Advent One: A prayer around the first advent candle

Tomorrow marks the beginning of one of my favourite seasons of the church calendar: advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas.

I love the symbolism of light and darkness inherent in this time of year. I love the invitation to long and wait for what is not, held by the promise that it is coming (which is what advent means in the Latin root). I love going out by the river with Amelie and cutting sprigs of evergreen, rosehips and other red twigs and berries to make our advent ‘wreath’, sticking them all into pieces of oasis studded with four unlit candles. And then I love lighting one more candle each Sunday – if we remember! – and seeing the light grow as we near Christmas.

Below is a simple prayer I wrote a few years back for the lighting of the first advent candle. Please use it with your family if you like it! And, you never know, I might even manage to post some more prayers for future advent Sundays…

 

As our nights grow longer and our days grow shorter,

as winter stretches ahead of us and warm days seem so far away,

we look on these evergreen branches as signs of the spring that will come

and on this candle as a symbol of the light we long for.

 

In these dark days, we wait for the light of Christmas,

Jesus Christ, who is Light and Hope.

We look for his light to come again into the dark places of our world,

into the shadows of our own hearts and lives,

and we say:

Come, thou long-expected Jesus.

We wait for you in darkness

and we long for your light to brighten our way

and lead us into life and truth.

 

Amen.

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Shape of my days | part one

Exactly a month ago today I started a new daily practice (inspired by a poetry reading by Brian Bartlett from his new book of days) which combines both an evening examen prayer and a short piece of writing at the end of every day. It is helping me get out of the rut of not writing, and is also giving me a manageable and energizing way to reflect on my day. I’ve decided to occasionally share a few of these short pieces of (poetic) prose here, giving you some windows onto the shape of my days.

 

The trees have choreographed this display,

arranging their contrasting colours to best advantage,

and letting each leaf go in turn,

in time,

making the sidewalk a golden work of art.

I hope to approach today’s failures and triumphs with similar grace.

 

(Friday 17th October 2014)

 

 

I am bone-marrow tired tonight

after a day not my best.

I present my best to some

but less often to my dearest ones.

I am tired of myself,

my time-wasting habits,

my knee-jerk reactions.

Rain falls fresh outside

and now I will sleep towards

a fresh day

and its fresh starts.

 

(Tuesday 21st October 2014)

 

 

Your rainbow colours lie folded in a bag,

waiting to shine,

but you are nervous and self-conscious.

On the ride to school I suggest method acting,

channelling the rainbow.

You promptly adopt a light, impish tone and

once out of the car you turn

and say with a smile,

“Mummy, let your true colours shine!”

 

(Friday 31st October 2014)

 

 

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I run alone

I run alone.

I run alone not because I am so fast that no-one can keep up. Nor because I run so far that others would give up and go home while I purposefully forged on.  Nor to be alone with my brooding thoughts. No, I run alone because if I run with anyone else the nasty voices in my head get so loud that it’s me who gives up!

Now, you should understand that the voices begin before I have even left the house. While I am still lying in bed, a myriad of reasons not to jog today run through my conflicted mind. It might be the rain I hear on the roof, the heat I sense through the still-closed shutters, the ache in my side, the tiredness in my limbs, the time on the clock, the dread in my heart… But there’s always something. However, I (almost) always win this first battle and – motivated by the commitment I made to myself about two years ago to exercise at least twice a week all year round, and by the fact that I have to shower anyway so I might as well get really sweaty first! – I just get up and get those exercise clothes on. End of round one. Rachael 1 – Voices 0.

I like my exercise clothes and this helps. I used to jog in nasty saggy, greying tracksuit pants and an over-sized T-shirt, until I realized they made me feel saggy, greying and over-sized too! But in these ones I feel a little more “lean and mean”, and my running shoes make me feel bouncy and athletic. This tricks me into opening the door and starting off down the hill as if I am in fact a lean, mean athlete.  End of round two: Rachael 2 – Voices 0.

Do you think the first 500m could be considered long enough to constitute Round Three? Because, you see, for most of this initial stretch I feel fit as a fiddle, strong as an ox, fast as lightning. I could run a marathon, I tell you!

But then, all of a sudden, I feel like I am going to die.

I have friends who can’t get enough of running and would voluntarily run for hours a day if schedules would allow; I consider them a little insane. That is not me. My own brand of insanity may lie in the fact that, two to three times a week, I voluntarily put myself at death’s door. You may have gathered by now that I do not exactly enjoy the act of jogging in and of itself. I do NOT feel good while I am doing it. My heart is pumping hard enough to jump out of my chest into the river, my breath is ragged, and I am seriously overheating, losing gallons of fluid via perspiration. So why do I do it? (I hear you ask… and the Voices scream!)  I do it because I need to exercise, because it grounds me to get outside to exercise, and because jogging is free and doesn’t take as long as walking. All of these factors help me fulfill my commitment to myself. As does the fact that I jog alone.

You see, I made the mistake many years ago of trying to jog with a friend but she 1) tried to hold a conversation with me (not going to happen while one’s lungs are about to burst!), 2) made it look so effortless that I just knew there was no point me even trying, and 3) set a pace I was convinced I could never keep up with, so that I soon gave in to the stitch in my side and said I just had to stop (*gasp*) couldn’t go on (*wheeze*). And then I didn’t go out jogging with that friend again. Rachael 0 – Voices 1.

However, some time later, when I tried to jog again (on my own!) I found that I could keep going by setting myself manageable goals. Just as far as that tree, that house, that bridge. I would run a bit, walk a bit, run a bit, walk a bit, each time a little further, until I was running the whole route. And because nobody else was with me – trying to talk, making it look effortless, going too fast! – I could silence the Voices when they said I couldn’t do it. I could fight the Voices back: “Yes, I feel like I’m going to die, but I’m not; I’ve run this far many times before and I can run this far again… and further!” Rachael 1 – Voices 0.

It seems that running alone had helped me tap into my own desire for self-improvement, rather than the perfectionism that can simultaneously drive and hold me back. Here’s the brilliant Brené Brown on the difference:

Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. […] Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused – What will they think? […] Research shows that perfectionism hampers success.” (The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 56)

Running alone, perfectionism can still creep in when the Voices present me with imaginations of how I look to others (this can vacillate between the lean, mean athlete and a pathetic, stumbling blob) but because this is not my main motivation I can dismiss them and claim the truth: I am just me, out jogging, for me.

Though we all have Voices that we battle in various ways, I truly hope that no-one has Voices as persistently opposed to physical exertion and discomfort as mine! Perhaps they took root through the lack of co-ordination and physical self-consciousness of my youth. From around age eight I recall consistently being the last one chosen for sports teams, the one who couldn’t pick up the dance moves as fast as others, and the one who would walk most of the cross-country trail. I know my tendency to give up when it felt bad constitutes a weakness of character, but it was definitely fueled by a genuine fear of discomfort and pain, lack of understanding that what I was feeling was not out of the ordinary, and no reason good enough to motivate me to push past my body’s initial limitations.

Those reasons only really came to me in my early thirties with a postpartum body that needed a little extra attention to stay looking and feeling healthy. My previously rather narrow worldview had also recently expanded to allow ‘physical’ rather than only ‘spiritual’ things to have value (as if life can be so crudely categorized!), and so I was flexing many new muscles – seen and unseen – to identify what might be possible for me, what I might want and deem important. I can assure you from one such experiment that rappelling down a skyscraper for charity may be possible for me but is definitely not something I want or deem important… and the fact that even strangers were shouting their encouragement that I move at faster than a petrified snail’s pace only confirmed my own conviction, formed the moment I reached the top of the building! But jogging was an experiment that did work for me, and that I maintained three times a week for over a year.

But, as Brené Brown’s work emphasizes, it’s hard to maintain any kind of physical self-care long-term if your motivation is wonky; if you exercise (or eat or don’t eat) predominantly to try and change a body shape you hate then it’s easy to get thrown off-track by lack of the desired results, or a change in life schedule, or The Voices (since they are fueled by self-hatred)! Moving continents, coupled with a modicum of spiritual and existential crisis, put looking after my body on the back burner for a few years (something’s gotta give in life, folks!). However, a significant shift came for me when I decided to exercise primarily for my health (which includes but is not limited to weight and body shape) and as an act of self-love. That my motivation had actually changed was borne out by the fact that my weight and body shape changed little in almost two years of regular exercise. But I was caring for myself, and feeling stronger and healthier, and so I didn’t stop, and still haven’t. Rachael 100 – Voices 0!

Interestingly, after a change in eating habits earlier this year, my consequent change in weight and shape have made exercise easier, and even more rewarding. So, a few months ago, I decided to try jogging again – still alone, but this time with no walking, just running as far as I could without dying, and trying to keep extending the distance each time. Seeing as 500m feels like a marathon to me, eventually reaching 3km was already a great achievement, but then I decided to work up to 5km. The problem was that after the 3km mark came a massive hill slight upward slope that started the Voices screaming. However, they hadn’t bargained with the fact that, on the way back from the 2.5km mark, I would get the gift of running DOWN that same mountain! Granted, by that point I felt – and probably looked – like an elderly woman shuffling to the shops in her bedroom slippers. But though my legs were gelatinous and my arms felt a little unruly, I was still moving. Rachael 3 – Voices 0.

Then, as I ran home feeling triumphant on this, my first ever 5km jog, the most dreadful thought crossed my mind: Now that I had run this far once, I’d have to do it every bless-ed time! There was no getting around it; it’s just how I beat the Voices. So that week I ran a total of 15km. It felt bad. And it felt really, really good. Some weeks and numerous 5k jogs later, I can’t say I feel much better during each run, but I do feel stronger, I love how it feels afterwards, and I even look forward to the next time! My own self-concept is gradually being rescued from the limiting beliefs about myself developed in my awkward youth and reinforced over years of perfectionism. I am not an unphysical or clumsy person. I have discovered in my dance and yoga classes, too, that I do possess strength, poise and coordination, and that I actually enjoy moving and challenging my body.

I guess the secret that folks who are not allergic to exercise have always known and just never let me in on is this: It’s OK to feel uncomfortable! It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me or my body. It doesn’t in actual fact mean I am going to die. It doesn’t mean I can’t do the thing I have set my mind to do. It just means I feel uncomfortable. I feel this way because I am actually exerting myself and stretching my body past its usual limits! This is good. It’s good for my body, and it’s also good for my soul. Because it isn’t only my heart, lungs, quads and hamstrings that are being exercised, but also my mind. Persevering physically is teaching me to exert myself in other ways as well. As a recent Enneagram thought of the day wisely advised me: “Today, stop giving energy to your self-defeating attitudes, by saying to yourself: I now release feeling that most things are just too much trouble.” (Enneagram Transformations, 108)

I AM releasing that feeling. I am running.

It’s trouble. But it’s not too much trouble.

So if you see me out on the river path one of these beautiful, brisk autumn mornings, please wave and smile, or even cheer me on. I will be happy to use some of my laboured and limited breath to greet you too. But please don’t try to run with me. It’s not personal. It’s just that, although the Voices are definitely feeling the heat of being beaten so many times, the battle is still on and, until it’s won, I run alone.

 

Running alone

10 ways to make sure you never write again

no writing

1)     Let your life get so busy with both the meaningful and meaningless that there is just no time for writing, even if you love it. In fact, don’t bother making time for any work – however creative and life-giving – apart from the work you get paid for or are obliged to do because of responsibilities to family and friends.

2)    Only ever write when you are struck by the sort of undeniable and irresistible inspiration that means you cannot NOT write. Never carry through with a project you were initially inspired by but are finding difficult to complete. And on no account should you ever intentionally set aside regular time dedicated to developing your writing, whether you feel like it or not, whether or not you like what you produce, but just because you value the process and the act itself.

3)      Make sure, if you ever do try to write, that you jump to editing so quickly that any creativity completely withers in the light of your pedantic self-criticism.

4)      Try to stay attached to screens and the internet as much as possible – especially to both at once in that bottomless time-pit, social media – so that your computer becomes a place not to compose and create, but only to while away many hours completely unproductively. However, if you are tempted to write on your computer, always keep facebook and email open too so that you can instantly click on anything new that pops up and urgently requires your attention.

5)      Remember that many people (or some, or a few – does it really matter how many?!) will not like what you write, and your fragile ego could not handle that, so the safest course of action is simply not to write anything in the first place. Let thoughts and fears such as this fuel your already fierce inner critic, in order to completely shut yourself down.

6)      If you write on a blog, get obsessed with unessential details like photos and titles and trying to be hugely original.

7)      Confuse your motivations for writing, so that you forget that it gives you life and helps keep  you sane (pathetic  motivations, after all!) and instead focus only on your ego’s need for praise,  reassurance and millions of avid followers. Remember the past agony of waiting around to see if and how anyone will respond to a piece you have written? This is the inevitable, torturous and futile fate of any future attempt, so just give up right now and instead of writing anything new devote your time to reading glowing comments following (some of) your past posts…. and your own past posts.

8)      Frequently and unfavourably compare your writing to that of others, preferably very famous, experienced and successful others, in order to persuade yourself that what you have to offer is of no value to the world. Whatever you do, never read others’ work simply to appreciate it, learn from it, bask in the beauty of well-crafted and authentic expression, and thus be inspired to practice and hone your own craft. Never.

9)      Value the finished product over the process, certainty about where your writing is headed above questions that lead to unexpected places, and perfection at every stage over vulnerability and authenticity. Asking trusted friends and fellow writers for feedback is not a good idea as this leads to exactly what you are trying to avoid: vulnerability, questions, an extended process and (*shudder*) the potential for fresh perspective.

10)   Convince yourself that anything you consider writing about is a) self-centered and self-indulgent, b) too intimate and vulnerable, or c) predictable and irrelevant. In this manner you will gradually succeed in shutting down your own authentic voice, until one day even ideas regarding what to write about will utterly dry up. Congratulations.

 

Morning Musings: On compulsion and freedom

Ten is a wonderful age. So was nine. And eight. And seven.

Age three to about six? Not so much!

Anyway, one of the things I love about watching my newly double-digited daughter develop is her growing self-awareness at this age, especially about how she wants to appear to others, or fears she will appear.

Every time she tells me about one of these things my heart leaps with joy. Firstly because of the great privilege of being made privy to private details of her heart and soul; And secondly because I know that with this kind of awareness about her desires and fears, she can grow to discern the motivations behind her actions more clearly, and with such discernment can come a great and glorious freedom.

She shared such an insight about herself this morning on the way to school, and it was obvious that realising and acknowledging this fear she had about how people might perceive her because of a certain action had already brought her some freedom. As we drove through the -22˚C morning, in a similarly frigid car, we talked about how, without this awareness, she would be driven to act in certain ways without even knowing why or feeling she had a choice. But once she could see what she feared and what she wanted, she had a choice not to be driven by those fears or desires. And her decision this morning was to carry on with the action she had chosen, despite how she feared it would look to others, and just enjoy it! A beautiful victory!!

And this is the gift of an examined life – freedom and joy. Be it through pondering while lying in bed, through journaling, through praying, through processing with a friend, it is worth it to take the time to examine and reflect on what motivates us. Without awareness, it’s too easy to be tricked into believing that we have no choice but to avoid the thing we fear, or fight for the thing we desire. But we DO have a choice, and we DON’T need to follow the path mapped out for us by these powerful fears and longings.

Here’s an experiment for you – a dare, if you wish! The next time you become aware of a desire or fear that is driving you, especially if it is making you feel as if you have no choice but to act in a certain way, consider whether you can actually act in a very different way than you habitually would! Can you say what you really think to a friend instead of holding your tongue as you normally feel you must? (This pattern is very familiar to me!) Can you say ‘no’ despite what you fear the asker will think of you or how you will feel/appear to yourself? Can you… [fill in the gap with your usually avoided action]? Go on, give it a go! And then come on back here and let me know how it goes! 🙂