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.

Light Your Lamps

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I have some words written in my journal from an Advent Retreat I attended at the start of December.

Awake.

Ready for action.

Lamps Lit.

Watchful.

Work clothes.

They are not the words I was expecting.

Even my purple pen and black inky hearts can’t really make them look beautiful, although I try my best.

Wasn’t I here for a deep breath, for rest for my soul?  What am I doing in this beautiful space scribbling down words like action and work? Why do I feel excited, like I’m hearing something new?

*

I am the girl who got so tired of rally-cries, altar-calls and persuasive sermons  that she got ‘Be Still’ tattooed on her foot.

I am the girl who ended up very sensitive to many words, many phrases, many hymns and many, many parts of the Bible.

I took refuge away from them.  I took refuge for a time far away from church and I took refuge, sometimes, in the loo at church.

I still do, to be honest, but not so much.  I found a practice that helped me.

Addie Zierman calls it ‘Sermon Notes for Cynics’.  She writes:

I began jotting down things that rubbed me wrong. If something troubled my spirit or caused my cynic voice to holler, I wrote it down in my notebook. When a worship song lyric made me cringe and shiver, I’d sit and note it, right then.
In time, I began to take it a step further. Instead of just noting the cringe-worthy phrase, I took a moment to sit with it. Could I pinpoint what about that line hit me wrong? Did it bring up a memory or hook some old painful theological wound? Did it seem to oversimplify or overcomplicate? Did it strike me as being at odds with the God I know?

I continued to do this … and the most surprising thing happened.

By honoring the questions and concerns that rose up, by giving them a very physical space to “live,” a new space opened up in me too.

I had worried that if I began to write down the things that made me cranky, I might never stop. Instead, the opposite happened. When I honored my cynic voice and noted what she had to say, she stopped shouting so loudly, and I could hear those other things.

Beauty. Hope. Maybe even the voice of God.

I have found this to be true.  I have gathered my own trigger-words, noted them, sat with them, wondered about them.  They sound different to me now.  I don’t have to hear them in the voice of that preacher.  I don’t have to hear them in the voice of the girl I once was.

Some words I picked up wrong, that’s all.  I made them try-hard and anxious and then simmered in anger at them later.

*

My husband is the type of man who, when his wife gets a tattoo that says ‘Be Still’, will get a black sharpie and script ‘Keep Going’ on his own foot in his best cursive, waiting nonchalantly beside her to be noticed.

It was funny.

It was also wiser, perhaps, than intended.

You can’t make a phrase like ‘Keep Going’  beautiful, I thought.  Not as a tattoo, not with a black sharpie or a purple pen or inky hearts.  It’s a word about strain and striving, isn’t it?

But we need both, of course – to be still, to keep going – I picked it up wrong, that’s all.

*

And so back to my chair in Pilgrim Cottage, to the Advent essay I am reading from Luke 12.

We are to have our work clothes on and our lamps lit.  We are to be awake and ready and watchful.

I am surprised that there is space inside me for these words, that I can’t wait to write them down and mull them over.  I do not imagine that I will carry them with me into January, that they will shape my phrase for the year.

I had heard this story all my life with panic.  I heard the rousing preacher.  I heard the over-zealous teenage girl.  The heading in the NIV for this passage is ‘Watchfulness’ but the heading in my mind was ‘Watch out!’.

But what about being watchful as an act of faithfulness, instead of panic? I am drawn to that.

I think about how I wake up every night in a sweat about half an hour after I first fall asleep.  There is something I have not done and someone is dead, or sick or missing or something is very wrong.  Until I realise it is not.  I was dreaming, that’s all.

Sometimes it feels like our high-alert switch is stuck and it is such a stressful way to parent or live but we cannot seem to help it.  I’d like to be watchful instead.  Ready.  Available.  Present.  Not waking up in a sweat.

*

‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ it says in Luke 9:26.

I heard this last April in church.  Addie hadn’t yet suggested her Sermon Notes for Cynics, and I still had few tools to deal with these words.  Words that made me feel tired and judged and boxed in and angry and ashamed.  My instinct, as always: to take refuge away from them.  But I didn’t.  I wrote them in my Bullet Journal (see, now, the particularly jagged handwriting? I was a little cross).  I hid in a corner at coffee time (which is progress from the loo) and when my friend Joan asked me how I was I said that my field was all wobbly and she said hers was too and we sat with it.

I am still sitting with those words, I realise now, as I am thinking about what it means to light your lamps and put your work clothes on.

Whose field did I think I was ploughing in? The field of the scaremonger preacher?

When I think of that field as the one that is mine to tend, doesn’t it become a beautiful thing?  The field of my calling and my gifting and my place in the world.  The plough that needs my temperament, my creativity, my good work, my effort.  And, honestly, when it comes to those things isn’t it hard to keep going?  Isn’t it a challenge? Don’t we need a warning that it’s going to be tough?

*

It’s 2018 and my phrase for the year is Light your Lamps.

You can strike a match and stay in your post out of fear, I know (I’m not sleeping, Lord.  I’ll never sleep!).  It can be a performance.  It can be a thing that will not last.

But I want to light mine with intention and expectation.

I find it hard to keep burning.

‘I have edited my own soul many times,’ Erin Loechner says, ‘and each time I’ve done so in the name of kindness.  Good intentions.  Passivity.’

I find it hard not to edit, not to diminish what I thought mattered, not to downplay the words I was starting to say.  I find it hard to keep burning.

Light your Lamps is a reminder.  Maybe it’s a quiet rebellion, too.

Can you be a slow, meandering kind of girl and also be ready, lamps lit, work clothes on, hand to the plough?  I am hoping you can.

I am not fit for the Kingdom of God, I think, but I am being made fit.  I need to be still.  I need to keep going.

 

 

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.

Busy Bees and Hummingbirds

‘When we decided to write benedictions for our children, we simply wanted to help them find their anchor when they are inevitably tossed about.’

[Osheta Moore]

It’s half-term, and I have finally carved out some time to write benedictions for my girls – a practice I have been inspired to adopt by reading Osheta Moore.  She writes here about Back to School Benedictions (and here about an equally inspiring twist on the original idea).

In the first post she writes about her own love of benedictions – of having truth spoken over her as she leaves a gathering so that she leaves knowing she is loved and confident that she is not alone.  She and her husband wanted this for their children as they went back to school – ‘a confidence in their belovedness even when they’re not with us’ – and so they created a blessing for each of them.

It is Autumn now, of course, and long past writing anything for ‘Back to School’, but over the past months as Liv has returned to school and Imogen has started for the very first time, Osheta’s practice has stuck with me.  I, too, want to see my children as they are, bless them, and send them on their way in peace.

My girls are still very little so I picked animals as their ‘Benediction names’.

I thought of Imogen – all business and focus, the pride she takes already in a job well done.  Eugene Peterson says ‘work, by its very nature, is holy’, and I want to bless the worker in her as she grows up.  (It’s tricky, I know, this trait is often hijacked by our culture into something unhealthy).  I also want our home to be her safe place, her soft landing place.

I bless you to be a busy bee at school – hardworking and helpful.  I bless your attention to detail, your lovely classwork and homework. I bless you to be like Nehemiah – a determined builder and rebuilder, who can work well with others who are good at different things.   I bless our home to be a place of rest and cuddles for you.

I thought of Olivia – dreamy, creative, inquisitive – happier exploring forests than sitting at a desk.

I bless you to be a hummingbird at school – curious and free.  I bless you as you spread your wings, as you move toward and sample all the things that interest you.  I bless your quiet confidence.  I bless you to be like Daniel – kind and considerate to everyone – but sure of who you belong to and what you love. I bless your inner strength.  It can be hard, sometimes, to be a hummingbird at school, I bless your ability to sit still and concentrate when you have to.  I bless our schedule to make time for climbing trees.

I hope my girls will feel affirmation and freedom as I pray these blessings over them, I hope it will feel a bit like the ‘invisible string’ from the book we used to read Liv when she was wobbly in P1, something that keeps us connected throughout the school day.  She still struggles with thresholds, with letting go, so I will keep praying that she goes in peace, knowing she is loved, confident she is not alone.

It will be back to porridge next week, after the Halloween holidays and our mornings are fairly predictable.  There will be this tiny blond boss-lady, dressed in 3 minutes, bustling around our house.  There will be another girl hidden under a duvet with her nose in a book, she’d like to stay there, she’ll dig in.  In the middle of our ordinary, messy mornings, though, I hope I take the time to bless them – to be busy, to be dreamy – to carry their gifts into their classrooms and through their days.  And later on, I hope I’ll make space for the blessings of tree climbing and cuddles, of caring for these very different little girls, of believing that it matters.