Scenting Integrity

I’ve long been a great fan of scented smoke, be it joss sticks or “proper” grain incense, much to the chagrin of my mother who thought it must be something to do with hash…

I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to it. I don’t think I can count how many brands I have tried. The incense from Greater goods ticks all the right boxes for me. Beautful scents, not too smokey, long burning, reliably combustible and more important yet, fair trade. If you have a look at their website you will discover they do great things in the world of workers’ rights and so on, and  this adds extra sweetness to their incense. Many joss stick companies use children and the conditions are appalling.

For all this, you might expect a massive extra in the price range. Not so. They’re about the same price as any incense stick bought at your local bing-bong shop (s0 called because of the cacophany of windchimes usually hung outside!).

I had an article published this time last year on the use of aromatics in a sacred context in the magazine Sacred Hoop and I am in the slow process of writing a book of meditations using aromatics of all sorts, including incense. Incorporating scented smoke into your life, whether for prayer, relaxation or simply for pleasure and air freshening is a very rewarding experience and using incense from Greater Goods, it means it will also be rewarding for those who make it too.


It’s one of those ironies of life, or maybe a Divine joke, but my job involves a fair amount of travel; I border at times on agoraphobia so it’s actually quite hard to gear myself up to go away. Most of the time, away involves a day trip, 13 or so hours travelling within this country with visiting foreign language students, but sometimes, for my other job, it involves some nights away on the Continent. This is where the trouble begins.


Because of my baseline anxiety about just about anything, I find packing really hard work, even when it’s only for two or three nights. It doesn’t happen often enough for the packing to become second nature, and so I find myself struggling each time with getting ready. First on the list is things like passport, money and tickets. I’ve already checked them five times. Next is work clothes, and especially shoes. This is not Imelda Marcos speaking; I have to decide what pair of shoes/boots is going to be most comfortable for a couple of days where I am going to be on my feet a lot, in a colder climate that might well be icy and is going to look smart enough for the job. I can squeeze a single spare pair into my case, as emergency change. The same goes for clothes. Night things: pyjamas or a nightie? The way my mind works is the one I choose must a) look decent and modest should I be required to be out of my room after hours, b) is suitably warm/cool/comfortable enough to sleep in. This in itself presents a problem. If I choose warm ones, then the room will probably be overheated and I’ll overheat; if I choose cooler ones, then the bed itself will be icy when I get into it.

Then comes the matter of certain comforts. I bring a travel kettle, along with a mug and a selection of tea bags and so on. You cannot get a decent cup of tea on the Continent to save your life and I do like my tea. I also like a hot drink at bed time. European hotels don’t provide the kettle and so on English hotels provide and even if they did, I am staying at a Youth Hostel, which is even more pared down.

Other comforts: cosmetics. Yes, I know they are not strictly neccessary but they bring me comfort. And yes, guys, I know I COULD manage with a bog standard bar of soap, some shampoo, toothbrush and paste and a deodorant. I just prefer not to. I save up the free samples and mini sizes from my favourite companies to be enjoyed on this sort of trip. But then it comes down to which will I actually need or use….I’ve weeded out now what I won’t use but…there is so much pleasure to be had using a body lotion you’ve been saving for months. Make-up? Well, there’s only so much one can actually use and I don’t use much, anyway, but I have certain addictions: mascara and eyeliner, and lip gloss.

And then what to do in the evenings when we’re all gone to bed, but you’re not ready to sleep? I couldn’t for the life of me find a book I wanted to read when I went to the bookshops, so I’ve packed an old favourite: The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. I’ve also got a journal to write in and my mp3 player.

I’ve also got iron rations in my day rucksack: flapjacks, for emergency hunger, and a water bottle.

I won’t go into the current contents of my handbag but I hope I have everything I could possbily need but without overdoing it. I have left the space blanket at home and shall be wearing my red yak wool shawl that doubles as a pashmina-style scarf and is very cosy. I’ve also got a pillow for the coach, and an endless supply of sick bags.

I just hope that when I hit the hay tonight at about 8pm, I am going to sleep a bit because I need to get up at 1.30am to be picked up at 2am. I may get some sleep on the coach before we meet the kids at 7am but by the time we reach the youth hostel at 19.15 hours(fingers crossed) I will have been up for far too long.

I’ve also packed my camera so when I get back I shall put up some of the pics for you to enjoy.

Auf Wiedersehen! 


The Passing of Storms

The UK has been bombarded with heavy storms the last week or so with high winds and record breaking rainfall. Lives have been lost and billions of pounds of damage has been done. The clean up will go on for months.

That’s not the storms I am speaking of, though the analogy is powerful. I’m talking about the internal emotional storms that can flare up when you suffer with mental health issues like depression.

Depression and her cousin Stress have become over used words in recent years, and it’s not surprising that people are confused about what they actually mean. Depression is more than being a bit fed up or sad. Look up a medical definition if you like but when you do, you will see that quite often people are using the term quite loosely and with scant regard for accuracy. Depression, that is true clinical depression is an illness. You can’t pull yourself together over it, you can’t will yourself out of it any more than you can will yourself out of diabetes.

I’ve been suffering off and on since I was six years old. That sounds dramatic but it isn’t really. Spells of depression can pass without treatment; the brain can right itself and its internal chemistry without intervention. Some people have one episode and that’s it. Some, like me, get those episodes recurring at intervals. Some times I am fine for a few years at a time, with or without medication and then at other times I’m in a deep pit for many months.

This sounds bearable and in some ways it is. But the trouble is that crisis points occur that are analogous to storms. The crisis points can be triggered by external events, or maybe that’s purely coincidence and they would have occurred anyway.

I experienced a pretty severe storm at the weekend. I am feeling much better now, but the damage that these storms do to me and to my closest family and friends is devastating. I feel guilty for the pain it causes those closest to me. I feel relief that the powerful urges to harm myself were not given in to, and terror that one day I may(as I have done in the past) do more serious harm to myself.

Just as in the wake of any storm, be it literal or metaphorical, I am going through the clean up process and also asking WHY. Why does this happen? What is actually going on in my brain? What is going on in my soul and spirit? And how can I try and stop it happening again.

The air is always clean and fresh after a storm, the deadwood blown down and the streams running strongly again. Are storms as neccessary to my mental health as they are in nature?

Addendum to the Ginger Biscuit

Apart from errant ginger biscuits, there’s not much fun to be had out of analysing questionaires.

But an extra little nugget of joy emerged today. While battling his way through one that came back from somewhere in Wales, and having to translate acres into hectares, my husband came across a little gem of loveliness.

Where the recipient had the option of putting his/her address, they had simply written, “My hedges have dormice!”

Isn’t that lovely? It makes it all worthwhile. I shall be dreaming of dormice now!

Putting the garden to bed

I don’t like this time of year much; the gap between sun-up and sun-down being pitifully small and getting smaller; I huddle at my sunlamp or stride out on the rare days when the sun shines. I keep looking forward to the Solstice, when I know that it has become as dark as it is going to get and from then on, minute by minute it will get lighter each day.

I was reminded of this the other day, when Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton was mentioned and the line, “the still point of the turning year” was quoted. I pondered this and came out with the lines, “The year pivots, pirouetting en pointe, Dancer meets Dance: I am renewed”. But I still have four weeks to go through and because of her age and her cancer, my dog doesn’t want to walk when it’s cold and windy or wet and today when I thought she might go, she baulked, halfway down the street and decided the brisk wind was too much. We came home.

But the sun was shining and the air was mild for all the whipping wind, so I kept my coat and boots on and went out into our small garden and began a few chores. I used to love gardening but too many years of gardens too huge for me to manage alone (our last garden was about an acre) has put me off and in my mind I can no longer make the decision to potter for an hour. In the past, an hour was a mere drop in a deep, deep ocean and it was so disheartening to labour for an hour, and realise that in the grand scheme of things, you have done NOTHING, that even now, three years on, I rarely sneak out and fiddle about and do the little bits and pieces gardens seem to need.

I started by removing the dead strands of sweet pea that still twined around things, and it went from there: pruning, thinning, weeding, digging and finally sweeping all the dead leaves and bits of weed into a big pile at the end of the garden. I removed the mushy remains of the courgette plant and then reached further back in the border to pick the dead leaves off the irises. I went further and cut back the stems of the lemon balm; at several points I had to make a retreat, being warned off by one of our bees when I had clearly come too close to the entrance to the hive when she was coming in or going out. It was so mild that there was a steady stream of bees going about their business.

Now, I have scratched and nettled hands but a strange sense of satisfaction. I can look out of my bedroom window and see what I managed to accomplish in an hour and a half. I have more to do but I was starting to feel tired and the dog wanted to go in, so I put away my tools and came in for a coffee and a bagel.

Too often I put off starting a thing imagining it a task that is so huge it is better not to start unless I can finish it within a time frame that is oddly skewed. I’m doing this with house painting, but then I do know from experience this isn’t something you can stop once you start. But maybe I will wake up one morning and think, yes, today I will paint the bathroom.

There was a feeling while I was outside of being at one with my own small kingdom, of nurturing something I had been neglecting. At least tonight for once I can go to bed and feel I have done something worthwhile!

Babel in my head

I’ve been trying to recover my lost German, spending a while each day (that was the theory, the practise is I forget sometimes) using some CDs and a book to get some of my language ability back. I took an O level in German, way back in 1982, when an O level was worth rather more in many ways than the current exam. Of course, 1982 is a long time ago and while I have used it a little since then, I have let it slip away and I thought it was mostly lost, but for a few words and phrases.

It’s so much harder to learn a language once you are an adult and I’m over forty now, so harder still. I used to be able to pick up language very easily; I’d only need to hear a word or phrase once or twice and I would remember it. I was getting to a point recently where I felt near despair because the words were just not sticking at all.

Then last night, after I went to bed, my mind started to chew over things, while I was trying to get to sleep and then it went into overdrive and began spouting German all night. You know how if you are sleeping very lightly you can sometimes have a lot of dialogue going on, almost beyond your consciousness. Well, mine last night was in German. Halting and rather broken German but German nonetheless. I sometimes dream in French but until last night, never in German (except for waking up with the phrase for fizzy water) 

I think that’s probably progress. It feels like it’s starting to “catch” again. I’m off in just over ten days so I may be able to complete the course before I go and feel I can at least manage without looking too often like yet another stupid English tourist who can’t or won’t speak the langauge.

How to read the Bible….and anything else!

I’ve recently been given a book called “A Rabbi reads the Bible” by Jonathan Magonet and it’s really excellent reading. I’m only a few chapters in right now but I’d like to quote some for you all to ponder on:

“In 1968, our progressive Jewish youth movement hosted a group of young Czech Jews for a conference in Edinburgh. They stayed on for an additional week- and the Russians marched on Prague, cutting them off from their country and their families. Many of them became refugees overnight. That would be enough to bring them to mind, especially in the light of the radical changes that have happened in Eastern Europe, but they taught us something very special about the Bible in the time were were together. We studied some Bible texts and they were incredibly good at understanding them, picking up all the nuances very quickly. I was surprised as they had never studied the Bible before.

“It’s easy,” they explained. “You see, in Czechoslovakia, when you read a newspaper, first you read what is written there. Then you say to yourself, ‘If that is what they have written, what really happened? And if that is what really happened, what are they trying to make us think? And if that is what they are trying to make us think, what should we be thinking instead?’ You learn to read between the lines and behind the lines. You learn to read a newspaper as if your life depended upon understanding it-because it does!” 

I found this a profoundly revealing and really rather powerful way of looking at things. You can apply it to how you read the newspapers( even in the UK, you need to take it all with a shovel full of salt) or to how your read your sacred texts, or how you read publicity statements or advertisments. And you can even use it for finding your way through what has become a very crowded and rather dangerous “spiritual” market place. I do recall a chappie with beard and sandals bearing down on a similar market place with a whip made of ropes and driving out those who sought to make the house of God into a den of thieves.  I do wonder what happened to him….

To listen, maybe not…

I came across this at today.  I’ve been meaning to add this wonderful blog to my blogroll but keep forgetting; it’s there now!!

What sort of listener are you???

An Excellent Mystery

It’s rare that my husband comes home with a story from work that can reduce us to hysterical laughter; it’s just not that sort of job any more. When he was a full time priest, the stories were sometimes unbelievably funny or sad. Now he’s a consultant in another capacity, it tends to be much quieter all round.

Part of the job involves devising and then sending out questionaires about a variety of subjects and recently they sent out some to a huge swathe of British farmers. Now they expect that most will never come back despite a prepaid envelope, and a 30% return is exceptional. 10% is about normal.

Well, the reply envelopes have started trickling back in for this project and something untoward about one made the lady from admin suspicious because of a lump and a greasy stain, so she opened it, very bravely considering that these are coming back from farmers who are less than impressed by yet more government originated schemes (this was indirectly from the government but not compulsory or anything like that). I’m not sure what she expected to find (dried cow pat? dead mouse?) but she certainly wasn’t prepared for what was in there.

No questionaire, obviously. Nor any clue to who had taken the time and trouble to put the item in the envelope, seal it up and put it in the post.

It contained a single, crumbled ginger biscuit.

I mean: WHY? What is the message here?

We laughed in the car last night till the tears ran down our faces. A biscuit, but why, oh why?

Are they saying You’re as mad as a biscuit? Are they saying they’re as mad as a biscuit. Or was it a child who did it, or a simple(but how?) accident.

I guess we’ll never know.