Rocks, ripples, and uncomfortable reflections

Be yourself, they said. Don’t worry what anyone else thinks of you, they said. Follow your dreams, and be what you want to be, they said.

What a mantra to live by. The only problem is, it rather assumes that the thing you want to be is a good thing. In my case, the thing I want to be is perfect. I want all the people around me to be happy, and healthy, and doing things they love. They can even be rich or materialistic if they really have to be. But I want me to be perfect. Perfect in body size – hardly original; perfect at work – outstanding, I think they call it in the trade; perfect as a mother – (hides behind a computer screen rather than going to a primary school violin concert, so that’s a fail); perfect as a vicar’s wife – the kind who serves gin and always knows how to solve other people’s problems, whilst simultaneously fixing the photocopier and booking a donkey for Palm Sunday. All round perfect. So when someone says to me “Be what you want to be,” I hear “You must be perfect. And if you’re not perfect, really, pack up and go home.”

And, quite often, that is exactly what I do. Looking at all the options, I know that I can’t do everything, and the fear of not being perfect stops me from doing anything at all. How is it possible to do the right thing in a world full of endless choices and conflicting needs? I want my children to grow up in a world that is not hurtling towards self-destruction with only an air bag as an emergency break, so I know I should drive my own car less. But I also want my kids to be able to do normal things, like going to the cinema or trampolining with friends. And I know that I don’t have the energy to get them there on the bus – and, more importantly, get them back again on the bus, rather than throwing them under it when they’re exhausted and I’ve run out of food to bribe them with. So I start tearing myself up about what is the right thing to do, and is it selfish to put my children’s needs first, and am I using them as an excuse to put my own needs first, and is that selfish, and before I know it, I’ve turned into Chidi from The Good Place, and I’m about to be crushed by an air conditioning unit filled with my own indecision and self-doubt.*

Or what about what clothes to wear. It’s amazing how many implications just that simple decision can have. I want to wear clothes that make me feel good about myself – luxurious and in control. (Yes, I know that clothes aren’t everything – but I also know the magic of the right pair of shoes.) So, I want to wear clothes that make me feel zingy. But, at the moment, I can’t. All my clothes are just too tight. So now, I have a decision to make. I could go on a diet. There are a few out there that I haven’t tried, and I’m sure they would work if I followed them closely enough. But let’s face it: I know how to eat healthily. I’ve done it plenty of times before, and I’m not doing it now. For today, my priority is keeping going, and sod the amount of chocolate bars it takes me to do it. I don’t want to go on a diet – and that decision makes me feel like a failure, because how can I be perfect if I’m doing something that makes me feel bad and not want to do anything about it? Alternatively, I could buy a whole new wardrobe. I know that would be tempting for a lot of people, but you know what, it’s not for me. It would be utterly unsustainable, as it would have to be fast fashion for me to have any hope of affording enough clothes to wear regularly. Also, I really like a lot of my clothes, and I’m not ready to give up on wearing them again. This would make me feel like a failure, because I’m not perfect at sustainability. Finally, I could keep going with what I have. Which is, of course, the default, and therefore what I’ll probably end up doing. But it’s uncomfortable. And it makes me sad, because these clothes used to make me feel zingy, and they don’t any more. And you know what – that just makes me feel like a failure, without even knowing what I’m not being perfect at.

These concerns are small, and self-contained, and a little bit hyperbolic. They are also fundamental to how we see ourselves and our own struggles. Do we look to the impact on the world, and put it over ourselves? Do we look at how others see us as the most important thing? Do we think about how something will make us feel – will it make me happy? Is being happy the ultimate goal?

Pebbles dropped into ponds cause beautiful ripples that flitter and fade. I don’t want to be a pebble, though. I want to be a rock, that, when dropped into the pond, will never be forgotten – that doesn’t leave ripples, but changes the whole landscape. I want to be noticed. I think we all do. And if I can’t be that rock, well, what’s the point of doing anything at all? But bubbles and ripples bring more joy than rocks. They mean life-giving rain, causing ripples and dimples and flowers to grow. They mean skipping stones and taking time to stop, and breathe, and enjoy. If you’re very lucky, they even mean otters, streaming up and down, hidden, half-seen, heard in the rustling of the reeds before they race away, leaving you wondering if you saw anything at all.

We don’t all have the energy to find exciting new sustainable ways of doing things. We don’t all have the strength to keep going through the fear of failure. We don’t all have the privilege of the financial security to lead slow lives, or the family support to do that. What can we do? If we just do what’s easy, we’re ducking out of one of the biggest decisions of our lives. But it’s a decision that we must all make for ourselves. 

Be yourself, I say. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks of you, I say. Have the courage of your convictions, and lead the life you are called to lead, I say. But for goodness sake, don’t think it’s easy working out what that is. Have the courage to accept that for a while, you’re just going to have to wander in the wilderness, dodging perfect whenever you can. After a while, your hard work will pay off. You’ll find your way, and you’ll become wonderfully good enough.

Otter swimming, sending ripples out ahead of her. Image by strichpunkt from Pixabay

*If you haven’t seen The Good Place, and you have Netflix, I recommend it. Both very funny and full of all the best and the worst of moral philosophy – what more could you ask for?


Community, connections, and saying yes: moving beyond giving or receiving

A couple of weeks ago, I got a flat tyre. It turns out that ignoring the warning light because you know something needs doing, and you’ll do it when you get a moment thank you very much, means that sometimes, you end up in exactly the situation the beeping light is meant to avoid. Oops. Now I’m not great with cars, but I can just about use the air machine. I even worked out for myself how to use the flat tyre button, and so was a bit peeved when a random guy came over and terribly helpfully offered totally unsolicited advice. It was 5:30pm, I was tired, and he was patronising, so I may have been a little sarky in my response. The assumption that I needed help just grated, and brought out my inner pre-schooler, insisting on doing it by myself, and probably making the whole job take three times as long as a result.

As it turned out, the tyre was well beyond being fixed by blowing air into it, and I ended up going back to the guy (who was genuinely nice, as well as volunteering for the Air Ambulance). He and his colleague not only agreed (with some surprise) that I had been using the machine right, but also identified the problem with the tyre. They then changed the wheel for me, which is definitely beyond any knowledge I may have had about my own car. I was half way through explaining I didn’t think we had a jack in the back when they slid off a hidden panel and there it was. Good thing there wasn’t anything else hidden in there, really.

Standing at the side of the petrol station, watching two strangers go through the boot of my car, I had another decision to make. The children needed to be picked up ASAP. I could phone our neighbour, who is lovely, and gave me her number at Christmas with the assurance that I should call if I ever needed help picking up the girls from school. Or, I could call my husband, who was busy, stressed, and half an hour away.

I called my husband. Of course. Why? Because it was easier, and I was tired. Because I utterly loathe making phone calls, and making a phone call to someone I don’t know particularly well, in order to ask for a favour, is about the worst kind of phone call I can imagine. Because I didn’t want to look like I wasn’t coping, or was needy. Because she might say no, and I would have gone through all of that for nothing.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that asking for help is not one of my strengths. To be fair, very few of us are any good at it – we all seem to ask for too much help, or, more commonly, none at all. However, this was not just yet another incident of me refusing to accept that I might need help. It was also a case of the offer being made in that fabulously non-commital way: just give me a shout if you ever need help. It’s up there, in my experience, with “just ask if you need a babysitter”, or “if you’re feeling down, just talk to someone”. The times that you really need help are also the times you are lying on the floor in a puddle, hands over your mouth to hold in the panic, and you are damned if you are going to admit that you are not coping with things that everyone else manages with ease. Right now, that tiny dreg of pride is the only thing keeping you from melting into the floor, and you are not letting go of that too.

When The Paleontologist was old enough for me to be desperate for a grown-up night out to not need me around for milk at a moment’s notice, we discovered how hard it is to find babysitters in a new town. We had plenty of people offering help: “just pick up the phone, dear.” I loved that community, but the only time we ever accepted an offer of a babysitter was when someone did not leave the action to me. Instead, she took out her diary, picked up a pen, and said “When shall I come over?” This taught me a lesson I try to replicate, though I often fall short. It is not just that we are really bad at asking for help; we are also, generally, really bad at offering it in a way that lets people say yes.

This affects parenting, making it much harder to form the villages we all need to raise our children well and maintain our sanity at the same time. It affects mental health, leaving the onus on the people who are crumbling, instead of expecting more of those who – at the moment, at least – are more steady on their feet. But it also affects things that are bigger than our individual lives. One of these is our attitude to climate action, and as such, it is something we all need to change.

We all have our own reasons for not wanting to take help. We have our own reasons for not wanting to impose our help on others, too, and most of them are either noble and genuine or so deeply ingrained into the British psyche that it would take the end of the world to get over them. The problem is that all these things make us islands, fighting to survive, standing on our own. Some of us have very small islands – some of us live on them entirely alone. Some of us live there with our families, or close friends. Sometimes they include work colleagues, or your church, or other people who think the same way as you about the things that are important. But all of our islands stop us being genuinely connected to this beautiful shared tear-drop of a planet. They stop us reaching out to help people on our street, forming relationships that will help us work together to reduce our consumption or improve our local communities. They stop us seeing the the world around us as something that we all equally share, and depend on. The air I breathe is merged with my neighbour’s long before it reaches my closest friends; why do I act as though we are not that closely connected?

If we are going to change the world, it isn’t going to be done by individuals taking small actions, though that is a good place to start. It’s not going to be fixed by governments and radical laws, though that will be a necessary piece in the puzzle. We need to change the fundamentals of how we relate to each other, and how we see the world. We need to make community a thing that just happens, rather than something forced and awkward. We need to change our mindsets from What is best for me and mine? to What can I do for all of us? People like me, who might obsess for a week over exactly the right thing to casually say if you see the neighbours in the morning (and therefore end up saying nothing at all) need to take a deep breathe, get out of our introverted comfort zones, and say yes a lot more. We all need to get more specific, and make helping each other routine, instead of being remarkable, patronising, or an act of charity. The best harmonies are those where all the voices have their own lines, weaving and intertwining to create something more beautiful than any individual note. We need to stop practicing our own lines in front of the mirror, getting them to performance standard before we let anyone else know we’ve even been learning to sing. We need to work together with all our stumbles and missed notes, letting the shared melodies carry us through and make us stronger.


Image by Dieter_G from Pixabay

Of course, saying this is one thing. Doing it is quite another. For me, I think it might be time to step out of my comfort zone and offer my neighbour’s daughter a lift to school. Taking one step at a time, who knows where I might end up?

Beaches, guilt, and yodelling: what really counts as wasted time?

A few days ago, sitting in the sun in the local playground, I put down my phone, lifted my face to the sun, and started to feel guilty about doing nothing.

It’s a beautiful February afternoon, warm enough to not need coats. The Cowgirl is swinging down the slide belly first, yodelling “Nants ingonyama” like she’s opening the Lion King in the West End. The atmosphere has that heavy stillness pulsing through it, as though the air itself is holding its breath, waiting for the coming of summer. Of course, the fact that it’s February and feeling like midsummer is a worry, but winter is still a recent enough memory that it is one I’m willing to ignore right now.

In my mind, I rewind a few days, to a wind-battered beach in North Wales. Perfect kite-flying weather sees me chasing tails and laughing until my blood tingles. We even get the kite off the ground every once in a while. The Paleontologist digs as deep as she can, delighted when she reaches water, finding treasure and convinced it’s a real dinosaur tooth. She stands triumphantly in the newly created moat, in snow boots and a bobble hat, waving the tooth above her head. And in the moments I’m not running after precious comfort blankets or untangling kite strings, my mind is actively seeking how I can use this time more constructively, what I should get ticked off The List while everyone else is happily engaged in activity.

A windswept beach in February. Where could possibly be a better place to build a sandcastle?

That gnawing question ignites in my belly every time I stop to play, or think, or pray. I can manage board games for about 20 minutes before cracking and putting on a load of washing. Lunch anywhere but my desk, over marking or incomplete registers, prompts mild panic and causes me to spend the time I should be enjoying food and conversation crafting unnecessary excuses instead. Playing football in the garden? Maybe, but only after I’ve done this weeding. And hung out the washing. Oh, and just picked up these bits of rubbish… By which time the moment has passed, the TV has responded faster than I have, and another opportunity has been lost.

The compulsion not to waste time snakes under my skin and corkscrews into my bones. Each morning, the ticking clock dominates, driving any form of enjoyment further away with every click, ever conscious of every moment wasted not doing Something Useful. How quickly can the children get up, dressed, and into school? Will it be before the traffic locks down every route into work? Once I’m in college, time distorts like a carnival mirror, making everything both bigger and smaller at the same time, consuming everything that lies before it, not letting me finish anything for good. Then, with a rush, the end of the day comes, and – deep breath – it’s time to do it all again in reverse, like some twisted Bear Hunt. Back through the traffic, swear swear, crawl crawl; back through the school gates, hurry coats, hurry bags; back to the kitchen, eat your food, eat your food; back to the girls’ room, pajamas, teeth, story, bed; then they’re tucked in and I’m cowering under my own covers, muttering “I’m never going on the school run again”. Except, of course, I do, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

And, throughout all this, pushing me on if I ever catch a glimpse of a pause, is that simmering volcano in my belly. Keep running, don’t stop, keep moving. As though if the merry-go-round slows down the centre of gravity will be lost and we will all go spinning off into the uncertainty and vacuum of space. Busyness keeps the wheels spinning; fun makes them wobble. Cooking for dinner whizzes the wheels along smoothly; baking for fun gets a whole lot of flour in the cogs and clogs them right up. Getting up early to go for a run (well, that may be pushing it, but a wheezing jog, anyway) gives a good push start to that day’s rotation; meandering along the same paths in the balmy afternoon sun pulls back on the axle… will it stop? Making Memories and photographing and Facebooking everything keeps the fun boxed in and safely contained, weighed and measured; the same activities done spontaneously and without record feel as though they never really existed. Facebook, Netflix, blogging – things that keep and hold my attention spin the gears and ease the pressure building up below the volcano. But nothing removes it altogether.

Going back to that beautiful coatless afternoon in the park, I sit, trying to ignore my internal volcano, and think about the blossom on the trees, and the daffodil buds, and the lilies in the field. I have always seen that Biblical analogy as a message not to worry – one which I’ve followed only very infrequently. But this day, I accept that it is also saying that these amazing things are so very temporary. They are beautiful, but only if you give them time to speak to you. Otherwise, you miss their majesty because you are too busy with your head in the washing machine and your mind on what happens next. Like life, and Easter chocolates, and childhood, once it’s gone it does not return. So take the time, stop, and enjoy the sunshine, the yodelling, the chocolate. Let the volcano bubble; just keep checking in to make sure the scary Mount Doom eruption is still a little way off. When that moment comes, by all means, let the craziness out or everything will be destroyed by your own screaming. But until then, life is these still, unscheduled moments, and missing them is missing the point behind all the busyness.

I am dust.

Ash Wednesday is dissonant. It is jarring. It makes me wriggle in my chair and want to cower behind the cushions at the same time.

I stand, in a beautiful church shimmering with gold, and have cold, damp ashes thumbed onto my forehead. They were made earlier in the week in my back garden, smoldering in the barbeque as the joy-filled palm crosses disintergrated into black, crispy mulch.

Remember that you are dust.

My children stand beside me, quiet because everyone around them looks different to a normal Sunday, quivering with pent-up energy made worse by knowing they cannot let it out. The solemnity hangs in the air, unexplained, inviting and incomprehensible.

To dust you will return.

My husband turns from me and gently, hand shaking just a touch, marks the cross on the forehead of each child, remembering their own mortality whilst doing everything he can to forget it. At least, that’s what I assume he’s thinking; I know it’s there in my mind.

I stumble back into the real world, awkwardly engaging in conversation when all I really want to do is be still, and breathe, and try to assimilate the fact that I have just had my own mortality literally pasted onto my forehead. In that moment, there is no turning away from the fact that this is me, and I will die, and that is part of why I am here.

Walking down the street, the dissonance follows me. Eyes do a double-take on seeing my forehead. Should I tell her she has something on her face? Is she one of those crazy people? No one mentions it. Everyone sees it.

I leave the church dreaming that this year, everything will be different. I will be thoughtful, and helpful, and kind every day through Lent. I will give up the food that is bad for me, and take up an act of kindness every day. I will pray more, and read the Bible every day, and come out of it knowing exactly what God wants of me.

All too soon, life intrudes again. Tomorrow is World Book Day, and so there is a Paleontologist to be transformed into Hermione Granger, and a Cowgirl who has decided that in fact, when she grows up, she wants to be a Tiger (because the Tiger is very naughty, and eats all the food in the cupboards, and I want to be like that too). Marking needs to be done. Meetings need to be had. Washing needs to be hung out to dry.

Usually, by this point in the evening, my pious intentions have already crumbled into dust. This year, the process started early, as I didn’t even make it to the Ash Wednesday service; the car had a flat tyre, and absorbed All Time into an abyss. So instead, in this pause when the wand is away, the tiger costume is hanging up, tomorrow’s marking is just about finished, and the house is asleep, I am trying to reach that point of stopping, and breathing, and waiting.

Because Ash Wednesday is not just dissonant because it reminds you that you will die, standing there in the midst of the busyness of everyday life. It is also jarring because it throws the knowledge that, in fact, none of this is about me, right into my face. Lent is not a sanctified excuse to lose weight. Nor is it the chance to answer those big questions about where my life is going or what might happen next to me. It’s not a time for self-congratulation, or self-absorption, or starting new projects.

Lent is a time when we remember what it is like to be lost and alone. It is a time of wandering through the desert, not knowing yet how the story will end, and having to trust that everything will happen as it should. It is a time of madness, and forgetting, and self-discovery. It is a time for remembering what it is to be homeless, and hopeless, and hungry. But more than that, more than anything else, it is a time of waiting. It is a time of listening. It is a time of holding on while the storm crashes by, because only then, in the resulting stillness, can the voice of God be heard.

And so, tonight, I am waiting.

Image by Pexels on Pixabay