July



We had a week’s holiday, an hour from home, and it was everything we needed – a change of scene, cheese toasties and ice-cream, the sea.

The play parks reopened and set the tone for the following week. They have this renewed allure, after months of being chained shut. My daughters yell for the hand sanitiser then take off in delight.

We check in on our friends by the water, count heads.  2 swans, 5 cygnets, 2 rats. We pause in admiration. We rush past in disgust.

*

We haul 3 bags of books back to the library, return them to the bottom of the stairs, wave up to our beloved librarian at the top. Are you ok? Yes we’re ok.

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We own masks now – black, denim, leopard skin, neon. The girls rock theirs while we adults self-consciously avoid our reflections. It adds an extra layer of awkwardness to the grocery shop, but this is the season we’re in. The next right thing to do. (We think).

*

Every certain  rhythm of the year has become uncertain. The sign above the stationary and lunch boxes in Asda says “School Shop”, instead of “Back to School”. We start to sort out uniforms, think about school shoes but our checklists have been replaced with question marks, every tentative plan is ‘subject to change’. 

I remember my husband texting me the first indication that schools would close for at least 16 weeks. It seemed impossible. Unbelievable. There were horrified emojis exchanged. Now the return feels hard to imagine, that we might emerge from our kitchens to drop our children off at school. (To drop them anywhere).

August has some boxes filled on the calendar, it feels like we might turn some corners, subject to change. 

Week 3

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My daddy is listening to Harry Potter on audiobook. He has found, at 71, another kindred spirit in the imagination of J.K.Rowling. My mum reports his enjoyment, his laughing out loud, his wonder.

The roads are quiet in our small town, every other car has a Domino’s sign on top.

My daughters play happily in the pile of stones. It is my life lesson, I think. The one I keep on learning.

I talk to my friend in Germany and she asks what the hardest thing is for me. “Not being alone”, I answer. (This is always my answer. Although sometimes I pretend it is not.)

I am tired of technology, even though it brings us many gifts. I have reached my capacity for tuning in and logging on.

I decide there are worse things than butter marks on books and Top Trump cards, and stop my fussing at the table. We wonder if our youngest is old enough for Rummikub and she answers the question by beating us all mercilessly.

I go for a walk in the evening, slowly past my friend Louise’s house, in case I can see her in her kitchen. Wave. Maybe shout across the road. Hello! Isn’t this weird? Are you doing ok?

My daughter counts down the days to Easter Sunday. I ask her what it is she likes so much about Easter and she gives the holiest of answers. CHOCOLATE.

*

Easter Sunday 2020 – chocolate, an early morning walk, online church.

It is not the same, although some things are.

I thought of Mary, of course, as I walked in the morning. I thought of the disciples, locked in a room. I thought about how much changed in the course of a week, from Palm waving to crucifixion, from joyful praise to uncertainty and grief. It didn’t turn out the way they expected. They were bearing witness to a story that was still unfolding, and they were bearing witness to their own changeable selves.

When we read The Lion , The Witch and the Wardrobe last year I had to pause at the paragraph where Aslan was killed. My eldest daughter could not bear to hear it out loud. I didn’t read it, but that is not to say we skipped it. She knew. It meant something. She feels the same about the crucifixion and I think she is right. There is something in pausing, in acknowledging how unwelcome it feels as the story unfolds.

I miss gathering in church, close-up, for communion and scripture reading and ‘Thine be the glory’. I miss real-life faces and voices and Amanda on the piano. We are forced to pause, to acknowledge how we feel as things unfold. We are in small rooms and we are afraid. We are walking in the morning and we are searching with hope.

It is not the same, although some things are.

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.

 

Comfort for the Wanderer

… this feeling came over me that I had strayed back onto the right path of my life. It was as if in all my years of wandering, even when I had been most uncertain or lost, I had been crossing back and forth across my path as if now and again I had seen a sign, “J. CROW’S PATH,” but without an arrow.

[Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry]

Last night I dreamt I had a conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert about the book, Jayber Crow.

I had watched this beautiful talk she gave:

Elizabeth Gilbert

(yes, I confess, Oprah supersoul sessions are my current happy place)

The talk reminded me of how much I had identified with Jayber Crow’s journey to freedom from the pressure that he ought to “make something out of himself”.  I had loved how, when reflecting on his life, this fictional barber could see how his modest job had, in fact, been a calling – despite all the twists and turns in his journey, despite the times he felt lost.  I loved how he could see that the important opportunities, and relationships, of his life had come from this modest job, this job that he had not chased, or planned.

And I discussed this with Liz Gilbert, in my dream.

I had watched her talk twice.  Once while Imogen was napping and once in the evening, pausing to scribble bits down on my yellow writing pad.

She talked about her life’s one passion – writing- a calling she had not wavered from since kindergarten; a passion that burned within her through obscurity and failure.  She followed her passion and it worked for her.  When she became successful people put a microphone in her hand and put her on stage.  She says she preached “passion” to audiences across the world: “You have to identify your passion… what you were born to do”.  She says she did it with ENORMOUS SINCERITY and believed she was helping people.

One night after speaking in Australia a woman wrote to her saying: “because of what you said up there on stage I have never felt worse about myself as I feel in this moment.”

I love Liz’s response to this – the “WHOA”, the “WHAT?!”, the listening.

The lady communicated how she felt embarrassed, like a failure, like something of essence was missing in her because people like Elizabeth Gilbert kept telling people like her follow your passion, follow your passion, and she DID. NOT. HAVE. ONE.

She was sure Elizabeth Gilbert was really nice, sure she didn’t mean to do it BUT: “I came to you tonight seeking guidance and you just made me feel like the biggest loser in the world.”

WHOA.

Liz Gilbert listens, steps back and has a reckoning. And she gets it.  She gets it because she thinks of the people she loves and admires most in the world, whose biographies she knows intimately and she realises NONE of them had known and followed their passion since kindergarten.  Their lives were not these single, direct, clear, purposeful straight lines, “which hadn’t stopped any of (them) from living gorgeous, rich, complicated lives full of… whole-heartedness”.

This was true of her husband.  True of her best friend.

She thought also about all the people she knows and loves who are still on the search – some of whom are at ease with the shape of their journeys, but many of whom ARE NOT, who “carry that anxiety about the fact that in a culture that fetishes passion and fetishes certainty they are uncertain… and it makes them feel stressed.”

Liz says she knows this because they’ve told me.

Over and over again she says “I know this”, “I should have known”, “I should have seen this before”.

She wondered how many people she had left behind, hurt and excluded by the things she said into a microphone.

It’s a stunning response.

Liz describes herself as a Jackhammer – driven, persistent, efficient, loud – but she values the hummingbirds who create rich, complex lives, cross-pollinating the world, and she says don’t ever let a “Passion Bully” like me try to push you around again.

These days she tells people to follow their curiosity instead of panicking, trying to chase a passion they aren’t even feeling.

Liz said at the start of the talk that she believed what she had to say would bring a measure of comfort, particularly to some people.  I am one of those people.  And if you are, too, maybe watch the whole thing? (30 mins). Watch it at nap time, or in the kitchen, or hidden away if you would feel judged for watching Oprah.

*

So we had a good chat about Jayber, in my dream, but I woke up before I got to tell her that her speech also reminded me of Church.

Don’t we sit in churches, sometimes, those of us who are Jaybers, hummingbirds, those of us who are uncertain, and what is said up front, into a microphone, makes us feel like the biggest loser in the world?  Makes us feel like we are missing something of essence?  And don’t we carry anxiety that in a church-culture that fetishes passion and fetishes certainty, that we are uncertain, and it makes us feel stressed?

And instead of feeling any peace about where we are in our faith journey, and simply taking the next honest step, we panic, trying to chase a passion we aren’t even feeling?

I suppose, I wonder, if the people who rally-call us to great, certain things (with enormous sincerity) wouldn’t also say, that in real-life, when they look at the people they love and admire, that many of their faith journeys don’t look like this?  And that they know this because they walk beside them, they know because they have told them?

I have rarely had a face-to-face conversation with someone about faith and been made to feel like a loser.  I have usually found my honesty met with understanding and encouragement.  But I haven’t always felt like that in group conversations, haven’t always felt it from the pulpit and don’t usually feel it from bumper stickers, twitter feeds or triumphant status updates.  I suppose what I am saying to the sincere speakers of faith, whose audiences we want to be in, whom we come to seeking guidance – if you know our stories, because we have told you, please bear them in mind when you speak into a microphone.

Belonging to Each Other

There is a dent in my pride to match the rather large one on the side of my car, above the wheel, where the scrapes are.  You can’t miss the scrapes.  There is a dent in my car and it bothers me.  Superficial damage in a car worth more to me than anyone else.  I don’t care about cars, how they look, what everyone else is driving. I don’t care about cars, until tonight.  Tonight I care.  I lie in bed irritated and regretful, unable to find the perspective that is glaringly obvious, unable to care about anything else.

*

Sometimes, when I haven’t just bashed my car, I get into bed and kind of wallow in the comfort of it.  I have done my fair share of travelling in the past and although I loved it I also love lying in my own comfortable space, thinking how nice it is not to be in a tent or a dorm room, on a greyhound or an overnight train.  I guess it’s part of a little end-of-the-day gratitude, for what I have, for my small corner in the world.

But as I snuggle into the sheets, I feel a niggling discomfort, wondering about all the people who right at that moment are experiencing very different conditions and feelings – homeless, trafficked, refugees.  I can’t say I leap out of bed to do anything about it, but I acknowledge it, and maybe that’s a place to start.

*

I’m annoyed about the car but I’m also annoyed because I was supposed to get my nails painted, and there was a mix-up.  If there is one thing I care about less than the aesthetics of cars, it’s painted nails.  I never have painted nails.  But I was going to tonight, and it’s annoying me disproportionate amounts.

I lie in bed wallowing, not in its comfort, but in my disappointment and self-reproach.

*

I hoist Imogen higher up on my hip as we navigate our way towards the school gate with her sister.  She’s too big to be carried but some mornings it’s just easier.  She is fierce in her independence, fast on her feet, and committed to a new method she has developed of holding her OWN hand.  I feel like I’m running a gauntlet from car to classroom – chasing my feisty toddler and coaxing my 4 year-old who just does not want to go to school – not on Mondays or Fridays, not last week, not this week, not today.  I try to navigate them through the car-park and up the steps, round corners and through their Big Feelings.  I feel fully deserving of a medal by the end of it all.

*

I text my husband to tell him we are having fish finger sandwiches. He replies, predictably, now desperate for a fish finger sandwich – that trivial sharing of common loves with the people we know best.

*

My computer is a throng  of opened tabs – op eds and blog posts and petitions and videos. Syria, Syria, Syria. Some get my full attention, some get scanned, many sit there, blinking at me, being added to, and added to, as if clicking on them will help someone.

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I watch desperate refugees on the news – see toddlers asleep in arms at border points – and I feel ridiculous and ashamed at how desperate I thought I was, half an hour before, for my children to go to sleep. I have talked on and on and on about it for 2 months now. This room sharing isn’t working.  Maybe we should change them back?  Maybe we should try this?  These antics are unbelievable.  Worse than newborn days.  Will we ever sleep again?

I see a picture of a toddler in an anorak, hoisted high on someone’s hip, her big sister clinging to someone’s leg as they navigate a journey in stark contrast to my school run.  I feel ridiculous and ashamed.

*

Recently, on the 52nd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech, Gemma Brown asked people to think about and share their dream – for themselves, or their community or the world.  People looked up, took a picture of what they saw and posted it on social media with their dream.  I loved seeing and reading these.  I’m a slow, slooooooow thinker so I am still mulling this one over.  How would I finish the sentence “My dream is…”?

*

Mother Teresa said “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

I believe, and write often, that the small things matter.  I believe that the daily caring for a few small souls matters.  The school run, their sleeping arrangements, their Big Feelings, fish finger sandwiches.  All of it.

And I believe in telling the truth when I find some of that hard.

I have dreams for my own little anoraked girls, and I have dreams for myself.  (That’s a whole other blog post, but a lot if it is what Mel explores here, and what Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in her brilliant podcasts here.)

I feel peace when I feel the solidarity and care of belonging to others.  We share common loves, we share tips about sleeping arrangements, people text to ask how did Olivia get on today?  Some of it’s trivial, much of it is ordinary, but it’s good.

It’s good, and yet I know, they’re first world problems, or pleasures.  What does it mean that someone else’s anoraked girls belong to me too?

*

In the afternoon we walk home from school.  We go to the ‘wee park’.  Every day.  We have water and Nairn’s oatcakes and there is never anyone there.  It’s not fancy, but it’s good.  I look up to the sky.  Isn’t this very ordinary life the one we dream of, believe in, for refugees?  A little bit of space, a place to return to, somewhere to play for their children, where they can go down the slide head first?  Isn’t it right that my peace is disturbed lying in bed at night when I think of them?

*

The truth is I struggle to maintain my attention, and my compassion.  My good intentions embarrass me: unread, open tabs everywhere I look.

We belong to each to other. I think about that a lot. Connected with fish finger sandwiches and hand holding and those blinking tabs – trying to educate me, explain the war, tell stories and show me their faces.

I hit ‘x’, again and again.  I’m not going to read them all.  I start to choose more slowly, one thing at a time.  I start to look more seriously at the small things I can do.

I’m paying attention to the niggling discomfort at night, the lack of peace when I forget we belong to each other.

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