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

Should it stay or should it go? ….. The Life Inventory

You can only carry so much

I haven’t posted on here for what seems like ages, and I’ve honestly missed that more than I can say.

But there’s a reason I haven’t been posting….

Over the last four months, you see, along with my family, I’ve been emptying, clearing and selling the family home I grew up in. The home that had been in the family for over half a century. 

It was part of my childhood and growing up. It was the house from which I got married, and which came to be special to my children too, as they rediscovered all the nooks, crannies and play places I had made dens and memories in when I was young.

I’ve learnt that there isn’t much that is harder than parting with your history and your memories. 

Every cupboard or drawer you open tells another story, another memory unfolds from within an item that you might have to relinquish.

What do you keep? What do you lose? How do you choose? 

It sometimes felt as if I was getting rid of myself. 

Pulling up my very roots.

Keepsakes, photographs, old books and belongings that used to speak of who I was … (maybe not now, but there’s an emotional attachment) and a sea of memories comes rushing in. 

It’s very hard. 

I didn’t know where to start. As a family, we researched the best way to do a house clearing. There’s the  William Morris take on ‘stuff’ … ‘Keep only what is beautiful or useful’.     Mmmm…. Deciding what is beautiful or useful turned out to be widely subjective!   Or there’s the mantra that says ‘keep it for six months, if you haven’t  used it, chuck it’.  Problematic. It might take me six months to find said item amongst the mountains of stuff! 

We decided to start doing a basic sorting, and set aside separate rooms for ‘keep’, ‘sell or donate’ and ‘get rid’. That was the easy bit, but I still felt as if I were drowning!

What grid do you use to help you decide what to keep and what to lose anyway?  (I LIKE grids. I like templates, and instructions, and safe, secure ‘how to’ methodologies, but found nothing that touched the real core of the issue).  No one, you see, seemed to take the emotional attachment bit into account. That’s the bit that makes it hard to let go. 

Then came the awful thought…would I fail to get rid of ANYTHING? Would I end up like one of those hoarders, buried beneath a sea of random stuff?  Eaten by Alsatians? (With apologies to Bridget Jones!) 

stuff

Horror of horrors! 

Have you ever noticed that some of the best ideas we get come to us in dreams, or maybe just in that dreamlike state between sleeping and waking? 

Well, I was rescued by a ‘dream’..I woke one morning with the words ‘IDENTITY’ and ‘LEGACY’ swimming in my head. (Normally, the only words swimming in my head on waking are ‘Get up!! You’ve overslept!).  Thank you Lord! I have a grid! I am one happy lady! 

So my grid began to click into place. I began to see that the things we need to keep, and to treasure from the past, are to do with IDENTITY… with who we are, and are becoming. They may be actual things, books, letters, a sewing machine, an old typewriter… They might be relationships that have been significant in helping to build who we are becoming. These things have become ‘family’.. They have become part of our DNA. 

 LEGACY is to do with what I keep to pass on as an inheritance. Not just clocks and cabinets, but personal history and narratives, a love of art or music, a thirst for knowledge and discovery. It’s about finding and identifying the baton so you can pass it on. 

So here are the questions I asked myself, to help me choose what to keep, and what to lose….IMG_2426

Is it still part of my/our ongoing life journey? 

Is it a reminder of those special people in my life and what they have built in me? 

Does it still fulfil a purpose? 

Does it speak of who I really am? 

Does it echo with my plans and dreams for the future or is it ‘dead wood’ from the past, pulling me back and making it difficult to grow steadfastly forward? 

THAT grid was helpful.

I’m not just talking about losing or keeping actual possessions either, I’m talking identities. In psychotherapy, we understand that the powerful image of the ‘house’ often stands for the self. Moreover, our ‘stuff’ (physical or otherwise) can house old and outworn, sometimes unhealthy identities, that NEED to be shed. 

….Like when we keep all the old punk albums we listened to with the scary ex. (Although we’ve always hated punk!) 

….Or we keep the books from that course our parents signed us up to, that we bunked off.

Why are we keeping that stuff? Because until we get rid of it, we’re tied to that identity, that failure. We haven’t let it go, got closure on it…and so we can’t move on. 

Those things are the barnacles on our shells that slow us down. 

Other ‘stuff’ might remind us of parts of ourselves that we need to pick up and run with again, interests and leanings that have lain dormant….      

WE NEED TO DO A HOUSE CLEARING!   DO WE STAY AS WE ARE, BURDENED WITH A LOAD OF ‘STUFF’ OR DO WE DO A LIFE INVENTORY?  

We have to be intentional about what we allow ‘in’ our lives, and what we decide has to ‘go’.  And the decision can only be ours to make. 

So why is it so hard? 

I think it’s hard because on the whole we’re creatures of habit, content to live with our own particular status quo, living in stasis, however cluttered, so long as life will allow. 

The problem is, Life usually doesn’t!   

Because we were not made for stasis, we were made for growth. 

And growth requires reflection, evaluation and making (often scary or brave) choices. Growth can be uncomfortable, even painful, because to be free to grasp hold of something new, you have to let go of the stuff you’re holding onto….otherwise your hands are already full. 

I love watching natural history programmes. Recently I was watching an episode where there was a close up, prolonged footage of a snake shedding its skin. I’d never really thought much about the process, but as I watched, I had one of those light bulb moments…

When the snake’s skin becomes too restrictive for further growth, the impetus for shedding is triggered. 

I don’t know what activates that process….without giving the snake human feelings, I guess he must feel pretty cramped and tight and uncomfortable, and certainly in the process of shedding, the snake becomes cranky, stops eating, and will likely go somewhere quiet and private….because it’s vulnerable at this point. 

But the point is, it cannot grow unless it sheds that skin, and it cannot get rid of the discomfort until it sheds either! No pain, no growth. A bit like giving birth. Pain is an indicator that something HAS to change. Pain is a precursor of birth, of change, of growth. Pain isn’t always something to avoid, to be afraid of.  

C.S.Lewis in ‘The Problem of Pain’ spoke of pain as ‘Gods megaphone’. It wakens us to action. It demands decisions, not avoidance.  

So, what are you going to do?    What needs to ‘go’ in your life, and what needs to be reclaimed?   

You can only carry so much luggage in life. So pack with care. 

Ask yourself these questions:  is this thing/relationship/ habit/lifestyle leading to growth, to health, to happiness – is it helping me on the journey I’m on, does it feed into my values and identity or is burdening me, pulling me back to the past, to old identities, mistakes and memories, and beckoning me along a sideline, not along the main track of my life? 

The biblical concept of ‘Leaving and Cleaving’ recognises this principle of letting go in order to grasp something new. You cannot build strong new attachments until you relinquish or lessen the pull and primacy of old ones, even good ones!   If not, you’ll be pulled in so many directions, master to everyone but yourself, and who you should be. 

Unfortunately (especially for introverts) our Western culture values (demands sometimes!) multiple involvements and commitments. It tells us (mistakenly) that we can have it all, keep it all, do it all – at no extra cost. 

So we need courage and self awareness to choose a quieter, more focused, less cluttered path. 

Self awareness to know what to keep and what to lose, and to shelve the guilt that comes with saying ‘no’ . . 

Courage because choosing to say NO, can (sadly) open the door to being judged as selfish or indifferent. 

Ironically, saying ‘no’ to some things simply means we can be MORE committed to the fewer things we choose to say ‘yes’ to! And depth, not breadth is introvert gold. 

You cannot keep everything in life, nor should you try. Keep only what passes from your hands to your heart. Let all else go.   

Til next time then, 

Blessings,

Lynne 

You cannot keep everything in life. Keep only what passes from your hands to your heart. Let all else go