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Thursday, 20 December 2012

Monthly Musing - December 2012 - Gifts without expectations

Small daughter has just handed me the first draft of her letter to Father Christmas, and it doesn’t take me long to work out that Father Christmas either has to have won the Euromillions lottery and have a sleigh the size of a small country, or he has to make some adjustments.
Have you noticed that we encourage children to make a list and write letters, and we ask them “What’s Father Christmas bringing for you?”?  As adults, however, our lists tend to be of what we’re going to buy for other people, and whilst you might have a few ideas of things you’d like for yourself, they’re generally not going to require a juggernaut-sized sleigh to get them to you.
A wise man once said that it’s better to give than to receive.  Research has shown that this is actually true; people who give without expectations are less likely to suffer from depression or other mental problems and are, on the whole, happier and healthier than those who give only to receive something in return.  Christmas is an ideal time to think about this, because not only do we give material gifts to family and friends, but we are more inclined to look out for neighbours or those more likely to be excluded from general day-to-day activities – it really is the ‘Season of Goodwill’.
Despite the fact that small daughter needs to give some serious thought to her own Christmas list, one of the things that she loves to do is to give something to somebody else.  If we go to visit anyone and have presents to deliver, she always wants to be the one to hand over the gift.  Big daughter also loves to give gifts.  She makes fabulous chocolate fudge these days and all of her friends look forward to their birthdays when they know they will get a box of fudge that she’s made especially for them.  I like to see my daughters take pleasure in giving, because that pleasure lasts far longer than the momentary delight in receiving something.  I will never forget the story that a work colleague told me once about her little boy who unwrapped a mountain of presents on Christmas morning and then turned to her and said, “Is that it?  I wanted more.”  She was heartbroken, he was in the doghouse for the rest of the day and Christmas was spoiled for everyone.
So, this year, when small daughter is singing her own peculiar rendition of We Three Kings, I will think about those wise men travelling to give a baby gifts and expecting nothing in return.  The joy that they received from seeing Jesus was worth more than all the gifts that they gave, and there is the lesson for us all.  By giving without expectation, the rewards that we receive in return far exceed what we have given.
I wish you a very happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Monthly Musing - October 2012 - Responsibility

I went on a course recently and one of the questions we were asked was “Who or what do you feel responsible for?”  It sounds easy enough, but if you take a minute to think about it, it’s more complicated than you might first imagine.  Why should you feel responsible for one thing and not another, or for one person and not another?  What makes you feel that responsibility?  It was tough stuff for a Saturday morning, I can tell you!
Responsibility, we were told, is an ability to respond in a way that makes things better.  I like that.  I like the idea of making things better, because there are many things about our communities and our lives that are unfair or wasteful or missing.  You hear people say, “It’s not my responsibility,” but actually, we all have a choice over whether we want it to be or not.
Small daughter was watching a TV advert for sponsorship for a snow leopard.  I think she was more impressed with the stuffed toy that came with the sponsorship certificate, but it was an opportunity to talk about how we must take responsibility for not allowing animals to become extinct.  Big daughter and I took part in the Race For Life earlier in the year, and stood in a crowd of 11,000 women all wanting to do their small part to raise money for cancer research – a huge visual reminder of what responsibility can look like.  If each of those women only raised £1, that’s still an awful lot of money to help people (like my Dad) survive cancer each year.  The dog came with us too and we completed the course in record time as he hurtled after a Border Collie; he may stay at home next year!
There are so many ways that we can take responsibility and it’s important to remember that it’s not the same as accountability.  Being responsible doesn’t mean taking the blame, it means stepping up to make things better.  Since I’ve really thought about what the word means, I’ve found that I haven’t felt obliged to take things on that I didn’t want to.  I’ve remembered that I always have a choice and that knowledge has allowed me to feel differently about many of the tasks of my day.
So what’s the answer to the question?  What or who do we feel responsible for?  You probably have your own answer, but on my course we finally agreed that we feel responsible for things that directly affect us, whether that’s somebody upsetting your child at school, picking up litter from the front of your house or campaigning to keep a bus stop.  And if we feel responsibility in this way, then so too must everybody else, and however small our actions, they do make a difference.  We all have the ability to respond in a way to make things better.


Friday, 12 October 2012

Monthly Musing - September 2012 - Exams and jobs

Big daughter is starting work on her GCSEs this year.  I’ve got no idea where this grown up daughter has come from when it doesn’t seem like only yesterday she was in her pram, but here she is, Year 10 (4th year in high school for those of us who’ve never quite got to grips with the new system) and she’s ready for the challenge.

One of the things our family like to do is sit down together for brunch on a Sunday morning after Church has finished.  It’s become one of the few times in the week when we all get chance to talk before rushing off to walk the dog, do homework, tidy the house or catch up on work that didn’t get done during the week.  Big daughter has been using the time recently to think about what she wants to do in the future.

“I did want to be a teacher but I’ve changed my mind,” she said, the other day.  “I don’t know what I want to do instead though.”  I think one of the hardest things we ask our young people to do (and I remember this very clearly from my own time at school) is to think about how we want to spend the rest of our lives when we’re hardly old enough to know what the world has to offer.  “Keep your options open,” is the best advice we’ve been able to offer her.  “Listen to what’s going on around you, take note of what’s happening in the world and concentrate on getting grades in a good range of subjects.”

It’s too easy to pigeonhole yourself at a young age as ‘a teacher’ or ‘a fireman’ or ‘something in computers’ and often that makes it difficult to change your mind later, either because you’ve wanted to do something for so long that you can’t break free, or because other people have pigeonholed you as well by then and won’t let you change.

In our house, we have two ends of the spectrum.  My husband discovered early on what he wanted to do and now, over twenty years later, is still passionate about it and can encourage that passion in other people.  I never really knew what I wanted to do and moved from one job to another until finally I discovered just where I wanted to be – at the ripe old age of thirty!  And if you’d told me at fourteen what I’d end up doing, I’d have laughed my socks off!

So, big daughter goes to school every morning repeating our mantra to ‘keep your options open’ and if it takes her until she’s thirty to find her dream job, then that’s just how life is.  For some people it just takes time and belief that it will work out.  As a paralympic athlete said over the summer, “With belief, anything is possible” and I think that’s absolutely true.


August 2012

Winwick Mum is on holiday!  Have a lovely summer!

Monday, 16 July 2012

Monthly Musing - July 2012 - Bloomin' Kids!

In a gap between rain showers, I managed to get into the garden today to catch up on some jobs.  The weeds have shot up, the grass is like a jungle and flowers past their best need cutting back.  I spent a happy few hours tidying up and noticing what’s been happening in the borders whilst I’ve been stuck inside.

After having spent many years gardening (that’s what I do, hence my flowery pseudonym in the Church magazine!), I’ve realised that some plants grow or not despite your best efforts.  All I can do is give them the best possible start, make sure they have the nutrients and light that they need and provide support as they get bigger.  It’s similar to what I’m trying to do for my children, although I doubt they’d thank me for a big helping of horse muck every spring!

Big daughter took small daughter to the pictures this week.  They went with a group of big daughter’s friends who are all very kind to small daughter, despite the fact that she is considerably younger than them and doesn’t understand the importance of street cred.  Big daughter has forgotten that it’s only a couple of years since she was first allowed to go to the pictures on her own – a nerve-racking few hours for me even though I dropped her off and picked her up again and knew that she’d be safe enough in the cinema – and replied to my ‘Everything OK?’ text with a uninformative ‘Yep’.  Did that mean that they really were OK, or that small daughter had run off and they were looking out for her and who knew what disasters had befallen them?  I tried to Keep Calm and Be Rational and of course, everything was just fine.

Small daughter is still raving about how she went to pictures with the Big Girls.  Unfortunately for big daughter, it means that her sister will want to go with her every time she goes to watch a film, but that’s not a bad thing.  They’re doing OK together, my girls; sometimes they can’t look at each other without squabbling but for the most part they get along very well and I am pleased to think that they will always have each other to rely on.

Not everyone is as lucky as we are right now with our daughters.  Just like the plants, sometimes despite your best efforts they don’t turn out how you expect them to and unlike in a garden, you can’t think that ‘there’s always next year’ when the new growing season starts.  All we can do is try to give them the best possible start; we make sure they have good food and everything that they need (though not always what they want!) and provide support as they get bigger.  In the end, though, you just have to stand back and let them grow on their own and with any luck, watch them bloom.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Monthly Musing - June 2012 - Keeping the Faith

We were lucky enough to spend the last school holidays in Portugal.  Our hotel was very close to a beautiful beach with huge rolling waves which seemed to have a magnetic attraction for my husband and daughters.
My husband carried small daughter further out into the water and let the waves carry them back to shore, both shrieking with delight as the waves swept them off their feet, small daughter’s arms wrapped tightly around my husband’s neck for extra security.

It occurred to me that that is exactly what faith is about.  Small daughter trusted my husband completely, knowing that he would not let her go until she could stand safely by herself.  If she needed him, she reached out and he was there.

It doesn’t matter what your religion is, faith is about believing that someone (or something) bigger than you is there to reach out to whenever you need it.  It holds you up and carries you along, much like the waves, and although you might feel that you’ve let go and can manage on your own, it’s always there again when you feel that you need some extra support.  The real test of faith is still being able to believe when you can’t see what is there to help you.

For children, the question of faith is a simple one.  Father Christmas brings presents, the Easter Bunny brings chocolate eggs and the Tooth Fairy brings money in exchange for baby teeth.  They have no problem with belief.  For most children, life stretches out before them like an endless sunny day and without even thinking about it, they trust their parents and other adults to keep the sun shining for them.

It’s only when we get older that keeping the faith gets harder.  We have realised that life is not one long burst of sunshine.  We’ve experienced setbacks and disappointments and seen family members and friends come and go through circumstances that we can’t control.  Having a faith through all of this is a gift.

Some people are able to ride their lives like a bird rides the air currents.  They take what comes and know that everything happens for the best.  Their faith pulls them through any obstacles as they always know that someone (or something) bigger than them is looking out for them.  Others hit life head on, trusting no one, refusing to ask for help and wondering why they have more than their fair share of knocks.

It’s not easy to lift your feet up and let yourself ride with the waves or the air currents.  Our nature is to want to keep control of what we can see around us.  I believe, though, that if we just have enough faith to let go then that big something will always be there to catch us and make life flow around us in a way that benefits everybody.  It’s time to let go.


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Monthly Musing - May 2012 - Networks and vines

The sermon in Church on Sunday was about Jesus being a grapevine.  “It’s not a literal description of Himself,” Canon June said, and went on to explain about how faith works like a grapevine; Jesus is the central tree and his followers are the branches.  If any of the ‘branches’ leave, then the branches higher up are more likely to wither away, or lose faith.

“It’s a lot like networking,” my husband said later, as we snatched five minutes to sit in the sunshine with a cup of tea.  “Any network is only as good as the people in the chain to either side of you.  It’s not always easy to keep the network going, but the benefit is that you make contact with people that you might otherwise have nothing to do with.”  He’s had to spend a lot of time recently in business network meetings and was amused by the connection.  He’s sure Jesus was no stranger to breakfast meetings, albeit of a slightly different sort!

It doesn’t matter how you describe it, networking (or grapevining) is part of what sustains us.  Our families are networks, connecting us across not just our country but continents as well.  Our places of work too – how many jobs have been filled thanks to the old adage ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?’  Facebook and Twitter are networks of ‘friends’ (although how much of a friend is debatable sometimes, but don’t get me started!) and often throw up surprises in terms of just who knows everybody else.  It can be a very small world.  At school, I’m part of what my husband calls the ‘Mummy Network’; a group of Mums who will happily wait with another Mum’s child after school if that Mum is running late.  Sometimes it might mean one of small daughter’s friends coming for tea at very short notice, but that’s how the Mummy Network works and school pick-up time is better for it.  Sports groups, pub quizzes, even just walking the dog brings you into contact with people you would never normally meet, offering new conversations and a new perspective on the everyday.

One of the Five Ways to Wellbeing (www. http://neweconomics.org/projects/five-ways-well-being) is to connect with the people around you and think of those connections as the cornerstones of life.  We all need to make links with other people to help us feel that we are making a contribution to society and most importantly, to keep us well.  Some people find the thought of networking rather daunting, but it’s just another name for something as simple as talking to the shopkeeper when you’re buying the morning paper.  It’s something most of us do without thinking.

Without contact with other people, our lives become less meaningful and like Jesus’ grapevine, something in us withers and dies.  So get out there, make those connections and be reminded how small the world really is!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Monthly Musing - April 2012 - Are You Being Served?

Small daughter is still at that lovely age where she likes to play shops and cafes.  She was playing with my Dad the other day, and whilst he was ordering from the imaginary menu, sighed loudly and said, “You know, you’d be much better going to the cafe next door, they’ve got a better menu than here.”
“That’s not very good customer service,” my Dad said, once he had stopped laughing, but small daughter wasn’t swayed.
“Don’t worry,” she said, conspiratorially, “It’ll still be me but you can pretend I look different.”
It started me thinking about how many shops I’ve been in where I’d have preferred to go the shop next door to see if the customer service was any better.  I’m sure you’ve been to the same stores as well: shop assistants who obviously see the customer as an inconvenient interruption to their conversations; service with a scowl and a snarl; staff who disappear out of sight as soon as you look around for some help.  Poor customer service is what’s keeping Mary Portas in a job and in some cases, it’s a good thing too.
Good customer service is one of those things that we expect wherever we are.  It may be a railway station, a library or in a hospital, not just in stores.  We expect to be treated with respect and courtesy and for people to go out of their way to make our visit exceptional.  We compare our surly employees to America’s over-cheerful ‘have-a-nice-day’ brigade and often find ourselves falling short, blaming it on the English reserve and our natural inclination to shy away from wishing anybody we don’t know a nice day.
But next time you’re out shopping, take a look at the people around you and perhaps it’s no surprise that customer service isn’t as great as it should be.  Cross faces, screaming children, shopping that’s a chore instead of a pleasure.  Shopping with a scowl and a snarl.  An expectation that someone should be treated exceptionally without being exceptional themselves.  Perhaps the shop assistants, hospital staff or ticket office clerks simply reflect back what they see in their customers.
I wonder if changing our attitude to thinking about everybody we meet as a ‘customer’ would change our experiences.  It costs nothing to smile at someone, to hold a door open for them or to move out of the way or even offer to help if they’re struggling with a buggy.  My daughters are constantly embarrassed by me talking to strangers in queues, but I find that those strangers will always talk back, smiling and sharing the experience instead of standing solitary and miserable.  I’m not quite at the point of telling random people to have a nice day, but I have found that smiling at someone and saying ‘thank you’ for something they have done for you is much more likely to get you good service.  We are all mirrors, after all.


Monday, 26 March 2012

Monthly Musing - March 2012 - Half full or half empty?

I realised the other day – and not for the first time – how easy it is to spiral downwards into self-pity.  I’ve caught small daughter’s cough and have spent the last week feeling very sorry for myself and wishing that the world would stop for a few days so that I could spend those few days in bed.  It struck me just how self-pitying I was becoming when I found myself out for the dog’s night-time walk and muttering all the way along Winwick’s dark streets about how badly done to I was.  Nobody else ever takes the dog for a walk, cleans the house, gets the school lunchboxes ready, cooks the meals.  It’s all rubbish, of course, and the dog would probably have told me so if he had learnt to say anything but ‘woof’.  But sometimes I think you have to have these moments, even if just to remind yourself how ridiculous you are being.  I read once that if the urge for badly-done-to muttering strikes you, you should add in every possible grievance until you laugh.  So I have to walk the dog, clean the house, make sandwiches, cook the meals, make the sun shine, mend the church roof, sort out those roadworks on the M62, find a cure for cancer … all these things wrong in the world and it’s all down to me to fix.  By this point, I’m smiling again, the dog’s ready to go home and I can remember all the lovely things that have happened this week instead.
On Friday, big daughter announced that my husband and I were having a ‘date night’.  She cleaned the kitchen, moved the dining table so that we would be undisturbed, lit more candles than I knew we had in the house and cooked a fabulous meal for us with very little help.  Small daughter took on waitressing duties and attempted to be the caberet, but was hoicked out of the way every time she was about to have a ‘ta-da’ moment.  It was lovely and definitely not the sort of evening that happens to a badly-done-to mother.
My husband, who had spent the previous week working late, announced that he needed fresh air with the dog and took him out for every walk over the weekend.  Not exactly what happens when I’m the only one in the house to walk the dog.
Small daughter proclaimed (complete with ‘ta-da’) that she’d tidied her bedroom (now that really is a ‘ta-da’ moment!) and when I went to look, she really had.  So, perhaps someone else does do some cleaning up after all.
There are so many times when it’s easy to look on the black side and think about what’s going wrong instead of going right.  I know that I have days, probably much as we all do, when the glass is half-empty instead of half-full but I’ve realised that the half-empty days show me how full my glass really is – and most of the time, it’s overflowing.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Monthly Musing - February 2012 - Under the Weather

It’s another dark and windy morning, and returning from giving big daughter a lift to the school bus stop, through the window I can see small daughter cosily wrapped up in her dressing gown and snuggled up with my husband.  Small daughter isn’t very well today and won’t be going to school so you might think that she’d be better off tucked up back into bed, but she’s one of those people who needs to be cuddled when she’s not well – which is the reason why I’ve sat up half the night with a small girl who sounds as if she’s got a lifelong fifty-a-day habit.  It’s as if her self-assurance tank is empty and she needs it to be refilled before she can comfortably allow herself to be wrapped up in her duvet and go back to sleep.

Many of us are exactly the same when we’re feeling under the weather.  Our sense of invulnerability has been shaken and only the affection and attention of someone looking after us can restore it.  It reminds us that we’re not invincible and we don’t like it.

“I hope I don’t get it,” big daughter says later that day, as small daughter starts coughing again.

“Me too,” I agree, “I’m too busy to be poorly.”

And so is everybody else.  We battle on even when all we want to do is lie down in a darkened room and sleep until the illness has gone away.  We stuff ourselves with medicines to keep ourselves going because we are the only ones who can possibly do the job we are doing.  Being poorly reminds us that we are not indispensible and we like that feeling even less.

My Dad belongs to the other camp of those who cope with illness.  Often you find out that he has been feeling unwell only after he has recovered.  He doesn’t want any fuss, has no intention of staying in bed during daylight hours and any help that he accepts is very definitely on his terms.  I have to be careful not to smother him with attention as that often has the exact opposite effect of the one I was intending.  My best friend’s husband, diagnosed last year with testicular cancer, is exactly the same.  For him, it is as if accepting any emotional help is admitting that there is something wrong which might seem strange as he is, without question, accepting the help of the medical profession.  Fortunately, his consultant’s prognosis of a complete recovery has been absolutely right and in time, my friend’s husband will probably choose to talk about his experiences as an anecdote in the past in a way that he never would whilst his treatment was ongoing.

How we all deal with illness is, ultimately, very personal.  Small daughter, after a day of resting at home, will be back at school tomorrow.  Illness is our bodies’ way of telling us to rest but when you’re five, however necessary it is, resting is boring!

Monday, 2 January 2012

Monthly Musing - January 2012 - New Year Wishes

Ever since I’ve been very small, I’ve always thought of the months of the year as the hours on a clock.  January, the start of the year, is where one o’clock would be, and as the year passes I can see the clock hands sweeping past the months to return to December at the top of the year.

This isn’t a traditional view of time, I know; think of a timeline and it’s linear – a long line of events stretching backwards and forwards along the years.  I like to think of it as a clock, though, because each year you get to start again at the top, to make a fresh start and do some things the same and others differently.  Perhaps it’s to do with being a gardener; each year you can look at your successes and failures and know that you’ll get a chance to do it all again next season.

From the first stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, I can see the New Year stretching ahead of me; it’s like standing at the edge of a diving board waiting to launch out into the unknown.  It’s never unknown, though is it; already there are events written on next year’s calendar – birthdays, school trips, meetings – but there is still scope for something exciting, unknown, an adventure to happen.  This could be the year of the Really Big Adventure.

I have a friend who dreads the New Year.  “Same old, same old,” she says, with more than a hint of despair.  Same old hateful job, same old endless commute, same old worries about money, her children, not having enough time.  I think it would be easy for any of us to greet the New Year with that attitude; let’s be honest, it’s not been a great 2011 for lots of people for one reason or another, but if it’s true that you get what you wish for, then isn’t a New Year an opportunity to wish for something else?  I may be fanciful, but I think that this time of year is more magical than any other, and I like to think that more wishes come true so it’s important to wish for the right things.

A book I’ve been reading recently suggests that you can influence your wishes by a positive mental attitude – the ‘like attracts like’ principle.  It sounds easy but like most things that sound easy, I expect it takes more work than you imagine.  My resolution this year will be to try to be positive, to imagine life getting better for everyone, and to do what I can to make my wishes come true.  As for my friend, well, “Same old, same old” doesn’t sound like a good wish to me, so I’ll wish for better times for her and hope that this one comes true.