A New Season

Your friend’s dishtowel strung over her faucet

was a sentence which could be diagrammed

while your tumbled life, that basket of phrases,

had too many ways it might fit together.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye (from New Year)

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It’s hard to believe that it’s eight months since I last posted. I shared part of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, and spoke of my need to make choices that would facilitate “an undiluted life”.  And just a couple of days ago, I came across the words quoted above, also by Naomi Shihab Nye, from her poem New Year. So much has happened since October, and that “quiet place in the swirl” is only now becoming a reality.

After my dad’s stroke in August last year, I found myself more and more off kilter. I had the sense that I was losing my grip on my ability to keep it all together. The strain of the year’s challenges and the knowledge that my sons were not going to be at home much longer weighed heavy on me. I longed for stillness, time to gather my thoughts, but I couldn’t seem to create the space needed for that stillness. I couldn’t give myself permission.

We had been looking for a new home, one closer to my horse, in the university town of Stellenbosch, where our younger son would be studying. All year we visited agents and kept a watch out on Gumtree, with no success. Eventually in November, we came to an agreement with a landlord for the rental of a property on the outskirts of the town, just a couple of minute’s drive from my horse, in the shadow of the Jonkershoek mountains. It needed lots of work, but I felt in my heart that it would be home. We set about putting our Parklands house on the market and headed into Christmas and New Year.

I wish I could say that the path has been smooth. It has not. Our home sold twice and both sales fell through. We decided to buy a flat that our son could use and that would serve as an investment, and almost lost that in the process. Our house finally sold and we set a date for moving across to Stellenbosch. I meanwhile had been living partly in Parklands and partly in the empty house in Stellenbosch. I spent time-with much help from my parents and aunt-fixing the house up and making it feel like home. It was a hard season. I felt disoriented and torn, and missed my husband and sons terribly. (Sleeping alone in a big house where the only furniture is your mattress, a couple of camping chairs and a small wobbly table can be somewhat depressing.)

We moved the just a few days before Easter. That weekend my horse fell ill and was rushed to hospital on Easter Sunday. I thought I would lose him. My parents’ car was written off on the Tuesday after that, following a minor car accident. On the Wednesday my mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was a week of overwhelm.

I am only starting to feel grounded again. Our boys have settled into their lives away from us, and although I miss them, I am so proud of the way they are moving into adult life. They are out of the nest and flying. My horse has recovered, and I love that I can see him every day. My mom-in-law is approaching this moment in her life with grace and deep faith. She is a beautiful example to us all, and we are trying to make as many memories together as we can.

Amidst all of this my friend Lisa and I have completed our little children’s book and the first print run arrived a short while ago. This is exciting and daunting all at once. It’s wonderful to see the words and pictures come together on the page in a real book. Now comes the work of marketing and selling, not easy for two introverted creatives! But we have already found one bookshop to stock it, and will be doing a launch there soon. (News of that will follow shortly. Keep an eye on my newsletter and Facebook.)

 

A Quiet Place in the Swirl

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Today I share not my words, but those of Naomi Shihab Nye, the third verse of a poem about her Uncle Mohammed. These lines speak to me of the need to make my world smaller. They remind me that even as I engage with life and responsibilities and relationships, I can make choices. I can choose to push distractions aside and attend to what matters. I can find that ‘quiet place in the swirl’, pursue the inner quiet necessary to live an undiluted life.

 

Maybe you had other reasons.

Maybe you didn’t go up the mountain because you were angry.

This is what I am learning, the voice I hear when I wake at 3 a.m.

It says, Teach me how little I need to live

and I can’t tell if it is me talking, or you,

or the walls of the room. How little, how little,

and the world jokes and says, how much.

Money, events, ambitions, plans, oh Uncle,

I have made myself a quiet place in the swirl.

I think you would like it.

Yesterday I learned how many shavings of wood the knife discards

to leave one smoothly whittled spoon.

Today I read angles of light through the window,

first they touch the floor, then the bed,

til everything is luminous, curtains flung wide.

As for friends, they are fewer and dearer,

and the ones who remain seem also to be climbing mountains

in various ways, though we dream we will meet at the top.

Will you be there?

Gazing out over valleys and olive orchards

telling us to sit, sit,

you expected us all along.

Naomi Shihab Nye (from For Mohammed on the Mountain)

 

Pursuing Wholeness

When your eyes are tired

the world is tired also.

 

When your vision has gone,

no part of the world can find you.

 

Time to go into the dark

where the night has eyes

to recognize its own.

 

There you can be sure

you are not beyond love.

 

The dark will be your home

tonight.

 

The night will give you a horizon

further than you can see.

 

David Whyte, from Sweet Darkness

 

know-rest

It’s been a long and sometimes difficult year, and I’ve often wished I could go and live in a small house alone somewhere, away from the demands and expectations of my days. I have a beautiful life, one that is full of good things and good people. But I am tired.

Over the past weekend I attended a workshop in which we engaged with horses, and then reflected on our interactions as a way of learning more about ourselves. At one point I tried to lead a horse to a patch of shade. When asked why I had chosen that particular place and what it represented for me, I said that it looked nice, comfortable and peaceful. I said that it represented rest. The facilitator smiled and said to me, “You need rest.”

I find it very difficult to rest. Even when I do have the opportunity to be still, my mind races with thoughts of all I should be doing. It’s hard to give myself permission to just be. There is a heaviness in me, a weariness that I am wary of indulging. I fear that if I stop all the thinking and doing, I will sink into that heaviness and be lost.

So I keep moving, and doing and accomplishing. This is not an entirely bad thing; being productive is an antidote to despair and self-pity. Caring for my family brings me joy, and coming to the end of the day knowing that I have completed my tasks and engaged in meaningful work is a blessing.

But I am beginning to think that there is a season for moving into the darkness, for allowing myself to settle into the places in my heart that need to speak of sadness and confusion. It is in reaching into those places that I find some of the wisdom needed to make sense of myself and my world. As David Whyte says, that darkness can provide a vision of a further horizon, one that is not clear in the wide open light and stimulus of daily life. God is in the dark places of my life, as much as He is in the light.

I end with some beautiful words from Rainer Maria Rilke:

So don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?

(You can find Sweet Darkness in its entirety on the poetry page.)

 

Mind Skiddle

skiddle – to throw flat stones so that they skim on the surface of water (Galloway)

Robert Macfarlane in Landmarks

 

Did you ever skip stones as a child? We did; my father was a consummate stone skipper. He could make a pebble skitter across water seven times. I think my best is about four (although my stones sink about as often as they skip). There’s an addictive quality to the game, picking up stone after stone, trying to make it skip just one more time than the one before.

Earlier in the week, I imagined a stone in my hand, imagined the weight of it, cold against my skin. I pictured myself stepping forward and flicking it out into the water, watching it bounce and sink. And in that imagining, I noticed something. There are thoughts that I pick up, over and over again. I hold them in awareness, feel their weight, their familiar texture and shape. I throw them out and watch them dance and sink again beneath the surface of that awareness. I watch the ripples of those thoughts widen and run into other thoughts. Then I pick them up, and repeat the process. It’s comfortable in some sense. I can let my thoughts slide easily over the tracks I’ve created for them, but those tracks don’t lead anywhere.

There is another image I associate with stones: a cairn, a neat stack of small rocks created by people walking a path, to help others on the same path in finding their way. I wonder if I can put my stone thoughts to such use. Can I stack them with care, make a beacon for myself to follow so that they point a way forward? This requires effort. I must break with established patterns and leave the thoughts behind so that I can explore new territory, go somewhere I’ve not been before.

(On the poetry page you will find a poem that I wrote in reflection on this.)

Daily Braveries

More and more I understand what people do

I appreciate the daily braveries  clean white shirts

morning greetings between old men

 

Again I see how  once the boat tips   you never forget

the sensation of drowning

even if you sing yourself the familiar songs

 

from What People Do by Naomi Shihab Nye

PICEDITOR-AGE

I watched a movie several weeks back, about a small group of men who braved a storm off the coast of New England in 1952, to rescue the survivors of a tanker that had been split in two. It’s an inspiring true story of strength, bravery and skill in the face of almost certain death. I love stories like that, ones in which I see the best of what it means to be human put on display. I love happy endings: people rescued, wrongs righted and lives transformed and restored. We need those stories; we need to be reminded of what is good in the world, in us. We need to be reminded of what is possible, especially now, when stories of pain and brokenness come to us on every front and we are constantly made aware of all the ways in which we fail to make it right.

I came across the poem What People Do, a few days ago. In it the poet reflects on moments spent by her father’s bedside, as he waits ‘for his heart to mend’. Having spent time every day visiting my father, as he recovers from a recent stroke, I felt drawn to her words. And I started thinking about ‘daily braveries’. My father returned home on Saturday, after four weeks spent first in hospital and then in a care facility. There he started learning how to recover the use of his left arm, how to make new neural pathways from his brain to the hand that until so recently performed the intricate tasks I take so for granted. He must teach it again how to hold a fork, to know where it is in space.

Yesterday we went looking for something in his workshop and I thought about how just a few weeks ago he was at work with his power tools, making furniture. My father is a determined man, with a wonderful sense of humour. He is already formulating plans for how he can continue with his work, complete the projects he’s started: finish the cabinet for a friend, carve Percy the train’s face for his brother-in-law’s grandson. He is already engaging with the daily acts of courage he will need to move into a life that has changed.

I think of the daily struggles faced by so many, struggles that are often unseen and unknown even by those closest to them. People all around us are grieving the loss of family, or the loss of a life they thought would be different. Some are battling mental illness, physical illness or financial challenges.

I think of my own wrestling, sometimes with things I talk about, and sometimes with things I keep hidden in my heart. There are days when ‘clean white shirts’, or the simple act of getting out of bed is a victory. Some days, small accomplishments are the result of significant efforts of the will.

‘Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.’ It’s a popular quote, written by Philo of Alexandria (a philosopher who was born around 25 BC and died in 50 AD). I wonder how often we need these words for ourselves. Perhaps this week can be a moment for kindness and patience with our own hearts. And from that place of gentleness with ourselves, we can extend grace to the people around us.

(On the poetry page you will find a poem that I wrote about my father’s hands.)

Interruptions

It is only when we silent the blaring sounds of our daily existence that we can finally hear the whispers of truth that life reveals to us , as it stands knocking on the doorsteps of our hearts.

K. T. Jong

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It’s been a busy year, and not just on the outside. My days have been full of activity, but my mind and heart have been busy too, trying to make sense of this season of change and transition. I’ve been preoccupied with questions of where I’m going and how to get there. What do I want and what steps do I need to take? How do I honour God and serve the deep purposes for which I was created? How do I move forward with intention and initiative, without pushing too hard? These are important considerations, worthy of my time and attention. But a little over two weeks ago, an interruption brought me to a halt.

I knew when I heard my mother’s voice that something was wrong. The paramedics were at the house and they’d be on their way to the hospital soon. I said I’d meet them there. We waited in emergency for the neurologist to arrive. We made calls, let family know what was happening. I cancelled all my plans for the day. We went from emergency to radiology to ICU. He’d had a stroke and needed medication right away. They’d do more tests later. “He looks so small in the bed,” my mother said as we stood together. My dad’s sister arrived and we took turns around the bed as Dad drifted in and out of sleep.

My husband was with my mother and I the following morning, when another doctor arrived. He and the neurologist gathered us round the bed to say that they’d done more tests. The situation was worse than they’d thought and that surgery was strongly suggested. They spent an hour with us, drawing pictures and detailing risk factors. Their kindness and careful attention to explaining the complexities of the situation was astonishing.

The next few days were spent in and out of the ward, visiting together. My brother flew in from Johannesburg and my other brother called regularly from his home in France. There were no set visiting hours at the hospital, so we camped out there for much of the day. My dad recovered a lot of the movement, in his left arm, that he’d lost on the day of the stroke, but it was still uncoordinated. Dad took it all in his stride, laughing when he mistakenly hit his eye in an attempt to give a high five, or spilt food in his bed.

The night before the surgery, my aunt sent me a message that perfectly sums up those few days: “There has been so much love, connection and laughter that has made special new memories that will last and sustain us whatever happens. These days have been tough, intense and yet sweet.”

You can visit the poetry page to read a poem I wrote about the hours spent waiting outside the operating theater. It was hard going home after the operation. I wanted to stay and keep him company, hold his hand through the long hours of the night. I didn’t want him to be alone with the pain and vulnerability occasioned by the necessary violence of surgery.

The days following the surgery have reminded me again of my father’s determined spirit, positive outlook and sense of mischief. (“I only dropped my fork twice at breakfast!”) He moved to a rehabilitation facility some days ago and is having various therapies to help prepare him to return home.

My life has been redesigned for me these past two weeks. I am conscious that it has been rearranged for the future too. My parents will need help and support, and I will need to be there to give it. But there has been another kind of realignment. Jong, in the quote above, mentions that life reveals truth in whispers, knocking on our hearts’ doors. An interruption like the one I’ve just experienced is more like a shout than a whisper, and it strikes down the door without knocking first. I’ve been given an opportunity to put my questions into perspective and to be reminded again of what matters most.

 

Demanding Questions

The deepest vocational question is not “What ought I to do with my life?” It is the more elemental and demanding “Who am I? What is my nature?”

Parker J. Palmer

 

This past Saturday I spectated one day of a weekend horse training clinic. A friend was attending with her horse and I was interested in learning more. Over the past year, time with my horse has dwindled. I struggle to get out to the farm more than once or twice a week and when I do, I battle to find the energy to ride or work with him. I have not been able to maintain any kind of proper training, go to clinics or have lessons. There are many reasons for this, and they are valid, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

I’ve spent the past year working at my writing, and over the past few months I’ve taken on some tutoring work. I’ve run workshops. All of this has been good, but it has meant that I have less time and energy for other things, especially for my horse. I feel torn about this, and have tried to shut down the piece of my heart that feels so strongly about this horsey journey. Opening myself up to the reality of how much it matters is too hard.

On Saturday that door was opened again. I let myself delight in the opportunity to learn and be part of a community of people who love horses as much as I do.

All of this was a powerful reminder to me of how deeply rooted this desire to be with horses is in me. But I realised something else during the course of the day. I felt at home, and not only with the people themselves. I felt at home in myself. I was quiet inwardly, and had a rare sense of calm and groundedness. I spoke when I wanted to and was quiet when I wanted to be quiet. The restlessness I usually feel in social settings was gone.

It didn’t take long for this zen like state to dissipate, once I arrived home and headed into the rest of the weekend. But those few hours of presence have left their mark. They’ve reminded me that there is a core, an essential ‘me-ness’, and that I can access it, if I create the opportunities for it to emerge.

I have been reading Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak. I was intrigued after listening to a podcast in which he spoke of his journey into and out of depression. It’s an easy book to read, in one sense, because its language and easy style is very accessible. But I am finding myself challenged. Asking questions like those in the quote above is proving to be more demanding than I’d have thought.

I’ve spent my life asking what I should do, what the ‘right thing’ is. I still think those are important and helpful questions. I have a family and a home; there are responsibilities to honour and they are a privilege. But I often find myself feeling drained and stretched beyond my ability to sustain those responsibilities with joy. I have given my life to good things, but have sometimes closed the door on what I love, what I want to do. I’ve told myself that doing what I want is selfish. I know it can be, but doing what I love, what feeds me, can also be life giving, not only for me but for the people who share my life.

There’s a lot of talk today about self-care, and about what it means. People argue back and forth about the need for self-care, versus living lives given over to love and care for others. In my faith we are often ambivalent about talk of caring for ourselves. It seems to fly in the face of all the teaching about putting others ahead of yourself; it seems to contradict the example of Jesus, who gave his very life.

I don’t know how to put it all together, to tie the arguments into a neat formula for living. I have tried. My mind has worked overtime, battling to pull all the threads into a coherent whole that I can follow like  blueprint. But I’ve never managed to find the clarity I seek. What I do know is that I’m tired. I know that when I take time to drink from the wells that replenish me, when I live in harmony with my essential nature (and that includes time spent with my horse) I am better at everything else, especially at reaching generously into the lives of those I love and want to honour.

(At WordPlay this week, I share some thoughts from Rilke. Although they are about writing, I find them helpful for thinking about this question of vocation, and how that shapes our life. I also share another question from Let Your Life Speak.)