It takes a village

WARNING: this may include an element of smug mumminess – it is not normally something I feel that comfortable in engaging in so forgive me – it hopefully has some level of creative (?!?) purpose.

It’s that time of year again – the summer holidays are finally in sight and I for one can’t wait. I feel so tired that this afternoon I have had to crawl into my bed and have a little afternoon nap. So roll on 7 weeks of not having to make pack lunches (I can’t even put into words how much I hate making pack lunches!!!!!), not racing out the door each morning checking the right clothes are being worn and that right equipment is packed or the right letter has been signed, 7 weeks of not having to ferry from drama to music to swimming to parties. Yes I will still have to get myself to work but that break from all the rest of it feels like a little piece of heaven, a little piece of selfish heaven.

And with this time of year comes the annual school report – my child is no genius, she is very normal, she struggles with some stuff and shines more in other areas but it bought me to tears. It talked about a polite and delightful little girl, a little girl who was always willing to help, always willing to try new things and always gave everything her best. Obviously you want your child to do well and go out and find their way in the world but to some extent the academic stuff is secondary to me – I want to see kindness, generosity, compassion, a spirit of adventure.

If I am being honest there was a moment of pride in myself – single parenting is incredibly hard at times, its incredibly lonely and it can be scary – you feel solely responsible for the way this human being turns out, there is no-one to share that responsibility, no-one to share the amazing bits or the really tough heart breaking bits. So reading that report made me thankful that despite everything that has happened we are doing ok.

I very quickly got over myself though and started to reflect on the fact that getting Lucy to this point, getting her to year 10 of life in a fairly good state wasn’t down to just me.

I remembered that old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child and my heart became full as I thought of the village that had helped me raise my child, for all those people that can take some of the credit.

For her GJ who continually goes above and beyond, who makes numerous sacrifices and who quite frankly neither of us would function very well without. For her other grandparents, here and no longer here, who love her so well. For an uncle who has loved her so beautifully from day one, who makes her feel safe and makes her laugh and a beloved aunt who she knows adores her. For her wider family who encourage her, invest time in her, listen to her.

For her “best adult friend” who has been such a steadfast presence in her life, who has always made her feel special and has been so generous in her time and love. For a whole community who have been her family, her places of belonging, who have provided “siblings”, who have helped her create so many happy memories. For her teachers, an amazing teaching assistant who was a gift in a tough year and will always have a special place in our heart. For her babysitters who have not simply come and put her straight to bed so they could get on with their own thing but who have got down on the floor with her, and played with and talked to her and read to her.

For all those who have prayed for us from day one, and have been so faithful in those prayers, people we know and love well, and those we don’t know at all.

And above all for a heavenly father who has poured out his grace time and time again, over and over – my child has witnessed more of my tears than I would have cared for her to see, she has seen me battle and wrestle more than I would have liked, she has seen more loss, illness and grief than most of her peers but I thank God that in his grace he has protected her, he has used those things to shape her in good ways, and that despite my failings, and there have been many, she is a good and happy kid.

This is not something that I talk about too much because on the whole I have found peace with it but there is a sadness at the children I never got to have, those I didn’t get to love and parent. I would never have chosen to have an only child. However I am so thankful that I didn’t get to love just one child I get to love a whole host of gorgeous kids, who I have loved since the minute they arrived, who I have loved watching grow, who I have prayed for over and over, who have made me laugh and cry, and who I can’t wait to watch become amazing adults. For all those conversations I have had with their parents, about their struggles, their achievements, their character, their friendships. I have loved being part of the village that has helped and will continue to help raise them – because what a privilege that is.

This parenting lark is amazing, it’s a wonderful gift, and I am so so thankful I got the chance to do it but I defy anyone to say it is easy, there are moments that lift your heart as high as it can go but there are plenty of moments that break your hearts into pieces, where the tears flow, or the frustration takes you to breaking point (for me it is usually maths homework) but I am so thankful for that village that I get to do it with. I am thankful for that village because in all honesty it would probably be unbearable without them but I am thankful for them because my child’s life is so much richer because of it. Yes she needs me, I am her number one and I am the centre of her life but I can’t give her everything she needs, and the people that make up her village bring her life, and colour, and experience – different things than I can offer her.

So lets be part of the villages of the children around us, invest and love those children, support and care for their parents, pray for those families because there are very few greater privileges.

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Traces & Shadows

So I am totally stealing this line of thought from other people but I am pretty sure they won’t mind –it is one of the bonuses of being surrounded by wise people on a daily basis.

Back in February I received a work email which was all about the traces we leave in people’s lives and the fact that “every contact leaves a trace”. It was encouraging us to think about what traces we leave in the lives of those we meet, bad and good. The email ended asking us to pray that God would help us leave traces of grace, traces of hope, traces of life, and traces of Jesus. That email spoke right to my heart, I loved what it was saying and it challenged me so much that it has stayed with me pretty strongly ever since.

Then in the last few days I have heard Psalm 91 read on two separate occasions.

“He who lives in the safe place of the Most High will be in the shadow of the All-powerful. I will say to the Lord “You are my safe and strong place, my God in whom I trust.”” Psalm 91 vs. 1 & 2

On the first occasion I listened as the person reading it gave his take on it and talked about how so often we cast shadows over people and people cast them over us but actually the only safe shadow to be under, the only shadow that matters, was the shadow of the almighty God. I loved that and again it reminded me of the email and the traces we leave in people’s lives. The idea that actually I have the power to leave shadows over people by my words and my actions or lack of them and that people have that same power over me, if I let them, which let’s be honest most of us do because we are human and we want affirmation, encouragement and acceptance.

It also reminded me of a vicar who used to say a lot that often we will never know during our lifetimes the impact we have had on people’s lives, for the good and the bad!

These ideas totally feed into my heart; they bring me alive and excite me. I think probably because I love people – I have a long list of favourite people (with a few firmly rooted in the top spots) – I love being with people, I love meeting new people, I love talking to people, I love doing life with people. When people talk about what your dreams and passions are I struggle to think beyond people and relationships.

I love the power and the challenge there is in the ideas of the traces and the shadows and how it feeds into every one of our relationships, whether they be the closest ones or passing.

I am sure we can all think of lots of people that have left positive traces, big and small, in our lives. There are the obvious ones – spouses, parents, siblings, children, family, friends, colleagues – I am so thankful that I have been blessed with all those relationships and that all of those people have invested so much into my journey. As much as I love those obvious impacts I love the smaller, more random interactions with strangers in shops, with waitresses or randoms on the street – I love the feeling I am left with when I have a conversation with someone I don’t know or when someone gives me a big smile, how it can make your day so much brighter. I have become much braver at saying things to strangers, at telling them they look good, or that their child is gorgeous or encouraging them if they look like they are struggling.

I have noticed that runners are generally very good at this – for the most part I am usually struggling to breath, a deep red colour and in no place to want to smile and engage but without fail I will pass a number of other runners who will give me a big smile and say hello. On Saturday morning I went out for a run and I passed a particularly perky runner who gave me the biggest smile, said hi and even gave me a wave – part of me wanted to laugh at her perkiness, in contrast to the fact I had just pulled myself out of bed, was no doubt looking pretty rough and was definitely not wanting to engage with any other human let alone a stranger but actually that little wave made me smile and made my heart smile and buoyed me up for the rest of my run.

I am also a big believer in telling people where they have impacted my life, where they have helped me or encouraged me or made me feel loved and special because I think it then becomes a two way thing – it gives them that encouragement and love right back. I think we need to get so much better at doing it. I remember after John died a friend saying if only we could have thanksgiving services for people whilst they are alive – now I am not sure I would go that far but I remember thinking, and again when my Dad died, I wonder what they would think if they could see all the people who had turned out to remember them, or hear all the stories and read the letters with people’s memories of them and the impact they had had on so many people’s lives.

One such letter will stay with me for the rest of my life – my Dad ran his own business and was incredibly committed to his clients. He loved work and he loved helping people through that work. After he died mum received a letter from one of his clients, who we had never heard of, telling a story of how on one occasion he had gone to Dad’s office to take some papers. His sibling had recently died and he was feeling pretty fragile and vulnerable, and had broken down in tears. Dad had taken him into his office, shut the door and let him cry and talk – this man was just saying how much that kindness had meant to him. Dad probably didn’t give much thought to it but that man had remembered the time and kindness Dad had shown him many years down the line.

So whilst I am not necessarily advocating thanksgiving services for the living I am most definitely an advocate of telling people that we love them and what we love about them, for thanking them for what they have done for us and who they are to us.

I love that our lives are so interwoven with the lives of those around us, that our stories are all so interlinked but with that brings a real responsibility and challenge. As much as I can remember so many of the positives of the words spoken over me or the amazing ways people have impacted me by their actions I also know so many of the negatives, of the shadows, both big and small. I remember the negative words about my character, the people who told me I could have grieved better or the criticisms of something I had worked hard over and the people who made it clear they didn’t want to talk to me or be my friend. Those shadows that make you doubt yourself and who you are and whether you are good enough. I also know I will have cast many of those shadows over others – some knowingly others without even realising. Some will be because I get angry or I have moments of pain, anxiety or insecurity and I speak out of those places of my hurt, others will be because I am tired, hungry or not thinking properly and others will be from a place of selfishness and laziness. I am truly sorry if you are reading this and I have ever cast a shadow over you.

I want to be so much better at leaving those traces that give hope and life, that speak of love, that tell people they are loved and accepted, that inspire and encourage, that leave people feeling better about themselves – that is one of my constant prayers that God changes me so I am better at that. I guess the shadows are a part of life but I want to cause them in other people’s lives less and less and when others cast them over my life I want to rest in the knowledge that the only shadow that I need to be in is that of my heavenly father and that that shadow brings with it healing, safety and love.

 

 

For five more minutes on the dance floor…………..

So this is something I have been thinking about a lot recently and have started to write about a few times but have ended up distracted or not feeling like it sounded quiet right.

In the last 24 hours I have spoken to 2 of my closest friends who were both exhausted, where life right now just feels too much – they are trying to juggle kids, careers/work, run a home, be a great wife, have deep and meaningful friendships, and throw in bereavement and illness and unsurprisingly it feels like their heads may explode.

I have been there myself – this time last year I was at breaking point and to some degree I did break a little. I had a job that was incredibly full on and stressful, the inheritance of a father and grandfather of unresolved issues and problems, and at the same time was trying to be the perfect mum, daughter, sister and friend. I got to the point where I couldn’t sleep, where I had no peace, felt constantly sick and I wasn’t being a good anything to anyone and in fact spent a large part of each day in tears as I felt totally overwhelmed – I usually have a high capacity and can cope but I had reached a point where it was all too much. I knew as I reached the end of 2014 that I wasn’t enjoying the things that really mattered, the people in my life – I wasn’t properly engaging with my child because in my head I was totally tied into work and worry about my clients, or the outcome of a case, or meeting a target. I knew I had to make changes before I made myself really ill.

God in his mercy stepped in and pulled me out and put me in a much more restful place with time and space but I am still working through that 8 months and the impact it has left.

Recently there has been a video on social media which shows older ladies reflecting on what they see of the younger generation of women who are following after them. This video is incredibly powerful in its simplicity – what these women reflect on is that with all the opportunities and technology we have available to us it should lead to pleasure but what they see is that the younger generations are bowed down by pressure, pressure to be the perfect wife, mother and friend, to be successful, a boss, a leader. They see burn out. That instead of having a “to do list” we should have a “don’t do list” – that if they had their time over again they would extend those bedtime kisses, that they would cuddle their babies more before they are too old for those cuddles, and that they would spend more time on the dance floor whilst their legs were still strong enough to allow them to keep dancing. These gorgeous ladies with all their wisdom and experience were saying to the generations behind them, my generation, learn to be and to let go!

Tied into this issue is comparison and the pressures we put on ourselves – I have this conversation over and over again with friends. We need to have children who are always perfectly turned out, who are impeccably mannered, thriving at school and socially capable. We need to have a house that looks like it should be in “Homes & Gardens” and always immaculately clean. We need to be producing gourmet meals and an amazing social life. To always look perfect. To be creating picture perfect happy memories with friends and family – again the curse of social media. We measure our work success by the size of our wage packets, by our promotions and our achievements in the workplace.

I think we hear a lie that we should always be busy and productive because in some warped way that is a measure of success. I know I listened to that lie for a long time.

For me personally what I have learnt this year is that I have a choice – that it is about being intentional in pursuing the things that matter, even if that is hard. Sometimes, like for my 2 friends, there will be stages in life when everything does come crashing down at once, and there doesn’t feel like there is any choice in it and often there isn’t and during those times we need to survive and get through – for me it was about crying out to God and asking him for a way out, asking him to help me. I made some hard choices this year and I do not regret them one bit but I often still wrestle with them – did I commit career suicide? How will I be able to pay for Lucy’s wedding (my brother pointed out that in all likelihood that was at least 20 years away and I needed to chill out)? Am I not as worthy or successful because of the choices I made? Maybe not in the society’s eyes but I am happier. I am more content. I am enjoying my people more, my child more, and have met amazing new people this year. I have had more space and rest to work stuff through and meet with God. I may not be as financially comfortable and secure but I feel freer and more hopeful.

What can stay? What needs to go? What decisions are being made out of a financial motivation or what other people think? Where is fear holding us back?

Where do we need to ask for help? Asking for help is hard – my mum spent a week in intensive care this summer with severe pneumonia. My mum does so much for me – my childcare, cooks me meals, does my ironing – she makes my life easier and suddenly she was out of action and once the panic over whether she would survive or not had passed I started to panic about how I would cope, as the doctors anticipated her being out of action for 6 months. Who would take Lucy to school? How would I juggle it all with full time work? Within an hour of that panic setting in friends and mums from school were offering help. It felt hard to show weakness and accept that help but I knew that if the shoe was on the other foot I would happily help and so I had to suck up my pride and get on with it.

We need to be helping each other, we need to get over our pride and accept help – because without doubt as much as we may need help at certain points we will have many, many opportunities to give that help back. As we open up to our safe people, and say this is all too much can you help me, we will be blessing them with the chance to help, building deeper relationships – we all get there at some point and we will all get there again and we need each other to get through. Vulnerability.

And last but not least we need to be encouraging each other. I am passionate about loving people – I want people to know how special they are and I try to tell them that whenever I can. I have been accused of being a little intense at times but I don’t care. We need to be kind to each other, to pick each other up, to be hope when people feel hopeless, to believe in people’s futures when they can’t see the way out. To pray. To listen. To push each other forward when there is no strength left. It was my friends who spoke truth into my situation last year, who pushed me to make changes and who loved me through it.

As those wise old ladies said it so perfectly we need to learn to be, to let go and to dance more!