Friday, 21 September 2007

August highlights and lowlights

The summer helpers arrived, and suddenly the house was full of mostly young, mostly female, mostly Eastern European, presences, using lots of smiles and sign language to convey to each other the things they’ve only just learnt themselves – what ‘pillowcase’ means and how many teabags for a six-pint pot and how to start the petrol mower. Most have come to improve their English, but some have other agendas – one has a dream of starting her own community, and wants to see how to run one; another wants to tape English voices so English learners at home can practise their listening skills.

And the groups – holidaying, studying, conferencing – come and go. Lone parent families come to holiday, learn circus skills, build bonfires, use bible stories as a starting point for talking about their own lives. Then the house fills up with people who’ve come together to sing, and the air fills with gorgeous harmonies – meetings end with a hymn, dinner starts with a sung grace. Determined, cheery, white haired folk with arthritic joints struggle up and down the house’s many stairs (being built on a steep hillside, there are steps everywhere). They go, and next we are dazzled with the colours of Asian clothes and crafts, and the versatile kitchen team turn their hands to producing Indian vegan lunches and suppers.

But I missed a lot of August. My father, who had been desperately ill with Alzheimer’s disease for many years, died. He had been in a nursing home for the past four years, and the staff (Filipinos, Indians, Poles, some of them thousands of miles from their own families) quietly cared for us all through that night, bringing cups of tea, and turning Dad and bringing fresh sheets as though he was like any other patient needing routine comfort and care, and not someone who was not expected to regain consciousness again.

Being at Scargill, in a Christian community, doesn’t make it any easier to make sense of something like this – his years of suffering, the blight on all our lives, the unending shame that, all through his illness, I was called and found wanting, the guilt at putting myself first, the worse guilt at thinking about my own misery at all in the face of what he had to endure. I have no idea how people who believe literally in a personal god who is both compassionate and omnipotent, come to terms with the facts of undeserved human suffering. But being in a community, full stop, certainly helps – there’s an awful lot of love around. And the symbols of religion, its metaphorical language, give me access to a source of comfort, which is to say, a source of strength, which I personally can’t access any other way. Christians know a god who knows what suffering is.

But August ended on a different note. Five of us took the Scargill stall to Greenbelt – the annual festival of Christian arts, held at Cheltenham racecourse. There were the acres of tents, the outdoor stages with towering banks of speakers, the ethnic clothes stalls and burger stands you get at any festival. But there were also long queues of folk with folding seats, waiting to hear a Cambridge theologian or a talk on New Testament clobber texts – those would be the ones used by the self-righteous and anti-gay to clobber the opposition. There were lots of under-twenties, lots of exuberance, no drunkenness, no trouble. An occasional grey head bounced up and down to a rock band, or teenager queued for a talk, but mostly the different age groups amicably followed their different interests. Religious symbols were almost entirely absent,, but there was a lot of emphasis on peace and justice, and a huge number of different opportunities to use your time and cash to advance them, from buying clothes made by an African women’s co-operative to supporting a project to help isolated old folk in Leeds. We also had the traditional festival mud – the actual weather being baking, the organisers had made festival goers feel at home by siting a sink drain just outside the most heavily used Portaloos, thereby creating a morass that soon got tramped into the toilets, made them unusable, and turned the nearby path into a river of mud. It was loads of fun, except that I’d forgotten how very cold sleeping in a tent, on the ground, can be, even when the preceding day was boiling hot – in fact, especially then. As soon as I got back I bought a thicker camping mattress for next year!

Friday, 14 September 2007

Early Summer

One reason for writing this blog is so my friends in the big city don’t forget me (in my mind I hear them saying vaguely to each other, ‘Who was it we used to know who could tell us everything we ever wanted to know about sheep….?’). I’ve always had a soft spot for our woolly friends, having spent many of my summers since age 5 on mountains and moorlands kept neat and trim by Swaledales, Herdwicks and Beulah Speckledfaces. But now I’m living in hillfarming country, I’m getting a different perspective on them. I have been very stressed out recently by having three ewes and their great big lambs in the hay meadow recently, chomping the heads off all the wild flowers which are just coming into their best, and flattening all the grass which is mown and sold in July. Now I understand the person who wanted to smack Little Boy Blue’s silly head for him, and why it’s such a big deal if the sheep’s in the meadow (and the cows are in the corn). Though our hay meadow is small, it’s looking pretty good. The National Trust owns half of Upper Wharfedale, mainly because of the hay meadows, and we have our own delectable little bit of one too.

I have moved out of the guest room I’ve been staying in for two months and into a bedsit in the community accommodation, which is 60s build (converted from some old garages); some bits of it are very damp but my room is fine, and starting to feel like home. I share kitchen, bathroom and shower with two young fellas, one who is a very laid back and hugely accomplished organist who ought to be playing in a cathedral, but apparently there are a lot more talented organists than people who need to employ them, so he’s Personnel Secretary at Scargill instead, and the other who works on the estate here, owns four working dogs and has part shares in several more, leaves mole traps under the kitchen table and cooks up burdock stir fries and pots of exploding nettle soup. Upstairs is someone who’s been in community at Scargill for 18 years and whose birdfeeders give me better entertainment than the TV (much better), a dynamic Yorkshire woman, and a very engaging, outgoing and friendly young guy (that's him in the picture with the baby) doing a year’s work experience in the finance office here while studying for a business degree, and organising impromptu cricket matches in the evenings (it’s hard to get him to take ‘no’ for an answer, but I think he’s finally accepted that I don’t do bat-and-ball).

Wharfedale is incredibly green and lush at the moment, as we’ve had a fair bit of rain (it’s very wet rain, even when it looks so thin you’d think it was nothing) and also lots of sunshine and warm days, so everything has broken into leaf and grown and burgeoned and blossomed – you get the picture. This month’s visitors have included the annual arrival of the entire Year 5 of a London primary school, who scramble up hill sides and go down caves and finish their week with a rip roaring evening around a big bonfire. Another group startled me when I was doing a quick constitutional round the estate one evening – it takes thirty minutes at a fast pace to get to the top and back again, which is just perfect for a bit of quick exercise. As I rounded a corner at the very top of our woods, I came across three men dressed in green combats sitting around a green Land Rover, half hidden in the trees. They had rigged up shelters in the trees and had various bits of equipment dotted about. They were clearly trying not to be conspicuous. Poachers? Badger diggers? A terrorist cell in training? I was sharply aware that it was a very isolated spot and no-one knew I was up there. Breathing very steadily, I walked past them in what I hoped was a confident and brisk manner, like someone who was expected somewhere right now. When I got back to the house, I mentioned them to the centre manager. ‘Ah yes,’ he said, ‘the bush survival group. They’ll be here for a week, but they won’t come to the house. If we see them at all it means they’ve failed. Actually,’ he added, ‘I don’t think they’ve paid yet … Hmm, could be difficult…’

Thursday, 17 May 2007

First impressions

This is the story of my year at Scargill House, which is a Christian retreat house and holiday centre in the Yorkshire Dales, in the north of England.

I’m a volunteer at Scargill; I’ve only been here a few weeks. Most of the volunteers are young: students or on gap years, some from South America, others local to northern England. I’m at the other end of my career, though – after 25 years of being “another brick in the wall” I thought it was time to pause, make some space to reflect on where I am and where I want to be, and find some useful work which would put a roof over my head but not be so pressurised it left no time for thinking.

Scargill does this and, in addition, it’s a stunningly beautiful place. Wharfedale is a flat bottomed valley with steep sides and we’re part way up the eastern side, which means that our main sitting area has a grandstand view of the opposite hillside. There are no buildings to be seen on that side, only trees and drystone walls and the moorland rising above. The clouds sometimes make very dramatic patterns over there, and the guests often just stand at the window, soaking up the view. Behind the house the hillside rises steeply, so that from my bedroom window I can’t see any sky unless I go right up to the glass; my whole vista is filled with the wooded slope. At the centre of the Scargill buildings is a rambling country house. We’re still using some of the bedrooms, which are fitted out in grand style like some sort of luxurious pre-war caravan, with concealed washbasins, hidden linen boxes and hideaway upholstered chairs. This is one place that really deserves to be called a rabbit warren: it has long corridors with many turns, and narrow flights of stairs that take you to unexpected places. I found a flight in a dark corner by the larder a few days ago, went up it and to my surprise found myself stepping through a cupboard door – what I’d thought was a cupboard door – into one of the upstairs lounges; originally provided no doubt so some Edwardian lackey could bring more Scotch to the gents in the house party.

A terrific chapel constructed with stone, glass and huge pine beams was added in the sixties along with more accommodation; and more bedrooms, lounges and other bits and pieces in the seventies and eighties. Elsewhere on the site are stone houses of various eras for the community, some sound, some incurably leaky (the houses, that is). Some of the community get (modest) salaries, others like me get their keep and a small allowance. The community is very small, and fortunately there are also good hearted folk – a sort of Scargill extended family – who come in when we’re especially short staffed to clean sinks and hoover floors for nothing at all apart from a warm glow and a cup of coffee. It really is a labour of love here, and I really do love it.

The volunteers do lots of cleaning and dining room duties and help welcome and look after guests, and I’ve also led worship once so far. It turns out that I like leading worship – it’s like teaching with no disruptive kids (if there are any, their parents take them out – I think schools should try this), very docile students, lots of opportunities for me to read aloud to a captive audience, and you get to set your own curriculum. Hmm, I suspect I wasn’t really cut out for teaching.

Some visitors are private guests or come with church groups, others come on courses or themed holidays. In the last few weeks we’ve done Easter retreats, courses in creative embroidery and watercolour painting, Dales walking holidays, weekends for church groups, school groups on our ‘mythbusters’ programme (bringing together children from different communities) as well private guests on holiday and working guests helping with maintenance tasks. The special themes of Scargill are ecology, giving urban communities access to the countryside (e.g. school groups, events for asylum seekers) contemporary spirituality, and inclusiveness. Occasionally there have been clashes – some guests from more traditional evangelical church backgrounds don’t like the way Scargill has developed, don’t like the emphases on ecology and inclusiveness, and apparently haven’t read those bits of the bible that tell us to care for the stranger and the alien – but there is a core of supporters who love the place and support the philosophy passionately.

And it’s the guests and supporters who make Scargill. We have a group in this weekend walking labyrinths, which is, I am told, a powerful way of being prayerful or contemplative, not specific to any religion, but as helpful for Christian prayer as for Buddhist meditation or humanist pondering! The house has ninety acres of woodland rising steeply up the rocky hillside behind it, and apart from a lot of trees (and huge numbers of primroses, violets and bluebells, half a dozen roe deer, and some hooting owls, burbling curlews and tumbling lapwings – these are all mine – this is where I live) – apart from a lot of trees, there are also a lot of rocks of various sizes, some of which were used to lay out a labyrinth a couple of years ago, and tonight a group is off to the woods to walk the labyrinth by candlelight, while at the same time elsewhere in the building a big and very cheerful Salvation Army contingent is having an enthusiastic and musical teaching and worship session in one of the meeting rooms. Nope, never a dull moment here.