I wish.

I tell my friend that Chris is going on a work trip, to Budapest, my favourite city.

“Can’t you go with him?” she asks.

“I wish”, I reply.

*

I see the post on Facebook, the red brick, the blue sky, “Are you ready to walk through these gates yet? #Chq2017”.

I tag my friend Lynn.  I type 2 words: “I wish”.

*

My Auntie Po is in Australia.  I see her lovely photos – places I visited, places I lived, the faces of our family.

I like the photos, but also, I wish.

*

It’s fine to be a little wistful, of course.  A little dreamy and nostalgic.

But then there’s envy.  There’s discontent.  There’s sighing over your kitchen sink, sighing over your right-now-life.

*

Marian Vischer writes about learning to receive her own summer life.  I am learning this too.

‘Real life is not lived in highlight reel moments’, she says.  ‘When we receive those moments, they are worthy of celebrating. But the mundane moments matter too. And to begrudge them because everyone else seems to be living their best summer life now, well, it makes a mockery of our beautiful, ordinary lives.’

*

I have had some life-changing, memory-making summers, and I’m grateful.  I’ve been to some beautiful places, packed backpacks, talked under the moonlight.

But we’re memory-making now, I think, with welly boots and library cards and another trip to the same old park.

Here’s this beautiful, ordinary life and if I’m honest – when I sat by lakes, legs dangling off piers, talking all night long – wasn’t I a little wistful for this?  For a future that was still a bit blurry, a bit hard to imagine.

If you had shown me a snapshot, then, of pink rain suits and stick collections and Lego cities, of a house that smells of Apple Crisp and 2 girls that won’t come for dinner because they’re reading… I think I might have said… “I wish”.

 

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.

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.

 

Hungry

00832

I was hungry.

I was hungry, and I needed a biscuit.

I needed it through the sermon, through the final hymn, through the benediction.

It was a small need, but a fierce one.

I had a plan to make a subtle kind of beeline for the church hall to get my fix, casual but quick.  It was almost Coffee Time.  I would be ok.

*

There is a gap between God and I.  It keeps me from the place where I can feel God, somewhere inside.

There is a bridge between God and I and it is broken.

“How deep are the cracks?” asks my Spiritual Director.

“They are deep” I answer quietly.

She draws it on her whiteboard: the gap, the bridge, the deep, jagged cracks.  She draws me in the middle: earnest, lonely.

*

There was a comedy of errors at Coffee Time.  I was delayed getting through the doors.  My children needed to pee.  My children ran off.  People stopped me to talk.

When I finally reached the biscuit plate it was almost empty.  My girls grabbed KitKats, and I paused, for a fleeting moment, to help them unwrap. A fleeting moment during which someone lifted the plate from beside my fingers and offered it around the room – out of reach.

It was obvious to nobody but me that I was about to eat one of those biscuits.  That I needed to eat one of those biscuits.

I watched them disappear with a literal lump in my throat.

*

There is a gap between God and I.  There is a bridge.  There are cracks.

I have skills at avoiding those cracks, at pretending they’re not there.

I have ideas about filling those cracks!  I have Thoughts!

I am always disappointed.

*

There was a man who had been an invalid for 38 years and he lay by a pool.  He lay with the sick and the blind and the paralysed, hoping for healing when the waters were stirred.

There was a man and he had nobody to help him. By the time he gets to the pool, “somebody else is already in.”

*

No one in the Church Hall would have begrudged me a biscuit, in fact any one of them would have gone to the kitchen to find me one, if they knew how hungry I was. But there was no way I could think of to communicate this need without sounding petty, and selfish, and ridiculous.

I resented my daughters their KitKats.  I felt personally defeated several times when more biscuits appeared across the room, always gone before I could get one.

*

James K.A. Smith says that “discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing” and yet we feel so embarrassed about our hunger and our thirst, like we are the only one with longing, like everyone else must already be full.

We see all these cracks in our knowing and our believing.  And we are embarrassed, or panicked, or paralysed.

“Do you want to get well?” Jesus asks, and it seems like such a stupid question.

*

I was still hungry and I still needed a biscuit as I headed to the car and someone called my name.

I was a little angry at the blond girl in my arms, chocolate smudged on her satisfied face, when someone called my name.

I was not in the mood to talk to anyone when my minister called my name.

“Do you want some?” he asked, holding out the Toblerone he had used in the kids’ talk.

Did I WANT some? 

He had no idea.

*

I slid into the car beside my husband, stuffing my face with triangular Swiss chocolate, and mumbling something about Emerson having just saved my life.

I was thinking, then, only of my immediate hunger and the unexpected Toblerone in my hands.

Later, though, as we look at the wonky bridge on her whiteboard, I tell the story to my Spiritual Director and she loves it and she tells me I need to write about it.

*

“He picked up his bedroll and walked off,” John tells us.

The pool wasn’t the source of hope after all.  Jesus was.

The man’s hope must have flagged time after time.  38 years.  Somebody else always getting in first.

The pool wasn’t the source of hope after all, but it was certainly part of the story.

*

“Do you want to get well?” asks Jesus.

“Do you want some?” asks my minister.

And it changes the story – the one where everyone else got a biscuit, the one where somebody else always got in the pool first.

*

There are some cracks in my knowing and my believing that my thinking can’t fix.

But I hunger and I thirst.

And I have this picture, now, of God – calling my name, offering me food.

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]

downhill

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.

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]