NEIGHBOUR (Five Minute Friday)

I’m still getting back into the habit of writing regularly again. So here’s a memory from my childhood prompted by the link up to the lovely Five Minute Friday community at http://fiveminutefriday.com/2017/08/31/fmf-link-up-neighbor/

I remember being so excited as a child when a new family moved in next door, who had a girl only a few years younger than me.

Regularly I would place an old wooden ladder, spattered in paint, against the fence and then climb to the top in hopes of seeing Kirsty and getting an invitation to come and play. If she was there, we would chat, and occasionally we’d play together. Her mum didn’t seem to approve of my entry route over the fence.

It wasn’t the bosom friendship I’d pictured but we got on well.

I can’t say the same for our fathers.

My dad loved growing fruit and veg so couldn’t understand why Colin had patioed over their entire garden. My dad was a quiet man, getting up early to commute into central London, and his social life revolved around church. Colin was self employed, working to his own schedule, and loved to throw a party. Boy, did he love to throw a party.

He never invited us but several times a week held noisy parties long into the night. It didn’t go down well with my dad for his whole family to be disturbed so frequently. But Colin made no concessions to requests to stop or limit the parties to weekends only.

One night, Dad had enough. Another sleepless night and requests to tone things down once more ignored, he decide to take drastic action. So he turned our loudspeakers right up against the wall, put the volume to maximum, and played his favourite bagpipe music.

You’ve never seen a house clear so quickly.

Angry words were exchanged. But there were no more late night parties.

 

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THE BLESSING IN THE MOMENT (Blessings Jar Week 25)

My apologies for posting this so late – it’s been a very busy week. Thanks for your patience.

We’re standing near the top of a grassy slope; well, not standing, more balancing, balancing because it’s hard to dance on a slope without falling over, and right now nothing is going to stop us dancing.

I look into the faces of my sons – we can’t stop grinning at each other as we sing. We’re probably completely tuneless except we can’t hear ourselves for the noise of everyone around us also singing. My older son sways and steps from one foot to other in time with the rhythm; his brother proceeds in clipped precise movements.

My husband edges closer as our dance moves mimic each other in old patterns from the past as I find myself simultaneously here in the present place and yet also back in a hotel in Windsor, at a works Christmas party, and in a London club on another night out decades ago. Once again, I’m smiling at him across the dance floor in Ritzy’s or the Carlton Club or Manhattan Heights before we were married. But we’re also here, now, in Lincoln Castle, mirroring each other and bumping hips crazily to exactly the same tune as then.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-n3sUWR4FV4

And the glory of it is that I don’t care. I don’t care if my dancing is good or bad. I don’t care if it’s dated or inappropriately modern for someone my age. I don’t care what other people think. I don’t care what I look like, whether my hair is behaving itself, or if I’ve chosen the right dress, or how fat I’ve become. When I’m dancing with him, I just feel confident and happy, caught up in the joy of the moment. Once more, we are a couple of dancing infernos.

Another song starts, a quieter one, and he draws me into his arms to step and turn as we hold each other. So many slow dances just like this: the night we met, our wedding day, at the end of an evening at home. My head rests in its familiar place on his shoulder as if design or erosion over time has formed the perfect jigsaw fit.

We open our arms and our sons join us in the dance. The words of love don’t just apply to romance and I tell them of how they remind me of the day each of them were born.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAjInKiOkqo&spfreload=10

Dusk has crept up on us without our noticing, highlighted by the artificial glowworms of mobile phone screens filming the event. For second, I feel sorry for those so busy recording the event that they’re not fully participating in it. Their memory of it will be reduced to a few inches of a 2D screen but mine will be in glorious 5 Senses, All Immersive Technicolour in my brain.

One song blends into another. Five thousand people are pulled up onto their feet by the magnetism of the music. Arms aloft, we become an extension of the band as we sing in unison (everyone knows all the words). It becomes a call and response of the lines of the chorus between singer and crowd, repeating over and again like gospel worship in church.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9f16Fw_K45s

And it does remind me of church, and Spring Harvest and Greenbelt, as we’re all united in song and purpose. And it propels me forward as I wonder if this is what worship around the Throne with an angelic choir will be like? Is this joy and sense of past, present and future all blended together what eternity feels like?

Is this a taste of Heaven? Oh I do hope so.

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.

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.

 

It Would Have Been ENOUGH (FIVE MINUTE FRIDAY)

Recently my boys have had interesting time explaining to their friends why they have to be home next week for Passover when we’re not Jewish. It’s a tradition we started when they were small after I read about Michelle Guinness’s habit of embedding faith in the family home rather than a church building on a Sunday. And it has become as important a family event as Christmas for us. More on that in another blog post, I think.

I was reminded of part of the traditional words from our Passover Haggadah by this week’s Five Minute Friday prompt. After we list the 10 plagues leading up to the escape from Egypt as well as any modern day plagues we endure, we list a host of ‘if onlys’ about what else God did at that time, each followed by the response ‘It would have been enough’:

If God had only brought us out of Egypt, slain their firstborn, given us their wealth, divided the sea, satisfied us in the wilderness, brought us to Sinai, or brought us to the Promised Land, without any of the ‘added extras’ (crossing the sea on dry land, feeding with manna, giving us the law, building the Temple), each would have been enough.

I wonder sometimes how often I really do appreciate each of God’s actions as sufficient or whether I take His generosity for granted? But I also wonder whether each of these things listed would have been enough for God? After all, His generosity is extravagant not mean spirited. It is not in His nature to only do ‘just enough’. Look at the Feeding of the Five Thousand with its twelve baskets of leftovers!

I suppose the way to avoid complacency is by gratitude. This section of the Haggadah ends with the reminder of ‘how much more must we go on thanking God for His great mercies to us.’ Or as the hymn puts it:

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never changes.

His mercies never come to an end.

They are new every morning, new every morning.

Great is Thy faithfulness, O Lord,

Great is Thy faithfulness.’

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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‘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.

STUMPed! (Jesse Tree Day 16)

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We live in a conservation area. And it’s beautiful. It can be had to believe that we are in the middle of a town, close to schools, shops, and an airport when the greenery that surrounds us provides a protective canopy, muting the outside world with birdsong. It’s almost like living in woodland.

But what it means is that every tree on our estate (and there’s a lot of trees: for example, our back garden has a rowan, two oaks, a flowering cherry, and a Lawson’s Cypress and that’s just one of the smaller gardens) has a TPO, or a Tree Protection Order on it. And a TPO means we can’t even prune a tree without council permission, let alone remove one. We have to register an official request, with the backing of an accredited tree surgeon and provide good reason for it, just to get a council officer out to inspect the tree and land. When the silver birch in our front garden had produced no leaves for months after winter ended and started dangerously dropping branches, we still had to go through this process for a 2 minute judicial visit to agree what we already knew: that the tree was dead and needed chopping down before it caused damage or injury – but only if we replaced it with a similar size tree as close to the original position as possible.

In the end we decided to let 2 self set seedlings grow and see which won the battle for space and/or which we preferred. We would then get rid of the other before it became big enough to require council permission to remove. After a few years, we chose to keep the rowan with its delicate leaves and blossom followed by its brilliant orange berries, popular with our local birdlife and a new adventure in cooking (rowan jelly anyone?) for me.

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So we took an axe to the small oak tree and waited for it to naturally rot away. When that didn’t happen after about a year, we hatched a crisscross design into its surface to help. When badgers discovered a larder of insects, worms, and grubs and started digging underneath into what could become a sett (and even more protected than any tree), we filled in the ground with old bricks. When, season after season, from the sides and top of the old tree base, a whole bush of leaf and acorn laden branches shot up and out, we cut them back over and over again.

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I’m told that brass nails are the trick – if I hammer them in they will rot and destroy this stubborn oak.

But I haven’t got round to doing that because there’s something endearing about this stump that simply refuses to die. A thing that to all appearances has no attractiveness and no apparent use or potential keeps following its overwhelming instinct to survive and flourish again.

So here’s another message of hope for Advent. I can’t help thinking of the Facebook post that it is currently doing the rounds about being sensitive to those who are not looking forward to Christmas this year because it is too painful and grief-ful for them. I know how that feels: for life to seem cut off, survival an effort, joy or flourishing unimaginable, to feel like a rotting stump.

But the Bible promises that ‘a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, a branch shall grow out of his roots’. This word is about a man who we only know about because of his famous youngest son. God can and will bring new life from what appears to be the most ordinary, unknown, apparently dead situation – perhaps in our lifetime or perhaps in the next generation – but He will bring life again.

Perhaps we do well to remember the Easter hymn, whose last verse says:

‘When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.’

 

HARPing On (Jesse Tree Day 12)

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My husband has quite a collection of guitars – he even has names for some of them and they may soon need a room of their own! But I’m not complaining. I am full of admiration for how he taught himself to play and some of my most precious memories are of singing along to a tune he has learned and perfected. I wish I had his talent and dedication.

Sometimes, in the evening, after a long hard day at work, guitar melodies quietly tumble down the stairs from his study, like a refreshing mountain stream. He doesn’t always realise that I turn off the TV to just listen, not wanting to disturb the magic. Playing guitar is such a good stress relief for him.

Music has such power. It crystalizes memories. It connects us with others. It gives us a means of expressing and offloading complex feelings.

When my mum was in the last months of her life, I found myself playing and singing over and over again One Republic’s ‘Counting Stars’. It seemed to encapsulate the ambiguity and tangle of my feelings – my insomnia; how difficult it was to act unselfishly for so long whilst trying to balance everyone’s needs of me; how the experience had aged me; how my dreams of the future with my mum had been dashed; how this intense pain paradoxically brought my life into sharp focus and vivid colour; even the underlying hope to all this anguish. Singing it loudly made me feel better somehow.

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

David was Saul’s One Republic. When the king was in torment, it was David’s playing on the lyre (or harp) that restored him. Plenty of us today continue to find similar comfort in the honesty and lyricism of David’s music in the hymnbook that is the Book of Psalms.

It’s easy to remember David as a giantkiller or king. But let’s not forget and give thanks for his musical gift that lives on. Let’s also be thankful this Advent for the traditional and modern, professional and amateur music that surrounds us this season. And let’s not forget to thank the musicians today who bring us healing and wholeness. Thank you My Beloved.