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.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Ten reasons I love my hammock

My hammock is one of my relatively new loves, though certainly a highly seasonal one. My Mum and Dad gave me a cheerful red hammock with multi-coloured stripes years ago, but we could never use it in our rental house in England. So when we came here and bought a house with a big ‘back yard’, I was disproportionately excited to have somewhere to hang it at last. It is slung between two trees in one of the far corners of our plot, and I love walking down the length of the lawn to reach it. When we got it out this season, we couldn’t work out why it didn’t feel as relaxing as it did last year. Was this just in our heads? Then we realised that, sadly, it had shrunk a bit because we’d left it out in the rain a few times, and so Jeremy – aware of this other love of mine – thoughtfully gave me a wonderful new double hammock for my birthday. I can fully stretch my arms and legs out in it, a luxury I don’t get sharing a Queen sized bed with another six-foot adult! But it’s too difficult for kids to get into, so we’ll keep, and sometimes hang, the old one for them. You know, maybe my excitement about finally being able to hang a hammock wasn’t disproportionate at all; I mean, I found TEN things that I love about it. That’s a lot of love! I’m hoping I can spread a little of this amour du hamac around and convince some people to get one themselves! Here are my ten things:

1) My hammock gets me outside even if it’s a little too hot or a little too cold; on the first sort of day, my hammock is pleasantly sheltered by dappled shade from tall trees, and on the second I can take out a blanket with me and wrap myself in it snugly. In fact, it’s one of the first ways I can enjoy being outside when the snow has all melted and the grass is just green, but there are still hardly any leaves on the trees, as you can see in this photo (the hammock - with my daughter in it - is the red splodge in the distance!):

2) I don’t feel guilty about sitting or lying down in it for a quick rest – it somehow feels like an event, an activity, rather than just the lack of… It’s also easier to relax outside because I’m not surrounded by all the tasks I need to do and messes I need to clear up. Even if I only have ten minutes, a little rest in the hammock leaves me feeling remarkably refreshed.

3) Ordinary activities somehow become more special when they take place in a hammock: reading a book, sharing an afternoon snack or ice lolly, sitting down for a chat… I even slept the night in my parents’ hammock one balmy summer night many moons ago; it was wonderful to watch the stars as I fell asleep, and be rocked as I slumbered, but I don’t know how the sailors did it, because my back complained in the morning!

4) I can watch the seasons changing by looking up at the trees overhead. In the spring, when I first lie looking up, there isn’t a single leaf on the trees, but slowly the green appears and soon there’s a veritable canopy above my head, and only glimpses of blue sky peaking through. Then in the autumn, the greens gradually change to fire – a treat for the senses.

5) Naps are far better in a hammock – the motion lulls you to sleep like a mother rocking a cradle. I hate napping in bed, and don’t mind a couch, but the hammock is my siesta-site of choice, and is conducive to the only-just-drifting-off kind of snooze that I prefer.

6) I feel more aware of and connected to the trees and the wind, especially when the wind blows and the trees bend and move the hammock. I understand why those free-standing metal frames for hammocks exist – it’s a good idea if you don’t have any trees – but I do think you’d miss out on one rather glorious aspect of real hammocking.

7) Although at first I wished there were trees closer to the house that I could hang the hammock on, I am now very glad that it’s at the bottom of the garden. I can survey my ‘territory’ from afar, and get perspective on my life and my faraway house, which helps me go back into the fray more grateful and more centered.

8) It’s a great place to pray because I feel instantly ‘treated’ and more relaxed when I climb into the hammock. This means I’m more likely to approach prayer as the treat and joy that it is – relaxing into being known, loved and delighted in – rather than with anxiety, duty or too much effort.

9) I have the most wonderful conversations with my daughter Amélie in the hammock. It’s usually difficult to get her to stay still for very long, but perhaps it’s the motion of the hammock that allows her to stop and rest with me for a moment. The hammock is the place where we’ll often talk about important things, or where she’ll tell or ask me things that might not have come up in the busyness of everyday life.

10) For kids, a hammock is like a communal swing, and how much more fun could there be?! Amélie can sit and swing in our hammock with three little friends, or lie flat in it with one friend and claim to be a stripy banana, or be pushed until she screams (an ambiguous pleasure!). Alone, she can swing and sing, or hide from me, or torture the cat. Yes, the hammock is probably as much of a joy for her as it is for me. In fact, she wanted to write a few lines in a Word document today, and this is what she chose to write:

"Me and my family just got a new hammock.

Soon I hav to get a filleng"

I love the chance to hear what is on my daughter’s mind and rocking her world. Right now, my hammock is rocking mine – the reclamation of a simple, physical, childlike pleasure.

What about you? I’d love to hear if you have a hammock. If so, what do you love about it? And if not, why not?!

Friday, 2 July 2010

Simple pleasures: shelling peas (with photos!!!)

Amelie and I sat out in the garden with the pea pods I'd bought at the Calais Farmers' Market, and learnt to shell them together, with a little online instruction and some experimentation of our own, which involved flying peas for a while! And, as promised, I have also learnt to upload and post PHOTOS!! *cheers and applause*
I think I'm hooked now!

Uncovering the green jewels

Amelie becoming an expert pea-sheller!

We ate the peas raw for lunch - they were sweet and almost creamy - with simple, crispy quesadillas fried in my new cast iron skillet: plain cheese for Amelie; and for Jeremy and me, some with tomato bruschetta mix and cheese, and others with cheese, salsa and green onions. I made them on teff/millet wraps this time, to try something gluten-free for a change, and it worked well. Yum!

Look how wonderful and green our garden is in the summer! It takes my breath away all the time. And behind Jeremy in the distance is our vegetable plot with seven tomato plants and some fiery 'companion' marigolds coming along very nicely. Ah, the joys of the season...

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Summer Vegetable Chowder (using up everything that's wilting in the fridge!)

As the title suggests, this is a delicious summer soup to use up anything and everything you have lying around in the fridge - just replace an item below with something else you have and want to use up. When I make it more intentionally I add zucchini and mixed sweet peppers.

Summer vegetable chowder

Gently sauté the following in a large pan:
1 tbsp butter or olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 stick celery, finely diced

Add and simmer:
2 cups vegetable bouillon/stock
1 ½ cups leftover mashed potato (containing butter and cream) - or chopped raw potatoes
2 carrots, finely diced (and/or chopped sweet bell peppers)
1 cup tiny cauliflower florets (and/or zucchini/courgette, chopped)
2 tomatoes, chopped
2 tbsp tomato paste/puree

When the vegetables are just cooked, add the following and gently simmer until soft and heated through:
1 cup frozen sweetcorn (or fresh)
½ cup frozen petits pois/peas (or fresh)
1 tbsp lemon juice
Basil, finely chopped, to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Option: milk or cream to taste

OPTIONS to stir in to the bowl as you serve the soup are:
Sour cream/ crème fraîche
Grated Cheddar cheese (mature/sharp)
Fresh young spinach, torn

Happy savouring!
(More delicious Nourishing Recipes here)

If you're interested, here's the history of the soup when I first made it:
With all the lovely fresh veggies I got at the farmers' market on Tuesday filling up my fridge, I wanted to make some space by using up everything that's been hanging around for too long and has seen better days! This included: leftover mashed potato, slightly squishy tomatoes, some tomato paste at the bottom of a can, and limp celery and carrots. It's definitely time for a soup.

This is what I came up with, and it was YUMMY! I find that almost anything can taste amazing if you 'summer chowder' it - meaning, add tomato and something creamy/milky, the sweetness of corn, the fragrance of basil, and some good strong Cheddar cheese stirred in at the end. So try this with whatever YOU have languishing in the larder! Of course it's amazing with truly summer veg like courgette (zucchini) and peppers. I did allow myself the luxury of stirring torn fresh spinach into the bowl along with cheese and sour cream (this or creme fraiche is excellent to add at this point for the enzymes) - mmm! I did a 'Grace Rouleau' (my good friend and excellent soup-maker!) and chopped everything really, really small in the hopes that my DD Amelie wouldn't get freaked out by all the 'bits', and it worked - she miraculously ate a whole bowl! (though still wouldn't admit she liked it) ;-)