The one about…love!

I’ve been reading a book called ‘Why are they so weird? What’s really going on in a teenagers brain.’* It’s a fascinating read and helpful as I attempt to navigate life with my tribe. The author of the book visits a well known neuroscientist who explains a little about what a developing brain needs.

To develop properly, she says, the brain must have certain experiences: good diet, exercise for good blood flow, challenges and love.
‘You know, I say that part about love in all my lectures and the men all laugh. They are scientists and they know t’s true, but they won’t say it,’ she said, as she carefully tucked the brain back in its tupperware bowl and closed the lid on the flowered hatbox. ‘Then, after the lectures, you know what those men want? They all want a hug,'”*

Love, it seems, is really quite important and the scientists agree. But what is love? What does love even look like? Is it that warm, fuzzy feeling we get when all is well in our “world”? Do I only feel it when the children are happy/ healthy/ behaving? Do they only feel loved when I say “I love you” or hug them or buy them something? I’m told God loves me and Sid says he loves me but what difference does that make when I’ve been yelled at about an unwashed PE kit, the missing script for the play, a forgotten water bottle and the inconvenience of putting shoes on, all in the space of half an hour! The barrage of abuse can leave you feeling drained, especially when your two year old wouldn’t sleep and you spent most of the night in bed with him. Where does love feature in that!? I’m feeling something but I’m not sure it’s love!

So what is this love thing? Does love change anything when your world is shaken or when the story that’s unfolding is not what you hoped for and it hurts? What does love look like and does it make a difference?

A guy called Pete Rollins writes a lot about love (and I mean a lot…he has such mind blowing philosophical theological way of attempting to understand life…read his books…honestly!) He wrote this:

Love is the crazy, mad, and perhaps ridiculous gesture of saying yes to life, of seeing it as worthy of our embrace and even worthy of our total sacrifice.**

What does it mean to say yes to life, to embrace life? Maybe we say “yes” when we get up, carry on, force a smile, stop and take a breath, slow down, make that phone call, change that plan, have that conversation, give that hug, write that message, mop that floor, open those curtains, the list could go on. I don’t know what saying “yes” looks like for you or how you embrace life but it often requires something more of us, we often have to dig deep and find an energy we didn’t know we had…and that energy? Love? What if there’s something powerful about saying yes to life, despite the tears, the fear, the uncertainty, because as we do, this force we call love transcends the moment?

What if love, actively choosing life, saying “yes” and embracing life, keeps these momentary (although sometimes seemingly eternal) problems, fears, frustrations, heartbreaks, in their place? In some senses all that we have is this moment, the past has gone and the future is unknown no matter how much we think we know. But what if we find that each ‘now’, each moment, features in a bigger story at work in the world, a story which is more than the now, a story bigger than any one moment, or person, or power, or government, or leader, or illness, or celebrity, or prisoner, or child, or mother, or father, or sister, or brother or even death? A story that is held by love, a story which has existed from the beginning and continues into forever. What if in that story love has the first and the final say, we just get to play our part, and our part makes the story interesting but it isn’t the whole story!

Love then is not something we own, or something we wait to receive. Love is not something that relies on there being another to love. Love certainly isn’t just a word.

What if love is not something that is given but rather is better understood as an action, or an attitude to life; and in that act of love we say yes to life, in that expression of love we recognise life as worthy of giving our deepest self to, sometimes in the inconvenience and the rethinking of plans because sometimes love requires us to sacrifice one way for a new way. As we love, as we give of ourselves to that moment and find ourselves in the bigger story, that’s when the mystery is manifest, the force, spirit, energy, divine otherness, God becomes more tangible, more real. What if that’s where we find “God’s love” really does make a difference and that “God’s love” changes everything because actually God is love.

*All credit to Barbara Strauch for her research and writing!
* The Idolatry of God: Breaking our addiction to certainty and satisfaction.

The one about…fear.

I knew it was going to be ‘one of those evenings’ when she said she couldn’t get to sleep! The wind was unusually strong, and eerily loud, especially through the huge yew trees which stood at the top of the garden.

“It’s just the wind”…I tried desperately to play it down but it didn’t help that last winter a large branch had fallen and narrowly missed the van parked on the driveway. I knew my attempts to convince her that it was ‘just a bit windy’ weren’t going to make any difference, no matter how many distraction techniques I tried!

I’d had about half an hour to myself, I don’t think I ask for much, just a little time to gather my thoughts, process the day and just be me once they’re all in bed…but best laid plans and all that! I took a breath and tried not to sound irritated, she was genuinely scared… “Ok, get into my bed, I’ll sit in there with you!” That was my evening gone!

I checked the oldest three were settled, and the rest were asleep. I put the dog to bed and texted Sid (he was out with friends) to warn him there was a child in his bed and he’d have to jump into hers when he returned, then I got into bed, the wind still howling…she took my hand and gripped it and then, within minutes I felt her grip loosen and her body relax, she slept…

It was the most beautiful moment. All my irritation and disappointment about “my time” melted away as I watched her sleep. The wind still howled, the trees still swayed and I was very aware that there’d be nothing I could do if they did fall on the house…but somehow I made her feel safe, somehow me being there was enough.

There were many things I thought about in that moment. I wondered why I’d got so precious about my time? Did I think I deserved an evening to myself, like it was something I’d earnt! Did I think I could clock out of parenting at 8:30pm because most of them were in bed? Had I learnt nothing in fifteen years!! There’s always another evening and I do know parenting is 24/7… it’s not like our youngest let’s me forget that!

I think the thing that bemused me most was the trust my daughter had in me, she found security and safety, not because I could change anything, but just because she knew I loved her. It was almost as if, in that moment, love overcame fear; as if love drove the fear out; as if love left no room for fear to exist.

I know that much of the fear in our world could be overcome if we learnt to love others rather than hate or distrust them. I know that some fear is irrational and can be negated by logic and self-talk. But what about the fears that are deeply personal, the fears that haunt us about who we are, where we’re going and how this is all going to end? How do we face those fears?

It seems sometimes we distract ourselves from those fears; we shop, we work, we socialise, we watch TV, we read books, we flick through social media, the list could go on and none of the things we do are wrong or bad in moderation, but they can become avoidance techniques and in the long run they’re about as useful as me trying to play the ‘Greatest Showman’ soundtrack to my daughter to drown out the wind!

The fear doesn’t go, it might be numbed or hushed for a while but often, deep within, our soul is still troubled, still uneasy, still fearful, no matter how much we try to avoid it.

Admitting fear exists is painful, it leaves us vulnerable. Maybe acknowledging that our soul needs to be held; that what’s deepest within us needs to connect to someone or something else; that our truest reality needs to know love, is the start to working with that fear.

Maybe that’s why the bible talks of God as love.

What if in that moment where I held my daughter’s hand, the mystery that we call God; that divine force; that love; became a very present reality? What if it’s love that both awakens and calms our soul? What if love is one way we experience the something that is outside of us, something we know to be true but can’t always define? What if God really is love and love really does exist!

The one about…moving (part 2)

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by details. The primary school doesn’t have places for two of the three children that need to go there and while the secondary school can offer places to our three secondary aged children, it can’t offer two of the GCSEs that our eldest has been studying for the last two years.
It seems that nothing is ever “easy”, maybe life would be dull if it was but sometimes I’d like to be given the opportunity to find out. Sometimes I’d like to at least be given the option of ‘easy’, or maybe I wouldn’t, I’m not actually that good at decsions. It’s safe to say that I don’t really know what I want, so I tried to write a list.

  • I want to live by the sea.
  • I want to live in Peterborough.
  • I want to run.
  • I want to sit and read.
  • I want to stay up late and lie in.
  • I want to get up early and write.
  • I want to live in a tiny cottage.
  • I want to raise my family.
  • I want to only buy clothes from charity shops.
  • I want to recreate my wardrobe completely from H and M.
  • I want the children to stay little.
  • I want the joy of watching the children grow up.
  • I want everything to stay the same.
  • I want to be living an adventure.

Do you see what I mean? I don’t know what I want and I don’t even want the same thing all of the time and sometimes I want two opposing things at the same time. Complicated? Confusing? There are a few directions my thoughts have gone as I wrestle with the confusion.

Firstly, I do want to be a full time mum, it’s all I’ve ever really wanted. I remember telling Sid that fact the second time we went out together and then getting home and wondering if it was the right thing to say to a guy I’d only just met?! I’m so blessed to have not had to work since we had children. We’ve never had two incomes; when Sid was a student I worked full time, then we had children and he’s worked, and because of that we’ve never taken on a lifestyle that we can’t sustain. That does however mean that my identity has become completely absorbed in family and as they grow up I’m left with less confidence and belief in who I am and what I can do. I’m sure I’m not the only full time mum to feel like this; to feel vulnerable, confused and scared of re-imagining life as the children begin to need me less or in different ways. I’ve been parenting preschoolers for over fifteen years, that’s a long career to have to stand down from, especially when I don’t really want to. Then we plan to move to a new area, for Sid to start a new job, as our youngest starts playgroup, and I’m left slightly bereft of a life I’ve loved and slightly unsure of who I am in it all.

The second thought my exploration of “I” led me to was a reminder that although I am still Deb, sixteen years ago I chose to be ‘Sid and Deb’, we got married and my ‘I’ became a ‘we’. That means that any decision I make now needs to be made in light of the promises I made then. Over time “we” has expanded to the nine of “us” and I can’t just do what I want, instead I do what we think is best for all of us. So, while we all maintain a right to our individuality, we are also family and I know that sometimes decisions have to be made that are for the good of ‘us’ not just for one individual. Marriage, family, and individual identities within that are hard to navigate and lately my “I” has been shouting loudly and stomping its feet, asking “what about me?” and that’s hard, that leads to tears and confusion and that is hard to reconcile when the life that we have created is being changed, relocated and redefined when there’s so much about it that you just want to keep the same.

My final thought was about how the ” I/we/us” concept also, for me, includes a spiritual element and that somewhere in all my musings the God character features. I was reminded of a quote by Paula D’arcy, she said, “God comes to you disguised as your life.” Could that possibly be true and what would that really look like? How would God, love, that force, that cosmic energy, the otherness I look for to help me reframe and reconnect with myself and ultimate reality, appear as my life? What if ‘God’ appears as those instances, people or events that seem to disrupt my otherwise comfortable, ordered existence? What if this somewhat painful exploration of where I’m at in life is in fact the divine breaking in to remind me that there’s always more. What if in the midst of all the fears and worries, the attempts to make sense of who I am, ‘God’ is simply saying through people, music and moments that “this all belongs”. What if I don’t have to worry about the future, or know exactly what it will look like because today I know what I have to do, today I have all I need and every time “today” appears again I find the same to be true. So while there are days where I’m overwhelmed by the details, days where I’m fearful and unsure and days where I want to hide out in a cottage by the sea, there are also days where I remember how blessed I am. There are days where I’m able to hold it all in perspective and days where the light seems to shine a little brighter than the day before and somehow I know that this will all make sense.

The one about…moving.

Sid has been offered job. It has been a long, emotional journey, full of unexpected turns and strangely surprising outcomes, so it’s no surprise that people keep congratulating us on the good news. While I’m sure it must be ‘good news’, right now it feels more like ‘news’, which isn’t really how I think I should feel or how I expected to feel but I do remember similar feelings surfacing just over fifteen years ago when our first child was born.

I can picture myself standing in the tiny lounge of our quirky Victorian terraced house in Northampton, reading the ‘Congratulations on Your New Baby’ cards. I was standing because the tiny baby boy I was holding seemed to cry every time I hovered anywhere near a chair. I distinctly remember reading and re-reading the cards, desperately trying to fathom what on earth everyone was congratulating us for. The ‘new arrival’ did not let me sleep, he fed at least every three hours, sometimes for an hour; day and night. My nipples bled, other parts of my anatomy had been subjected to damage severe enough to warrant stitches, so even if he would let me sit down it wasn’t actually comfortable and then there was the affect the whole experience had inflicted on my marriage. My husband, whose eyes had once sparkled with playful attraction, now didn’t dare look at me; partly because the disturbing images of birth that he’d just witnessed tormented his mind whenever he saw me and partly because we both knew that if he looked at me the wrong way there was no guarantee I would respond as a loving wife should. A combination of sleep deprivation, hormonal overload and genuine fear of the tiny human in my arms left my mood somewhat unpredictable and not in a good way!  Yet there we both were, standing at a safe distance from each other, wondering if there would ever be such a thing as a safe distance from the baby, reading cards that spoke of happiness, joy and love…none of it made any sense.

The reality was that the people who designed those cards, and the people who bought them, knew that the arrival of a new baby was good news. There was an awareness that the seemingly demanding little person would bring us so much joy, laughter and happiness; all which would out weigh any drama surrounding his arrival, any need for sleep and anything else difficult, painful or just simply sad that we would inevitably experiecne at various points in our lives with him. They knew that this new life was good, and they were right. Our baby was and is a cause for celebration and we’ve had six more causes for celebration since, each with their own unique birth dramas, each with their own attempt at sleep deprivation as a form of torture and over the years, each with their own ‘moments’ where we’ve had to take a breath and just hold them through it, whatever it was. All of these moments have been totally worth every second of the craziness that is our life together.

So as I sit here, trying hard to comprehend that the news of a new job is in fact ‘good news’, I am reminded of those first time parent feelings. I’m reminded that in those early days where I felt lost and lonely and overwhelmed I was held and loved and somehow carried through. I’m reminded that all I ever had to do was take the next step, the next breath, change the next nappy! So while I’m apprehensive about how the next few weeks are going to play out, I do know that leaving a people and a place that I love will eventually be OK and that embracing a ‘new life’ together will be a great adventure. I know that despite my fears, despite the seemingly inordinate amount of details there are to sort out and despite the tears and the tension of trying to carry all of the emotions involved, including my own, that we are moving forwards. I also know that all I actually have to do is take the next step, whatever that is, because that’s all any of us can do. So while some steps might be more tentative than others, and some steps might bring tears and confusion, and while sometimes it might feel as though I’m going round in circles I know that ultimately this is all headed somewhere and that the somewhere is good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The one about…the space between!

There’s a space that exists, it’s a space some might describe as magical or enchanted; a sacred space outside of the noise and demands of our everyday.

Liminal space is not necessarily a physical place but it can be. Maybe an empty car park, a disused factory or a place where there was once life but where it now seems that nature has gradually started to reclaim. Maybe it’s something experienced whilst walking through the woods, or along the beach, a space we sense something of whilst climbing a mountain path or a wandering through a meadow? These places become moments where we tune out out of the sounds that require us to act and tune in to the sounds that allow us just to be. These are not always comfortable spaces. They are places between two worlds, the one we’ve stepped away from and the one we will return to.

We can also find ourselves caught between two worlds whilst present amongst the noise and activity of our children, our colleagues or our friends, in the noise of the high street or public transport; we’re there physically but not really present because the real us is somewhere else.

Liminal space also exists when we’re caught between two realities; as we move from one job to another, as we move house or as we experience the death of someone we love. Liminal space exists when discover we are no longer able to live in the familiar but are yet to create a new familiar; when we’re caught in the space between what we knew to be and what we know will become.

Liminal space can be bewildering, it can leave us feeling lost or as though we don’t belong in the world in the way we used to. Liminal space makes us vulnerable. Yet it can also can be an opportunity to embrace moments that don’t make sense and allow them just to be.

Liminal space is an opportunity to be present in the moment without passing judgement. It’s a chance to reevaluate what’s important and to ask those bigger questions of life that we know need to be asked but so often don’t get a voice. Liminal space offers us rest, just for a while, from ourselves and from others. It offers us the opportunity to choose a new path or the opportunity to see a fresh perspective of what was.

Liminal space is a gift. What if liminal space offers us a window into our soul, our true selves? What if as we dwell in this space between two realities we find a deeper understanding of who we are, beyond everything else that’s always defined us? What if liminal space suggests that there is something more to what we’ve always believed to be true? What if liminal space invites us to step outside of time and takes us deeper into an unknown dimension, a space or place that our minds can’t fully comprehend yet sense something of? What if liminal space is actually a place where our true humanity meets the divine? Maybe liminal space is a place we should seek out and dwell in whenever we can.

The one about…it meaning something!

“I can’t do this anymore”. I lay down, closed my eyes and stared intensely at the back of my own eyelids hoping for inspiration; a picture, an image, an idea…nothing, just darkness. I sighed and rolled over. It was going to be a long night.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt trapped like this, don’t get me wrong, it’s not an awful place to be trapped, we’re ok, we’re living life. We can’t stay where we are though and we still can’t see a way forward. It feels a little like I’m in one of those horror movies where there’s no way out and the space is slowly filling with water; something has to make sense soon or I am going to drown.

There are occasional glimmers of hope, possibilities that might come to something but nothing ever seems to be straightforward. Yet in the midst of all the job applications, interviews and conversations about our future, the ‘everyday’ takes place; the real demands, joys and sorrows of raising children, seeing friends and sharing life with each other happens; life happens.

It’s easy just to sit and write about love and hope and adventure; to be passionate about the divine, soul and mystery; it’s at this point though that it has to mean something. It has to mean something when life is hard, when there isn’t a plan, when you can see those around you hurting and you can’t fix it. That’s when all the whimsical theological theorising actually has to be true.

This is where I have to believe that this story, the one I find myself living in, makes sense in a bigger story.

This is where I have to decide to love; to be kind and patient with those around me even though other feelings overwhelm me. This is where I also have to choose to love and forgive myself when I don’t love others as I would like to.

This is where, when fear taunts me, I acknowledge it’s existence but I don’t let it take the steering wheel. It’s where, when grief engulfs me, I allow it to do it’s work but I also take a deep breath and dare to keep hoping.

This is where I have to acknowledge that I can’t meet all the expectations placed on me by myself and others, where I admit I don’t even want to meet some of those expectations. This I where I accept that I don’t always cope and that it’s OK not to.

This is also where the tension between science and soul exists, where the logical reasoned approach to life meets the mysterious whisper of what could be and leaves me torn, not really knowing which route to take. This is where I’m left clinging to the belief that it will all make sense despite the fact that sometimes all I really want to do is hide under the duvet and stare at the inside of my eyelids!

So, this is where I choose to believe in the Divine; in a force that holds all things and where I admit that I believe that same force will renew, restore, refresh and resurrect all things, even my story.

This is where what I write means something. Right here, right now!

The one about…expectation!

Life was spiralling out of control. It had been a year since she’d left home but her understanding of who she was and where her life was headed was not becoming any clearer. Her eating habits were becoming more erratic as she desperately tried to have control over something. She’d failed to gain a place at university for the second year in a row and she had sixteen rejection letters to prove it. As she neared the end of her ‘year out’ she was very aware that life wasn’t going as she’d expected, not only had she failed to meet her own expectations she knew she’d pretty much failed to meet everyone else’s. That’s when the cutting began.

Maybe no ones actually got it together, despite appearances. Maybe we’re all living with expectation in some form or another. We don’t expect relationships to require so much work, we’ve been brought up with the fairy tales full of “happy ever afters.” We expect that we’ll find a job we’ll succeed at and enjoy, after all we’ve spent so many years in the education system surely that’s what we’re entitled to. We don’t even expect our loved ones to die when they do, even though we know it will happen to us all eventually, we never really expect death. We’re not really prepared for what life expects of us and sometimes we don’t cope with that!

Maybe we should be taught to manage our expectations; maybe then we’d cope with those feelings of anger, grief, frustration, sadness, loneliness and fear a little better. I imagine though, if we did learn to manage our expectations, that we’d also manage out the joy, laughter, hope and excitement and life would become incredibly monotone or mundane. So we’re left living with the challenge of expectation! Maybe if we could understand expectation our understanding of what it means to cope, or not, would make more sense.

Often in the ordinariness of the everyday we deal with a whole range of emotions because that what life invites. What if intertwined somewhere in those ordinary emotions that we all experience we also juggle that set of expectations placed on us either by ourselves or by others? What if just below the surface of our lives, we’re constantly managing those expectations? Like the pressure from the media to look a certain way, eat certain food or shop in a certain place? Or the pressure from our own family, friends or belief system to live up to a particular way of being in the world. We expect, or are expected, to cope and when we don’t we’re left somewhere between bewildered and depressed.

I know many people grow up with a strongly ingrained set of beliefs and a fierce loyalty to family. When we break away from that and find ourselves “free” of parental control or tribal constraints we take on the challenge of living those expectations. There’s a whole new world to explore. Many of us carry with us throughout life the expectations of the family that raised us, it acts as our moral compass, our marker for how to be in the world! For some that’s intertwined with “religious” belief, for others it’s simply family values. The expectation we get a job, earn money, buy a house, find a partner maybe even have children. Even if we feel our family don’t expect much from us there’s still social expectations that we’ll supposedly conform to. Somehow we learn to cope with those expectations but sometimes we find the demands of them stifling.

Here’s the thing, what if there’s some value in not coping, in not conforming, at least for a while? What if mental or emotional lapses, where we “don’t cope” actually are moments where we discover more about ourselves? What if some breakdowns in stability, some rebellion against societal expectation, or some failure to meet familial goals, are opportunities to reconnect with ourselves, to actually discover who we really are?

It seems that some of the greatest musicians, lyricists, writers and artists often struggled with depression or other issues which compromised their mental health. Some of the most beautful, creative and inspiring work is borne out of that place of pain. What if not coping provides opportunity for creativity to flourish? What if in those moments there is a deeper connection with soul, with meaning and purpose?

What if to some extent we need to celebrate our inability to cope rather than rush to find a quick fix? What if, when the temptation to meet all those expectations takes hold along with the stark reality that we either can’t or simply don’t want to, instead of adopting our usual coping strategies we take time out, to listen to ourselves, to reconnect with who we are and learn from what we’re experiencing because it is actually teaching us something! What if that’s really the role of religion in the world; not to place more expectation on us but to provide spaces and places to reconnect with ourselves and others, to encounter something more and share in the story we find ourselves in. What if then we find we’re better placed to navigate all that life asks of us? What if there’s something about being more honest with ourselves and others that allows us all to realise everyone’s just figuring it out, no one is completely sorted and everyone else is doing today for the first time too?