AN AMARYLLIS BLESSING (Blessing Jar Week 18)

I’m not very good with house plants. I have an uncanny knack of killing them off, sooner or later. Only a small cactus and an (unflowering) orchid have survived my care.

So when I collected the large white pot with its papery desiccated bulb in long dried out compost from my dad’s flat, I’m not sure why I took it home rather than threw it in the bin.

My parents were keen gardeners and my mother had inherited my grandmother’s love of house plants. The latter’s room in the house I grew up in had every surface covered in spider plants and African Violets that she propagated herself. My mother filled the window sills of their little flat with similar and masses of indoor bulbs.

But after she died, my father’s increasing dementia stopped him remembering to water any of the pots. Poor mobility reduced his number of trips to the kitchen anyway and his carers’ duties didn’t include plant care. Over the three years since her death, all my mother’s house plants died.

This pot was the last. With little hope, I gave the earth a good soak and left it by the bathroom window. I would allow it a month or two and then throw it out, planning to recycle the pot outdoors in the garden.

Then a small miracle began to happen.

The tiniest of triangles, only a millimetre or two high, of lime green appeared near the apex of the bulb. Lifting the pot carefully to the sink tap to water it regularly now, whenever the compost felt dry, I watched it increase in size until the triangle became an actual shoot. It seemed to grow daily, a stalk thicker than my thumb. Each day, the top reaches towards the frosted light from outside, so each day, I turn the pot 180 degrees to keep the plant straight. It’s taller than the main window pane now, over 2 feet high, stretching up as if trying to escape through the ventilator.

A pregnant bud has formed and is gradually pulling apart to reveal what’s inside. At first it seemed to be in two parts, today it’s three. I wonder if that’s three different parts of the flower or three different blooms. Please don’t tell me if you know – I want to be surprised.

I could have waited for the flower to appear before I wrote this but that would have been a post about a different blessing.

What excites me about this plant isn’t just the gratitude that I haven’t killed it. There’s something about it that speaks to me of promise, of hope, of growth, that are valuable, essential even, in themselves.

My Enneagram personality type is a perfectionist. That can be a good thing in terms of striving towards high ideals but it too easily leads to inflexibility and judgementalism. It’s more helpful for me to think and define things in terms of growth than black or white, right or wrong. The recent Resilience training I did similarly advocated an approach of considering development instead of absolutes.

This plant reminds me of these truths. It is a sign of hope for my own growth and development. In this Easter season, it’s a sign of resurrection. And it’s a reminder of my mother and the legacy she has left me.

You see, this year will be the first time it’s bloomed since she died.
 

THE BLESSING OF FREEDOM (Blessing Jar Week 17)

So far, I haven’t written about political issues in this blog but politics is some of ‘the stuff life is made of’, informing and influencing much of the other ‘stuff’ in all our lives, so for this post I’m stepping out into the arena.

I’ve been thinking increasingly this week about democracy. We’ve a General Election coming up in a month’s time and this week we had local elections for our county councils. The large function hall which is my polling station was very quiet when I walked in after work, giving me time to chat to the clerk, who is an old colleague of mine. The total turnout in our area was just 40% but in Tees Valley it was as low as 21%.

I’m shocked by that. I know there are reasons for it: people are disillusioned with politicians’ integrity; there was a lack of ready information and engagement from the various parties in our town; and recent boundary changes caught many people out (including me) so the names on the ballot paper were not those we were expecting to vote for, turning a considered decision into a more off the cuff one.

But seriously? Only one or two people in every five bothered to vote?

It seems to me that our country is in danger of taking democracy (whatever your opinion of our First Past the Post system may be), that freedom to vote and make choices that will influence our own and others’ lives, for granted.

On Radio 4 this week, I listened to a report about Nepal, where the now illegal practise of separating menstruating women from the rest of the community still goes on. In one village, this means leaving the family home for the duration of their period to stay in a darkened communal room, accessed by a doorway so small the women have to crawl into it. Brand new community toilets have been built next door but women having their period are not allowed to use them; they have to go out into the fields instead, with all the potential dangers.

Can you imagine such restrictions happening here?

It seems so far away, so foreign. Yet legal limitations on making choices about our day to day lives for some of us are not as well established as we like to think. It’s only during my grandmother’s lifetime that women in the UK were given the vote in General Elections. And initially, that wasn’t in line with men’s suffrage as there were age and status limits for women. In fact, it’s only within my father’s lifetime that equal voting rights were granted.

It seems to me that freedom isn’t something to take for granted after all.

It’s a long way from last summer when, for the first time (only a few weeks after my youngest’s 18th birthday), our whole family marched into a busy polling station with great pride to cast our votes in the EU Referendum. We didn’t all vote the same way – but that’s not the point. What matters is that we remembered our right to vote is in fact a freedom and a privilege, that we could not have exercised as a whole family only 100 years ago.

I suppose that freedom means we also have the right not to exercise our vote (although if we don’t like the choice of candidates on the polling card, what’s to stop us standing ourselves?). But if we forget our freedoms or take them for granted, I think we disrespect those who fought to gain them for us and perhaps belittle those who don’t have the same freedoms as us.

So next time I read an article bemoaning the state of British politics or the poor quality of information or parties standing, I’m going to take a breath before I get cross or disheartened, and remember what a blessing it is to have such freedom of choice in the first place.

 

 

SHOULD (Five Minute Friday)

As I join this week’s Five Minute Friday link up, I’m cheating a bit by sharing a poem I wrote a few years ago but it immediately came to mind because this word was so key to it. More info about this great writing community can be found here http://katemotaung.com/five-minute-friday/.

 

NEW YEAR’S EVE

I dreaded New Year’s Eve.

Although I danced

My mind stood motionless

In the middle of the dancefloor,

Mesmerised by clock hands

Counting down the minutes,

Adding up the regrets.

Did no one else notice?

Did no one else look back

As the chimes hammered home

All the should have,

could have,

would have dones?

 

While others whirled,

Drunkenly drowning out the passing of time

With overloud music and cheering,

With raucous singing of familiar meaningless words,

And kissing of strangers,

I stood outside

Gazing at cold stars,

Searching for perspective

To hide my sadness in.

 

Now New Year’s Eves are quieter, warmer,

Less strained with painful contrast.

I still look back and wonder

Was my year well used?

But now I have my perspective

For one New Year’s Eve

Brought me you.

 

A Surprise Blessing or the Blessing of a Surprise (BLESSING JAR Week 16)

This post was going to have a different title. My husband took me away for the weekend for my birthday and yesterday we decided to avoid the crowds by ordering breakfast on room service. So this was going to be The Blessing of Breakfast in Bed. I planned to write this post later in the afternoon while he watched Tottenham play (and beat) Arsenal but instead I dosed off, feet full of miles and head full of happiness.

The evening changed my writing plans.

We were in York, city with a pub for every day of the week and my college home. My husband had booked a table at a restaurant but had decided he wanted us to go for a drink beforehand. I was feeling relaxed and content to go along with any of his plans. He was particularly keen to try the York Tap, next to the railway station and closely located for our meal; he told me he’d seen it had some good reviews on Trip Advisor.

We made our way into a noisy bar with nothing to distinguish it but a few elements of apparently original Victorian architecture. Perhaps it had some good craft beers that had attracted those reviews, which my other half would certainly appreciate. It wouldn’t have been my choice but if he was happy, I was happy.

I sat a table while he went to the bar and smiled to myself as he chatted animatedly with couple next to him in the queue. Years ago, he would have been too shy to do that; now, he brought back happy memories of my mother’s easy way of making friends with strangers. All around was constant noise and movement, people coming and going between entrance, bar and seats like tides.

Suddenly a bunch of multi coloured tulips wrapped in brown paper and cellophane were placed on the table in front of me. There was a split second in which I was ready to challenge whoever was invading our space but before I could do so, came the duet of words:

“Happy Birthday Mum!”

And there stood my sons, who were supposed to be in Lincoln or Sheffield, with unison grins mirroring their father’s, who then said to them, ‘’Here’s your room keys.” They weren’t just joining us for the evening meal, they were staying the night at our hotel so I could have their company for a whole, unexpected twenty four hours.

It turns out that I live in a family of plotters and liars.

My beloved is usually more spontaneous than forward thinking but he had brought all his work management skills to the fore over the past few weeks. The three of them had set so many false trails in conversations about Skype chats on my birthday, promised cards and present in the post, justifications for not stopping by as we passed the Sheffield turn off on the motorway, and ‘just a little something’ so I had something to unwrap on the day (that turned out to be another hotel stay and tickets in the summer for all of us to see Billy Ocean in concert, another surprise).

Plotters and liars the lot of them.

But how can I object? I’ve taken exactly the same delight in organising similar surprises for my husband. And having all my men with me on my birthday made me so breathlessly, heart-stoppingly happy.

The lengths and  trouble they went to were an indication of their love for me. I don’t doubt their love for a minute but I feel I can never take it for granted so I was surprised by such evidence of the depth of it. I remember telling them that love isn’t just a feeling, it’s a doing word – they sure proved it me this birthday – and that’s the real blessing.

MORE (Five Minute Friday)

‘Always remember you are

Braver than you believe,

Stronger than you seem,

Smarter than you think,

And loved more than you know.’

I saw the sign in a local DIY store and somehow it hit home. It’s what I want my kids to believe, especially when life treats them harshly, that they have more resources to cope and more back up than they realise.

And I want them to know the source of that courage, strength and love. Not just how many people love them, or how much we love them, but also that their Heavenly Father loves them with an unimaginably vast love, which they can rely and call on at any time. I want them to know, in all its vastness, how personal and individual it is for them, and how much more they can be – more secure, more resilient, more fulfilled – when they trust in His love for them.

I’m reminded of a book we read when they were children that described someone special and ended with the words, ‘Do you want to know what a special person looks like?’ and a page that was a mirror. Or of the Simpsons episode where Lisa develops a close relationship with an inspirational substitute teacher: when he leaves, he writes her a note that will be all she needs to know whenever she feels alone; it says, ‘You are Lisa Simpson’.

I want my children to know how special they are but I want more for them. I want them to know that they are not just special but treasured. I want them to know for sure that they are loved. I try to model that steady hope, unswerving trust, and extravagant love but I hope that, as the moon is to the sun, they realise my love (which feels enormous) is only a reflection of how much more they can find in God’s.

This post is my weekly link up with the Five Minute Friday community, hosted at http://katemotaung.com/ where we each write for 5 minutes on a one word prompt. Check out some of the other blogs on the site.

 

The Blessing of a Staycation (BLESSING JAR WEEK 15)

I’m just at the end of a week and a half’s leave with that familiar ‘wish I didn’t have to go back to work ‘ feeling. I haven’t been away anywhere (except to chauffeur sons back north) but it has felt like a proper holiday – I guess that’s what’s meant by a staycation.

So why have I felt so relaxed?

There have been a few holiday-ish activities like meals out, family get togethers, lie ins. And I’ve deliberately avoided doing (or thinking about) work, both paid and voluntary. But there’s been a comfortable rhythm about the past ten days that I think has played a key part.

I’ve still woken up at my usual 7.00am, or earlier, but no brash alarm clock has forced me up and no deadline for leaving the house chased me out. Instead I’ve had plenty of time to spend the first part of my day with God, praying and studying my Bible over a leisurely cup of coffee or two. Don’t get me wrong, I try to make this the first task of every day (I’ve promised my husband and boys that I’ll pray for them daily just like my mother did for me) but time constraints change the nature of the encounter, sometimes making it feel like a task on a To Do List rather than precious time with my Heavenly Dad.

Then there’s been a balance of physical and mental activities. I’ve read books and started planning our Silver Wedding celebration as well as walked and gardened regularly.

In fact, the garden has been a major factor in the feeling of refreshment this week. Again, it’s something I try to do weekly. It’s one of my sanity restorers – my family refer to gardening as ‘Mum’s therapy’. So it’s been great to do get outside almost every day. Even better has been working on a joint project with my husband.

We’ve talked about it for a year or two but this week we finally found the perfect raised vegetable trug. As we put it together from the flat pack it came in (and by that, I mean that he got to flex his muscles and power tools while I held pieces together – we’re a good team and it proved satisfying for both of us), I was reminded of our early days of marriage when we similarly put together nursery furniture. Happy memories – it was a warm feeling building something together again.

Today we filled the trug with earth, careful to sift out any stones, and sowed its first seeds. “I know a parable about this,” grinned my husband as we did so. On one side, in a large pot, we planted broad beans, joking about pantomimes, and on the other, in the ground, two miniature apple trees, hanging on to the last of their blossom.

By the afternoon little dots of promise that we hope will transform into radishes, spring onions, and lettuces lay safely hidden under dampened compost whilst the first of the pea seedlings had already started to curl one tiny tendril around its support. The excitement we felt at this early miracle of growth!

I’ve loved gardening for a long time, was given my own flowerbed to care for as a child, but the experience is so much better shared. It’s not as if my other half stays indoors but lawn mowing and pressure washing the patio tend to be solo tasks. It gave me so much joy to be working alongside him on the same project.

And it isn’t over. There’s space for more in our designated vegetable corner. Potatoes in bags (after they’ve been chitted of course) will be next. And something else to be found for the troughs we’ve inherited.

It’s not been a perfect, worry free break – I’m not a perfect, worry free person. But it has been a welcome change in pace and time for what/who matters most me. It has given me hope for the future. It has been a blessing.

(Special thanks to R for the photos for this post)

Keep SINGing (Five Minute Friday)

Here’s my weekly link up with the fabulous Five Minute Friday community hosted by Kate Motaung. This weeks’ prompt word is SING.

Sing, they said, and I’m immediately lost in a labyrinth of memories signposted with songs:

Rick Astley (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC3Ejf7vPEY) encouraged and kept me determined through tough times. Kanye (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCYAjGnvc7U) wove a bond as we waved goodbye. Take That  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KII1ruAfvsg) filled me with pride and starry hope. Casting Crowns  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C53GgUJ6y-Y) grounded me in perspective and belonging. OneRepublic  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hT_nvWreIhg)  expressed my sense of intensity in adversity.

And that’s just the past 3 years.

Driving through my life, singing has kept me going, slingshotting me round each twist and turn of the labyrinth, making my way back to the beginning with echoes of songs from the centre as I travel: my mother’s lullabies and choir solos; my father’s subconscious hums and whistles whenever he was content; my teenage years filled with hymns ancient and modern, a band or two, and a couple of musicals; my husband’s youthful demo tape and self taught guitar; our private duets.

And so the labyrinth turns me back towards the outside, propelled on by ‘Will Your Anchor Hold’, ‘Sally McLennane’, and ‘Never Too Much’. One day, ‘Something Worth Leaving Behind’ will play but I won’t be there to join in – I’ll be too busy singing the Hallelujah Chorus somewhere else.

A two thousand year old blessing (Blessing Jar Week

I’m exhausted. It’s no wonder really. I’ve barely slept for two nights. Everyone told me to rest up yesterday but how can you, when your mind won’t stop racing? Last night, every time I drifted off the dreams started: shouting and hammering, blood dripping in the darkness; someone screams and I wake up heart thumping to the same harsh rhythm.

So I’m giving up on sleep and rest now. I’m better off getting up and doing something, even at this hour. I’ve got to do something, get away on my own, go do the one last thing I can for him. I’m going to finish off properly the rush job the others did the day before yesterday. I’ll take plants, a watering can, and a little trowel to make it look beautiful, cared for, loved, just like he was.

It’s so early it’s still dark. The streets are cool and quiet, no one about, such a contrast to the last time I was here. My bag’s heavy but I don’t care. I just want to get there, do what I came to do, say what I want to say in private, pour it all out to him…as if he could still hear me.

When I get to the cemetery gate, weirdly it’s unlocked and slightly ajar. And where are the security guards? Not that it matters; in fact, it makes things easier for me – I hadn’t thought about how I’d get in before I left and at least there’s no awkward questions about what am I doing there at this hour.

Cautiously – I don’t want to trip or fall into anything – I make my way to the grave. It’s not easy to find in the dark, especially with no headstone yet to mark it. I’m looking for some freshly mounded earth but when I get to the place – and I know this is the right place – I’m stopped in my tracks. The grave’s been desecrated. All that’s there is a gaping hole. The lid of the coffin and has been flung to one side and there’s nothing in it!

Oh my God! I’m filled with horror. After all that’s happened, where on earth is he? What have they done with him? Haven’t we gone through enough?

I drop my things and hare back to the others. The boys will know what to do.

Well, they just run off to see if I’m right, not made a mistake. Mind numb and legs turned to jelly, all I can do is trudge after them.

By the time I get back to the cemetery, they’re already on their way back. I ask them if they know what’s happened but they just ignore me and keep walking. They have strange looks on their faces. The big man’s dumbfounded, scared even. But littl’un looks like it’s his birthday and he’s just been given the best present ever. There’s a stubbornness in both their expressions too, as if they’ve had a disagreement.

I watch them pass me and then carry on to the graveside. My things are still there and, anyway, I want to know what’s happened to the body.

It’s beginning to get light now as I get to the grave. I’m vaguely aware of birdsong around me. A bold blackbird forages for food within a few feet of me, strewing leaves and mulch in his wake. A squirrel runs up the fence and sits momentarily next to a pigeon. I’m concentrating on these mundane details to avoid looking at that hole in the ground.

But it has to be faced so I edge forwards and glance down into it again, to check that I haven’t been imagining things.

Then I get my second shock of the day. The grave isn’t empty at all. Through my tears, I can see two figures, one at each end, with a thermos and steaming cups of tea. Perhaps they’re gravediggers on their break – or grave robbers – although there’s no sign of their spades.

They glance up at me.

‘Why are you crying?’

Well, if they are grave robbers, or gravediggers, they might be the ones who’ve moved him. So I tell them that the body has been taken and I don’t know where it is. But I get no reply. They just stare at me, as if I know the answer to my own question.

This is too much. I’m beginning to doubt my own sanity.

I turn away and there’s another figure in front of me. Oh Lord, it must be the groundsman. The work day has well and truly started and I’ll get no peace to grieve now. Although how can I grieve if the body’s missing?

‘Why are you crying?’ he asks.

Why do people keep asking me that? It’s a cemetery! Who wouldn’t be crying here? But he carries on:

‘Who are you looking for?’

And I think to myself, that sounds a bit more helpful, maybe this guy knows where the body is? So I ask him.

He’s quiet for a moment and I’m aware that he’s looking at me with concern, really looking at me, but with a slight smile hovering at the edge of his lips. There’s only one person who ever looked at me like that. I’m thrown by the resemblance.

Then he says one word and that clinches it: my name. He says my name. Like he knows me. And I realise that he does know me. He knows me better than anyone. He’s the only one who ever knew me.

And the smile at the edges of his lips spreads right across his face as my mouth opens in amazement and wonder.

‘Oh! It’s you!’

I throw myself into his arms and he holds me in that bear hug of his. It’s like coming home.

After a little while, he gently takes me by the shoulders to look at me and speaks again.

‘We can’t stay here forever. There’ll be time for all this later. But you can’t keep this to yourself – I need you to go tell the rest of the family. Tell them I’m off to see our Dad.’

Reluctantly I let go of him, but I’m heartened by the promise that there’ll be more time, and I start to realise that I can’t be so unkind as not to share this with the others. They need to know what’s happened. They need to see what I’ve seen. They need to know the good news, this amazing, wonderful, incredible news.

I’ve got to let them know.

 

EMPTY (Five Minute Friday)

It’s a big word, empty.

Strange how such nothingness can be so vast.

Or it can be small but devastating.

 

Empty reminds me of the hole left in my life

by the death of my mother.

Empty reminds me of how depression

sapped me of motivation and energy,

leaving me void of feeling,

a big black terrifying blank.

 

But empty also reminds me of

a cleared room before decorating,

a white canvas ready with easel, brushes, and paints laid out before it,

a vase waiting to be filled,

bare earth before planting,

the last Resurrection Egg in the box.

 

Empty is the moment before something new.

Empty is a place to begin again.

Empty is the potential for anything.

Empty is a tomb on Sunday morning.

Empty is the garden where we meet Him.

(This is my weekly link up with the Five Minute Friday community hosted at http://katemotaung.com/).

 

THE BLESSING OF A DIFFERENT ANGLE (Blessing Jar Week 14)

If anyone had seen me, they would have wondered what I was doing: lying on my back, knees bent, gazing up at the sky through the canopy of the Rowan tree above me. They would have assumed I was doing nothing but if anyone had asked me, I would have replied: “I’m paying attention.”

It was a glorious view. The new leaves, in the pattern of ferns, wobbled in the imperceptible breeze against a perfect baby blue sky. The silvered trunk stretched up into a veritable tangle of branches. If I looked carefully, I could just see the promise of blossom in clusters of tiny buds here and there. Two plump bees inspected them hopefully for pollen. Far above, a plane traced twin trails across the blue and, a little closer a group of terns, far from the coast, hovered, then sped away.

The spring symphony of birdsong in full surround sound, the beginnings of the dusk chorus, encircled me. I recognised the double coo-cooing of the wood pigeons and the tapping percussion of a woodpecker. But an unseen call and response duet remained a mystery. From a few gardens away, came the echoing repeat of my neighbour’s grandchild laughing. The bumbling of bees hummed in and out of the concert.

I could feel the fronds of untrimmed lawn under me, cool and sleek against my aching back and shoulders. And as I turned my head, I got a close up, side on view of the bed where I’d just dug in some rose and clematis feed. A morass of bulb life, some spent, some blind, some on the verge of bloom, formed a dense undergrowth, a miniature jungle – beneficial for keeping the clematis roots chilled (no wonder it was flourishing, scaling the Rowan’s trunk to head height in only its second year). Delicate allium flowers nudged their way through the verdigris and lime green leaves as dwindling narcissi towered over with bobbing faded heads.

Fascinated by this miniature scene, I sat up and edged my way forward to sit on the step next to my herb patch for a similar height view. Tiny golden tips edged the forest green of thyme leaves. Jungly mint’s former attempts to take over the whole patch were  suitably constrained by the boundaries of its buried pot. Rosemary waited for warmer temperatures before it sent up new growth but lavender was already on its way. A clump of grassy chives sprouted like a Mohican hairstyle. I knew the familiar fragrances that would be released if I reached out and rubbed any of these plants between finger and thumb – I could smell them in my mind. I started to think of recipes I could use them in this summer: mint lemonade, lavender scones, tartare sauce.

Gardening is mostly done from above, standing or kneeling. But this gave me a child’s view of the world again, or an ant’s. For once, I gazed at the side or underneath of things and found new beauty. It made me stop and listen, take notice and touch, remember and smell, imagine and taste.

All this from 15 minutes’ rest. It was worth paying attention. But I would have missed it if I hadn’t succumbed to that mattress of lush jade grass.

And now I’m thinking about how Jesus looked at life from an unusual angle: how He told us the best faith is simple and childlike not complicated and grown up; how good leadership comes from being a servant; how latecoming workers in a vineyard got paid the same as early birds; how He was known as a friend to publicans, tax collectors, and prostitutes rather than to the great and the good; how His death brought life in all its fullness.

In fact, I wonder if Jesus’ whole life was a means of giving us a new angle from which to view and engage with God? Many of us see God as presiding over the earth from far off. Remember that song Bette Midler sang, ‘From A Distance’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EC3FW_RU-GI), or Salvador Dali’s depiction of the Crucifixion hovering high above the world, ‘Christ of Saint John of the Cross’? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_of_Saint_John_of_the_Cross)? But I don’t believe God ever wanted that. We are meant to be in immediate relationship with Him, ‘walking in the Garden [together] in the cool of the day’ (Genesis ch.3 v.8). That’s why ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood’ (John ch.1 v.14 The Message), so that we could see what God is like up close and personal, a side by side view.

Looking at something or someone from a different angle changes our perspective and relationship with them. We notice previously unseen details, consider new possibilities, but only if we take the time and pay attention.

Today’s the beginning of Holy Week. It seems to me that it’s a good time, whether God is a familiar or unfamiliar figure in our lives, to look at Him in Jesus from a fresh angle, to pay Him some attention, and see what blessings come our way as a result.