Monday, 29 November 2010

Breaking out of Boxes

Long time no blog!
It's funny how there are seasons for blogging, and seasons to refrain from blogging... Yes, a time for everything, and everything in its time. I assume that, for me, this low-blog season reflects the fact that most of my creative energy during term time goes into my life and work at St. Stephen's University - my teaching, my relationships, my marking, my faculty responsibilities, my research for future courses... Sometimes I wonder if this means that I am in fact really LIVING now, and only THINKING about living when I blog a lot. Or whether I am living an unreflected life now! :-) But then I decide it's just different ways of living. Different seasons. I do think this time with lots of action and not so much writing is good for me, but it's almost as if the values and choices I'm living out in this time spring in part from the reflection of the summer season.

Some recent creative energy also went into another talk at church just this Sunday. For the first time in many years, Jeremy and I 'tag-teamed', which was fun. You'll find the podcast of our joint talk - with lots of personal story-telling thrown in - HERE, entitled 'Breaking out of Boxes'. I enjoyed talking and sharing about this, because ideas around identity, how we construct it, how it affects how we act and relate, and how God might be involved in it all are very important to me. Also ideas of deconstruction of previous faith-informed worldviews, and the raw, vulnerable place this leaves you in - but one full of possibility! In some ways I guess this message is what Jeremy and I have been living for the last few years... If you take a listen, I hope you enjoy it, and I just wish you had actually been THERE to smile at or hug or chat to!!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Autumn Morning by the St. Croix

Silver birches
stand watch alone
like ermine-clad nobles

As morning’s brilliant orb
turns the river to liquid gold,
and frosted paths shimmer with fallen jewels
of red, orange, yellow.

Surely, here,
there is enough beauty to dazzle,
and riches enough
to buy our allegiance;

Yet no gaudy show of power
ever forces knee or heart.

Beauty whispers
her call.

We may pass her by,
or trample her treasures underfoot.

We may throw her a brief, admiring glance.

stopping to stare
long enough,
our eyes may be opened to glory,
our ears to wisdom,
and our hearts to love.

And, while morning’s golden mist
swirls with echoes
of one final far-off season’s change
- of gilt city, glassy sea and great white throne -
and as the river offers
its glistening Holy Cross for royal sceptre

So, showered with autumn’s confetti,
may our kneeling words be:
“Beloved, I am yours.
With my affection I crown you.”

And, rising,
we may take with us
- sign and token
gift and promise -
one ruby-red leaf
with icy diamonds encircled.

Rachael Barham, Friday 30th October 2009,
St. Stephen, New Brunswick.

(a poem I wrote last year and that comes back to me as the season offers itself to us again)

Wednesday, 27 October 2010


Below is an invitation to communion that I wrote last week in response to my friend and colleague Walter's thoughts on what exactly wholeness is. I took this in directions of my own (so don't blame them on him!) but that's where the initial inspiration came from...

We come to this table longing for wholeness, and we come to this table because wholeness is offered to us here, and given to us freely and powerfully.

Here two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name and we find him in our midst as broken body and shed blood – and so we remember and experience that wholeness is found only through and on this way of brokenness, in the midst of our mess and our flaws, our pain and our shortcomings, our fears and our failures, all held and met by a love beyond words. We come here to an earthy, tangible offering – flesh and blood, grain of the earth and fruit of the vine – and we come in our earthy humanness, in all our frailty and wonder. We come as we are and find ourselves loved as we are.

Here we remember that we are whole not because we have it all together or have no broken pieces, not because we know it all or get it all right or belong to the best group. We are whole because we have been given a new centre, Jesus Christ, around which to revolve – the one that sets us free from our own limited concerns and that holds all our pieces together in love. And we believe that one day all our pieces will be brought together into a new and glorious whole. So we come to this table to offer again all those pieces, in gratitude and in need, and ask for freedom and forgiveness, for strength and courage, for new perspective and fresh compassion. We come as we are and ask that we would leave changed.

We come to this table as individuals and as a community because we know that wholeness is offered to each of us as part of the community, and in and through the community. We can never be whole without one other, and we cannot receive the wholeness offered to us at this table without ministering it to each other. So we pass each other the bread and wine, we remind one other that this gift is for each of us, for all of us, and we eat and drink together, remembering that we belong to one another and together make up the whole. Together we learn not to kill or compete or cling, but instead to die, and so to live. Learning to befriend and be at peace with our own weakness, we are able now to defend and lift up that which is weak in others. Together we grow up into the head, who is Christ Jesus. We come as we are, as disparate parts, and we ask to be made one.

We come to this table trusting that here we will eat and drink, be nourished and sustained, be healed and forgiven, be challenged and strengthened, be known and loved, be gathered and connected, so that we can leave this table ready to live out and give away – as a community, in our homes, in our everyday lives and in the world – the welcome, mercy and challenge that we have found here.

We come to this table as we are, and we find ourselves loved,


made one,

and sent out.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Absence and presence

I’ve been pondering recently the nature of absence and presence, sparked mostly by my anticipation over months and weeks of my parents’ first visit to us in Canada, our eventual reunion after 2 ½ years apart, the wonderful three week period of holiday and shared life, and then their abrupt departure and consequent absence. I found this whole process very strange. They had not been here for so long, had never been here, and then they were here, fully here, and then they were gone again. And in all this I was and am powerless to control the realities of time and space that led to these absences and presences. I could not hasten their arrival, nor lengthen or hold onto their presence, nor change the fact of their leaving.

All of this made me realise how very material and bodily and physical my life is, and how very much I dwell in time and space, though my imagination can dwell elsewhere, and my mind baulks at what I see as the limitations that time and space create. Through this experience I have recognised to a greater degree that I am a body. Yes, I longed for their coming with excitement and nervous energy and impatience, but I prepared for their coming so very materially, by stocking up the freezer and the kitchen cupboards as I planned meals, by getting my house in order, by thinking of them every time I bought a new bar of soap or pack of toilet roll. “This may be the bar of soap we’re using while they’re here.” And it was the fact of their physical presence with me, in my home, with my friends and church community, in my town, that meant so much. When we are so far away from each other we can talk on the phone and write emails and letters; we can send gifts and cards and photos. But we cannot hug or walk arm in arm down the street or sit in the garden and drink a cup of fresh mint and lemon verbena tea together. We cannot share a meal or a film or a joke. We can’t swim or hike or kayak or whale-watch or picnic. And now we have done all these things, here. There is no substitute for bodily presence.

I’ve been listening to the beautiful, lilting Irish voice of the late John O’Donohue as he talks about the physicality of the soul, and the way in which someone’s physical presence with you brings the fullness of their soul – all they are and have experienced – into your life, while their physical departure takes this fullness away. It can be hard to really grasp the truth of this, since people are still sometimes so real to us despite distance. But now that my parents have been absent from my life, then present, and then once again absent, this truth is very real to me. Being WITH them brought a myriad of new dimensions to how I could relate to them and experience them, and they me. Our bodies and souls were in the same space at the same time. They had not been able to see, hear, smell, touch and taste our life here, but now, though they are gone, they are able to truly picture us here, in our home; and I know they have been here – that they know and understand. Thus their absence has a different quality to the absence before their presence; they are absent and yet some of their presence lingers. And this is comforting. For as the great John O’Donohue put it, “absence is full of tender presence and […] nothing is ever lost or forgotten”.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Not so simple simple things?

Nothing very profound to say, but just something I’ve been mulling over today. As I walked barefoot down the length of the lawn today to hang the laundry out on our clothesline slung between two tall trees, surrounded by lush green, it was one of those satisfying moments when I was very grateful for what I see as a ‘simple thing’. Then I got to thinking that I have not always had these privileges: a lawn of my own, trees surrounding my home, or even an outside space to hang my clothes. And there have also been times in my life where I’ve had no washing machine and have had to lug loads of dirty (and then clean!) laundry around. So today’s activity is a ‘simple thing’ for me at this point in my life, and I’m happy when I’m grateful for it, because I often simply take it for granted. But for ‘former me’s’, and for countless other people in this world, my ‘simple things’ are far from simple; in fact, they would be luxuries. It reminds me of something our friends Walter and Carol Thiessen have said before about a time in their life when they did not have much money: that being poor is far from ‘the simple life’; it is very complicated, and extremely hard work, and exhausting. I have experienced little tastes of this reality, and I watch others experience it still; I hate how utterly soul-destroying and strength-sapping the simple struggle to survive can become. I wish it was not the case for anyone, especially not those I know and love, and I long to know if and how I can be part of changing this.

Another little example of what has sparked these reflections… Earlier this week, hours before a hoard of wonderful friends were due to join us for an evening BBQ, and minutes before Jeremy planned to set in to wash the latest mountain of dishes, the tap to our house water snapped off in his hands while he was trying to turn it off to mend something. Panic! How can we do the dishes, make iced tea, put flowers in a vase, shower off the sweat of the humid day… without water?! But… we live in Canada and have a phone, and we can call and get an emergency guy from the town to come out within minutes and mend the tap, and we are fortunate enough to be able to pay him, and the day’s plans went on, and the party went off without a hitch. Our panic was unnecessary, no back-breaking labour or complicated problem-solving ensued, and we were not even inconvenienced. Our life is simple because we are, in relative terms, rich.

So… I know these thoughts are the clichéd reflections of one of the privileged few, but they are genuine nonetheless. And at least they leave me aware that I am privileged, and desiring to be grateful more often and to learn to be more generous, wise, just and open-handed with what I have.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Making space

My reflections springing from the C.S. Lewis quote I first included here continue...

They continued one morning this week as I sprawled on our comfy little sofa (thank you, Heidi!), thinking about my day and all it might bring, all I hoped it would hold, and all the failures and successes, joys and sorrows that come my way largely unbidden. Sometimes life feels like a wild ride that I have absolutely no control over, though I desperately try to control it much of the time, or am unable to enjoy it because I am clinging on, white-knuckled, for dear life. Often I feel lost in a mist of events, tasks, thoughts, desires - those wild animals I wrote about too. And this particular morning I was thinking specifically about how my true values and real goals often get lost in a flood of chores that need to be done, things that 'happen to' me rather than that I choose, and - most sickeningly - things that I purport not to value as highly but which I nonetheless spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on.

As I reflected on this, a longing rose in me to be saved from those things - both inner and outer - that pull me away from the path I most want to walk (or, in other words, which some/most of me wants to walk!); a longing for my life to be full to overflowing with the things I love and crave, admire and aspire to, rather than the lesser things that I either want to escape, or simply want to waste less time on! Something else happened as these thoughts went through my mind: our wonderful little, grey cat Stripes (obviously named by a child!) jumped up onto me looking for attention and affection and, then, for a place to snuggle down and sleep. There was no room on top of me if I wanted to continue reading or writing in my journal, and she struggled to find a comfy spot near my feet because of all the many, glorious throw cushions I have made and scattered around! Afraid she would give up and take herself elsewhere, I pushed a few of the cushions off the sofa to make some space for her, and then it hit me: It is true that much of life comes to me unbidden and uninvited, that I do not have the level of control I wish for, even over myself, and that I cannot force the divine Life to come to me, bringing the freedom and love and balance that I need. But I can make space for this Life to come to me. I can make space, through prayer and through other intentional choices and activities, as to what I will and won't give time and energy and attention to throughout my day. This is what the mystics and monastics have known through the centuries: that we humans need intentional practices to empty ourselves of the things we do not want or need, or free ourselves from too strong an attachment to them (i.e. disciplines of abstinence such as fasting or silence) and to make space for or engage with those things we long for more of (disciplines of engagement such as generosity and service). Just as I cannot make the cat come and grace me with her warm presence, and yet AM able to make the space for her should she choose to settle with me, so I also cannot force Grace to make its home with me, but still I have the choice to create spaces in my life so that there is ROOM for this Grace, this God, that I long to know and love and follow more closely.

So, that day, I made some very simple choices before I began my day - very personal choices, that would not be appropriate for many others, but which were ideal for making space for what I want and limiting the space I give to the things I value less, or which can side-track me:
- Today, no facebook or blog-trawling
- No sugar or caffeine
- Pausing before responding to requests or demands or melt-downs from my dearest daughter
- Giving time to some work I had long procrastinated over
- Not buying anything we did not need in order to try to fill some void in me with stuff
- Choosing to work out how to look after myself if I get tired and grumpy, rather than soldier on and make myself and everyone else miserable!
- No criticizing my family members, not even subtly, but stating my wishes and/or frustrations clearly and being willing to let them go when necessary

I made these choices intentionally and 'in the sight of God', asking as I did that the spaces I thus created would be flooded by the sort of energy, love, compassion and wisdom that I cannot create or muster up, but which might just surprise me if I desire and ask and leave enough room.

“Contemplative practices, then, are means by which we become prepared for grace to surprise us. They are ways of opening our hand so that we can receive the gifts God wants to give us. […] By using them we prepare ourselves to receive “the good coincidences” of life: the priceless, quiet gift of well-being; the gentle habit of living deep and loving well; and sometimes, even, the lightning strike of inspiration or ecstasy that arcs by surprise into our souls from the fullness of God.”
(Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, p. 95 and p. 97)

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Wild animals

Earlier this week I quoted C. S. Lewis when he says that: “The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back.” I relate to this very strongly, though ‘wishes and hopes’ sounds far too positive to describe much of what rushes at me first thing in the morning! It’s often simply the memory of mundane everyday chores that I know are waiting for me downstairs, my long mental ‘to do’ list (which I know I really cannot do ALL of in one day!), and of course the sometimes harsh demands of my own wounded psyche. In fact, my wild animals rush at me so very violently when I awake that I am usually unaware that I have any other option but to give in to their clawing and yowling, and then charge through the rest of the day with them snapping at my heels. Some days this works better than others. Perhaps because the wishes or hopes I am first faced with are gentler or healthier than normal. Perhaps because, for once, my untamed desires don’t get into a fight with each other – a battle for supremacy – that will leave me either frantic or frozen still. Or perhaps it’s because now and then my desires aren’t thwarted quite as quickly as they usually are. I don’t know. Most of the time, though, life really doesn’t work well when it starts in this way. But the incredible thing is that, every morning, I get to choose.

This morning, for example…

Despite an oft-repeated agreement, Amélie had woken us up with loud shouts from the bathroom in an attempt to escape the arduous task of wiping her own bottom! As I lay there and listened, I could feel the annoyance rising inside me – not just at her waking me up, and not just because she was once again not sticking to what we had agreed, and not just because of the self-centredness that comes so naturally to her, as it does to most of us… I was also annoyed because I knew that this time round I finally had to follow through with what we’d arranged, not get up, bear with her insistent and increasingly impatient cries, attempt not to get impatient myself, and wait until she dealt with the poo herself! To be honest, I resent this. I resent being woken up by another person’s agenda and demands, and I resent having to jump straight into parenting – especially the discipline and consistency and follow-through part of parenting – when I’m barely awake. But this morning I chose to do what had to be done: I stayed in bed and waited, Amélie eventually did the dirty deed, and then she came proudly in to tell me what she had done and how good and clean her bottom now felt. Instead of getting cross I was able simply to confirm to her that I had ignored her cries, and congratulate her on following through with our agreement and doing such a good job of it! Then we got up, I gave her a homemade blueberry muffin, apple slices and some orange juice for breakfast, and we started our day quite happily.

This might seem remarkably unremarkable to you – and I suppose it is – but I know what a terrible cycle I can get into if I give in to the resentment and irritation first thing; if I let it lead me into recriminations or back-handed criticism, and then self-hatred and self-criticism which, un-dealt-with, just begs to be turned outwards onto someone else again…and on the vicious cycle turns. This is one of the tediously habitual ways that those wild animals rip me to shreds. But how differently the day can start and continue when I am able to stop, take stock, acknowledge rather than ignore my troubling emotions and conflicted desires, and truly CHOOSE a course of action rather than begin – and continue – with knee-jerk reactions. This morning, for instance, it turned out that all the wild animals needed was to be noticed, given a little pat on the head, and sent on their way.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The prayers of a child

Amélie joined me today in a weekly prayer time for a friend of ours with ongoing health concerns for which longed-for hope trembles on the horizon like a newly emerged butterfly, beautiful and delicate. Jeremy and I had been going regularly before term ended, but since the holidays began it’s been difficult to get there. Today at the farmers’ market, though, we met another friend who was going to be praying later on, and she asked if Amélie would be coming along. Amélie said she would like to, and I told her she could bring some paper and pens and draw or write her prayers if she wanted, while there was silence. But all she wanted to bring was a bunch of flowers from one of the farms that come to the market – a riot of yellow and blue, green and red, and as fresh and beautiful as any bouquet you are ever likely to lay your eyes upon. These Amélie wanted to buy and give to our friend, her little heart already leaping towards her with love and compassion.

Just before we left to go and pray, Amélie was unsure if she wanted to come after all, and was worried she would be bored; I said it was totally up to her if she came or not, and that it might not be the most exciting thing she’d ever done, but that if she decided to come there was a different sort of exciting about being able to ask God to help a friend, and so in some mysterious way be part of God’s plans. In the end, she did decide to come, and it was a wonderful experience for me to explain to her in childlike language, as we went, what would happen at the prayer time and why we do it that way: that we first talk about the friend and find out what’s going on with her and what the concerns are; that we will then often wait in silence, think about her, ask for God’s help as we pray, and see if there are things or ways that we think God wants us to pray; and that people then break the silence whenever they want to pray out loud, prompted perhaps by an idea, a strong desire, a memory, a mental image. I explained to Amélie that she could also pray or sit in the silence, or pray out loud, but that as this was a time set aside for our friend and for God, that she would have to wait to say anything else that came to mind, and just take herself off to the toilet if she needed to rather than ask me. I was happy she wanted to join us, but wasn’t too sure how successful the idea would turn out to be!

But my explanations and conditions all made perfect sense to her, and once we had settled ourselves on chairs in a corner and Amélie had received an answer to her question as to what exactly was wrong with our friend, she was one of the first to pray – a simple and heartfelt plea for our friend to be well and for a good doctor and that everything be made right. Then she had great fun saying “Mmm” and “Yes” as she’d noticed I sometimes do when someone else is praying. :-) She had mentioned this beforehand and we’d explained to her that some people do this and some don’t, that it’s just a way of saying you hear and agree with the person who’s praying, and that you can also listen and want God to do something without saying anything! After saying her prayer she did some hanging upside-down from her chair, some more mmms and yeses, and some wiggling to make the leather of her chair squeak, then wandered off to the toilet as arranged… some more hanging, more wiggling and squeaking, more mmms …and in among all this she listened intently to our prayers and, two other times, jumped in with further prayers of her own: for our friend’s body to be full of peace and that there be nothing she felt she had to rush around and do; that the friend would soon be able to run and be active again, and that she’d be able to eat proper meals, not just “tiny, weeny bits of food” (I don’t quite know where she got this notion from)!

When Amélie’s wiggling and squeaking became a little more distracting, I flashed a plea to her with my eyes that she try to sit still, and she whispered, with a slightly sheepish grin, “I’m bored now”. We laughed and decided to call it a day. Our prayers had been heard. There was no need for any more words. The straightforward presence of a child had reminded us of this. Her compassion without affectation, her guileless words, and even her inability to be still, brought the irrepressible abundance of Life and Love fluttering into our midst and our minds. We and our friend were, we knew, surrounded by both the unqualified Love of a parent and the unreserved Life of a child.

“A child kicks its legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”;

and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough… It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again,” to the sun;

and every evening, “Do it again,” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike: it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy;

for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

(G. K. Chesterton)

We left, bouquet clutched in eager young hands, to offer the riot of colour, fragrance and texture, the tangle of leaf, petal and pollen. The sort of flowers a butterfly aches to touch.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Called back by Love

There was a little line in my last post that just struck me as I sat down to write this one: “Sometimes those things call out to me so loudly that I can hardly hear anything else, but the voice that calls me back is, I hope, love.” I was talking specifically about the challenges of parenting, and the fact that the desire for pleasure and ease can draw me away from what it’s really all about – love. Today, though, I’ve had one of those precious moments that happen now and then, and for which I am truly grateful, where I feel called back to the centre by and to Love itself.

These moments often occur for me on the edges of sleep, and this time it was as I woke up from a nap this afternoon (after last night’s predicted lack of sleep, due to sleeping in a tent in the garden!), with a realization of feeling slightly lost, floundering, uncentred, and with the need to spend time with God and return to what really matters. Such moments of being called back are pure grace, because without them I am constantly wandering off onto the peripheries or trying to be the centre of my own world. The experience of ‘uncentering’ definitely creeps up on me more quickly and easily in the summer season, when lack of healthy structure and routine, especially in prayer, can throw me slightly off-course, and when the many gifts of life take up so much of my time and attention that the Giver can get pushed oh-so-subtly to the side. The truth is that there are so many voices calling for my attention – and sometimes they seem louder by far than the One Voice that gives me Life and that I long to turn my ears and heart towards. Try as I might, I am simply not able to get away from the need to make regular time and space to listen for that quieter, stronger voice in prayer. But, thankfully, when I don’t, it catches up with me at some moment when I stop long enough to hear it whisper. And if I will rush to kneel and listen, throwing all I am and have back towards the centre I’ve lost sight of, and admitting again how desperately I need help, I am straight away caught back up into true Life and Love. I love the way one simple psalm can become a tool for this task and grace of returning and recentering. And how, from the rediscovered Centre, I can gratefully dance back out again to all the tasks and people that make up my life, now held and fed and loved.

So, now that Love has called me back to the centre again today, I’m remembering the words of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, and taking them as an invitation to me in this summer season:

The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back, in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

Friday, 30 July 2010

All joy and no fun?

Last week a friend sent me a fascinating article from the New York magazine about why parents hate parenting. It was entitled ‘All Joy and No Fun’, and took as its starting point a range of academic research that shows that, although “most people assume that having children will make them happier”, in fact “parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so”. The article also discussed the fact that child care and parenting come pretty low down on surveys in which people rank how pleasurable they find different tasks. A similar result also shows up regularly in relationship research, with children “invariably reducing marital satisfaction” (not a surprise really, when you think about the strains parenting puts on a relationship!). There follows some really interesting discussion about why this might be – the challenge that parenting has always been, plus recent changes in society that have changed roles, tasks and expectations – and a couple of passages about the reality of being a parent made me chuckle in recognition.

One such statement, that “While children deepen your emotional life, they shrink your outer world to the size of a teacup, at least for a while”, reminds me of the moment when we finally got eleven week old Amélie to sleep in her cot at a decent hour in the evening, got excited that we’d at last be able to go out for a relaxing twilight stroll together as we had loved to do, but then realized that at least one of us was actually stuck in the house! It was one of those moments when the penny drops and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry – I think maybe I did a bit of both. The other part of the article that made me laugh out loud was the story of a famous psychologist who, when he finally got around to having children, told a colleague that: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.” This expresses so succinctly and colourfully the feeling I often get when an otherwise pleasant meal, road trip or walk in the woods is subtly or dramatically ruined (for want of a better word!) by the presence and needs of my darling daughter. Don’t get me wrong, I want her to be there; it’s just that sometimes I would like her to be there in a quasi-adult form, without the demands, meltdowns and whines, or even the very reasonable need for my attention and care. And there is no denying that when, as we did last night, Jeremy and I get a rare evening alone to jaunt off to St Andrews-by-the-Sea, sit on The Gables restaurant terrace by the water, eat without responsibility for the nourishment of a child, and talk without interruption, it is a far more purely pleasurable experience, and our ‘marital satisfaction’ probably experiences a sudden surge!

But the article also goes on to ask why, if parents aren’t happy, we as a race keep choosing to have kids, we generally love them dearly, and most parents do not regret having children (except on really bad days!). Then, in discussing a particular video clip of a stressful and rather typical exchange between a teenage boy and his mother over ‘screen time’ – a video referred to as brilliant birth control! – the article points out that neither a video, nor the content of one conversation or argument, can show the very deep love that is in the heart of this mother for her child, nor the hopes and values she has for the child that cause her to enter into a conflict zone she would probably much rather stay out of. And this is what it comes down to for me, and why I have never regretted becoming a parent, though there are days when my resentment levels are higher than normal, or when I think it’s a task I cannot manage: I’m ultimately not in this for easy, instant pleasure or personal satisfaction. Sometimes those things call out to me so loudly that I can hardly hear anything else, but the voice that calls me back is, I hope, love. That’s what I want to grow in, and into, who I want to become. That’s what I’m hoping is slowly drawing me out of my self-centredeness. So I’m happy that the article chooses to finish with some research that sensibly, instead of asking only about the pleasurableness of tasks, asked people to rank how rewarding different parts of their life are; unsurprisingly, parenting came high on the rewarding scale, though much further down on the pleasurable scale. This makes total sense to me, and also demonstrates the arbitrary and slippery nature of words. What do they really mean, all these words? Pleasurable or rewarding, fun or joy, satisfaction or love, happiness or contentment… Yes, my life is more challenging and less ‘unruffled’ than it used to be, but of COURSE there is happiness, pleasure and fun in living with a little person bursting with life and love! When I picked Amélie up from her sleepover this morning, a fresh explosion of unnamable loveliness and lightness entered the car along with her precious, pint-sized body. So perhaps what is really at stake here is how we as individuals and as a culture define the important concepts embodied in the words we bandy around as desirable goals and experiences. And perhaps parenting is one of the significant life experiences or ‘encounters’ that could help (or force) us to redefine our concepts, words, goals, values – even ourselves – for our own and everyone’s good. A longer quote from the article:

“Martin Seligman, the positive-psychology pioneer who is, famously, not a natural optimist, has always taken the view that happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it. (Seligman has seven children.)”

There’s something to this idea, but I’m not utterly convinced (seven kids must kill a few brain cells, don't you think?!). What about this for an idea though? If all you’re looking for is ‘fun’, life will inevitably blindside you and you’ll end up with very little of the experience you so desperately seek; but if you’re willing to aim for the sort of ‘joy’ that takes some hard work and sacrifice, fun will jump out at you from behind a tree while you’re minding your own business, and want to come along for the ride. That’s my experience, anyway. And one I’m hoping will – lack of sleep notwithstanding – repeat itself when I camp out with Amélie in the garden tonight!

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Ants and Butterflies

As promised and in case anyone's interested, here is a link to the podcast of a talk I just did at our church - the St Croix Vineyard - on Sunday, entitled 'An Ant's Tale'. It's based on a retelling and expansion of my post on here called 'Go to the Ant' some weeks back. The talk turned out to be longer than I thought it would be :-) so perhaps even better to listen to online (where it can be paused or stopped!) than live!

Talking of talking at church, a few weeks ago my husband Jeremy showed an incredible 20 minute film called The Butterfly Circus, and then he and anyone else who felt like it shared what they saw in the film, what it meant to them... Both the film and the reflections are worth a watch/listen.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Our Summer So Far

I have neglected to post on here for a while, partly because I've been squeezing all my creative juices into preparing for a talk I did at our church on Sunday morning (I'll post a link when the podcast is online), and also because summer... happens! So I thought it was about time I posted a few photos of some of the adventures we've been having as a family so far this summer.

First, a couple of photos from the wedding of my relatively new but already very precious friend Ellen to her beloved, Marc. It was a beautiful, relaxed and moving wedding that we loved being part of. Here they are, happily and very newly married!

And here's Jeremy and me, also happy to be there!

Next up in our adventures was a short trip up to Skiff Lake, near Woodstock, one of our favourite lakes in the area, not least because when we're up there we get to spend time with our dear friends Mary-Ann and Bob. We went up for two nights this time and had a wonderful time, with good conversation, lovely food and drink, lots of sitting in the sun and swimming and boating... and lots of fishing for Jeremy and Bob.

Here they are heading off for an evening fishing trip.

And here are the Winslows and Amelie in the cottage they were renting...

...a view of the cottage and deck from the water...

..and Amelie peeping into the little guest cottage next door that we stayed in - just a baby barn turned into a room with a half bathroom.

This little place made us think we might like to put one of these at the bottom of our garden one day as a summer guest retreat, just like we saw on the Swedish islands of Donso and Styso, painted the same colour as the house whose garden they sat in, with little gingham curtains in the windows. Now wouldn't that be fun?!

Next up, our friend Gary's 50th birthday bash out at their cottage on the St Croix river. It was a very relaxed time, with BBQ and potluck feast, followed by some jamming (pictured below: Jeremy on his mandolin, with Amelie and her friend Ali playing along too), and then a bonfire overlooking the water.

And last but not least, Amelie and I took a trip out to visit our friend Karen's farm - Robb Hill, just outside Calais over the border in Maine - for the first time last week. It was quite the adventure, as the farm is in the middle of the woods, a mile down a rough track full of puddles as big as small ponds, and Karen had to come and pick us up from the end of her track in her truck, which Amelie and I had fun riding in the back of. It is SUCH a beautiful place and her market garden is so wonderfully burgeoning.

Here are some snapshots from our time there, including Amelie picking peas, and then showing off all the produce Karen so generously let us choose: courgettes, rainbow Swiss chard, peas, carrots, a green pepper, and also a huge bag of different lettuces. It's been wonderful cooking with it all this week.

And that, folks, is a little taste of just some of the highlights of summer 2010 for us so far, and why we love this season in this new home of ours. If you live far away, come and visit! :-)

Thursday, 15 July 2010

She wears jewels on her hips

Ever since I had a baby – subjecting all my organs and muscles to the torture of being squeezed out of position and forced south by the creature that took up residence inside me, though this eventually turned out to be a rather lovely human called Amelie Abigail Hope! – I have foregone the luxury of an unbroken night’s sleep. This was for some time because of the aforementioned human baby and her need for milk, snuggles, nappy changes, burping, rescued cuddly animals, temperature adjustments to her room, bedding or clothing… or just plain and simple motherly presence due to illness, a bad dream, a worrying thought, an early wake, or something she just HAD to tell me. But this is rarely the reason any longer. She has always been a good sleeper, in fact, and now, at 6 ½, hardly ever wakes up until a decent hour, and is sensible and kind enough not to wake us up if the hour happens to still be ungodly. No, now that I COULD get an unbroken night of sleep, it’s my sorry excuse for a bladder that wakes me up in the early hours of the morning demanding to be emptied NOW! So although it is not technically my motherly duties and joys that get me out of bed, this is, for me at least, one of those strange and lingering symptoms of motherhood. Like stretch marks and checking whether anyone needs a pee before we leave the house. Because I always do. And I always do during the night as well, whether I’ve drunk gallons of water or limited myself to a thimbleful all day.

So yesterday morning, right on the bell at about 4am, I was awoken by both bladder discomfort and inexplicable hip pain. As I stumbled to the bathroom I reached for my hurting hip and found, stuck to it, a round, bright pink, fake jewel of the sort that is indispensable for little girl craft projects. Even once removed, it left an interesting imprint on my skin that looked as if I might have received some kind of alien implant during my sleep (maybe THAT’S how those creatures take up residence in the first place!). I crept back to bed, still in the habit of making every effort not to wake the sleeping child, and decided in my half-delirious state that I should take this jewel as some sort of gift or sign. I mean, my bladder and sleep cycles and stomach muscles may be shot. But motherhood, with all its challenges and utterly unbearable moments, is still the gift of a lifetime, and brings me more life and joy than I ever expected. I can live with those first few wiry, grey hairs, because they come with a warm little hand to stroke them, and a budding fashion expert (who should be asleep already) to call down, as Jeremy and I prepare to go out on a date, that my outfit would look better with a ponytail. And I can also learn to live with all those extra lines and bumps on my hips because, well, I get to wear jewels on them too!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

It is Risen! It is risen indeed!

I’m talking here about my sourdough bread, of which I just made another delicious batch yesterday, this time with half unbleached white and half wholewheat flour. Making sourdough bread is a beautifully simple process, but as there is undoubtedly some science to it too, I have taken to recording how I feed the starter and make the bread each time, and what the results are, so as to learn and be able to bake the best bread possible. And each time, documented in my special new food journal, there is exultation (It has risen!) when I come to check the dough after a night of the natural yeasts working their wonders, and find that it has turned from a solid lump to an evidently living mass: a being that has grown to almost twice its original size, that sighs and moves when you touch it, and exudes a sweet, yeasty and slightly aromatic odour. As I once again write my jubilant testimony to this miraculous transformation, I realize that it has a distinct resonance with the Paschal greeting – “Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!” – hence the title of this blog post. But while such rejoicing is fitting for Easter Sunday morning resurrection, is it really appropriate for Monday morning bread-making? Is my title, or my sense of triumph, somehow sacrilegious?

Well let me say first of all that when I go downstairs in the morning, open the corner cupboard, take out the big blue bowl, lift the plate covering my dough and find that it is changed, it always feels like an everyday miracle. I almost gasp each time, never ceasing to be surprised and delighted, particularly because all I have done is mix a little salt, five cups of flour and two cups of water into a cup measure of starter, stirred it and left it alone. No kneading needed! With next to no effort and very little time on my part, a living food has been created that will nourish the bodies and souls of my family. This is not of my doing. I may be an agent but I am not the source. This bread is testament to the life we are surrounded by: the life (and natural yeast!) that flows in the air we breathe and the water we drink, that resides in the warmth of the sun and the goodness of the earth. The bread is testament to the fact that this life, when acknowledged, respected and wisely harnessed, can yield revitalizing miracles day after day.
So my sourdough bread is a miracle to me: maybe not on the scale of the Resurrected Christ, but nevertheless part of the same Life that comes to me as pure gift and deserves to be celebrated. My Easter-like rejoicing over bread is, in fact, absolutely appropriate, because it reflects the ongoing incarnational nature of the life of God as I perceive it. Ronald Rolheiser describes it like this:
The God who has become incarnate in human flesh is found, first and foremost, not in meditation and monasteries, although God is found there, but in our homes. As Nikos Kazantzakis puts it: “Wherever you find husband and wife, that’s where you find God; wherever children and petty cares and cooking and arguments and reconciliation are, that is where God is too.” The God of the incarnation is more domestic than monastic.
Rolheiser also discusses the fact that, in Christian theology, ‘the body of Christ’ refers all at once to the human Jesus, the bread of the Eucharist, and the community of faith. God has become flesh and bone, and bread and wine, and blood and tears. I love this, all the more because it has taken me so long to grasp it, as the false divisions – between spiritual and material, sacred and profane, human and divine – finally begin to crumble. The wonderful Rolheiser again:
God takes on flesh so that every home becomes a church, every child becomes the Christ-child, and all food and drink becomes a sacrament. God’s many faces are now everywhere, in flesh, tempered and turned down, so that our human eyes can see him.*
But often I don’t see, so I am grateful for the moments when my eyes are opened: when the lifting of the plate covering the waiting dough feels like the rolling away of the stone from a tomb; when the risen bread resonates with the surprise of new life; when the five cups of flour and the two of water are as miraculous to me as the five loaves and two fish; and when I am happy to sit as a family around a loaf of warm, fresh bread and delight together in sharing both its earthy goodness and our imperfect, sacred love.
So when I look on each new loaf with its crispy crust and marvelously moist yet airy interior, I will continue to exclaim: “It is risen! Alleluia!”

*All Ronald Rolheiser quotes are taken from one of my all-time favourite books Seeking Spirituality, published in North America as The Holy Longing. He quotes from Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ.