New Times,
New Thinking.

21 December 2006

Quakers and simplicity

The link between Quakers and ethical living

By Sally Brooks

I was a bit grumpy this afternoon as I came out of work. It was dark and cold and life just felt a bit dull. I sat on the top deck of the bus at the front. I like sitting there, with my mp3 player and my thoughts. Today, they were generally spikey. dissatisfied thoughts about how much I have to do.

After a few minutes I looked down and in the car below I could see a small boy peeping up at me. I smiled, not thinking he’d be able to see me. But see me he did. His eyes opened wide and he smiled back. For the next 30 seconds we just smiled at each other. I immediately felt a rush of light and warmth flow into me. Maybe this sounds fanciful, but it was very real for me. Soon the car he was in went off in a different direction but I was still left feeling much more content with the world.

It was that unexpected, unlikely contact, the spark of recognition. We were both travelling home after a long day for our tea. It is the simplicity of moments like that, the ease with which they can bring a smile to my face, that ground me.

I try to remember things like this when I get bogged down – for example with Christmas present buying. For a few years I didn’t have enough money to buy Christmas presents. I am lucky enough now to be able to invest in gifts for my loved ones. But it gets so complicated – who to buy presents for, how much to spend? There’s always that terrible risk that someone who you have simply sent a card to will send you an enormous parcel, making you feel dreadfully guilty.

While I was impoverished, one of my Quaker friends called me up and invited me to her birthday gathering, which was being held that evening. I had an hour or so free before I went round, so on a piece of paper in her card I wrote short poem. It was just a little happy birthday message in rhyme really, no risk of attaining poet laureate status. But when she received it, my friend was thrilled.

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No one had ever written her a poem before and she placed it on the mantle-piece. I was amazed that she liked it so much. The following year, I was able to buy her a small gift. For the sake of tradition, I wrote her another poem. When I arrived, gift in one hand, card in the other, I know that she preferred the poem to the gift. I’m tempted to give up Christmas shopping and write everyone a poem!

This isn’t so unusual in Quaker circles. People often make each other cards and gifts. There is a real cross-over it seems between the Quaker community and those keen on ethical living. Quaker households, in my experience, are often full of well-used items that are being coaxed on into old age – dishwashers that everyone else would have replaced years ago, duvet covers from the 1970s, 20-year-old stereos. It’s a habit I’ve inherited. If something still works why replace it? I held stubbornly onto my brick-like mobile phone for years – through it being unfashionable to it being a kitsch classic. It was finally replaced with someone else’s cast-off phone.

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