Unexpected angels

I have been acutely aware of the gift of particular people over the last few weeks. For reasons some clear and some utterly opaque it has been a challenging couple of weeks.

Without doubt the most notable person has been my sister, with whom I am staying at the moment. But it has been the unexpected contacts which proved most heartening to me.

I first noticed the presence of these angels on receiving an email from someone whom I have met just once. She sought me out to tell me how a particular point I made in my book Rooted in Love had resonated with her. Her email was sent on a day which particularly tough for me, and she simply said that she had been thinking about me and sent a beautiful poem she had written.

Since that message sent nearly two weeks ago there have been several other connections. An sms from my spiritual director; a couple of emails from a dear correspondent; another email from someone I know thanking me for blog post I wrote over a month ago; and an email from someone in spiritual direction with me. And then Facebook comments from a few friends and colleagues.

I sit here tonight in deep gratitude for every one of these angels. Their individual messages have woven a safety net for me during an emotionally turbulent period.

Cultural holidays

Cultural holidays or feasts are interesting things. This year for the first time I celebrated Thanksgiving in the USA. I’m staying with my sister and her US born and raised husband and we were hosting, so it was the full thing. A few shy of twenty adults and a handful of little kids.

Roast turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce (and a bunch of other sides) and a pumpkin pie among other desserts.

It was pleasant enough (full disclosure – I was on Matthew watch (my two year old nephew) so I spent at least half the time in the basement with the little kids watching cartoons!). But even so, there was a disconnect which I don’t usually experience in very similar circumstances at Christmas.

Somewhere in my being I know how to celebrate Christmas, but for Thanksgiving I have no inherent memory.

In a very different way, I celebrated Easter this year in quite a foreign manner. Unusually it was spent with my family out in the countryside – far away from the usual liturgical rhythm. It was similarly mildly disorienting.

I guess Thanksgiving is a truly modern holiday – built not on a religious foundation but on the ideal of secular nation. It is a gift to have a traditional holiday celebrated by everyone.

Nonetheless, tt makes me acutely aware of the pain some must feel at their inability to celebrate these feasts or holidays in ways which feel ‘right’. It doesn’t matter what you think it ‘should’ look like, if it doesn’t somehow resemble how you think it ought to be it can be acutely painful.

I feel for all those whose Thanksgiving was not as they would want it to be. And for those who are newly in the US and want to find a way to make sense of a new holiday – celebrate every year in a way that makes sense to you and build memories.


The importance of the pause

In the last week I have listened to an interview with Brene Brown and have been following a course offered by Pema Chodron. Whilst the language and the claim to spiritual truth is vastly different, the message has been identical.

Those moments when you feel yourself ‘hooked’ by some emotional trigger – pause, breathe and try to find a different response.

Such sage advice!

In the last few weeks I have been confronted by some of my own familiar ‘hooks’. When the hook is particularly painful, or makes me feel too vulnerable, the desire to follow the familiar reactionary pattern is almost irresistible.

I may know that it is not constructive, but it feels safe.

It is what I know, and when I recognise the triggering of that particular hook I am almost powerless. And yet…

For once in my life I had someone in the trenches with me. Someone who was willing to stand by me as I battled my inner demons. Someone who wouldn’t let me acquiesce.

Who knows what the ultimate outcome will be, but for once I engaged in the process in a different way. And if I can do it this once, I can do it again.

The longer I live the more I believe that the way in which we engage with the process matters more than the outcome.

In the complex world in which we now live, we need to commit to doing all we can to make a difference. I think that begins will a commitment to daring to pause and allowing for the possibility for a response other than the knee-jerk one.

At least, that’s what I am committed to, if you have an idea that works better for you, I’d love to hear it.

The tyranny of certainty

As I write this France is bombing Syria in response to the terror attacks on Friday night. It feels very much like a repeat of the knee-jerk response of 9/11. I have no better solution, but I know that violence begets violence.

In the last couple of days there have been numerous posts about what the Islamic State is really up to and and equal number reminding everyone that not all Muslims are terrorists. Words piled upon more useless words.

It is hard to escape the fact that most of the atrocities in our world has been carried out by people who attend religious services. It is hard to argue against the likes of Richard Dawkins on the evils of religion.

I feel profoundly conflicted by that, because every single encounter I have had with a person who truly resonates with peace have all been practitioners of religion. And I know my faith has been transformative for me. In the absence of systematic religion, I am not sure I how I would have made the journey that I have. So I am not prepared to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

To me the toxicity lies in certainty. Fundamentalism of any stripe cannot tolerate questions. There is no room for the uncertainty that is the nature of humanity. That existential uncertainty makes us feel insecure and far too many of us try to shore ourselves up against being overwhelmed. We build dykes of certainty to keep back the flood.

We viciously attack those who threaten the flawed system we have created.

Pema Chodron speaks about the importance of learning to live in positive groundlessness. Likewise it is this essence which appears in the mystical traditions of all major religions – detachment. And every single one of us has plenty of work in that respect.

I need to ask myself – when I cling to elements of certainty in my own life, am I brutalising anyone else and claiming immunity because I serve a higher power?

Certainty that I am right is perhaps the most toxic attitude we can have.

Wisdom from Thomas Merton

I don’t have much to add to Thomas Merton – it stops me in my tracks a little when I think of him writing these words in the mid-twentieth century. How much more distraction have we managed to generate in the last fifty years?

“There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. It has to remain silent. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it.

Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semiattention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite ‘thinking,’ not entirely responding, but we are more or less there. We are not fully present and not entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. It cannot be said that we are really participating in anything and we may, in fact, be half conscious of our alienation and resentment. Yet we derive a certain comfort from the vague sense that we are ‘part of’ something – although we are not quite able to define what that something is – and probably wouldn’t want to define it even if we could. We just float along in the general noise. Resigned and indifferent, we share semiconsciously in the mindless mind of Muzak and radio commercials which passes for ‘reality.’ “ – From Thomas Merton: Essential Writings

Where will you be fully present today?

A tribute to my mum

Today is my mom’s 80th birthday. She shares the day with my youngest nephew who is turning 2. Those who follow my blogs and are doing the maths with recognise that she was just shy of 40 when I was born. It is interesting to be living with my two youngest nephews as we both pass these significant days. It has given me much pause for thought. I certainly don’t know how I would cope with five children aged 8 and under!

Perhaps though the thing that strikes me most forcibly as I think back on the life my mom has led it is her courage. It isn’t that she doesn’t experience anxiety, but she supported my dad when his job required the family to move cities when she was in her early 50’s. She had been a teacher of home economics and somewhat bizarrely was offered a job teaching English – she rose to the challenge.

I do a bit of teaching myself and the thought of taking on a new subject would be daunting for me. Not impossible, but certainly not to be sneezed at. And to equip herself better she ended up doing a degree part time – graduating in her late fifties.

There are other stories I could tell, but for today I simply want to honour her for her willingness to step into the new. It is one thing to chose to follow your own dream to a new place, it is quite another to walk alongside your partner as they follow theirs.

Identifying with emotion

About ten days ago I found myself very upset following a small incident. I absented myself by going off to take a shower. As I stood in the warm spray I found my mind coursing over and over what had happened. My mind switching from upset to anger to frustration with a beautiful background beat of self-recrimination. The emotion filled my body.

And yet even as I stood there I knew I had to let it go. And letting it go wasn’t about solving a puzzle, or creating control. There was an element which I recognised could have been implemented and in the same circumstances again, I’ll make sure I put that in place. But freedom wasn’t situated there. My mind still resounded with the raw emotion.

What fascinated me was how much I have come to allow my emotions to consume me. It really is the swing of the pendulum – having started as a young adult being completely unaware of my emotional state, to now allow myself to be consumed by it.

This small incident was still paralysing me an hour or so after the drama was genuinely over. Even as I sat there in the discomfort, I realised I needed a new strategy.

I realised I needed simply to acknowledge and welcome my feelings. I needed to accept the whole spectrum from frustration and anger at the circumstances to my own self recrimination. And I needed to allow myself to grieve the outcome – what I had so well intended has turned out badly in the end. After just a few minutes of this embrace I was able to let it go.

Not let it go with gritted teeth and ascent to not saying anything whilst allowing the thought process to continue in my mind. But genuinely I was able to let it go.

It was a great lesson for me – I hadn’t realised the extent to which these unproductive purposeless thought tracks can occupy me. It was both illuminating and humbling.