Everyday sacred

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Writing about baking bread the other day I was casting around for a way of expressing just how important ordinary actions and objects can be. I’ve written in the past about the ‘ordinary’ and I’ve no doubt I’ll keep coming back to it. Ordinary is a word inflected by its use by the church to describe the authority of regularity, of obedience, of order, but in  institutional hands it came to mean repetitiveness, blind obedience and hierarchy. Sometimes it’s possible to blow the dust off an old word and restore it to its full meaning, but maybe ‘ordinary’ has been taken to the charity shop once too often and so it just means ‘a bit meh’.

So my loaf of bread, ordinary though it is to me, because it embodies a whole network of responsibilities and regularities – and great beauty too, aside from its utility as a shared food – ‘ordinary’ doesn’t quite stretch to it.  So I tried another word. ‘everyday’.   Everyday bread perhaps, for some people, conjures up a faint memory of ‘daily bread’. The word stuck in my mind and although I’ve tried writing on a number of other subjects I keep coming back to the idea of ‘everyday sacred’.

I’m really worried about using these kind of words because they’ve been so hijacked and starved by by their association with organised religion with which I’ve had a long relationship in the past.  But that leaves me with a problem because if ‘spirituality’, ‘sacred’, and all their associated concepts are put beyond reach by the institutions that hold the concession at the moment, we have to start from scratch in describing what for many of us is a deeply felt connection with the earth, and with one another, that transcends the ‘selfish gene’ nonsense peddled by Old Testament atheists like Richard Dawkins.

I no longer have a belief in the supernatural.  I dreamed about losing it and then it just happened one day as I stood watching the River Severn in flood, and I saw it float away in the fierce water.  It wasn’t at all dramatic; I wasn’t as much ‘losing my faith’ as being set free to find it again in another place, free of the rigidity and dogma. I’ve never spoken about this before and it may come as a bit of a shock to some of my friends so I’ll have to pace up and down  a bit before I press the ‘publish’ button, but there we are – it’s a relief to have written it.

So now I can write about everyday sacred without any ambiguity about my intentions. This blog isn’t about selling anything it’s about being human – delightfully, stupidly and increasingly decrepitly human.  When I’m in the kitchen making bread I feel connected.  When I’m on the allotment I feel it too.  On my way through the park today I stood face to face with a pair of long tailed tits in the hedge who seemed as curious about me as I was about them, and the urge to thank somebody, something, surged inside me.

Everyday sacred is that sense of gratitude because the earth provides so much that we need. The photo is of a sketch I made of a garlic bulb – this was a more successful one, I did dozens of others that turned out like schoolboy phallic graffiti – it’s hard to get it right. Knowing that it’s so good for us to eat and knowing something about the quite amazing molecular transformations that go on within garlic, within so many plants whose secondary metabolites can cure our diseases and put us back together again – that induces the same sense of the everyday sacred.  The hawthorn – we called it ‘bread and cheese’ as children and ate the leaves when they were new and not full of tannin – hawthorn has an outrageous array of natural gifts to offer.

So the Potwell Inn is for: dancing, singing, making music, eating together, telling jokes, falling in love, breaking the rules, growing our food and listening to each others troubles; healing, challenging and forgiving – these are the everyday sacred, and I say to the churches – “thank you for looking after the ball for so long,  but please can we have it back now.”

Mindfulness makes better bread (and doctors)

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Mornings are my  time. I love pottering around in the kitchen and, of course, it’s the time for kneading the sourdough. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about making bread and one hard lesson, when I was new to the game, was to leave things alone.  I was always prodding, poking and fiddling about with the dough at the time when it most needed leaving alone. But paradoxically I wasn’t paying the kind of minute attention to it at the right time either.

Recipes are essential, but they’re only the start – because it seems every batch of flour can be subtly different from the last in the amount of water it will need to reach the right consistency. So my recipe suggests adding 300g flour to the batter before kneading. In reality it might need anywhere between 320g and 360g to be right for my ‘everyday’ loaf. How I arrive at the exact amount is by trial and error.  300g will give a basic but very sticky mix, and for the first couple of loaves from a new batch I just add flour as I knead.  As time goes on I’ve got a pretty good idea how much I’ll need – today it was 340g, which was spot-on. Clearly different brands of flour can make an even bigger difference.

Frustrating as it may seem, the only way is to gain more experience – it takes time and attention to do it. In my kitchen I judge the consistency of the dough by the way it sticks to the wooden table. If I’m constantly scraping the table it’s too slack. If it’s not sticking at all it’s too firm – you’ll know that anyway because it’s so hard to knead. It’s just right when I stretch the dough, pushing it forwards with the heel of my right hand, while the fingers of the left hand are resting on the back of the dough, ready to make a quarter turn before starting again. The combination of light fingers and just the right adhesion makes the job easy. Too sloppy a dough will stick to the banneton and turn out like a pancake – all crust and no crumb. Too stiff a dough will turn out cleanly but it will have a too dense a crumb. The right consistency will (just) turn out without sticking, and rise triumphantly, the bubbles not being held in by the dough. As a drystone waller I once knew would say to customers who complained about the price – “It’s a pound for the stone and ninety nine pounds for knowing what to do with it!”

Every stage of the baking process prospers when it’s accompanied by minute attention to detail. As any student of Tai Chi or Chinese painting would tell you, true spontaneity springs from constant practice. I love the story of Charlie Parker being blown off the stage by a bunch of far more experienced jazz players when he was sixteen and full of his own importance. They just kept of changing key until ran out  of steam.  His response was to go out and practice until – much later – he was able to go back on stage and blow them off.

Time, patience, practice and multi-sensory attentiveness are prerequisites for good baking and – come to think of it – good medicine as well. I’ve had a minor heart problem for years and I kept going back to the doctors who would do an ECG and tell me that nothing was wrong. They looked at their data – never at me – and told me that it said I wasn’t ill. Over a period of years I never spent more than 10 minutes in the surgery and rarely had any eye contact at all with a doctor.  When we moved here I was advised by a friend to sign up with a practice that trained GP’s because the trainees were often terrifyingly up to date (my friend was a trainer herself). They also get 20 minutes for their appointments rather than 10.  So when it happened again I made an appointment and was assigned to a trainee. 20 minutes later he’d listened to me, he’d arranged for some monitoring via the local hospital and reviewed all my meds. During the 24 hour monitoring period I had four episodes that could have resulted in a heart attack or stroke – and I’d been having them at that rate for years. The technician who looked at the data said that she was always seeing people like me because my problem doesn’t show up on a straightforward ECG. Now I’m taking medication the risk is greatly reduced – just because that inexperienced trainee took time, stepped away from the preconceptions and listened intently to me. Would I prefer a more naturally based regime? – of course, and I’ll do my best to move sensibly in that direction, but for now it’s the pills.

So here’s a thought.  While we agitate constantly for new, expensive technology based medicine, would there be any mileage in training so many more GP’s that they had time to spend half an hour getting to know the big picture of the patients’ lives? That extra ten minutes may have saved mine and given me the time to learn more about making bread. I love the NHS and I feel for the overloaded GP’s who know they’re not giving what they’re capable of because they need more funding. And they also need a new kind of training that develops those scary skills like attentiveness, empathy and appreciation for the whole person ….. oh and let’s have a bit less hostility to four millennia of good old human experience.

 

The long view

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The word of god turned out to be not

today thank you

An early morning walk on the beach this morning became something of a meditation on melancholy, impermanence and fragility. Apart from the plashing of the incoming waves, the crunch of pebbles underfoot and a few end-of-season walkers celebrating the unexpectedly fine weather, the beach was quiet and being rapidly erased by the tide .  As we came to the top of the steps a group of women, three generations of Welsh speakers came towards us speaking quietly like a happy hive of bees as they cooed over a baby in a pushchair. Welsh is still the first language in this part of the country and local people sometimes speak of the places beyond Porthmadog as ‘the mainland’. Every village here has a tall, grey and hard-faced buildng with words like ‘Morab’ and ‘Ebenezer` carved above the door.  The churches are mostly closed down, the subscription books stored in dusty archives as the subscribers turn to dust in the churchyards outside.  “No one comes to the brittle miracle of the bread”  On Sunday I did spot a preacher in his best suit, bible under his arm and with the look of a man who had something to say. I wanted to pull over and ask him what it was that pleased him so, and depending on his answer I might have stood at the back of the chapel where the uncommitted stand, and heard him out, but I couldn’t bear the thought of being disappointed again.

Why does it slip through my fingers all the time? The meaning? – and so when I’m in this way I’m filled with questions whose answers are always just a sentence away but out of reach. On the way home we spotted a buzzard on a telegraph pole and he must have caught my question because the answer came back quite clearly –

For once it’s not about you!

Barely ten yards from where I’m sitting

 

That doesn’t mean that technique isn’t important  – it’s everything!

Every summer, as soon as the solstice passes and the nights begin to lengthen I know that I’ll resolve once again to capture the intensity of these colours in a painting.  I did it  today as I wandered around the garden of our borrowed cottage and photographed some of the wild fruits growing here.  The trickiest subject by far was the hawthorn tree which resisted every attempt to capture its brilliance against the blue sky.  Painting is a very tactile experience, from the texture of the paper, the sensation of freedom in a running line and the intense concentration of mixing and applying colour.  The smell of the paint, even the resistance, heft and suppleness of a good brush can be exciting, as can the accidental granularity of the paint as it spreads on the rough surface of good paper.

But talk is cheap and whereas I can write easily,  painting doesn’t come naturally at all. I have an uncompleted painting of a hyacinth that’s three years old, alongside a folder full of drawings, tracings and macro-photos but still it defeats me. The intoxicating complexity of the petals, lit as they are from every angle around the stem; their intense waxy blue; the stiff lanceolate leaves with their almost invisible longitudinal grooves make the process of painting into a profound and humbling experience. Far from envisaging the artistic process as flowing from an exceptionally gifted mind to the paper, I’ve come to see it as a challenge from the subject – the plant, flower or whatever – to the artist; an act of discovery through enchantment. Any kind of ego is an absolute barrier to understanding, and the greatest moments in my creative life have been more like meditations in which I am able to step aside and allow the work to happen.  It doesn’t happen often, but then I have no deadlines or quotas to meet. That doesn’t mean that technique isn’t important  – it’s everything! – and then you can forget about it.

I was painting in a group a couple of years ago and using a bit of a technical wrinkle to create the highlights in a painting of a decaying leaf.  One of my class asked me what I was doing and so I explained what I’d been taught by our teacher who is always worth paying attention to. “So it’s just a trick” she said disparagingly.  “No it’s a trick but not just a trick, it’s a technique”. I think she was under the impression that learning technique somehow interferes with the artistic process.  You can’t blame her, art schools are full of lecturers who believe the same thing. It’s not a matter of being  – not everybody who wears a beret and smokes Gauloises is going to become Jean Paul Sartre! It’s a matter of sheer bloody minded doing.

So here I am at the moment full of aspirations that must be defended at all costs from the siren temptations of cooking, gardening and loving our family. About once a year I pull off something worth looking at, but the process is as slow as a sloth’s bowel movements and we need to eat. Today we went for a walk but mistimed the high tide due to my inability to read a 24 hour timetable.  So we went to a gap in the clifftop bushes and leaned on the fence gazing at the view. We agreed that you can do too much walking and so we thought we’d just lean on the fence and take in the smell and sound of the sea. Then we went to the shop and bought some cake.  A perfect day.

 

 

In the bleak midwinter – good news for meditators!

It must have been three weeks ago when I first caught what I thought was “only a cold”; but after a week of sneezing and nose blowing it took up residence in my chest and provoked a bout of asthma that lasted for another week and then – just as I was feeling better another opportunistic virus sandpapered the back of my throat and left me sleepless and unable to swallow.  Meanwhile Madame caught the intial cold off me and consequently we’ve been doing a deathly gavotte keeping one another awake with our snoring and spluttering.  The solution has been to circulate individually between the living room, the bathroom and the bedroom alternately sleeping and reading, while the viruses occupy our vital organs and conduct the viral equivalent of a stag weekend in an Airbnb flat.  Our bodily furniture is trashed and the carpets will never be the same again, the curtains torn down and don’t even mention the sink. How on earth can such a tiny thing as a virus be so awesomely destructive?

Anyway, all is not bad news – apart from the enforced silence online that was so uncharacteristic of me I had an email to make sure I was alive! Am I that noisy usually?? – the upside was an unprecedented amount of reading time and I’ve been ploughing through Owen Flanagan’s book “The really hard problem” as well as Byron Rogers’ biography of RS Thomas, “The man who went into the West”. I’m not even going to try to summarize the Flanagan book except to say that if you’re interested in human flourishing and/or you’re a Buddhist or, like me, (and RS Thomas) still searching, then it’s worth the effort.  “Can you teach virtue?” – here’s a book that tries to answer.

The RS Thomas biography is brilliant but can’t really penetrate the enigma of the poet.  Of course, what the book does is excite a longing to get back to Lleyn that’s almost overwhelming. I did meet RS once at a reading at Atlantic College, and I thought he was delightful and very funny, but the more I read about him and especially about his first wife Elsi and their relationship the more bewildered I get. Was it a generational thing that so many incredibly talented women artists subjugated themselves, or were subjugated by their husbands?  Elsi Eldridge, Rose Hilton, Winifred Nicholson, all swept aside by their partners’ ego.

But apart from the ill-advised trip to the Littleton Wassail that just made things worse, I’ve been confined the the flat unable to think about cooking the Seville oranges and sighing helplessly at the prospect of sowing the chillies in the propagators – until today – when we ventured up to the allotment and found it frozen solid.  I picked a good week, it seems, to be hors de combat.  The Timperly early rhubarb and the broad beans in their fleece cloches are all growing merrily but everything else (apart from the  snowdrops in the windowboxes) is taking a break. The worms had chewed through another six inches of kitchen waste while we were away, undeterred by the low temperatures.  Perhaps they’ve got a warm nursery somewhere deep at the bottom.

And the good news for meditators?  Well it seems that some research has suggested that when vaccinated with the flu vaccine, skilled meditators produced significantly more antibodies than those who didn’t meditate.  It’s all the rushing around that’s making me ill – I’m not kidding either!