The Blessing of an Aching Back (BLESSINGS JAR Week 4)

Actually it wasn’t just my back that ached, it was across my shoulders, through my hips, down my thighs, and even my knees took it in turns to complain with each step up the stairs. What kind of blessing was this?

This week I’d been challenged, in the midst of all the responsibilities I’m carrying for others, to find something each day to take care of me. So I started with the long neglected task of clearing an autumn’s full of leaves from our garden.

Yes, I know that sounds like just another job to do on top of the others I’m trying to pack in. But I know that gardening does me good. It’s exercise for a start (hence the aches and pains). Being out in the fresh air and daylight (especially in the morning) helps my sleep pattern. There’s a sense of accomplishment of seeing one flowerbed and a good chunk of lawn emerging from their leafy quilt. And I find myself becoming simply absorbed in the rhythm and the task itself, not just distracted from worries and concerns, but mentally relaxed in flow of the activity, a form of active mindfulness if you like.

As I raked and gathered, piled and dumped, I found lessons in the trees’ abandoned detritus.

My neighbour’s tree had deposited its usual consignment of sweet chestnuts in among the fallen foliage. I keep promising myself that one day I will collect them when they’re fresh and transform them into something delicious, or at least edible, in my kitchen. In the meantime, their kernels turn into unwanted seedlings and their needle sharp cases an unsuspected trap for vulnerable fingers as they hid in handfuls of leaves.

After a while, I realised gloves were no defence and that I had to slow down and treat these differently. They needed delicate careful handling if I wanted to avoid puncture wounds from these spiteful globes. I found myself wondering if the same principle needed to be applied to be applied to the prickly and difficult problem (or people) in my life – what if they need to be addressed one at a time and treated with more gentleness?

Then each time I pulled back another pile of brown wet mass, I found myself hopefully searching the ground underneath. Late last summer I planted about 200 spring bulbs. How many had survived the onslaught of the hungry unhibernating squirrels that consider our garden a store cupboard of delights? And with every hopeful green spear thrusting through the surface, I felt a little bubble burst of joy.

Again, I had to work carefully, holding my rake lightly over the ground so that I didn’t damage the young shoots. Some parts of the garden were more fruitful than others, some bulbs further along in their growth than others, one or two bulbs popping right out but happily found and replanted more firmly to give them another chance. No evidence of blooms yet, and some shoots appearing disquietingly fragile, but oh the excitement of hope and promise!

So, as a warm bath and next morning stiffness beckoned, I welcomed the blessing of a painful and aching back. It was a sign of being alive, evidence of a job done, and a reminder of hope to come.

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CONTROL (Five Minute Friday)

control

I regularly run Stress Management groups at work and one thing I’ve noticed is the people who tend towards anxiety are those who like to be in control of as much as possible in their lives. So when life proves to be unpredictable and uncontrollable, it’s terrifying for them.

I should know – I’m one of them.

We anxious and controlling people are inclined towards detailed planning because it makes us feel secure to have all the pieces in place, to know what to expect. We even plan for things that might happen, usually disasters, telling ourselves we will cope with them better if we’re prepared.

We also gravitate towards perfectionism. By that I mean that we have a beautiful ideal of the world, our lives and other people in our heads at all times. When something happens to mar that picture it is at best disappointing and at worst devastating to us. Frustration constantly haunts us. Mistakes jump out at us like spellchecker highlights on a page. And we feel great personal responsibility for maintaining a perfect world in all its nitty-gritty. It’s exhausting.

So what’s the answer?

It is of course to realise we are not responsible for the whole world, not even our nearest and dearests’ actions. We can do our best to control our own reactions – but even that may not be possible as I found out leaning over a toilet bowl every twenty minutes as hyperemesis took over both my pregnancies.

We have to go one step further. We have to be a little kinder to ourselves, recognise that we are not the conductor even of the orchestra that is our own universe, and find safety in that because we can turn to the One who is. We need to breathe out, sink back into the Everlasting Arms, and cuddle up, as we remember that He loves us, that He has our best interests at heart, that His plans for us are ‘to prosper [us] and give [us] hope,’ and that His timing may well be much better than ours.

It’s a sobering thought that we are not in charge of everything. But it’s also a reassuring thought when we are able to trust the One who is.

When Blessings are Hard to Find (BLESSINGS JAR Week 3)

It’s been a hard week, dispiriting and emotionally exhausting. Again.

We’ve started the demoralizing process that is the UK system of finding a care home for our hospitalised Dad, in an area with hardly any vacancies, and having to sell his flat to fund it. I could tell you all the disheartening details but this is meant to be a post about blessings – it’s just been difficult to find any in all this.

But if I look closely enough and pay attention, there have been momentary blessings, flashes of respite or encouragement:

There was the flock of long tailed tits playing tag from branch to branch in the hedge as I pulled up in the work car park, oblivious to the tears of frustration I was crying after a stressful meeting with Dad’s social worker.

There was the hug from a friend, only our second in fifteen years of friendship – she doesn’t ‘do hugs’ but thought I needed one.

There was the low golden light over a frosted silver and blue lake as we drove back from a care home visit, trying to weigh up whether this was the best one for Dad or not.

There were the reminiscences my brother told of our Dad, which had inspired him in his own life as a husband and father.

There was my nephew literally jumping up and down for joy as his team thoroughly beat their opponents as he played FIFA 2012.

There was Rick Astley’s latest album  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC3Ejf7vPEY&list=PLrdTMSkt3NJi-_d14pQ-F1BomGjCuy4FN to sing along to as I drove between patient visits, exhorting myself to ‘Keep Singing’ through all this.

And then there was this:

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It’s just a mug, a Christmas present some years ago from a work friend, but it’s become my favourite one for my first coffee of the day. It’s Royal Worcester and looks rather delicate but is surprisingly tough. I said as much to my husband yesterday. His comforting reply?

“Just like you then.”

*****

God is in the small things.

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”’ (1 Kings 19.11-13)

Five Minute Friday REFINE

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There are two main ways to refine gold. You either heat it with fire to over 1000 degrees C, then stir and skim off the impurities as they rise to the top. Or you dissolve the impurities with acid, which is then neutralised and washed away, leaving almost pure gold.

Pure gold sounds stunning. But it’s actually a muddy looking substance that has to be dried into a powdered residue and then heated to melting point for it to be useable.

So the end result might be glorious but the process – flames, stirring, skimming, or acid, drying, melting– that’s painful. The Bible talks about how God refines us like precious metal:

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.’ (Proverbs 17.3)

But, until we’re in the middle of it, we ignore how excruciating this can be. Then, ironically, when we are going through the stress of being refined, we focus only on the difficulty and forget the hope of the end result.

‘For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.’ (Psalm 66.10-12)

It’s all about perspective and trust.

So wherever we are in the process, let’s keep our eyes on the Refiner Himself.

‘But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.’ (Job 23.10)

 

‘It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap’ (‘Blessings’ by Chance the Rapper) BLESSINGS JAR Week 2

Actually, it hasn’t felt like that at all this week.

I knew that this year of keeping (and blogging about) a weekly Blessings Jar would be a challenge to my habitual way of viewing the world but I did think God would ease me in gently, saving difficult times until at least the summer. Instead, 2017 has immediately thrown down a gauntlet of pain with the flourish of an old Hollywood villain and the words: ‘Go on, find the blessings in all that!’

So I have had to steel myself with all the courage/stubbornness/sheer bloody mindedness of my predecessors to meet that challenge. I have had to put myself on the alert, searching for that lost coin or lost sheep with all the dedication of the parable characters.

And, in moments, I have found it: music.

Ironically for a writer, there are times when words fail me, in that they fail to pin down difficult and anomalous emotions, feelings that can be too big or overwhelming for such small things as sentences.

But that’s where music steps in. Its combination of lyrics and melody can sometimes express either the complexity of often contradictory emotions or it spells out the way I want to react but can’t yet. Songs help me offload stress (whether a dry throated whisper or a determinedly belted out anthem) and they help me hold onto hope.

This week, these songs have spoken to and for me:

‘Blessings’ by Chance the Rapper (thank you to my son for introducing me to him) has helped strengthen my resolve with:

‘I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ‘til I’m gone.

When the praises go up

The blessings come down.’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KeqmbhyoFZQ

‘Never Too Much’ by Luther Vandross – a romantic song really but, for me, full of uplifting memories and reminders of the constancy of being loved by both my family and God:

‘There’s not a minute, hour, day or night that I don’t love you

You’re at the top of my list cos I’m always thinking of you.’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNj9bXKGOiI

And ‘Praise You in This Storm’ by Casting Crowns expresses the frustration of unexplained unanswered prayer whilst clinging to the principles of God’s constancy and the discipline of praising Him through good times and bad:

‘And I’ll praise you in this storm

And I will lift my hands

That you are who you are

No matter where I am

And every tear I’ve cried

You hold in your hand

You never left my side

And though my heart is torn

I’ll praise you in this storm.’

So these three songs will go in my Blessing Jar this week and I will hold onto them like anchors in a storm.

FMF Middle

middle

I got quite cross when I heard a news story the other day, telling the sandwich generation, those of us in the middle taking care of both offspring and elderly parents, to make more time to take care of ourselves to avoid health problems. Didn’t these experts realise, I thought, that we simply don’t have time to look after ourselves because we are so busy looking after everyone else? And that when the rarity of a spare moment comes along we are just too exhausted to do the extra things they recommended like exercise?

But is that strictly true?

I’ve been reminded a few times this week of the need to take care of myself if I’m to be a good daughter and mother. My boss has said it. One of my favourite bloggers, PromisePainter, wrote about needing a bigger plate to balance all our oranges and the ways to grow one to fit your need by healthy habits, spiritual care, choosing wisely, and stepping out in faith. https://postcardsfromheaven.co.uk/2017/01/12/the-art-of-balancing-oranges/

Perhaps God is trying to tell me something.

Blessings Jar WEEK 1

Looking for conversation to pass the time, I ask my husband what he would consider his blessing this week.

“Not a good time to ask,” he replies. “Sorry.”

He’s got a point. We’re sat in A&E again with my dad, waiting for him to be admitted to a bed, after he had another fall this morning and gashed his head. Following a number of trips here in the past couple of months, a painful decision has had to be made about his long term future. What chance of finding a blessing in all this?

But the words I will write on this week’s token in my Blessing Jar are ‘truth’ and ‘companionship’:

Truth because there is relief in finally acknowledging and facing a truth that has been creeping up on us for some time, namely that Dad is no longer safe to live in his own home and that we need to go ahead with moving him into a care home, where he will get the supervision and support he needs 24/7. There is blessing in actually doing it rather than dreading and anxiously turning over the possibility in my mind. And there is blessing in having a professional point out the truth of the need so that the responsibility is not solely mine.

Which is part of why my second word is ‘companionship’. It wasn’t any professional who assessed my dad but a colleague who was on today’s weekend rota, someone I trust and respect. And that was a great unlooked for kindness and blessing from God.

And I cannot ignore the companionship of my brother, sharing care and decision making as a team. Nor the continued support from my husband, who views my father as his dad too. What an example of love he set as, on hands and knees, he scrubbed the bloodstains from Dad’s cream carpet, or pulled Dad’s pants and pyjamas up as he helped him up from the commode. What a man I married all those years ago – who knew then just how deep and how rich the ore of quality ran in him?

So in the midst of difficulty, even though heartbreak may surround and threaten to engulf me, and even whilst in my mind I am angrily chunnering “b******d b******d dementia!”, here are my blessings of truth and companionship – lasting and precious.

FMF Connect

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I leant over the keyboard, head in hands, bowed down by frustration and disappointment that my dad’s care agency had let him down again and now I had to try and salvage the mess.

It felt like a week of failures I was unable to prevent: no promised callback about ordering his catheter supplies, missed lunchtime visits so he hadn’t eaten, carers not following his carefully drawn up care plan, and now an inexplicable rescheduling of his morning visit so he missed his precious day centre attendance again. And somehow I was supposed to sort all these problems in the middle of a busy working day, making me late visiting my own patients.

Was I wrong to hope for a simple sorry from the agency? And I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that Dad’s social worker wasn’t available to discuss the problems either. It was just turning out to be (another) one of those days.

On the edge of tears, I felt powerless to make things better and wondered how much longer I could keep trying.

Then I felt it. A gentle warmth on my back as a hand briefly rubbed up and down. Followed by a hug. Two colleagues, overhearing my telephone conversations and seeing my defeated posture, quietly moved closer to let me know that someone cared and that I was not alone. They gave no solutions, only listening ears, permission to feel, and understanding.

*****

Looking back, I remember another time when life felt overwhelming and I cried out to God to solve my problems. He didn’t. But He did reassure me with His promise of being right there with me as I went through it.

This time He did the same – but with friends.

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The Blessings Jar

My New Year’s Eve was once again a time for reflection. We have a family tradition around this time of discussing the year gone by, highlighting the worst and best events, and then listing our hopes for the year to come. With our boys away partying and our plans for a trip to the coast stymied by headaches and tiredness, a cosy night in with my beloved gave plenty of time for thinking about the year gone by.

As usual, my mood tended towards melancholy. I always find New Year to be frosted with regret. I worry about ‘the things [I] have done and the things [I] have left undone’. It’s never easy being a perfectionist, the mistakes and errors in my life standing out like highlighter pen on a white page.

Nationally (and internationally) this has been a year of shocks and grief. Many will be glad to see the back of it. The Last Leg TV show http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-last-leg regularly asks its viewers to nominate and vote for the worst person of the year but this time the poll was won by 2016 itself.

However, I was heartened by this article on the BBC website, Four Good Things that Happened in 2016 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-38330452.

Did you know that this was the year when, after 50 years of war, a unique peace process including the contribution of victims, led to the signing of a peace accord in Colombia? Or that in 2016 scientists in Norwich have been able to remove the gene that makes tomatoes susceptible to fungal disease, which brings hope of alleviating world hunger? Did you know that in the past year malaria was completely eradicated from Sri Lanka and it only took 7 years? Or that the man who conquered his fear of flights by learning to hang glide, who went on to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon but was discouraged by the effect of burning propane gas to do so, this year took the first flight in a solar powered plane around the world and has been inspired to found the World Alliance for Clean Technologies? How amazingly wonderful are all these things!

As a natural pessimist as well as perfectionist my challenge is to develop a more balanced view and to keep hope alive by calling to mind the positive as well as the negative. At this time of year I need to remember the sunrise that melts my frosty end of December anxieties: that this is the anniversary of meeting my husband so every New Year’s Eve signifies another year of him in my life and that can only be positive.

And I need a counterbalance to my gloom and cynicism all year round. So I am setting myself a goal of keeping a Blessings Jar for 2017. You may have seen them on social media or in online shops. My plan is to have a physical jar (having cooked all my homemade mincemeat into pies, there’s a large kilner jar in need of a new purpose) in which, once a week, I will pop a written note of something (or someone) that was a blessing to me. I’m hoping for contributions from the whole family and then, at the end of the year, we will empty it and read them.

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I’m hoping also to keep a virtual Blessing Jar, to take this as a theme for weekly blog posts, using those notes as a starter. I don’t know if it will work, if I can write something interesting and stimulating on the same theme for a whole year, but I’m going to try. One of many blessings in 2016 for me has been to finally become a writer, to discover the discipline of regular blogging as the stimulus and framework for this. So, having completed two months of daily posts on a theme, and continuing to contribute to Five Minute Fridays http://katemotaung.com/five-minute-friday/, this looks like a good next step forward.

I hope you’ll join me in my journey of hunting, claiming, and celebrating blessings over the coming year. I’d love to link up and hear your weekly blessings too. I hope you have many.

Thank you for your company in 2016 and may God bless you throughout 2017.