Pockets Full of Paper

Sunday morning: my husband raises his eyebrow at the scraps of paper on the kitchen worktop. Short sentences scrawled in inky black pen, crumpled into balls, soon to be stuffed into the pockets of my jeans.

My Permission Slips.

My new favourite practice.

‘Permission’ is my word for 2017.

I need to give myself permission, most days, just to be myself, to rest in my God-breathed worth.

I need to give myself permission to have these particular limits and gifts and needs, to have this particular way of being in the world.

I need to give myself permission to have the thoughts and feelings that I do, to let them exist.

This is work for me, it’s kind of a fight.

I don’t want to function from a place of shame, or envy, or pretense.  I know the cost of that.  It’s not worth it.

Yet these are my defaults – to withdraw with embarrassment, to look over my shoulder, to declare it all ‘fine’, everything’s fine.

Brené Brown says we need to reckon with emotion rather than off-load it, and I have learnt (from her) to use permission slips to do this.  She says, “writing down permission becomes a powerful intention to stay aware.”

So I pause now, sometimes, before going out the door, and I scribble these notes.

Permission to be excited!

Permission to be nervous. 

Permission to tell the truth. 

Permission to not know what to say.

It is a simple practice, stuffing my pockets full of paper, but it gives me peace, and it gives me courage.

I use it a lot for the things that make me nervous, and I use it a lot for church, but you could use it for anything.

‘Be Kind to Yourself’ by Andrew Peterson plays every day in our house at the end of our morning playlist.

“How does it end when the war that you’re in is just you against you against you?” 

I uncap my pen, rip a piece of paper.

Maybe that war can end here – with pockets full of paper and permission, black uni-ball scribbles and authenticity, walking out the door with courage and peace.

 


Thanks to Gemma for doing the lovely graphic for this post.

Advertisements

Ordinary

‘I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends

nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.’

Wendell Berry

We walk around the park, school uniforms and muddy welly boots.  We walk by the river and up and down paths, over leaves and around trees.  The girls have found sticks which they have named Isla and Lauren and Logan.  They walk their ‘pets’, stopping regularly to let them ‘drink’ from puddles and mud.

It’s a great picture, isn’t it?

There’s a kind of family life I want to sign up for – one that involves muddy welly boots and sticks called Logan. Yet, when I am in the middle of it, I can’t see its goodness. 

There’s this feeling inside me about how children should spend their afternoons, and it doesn’t involve homework.  Yet, when we’re off following our gentler rhythms, it doesn’t seem good enough.

I am beginning to notice this subtle but damaging tendency I have to upgrade ordinary life, to polish it or measure it, to justify how we spend our days.

I talk, and write, about ordinary life, about every day, about celebrating small things.  I pay attention, I find beauty in overlooked places, I tell about it.

Yet.

Yet, I am also paying attention to how that ordinary beauty (that twisted, crazy-looking stick-dog called Logan, for example) does not feel so very beautiful at the time.  It’s a great story, later, a great picture of childhood.  But I didn’t feel like celebrating it in the moment – I felt cold, I felt bored.

I tell stories, other people take pictures.  We celebrate the ordinary.  I’m glad about that.  I want to see images of coastlines and back gardens, of cups of tea and blanket forts.  I want to see those things more than I want to see images of some glossy, magazine-style life.

Yet, I am also paying attention to this radar inside me that seems to be constantly scanning for a glossy kind of ordinary.

I think it’s related to this idea that ordinary life is something we sign up for, like we choose this type of life, over this one, and it leads to this outcome.  I choose welly boots and books and hearty meals and early bed times!  So I get the healthy, happy children on the front of the magazine, don’t I?  The ones with rosy cheeks, the little Boden-models.

“They’ll sleep well tonight”, we declare, after a long walk or a day outdoors.  There’s truth in that, but there’s danger too.  They might not.  It’s not an equation.

I make time for the park, largely because I have read articles about how much daily free play and outdoor play young children need, how they need a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences, how they need uneven, unpredictable, ever-changing terrain.  I try to make space for this kind of play even when I’m bored because I am convinced by articles that say it’s good for their motor-skills, for their resilience, for their mental health.

I find justification for my stance on homework from the articles that say there is no evidence that there is any academic benefit from assigning homework before high school.  I read about how the negative effects of homework are well known, and the irony that more is being piled on children despite the absence of its value.  I read about schools who ban homework and the parents who protest.

I can argue the benefits of ordinary activities – academic, physical and emotional benefits.  In those moments that don’t feel beautiful and don’t look idyllic, there is something worth doing.  But what I realised, this week, is that I don’t want all our ordinary days to be an argument for something, to be a ‘position’, to be a life I have signed my family up for.  I don’t want to be measuring our day by how well they sleep that night or by how much I think I have invested in their future intelligence or emotional health.  I don’t like these subtle equations in my head, this idea that our ordinary has to be special, has to lead to success.

A question forms in my mind, in the grey mizzle of a small Ballyclare park: What’s wrong with ordinary life? What’s wrong with providing them with ordinary days?

We walk around the park, school uniforms and muddy welly boots, bickering and snot, cold and bedraggled and ordinary.

 

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.

Exactly Like Him

dandelion-1335575_1920

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.

 

 

The Sisterhood of Crackpot Mothering

6338217467_5843e5a4ef_b

 

A free spirit. A wonderer and wanderer. Quirky. Day-dreamy.

These are words I often use to describe my 5 year-old, and now that I think about it, they are words that are sometimes used to describe me.

She is often the easiest of company. If she can take the world on her own terms, all is well.

But I noticed, early on, that she struggles with anticipation. She gets nervous if there’s a build up, if there’s fuss about something. Half-way through an expression of excitement she has changed her mind and doesn’t want to do it. She feels under pressure sometimes, when there really isn’t any… a kind of performance anxiety even when nobody’s watching.

September was tricky. P1. She developed a clingyness she hadn’t had before. She was one of those children who needed prised off their mum, finger by finger. But still, September of P1, that’s understandable, right?

*

It’s June now and since the middle of May she has, once again, needed peeled off me every morning.

This morning her Principal bent down and carried her in to school in her arms. They are so gentle with her. So positive and kind. Yet here she is on 1st June freaking out about going through that door.

The school office phoned on my way home. She’s ok. She’s settled. The Principal’s wearing her sun hat. She’s laughing.

Of course she is. I know she is. She enjoys school. But, yet.

*

Her little sister got baptised on Sunday and when I get in from the school run there’s a text from my mum.  She has sent a few since Sunday – texts that are careful not to make a fuss of me but that are checking in if I’m ok – if I have ‘recovered’.  She knows me.  The baptism was good, important.  Among people who are gentle and positive and kind.  But my mum knows me.  I freak out, sometimes, even in safe places, even in the midst of things that I want.

We joke, now and again, about the little triangles of pancake my mum produced a steady supply of in the run-up to my wedding.  She was well practised by then in the low-key art of caring for a daughter who feels sick when she’s nervous.  She just plated them up and left them quietly at my elbow, bite-size pieces of sustenance that would get me through.

Last night at bedtime Livi said it out loud: “I’m nervous about P2”.  It’s what I suspected.  It seems so early, so pointless, to start worrying about it now.  And yet, I get it.

*

I have described to friends how I feel like my intuition is broken these days, like I used to “KNOW” how to work with Liv, and now I don’t.  But I read this recently:

Intuition is not independent of any reasoning process. In fact, psychologists believe that intuition is a rapid-fire, unconscious associating process- like a mental puzzle. The brain makes an observation, scans its files, and matches the observation with existing memories, knowledge, and experiences. Once it puts together a series of matches, we get a “gut” on what we’ve observed.

Sometimes our intuition or our gut tells us what we need to know; other times it actually steers us toward fact-finding and reasoning. As it turns out, intuition may be the quiet voice within, but that voice is not limited to one message. Sometimes our intuition whispers, “Follow your instincts.” Other times it shouts, “You need to check this out, we don’t have enough information!”

In my research, I found that what silences our intuitive voice is our need for certainty. Most of us are not very good at not knowing. We like sure things and guarantees so much that we don’t pay attention to the outcomes of our brain’s matching process.

[Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection]

It’s a lovely idea that we might be wonderfully, naturally intuitive parents.  But it’s much more comforting to me that intuition is something I can go looking for, and remind myself of.

I have been doing that this week. I remind myself of my own nervous nature and how it hasn’t ruined my life.  I remember what it feels like to be cared for by an empathetic mother.  I read old favourite articles and books.  I take wise counsel.  I reawaken my instincts.

I started this blog post one evening and when I read it the following day the old gremlins were whispering – people will read it and think ‘Well of course Olivia has issues, her mother is a clearly a crackpot!’.  I told a few friends. They said: Me too.  Welcome to the Sisterhood.

*

My friend Tory told me a story this week about her son Noah at his nursery sports day. 60 kids walked out all completely fine, and in the middle of them, Noah, “walking along crying his little head off, upset and miserable.”  Everything in her story reminded me of Liv – how she could tell how difficult his first race was by the way he was running and the weird way he held his mouth.  Tory said so many wise things but among them this : “I hate that he cried at his sports day but I totally understand why he did.”

It’s not just going in to school that’s hard for Livi at the moment.  It’s been the Mayfair and her cousin’s play and swimming and church and choosing an ice-lolly.  I hate that she cries at these things she should love, but I understand why she does.

In my favourite parenting book, Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne calls it a “soul fever” when a child is being rushed along by too much stuff, speed or stress.  “Something is not right; they’re upset, overwhelmed, at odds with the world. And most of all, at odds with their truest selves.”  He advocates simplification – stripping away the distractions and clutter that monopolise our attention and threaten our connection.  “It’s about giving kids the ease to become themselves, and giving us the ease to pay attention.  To more fully develop, and to trust, our instincts.”

In an article I love about slowing down kids’ schedules, especially introverts, the author writes about how his 6-year-old son Felix “isn’t always cognizant of his needs”.  I have to deliberately remind myself of this.  Olivia isn’t cognizant of her needs.  She wants to do All The Things.  But all the things exhaust her, especially at the minute.

June is full of events and outings and changes in routine.  Each one seems like a good thing, but when Olivia anticipates what’s ahead, combined with finishing P1, it sends her running to the toilet.  So we have cancelled some outings, replaced them with things like ‘Chicken drumsticks for dinner’ and ‘Walking to the café for a bun’, and truthfully, even CBeebies on the sofa instead of ALL the time in the sun.  And she hasn’t complained like we thought she would, in fact she seems at peace with the schedule.  There is a certain kind of anticipation, is there not, in chicken drumsticks and a wee bun, that couldn’t make anyone nervous?

*

I have thought all week about Liv, about my mum, about my own anxious self.  Liv has wobbled and I have wobbled.  It’s Friday now and I feel like the quiet voice in my gut has got a bit clearer, and calmer.  She’s out of sorts.  That’s ok.  I can care for that.  And also, it isn’t everything she is.

We walk home from school on Friday afternoon and she sidesteps into the doorway of the old music shop to do this geeky dance to the music.

She always does that.

It’s one of my favourite things.


photo credit: Poison Ivy via photopin (license)

Faith in the Dark

“She used to be afraid she was the only one in the world who could not make sense of things.”

[Lila, Marilynne Robinson]

Night-Driving-Synchroblog

I stood at the kitchen window recently, washing up the breakfast dishes, listening to Martyn Joseph, looking out at a familiar (gloomy and mizzley) kind of Northern Irish morning.

And I felt so at home.

Literally, figuratively.

If my husband had been about his ears would have picked up at the gravelly tones of the Welsh man.  He goes on ‘pensive alert’ when he hears me listening to Martyn Joseph.  (What is she thinking about NOW?)

The rain is a strange kind of friend, he sings.  Lost my soul in the sound of the rain again.  My strange friend.

I stood at the kitchen window, feeling at home.  Pensive.  A little melancholy, even.  And I thought that THIS is what faith feels like to me now.  And I realised that maybe it always will.

*

There is a verse in Jeremiah that reads like this in the Message:

“The light you always took for granted will go out and the world will turn black.”

The light you always took for granted.

Doesn’t that line resonate deeply with any of us who grew up careless in our certain faith, whose favourite songs were about light, about letting it shine?

I once danced in a conga line around an Eastern European university campus singing “We are marching in the light of God.”  I know, now, that a novelty dance paired with a protest song (true meaning then lost on me) wasn’t an expression of true faith, or light.  But still, it’s easy to look back and say my faith then was strong, and my pensive, rainy-day faith is not.

*

A few years ago, when my children were at their tiniest and I couldn’t find a place for my tiredness and neediness at church on a Sunday morning, I found it on a Thursday night in a Belfast pub.

We got a last minute babysitter, drove through the November dark and rain, to slip in to a gig that was half over, just in time to hear Martyn Joseph sing “are you down to your last ray of hope?”.

And I thought how hard it could feel, when you slip in to the back row of church, but how good it felt, here.

I thought how, maybe, if those were always the opening lines we heard in church, then more of us would stay.

*

In Eugene Peterson’s introduction to Jeremiah he explains how in a time when everything that could go wrong did go wrong, Jeremiah was in the middle of it all, writing it out.  He says:

“Anyone who lives in disruptive times looks for companions who have been through them earlier, wanting to know how they went through it, how they made it, what it was like.  In looking for a companion who has lived through catastrophic disruption and survived with grace, biblical people more often than not come upon Jeremiah and receive him as a true, honest, and God-revealing companion for the worst of times.”

Today Addie Zierman’s book Night Driving releases, and people are writing out their stories of faith in the dark for her synchroblog.  I first stumbled across Addie Zierman one tired morning when my youngest was a newborn and her post, Come Weary, was simply the best thing I could have read. Then I discovered she was writing about cynicism like it mattered, that she was de-constructing Christian clichés and reclaiming a faith that had been oversimplified.  From then on I read everything she wrote. For me, reading Addie provides company, breathing space and a way forward in this faith journey.

Addie says that one of her least favourite things about Christian culture is how quickly we skip over the dark spaces of our stories to get to the redemption and beauty and light.  And so she is telling the truth about her own darkness (most often Depression) in her new book, and holding space for others in her synchroblog.

Darkness, for me, comes from not being able to make sense of things, it comes when I think I am ‘the only one’, it comes from the world outside our stained glass windows, and, some days, it just comes from the ‘tired thirities’.

Faith in the dark, though, is a hopeful phrase to me.  It sounds right. Stubborn.  Persisting anyway – scouring sponge in hand.  It’s not a faith that dances the conga, but it’s listening and looking, and it has found companions.

When I think of faith in the dark I think of those companions.  Jeremiah, MJ, Addie, my friend Rachel.  And if the hardest thing about seeing the light you always took for granted grow dim is that you feel you are somehow letting the team down, well then the best thing is that you become the companion when others find themselves in the dark.  I am not going to be leading any revivals, but I am the girl people text when they’ve fled to the church foyer choking back tears or shaking with anger, and I think I’ve learnt that’s important, too.

 

Now the clowns and clairvoyants are aiming at true
In the babble, the rabble, I’m still headed for you
Those masters of war never did go away
And though the bleak sky is burdened I’ll pray anyway
And though irony’s drained me I’ll now try sincere
Cause whoever it was that brought me here
Will have to take me home…

Martyn Joseph

 

 

 


 

PS! These are some of my favourite posts from Addie: More Than You Can Handle, God-Shaped Hole, Anywhere, Anything: On Worship and Hyperbole, Making Your Faith Your Own, An Open Letter to the Church: How to Love the Cynics and The Church & The Cynics: Some Final Thoughts.

2016: That Morning Cuppa

‘The hour before the world gets to you is precious and sacred time.’

[Anne Lamott]

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

It’s February and the waves are crashing right outside my window, right outside my three windows.  The house is quiet and the sea is loud.  Now and again a train passes over the narrow track.  The rugged beach is dotted with dog walkers in anoraks, an occasional horse.

I had my breakfast in the huge bay window downstairs – porridge with berries, chocolate brioche, Brené Brown, tea.  I had my breakfast while the rest of the house slept.  The sea was loud but it let me be.

*

On my first night at the writers’ retreat I had my supper, filled my hot water bottle and went to bed.  I thought about sitting up, by the cosy fire, with this interesting group of people, all here by the sea to write.  Where else would I meet them?

Fear of missing out thrummed its familiar beat.  A glass of wine and fireside conversation with interesting strangers sounds like a life I used to have.  Sounds like something motherhood should be making me crave.  Don’t I?

I do want those things.  But I want my morning more

*

I am here for 3 nights as a Christmas present.  My husband knows that in this season of life the greatest gift he can give me is Time (especially time with wild sea and a desk to write at).

downhill

I feel like Time & I have been locked in battle ever since I became a mum.  I write lists and confab with my husband, trying to figure out how to fit it all in.  I scratch things off the list or designate them a particular slot, I swap things around.  We try to prioritise.  Which things are obligatory?  Which things are necessary?  Which things are not?  We try to name the things we love, the things we want to make time for.  I write more lists and scratch more things off.  We try to work out how to give each other ‘time’.

Last year I chose Rhythm as my word for the year and  I noticed that I am addicted to the elusive ideal of ‘getting everything done first’, and it is filling my days with stress.  I keep chasing this daily rhythm where the rest comes at the end.  In some seasons, and contexts, this can be a healthy pattern, but not in motherhood.  I seem to have developed an “inner bookie” where I am constantly calculating the odds of a restful evening as I go through the day.  I  do more to try to boost the odds.  I count desperately on something rather uncertain – my girls having a smooth, on-time bedtime.  I put too much pressure on things I can’t control.   It’s exhausting and it doesn’t work, the payoff never comes.  The tattoo on my foot says “Be Still” but I seem to have scheduled even stillness – only when the house is still, only when the dishes are done.  So what I get, if I get it, is the left overs.  Whatever time is left, whatever energy is left.

There is a phrase that has been rattling round my head since I read it recently in ‘Simplicity Parenting’, it is about establishing islands of “being” in the torrent of constant doing.  The book says that to have moments of calm – creative or restful – is a form of deep sustenance for human beings of all ages.  I am trying to establish this for my girls, but I am trying to establish it for myself, too.  “Islands of being”, I mutter to myself like a crazy person, “islands of being!”.

Virginia Woolf said every woman needs a room of her own. I don’t have that… but I do have an hour of my own and it’s glorious.

[Glennon Doyle Melton]

As I continue to seek rhythm in 2016, my word for this year is ‘Morning.’  I want to choose this island of being, this hour of my own, at the start of the day, instead of frantically chasing it all day.  I know I’m a morning person, I don’t know why I stubbornly put so much stock in the evening.  I am also a person that needs a little solitude and I have realised that if I don’t choose it first thing, then I spend all day resenting how impossible it is to get.

So here’s to moments of calm.

Here’s to choosing the sustenance we need.

Here’s to precious, sacred time…

…and here’s to that morning cuppa.

 

DSCF7824

DSCF7822

What about you? Any words for the year? Are mornings or evenings your sacred time?