A FATHER’S BLESSING: WHAT MAKES A GREAT DAD? (Blessing Jar Week 22)

Is it too cliched to write about dads just after Fathers’ Day?

I’ve been wondering what makes a great dad. Not just what are the characteristics of a great dad but how a man becomes a great parent, what attitudes and circumstances lead to that apparent ease in the role.

Some of us, of course, have been blessed with the example of a great father as we grew up. All we’ve had to do is copy him, whilst adapting a few aspects to a new generation. Often, it’s so ingrained that it’s not even a conscious mimicking but one day, we notice ourselves using the same phrases with our children that we heard (‘I want doesn’t get’), stroking an ill child’s arm with the same comfort we received, or passing on the love of an activity like gardening or photography that we were taught.

These echoes and ripples flow naturally into our lives and sometimes we find ourselves driving the same roads together with our own offspring with those nostalgic memories a backbone for how to manage them. In our case, it literally is the same road – the A1 – as we repeat those precious university journeys side by side building strong connections with our now adult children.

Others, however, have experienced at best, patchy and at worst, terrible fathering. And yet I have seen a great dad grow even out of these. And, as none of us has perfect parents, the techniques (for want of a better word) to achieve this surely apply to all parents.

For a start, a poor experience can be a powerful motivator to be different. We know what it feels like to be on the receiving end so can be determined that our children will not share that, that we will not fall into whatever trapped our parent into their mistakes.

But to do that, we need to understand what led to our parents to making such mistakes. What parenting did they receive? What troubles weighed them down and what hurdles stood in their way before they ever became mothers and fathers? Let’s remember that they weren’t always parents, that they were (and continued to be) people first, with hopes and dreams, ambitions and worries, cares and nightmares.

Where did they start from and how does that compare with where they ended up? It’s easy to forget that the previous generation lived through history we have never come anywhere near. I don’t know what it was like to grow up through the London Blitz, to be evacuated from my family at only 11 years old, or to lose my home when my father was unemployed for years in the Depression. I didn’t experience living in a two room house, being brought up mainly by my sister from an early age, or having to move to another country to find work. How can such things have failed to have influenced, maybe even damaged, our parents? But knowing these things might help me see how much they achieved against such odds.

I bought my husband a T shirt once with the logo ‘Knowledge is Power’. It seemed apt for his going back to university. But now I think about it, I believe it would be more accurate to say that understanding is power. If we can understand our parents, their background, their motivations, even their deprivations, we can put their mistakes into context. We can then more accurately assess their parenting of us and we can better consider the legacy it leaves us.

However, understanding is useless without forgiveness. And that’s one of the most powerful things I have seen making someone a great dad – not just the decision to forgive children for their conscious mistakes or unconscious effects (sleep deprivation anyone?!) but also to forgive one’s own parent’s mistakes. That’s hard. It’s also not just a one-off decision and finished with. But it is possible.

George Elliot said:

“A friend is one to whom one may pour out the contents of one’s heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that gentle hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”

I have seen a good dad with the utmost bravery ignore the option of denial and, instead, take the chaff and grain of his own childhood, carefully sift and search out the good so that none of it is lost, and then let go of the rest, refusing to give in to bitterness. That’s forgiveness.

I have seen him take the good from his past and apply it to his own parenting, adding to his store the experience of having other men God has sent into his life as fathers to him. That’s determination to become a good dad.

And the result? He isn’t a good dad – he’s become a great dad.

WORTH: lessons from a supply teacher (Five Minute Friday)

There was a supply teacher at our boys’ infants school who all the kids adored. They loved it when Mrs J was called in.

I guess it was difficult remembering all their names as she was brought at short notice into any one of nine different classes. So she got round it by calling each child ‘Special’.

But the thing was, the way she said it as she held a child’s gaze, she made every single one believe they were special. It wasn’t just a technique for overcoming an impossible number of names to recall, it was a genuine belief that every child was of great worth.

I knew, know, her outside of school. She spoke, speaks, to everyone like that. You come away from a conversation with her feeling truly listened to, as if everything you have to say, no matter how trivial, is important. She just has an amazing manner that makes you feel cared for after even a short interaction.

No wonder she is loved.

I think the secret is in order to be valued, you have to make others feel their worth. And that’s what she does.

It’s an example worth following.

This is my regular link up with the wonderful writers at Five Minute Friday. More posts can be found at http://fiveminutefriday.com/2017/06/15/christian-writing-life-worth/.  Why not take a look?

THE BLESSING OF (MY) BOYS (Blessing Jar Week 21)

I spend quite a bit of my life surrounded by boys. I’m the captain of a Boys’ Brigade Company and a mother of sons rather than daughters. When we took Belarussian children into our home for respite breaks, we always had boys. Even our cat was male. The only time the balance was redressed was courtesy of Amelia and Megan, our two guinea pigs.

I suppose like many people I had assumed that I would somehow recreate the family I grew up in – a son and a daughter. But I was sure in my second pregnancy that I was expecting another boy and I was right. However, if someone had told me I had the choice of only sons or only daughters, I would have gone for the former.

You see, I like boys. I like their liveliness and logic, their strength and their struggle. I like how a mad imp of a boy can turn into a thoughtful, caring young man. Since my teens, I found boys more straightforward and therefore easier to get on with than girls. There was no front, no fakery with them – if a boy disagreed with you or disliked you, you knew it – so there was no back stabbing either. As I’ve grown older, I’m not sure that’s entirely true: they’re more complex than that. But the fact remains – I like boys.

There may be times when I feel outnumbered, when the conversation passes me by and I can even feel a bit left out. There have been times when I would phone my mum just to hear another human being speak in whole sentences instead of grunts. And there are still times when I am exacerbated by silliness, terrible puns, and fart jokes.

But I have never missed out by only having sons. Things I had thought were unique to being a mother of daughters – not true, shopping for instance, including choosing jewellery and clothes. There is nothing quite like seeing your son in his first suit. And there is nothing like a fashion conscious young man patiently waiting outside a department store changing room to tell you how much an outfit suits you.

I was never allowed to do my elder son’s laundry when he came from university; in fact, he would text me at work to ask if I had any washing he could do before I came home. My younger son is quite the baker so he is the one who makes cakes to take back to his flat mates at the beginning of each term.

And there are all those other advantages of having sons. They are gentlemanly and kind as only young men can be. They carry bags, hold doors open, and lift heavy loads. They gallantly acknowledge that all the women in their family are forever 21 years old. And now they are grown, they tuck me under their shoulder for a hug, where their shape reminds me nostalgically of their father and grandfather.

They say, ‘I love you’ and, whilst I don’t expect to be the last, I know that I will always be the first woman they said that to.

In this period between their birthdays, I know that I have been truly blessed in my boys.

 

 

EXPECT (Five Minute Friday)

This post is part of the weekly Five Minute Friday link up. More can be found here:  http://fiveminutefriday.com/2017/06/08/adjust-your-expectations-fmf-link-up-expect/

Working in palliative care, I think I’ve lost much of my ability or habit of expecting things. Life has been proved to be unpredictable and day to day, it’s rare for any timetable to go exactly to plan.

But when I stop and think, I do still have expectations – not so much of events but of people and their behaviour. I expect them to be polite, well mannered, to say thank you. I expect other drivers to follow the rules of the road. I expect people to be honest and to keep their word. I expect them to listen and take in what’s said to them.

I suppose I have this ideal picture of the world and those who live in it, myself included, so when someone doesn’t live up to my expectations, I feel immense disappointment. And the person I am hardest on is myself.

I wonder if God has expectations of me, an ideal view of my life and behaviour? And I wonder how He feels when I miss the mark?

I believe in a perfect God, who never falls short. However, He doesn’t always live up to my expectations because my expectations are flawed and faulty. Somehow He perfectly balances love, mercy and forgiveness with justice and perfection in a way that my small brain finds hard to fully understand. I suppose, in a way, that His perfection lies in that balancing act.

My aim in life is to become more like Him. And as I get older, I think that’s not so much about living up to incredibly high standards of behaviour as approaching everything and everyone with love. And that can mean taking a breath to try and understand why someone acts in a certain way, making allowances for them when I feel frustrated, remembering that I make mistakes too and treating them as kindly as I would like to be treated.

That doesn’t mean accepting bad behaviour as ok or not standing up for what’s right. It’s a balancing act, where we somehow hold these apparently opposing stances at the same time. It reminds me of some of the poses in my yoga class – seemingly impossible to get into that position but becoming gradually more achievable with practise.

 

 

BLESSINGS IN A TIME OF TERRORISM (Blessing Jar Week 20)

It’s hard to know how to write a post on blessings the day after terrorists have killed 7 people and injured 48 others in my home city of London. It brings back memories of growing up there with the threat of IRA attacks just part of day to day life – even the unknown, unimportant little suburb that I lived in had its local railway station blown up.

I’m tempted to adopt a similar approach to the main UK political parties and suspend this Blessing Jar series for a short time. However, I’m also aware of the Biblical command to ‘give thanks in all circumstances’ (1 Thessalonians 5.18).

But how do you give thanks in circumstances like these?

Well, what strikes me is that the command is to give thanks in not for the circumstances. Perhaps it means acknowledging the awfulness but also remembering things to be grateful for. So here are the things that I’m thankful for in the midst of the horror:

I’m thankful for the speed and efficiency of the police which surely prevented further bloodshed.

I’m thankful for our amazing and brave emergency services, for the technology and skill that will hopefully save lives.

I’m thankful for our British determination to ‘keep calm and carry on’, for our refusal to be deterred from our daily routines and our democratic values.

I’m thankful, as a Christian, for a listening Father who I can throw all my difficult questions and emotions at.

I’m thankful for an empathetic Saviour, who lived in tumultuous and violent times Himself and understands our fears.

To be honest, that’s about as far as I can get.

Because in the midst of finding things to be thankful for, I am struggling with feelings of helplessness and anger. I am struggling to understand the motivations of someone to carry out such attacks as we’ve seen in the last 3 months in the UK. I’m struggling to understand such evil. And I’m struggling to understand how an all powerful God can stand by and let this happen even though I believe so much in the concept of free will, struggling to understand how He balances justice in one hand with love and mercy in the other, struggling to trust that He will ‘work all things together for good’.

So all I can do, as I try to stay with this discipline of counting my blessings each week, is echo the Psalmist’s words:

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Saviour and my God.” (Psalm 43.5)

FUTURE (Five Minute Friday)

Come and share the Five Minute Friday fun at our new home http://fiveminutefriday.com/.   Here’s my contribution to this week’s prompt ‘Future’ sparked by Kate Motaung’s own post.

Kate wrote in her opening post on this prompt, ‘the real joy lies – in the future’. I’m not sure if I agree with that.

Her job means she has spent a lot of time ‘dwelling on the past’ and finding it easy to ‘get bogged down by what needs to be done right now’. Mine means I spend a lot of time helping people make the most of what time they have left on this earth, valuing the quality of the present rather than the quantity of their future or past.

End of life care brings a different perspective and sense of time passing. While their clock may be ticking down apparently faster and faster, my brief often involves slowing the moments down by taking time to be with a person, to listen to them and hear who they are and who they’ve been, rather than just treat a patient.

Some have had enough and wish they could control the timing of their end, bring it forward. Others try to ignore the ever closer finishing line, pretending death can’t happen to them. Some carefully hand over details and responsibilities so loved ones are not left in further distress. Others wait for a miraculous cure. Some are haunted by unresolved issues from their past. Others are able to say they’ve had ‘a good innings’ and are ready to go.

But I think the future is always in their minds, acknowledged or not. In fact, past, present, and future are all somehow combined once someone is told their time left is short.

I wonder if it’s a bit like that for God? His name, Yahweh, is usually translated as ‘I am who I am’ but it can also be translated ‘I was who I was’ or ‘I will be who I will be’. If God is eternal, omniscient, time doesn’t exist for Him like it does for us. Our words and experience are too limited to be accurate but perhaps God exists in a perpetual Now.

I think those moments when we are ‘in the zone’ totally absorbed in a creative activity may be when we get a small taste of what that might be like.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a planner by nature so I’m very future oriented. Even when I’m gardening, often what excites me most is seeing shoots coming up or buds starting to form – the promise of what’s to come. But for me, the ‘real joy’ is in the balance of past, present, and future, the valuing of all three, or even the dismissal of such limited distinctions.

THE END OF A BLESSING (Blessing Jar Week 19)

Twenty-two years, almost to the day, I went on maternity leave from my job ready for the birth of my first son. I never went back fulltime again. Until now.

For the last two decades, I have either worked part time or been a fulltime stay at home mum. But as of this week, I have a new contract and I’m back to working a five day week.

I’m nervous. It feels like a big change.

The reasons for the change are complex. I’ve been explaining them frequently for the past month or so since the offer and decision were made – to colleagues, to family, to friends, perhaps most of all to myself. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure this is the right decision to make, for financial as well as emotional reasons, and the opportunity has arisen just as my daily family responsibilities are declining so I’m pretty sure this is God’s timing. I’ve been in this post for the past thirteen years, with the hours gradually increasing since the start so this seems like the natural next step, both for me and the job.

But it still feels like a big change.

So I’m taking this moment to look back with gratitude on the two career breaks and all the part time jobs I’ve held since 1995.

Not all women have that same chance. I’m blessed that I have such a supportive husband, who earns good money, that gave us the choice for me to be at home more with our boys as they grew and then to be available to care for both parents as ill health overtook them. It gave me the time to get involved with Boys’ Brigade and host children from Belarus on respite holidays.

I’ve also been blessed to have jobs, particularly the current and last one, where there was flexibility to my hours. So when our youngest broke his leg and was in plaster for three months, I was able to swap three long days for four shorter ones in order to ferry him to school late and pick him up early. I’ve worked different days so I could take my parents to hospital appointments. Hairdressers, dental appointments, coffee with the girls have all been easy fit in. It’s been a mutual arrangement – I’ve also swapped days to come in for special meetings or training. But, again, not everyone has the blessing of such flexibility.

Now there are no more school runs to do, no more holiday childcare to find, and no more hands on care of my parents. Somehow, I still need to find new time for my voluntary work in Boys’ Brigade, my writing, and all those personal appointments. But, other people fit these in around fulltime work and I used to (well, most of it) before I had children. I’m just going to have to be more organised and disciplined with my free time.

And I am hoping that working fulltime will take off some of the pressure that comes from part time – less of a need to stay late to finish something off because it’s Wednesday and it can’t wait for when I’m next in on Monday. I’m hoping fulltime will let me pace myself a bit better, timekeep a bit better, and even stay on top of my waiting list and To Do List a bit better. Well, a girl can hope!

We’ll have to learn new routines together, my beloved and I. My change in hours will impact him too, mostly for the positive (there I go, hoping again!), but also in little ways, like I won’t be able to pick up his prescriptions or do errands for him in town. Perhaps we’ll go back to some of the routines we had when first married, things like whoever gets home first cooks dinner. Maybe we’ll have more evening dates so neither of us has to cook!

This long weekend stands at the end of one routine and the beginning of a new one like a river marking a county boundary. I’ve gazed back at the country I’ve crossed, the distance I’ve come, grateful for the peaks and troughs along the way. Time now to take a breath, cross the bridge and look ahead into the misty morning for the challenges and blessings to come.

MY DAD, THE TIME LORD (Five Minute Friday VISIT)

As I turn the corner and peep round, there he is, in his usual spot fast asleep. I crouch down in front of his comfy chair, place my hand gently on his knee and say:

“Hello Pops”.

His eye light up immediately on opening. He’s always so pleased to see a visitor.

The rest of our time together varies. Visits are frequently limited to no more than an hour as he struggles to battle ongoing fatigue. His Alzheimer’s makes it difficult for him to remember what he wanted to ask or think of things to say so the emphasis on finding things to talk about is on me. But pick the right topic, often questions about his past, and he can speak with fluidity and clarity, just like he used to.

His sense of time, especially how much of his timeline I was involved in, isn’t fixed. It’s a bit like stepping into a Tardis when I visit, with him as the Doctor and me as his Companion, as we travel back together to his childhood, his adolescence, his National Service, his early days of marriage.

Sometimes he thinks I was there, expects me to remember the old friends he grew up with, his mother (who died when I was a baby). But that doesn’t matter. Rather than remind him of the blank patches in his memory, I blame my own recall and ask him to remind me of them. Because his memory of his early days is clearer, it’s even been a chance to learn more about my unknown grandparents; I feel like I’ve had a chance to get to know them at last.

Yesterday he told me about the lettuces, runner beans, and radishes they used to grow – small details that add up over time to a richer picture – and it led to a conversation about the vegetables my husband and I are growing now, as well as the tomatoes Dad used to grow when I was a child, and an idea that we might plant up some pots together for his care home’s garden.

And so our Tardis takes sweeps us off on another journey back and forth through time. How many people find out their father is a Time Lord?

To link up with the rest of the awesome Five Minute Friday community, please visit http://katemotaung.com/ (although from next week we’ll be using the dedicated website http://fiveminutefriday.com/)

(*For those wondering, the people in the photos are as follows: 1. My parents, me and my older brother outside my childhood home probably 1970; 2. My dad  in 1934; 3. My parents’ wedding in 1958 – you can just see their mothers each next to the aisle 2nd row back; 4. My mother, my dad’s mother, and me – shortly before my grandmother’s death; 5. My dad’s parents and younger sister in 1945 – he kept this photo while he was on National Service; 6. My dad in 1927)

 

The Blessing of Taking Stock (BLESSING JAR Week 19)

It’s been one of those weekends where, thanks to migraine and back pain, the best laid plans an’ all that…well, you can fill in the rest. So we’ve had to do something different and today it meant getting on with some more gardening instead of a trip to the coast.

But I’m not sorry.

We’ve got on with a host of jobs: mowing and edging lawns, tying in pea plants, thinning out radish seedlings, planting the last of summer bulbs, weeding, cutting back an over enthusiastic Rose of Sharon and self-seeded geranium, unwinding the broken fairy lights from the pergola. We’ve been busy.

There’s still a list of tasks to tackle – the hanging baskets are in sad need of attention, next door’s overhanging laurel needs cutting back, there are summer pots to plant up, seats to be painted and repaired, and new slate to concrete in around the pond – but not now, not today. Now is the time to sit and look, to appreciate and take stock, time to pause and simply enjoy.

The bed nearest the house is a mass of white and pink floating on a sea of green. A visitor might think the colour scheme was deliberately coordinated but it wasn’t. I hadn’t thought about the colour or the timing of these last of the spring bulbs and even the unintentional survivors from before we had the garden redesigned a few years ago harmonize. They draw the eye to Clematis Nelly Moser which has, as I’d hoped, but much faster than expected, scaled the entire trunk of the Rowan covering it with candy striped blooms. Its timing is perfect – Clematis Montana Elizabeth has just finished. It has spread so voluptuously that I wonder how much of the fence will be on view next year. Next to the first butterflies of French Lavender, the first rose, an ivory one, has opened.

Our vegetables are flourishing. The recent rain has resulted in daily growth. The broad beans have sprouted generous sized leaves on thick stalks not quite high enough to tie in yet. Peas, on the other hand, are growing in almost every direction, hence the need to tether them to their supports now. Radishes in a line, needles of green showing the beginnings of spring onions, recognisable mixed salad leaves, with rocket and lettuces close behind in the growing race. The blossom on our only recently planted miniature apple trees has finished but one already has what look like green rose hips – the initial stage of actual fruit.

The pond is full from rainwater. If I wanted to, I could turn on the pump and listen to the gentle flow of the small cascade but I prefer birdsong for now. The rose behind it, which I planted in my mother’s memory, has greenfly but one brave bud despite its inauspicious positioning. The tropical- like marginals have developed new, more luminous growth.

In the long bed, some shrubs are thriving and other surviving, a few just taking their time to establish and spread. On one silver leaved bush, I notice a single convolvulus shaped flower for the first time – I wish I could remember the plant’s name. The Californian Lilac I planted two weeks ago is already showing signs of blossom, small bobbles of blue that look more purple against the lemony variegated leaves. My fern corner is prospering, taking over from the fading Bellis flowers around them. And the coiling wisteria has reached the top of its post, ready to colonise the crossbeams of the pergola.

A garden’s never finished, never complete. There’s always more to do, another season to prepare for. However, there are these times to stop and examine exactly what’s happening in it, to see what’s been achieved and what promises lie ahead. These moments – or hours – are precious, a hiatus in time, mindful and saturated. In taking the time to take stock I have found a new blessing. I wonder if I should try to apply the practise to my life too?

Postscript: I just thought I’d share the progress of the Amaryllis from last week’s Blessing post – so you can see what a blessing it continues to be. And yes, it turned out to be three blooms!

What is TRUTH? (FIVE MINUTE FRIDAY)

I found myself echoing Pilate’s question when I saw this week’s prompt. It’s one of those words that I know I use all the time but what does it actually mean? I know it’s about facts and reality but surely it has much more depth than that? What I initially thought of as simple, solid, and graspable seems more amorphous than at first glance. I wanted to pin it down so I went back to my usual habit of investigating the word’s definition and etymology.

It turns out that there is more than one origin to the word. The English word comes from a shared root with ideas of fidelity and loyalty – hence the word ‘troth’. ‘True’ may even share a common root with ‘tree’ (please forgive the pun!) because it has this sense of ‘steadfast as an oak’. It links with the Latin words, ‘veritas’ and ‘verus’, meaning sincerity and agreement with facts. But there’s also a Greek word for truth, ‘aletheia’, which means revealing or bringing something that was hidden into the open.

Now those words of Jesus (where I realise I’ve always skimmed over the middle one in the list) make sense:

‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’

It’s not just a matter of His existence being an historical fact but this statement tells us of His faithfulness and dependability. It echoes with His other saying of being the Light of the World – for bringing light to dark places is how the hidden is revealed.

Truth is the way He lived His life. And He calls us to be and do the same.