Thursday, 30 March 2017

A Silent Prayer

Some days I can see the redeeming effects of habits repeated, day after day. I can see the value of the small things, done faithfully; even the small and the mundane.

But some days I can't. I feel suffocated by the small and apparently insignificant. I feel discouraged by the act of doing the same thing over and over, never certain whether it makes any difference.

Marriage is like this.

Of course, I tell myself, the small things matter. The goodbyes, the hellos, the thank yous, the appreciation, the kindness, the small gestures of love and commitment. But there are days - weeks even - when these things seem to make no difference at all. Where is the fruit in terms of connection, trust and closeness?

Raising kids is like this.

Daily getting them out of bed with kisses, spending time instead of doing other things, speaking words of love and encouragement. And yet, still a teen who hates going to school, not obviously more capable of dealing with negative emotions or anxiety. Where is the fruit of maturity, of strengthening, of resilience?

At times I want to give up the small gestures of love and faithfulness. I want to go for the grand gesture of a memorable exit. I want my dramatic gesture to be noticed, to stop the ordinary and the mundane in its tracks. I want to breathe, and shout, and yell instead of holding my breath in this place of squeezing faithfulness out of my unwilling self.

They say hope deferred makes the heart sick. There is a certain sickness in living in the midst of daily choices that for a time may offer no obvious fruit. But perhaps this place of squeezing is the true field of the battle; maybe this is the canvas on which the true picture is to be painted.

Each brushstroke a determined choosing, a surrendered pressing in, a single stroke by an artist who will only later see the beauty of the overall work of art. Perhaps much of redemption is about finding meaning in the small and the ordinary, offering up a silent prayer that this too will count.


We’re halfway there, so they say.
By now we should have seen some progress;
Though a couple of false starts might be allowed.

Then rungs must be climbed,
Titles assumed, status established.
A cellar stocked, new wheels bought.
Wrinkles filled, where necessary.

Halfway there
And so little to show for it.
Leaves curl and flutter in the gathering wind.

Halfway to a lifetime of loving.

I can tell you of the softness of a baby’s cheek
Now tan and lit by eyes that sparkle humour.
Of loving the same, solid body
That reaches for mine, night after night.
Of sharing half a lifetime of sunsets and caresses.

Of journeys to unknown places that become
Memories of songs sung, friends made,
Islands dancing beyond the trees.

Only halfway there.
And yet, could the place
They sent you in search of
Be any more solid than here?

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.