The Invitation

A Short Story by Paul Levy

Part 1

Bethlehem, about 2000 years ago

You don’t weave baskets in the evening, let alone late at night. There isn’t the light and it just isn’t done. Tomorrow, my mother, her two sisters and my own sister will sit in the cool shade, working their craft, and from straw will come beautiful baskets for carrying bread, fruit, fish, newly caught and even babies wrapped in linen. These are simple things, and only occasionally does my oldest Aunt fashion something for the rich, for she is known for her abilities and her vision for something divine, wrought into wicker.
Tomorrow, as on every day (except the Sabbath) they will sit from dawn until the light is no longer strong enough to see by, and work their craft, bringing in the meagre income we need to survive and purchase those occasional things that make life worth living; I am a fool for honey and those seed cakes that make the mouth dribble with spicy delight.
The finest weaver of all, (though she is scolded often for taking her time) is my sister, Rivka.
Sometimes I watch her for hours as her fingers dance with the cord and a fine basket appears as if emerging from the invisible realm that is perhaps Heaven. Yes, there is music in her movement and though her eyes no longer see our world, she is gazing at what appears from her fine finger-work. She always looks as if she is looking, even though she cannot see. I never say ‘blind’ for I do not find that bearable.
My sister. We used to play in the dusty streets and down by the river,; it was only when she increasingly struggled on the cobbles, tripping or failing to pick me out in a crowd that I told mama that I had seen that she could no longer easily see. Perhaps the sunlight or a piece of grit or dust in her eyes.
Mama, of course knew but bade me silent. Did Rivka know then? She was but four years old and if she knew, she never showed she had a single care for it. Rivka was resilient; she lived for, and loved what she had. We had little in our household but she adored every bit of it. Our tiny house, if house you could call it, and it wasn’t easy with a father passed on, and uncles gone to sea or always in the hills, tending sheep, goats, sharing their fireside stories late into the night.
Our goat. Our threadbare rugs, our cooking pots, the prayer shawls, our candle holders with beeswax on holy days if we were in luck at the market.
Rivka’s sight had fully gone by the time she was six.
She is now eleven, soon to be a woman, and I am watching her again, from the shadows, tinkering with a piece of wood and my knife in need of sharpening. I am lazy with such things and she told me today I would do no good work with such a blunted blade unless I cared for it more. She needed only lightly feel the metal to see with her forefinger that it needs some work on the sharpening stone.
Tonight the sky feels brightened by moonlight though there is no moon. “Look at the stars after dark.” Rivka had told me. “There will be one you will know and it will be light enough to see by.”
Surely enough, a great white star hangs this night over our city, a place overcrowded with people here to give account for their names, their families, as our leaders count them up and set their heavier burdens of tax demands for years ahead. A census of us all. A great reckoning, it seems as if the whole country is here and every room is filled, fit to burst. There is no room in our meagre living space, though enough have asked and the money offered could have filled our bellies for a month.
An argument broke out but Aunt Leah was adamant and mother agreed with her. Only their younger sisters with eyes on palms laden with desperate, proffered coins glinting in the morning sun held out in temptation had asked why we should refuse such easily earned plenty to squeeze in a few weary strangers into our corners to lie for a few nights out of the cold, until it was their time to return to their own towns and village. No, says my mother, and Leah nods.
They are the queens here, and their word is law. The argument soon passes. Our home is already full to bursting with us! It isn’t a lack of hospitality. It is simply true. Two rooms above to sleep, a space to cook and work and to live beside our few animals.
Now it is late evening, at the time when we should sleep for early rising. The noise in the streets has died down but for a few late revelers and the sound of crying babes, their days disturbed by kicked-up dust and unwelcome shouts as late arrivers seek beds for a bit of floor for the bitterly cold approaching night. It was a boiling hot day and now the clear sky awakens with stars and the chill is achingly cold.
The light of each jewel on high shines through our window, penetrating the hangings, and we have a small fire going. By that blended glow of gold and silver, my mother, my aunts and my gentle sister continue to work away, fashioning their baskets, their weaving tight, as if to protect from water, vessels fit enough to carry once again Moses himself among the reeds and the rushes. Aunt Lila hums as she always does, out of tune but always enough to set me to yawning.
I want to ask them why they are working so late, but it seems wrong to do so. I’m an eavesdropper onto these powerful, strong women, with no skill nor will.of my own to match. The star light bids me to silence and I simply watch them at their work. My sister, as always knowing just where I am, turns her head towards me. “Paul” she says. “Go to bed. Get some sleep.” My younger sister, ordering me about!
I look her in her milky eyes and sense her gaze. She can see me in ways that need no physical eyes. I know it. She knows it. I love my sister beyond life.
Though, for years, I led her through the streets, she has often been my guide when I couldn’t see my own next steps in Life.
“Why are you working so late? Basket work is for the day, in good light” I remark, though in a whisper so as not to disturb the other three.
My sister smiles, then turns away and returns to her weaving, as her quick fingers take hold of another piece of twine. “Rest, my brother.”
She is a year younger than me. Soon I will be a man and apprentice to the carpenter, Simon. It’s an honor to be chosen, but it will be endless hard work. He is a hard man. he drinks too much and often has offered that foul liquor to me. I spluttered the first time. Once I vomited but amid that found taste and stink, I feel somehow drawn to.
Tonight, here in the coldest, brightest night I can remember, I continue to watch, suddenly fearful of my future, and aching with sadness that my sister is blind. Would I give up my own sight and take her place? I turn away, feeling ashamed, that I doubt my own courage for the deed, were it ever asked of me. Yet I cannot sleep. Am am more awake than I have ever been in my life.
I am transfixed by those forty fingers at work around the fire’s glow. Basket weaving under the light of stars, they could be witches, my family here on this night. I should grow bored. But I do not. Tonight they embrace the dark with all of their skills.
The ache of sadness that grips my heart forms itself into a pull of something. All at once I want to be away from here, from family and safety, and I want to take my sightless sister with me. Where to, I know not, but there is an invitation somewhere there out in the night of the city.
There is an invitation, alive and insistent, hanging on the dry, freezing night breeze.
I realise I am staring deeply into the meagre flames and there is an afterglow of gold and orange floating before my eyes, between me and my sister.
I raise myself up and walk to the window, pulling aside a chink of the brown drape and
look up into the sky. There it is, holding its own impossibly high above our city – a star, bigger than the other stars that surround it. It looks as if it is almost dripping wet with light. A star i have never seen before. I am sure those so-called gazer-men who gather in square will be consulting their charts and spelling out feast or famine for the season ahead, on the morrow.
Suddenly I shudder, for that feeling of an invitation, a tugging becomes much stronger, and it is emanating from that star. I try to locate its pull. My eyes are drawn downwards until they reach a group of buildings perhaps a thousand paces from our own hovel.
There it is, over by the west side of the city, not far away. Why I look downwards and find that place I have no idea. From that area, the pull is felt again, surer. I shake my head, explaining all as tiredness and staring too long at women fussing over their work when they too should be safely under rugs and blankets, finding warmth and the sleep of refreshment needed for a long day tomorrow, doing what they do, each day, until their fingers drop off their hands in weary old age, all their baskets spent.
I turn away, yet the pull remains, a quiet, insistent bidding.
As I turn back into the room my sister has put down her work, and is now looking intently at me. Can she see me with no eyes that work? I wonder, as I have so often pondered. Can you see me? I have often asked her. No, she says, Then always she giggles. “Perhaps.”
She doesn’t seem happy in her blindness, yet, perhaps I imagine it for my own sake, I sense a deep longing in her to pluck up a bud and know its colour, from the outside in, or to look into the face of a goat or see a mirage in the desert sun. Or perhaps that boy who whistles at her like a wolf and see her reflection in the hungry pupils. To be blind in a city is no blessing, though she can find her way easily along streets we have trodden for years.
“It is a special night. my brother. We do what we do.” She says to me. “The star has come for good reason.”.
“What do you mean?” I reply. There are tears in the eyes of my sister. “Why are you crying?”
There is a long pause. My youngest Aunt tuts and says. “Leave her be, boy. We have work to do.”
“But why at night?” I ask them all. “You’ve never worked this late before.”
Suddenly my entire family is looking at me. Staring at me. It is as if they have noticed for the first time they are making baskets near midnight! They gaze at each other then at their half-woven baskets. I’ve woken them all up! Then they return to their wickerwork, their picking, and easy joining and mending.
“Go to bed, Pauly.” says my sister once more.
I settle under my blanket, buffing up my straw-filled cushion. I try to settle. I turn and turn over three times and more. But it is no good. Even with my eyes closed, the silver glow of the star impresses itself on my shut eyelids. Silver, like the moon. Yet there is no moon tonight only this great star and his companions.
Does it reflect that moonlight, even when it is not there, shining up there in the near midnight sky?
I open my eyes again, peeking at my sister, still working with the other women.
A memory falls into my mind, of when she nearly downed down by the river where the fisherman unload their catch. There was Uncle Benjamin, singing with delight from the best catch in years. Unraveling the net he was, full to bursting with fish. Enough to us all!
And there, in front of me, my sister, balancing on the gangplank then she teeters, totters, sways and falls between the boats, hitting her beautiful seven-year-old head against the hard wood of the two moored boats starboard before disappearing into river water and not surfacing for air. I am too scared to move, I finally jump in, uselessly and both my sister and I are saved from drowning by two of the deck hands. I feel ashamed and my poor sister is in bed for a week with a nasty gash and livid bump on her head. But she is angry. Angry with herself for missing her footing. She knew that gangplank, had crossed it with ease for season after season when the haul was brought in. But this had been a new plank and she couldn’t see the knot in the wood.
Blind. There I have said it. If only in my head.
My sister is blind, and I wish more than anything else for her to see. To see the world – the city I which she lives, the desert sand, a scorpion and a big furry cat. The fat priests and the honey cakes. Truth be told, I want her to see, and my want is greater than hers.

That is when the invitation became an irresistible pull and I could do nothing to stand against it. It pulled me out of my bed. It stood me on my feet, and it took those feet across to my sister, there, working by the quickening fire.
I stand before her. My mother and aunts ignore me, bending further to their work with yet more concentration and intensity. My sister turns her head towards me, as if she knows I am going to speak to her. Well, she always knows.
“We have to go.” I announce.
“We do?” says Rivka as she puts down her twine,
“Yes we do. We must go now..”
“Alright. We’ll go.”
My sister gets up, and though she needs no guide out of our home, I take her hand, warm in mine. Unnoticed by my mother and aunts, we step into our sandals waiting by the door and I push the rickety wood outwards as we stepped into the now deserted street. Starlight here is brighter than ever. but the pull below it is strong, so very strong.
She allows me to lead her, though I sense a sadness in her. Here face is downcast, not facing ahead.
“What’s wrong”? I asked her, closing the door behind me to the rest of my family who seem oblivious of our leaving.
Rivka’s voice is strong and clear: “Lead me, then. If you must, lead me.”
I walk with her in the direction of an invitation, bathed in star shine, that I cannot refuse.
Soon we are near a building built into a sandy rock. Many such hovels, stables and even houses have made use of what Nature offers us.
It is the first time I have led my sister anywhere. She was always the leader, even when we very young.
Now it is me who is in front, she the clasper of my hand reaching behind, she the one allowing me to find the way. Though she knows these narrow alleys and back ways with easy rooted memory and sureness of foot, hearing and smell, she permits me to be the guide.
The light of a brand shines within with the shimmering glow of a fire and we hear the sounds of people in that pace; a woman crying in pain and the sounds of a child coming into the world. Why have I brought us here? I have no idea, yet this is the source of the invitation.
I take a step forward but feel the resisting hand of Rivka. “We cannot go on.” she says.
“But we must! We are close now, so very close.” I reply urgently”, allowing my words to take hold of my breath, for I am following a deep call within my soul, a call I have never heard before but am compelled to follow.
“No, brother.” Her voice is once again firm. “What is your purpose, here?”
“Just one touch of the child. Or even the mother” I answer, “Then you will be able to see. To see properly, with your physical eyes. Perhaps even we are just near enough, and you will be healed. Rivka, God has come to visit!”
“And if I…”
“Come! Quickly, now!” There is a cry from within the stable, for that is what this caved and wooden shack must be. The bleat of a lamb. The sob of a young woman, and I am pulling my sister towards a draped window at the side. Something is hanging there. A whiteish-grey cloth, wet, and, hanging in the window to dry. “Touch it!” I command her.
She can do no other, for I am her brother, and she can deeply see my need for her to see.
To offer her this act of my greatest love.

This invitation is my invitation.
I take her hand and guide her fingers to the cloth. They pull back but then I rest them on the cloth. I hold them there for a few breaths, then she withdraws her fingers as we hear the cry of a babe from the other side of the hanging crimson curtain.

This invitation is my invitation.
For a moment or more the star above this place appears to shine brighter and is reflected in the eyes of my Rivka. Two points of light, one in each blind eye. I dare to look at her, so full of hope I am that it might crush me. A babe had been born this night, not a few steps away, and I am full of certainty that is is a babe born with miracles in its body.
The light dims a little and my sister is very still.
We wait as the sounds of a mother singing to her child rises on the chill of the night.
We turn away and this time it is my sister who leads me home. Soon we are back in our little house and she rejoins her aunts and mother by our own fire, back at her basket, her skilled fingers working away, picking gentle and weaving softy. Still blind. The invitation has ebbed away, and now has gone. It receded, not into the night, but into the aching core of my own belly.
I have come back to myself. I feel embarrassed, yet I know my darling sister will never speak of this again. I feel tired, lost. So very lost. I will lay down upon my hard mat, pull a rough blanket over me, and slip into a dreamless sleep.

What Happened Next
Many years go by. I do not find a profession I can stay with for long.
I mend fishing nets and occasionally go out with the men in their boats. I try my hand as a carpenter, and I lose money time and again gambling with dice. I am often led to cool off in a cell. There are some years when I live a normal life but too many when I lie drunk, when I starve, and when I am forced to steal. Often it is my sister who rescues me from a thrashing, who brings me home and sobers me up. I meet neither wife, not good fortune in friends.
I wander from place to place. I return home. I catch the pox but recover. Always Rivka sets me on my feet but I am too ashamed to ask her for help.
The years slip by.
I find myself in another town and I am now a man who looks much older than he is. My sister is a true seer now and many go to her for advice.
They say she is blessed, that she has a gift for prophecy. She tells me she is mostly a good listener and doesn’t need physical eyes to read the possibility lying fallow in what people tell and ask her. She is happy.
In this new town, I am without money but have found lodging with an old man bent low who treats me kindly in return for mucking out his pigs and tending his goats.

My family have come to this place to listen to a preacher. A wise man, some say the wisest.
Many have come. Perhaps thousands. Rivka knows I am here though I do not know how. She invites me to join her in hearing the stories of this great man, who is speaking high on a hill at the edge of the town. I do not wish to disappoint her, for blind though she may be, she can surely smell swine on my clothes and burnt skin.
We go to this hillside together and hear His tales and stories. Rivka seems to savour every one spoken by this soul they call the Teacher her milky eyes drawn towards the sound of his voice. At the end food is shared and I am startled to suddenly find this
Teacher right beside me talking to my sister. He has weaved his way easily through the crowd, picked her out, and now is He here.
He looks at me only for a moment and then addresses her. “I think, dear sister, you see better than any who are gathered her. You need no miracle from me.”
“That is true.” she replies. She is smiling. “And you are pure sunshine.”
The man laughs. “That may be true as well.”
“Yet, he needs this and I am willing to give it to him”. Now my sister is directing her words very intently at this man.”. The man turns towards me. I cannot look Him in the eyes and turn my gaze away.
“Then, let it be done” says the man. He touches Rivka’s eyes gently with his fingers.
My sister looks at me, her brother. “Ah!” she says. “I knew that is what you would look like!”
From that day onwards, I followed this man. I followed him everywhere until that day on Golgotha. I fled that scene and didn’t once look back. For years I didn’t drink another drop. And I was happy.
My sister? With her new found sight, her higher gift seemed to fade. I didn’t see her again. I wonder if she was glad or angry. Surely she was glad?

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End of Part 1

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Part Two

Eleventh Century France

Sometimes I see too clearly. Called the ‘hawk’ by my fellows, on this day I wish I were already blind.
Bound by ropes and a leather strap, I am on my back, and the glowing red of the iron rod comes closer to my left eye. For all of my cunning and fleetness of foot, I am trussed up like a bird ready for roasting. I am a prisoner and these folk want revenge for my skewering aplenty of their comrades.
They are going to dismember me slowly, starting with my eyes.
And she is going to be the one to do it. What a woman is doing in this unpleasant company I have no idea, but the little of their language I know tells me they are using her for a game. She steps closer, the killing, glowing red point of a flamed-heated lance near enough to my right eye for me to feel its deadly heat. Our eyes meet. She frowns. I feel I know those eyes. She stumbles and the rod veers off and severs part of my ear instead. I scream in pain. There is laughter and shouts of ‘Clumsy bitch !’
Then the horn sounds.
It is the sound of an attack on the walls.
The men, fearful now but brave with it, turn and the fat one steps forward to finish me off quickly.
“Leave him to me!” demands the woman
Fatty hesitates. Time is running out for him.
“You all promised me this!” She shouts into his face.
She is suddenly alone as they answer the call to man the gate and the walls.
A fire arrow lands nearby.
She looks at it, stamps the flame out with her foot, then returns to me, the lance still raised in her hand.
“You have to get away.” she says, her voice now calm..
I hold my own, trying to appear more self-possessed than I truly feel.
“Easily said,” I answer, “with me here trussed up like a pig, and you with a sharp point ready to pierce my eyes.”
Suddenly she leans forward with a cold fury on her face and I feel my bowels emptying as I prepare for pain and following blindness.
But then she has pushed me into my side with her foot and then cut my bonds.
My hands my own again, I sit up. “Who are you ? Why are you doing this ?”
“I saw you when they brought you in” she replies. “An instinct turned my head and a came for a closer look. I like to follow my instincts.I work in the chapel and some of them let me tend their wounds. I thought perhaps we had met before but I see now that impossible. I do not know you, stranger.”
“Nor I you, but I thank you for sparing my life, and my sight!”
The woman sighs. “There is no argument that could ever be made for cutting a man to pieces, even if he is your enemy and now your prisoner. I watched from the Church. They would have delighted in cutting you up like a deer for the table. My instinct was to take a closer look at you.”
“You truly would have cut me in bits including my eyes ?”
“One eye might have been enough to save you. I supposed I was biding my time. The priest Joachim knew the enemy was but minutes from the gates. He might have been able to stop them, though he can be a coward when it suits him.”
With sunlight behind her head I had to squint to look at her. In that moment I wondered if we had met before. She had her hands on her hips, proud like a man.
She points towards the church. “Go quickly into the chapel. The priest will be there. Tell him Alina is calling in a favour and to let you out through the drainage gate in the crypt. He will do it…It will let you out into the meadow and the woods are not far. Now, go quickly.”
“But …”
“Go! They may have rushed to the gates, but one or more could return any moment. Go!”
I scramble up, aching from days in bonds, and as I run, I cannot help but turn to see her standing there, a feeling of recognition for her rising in me that I will never be able pin down in all the years of my life.
She is waving me on and pointing to the chapel, as a roar goes up and the gate hold.
“Wait, stranger, wait!”. I turn at her call. For a moment I am still.
“Do you know, for a moment, I did want to pluck out your eyes. To blind you forever. To take away your sight in this world.” Her face now is burning with anger.
“Why didn’t you?” I ask.
She turns away slowly, and then she running towards to castle walls.
When they find me gone they will flay her alive but perhaps, with battle lost, she will escape and they will forget. I’m through the door and soon to the anonymous safety of thick trees.

What Happened Next
I returned to England, by way of boat and a ride on a cart. I arrived back in Ipswich and met a woman a year more than my age. We now have three sons and a daughter. I left the life of a soldier, and I picked up my old trade as a carpenter.
My wife tried her hand at basket weaving, she wasn’t very good at it.
Sometimes I stare out to sea, and I look at the stars. I wonder at that woman who nearly took out my eyes yet saved my life in that ramshackle castle in France.

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End of Part Two

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Part Three

Brighton, UK, 2018

I would never imagined in a million years that I would end up doing this job. It is bad enough in the middle of Spring or Summer, but five days before Christmas, this is the last job I would have dreamed of doing.
The pay is decent and, though I find it hard to admit, I seem to be good at it. People get into financial difficulties for all kinds of reasons – from dumb and lazy, to downright scheming and clever. In all cases, can’t pay? Then we’ll come and take it away. Well, “it” being stuff of value to the equivalent (and a bit more) of what you owe.
It wasn’t snowing but it was bloody cold. Not freezing, but near enough, and this was our last call of the night. I had managed to get the rest of the week off and I wouldn’t be doing this when most people are hole-ing up for the Yuletide holiday. You can’t take their presents from under the tree, but, a few days out, you can take them from the hall, or their hiding places in the loft, the shed, the garage, or even behind the sofa, or the back of a car which, if we can prove it isn’t owned by the leasing company or on other finance, we can take ownership of their means of getting from A to B. Cars, toy drones, old cookers, and even cash in the drawer, we can take it all.
The bailiff on the threshold of the most generous time of the year. Christmas. And we were at the door of a Mr Neil Knight with a high court order to collect four thousand three hundred pounds or goods to the value thereof. And they wanted him out too, especially if he didn’t cough up the full amount straight away.
The garden was overgrown, the front door ancient blue paint and peeling. No bell. No knocker, so loud bangs on the wood by my colleague Gav. No reply. A tap on the window and it looks like there’s candlelight in the living room. No one answers the door.No one comes to the window.
Gav turns to me. “Paula, over to you.”
I lift the letter box and call into the house. “Mr Knight. High Court Enforcement. Open the door please.”
It doesn’t usually work. But it never works for Gav. This time it works for me. After a minute a man opens the door and as we enter he has already retreated along the hallway and returned to the living room. I catch straw, messy blond hair and a gentle gait; he looks like he is in his forties.
The sight that greets us isn’t what we could have expected and I’ve no idea how we would put a financial value on any of it. A medieval sword hanging on the wall above a cold fire-place, alive with burning logs. A shield, also very old and a bit rusty on t wall opposite the fire. Sofas covered with woven hangings and throws. Cushions everywhere, the smell of some kind of incense making the air misty but also somehow reassuring and welcoming. Some kind of tapestry hangs on another wall and then there is Mr Knight. Mr Knight, dressed in what looks like an ancient Monk’s brown cloak or cassock. Oh, and scraggy jeans, and faded, scuffed, white trainers.
He is sitting on the floor in the very centre of this soon to be claimed semi-detached. This is retrieval of goods and an eviction notice. Rent hasn’t been paid for over a year and what is owing is more than the rent. The landlord is a small and unyielding corporation that is happy to build more charges and interest than just the rent. Mr Knight is in a lot of trouble, here on the edge of a freezing run up to Christmas.
He is perched on a rug that has seen better days, and what is he doing? Weaving some kind of basket.
He smiles at Gav, and then at me. “You won’t find much of value here. I think even the sword is a copy. And I’m pretty crap at this. He indicates the basket. Take what you like. And I’ll be gone in an hour. But, please. Don’t take the shield, please let me take the shield. It isn’t worth much but I found it in Epping Forest when I was a kid. It’s been everywhere with me.”
Gav wanders about the room and starts listing stuff. That’s what we do. Right in front of the people who live there. Sometimes we suggest they go and make a cuppa in the kitchen. Mr Knight didn’t seem to mind.
“Your landlord’s have no idea. I came back to this house. I grew up here. It’s on a ley line.” He giggles, and returns his attention to his basket weaving.”
Gav is at a loss for words. Which is rare. He recovers though by doing the thing most designed to get himself back in charge. He walks over to the shield and runs his finger down the intricate carving on the metal. He makes some notes. That gets Knight’s attention.
“Please,” begs Mr Knight. “Let me keep the shield.”
Gav continues with his list. I prepare to look into the other rooms. Knight doesn’t put up a fight. He sits there, staring into the fire, humming some kind of old folk tune, continuing to work on his basket as Gav reads the riot act, monotone and a bit deflated. I start on my list. There’s bugger all in the kitchen, nothing upstairs. This man either used a laundrette or hand washed everything (if at all, but the place seems pretty clean). No microwave, no car outside, nothing in the bathroom and worthless stuff in the kitchen. No TV, no computers. Experience tells me this man has no cash to hand and doesn’t do banks, though we will have to check. He is penniless, very weird, and we’ll leave with little or nothing. But he will be homeless, unless he has friends this Christmas or is savvy with the overstretched local council.
One thing for sure. He will be gone within the hour. And Gav is telling him the shield will have to be valued. For now, it will go with us just in case.
“Please, sir…” I hear from the living room. “Gav never says sorry but this time he does.
Gav sounds regretful about the shield!
Through the hallway, lit by the glow of the flames in the mantlepiece, I can see the basket. I would say that some kind of memory stirs, but it doesn’t. I have never owed a basket though I think we kept crayons in some at school when I was young. But something sounds for a moment and I am back in the living room and my eyes meet those of Mr Knight. For a second he looks more like a woman and suddenly I do not want to take his shield, or his sword, or his threadbare hangings and rugs.
His basket is nearly finished and he clearly isn’t as bad as he claims, though it is no work of a master.
Gav is reminding him he has an hour to gather his stuff and contact the council if he wants even as chance of temporary accommodation at this time of the year. I’m back in the hall and walking along it towards the front door. I open it and step into the freezing evening.
I have the paperwork. We need a debit card payment, BACS or cash. No credit cards. I can hear Gav “If you pay at least two grand we won’t need to take your shield, Mr Knight.”
I am in the garden on this cold night, five days before Christmas. I am feeling a bit strange.
I’ve saved for Christmas. And I have saved for three months job-hunting and a yoga retreat. I made the decision to pack this job ijn back in October and saved every cent ever since. It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with this kind of work, it is just not for me.
And how much did I manage to save? A little shudder runs along my back and prickles my forehead and I remember the amount: Four thousand three hundred pounds.
Carol singers march by but I ignore them. Christmas lights twinkle magically in the window next door.

I’m taking out my debit card. I’m taking out my mobile payment device. I insert it into the slot. I punch in the numbers. I feel like I am responding to an invitation. An invitation I am going to accept. I can’t describe what I did that day any other way.
A few moments later I am back in the house, stepping into the living room. I catch Gav’s eye. Then I speak: “It’s been paid”.
“What?” says Gav.
“It’s done” I reply. “Paid. The landlord says if he paid up in full straight away, they’d let him go after Christmas. Kind hearts, I suppose.”
Mr Knight hasn’t moved a muscle. He looks back into the fire and he is humming another tune. It sounds French. Or medieval. Folky anyway.
“Gav, let’s go.” I am firm, and want to leave. “Goodnight, Mr Knight. Happy Christmas.”
Bemused and speechless, Gav follows us out of the house and into the street. Before we get into our van, Gav is staring at me. “What the…?”
I don’t let him say any more.
“Get in, Gav. Can you drop me off at the Clock Tower ? I want to look at the lights, then it’s home.”
I take a last look at the house. I notice a candle is alight in the window. Just like a little star.
We drive away.

What Happened Next
It is Christmas Eve. Something has drawn me back to that house. I am at the gate. The front door opens and he is standing there.
He looks at me and suddenly I feel a familiarity with him though i have only met him once before.
I walk slowly along through the broken gate, along the garden path, through the door and into the welcoming light of the living room.
Shield and sword, patchwork rugs and the smell of incense. Mr Knight is there, once again on the floor before the fire, working intently and inexpertly at his basket. I sit down opposite him. Gently, I take his basket from him and, though I have never woven a basket before in my life, I quietly set about repairing his many mistakes and setting the thing to rights.
He is looking at me with curiousity. Then with warmth. He isn’t exactly smiling, he might even be on the verge of tears.
I look up, continuing to work on the basket as if I had done such a thing all of my life.
Our eyes meet.
“You.” says Mr Knight.
“You.” says the bailiff.”

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The End

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Debriefing Your Team

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When a team has been established for a while it can be useful to step back and reflect on how the team is progressing.

We meet for an hour or so and work through some questions.

Below is a list of questions that can help your team to reflect on its development and how well it is performing as a team.

Some questions around cultural difference and diversity are also included.

 

Team Debrief Check list


Team Discipline

How we organised are we as a team?

How efficient are our team meetings?

How well do we communicate between meetings?

Do we have ground rules that we stick to that help us work consistently and effectively?

How well do we record actions arising from team meetings/ How effectively are we administrating our team?

Are we using a common communications platform and how well is it working ? (E.g. A closed Facebook Group or a Slack Group)

Team Decision Making and Leadership

How effective is our team decision making?

How do we manage conflict and differences of opinion?

Are we using leadership as well as we could? Is one person making all of the decisions or is everyone involved?

Has anyone dominated the team – how have you dealt with that?

How does your group let leaders emerge as needed?

How do we ensure all views are heard?

Team Performance

Are we getting the results that we should be getting and, if not, why not?

Are we using good time and project management? Are we using any project management tools?

Are we prioritising time and tasks effectively?

Are we leaving things until the last minute or working proactively and in a balanced way?

Do we take time to reflect on what we have and haven’t achieved?

Are we using technology as well as we could to optimise our performance as a team?

Are we learning from our mistakes and building on success?

Is everyone pulling their weight? Are their any free riders? How are we dealing with that?

Team Mood and Morale

Is the group in a positive frame of mind? What is the atmosphere like in the group?

Is the group stressed? How do we deal with stress?

What’s the group motivation like? What causes it to fall and how to we lift the level of motivation?

Do we celebrate success and socialise appropriately to build the team spirit in our team?

How are you dealing with disrespectful behaviours, lateness and regular absence from meetings, as well as people under-performing?

Is there collusion in the team; do you avoid saying how you feel? How do difficult issues get raised and discussed?

Team Diversity

Are difference respected and tapped into in our group?

How do we deal with the different cultural backgrounds, values and perspectives represented in our team?

Do we talk openly about our differences and our commonalities?

Are we making best use of different language capabilities in our team, e.g. when we do online research internationally?

Are there any issues with gender or age differences and are we dealing with those well? What different assumptions and habits in out group affect this?

Team Improvement

Think of examples of when the group was at its strongest and when it was at its weakest. Share those examples in your team and discuss how the strengths can become more consistently present.

What does our team look and feel like when we are performing at our best?


 

Community is Naturally Obvious and Obviously Natural.

We tend to over-complicate Life.

Yet the core of any community is a circle.

We need only sit together in a circle and open some space for conversation and collaboration with minimal fuss. Often we go into phone, text and email overload when all that is needed is to meet at the same time in our favourite cafe, or in our homes. A cup of tea or coffee and a conversation.

But what turns that meeting into a community is the free expression of needs and the collective attempt to address those needs. We speak and listen together, but we also go to work.

And when space for that work opens in a self-organising conversation in a circle, we can achieve anything.

Often we gently look for one less thing to do, and we do not worry too much about who hasn’t shown up. We “go where the energy is”, as writer Finn Kollerup says.

We are more effective when we go gently, taking our feet where we can be most productive, greeting the beginnings and endings of our meetings with an ease, and acceptance that the time we have is the right time.

Whatever happens, happens and when it is over it is over. The circle forms, changes, reforms. We are mobile; we expect and welcome surprise, even surprised when we are not surprised!

We are in the community conversation in a circle, but that circle and the strength from the support we find from it, means that the community energy is never lost.

Community comes naturally, if we allow it to.

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Past, Present and Future – From Time-Line to Field of Possibility

Putting what went before (behind us in time), before (in front of) us, is a way to become more conscious about what action we need to take in the present. We usually see time as a line – a time line – consisting of past, present and future. Yet we can also see time as a field with past, present and future in play at the same time.

We can learn in the present from the past, we can explore what might have been and also learn from what actually did happen. Often things lying unresolved and poorly understood can become raw material for fresh thinking in the present about the future.

The past is still playing into us and the future may lie up ahead but even the future is in the same story as our past and present! When we put what went before, in front of us we can explore that story in a richer way. We often think that dwelling on the past can drain us, can full us with regret. It can.

Yet if we see beyond that, there is a rich resource of history to learn from, to inquiry into it, and even gather in resolutions and impulses that we never fully released or made use of.

Lessons from the past can be harvested, and we can add them to our present knowledge and future vision and wishes.

Don’t ignore your past, risk the discomfort of looking back, and gather in what you need; the present situation can then become changed, look and feel different and we can and will look differently at the future.

Here we are now, not trapped on a time line, but in a rich field of possibility.

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What is conversation really about?

 

 

 

 

 

 

So much of our conversation is about what we advocate to each other. We speak, they speak. Our turn to say something, their turn to say something.

It is usually transactional. Like a game of tennis, we take turns. Often someone wins the point. Sometimes the rallies are long and we tire ourselves out!

Our standpoint, their standpoint.

We deliver our view, then they respond with their own delivery of their point.

Is this conversation? At a certain level, perhaps yes.

Yet, could conversation be richer than that – less tiring and more energising?

I believe it can. That happens when we listen more, when we pause more, when we ask more questions of each other. Instead of advocacy, there can be inquiry.

We find what we want to say more through listening to another person than seeking that answer only inside ourselves.

The other person doesn’t only trigger what we say, they inspire it, they guide, it, they influence it.

What we ask others is an invitation for them to help us ask even more. We don’t only seek responses and answers, but further questions to help us with our thinking and our understanding.

Conversation tends to slow, and we allow in more silence, more pausing for thinking.

Our thinking deepens and we begin to find our answers, not through we alone, but through the other person.

Conversation becomes shared and we become more than two separate people planning verbal tennis. We become two separate people but also a shared conversation. Then the conversation deepens and becomes richer.

And often wisdom emerges, not just intellectual cleverness.

Then, when we do advocate, we find our thinking is more living, arising from within and from without.

That might just be real conversation. What do you think?

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This is the age when the old become young

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It’s become a bit of a cliche to say that children are growing up more and more quickly. Our education system is engaged in an ideological battle between the idea that we should allow children to stay children for as long as possible, and the idea that we need to get them ready for adult life as quickly and early as possible. Isn’t that what happens in nature? Isn’t that the best chance for survival in a tough world? Surely the first view is naive and the second the only practical way?

Certainly the second view largely dominates in Western Culture. Or does it? In Scandinavia, children aren’t taught to read until they are nearer seven years old. In Waldorf education, children flourish and adulthood sets in at a natural pace for each child – it isn’t forced. Learning to play, to slowly focus on the sharper edges of the world, this is valued by many as the best preparation for life.

And yet the Facebook generation, the tech-savvy generation Y soon and quickly grasp what technology has to offer and are beginning to see their slower parents as the naive ones, as the childish ones. The young are teaching the old, and often leading the way, both into realms of light and shadow.

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We don’t know how the digital age is going to pan out and many adults look on, bemused at the new patterns of living and working among our younger generations. We can no longer guide them, if we find the digital age a mystery. The parenting relationship becomes weirdly reversed as children, even as young as seven or eight are guiding their parents into the digital age. Many parents, worried (perhaps rightly) at the effects of the digital on their young human beings in their care, resort to traditional forms of control and policing, only to find their children can become master cat burglar’s of digital time and space.

Though the older generations may be running to catch up with their Generation Y kids and millennial grandchildren, they still are wiser and older in the business of being human.

It becomes ever more important to identify the archetypes of living and working in the digital realm – issues of trust, connection, developing meaningful relationships, staying safe – all of these remain relevant to the wisdom and experience that comes with age. Yet there are also newer, emerging phenomena around disembodied communication and collaboration, of linking our physical limbs and senses to technological products, that put our kids right into the front line of what is emerging.

Here the adults really do become slower developing children. And these challenges then become about being open to learning from our kids, even as we attempt to keep them safe and well. We now have a role of what Edgar Schein calls “humble inquiry”. We aren’t here to tell the younger ones what to do, though we can invite their own inquiry. Leaning becomes mutual, a vital dialogue, a conversation between older generations, a blending and trading of smart with wise, of knowledge with experience. The conversation is no longer top down, old to young, but is horizontal, a circle of dialogue. And we will all be the better for it,

 


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My Own Definition of Conscious Business

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“There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” 
Carl Jung

This is very much a work in  progress – an emerging set of notes.

I’m going to define Conscious Business in a way that is different to  most in this field.

Consciousness arises from suffering. Now, bear with me for a moment on that rather strange statement.

The philosopher Rudolf Steiner (author of The Philosophy of Freedom) made the same statement over a hundred years ago. Suffering brings forth consciousness. Without suffering there would be no consciousness. Even more strangely: consciousness is a gift of suffering.

Now, that might suggest that suffering is an inevitable process, a law of nature. And I can very much understand why people who react against such a view.

However, let’s take a look at the definition of suffering presented in the dictionary. Most dictionaries offer several definitions of suffering. The first definition is the one we are al most used to:

“To undergo or sustain (something painful, injurious, or unpleasant)” (Reference here.)

Suffering is about pain, is always something negative, according to this definition. People and organisation’s, not surprisingly, try to avoid suffering, sometimes at all costs. Many business attempt to pass on any unwanted suffering to other individuals and groups in their environment, rather than suffer themselves.

But hold on a moment. The dictionary goes further, offering three other definitions of suffering:
To experience; undergo”
To endure or bear; stand”
To permit; allow”

Here the definition is enriched, and also framed in a much more positive way. Suffering is something we “go through”. Suffering is born of endurance and even tolerance. Suffering isn’t something we recoil from, avoid, or try to go around – suffering is something we go through.

Now, working with the idea that suffering gives rise to consciousness, using these definitions we can see that suffering need not always be painful, nor negatively (though it can be felt that way). Suffering is something we “go through”. And when we “suffer” something in this way, we experience it fully, we meet it, and, in meeting it, we engaging with it – and this gives us experience of it. If we reflect on that experience, we have the opportunity to increase our awareness, knowledge and wisdom. We become more conscious.

Avoiding suffering dims consciousness. Embracing suffering gives rise to consciousness.

A business that behaves consciously does not try to avoid suffering – it welcomes it, seeks it out, and harvests the experience into consciousness, enabling it to act in a more aware, effective and skillful way. It does this through reflection, through inquiring into its past, present (ongoing) and future state. It “suffers” uncertainty by asking questions, by being curious and open. Open can mean being “raw” and vulnerable, but it also can mean being responsive and “ready”. A business that behaves consciousness is in an ongoing, open state of internal and external inquiry into its reality. This enables it to respond in real time and in real ways for it is always reality checking through inquiry. It doesn’t seek “comfort”, comfort arises out of its courage to “suffer” uncertainty. Uncertainty becomes a core organisational virtue.

How about THAT for a definition of conscious business?

A few years ago I went to a conference on the theme of suffering. The conference drew quite a bit on the Parsifal story.  This is a story of the search for the Holy Grail, but one of the themes that was at the heart of it was how a journey can involve what could be called “suffering” on all of the levels of the above definition. But by encountering, enduring and “going through” our experiences, we can become better, wise, find resolution and be more conscious. At the conference there was a speaker who had been a hostage in Beirut for several years, as well as a survivor of the massacres of Rwanda. We also heard about prisoners of conscience who spent years in prison with little or no freedom. In all cases, these people were glad of the consciousness they now possessed through having “gone through” these experience. Brian Keenan pointed out that, when we properly resource our “going through” with support from our community, with time to reflect, with as feeling of being “held up”” through the processes of whatever we are going through, then suffering can be experienced as something other than just pointless pain. Pain can be part of the effort of going through something, it is the pain of the strengthen muscles, the pain of confusion that, through diving deeply with the frowning furrowed brow of our thinking, can give birth to a higher view, a longer view, a clearer view, a greater perspective, a wisdom and experience that we can apply to new situations.

I think conscious businesses seek to go through things. They try to heighten their awareness, their ability to sense, experience, and to learn from that experience, incorporating the (sometimes but not always painfully gained) wisdom into new, skillful behaviours and practices.

In fact, without this “going through”, this suffering, a business can’t ever behave consciously.

Businesses that behave consciously demonstrate:

– a willingness and an ability to suffer uncertainty and to have the courage to allow further uncertainty to arise. Concurrent with the inquiry that forms the exploration of that certainty, comes real-time action and decision

– patience that actions emerge out of ongoing inquiry

– an ability to be curious, open, responsive and questioning

– an ability to regularly go into the “zone of discomfort” in order to be insightful

When this becomes ongoing, the organisation even inquires into how and why it inquires! It’s a process of continuous innovation. Aware, aware, and responsive.

Shall we begin?


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