the world has lost 58% of wildlife since 1970. Much of this is attributed to human activity, just as global warming and climate change are. I am angry about the destruction of the rain forest in Borneo, epitomised in the sad faces of orphaned Orang-utans, all for the sake of palm oil. I am angry about the destruction being wrought on earth through pollution, intensive farming and the burning of oil. This is not progress – unless you only look at selective stories of human well-being. Otherwise, it is a bloody mess.

Maybe, if we can find ways of expressing grief for destruction and injustice, and find ways of supporting each other in that grief – not to deepen the vortex but to uncover sources of love and courage between us – some creative, caring action will emerge. I wonder if action that doesn’t emerge from love discovered in the darkness will simply be angry, shallow and ineffective.

One of the things that struck me in all three of the events I’ve described, was a sense of unity, which was sometimes articulated. It echoed in an article by Charles Eisenstein about Standing Rock, in which he essentially said, how you play is what you win. If our protests and our action are expressed in the binary us-and-them terms that have caused the problems in the first place, then further division and destruction will be the result. What I hope for is a world of kindness, grace and peace between all beings. If I try to work towards that in a framework of thinking that sees oil executives or farmers as my enemies, I won’t build peace. I might, just possibly (because the powerful are powerful) win an occasional battle, but I won’t win the peaceful, loving world I long for. War doesn’t make peace. Peace makes peace and love makes love.

It’s all starting to sound sentimental, but then I think of the Christmas story and, despite the best efforts of the cards and carols and nativity plays, there’s little in the life of Christ that was sentimental, from his humble birth to his execution, but there’s so much about love: love in action (non-violent direct action, if you like) that is good news to the poor, that heals division and embodies hope of new life for all the earth.

Welcome!

Welcome to my website. You will find all sorts here, from short stories to in-depth articles with reflections in between on a wide variety of topics. Welcome to my life…

Scroll down or use the menu on the right for the latest blog posts. Use the menu at the top to find articles and other things. To find out more about me and what this website’s about, click ‘About’

Housekeeping

This is more of an announcement than a blog post – a sort of housekeepy admin thing. I think it’s time to refresh this blog. I want to keep posting reflections on a wide range of issues, as before, and, as before, some of these will be light-hearted and others more serious. I would like to post more often, but experience makes me reluctant to promise that. I’d also like to incorporate some things I’ve been writing elsewhere, which are more serious (and often longer), plus some resources I’d like to offer. I want to make stronger links with some of the projects I’m involved in too.

I’m inclined to be wary of self-promotion, but it seems to make sense to simplify the web address and make it easier for people to remember. So it’s goodbye to my alter-ego Mabbsonsea – it’s time to be myself. The name of the blog will change to alexmabbs.com  Hopefully if you’ve been following me, that will carry on as before.

I’d like to thank those of you who have followed my blog and read my rambling thoughts. I hope you continue to enjoy it.

Do things!

I am feeling quite gloomy at the moment, but this Blog post is so true, and I know that the actions I take keep me from despair – after all, when I am doing something positive and creative, I can’t at the same time accept that all is hopeless…

The Snail of Happiness

So you are depressed about the politicians in your country and their environmental credentials? I’m not just talking about the US now… things aren’t any better in Australia, the UK or much of Europe. Well, in that case take control. YOU can make a difference and here’s how:

Don’t want fracking and all the associated pollution and greenhouse gas emissions? Then make sure your energy supplier doesn’t support this. In the UK the Big 6 all support fracking, but there are plenty of smaller, green suppliers who don’t, so give your business to them.

Worried about greenhouse gas emissions from transportation? Optimise the use of your car – never drive for a single purpose, always try achieve several goals on each journey. And, if you can, walk, cycle or use public transport instead. Buy local – locally produced goods have not been transported long distances, plus you are keeping your money…

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Natural time

It’s now three weeks since I finished my sabbatical and returned to work and I am really struggling to adjust. Three months of camping and hiking and staring at trees (as well as a few other trips and things) must have really slowed me down and it’s been quite a shock to come back to the pace of ‘normal’ life. I think I hadn’t realised how fast the merry-go-round was spinning until I tried to climb back on it. It’s just exhausting. And I think, “Why?” Why are we so accepting of such a fast pace of life, or is it just me who is struggling to cope?

Trees have a different timescale. I read somewhere that oak trees take 300 years to grow, 300 years to live and 300 years to die. To sit and spend a couple of hours watching the leaves flutter on a tree is less than a blink of an eye to the tree. I find myself wishing I could just be amongst the trees again, because I think life seems to make more sense in the woods.

At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, are insects like the Mayfly, who lives in its adult state for just one day. In Rob Cowan’s brilliant book, ‘Common Ground’, he writes about the day of the adult mayfly and weaves that story around a story of some young people seizing the moment and living for the day.

Somewhere between the 300,000 days of an oak tree’s life and the one day of the mayfly, is my life. I wonder, what is my natural time? What is the natural pace for a human life? I can’t sit around all day staring at trees as if I’ve got all the time in the world, because I don’t. Some things have to be done, to live, to work, to love. But they don’t all have to be done right now as if today is all I have and I must frenetically pack as much into each minute as possible. In fact, much of the living, working and loving can only happen well if given time for paying attention, to listen, to think and to feel. How can we – how can I – live like a human being in a mayfly culture?

Living in the woods

img_20160921_104038I’m just back from a short week in a cabin in a small wood in Devon. It’s part of the wonderful Sheldon retreat centre (Society of Mary and Martha) where I’ve been for luxurious retreats in the past and where we go annually for a clergy family holiday.

The cabin is pretty basic, although it has electricity and a cold water tap. The best part was having the wood to myself – part of the deal is ‘Go away’ signs to hang on the gates. img_20160919_150304Of course, I didn’t have it to myself. I was sharing the space with the creatures for whom this is home, from the little mouse living in a hole in the porch, to the rabbits across the bridge, the birds, spiders, insects and so on. The best wildlife moment for me was sitting outside the cabin one evening, enjoying watching dusk fall on the wood, when I heard a tawny owl’s “kee-vick” call. All of a sudden, there she was, clinging to the trunk of an ash tree, not seven yards away. She turned her head around, gave me a long stare out of big black eyes, and flew off silently. I hadn’t seen a tawny owl in the wild before, so it was a special moment, made more special because I had earlier been reading about tawny owls in Rob Cowan’s fabulous book, ‘Common Ground’.

I just love being in the woods. There’s something holy about dappled light falling through branch and leaf. I love the smell of damp leaf mould in the morning after rain. There is so much life in a mixed woodland, even a small one like this, that it feels like a privilege to live amongst it, even as a short-stay guest. Trees seem to keep their own time, much img_20160922_095556longer than mine, that means that a couple of hours spent watching the leaves flutter was just a moment’s glance. At the beginning of my stay, I had that panicked sense, common for me at the start of any retreat, that I hadn’t brought anything to do, not even a notebook. As usual, that feeling was mingling with a sense of urgency to get something meaningful out of the time. It took about a day for that inner urgency to quieten down, and I found that while there was little to do, there was plenty to be, and that even with such a good book to look at, there was plenty more interesting to look at, not going on but just being, all around me – the life of the woods.

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Planes, trains …

At the end of August, Mrs Mabbsonsea and I celebrated 25 years of marriage with a short trip to Berlin. We first met there in 1989, spending two weeks on the same volunteer team. It was just three months before the Berlin Wall fell in November that year and we have wanted to re-visit for some time and see how the city has changed.

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The Brandenburg Gate

What people seem to be finding hard to believe, as we bore them with our holiday stories, is that we travelled there by train. Not part of the way, but all the way. And back. Who would do such a thing? It cost two or three times as much as air travel and took much longer – about 14 hours, door-to-door.

Flying uses a lot more fuel per km than trains, short flights more so as a greater proportion of the journey is take-off and landing. For that reason, I have decided not to fly. I have been thinking about the givens we work with. For many in my society, their non-negotiable given is that they should be able to do what they want (if they can afford it, and if not, get it on credit). Two examples: they should be able to travel where they want and they should be able to use as much electricity as they want when they want it. But what if the non-negotiable given is the chemistry of the atmosphere? For that to be non-negotiable, other compromises will need to be made, which may be costly. I am lazy and a product of my culture and I don’t make enough of those compromises, but one thing I am doing is not flying.

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The Reichstag

Travelling by train from Brighton to Berlin, changing in London, Brussels and Koln, gave us a sense of the distance we were travelling. Through the window of the train (except when we were in the Channel Tunnel) we could see how we were moving across the earth. A high-speed train distorts this a bit because I don’t have much of a reference point for what 250 km/h really means, but this sense of place and movement was enhanced on the outward journey because the high speed train broke down. We had to board a slow train at Brussels and travel for an hour and a half through Belgium. At Verviers, buses had been laid on which took us on an extraordinarily scenic tour through the Ardennes to Aachen. There we caught another slow train to Koln. None of the sense of the distances or the grandeur of the countryside or the width of the River Rhein, or views of the cathedrals at Koln or Aachen (where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800), would have happened from a plane. Nor would a nostalgic glimpse of the Schwebebahn, Wuppertal’s historic suspended monorail, which I rode during a school trip in 1980. I think a train goes too fast for my soul to keep up, but it is a whole lot less disconnected from reality than an aeroplane.

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Memorial to the Jewish people killed in the Holocaust

Berlin is a long way from here. I think that length of journey is about my limit. So there is a lot of the world I will never see, even if I manage to cobble together enough leave at some point to do a more complex expedition. Part of me feels a bit sad about that, but then even without my flying ban, I couldn’t visit everywhere. I read recently that Jesus lived a fulfilled life without seeing the Grand Canyon. Our greedy consumption of as much oil as we can afford has removed many of the limits to our expectations, but like most over-consumption, it doesn’t seem to have made us happier or better people. Perhaps it is time that we put some limits back on what we will do individually, in order that the limits might be expanded on the chances of the world having a flourishing future.

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Berlin Wall Memorial Park

We loved our trip to Berlin. It’s a fabulous city, with so much thought-provoking and interesting history, incredible architecture and with a great big wood in the middle of it. I’d recommend a visit … but only if you travel there by train!

 

At one with nature at any price

Yesterday I set out on a hike from home, over the Downs, to a campsite in the woods about 12 miles away. It was always going to be quite a challenge as I haven’t walked that far with a big pack since my legs were younger, but I liked the idea of doing the round trip from home on foot (although Mrs Mabbsonsea’s offer of a lift for the first mile was too good to turn down – and perhaps that signified what was to follow …)

I hadn’t gone more than half a mile, at 9am, before the sweat was pouring down my face. It wasn’t the heat so much as the humidity. Without a breath of wind, the humidity was so high that you could feel the water in the air. I pressed on, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, miserable and tired. Shortly after crossing the by-pass, out of the town and into the fields, and after much dithering, I gave up. I turned around, walked back to the nearest bus stop and caught a bus home. The weather had beaten me.

After a shower, a change of clothes and lunch, I loaded my pack into the car and drove to the campsite. Well, I had already paid for it, and I really wanted to spend a night in the woods. I had a fantastic time, with a splendid view of the Downs from my clearing. I listened to the birds, I watched the sunset and I watched my camp-fire until bed-time.

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Staring into the flames, it struck me how ridiculous I was being and that I’m a very bad ecologist. Nature had made my plans unworkable, so I beat nature by burning some petrol – precisely the kind of thing I object to when moaning about patio heaters, air travel and politicians saying we have to keep the lights on. I like to argue that we have to start accepting limits to our behaviour and our consumption, e.g. if the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, you’re going to have to make a cold drink because there isn’t any electricity (burning fossil fuels not being an option). But here was I driving my car because I’d booked a campsite and arranged the time away and I was going to go, come rain or high humidity.

I could let myself off the hook a little by saying that our leisured consumer culture runs deep in me. But the truth is that I had choices at every step but I didn’t think it through. Another truth is that I had a lovely stay in a rather quirky but rather fabulous woodland campsite (Blackberry Wood, near Streat, for those of you within striking distance). If I hadn’t planned it and booked it, I know it wouldn’t have happened at all. But how do I live more in harmony with the weather in my highly-scheduled life? I don’t want to wait until the costly tech is no longer available – I want to do the right thing now. I have much to learn … and there’s some irony with this lesson in that the trees started to teach it to me in Blackberry Wood on my motoring trip.