Six Weeks – A Poem (For Tiny Boo)

Six Weeks

(For Tiny Boo)

Six weeks your limbs stretch after the womb,

Like a butterfly ready for flight;

Six weeks your eyes blink and blink in wonder

At a world of colours and light;

Six weeks your scent fills our hearts

With milky sweet promises of alright;

Six weeks your rosebud mouth crinkled and close-

Maybe that smile will come tonight.

Six weeks we have loved you;

Six weeks watched you grow;

Six weeks we have cuddled and held you so tight.

And six weeks is ended, and yet -

And yet.

We will always remember. And love you all night.

 

 

(please contact me if you plan to use this poem.)

Lessons From A Bonus Cat

We have 2.3 cats (approximately). First, there is Orange Cat (not her real name). Big, fluffy. Somebody applied a fader filter to her underside and she dipped her tail in it. Likes sleeping in cupboards, particularly on shelves storing expensive jumpers.  Then there is Little Cat (well, you wouldn’t want me to name all my cats for their colours – that would be colourist). Shiny black fur, yellowy-green eyes. Ginormous ears. Excellent fly-catcher and all-round hunter. The first time we let her out into the garden of our new house , she got trapped in the neighbour’s garden.

And then there is Bonus Cat, who represents the partial cat in my ownership figure. He/she is as big as Orange Cat and as shiny black as Little Cat, on the topside. I know this because we’ve had regular visits. I’ve been awoken by strange noises in the night, decided it was just my imagination and gone to the bathroom (as you do – I mean, I was awake anyway), and been temporarily confused by the fact that there was a cat that had all the properties of my cat but somehow it didn’t quite fit. In fact, it took two such encounters for me to work out that my confusion was not due to my sleepiness, but actually due to the cat not being my cat.

Bonus Cat (henceforth, BC) is a beautiful cat – black on top, cream underneath, with a brown patch by the nose. I’m torn between wanting to make friends and harass it, but currently we have a stand-off. BC creeps into the house once the kitchen light goes off, and the upstairs light goes off, not checking the lights in the front of the house. BC fails to take account of noises upstairs. BC has in the past tried to creep past The Dude while he watched tv (and thought better of it). I have chased BC down the stairs a few times. Little Cat once woke me up just as I was dropping off to sleep to deal with BC. And BC has learnt to only exit via the cat flap if I actually go down the stairs and turn the light on.

In our last encounter, BC hid under the bed where I sleep while I went bounding down the stairs to chase the intruder.

But we only have BC because we have a cat flap and nice food. And we only have a cat flap and nice food because we take care of our cats. Sure we could have the magnetic cat flap, but neither cat is particularly fond of collars, and Little Cat in particular is tree climber. I wouldn’t want her to get her collar snagged on a branch. And actually, I suspect BC and our cats have an understanding, because for all the visits that that cat makes, our cats very seldom kick up a fuss.

So this is the lesson of Bonus Cat – if you are going to share your life, you are going to end up with unexpected consequences. Choose how you respond to them, or you might find yourself outwitted by a feline.

(My thoughts and prayers go out to my family in South Africa at this time. It hurts too much to write about, and the words crumble in my heart, so I wrote this instead. )

Purpose is Like an Arrow…and a Map

With sincerest apologies for the lack of a witty anecdote. Sometimes you just have to jump in and say what you say. But I have made a pretty picture. Okay, a sketch. Never mind. Just nod and smile. Thanks.

2014-09-24 11.41.58

For as long as I have had any intentionality about my conversations, I have been interested in helping people become better versions of themselves – encouraging them to get through the tough times, find what they’re good at, learn life lessons and so on. People tell me they don’t know what they want to do with their lives, and twenty minutes later they have a fire in their belly and an idea to pursue. You may not think you know what to do with your life, but quite frequently, you do. It’s like a map that you’ve been looking at upside down. You just need to turn it the right way round. Once you have the orientation right, and you can see where you are, it becomes easier to work out where you want to go.

Purpose is also like an arrow. It is more than just actions (the triangle in my picture), it is more than just thinking (the rectangle in my picture). The arrow comes from applying the thinking to the action. Don’t just do for the sake of doing. Don’t just think – it will never take you anywhere.

If you’re looking for your purpose, think about your passions and your problems. Think about the things that you would love to do, if neither time nor money was an object. The compliments that have been paid to you that really melted your heart. These point to your passions in a positive sense – the things that motivate you and reward you. It seems logical that your passions, the things that excite you, would be signposts towards your purpose, that area of influence  for which you were created.

But there are equally valid pointers from our reactions to the negatives of life. I hope I am not the only person on the planet to be absolutely heartbroken by something and have most other people raise their eyebrows as if to say, what’s your problem? Hurts and problems that affect the heart deeply, that wound us in a way that makes us think that we will never breathe properly again, are also pointers to that for which we were created. If we can progress beyond the pain of our response, if we can ask ourselves why we feel like this, why does this matter so much, we can reach a greater understanding of our purpose. (If anybody knows a quick way to do this, please let me in on the secret.)

Incidentally, I tried this little exercise on myself, asking these questions. Which is why I am writing along the theme of purpose. I also tried it on The Dude, and am very excited where that journey will be taking us.

People matter. Purpose matters. You matter.

But What If I’m Really Supposed To Annoy People?

I’ve been on a little journey of the character-growing kind of late. Relationships have been challenged – some have grown, and some wilted under the onslaught. Assumptions have been examined and found wanting – assumptions I never knew I had.

Like the one where I thought because I am honest, and forthright, I have to speak my mind always.

The one that said I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut, even when I knew it was a better course of action.

Or that I am in fact always right. Which means by default you must be wrong. (Turns out we can both be right, who knew?)

Or the one that said each of us has one single great big purpose (thing) that we should be doing. And if we don’t do that, we’ll never be truly happy. Which is bit like believing that we each have one soulmate on the earth, and if we don’t meet and marry them, there will exist forever in our hearts an emotional hole. I don’t believe that either.

Sure some people will obviously have a dream that they achieve – you know, Olympians, and presidents and such, but that doesn’t mean for those of us that don’t get to be presidents or achieve “great” things, there is no hope of true and lasting happiness. Purpose is less one thing, and more a general direction. It’s plans, hopes and a future (to quote Jeremiah 29). Otherwise your purpose would be the one most important thing – and who is to say what that most important thing is? And when you’ve done that one most important thing, what do you do with the rest of the days allotted to you? Live them out in misery?

So no, purpose is like an arrow, or a thread running through the fabric of your life. If your life were a novel or a film or a poem, it would be the theme. And this takes the pressure off, because rather than trying desperately to grasp a hold of the one thing that will make you happy; the one purpose that defines who you are; there can be a multitude of expressions of this theme. Like rhyme schemes in a poem, or genres of films. Sure, some might fit better than others, but try them out. Life is long enough that we can have a first draft of these things.

I’ll let you in on a secret. I used to think that my purpose was to write stuff, but that’s not it at all. Then so many people got annoyed with me, I thought I was supposed to annoy people (less because they got annoyed with me, more because I wasn’t bothered that they got annoyed with me). But then I realised that my purpose is more than just one thing, that I was made not just to write, or to annoy people, but to inspire, and encourage, and help people learn to tell their own stories with strength, and hope and courage.

(And just to be clear, annoying people? Just to annoy them? Why?)

So breathe a little. Give yourself a little grace. Try things, think things. Find the theme of your life and make it stronger. Because if you do that, we all become a little stronger.

More Than A Normal Mummy

This is a letter I have written to a friend of mine as she struggles with two young children with very specific needs. Sometimes we only see the problems that these needs create – but we all need to remember that the real story is much bigger than just that. (I preach to myself here.)

My dearest friend,

I see you and your two boys and my heart smiles. They are beautiful boys – full of life and love, and that indefinable something that is boy-ness. You’re doing a fantastic job with both of them, and I admire your courage.

I wasn’t there much when no 1 arrived – I was fighting my own battles – but I think you have done an amazing job. There are mothers around the world that would be walking around with a handheld vacuum cleaner to make sure that there are no reactive foodstuffs nearby, and yet you don’t. You have let me cook for your child, and hold his hand as we went around the museum. Watching Little Person with him has given me hope. These are gifts that you have given me, and I will treasure them always. Your son #1 has a brilliant sense of humour, and an adventurous spirit that the trials of his life have not quelled. This is no doubt due to your parenting, the active and considered decisions you have made, and I commend you for that.

I remember when you sat on my swing bench in the warm afternoon sun, hand upon your giant swollen belly, laughing and full of hope. I remember watching son #2 eating rice cakes and both of us being so sure that this time, definitely, there was no issue. You would not have to walk that road again. (I remember watching Little Person as a toddler with bated breath, thinking that I, too, had dodged a very specific bullet.) And now, you walk a harder path than either of us thought possible.

I can tell you this. He won’t remember the visits to the hospital at this young age. I know, because I don’t remember my earliest hospital visits. He will remember that you always loved him, always held him close, always took care of him. He will never know how strong you have had to be, how much each of these trials has taken out of you. Come to that, I will never know either. But I know this: if mothers were athletes, you would be the ultra-marathoner.

It would be great to just be a normal mummy, watching your normal baby develop into a normal toddler and on to a normal child. But you are more than a normal Mummy. You have walked shadows of this road before – your life to this point has equipped you for the road ahead. Your children are brave and beautiful. You are brave and beautiful. Your husband is strong and courageous. See the good job you have done with son #1? I know you will do a good job with son #2. I can see it in the merry twinkle in his eyes, that he knows that life can be fun, and interesting and good. Son #2 is an explorer too.

But what of the hopes and dreams of that summery day? Well, there is still a lifetime to be lived. My swing bench in still here. You can laugh on it, you can cry on it, and in wintertime you can look out on it and be glad that it’s okay to not be a normal mummy. You are more than a normal Mummy – you are a normal Mummy doing extraordinary things. My home, and my heart, will always be open to you, as a place of celebration and solace, of acceptance and affirmation. I want my home, and my memories to be full of the sound of your boys’ laughter for many years to come. These days are hard, but they will be but a footnote. The real story is just beginning.

I believe in you. And I am so glad that you are in my life – all of you.

Labels as an Excuse: the Misappropriation of the Extraversion Personality Construct

I don’t believe in personality tests. It probably has something to do with the time that I did a test with some classmates, and we were all supposed to gather together with people whose results resembled our own. It was one of those ones where you answer questions, and then get a set of four numbers which you plot across two axes, ending up with a quadrilateral that is predominantly in one of the quadrants. Then you look in the book to see what your label is. (I remember that one of the labels was “Leader”, so looking back, I’m a little suspicious.) So everybody went running around looking for people with the same kind of quadrilateral as them. Did I mention I came out as a perfect diamond on this particularly one – I didn’t “go” in any of the groups.

“What does that make me?” I asked the teacher.

“Awkward.”

Hey, at least he was honest.

But here’s the thing – personality is not all of who you are, but it is a large part of how you express your identity. And when we reduce people to labels, and numbers in quizzes, and “which box do you fit in”, we oversimplify things. We reduce people to roles, and therefore limit their ability to fulfil their potential, and we exclude people that don’t quite fit in the boxes. Which disempowers the people who already know that they are different, and impoverishes the society which marginalises them. Lose-lose, really.

I’m going to be controversial here. I don’t like the way society has grabbed on to the whole extravert-introvert thing. I think we sell ourselves short. (If you’re interested, the book “Quiet” by Susan Cain is what got me started on all this.)

We had dinner guests on Saturday.

“I’m 60% introvert,” he said, “Definitely. And she’s 95% introvert.”

“Yeah, I could so do without people,” she nodded.

“I like that bit of the book that talks about the kind of houses that introverts like – with lots of alcoves you can go and hide in. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Alcoves, where you could go read your book.”

“No. I hate alcoves!”

Of course, I love the idea of alcoves – but only if they have wingback chairs and snugly blankets and windows so the sunlight can come streaming in over your shoulder and onto the book you’re reading or the craft you’re busy with.

But that’s the point. A woman writes a book about being an introvert, and how introverts are overlooked in society but have a contribution to make, and suddenly every single generalisation that she makes about introverts generally must apply to each introvert individually. And the more of an introvert you are, the more these generalisations apply. So Mrs 95% Introvert must love alcoves more than Mr 60% Introvert – 35% more to be exact.

But introversion – extraversion is not synonymous with personality. There are multiple models of personality out there – the most prevalent when I was studying psychology was the Big 5, which has extraversion as one of 5 facets. But the other four are much less fashionable (especially conscientiousness), so we’ll just stick to extraversion. Never mind that the little scores in the boxes don’t reflect who you actually are – they indicate trends in who you may be, how you might react, what could be (any statistician can tell you that these tests are useful when applied to a population, but their applicability decreases when applied to the individual).

We treat these labels as absolutes, but they are not. We use them to explain away bad judgement, poor decision-making and lack of character. We put people in a box, and assume that suddenly we know everything about them.

And if they don’t fit in the box, we tell them they must change. Which is problematic, because I quite like being a diamond.

I’m not for changing.

 

When Inspirational Quotes Just …. Aren’t

A lifetime ago, as I was descending into the hell that was finding the right medications for my epilepsy, a kindly-minded soul phoned me. She said she was phoning to see how I was doing. I told her not so good – I didn’t give her all the details of the various side-effects, or talk in depth about the overwhelming fear that I would perhaps never recover. Even now, more than a decade later, I’m glad I cannot remember most of it. So I gave her a taster, and she trotted out her little line.

“Ah well, you cannot appreciate the mountaintop until you have been in the valley.”

I hung up. (I think the term we may be looking for here is “straw that broke the camel’s back”.)

Five minutes later phone rings again – it was the pastor person who was also my good friend.

“Rox, you can’t just go hanging the phone up on people.”

“I can. I just did.”

“She meant well.”

“Fine. Then tell her to visit me and bring chocolates. I’ve got enough on my plate. I’m barely coping as it is. I don’t want to hear about a mountaintop or a valley. I don’t want to have to sit here and listen to somebody else’s platitudes just so that they can feel better about themselves.”

A long silence. Then “Are you not hanging up on me then?”

“No. You’re my friend. You care.”

And he did care. And if he were on the same continent as me now, he would still care. I know, because after I treated that woman so badly, he fixed it for me, explained the situation. And made sure that nobody else bothered me with platitudes to make themselves feel better again.

This is why I never tell anybody that they need to experience the valley to appreciate the mountaintop. Just. So. Wrong.

********

Still, we have our modern, online equivalent.

I have recently made a conscious decision to remove my access to Facebook from all but one of my devices. I’m scaling back on my Instagram liking. I don’t always click through on Twitter links even if they seem interesting.

Because everybody is throwing inspiring platitudes at each other, and nobody is really connecting. We all like and share things that we think will make ourselves feel better. We post up encouraging thoughts for the day (sometime even, shock! Bible verses!) as if it to say it’s alright, it’ll be fine in the long run and so that means I’m okay today. Except, all the positive platitudes in the world don’t beat a hug, or a friend showing up with a box of gluten-free biscuits.

There is no replacing people. There is no replacing face-to-face conversation, coming together and learning to love, to share, to grow. These devices in our hands are meant to aid communication and relationship, not define it.

I no longer believe the majority of what I read on Facebook, and for every Instagram quote that people like, I wonder, what’s going on behind that? Too many times, people have admitted to me that, despite what their Facebook pages say, they have been really struggling – with insecurity, fear, dark oppressive thoughts. So what’s the point of all the happy platitudes, except to make sure that nobody has to phone them up to tell them “you cannot appreciate the mountain without the valley”?

As I type, I find myself asking, am I a hypocrite for posting this online? The answer is no, because I’m not denying that online communication can be useful, provided it is a single facet of a meaningful relationship, rather than the overwhelming mask behind which you hide. I want you to think about why you like and share the things you do. I want you to think about why your friends like and share the things they do.