THE BLESSING OF CHANGE (Blessing Jar Week 8)

About 6 months ago, I was facing a major change in my life. With my youngest off to university, I was becoming an Empty Nester and, whilst I knew I would miss my boys considerably, I was excited at the freedom of being just a couple again. I felt hopeful at the idea of a return to our early years of marriage. An offer of increased hours at work also seemed very timely as I considered getting my career back on track.

But it didn’t turn out as I expected. As he put it himself, ‘I’m the boy you worry about now’, so my dad’s deteriorating health needs took the place and time of looking after children, resulting in an end to the extra work hours. Any hope of freedom or a new relaxed home routine fell apart with hospital admissions, trips to A&E, paramedic call outs, and finally sorting out a care home. When I look back, it seems like this past half year has been one of constant adaptation to new circumstances.

Now Dad’s starting to settle in the care home, his flat is almost ready for sale, and we’re back to trying to figure what our new routine is. I thought I had some plans for that, especially having put fewer work days to good use, but a potential career opportunity may have put paid to those. I’m starting to think that the old saying needs to be revised to ‘Nothing in this world is certain, except death… taxes and change’.

We don’t adapt to change easily. And by that, I mean that I don’t adapt to change easily. I find myself resenting the impact of change on my well laid plans and expectations. When it comes to letting go of the path I was on and accepting a new direction, I can be like a car with a wide turning circle and no power steering.

I suppose the resentment is easiest to understand when the change has been imposed. I frequently labour under the delusion that I am in complete control of my life so it’s always a shock to have this disproved. But I can also struggle with a change that I have chosen. I find it all too easy to question my decision instead of listening and trusting that ‘small still Voice’ that says ‘this is the way, walk in it’ (Isaiah 30.21).

However, change means we take the scenic route and can lead to unexpected and more memorable opportunities.

We drove to Switzerland for a camping holiday one year. We arrived on Day 1 of freak storms, which caused severe widespread flooding. (Who’d have thought, in a country so mountainous?). We battled to put up our tent, using up all our towels just to dry out the inside before we could use it, and nervously watched the approaching water encompass more and more of our lakeside campsite each day. Fortunately, the rain stopped before we gave up on our holiday or the floods prevented us reaching the camp restaurant, our only source of hot food in the conditions. On the first dry day we walked several miles to the nearest town (roads were blocked so we couldn’t drive) to replace our waterproofs, which had been battered into antitheses.

Within two more days, railways blocked by fallen trees were either repaired or replaced with just as punctual bus replacement services. We had the country to ourselves because so many tourists had given up or been put off. Everywhere we went, there were no queues – unheard of at the top of the Jungfrau as was the choice of tables at the famous rotating restaurant on the Schilthorn. Later on, we hiked up the Reichenbach Falls almost alone, swam with only swans for company in the glacial lake which had returned to its former boundaries, and enjoyed round after round of crazy golf as the only players on the campsite course.

It was a fantastic holiday, all the more so because of the unexpected weather with its necessary adjustments and unlooked for benefits.

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It occurred to me today that after two months into a yearlong series about blessings, I have never defined what a blessing is. So I looked it up and I found these meanings:

  • ‘Something promoting or contributing to happiness, well-being, or prosperity; a boon.’
  • ‘the bestowal of a divine gift or favour.’

And I think those perfectly describe both our Swiss holiday that was enhanced rather than marred by the unanticipated weather, as well as the changes of the past 6 months. Blessings, I am finding, often come as unexpected and even undeserved gifts, and as a means of growth. To be challenged and stretched expands our horizons, pushes us into trying new things, and develops maturity.

Change, even if it smells like manure or feels as brutal as a hard pruning, if we look on it as a blessing, can make us flourish.

SLOW (Five Minute Friday)

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Question: How do you eat an elephant?

Answer: One bite at a time.

It’s a lot to do, clearing a flat, sorting through the evidence and history of two long lives, finding new homes for everything. It’s emotionally challenging and physically exhausting. The initial prospect felt overwhelming.

A month ago it was a daunting prospect, especially with the pressure we were under form the hospital to move my dad out to the care home (hence the reason for clearing and selling the flat). I was so stressed, struggling with the enormity of the emotional responsibility as well as the time and physical implications.

Then a work colleague, a woman with her own very difficult family circumstances to deal with, gave me the advice at the beginning about this elephant I was facing.

And she was right. I needed to follow the recommendations I give my own patients: to prioritise what is important, break the task down into manageable chunks, and pace myself. I needed to slow down. In fact, I needed to stop the hamster wheel I was on and step off for a moment to plan what to do bit by bit.

And it worked.

Now the flat is only waiting for a professional coat of paint and carpet clean. We’re leaving the main pieces of furniture to give an idea of proportion to prospective buyers so those can wait for removal once the sale has gone through. It even had its first viewing yesterday.

The elephant is shrinking.

14884618_10154664308903126_539770684334872033_o1(Yes, I know it’s not an elephant but this stone dinosaur by North and South Lakes in the Catskill mountains gave me that same sense of enormity – and I do love this photo, courtesy of my lovely husband)

 

THE BLESSING OF DEPRESSION (Blessing Jar Week 7)

Three years ago I had a depressive episode. That’s the official diagnosis my doctor wrote on my sick certificate. An episode sounds like something fairly short, doesn’t it? But my time off extended to two periods of several months and it was nearly two years before I came off the antidepressants.

I have looked back on that time with regret and worried about the effect it had on my family: the burden I was to my husband and what example it set to my children to have a mother who couldn’t cope with all that life threw at her, retreating to the corner of a sofa for much of her time.

The events of the past 6 months or so have had several echoes of three years ago: a child leaving for university, a parent hospitalised and eventually moving into a care home, increased demands at work. I have felt myself on a muddy slope being pulled back towards being overwhelmed again. But I didn’t want to go there again. I didn’t want to fall into the failure of depression once more.

However, I got help earlier this time and it’s been making me review that depressive episode in a different light.

If you know me or have been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a perfectionist, a glass half empty kind of girl, who concentrates automatically on the errors in the detail rather than seeing the whole picture. So here’s where my new thinking is leading me and perhaps you’ll get a glimpse of what a revelation this is for me:

What if my depression wasn’t a mistake? What if it was a time of preparation for something else (like a better understanding of others) or a time to learn utter dependence on God? What if the issue isn’t about the example I set my children by having depression but of how I coped with having depression? What if that’s the more important thing: that trouble and illness will affect all of us but what I can pass on to my boys is how to face it?

And now I’m coming out of the current darkness what if I’m focussing on the wrong thing altogether? What if it’s not a matter of figuring out how to maintain my progress (e.g. continuing to do things that look after me as well as others), worrying about how I am likely to fall down, but instead remember all the times I keep going, concentrate on all the times I do look after myself? What if I just accept that there will be times when I don’t garden/exercise/do something creative/eat healthily etc.? What if I see those times as a part of the rhythm and pattern of life as much as the successes rather than aberrations? What if life is meant to be like a piece of music made up of light and shade, adagio and allegro, consonance and dissonance?

And what if I start to view my depression in terms of all the things I did right? How I took time out to look after myself, how I prioritised family over work, how I used my creativity (making a scrapbook for a friend) as therapy, how I went to the doctor for much needed medication, how I asked for counselling to help me see clearer. What if I think about all the things I was able to do whilst depressed? Like looking after Mum and Dad (staying up all night with them, finding a care home, sorting care packages and meal deliveries, organising visits and transport), taking one son to university, supporting another in his school musical, Grease (including learning to style his hair a la John Travolta). When I look at that period in those terms, I realise the girl done good – or rather that God done good in me.

And I have to link it to recent times. Look at what I learned and applied from then – how I took action earlier, got signed up for counselling sooner, cut my work hours rather than going off sick, used past experience to help choose a care home, communicated better and got more support with the practical tasks. How would I have been able to do all those things if I hadn’t gone through that terrible time 3 years ago?

And so it brings me back – what if my depression wasn’t a failure? What if it was a blessing?

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WEAK (Five Minute Friday)

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I’ve been doing more clearing of my dad’s flat. Today I lifted box after box in and out of my car – to be collected by our local community store who help set up the homeless in new homes, off to a charity shop donation centre, and then to the local dump.

It was as I was moving the final box the short distance from my car to my front door that I felt the base bow and give way, the whole contents falling onto the lawn in a rush like the cistern water in a flushing toilet. I had interwoven the flaps of the specially ordered packing box but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t strong enough and collapsed under the strain of the weight it was carrying.

I admit I swore. Several times. Loudly. Until I noticed the neighbours nearby.

I was tired from all the heavy work. I only went back to yoga a couple of weeks ago and I haven’t built my muscles back up yet. Every joint below my waist still aches.

But perhaps my spiritual muscles are also a bit weak at the moment. If they weren’t, I might have reacted with more grace and patience.

I think weakness maybe comes from two possibilities: either from inactivity (perhaps if I’d been exercising more regularly I wouldn’t feel so stiff now) or from overstraining. If we take on too much we are all liable to collapse under pressure that is beyond our capabilities. Like my box, we need reinforcement – physical help from others, spiritual gaffer tape to compensate for our limitations.

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The Blessing of Buried Treasure (BLESSING JAR Week 6)

My mum was a hoarder. Not to the level of those TV shows where people are overwhelmed by towering piles of junk physically taking over every room of their homes but she didn’t like to throw things away ‘in case they came in useful some day. She couldn’t turn away a Betterware salesman without purchasing some kitchen gadget needed or not. She duplicated and triplicated items she forgot she already owned. And she kept every trinket given to her by someone she loved.

Dad’s dementia overtook his natural tidiness and organisation to continue where Mum’s big heartedness and slapdashery left off when she died.

So there’s a lot to do as we’re clearing the flat they lived in for just over 9 years. I’ve done several sort outs for them in that time, including the day they moved in! This will be the final one there and it’s an emotional experience.

5 doormats, 4 travel alarm clocks, and 2 steam carpet cleaners (one never removed from its packaging), along with various ornaments, will be finding their way to a charity shop. Catheter and incontinence supplies have been donated to a local community nursing service. Bedding is off to the Community Store that helps set up homeless people in their first homes and cupboard loads of tinned food to the Foodbank. Leftover laundry supplies, flowerpots, and unused wrapping paper will be put to use by family. Old light fittings, a rusted bathroom stand, a broken picture frame, torn plastic bags, forgotten squares of chocolate, and other rubbish have filled the dustbin to the brim.

But beneath this flotsam and jetsam of evidence of two lives well lived lies buried treasure, precious and of immeasurable value.

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Dad had passed on his love of genealogy to me some years back but I found file after file of his investigations into our family history – detailed family trees; numerous birth, death, and marriage certificates; a newspaper cutting about his parents’ Christmas Day wedding; old Boys’ Brigade awards; grammar school records; and a personal account of his own upbringing. The meticulous care and accuracy of recording reminded me of the gift of administration Dad said God had given him.

I found a love letter my mum wrote to him instead of a Christmas card one year. He had kept it carefully filed away with some other writings of hers: a poem about meeting an old friend and recollections on her children written before a wedding and an ordination. Here was written evidence of love grown, tended, and increasing over many years.

There was a dedication inside the cover of an old book, hinting at difficult times he endured, bad behaviour he regretted, and expressing hope for change. This was a more in depth portrait of the young man in the RAF than the stories he had previously told me.

In among the drawers were old notebooks, rather scruffy and nondescript at first glance but, when examined closely, filled with detailed notes from courses and conferences. Here were all the sermons he preached and orders of services he prepared, along with the words of prophecy spoken over him at his believer’s baptism. They all recalled the strong core of faith running through my dad like a place name in seaside rock.

And that’s the inestimable treasure I discovered: in all these mementoes I found my dad again.

He hasn’t been stolen by dementia after all, just buried, hidden by a thick and wavering mist. And he has cleverly left us clues to follow, evidence to find so that we can rediscover him.

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SAFE (Five Minute Friday)

The place I used to feel safest was when I was held close in the strong arms of my dad.

With stomach muscles weakened by vomiting so that standing upright felt like being stretched on a rack, crossing the short distance across the landing from bedroom to bathroom after a bout of tonsillitis was exhausting. So my dad would get me to stand on his feet, wrap my arms around his middle leaning my head against his tummy, while he held me and ‘walked’ me to where I needed to go.

I can still remember the smell and itchy softness of his jumper against my cheek, the jiggle of how he took deliberately small steps to allow for my shorter legs, the warmth and security I felt holding onto him.

I’ve long outgrown being ‘walked’ on his feet and his dementia and fading strength mean I’m more likely to be supporting him these days. I hope that he feels security in my arms now.

But I still have the reminder and echo of that childhood safety and comfort whenever I rest my head on the shoulder of my husband or one of my grown sons – the same strong torso to lean into, the same strong arms encircling me, the same knowledge that here is a man who loves me.

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And they are not the only ones I can rely on for that sense of safety:

‘There is no one like the God of Jeshurun,

who rides the heavens to your help

and through the skies in his majesty.

The eternal God is a dwelling place,

and underneath are the everlasting arms’. (Deuteronomy 33.26-27)

The Blessing of Home (BLESSINGS JAR Week 5)

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It was just an old gilt coloured tray, a bit grubby to be honest and with the black rubber foot missing from one of its corners, but it ambushed me with memories, stopping me in my tracks. Suddenly I was back in my childhood bed, recovering from some illness (probably tonsillitis as I used to get it so often) and here came my mum with a bowl of Heinz tomato soup soaking up squares of white crustless bread on this little gilt tray. I felt hugged by a familiar sense of comfort and love.

I couldn’t move for the recollection of my first home.

Then tonight I visited my dad in his new care home. I brought him a bottle of his favourite Croft’s Original Sherry and a mug given to him my boys a couple of Christmas ago with their photos on it. He downed two large measures with his evening meal.

We’ve filled his room with pictures and photos from his flat alongside some key pieces of furniture – some practical, like his riser recliner chair, and some nostalgic, like the bookcase made by his cousin at school in the 1930s. It’s all been about trying to make him feel at home.

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But is it only things that make a place a home?

When we spent Christmas at our son’s student house in Lincoln, we made do with a patio set in place of a dining table and chairs, laying out the food on a coffee table as the only space. We all slept in rooms that didn’t belong to us. We even borrowed a table top cooker to supplement the tiny oven.

And yet we felt completely at home.

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It wasn’t the belongings that made the difference but the belonging: the belonging to others who loved us.

And that’s where home is – where we feel loved.

So the objects in my dad’s room don’t make it homely of themselves but by reminding him of all of us who have and do love him. Hopefully, our regular visits and time spent chatting, reminiscing, praying, or holding his hand as he strokes my wrist with his thumb (just as he did when I was a child) will also translate into a feeling of security and familiarity. And the welcome and kindness of the staff in this care home, whether it’s the chef who asked him about his favourite foods and offered to cook him anything he liked off menu, or the nurse who sat and listened to his stories of his time in the RAF, or the maintenance man who put all his pictures up, these are what will lead to him feeling at home there.

The blessing of home is that it doesn’t have to be fixed to a place but is anchored in love.

BREATHE (Five Minute Friday)

Whenever you see a character on a film or TV panicking, they are always told to take some deep breaths. It’s not the best advice.

You see it’s not the breathing in but the breathing out that makes a difference. Try it. Hold your breath for a while and see how tense your muscles feel. When you start breathing again, notice how it’s not when you breathe in but when you breathe out that they automatically relax. You’ll feel your shoulders drop down, your face muscles smooth out, and you’ll sink into your chair a little more each time you breathe out.

Our muscles naturally unknot as we exhale.

It’s all about letting go.

Letting go of muscle tension and trusting the chair to support us.

Letting go of our grip on controlling everything and trusting God to hold us.

Letting go of our anxieties and trusting God to go with us.

Letting go of our set ways of doing things and trusting God’s guidance.

Letting go of our impatience and going with His flow.

Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset [us], and let us run with patience the race set before us.’ (Hebrews 12.1)

Let’s breathe.

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