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

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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.

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

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.