Just being: A reflection for Epiphany

Reflective melancholy.

That phrase seems to describe, for me, these dark days of late December and early January. I had an Epiphany, of sorts, some years ago, when I learned that (for reasons I can’t pretend to understand), the mornings of this time of year still get darker, despite us being through the Winter Solstice.

Cold mornings, quick days, long nights.

They add to my sense of time slipping away too fast and too soon, as I stop to wonder:

Where on earth did Christmas hide amidst the frenzy of Advent consumption?
Did I make the most of precious moments of rest and friendship and joy?
When did the children get so big?

Speaking of Epiphany: Epiphany dawns on the horizon of these darkest of days like a blazing sunrise. Shimmering, waiting, full of hope yet to birth. Just wait – we’ll get there.

For some years now, I have resisted making New Year resolutions. I find them a chore (‘they’re meant to be a chore’, you say). They are the annual reminder that I am not enough as I am. That how I have lived is a failure. ‘Could do better’, says January 1st.

So now I don’t listen to that voice, and I don’t make resolutions.

Instead, these dark days become a time of self-reflection.
Of prayer.
Of growing in awareness and trust.

I am always exhausted after Christmas. This year more so than others. And into the foggy half-baked new year musings of ‘What could have been?’ ‘What will be?’ come these ancient words:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
   and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
   and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
   and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
   and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around;
   they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
   and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
   your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
   the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
   the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
   all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
   and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Isaiah 60:1-6


Arise.
Shine.

My Spiritual Director is very skilled in reminding me – often – that action is rarely needed. What matters is awareness and presence.

Awareness and presence.
Being, not doing.

For some years I’ve been able to cast aside any obligation to make resolutions at this time of year. But this year was the first time I made the link with Epiphany.

The very word Epiphany means revelation.

A group of travellers met a foreign baby and declared him to be worthy of homage and worship and lavish gifts packed with meaning that has tumbled down the centuries ever since.

In that moment of revelation, they were present. They were aware.

A week ago I was burned out. I had been running on empty for far too long. Once we had celebrated Holy Communion on Christmas Day, I barely left the house for well over a week. It was enough just to be.

And my act of defiance from this place of exhaustion was to scrap the obligations. I threw out any plans of dieting and exercising. I tore up my “to do” lists. I turned off my email sync. I spend long days in pyjamas and ate leftovers and quick food.

And I became present, and aware of life happening around me.

It is hard for those of us who pack life full of activity to stop like this. It forces us to face the things we’d rather run from. We have to notice the uncomfortable, the painful, the shameful. These things flood in and threaten to drown us as the froth of everyday activity ebbs away.

Epiphany is not always joyous. At least, not at first.

But as I learned to still myself, to deepen my presence and awareness, a new rhythm emerged. A rhythm rooted in a deep rest. My mind started to clear. New shoots of energy began to spring up. But slowly, slowly…

Winter is not death, but gestation. As life lies deep below us underground, even now storing up the energy for spring’s explosive birth, so new life lies deep within us too.

New Year’s resolutions might work for you.

For me, they obstruct the deeper work of noticing. Of just… being.

Just as the magi travelled steadily, faithfully, determinedly, it is enough, too, for us to simply keep going. To make no big changes. To strip away the froth of ambition. And to know that we, alone, are enough.

Arise, shine, for your light has come!
…Lift up your eyes and look around…
…Then you shall see and be radiant;
   your heart shall thrill and rejoice,

We are people of the light, and light deepens our awareness.

May this knowledge, this awareness, be ours this Epiphany, and this year.

Sunrise over Lake Galilee

For the Interim Time

I’m mindful that I haven’t shared much here lately. Partly, life has taken over somewhat and my reflections have happened in ‘real time’, rather than as anything that translates into text. And partly because I’m in the unnerving, exhausting place of liminal space. Doing any thinking from this place is hard – and again – when thinking happens here it translates rarely into words.

I’ll write again soon. For now, this blessing, from John O’Donohue, captures something of what I would say, if the shady squashy surroundings of this liminal space could take on words. So here it is, for anyone who finds themselves, with me, in the interim time.


For the Interim Time

When near the end of day, life has drained
Out of light, and it is too soon
For the mind of night to have darkened things,

No place looks like itself, loss of outline
Makes everything look strangely in-between,
Unsure of what has been, or what might come.

In this wan light, even trees seem groundless.
In a while it will be night, but nothing
Here seems to believe the relief of darkness.

You are in this time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.

The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you.

“The old is not old enough to have died away;
The new is still too young to be born.”

You cannot lay claim to anything;
In this place of dusk,
Your eyes are blurred;
And there is no mirror.

Everyone else has lost sight of your heart
And you can see nowhere to put your trust;
You know you have to make your own way through.

As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow confusion to squander
This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground,
That you might come free
From all you have outgrown.

What is being transfigured here in your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn.


From: “Benedictus: A Book of Blessings” by John O’Donohue. Published in 2007 by Transworld Ireland.

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.

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.

In quietness and trust: Stop and see

This is the first in a series of posts on nurturing the inner life alongside young children. You may like to read this brief introduction to the series before continuing.

Stop and see: Attentiveness

Attentiveness is an essential skill for the nurture of our inner lives.
It is in stopping – and seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, feeling – that we begin to sense God at work around us.
How much passes us by when we are caught up with worry and busyness and self-interest?

We might think that kids are always on the go.
We might say that they are the least attentive among humans.
But it’s not true.

Kids love to focus on the tiny detail of one particular thing, even if only for a moment.
Kids love attentiveness, because when we practice it with them, they have the whole of us for themselves: undistracted, focused, together.
Kids love to be with us more than anything, and a focus on something simple keeps us from wandering from them.

There are a million ways to practice attentiveness with children. These are things that work for us:

  • Nature walks:
    Counting how many insects we can see on one area of pavement
    Collecting different shades of green leaves
    Looking for butterflies and bees
    Learning about different flower names and colours – and then looking for similar ones and/or seeing what they smell like
    Looking for different types of trees (confession from this country girl: I had to buy a book to learn)
    Watching the squirrels scamper
    Splashing in puddles and watching the ripples
    Squelching through mud
    Collecting stones/sticks/pinecones of different shapes
    Looking for creatures in a pond
    Looking at seeds, at young plants, at old plants. Talking about how things grow and flourish and fade.
  • Lying in a dark room with a small torch, watching the shadows. Or with a small lamp that projects rainbows onto the ceiling. Or just in the dark. Listening to our breathing, whispering nothing of importance, singing.
  • Handing over my phone and letting the kids take photos. Noticing what they choose to photograph – where their attention is drawn – and asking about it (and ending up with 200 burst shots of our feet).
  • Listening to music, eyes closed, and sharing what pictures we can see in our minds.
  • Lighting a candle, sitting close, and watching the flame dance.
  • Stroking the dog together, talking about how we care for him and how we feel about him.
  • Building a wooden train track. Watching the trains weave around different formations.
  • Looking at pictures the kids have painted, talking about the colours and shapes and what they might be.

Attentiveness is prayer beyond words.
As we become attentive, we begin to notice that we are surrounded by God’s presence.
As we become attentive, we become more mindful of God’s hand on everything.
Attentiveness increases our gratitude and gives us glimpses of what God must be like, as we see the tiniest details of life are so intricate and endless.

Kids are highly skilled in attentiveness, if only we could notice it and learn from them.

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In quietness and trust: The spirituality of children

The spirituality of young children is phenomenal. They know simplicity, attentiveness, freedom and trust better than any adult. When I pray or meditate with my kids, it’s them leading me in practice. They teach me about about connectedness, self-awareness and God. They seem free of the baggage that I have gathered on my own journey – the stuff that stops me from really knowing and loving God and myself and others and the world.

I planned this series of posts thinking about how I am helping my kids to nurture their spiritual lives. But what I give here now, I offer as gifts that the kids have given me.

A couple of disclaimers:

First, my spirituality is Ignatian, Contemplative.
This is how I know God and understand life.
It’s deep.
It means that I value stillness and quiet (even though I’m not much good at either!)
I try and see a spiritual dimension to every person, place and experience.
I use my imagination in my spiritual life.
For me, words are not usually great currency in prayer.
This is not the only way to pray, but it’s mostly how I pray with my kids.

Secondly, let’s be realistic. My kids are one and three. No three year old is going to sit in still contemplation for more than a moment or so. No toddler is going to be completely immersed just because I ask her to be. Prayer and meditation with kids needs to be flexible and fluid. My kids are no saints. The following is what works for us on a good day, when we’re not tired, or hungry, or grumpy, or ill. There are four of us in this house – usually at least one of us is at least one of those things. Please don’t think we are the Von Trapp equivalent of the spiritual world. And yet I am constantly amazed by what does engage these little souls, and how deeply, when I let them take the lead and simply give them my attention.

With all of that in mind, here are some explorations of stuff we’ve tried:

In quietness and trust 1: Stop and see
In quietness and trust 2: Two simple questions
In quietness and trust 3: Storytelling
In quietness and trust 4: Sitting still (coming soon)

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