Under Pressure

I’m standing in the garden first thing, as is my weekday routine, taking stock of the plants and wildlife around me, a time just to be with God quietly and appreciate our joint work, when my youngest surprisingly comes out to join me. Surprising because it’s rare for a student to be up that early. But he’s leaving this morning to go back to university after five months at home because of pandemic restrictions.

We stand together, each with a coffee in one hand and the opposite arm around each other, looking and appreciating.

Then we talk about the mulching I’ve started and a discussion I’ve been involved in with other local gardeners about the benefits of horse manure. My mother, as a child was sent round the streets to follow the rag and bone man’s cart with a shovel and a bucket to collect the droppings and bring them home for her grandfather’s roses.

Who would have thought that excrement could be so beneficial?

Although it does need time to rot down and process into good fertilizer and compost, which feed the soil with an abundance of nutrients, all beneficial for growth.

Sometimes life feels full of manure. Our own, others’, life and world events. In this last year, I’m sure many of us have felt like we’re wading through the stuff.

But if we process this ‘excrement’, learn from it, look for the good and the lessons in it, it has the potential to produce growth in us too.

My family, my youngest perhaps in particular, has had to deal with a lot difficulties – a lot of manure – in the last couple of years: trauma, mental and physical illness, bereavement. It’s been immensely painful and frightening at times. But we’re coming out of this heavily mulched ground stronger and more vigorous – as a family we’ve become closer, our communication more open and honest, learned new coping skills and better self-care; we’ve all grown up.

And I’m reminded that diamonds are formed in conditions of great heat and pressure, then often moved to the earth’s surface by traumatic events.

So if you’re feeling that your life is full of manure or pressure at the moment, hold on.

Look to the Expert Gardener, the Jewel Maker. God, if you let Him, won’t let your terrible circumstances be meaningless. At some point, you may find that He was using them to grow something stronger in you.

Something as strong and beautiful as a diamond.

Good Friday 2021

It feels quietly different this year.

Last night, we resumed our traditional family Maundy Thursday Passover type celebration as the beginning of our Easter holiday. Shivering, despite the throws provided, under a new gazebo in the garden as we’re only allowed to meet outside at the moment. But the joy of being back together after our only ever separation for this in last year’s first lockdown warmed our hearts if not our bodies. The grape juice flowed (two of us didn’t drink). New Lebanese recipes devoured with relish. Familiar words and familiar actions united us again.

Today is softer, gentler.

Listening to a Good Friday reflection. Considering Rev. Richard Coles’s modern Stations of the Cross on Twitter. Savouring the smell and taste of freshly made hot cross buns.

I find myself quietly absorbed in building an Easter Garden for church. It’s hard work. I forage odd pieces of slate from our pond to make a cave tomb, spare top dressing for a path. I raid the wood store for straight thick twigs. Large leftover pine cones serve as very unBiblical shaped trees. Cutting artificial grass offcuts to size hurts my hands.  Trimming the twigs and twining them together to make crosses almost moves me to tears. I carefully and reverently fold up a small piece of crepe bandage to place inside the tomb to represent the folded graveclothes left in place.

Afterwards I notice new leaves on our dwarf apple tress have unfurled to reveal blossom buds waiting to pop. The stems of miniature pear, plum and cherry trees, only planted last year when they resembled no more life than a set of walking sticks, are smothered in tiny grey, lime or emerald shoots. Muscari spread their sapphire hue around the beds. As tete a tete daffodils fade, numerous tulips are waiting to take their colourful place. White narcissus glow like soft lanterns among the shrubs.

It’s as if the garden is waiting to burst into full glory on Easter Day.

And I can’t focus on lament, on death and dying, this day, this year.

Because somehow, maybe alongside the vaccine rollout and a staged loosening of pandemic restrictions, just like the buds in my garden, the world, despite its continued failings, seems tinged with hope to me.

We are looking back on Friday, knowing Sunday is coming. We know this too shall pass. We know the story hasn’t ended yet. We know God hasn’t finished with us yet.

Taste and See

The FMF Writing Prompt Link-up :: Savor – Five Minute Friday link this week is ‘Savor’ (or ‘Savour’ to us Brits!). Although I haven’t used the actual word, it triggered a memory of a Bible quotation that prompted a poem. Or half a poem. Or the introduction to something else that went into a completely different direction. Such is my brain today.

Anyway, enjoy the on topic poem as it stands or with off topic part two.

TASTE AND SEE THAT THE LORD IS GOOD/THE GOD WHO KNOWS

Take your time

No need to rush

Let your mind still

In the hush

Of soaking sunshine

Breath of breeze

Showered in birdsong

Find its ease

Let the beauty

All around you

Gently step

Into your view

Feel the arms of love

Surround you

Know you are His

Creation too.

    

**********

Maybe that’s not

Your conclusion

A loving God

Seems an illusion

Life has thrown up

Contradictions

Pain and suffering make

Him a fiction

I wish that I had

Answers for you

Neatly packaged

Into easy proof

To reassure

Your rightful questions

Comfort you

With simple truth

I too have screamed

Into the darkness

Desperate

In my distress

Weakly whimpered

Into the void, “Why?”

“I am with you”

Cold reply

And yet…and yet

That empty answer

Has seeped in slowly

To my heart

I’m not alone

Not unacknowledged

He walks with me

That’s a start

And as I get to know

Him better

Wrestle with this

Tricksy Lord

Reassurance grows

Gradual in me

Trusting, anchoring

In His Word

Reasons for my

Suffering come not

But companions

Sent in lieu

Practical directions

Laid out

Step by step

Forge my way through

Looking back

I can see now

From my suffering

Purpose grew

If I hadn’t anguished

In extremis

How could I

Reach out to you?

United in a

Common language

Shared experience

Recognised

Weaves a rope of

Strength from struggles

Pull together

We arise

May I suggest we

Lay our questions,

Anger, wranglings,

At His Cross?

Look up into a

Face abandoned

Traumatic agony

And loss

Mirrored in Him

Our dilemma:

Love and longing,

Frustration, fear.

Arms stretched out in

Pain-drenched welcome

“I have got you.

I AM here.”

Lockdown Lessons in Observation

Some time ago, when I was recovering from one of my episodes of depression, my children nicknamed our garden “Mum’s Therapy”. It’s certainly proved to be a mental shower each morning, a gym equipped with rakes and spades, a place to honour memories.

But in those visits, which have become a daily habit, sitting under our enormous cypress tree, hands wrapped around a mug of coffee, I have learned so much from simply watching the world of this small space.

It started with taking photos of details of plants – bulbs shooting, apples blossoming and fruiting, acorns developing, potatoes flourishing – to my children locked down in other cities. Our Garden Updates became a regular feature of our online chats, a way to bring home to them when they couldn’t come home.

Joining the Garden BirdWatch | BTO – British Trust for Ornithology , taking a weekly count of birds and other animals visiting our garden, gave me a purposeful, lockdown project and rekindled a childhood love of ornithology.

Doing that led me down two paths of further learning:

I’ve started to recognise birds by less obvious means: their flight patterns, their colouring underneath, their song.

And I’ve noticed other fascinating details about them, for example the stately courtship of wood pigeons as they bow low with tail feathers fanned to a potential mate, or how they follow the same circular flight path to gather nesting materials, how they sidle and hop to access their nest hidden in a junction nearer to the tree trunk.

I’ve become decidedly fond of these often unappreciated birds.

Or who would have thought that the bright yellow and blue of a blue tit would be such excellent camouflage among the bright green of oak leaves?

Then I’ve started to realise the range of other wildlife in my garden.

I’m learning to recognise different butterfly species and pay close attention to bees. My husband is a beekeeper but I’ve developed a love for their undomesticated cousins.

Did you know there are so many types? A litany of their names is like a joyous tongue twister: White Tailed Bumblebee, Red Tailed Bumblebee, Buff Tailed Bumblebee, Broken-Belted Bumblebee, Common Carder Bee, Moss Carder Bee, Red-Shanked Carder Bee, Broken-Banded Carder Bee. I never thought I would spend time getting up close to examine the back end of an insect with such interest!

And for Christmas, we bought a trail cam. So now we can observe the night visitors. Two domestic cats, foxes, a barn owl, and badger are regulars. To add to the daytime squirrel families who treat our pergola as their private jungle gym and practise free running along our fences and between our trees.

It’s made me more observant day to day too. Here’s something we noticed on an evening walk in the gutter as we crossed the road:

Even when there’s little to observe, there’s a lesson to learn. When I don’t understand or recognise something, it drives me to research what I’ve seen and why. So when the bird numbers declined in January, I discovered it’s likely because a mild winter means they don’t need to forage in domestic gardens for food.

We’re all sick of lockdowns and pandemic restrictions. But in among the gloom, I’ve been blessed to find joy in the stillness of observing the natural world. I’d recommend it.

(This post was inspired by the weekly prompt of OBSERVANT from FMF Writing Prompt Link-up :: Observant – Five Minute Friday)

Introducing THE DIARY OF ISABELLA ME SMUGGE

I don’t know about you but life under pandemic restrictions is really starting to drag.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining about the necessity of the lockdown or any of the precautions. But with no end in sight and the novelty of the situation well and truly worn off, the monotony and lack of variety of daily life has become a slog.

We could all do with a break. A distraction from the gloom. A reminder that change is possible.

For me, that escape often comes in the form of a good book. So let me introduce you to one: The Diary of Isabella M Smugge.

If you’re a fan of Bridget Jones, Mrs Hinch, or I Know, I Need To Stop Talking | Facebook, then this is for you.  And if you’re not a fan of these but just need a bit of a giggle and some hope, then this is for you too.

We know from the beginning of Ruth Leigh’s debut novel that we are in the world of a modern Hyacinth Bucket with the explanation that Smugge is pronounced to rhyme with Bruges, as the London Instagram Influencer faces the challenge of adapting to country life.

Social media is Isabella’s natural habitat with every diary entry spattered with hashtags, maintaining her brand like a Tourette’s sufferer who can’t stop themselves swearing. #curatedperfection is my favourite, with its irony of perfection as a momentary artificial concept.

Much of the humour lies in the juxtaposition of our heroine’s beliefs and experiences, coupled with her lack of insight, such as her pride in her thoughtfulness with her inability to remember which country her long term au pair is from, or her belief that the other mums are threatened by her attractiveness to men being shattered by the news that she comes across as intimidating.

Similarly, there are some wonderful grotesques in the supporting cast: Mimi, Isabella’s agent, who keeps her eyes firmly focussed on profit or Mummy, with her excruciating rudeness and snobbery.

It would be easy to make all these characters two-dimensional, stuck in their ways, using this for further funny episodes between the London socialites and the unpretentious country dwellers. But the author doesn’t fall into this trap.

As the book progresses, our heroine’s personality proves to be more endearing as she gradually gains the courage to challenge her assumptions and learn where true friendship is to be found. Vicar’s wives turn out not to have the backgrounds or experiences many, including Issy, don’t expect. When she is betrayed, one of the culprits is realistically conflicted about her actions. Even Mummy shows a crack in and reason behind her stiff-upper-lip armour.

There is more depth to this book than first appears. Issy made me laugh at her ridiculousness but she also pricked my conscience about the things I also take for granted without realising. And, like Jane Austen’s Lizzie Bennett, our heroine develops and grows – but not unrealistically. There’s even a gentle stirring of spirituality in her, but no annoyingly miraculous conversions and sudden turnround in behaviour. The ending is satisfying but also leaves us with some tantalizing hints for a sequel.

So, if you are looking for something to lift your spirits whist raising some much needed amusement, do read this book.

The Diary of Isabella Smugge by Ruth Leigh is available to purchase from 19th February or can be pre-ordered from The Diary of Isabella M Smugge eBook: Leigh, Ruth: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store or The Diary of Isabella M Smugge by Ruth Leigh | Waterstones

(I received a free copy of the book to review but, if I hadn’t, I would have bought the book anyway. These are my honest opinions).

Recipes, Knitting Patterns, and Intelligent DESIGN (Five Minute Friday)

One thing I enjoy doing to relax is knitting. However I’m a bit sporadic about it. Easy parts, like stocking stitch, I can do with less need for concentration and even with the TV on, but something more complex, such as sewing sweater pieces together ready to knit the roll neck, leaves me procrastinating until the light is right, I have more time, I’m in the right mood etc. That’s why my husband’s fisherman’s jumper, with my first attempt at a cable pattern, has moved from 2020 birthday present to 2020 Christmas present and now might just get finished for 2021 birthday!

Knitting patterns can be quite daunting in themselves. They are effectively written in code and, even if you know what all the abbreviations mean (I mean, realistically, there are only two types of stitch and everything is a variation on that), they can still take some deciphering. And if you go wrong, it can affect a whole piece so you can find your self undoing hours of work back to the mistake, before starting again.

Knitting patterns need close attention and exact following.

Recipes, in the other hand, are different. I was taught by my mother and grandmother that recipes are guides and inspiration rather than instructions to be strictly adhered to. Take my great great grandmother’s Christmas Pudding recipe, handed down the generations but adapted on an almost yearly basis according to: individual taste (my mum hated mixed peel so always substituted dried apricots); culinary fashion (the more recent additions of dried cranberries or goji berries); alcohol or teetotal principles (Guinness or chai tea, brandy or ginger ale); or vegans in the family (hello chia instead of eggs).

Or consider the wonderful Jack Monroe’s recipe for porridge enhanced with frozen blueberries and lemon curd. I’ve adapted that to use whatever fruit and preserves I have to hand (which ties in brilliantly with her principles of non waste and using store cupboard ingredients creatively). So it works just as deliciously with tinned pears and ginger preserve, frozen tropical fruits with pineapple jam, or bananas and peanut butter.

I think, perhaps, as Christians, it’s easy to treat our faith more like a knitting pattern than a recipe. Slavishly following the instructions, leaving little space for adapting the principles to individual circumstances, expecting carbon copy experiences of faith, forgetting the creativity we have inherited from our Heavenly Father.

My son asked me this week if I believed that we as human beings are designed.

Now, I do believe the Biblical principle that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made” but I don’t hold to the idea of the Divine Clockmaker theory, i.e. the God who makes and sets us off then leaves us to get on with it with only the parts we’ve been given.

There’s an approach called Participatory Design. And I wonder if this is closer to the model God uses. It’s a practice of collective creativity, which includes all the stakeholders in the design process – those on the shop floor as well as behind the desks. It’s much more interactive, fluid, with wider potential for the results.

What if God gives us our basic design in the form of our DNA and then there’s more levels to the creative process that involves our own choices? How we react to the circumstances that happen to us, the people we meet, the challenges and opportunities that come our way, the problems we have to solve?

Just like we see what we’ve got in the freezer, or we discover new ingredients that go together, building on the basics, to create our own recipe? And then send a tweet to the original chef to show how they’ve inspired us, sparking onto a online discussion of all kinds of inspiration and encouragement ?

I don’t believe God designed robots to work to one set pattern. I believe He created amazing individual humans, with all kinds of potential to develop in partnership with Him – His gifts interacting with our choices, all stirred together in prayer.

All those vast and wonderful possibilities that only Someone Omniscient could picture. All those choices and decisions we are free to make. How exciting is that?

FIX YOU (Sorry, Coldplay)

I’m not a Coldplay fan, to be honest, unless it’s a reworking by the Vitamin String Quartet.

Vitamin String Quartet – Fix You – YouTube

I’m not sure why but I’m beginning to think it’s the lyrics. You only have to watch the Gavin and Stacey episode where Pete and Dawn recite songs as vows for their wedding renewal to think again about ‘Fix You’:

Gavin & Stacey – Pete & Dawn Renew Their Wedding Vows – YouTube

I understand Chris Martin wrote it as a heartfelt wish to console his then wife, Gwyneth Paltrow, after her father died. But loving someone doesn’t mean fixing them.

Love is about listening, accepting, walking alongside.

Or, put more famously, love is about being patient, kind, unselfish, forgiving, protecting, trusting, hopeful, persevering. (1 Corinthians 13). No mention of correcting, improving, or changing the beloved there.

That doesn’t mean I think we’re already perfect and don’t need to change. I am a firm believer in growth, renewal, and transformation. It’s just the idea of being fixed, like a faulty toy that grates.

And I rather suspect that our definition of perfection needs changing.

To be whole and beautiful doesn’t mean surgically erasing wrinkles and dying away grey hairs to appear forever young. It doesn’t mean feeling permanently content and happy. It doesn’t mean being physically able or tackling all life’s challenges with ease. It doesn’t mean being independent all the time.

To be human is to be unique and vulnerable.

Life will batter and break us at times. But, if we let Him, God will take those wounds and weaknesses and fill them with His kintsugi love, not disguising them but acknowledging and transforming them as part of our history, a part of us. Just as lines on a face map a life filled with jokes laughed at, kisses impressed, tears shed, evidence of a life fully experienced, beautifying it along the way.

We don’t need fixing. We need loving.

Matthew West – Mended (Official Lyric Video) – YouTube

(Joining other writers on the prompt ‘Fix’ at FMF Writing Prompt Link-up :: Fix – Five Minute Friday)

Wearing a Mask

As I reach the bottom of the stairs, I yank off the mask. The pedal bin lid clangs with mutual relish as I drop it forcefully in. And I greedily inhale glorious sinus and lung-filling breaths of fresh tingling air as I step outside at the end of the day.

I’m not one of those healthcare professionals who work in intensive care, dressed up in space suits of infection control, but I have been wearing a mask for eight and a half hours, apart from a couple of breaks to eat or grab a drink.

I’ve got used to clamping the nose bridge as tight as possible to prevent my glasses steaming up – and I’m mostly successful, except when I’ve come in from cold weather to warm building. I’ve almost got used to the scratchiness of the stitching over my cheekbones. But it’s hard to get used to the soreness behind my ears caused by the combination of mask elastic, glasses arm, and goggles weight (when I’m seeing patients) that builds up increasingly quickly as the day progresses. Sometimes I worry that I might be developing a pressure ulcer there.

We change our masks more frequently now so at least I don’t have to put up with the stale smell that builds up otherwise over the day. And I’m grateful that I’m not getting the daily headaches anymore.

I don’t like wearing a mask. It creates a psychological as well as a physical barrier between me and my patients. Deaf patients struggle to hear me on the phone so I have to assess through a relative. Home visits take longer as we don and doff PPE at the beginning and end. I’m always conscious of the mask covering half my face and having to work at gestures and non verbal communication through my eyes and eyebrows to compensate. Gone are the days of discussing patients’ concerns over a cup of tea in a relaxed human way.

But each time I feel discouraged by the limitations, inconvenience, and discomfort, I remind myself that this is a small thing to do to keep my patients and their families (and my colleagues and my family) safe. I remind myself how blessed I am to live in a country where I have access to such protection and at a time where viruses’ transmission is understood and can be guarded against. I remind myself how blessed I am to have an employer who is so conscientious to look after its staff by providing this equipment and up to date guidelines how to use it.

And each time I step outside and take those first unhindered breaths, I am thankful, as perhaps I never have been before, for the blessing of something as basic as fresh air.

This post links with the weekly Five Minute Friday community and this week’s prompt: FRESH. You can find more here: https://fiveminutefriday.com/2021/01/14/fmf-writing-prompt-link-up-fresh/

If I Could Turn Back TIME

Have you ever wanted to time travel?

We certainly seem to have a fascination with the concept as a society. Just consider films like Back to the Future or Tenet, TV shows like Dr Who or Star Trek Voyager, or Cher’s song from this post title. On Radio London, in a regular feature interview, Robert Elms asks what time period they would like to travel to in the city. Or what about The Time Traveller’s Wife or Outlander? I doubt HG Wells had any idea what a cultural phenomenon he was sparking with The Time Machine.

I wonder what it would be like to travel back just eighteen months ago, before the world was changed by this global pandemic. Sometimes I wish we could return to a moment of peace, before anyone had even heard, let alone died, of COVID19.

And if we could, knowing what we do now, would it make any difference to how we lived 2020? The Grandfather Paradox and Novikov’s Self-Consistency Principle suggest not.

But if we could, I wonder what we might change?

Would we start wearing masks sooner? Try to stay fitter? Tell those we care for that we love them more often? Appreciate our freedoms more? Would we lobby for earlier precautions? Stockpile flour and toilet rolls before anyone else? Get on with priorities more urgently? Would we be more or less selfish?

Regrets are easy.

Maybe regrets are what make us fascinated with time travel.

But regrets aren’t helpful on their own.

We can’t change the past. We can only live the present.

The writer Joyce Huggett said, “The only real mistake is the one you don’t learn from.”

So let’s not write 2020 off. Let’s see what we can learn from it and apply to our current situation. Let’s time travel slowly forward through 2021, doing our best with every moment that we can.