All Things Bleak and Beautiful {Reflections on Darkness guest post}

This is turning out to be a very looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong winter, and I was happy to be given the chance to process some of my thoughts and feelings about the season, its challenges and gifts, in my guest post for the Reflections on Darkness blog curated by Brianna Kocka. Happy reading here (and happy winter-surviving!).

And to give you a bit of an idea just how much snow is out there right now, the picture above is of my back yard… and of a snowman we made before the BIG snow came… he is now rather buried so good luck spotting him!

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Advent Two: Waiting with Mary

Well, I didn’t quite manage to get this up yesterday (just as I didn’t quite manage to make my advent wreath until the day after the first Sunday, and we aren’t quite managing to burn down our daily advent candle every day!), but shaking off some of that nasty perfectionism means doing the things I want to do late rather than not at all! So here is another prayer/poem I wrote a few years back after spending time with the story of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke ch. 1.

Again, this season carries within it such beautiful ways of helping us to wait for what we long for, and I can envision no better picture of what true waiting entails than pregnancy…

 

We wait with Mary for Christ to be formed in us,

Daring to trust this hidden womb-weaving,

And treasuring the smallest signs of growth.

 

As Mary took heart to see

the wondrous swelling of Elizabeth’s belly,

So the burgeoning life of God we see in others

encourages us that this sacred life grows also in us.

 

More and more, we long to bring Christ into the world,

Though we know that pain and labour accompany the birth of new life

As surely as joy and wonder.

 

Groaning and waiting,

Pregnant with hope and desire,

We prepare today a place for your coming,

Son of Mary’s womb, and Christ of our own hearts.

 

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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