Monday, August 29, 2016

Unpacking

As with most things, a person probably gathers many of their holiday preferences from their childhood. In a spirit of rebellion against or fondness for what the parents forced on them.

But, again, as with most things, watching toddlers is an interesting reference point. How does a person react to holidays at a tender age, before the parental influence has had chance to steep?

This summer, I've watched the twins' response to being away.

They enjoy a break from the usual routine and location: it excites them and they are happy to experience the new. They love company. But they are always excited to get home again, relishing romping around their territory and rediscovering their toys. When we're away, they get much more tired than they do at home - a daily nap is essential. Which is a little bit curious.

Or perhaps not so curious. On reflection, I see all these patterns in myself.

For me, a holiday is not being abroad, sunshine or luxury. It's just an escape from the usual pattern of events, places and experiences. That might be a weekend on a friend's floor, a wet fortnight self catering or a week on a Spanish beach. After too many months at home, my every day life starts to feel like a prison cell: I need to get away.

The removal of the familiar, though, is tiring as well as rejuvenating. I'm less in control of how the day will pan out. Even if I'm being looked after attentively, I'm a stranger to the environment or the requisite interactions, so there's a level of stress about making life happen. I, also, try to nap, usually nod off more quickly at night and lie in longer if given the opportunity.

When I get home, even if I've had a fabulous time, I'm pleased to get back into the daily run of things. I realise that I rather like the life I have organised and the arrangements I have made to sustain it. I enjoy being back in the driving seat.

Maybe other people are completely different. Maybe my children have simply inherited my preferences genetically. But I suspect that, if we're very mindful of what actually happens to us when we don't get enough holiday, when we are away from home and when we return, many of us will notice important things about our need for work, rest and play.






Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Body building

One of the many beautiful things about young children is the union of their bodies and minds.

We learn to be ashamed of our physical selves. This is the figleaf moment - the loss of an innocence that accepts the body as myself. Before this severance, a toddler's arms will swoop, their legs bend and flex spontaneously as they walk or sit. Mind and body work together, in harmony. It's lovely.

We Western, capitalist, post-Christendom adults don't really attempt to recover from the loss of this union. We celebrate our competence at remaining stuck inside our minds, cut off from our bodies.

Many of us are anxious and stressed because we ignore or have forgotten how to recognise physical signs of weariness and intolerance. We exercise and diet to annihilate or mould ourselves rather than to live. We are obsessed with sex but our failure at, abuse and neglect of physical intimacy is often a major cause of marriage breakups.

Many of our Christian churches and denominations have lost the bodily aspect of faith and worship. Discussion, extempore prayer, long, directive sermons and performance-based music have replaced liturgy, chant, ritual, hospitality, meditation and sensory experience. The mind of the leader dominates.

This is a shame. There are good reasons for repetitive spiritual practices like yoga, tai chi, bending to a prayer mat at set times, repeating mantras, stillness and silence, ritualised meals. Many of these, or similar habits, are part of Christianity's heritage too.

Like it or not, your body is a much better indicator of who you are than your thoughts. It needs to be respected. Your heart beats and keeps you alive without any help from your will. If you are Christian, you can be confident that human flesh is a temple of the holy spirit, whether or not the individual can articulate that. People are always and forever made of God's earth and breath, whether they feel themselves to be spiritual or not. We are children of God, whatever we think and profess about that fact. Incarnation (carne - flesh) is the way God lives with us.

If I want to try to rediscover my real self in my practice of faith, this will involve a rediscovery of my body and a recovery from my addiction to thoughts and words. A more ritualistic and 'religious' approach, with liturgy rather than debate, contemplative practice and physical work to unite mind and body, radical community engagement to frustrate my mind's ongoing attempt to control my world.

Jesus doesn't say much about professing a faith in him. But he does say we won't enter the kingdom of heaven unless we become like children. Take time to watch some at play and consider how that might be done.






Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Up close and personal

I felt smug in a parenting course once. The advice was to place squabbling children CLOSER together, not separate them.

I felt smug because my children share a bedroom despite us having one spare; they are left to fight their own battles (within reason); they share the toys and negotiate 'who holds what right now' themselves.

Of course, I have no right to be smug. I am a (very flawed) parent of squabbling children. And I am one of those children. I fail to apply the lesson to myself.

We all need to get in each others' faces more. If we avoid proximity, we avoid squabbles and intimacy. We 'unlearn' community.

Both parents might choose to work simply to afford the best home possible. If not, one might endure long, stressful hours, for money and status. 'In your face' time as a couple and family is lost - there certainly isn't much left for outsiders.

We form our views in isolation or with the like-minded. We look at our screens, facebook feeds, newspapers and, more rarely, chat with people who agree. Even in churches and such, where you might expect to see obvious difference worked through, there is a great fear of disagreement.

Hospitality has become a skill rather than the norm. You are only invited in on my terms. I decline invitations that don't appeal, making up the reason why. Friends punctuate our individualistic lives, rather than people communal ones. Gone are the days of dropping in unannounced for a cuppa. Of feeling bored in someone else's company.

We hide everything we're ashamed of. Mess. Ragged eyebrows. Tiredness and irritability. Microwave meals. Tears. Rows. Cigarettes. Chaos. Incompetence. We arrange 'dates' for times and places where we feel confident. We schedule in expensive, time-consuming haircuts and gym sessions to stave off image anxiety. We walk away from challenging conversations. We shun unexpected or long-term guests.

Parents (while we're under their roof), children (again, while at home) and spouse might see us warts and all. But, increasingly, work, obsessive domestic management, full diaries and screens-for-relaxation mean even they fail to get to know us properly. Or lose sight of us.

I have no idea how we fix all this. It's hard. I try to be authentic online. (Yes, I can be smug. Yes, the blog proves I like the sound of my own voice too much. That's me. You can reject it if you like!) I think obtaining less than the potential money, stuff, house and screentime are freeing. Time spent figuring out who we are and trying to accept and be that is worthwhile. Practising and receiving imperfect hospitality is helpful.

I am scared of my flaws. I am scared of squabbling. I'm pretty sure I overcome that by letting people close enough to witness both.


Monday, August 01, 2016

A game of two halves

That mortal life is a story of two chapters is a theory I've come across several times in psychological and spiritual writings.

My current guru, Daniel O Leary, believes we usually enter the second stage of life between the ages of 35 and 55. (Some, like Jesus, are ahead of the game.) The midlife transition is often marked by a crisis of some sort: a prolonged and intense period of reflection on our value, output, relationships and choices to date.

At best, during the first half of this life, we struggle fiercely and tirelessly to discover our identity. During the second, we are less vivacious but more free and authentic - perhaps even productive - because we are secure in our discovered identity.

The tragedy is that most people don't do this 'best', which can only happen in the context of love. The good news is that it is never too late to discover you are loved and redeem things.


Sadly, I don't think that we as a society, or as churches, are good at helping people navigate this two-part journey.

During the first half of life, we demand productivity and load on responsibility that prevents young souls finding out who they are. We do this to impose a 'good' identity onto our young charges, rather than allowing them to discover it. Many children and young people are anxious and stressed by the 'normal' abuses of pressurised school life, media, consumerism, dogmatic Sunday teaching and other forms of adult control / protection (depending on your perspective!) 

So, entering the second half, abandoned by some of those controlling / protective influences, we remain 'undiscovered', never having had the space to process our pain, fight our demons or find ourselves. We look like grown ups but are immature and unformed. We are powerful, angry children. We cope with the ageing process in cynicism, bitterness, fatigue, withdrawal.

Those who do grow up well, unsurprisingly, are often misunderstood, dismissed and resented. (Again, see Jesus).

I think I've entered my second half. Probably. Maybe. Lots of demons still to fight. Not least the one who tempts me to stagnate, to fight my children's battles instead of focussing on my own.