The road not taken: Indecision and missing out

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…

I came relatively late in life to Robert Frost’s famous poem. If you don’t know it – go now, and read it. It will stay with you long after you’ve forgotten my words.

I spend a lot of time with people who are trying to work out what to do with their lives. Which roads to take, and which to ignore. I hear stories of fear and curiosity; of regret and gratitude; of anxiety and excitement.

And for every road we take, we turn our backs on ten, a hundred, a thousand more. A thousand roads not taken. The snickets and cul-de-sacs of life that we will never explore and that will remain untrodden. Perhaps more weighty than the question of “Which way?” is: “How do I deal with the knowledge of the roads not taken?” 

That is, how do I manage the overwhelming sense of Missing Out (I’m currently reading a fascinating book of the same title) on the options I don’t choose? The potential I never realise? The opportunities I allow to slip away, unseized?

I have wrestled with a decision recently. I was tortured, for a while, about which road to take. It seemed as if one road would lead to joy, and life, and fulfilment, and the other to despair and exhaustion and disillusionment. The problem was, I didn’t know which road would lead where. It felt as if choosing one road would close off ten more. I was paralysed with indecision. Even though I’ve written about this before, even though I hold firmly to the notion that there are no bad decisions, I fell into a rut.

I didn’t know what was the ‘right’ thing to do.

And this might make me seem crazy, but eventually, with Robert Frost in mind, I wrote to myself. This is usually my ‘fall back’ option when prayer and reflection and meditation fail me. When I’m getting deeper into fog with no clarity. In these moments, writing becomes an act of untangling: a gentle separating of the threads that have wrapped themselves around my soul. And somewhere, there is usually a still, small voice of divine sense.

So this is what I wrote:

I’m not going to tell you what you should do, or who you should be. The paths are yours to take. You choose one before another and they all lead to joyful surprise and sorrow-filled desolation. Whichever way you go, there will be tight, dark corners and glorious summits – and you will navigate through, step by sometimes painful step, because there is always another step on. I will be with you but I will never force you.

These decisions are not mine to make – but yours. I will give you good, wise people and a capacity to seek out their wisdom. But rarely will I shovel it into your consciousness. You must seek it out: lament it, search for it, find it, and treasure it. And you will. Find it.

But the wisdom is not in the decisions; the roads you take. The wisdom is in how you walk them. No matter what roads you take, you also choose how to travel them. So I’m not going to tell you what to do. That choice is a gift that is yours alone. But choose with confidence and freedom, and know that the road you take shuts off no doors and few opportunities.

And when you do choose a road, walk it wisely.

The wisdom is not in the roads you take, but in how you choose to walk them.

To this point, I have thought of choice as being an exercise of my freedom. But perhaps those of us caught up in the cultural metanarrative of ‘progression’ (that is, we believe that as a race, we need to advance, to progress, to flourish, to succeed, to prosper…) are actually slaves to indecision. We believe a myth that only the ‘right’ decisions will allow us the greatest prosperity (as if prosperity is all we have to hope for…!)

So maybe the decisions – the roads we choose – don’t matter. Maybe what matters is how we live out the decisions we make. We could take one road, or another, and yet on both roads we could make choices that bring life or joy to ourselves and others – or we could make choices that sap us of strength and energy.

So, going forward, I am resolved not to worry too much, with dear Robert, about the roads not taken. There will always be missed opportunities and more potential than can ever be realised. What I will worry more about is how I travel the roads I take:

Will I be a good companion?
Will I seek out those lost on the way, and walk with them?
Will I try and light up the darker corners of the paths I take?
Will I walk wisely, and rest often?

And perhaps, when we become more conscious of how we walk the roads we take, instead of which roads we take, perhaps then we don’t miss out on all that much after all.

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Pulling up the weeds: An Examen for self care

Material adapted from a day I led recently in Gilly’s Quiet Garden, part of the Quiet Garden Movement.


Self-care is a bit like weeding.

This thought struck me some weeks ago, as I found myself delicately rescuing one of our roses from the bindweed that had twisted itself tight round the thorny stem. As I was weeding, I was spending time in prayer and reflection, and working through a particular personal conundrum. The task of unwrapping weed from flower served as a helpful outworking of the inner process of “unwrapping” that I was doing – working out the good and the bad – the flower and weed of the particular issue I was reflecting on.

I am a champion of the importance of self-care. Wellbeing, resilience, self-awareness, wholeness – call it what you like but whatever term we use, it’s important. And it’s important not solely for our own sake, but so that we can be a resource, a wellspring to those around us.

Self care begins with the self, but done well, it is never solely about the self. Poor self-care, or no self care, pushes us inwards. We become introspective, self-centred, blind to others around us, and liable to lash out or project our pain onto the people we love – or (worse?) the people we don’t. Good self care enables us to develop good core strength, from which we are able to support and nourish others as well as our self.

What if your life was a bit like a garden?

There are all sorts of different plants and flowers. Some things – as in your life – are thriving and healthy. They have strong, deep roots and high-reaching leaves. Some produce fruit or flowers, so that you enjoy and give away an abundance of produce – just as much of your life will be about giving out to others. Some plants are young, and some are old. Just as some things in your life will be barely beginning, and other things well-established, or perhaps even going to seed. There will be enormous trees, fragile daisies, and everything in-between.

But, if your garden – your life – is the same as mine, then there will be a few weeds around too. Some of them pose little threat – they are shallow rooted and will pull up with no recurrence. Others are more of a problem: deep or extensively rooted, damaging to the good things in the garden, and needing careful, patient, persistent treatment to eradicate.

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Flowers and weeds: An Examen

The Examen is an ancient spiritual practice which aids self-reflection in ways that draw our gaze from within ourselves and out to the world beyond us. It has three stages.

The first step of the Examen is to notice the moments in which all was well:
Where have I sensed peace, security, deep joy, happiness, comfort?

The second step of the Examen is to notice the moments when all was not well:
Where have I sensed discomfort, pain, insecurity, fear, emptiness?

The third step of the Examen takes our answers to the first two questions and uses them to help us lay down the past and look ahead. For what I have been grateful? What now lies ahead?
Step one

What plants are flourishing in your garden?
In what areas of life are you, or have you been flourishing, thriving, and happy?

What plants are you especially proud of?
What of your own achievements are you proud of?

Which plants are strong and healthy?
Where are your strengths and gifts?

Which plants are being especially productive, giving you an abundance of fruit or flowers for you to enjoy or pass on to someone?
In which areas of your life are you able to give from?

And…

Where is this goodness rooted?
What has build your confidence?
Who has been kind to you?
Who has invested in your flourishing?
What—and who—has built you into you?
Step two

What weeds are present in your garden?

Which are shallow rooted annuals, easily pulled up?

Which are deep rooted and complex, needing dedicated attention?

Which give a nasty sting?

Which can you learn to adapt to and live with?

Which are fast growing and destructive?

Which are stealing your sunshine?

And…

Where is this pain rooted?
What has shattered your confidence?
What cruelty have you survived?
What disappointments have you faced?
What inner conflicts need gentle untangling?
Step three

For what am I grateful?

What gifts have I received?

What gifts can I offer?

What do my reflections tell me about who I am?

What do my reflections tell me about who I could be?

What might I become more deeply aware of tomorrow?

What inner pain needs my careful attention?

Where have I found life?

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Everything undone: Shame’s crippling legacy

Shame
/ʃeɪm/
A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.

So many of us carry around a full glass of the stuff:
It laps at our edges, overflows at the slightest knock
It eats away at our self-assurance
Nags at our inner peace
Smothers our hope.

This isn’t the shame you might feel after a particular action or course of events.
This is chronic shame: a state of existence in which you constantly tell yourself:
“I’m not good enough”.

Or just: “I’m not enough”.

When we make mistakes, shame serves a purpose.
It tells us to put things right.
It helps us to become better people.

But chronic shame has no purpose.
Chronic shame is destructive, exhausting, and futile.
Chronic shame damages us, and damages those around us.

It’s outward signs might be subtle:
“I should…”
“I ought…”
“I don’t _______ enough”
“I could do better at…”

There is nothing wrong with these statements.
But sometimes, they become a monologue from which we never break free.
We don’t give ourselves a break.
We don’t reward ourselves for our successes.
We just notice everything we have neglected.
Everywhere we have fallen short.
Everything undone.

Who I am
What I do
It’s not enough.

And the inner language of shame is much more damning
The negative self-talk that shame uses to keep our self in its prison.

“You’re terrible at that”
“You’re an imposter”
“You aren’t doing this well enough”
“Someone else would have done that so much better”
“You need to do more”
“You’re not good enough”

Obligation
(Unreal) expectation
Damnation

These are shame’s legacy.

And then

Anger
Frustration
Hurt

As we take our shame and project it onto another.

“I’m not good enough, so you will never be good enough either”
“I’m not enough, so you will never be enough either”

Shame sets impossible standards
Shame robs us
Of fulfilment
Of happiness
Of contentment

And then we feel shame about our shame.

Emptying that cup of shame is a lifetime’s work
Even when we become aware shame’s chatter
We don’t drop our guard for long before it creeps in again

But perhaps
Just one thought at a time
We can begin to silence shame

One negative thought
Noticed
Captured
And reframed
Is one step closer to living without chronic shame

Be kind to yourself:
Easy for me to say
Harder for you to do.

But small steps of self-kindness
Of noticing our own self-hardness
Might just break the habit of negativity
And prevent a full blown attack
Of chronic shame.

Chatter

We’re full of it aren’t we?

Chit chat chatter.

I have been glued to BBC iPlayer recently for their series on BBC called Retreat: Meditations From a MonasteryIt’s compulsive watching: an hour during which absolutely nothing happens. Nothing and everything. I won’t spoil it. Watch it!

But one thing that struck me was the lack of chatter. It brought back memories of the “silent hour” we used to hold every Wednesday morning at theological college. For that hour, we were asked not to speak to one another; not to make noise; not to greet or even acknowledge one another. We were to give that hour completely to prayer and reflection.  To direct our attention to God, and to our inner self. We were liberated from chatter: it was wonderful.

The problem is, we are very good at chatter. We fill silence before it fills us. We try and generate companionship with small talk, and we small talk to make ourselves feel better. Of course, there is a time for this. But silence can be companionable too. The deeper silence of the brothers that featured on the BBC 4 series was inspiring. Their companionship was so deep, and they were so attuned to themselves and to one another, that there was no need for chatter. Small talk was useless, and each community modelled ways of living alongside one another without feeling compelled to fill the silence.

What we didn’t see was how this affected the quality of conversation that the brothers shared. I can guess, from my own experience of silence and community, that those conversations would have been shorter, deeper, and more life-giving that any small talk.

But chatter doesn’t just  happen “out there”, does it?

I have recently started a discipline of silence as my first task of the day. Before anyone else is awake, before the sun is up, there is silence.

Outwardly.

Inwardly, my mind, flabby as it is from being out of the silent habit, chatters on and on. I am learning to rein in my inner chatter. Small minds talk small. Even to themselves.

I was aware of this inner chatter recently as I led a congregation in 2 minutes’ silence on Remembrance Sunday. Outwardly, we were silent. But inwardly? As a ‘holder of the space’ I was conscious of my own chatter amidst my solemn reflection: Will I time the silence right? Will the recorded music work? Is everyone ok? Will my children keep quiet? 

(Ironically, perhaps, the children were as silent and still as any of us, and they were perhaps much better, too, at silencing their inner chatter. What example we could take from them!).

Chatter. We do it to make ourselves feel better. And we do it because it’s bad habit. I wonder what deep-talk we might achieve if we manage to silence our small talk? And I wonder what inner peace we might find, if our minds can break their habit of chatter?

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This present moment

I have been recently drawn back to my own present. Back from a busyness that discards the present in favour of the future. Back from an imaginative world of “what ifs?” and “what nexts?”. And into a present moment that is both transition and statis all mixed up. What follows is a reflection arising out of those musings, which keeps in mind Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 25:14-30).


Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.
Matthew 25:21

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Who are you, in this present moment:
Do you feel painfully broken, as a smashed vase?
Or burstingly whole, as an apple tree waiting to fall?

How long has this present moment lasted:
A second, perhaps,
Flashing by in a smudge of busyness?
Or else a lifetime,
As you look to a future in which nothing can be like what has past?

How does this present moment feel:
Like water, slipping through your fist in the bath?
Or like a sack of rocks slung across your shoulder?

This present moment offers few things:
How do you hold them?
Are they pieces of that smashed vase, discarded around your feet?
Are they coins, clung tightly in your fist for fear they will vanish?
Are they clouds: unreachable and ungraspable, turning to vapour in your presence?

How do you receive this present moment:
This gift, this talent, entrusted to you alone?

You could
bury it.
Ignore it.
Move on from it.
And it will pass:
Unnoticed,
Unwelcome,
Unlived.

Or you could
befriend it.
Double it.
Move on with it.
And you will grow:
In pain,
In complexity,
In joy.

And so sit, friend.
And sit
And sit.
Don’t wait.
Don’t hope.
Don’t expect.
Just sit
And be faithful
To this present moment.

Change and Decay: A meditation for the seasonally affected

Autumn took me by surprise this year.

Overnight, warm sun seemed to turn to cold rain. I don’t think this was just my lack of attentiveness. The seasons overlap and creep upon us and tease us as they ebb and flow before disappearing without warning. This Autumn was a poignant one for me as my oldest child started school. It hit me harder than I expected. The reality of the passing of time and of ageing; the grief at losing concentrated time with one of my soulmates; the submission to an institution and a system that I knew so little about; the change of rhythm to our days, weeks, and terms; the extra time and space it gave me to reflect back on a year of (so far) extraordinary gift and challenge – and the inner work this involved.

Autumn is a moment in which we are caught up in, taken aback by, and plunged into change, perhaps without feeling ready for it. Death and decay creep in: plants die and leaves fall.

It’s hard to think of Spring at this time of year. But I am always surprised at how quickly the decay turns again to life. What strength must lie in the earth, that it can so quickly bring to birth once more green signs of life. Winter is never death, and always gestation.

What follows is a meditation for all who have found themselves hitting October with bewilderment: where has this year gone?

It is for all who fear change, decay and death.

It is, perhaps, the song of the sunflowers. 

What makes you strong doesn’t come from outside. What makes you strong is what you carry within. In plants, strength and vitality lie dormant in winter, ready to burst through with new shoots in Spring. Autumn is a time to bed down, to reabsorb life and take it back to the innermost places, to quieten and to listen and to wait. This jars, amidst the otherwise busy-ness of this time of year.

This Autumn, may we find time to keep slow pace with the trees, and like them, store up vitality.


Our moment of parting
Was unnoticed.
How was I to know that sunset smile
Would be the last you would show me
Before the cold months of your absence?

Your whispered goodbye
Barely heard
Above the cruel, harsh winds
So quick to hurry in change
And decay.

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I still look
Still search
Still reach
For your August warmth
But you glare at me
Me, surrounded by the sodden brown carpet
That once was glorious canopy,
And you are
Taunting
Cold
And give nothing.

And so it is time for
Disengagement
Detachment
Decay
I turn in on myself
Returning withered to my roots.

And here is all I need.

Dying and gestating within me
The remnant of the goodness we had
And the promise of a Spring yet to be:
Painful memories and hopeful promises
Stored up for the life that will grow
As I wait; patiently, slowly, still.

The Parenting Retreat (or: how to be a good parent without wanting to hide in the loo)

I’ve hesitated about writing this post. I know I’m a good parent. I know our family life is fairly happy and secure. The danger of sharing good things about family life on social media is that we might give the false impression that all is perfect. My family life isn’t perfect. I’m not a perfect parent. Good, but not perfect. We have rows and slam doors and storm out and use bad words. “I’m sending you to the rubbish yard!” says my four year old to me when I upset him. I won’t share what I sometimes say to my husband when he, in turn, upsets me. It’s not pretty.

We’re not perfect. But this summer we got something right. This is our story.


It started in a meeting I had with my spiritual director in July. We talked about the birth of my youngest, a few weeks previously.  We talked about the exhaustion I had gone through in the months before her birth, and the ways in which our family resilience had been tested after. We talked about the past, and the future. My hopes for us, and for me. My ministry, my career, my parenting, my ambition. What was good and life-giving, and what was draining and stretching.  It was a good all-round emotional, spiritual and mental check up. And then, as we finished, she suggested the following:

That I seemed restless.
That I should try and notice that, and not respond to it.
That my maternity leave meant I had a great gift to offer my kids: my time and attention.
That perhaps I needed to put away my phone and my restlessness for the summer, and give myself entirely to my children.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love spending time with my kids. But I had usually managed to dilute it to a point where I could be half-present to them, with my mind half on something else: reading, or writing, or (if I’m honest) Facebook. What was being asked of me here was different. A commitment to be wholly present: not for a morning or even a week, but for two months. Two whole months of concentrated time with three under 5s who usually tested my mental and physical resilience on an hourly basis. I left that session of spiritual direction feeling like I’d been set up to fail.

But I made a start. The next morning I launched myself cheerfully into wooden train sets and playdough and snacks and outdoor games. By 11am I was on the verge of breakdown. There were tears – and not from the kids. Why was it so hard? It was something about their chaos and mess and noise. Or was it?

Parenting is a mirror says Jon Kabat-Zinn, that forces you to look at yourself. He argues that children provide the perfect opportunity for a prolonged and intense experience of mindful retreat that lasts about 18 years. If you’ve been on retreat, you know it’s tough. As the ‘stuff’ of life is stripped away, as you go deeper into silence and simplicity, you are forced to look inwards. To see yourself with all your props, your safety blankets and your masks taken away. And then you have to begin the tough inner work.

And that moment, as I sat on the sofa and trusted the DVD player to babysit the kids for half an hour, I realised that these two months would be a similar sort of retreat. In the simplicity of offering my kids my attention and my presence, I would have to deal with the complexity of my self that I had too easily run away from. Here was my crash course in mindful, meditative parenting. It wasn’t the kids and their chaos that was pushing me over the edge; it was that in the simplicity of time with them, I had to confront my own shadow side: my weakness, my anger, my failures, my intolerance and impatience. My imperfection. Here I was, forced to stare at myself reflected in the little shiny faces and dirty hands that were so eager for me. In the kids, I had found my mirror.

In the following days, I persevered in this parenting retreat. All the usual retreat experiences seemed to happen: I got angry, I got sad, I felt overwhelmed, bored, frustrated. And then I found peace. Peace in wooden train sets and nature walks. Peace in just being – living – alongside these joyfully simple little people.

And this is what I learned:

Just be present
The kids didn’t want great entertainment or expensive fun. They just wanted me. We played with paper and cardboard and leaves and stones and sand. Often, I just watched, asked questions, smiled. The simpler the better, and they surprised me with the breadth of their imagination and resourcefulness. We had days of fun with a cardboard box and a load of paint.

Don’t fight the inner work
Offering the kids my attentiveness and presence meant fewer distractions and more mindfulness. Breaking the habit of picking up my phone whenever they turned away from me, and instead staying focused on them, meant I had to confront some of my own inner bleakness. This is hard work, takes some getting used to, and gets worse before it gets better. But it left me feeling like I’d done some tough and rewarding inner work.

Make a list
The highlight of our days became the first task each day: making a list. I asked the kids what they wanted to do that day, we wrote it down, and we did it. It gave them space to think about what they really wanted to do (rather than spur-of-the-moment, tired decisions) and it meant I could steel myself for the messy stuff. It taught them about compromise, and about making space for each other. It also meant I could be honest with them about any jobs I had to do that would take me away from them, and often those jobs became a game in themselves.

Forget perfection
We still argued. There were still tantrums – sometimes the kids kicked off too. There was a lot of mess. A lot of things went unfinished. But letting go of perfection gave us a chance to talk about mess and anger and sadness. It gave us a chance to say sorry. It gave us permission to express ourselves, however badly, and avoid the daily build up of bad feeling that would otherwise lead to an ‘end of my tether’ moment.

Rest together
We did a lot, and I stopped using TV as a crutch or a childminder. But we also spent a lot of time under a blanket, watching Netflix together. It gave me space to breath, and it stopped the kids living at 100mph for the whole day. In fact, most days they chose a film to put on the ‘list’ of things to do that day. We rested together, and we built that time into the day.

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Now the summer is over. My oldest has started school. My middle one spends time at playgroup. And my youngest sleeps a lot. The house is eerily quiet, but echoing through it are the memories of a summer in which I found, surrendered and forgot myself, and became one human in a gang of four who, for a fleeting time, had no agenda but fun and laughter.

So for those who find parenting impossible, who sit and cry on the sofa while the kids watch DVDs, who collapse among the mess and are too exhausted to laugh anymore. To those who hide in the loo, and regret their shouting, and feel haunted by the guilt of parenting failures. To those who are bored, frustrated, and annoyed by their kids. That’s me too. But it can be different. It was for us.