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.