In Praise of Advent

It’s Advent, that lead up to Christmas …

Days full of shopping, baking, writing Christmas cards, bankrupting yourself to stash enough food in the house to feed the five thousand, (Uncle Frank included) who will descend like locusts on your house come Xmas day.

Sound familiar?

Advent can feel a bit like the ‘plain-Jane-forgotten-relative’ of Christmas, brought out of the shadows only to dispense chocolate goodies behind numbered doors in the lead up to Christmas : ‘The REAL Event’.

Poor Advent, always the bridesmaid, never the bride!

When I was a child, my mother would put us down to rest in a darkened room before our birthday parties.
How frustrating that was!
Far too excited to sleep, it felt like wasted time!

My mother knew though that this ‘time out’ would calm us down, enable us to enjoy the party more. Without it, we were scratchy, over-excited. Tired and irritable.

Advent is a bit like the ‘rest’ before the party.
And we play the fractious children : “What’s the point! Bring on the party!”

But there’s a hidden magic to Advent; a magic you can’t find until you take off the gaudy wrappings of frenzied seasonal busyness.

Traditionally in the Christian calendar, Advent (deriving from the Latin, meaning ‘Coming’) begins on the fourth Sunday leading up to Christmas Day, and is a time given for preparation and reflection, not only on Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, but also traditionally on His Second Coming. It often included fasting, and certainly prayer. It was ordained as a quiet, introspective time, where we go on an inward journey to prepare our hearts for celebrating the Coming King.

The days preceding the Biblical account of the Nativity were days marked by reflection and journeys too. Mary pondering the angel’s message, Joseph coming to terms with life-changing news, the unexpected journeying to Bethlehem, the shepherd’s journey to the stable. And later on, the journey of the Magi.

Advent is all about preparing for journeys, some planned… some unexpected. Getting ready for something big, some ‘sea-change’. Physical journeys certainly, but spiritual journeys too, where the time of reflection ushers in new insights, new hearts and minds to take into an unknown future.

This year I’ve come to appreciate this ‘bridesmaid season’ a little more.

I’ve come to see that it’s about preparing my heart, and not my larder, for the coming days.

This year, I want my days stripped back, marked by simple gifts and simple pleasures, good friends and family times.

I’ve taken a step back, moved into a quieter place. I’ve said ‘no’ to a lot of things, and I’ve felt better for it.

Last year you see, Christmas didn’t really ‘happen’ for us as a family. In mid-December, my mum (whose body, but not her mind, had been failing for a while) suddenly became unresponsive, and she passed away peacefully on Boxing Day.

Our Advent then WAS passed in waiting, but not in hope or in ‘Expectation of News of Great Joy’, but in that awful no mans land, holding vigil and waiting with sickness of heart, not for a longed for birth, but a dreaded departure.

Each day, we would spend time at her bedside, playing the music she loved, talking to her, praying with her, doing her hair, applying hand lotion or her favourite perfume, reading her stories, and I think for each of us, we were preparing ourselves for an end we knew would come. It was a painful, difficult and exhausting time, but, strangely, not one without its mercies.

Those long days gave us the gift of time, the grace of being able to be ‘present’, time to prepare ourselves, to reflect, time to say and do all we could for her. Time was given us to use the best way we could. Not everyone has that and I now see it as a blessing, and I’m grateful.

Time is often given us, not to DO, but to BE. To allow things to develop and GROW in us. And growth always requires undisturbed time.

I love it that life itself, and the turning seasons teach us about the values of Advent. They tell us, as the nights grow darker and the air colder, that it’s time to slow down naturally, to go into ourselves. To nurture the reflective, the spiritual, the creative.

We’ve lost touch with this. Our lives are no longer in sync with the seasons. We feel obliged to ‘keep going’ 24/7. Life can sometimes feel like a non-stop carousel we can’t get off.

It’s winter. My garden stops growing, stops (thank heaven!) needing my attention. I’m barely home from work and have to draw the curtains and though it’s only eight o clock, I want to hunker down.
I’m content to sit in a pool of light from the standard lamp, wrapped in my dressing gown, quietly reading a book. I have no wish to venture out.

It’s hibernating season.

The whole world seems to be sleeping.

Animals retreat to hidden dens to sleep away the winter.

Seeds and plants lie dormant,

Everything looks dead.

It’s not of course.
Life is ‘sleeping’, storing and conserving energy for the spring, when conditions for growth will return and new life, new shoots will appear.
We know this, because predictably, year after year, we see it happen.

Black bears don’t even wait for Spring. They give birth in the depths of winter, WHILST hibernating.
Odd as this seems, it makes perfect sense. Whilst the mother bear is asleep, she isn’t expending the energy she will need when she awakens to tend to her cubs.
Sometimes life begins where we least expect it.

When winter holds the world in darkness, look closer…
It isn’t death. It isn’t a season to fear …
it’s a season for quiet incubation, a time for re-assessment and re-grouping, of storing energy for the days ahead, preparing for the next stage of our journey, of drawing strength to enable the growth of new seeds, new life.

And that can only happen if we give ourselves permission to withdraw from the hustle, allow ourselves time to reflect; time to incubate and create, time to listen to the still small voice, that brings the gifts of creativity, revelation and inspiration.

I love that winter hides her treasures… that you have to dig for them.

It truly is the introvert season!

There is a time for all seasons. A time for life and a time for death.

I had heard that people nearing the end of life often sense that they are getting ready to go on a journey. I was fascinated, but more than a little sceptical. But as her health began to decline, my mother did sense that she was about to go on a journey. Ever practical, I didn’t make the link, and reassured her that she wouldn’t end up on the hospital ward again (her one fear).

In those waiting days before she passed away, we were given time to understand.

We were able finally to reassure her that her train was waiting in the station; that she had her reservation. She only had to choose her time to get onboard.

So, for those who go into the Christmas season this year with sadness in your hearts for loved ones gone this year, trust the turning of the seasons. Embrace the lesson of Advent and get quiet, step aside, take strength for the journey onwards. Allow the still small voice room.

The seeds will, in time, begin to grow again. And Spring will return.
Just as it always has.

Blessings,

Lynne

‘The Stories that Shape us’

It’s nearly Christmas! Time for mulled wine, mince pies, twinkling lights and time to retell the greatest story ever told – the coming of the child who is King and Lord of all. 

As a child, I loved stories. I still do.best

‘Story’ was the most exciting word ever – more than toys (or Christmas) or sweets! 

I loved new stories, especially stories about overcoming incredible odds. (‘The Silver Sword’. ‘The Incredible Journey’). 

And I loved to make up and write my own stories too. (They weren’t so incredible!)

I’m babysitting. My granddaughter brings me a pile of books,  asks me to read a bedtime story. The conversation goes like this: 

‘Me: ‘This one?’ (Hopefully)

Granddaughter: ‘No, that’s not the right one!’ (Tosses book aside)

Me: ‘Is this the right one?’ (More hopefully)

Granddaughter: (Thinking) ‘Mmmm….No!’ (Clearly not Granny!)

Me: ‘How about this one. Is this the right story?’ (Third time lucky??)

Granddaughter: ‘Yes! That’s my right story!’ (Relief!)

There is a ‘right story’ about each of us….

The stories we hear about ourselves when young, in some sense define us. They may inform who we then become. If these stories major on problems and weaknesses, (without the story arc that ends with overcoming) … then ‘our story’ can become a damaging road map. Sometimes the stories we inherit are just plain wrong, and we need to stop living from them, and learn a new story.   A redemption story. 

all things quiet

So, I’m going to say a bit about my story…. The one I inherited, and how I had to re-write it. 

My story starts here … 

Most of my life I’ve believed there was something intrinsically wrong with me. 

Not physically – but something wrong in my brain, some ‘glitch’ that meant I took things in too slowly. Took too long to learn and process things. I believed I had a ‘stupid gene’. 

There’s a reason I believed this… 

When I was eight years old, I was pulled out of my school class to be assessed by the first of three child psychologists. Up until this point I had been fairly happy at school. 

I was quiet, a bit of a daydreamer, but I had friends and I liked sitting with them up against the playground fence and making up stories. I was doing ok (or so I thought).

lynne-at-school-photo

Then they rolled in the first child psychologist.  

I remember that he wore a dark suit, and looked a bit like a crow. I felt scared. 

He asked me the difference between 18 and 30. 

I told him that they were two different numbers (astonished that he didn’t seem to know!). It didn’t go well from there….

My parents were called in, told I ‘wouldn’t amount to much’ and that the school would be moving me to the ‘remedial stream’. (It was called something more brutal back then). 

They moved me the very next day. I stopped talking, curling back in on myself. Suddenly, the world seemed a frightening place, where I had no voice, no control, except to remain silent. So I did. 

I was saved only by the fact that my parents refused to believe what they were told without a second opinion, so they engaged two further sets of psychologists – nice, friendly ones this time.  

I remember going  to be assessed at an old red-bricked Georgian house, windows festooned with copper-red Virginia Creeper,  manfully trying to grow through the cracks in the brickwork. 

I liked this psychologist. He pretended to sharpen his finger in the rotary pencil sharpener on his desk. I asked whether the Virginia Creeper was really a triffid.  (I’d heard ‘The Day of the Triffids’ on the car radio). 

We did puzzles and picture recognition cards and he eventually reported back that there was nothing wrong with me,  that the school were doing me incalculable harm, and that I should be withdrawn immediately, and sent somewhere smaller and quieter where there would be

… Less pressure to perform. 

… Less competition to be heard.

I was enrolled in a small village school, and so began the long journey back to confidence, hugely helped by the quieter, smaller environment and some focused attention. I began to succeed, more than succeed. I did very well. My confidence grew, and I found out, when the pressure was off, that I loved to learn. 

However, what never left me, all the way through high school and university, and on to work, was that gnawing, malignant fear, that one day, that as-yet-undiagnosed flaw would re-emerge, and I’d be exposed as a fraud. 

I believed that I had to work harder than everyone else, not to do well, but just to keep up. 

If I slacked off,  I’d be back there in remedial, where no one could hear me scream. 

Any love of learning was almost sucked dry by performance anxiety and drivenness. 

I didn’t know this poisonous cocktail of feelings had a name. It was years before I heard of Imposter Syndrome. I assumed everyone else felt as confident as they seemed. Shame meant I kept my feelings hidden. 

My confusion and lack of confidence around my own ability meant that despite gaining a 1st class Honours degree, and even being offered an Oxbridge scholarship, I  walked away from many opportunities I might have had, because my ‘story’ told me they weren’t for me.

I’d always wanted a family, so when my children came along, I threw myself happily into a world filled with dressing up boxes and kiddies’ stage plays, trips to the library and museums, morning swim times and kitchen tables covered with craft glue and tissue paper. It was my safe place, as well as theirs. 

 When my quiet daughter started school, my safe haven fell apart. 

Almost from the start, I was having to defend her right to be quiet and still be ‘OK’.

I was constantly having to reframe stories of her as ‘withdrawn’ and ‘uncommunicative’ in terms of her need to have quiet, uninterrupted thinking time; space for her imagination to work amidst the hubbub of the classroom. 

Almost from the start, marched in the recommendations for assessment: Maybe she had hearing problems? Maybe she suffered from petit mal or some form of autism? 

I fielded them all, inwardly screaming. 

I knew my child. 

Outside of school, she could be deliciously quirky and funny, sensitive and perceptive.   Inside school, these ‘queries’ made her uncertain of herself.

I found myself looking backwards into a mirror.

I knew I was losing perspective. Plunging into a dark, familiar place. 

I found a good counsellor to talk to, who taught me that my fears were ‘phantoms’ from my own past, that my daughter was NOT me, she was her own person and that in any case she had me and others to lead, guide and protect her, should she need that. I had to deal with my anxiety so that I didn’t contaminate her with it. 

That, of course, was just the beginning.  My daughter (and my other children) have grown up to be strong, loving and (it seems to me) fearless and assured adults. 

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What my daughter and I have in common is that we are both introverts. 

Not always quiet, or necessarily shy. Certainly not anti-social.  But often observing life from the sidelines first before we plunge in. 

I was no stranger to introversion. I’d done Myers Briggs. I  thought I knew all there was to know about introversion and its ramifications. But I was wrong. 

Recent findings in neuroscience research, cited in Marti Olsen Laney’s ‘The Introvert Advantage’  reveal that the differences between introverts and extroverts are not simply at the behavioural level. 

They are hard wired into our brain circuitry.  

Introverts ‘need to reach back into long term memory to retrieve information. This requires reflection time without pressure’, because we use a different neurotransmitter to extroverts (acetylcholine rather than dopamine) and this requires a longer neural pathway. Introverts then (particularly right-brained introverts) can seem, on first acquaintance, slow.   Stupid even. 

I know now that as an introvert I am hard wired to need time to process information. That and the tendency to shut down when overstimulated or in noisy environments, daydreaming and being often content to sit back and listen provided the perfect storm of symptoms that set the wheels in motion for a psychological assessment that pathologised my introversion. 

I’ve made peace with myself now. There is no undiagnosed fatal flaw. 

No longer will I let others’ stories of me define who I am, however ‘qualified’ they may be.   I’ve learnt (like my granddaughter) to choose the ‘right’ story…. My story. 

And so can you. 

We hold the rights to the screenplay of our own lives, and no one else can write that script. 

we-hold-the-rights-to-the-screenplay-of-our-own-lives-and-one-else-can-write-that-script

Time to start re-writing!

Christmas blessings,

Lynne X

Christmas is for Listening

cold

I have a guilty secret I’m going to share with you, but I’m sure it’s not mine alone. I do hope not anyway!

But I can’t be the only woman on the planet who sinks into a hot bath with a big glass of wine on Christmas evening and is secretly (and guiltily!) glad that it’s all over for another year.  Can I?

And I DO feel guilty, because I truly love Christmas, or at least my fantasy of the perfect Christmas…but let’s be honest, for women all over the world, the reason for the season gets a little lost under the mountains of wrapping paper, shopping lists, fairy lights and mince pies.

Despite all good intentions, we can end up frazzled, exhausted, shrieking at the kids like so many demented crows…..not much peace on earth and goodwill to men there then!

If I’m honest, my perfect Christmas would be quiet and uncluttered, but crammed full of simple pleasures (that you can’t wrap up) like close friends and family, good books, country walks, yummy food and warm conversation and the comforting familiarity of old traditions. And the odd (or not so odd!) cosy pub. Above all though, punctuated with quiet times for reflection.

Isn’t that what Advent is for? Advent means ‘coming’…it’s traditionally a time for quiet, expectant waiting and preparation in our hearts and lives for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, God’s gift to the world.  Just as Mary quietly prepared for the coming of her special child, we are to use the time to be still and listen.   More and more, that season and its’ rich significance has been drowned out by the roar from the shopping mall.snow

But the whole Christmas story is about LISTENING.

Mary and the shepherds ‘harkening’ to the Angels’ messages.
Joseph and the wise men listening to their dreams.
God Himself hearing man’s deepest needs and sending the gift of His Son.

So it’s entirely fitting at Christmas to carve out time to step back and listen.
To those around us and to the unspoken stories in their lives.
To listen compassionately to our own deepest selves.
Above all, to listen to the still, small voice of God,  whose heart is always turned towards His children in love.

I wrote the following piece for an Advent service performance I did some years ago now. It’s not poetry (I haven’t the patience for that!). I like to think of it as ‘painting with words’, and now seems a good time to dust it off and share, as my little gift to everyone who has stopped by allthingsquiet this year. Whatever your traditions, whatever your beliefs, I hope you enjoy it and I sincerely wish you all every blessing, joy, peace, love and the beauty of quiet contentment this Christmas time!

The Deepest Night

“Christmas is for the kids you know.”…snow 2
You hear it all the time.
Infant ears strain to catch the silver singing of the bells.
Waiting, waiting for the morning.
Feeling the heaviness of rustling presents at the foot of the bed!
Hardly daring to breathe lest they vanish – born of magic.

Christmases long past, held in memory…
The winter of ’63.
We lost our dog. America lost their President.
Dad built an igloo in the garden. It was still there in March.
The year Gran lost her dentures in the pudding,
And Mum cremated the turkey.
The sea of soil on the carpet, that year I felled the tree.
“Santa’s come a long way,” mused Dad, drawing on his pipe.
“I think a wee dram might be in order on this cold night.”

Then we grew…

And Christmases, when kids are sick and families at war
And money tight and jobs are lost.

Where is the magic then?

Can we distil it like whisky, to savour and warm us
When life chills the bone?

Or is this just a tinsel time of fancied hopes…
A time for children only?

A dream lost, as we age – a Neverland, unreachable.

Listen, let’s go back ….

It is the deepest night of the year.
Heaven touches earth tonight.
Winter’s breath frozen to this star-spun night,
Pinned to eternity.

The long night ahead, a rumour of snow on the air..

The shepherds on the darkening hill
Stamp their feet against the cold.
Straining towards the first pale sight of dawn.
The distant tinkle of a goat bell.
Else that, all is still.

The whole world, it seems, holds its breath
In expectation.

Far out yet, three mystics following an uncertain star
Set their compass to the hope in their hearts.

The promise of a Coming King.
More than that..
Immanuel. God with us.

And on that word, that hope..
Their thousand mile journey is birthed.

For Mary and Joseph, the waiting is nearly over.
Their journey is just beginning.

For out of a vaulted dome of sky
An angel cathedral sing,
“Glory, glory, glory to God in the Highest and on earth
Peace to men.”

The waiting is over. The true King is here.
The Lion of Judah,
Banishing winter,
Breathing life into withered hearts.

This Christmas, this God waits for US.
Behind long-closed, half-forgotten places in our hearts.
Where we had turned the key against belief..
With gifts of love and hope and forgiveness and life.
He waits…and it is no myth..

Open the door. The magic can return.

The invitation is for you.

Happy, happy Christmas!The magic can return
Blessings,

Lynne x