The Blessing of Tradition (THE BLESSING JAR)

I’ve spent the last two weekends getting on with my usual pre Christmas baking. So far I’ve made a Christmas cake, two Christmas puddings, three batches of mincemeat, and over sixty mince pies. It’s part of the Advent preparations that I love.

I first made a traditional Christmas cake in the early years of marriage, having discovered how much my beloved liked fruit cake. Making them for him led me to delicious recipes full of moist fruits barely held together by cake mixture rather than the dry crumbly ones of my youth with the occasional dried sultana that horrified your mouth like a dead fly. And I became a fruit cake convert.

Gaining confidence, I decided to try making mincemeat for another of his favourites – mince pies – and again found something to enjoy with him. These tasted so much better than the over sweet claggy concoctions from the shops. I felt especially proud baking a batch for him to take in for his work team each year.

The Christmas puddings, however, are a much longer tradition. I can’t remember how old I was when I first joined my mum in making them. The same recipe every year from the 1937 GEC cookbook that my great great grandmother used, passed down through the female generations of our family. Now I make them with my niece.

They are never made alone and we never make just one. The original recipe is for 14lb of puddings! And my early memories are of making one for the family and giving the others to be sold at the church bazaar. Over the years, I’ve given the extras away to extended family and friends. The last one I made with my mum was in her nursing home when my husband and I took all the pre weighed ingredients in one evening, watched by fascinated staff who’d only ever had shop bought, and then the mixture taken round every resident in the lounge so all could have a stir and a wish. We gave the extras that year to those same staff to take home.

My mum taught me a lot about the value of traditions. But what I learned best from her about them is, like a good recipe, that they should be a guide not a fixed set of instructions to follow slavishly. Mum never put alcohol in the Christmas puddings when I was a child whereas I reverted to the original with its Guinness (in honour of joint family roots in Dublin) and a spirit that varies from year to year. (Once, after everyone had gone to bed, I secretly added to my mum’s mixture the only alcohol we had in the house – Malibu!) My mum always replaced the candied peel, which she disliked, with chopped dried apricots. I have both but swap almonds and glace cherries with dried cranberries.

Traditions should be made to fit the people and not the other way round. I learned this lesson most clearly from her the year I got engaged. I had assumed that I would travel back to London for my last Christmas Day with my parents and brother and, similarly, that my fiance would be with his family. But he had concluded that, with his flatmates in Devon and Wales, as we were now engaged, this would be our very first Christmas together, just the two of us. I didn’t know how my parents would react to the change. However, my mum in all her generosity and wisdom, merely said, “It’s time to make your own traditions now.”

And that’s the thing about traditions – they are made and adapted and personalised. They might look like a fixed point in the landscape but they are meant to be molded and weathered by the changing seasons and the river of life.

This Christmas is another transition as we face it for the first time without my dad. Routine changes once again – no more presents or cards to buy for or from him; no more extra mince pies to make because he didn’t eat Christmas pudding; no more opportunities to spend with him over the holiday period, or any other time.

So I’m holding on to those flexible family traditions, reminding myself that one Christmas is never exactly the same as the last – and that it’s not meant to be because life is not meant to be static. And I will hold onto my mum’s wise words, adapting them slightly (knowing adapting things is a family tradition in itself) to say once again, “It’s time to make new traditions now.”

 

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ONLY (Five Minute Friday)

OK, I’ll admit to cheating this week! I wrote this post on 31st October last year as part of #Write31Days when we were on holiday in upstate New York. So. with the same prompt word for Five Minute Friday, I’m repeating it here (and at least it definitely takes only 5 minutes to post!):

The final challenge of Write 31 Days – Write out Philippians 4.8 and practise thinking ONLY about those things today (‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’) – is one I need.

I’m a perfectionist by nature, which is a constantly uncomfortable way to live. Faults, errors, mistakes leap out at me like an editor’s red correcting pen on a manuscript. It might be a missing apostrophe on a sign or an inaccurate reference in someone’s conversation. I don’t look for imperfections deliberately; it’s more like wearing glasses with a filter that makes them stand out. And the urge to correct a mistake is so strong it’s automatic, like iron filings to a magnet.

So it’s very easy for me to fall into criticism mode and to anticipate and interpret actions for the worst in others. My view becomes skewed, out of balance.

That’s why I need this verse.

And I have tried today. We’ve spent a lot of time on the road, where I would usually be very critical of other drivers, but I’ve tried to make allowances and not assume their mistakes were malicious. I’ve tried to counter worries about my dad back home with thoughts of yesterday’s majestic and raw power of Niagara Falls. I have filled my eyes with the beauty of the unfamiliar landscape and architecture we’ve passed.

It’s a particularly apt verse for today, Halloween, when our culture seems to celebrate all things unlovely. As a Christian, I struggle with this celebration and I mourn its metamorphosis away from its original purpose of remembering those loved ones who have died. It would be easy to just criticise it, especially here in America where it seems such a major festival.

But today I have tried to look at it with fresh eyes, to see if I can find anything admirable or praiseworthy in it. And I think I have. The little mountain town we have arrived in has closed off its small main street for the local Parent/Teachers Association to hold a fancy dress parade (for all who want to join in), lay on free hot dogs and a pumpkin pie eating competition, and set up themed stalls out of car boots where children can get festive treats. Laying aside my usual concerns about the ethics of Halloween, I have to admire the effort to make trick or treating safe for all involved. I have to admire the creativity of many of the costumes (especially the fluorescent jellyfish made from umbrellas). And I have to praise the sense of community that was evident to visitors like us.

Whatever I conclude about Halloween itself, the point is that by practising this verse, I was able to find light in the darkness like the stars in the clear black sky. And it’s given me much to think about in terms of how to harness and tune into such creativity and community spirit back in the UK, potential inspiration I would have missed if I’d concentrated on criticism instead.

It’s a great verse for me. And it’s been a great discipline to practise today.

But it’s not enough.

I need to practise this regularly.

The Blessing of Bed (THE BLESSING JAR)

Sometimes you have to go without something to appreciate it – at least, I do.

Last weekend, we held a sleepover at church for the 8-11 year olds in our Boys’ Brigade Company. They played pool and table tennis, made chocolate pizzas, did a quiz, and watched a film late into the night. Finally, it was time to settle down for some actual sleep, the boys in the church hall, the leaders each in a side room.

I retired to our Rainbow Room, used throughout the week for meetings, U3A sessions, and small youth group activities. It also had the advantage over the hall of having carpet tiles. And I had come well prepared – after all, I’ve done this before. I had my husband’s new, thick exercise mat; my cosy, brushed cotton lined sleeping bag; a pillow; and my long fleece dressing gown for an extra layer if needed. I even had my Kindle just in case I couldn’t sleep.

I wasn’t expecting any difficulties. I’ve slept in more uncomfortable surroundings, even fully clothed (complete with hat) when camping outdoors in November. I’ve slept in this room for previous indoor camps before.

But I was wrong. It was one of the worst night’s sleep I’d had in a long time. Carpet and mat seemed to make no difference as I struggled to find a position that didn’t dig into my hips or thighs or shoulders. My pillow instantly shrank to half its thickness and seemed determined to spend the night escaping from under my head. The light in the corridor (which we’d left on for the boys to find the toilet) flooded my room with unwelcome brightness, fooling my brain into thinking it was daytime. Unfamiliar noises, even though I told myself they were just the pipes after the heating had been turned off, kept bringing me to a state of alertness.

I was glad of my Kindle. I read a lot of my John le Carre book before finally dosing off.

But it wasn’t to last. Around 3am, I woke for no obvious reason. I went to the loo, snuggled back into my sleeping bag (which I’d moved into a darker corner away from the intruding light, simultaneously trapping my pillow against the wall), and once again returned to the saga of no comfortable position, disturbing sounds, and a brain that had switched off sleep mode. Surrendering to wakefulness, out came the Kindle again as I followed the exploits of George Smiley for another two hours before finally falling asleep again for the last thirty minutes or so before my alarm went off.

The following night, I was back in the comfort of my own capacious double bed with its elegant brass frame. Two fluffy pillows moulded perfectly to my neck and head. The mattress and topper gave just the right level of support to my curves. A double layer duvet wrapped me in a cocoon of warmth. The bed linen was freshly laundered, soft and scented against my skin. Only the faint outline of the closed door pierced the sleep inducing darkness. And the comfort of that familiar body next to mine filled me with reassurance and security. Bliss.

This was a bed full of memories: where my youngest was nursed as a baby; where both children found refuge when sick; where I was woken early by the phone to be told of my mother’s death; where everyone’s Christmas stockings and birthday presents are always opened first thing in the morning. Its history, our family’s history, wraps around me like an old, well loved dressing gown.

Such a welcome difference.

And I realised how often I take it for granted or don’t appreciate it at all. Even if insomnia attacks at home, I can decamp to a generous and very comfortable sofa with plenty of warm bedding. I considered my bed and my home with renewed gratitude.

With Advent about to begin, I also started to think about what it was really like for Mary and Joseph, trying to sleep in an unfamiliar environment with a brand new baby. How cold and hard was the floor of an animal enclosure? What about the noise, let alone the smell? How many disturbances from sleep by that child who needed feeding or changing? How many disturbances when the animals needed feeding or mucking out, let alone strange visitors?

No pillows or sleeping bags or camping mats for extra comfort for them. No Kindle for distraction.

The trouble is we have romanticised the story, sprinkled the stable with tinsel and glitter, and turned the whole thing into a pastoral idyll. We have magnified Mary and Joseph into saints or reduced them to characters in a children’s play. We have ignored the reality of it, turned away from the cold and the dirt and the smell, forgotten the fatigue and fears of new parenthood.

What if we try to imagine the modern equivalent – giving birth and making do in a garage?

I gave birth in the safety of a local hospital, then within a few hours brought my infant son back to our lovely brass bed and our warm centrally heated house and our fridge full of food and my parents staying for a few weeks to support us. No such comforts for Mary and Joseph.

And no such comforts for a lot of people in the modern world.

We’re trying a new tradition this Advent, a Reverse Advent Calendar. It’s a simple cardboard box, to which we will add one item per day, and give the finished result to our local Foodbank. It’s not much. But it’s an attempt to celebrate the truth of this season, to remember the God who didn’t just come for a sleepover but who moved into the neighbourhood, and to do something for others as a means of serving Him. I might not be able to give Mary and Joseph a bed for the night but I can make sure Jesus, in the form of someone else, has enough to eat and the toiletries He needs.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25.34-36 & 40)

So NEAR and Yet So Far (Five Minute Friday)

Check out all the other great writers at the Five Minute Friday community here http://fiveminutefriday.com/2017/11/30/fmf-link-up-near/.  Five minutes of free writing on a given word, no editing, no over-thinking, no worrying about perfect spelling or grammar, just write.

Here’s my contribution this week:

I’m facing Christmas with mixed feelings this year, my first without my dad. I feel a bit silly saying that though. After all, I’m a grown woman with a husband, adult children, and decades of our own family Christmas traditions behind me. But my parents were always part of our Christmas, even if it wasn’t always on the Day, so my first without either of them, grateful as I am for the rest of my family, feels bittersweet and just a little bit empty.

I guess that’s the thing with grief. You’re managing fine, getting on with life just like you know your Lost One would want you to, when suddenly a heart sink catches you unawares or a cold aching in your very centre settles in like a week’s worth of bad weather.

There are times when I find myself thinking, ‘Oh, I must phone Mum and tell her about that,’ only to realise that she isn’t here to phone anymore. Or something happens and I can feel my Dad smiling at it, except he isn’t.

I am blessed in the knowledge and experience of parents who loved me, who loved me well and long. Sometimes it’s as if that love lingers on, hovering just behind my shoulder, or waiting to envelope me in a hug, or echoed in my sons’ faces. At other times, even their memory feels very far away and the ache is hard to bear. Or I am so absorbed with the rest of my life that I forget them and their absence for a while.

Sometimes I think this push-pull of grief is similar to my faith experience. Sometimes Christ feels very close – my prayer life flourishes, church services inspire, Bible readings shout with words personal to my situation. But at other times, Heaven remains silent, distant, or I push Him away, too busy with my own priorities.

This Advent, I pray that I ‘will draw near to Christ’ and hope that ‘He will draw near to [me]’.

 

I’ll Be Seeing You (FIVE MINUTE FRIDAY ‘Familiar’)

‘I’ll be seeing you
In all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces
All day through…
And when the night is new.
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.’

To be honest, as soon as I read this week’s prompt word, the echoes of this song swirled around the corners and pockets of my mind like low lying mist in the early morning.

It was published in 1938, became popular during the Second World War with British and American military personnel posted abroad, and covered by a multitude of artists.

But it’s those last two lines that resonate with me:

‘I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.’

With darkness falling earlier and earlier now, there’s been a clear silver sliver of a moon suspended in a sable sky over the villages I drive through on my way home from work this week. And every time I see it, I think of my Dad.

He was a keen and knowledgeable amateur astronomer, a member of the British Astronomical Association for longer than I can remember, his expertise entirely self taught through books, articles, and TV’s The Sky at Night. His interest began as a teenager in the Air Cadets, learning aircraft identification and navigation by the stars, and he never stopped looking up. I grew up with his tales of Greek mythology, full of mortals transformed and gods commemorated in constellations, as bedtime stories, retold whenever we walked our dog at night.

The sky was one great map of history and future opportunity rolled into one for him. He saw there man’s spiritual and scientific quests as well as the glory and creativity of God.

So for the whole of my life, I’ll be looking at the moon but I’ll be seeing him, and thanking God.

 

THE BLESSING OF A THANK YOU (The Blessing Jar)

 

I was given flowers by a patient this week. That doesn’t happen often.

I mean, we do, as hospice staff, receive gifts from time to time but usually chocolates and mostly from grateful relatives after their loved one has died. Over the past 15 years, I can remember just one large bouquet and one miniature potted rose sent to me from families I’d worked closely with over a long period. It’s always gratifying to know that I made a positive difference at such a key time in someone’s life and that the memory of that lives on for the family.

But this is the first time working in palliative care that I’ve received flowers from a living patient. And it was completely unexpected.

I’d simply arranged a couple of practise sessions in one of our powered wheelchairs to boost her confidence for the one she was hoping to be given for home. They had proved to be really enjoyable times for both of us, taking place in our picturesque gardens and chatting casually as we went along in order to remove any sense of pressure.

The wide gently curving paths were perfect for initial practise, gradually moving on to narrower ones, tighter corners, some gentle slopes, and gateways to negotiate as my patient’s confidence and technique improved. Plenty of benches provided rest points, stopping at one to swap places so I could demonstrate the swing of the smaller wheels that needs to be allowed for when switching between going forwards and reversing. Plants and garden features like the Memory Tree provided talking points and distraction from the task in hand, adding to the sense of relaxed normality rather than a learning opportunity or a skills test.

The final piece in the puzzle was trying a different grip on the joystick. Resting it between the base of middle and ring fingers resulted in more precise control. Laughingly, we nicknamed it the ‘Live Long And Prosper Grip’ for its similarity to the Mr Spock’s salute in Star Trek to help her remember it.

It was wonderful to see the change in her over such a short time of only an hour or two, not just in technique and skill but particularly in confidence. Much of my job is spent in the context of deterioration and decline so it was a real highlight to witness such progress and improvement. It was an absolute pleasure of an intervention and put a smile on my face that lasted the rest of the day.

So to be given material gratitude in the form of a beautiful bunch of autumnal coloured roses and berries was unnecessary for me. She’d thanked me verbally at the time; I’d seen the difference in her demeanour; and I’d had the satisfaction of witnessing her improvement in ability. I’d already had my reward and been extremely happy with it.

But it would have been wrong to do anything other than accept the gift graciously. She had spent time and thought in choosing it. And it rebalanced what can be unevenly powerful relationship between patient and therapist. The sessions I’d arranged had benefitted her and her gift blessed me.

We are allowed to accept gifts from patients that can be considered ‘reasonable’ in cost but have to report them to a line manager – to make sure we have not taken advantage and also to acknowledge them as ‘plaudits’. Similarly, we have to pass on any written compliments.

When I went back to mine, we talked about all the detail that had gone into my wheelchair practices. Whilst to me it had been a fairly standard piece of work, there had been a lot of skill gone into the best approach to take and grading of the task in order to build up the complexity incrementally in order to ensure success. My boss pointed out that it was a perfect example of palliative rehabilitation and not just care, and how important it is to acknowledge and recognise our expertise.

It felt good to get this recognition from a manager. And now when I look at the blooms gracing my sideboard (and perfectly matching the décor), I am reminded of the satisfaction I got from a job well done, the significant difference made to a patient, and the appreciation of my boss.

So one unexpected thank you is proving a lasting blessing.

A Lady’s EXCUSE Me (Five Minute Friday)

Welcome to another link up with the great Five Minute Friday community at http://fiveminutefriday.com/2017/11/16/fmf-link-up-excuse/ writing on the prompt word ‘Excuse’ (although I have to admit that I went over):

“Excuse me, sorry, excuse me,” I mumbled as I wove my way through the small pockets of space between the waiting crowd in the foyer from the Ladies towards my husband near the bar.

Such a British phrase and attitude – to apologise for my presence in a place I’ve a perfectly good reason to be in. And also a phrase that’s full of shorthand for what I really mean, in this case it’s something along the lines of:

“I’m sorry to ask you to move but I need to get past you to reach my husband. He has our tickets, you see. No, I’m not trying to jump the queue to get to the bar, I’m just trying to get to him. Yes, perhaps I should have gone to the toilet before I came out but it’s better to go now than in the middle of the performance – that would be even more impolite and they might not let me back in. Sorry to disturb your conversation by asking you to move slightly to one side so I can move a couple of steps in the direction I need to go. Yes, it is very crowded in here and I know I’m invading your personal space. What a poor design for this theatre to make everyone wait in one area. Surely it has another bar upstairs? Oh it does? And that’s just as packed? Sorry, sorry. Please let me get past, I’m starting to feel claustrophobic and I really need to get to my husband.”

It was the same phrase I used as we made our way through the narrow gap to our seats in the theatre itself, navigating our way past knees and handbags. This time it was shorthand for:

“Sorry to ask you move so we can get by. Yes, we should have arrived sooner and got to our seats before you and then you wouldn’t need to move at all. Is that your bag on the floor? I’m really trying not to tread on it. Is it ok if I nudge it out of the way? Thank you for standing up to let me past. I’m trying really hard to achieve that perfect balance of squeezing past you without actually touching and yet not falling over the row of seats in front, honestly. Why have you done that weird half stand? You’d make more space if you stood properly upright plus it would be easier on your knees. I know, I’m inconveniencing you by asking you to move at all, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

And then there’s all the other full meanings of “Excuse me”, depending on tone and inflection. There’s the “Excuse me?” that means “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.” Or the elongated “Excuse me?” – usually with raised eyebrows – to indicate that my children have said something wrong or outrageous and I’m now waiting for an explanation or an apology. Or the “Excuse me!” sarcastically shouted at a fellow driver when they’ve caused me to swerve or brake suddenly. (My best friend’s mum, in her dog collar, on the receiving end of poor driving used to follow it up with calling out the window, “I can do you a good deal on funerals – you’ll probably need it, driving like that!”)

It’s amazing how much meaning and emotion can be behind one small phrase.

I think we use similar shorthand when we ask God to excuse us, that is to overlook, pardon, and forgive our sins. I love the words of the Prayer Book which perfectly summarise our sorry state where we confess to God:

‘We have sinned against you and against our neighbour

In thought and word and deed,

In the evil we have done and in the good we have not done.’

Given the opportunity to pause, we can mull over the specifics that hide behind these words. But God hears the detail and understands the intention when we pray these words with sincerity, just like my fellow theatre goers understood the shorthand as I negotiated my way past them.

Sometimes we need stock phrases and familiar words, like ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ when our own seem utterly inadequate or our feelings overwhelm us.

And we need, perhaps even more, the reassurance of God’s simple reply:

“Your sins are forgiven.”

The Blessing of Sacrifice (The Blessing Jar)

Let me tell you the story of a young man.

Named after his father James, the middle child in a large family, he started life in Aldershot, Hampshire, before moving to North London where he grew up. His mum came from Cornwall and his dad from Ireland. They’d met when the latter had been stationed in Plymouth with his regiment, the Royal Devonshires, and ended up in hospital there.

By the time young James came along, the family had lived in Salford, Dublin, Colchester, Cork and back to Dublin, following that same regiment wherever it was posted. Rumour has it that they moved to London because his dad wanted to avoid being sent abroad, probably to Burma, without his family. So he went AWOL. They even started spelling their surname differently to avoid detection and arrest, leaving the younger children with a different name to the older ones.

Life seemed settled with James’s dad and older brother, Tom, getting jobs as gunmakers at the local factory. But then tragedy struck. First his dad and then his baby brother died within a year of each other. James was 12.

When he was 15, Tom got married to Emma, and soon James was uncle to a baby niece. Some years later, Emma gave birth to his namesake, another James to add to the family.

When he was 18, our James signed up. The family needing the security of another reliable wage, he became a regular like his dad had been, but not in the army – no, James became a Royal Marine, ‘Soldier an’ Sailor Too’ as they were known. He was assigned to the Light Infantry, Portsmouth Division, fulfilling the traditional roles of shipboard security, boarding parties, and small scale landings. He was proud of the Brunswick Star, with all its hallmarks of the Corps – globe, laurels, anchor, crown, ‘Gibraltar’, and the motto ‘Per Mare Per Terre’ – that he wore on his white helmet on ceremonial occasions. Only men of proven good character were allowed to enlist – his credentials had been fully checked with the Police and his former employer first.

By the outbreak of war, with 6 of his planned 12 years’ service behind him, James was an established Marine, having earned his 1st and 2nd Good Conduct medals. The Corps was sent to defend key ports, where their actions enabled the army to move forward and extend their flank to establish a fighting front. However, this success came at a price: 300 men from James’s battalion were taken prisoner. Soon the Corps was preparing for another key amphibious attack, its location a secret.

But James, along with 224 other officers and men, was assigned to a newly commissioned minelayer, HMS Princess Irene. Built at Dumbarton, 5900 tons in weight, at 120 metres long with a beam of 16 metres and a draught of 5.2 metres, she could travel at up to 22.5 knots.

After two successful mine laying trips, the vessel moored back at her base at Saltpan Reaches in the Medway, between Port Victoria and Sheerness, ready for a refit and loading with a new consignment of 500 mines – that’s about 150 tons of high explosives. These were contact mines, detonated by a ship passing over them.

On the morning of 27th May, it was busy for James and his fellow Marines. Only 3 officers had been given leave to go ashore so all the rest of the crew were on the two mine decks, finishing priming the mines which had been brought down by barge from Upnor and Woolwich. Each mine had to be fitted with a primer and a detonator, which they’d started the day before. Also on board were a party of 88 Petty Officers from Chatham and 76 dock workers, who were helping to repair and ready the ship for her departure on the 29th.

At about ten past eleven, first one and then another flash, each followed by a 200 feet column of flame, shot up from amidships. A few minutes later, there was an enormous explosion and the whole ship blew up into the air, spreading debris, body parts, and chaos over a 20 mile radius.

It killed all those on board bar one, the crew of a barge alongside, a little girl playing innocently in a garden on the nearby Isle of Grain, and our James. He was just 26.

Rumours of sabotage abounded but a later official Royal Navy enquiry found that it was an accident, probably caused by a faulty primer but with implications of the work being carried out in too much haste and by untrained men. Such a senseless waste of life.

*************

So why am I telling you this story? And why am I calling it a blessing?

Well, you’ve probably guessed that this isn’t a recent event. James was born at the beginning of the 20th century and died in the First World War. His isn’t a story of great daring and heroics, not like his fellow Marines who went on to earn their reputation of ‘first in last out’ at the notorious Gallipoli. His is an ordinary story of a man working hard for his family, just doing his job, and losing his life in an horrific industrial (albeit military) disaster. They were one of the lucky families – at least there was a body (or enough of one) for them to bury in their local cemetery back in North London.

James’s death might not be as a result of some great battle in the First World War but it still remains a great tragedy of that War. His death was still a result of that War. His was a dangerous military occupation and he paid the ultimate price for someone’s inexperience and pressure to finish by a deadline.

But I am reminded of the honour and heroism of all men who enlisted at that time, whether just for the war or, like James, a regular in the armed services. They joined knowing the risk, knowing the ultimate sacrifice they, and their families, might have to make.

Men and women continue to make that choice. Whole families continue to make that choice generation after generation. I’ve had a great great grandfather and two grandfathers in the army, a father, uncle and three cousins in the Royal Air Force.

We’re blessed to have our military personnel, flawed human beings as they all are, who are willing to take that risk for the sake of others, willing to be sent to dangerous places to do their jobs at any time at the drop of a hat or the sound of a bugle, knowing they might pay the ultimate price. I don’t think I could ever be that brave but I thank God for those who are.

So why the story of James in particular? Well, I nearly didn’t mention my military relatives also include a great grand uncle who was a Royal Marine. James’s baby niece was my grandmother.

A Time For SILENCE (Five Minute Friday)

I admit it, I’m cheating this week because I’m unwell. Instead of a five minute free write, this week’s Five Minute Friday’s prompt reminded me of a poem I wrote about my older son last year. So here it is:

GRADUATION

Sometimes the heart is so full

there are no words.

Sometimes the heart is so full

it can only be expressed in an open mouthed O of wonder.

Sometimes the heart is so full

love threatens to charge out your chest overflowing your mouth with silence.

Sometimes the heart is so full it hurts

and the only route available for the ache to spill out is tears.

Sometimes the heart is so full

that cheering, whooping, clapping seem utterly inadequate.

Sometimes the heart is so full

that no one can see how proud I am of you.

Sometimes the heart is so full

there are no words.

 

The Blessing of Ordinary (THE BLESSING JAR)

It’s been an ordinary weekend, nothing exciting or significant or eventful has happened. It’s just been ordinary, pleasant but ordinary.

It started with takeaway and a movie, curled up on the sofa with my Beloved. Nothing deep and meaningful, just Wonder Woman and a curry. Next day we walked up to our high street to do some chores and treated ourselves to breakfast in a favourite Italian café.

He came home to watch the football and I went to a friend’s house for coffee and cake, a fundraiser for her daughter’s college fashion show. The usual neighbours were there, friends for many years, and we talked about the usual subjects, updating each other on our children’s lives, the only difference being that now the stories have moved on from school and college to university and jobs.

Then I went to my dad’s old flat to read the meters and go through the inevitable post that still comes even three months after his death. In the evening, another friend came round for dinner. We talked, shared a beer, and watched Strictly until he fell asleep, as he always does.

Today, I’ve caught up with jobs – Boys’ Brigade admin, laundry, sorting out the linen cupboard, a legal letter to write. The rest of the day should include a walk in our local nature reserve, church, and a Skype call with our sons.

So it’s proving a very pleasant but utterly ordinary weekend. So much so that I may have lost some of you with mediocrity of it all!

But, the joy of the ordinary!

And I think it’s because we haven’t had many weekends like this in the last year.

Sometimes that’s been for lovely reasons – a holiday, a concert, a party, guests staying, birthday weekends away. So those were extraordinary weekends which I am also grateful for.

Other times it’s been down the nature of our current season in family life – helping sons move accommodation, university drop offs and pick ups, trips to visit them. My husband regularly has to work Saturdays, leaving only Sunday together with little time and energy to fit in those things we want to do together. These weekends are not unexpected or unfamiliar but neither are they fully routine. So not ordinary either.

And, of course, so many weekends in the first half of the year were dominated by my father’s changing situation, first with frequent trips to A&E, then hospital visiting hours, and finally afternoons spent in the care home with him. Just as we were starting to get into a regular pattern – looking at old photos, a little bit of simple gardening, a trip out – he died and a whole new readjustment began.

So to have a two day weekend full of ordinariness feels like a real blessing. There’s time to do the things we want and need to do with no rush. There’s space in our heads to think and talk. There’s a sense of pace and balance.

Oh, there are things I know I won’t get around to. Another layer of fallen leaves in the garden that I probably won’t clear this weekend. Some studying that I promised myself but will probably delay. After I’ve done an online grocery order this evening, I might get on with the knitted blanket that I’ve had on the go for about a year now but if I just end up watching the Strictly results show, I won’t beat myself up.

Somehow it feels like time is moving a little more slowly than usual. It’s a sense of Sabbath I suppose.

I realise that I have learned this year not to take ordinary for granted. Ordinary is precious. But you only know that when it has been taken away from you. So I am grateful for the blessing of this ordinary weekend. I hope it’s not the last.