“Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?”
Spring pierces winter
Bursting joy from deep within
Life defies decay
“Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?”
Spring pierces winter
Bursting joy from deep within
Life defies decay
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.
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.
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.
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.
We spent yesterday at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. The site contains the ruined remains of a Cistercian community who lived, worked and prayed in the area for over 400 years.
The condition of the ruins, along with the thoughtfulness of the information provided by English Heritage, make it easy to imagine the Rievaulx ways of life. But, more than this, half a century of faithful prayer and simple living have left spiritual footprints on the area that are impossible to miss.
Faced with this ruined grandeur and remnant spirituality, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if history had been kinder to Rievaulx.
What if it hadn’t struggled so badly in the 13th Century with livestock loss and debt?
What if it had not been pillaged by the Scots in 1322?
What if it had not been struck by the Black Death in 1348?
What if more than 15 monks (down from 650) had survived to the end of the 1380s?
What if it had not been suppressed and dismantled in 1538?
What if the dissolution of the monasteries had not taken place?
What would Rievaulx be today?
These questions turned naturally on their head, to the institutions and ways of life that I know and love. The ones that seem strong, and yet are as fragile as Rievaulx.
What if the bricks in the wall of my life – the bricks that offer security and hope and a future – one day lie as ruined as this once-great abbey?
Rievaulx’s most famous abbot was also one of its first: Aelred. As Aelred watched his community strengthen and prosper, I wonder what he knew about life’s ebb and flow?
Did he hope that Rievaulx would become one of the richest abbeys in England?
Did he fear the challenges that eventuality brought it to its knees?
Did he wonder about the imprint of holiness that his community would leave on the area for centuries after its death?
Halfway through our visit, we set up a groundsheet on the site of one of the many chantry chapels. The significance of sitting down for a picnic where, centuries earlier and for hundreds of years, monks and locals had gathered to break bread, was not lost on us.
And so the questions that have stayed with me – questions about me and about the institutions and ways of life that I take for granted – are these:
When I am gone and forgotten, who will picnic on the remains of my chapel?
What spiritual footprints will I leave?
How might my holiness (or otherwise) impact a place?
What grandeur I see now will lie in ruins?
What of these ruins will people wonder at?
Rievaulx was a good reminder of life’s ebb and flow. We grow, we prosper, we struggle, we fade away; leaving only our footprints in time.
You know a thin place when you pass through one. Somewhere in which people have prayed for a long time. Somewhere with a sense of perfect stillness. You might feel like you’re in a thin place when you visit a big church or cathedral, or the ruins of a monastery or other holy site. The atmosphere of a thin place is difficult to describe, and overwhelming to experience.
The story of a rabbi standing on a mountain top with his friends, and in a single moment being transformed by brilliant light, is a thin place story. It leaves me wondering whether thin places have a particular geography, or whether our lives are actually full of the potential of these moments, wherever we happen to be, as Heaven touches Earth?
Perhaps we are never far from a thin place.
Perhaps thin places are just longing for our attention.
Perhaps we need only to give them space, and they will find us.
This poem is an exploration of thin places: of their fragility and strength. I believe they are there to be inhabited, for a time, if only we stop and notice them.
The sun-bleached rainbow framed by heavy cloud.
A fleeting, fragile moment
That lifts eyes from Earth to Heaven beyond.
In an instant her curtain is drawn back
And she is stripped bare in brilliant light:
A glimmer of the promise
We heard whispered long ago.
The kindness of a stranger’s gentle smile.
It is good for us to be here,
Sheltered from death’s dark shadow
And the sting of dread that wakes us each new day.
Here, we are as we are:
Alive to Earth’s brilliant goodness;
Eyewitnesses to Heaven’s majesty.
The crash of waves along deserted sand.
This place is not for now:
The bubble bursts,
The curtain drops,
The moment fades.
This is a home too perfect; unready yet to hold
The fullness and frailty of all we must become.
The peace of death as pulse and breath are stilled.
We do not leave unchanged
If change is to become ourselves.
Ahead: a thousand moments of transfiguration,
Each one a death – and resurrection – in itself,
As we are both transformed and transform,
Sacred moment by sacred moment.
I took some inspiration for this from Pablo Neruda’s poem Keeping Quiet. It’s worth spending some time with. Here’s a glimpse…
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.