Archive for the ‘belonging’ Category

The end of some things and the beginning of more

March 30, 2008

I woke in the morning in a room of straw. Sunlight glanced through the wide window, and I rose, rested and glad of the day. The last day of my last Young Friends camp for the rest of my life.

I should feel sad but I just don’t. I don’t even feel quite the sense of completion I thought I might. I simply feel content, sure and happy with the experience having unfolded exactly in the way it did.

This path I began in 2004 has filled my life with love I had never envisaged or expected. The connection to these people has become not so much an experience, or something I posses, but just part of who I am, part of the fabric of this wonderful life.

To me this camp felt gentle, warm, calm as a slow moving river in the middle of summer. We sang, ate, worked and worshiped. I laughed with these beautiful people in the springtime of their lives.

Meeting the son of my first love and getting to know him as a friend was an unexpected pleasure. Seeing him instantly accepted by others as if he’d been coming for years filled my heart with a sense of joy I find it difficult to describe.

Even as some things come to an end new things begin.

Meeting Emily from Canberra and realizing we have a whole lifetime of Quaker events, conversations and sharing ahead of us made saying goodbye the start of something rather than the end. It seemed fitting that she was the last person I said farewell to at the airport.

I know now that ending my participation in YF business and YF camps doesn’t mean ending these friendships, or being in some way part of this community as it flows into the wider Quaker world.

When YF Camp finished four of us cycled to the train in Masterton. The day shone as we rode through the rolling hills, and I could think of no place I would rather be. Riding with friends in the sun, sharing our journey for a way, and knowing that in time we will share it again.

Small and simple acts

March 15, 2008

Whenever I’m walking in Christchurch or Wellington my rule is that if I can see a piece of litter and a rubbish bin at the same time I’ll pick up the former and put it in the latter. Sometimes I extend this if I can’t see a bin but am fairly sure there’ll be one soon.

When I was in Sydney last week I found this was much harder. There was so much litter it would have taken me twice as long to get anywhere. I ended up not picking up any as it just didn’t seem like I’d be making any sort of dent in it. Over a couple of days it faded into the background and I stopped noticing it at all.

Another thing that was different from the NZ cities I spend time in was the number of homeless people. Not just in the parks but lying down on footpaths, sitting in gutters, shaking and bereft while hundreds of people walked past them every few minutes.

While out for a run it struck me that the problem is the same. While there are probably a similar number of homeless people per capita in Christchurch and Sydney, in a densely populated city you just see more of them every day. Because they seem more numerous a type of ‘learned helplessness’ sets in among the people that could help. There are just so many homeless people, what difference could one act of kindness really make? So people go about their busy days, and before too long the people lying in the gutter just fade into the background.

People are not litter. They do not deserve to be cast aside, forgotten and alone. What can we do to pick up those whom others have dropped? What are the small things we could do everyday? What would the world be like if even one in every ten people picked up a few pieces of litter, and did something to help the less fortunate among us?

Journey’s end

October 6, 2007

We did it! Responsible for twenty two 13-16 year olds for a week. No one got hurt, no one got lost, and now they’re all home safely. It was exhausting, exhilarating, and at times very moving. It’s taken me nearly a week to recover and as I’ve slowly gotten my body, mind and spirit back to a state of normality I’ve been thinking about why I took this on.

JYF camps were a hugely important part of my teenage years. They were a place to be truly myself, to be accepted for exactly who I was. They were a time of forging new friendships, of falling in the first semblances of love, and of being acknowledge as a person in my own right rather than a ‘child’ or a ‘teenager’.

I want my children to be able to experience this. That’s what first set me on the path of organising a YF camp three years ago, and what motivated me to volunteer to organise this JYF camp. I wanted the community to be strong so they’d have a positive experience when they were old enough to go. I wanted to give something back, to carry on the work of people like Angela Brusse who started JYF camps in New Zealand so many years ago.

That would have been enough, but what I got in return was so much more. Organising and running this camp was a transformative experience. It reinforced my sense of confidence in my leadership abilities. It deepened my admiration and respect for the tireless energy and consummate skill of my partner Bridget, who single handedly coordinated incredible food for 28 people, ran four sessions, and had time to make friends with the JYFs and be there for those that needed her. It took my relationship with the other YF leaders to a different level, and my most heartfelt thanks go to Thomas, Mirjam, Melody and Johnny for sharing this path, and making the camp the incredible experience that it was.

Then there’s the JYFs. I have never met such a beautiful, caring, talented and loving group of young people. They included each other right from the start. No one was left out, everyone was accepted. They constantly bewildered me with their combination of extraordinary insights, humour and intelligence, and their sometimes complete lack of peripheral attention and ability to notice what needed doing in a practical sense. My thanks to those of them that did notice, especially to Luke, Rogan and Daniel for doing the fires in the morning, and to Briar-Rose for always being there when I was exhausted and just needed a hand.

It felt to me like an enormous privilege being allowed to create this environment for them. I found that whenever I trusted them, included them in the decision making, and assumed that they’d act responsibly, they did. Perhaps the greatest surprise for me was that for most of the time I forgot there was such an age gap. They so completely accepted all six of us leaders as peers rather than authority figures. It felt a lot like YF camp, and I sense there’s the possibility that as they grow, some of them will become my lifelong friends.

The theme of the camp was “walking in the light”. I felt like this happened. Not by what we discussed, or the activities we did, but by the way we were able to live together, in joy, love and harmony. I feel richly blessed by this experience, and I will carry the memory of it with me forever.

Rhythm

July 15, 2007

We were in Arthur’s Pass for six days. It was so cold each night the pipes froze up. The air was still and crisp in the mornings and the frost took till lunchtime to melt each day. For two days the power was out as the old black bakelite mains switch in the house gave out after 40 years or so of loyal service. I really enjoyed there being no power. There’s a small enclosed fire (like a pot-bellied stove but rectanglar) which you can cook on, and use to heat water.

Taking care of all the jobs required just to stay warm and fed gave a certain rhythm to the day. Get up, light the fire, boil water, pour hot water on the frozen pipes under the house, cho wood, cook breakfast, boil more water for the dishes, stoke the fire, do the dishes, and so on. There was still plenty of time for walks and playing cards and board games, but the day was measured and paced by the basic routine of survival.

You can’t hurry this. Everything takes as long as it takes. You can’t make the fire start faster, or rush the water to boil. It forces you to slow down, to move methodically through the day, and to go to bed early, when the light fades and the candles sputter out. There’s a sense of the eternal here. I can imagine my grandchildren and great grandchildren coming to this bach. It’ll be just the same in another 40 years. Just like these mountains, quietly measuring the seasons, sitting together in the stillness of the sky.

Synchronicity

June 29, 2007

On Thursday night I was just leaving the back flat behind George Fox House. I’d been hanging out with Joe and Kate before my friend Tim, who I was staying with, picked me up. Tim called to say he was waiting out the front, so I got my suitcase, hugged Joe goodbye and went up the path.

As I passed the front door of George Fox House, John, one of the Resident Friends, was saying goodbye to a guest. “Hi” I said “I’m not staying this time”. “Are you getting a taxi?” John said. “No” I replied, “my friend’s giving me a ride”. “Where are you going?” said his guest. “Island Bay” I said. “Well, that’s exactly where I need to go” she replied. John then introduced us. “Oh” Marianne laughed. “We’ve just been emailing, I’m Louis and Pearl’s mum”.

We’d emailed just a few days before as her kids were coming to Junior Young Friends camp.  On the way to Island Bay we chatted about her kids, other JYFs and the upcoming camp. She asked me about my work, and it turned out she was going to Island Bay to stay with a school friend who just happened to be a client of mine, who I’d run a workshop with a couple of weeks before!

Sometimes random encounters like that make me think that it’s just too convenient to be coincidence.  I’m so resistant to the idea of fate, or an intentional God though, that I find this tricky. It’s easy just to say “it’s a small world”, and not think about it any more. I’ve had lots of seemingly ‘random’ encounters with other Quakers at GFH, which happen actually just because it’s a hub for traveling Friends.

Maybe it’s just one of the things about living in New Zealand, the degrees of separation are so low that those kind of ‘chance connections’ are fairly common. I can’t help feeling though, that sometimes synchronicity like that is a part of the wider beauty and harmony of the universe. I know that when I’m calm, focused, and in the flow, that sort of thing happens more often. Everything meshes and life becomes a smooth dance of joyous interaction with people and with the world.

To me this goes past fate vs determinism. It’s not a question of free will versus a supernatural being that has a plan for one’s life. It’s a deeper truth beyond that paradox, that when one is at peace, open, and present, the fact that everything is connected, that all is one, becomes more apparent. There is no intention, and no chance, only the flowing tides of a harmonious reality.

Where do we go from here (part two)

April 22, 2007

In Meeting for Worship on the last day of YF Camp the above title of a song from the musical “Once More With Feeling” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer kept going through my head. I was thinking about everyone leaving from camp, how people were going south to Dunedin, north to Kaitaia, and to many places in between. How some were going to Australia, New Orleans, and even one on a train journey across China and Russia to the UK.

These people who I’d spent five very full days with, people who I love dearly and had gotten even closer to, were scattering to the four winds. Some I won’t see again in person for two years or more. It got me thinking about what separates us, and what connects us.

On a purely physical level spending 5 days together means that we’ve shared the very atoms of our bodies. Atoms of oxygen, carbon and hydrogen pass from one person to another through breathing, water vapor from sweat and the sloughing of dead skin. 98% of the atoms in our bodies are replaced each year. After 5 days we are, in some small way, made of parts of each other. Some of the atoms that were once in my body, Alex is now carrying across China.

When we leave each other, our relationships developed and enhanced over five days, what else has changed? We have a new set of memories of each other. We have shared experiences, stories, catch phrases and jokes that only make sense to those there. At the level of mind, what is a person, but their collected memories and experiences, the patterns that reality has imprinted on their brains? When we know other people what is it that we know? We have a complex picture in our mind of the ‘pattern’ of that person. Humans are uniquely able to hold a model of the way another person thinks. That’s what enables us to have empathy. We can figuratively try to see things through another person’s eyes. It’s by no means a perfect copy, but the better we know someone, the more we understand them, the more accurate that ‘pattern’ is. So if our minds are patterns of experiences, and we can hold an albeit imperfect model of another person’s mind within our own, then again, when we leave other people we, in some strange sense, have a part of their mind within ours.

At the level of spirit, what is it that connects us? What is enhanced by spending time together, in worship, in laughter and in the simple acts of love and friendship? To me, it’s very hard to describe. There’s a sense of abiding connection that feels like it goes deeper than just the memory of those people. I don’t have the esoteric theology to explain it in objective terms like I can the science of the physical world, or the knowing of the psychological world. I know that there are some friends of mine that I get a strong sense of them a few moments before the phone rings and it is they on the other end. A number of eastern spiritual thinkers talk about the ‘ground of being’, of spirit as a single source which we are all connected to, and that at the level of spirit we are not distinct, but are always together in unity.

Orson Scott Card, in the Ender’s Game series describes the fictional concept of ‘philotes‘, very basic indivisible building blocs of matter and energy. When philotes combine to make durable structures, protons, neutrons, atoms, molecules, organisms, planets, etc., they “twine up”. Each philote connects itself to the rest of the universe along a single ray, a one-dimensional line that connects it to all other philotes in its nearest immediate structure. As individual people develop in relationship with each other, their philotes ‘twine’ together across space and time. There is of course no scientific basis for this fictional theory, but it none the less appeals to me. That in some sense we perhaps become more spiritually entwined with each other.

The words of the song from Buffy go:

Where do we go from here?
Why is the path unclear?
When we know home is near
Understand
We’ll go hand in hand
But we’ll walk alone in fear
Tell me
Where do we go from here?

I think it’s wrong. We might sometimes feel that we walk alone in fear, but physically, mentally, and perhaps spiritually we have become part of each other. We are connected, and because of that we are never alone. Wherever we go from here, in some way, we go together.

Alone

February 1, 2007

Last night I had a very strange experience. I spent the whole evening, and night in a house by myself, with no one else there. Now quite a number of my close friends live alone so this is usual for them, and they’re probably wondering why I’m writing about it at all. It’s not common for me though, in fact the last time it happened was at least two or three years ago.

I travel a lot, but I always stay with friends. Sometimes my partner will be out for the evening, and not get home till after I’ve gone to bed, but even then the kids are there. I work alone in my office in town, but I see and talk to the people in the surrounding offices several times a day and many of them are close friends.

So it was weird. There was so much space, and time, and it was so quiet. Part of me wanted to ring people up, to have someone to talk to. Another part of me was captivated by the peace, the silence, and didn’t want to interrupt it. I wasn’t at all lonely, I was just unused to being alone.

Perhaps that’s why I like Meeting for Worship so much. Because there is that space, time, and silence, but we’re not alone, we do it together. And that’s the paradox of life. We are all absolutely unique, distinct and alone, and we are all completely connected, part of a greater whole.

Drugs, alcohol, and really good coffee

January 27, 2007

Ironic? Karma coming full circle? Terrifying? For me the feeling of being called to run a session on drugs and alcohol the first night of Summer Gathering was all three.

When I was a teenager there were several Summer Gatherings where Young Friends (YFs) drank. One year when Summer Gathering was over New Years Eve, all the YFs organised to go off site and drink. Two people stayed sober to make sure everyone was safe, only overage YFs bought the alcohol. We went to a park, drank in a big fort, and saw the New Year in. Nothing went wrong, no one got too drunk, and we all came back safely together. Even so, the next day we were in big trouble. The adults were upset at us, and we had to have a big meeting with about 50 people. It went on for hours. We got to have our say, but none of us could really see why we’d upset them.

Fourteen years later I was at a recent Summer Gathering, where a number of small groups of adults went to the pub, or off to a restaurant and had wine with dinner. The rules hadn’t changed, the enrolment form said the Summer Gathering was alcohol free. Had the culture changed? Was it a double standard? I began to realise that the issue was complex, not just about the rules of the site, not just about safety, but also about being inclusive. Those years ago we had included all the YFs, but we had excluded the adults. We had literally divided the community. Perhaps that’s really why they were upset.

The Summer Gathering organising committee (this year entirely comprised of YFs) were very keen to have a session on drugs and alcohol. In recent years YFs have brought alcohol or gone off site and gotten drunk. Sometimes under sixteen year olds have been involved too, and there have been occasions where young people were extremely ill and even hospitalised at Quaker gatherings due to the unsupervised use of alcohol. Even though the camp rules say they shouldn’t drink this can be taken as somewhat hypocritical when they know that many adults are sharing a bottle of wine in their tents. The committee therefore didn’t want a session laying down the rules, but one in which the issues were openly discussed on the first night, where corporate witness and a sense of unity might make drinking or not a collective rather than just an individual decision. If different people and different age groups could listen to each others views and explore the underlying issues and values, perhaps there was less chance of the community being divided? We had done this on a much smaller version at the last YF camp and it had worked. With some trepidation, but a strong leading to do it, I volunteered.

Through the conversations I had in planning the session I began to see that this was about more than just drugs and alcohol, it was about being together as a community, about being fully present with each other and building relationships in a positive way. With help from several other YFs I came up with some questions for the session. What does it mean to be a part of this community for 8 days? What makes us feel included at Summer Gathering? What are the behaviors that can make people feel excluded at Summer Gathering? Why might people want to take drugs or alcohol? Is there anything different about doing this in normal life, and doing it at Summer Gathering? Why would people choose not to take drugs or alcohol/abstain at SG? How do we look after each other? How do we keep people safe?

About 100 people of all ages attended the session. YFs took the list of questions and led groups of ten to fifteen people in a discussion, using the questions and several short readings from Quaker literature. As they did this I walked around, caught snippets of conversation, getting a sense of when it was time to encourage everyone to move on to the next set of questions. I don’t know exactly what each group discussed. The tone though seemed thoughtful, considered and caring. It wasn’t as loud, heated or contentious as I thought it might have been, maybe that was a due to a growing sense of unity or maybe it was the ever latening hour and people tired from travelling.

It’s hard to tell what result the session had on the gathering. I do know none of the YFs drank on site, or off site as a group. I know that a few people (adults and YFs) had the odd drink off site. The gathering certainly felt very inclusive to me, and almost everybody, including all the YFs participated in the games and dancing on New Years Eve, and we saw the New Year in as a community, together.

And the YFs did raise nearly $1,000 selling great coffee and hot chocolates in auditorium foyer. Maybe the session kept people on site and away from alcohol, or maybe it was the Summer Gathering café. Quakers after all did invent hot chocolate in the 1700s as an alternative to alcohol!

Special thanks to Leith, Marion, Quentin, Richard and all the YFs for their thoughts, inspiration, and help in planning and running the session.

Reaching out

December 13, 2006

I walked off the plane and into the gate lounge. Standing by the escalator was a man, floppy grey/white hair, tall, looking around as if he expected to see someone he knew. “Kevin” I said, and he looked at me. I shook his hand, then on impulse gave him a hug. Kevin (and his wife) introduced my parents to Quakers when I was nine years old. It was three years since I’d seen him last, and then only briefly. Kevin was over from Brisbane, travelling to Nelson to see his daughter who is two years younger than me, whom I haven’t seen for years.

Caught up in the catching up on career, friends and family with Kevin in the few minutes we talked, I didn’t think to thank him. Every once in a while I get a feeling of incredible good fortune, and ask myself “how, out of all the myriad possibilities in life did I get lucky enough to have found Quakers?” Mum and Dad were seeking something new at the time, and Kevin and Valerie reached out, told them about Friends, and (I imagine) invited them along.

In our non-evangelical brand of Quakerism, how much outreach is OK? Preaching on television is probably out, but if we don’t communicate who we are and how to find us, isn’t that being exclusive? How do we know what is acceptable? Maybe it’s not so much the ‘how’ or the ‘how much’ but the intent behind it. If we seek to convince, persuade others to join by our words maybe that’s going too far.  Spreading messages, pamphlets, going door to door all seems geared to ‘change’ people, to force them to see our way is right. Opening the door, welcoming people, and answering questions when they’re asked seems common practice though. How though do we make ourselves easier to find? How do we get it so that those seeking know there is a door to peer around?

George Fox said:

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.

So maybe it’s more about what we do, than what we write or say?

Washing away culture

December 9, 2006

Some friends who immigrated from the UK six years ago recently took citizenship. They also redecorated their house, and put in a brand new kitchen. Myself, two other kiwis and one brit were there the other night and had a fun but heated debate about the fact that they’d put a washing machine in the kitchen, kind of where you’d expect a dishwasher to be. Its apparently very common in europe. To us kiwis though it was just weird, like putting a bath in the kitchen. Both sides tried to rationlise the reasons for and against. When it came down to it though, it was just that we were used to different things, and found the others way just plain strange at a gut level. I think this is part of what culture is, the “how we do things here”. The rationlisations were just a way to try to make our position out to be the ‘sane’ one.

When I told Dad he said the reason kiwis have laundrys might have something to do with the influence of maori culture. Maori traditionally make a strong separation between places you prepare food and places you wash your body and your clothes. To maori having a washing machine in a kitchen is possibly almost as offensive as sitting on a table. Maybe that got consciously or unconsciously taken into pakeha culture. Or maybe it’s that many  british houses are much older and when plumbing came along it was hard to install so it was only added to the bare minimum of rooms.

Culture is an ever changing thing. To what extent do we expect immigrants to change their speech, lifestyles and habits when they become citizens of NZ? To what extent do we welcome the change and new ways that people of other cultures bring? Do we actively try to preserve our kiwi culture? How does that relate to preserving maori culture? We changed their culture irrevocably, so what right do we have to think it weird that some brits who arrived a few generations later than we have different ideas about where to put a washing machine?

When I mentioned the maori culture idea as a reason for the difference one of the british immigrants said it was funny how we’d taken that on but very little else. My knee jerk reaction was to say I was glad we hadn’t taken on the eating your enemies part. It really got me thinking though. I know lots about maori traditional and modern social and cultural practices, their myths and their art work, and a bit about their modern business management and political practices. What I know very little about is their spirituality. I wonder that learning more about their deeply held beliefs might help me understand the other things more, to come to grips with the similarities and differences that inform our bicultural, and increasingly multicultural society.