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

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The Cloak of Invisibility

Do I existDon’t you love it when weird things happen to you, and you look back and realise that hidden amongst the weirdness, life was telling you a bigger story?   A MUCH bigger story.
And you keep reading, because you don’t know exactly where the story is going or how it will end. Does that sound familiar?

Have you ever been so suddenly freaked by something that your heart started kicking inside you like a bucking horse and you literally felt your blood run cold?
It’s an awful feeling. As if your body has a will and mind of its own, and it wants out of there!   Fast.

It’s only happened to me twice.

The first time was when I was a child, and I thought I’d seen a ghost.

The second time (the one I’m going to tell you about here) was a few years ago, when I thought I’d become one!

This is what happened:

It was a very ordinary day and I was out shopping in my local department store.
I went to visit the Ladies Powder Room to use the facilities (as you do). There was a sign on the door informing us that the facilities were closed due to redecoration, but that we could use the ladies staff toilet on the ground floor instead. I duly made my way there.

The horror began to unfold once I exited the cubicle.

I washed my hands at the wash hand basin then glanced up as always at the mirror in front of me in order to tidy my hair and make-up.
That’s when my heart went ballistic and my mind turned to candy floss.

I had no reflection.

You could see RIGHT through me!

There was the reflection of the cubicle behind me, and the reflection of the wash hand basin in front of me, but of me? Nothing.

I felt sick. My legs turned to jelly. My stomach lurched downwards like a broken elevator. I can’t for the life of me tell you how long I stood there staring paralysed with horror and disbelief, desperately willing my reflection to appear. It can’t have been that long, but it felt like a lifetime.

Had the whole of my life been a dream, some sort of alternative universe, and I didn’t really exist?   How long had I been invisible? Could anyone see me?  How had this happened?  And even worse than this ‘existential horror’ was the creeping realisation:

WASN’T IT VAMPIRES THAT HAD NO REFLECTION?

Right then, just on cue, a staff member casually strolled in and seeing my obviously stricken face remarked,

‘Oh, it’s alright! They all do that, lovey. There’s no mirror there!’

Feeling excruciatingly sheepish, I looked again with a hard, practical stare. Reality was slowly seeping back and with it, a sharp sense of focus.

Sure enough, the room was a mirror image of itself. Cubicles pressed up against facing walls, and back to back wash-hand basins in a row across the middle of the room. No mirrors. No ghosts.

Phew!!

Overwhelming relief and deep embarrassment ensued in equal measure.  I abandoned the rest of my shopping list for the day and went home to hide under the duvet!

But then I started thinking….
or more truthfully, that inner narrative started unspooling in my head. Connections began to form and the bigger story began to write itself…

And this, dear reader, is ‘The Bigger Story.’..

Isn’t that’s just what it feels like sometimes as an introvert in an extrovert world..
..that we’re invisible? That we don’t exist? That no one can truly see us as we really are?

…..or perhaps more specifically, that WE don’t really know who we are, or what we look like…..there’s a problem not only with feeling invisible, but with knowing our own identity, and recognising, embracing it?

Bear with me if this all seems a bit fluffy and philosophical….

In the world of psychology, we now know that in order for children to develop healthy self-esteem and  a sense of their own identity and uniqueness, their parents or care-givers need to ‘mirror’ back to them as infants, that ‘they are lovely, and loved, just as they are’,  so that this knowledge and acceptance of themselves as ‘ok’, (albeit not perfect), becomes part of the child’s psychological DNA and helps them to be resilient and confident in the world, knowing who they are.

Mirrors are important.

What reflects back to us from others….and from the world out there, in some ways creates who we then become.

But it isn’t just parents and care-givers who act as mirrors.  it’s our culture and its unspoken biases and expectations as well.

Which brings us back to introverts…..

What if, instead of that ideal affirming mirror, you have a critical cultural mirror, that reflects back to you that you don’t meet the standard…
Or a silent mirror, that leaves you feeling ignored or sidelined … Invisible.
Or a distorted mirror, like the ones at fairgrounds, that makes you look ‘weird’, an object of ridicule?

What happens then?

You might feel you have to try and change. Not be yourself, but be like someone else, someone more extroverted, in order to be accepted…. To do that though, you first have to get rid of who you really are. The result of doing that could be that you’re not too sure of yourself, or the decisions you make. You might have a sense that you don’t really know who you are now.  You might feel that there’s something wrong with you. That you’re not ‘ok’.  It would be very hard to walk confidently in the world if you were always having to look at yourself through those kind of mirrors!

This may not be as far fetched as it seems…. This feels like an issue not just at the level of family dynamics, but of the wider social dynamic too. The mirrors that society has held up to introverts over the last few generations have not been helpful, either to introverts or to society as a whole, and that has to change.

These cultural mirrors might have less of an impact if you were accepted and nurtured as an introvert within your family. That would make you more resilient to the societal bias. However, cultural values affect and steer family values too, and families have to rub along in society….so it’s unlikely, if you’re one of life’s quiet people, that you’ve been totally unaffected.

So now for a little experiment… I’m going to be doing this, and I’m going to post up the results in the next blog post (Yay!).  I’d really like it though if you’d join me. It’s not hard, or time consuming (much). In fact, I think it’s quite a fun thing to do. Maybe that just makes me a little bit nutty!

But if you want to have a go, select four people. They can be work colleagues, neighbours, friends….but try and make sure they don’t know you really well, or are all card-carrying introverts, or they’ll guess what you’re up to and skew the results. This isn’t world class research, but it’ll tell you something interesting nonetheless.

Ask them to write down the first four adjectives that come to mind when they hear the word ‘introvert’. Don’t let them ponder it for too long…it’s first impressions! Collect them all, and see what you’ve got.

See you back here next time…  Can’t wait!

Blessings,

Lynne. X