Legitimate Reasons

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It’s a particular kind of cold – morning hailstones on a blustery beach on the north coast of Ireland – and it occurs to you that you have watched too much Marple, read far too much Maisie Dobbs and Inspector Gamache, to be truly at ease in a beautiful and isolated place.

You could write the setting for your murder, here between the crashing waves and the rushing river, an 18th century temple dramatically perched on the cliff edge above…

Maybe someone would see something glancing out the window of the coastal train before it disappeared into the tunnel.

You are relieved to see a dog-walker.  You trust dog-walkers.  They have a legitimate reason to walk.  (And you never hear of dogs being accomplices to murder.  Do you?).

*

There’s a lone seagull ‘winter paddling’ in the water’s edge, just like you are.  He’s braver than you, not scampering off when the tide comes in, or maybe he’s just more free?  You feel a bit silly letting the water wash over your colourful wellies.  The seagull looks just right though, he has a legitimate place in the sea, written into his name.

*

What the hailstones add to the texture of the beach is incredible. Someone should write about it, you think.  A legitimate writer.  A poet.

*

“So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute”, Wendell Berry says.

Take a solitary walk.  Winter paddle.  Write.

Fill in your blank.

 

 

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Nourishment

I know, now, not to try to write as soon as I arrive at the writers’ retreat.

I know, now, to put my welly boots on and wrap up warm and head to the water before it gets dark.  I do not need to see words gather on a screen or in my yellow writing pad, just yet.  I need to see the sea, and the rocks and my own footprints in the sand.

I do not need to open the laptop in a hurry.  I need to open Jayber Crow with dinner and Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings with breakfast.

I need to walk and I need to read.  This is what I’m here for, too.

*

Nourishment can seem like a waste of time to me.  The amount of nourishment I require can be a source of frustration, and sometimes embarrassment, to me.  Why do I need to eat so often and with such intentionality?  Why can I not run on less?  Why can I not start my day with a quick cuppa like other people do?  Why can I not sleep without a good supper?  Why is what is enough for other people not enough for me?  I try to start and end and punctuate my day with steady fuel, with good(ish) food, because I know the cost if I don’t.  I need to eat well to function well every single day, multiple times a day.  I haven’t found a quicker fix.

As I walk along the cold beach after breakfast, I realise how closely my physical needs and my particular metabolism, mirror my soul needs and my particular introversion.  The amount of soul-nourishment I require can also be a source of frustration, and sometimes embarrassment, to me.  Why do I need space so often and with such intentionality?  Why can I not run on less?  Why can I not jam-pack my day like other people do?  Why can I not sleep without a good novel?  Why is what is enough for other people not enough for me?

Nourishment can seem like a waste of time.  Open the laptop and get writing already.

*

This is my third year at the writers’ retreat and I know, now, there will be regular trips to the kitchen, and to the shore and to Port William with Jayber Crow.  I haven’t found a quicker fix.

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Winter Days

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These are the days when Liv tries out her recently learnt skill of sarcasm at every opportunity.  So this morning, loudly: “What a surprise! Imogen being cross at breakfast!”.  (Mouths exaggeratedly across the table at me “Being Sarcastic”).

These are the days of “wintery showers”.  Last night’s snow lay crisp and firm this morning and the whole world feels quiet and cold.  It’s my favourite kind of morning.  We wear our welly boots and inspect the other footprints on the way to school, the paw prints, the tiny (dancing) bird feet.

These are the days when it’s hard to sleep, the days of winter bugs and sniffles that won’t go away, the days when someone in the house is sick.  These are the days of reading past your bedtime, tucked up with a hot water bottle and Inspector Gamache.  These are the days when Imogen likes to sneak in like a ninja in the early hours and nestle her curly head beside mine.

These are the days of listening to Kate Winslet narrate audio books.  The Far Away Tree.  Matilda.  These are the days Kate has upped the expectations from our children at bedtime –  “Do the voices!”.  These are the days my daughter notices that my Highway Rat voice is the same as my Pharaoh voice (which is the same as my Mr Wormwood voice, of course).

These are the days of Deep Questions about Life.  Liv is talking about apples and death as we wait at the traffic lights for the green man.  The Garden.  The Serpent.  Eve. “Is it true?” she asks me. I pause. “It seems true to me,” I answer slowly,  “because we want the wrong thing sometimes, we take what isn’t good for us.”  These are the days of questions that cannot be answered at traffic lights.

These are the days of porridge, every morning, to warm the cockles of our heart.  (“I have 21 hearts,” Imogen declared this morning.  “I actually do.  Stop laughing.”)  These are the days of comfort food.  A big pot of curry for dinner, or a chippy.  These are the days when the hardest thing about reading Inspector Gamache is not the suspense of who the killer is, or how worried I am about the Inspector (a lot), but how hungry it makes me.  I want to be at Oliver’s Bistro by the fire with a café au lait and a roast beef and horseradish croissant.  It is a kind of torture to read these words on a winter night: croquet-monsieur, crisp baguette with paté, coq au vin, mound of frites, crème brûlée, chocolate mousse.

These are the days of snow and sarcasm and sniffles and snuggles and stories.  These are the days of hibernation and craving comfort.  These are days when it can be hard not to take the apple.  These are the days when we need to be nourished instead, to look at bird tracks in the snow and to try out our sarcasm at breakfast.

What’s filling your days this winter?

Room For It All

‘It is critical that we catch ourselves doing things well.’

[Brené Brown]

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The daffodils I bought on Friday have wilted, most of them before they even opened.  I wonder if the window cleaner can see them and would it be too obvious if I snatched them away from the kitchen window sill?  I don’t want to be reflected in the dead flowers, that’s the thing.  I don’t want his glimpse into our home to be of brown wilted daffodils.

The daffodils have wilted and I wonder what I did wrong or what I didn’t do?  What if they are a reflection of this home, I suddenly think, in panic.  What if this is not a thriving environment?  What if it’s toxic?  Even daffodils die.

They are just daffodils, of course, don’t be silly.  I empty out the water and put them in the brown bin, where they should have been already.  They are just daffodils, of course, but they looked like a picture of neglect, a vintage vase of failure.

I could say some negative things about our house, I could self-deprecate our home.  Such comments can trip off my tongue.  Yet I have glanced into our kitchen window, the way the window cleaner might, and I have seen colour and warmth.  Imogen’s tricky words stuck on the kitchen cupboards, art work strung across the wall, spotty mugs, a pot of dinner.  This picture tells another story.

It’s important to catch these glimpses.

It is hard to catch these glimpses.  We have a radar for the wilted flowers, the crumbs, the clutter.

It takes imagination, and gratitude.  It often takes the voice of someone else.

When someone compliments my home – I try to see what they see.  When someone sits in our living room and makes generous assumptions about our family life – I try to see what they see.

Sometimes it seems like it’s the most important thing we can do – to see the beauty around us, in what we are creating, to toss those daffodils in the compost bin, along with our measuring sticks, to catch ourselves doing things well.

Yet, the truth is, what I am creating is inconsistent.  The daffodil situation is real, there are things I fail at.  The beauty is real, there are things I do well.  The most important thing I can do, perhaps, is make room for it all.

Erin Loechner says that social media has encouraged us to crop out the contradictions in ourselves, and I realise that this is what I am always doing – with the flowers, with the crumbs, with the compliments – I am trying to crop out the contradictions.  I am hiding a vase of dead daffodils so that my window cleaner (if he cares) will see a consistent picture if he glances in the kitchen.  (I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care).

There is no consistent picture, of course.  There is an ongoing story, and no glimpse or glance or snapshot can capture it.  There are contradictions – in my nature, in my parenting, in the keeping of my home – and if I stop trying to crop them out, I am freer to catch myself doing things well.

My friends are coming for dinner on Friday and I’m going to buy daffodils for the kitchen and there will be room for us all.

January

‘It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.’

[E. E. Cummings]

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It’s 1st January, the start of my favourite month.  I pause, this month, to centre myself around the things in my life that matter most.  It’s the start of a new year but it’s also the middle of my journey.  There are things I have learnt worth honouring, there are things I SELRES_6a71d133-cb6f-44f1-8610-a7629ff7a596SELRES_aead5fe8-c29f-4c01-8b87-28ffa067df14SELRES_24598c12-bb15-402d-b14f-6306d4353afaam doing worth continuing.  It’s 1st January and I can hear John O’DonohueSELRES_24598c12-bb15-402d-b14f-6306d4353afaSELRES_aead5fe8-c29f-4c01-8b87-28ffa067df14SELRES_6a71d133-cb6f-44f1-8610-a7629ff7a596 in that beautiful poem For the Interim Time: ‘As far as you can, hold your confidence.’

It’s 1st January and I am ready with my bullet journal and my coloured pens, I am ready for crisp white pages and new ideas, but I have learnt to pause, instead.  I have learnt that I need those words – hold your confidence – as my January motto.

It’s 1st January and I need to declutter my soul this month, and inside my head.  Choose what I have room for, what’s invited to stay.  Say yes and no to the right things.

I’m not at the starting gate of a brand new race tonight, finishing line in sight.  I’m on this long road – of marriage and parenting and faith and doing my own thing well – and I’d like it to be marked by faithfulness, I’d like to hold on.

My word for 2017 was ‘Permission’ and I carry it with me.  It’s 1st January and maybe, like me, you need it to be an intentional thing – permission to be yourself, permission to be on your long road, permission to take it seriously.

I have a phrase for 2018 forming in my head, but first I need to do some internal decluttering, reminding and honouring.

I wrote down this quote over Advent: ‘We who are here have been led in a special way to keep what is coming on our hearts and to shape ourselves according to it.’

I’m carrying that with me too.

I’m in the kitchen

I recently heard Rob Bell on a podcast describe the gentle yet profound way in which people’s words can fall as like a velvet hammer.  He talked about the best kind of wisdom that appears soft so you let down your guard and then it works its way in and you’re “just levelled.”

This has been my experience of meeting with a prayer guide over recent weeks.

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Last week my prayer guide casually referred to “the other Sharon”.

We were reflecting on John 1:35-42, on spending the day with Jesus.  At the end of the passage Andrew goes and gets his brother Simon and brings him to Jesus.

“Maybe you need to go get the other Sharon,” she said, “bring her to Jesus.”

The other Sharon.

It dawns on me slowly.

Then it strikes hard.

The other Sharon.  Well, of course.

The one who doesn’t feel seen by Jesus, the one who doesn’t spend the day, the one who has trouble with this path.

*

I take this nugget away and it seems so obvious, now she has said it.

It explains so much.

We are drawn like moths to a flame to something that is true, beautiful, simple, profound.  We find this way to look at Jesus, or ourselves.  We follow a nudge of the spirit,  we give something our Amen.  We pick a priority for our family, we lean towards a way of parenting.  We choose role-models, mentors, every day heroes.  We say yes.  We say no.  We open our hearts.

Don’t we?

Didn’t we?

We’re not sure.  We falter.  We’re not all in.

I don’t always pay her much attention, the other Sharon.  I think I know what I’m about.  I think I know better.

*

After the velvet hammer comment my prayer guide gave me Luke 10: 38 – 42.  Mary and Martha. (The 2 Sharons, I think).

I spend a week with those 5 verses.

*

I am Martha.  I welcome Jesus into my terrace house.  He sits in the Parker Knoll chair, beside the bookshelves, my sister at his feet.

I welcomed him in, opened the door, but I am distracted.  I am busy.  I am playing a loop of  ‘it must be nice for Mary‘ in my head.

Jesus says the words that I now have strung up in my kitchen, written in white chalk:

You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed.

It dawns slowly, it strikes hard.

*

I am Mary.

I sit by the Parker Knoll and listen.  I am drawn here.

But I hear the bustle around me and I feel judged.  Even before Martha says anything out loud I feel judged, compared, uncertain.

Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.

I am surprised when Jesus says this.  I don’t expect this validation.

It’s beautiful, my prayer guides tells me.

Beautiful.

*

I am drawn to the feet of Jesus like a moth to a flame.

But then.

I suspect I am wrong.

I doubt my choice.

I take it away from my own self.

*

The truth is, I am open to seeing much of my bustle and productivity the way Jesus sees it – as worry and upset.  I am open to his message – that few things are needed.  I am open to his validation when I choose like Mary – it is better, it will not be taken away from me.

The truth is, I am open to these words and this message, but the other Sharon is not.

I have not internalised this voice of Jesus that I think I love so much.  I don’t hear it.

I have internalised the voice of Martha.  I hear – “aren’t you annoyed?”.  I hear – “Tell her to help me!”

*

I wonder what Martha’s preparations were, what had her so distracted.  I usually picture her in the kitchen, making dinner – because I am so often in the kitchen, making dinner.  It’s important to me.  I am drawn here too, actually.

I am Mary and I am Martha, and Jesus speaks kindly to me, whichever mode I’m in.

“God comes to me where I live and loves me where I am”, Brennan Manning says.

“If I am not where I am, God cannot meet me.  It’s as simple as that.”

I’m in the kitchen.

I’m remembering that few things are needed, that what I have chosen will not be taken away from me.  

I’m in the kitchen, listening to Jesus as I make bolognes.

 

 

 

 

4 O’Clock in the Afternoon

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

[John 1: 39]

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Every Monday evening I head to the foyer of the local parish in our small town, to meet with a prayer guide who is teaching me to pray with scripture; a prayer guide who is holding space for me, who has me on her heart.

The first passage she discerns for me is in John 1 and I smile to myself as I hear the familiar words, realising that my Catholic prayer guide has chosen the same passage my Presbyterian minister preached from the day before.

*

I find a quiet place daily, I light a candle, I read it slowly.  I have been given these 8 verses for a week.  John’s disciples follow Jesus.  I remember what we’ve been told – You may feel that nothing at all is happening and that you are wasting your time, you are not.

I notice the words and phrases that grab my attention and after a day or 2 I start to write them down.

“What do you want?”

Come.

They spent the day with him.

It was about 4 in the afternoon.

I start to put in my own name, as my guide suggested.  Jesus turns around and sees me. He asks me the question I don’t know how to answer, “What do you want?”. We spend the day together.

It isn’t urgent, I note in my journal.  There is no hurry.

Every day I sit with this passage.  Jesus turns around and sees me, asks me what I want, we spend the day together.

*

One day I don’t do it, it was my most stressful day, of course. There were no quiet places in this day, no candles.

There was a very noisy changing room, a very major public meltdown from my daughter, a situation I wasn’t sure how to handle.

It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. (That’s never a good time, Jesus).

*

When I reflect on the week with my prayer guide I tell her the ways this passage is rewriting my misconceptions about following Jesus.

No matter how many times I read it at my kitchen table, Jesus never once asked me to do anything or prove anything, or to hurry up in case I got hit by a bus.

Look, John says.  I start to follow Jesus.  He sees me.  He wants to know what I want.  (I didn’t know that mattered).

When I reflect with my prayer guide about my stressful day, my wobbly daughter, the lack of time – she tells me that’s where Jesus wants to meet me, to spend the day – in the changing room, in the tantrum, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

*

I think I need this, even more than quiet places and candles, I need this Jesus who spends the day, the whole messy thing.  He meets us at 4 o’clock.  4 o’clock! At witching hour for tired mothers everywhere – he sees us.