Yippee! (FIVE MINUTE FRIDAY ‘Include’)

Am I allowed to be indulgent with this week’s prompt word from Five Minute Friday http://fiveminutefriday.com/2018/05/10/fmf-link-up-include-free-training-offer/ and use it to tell you some news? I hope you’ll excuse me as I do.

You see, I found out today that a piece I submitted has been accepted for inclusion in an upcoming Christmas anthology. It’s unlikely to hit the bestseller lists and it’s just one short piece among many. But it is the first time I’ll have been properly published as a writer.

The nearest I’ve come before was a short book review for a magazine letters page. And if that was exciting enough to see my Christian name in print, maybe you can imagine how I’m feeling about this: not just my name but words, phrases, sentences carefully crafted from my imagination, mulled over, edited and re-edited, until I was satisfied they made a finished whole. (Actually, that’s not entirely true as the editors have asked for a small cut, which I have willingly submitted to, trusting their experience and expertise).

I was going to write today about that age old feeling of rejection from being the last to be called into a kids’ sports team (I had plenty of practise at that) or from not being invited to join others’ games, how I still find it difficult – still fear that same rejection – whenever I go into an unknown group for the first time.

Instead, God has given me an experience of being included – literally, with other writers – and of course, it is giving me the opposite feeling, that of acceptance, of being wanted, of being good enough, of being chosen. And I am reminded of the great security I have found from being chosen to be loved by my husband and my in laws.

And that leads me on to the fact that God has chosen to love me. God wants me. God accepts me. God wants to include me in His amazing plans for life-in-all-its-fullness.

Which is an even bigger cause for celebration.

 

 

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ADAPT (Five Minute Friday)

My dictionary tells me that ‘adapt’ means to ‘make (something) suitable for a new use or purpose; modify’ or to ‘become adjusted to new conditions’.

So, although I spend my work life adapting people’s homes so they can continue to use them despite their disability or helping them adjust to the changes that their conditions bring – loss of mobility, reduced energy, etc. – I’m not sure that I’m always very good at adapting for myself.

Ironic, isn’t it?

But when I think about it, there’s a massive difference between the changes we choose – deciding to move house or change jobs or have a baby – and those that are imposed on us. Certainly, none of my patients have chosen cancer or MND (ALS) or dementia so no wonder they struggle to adapt, especially when theirs is a deteriorating condition so the goalposts are constantly moving. And many of the situations I’ve struggled to adapt to are those that have been beyond my control.

However, I do wonder if I can choose to try and adapt to those imposed changes? Or, better still, to ask God to adapt me.

I remember my mum’s last year of life. She fell, broke her hip and, alongside the physical consequences, had marked cognitive loss as a result. After several months in hospital, she came home but within weeks it became clear that her condition was too severe for my dad, even with a maximum care package and lots of support from the rest of the family, to look after her at home. So she had to move into a nursing home but he chose to stay in their flat without her.

That was a choice none of us wanted to make. It broke our hearts.

My mum varied in her understanding of the situation but, in one of her more lucid periods, we talked about how she could bear being parted from Dad after 55 years of marriage, how this could possibly be right or fair when it was so difficult and painful. And we posited the questions: ‘What if God had some purpose or role for her in this nursing home? What if He had reasons for this that we just couldn’t see at the moment?’

It was a daring thought.

It didn’t dismiss the agony and heartbreak of the choice but it did offer a way forward. And that way forward was to ‘adjust to the new [situation]’ by trusting God to use it in some way and to go with her into it, maybe even to allow Him to ‘make [all of us] suitable for a new use or purpose’ through it.

Looking back, I can see some of the good God brought out of it: how loved both my parents felt thanks to the care of the staff in that home; friendships with other residents and their relatives that remain 4 years later; my growing into the role of the Mum of the whole family; how I can use my experiences to relate better to the difficulties my patients and carers have. And I’m sure that’s not all.

So perhaps that’s the lesson of adapting: that it’s not a matter of forcing ourselves to embrace change but to trust Him who knows the future, with all its possible permutations, so much better than we ever can.

Keep You and Love You or …? (Five Minute Friday: STUCK)

Do you have those traditional sayings, those to and fro set conversations that only your family uses and fully understands, comforting in their familiarity? We had quite a few growing up, often reassurances of our love for each other.

One of them was for when someone had done something foolish or mildly exasperating. I can still hear my dad’s voice as he smilingly asked:

“What are we going to do with you? Keep you and love you? Or chuck you in the dustbin?”

“Don’t chuck me in the dustbin!” I would plead.

Then might follow a light hearted debate about how practical it was to put me in the dustbin – how full it was, whether I would fit, etc.

But the exchange always ended with:

“I think we’d better keep you and love you,” and maybe, “I guess we’re stuck with you,” followed by a long cuddle.

To a stranger, this might sound an uncaring exchange but it was always reassuring for me because I knew the ultimate outcome. We might go through just the essentials of the ritual or we might tease it out at some length. But I was always sure of the end result and I knew the message of this family saying was that I would always be loved no matter what I did or what happened in my life. As I got older, we would turn it round, with me or my brother or even my children telling my parents that we would always ‘keep them and love them’.

I think of the word ‘stuck’ most automatically as a negative – to be stuck with something or someone because it/they have been forced on us; that we have no escape, no choice about it. But one of the other Five Minute Friday bloggers reminded me this week that we could use the word ‘placed’ instead https://traciecollier.com/2018/04/26/stuck-in-the-middle/. Similarly  the lyrics of the song ‘My Guy’ have been circulating inside my head:

‘Nothing you could say could tear me away from my guy,
(My guy)
Nothing you could do ’cause I’m stuck like glue to my guy.
(My guy)
I’m sticking to my guy like a stamp to a letter,
Like birds of a feather we stick together,
I’m tellin’ you from the start I can’t be torn apart from my guy.’

For a long time, I didn’t understand that analogy: ‘a stamp to a leather’ (weird pictures of postage stamps on a belt came to mind!). Of course, now I realise that it refers to a design embossed into the leather, a permanent mark that cannot be removed. Embossing isn’t something that ‘just happens’; it’s the result of a definite decision, a deliberate action. And when someone chooses to love us, and love us long term, they become a permanent mark on our lives, that remains long after they are gone. Their words, their actions, their values become woven into our lives forever.

When it comes to people, ‘stuck’ is something we choose. Keeping and loving someone is a choice, a daily choice, sometimes a moment by moment choice. Love is a verb not an adjective, a deliberate action.

I’m glad that when people look at me, they will see the permanent mark of my parents’ love embossed on my life. I pray that my husband and children will know the same security and faith in the permanence of my love for them. And I hope that all of us will know, whatever happens, that our Father God will never throw us in the dustbin but always keep us and love us.

(Five Minute Friday is a community of bloggers who, once  a week,  write on a given word for 5 minutes flat. You can find more offerings on this week’s theme here: http://fiveminutefriday.com/2018/04/26/fmf-link-up-stuck/)

 

TOGETHER (Five Minute Friday OTHER)

As usual, with the Five Minute Friday prompt, http://fiveminutefriday.com/2018/04/12/fmf-link-up-other/  my thoughts started in one direction but ended up in another! So here’s the final results of my musings, a poem inspired by the view from my conservatory one evening, memories of my parents, and my own twenty five years of marriage:

 

I look up

As the sky saturates from royal to navy and

Two tall sycamores silhouette against the blue:

Two distinct trunks grow straight and side by side

But their canopies of ever thinning, ever reaching

Twigs and branches have grown so intertwined

That they have become a unity,

Impossible to distinguish between one and the other.

Only death –

When one goes on to bud, leaf, seed, and drop again

While the other remains only an empty silhouette –

Will individualise them once more.

 

Then I look down

At the interlocking fingers of our clasped hands.

Letting Go (Five Minute Friday RELEASE)

So it looks like we have sold my dad’s flat.

We first put it on the market over a year ago, when we had to sell it to pay for his care home placement, but it never progressed beyond initial viewings. It was frustrating at the time but, looking back, it was a blessing in disguise. By the time he died, we no longer had the financial pressure to sell so took it off the market.

This year, with a new estate agent and I guess the timing being right, it all appears to be going through smoothly. But it will still be a wrench to say goodbye to the place.

My boys have asked for time to visit the flat to do just that. One described it as a place of real significance for them. I suppose they may have even more memories invested there than I have.

My parents moved to be near us a week before my dad’s 80th birthday. Mum was 77. What courage to make such a major change at their age! But it was such a good decision. They and we all benefitted from their proximity.

A five minute blog post is nowhere near enough to tell you of all the memories packed into one simple, cosy little apartment. There are painful ones: my mother falling in the kitchen and breaking her hip; staying up all night with her on a riser recliner chair in a desperate attempt to conquer panic and find sleep; with my brother meeting my dad on the front step to tell him she had died; the repetitive notes on the dining table left by my dad to combat his failing memory; the continence supplies in the hall cupboard.

But there are plenty more joyful memories: 80th birthday celebrations for each of them; their golden and emerald wedding anniversaries; the ever present supply of jam tarts for their grandsons; sat on the floor with my head on my mum’s lap when I needed her comfort and strength; my dad’s familiar jokey catchphrases when he greeted us at the door; the flourishing selection of roses, clematis and aquilegia they planted in pots along the path and under their window (despite the leasehold restrictions!); the regular sherry and cake get togethers with the upstairs neighbours who became good friends within less than a week of meeting; the holding crosses kept under my parents’ pillows at night or in their pockets during the day, now treasured by my sons. I could go on.

It will be a sad day when we hand over the keys. But I know we have to let go and I know my parents would want us to. They would be amazed at the inheritance they have left us compared with where their lives originated – and I don’t just mean the financial security. They will want us to invest wisely all that they have left us and pray that the new owner of their humble little flat is blessed with as much peace, joy and love there as they were.

Coasting or Yearning (FIVE MINUTE FRIDAY ‘Settle’)

Sorry for such a late post for my Five Minute Friday link up. http://fiveminutefriday.com/2018/03/29/fmf-link-up-settle/

It was really late at night, way past my bedtime. But then it always is, isn’t it? Those times when your kids bring up a conversation that you know is worth giving up sleep for, when they need your support, when maybe some word you say may lodge in their minds and be of real significance to them, when they just need to talk about what is really going on in their lives. It’s never an opportunity to pass up.

I had one of those this week. And I had another interesting conversation with my other son as we drove along the motorway. That’s another opportunity to really talk with boys – when sat parallel rather than face to face, so a car is ideal. But one conversation linked in my mind with the other.

Do some people just settle for the routine of life? And if so, why? Are they truly happy with the standard expectations of get an education, get a job, get a house or flat, get a partner, get a family? Asking those difficult uncomfortable questions like ‘What’s the point?’ and ‘Why am I dissatisfied with my apparently easy life?’ are deeply unsettling.

It would be so easy to coast.

But I think that if someone is worried about coasting and asking some of these questions about purpose and meaning in life, then they are not coasting at all.

They are not settling; they are yearning.

There’s a theory about change that refers to the push and the pull of decision making. We all need something to push us – something to disquiet us about our current situation – and something to pull us – something to inspire us for the future – to stop us from stagnating.

And that’s where yearning comes in.

We don’t always know what we are yearning for. We don’t always have a clear picture of how we want things to be instead. But yearning for something better, something more – unsettling as it is – can be the first signs of actual change, like shoots breaking the soil’s surface.

But we can seek, ask and knock.

If we do, I know Who will show, answer, and open the right doors for us.

And what amazing new things He could bloom in our lives.

(Talking of yearning, check out my son’s tune of the same name:  https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=https%3A%2F%2Fsoundcloud.com%2Fpaddy-manning-831424521%2Fyearning&h=ATOIMrOUEnQoo8PxdNj_3AtdTpALF4jxa3LVxrOI7W1kUnsCdpM6fGwS312sKO_hhqZsRPUNACoTsJyVN6tzsyQWqpleEEfm7uD2e-0mAu4yz72-Gds)

 

The Beauty of a Sunset (Five Minute Friday)

To be honest, I’m struggling with this week’s word prompt – it feels too daunting, too big. What can I say about it that’s original or new or even interesting? My usual aids of looking up definitions or quotes haven’t helped either. Maybe just writing and seeing where it takes me will.

What I’d prefer to do with this post is just make it visual: show you photos of my children, the miniature irises pushing through the hard, frosty earth in my garden, landscapes I’ve gazed at, flowers my husband has bought me, or a glorious sunset.

Actually, sunsets are what I’ve been thinking about this week. It was the anniversary of my Mum’s death so I’ve been thinking back about her life (what a truly beautiful person she was) and the last months leading up to her death. It was a stressful intense time, painful and hard, but somehow there was glory in it.

For me, that was when I properly grew up and became a real adult, when my own resources were stripped away so I had to fall completely back onto my relationship with God for answers (He didn’t give many but did listen to all my questions and turmoil).

For my mum, her deteriorating health stripped away her independence and self-reliance, her physical capability and her mental agility. To be honest, near the end it seemed to strip away much of her personality too as she withdrew further and further from us. As she gave up her mantle of motherhood, I picked it up.

The dying process was like a reversal of her earliest years. It was heart breaking but somehow balanced. Birth and death. The sunset to balance the sunrise. And aren’t those times the ones where we find the most intense beauty?

 Back aching

You lay back in bed

Your arms reaching out

To hold me

In the first few minutes of my life.

Back aching

I bent over your bed

My arms curving round

To hold you

In the last hours of yours.

WHY? (Five Minute Friday)

Here’s my response to this week’s prompt word ‘why’ from the talented Five Minute Friday community. Check out others here: http://fiveminutefriday.com/2018/02/15/fmf-link-up-why/

Both times I was pregnant, like the Duchess of Cambridge, I had hyperemesis. That means that I spent months of my pregnancies leaning over the toilet bowl vomiting. At my worst, I was being sick every 20 minutes. It meant I couldn’t work, my second time I couldn’t look after our little boy, and I couldn’t even get out of bed because my stomach muscles were so weakened and my blood pressure so low.

It was one of the most miserable times of my life. Nothing like the golden glow I had expected from the media and friends, just a ghastly grey pallor. I lost two and a half stone in the initial four months of my first pregnancy. Frustrated by a lack of response from my local doctor’s surgery (just another neurotic first timer they thought) and panicking at symptoms I couldn’t control, I felt a complete failure as a mother before I’d barely begun.

Lying in a hospital bed attached to a drip (thank God for my mother who took my GP in hand and got me admitted under the care of my obstetrician), with no apparent cause for my illness (except that dehydration following my doctor’s inaction had worsened it), and medication only having a minimal effect, I despaired. I wondered why this was happening to me. I railed at God: why was He letting this happen to me?

To my great frustration, He didn’t answer my questions. In the stillness of the dark, I only felt a quiet voice whisper. “I’m here. I’m with you”. It was one of the most comforting and yet irritating responses I’d heard to anything.

And yet…

And yet it was enough. It was the turning point in my pregnancy.

And by that, I don’t mean that my hyperemesis miraculously stopped. It didn’t. I was eventually discharged from hospital and the vomiting gradually decreased in frequency but continued well into my 6th and 7th months.

No, what changed was that I started to experience a small sense of peace and reassurance. And that was enough.

After the birth of my first son, my doctor told me my experience had been ‘bad luck’. After my second he told me that this was unfortunately ‘my pattern’. Later on, I found out that my aunt had been the same, so I came the conclusion that I had inherited some genetic tendency to hyperemesis.

But knowing a cause, a logical reason, for it didn’t help. I still felt (feel) some inadequacy as a mother and I mourned the lost opportunity of having more children (I couldn’t put my young family though that again). The only thing that helped was that still small voice saying, “I’m here. I’m with you”. The same words my parents used when I was ill as a child and the same I said to my own children in similar circumstances. Perhaps it’s the best and only real reassurance we can offer someone in distress.

But the knowledge that I was not alone or abandoned changed my attitude. When hyperemesis struck once more in my second pregnancy, it was still miserable but instead of asking God why, I begged Him to make sure the experience wasn’t wasted or pointless. Looking back over the years since then, I can see that He more than answered that prayer (but that’s another story or more).

The thing is, that although our natural inclination is to cry “Why?” and “Why me?” when disaster comes, I’m not sure that a reason helps. Working in palliative care, seeing that death and suffering in one form or another comes to all of us, I have more of a tendency these days to ask, “Why not?” and “Why not me?”

The thing that does help is knowing we are not alone, knowing that our God is not a distant being looking down on us like ants in only interested observation but walking through the darkness with us, up close and personal (if we will let Him), familiar with suffering Himself. He is the hand to hold on hearing bad news. He is the ear to listen to all our troubles. He is the arm around our shoulders to strengthen us. He is the gentle whisper in our ear, “I’m here. I’m with you.”

Different but the Same (FIVE MINUTE FRIDAY)

Christmas will be different this year with my dad gone.

But, to be honest, last year was different too. With my eldest living 200 miles away and having to work Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, we decamped to his house in Lincoln, went to the longest Midnight Mass ever at the Cathedral, made do for cooking and dining in his limited facilities, and had a wonderful time.

The two years before that were different, adjusting to Christmases without my mum. There have been Christmases I’ve worked, Christmases I’ve volunteered with the homeless or the lonely, Christmases with children and without, the Christmas my brother joined us to share his nephew’s first one to make a change after a difficult year and the alternate Christmases shared with a divorced friend when he’s without his children, Christmases spent with anything between two and eight of us, and more than one Christmas struggled through with illness.

Boxing Days with my husband’s family all crowded into my sister in law’s small flat have come and gone. Pre Christmas family meals in a pub have had their season. The churches and the services we attend have varied. The time for eating Christmas dinner has moved. The menu for Christmas dinner has altered. The favourite TV Christmas special has changed.

Some traditions have continued over time. We still have stocking presents for all and they are opened with everyone piled on our bed first thing, no matter how old or tall our children get or how many people are staying in the house. Christmas dinner preparation is always a shared affair. And if distance separates us, family phone calls make up for it in some way.

But the most constant in all our Christmases is the Origin of it all, ‘the reason for the season’. And He doesn’t change. He doesn’t go out of fashion. He doesn’t grow up and make His own family traditions. He doesn’t move away. He doesn’t leave us.

He came and ‘pitched His tent among ours’, got involved in all the glory and mess that is our human life, and holds out His hands to invite us to all the glory and adventure that is life in Him. He is ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever’. And He loves a good celebration.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS.

The Blessing of Tradition (THE BLESSING JAR)

I’ve spent the last two weekends getting on with my usual pre Christmas baking. So far I’ve made a Christmas cake, two Christmas puddings, three batches of mincemeat, and over sixty mince pies. It’s part of the Advent preparations that I love.

I first made a traditional Christmas cake in the early years of marriage, having discovered how much my beloved liked fruit cake. Making them for him led me to delicious recipes full of moist fruits barely held together by cake mixture rather than the dry crumbly ones of my youth with the occasional dried sultana that horrified your mouth like a dead fly. And I became a fruit cake convert.

Gaining confidence, I decided to try making mincemeat for another of his favourites – mince pies – and again found something to enjoy with him. These tasted so much better than the over sweet claggy concoctions from the shops. I felt especially proud baking a batch for him to take in for his work team each year.

The Christmas puddings, however, are a much longer tradition. I can’t remember how old I was when I first joined my mum in making them. The same recipe every year from the 1937 GEC cookbook that my great great grandmother used, passed down through the female generations of our family. Now I make them with my niece.

They are never made alone and we never make just one. The original recipe is for 14lb of puddings! And my early memories are of making one for the family and giving the others to be sold at the church bazaar. Over the years, I’ve given the extras away to extended family and friends. The last one I made with my mum was in her nursing home when my husband and I took all the pre weighed ingredients in one evening, watched by fascinated staff who’d only ever had shop bought, and then the mixture taken round every resident in the lounge so all could have a stir and a wish. We gave the extras that year to those same staff to take home.

My mum taught me a lot about the value of traditions. But what I learned best from her about them is, like a good recipe, that they should be a guide not a fixed set of instructions to follow slavishly. Mum never put alcohol in the Christmas puddings when I was a child whereas I reverted to the original with its Guinness (in honour of joint family roots in Dublin) and a spirit that varies from year to year. (Once, after everyone had gone to bed, I secretly added to my mum’s mixture the only alcohol we had in the house – Malibu!) My mum always replaced the candied peel, which she disliked, with chopped dried apricots. I have both but swap almonds and glace cherries with dried cranberries.

Traditions should be made to fit the people and not the other way round. I learned this lesson most clearly from her the year I got engaged. I had assumed that I would travel back to London for my last Christmas Day with my parents and brother and, similarly, that my fiance would be with his family. But he had concluded that, with his flatmates in Devon and Wales, as we were now engaged, this would be our very first Christmas together, just the two of us. I didn’t know how my parents would react to the change. However, my mum in all her generosity and wisdom, merely said, “It’s time to make your own traditions now.”

And that’s the thing about traditions – they are made and adapted and personalised. They might look like a fixed point in the landscape but they are meant to be molded and weathered by the changing seasons and the river of life.

This Christmas is another transition as we face it for the first time without my dad. Routine changes once again – no more presents or cards to buy for or from him; no more extra mince pies to make because he didn’t eat Christmas pudding; no more opportunities to spend with him over the holiday period, or any other time.

So I’m holding on to those flexible family traditions, reminding myself that one Christmas is never exactly the same as the last – and that it’s not meant to be because life is not meant to be static. And I will hold onto my mum’s wise words, adapting them slightly (knowing adapting things is a family tradition in itself) to say once again, “It’s time to make new traditions now.”