Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Light me up

I am ambivalent about being told which day of the year I am to express especial love to my beloved. This Valentine's, though, I got to thinking about the different seasons of love - that first flash of intensity, that flares again at different moments; that slow-burning flame that burns low but long; the light that we share in so many different ways at different times of our story, that is the light we make between us.

Along these lines, I scribbled a poem into my journal. 

Our love is light

Our love has been the flare of singular blinding light
That causes the world to reposition;
A light that blinds, and yet rescues.

In this light I have leapt into the unknown;
I have raced to shady places in grassy fields;
I have lain, and rocked, and danced.

And our love has been the beam of a lighthouse,
A regular, turning shaft across the rocks;
Holding back from shipwreck, and destruction.

In this light we have stood strong;
We have been brave, we have been faithful;
We have held firm, and shone bright.

Our love has been the flicker of a candle;
A warming glow that draws, it beckons ever closer;
A circle of invitation, a comfort in the night.

Into this light we have welcomed,
Made room for warm bodies around the table;
We have held hands, and shared stories, and laughed.

I’ll take the bright but short-lived flare
That lights up the night, 
And lodges in my heart.

I’ll take the sweeping beams
That cast dangers into shadow
And bring courage to my eyes.

I’ll take the candle’s flicker,
Step towards its humble flame
Feel the life it offers.

And I will trust that any ember
Will respond to our breath
And spring forth, in time, with hearty flame.

Our love is light, in all its bright guises.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Life is an Adventure ... sometimes packaged small

Some time ago, an old friend complained that Tim and I seemed to be having too many adventures. They wanted adventures too, dammit! 
Well, I wrestled for a while. Do I make out that life is too much fun? Should I speak more openly about the tough stuff? Is it a mistake to find beauty everywhere, and ways to enjoy that beauty?

This was early in our time in Spain and I am happy to say that, rather than ditching our adventurous side, it has brought us to a new level of embracing who we are made to be. We are hard-wired for adventure! While it is not true to say that we are following adventure where it takes us - that would be to negate all the other reasons why we live where we live, and do what we do (if you need a refresher on that, I will post more another time) - it is true that we make adventure wherever we are.

Of course, when we were young we had heaps of adventures. Like many young people, we hiked, and climbed, and hitchhiked, and biked, and built fires, and snorkelled, and kayaked, and whitewater-rafted, and camped, and abseiled, and para-glided, and swung off bridges, and ran mountain trails, and drove through some pretty hair-raising places.

Now, of course, we are in mid-life. We have two kids, we have bills to pay and a house to maintain; cars to fix and work deadlines coming out of our ears. It’s time for the adventure to stop, surely?

I’d like to say a great, fat NO to that sort of thinking.

Life is what you make it. Adventurous escapades recharge us and keep us young. And there are ways to keep the adventures coming, even through the years of raising kids and building a career. Tim and I find adventure in the beauty of wild places, so we’ve learned to combine something a little out-of-the-ordinary with fun places and good food, for an adventure that’s manageable for the whole family.

Here are some of our ideas for injecting adventure into the everyday.
1. Ditch that extra episode on Netflix
Years ago we bought a little Trangia spirit stove. You can buy one for 20 quid and they are brilliant - easily portable and can be used anywhere. One thing we love to do is pack a day sack with this little gem, a few teabags, maybe some South African rusks or a couple of muffins. We’ll hike somewhere for 30 or 40 minutes, then brew up and sit and look at the view for a while before hiking back. Such a simple thing, but the perfect mini-adventure in the middle of a busy week. The kids love it and I guarantee you’ll feel more connected with yourself and your hiking buddies on your return.

Other ideas: No Trangia? Take a flask instead; go for a trail run; sit around the fire pit telling stories and toasting marshmallows; lay outside at night and look at the stars.

2. Give your spouse a lie-in, or head into work late one morning
One thing having kids teaches you, and that’s to make adventure manageable. Small people may not be able to hike for 3 hours, but they can hike for 45 minutes to an hour, set up camp while you fry up breakfast on a small fire or stove, and make their way home again on full tummies. This is a great one for giving your other half a lie-in on the weekend! Or why not get a few buddies together and agree to head into work late one morning, after a hike and a full English in the great outdoors? Making breakfast al fresco gives you the feeling of having had much longer outdoors; it gives you time to share meaningful conversation while rustling up those eggs; and it adds that sparkle of adventure to an otherwise ordinary day.

Other ideas: Go for an off-road bike ride; head out for a picnic somewhere where you can boulder or free-climb; brave an outdoor swim and make tea to warm up afterwards; go running at night with a head torch; hike somewhere quiet where you can string up a hammock - take a book to read aloud.

3. You want a weekend in the middle of the week
A couple of years ago, Tim and Keziah invested in a bivvy bag each. These little beauties keep you warm and dry overnight without the need for lugging a tent around. A perfect micro-adventure is to leave after work one evening with your pack loaded with supper, breakfast, and enough warm stuff for a night outside. Hike to a spot you’ve identified as being safe, and off the beaten track but relatively accessible. Transform the time you’d be at home - making supper and doing just one more load of laundry - into a mini campout that turns an ordinary week into something special.

Other ideas: Spend an evening at the local climbing wall; pack up your supper and head somewhere where you can see the stars.

4. Half your weekend is filled with chores
If you live near water, you’re bound to find places to hire a kayak. There’s nothing better than paddling for a couple of hours, and stopping to swim and picnic. Even inexperienced paddlers can find a calm stretch of river or a lake and give their arm muscles a workout on the water. The addition of food eaten outside and a wild water swim can make a single day feel twice as long. If you can't get to water, you can grab a group of friends and head out to a spot where you can light a campfire and have an all-day camp-out without the overnight - take games, hammocks and your sense of adventure.

Other ideas: take an all-day hike or bike somewhere new; stand-up paddle boarding is a great alternative and easy to pick up.

like to think that our sense of adventure has prepared us for the life we lead, when sometimes the challenges loom large. And in the midst of the challenges, a manageable micro-adventure recharges our batteries and fills up our joy tanks.

Outdoor fun might not be your thing ... but what do you find life-giving and where do you seek it out?

Monday, 6 February 2017

All of me, more of the time

Do you ever feel like your life is a funny jumble of assorted realities? As I lay on my back on the living room carpet, trying to combine a pre-run stretch with listening to an audio meditation I’d been wanting to find time for, I had to chuckle to myself. Life is such an odd assortment of weird juxtapositions.

Any parent knows this well. We are constantly being batted from one level of conversation (“Mom, I’m thinking of turning vegan; do you know our stomachs don’t even have the right sort of enzymes to digest animal products?”), to another (“Babe, did you think about whether we should use our savings for that trip?”), to another (“Mom, I’ve lost my football boots!”). Quite frankly, any single family conversation could be fuel for a cartoon strip.

Recently, after some months of sharing little quality time together and with no prospect of suddenly having chunks of free time, Tim and I agreed to simply make the most of the moments we have ‘between things.’ We’re making a point of grabbing a coffee in between dropping the kids at their activities, or meeting for lunch on a workday instead of just having lunch at our desks. Of course, this does mean that there are times when one of us is hastily re-dressing while the other stifles their smiles in order to answer the Skype call they have scheduled about some regional crisis! As I said, life is a jumble.

I guess it should come as no surprise, then, that at times it is difficult to reconcile these disparate realities. Right now, I’m aware of the irony of feeling called to create times of contemplation and reflection for others, when my life leaves very little time for me to be reflective myself. Surely my work lacks a certain authority when I am struggling to slow down enough to live reflectively in the midst of an over-stuffed daily life?

Maybe what I am really asking is this: what do you do when you feel like a fraud? 

It is easy to present to others just one aspect of who we are. But is it possible to live as an integrated whole in some ways that bring health to all the elements of what our lives look like? I don’t mean that everyone needs to know everything about us - God save us from Facebook levels of self-disclosure - but something more subtle might be achievable, surely? 

Is it possible for me to more consciously bring all of who I am into my various interactions? 

In many ways, we learn from a young age not to do this. We swallow our sorrows because we’re told to put a smile on our face. We fake breezy insouciance when we’re dying of anxiety. We laugh with our spouse at the dinner party, having just had a big row in the car on the way over. And, perhaps most deadly of all, we pretend we have it all together for the people at church, because we think that’s the requirement for fitting in there.

I’m not saying it’s not appropriate to put certain emotions or experiences to one side for a while. But I do think it’s easy to become fragmented, with multiple, slightly schizophrenic versions of ourselves being called on for different contexts. Somehow I want to learn to bring all these parts of myself together as I go through life.

So I’m choosing to embrace the life that I have, with all its busyness and challenges, and to press into my calling to contemplation, reflection and art-creation. And it goes both ways; what I’m learning about living reflectively and creatively must be infecting my day-to-day reality too. Even when that means getting up an hour before the kids because it’s the only time I can be sure of being undisturbed as I sit with my coffee and journal. 

And even when it means listening to an audio meditation while I stretch, before dashing out the door for a run.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Embracing Limitations

So, I am working out this morning and this cute, pert little piece of perfection says, “Your limitations are in your head, they are not real. You have to imagine those limitations melting away!”

Now, I get it. I do. And I dig me a little motivational mantra before breakfast. But, really?

Still in my workout clothes, my phone pings and I go to check it. It’s a close friend in South Africa, whose husband’s life recently crashed into the wall of a hemorrhagic stroke. He is on the slow road to recovery and this week hoped to be able to go into work for 3-4 hours each day, but after just 2 hours he was exhausted. Some limitations are very real.

I wonder how hard it is for us to accept our limitations because our culture tells us that if we just try harder, or think more positively, we can surmount anything that threatens to restrict us?

My hubby was gone all last week on a super challenging work trip, to a place most ex-pats have been advised to leave. Worried for him, I spent my week filling in applications for funding for a ministry vehicle we can only afford to buy if these are successful. I ferried my kids around, helping one to navigate the stresses of teen life and homework assignments, while the other bravely went on a day visit to a new school. In between shopping, preparing and cleaning up endless rounds of food, doing laundry, marking assignments and convincing my 8 year old to shower, I resisted the temptation to throttle the dog for peeing inside the house. None of this would be unfamiliar to any experienced in the art of solo parenting, used to the sensation of perpetual adrenaline coursing through a body bent on making it to the end of the day with the checklist all marked as ‘done.’

The Man arrived home all in one piece, our teen seems to be on cruise-control for now, our 8 year old is showered, found her lost jacket and loved her new school. The fridge is empty but tonight is pizza night, the laundry is mostly in check, and for the last two days the doggy misdemeanours have been successfully restricted to outside the house.

So, I think: time for some dancing! *obviously*

I arranged with a friend to go Swing dancing in Malaga. She’s a dab hand at the old ‘rock step, cha-cha-cha’ and had agreed to accompany me to a beginner’s class. Fun! Me time! Free from responsibilities. And bedtimes!

When the time actually rocked around, I was spent. I know, I know … not sure why this came as such a complete surprise, except that being overly ambitious about what I can accomplish seems to be my blind spot. And it killed me to call my friend and cancel our dancing date, even though within half an hour of that call I was asleep in my bed.

Let’s face it: limitations suck.

But limitations are real, they keep us humble and grounded. And if we can make peace with them, they can become the walls of the garden within which our life blossoms (at least, on a good day, that's what I tell myself ). I often think of a kite, flying so beautifully when tethered by its lines to the ground. And yet it tumbles to the ground when those lines are cut. The kite cannot catch the wind and find freedom in flight unless it is limited by those lines.

I wonder if I can come to a new place of embracing the limitations of my life in this season? Sure, sometimes I would love to shrug off everything that keeps me earthbound and enjoy the freedom that infinite supplies of energy, talent and resources might offer. But the truth is, I am limited. My limitations remind me that I need rest, I need boundaries, and I need other people. 

And maybe there’s a sweet spot somewhere there where I can catch the wind and find flight, in my little corner of the sky.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Journey beyond the Familiar

Today is a celebration of journeys, of journeyers. To be honest, I never paid much attention to the Three Kings of the Christmas tale; their gaudy costumes seemed so out of place in the poverty of the manger scene. But here in Spain, the day of Epiphany is set aside as a celebration, in honour of those ancient stargazers. And every year I find myself more drawn into their story: what would make those men leave the familiar and the comfortable in order to pursue something that was so uncertain, and yet so full of promise?

There are, of course, times when we are forced to take journeys - whether physical or metaphorical - that we would rather not. I think of friends facing ill-health or the loss of a loved one, those who are travelling a road they would never have embarked on voluntarily. But if we choose our way, then surely some desire is drawing us, some sense of purpose is propelling us. 

This Epiphany, the very notion of voyage is like a loose thread that I can’t stop messing with. Quite unbidden - like all the best moments of inspiration, I find - the thought came to me as January dawned: “You have never before been where we are going now.” And so I find myself thinking about the coming year as a sort of exploration of something new, an adventure into undiscovered territory.

What desire would draw me to take such a journey into the unknown? 
What sense of purpose is sufficiently potent to propel me on my way?

As I write, Tim and a couple of friends are in the Axarquia area, hiking the route from El Robledal up to the 2,065m peak of La Maroma. One of the guys has hiked it before, but it is a new trail for Tim. New journeys mean the way is unfamiliar, we don’t know exactly what to expect of the route. We may have some idea of the elevation to be gained, or terrain to be navigated, but only when we are on our way do we really discover the level of difficulty, the views to be enjoyed, and the energy or fatigue we will experience.

The Magi, to return to those enigmas of Christ’s earthly arrival, set out on a long journey, along a route that we can assume was completely unfamiliar to them. They had certainly never before been where their journey led. Their motivation was not just to follow this unusual star, surely, but to respond to a thirst in their hearts for the promise the star predicted: a king and a kingdom, such as they’d never known.

Adventures of this kind are life-giving and energising; 
but they can take us to the end of ourselves, beyond our natural capabilities. 
Am I ready for the surrender this year’s pilgrimage will require?

There are four things I am keeping in mind as my own journey gets underway:
  1. Any serious sojourn requires a support crew.

Sometimes we travel with others, sometimes alone with our supporters at a distance. The Magi somehow found one another, companions with a shared desire, a common purpose, who were willing to pool resources to make this trek possible. The company of others strengthens us when we are taking strain, empowers us in ways we wouldn’t experience alone, and helps us to stay on track when we risk losing our way.

Who will be my journeying companions, this year, I wonder? How can I invite them to venture on together more closely than before?

2. Every quest is unpredictable: keep your wits about you.

This morning, as Tim and his buddies descended from their overnight camping spot, the mist closed in and suddenly visibility was severely reduced. The Magi must have faced many similar obstacles before they encountered Herod, the grand unpredictable challenge that meant they had to recalibrate their intended route. We all face these moments when it would be so easy to lose our way; I know I do.

How can I grow in discernment this year? What rhythms will help me to keep my wits about me as the journey unfolds?

3. The best of treks have both ups and downs.

As I think back over my most memorable hiking trails, the moments that especially shine are the uphill portions. I love gaining elevation and then finally realising a vantage point, from which I can appreciate the progress I have made and the beauty surrounding me. When I think of the descents, I mostly remember stepping down hard onto tired knees, toes jamming into the front of boots, that loss of large horizons I enjoyed at the top. But the descent is a homecoming of sorts.

How can I recognise the ups and downs of my journey for what they are: temporary perspective-adjusters, only appreciated in the context of the whole route?

4. Frequent stops to rest and refuel are vital.

Any experienced hiker knows that you need to eat before you are really hungry; drink before you are really thirsty; and rest before you are really weary. If you leave it until you’re too much of any of these things, it is often too late … the food, the water and the rest you’re able to take may not be enough. You’ll feel like you can’t get going again.

In hiking as in life: this Christmas vacation is a case in point. The two weeks off were many months overdue, and even then we had to fight hard to prevent work and other demands from encroaching on family time. And when we did stop? Every single one of us went down with flu, each one crashing hard. We had waited too long without adequate rest and we came to a complete standstill.

How can I learn to pace myself for the next leg of the journey? To slow down as often as necessary so that I can enjoy the moment, even while keeping the wider horizon in sight?

And you? Whether it is a way you have never before been, or a familiar trail, where will the path take you this year? Along all the ups and downs, may you keep your wits about you, and your travelling friends close.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Success? Or Falling Towards a New Year

This is the time of year - with all its emptying and waiting - for looking back, for considering the months past, for taking the cycle of seasons as a whole instead of as a series of consecutive, but otherwise mostly unrelated events.

‘How was 2016 for you?’ we ask ourselves, in so many words.

For those so-inclined,this is a time for journalling, a time for sharing highlights from the year, or bemoaning the challenges it brought, the regrets we still hold. Tim and I like to slip away for a couple of days between Christmas and New Year, if for nothing more than to take a moment to feel some sense of readiness for the beginning of the next 12 month stretch (before it slams into us like a high speed train).

‘What do we want this next year to look like?’ we wonder. ‘What have we received from the past year that we’re taking with us?’

I wonder what makes a successful year, really? If the Christmas newsletters we receive are to be believed, it’s about achievements; some evidence of one’s desired inexorable rise through life. ‘New Heights Gained’ and ‘The View From the Top,’ some of them cheer with an unintended smugness. Or perhaps success can be measured in terms of seeds sown, seeds that we hope may bear fruit in some future year, in some future season.

Somehow, this year, my heart resists the drive to distill my experiences into that so-called nectar of success, discarding all that appears less flavoursome. It’s not that this year was terrible - there has been much that was good - but I sense the invitation to learn to embrace all its ragged edges, as much as its warm centre.

I am reminded of the post I read about being kind, showing courage, and falling forward after failure. I wonder if these might be more helpful measures for my year? 

To what extent have I taken opportunities to be kind this year? 

I think of those we have included in our family life, those for whom I went the second mile, those who left lighter or stronger because of something I did, or said. Yet I wonder how many times I missed the chance to be kind? How many times I turned away from others in self-protection, or fear? How many times I was too busy or distracted to notice others’ needs? I am learning to embrace all these expressions of who I am, the kind and the not-to-kind; the self who is present to others, and the one who is intolerant or oblivious. Even as the little seedlings of good in me bend towards the light, that which is in shadow is still part of me.

In what ways have I shown courage this year, I wonder? 

It would be nice to show-and-tell all my shiny pebbles of courage for your admiration, but the truth is that what might be courage for others may not be so for me. It has taken more courage for me to be honest about my need for relationship, than it took for me to climb the highest peak in North Africa. I have to dig deeper into my reserves of bravery to admit both my desire for and my resistance to intimacy, than to travel alone to faraway places, or to run solo in the hills. I hope this year I have dug a little deeper. What is certain is that there is more courage still to be found.

Have I failed this year? Of course. But in what ways have I failed well?

If all my sorries were signs of failing well, then perhaps I have indeed mostly fallen forward. Sorry to my kids when I reacted immaturely, though there were reasons for such reactions; sorry to my husband when I wished, with good cause, that he would be the sorry one; sorry to a team-mate for a misunderstanding that seemed so unnecessary. A heartfelt sorry - taking responsibility for my own junk - is always a fall forward. Then I think of those times when self-awareness mercifully tugged at the hem of the self-righteous judgement, or the self-protective withdrawal with which I shrouded myself. When I found the other-worldly resolve to lay aside these well-worn garments and step into relationships with a more naked honesty, it was failure turned on its head, and I’m grateful. Some of my failures have been things I longed for that never materialised. Then, to stand up for the purity and goodness of that longing, whilst holding lightly the thing itself; that can be a sort of forward-moving failure.

So, my friend. What does success mean to you? To what extent has your year been marked by kindness and courage?  When you have failed, what have you learned from your failing?

Are you ready to fall with me into 2017?

Friday, 23 December 2016

The discipline of Celebration

It’s the season of celebration: Christmas carols, concerts, school plays and festivities of all kinds. Smiling faces, light hearts, toasts to the year that is past and to the one ahead. And I’m all for it - I love a fun crowd, an excuse to pull together friends old and new, and especially a good reason to get dressed up.

There have been times in my life, though, when it has been easier to celebrate. When celebration has just flowed out of a season that was light, joy-filled, and bubbling with that sense of wellbeing that is the result, not of contrived formulae, but of a blending of life’s unique elements at just that particular moment in time. Those are times when celebration comes naturally, times we should relish for their precious and inimitable richness.

Life is not always like that. We know this, right?! And it doesn’t mean we’re doing something wrong, or that we’ve made a mistake. There could be any number of reasons why we don’t feel like celebrating.

And that is exactly when we should.

You see, celebration can be natural and easy but, when it’s not, it can be a powerful choice, a discipline if you will, that produces the very sort of joy we wish we were feeling.

Years ago, when we were preparing to leave England to live in a remote part of Mozambique, we were given some advice by a seasoned missionary. It was the kind of advice that seemed innocuous, nice even, but which grew in significance the longer we had to reflect on it. He said the key to pioneering is to celebrate, and to celebrate often. Celebrate the small successes, celebrate when the successes are so small that no one else would notice them. Celebration is the digging of a well, the water of which becomes that sweet, life-giving elixir that adds joy to an otherwise tough season. 

Because pioneering is tough. Pioneering is that time in the life-cycle of a project when it seems that all you do is dig hard ground without ever knowing if it will be worthwhile. Pioneering is head-down, teeth-gritted, focus-on-the-goal-and-don’t-mind-the-pain. You don’t expect things to be easy when you’re pioneering, you anticipate setbacks, discomfort, sacrifice.

For a while, your courage and determination fuel your efforts in the face of hard times. Courage and determination can carry you quite some distance. But when courage fails you and determination wears thin, what do have then?

You have the option to cultivate joy.

So we celebrated putting the roof on the house we built out of wood and mud, and we celebrated hitting water in the new well. We celebrated new friendships, and we celebrated old friends coming to visit. We celebrated making headway in the language. And establishing rhythms that made us feel ‘normal.’ We celebrated getting away from our little backwater for a break, and we celebrated returning with a fresh sense of purpose.

It seems so counter-intuitive to think of celebration as a discipline and joy as something to cultivate. Surely if these things are worth having, they should flow naturally? Having kids has helped me get over this particular hang-up and set about celebrating whenever we get the chance, even when it feels hard.

This year has been a demanding one. We have faced significant challenges in our work (have you read that book, ‘Crucial Conversations?’ This could be the year that book was written for!). I have travelled quite a bit, which I’ve loved but it hasn’t helped me to feel connected to our local team. True holiday rest has been thin on the ground, which doesn’t contribute to relational closeness as a couple. And we have a teenager, for heaven’s sake; that its own kind of demanding! Close friends have faced really tough times, and we have a significant crisis still unfolding in our region. 

What better time than this to celebrate?! I know, weird huh?

When I step away from my resentment towards my husband and enter wholeheartedly into celebrating 23 years of marriage, I generate joy. 

When I lay aside the emotional outbursts of my teen and instead celebrate her, I generate joy. 

When I can hold the pain I feel for faraway friends and still celebrate with those that are nearby, I generate joy. 

When I can get around my own sense of disconnection with our team and choose to celebrate all that we have achieved together this year, I generate joy. 
When I can swallow all the stress of having a kid in a school system I don’t understand, in a language I am still learning, and celebrate getting to the end of another term with a happy child? You guessed it: I generate joy.

Is it hard? Sometimes, yes. Is it worth it? Every time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take the bursting-out-of-the-seams, can’t-hold-it-in kind of celebration any time. Yes sir! But am I going to hang around, waiting for it to ‘happen to me?’ No. I’m going to practice celebrating when I don’t quite feel like it. I’m going to make my own joy and then use it as fuel for the journey.

What about you?