Tag Archives: quakers

A friend and The Golden Key

My friend Oi ( pronounced O-ee) had ideas so advanced that even Quaker Meeting – that most liberal and open- minded Christian group – threw her out.

She was born in 1900, the youngest of ten, to a father who was sixty years old, and she died when she was a hundred and four – so the two life-times covered a hundred and sixty four years, and went back to 1840. Her father was a cabin boy on a ship that was wrecked on the NZ coast in 1856. Local Maoris formed a human chain to rescue him, and he stayed with them for some time, becoming very close to the chief. After returning to England, he came back with a seventeen-year-old bride, and the Maori chief gave him land to start his life here.

Robin, Oi’s father, established a huge sheep farm, built a big beautiful house, cottages for his shepherds, barns, wool-sheds and an exquisite little chapel, where Oi and her nine brothers and sisters played the organ and helped hand out prayer books to the shepherds and their families as they entered.. As each child arrived, the generous chief had given them Maori land. He ceremonially adopted Oi, and gave her the Maori name Oiroa, which roughly translated, means: ‘compassion for those in need’. Though it was shortened to Oi, she lived up to her name always, and when I met her was beloved by many people for very good reasons.

She married a distinguished Auckland architect – sometimes known as NZ’s Frank Lloyd Wright – who created many of Auckland’s great buildings, like the Railway Station, and beautiful private homes including some famous ones in the Hawkes Bay. Oi herself was very musical, and played the piano, and was so deeply involved in the musical life of her adopted city, that in the early thirties she and another musical aficionado, started the first orchestra in the city, whose descendant is still thriving.

She was beautiful –  and open-hearted and sweet-natured. She was also unhappily married to a much older controlling, jealous and angry man. Other men loved her, and I picked up hints over the years of tempestuous scenes and dramatic confrontations, one in which her loyal cleaning lady divested a desperate suitor of his shotgun at the front door. Oi received and declined her last proposal in her eighties.

Her zest for life never diminished, in spite of a son’s suicide, a difficult life, and much loneliness. Neither did her kindness fail, or her energy, for that matter. I was sure her inner life kept her young. She was often busy driving “old ladies” shopping until well into her nineties. She obviously didn’t feel she qualified for that label – yet! Her spontaneity and authenticity, happiness and serenity, endeared her to all ages.

I met her at Quaker meeting, where we were both what is called attenders, as opposed to members. On occasion when the beautiful and mystical silence was gently broken by a deeply felt message, if it was Oi, as she was known for short, it would be a profoundly mystical and eminently practical thought.

Throughout her life she was drawn to mysticism, a branch of the spiritual life which has always been mistrusted by organised religion, as its devotees seek union with the Source, whatever it is called, thus bypassing the need for priests, mullahs, rabbis, gurus or whatever. Whether these mystics were Muslim, as in the case of Rumi and the Sufis, or Christians like Master Eckhart, or St John of the Cross, they often came to a sticky end at the hands of their respective religions.

Luckily in the twentieth century, this fate is not so common, and Oi escaped lightly by just being blackballed by Quakers! She explored most branches of both Western and Eastern mysticism, and in her thirties, became a lover of Ramakrishna’s teachings, keeping a photo of him by her bed-side always. He practised several religions, including Hindu, Islam and Christianity, and taught that in spite of the differences, all religions are valid and true, and they lead to the same ultimate goal- God.

After Oi introduced herself to me, and invited me to her beautiful house (I had not been long in NZ then), we became close, and she became my mentor. My two small children looked on her as a grandparent and we loved going to her serene and peaceful home.

Though it was in the city, it sat among mature trees and a rambling, flowery garden with a stream. Her architect son had designed it for her. Music, in her mid-seventies, was still her passion. Sometimes I would arrive at the garden entrance, and hear the glorious sounds of a trio or a quartet streaming out of the windows, and I’d stand silently outside under the persimmon tree, listening to Mozart or Mahler.

When the children and I were there, we‘d often end up singing round the piano with the student who boarded with her, and was a brilliant pianist and lovely tenor. We’d all sing favourites as diverse as Handel’s, ‘Where e’er you walk”, to: “Feed the birds,” from Mary Poppins. I had another musical friend, Phillipa, whose unbearable life (a romance I ‘ll tell another time) was slightly improved by taking clarinet lessons, and since her ambition was to play in an orchestra, she needed practice playing with others.

Hearing about her, typically, Oi offered to play with her, and through music-making, they learned to love each other too. I was spending the day with Oi when I learned that the ship Phillipa was sailing on had caught fire, and she and her two small children, one handicapped, plus her six-month-old baby, were adrift in a lifeboat in a violent storm. I never saw them again.

Oi’s unorthodox thinking, which of course, was not confined to spiritual practises, but spread into all areas of her life, alienated her family who were very religious and ultra- conservative. She rarely saw them, so she began spending Christmas with us until one son who disapproved of us too, was shamed into inviting her for Christmas after many years.

So it was that her funeral – which was attended by all those people from all walks of life, whose lives she had touched with love and compassion – was a very traditional one… which slightly puzzled me, as I was sure Oi would have wanted something different.

At the end her family left, and only five of us gathered round Oi’s coffin as it was lowered into the void – the student – now a judge, her cleaning lady for the last twenty years, my two now grownup children, and I.

The judge said to us, “That wasn’t the sort of funeral I expected Oi to have”.                    “No,” piped up the cleaning lady, “I still have a copy of what she wanted!”

I suddenly remembered how Oi, when she was too old to cope with driving in inner-city traffic, had asked her lawyer to call in and take possession of her will for her funeral. She had showed it to me – an exquisite collection of sayings on love, from mystics of all faiths. To my horror, the lawyer had charged this beautiful old lady in her mid-nineties, an exorbitant fee.

Standing by her coffin now, the judge wept over this betrayal of Oi’s wishes. “One more thing for her to forgive her sons for,” he sobbed. We all wept with him.

Before she died, Oi gave me the books which had sustained her, and influenced her thinking, and which had helped her  find her path to expanded consciousness and freedom. One of the joys of reading them was that she’d underlined or marked the passages which sang to her. Not only did I find this a wonderful aid to a deeper understanding, both of the texts and of Oi, but it also taught me the pleasure of marking and making my books my own, which I had never dared to do before.

I’d grown up learning that books should be treated as sacred, and never marked, turned down, or in any way treated as familiar friends. I do it all the time now, knowing that others who eventually find their way to them will – or might – enjoy the same pleasures of insight and intimacy as I have done.

Oi’s words still remain in my mind, and often come back to me. When there was a problem she would close her eyes, and focus for a minute, then open them and say firmly: “You cannot know the solution.  You can only pray that the situation evolves for the highest good of you, and everyone else involved. And know that this will happen, and let it go.”

She’d quote T.S. Eliot: “It is not our business what others may think of us,”… or: “God wastes nothing”. She’d say : “Let go and let God.”… and, “Happiness is like water in the palm of your hand. If you gently hold your palm open, it will stay. But if you clutch it and try to hang onto it, you lose it.” She died thirteen years ago, but her loving wisdom sustains me still.

The gift she gave me, which I treasure the most, and use constantly, is ‘The Golden Key’, a tiny spiritual masterpiece of only a few words. I give it now with love, as Oi did, to anyone who thinks it may be useful to them… https://morningstar.netfirms.com/goldenkey.html

Food for threadbare gourmets – those of us who qualify for this description will go hungry today, as I feel this post is so long, I can’t expect you all to go on reading, while Food for thought is contained in Oi’s sayings and in her life…


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Is less really more – or less?

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To keep or not to keep – that is the question. I look around my tiny kitchen and think I should de-clutter, simplify, get rid of all the surplus stuff overflowing on shelves and in cupboards. No good asking the question, do I need it – of course I don’t … next question – do I want it? That’s the trouble, I think I do…

So do I need the cream Italian stuff we eat off every day? It’s also perfect for summer meals to be served on the veranda when we have guests, the bowls are perfect for pasta and winter stews, and I love them. So do I need or want the white French provincial china, which looks so elegant when I want to serve a dressy meal to guests, and looks wonderful on a white lace table cloth? … Yes, I do, and the big carving plates which make mounds of summer vegetables or heaps of roasted winter vegetables look utterly delicious.

I particularly love the deep white pudding bowls – perfect for my comfort food  -cornflakes,  or for porridge, on a white tray with all white cup and saucer, milk jug, and coffee pot. And sometimes I yearn to treat myself to eating off the antique French flowered plates… some I bought myself as a Christmas present, and that same Christmas my daughter thought to herself: “she’d like these,” and gave me matching ones which completed the set.

Or I want to serve pumpkin soup in the big shallow blue and white Victorian soup plates with a wide brim, so much more enticing than pouring the hot orange soup into something small and plain. My husband loves to have his lunch on a big square green modern French plate, and on those days I eat mine on a pale turquoise and amber coloured pasta plate I bought in Melbourne.

I don’t need those earthenware dishes, I think to myself, but cauliflower cheese looks lovely in the big one, and then the vegetables look perfect served in the smaller dishes, all found in junk shops and markets for the proverbial song. Each one is imprinted with a memory of the person who gave it to me or the place I found it. And I do need the little white dishes for chocolate mousses for the grand-children.

Then there’s the glasses – big green glass goblets for water with the cream plates, generous French country wine glasses for smart occasions, fragile cranberry pink champagne glasses for special events, the old crystal glasses which are so old fashioned nowadays, but look so charming on the aforesaid lace cloth with silver and the oval white china dinner plates. I could pare down the whole collection and we could use one set of this or that… I don’t need them all, but I enjoy them all.

I could split up the beautiful antique tea service with pink Chinese pattern – ten cups and saucers with all the bowls and jugs that go with them. I could sell six and keep four for myself… but it seems like vandalism to split up something that’s been intact and unchipped for over two hundred years … and what about my old jugs … some of them cracked, but all loved.

In the end, it’s the enjoyment which wins…. no trouble getting rid of gadgets – there are few, and the only ones I really use are the hand held beater, and the new stick beater. I find that the  crock pot makes all meals taste the same, I don’t need the blender now I have the stick, and the really expensive juicer I hardly use since I discovered that drinking so much vegetable and fruit juice was making my arthritis worse from all the sugar in the fruit and veg. The coffee grinder which I also used for grinding nuts, can go… the ancient hand – held cheese grinder can do the same job for nuts, and I was never much of a one for grinding my own coffee beans, though coffee afficionados may wince at hearing this.

Wooden spoons stay! As does the old-fashioned boy – scout tin-opener. I’ve never mastered the efficient modern variations. The same old saucepans for thirty or more years need no sorting … I know exactly what I can cook in each different size, and would be thrown into confusion if I had to start with something new, or cope with fewer. Ancient saucepans and baking tins stay.

And as I look at this inventory of my kitchen I can see that it’s the looks that count! Few nods to super duper efficient kitchen gadgets and inventions… a pop-up toaster and a wooden spoon were the only gadgets I had until I was nearly fifty, until the day I discovered a blender… which is obsolete now anyway with my new simple stick blender.

But all of this is dodging the point… that in a world where we are trying to come to terms with less is more, as the scale of the waste and destruction of the planet becomes more apparent, to harbour so much stuff seems counter-productive. Consumerism is what is driving the rush to planetary ruin, chopping down more forests for furniture and newspapers, using all our resources for more clothes, more sheets, more gadgets, more cars, more of everything, even when we don’t need it.

So far my one step towards the goal of less is more, is to announce to the family that I’m not buying any more stuff at Christmas and birthdays… what they will get is things of mine they like, books of mine that they’d enjoy, or pots, jars and bottles of food made by moi – or a cake – also home-made. Or I will grow them a plant. Not only does this save me money, but it also means one less consumer buying useless stuff to give to people who already have more than they need, and whose houses are also filled with stuff.

And yet in the meant-time I’m still indulging my whims using different plates and dishes and cups. I think to myself of William Penn, a swashbuckling young cavalier when he became a Quaker. The one thing he couldn’t let go from his former courtly life, was the sword which  he wore every day, like all his contemporaries.

He discussed this problem with George Fox, founder of Quakerism, who being a true mystic was also profoundly common sense, and understood that deprivation is bad psychology. George Fox gave William Penn this wise counsel: “I advise thee to wear it as long as though canst.” Not long after this they met again, when William had no sword. George said to him, “William, where is thy sword?”  “Oh!” he said, “I have taken your advice; I wore it as long as I could.”

So I placate myself with the thought of these two men, and think that I’ll take George Fox’s sensible advice. When I am ready I will be able to part with these things that I love, at the perfect time and in perfect peace. Until then, I will savour the enjoyment of them, comforting myself with that Hebrew saying that when we arrive at the other side, we will be called to account for all the permitted pleasures that we failed to enjoy…

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

In the last post I gave a recipe for rice salad. We eat it with cold chicken in a lightly curried mayonnaise dressing. Allow enough chicken for each person. I steam a chicken for this, or if there’s only a few of us, poach a couple of chicken breasts in water with an onion, carrot, bay leaf and garlic clove. If I’m really up against it I might use a cooked organic chicken from the supermarket. Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces. In a deep bowl put two generous table sp of good bought mayonnaise for each person. Add a few tablsp of cream, a good tablsp of golden syrup, a tablesp of curry powder and mix together. Taste and adjust – more curry powder, more golden syrup, more mayonnaise, until it’s to your liking. Mix in the chicken. I put this in the centre of a large carving platter and surround it with the rice salad.

For the vinaigrette for the rice, (this is vital to the taste) mix one third wine vinegar to two thirds olive oil, stir in a good teasp of Dijon mustard,  sugar to taste (I use about a desert sp) a very generous grinding of black pepper, and then some salt. Mix this through the rice just before serving, and eat with a green salad. It makes a lovely summer lunch with friends.

Food for Thought

Give us the honesty to examine our own acts and thoughts as scrupulously and severely as those of other people.

Pierre Ceresole  1879 – 1945    Quaker, and son of a former Swiss president. An engineer, who in 1920, dedicated himself to working for peace, and who founded The International Voluntary Service, working wherever there was need. He was imprisoned many times for refusing military service, and for entering Germany several times with messages of peace.

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More about Books

Between six and a half and nearly nine, I lived with my grandmother. My mother had disappeared, not to be found until fifty years later, and my father was at the war from when I was a year old until nearly nine. Those two and a half years I spent with my grandmother were the happiest years of my childhood, and one of the reasons, apart from the fact that she loved and spoiled me, was that she brought loads of book into the house when she came to look after us,

I was allowed to read everything, and my range was a wide one, from Enid Blyton’s fairy story The Faraway Tree, published by instalments in a magazine called Sunny Stories, which I collected from the grocer every week, to Foxe’s Martyrs, a huge leather bound book with engraved illustrations with a piece of flimsy paper covering each one. It was a ghoulish record of the three hundred Englishmen and women who Bloody Mary had had burned at the stake for being Protestants. Foxe’s Martyrs wasn’t one of my  favourite books, but it was there.

Also there, were bound copies of Victorian ladies journals, with stories about beautiful orphans, though of noble birth, and young men with crisp, fair curls, sporting striped blazers, straw boaters and high moral character, who rescued these pure young maidens from lives of poverty and humiliation.

Little Lord Fauntleroy was also pressed on me by my grandmother, as was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which sold even more copies in England than in the US, was one of my grandmother’s favourites, and after reading it at eight, I became a fervent abolitionist. Which no doubt would have warmed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s warm heart.

I never had any trouble with poor old Uncle Tom, in spite of today’s politically correct connotations. I loved him for his moral courage and kindness, which I could understand even at eight. He died for his principles, refusing to inflict on other slaves the same cruel beatings that killed him. Eliza and her child fleeing over the frozen river haunted my nightmares.

The other book on my grandmother’s shelves which shaped my life even more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was John Halifax, Gentleman, written by Mrs Craik. Published in 1865, the year of the ending of the American Civil War, it was about an orphaned boy who found a home in a Quaker household, and through espousing Quaker virtues became a successful and prosperous pillar of the community. Sounds pretty boring, but even as a child, I loved him for his dignity, integrity, moral courage and loving heart. Like Uncle Tom, he never sacrificed his principles for the sake either of safety or material gain.

When my father returned from overseas, I went to live with him and our new stepmother. I never mentioned these two books, after they had laughed themselves silly when I disclosed to them in an unguarded moment that I had read Little Lord Fauntleroy. I thought maybe these two books might also be material for grownup mockery, and it wasn’t until my late teens that I discovered that they were both well regarded classics. When I re-read John Halifax in my twenties, I realised that the principles that he had lived his life by had been the unconscious grounding of my own philosophy.

My first Christmas with them, my new parents gave me a copy of Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women.  Like most children of my generation and previous ones, I read it again and again, and the principles of integrity, kindness and concern for others influenced me deeply, as I’m sure it influenced so many other girls back then. Thanks to Jo March, I also began writing, and produced my own newspaper, somewhat plagiarised, until it was discovered by the adults and became a great joke.

 The last book which influenced me all my life was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, a birthday present. Black Beauty, the story of a horse and his friend Ginger, and how they were exploited by human beings they trusted, until these two fine thoroughbreds had been worn down to become half-starved, broken down cab horses, entered my soul. I’ve always been thankful that we use the motor car now, instead of horses, no matter how much pollution cars cause. Black Beauty taught me to love and respect all animals and all life, including the birds of the air and the creatures in the sea.

Louisa Alcott was brought up and taught by Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau, while Anna Sewell’s parents were Quakers. So when I look back at the four books that in many ways have shaped my character, I see that they were all written by women in the middle of the nineteenth century, all of whom lived in families and communities with the highest ideals and with a commitment to actually practising what they preached (Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband used to hide escaped slaves).  I feel I was so lucky that these four books came my way at the age that I was so that their philosophies became an integral part of my values and thinking.

As the years have gone by, and I’ve explored different creeds and religions, in the end, the core of them seemed to be the principles that the American Transcendentalists and the English Quakers lived by. So there’s never been any conflict between other creeds and the old beliefs that I picked up from these old books. I often wonder which are the books today that do this same job of inspiring and grounding children in the ideals and values of our civilisation.

I’ve watched the Harry Potter films with my grandchildren, and can see that it’s a struggle between good and evil. But the books that taught me, were about the immediate, down to earth, everyday situations, in which truthfulness, and kindness,  moral courage and selflessness were the standards by which the heroes and heroines lived and died in these old books. And these Victorian books were lovely – gold embossed covers, thick paper and beautiful type-faces.

There are so many well written and inspiring books for children and young adults these days, and the nature of our civilisation is such that there are actually hundreds. So instead of a handful of classics uniting people, so that they knew the same stories and shared the same experiences, today there are so many stories that people don’t have a background in common.

I remember the true story of British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who kidnapped a German general in Crete in 1944. They smuggled him up into the mountains. In the morning as the shocked and despondent general was looking over the mountains in the dawn, he quoted some lines to himself in Latin from the Roman poet Horace. Leigh Fermor recited the rest of the ode with him, and in his words:’…for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”

Stories like this remind us of the power of books and words and art.

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I’ve been so busy with blogging and making lemon chutney with our surfeit of lemons at this time of year, that I haven’t had time to prepare a sustaining lunch for my hungry 82 year old husband. Quick onion soup will have to do, with hot rolls.

I have some lovely stock from the potatoes, carrots and Brussels sprouts all cooked in the same water yesterday, so that also makes me feel virtuously frugal. The soup takes four large onions sliced thinly and stewed in butter. When they’re soft, stir in a tablespoon of sugar. Stir until the sugar browns – don’t let it turn black. Then pour in a pint and a half of stock, with either half a glass of wine, or a dash of wine vinegar. Simmer for about 15 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste, and a sprinkling of parsley. Caramelising the onions with the sugar gives the soup colour, a rich delicate flavour and thickens it up. Recipe for the lemon chutney in the next post!

 Food for Thought

Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good; just as a gold piece, or an emerald, or a purple robe insists perpetually, ‘whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true.’

Marcus Aurelius, born in AD 121, Philosopher, Stoic and Emperor of Rome from AD 161 to his death in AD 180

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