Calling it Good

‘Some time when the river is ice ask me

mistakes I have made. Ask me whether

what I have done is my life.’

[William Stafford]

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I walk along the beach and what I hear, in my mind, is the phrase: “let this be your good work”.

It is crisp and it is beautiful.  I look at the sea and the coastline, at the dark outline of Mussenden Temple in the last moments of daylight.

Let this be your good work.  This walking.  This breathing deep.

Let this be your good work.  This paying attention.  This finding words to tell about it.

Let this be your good work.  This making space to think and listen, to plan and to write.

Let this be your good work.  This honouring of your nature and your needs and, maybe, even, your gifts.

Let this be your good work.  This consideration of why you write and who you’re writing to.

You are writing, of course, to the ones who think their work isn’t good enough and their contribution doesn’t count.  You are writing to the ones whose homes, and heads, are noisy and demanding, the ones who are longing for a little quiet.  You are writing to the ones who have been suppressing the stirrings in their souls and the phrases in their minds.  You are writing to the ones that isn’t working for.

You are writing because when you listen to your own disquiet it is hard, but when you don’t, it isn’t your life.  You are writing because you want to be one of the people Parker Palmer writes about, the people who “decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truths about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside”.  You write to stop conspiring in your own diminishment, to encourage others to do the same.

Let this be your good work.  This weekend.  This one ordinary thing.  This doing your own life.  This stopping and calling it good.

Blessing

It’s a freezing November morning and I am buckling my girls into their car-seats when the windows around us suddenly clear. I see my neighbour, washing-up bowl in his hands, sloshing warm water over our icy car. It feels like a kind of blessing on the 3 of us. It feels kind of embarrassing.

The windows clear so suddenly exposing us in all our early morning liveliness, squished into the back of my little car. It is not my most graceful pose, this back-seat-car-seat buckling.

His help feels a little undeserved. Our mornings are loud, he lives in the terrace house right next to us. I have no doubt he hears all the joy and rage and opinions that accompany our mornings. Maybe if I was a more patient mother I would deserve his help? But here he is, popping up in the middle of our clumsy antics, washing-up bowl in hand.

His help feels like the kindest thing in the world. I feel noticed and cared for and connected to my neighbour by this small act of kindness.

It can be hard to receive, hard to have our real life noticed, up-close.

I feel grateful and embarrassed all at once.  It’s a familiar feeling, in this season of life,  this letting myself be blessed.

Building a Family Reading Culture

A friend recently asked Chris why Olivia likes books so much. “Who does she take after?”, she asked. “She takes after Sharon”, he replied.

Later, he thought about this and realised she doesn’t ‘take after’ anyone, she loves books because she’s been nurtured to love them.

He’s right.

Our approach isn’t complicated, or original – we nurture a love of books by having access to them, and reading aloud, a lot.

Following Wednesday’s post and in the spirit of NI bookweek, here are a few thoughts on the simple art of building a family reading culture…

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Anytime Stories

Opening a book and reading to our children is one of the easiest things we can do in our day – no preparation needed, no mess to clean up, no car seats needed to get there.  Yet, outside of the “institution” of Bedtime Stories, we don’t always think to read aloud to our kids.  But maybe, like me, your children’s bedtime is your worst time of the day and that romantic idea you bought into of reading tenderly to your snugly, pyjama-clad little angels doesn’t help.  It took a while for it to dawn on me that I could read books to them anywhere, anytime and that I was better at it (and enjoyed it) in the morning or the afternoon, on the sofa or at the kitchen table or in the car.  We have permission to decide when story time is!

The Library

Those purple and yellow Libraries NI cards have got to be one of the best parenting tools out there.  We are lucky to live within walking distance of our library.  (Not to mention the fact that it is serendipitously situated right beside the school gate).  We love weekly trips to return books and pick new ones, we love sitting at the little tables reading whatever they pick up and we love the storytimes and special events the library puts on.  The library for our girls is part of the weekly routine but it is also somewhere that they can go to in their jammies the first Tuesday night of every month, where they can go in Halloween costumes, or dressed up as animals.  It is like a celebrity spotting if they spy one of the Librarians out and about.  Of course there have been seasons when the particular ages of my children made library visits stressful, when the idea of the library was much more uplifting that the actuality.    In those seasons I think the sanest thing is to visit the library solo (without your travelling circus in tow) and pick the books you know they will enjoy.

Books are Special!

My girls don’t know that some people don’t like books, because according to their own experience, books are special. They are given books as rewards and as presents, so they consider books worthy (which they are!).  On their reward charts they collect stickers to get a book, which is pictured at the bottom.  (I am a big fan of the Book People and they have such good deals on collections of books which are great for stocking up for this.)  When someone gives them a little spending money we take them to a bookshop.  They don’t ask to go to a toy shop because we have never mentioned going to a toy shop.  Someday they are going to want to go, and that’s fine, but we don’t intend to give them the idea prematurely!  This week we went on a bus adventure to Belfast to have a snack and spend birthday money in Waterstones… what’s not to love?!     They genuinely do not know (yet!) that that’s not as legit a holiday activity as going to Disneyland.  We also have book traditions like their Christmas Book Box that comes down from the roof space with the decorations each December (I stole this idea from my sis-in-law).  Each year their Nana buys them a new book for the collection.  There is a lot of anticipation about these Christmas books, a lot of feel-good festive feeling, and already some nostalgia.

Audiobooks

All I can say is that this Winnie the Pooh: Dramatisation (Stephen Fry, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Palmer) has been the cause of some marital discord in our family.  My husband did not get the memo that we do not talk when it is playing in the car.  “YOU don’t want to miss a word??” he puzzled.

I don’t want to miss a word.  It is perfect.

We also love The Big Mog CD, The Cat in the Hat and Other Stories (Dr Seuss) (of course), My Completely Best Story Collection (Charlie and Lola), The Julia Donaldson Collection and Ladybird Classics.

We use them for car journeys and quiet time in their rooms.  A good audiobook is a simple but wonderful thing.

Choosing Books

When it comes to children’s books I have a similar attitude to them as what I have to tea:  I know what I consider to be a GOOD cup of tea, but frankly, I enjoy all tea.  I make tea with great intentionality in my own kitchen, but there is a place in my heart for a vending machine cuppa, in a crappy plastic cup.

As my girls get older I may have more to say about ‘crappy’ books, there may be more at stake, I get that.  But at this age there is usually some kind of merit in whatever they pick up at the library, or whenever someone is clearing out books and asks do we want them? (we do). Our kids have certainly brought home some random books from that beloved library… I would not spend money on them, they would not be ‘keepers’ in our house, but they’re alright.

The GOOD books then, the ones we choose with intentionality and spend money on, the ones we keep after every sort and cull – we can find out about these from all sorts of places – from our own experience, from going to bookshops and the library alone for a good old nosey, from friends, from articles.  I try to make note of any recommendations I come across that appeal to me.  I am also a fan of the Read Aloud Revival podcast (and Sarah MacKenzie’s blog which includes book lists and regular posts on books).  Sarah is an American, homeschooling, Catholic mama of 6… she may or may not be your thing.  Personally I love her, the guests she has on her podcast and the many, many book recommendations these podcasts provide.

Finally, as it says in the wonderful book Simplicity Parenting, “Kids do not need any one magical book, the newest bestseller or an endless stream of new books, to foster a love of reading. They need time, and mental ease. They need time to read deeply, and sometimes repeatedly. They also need stories that leave some room for their imagination.”


 

Other NI Bookweek posts:

Our Favourite Children’s Books

The Book that Changed My Life

The Book that Changed my Life

“Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”

lord of the flies

When I think of the book that changed my life (one of the books that changed my life) I think of the particular cover that was on our class set, red blood dripping from the grey pig’s head.  I think of the funny little dungeon-like classroom that we had English in that year with Mrs Tinto.  I think of sitting at the Atari ST in my brothers’ bedroom typing out an essay that had got under my skin in a new way, just like the book had.

I started high school already shaped by the stories read on a parent’s knee, by the books on their bookshelves, by my brothers’ hand-me-down reads, by an influential Primary School teacher, by the library.  I was an 11-year-old who loved Aslan and the Saucepan-Man and Nancy Drew and Gilbert Blythe.  I loved the Hardy Boys.  I loved my fair share of missionaries. Books had also introduced me to the Holocaust, to the Troubles in my own country, to poverty and to death.  My childhood is full of books that have changed my life…  or at least steered, steadied, challenged and expanded it.

In that first year of high school we read Boy by Roald Dahl, which I enjoyed, and then we read Lord of the Flies.  And *it* was a game-changer.

***

I couldn’t seem to get that essay finished, I kept adding bits and adding bits.  I had just learnt to use a thesaurus and I had just learnt to use commas as parenthesis and I’m sure I overused both.  But I wonder now what my 11-year-old self wrote evening after evening?  In between the ridiculous words and the  lengthy verbose sentences, what was my response to this compelling novel?

This book is the one I remember.  This book unsettled me.  This book showed me the potential of story, and of myself, and the world.

I read it and knew, from page 2, that Piggy was wise and yet the dismissal of his wisdom rang loud and true. Did I do this to others? Did I feel like others did it to me?

I felt sympathy and empathy, familiarity and discomfort. I wanted to stand up for Piggy! But I wanted Jack to like me. I wanted Ralph to stay uncorrupted.  I wanted everyone to listen to Simon.  But would I have?

I was compelled to keep reading through the whole disastrous dystopian tale that offered me no happy resolution and no redemption – only the relief of rescue and the poignancy of savages returned to little boys again.  It left me with questions that provoked me beyond the themes of war, civilisation and human nature.  It didn’t follow the ‘formula’ of the books I was used to reading and it made me look at myself, and the world, more seriously.

***

My 35 year-old-self has retained many things from the stories I grew up with – imagination, an attachment to gingham and ginger beer, a sense of adventure, a love of the underdog.   This book? It hollowed out a place in me that remains.  A place for discomfort, for stories that get under my skin, for stories that ring loud and true even though I don’t want them to.  I make space for these stories where everything is breaking down, even as I believe that all things will be made new.

 


[Reposted from the archives for NI Bookweek]

Our Favourite Children’s Books

“I was lost, I was scared, but
a STORY led me home again.”
“Oh, no, it didn’t.” “OH, YES, IT DID.”

(Tiddler – Julia Donaldson)

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C.S.Lewis once said that “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

Good children’s stories, in our house, are the ones that can endure a hundred bedtime readings.  They are the ones that have Chris and I grinning or laughing out loud.  They are satisfying to read aloud (indeed they inspire us to make an effort, to add a little drama).  And as far as picture books go – they are well illustrated.  In the spirit of NI bookweek, here are some of our favourites…

HUG

Our girls are 6 and almost 4 now but we still keep our favourite board books, and probably always will.  Peepo!   Dear Zoo. The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  The “Classics” of Board Books.

We have an absolute favourite in this house though and that is Hug by Jez Alborough.

This almost wordless book is one of the Best. Books. In. The. World. Ever.

Honestly.

The only words in the book are “Hug”, “Bobo” and “Mummy”… mostly just “Hug”.

Except, all the “Hugs” are different because just look at little Bobo’s face!  With perfect illustrations toddlers can sense the emotions and the expressions as Bobo searches for his mama for a hug.  This was the book we heard both our girls “read” from the earliest age alone in their rooms… that one word “hug” uttered tentatively, searchingly, desperately and finally joyously as they followed the story.  They both would drop their heads and fake cry, hands in eyes, in solidarity with the monkey at the mid point.

Hug is simple, beautifully illustrated and has room for much drama and pathos… a perfect little book!

DR SEUSS

Nurture V Nature – does Olivia love Dr Seuss because she is zany and imaginative, or is Olivia zany and imaginative because she loves Dr Seuss?  Who would know?  One thing’s for sure, she LOVES Dr Seuss:

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As Maria Russo wrote in the New York Times “Dr Seuss, over half a century ago, made learning to read an adventure, a club children would actually want to belong to.  And not least, he made reading aloud something parents too, could reliably enjoy”.

I feel like Dr Seuss is an American import we could more fully embrace over here.  The rhythms!  The plots!  The nonsense!  The characters!  The art!  His stories are playful, and profound.  You can discuss the philosophical undercurrents once your children are sleeping or just come downstairs, grinning widely, that you got to read about Mrs McCave who had 23 sons and named them all Dave.

There are articles out there about why Dr Seuss is good for beginning readers, for mastering phonics and making kids word-conscious.  That’s a bonus.  We just love him for the joy.  There is cause to celebrate with Dr Seuss – to celebrate our own unique selves, to celebrate others, or to celebrate by being wildly, wonderfully silly.

The Wonderful World of Dr. Seuss Box Set contains a wonderful mix of some of his best (who could choose?).

JULIA DONALDSON

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More glorious storytelling and galloping characters, near-perfect rhythm and rhyme, more wonderful illustrations.  We love the amazing worlds that Julia Donaldson, and the illustrators she collaborates with, take us to.

My daughter can bring home a new-to-her Julia Donaldson book from the library and even before I have read her the clever, rhyming story, she has figured out the plot from Axel Scheffler’s illustrations.  She has sensed what The Highway Rat does, his character, how he fares in the story and his ultimate fate.

My friend Sharon recently sparked a great “Julia Donaldson Fan Debate” on Facebook in which several of us (slightly crazy) parents of young children got a little over-invested in our critiques, preferences and defenses of  her “work”.  We each tried to pick our TOP 3.  It was impossible.  There was disbelief and disagreement and a lot of “Oh wait! I forgot about this one!”.  There was no doubt from that conversation that Julia Donaldson meets the C.S. Lewis standard.

The books we felt most passionately about were: The Snail and the Whale, A Squash and a Squeeze, Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book, The Troll, Tiddler, Zog, Tabby McTat, Monkey Puzzle, Stick Man, The Gruffalo, Tyrannosaurus Drip and The Smartest Giant in Town.  And the wonderful thing is there are many, many more.

MR MEN

I don’t know what it is about Roger Hargreave’s Mr Men (nostalgia? their nifty little trade-mark size? the familiar story template? the bright and bold cartoons?) but I have always loved them and I love them still.  There are reasons not to – the ‘simple moral lessons’ sometimes make no sense, are sometimes harsh, or inconsistent… “It’s a brutal existence”, Charlie Brooker writes in the Guardian, “albeit a cheerfully rendered one”.  But, I just like them.  I like the wordiness and the repetition and all those adjectives.  I like the cheerfulness of the storytelling.  I like that my girls can act them out.  And I like the cartoons.  As Charlie Brooker also says “The way Roger Hargreaves drew a shoe is still the way a shoe looks when I picture it. Same with a house. Or a hat. Or a butcher. Or a wizard. Or a cloud.”  

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Honorable mentions have to go to Hairy Maclary, Mog and Dogger!  What else have I missed?  What are the favourites in your house for adults and children alike?

This is the morning

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This is the morning after the night the clocks went back and it stretches long before us. We are up at the same time as usual, the girls and I, but it feels like we’re early risers, the clock says so.

This is the morning my husband rejoices that Sunday is his lie-in day.

This is the morning I find Liv banging around in the dark in her room, Cat in the Hat outfit half on. It’s GB Sunday, but that’s not on her radar. If she could wear her tail and top hat to church she would.

This is the morning Imogen propositions me the same way she does every morning: “Dance with me Mumma?”. This is the morning that there’s time. This is the morning they shake their butts to the radio in the kitchen, the morning I make a mental note (again) that we should stop saying ‘butts’.

This is the morning I strain to hear Sunday Sequence as they discuss the evangelical support (or not) for Donald Trump. This is the penultimate Sunday before the election. Morning after morning I have expected to wake up to the news that he is no longer a candidate, how could he be? By this morning I have stopped expecting to hear that.

This is a morning that tastes like my childhood: Shredded Wheat with hot milk.  It’s a morning I make myself a small coffee ten minutes before church, just like my dad always did.  (Like he still does).

This is a warm morning for the end of October – the sky blue, the trees on fire.

This is the morning after the night I read ‘Out of Sorts’ for longer than I meant to (read it like a novel) and it’s still swirling round in my head.  This is the morning I sit on a wooden pew with Sarah Bessey’s words : “I don’t want to choose between the people who first showed me Jesus and the people who made sure I got to hold on to Jesus and the ones that keep me even now.”  I wonder why those words, what have they got to do with anything?  They seem to have something to do with all the mornings, all the Sundays… something to do with legacy and heritage and faith and doubt and wilderness and home.

This is the morning I feel like maybe it all holds together, that I can be thankful for it all.

 

Morning (small beginnings)

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The mornings are dark now and there is nowhere like a quiet kitchen lit up at this hour, when everyone else is sleeping.

There is nowhere like it yet, more often than not, I would trade my very soul to stay in bed. I whittle away this hour, ten minutes at a time, with every hit of the snooze button.  Always convinced it’s worth the trade off.

When I chose morning as my word for the year, maybe I imagined myself productive.  I thought I might have jobs done, essays written.

What I have, is a morning basket.  It has colouring pencils and colouring books.  It has my Common Book of Prayer.  It has my bullet journal.  Right now it has a Georgia O’Keeffe postcard that my friend Cherith gave me.  It has my heart bowl, which I set on the kitchen table beside the postcard.  Sometimes it has other books, or pictures, or quotes from my bedroom.

I have two problems with the morning.  One: I don’t want to get out of bed.  Two: when I do get out of bed, I want to do Everything.  It is easy (for me) to be lazy.  And it is easy (for me) to try to do too much, and to try to run on empty.  It is harder by far to just be awake and present to my life.

It is hard to just colour in.  It is hard to read liturgies before I read Facebook. It is hard to feed myself properly instead of quickly.  It is hard to Be Still, with my fists unclenched, like I believe in the holy spirit, like it’s the way to start my day, like it will make any difference.

It is hard to begin without feeling like we’re already behind, without panicking that already “it’s not enough”, without listening to ridiculous voices in our heads.

“Do not despise these small beginnings”, Zechariah 4:10 says, “for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.”.

Those words are too long for a tattoo, but I need to etch them somewhere.

The mornings are dark now, and just being here in my quiet kitchen is a small beginning.  A cause to rejoice.