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The last 3 weeks have been so beautiful, and so full of blessing it’s hard to know how to begin to describe it.  We returned from a 10 day trip to Cornwall at the beginning of last week, and as a family I think we’re still awash with gratitude and general chilled-out vibes.  It’s not usual for us to feel the benefit of a break much beyond the time the break lasts, and I think there are several reasons for that being a little different this time.

Firstly, this holiday was in the company of my parents and also some very dear friends who we see far too little of because of geography.  Somehow, what could have been a bit of a disastrous mix (my parents and our friends didn’t know each other, we just hoped the size of the holiday home we’d rented would allieviate any ‘in your face-ness’) just really worked.  My parents are having a hard time because of my mum’s recent cancer diagnosis, and my dad in particular has become very tense and over anxious.  Our friends are in that early stage of parenthood when you are negotiating your way through life on very little sleep and facing a new parenting/management challenge every day.  Yet they all just got on so well, and actively enjoyed each other’s company – and so, of course, did we.  And there was that extra sense of delight in seeing two separate groups of people we love taking pleasure in each other.

Being in Cornwall itself was a massive blessing (we were in the same house, in a wee village called Helstone near Camelford, just last September with another wonderful family we are really close friends with – the fact we returned less than 9 months later and are currently seeing if we can organise another trip in October speaks volumes about the place).  I found real refreshment in being somewhere both unfamiliar – that ‘where are we now?’ feeling – and like an amplified, uber-version of the Britain that we know.  Plants and landscape somehow the same but not quite (greener, more abundant, both more friendly and more dramatic). 

The chance to be ‘at the seaside’ was an unalloyed delight.  This time round our daughter was thrilled beyond measure to be near any of the beaches we went too, and as someone who grew up on or near the coast in various parts of the UK  I loved seeing her share the same joy at playing on the beach, in the sea, in rock pools and so on.  I went wading into the sea with her (neither of us in swimming stuff) more times than I care to remember on this holiday, and yet neither of us really minded getting wet clothes, sand in unmentionable places and hair bouffed by the lively coastal breezes.  And there’s nothing like drying off in hot sun to compensate for wet underwear…

I also had massive fun rediscovering bodyboarding on this holiday over a couple of afternoons, something else my daughter and I have discovered together this last year.  I confess I cannot take pleasure into the getting into and out of a wetsuit, and nor can I truly take pleasure in the photos of me in a wetsuit either:

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… I think my husband and daughter look pretty good though.  One aspect of being in and part of the sea (the Atlantic Ocean no less!  sounds much fancier than my ‘native’ North Sea) is something I’ve read and heard people who surf talk about quite a lot, and there are some really good quotes too:

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(Thanks to my husband’s blog for this photo taken at The Tubestation last year)

In other words, there is a well-documented spiritual connection we seem to find with the ocean.  I’m alternately afraid of and in love with the sea, and personally I think that’s a pretty healthy state of affairs as it can be a dangerous place (and like many of my generation it’s hard to leave the spectre of ‘Jaws’ behind – I long thought it was just me but have discovered it’s a reasonably common thing!).  Yet to launch yourself across a breaking wave as you head a little further out, a little further out, to lie bobbing peacefully on a bodyboard and let the water carry you up and down, to gaze in silent respect as rolling waves crash together from opposing shores of a bay and merge to make a foaming mass of water is to find yourself in a place of wonder and of peace.  The other aspect of playing with a bodyboard that I liked a lot was just that – it was play, and it was completely acceptable to play wholeheartedly.  I am coming to believe, from my position as amongst other things a playworker and playwork trainer, that play can also be a time of spiritual connection.  Sometimes the Godness of the world he’s made is just there to be seen and experienced and rejoiced in.  Playing in the sea was, for me, an experience of the Godness of his world.

Pretty much the highlight of the whole week, if we had to pick one, would be a week ago, when we spent Sunday in Polzeath, first going to church at The Tubestation, which you will learn more about from my husband’s blog so I won’t repeat it here but I do urge you to check it out, then hanging out for a bit there afterwards and being given a fantastic and completely unwarranted gift by our friends of a beautiful piece of art.  We spent much of the rest of the day just playing on the beach at Polzeath, then each of us got to surf or bodyboard as we chose, and all of this was sandwiched with the eating of lovely icecream and yummy chips.  It was a perfect day.  If there was one day that left us seriously trying to figure out how to make a move to Cornwall so we could become part of the community in Polzeath and get involved in The Tubestation, then that was it. 

And now, back home in Edinburgh, back at work, back amidst the worries and mess of normal everyday life, it seems like a dream that we’re still somehow carrying with us.  Life is good today.  Tomorrow my mum begins her treatment for the cancer they found a few weeks ago, and my prayer above all else is that life will somehow continue to be good, even through that, for all of us.

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So this last week saw me take what I feel is a pretty momentous step, and which I’m both delighted with and terrified about.

I qualified as a community education worker 8 years ago, and that role has both defined me and expressed what is important to me ever since.  It took me a long time to ‘find’ the profession too, I’d had my fair share of years in the wilderness wondering what I was supposed to be doing with my time here on earth, and I suppose it was no small coincidence that all the various little jobs, volunteering roles and areas of interests were what eventually channelled me into doing a postgrad professional qualification to enable me to practice as a community educator.  I have also been so blessed to have the chance to work for an amazing organisation for most of my post-qualification years.

So why, then, have I just quit my job?!

Since becoming a mum, in fact since becoming pregnant 5 years ago I’ve had a sort of split in my mind.  I wanted to continue to do the work I loved, that I could see also did so much good, but I wanted to not have the mad juggling act of parenthood combined with busy working life.  Financially we were in no position for me to stop working, and to be honest when our daughter was a baby I was glad to reclaim my self, to have a space where I was independent again (as much as any employee can be anyway).  As the years have gone by we have intermittently re-examined that position to see if our finances offered flexibility for other choices to be made, but until now that has been a pretty laughable proposition.

But this last 6 months or so have brought together a number of jigsaw pieces.  I’ve rediscovered a passion for art practice, and have had some creative juices stirred which could do with an outlet.  Our daughter is about to begin school and that presented new organisational challenges which we were struggling to reconcile (whilst being aware that everyone else manages these things somehow!).  As my mum is facing a longish period of ill-health and I’m feeling the distance between us, it would be great to have a bit more time and flexibility to head up to my parents to help out now and again.  And finally, once our daughter heads off to school we’ll free up enough money (from nursery fees no longer being paid) to make a career break for me a realistic idea.

We worked all this out about 3 weeks ago, spent a couple of weeks mulling it over, praying it through, and finally, last Monday I handed in my notice.  I’m not leaving immediately, I’ll be there for the rest of the summer but already my mind is shifting to new projects for the autumn, my eye is being cast calculatedly around the house as I assess areas to tackle when I have time.  I’m reimagining my mornings, getting up very slightly later, walking our daughter to school rain or shine (I’m getting rid of my car too, won’t need it) and getting to know other parents in the area as we gather at the school gates.  I’ve been busy looking at art and craft workshops I’d like to do, pondering possibilities and just listening to what excites my soul as I consider opportunities.

I also had a small crisis moment, induced at last week’s small group in our home.  So tell me, what do I say now when I get asked what I do?  I hate ‘housewife’, it sounds empty and demeaning.  (is that just me?  would I feel different if I hadn’t been a working parent?)  Apparently I’m going to be on a ‘career break’, but since I never regarded myself as having a career that doesn’t seem right either!  And although I have an art degree and I’m planning on (in a gentle and not particularly purposeful way) taking time to do more art, I baulk at calling myself an artist – artists are people other than me, I feel.

Can I still be a community educator even if I don’t have anyone to ‘educate’?!

I wonder how long it’ll take me to reconcile this?  I’m sure I’m not the first person, the first woman to feel like this, and I certainly won’t be the last so any insight and guidance will be much appreciated.

Last week my work colleagues and I were privileged to receive some excellent training to give us an overview into autism as a spectrum.  It was provided by the Lothian Autistic Society and I can really recommend their training if anyone else is interested.

It was fascinating, at the start of the session, to hear across the full staff team that attended what experience and knowledge each of us had about autism.  I was fairly typical – I’ve worked at times with children who use our services who have autism (usually with Aspergers), I’ve sat in on a previous mini-training session when I was on placement as a student, I’ve read a couple of fantastic books.  And whilst none of my colleagues are approaching any kind of specialist knowledge, we all had a good broad base of understanding – but just didn’t feel like we did.

And that seems to be the funny thing about autism.  It seems so ‘other’ that we don’t feel comfortable with ourselves and our competence when we are with people who are placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

Anyway, the training was outstanding and across the board I didn’t hear a single colleague (some of whom are normally default-setting-critical!) say it was any less than excellent and riveting.  What did I learn?  Essentially that autism is a brain difference, which results in the person with the condition responding to and interacting with the world in ways which are so different to us NTs (neurotypicals) it is really hard for us to understand the world from their point of view, and vice versa.

Simon Baron-Cohen (who, slightly bizarrely, is according to Wikipedia a cousin of Sasha Baron-Cohen aka Ali G and Borat) is one of the pre-eminent scientists in the field of autism and has led the way with much of the current thinking about the condition, from what I can gather.  One of the most interesting aspects of autism is that it would appear to be the working out of an ‘extreme male brain’.  This has been identified as being because autism seems to arise from an extreme level of testosterone present in a child even before birth.  This is, presumably, why autism is so much more common among males than females.

This has brought autism into the news as it now appears quite possible for there soon to be a prenatal screening test for autism, following on from the publication of a ground-breaking study in the British Journal of Psychology (as it has been described by The Guardian amongst others).  And the big, controversial question which has now sparked a great deal of debate is “would a prenatal screening test for autism be a good thing?”.  The underlying assumption is that parents who discovered their unborn child had autism (although the test would not be able to place them on the autistic spectrum, just give a blunt identification of the condition) would be likely to choose to abort that child. 

I think that would be an understandable choice (I’ve not worked with autistic children who can’t communicate, as they tend not to be in mainstream settings like the one I work in, but have witnessed the enormous challenge and stress families can face when they have a child somewhere on the autistic spectrum).  But the assumption is that autism is something ‘bad’, undesirable in itself.  Most autistic people are physically healthy, and it is believed that in fact it is the more able autists who will suffer through their condition, simply because they are able to interact with the neurotypical world enough to perceive and struggle with their difference to the world at large.  It gets very complicated, and Professor Baron-Cohen articulates the thinking that needs to begin now:

If there was a prenatal test for autism, would this be desirable?  What would we lose if children with autistic spectrum disorder were eliminated from the population?  We should start debating this…Some researchers or drug companies might see this as an opportunity to develop a prenatal treatment.  There are drugs that block testosterone.  But whether we’d want to would be a different matter.

If you want to read more about autism I can thoroughly recommend “Freaks, Geeks and Aspergers Syndrome” by Luke Jackson, which he wrote when he was just 13 – it’s outstanding, insightful and very sweet.  The other book I read a few years back was “George and Sam” by Charlotte Moore, and it too is outstanding, very intelligently and (just as important) intelligibly written. 

I’d love to hear your own thoughts about this debate.

Well today (like many days in my life, it seems) I’m sick.  I think I’ve caught the bug my daughter was so poorly with last week.  After feeling a bit odd at various points yesterday and managing to dismiss them as the outworkings of a busy weekend and not enough sleep, I spent last night feeling increasingly yuck and then trying and failing to get myself functioning this morning. 

As is the way with these things, I find it’s often when I need the most sleep that I get the least.  So during my sleepless hours last night when I awoke feeling unwell I found myself ruminating on the kind of random tangents that the 2ams are so well known for.

One of the random tangents came from a conversation we’d had with a minister friend of ours who was round with his fantastic family on Saturday afternoon.  We’d been joking about my increasing interest in the idea of communal living and how this works itself out in communities we’ve come across.  After considering the areas we’d find most challenging about communal living (pretty much all of it) our friend said that they had approached it from the other direction and basically let people know they had an open house for anyone, whenever.  I wondered if this was an expectation of their role in the church he leads, but apparently not – so many of his congregation had never been inside the church manse until he took up post.  Marla has also spoken in various places on her (fantastic) blog about having doors open to whoever needs them.

As I lay tossing and turning in bed, head and body aching, mind whirring, I began to wonder how I would find communal living, or living with ‘open doors’ when, like today, I was unwell.

Would it be great to know that if I needed something there would likely be someone around to help me out?  Or would I struggle with feeling my space was restricted, that Iwould need to make conversation when I just wanted to lie or sit quietly?  And in terms of reciprocity would I be willing to go into someone else’s house when they were sick and be there for them? I would, but being the over-empathiser that I am, I tend to imagine others share the same feelings as me and wouldn’t welcome my presence.

I am full of admiration for those who open their homes to the world, and can see that actually the physical act of letting someone in the door is not always the big deal.  It’s the opening and sharing of lives which follows which is the real challenge, the real joy and the real act of servanthood and love.

I haven’t made any resolutions this year.  But this area is something I am challenged by and challenged into doing and not merely thinking about.  I intend to work on it this year.  I suspect it will be a lifelong project

What do you currently long for most?

There are many things I really yearn for, most of them actually not that important or significant.  However, for my husband and I, our current hope, and my most heartfelt longing is to have another  baby.  Turns out this isn’t as easy or straightforward as you might think.  It took a little while to conceive our daughter, but now I’m getting on for 5 years older and (a side affect of parenthood) considerably more tired and stressed than I was last time round.  We’ve not had any success so far, although hopefully this year will change that. 

So I’m aware that I’m longing for something that I may not get, whilst basically disbelieving that it’s not going to happen again for us. 

That is my confession.  It feels like I’ve just told you an enormous secret, but it’s not really.  Who knows what this year may bring?  Well, in truth I guess only God will currently know the answer to that question.

Longing does seem to be part of the human condition.  Is it just a lack of contentment with what we have, or is it a genuine desire to have something that will bring real enrichment?  What is the correct attitude to have towards our longings and desires, and how do we figure out those which are useful, healthy and ultimately in someway beneficial, and those which are going to be destructive and a source of further unsatisfaction?

The week I wanted?

  • An optimistic and motivated return to work after the Christmas break
  • A return to the security of routine, with a reluctant farewell to the freedom of holidays
  • A well- paced week, with each day a pleasant balance of rewarding work, refreshing sleep, delightful family time and blessed time with others
  • A week where I can enjoy my change from 5 day a week full-timer status at work, to 4 day a week part-timer status, by just enjoying spending time with my daughter on our shared day off mid-week
  • A week where I look around my home and feel the small pleasures of successful domesticity as I observe the well-ordered home we have achieved as we make the most of our refreshing break by spending a little time each evening tidying and putting away.

The week I got?

  • A week of slightly random work events, bubble-wrapped in the back to work torpor that I had forgotten always surrounds this returning week after Christmas
  • A week of frantically juggling a sick daughter with trying (and mostly failing) to get to work on time
  • A week of wakeful nights as our daughter became sicker as the week progressed, and the eventual pleasure today of seeing her well enough to go to nursery and now to have her finally sleeping well
  • A week of enormous delight in the company of others, from work colleagues, to my family, to our extended ‘small group family’ despite encroaching exhaustion and apparently terminal frustration
  • A week of observing our home fall into further chaos as we lack the time and energy to tidy up – until tonight

Overall, and all things considered, it was a pretty good week!  However, it should be noted that I am saying this tonight, as bedtime draws near, my daughter is (currently, and surprisingly, given the last 5 days) sleeping peacefully and a weekend of leisure and time with great friends beckons.

Have a great weekend too.  Sleep well!

I was recently lent an amazing book called “Motherhood and God”.  Written by Margaret Hebblethwaite and published in 1984, it’s one of those books you wish you’d always known about.  (Thank you to SW & CW for the loan!)

I’ve actually barely started it, but it’s totally enveloped me.  There is some beautiful writing, striking imagery and truth and integrity bursting from every page.  I’ve been getting annoyed with my husband, TSTIAI, for taking forever to read Shane Claiborne’s “Jesus for President”, but he tells me that he just needs to keep stopping and mulling over (for a looooong time) every few paragraphs because the book just says so much.  Which is great, as it’s clearly a great book, but also infuriating because I want to read it NOW!  Anyway, here’s a public apology for my impatience, because in “Motherhood and God” I’m having an equivalent experience.  I’m on page 25, and already I’ve had enough ‘stop and think’ moments, or even ‘blown away by profundity’ moments I could spend the next month just blogging on what those few pages have stirred up.  As I said, it’s an amazing book.

If we are God’s children it might be helpful to imagine ourselves sometimes as in her womb.  There could not be a closer image of warmth, security and protection.  There we have all our needs provided for in perfect measure, as the baby receives oxygen and nourishment without deficiency or excess through the umbilical cord.  In God’s womb we can stretch and turn in every direction, just as the baby, suspended in water, is as happy upside down as the right way up, and in the early months can exercise its limbs freely.  Wherever God our mother takes us we will be safe and provided for; whether in cold or heat, storm or drought, we will be protected.  Wherever we journey to we will still be at home, for the presence of our mother’s body is closer to us than our geographical location.  God is closer to us than the ground we stand on.  Even though we have never seen our mother, perhaps are quite unaware of her, or even deny her existence, she is in perfect and constant intimacy with us, and when we are born into the light of her presence we will recognise that she has been with us all along.

When I first read this, I found it so moving, and such a perfect analogy in many ways of how we travel through this life.  Perhaps like me you were initially jarred, or even shocked, by the author referring to God as mother.  I’ve been reflecting on this and wondering why, since both male and female are both in God’s likeness and so presumably it is potentially as valid to think of God as Father or Mother.  I love thinking of God as my daddy, but this passage expressed an aspect of God that is perhaps glossed over. 

And yes, to know that I’m being mothered and fathered by the loving God does make me feel safe.  Being hemmed in by God, as in Psalm 139, is a wonderful thing.

This winter it’ll be our 11th wedding anniversary.  I’ve found myself reflecting on our vows again, as the other week I was unwell (again) and this week our daughter has been poorly too. 

We ‘d only been married for a matter of a few months before I began to struggle with what was eventually identified as post viral fatigue.  This made me pretty ill and pretty hopeless for a good while, and was a massive cause of worry and stress for my husband.  I left my job and basically just spent some months trying to get back on my feet.  I went to work part time, then very quickly became ill again and because I was still in my probationary period ended up not getting my contract continued – I lost my job, in other words.  It was about 18 months from the initial onset of the illness that I became fit enough to go to work again and although in the years that have followed I’ve had bouts of post viral illness again, it has never been as bad or as long standing as it was that first time round. 

As you can imagine, ‘in sickness and in health’ was a wedding vow that we had never really thought of having to put to the test so early in our marriage.  We received enormous support from our church, and a pivotal moment on the road to recovery for me was our then-minister and some other wonderful people from our church community coming round to our tiny flat and anointing me with oil and praying for us both.  It was from that point on that things began to slowly get better.  God didn’t dramatically heal me, but I’m quietly confident that He began a much gentler process at that time.

Anyway, we were up through the wee small hours yesterday morning (and this morning too actually) as our daughter was running a temperature and has just been feeling really not well.  As I eventually lay down to try and get some sleep I found myself reflecting that those vows don’t just apply to me and my husband.  We’re a family of three, and since our daughter came along she’s become bound up in those vows too.  Our commitment to each other before God is also a commitment to her.  At least that’s how I see it.

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