Friday, 5 July 2019
Monday, 11 February 2019
Once upon a time there lived an elderly couple, minding their own business and going about their daily lives.
"Pack up everything. Say goodbye to your friends, family and neighbours. I want you to go on a journey."
If the dear elderly couple wondered where they were going, they weren't told the destination, but in a move that must have seemed bonkers to their loved ones, they took the first steps in a journey so life-changing and epic - indeed world-changing - their story has been told and treasured around the world for centuries.
Fast forward to early 2018. A couple really on the brink of middle age but still in the time of life when they're wrangling a gaggle of young children, hear that very same voice, prodding them to go on a journey. It's a still, small voice, but the urgency is palpable.
January to June is tough. She is thrown illness after illness and he wearies on, picking up the slack, one day at a time, faithfully doing really boring but necessary things for the family. But throughout, the sense - no, the knowledge - that 'something is coming', a new journey is beginning, starts as a few snowflakes falling at the top of a mountain and careers into a giant snowball, shooting down the mountain, gaining size and momentum.
And then, CRASH! "I want you to go to Nashville."
"Nashville. Tennessee. Not both of you. He's going to stay behind and with the girls. It's not the destination, but the next step. 4 days. A 2-day symposium and then a 2-day conference."
"Your little girl's birthday. You won't see your precious little one on the day she turns 6."
"But... But..." Sigh. "I know, I know. You said, 'If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.' There are no buts. I love you more than I love my precious 6-year-old. I trust you. But it hurts. Is this what you meant by counting the cost?"
"This is just the beginning. There's more to come. It will be difficult. It will keep hurting in ways that if I told you, you'd run a mile in the opposite direction. Or perhaps you'd even get on a boat and go to Tarshish. And we know how that worked out last time. So, for now, Nashville."
And so, without knowing the full ins and outs of why and what and how and WHAT NEXT, they arrange for her to go. The little one was upset that Mummy wouldn't be there on her birthday, but she understood that she and her sisters and their Dad weren't Mummy's 'whole world', because before they existed, Mummy had pledged her allegiance to more, to eternity right here, right now, to obedience, to a narrow way that seemingly makes no sense... But also to joy and peace and adventure and a life so far removed from dull as Tarshish is to Ninevah - or indeed Nashville.
They're not daft, this couple. Just like our elderly couple, they know there will be bumps along the way, most likely failings and screw ups. But there will always be forgiveness. They know too, that the waiting continues and that sometimes there are years between one step and another. They know they must hang on to the promises.
And so, at 3am on her daughter's birthday, she stole out of the dark house, sneaking past the bedrooms containing two sleeping girls each, three of whom understand, but one very little one still saying at bedtime, "See you in the morning, Mummy!" She climbed into her travelling companions' car, and set off for the airport, bleary-eyed but expectant.
Tuesday, 4 September 2018
And so, just like that, the summer is over and it's back to school tomorrow. This year I did something I haven't done since the Noughties: stayed off Facebook for the whole summer holidays, well, apart from today. If you thought I'd gone quiet, nothing was wrong; I simply identified in myself that tendency to compare my summer holiday parenting with everyone else's picture perfect summer, find myself lacking and get a bit fed up. My complete failure at ever having learned to drive has finally started to feel a disadvantage, and I'm not firing on all cylinders in terms of my energy levels. (It's complicated, to do with my fairly rare form of hypothyroidism, my magic tablets that send me zooming around at high speed also having a few unpleasant long term side effects, and my consultant's desire to balance energy now with disaster later, and so reducing my dosage. Sigh.) Thus, it hasn't been the charge about doing lots of exciting stuff kind of holidays.
I knew it wouldn't be, and at the start of the holidays I had a couple of days with no desire to check Facebook (unusual for me), found it beneficial and so spent the rest of the summer strangely Facebook free (helped by drowning my phone in the washing up water at the start of the holidays, and not having WiFi for a couple of weeks at the end). I found myself set free from the desire to make it exciting, and just let them get on with it.
If you didn't notice I wasn't here, then that's perfectly OK. I don't need to be missed, either from my point of view or yours. No guilt.
Most of the summer has gone undocumented photographically, and of course, that's perfectly OK too. It's not written into The Contract that everything memorable should be remembered, and we all know that photographs lie. My phone, via some wizardry that I don't comprehend, occasionally alerts me to a video compilation it's seen fit to create, of happy, smiling photos and random video clips, set to jaunty music: "Your August memories!", "3 days last week!", "10 days in the Vendee!" (It was 12, actually Phone, but thanks anyway.) My point is, these compilations don't capture it all: they don't capture every snide bit of back chat from one of them; or the absolutely frightening autistic meltdown of another, or indeed of nearly a month's worth of decompressing meltdowns and mini meltdowns following a particularly chaotic end of term season, giving us a pleasant week before the back to school preempting meltdowns begin; or the constant bickering; or the cleaning up of daytime wee accidents for 5 weeks following the milk trial (merely consisting of brioche and/or croissants eaten 3 days in a row, dietitian's orders), the resultant 3 wet beds for the child a night, 3 nights in a row and accompanying tummy aches and constant bad behaviour as her little body tries to get rid of the milk protein, and you try to remember it's not her fault, and yes she was potty trained 18 months ago, and yes this shouldn't be happening, but it is, and it's really not her fault and she needs cuddles and reassurance and really, you've got a working washing machine, so no biggy; and just needing, craving solitude and an easy life... But this is not what you signed up for, and nobody gets to be happy all the time but you have peace in your soul and if you stop to listen, joy and a song in your heart placed there by Someone Who does not change or grow weary. The video compilations don't show that. But, they can be an aide to counting your blessings, especially those 4 feisty ones, who have been healthy all summer. I remind myself, please don't complain as a family nearby is going through something unspeakably dreadful with their beautiful, smiley one. Look back and see that it wasn't so bad. It was jolly tough, but at the end of it, most people are getting on with most people, and you have made some memories. That's a win. Let go of the middle class expectations of outings every day, and bask in the slow ordinariness of now.
And don't forget that man of yours, I tell myself, that quiet, unassuming bloke who has filled in the energy gaps for 18 married years now, when many would have been dismayed at the sheer difficulty after year 2 and walked regretfully away; that man who went to work every day then soothed a crying, disheartened, wet-again-in-the-night and just doesn't know what to do with herself as something hurts or just niggles but she doesn't know what and she certainly can't just go straight back to sleep child; who actually forgets it's your 18th wedding anniversary but does drive you and 4 children vying to be crowned Vilest Kids in a Car Ever all the way to an Airbnb somewhere near Le Mans for an overnight stop, only to have to wheel out rusty French after 11 hours in the car to phone Airbnb's Stéphanie's Lady Who Does Danielle, who quite clearly Had Not Done, for some reason was not expecting us, was 30 minutes away and had not cleaned the house. Danielle came after Mark spoke to her from outside the Airbnb. She Did. Sort of. We had clean sheets at least. We learned that "Pas de panique!" is indeed an actual French phrase. Stéphanie gave us a partial refund. We left ASAP in the morning. But that man and I had to chuckle at spending the night of our 18th anniversary in a cobweb-festooned Airbnb, with 4 vile children finally wrestled to sleep, and of course I forgave him the lack of a card. (It was in fact a whole 3 days after our anniversary we finally sat down and opened the rest of our cards. See? It doesn't matter.) I am so thankful for him.
And so today, amid the last minute name tapes and washing the dust off lunchboxes that never made it from the worktop to their summer home in the now full with other stuff cupboards, I opened Facebook again. It seems that any notifications before 9th August have now been removed, so if you tagged me in something, it's gone. If something momentous has happened, tell me about it as I missed it. I have missed it, but the peace was lovely.
Thursday, 31 May 2018
"After you've had me cremated, don't stick my ashes in one of those square hole things, will you?" I directed him, probably too nonchalantly. He already knows my preference for cremation over burial, which besides being a cost thing (hey, I love a bargain and hate wasting money), is to do with my passionate desire for there to be no physical memorial place: the notion of our girls or indeed anyone visiting my grave and thinking they're visiting ME horrifies me. I will not be there. Don't visit the place where my earthly tent was hygienically disposed of trying to find a connection with me; I'll be long gone, enjoying the best party ever. Remember me by living life to the full. Anyway, I just wanted to make sure that Mark wasn't going to compromise on the physical memorial bit. I needn't have worried.
"No! We'll scatter them somewhere."
"But where? I don't really like outdoors, so it'd be a bit fake to scatter them in the countryside somewhere. And it's not really the done thing to chuck them about in Costa Coffee."
"Hmm. Maybe we could leave a few ashes behind on a saucer in each of the coffee shops you've got loyalty cards for. That should work. Your purse is rammed with them."
It's true: it doesn't zip up anymore and I have to hold them all in with an elastic hair band. Sounds like it might be a plan. We had a chuckle, and carried on, hand in hand.
Friday, 23 February 2018
Bags packed ("Come on sweetie I need you to empty your school bag so we can pack it for the day please." "But you didn't tell me last week what the plan was! You can't just expect me to do that now! I haven't had any notice! Aaaargh!" "I know. I'm sorry. I've only just worked out the plan myself." "Aaaargh! I'm staying here!" "Sweetie come back please! We'll miss the bus if we don't get these bags packed!" I hadn't actually planned which bus we'd get, but I was hoping that the need to catch the bus and so stick to the albeit last minute plan A would trump the need for advance warning in the world of autism, and this time it did...) and we set off from home at 10:25. It turns out that the promise of "seeing some animals" did little to comfort the 2-year-old's anguish at having to walk. The day before I had pushed an empty buggy while she ran ahead for most of the afternoon, but today it was a very noisy affair getting to the bus stop, and time was of the essence as Google informed me that the bus was running early.
We found the right bus stop, and it turns out that it's very useful having a sophisticated nearly 12-year-old who, since starting secondary school in September, is now a seasoned bus passenger. Weird though, bowing to her superior knowledge. We boarded with no problem (only a couple of minutes late, but the sky was blue and although we weren't actually in fine spirits, it wasn't too disastrous a mood between the lot of us while we waited), trying out an e-ticket for the first time (What if my phone dies?!) and took over the back seats. Oh. Travel sickness. I'd sort of forgotten that the nearly 12-year-old, the 2-year-old and I all suffer. But despite my almost constant questioning - Do you feel sick?! Tell me if you do! - we were all fine. I did have a Porta Potty liner at the ready, previous experience suggesting that the 2-year-old wouldn't either get or give much warning before spewing everywhere.
The 40ish minute bus ride passed without a hitch, thankfully, and it turns out that the 5-year-old is a particularly amusing passenger, and journeys seem to bring out the reminiscing in us all, especially with the 10-year-old who can remember every place we've ever visited.
Google was vastly optimistic on how long it would take us to walk to the country park and farm, especially with a full-volume shouting 2-year-old. Also, the sky was rather grey, and it was a lot colder than Coventry. The 5-year-old refused her hat and gloves. I failed to insist. Lesson learned.
After nearly half an hour of much moaning (nearly 12-year-old), shouting (2-year-old) and towing of the 2-year-old and "Come on! We're going to see the animals!", we arrived at a muddy track that Google said was the way to go. ("Ugh this is disgusting!" - nearly 12-year-old.) The track led us to a boggy, grassy field ("Ugh this is disgusting!" - nearly 12-year-old) and then a small play park, which instantly fixed everything for the intrepid 2-year-old, who got stuck in climbing and sliding and spinning. Being nearly 12 can be quite difficult if the play park is 'lame', and as a direct consequence, the play park was also rubbish for the nearly 10-and-half-year-old, who often emulates her older sister. The 5-year-old asked for her gloves. I shoved on her hat. Too late.
It turns out that it was a bitterly cold day, and I hadn't dressed anybody in enough clothing. The day before we'd been in Coventry city centre and it had been quite mild, with coats undone, hanging off shoulders and everything. Today was altogether different. I should have been alerted to impending disaster when the 5-year-old asked at that point to go home. The older girls asked that too, but we had to go and see the promised animals, who of course, were all inside as they're not daft. We noted the chickens, saw a rabbit, stroked a calf and a cow, noting the fur (soft) and the size (massive!), duly washed our hands at the outside tap which was a feat with coats on and mittens dangling on elastic, then the 2-year-old demanded lunch. We passed some pigs who were half buried in their straw inside their sty, huddled together for warmth, then came to a bench. The 5-year-old was beginning to whimper. The 2-year-old again asked for lunch. "Yes! Let's sit here. It's clean and out of the wind. Come on! Get all the food out." The 12-year-old went on strike and needed much cajoling. The 10-year-old loves food so just got on with it, plus was very helpful. The 2-year-old plonked herself down and also got on with it. The food was somewhat the worse for wear as the girls had sat on the bus with their rucksacks on, squashing the various bits of picnic that they carried. The 5-year-old had a full on meltdown, bless her. The whole of the farm learned that she didn't like ham and that she was frozen and just wanted to go home. The 10-year-old and I tried to huddle round her like penguins, at which point the 2-year-old felt left out and wanted to join the huddle. Most of us didn't eat much food. The chicken bites were still frozen. It wasn't that out of the wind after all. We were frozen. The 5-year-old cried and cried. We packed up and went to the loos. Again, not an easy task with coats and rucksacks and useless hand driers. We whizzed round the rest of the tiny farm ("Oh look! Donkeys!" "Mum, they're Shetland Ponies." "Er, oh yes. So they are. Silly me.") and left. "Perhaps this is more of a summer trip," I said sheepishly.
We still had the half an hour walk, the 40 minute bus ride and then the 10 minute walk to do before we got home. I checked that nobody needed the loo again before we set off. And then the dreaded 4 words. "I need a poo!" Right in the middle of suburbia, the long road not providing any corners to hide in. Thankfully - joy of joys! - I had the Porta Potty in my rucksack, so we set up camp by the only house that didn't have a driveway, their rare front garden wall providing shelter. "Girls! Form a circle round your sister please! Protect her dignity!" We closed ranks, and all of a sudden it was just very funny, especially to the 5-year-old, watching her little sister enthroned. I had prayed for something to redeem the day, especially for her, so I guess God has a sense of humour!
The deed done, I now had the problem of what to do with the shamefully opaque potty liner, dangling off my finger. My apologies, number 12. Your wheelie bin was closest on your driveway to the pavement, although scuttling back up your driveway felt like a very long walk of shame. Especially as I followed it with, "Run girls! Before they see us!"
The light relief was short-lived as the 2-year-old returned to her protestations at having to walk, and our arrival at the bus stop with only 4 minutes to wait made me happier than it ought, but at least the 5-year-old had stopped whimpering. She was back to her crazy self, and by the time we got on the bus, she informed me that she was "defrosting". The 2-year-old fell asleep, which at least meant that I didn't have to worry about her being travel sick. She also then walked the 10 minutes home with no grumbling.
We got home shortly after half 2, which means we were only out for just over 4 hours, most of which was spent walking or on the bus. Given the time spent waiting for the bus, the 40ish minutes spent walking each way, the 40 minutes on the bus each way, the 2 loo stops, I reckon we spent 50 minutes in the play park and the farm, during which time we also attempted to eat lunch, and the 5-year-old had a meltdown. I think I'll chalk that one up to experience!
After we'd finished our squashed lunch, now with hot chocolate and marshmallows, the nearly 12-year-old sat down with the laptop, turned the radio on and did her homework. The little two grabbed the tablet and watched CBeebies. I tried to suggest to the 10-year-old that she tidied her side of the her room so she earned back her tablet, but she didn't like that idea. The tablet the little girls had soon ran out of batteries, and mutiny was threatening. I wanted to see what creativity would emerge from their boredom and made a few suggestions, but it was the 10-year-old who came to the rescue by helping them with some crafts and then she found the sweet shop toy for them all to play with together. I thought I'd just have a little sit down on the sofa, but ended up rather too comfortable, refereeing from under a cosy blanket. I was too mean/not mean and thinking of their teeth to permit actual sweets with the sweet shop, but when I suggested they make some out of paper and bits and pieces, the 5-year-old exclaimed, "Mummy! That's a brilliant idea!" and I felt justified in my sofa parenting.
When Mark came home, the children were doing homework and crafts and role play and getting along fabulously. I was still on the sofa. "I'm afraid you're going to have to sort dinner out." "Oh OK. How was your day? Did you go out? What's for dinner?" "It's yesterday's leftovers, some squashed ham sandwiches and a few chicken bites. Yes we went out. Tell Daddy about our adventure girls!"
Thursday, 15 February 2018
Thursday, 18 January 2018
Share with the Lord's people who are in need. Practise hospitality.
It's that last bit that has gripped me. In other translations, it's rendered, "pursuing hospitality", "given to hospitality" or "Be hospitable." But the Aramaic Bible in Plain English leaped out at me: "befriend strangers". The term "hospitality" had been reduced in my understanding to having a few folk from church round for dinner every so often, and little more than that. I had to look it up, and discovered that it meant so much more than that to the Apostle Paul, who wrote the letter of Romans. The Greek, φῐλοξενῐ́ᾱ (
What does this mean for me and my family? We live in a small house, with no more room to take in anyone. When we have people round for dinner, our table extends, but to fit eight or nine in, one of us is perched on the sofa, well below the level of the other diners sat on chairs! It's a squash and a squeeze to say the least. Last summer, we squashed all 4 girls into one bedroom for 2 weeks while we hosted 2 American teenagers as part of a mission team, but it wasn't a sustainable living arrangement, not least because we only have one loo in the whole house. But what about the homeless guy living in our street right now as I type? Shouldn't I be inviting him in to live in my home? It would be pretty radical. Maybe long term that is where this is heading, but for now, God is bestowing me with the grace to start small. For years our family has befriended those from other countries whose paths have somehow crossed our path. We are now blessed with international friends all over the world, and could possibly circumnavigate the globe with offers of hospitality extended in reciprocity towards us. For now, we will carry on with this. We'll carry on seeking out the stranger, being the friendly face, inviting them round for dinner or simply a cup of tea if I have no energy for dinner. The Lord knows the limitations of my energy, and He's not trying to catch me out. That said, there will be times when I borrow from the Energy Bank, not knowing how I'm going to recover my losses, and trust that He'll make a deposit (guaranteeing my inheritance?) and balance the books. It will be a sacrifice and will cost, both in terms of our energy levels, but also emotionally. We have said a lot of goodbyes already, and are in the process of another one, as our first Turkish friends depart Coventry for good. How can we regret, however, knowing that we have contributed to someone's time in Coventry being more pleasant than it otherwise would have been?
I want to go deeper and wider: deeper as we look at being more intentional in our hospitality, which involves having the ingredients and knowledge to rustle up a simple meal at short notice, keeping the house in some sort of order (downstairs at least... upstairs is a disaster... And downstairs we still have bare plaster on the walls and it's definitely got that 'lived in by a feisty family of six' vibe... But it's hopefully not the kind of place you leave feeling like you need to wash your hands...), and it's not minding that it's not perfect; and wider as I seek to be consistently friendly and welcoming to whomever God places in my path, whether that's a fellow mum at school, or someone I exchange pleasantries with as we stand waiting for the green man. And exchange pleasantries I will. It might be embarrassing to my older kids, but as Jesus was asked, "Who is my neighbour?", so I want to think, "Who is the stranger?" Well, it's anyone I don't know that well yet. I want, through God's grace, to turn strangers into neighbours. This takes time, so it's being intentional about not being too busy.
And this brings me back to our Turkish friends. They were our actual neighbours, living just round the corner. I regret the months that we merely smiled at them before properly getting to know them. I think we were too British in our reserve. Philoxenia, it seems to me, means fighting against the reserve, the embarrassment, the shyness. What does it matter if we fall flat on our faces, really? If God is with us, then who can be against us? If God is with us, then who can hide behind their shyness being 'just the way I am'? Start small, and be amazed. You'll be blessed more than the awkwardness costs you. But don't be surprised at the cost either.
In the current xenophobic climate in the UK, just think what a revolution of Christians practising philoxenia could do, especially when the philos, the love, stems from the love of Christ.