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Transformation, faith and depression

Last Sunday I stopped by to pick up an elderly Friend from the residential home where she lives to give her a lift to my Quaker Meeting for Worship. Like many times before, when I arrived she was still in bed and feeling too unwell to attend. We talked for a while and she expressed guilt and sadness at not being able to come. As someone who regularly lives with bouts of depression, I heard echoes of this in my Ffriend.

When I got to Meeting for Worship I sat in the deepening gathered silence and reached for Quaker Faith & Practice, hoping to find a passage that spoke to the intense empathy, concern and emotion that the time spent with my Ffriend had evoked. It was clear that it was incredibly distressing to her that her body was wearing out before her mind and being were ready. I looked at passages on growing old and death, and at passages about depression, but I did not find anything that spoke to me. In a way the problem was that all the passages were too positive – too willing to look at the dark side but then counter with Light and acceptance.

For those of us who struggle with depression, sometimes there is nothing that we can do but, if we are lucky, learn to what I call ‘sit with it’. For me, the most positive outcome I can hope for during a period of depression is that I physically live through it and do not make any drastic decisions or changes during this period. Sometimes even having someone else to sit with you is no comfort at all. I did, however, receive a response to my wish to find something that spoke to me. Later that week, in one of the daily emails I subscribe to from Richard Rohr, he talked about what it meant to follow Jesus, and about agreeing to ‘…carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad of history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within [our]selves…’. He then wrote about trusting ‘the daily paradox of life and death as the two sides of everything’, saying: ‘We, too, can walk this path of welcoming disappointment and self-doubt, by “suffering” the full truth of reality. Our vocation is a willingness to hold—and transform—the dark side of things instead of reacting against them, denying them, or projecting our anxiety elsewhere.’.

God is found everywhere, even in deep depression, and learning to ‘sit with’ our feelings and experience can have a transformative power all its own.

Anne de Gruchy

Quotes taken from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation: From the Center for Action and Contemplation on Friday, June 1, 2018 – ‘Solidarity with the World’

This passage contains content adapted from:
Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999, 2003), 179-180; and
Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 22-23.

Copyright © 2018 by CAC. Used by permission of CAC. All rights reserved worldwide. http://www.cac.org.

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In Praise of Ten Under-Appreciated Things – No 3: Human Beings

What is the difference between this photograph…

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Shutlingsloe

…and this one?

The answer? PEOPLE! (Well, you may just see a disappearing blob of orange in the distance in the first photograph, but we do have to keep the detail-spotters happy).

Of course the scenery is beautiful either way (we were walking at Shutlingsloe) but the whole point is: people make things better. Not only do they make things better, they help us to gain perspective – whether that’s the size of the mountain we are climbing or the way we relate to things and to other people day to day.

Why am I suddenly so interested in people as an under-appreciated thing? Well, recently there have been two factors that are steering me to value all over again how amazing human beings are. I thought I’d share them with you.

Firstly, I have been having spammer problems with this WordPress blog. Of course we are all used to spammer problems in this weirdly wired-up society, but it doesn’t half irritate me. Also, if I am not in a good state of mind, it can make me extremely anxious. I don’t need to know, repeated times a day, that gobbledygookname@outlook.com is following my blog and will receive an email whenever I post. And it doesn’t help that goobledygookname does not appear in my list of subscribers so I am denied the satisfaction of deleting them.

The problem with spam emails resulted in an acquaintance of mine suggesting that I add in one of those neat little tick boxes with the words ‘I am not a robot’ beside it. This is apparently not within the remit of the basic WordPress functionality that my blog is limited to, but it got me thinking about how, in a world where we have to formally admit to all and sundry that it is actually a human being trying to communicate online, we totally under-appreciate the qualities and importance of other people in our lives.

Secondly, and following on from this, is the fact that I am currently battling depression again big time. I sit around weeping and trying to force myself to face the day. It hasn’t been this bad since I was in my dysfunctional twenties and it’s scary. However I have become more resilient and self-aware over the intervening decades and when I hit rock bottom recently I pinged a few texts out to some of my lovely friends and waited on the outcome. The result was supportive phone calls and texts from a couple of friends and a lovely day out walking with another. Human beings are what make life meaningful and we just don’t appreciate them enough!

I am going to leave you with a quote that just pinged through into my email while I was writing this post. It was shared by one of the local Quaker meetings in our Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Area Meeting who kindly do a weekly email update giving the insights and conversations they have had. This week they shared the philosopher Mencius’s concept of the capricious world, and it so totally describes what I believe it means to be a human being that I had to pass it on:

‘Living in a capricious world means accepting that we do not live within a
stable moral cosmos that will always reward people for what they do… if our
world is indeed constantly fragmented and unpredictable, then it is
something we can constantly work on bettering. We can go into each situation
resolved to be the best human being we can be, not because of what we’ll get
out of it, but simply to affect others around us for the better, regardless
of the outcome. We can cultivate our better sides and face this
unpredictable world, transforming it as we go.

‘It is a very different vision from asking grand questions such as “Who am
I?” and “How should I plan out my life”. Instead we work constantly to alter
things at a small, daily level. And if we’re successful, we can build
tremendous communities around us in which people can flourish. And even then
we can continue to work. Our work – of bettering oneself and others to
produce a better world is never over’

(p84 The Path – A New Way to Think About Everything: Michael Puett &
Christine Gross – Loh: Viking: 2016)

© Anne de Gruchy

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Finding my ‘Few Concerns’

As those of you who follow my blog will be aware, I have recently been deeply involved in studying and facilitating workshops on simplicity – a theme that evolved because of the need to simplify my own life both materially and with regard to my commitments. The irony of the whole process has been the discovery of quite how complex ‘simplicity’ is!

Amidst all my research and reading, one of the pieces that stood out for me is the very popular excerpt from Thomas Kelly’s work as quoted in Quaker Faith & Practice:

I wish I might emphasise how a life becomes simplified when dominated by faithfulness to a few concerns. Too many of us have too many irons in the fire. We get distracted by the intellectual claim to our interest in a thousand and one good things, and before we know it we are pulled and hauled breathlessly along by an over-burdened programme of good committees and good undertakings. I am persuaded that this fevered life of church workers is not wholesome. Undertakings get plastered on from the outside because we can’t turn down a friend. Acceptance of service on a weighty committee should really depend upon an answering imperative within us, not merely upon a rational calculation of the factors involved. The concern-orientated life is ordered and organised from within. And we learn to say No as well as Yes by attending to the guidance of inner responsibility. Quaker simplicity needs to be expressed not merely in dress and architecture and height of tombstones but also in the structure of a relatively simplified and co-ordinated life-programme of social responsibilities.

Thomas R Kelly, 1941
Quaker Faith & Practice – Chapter 20: 20.36

So recently I have been thinking about this and trying to discern what the ‘few concerns’ are that I, myself, should be faithful to.

This is easier said than done. At the moment there are many strands taking up my time and attention and each one feels ‘right’ and important, yet I know I cannot sustain them all for much longer. For quite a while now I have felt the need to ‘hold’ these things until the time when it becomes clear which ones I should move forward with and which ones will drop away.

In no particular order, some of the key pieces of my life at the moment are:

• My paid employment. My job working with the local authority in a team responsible for implementing the Mental Capacity Act provision on Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards is important to me. I am part of a friendly team, and when I am in paid work I feel fulfilled and part of society. Paid work and its routine also tends to have a beneficial impact on my mental health. This is a temporary post, so I need to make decisions about what to do when it comes to an end next April.

• My writing. Always a mix of pleasure and discipline, I am well into writing my fourth novel with a lovely agent trying to find a home for my third one. Normally I do not try to combine full-on novel writing and a job, but with someone believing in me and championing my work, now is not the time to lose my focus.

• My family. My father continues to have a good slice of my time and attention as he settles into life in residential care. An unexpected knock-on effect of him moving close to me is the ‘Anne de Gruchy Bed and Breakfast Service for Relatives’ for people who want to visit my dad! It is lovely to see my family so often, but does not help with earmarking time to write or work. Amidst all this, I am trying to maintain the lovely relationship I have with my son.

• My friends. These are getting rather squeezed out at the moment – except for the ones who I land on for a week to use them as a base for a ‘writing retreat’! Most of my friends are long-standing and we are used to flurries of contact with some longer gaps when other commitments come to the fore. It is gold-dust to have such friends in my life. Local friends probably think I have just hibernated for the winter…

• My partner/boyfriend (cue argument re how to refer to your ‘other half’ when you are 57 and definitely no longer a ‘girl’!). It is lovely to have love and companionship come my way unexpectedly at this stage in my life, but I need to give it attention to flourish and there is that tricky problem of distance…

• Community. I love where I live. I want to contribute. I don’t have time to do this but could choose to work/write less and contribute more. And what if a move of area becomes appropriate because of the new relationship? Do I feel able to risk uprooting and starting all over again? Ditto for my spiritual life and connections with the Quaker community.

You see my dilemma! Part of me feels excited by all the possibilities, and a lot depends on whether I can get a publishing deal. In the meantime I am trying to save money against a possible gap in employment and looking forward to the opportunities that the New Year will bring. I will be running some more Simplicity sessions in 2018 and hope to introduce some creative exercises to aid discernment. I am hoping to listen to my own advice!

The one thing that is certain is that I need this list to be shorter and more focused by the middle of next year. Please do remind me if I haven’t shown progress by then, and please do share your own stories and ideas about the ‘few concerns’ that speak to you in your own life.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Christmas wreath

MAD MOMENT

Well – I have just dyed my hair and it now has bright lilac and purple streaks! Will I ever learn?

MARVEL MOMENT

My ‘new’ man is rapidly becoming my ‘old’ man – still together and going good!

© Anne de Gruchy

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Sharing my Spiritual Scrapbook

Today, at my Centering Prayer group, we tried out a different format. Instead of listening to some teaching on DVD we decided to bring a poem to share. We started with our usual 20 minute silent meditation then the four of us who were present read out poems or canticles that spoke to us in some way.

It was a moving time, and the most amazing range of poems and emotions were shared. Two that stood out for me were:

The Bright Field by R S Thomas
St Francis and the Sow by Galway Kinnell.

For myself, I shared a poem that my mother had once typed out and sent to me. It is called Under a Wilshire Apple Tree and is attributed to Anna Bunstone de Bary, date unknown. It begins with the following stanza:

Some folks as can afford,
So I’ve heard say,
Set up a sort of cross
Right in the garden way
To mind ‘em of the Lord.
But I, when I do see
Thik apple tree
An’ stoopin’ limb
All spread wi’ moss
I think of Him
And how He talks wi’ me.

Sharing this, I also shared with my friends the Spiritual Scrapbook that I have been keeping for 20 years. This is a very special hard-backed A5 book that my sister gave me when I had an adult baptism in 1997 (I had not discovered the Quakers then and was part of a vibrant Baptist church). My sister wrote an inscription at the front: ‘For your thoughts and special prayers’, and the book is very dear to me. I share some photographs of a few of the pages in this post.

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Spiritual Scrapbook Page

Over the years I have written or stuck into the book sayings, prayers, postcards and poems that have had special meaning to me. There are parts of Celtic liturgies that we used when I studied Contextual Theology, postcards of crosses at monasteries and in mud huts, spoken ministry from Quaker meetings, and many cards with prayers and poems sent to me by my mother when she was still alive.

My mother was such a special support to me, and her faith saw me through some very dark times in my life. I treasure every single thing she sent when I was down and she wanted to help me through. My biggest sadness is that in the last few years of her own life she experienced a crisis of faith. But my mother was a gardener, and God was very close to her, and I’m sure that God spoke to her through that apple tree with stooping limb even when the light of faith was dim.

    

MAD MOMENT

New man, new distance relationship! Watch this space!

MARVEL MOMENT

As above!!!

© Anne de Gruchy

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Impressions from Taraloka

I have just returned from a mindful and meditative retreat at Taraloka – a women’s Buddhist Retreat Centre in Shropshire. Here, in no particular order as they say, are the things that made an impression or stayed with me:

◊ Watching the two fat black and white cats (Splodge and Mr P) hunting in the fields.
◊ Debating with fellow retreatants on the first night about how and whether we would be able to resist switching on our mobile phones for five days. Then, only 24 hours later, the whole conversation feeling totally redundant because I was so deeply in the moment that it seemed irrelevant.
◊ Birdsong (and then some…).
◊ Being able to remember most people’s names – something that I struggle with day-to-day even with one or two new people, yet alone 25. Maybe the answer is about being fully present and nothing to do with an aging memory after all!
◊ Finding a new floor-based meditation position that works for me. Feeling that connection to the earth. ‘There is a whole planet beneath you, holding you up.’
◊ The wonderful Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses – bog, peat bog, and more bog – brilliant!
◊ Magnolia Stellatas in full-flower in the garden. Starry white blossoms in morning mist.
◊ Canal walks and bridges. Old metal mechanisms, their purpose lost in local memory. Cogs and ratches, sluice gates and drains.
◊ Statues of the Buddha; shrines; Green Tara; sacred spaces.
◊ Feeling overwhelmed with noise and people (we were a biggish group).
◊ Feeling overwhelmed with peace. Dwelling.
◊ Body scans are deeply relaxing!
◊ ‘What we pay attention to is what comes into being.’ Counting our blessings, gratitude and appreciation, rejoicing in merits.
◊ Metta (loving kindness).
◊ Chitta (heart and mind together, reminding me of the Quaker exhortation to come ‘hearts and minds prepared’.)
◊ Realising that I am actually progressing with this meditation thing…
◊ ‘Body like a mountain, heart like the ocean, mind like the wide blue sky.’

annedegruchy.co.uk image: shrine to Green Tara           

© Anne de Gruchy

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Contracting Worlds

A funny thing has happened recently – my Quakerly studies and thinking about simplicity have collided with my dad’s evolving care needs and his move into residential care, and I find that I am in solidarity with my father’s contracting world!

It is a hard thing to have to move away from your home and all that is familiar into a single bedroom within a communal setting – especially when you are a private man used to your own company and that of your little dog. It is harder still to make the move when you don’t understand or accept the reasons for it because of the effects of Alzheimers.

It has been an emotional time for all the family. My father has been assessed under the Mental Capacity Act and it has been acknowledged that he needs 24 hour care and the safety and support a residential care setting can give. Dad has agreed that the residential setting concerned should be the brilliant nursing home we have found here in Nottingham – near to me, his eldest daughter, and not in Dorset where he lived before. This does not mean that he is in agreement with the decision, but he has now accepted that he is staying and his anxieties have moved on to what will happen to his house and his possessions.

I cannot tell you how weepy and pathetic the whole process has made me. I understand the system well, having worked in mental health and dementia care for many years, but there is nothing that can prepare you for how it feels to have to make life choices on behalf of your own father. Even though our family is in full agreement about the best course of action to support dad and to give him the highest possible quality of life given his needs, it doesn’t stop that wrenching gut when you know that all he wants is to sit by his patio door in his favourite swivel chair and look out over the Blackmore Vale again.

So dad’s world is contracting. His Probus and 41 Club visits have been replaced by ones with a dysfunctional daughter – taking the dog for a walk by the canal or going to a classical concert in a city he remembers fondly from the times when I was a student here. Waxed up ears no longer require trips to the GP with a carer, but can be dealt with ‘on site’ (‘at home’, I should say) by one of the nurses at the care home. If he wanted he could chat to the many articulate and friendly members of ‘the family’, but, as I said, my father is a private man.

Having to reduce your possessions to what will fit in one room is a challenge, and has really made me consider what has value in life. Dad is unable to recall much, but together we are working out a hit-list of things he does not want to do without. He is not a sentimental man, but most of what will remain actually has a high sentimental content – photographs of the family and dad’s dog, soft toys that he has become attached to, railway books and CDs of favourite music even though he no longer plays these, some furniture from his house.

Dad’s situation set me to thinking how I would handle an enforced downsize – assuming my brain still worked more-or-less normally – and I came to the conclusion that it is about making positive choices rather than negative ones. What are the things that I would really value and need? What would sustain and uplift me? It would surely involve considering what I would like to take with me rather than what to leave behind. We are back to the old chestnut of that quote from William Morris: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’

But it is more than that. When our world contracts it comes down to the relationships we have with both other people and ourselves – and, of course, God. My dad’s relationship with his daughters and his local friends has largely determined the level of care and support he has had in recent years. Familiar faces, even though names are long-gone, are welcome and reassuring. Routine, and a sense of self within it, helps to anchor him in a new place.

I have spent a lot of time recently considering what simplicity means to me, and I am perhaps moving away from it being to do with possessions (although what we own, and how much, is of course important and reflects our values in a world of huge inequality) and moving towards making space for that connection with God. Centering prayer and meditative practice provide a deep grounding that immediately feels simple – it is emerging out of this into the world that proves more difficult. For me the knack is to keep that sense of simplicity, of an integral connection to God, in everyday actions and activities.

So here our worlds join up again. A simplicity that connects us to God and drops away the importance of possessions and places. Old age and ill health may result in a contraction of our world, but in doing so it makes us focus on what is really important in our lives and maybe, just maybe, helps us to connect more intensely to God in the process.

MAD MOMENT…

Playing ‘musical furniture’ in dad’s new room – trying to find the most relaxing and practical arrangement – only to end up back at the original layout half an hour, and a lot of puff, later.

MARVEL MOMENT…

The intense joy of singing with others at a recent joint concert with another community choirs.

© Anne de Gruchy

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Simplicity: A Personal Response

During the summer I spent time as an Eva Koch scholar at Woodbrooke – the Quaker study centre in Birmingham. I was researching the subject of Simplicity, which is a Quaker Testimony alongside Peace, Truth and Equality. This is the final article in a series of six articles that I wrote based on my research and the one-to-one interviews I conducted. These articles have previously been published in the Friend magazine.

SIMPLICITY: A PERSONAL RESPONSE

Reflections on my time studying Simplicity as a 2016 Eva Koch Scholar at Woodbrooke

The leading to explore simplicity was there in my life long before I knew about the existence of the Eva Koch scholarships at Woodbrooke. A few years ago my uncle left me an inheritance; a generous amount that allowed me to buy myself a new house and rent out the one I had been living in. Although this sounds wonderful, I am a Quakerly type and I began to feel uncomfortable at having so much whilst others had so little. I began to think about simplicity.

Simplicity is a testimony that on the surface is easy, but which has great depths underneath. As soon as I began to talk to people and to read more widely on the subject, it plunged me into a much wider exploration into the spiritual roots of my unease. I began to understand better the links between spiritual and material simplicity, and to realize that the questions I needed to ask were not simply about whether to give away some of my material resources or change my lifestyle – I needed to spend more time listening to God. As Harvey Gillman said in A Light that is Shining, ‘life cannot be separated into categories of “sacred” and “secular”.’

After posting a couple of blog entries about simplicity, I spotted a Quaker acquaintance’s Facebook link to the Eva Koch scholarships. ‘Is this for you?’ she asked. So here I am, sitting in the sunshine in the Woodbrooke gardens, reflecting on what this period of research has meant to me.

My research has included conducting interviews with 26 people. This has been a privilege and a joy. Perhaps it is the unexpected ‘outcome’ of my work – that the connections and insights arising from the interviews had an intrinsic value for me, and also, it appeared, for the participants. Many Friends expressed gratitude for the opportunity to talk about what simplicity meant to them and felt that it helped address issues they were exploring in their lives. The openness and honesty people entrusted me with has really moved me. I hope this process of transformation will continue through into the workshops I am developing. As one Friend said, the testimony of simplicity at an individual level is about ‘having relationships that are less distorted’ and at a wider level ‘it’s about seeing society as it really is without the kind of prejudices we normally bring’.

To some extent I can list the things I hope to take away as a result of my time looking at the testimony of simplicity. These include the intention to:

• Focus on quality not quantity and to do this through a process of discernment, following the leadings that God gives me. Not being afraid to let go of other activities in my life.
• Make the time I have with people count: listening, giving attention, engagement. Relationships and community matter.
• Make more time for God! This may involve deleting the Facebook App from my phone!
• Not look too far ahead – focus on current activities and trust in God for future direction.
• Continue my commitment to regular meditation/centering prayer.
• Reduce the things that I own and simplify my financial arrangements, but letting this arise naturally from an internal spiritual discipline.

This is all good, but I am aware that once I’m back at home I am likely to let my headspace get out of control again and to overthink the way forward. It reminds me of an analogy given by one of the interview participants: the image of a snow-globe – ‘if you live a simple life those snowflakes aren’t bubbling around… It’s kind of Quakerish… the Light can shine through,’ she said.

Another tool I have been given is the possibility of moving away from words as a means of communication and knowing people. While I was at Woodbrooke I joined a ‘Dance of Connection’ course. We danced the Five Rhythms as developed by Gabrielle Roth – a form of dance that is intensely linked to our inner selves and freeing ourselves to expression and change. We got to know each other so intimately and quickly through dancing together, and it was hard to return to a world of speech and words afterwards. Somehow this felt like a simpler way of knowing people than making conversation.

Typed words also felt inadequate to express the wonderful variety and depth of the ways participants described simplicity during the interviews. Some of my favourite phrases and words included: ‘whittling to the bare bones’, ‘linear’, ‘beauty’ and being involved only with things that ‘come out of a centre of stillness, and a centre that is held in God’. I also responded to the idea that speaking truth is a manifestation of simplicity. In the end I represented these artistically, with coloured lettering and shapes flowing around the central word ‘simplicity’. It was a creative and spiritual process that felt at home with the theme of simplicity itself.

I have also been given other resources on my journey. One of these was the recommendation of the book A Simplified Life: A contemporary hermit’s experience of solitude and silence by Verena Schiller. This is a beautiful and evocative book that really spoke to me. It was written by a nun who spent decades living in silence as a hermit in a tiny hut on the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales. She clearly evokes the draw of the coastline and its islands to monks and hermits across the ages, and describes her lifestyle and the landscape around her with a deep humanity and spirituality.

Schiller says that as a result of her eremitic life ‘the artificial barrier between outer and inner begins to dissolve in an ordinary, everyday sense, bringing a deeper awareness of unity. Life simplifies.’ Yet it is not the idea of an isolated or simple lifestyle that speaks to me in this book, it is the way Verena describes the leadings that brought her to this lifestyle from her community of nuns, and also the way she is later led to change her anchorage to one nearer to a village as she moves into older age. There is a process going on for her that takes years to come to fruition. She is aware of God’s calling to a different way of life but she waits on this for the time to be right. She does not fret or hurry.

I suspect that having done this scholarship will be life changing, but, like Verena Schiller, I need to ‘sit with’ the leadings I have and let them mature until the way forward is clear. ‘Clarity’ is a word several Friends used when describing simplicity, and seeking it is necessary if any changes I feel led to make are to be successful and sustainable. I’m having to hold back the part of me that wants to jump into the unknown – I feel at one with Henry Thoreau in Walden when he says: ‘I do not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight and the mountains.’

This article first appeared in ‘the Friend’ on 11/11/2016

© Anne de Gruchy