June: Permission to Waste Time

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‘Parents, can you waste time with your children?’

That question from Pope Francis often rattles round my mind.

‘It is one of the most important things that you can do each day’, he says.

It’s June and I need that question.  It’s busy.  Isn’t it busy?

It’s June and sometimes I can’t do it.  My answer is no.  I cannot waste time.  My husband is away and I am trying to wash up my children’s plates before they have finished their dinner.

‘Sharon, can you waste time with your children?’

No?

What a simple, yet profoundly revealing question.

It reminds me that parenthood isn’t about efficiency, it’s not about being one step ahead or feeling like I’m winning.

It’s June and I’m going to give myself permission to waste time with these stick-collectors, these astronauts, these “just one more chapter” little dreamers.  Permission to walk on walls and climb steps and dance in the doorway of the music shop.  Permission to step away from the sink – to be inefficient, but lovingly present.

It’s June, isn’t it busy?  Let’s waste time as a subversive, and healing, act of resistance.  It’s one of the most important things we can do today.

 

Ancient & Slow in a Culture of Quick Questions

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“Quick Question!”

We hear it at the entrance to the train station.  On the street corner.  In the shopping centre.  On our doorstep.

“Quick Question!”

They know we’re busy, so they’ll be quick!  They launch in.

Whose your broadband provider?  Your electricity provider?  Do you like cats? Do you know anyone who has had a heart attack? Did you know…?

I heard it today as I walked through Belfast on my way to see my Spiritual Director.  It was accompanied with an exuberant bounce, a hand waved in my face, “Hello Miss! Quick Question!”.  I smiled, shook my head, walked on.

I wonder about this Quick Question Strategy – this belief that if they promise us speed then we will make decisions about service providers and charities, that we will set up direct-debits standing beside lampposts.  I wonder about this notion that we can meet their quick questions with quick decisions.

I don’t think or decide or budget or tithe like that.  I smile, I walk on.

*

There are Jehovah Witnesses near the bus-stop.  They stand in their place, unobtrusively.  They hold their pamphlets out in this open, gentle kind of manner that I like.  I see them every month on my way to meet with my Spiritual Director – same spot, same body language.  Quietly, but persistently, holding out what they have to offer.

There are a group of men singing in front of the City Hall – modern, lively worship songs. People are craning their necks to look at them.  When my bus comes and drives past the men, I crane my neck myself.  They are dancing and clapping and bouncing up and down.

On the bus there is a Bible verse, a framed King James snippet, contact details if I want to find out more.

*

It took me over 6 months to find someone I could meet with for Spiritual Direction.  We schedule appointments.  I organise childcare.  I get on buses.  We meet in a room, down a corridor, with the door shut.

My soul does not like quick questions, it does not like street corners.  To be honest, it doesn’t really like exuberant enthusiasm and it doesn’t like pamphlets, however gently they are offered.  It likes a safe space with the door closed and a candle lit.  It likes gentle questions, it likes time to answer.

*

On the bus I smile at the irony of it all – all these people I walk past, all these words I bypass – on my way to a place that is quiet enough for God to speak.  I don’t dislike the certainty of the singers or the pamphlet holders or the verse providers.  I am looking for some certainty myself, yet I am finding it in a place where there is room to say I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

I am finding what Parker Palmer says to be true, ‘The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.’

*

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

*

The soul is shy, Parker Palmer says, it’s like a wild animal.  ‘If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.’

I feel yelled at, in our culture, even from sincere sources.  I feel hurried, hustled, my attention fractured.  I see your offering and I cannot receive it.

*

In a room, down a corridor, that takes some effort to get to, I am learning to receive.

I am seeking God and someone is seeking God with me, and for me.

I choose this ancient, slow practice.  I listen for the still small voice.  Away from the lively activity, from the quick questions and the persistent pamphlets, I am paying attention here – to what surfaces in the quiet, to a God who is already at work.

 

 

Pockets Full of Paper

Sunday morning: my husband raises his eyebrow at the scraps of paper on the kitchen worktop. Short sentences scrawled in inky black pen, crumpled into balls, soon to be stuffed into the pockets of my jeans.

My Permission Slips.

My new favourite practice.

‘Permission’ is my word for 2017.

I need to give myself permission, most days, just to be myself, to rest in my God-breathed worth.

I need to give myself permission to have these particular limits and gifts and needs, to have this particular way of being in the world.

I need to give myself permission to have the thoughts and feelings that I do, to let them exist.

This is work for me, it’s kind of a fight.

I don’t want to function from a place of shame, or envy, or pretense.  I know the cost of that.  It’s not worth it.

Yet these are my defaults – to withdraw with embarrassment, to look over my shoulder, to declare it all ‘fine’, everything’s fine.

Brené Brown says we need to reckon with emotion rather than off-load it, and I have learnt (from her) to use permission slips to do this.  She says, “writing down permission becomes a powerful intention to stay aware.”

So I pause now, sometimes, before going out the door, and I scribble these notes.

Permission to be excited!

Permission to be nervous. 

Permission to tell the truth. 

Permission to not know what to say.

It is a simple practice, stuffing my pockets full of paper, but it gives me peace, and it gives me courage.

I use it a lot for the things that make me nervous, and I use it a lot for church, but you could use it for anything.

‘Be Kind to Yourself’ by Andrew Peterson plays every day in our house at the end of our morning playlist.

“How does it end when the war that you’re in is just you against you against you?” 

I uncap my pen, rip a piece of paper.

Maybe that war can end here – with pockets full of paper and permission, black uni-ball scribbles and authenticity, walking out the door with courage and peace.

 


Thanks to Gemma for doing the lovely graphic for this post.

2 of my Favourite Things

If you stay over at my mum and dad’s house, like I am doing right now, the chances are my dad will appear in the kitchen at some stage, book in hand. He will read you this thing that he is enjoying and his fist will be raised in the air by the time he has finished. It will be the best thing ever. It will be changing his life.

We are all a bit like this in my family, to be honest. We use up all our superlatives on our current book, or our latest musical find.

Wait till you hear this.

Let me just find the page…

My 4-year-old has this phrase she likes to use for emphasis when she has told us something.  “Isn’t that A-MAZ-ING?”, she will ask, eyes wide, awaiting our affirmative response.

So we sit in each other’s kitchens sometimes, sharing favourite writers, best box sets, a great new place that does Japanese food.  We aren’t as demanding as Imogen in our requests for affirmation, but we are hoping someone in the family will share our new love.  Isn’t that amazing?

The internet is a bit like access to a zillion people’s kitchens.  I have had to learn that I can’t access them all.  So many recommendations and favourite things and other people’s life changing magic.

I have had to make peace with the things I don’t do including knitting, batch cooking and living in a yurt.

This all makes me reluctant to venture out of my real-life kitchen very often and add my recommendations to the mix.  Yet, there are 2 things the internet has introduced me to that are changing my life, worthy of a virtual fist pump.

1. The Enneagram

enneagram

It sounds weird.  It looks occult-y.  It’s a slow burn.  It is A-MAZ-ING.

Simply put, the Enneagram is an ancient personality typing system that helps people understand who they are and why they see and relate to the world the way they do.  It’s a helpful tool for spiritual formation and for developing self knowledge.  Ennea is the Greek word for 9 – the Enneagram teaches that there are nine different personality styles in the world, one of which we gravitate towards and adopt in early childhood.

The Enneagram is not magic, but it is really helpful.  It requires you to do your interior work, but it is totally worth it. Figuring out your type takes time (generally steer clear of online tests that will churn out a number at the end, it’s not that simple).

Here’s what has helped me:

The Road Back to You by Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile is the perfect place to start.  This book calls itself a primer and it does a wonderful job of introducing something so complex in a clear and easy-to-read way.  It’s wise and funny, too.

Ian and Suzanne also host a podcast which is in its second season.  I have been immersing myself in these episodes since it first aired last summer.  They are a great way to slowly widen and deepen your understanding of the Enneagram as they interview guests across the 9 numbers.  Listening in will make you more compassionate towards just about everyone you know!

The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr is a great book if you are already convinced about the merits of the Enneagram and are ready to wrestle with it more deeply.  It’s not an easy read!

The Enneagram Institute gives detailed descriptions of each type here.

As Ian and Suzanne say in their book, “The Enneagram doesn’t put you in a box.  It shows you the box you’re already in and how to get out of it”.  I like it because, unlike other personality typologies, it is concerned not with your behavior (what you do) but with your motivation (why you do it).  This is a really helpful thing to know about yourself.  It is also unique in the way it takes into account the fluid nature of personality and offers great insights into where we move when feeling secure, or under stress.

Perhaps the most unique thing about the Enneagram is that it reveals to us our shadow side, the dark parts of our personality, and then helps us release our grip on our old, self-defeating ways.  That’s not much fun, initially, but as Ian Cron says: “The good news is we have a God who would know our scrawny butt anywhere.  He remembers who we are, the person he knit together in our mother’s womb, and he wants to help restore us to our authentic selves.”

2. Bullet Journaling

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My brightly coloured Bullet Journal is never far from my side these days.  Apart from being a wonderful excuse to buy stationary, this craze is the real deal.

You can get an overview of Bullet Journaling from its creator Ryder Carroll here.  It calls itself The Analog System for the Digital Age.  It is basically a practice of using and self-curating a single notebook for all your tracking, organising and planning.

There are many, many YouTube tutorials and Pinterest posts that you can lose your mind over, if you want, but once you get a brief overview it is best just to give it a go and see what works for you.

I like it because it is flexible, handy and personal.

You can start one in any old notebook lying around or you can become a Leuchtturm 1917  junkie, like my sis-in-law and I. (The colours!) (Hers is red, above, mine is yellow, below).

So basically, if you hear Debs and I talking about future logs, signifiers, collections or migration… it’s Bullet Journal talk (BuJo to devotees like us) and if you hear something about my 9ness and her 2ness, how JM is a 5 and Chris…clearly a 1w2 … well, that’s the Enneagram.  I can’t recommend either highly enough!

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Even the six-year-olds

Liv clambers into our bed as soon as she wakes, poking us with elbows and knees, wanting to know what they are doing in heaven today, to celebrate Good Friday?

She wants to know every single thing I don’t have an answer to.

It seems, these days, like Liv has taken those verses in Deutoronomy, the ones about teaching our children diligently, and turned them on their head.  My own uncertainty about what to do with God’s words in our home does not stop her.  She talks of them when she sits, when she walks by the way, when she lies down, when she rises.

*

Liv has an unflagging interest this year in Pilate.  (Asking what his name was again, trying to get her tongue around it, giggling a bit, Pontius Pilate).

She sits in her booster seat as we drive to Asda and asks her questions.

She is trying to work out his responsability, what he decided, what he really wanted, if he was good.

“I would have decided that Jesus should die”, she declares, “because it brought so much good, in the end.”

So she clambers into our bed this morning, it’s Friday, and she wants to celebrate, because she is certain this story is Good.

*

“Even the stones would cry out!” she told us, wide-eyed, a few Sundays ago.

Yes, I think, even the stones, and even the six-year-olds.

A handful of quietness

‘Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.’

[Ecclesiastes 4:6]

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I dreamt last night that Richard Rohr was my spiritual director and I was following him through corridors and glass doors and endless staircases to wherever it was we were going to meet together.

The problem was, I clearly didn’t have childcare.  I was following the Franciscan friar while carrying my squirming 4-year-old in my arms, and she was misbehaving. At one point in the dream I was literally trying to peel her off the ceiling whilst trying not to lose sight of the wise man.  I felt flustered and embarrassed and torn in two.

It’s a familiar feeling.

It’s easy to think I could sort it all out if only my children weren’t climbing the walls.

I have my eye on a person I want to talk to, and a book I want to read and some thoughts I want to explore.  And I get to do that.  I get to do all those things.  But it seems so fractured, so fleeting.  It feels like my vision will always be blurred by blonde curly hair.

It’s hard, sometimes, to feel whole.  It’s hard to feel like we are tending to anything well, our souls or our children.  We dream of elusive priests and escaping daughters and it’s no wonder we wake up drenched in sweat.

There was stress in that dream, but the more I think about it, there was humour too. Imogen and Richard Rohr.  It’s an amusing picture.  It’s kind of great.

I’m a mother and a spiritual seeker, why wouldn’t I dream about both?  Why wouldn’t my hands be full? Why can’t I similtaneously chase wisdom?

The more I think about it, the more the dream makes me smile.  I realise it’s not a dream about what I’m missing, it’s a dream about what I have.

Tomorrow I will meet with my real-life spiritual director.  I sought her out.  Every month she makes space for my whole self, for the things I carry.  It’s a handful of quietness for my soul.

Last week I met my minister for coffee, it was a handful of quietness.

A good book, a podcast, an evening with my parents, Sunday mornings in church: handfuls of quietness.

They are framed by blonde curly hair.

They are more than enough.

Ordinary

‘I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends

nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.’

Wendell Berry

We walk around the park, school uniforms and muddy welly boots.  We walk by the river and up and down paths, over leaves and around trees.  The girls have found sticks which they have named Isla and Lauren and Logan.  They walk their ‘pets’, stopping regularly to let them ‘drink’ from puddles and mud.

It’s a great picture, isn’t it?

There’s a kind of family life I want to sign up for – one that involves muddy welly boots and sticks called Logan. Yet, when I am in the middle of it, I can’t see its goodness. 

There’s this feeling inside me about how children should spend their afternoons, and it doesn’t involve homework.  Yet, when we’re off following our gentler rhythms, it doesn’t seem good enough.

I am beginning to notice this subtle but damaging tendency I have to upgrade ordinary life, to polish it or measure it, to justify how we spend our days.

I talk, and write, about ordinary life, about every day, about celebrating small things.  I pay attention, I find beauty in overlooked places, I tell about it.

Yet.

Yet, I am also paying attention to how that ordinary beauty (that twisted, crazy-looking stick-dog called Logan, for example) does not feel so very beautiful at the time.  It’s a great story, later, a great picture of childhood.  But I didn’t feel like celebrating it in the moment – I felt cold, I felt bored.

I tell stories, other people take pictures.  We celebrate the ordinary.  I’m glad about that.  I want to see images of coastlines and back gardens, of cups of tea and blanket forts.  I want to see those things more than I want to see images of some glossy, magazine-style life.

Yet, I am also paying attention to this radar inside me that seems to be constantly scanning for a glossy kind of ordinary.

I think it’s related to this idea that ordinary life is something we sign up for, like we choose this type of life, over this one, and it leads to this outcome.  I choose welly boots and books and hearty meals and early bed times!  So I get the healthy, happy children on the front of the magazine, don’t I?  The ones with rosy cheeks, the little Boden-models.

“They’ll sleep well tonight”, we declare, after a long walk or a day outdoors.  There’s truth in that, but there’s danger too.  They might not.  It’s not an equation.

I make time for the park, largely because I have read articles about how much daily free play and outdoor play young children need, how they need a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences, how they need uneven, unpredictable, ever-changing terrain.  I try to make space for this kind of play even when I’m bored because I am convinced by articles that say it’s good for their motor-skills, for their resilience, for their mental health.

I find justification for my stance on homework from the articles that say there is no evidence that there is any academic benefit from assigning homework before high school.  I read about how the negative effects of homework are well known, and the irony that more is being piled on children despite the absence of its value.  I read about schools who ban homework and the parents who protest.

I can argue the benefits of ordinary activities – academic, physical and emotional benefits.  In those moments that don’t feel beautiful and don’t look idyllic, there is something worth doing.  But what I realised, this week, is that I don’t want all our ordinary days to be an argument for something, to be a ‘position’, to be a life I have signed my family up for.  I don’t want to be measuring our day by how well they sleep that night or by how much I think I have invested in their future intelligence or emotional health.  I don’t like these subtle equations in my head, this idea that our ordinary has to be special, has to lead to success.

A question forms in my mind, in the grey mizzle of a small Ballyclare park: What’s wrong with ordinary life? What’s wrong with providing them with ordinary days?

We walk around the park, school uniforms and muddy welly boots, bickering and snot, cold and bedraggled and ordinary.