Exactly Like Him

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I had been thinking about his garden.  Even before he lost his swallow, before his final, peaceful days, I’d been thinking about his garden.

Maybe you knew that garden.  It was exciting, and a little daunting, as children to go through the gate into what seemed like a tropical jungle. There was colour and life everywhere, and more often than not Grandpa was hidden in the middle of it, tending to something.  It was not a garden you looked at, it was a garden you experienced.  It flourished.  I had been wondering how he did it.

*

When Grandpa died at the beginning of August, I thought of that garden. And I thought of garden metaphors.  I think we all did.

We thought of him tending and nurturing plants.  We thought of him tending and nurturing us, and other people, and his faith.  We thought of the things he planted.  We heard from people whose lives he’d touched.  We wondered how he did it.

‘Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies’, we reminded ourselves.

To think of life at work underneath the surface of what looks dead and desolate, brings enormous comfort.  Garden metaphors make sense to many of us in the face of loss.  And they make sense in the face of dementia.

Or they don’t.

*

Nothing ‘makes sense’ in the face of dementia.  You could become an expert on Lewy Body Dementia, like my my mum essentially did, and it still wouldn’t make sense.

When Grandpa lost his swallow, it seemed like old Boughton’s lament in Gilead that “Jesus never had to be old!”, was fitting.  What else could you say about years of steadily losing every piece of himself?

I want it to make sense. I am tempted to force an uplifting lesson out of it for a blog post, to smooth over the sharp edges of dementia with my words.

Or, I am tempted to write-it off, a dark chapter jammed between an inspiring life and a blessed eternity.

But something is making me sit with, instead of make sense of. Maybe it’s the Wendell Berry-effect. I have just finished ‘The Memory of Old Jack’, after all, where wise and gentle Mat Feltner draws up a chair and sits beside Old Jack a while “in death as he had sat with him in life”, where he refrains from exacting a tribute on his passive remains.
*

My 5-year-old wants to draw his face. It’s her first reaction when she hears about his death.

“Let’s draw a picture of him that looks exactly like him,” she says with Lola- esque emphasis.

Exactly like him.

My Auntie P and I shared a wee moment in Grandpa’s room the day before he died. We looked at the photos on his wall. With Nana on his wedding day: “So handsome”.  A portrait of the pair many decades later: “Still so handsome. So robust.”.

That second photo, to me, is Exactly Like Him. But not to my 5-year-old.

She is very clear about the face she wants to draw. She does not like the photographs that I like. She wants “a picture of him in the last home he lived in, looking like that.”

She only knew him very old. She only ever knew him with dementia. That’s Grandpa to her. That’s the face worth drawing, the face worth remembering. She will not let me air-brush.

*

We sing songs at his Thanksgiving service about Home.  All The Way My Saviour Leads Me.  There is a Hope.  The Lord’s My Shepherd.

I listen to them in my kitchen for weeks afterwards as I do my mulling over, my own laying to rest.

“For your endless mercy follows me, your goodness will lead me home.”

Beautiful.

Incredible.

I don’t know what to make of it, this vision of mercy and goodness pursuing him right through the dementia.  But I like it.  And I sing.

*

Dementia is harrowing and yet any tendency in me toward pity, any attempt to wrap up this final chapter of his life in exclusively brutal language, has always been stopped short when I have observed my daddy.

“We became the best of friends”, my dad said in his tribute.  He was talking about the relationship that formed between him and his father-in-law after Grandpa came to live with them, and then during his years in a near-by nursing home.

At one stage of his dementia Grandpa started referring to my dad as his brother.  Dad didn’t bat an eyelid.  He just started referring to him as his brother too.

Best Friends.  Brothers.

The most debilitating years of Grandpa’s life, yet the bond they formed was extraordinary.  It changed my life, a bit, to witness it.

I think of an article in the Guardian by Helen Dunmore about the novel ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ and its astonishing portrayal of dementia.  She writes: “The novel’s account of this illness and its terrible progress through a life is unsparing, but never cold or removed. Thomas creates an intimacy with Ed’s struggle against his own mental dissolution that is intensely moving.”

My parents shared in the intimacy of Grandpa’s struggle and there aren’t really words to describe that.  I just need to sit in a chair and think about it.

*

As I sit, I have these favourite quotes I am sitting with.  They mean something to me, this month.  They come to mind as I think about this particular man.

They are all from the novel Gilead.  Maybe you will find them worth sitting with, too:

“Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

He will wipe the tears from all faces.” It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.

 

 

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I didn’t know

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I was 19 when the film American Beauty came out. It was just the sort of film I loved – cynical, funny, sad, strangely hopeful. I loved it for its call to lead more meaningful lives.  A call shared by Fight Club and Magnolia, also 1999 films, also beloved by me.

I was 19 and I didn’t know anything about having a house or a spouse or a career or children, but I certainly wasn’t going to let those things define, or trap, me.  I rolled my eyes at Carolyn Burnham and shook my tiny fist at the system.  I felt total disbelief at the things people cared about.  I didn’t know how hard it gets not to.

There’s that scene on the couch, the one where Lester and Carolyn almost share an intimate moment until she realises he is about to pour beer on the sofa.  “This isn’t life,” he rages, “it’s just stuff. And it’s become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that’s just nuts.”

“IT’S JUST STUFF.” I loved that line.  That’s the one I talked about.  This is the life I ran from.  Carolyn – the uptight, highly-strung kind of woman that scared me.

16 years later I don’t have an expensive sofa, one that’s more important than sex.  But still, I didn’t know how one more spill of anything, anywhere could matter so much to me.  And I didn’t know what mundane concerns could prevent me from letting my husband seduce me.

I didn’t know I could have 2 spirited, hilarious children and find myself wondering how the **** to dilute that spirit? I didn’t know my sense of humour would fail.  I didn’t know I had it in me to feel bored and trapped and maybe a little angry.

I didn’t know.

*

My husband and I talk about some sharp-tongued, tightly-wound older women we have come across.  I think I get it now, I say.  I didn’t use to get it at all, but I think I get it now.

Imagine doing this day after day, year after year without friends who help you laugh, or writers who help you breathe, without a husband who is home much or other mums blogging truth into your kitchen.

Imagine having nobody, really, to cheer you on or change your perspective, to say “me too” or tell you it doesn’t matter.

Wouldn’t we all end up impossibly wound up by the end of it – snapping and stressing at seemingly innocuous behaviour and requests?

*

Before American Beauty there was Dead Poet’s Society.  There was Captain my Captain and standing on tables.  There were determined little idealists like me, pledging ourselves to Carpe Diem every day of our lives.

I thought, then, that the good stuff was all ‘standing on tables’ stuff.  I thought that was courage right there. I didn’t know that the good stuff is often mundane and boring and time and again.  I didn’t know that courage might look like tired chat with your husband, drying towel or iron in hand, trying to figure out how not to become sharp-tongued, tightly-wound women. (or men).

I didn’t know how long a Diem could be, or how spills and tantrums and mischief and neediness could thwart my ability to seize it.

I didn’t know how much I would need that Glennon Doyle Melton essay telling me to carpe the moments, not the whole diem.

*

I was 19 when the film American Beauty came out. I was full of pseudo-profound opinions on the human condition, convinced I was a million miles away from Lester Burnham who was mad at the system, yet part of it.

I was 19 and I used to pray dramatic prayers, sometimes, apologising to God for trying to do things “in my own strength.”

I didn’t know how committed I would continue to be to my own strength, to the try-hard life, to running the well dry.

I didn’t know how much help I would continue to need as the decades turn.  I thought the meaningful, joyful life would be more intuitive.

*

Here’s what I do, what I have always done: I watch the people who live life the way I want to, the people whose sofas welcome, not oppress.  The whole-hearted, as Brené Brown would call them. The free.

I watch. I ask them questions. I pester them a bit.

I read their books and watch their TED talks and listen to their podcasts. I talk about it and write about it, and with a little less drama, I pray about it.

Eugene Peterson says he would want to be remembered in terms of the people he lived with.  Me too.  He also says we’re never past recovery.  Phew.

 

“Create in me a clean, clean heart.  Create in me a work of art.  Create in me a miracle.  Something real and something beautiful.”

[Rend Collective]

Gentle Men – some collaborative praise

A repost from 2014…

I stood this year, like every year, at a bit of a loss in the Father’s Day card aisle: golf, remote controls, beer, sailing. It would just be weird to get my dad a card with any of those things. Some years I settle for tools, or gardening.

Alternatively: cards with poems and jokes about dads being lazy, stupid, fat. Is it too mushy to say those things have just never applied to my dad?

Some years I have settled for poems about dads who are mental, or flippin’ bonkers.

It’s hard to find cards or presents or words sometimes to honour our men. But I have been asking, the past few days, for people to tell me about their dads, their ‘father figures’ or the dad they share parenting with. And it turns out that lazy and stupid aren’t the right labels for lots of men. And it turns out that being a good dad means even more than fixing things, or football.

I mean, Russ is a dad who is passionate about football, he plays it for hours with his boys and is involved in coaching their teams. But he is also a dad who is passing on his childhood love of the Famous Five at bedtime, who tells stories for the hundredth time about his old dog Rover, and who takes them to the river to catch tadpoles. Fiona watches him teach their boys how to treat others fairly, to consider other people’s point of view and to do the right thing even when it’s hard.

Tory’s husband is a Fireman. I’ve bumped into him in the leisure centre on his day off, taking the kids swimming so she can have some time to herself. He encourages her to do this whenever there’s a chance. He encourages her to pursue her passions. She is soon going to have 3 kids under 5, but she says I never think of it as a one woman show. As a dad he is patient and fun and energetic and she sees this encouraging their children to be fearless and free, and steadying her.

Jerome is Chief nappy-changer and bather. Judes notices how he takes such joy in these menial tasks. His humour and laughter and ridiculous voices have made her laugh in the tired, newborn days. He supports Judes breastfeeding by tending to their baby’s other needs. She has been surprised by his amazing patience. She so appreciates his sensitivity to know when to take over without discussion. It is a team effort.

Judith D has never once cut her boys’ nails. It’s daddy’s job. She also credits Tom that the house is clean as he does housework around her long evening breastfeeds. Her 3 year old teaches her about radar towers & wind socks & taxi ways… passing on the knowledge that Tom passed on to him. Some days as soon as he gets in from work he takes Samuel off to see something he notices on the way home – lambs maybe, or a forage harvester. He involves him in gardening, recycling, washing the car.

Erin says that words to describe my brother Paul as a dad are patient, gentle, kind and sensitive to their family’s needs. She says patience is a HUGE one.

Chris does the ironing, the groceries and the nursery run. He can achieve something that eludes me: symmetrical pigtails. The worst night of breastfeeding I ever had he simply sat on the floor beside me. He whispered to the girls that I’d gone to the dark side today, and it brought me back. He is joker of the pack and a well-used climbing frame.

Rach talks about one night when Ruben was barely 2 and a half, just starting to string sentences together, when they were outside a caravan, eating pizza by the sea. She went in to do dishes and he talked to his dad for 40 minutes in an epic monologue about everything on his wee heart. Jürg listens. Rach says it’s one of the greatest gifts he gives their kids, and she notices it all the time these days. She says: “He gives them all the time in the world to talk. No expectations, no pressure, the conversation can flow wherever they lead it. And he listens, and they can feel it, and so they talk……..and it is beautiful.”

Lorraine says there is no part of Eoin’s life that Andy is not involved in. Nappies, feeding, getting up in the night, minding him regularly. He loves it when his son watches him doing DIY, but he also models cooking, cleaning and helping. He models loving women. He works part time so that he won’t miss his son growing up, even though this means sacrifices in other areas. He prays that Eoin would be a person that is kind. Over and over. He is super proud to walk around with his son in a backpack.

Kate says she couldn’t ask for a better dad for her son. They live close to each other and share care in a way that works. Their son has routine, stability, love and a lot of time with both parents.

My dad remembers fondly his own dad  playing gentle “fighting” with him as a young boy. He would try to hit his dad who would gently hit back without hurting him. He loved these “fights”. He says his dad really cared for his family and included them as much as he could. He always made you feel that he had time for you. That you mattered to him.”  He says he thinks he understood the Fatherhood of God quite well and emulated that (I would say the same about him).

And the first thing my mum said about her dad? He was a carer, all his life. He looked after his siblings, his children and his wife. He was an avid reader and taught himself DIY skills, gardening, cookery and theology. He was a hard worker and a strict disciplinarian but also full of fun and practical jokes.

My friend Jenny says that her dad and granda have ruined her for life as she expects all men to be respectful, kind, loving and caring.

Rosie could write a book about her dad, and I think she should. She sat by his bedside today watching him sleep thinking of the lifetime of friendship and closeness they have shared. They have always been best buddies.  She loves his wisdom and his ability to see things from every angle and his great sense of fun. She loves his interest in other people and their well-being. All these traits are still obvious though he’s now so weak and confined.

It’s been an emotional few days receiving these stories, hearing women praise their men. They wrote more and said more and confessed there was still more. Hallmark can’t really design cards for these men, can they? So today we will praise them. I mean, honestly, we all still roll our eyes and bicker and tell tales on them, I’ll still be doing that tomorrow, no doubt. But today let’s just say it, there are many men who aren’t stupid or lazy or useless… and neither are they THE WORLD’S BEST DADS in some perfect, macho, aggressive, cartoon super-hero kind of way. They are Gentle Men – patient and kind, hardworking and fun, serious and silly. They are sharing their passions. They are listening to their children. They are saving our lives a time or 2 with their humour. Thank You.

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(As I wrote this I kept starting and deleting disclaimers. Some fathers seem to confirm the stereotypes, some are abusive and some are difficult and brilliant, both. Some fathers are absent and some deeply missed. I cannot write about these things with any wisdom, but I read those who do, and hope they will continue to write.  Father’s Day could prompt all kinds of stories. I’m just holding space, today, for some of the good ones… for the fathers who are carrying on generations of good men, and for the ones determined to be the father they wish they had, wee frizz salutes you)

Feel free to praise a man in your life in the comments section …

Small Things: mundane day after mundane day

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I started writing a few years ago. I had a newborn and a toddler. I wrote during naptime and at the kitchen table. My life had become very small. And I wrote.

I remember the earliest days of motherhood – sitting in that green chair in the half-light nursing Liv through the night. I remember thinking: a few weeks ago I was writing planners and teaching lessons and now, here I am, my life’s work to sit in a chair and feed one tiny baby, over and over and over again.

The smallness is weird and hard and beautiful and lots of people are writing about it, thank goodness. Yes there are the Mommy Wars and the unsolicited advice of strangers or great-aunts… but there are funny writers and honest voices and balanced opinions. There is so much good stuff out there and there are plenty of voices cheering us on.  Even the annoying ones are, usually, trying to cheer us on. We see you, we get it, we’ve been there. It’s worth it. It’s supposed to feel like this. She’s thriving. She’s amazing. You’re amazing. Here’s dinner.

Nobody suggests that looking after your baby is too much for you or that there are better options for her care. You are allowed your limitations.  Nobody suggests you throw the baby out with the bath water. People help.

*

For a few years I navigated the smallness of life as a new mum with unlikely companions: my mum and grandpa. My mum’s life had suddenly become smaller too as she became a carer for her parents, and then just her dad.

Her life, too, became more centered on her home, on mealtimes and naptimes, on the careful care of one precious soul.

For a few years mum and I often cared for Liv and Grandpa side by side: washing, feeding, changing, going outside, hanging out. We would curl up in the front room with a cup of tea once they were both napping and talk about their quirks and their needs and the things we were noticing. I’m sure you can tell, I cherish that time. It was small and it was beautiful and it was hard: one person growing and another diminishing.

As Liv became a toddler she and Grandpa became sweet companions, side by side with their sippy cups. His Lewy Body Dementia hadn’t taken away his hallmark humour  or his natural way with kids.  He interacted with her with ease, even when he wasn’t sure exactly who she was. She was Spud. She was the young ‘un. She was some craic.

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Mum read something, once, about how being a carer was so similar to caring for a baby except without the smell of baby powder.  This is so true. Babies and toddlers have those innate things that make us love and protect them and get out of bed over and over again- the look of them, the smell of them, their smile, those little feet. We use nice ointments and dress them up in cute clothes and snuggle their necks. We get to hang out with other mums and babies. There is a lot of heart-warming stuff, and as I said before, there is a lot of solidarity.

I don’t think as many people cheer the carers on. Their smallness is already much harder because their person is going backwards, not forwards. They are losing their speech and mobility and their witty, razor-sharp mind.  Their person is not as cute.

I think you can tell, I cherish that time we cared side by side. The insights it gave me to the hidden, faithful work of carers has influenced me deeply (I have written about it a little here and here). It seems to me to be a lonelier path than that of motherhood – more misunderstood, less engaged with.

I wonder if people are wary of adding to the burden of carers? They equate encouraging them with expecting them to continue doing hard things. People respect and admire from a distance but their concern about the ‘small’ life the carer has chosen leaves the carer alone in the trenches.

Carers don’t need anyone on the sidelines declaring what they are doing to be “too much”. They are allowed their limitations.  They need to take stock and make changes and figure out the next step with their parnter and their siblings and people in the same boat. People who will FIRST of all say:  “We see you, we get it, it’s worth it, it’s supposed to feel like this, you’re amazing, here’s dinner”, and who will THEN help them figure out if they are doing too much.

*

Our girls are 2 and 4 now, we are making a few adjustments to our work-life-arrangements, again. We are often tweaking and changing things to accommodate our family’s needs.  I’m glad I get to do that.  I’m glad my husband doesn’t think it’s too much for me when I want to do things differently. I’m glad I can chat it through with my mum-friends, even though none of us are parenting quite the same way.

My life is small right now, but it has something to offer and there is something changing in me, mundane day after mundane day. And people understand my choice.

My mum’s life is small but what it offers  is one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed, although people don’t always understand the choice.

When your world is small you need to be creative with the room around the edges, which is why I find myself at the kitchen table sometimes, writing. My mum has also needed to live creatively and I am hoping she will write for this series about some of the small things and practices that have helped her as a carer, mundane day after mundane day.

Stay tuned.


[Read series so far here]

Reclaiming January

I’m a January-girl.

But we limped into it this year, taking our turns to puke, so it has taken me some time to start to savour January – the reflection it prompts, the reminder to choose how we live, the stunning winter trees.  I’m enjoying how the world looks and I’m settling on my word for the year, which I’ll write about soon.

I am drawn to what is on the other side of the things we often dismiss, or wrestle with. The things that, at first glance, are dark or cold, depressing, insignificant or small. Is there beauty or light? Room to breathe? Stories worth paying attention to? Bravery? What’s on the other side of the places or seasons we try to avoid or run from?

I love this post by Sarah Bessey about how the part of her that always feels like it doesn’t fit in church finds God in the wind. “I needed to be a bit free, a bit cold, a bit wild and lonely.” Yes. I’m a January-girl. Put away the decorations, feel the wind in your face.

January, for us, is Nana Graham month. She graced this world from January 1923 to January 2011.

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I loved it when I found out our youngest girl was going to be a January baby – both because I love the month and because it reclaims the sadness a bit.

Imogen Elizabeth has just turned 2. Elizabeth for Nana. She was nearly Lily, Eliza or Beth. (If I had been able to persuade my husband, she’d have been Betty).

Imogen’s our January-girl. At the start of her one wild and precious life.  She’ll hear stories, no doubt, of what Nana did with hers.

They share a month, and maybe birthdays tempt us to wax lyrical, but it seems they share a lot more: A hearty laugh. Strong preferences. Charm. A fine head of hair. A love of handbags and a good breakfast. They share a need for everyone in the family to have their coats on, a need to fuss.

Imogen, already, is a kind of busybody, a “go-getter”, a charming little boss-lady. Despite our best efforts she rules the roost.

It’s January and I always think of Nana Betty ruling the roost from her own chair, until the last.

She would have loved this girl with the wild blonde curls, the big blue eyes, the small determined mouth and chin. Imogen would have loved unpacking her handbag.

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I’m drawn to what’s on the other side of things. It’s January. For me that means being ‘frostbit’ and cosy, it means birthdays and last-days, it means honouring my Elizabeths – space for a favourite woman who went before me and a fierce, quirky little one just starting out.

 

 

little Mary full of grace

I would love to think that Mary was as happy as Olivia, dressed in her blue e-bay outfit, belting out the songs.

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We grinned like proverbial Cheshire cats at our daughter… a little surprised, to be honest, at her volume, at her sheer joy, at how comfortable she was with performing.

We grinned because her friend Samuel was her equally loud and joyful partner, Joseph.

We grinned long after it was over and watched the video back a few too many times.

I would love to think it was all this kind of joyful 2014 years ago, that Mary sat and stood and danced beside her baby, comfortable in her own skin, head held high.

***

2 years ago when I was heavily pregnant at Christmas I used to rest my hands on my bump and say, a little cheekily, “I feel like Mary”. Which I did, in some ways. But in other ways, obviously, didn’t.

Mary didn’t have a pink Mamas and Papas party dress (or a blue e-bay costume), she didn’t have the nursery ready or a hospital bag to pack. She didn’t have disposable knickers or nursing pads or tea-tree oil for the bath.  There had been no Family Planning. “And the stable was not clean/And the cobblestones were cold/And little Mary full of grace/With the tears upon her face/Had no mother’s hand to hold.” [Andrew Peterson]

***

There is something great and celebratory about pre-schoolers singing these stories that have been passed down for generations. There’s a lot of room for that in my heart. But there is also room for the knowledge I have as a mother,  that adds to the script being narrated from the front. I listen, too, to that part of me which knows that while there was joy, Mary was also uncomfortable and bleeding, tired and scared about the future.

I know what it’s like to feel all those things, even as my imagination struggles to appreciate their depth in Mary’s situation… even as my imagination also struggles to appreciate their depth for women today facing pregnancy, birth and child-rearing in difficult situations.

I’m glad that God shares our humanity through Jesus. I’m glad for Mary, too. I’m glad my daughter can dress up as her and sing parts of her story. I’m glad Olivia calls her Mary Christmas. I’m glad Mary has trumped Elsa for a few weeks.

And I am glad I can relate to her and wonder and marvel at the hard, messy parts of her story. That the narrative of joy and of hope took place in this fragile context… with a woman perhaps struggling to receive her visitors.

***

I have always loved the verse “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” It appeals to the  introvert in me. It reminds me, too, of all the unspoken parts of the narrative we read aloud in our Churches at Christmas.  It reminds me that this is a story we need to treasure up and ponder ourselves. It is a story that requires our imagination. I think Luke did well with that verse… a confession, perhaps, that he could recount towns and animals and messages from angels, but he could not begin to recount the things Mary thought and felt.

So let our children sing and let our hearts ponder and let the poets and musicians help our imagination along this Christmas:

 

The Christmas Rebels

First published December 2013

As we stamped “MADE BY OLIVIA” on the back of our home-made Christmas cards , I felt like there should be another stamp, marking those cards with the truth. Something like “OLIVIA WAS SHOUTED AT THE ENTIRE WAY THROUGH MAKING THESE CUTE CARDS. MERRY CHRISTMAS.”

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I wasn’t raised with the idea of the perfect Christmas, and I don’t feel a lot of pressure when December rolls around. But still, we all have our ideas. Nostalgia we are trying to recreate, traditions we are trying to maintain, or start. The need for a certain sight, or smell or food… the need to see certain people… the need, even, for it all to be meaningful. And so, when it seemed like a such a good idea to make Christmas cards with my painting-obsessed toddler… when I imagined it would be festive and fun… when the process was intended to be as important as the outcome… and then the process was a grumpy-stress-fest… well then even I felt the depths of my festive failure. How easily we are taken down by ‘it was supposed to be like this, but instead it turned out like this.’ Sigh.

***

I have always been drawn to the Christmas Rebels. The ones who tell the truth, challenge the traditions, do things differently. It explains a lot about me that I have been indoctrinated my entire life by my 2 older brothers, and it was no exception when in my impressionable teenage years JM used to rant around the house that “they weren’t really wearing clean tea-towels and marks & spencer dressing gowns you know”, and that “baby Jesus did cry, actually, cried his head off, probably”, and “it wasn’t really snowing” and… and…

… and I joined the revolution there and then.

We were rebels in church during Away in a Manger, clamping our mouths shut for the line “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”. And then later, for “Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he”, just because ughhhhhh. And because he wasn’t mild, was he?

I attached myself to some modest Christmas rebellion every year. One year not getting any presents. One year spending the day with the Salvation Army. Several years doing a slightly patronising love the lonely/grumpy Christmas Card campaign. And in later years when I had jobs in care homes and hostels I was always quick to sign-up for a Christmas Day shift.

My teenage campaigns were probably a little dramatic and overlooked the people in my life who wanted to buy me presents, or have Christmas dinner with me. A one-off stint with a charity’s meals-on-wheels does little to change the world-at-large, I know. Yet every Christmas I remember a lady with her cardigan buttoned all wrong., completely on her own, whose home-help hadn’t arrived to get her dressed that Christmas morning. How grateful she was for her turkey dinner in a plastic tray, as she waited by the phone for her son to call from America. I remember all of the people with absent family, without home-cooked meals and with fingers that can do longer dress.

My love for  the rebels is not because I don’t love festivity…. I love our fat bushy Christmas tree, love our IKEA decorations, love mulled wine by the saucepan-full and, to the annual disappointment of my husband, still love yankee candles. And honestly, I am counting down the years until Olivia Arnold will be on stage with a tea-towel on her head, or a tinsel halo. But also, I am always listening for the voices saying it was messier than this, it was harder than this, it was wilder than this. I am listening for the ones who say Baby Jesus did cry actually, and so there is more hope, more joy because there is empathy and understanding and God with skin on. And I am trying to notice the ones who are alone, in one way or another, at Christmas, the ones whose struggles feel illuminated by the fairy-lights. And most of all I  am always wanting to honour the ones who say it out loud, who say I am sad, I am disappointed, I am scared, stop asking me to pretend I am merry.

I have always been drawn to the Christmas Rebels. The preachers and campaigners and volunteers. The ranters around our kitchen tables. And the writers. These have been my very favourite Advent and Christmas voices this year. So pour your mulled wine, light your candles, curl up by your Christmas tree and honour the ones who say it out loud, who make it all richer and deeper and truer for the rest of us:

In Which Advent is for the ones who know longing by Sarah Bessey

On Why I Need Christ during Christmas at Why Not Smile

The Music IS LOUDER Than The Crying at Momastery

Cobbled-Together Christmas by Addie Zierman

The Fall of Christmas by Jamie the Very Worst Missionary

(Also in 2013 I added Sleeping at Last to my Over the Rhine/Sufjan Stevens Christmas playlist and all December dishes were washed to the sound of ‘Snow’ and ‘I heard the bells on Christmas Day’ on repeat. )

2014 additions (so far!)

This year we have strung up Advent envelopes for the girls’ Jesse Tree  ornaments which they decorate each day and we are reading through Unwrapping the Greatest Gift. Some days it seems beautiful and meaningful and other days they snatch crayons from each other and Olivia cries and Imogen hollers “CULL-OR!” drowning out my serene Ann Voskamp attempts.

When the house is quieter in the evenings I’m planning to read along with John Blase’s weekly advent posts at The Beautiful Due and Stocki’s daily Advent Reflections. No crayons or mini clothes pegs in sight.

I’m keeping the Christmas crazies at bay with sane gift perspectives (e.g.  Momastery and  The Art of Simple), wisdom (Brené Brown: The show must go on. But at what cost?) and a slight addiction to Huffington Post articles about the Elf on the Shelf, especially this one: Truth, Lies and the Elf on the Shelf.

So what about you? What is catching your eye, inspiring you or providing some comic relief this December?