Thursday, March 10, 2016

Books, Barriers and Bonds

It reproached me silently as it has for almost two decades. I tried to read it when my father first gave it to me, saying, "Here's a book you should read. I think you'll like it." But I was always so busy, always trying to read several books at once, and not having much time to read anyway. It sat beside my bed or on the coffee table long enough that I lost the thread of the story, which spanned four hundred years. Tidying up one day I put it back on the shelf, and there it stayed.

My father never forgot and would mention it from time to time. "Did you ever read that book?" he would ask, and I would inwardly squirm, make excuses and intend to do so...soon. 

I knew that it would mean a lot to him if I read it--traveled the land within its pages--go where he had gone before: Chesapeake.

Recently I scanned my bookshelves, pulling off books for a writing exercise. The assignment was to look at first lines, as many as possible within a few hours, and then to type up ten or twenty favourites and consider what made them work. I included Chesapeake, curious to see what its first line was. It was a good one:
"For some time now they had been suspicious of him."

As I flipped through the first pages to find that line, there was his name in block letters on the flyleaf. 
The firm hand and distinctive style belonged to the father I knew before his final illness, when his writing became spidery and his hand frail. And I felt a pang of regret.

A few days later, curled up in my favourite recliner, I was reading the gospel of John. I love the mystery of it--the sense of God trying to get through to people, but nothing being understood by those he was trying to communicate with, everyone seeming to be at cross purposes, although we, like readers of all good stories, are able to see clearly from the outside looking in and want to shout at the characters, "Wake up! Can't you see?"
A memory surfaced then. It was many years ago, and I was looking forward to a trip to England to be with my parents for three weeks. I'd been reading the  book of John back then too, and I thought that anyone reading it must surely see what I could see--the revolutionary way Christ overturned "religion" and reached out to the world in love, relationship, and sacrifice. The book has twenty one chapters--perfect for three weeks. I asked my father if he would read a chapter a day with me. He said no. I can see now that he probably panicked, he being an atheist and me, maybe overwhelming.

Remembering that made me feel less guilty. We both missed opportunities to connect on something important to the other. I did have reasons for not getting to a book he loved but which is very long, and he had his own reasons for not wanting to read mine. We didn't overcome our barriers then, but now mine have gone. I have time to read all 864 pages and I am. Chesapeake is off the shelf.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Short Story Contest

The stocky brown haired man in the yellow rain slicker looked up from the front desk as if he'd been waiting just for me. With a twinkle in his eye and a broad smile that matched my own, he said, "Short story contest?" and motioned with his head towards a blue box with a slit in the top, and a sign taped to the front.

I heard a soft laugh behind me and saw that I was being followed by a petite blond woman waving a brown manila envelope similar to mine. She and the friend she was with both looked as though they were vibrating with as much excitement as me. Our eyes sparkled with it!  

Before I put my envelope into the slot I asked if the friend would mind taking a photo of me putting it in. She laughed--she had brought her own camera to capture the moment of significance. We posed together with envelopes poised over the slot and were spontaneously joined by another hopeful contestant, a tall man with glasses perched atop his salt and pepper hair.

As we walked away from the contest box I asked my new writer friends to tell me about their writing, and we spent a few minutes together savouring the moment and our shared passion before going our separate ways.

People trickled in steadily now, all headed for the contest box and the foyer hummed with voices. I thought to myself that the man in the yellow rain slicker would spend his whole day directing hopeful contestants until the deadline arrived at 5.00 p.m.

A month earlier at the end of January, a friend had texted me the details of the contest saying, "You should enter!" 

Being retired, I finally have the time to pursue my passions and I felt that it was now or never. But then I procrastinated. I cleaned my house, baked pies and began reading an excellent book from my bookshelf by Bill Roorbach: Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays and Life into Literature. 

My rationale for starting writing by reading was that I was "preparing." The truth was that I was "avoiding," although I did learn a lot from the first three chapters, including the importance of the first line.Thank goodness for the friend who told me, "Don't waste time on that first killer line, Belinda, just get the story down and worry about that later!"

The last week before the contest deadline, which was on a Monday, I began writing in earnest. By Thursday I had 750 words written and 1,750 to go. I thought that I was well on my way.

I learned over the next three days that all the steps that I had learned about but had not practiced, are there for good reason. 

  • allow the writing to rest for several days
  • read and rewrite, rinse and repeat
  • have trusted friends read your work and give feedback
And furthermore, you need to allow time in order to implement the steps. I wished I had started sooner.

By Friday evening I sent the story to the few friends that I hoped would read it and give feedback. I woke up the next morning wishing I hadn't been so quick to do so as I realized in the cold light of day that the story had shortcomings and needed more work...lots more work. 

Over that weekend I worked hard, into the early hours of each morning, writing and rewriting, chopping and strengthening it. My friends faithfully gave feedback and advice. Right up until Monday morning, when I steamed open the envelope to make more changes to what I had thought was definitely the final version. 

Much paper and printer ink later, as I left the city after dropping off the story,  I thought that no matter what happened now, I was already a winner, because

  • I had actually done it, and 
  • I learned so much in the process. 

I fantasized about how wonderful it would be to actually win the contest, knowing that about two thousand other entrants would be doing exactly the same at that moment.

I thought about my six grandchildren, all of whom work hard on an area of talent that they are honing to a skill, whether it is hockey, dance, caring for animals in an animal sanctuary or other areas of gifting. 

One of them. our 18 year old granddaughter Tippy, is never without a sketch pad. She ceaselessly works at her craft, polishing it by practicing consistently. All of them inspire me. 

Which is why Tippy's heartfelt response to the story meant so much when she was at our house this past weekend. As her mom read it out loud, I watched her eyes widen with surprise in some places, and smiled as she laughed at others. But at the end  I noticed that her cheeks were glistening. 

"Darling, are you crying?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, her voice choked with emotion and the earnest expression in her eyes saying more than her words,"I am just so proud of you." 

She came towards me with a hug, and I--well I had just won the trophy of all trophies.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Reclaiming Mercy

Humans of New York posts always grab my attention. 

The photographs and short stories of  Brandon Stanton help me see through the eyes of people whose religion; ethnicity; sexuality; choices or circumstances are different to my own. Through his work he peels off layers of bias and prejudice like grubby bandages, and reveals people in a way that is closer to the way I believe God sees us--loved and precious regardless of what we've done or who we are--because he knows the whole story...

Currently Brandon is telling the stories of inmates from five different prisons across the North eastern United States. Often the stories are heartrending, but the face and story from February 8, stayed with me longer than usual:

The words, "honest people like you," resonated, maybe because they could apply to me. And in a plight as desperate as hers, mightn't I have responded with the same naivete? I don't know, because I haven't experienced such poverty and desperation.

It must have been playing on my mind, because this morning I woke up with the vestiges of a wacky and disturbing dream in my consciousness. I had been given an illegal substance by someone who offered me a business opportunity to make some money. They left it with me while I decided. I hadn't been quick enough to say, "No thank you,"and was now "in possession."

Stuck with this greenish brown substance, I felt trapped, desperate and afraid. The people who'd given me the drugs knew I could identify them and I knew they would apply pressure to gain compliance. I hid the drugs in pie boxes and the last thing I remember was kneeling down and stuffing the pie boxes under a hedge...I was so grateful to wake up and know it was just a dream.  

Thinking about how easy it is to judge, I find it's a daily discipline to stay open to mercy and kindness. I don't like judgmentalism but ironically I find myself judging those who judge.

Jesus Christ loved the outcast and the different, and they sought him out and were comfortable with him. I believe he would love Humans of New York for what it accomplishes; the tenderness and compassion it inspires.

Today I read about the "Royal Rule," in the book of James. Far from being a rule of iron, it tells me that I need to love others as I love myself, and that I am to, "talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free." Our stance towards our fellow man matters. We should be scared when we find ourselves harsh, because the harshness with which we judge others is how we can expect to be judged. 

James 2:13New International Version (NIV)

13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Silence is Golden

I would dearly love to do-over a recent conversation. A friend needed to share some tough news and  her feelings; but I could not still my brain, which jumped to action, searching for something that might help and I'm afraid my words followed not long after it. My lack of inner peacefulness filled the air with unease; a faint heaviness like cheap perfume. 

There are many bad habits in listening and I'm thankful that I was only aware of one biggie at work in that conversation--feeling compelled to help by searching for a solution. Awareness is the starting point for correction. 

Fortunately there are lots of tips available on being a better listener. Huff Post Healthy Living, for instance has a good article on the topic: 9 Things Good Listeners Do Differently 

Image result for good listenerOf the 9 things discussed in the article, the one I want to work on is posing significant questions to draw out more information.  I want to replace thinking about solutions with asking questions to help me understand the situation better. I'm not good at this now, but I have hope.

One of the greatest gifts we can give to another is to simply listen; be a sounding board; or, as someone else put it recently: Help someone discover their own heart, or find God's purpose. I'd love to be "that" person. 
Image result for good listener

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Lessons Learned

There's an ancient psalm in which an Israelite king named David gives praise to God for being "fearfully and wonderfully made." How true! Humans are complex and amazing on all kinds of levels.

One thing I thank God for is that we can continually learn, develop, and improve as human beings! Proverbs 16:31 says: " Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness.

We don't come into the world fully equipped with wisdom and all the "Fruits of the Spirit" installed at the start. Fruit by its very nature takes time to grow and sometimes longer than it needs to, due to our own lack of cooperation. This isn't edible fruit I'm writing of, but the qualities that result from spending time with God, soaking in scripture so that it speaks to us and letting his presence transform us so that we reflect his character. The fruit of the Spirit is: Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.

Insights from other sources also helped me overcome personal blind spots and self defeating habits. It wasn't exactly the same as developing the fruit of the spirit, but it helped to learn ways of being with others that are more functional. I have learned:

1) To speak with confidence and clarity when stating an opinion or making a request.
Bad habit demolished: Diminishing the power and impact of my words by subconsciously seeding my sentences with mitigation, modifiers, and minimizing my needs, resulting in a lack of straightforwardness and unclear messaging. For example, in my "asks" of others, I often used to embed a "no" option even while making the request! :) 

This is an unhelpful trait, which I suspect women are more prone to; in part a defense mechanism--a way of avoiding the anticipated discomfort of rejection by doing the rejection myself in advance. It was efficient but counter productive.

I realize now that I won't melt or crumble if someone says "no," or doesn't agree with me. I am content to focus on stating my viewpoint with clarity, confidence and kindness. I give credit to author Katie Funk Wiebe for this epiphany, as I wrote in more detail in a blog post called Weasel Words

2) Learning about something called the Fundamental Attribution Error, and understanding how it was at play in my thinking. In the article I linked to above, a commenter said it could also be called the fundamental "assumption" error. Either way, once I was aware, I could stop it. 

Bad habit (almost) demolished: Trying to figure out the intent of someone else's actions.

Result: A lighter load! I try not to go there anymore and I understand that I cannot know the "why" of someone's actions unless I ask, and listen with open ears and heart. I have enough trouble understanding my own intentions let alone nailing anyone else's accurately. I learned that we tend to judge our own actions by our circumstances, thereby giving ourselves grace, whereas we judge the actions of others by what we perceive to be their intent or character, rather than the circumstances they may be in.

3) Learning about "Projection" and how, through my own conflicted emotions or anxiety, I can unwittingly project onto others those very feelings and emotions. Kind of like a paint can tipping over and spilling onto poor innocent people in my vicinity.

Bad habit demolished (well, "greatly lessened" is more honest:) Judgement and criticism. 

Result: I can work through my own anxiety through self awareness and breathing. I feel more at peace with myself and others.

So grateful for these life lessons. Recording them here was good for me, and I  hope may help someone else coming across them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Gift

It's four years, although it seems so much longer, since a trip to England that Paul and I took, in January 2012. Although we didn't know it at the time, those two weeks were my goodbye on earth to my own Mum, and in retrospect, I can see how God gave us precious moments that I can look back on as a very special gift. 9 years earlier Mum had a stroke from which she recovered physically enough to live at home with supports, but not her ability to read, write, or find the words she needed to express herself. She bore this with good humour and pragmatism, and we loved her so much for who she was in this period of her life; I share this so that you'll know how much each word that she spoke meant. I wanted to share a few memories from that time, which I am so grateful to have recorded here. This is from January 24, 2012.

Prayer: it is our nightly ritual; between the carers who come from Helping Hands to help Mum to bed, and Rob, who comes downstairs to put in eye drops and administer her inhaler; all of us ministering care in different ways.

It was she who first taught me how to pray. And yet now, here I am beside her bed, and she ready for sleep first, each evening, at an hour that seems so early, but in sync with the rest of the elderly safely tucked in around the village every night.

We travel far and wide in our prayers; I saying the words, but she with me in every syllable, every name named. We pray showers of blessings on Rob for the blessing he is to Mum. He should be laden down by riches of love and warmth and health and strength if God answers even a fraction of our prayers.

We cover family here, one by one; and those in Canada, and special needs of which we are aware. And at the end each night, Mum, holding my hands, gives a squeeze and smiles with eyes and lips her sweet, "Amen."

One thing I missed each night--her prayers, for me. Selfish though it felt to even think of such a thing, in my deepest heart lived a wistful little girl who missed her mother's prayers.

But tonight at our "Amen," she squeezes my hand and says, "I must pray--for you."

I smile my overflowing gratitude; we close our eyes again, hands clasped; I wait; she tries; clear words won't come, but we both know, in the quiet God hears the heart.  Again we squeeze and say, "Amen," with smiles.

And she says with eyes of blazing love that speak more eloquently than the loveliest of words: "Every night, after we pray, I pray for you...."

Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Voice

This photograph with our children, Peter and Brenda, was taken on their grandmother's 85th birthday, almost 5 years ago. On that day in June 1985, the church basement was filled with a crowd of her descendants: five children and their spouses, and many grandchildren with their spouses, and great grandchildren. 

In a few months she'll be 90 and she is amazed that she has arrived at this great number of years. In her heart and mind it is so easy to slip back to a time that seems like only yesterday; her girlhood. Easier often, than it is to remember yesterday.

Brenda Sheppard was a pretty, spirited 15 year old girl, with auburn hair and laughing blue eyes in 1941.  She couldn't wait to leave school and get on with life. She would have loved to go into market gardening, putting into practice all that she had learned from her father, an engineer with British Rail. He grew prize vegetables in his glass houses and allotments when he wasn't working. But such opportunities didn't exist for a young girl in the 1940's. 

They lived in Eastleigh, Hampshire, between Winchester and Southampton. In 1941, the country was at war with Germany. The signs at railway stations were taken down to disorient any potential invaders and had that effect on many of the British public too, if they weren't quite sure where they were going. Being so close to the south coast of England, air raid shelters called Anderson Shelters made out of corrugated metal, were issued, to be erected in back gardens.

While Brenda didn't go into market gardening, she was happy to get a job in Swaythling a suburb of Southampton, about 3 miles from Eastleigh, working in a private home during the day, cleaning and preparing meals, while the family ran their business. She had freedom and responsibility and enjoyed her work.

At the end of the day she would get on her bicycle and ride home, pedaling hard until she reached the curb outside her house, where she would lift up the front tire and then knock the latch of the gate open without stopping, and ride down the garden path. 

It was on one of these days that an air raid siren sounded as she was riding home. Her heart pounded in her ears as she pedaled as hard as she could to get home, the wind catching her hair as she rode down already deserted streets.

She was almost home, about to lift up her tire in the movement that was so automatic, when she heard a voice say "Stop!" so urgently that she pulled up and braked right away. But when she looked to see who it was, there was not a soul around. There was a sudden loud, shuddering clang, as a large piece of shrapnel whizzed through the air and through the spokes of her bicycle wheel, bending them apart, and she realized that if she hadn't stopped when she did, the shrapnel would have hit her.

For years the piece of shrapnel was kept on a mantle piece, a reminder of a miracle. Along the way, in one of many moves the shrapnel was lost...but to Brenda, the memory of the day she heard and heeded God's voice is as clear as if it were yesterday.