Autumn Sunshine through the trees

Divine Sparks: Or how to find everyday inspiration in your art and your life

As she pressed the book into my hands, I knew it was going to be a good one; let’s face it: this girl  has worked in publishing, reads like a rocket, and is singularly one of the most clever and articulate people I know. Let me put it this way: if I were heading to my certain death and I had to choose a book instead of a meal, I’d let her choose for me. That’s how much I trust her.

Divine Sparks book by Donna Lazenby

So as I pondered on its title and flicked through its pages, I was of course unsurprised to find there all sorts of beautiful truths, ringing out their clarion call like drops of golden sunlight. And it was there too as I wandered the fields and lanes near my house later that day, soaking in the sun’s unexpected rays and looking out and up and in again.

Autumn Sunshine through the trees

Divine Sparks.

Those little, tiny, light-life interjections into the mundane and the everyday and the ordinary.

Those small, unremarkable moments that remind us we are alive.

This is good.

I can breathe.

So many days and I am positively scurrying through life; head down, toe to the floor – a flat-out sprint of task, next task, next task. And then I flop onto my sofa at the end of the day exhausted, worn out, and worse – uninspired.

I have stopped seeing the beauty. I am no longer taking the time to stop, and pause, and see. And I wonder in these tired-out moments just why it all feels so…. pedestrian?

I am tempted at these junctures to blame my lack of creativity, my loss of joie du vivre on something or someone else. Maybe I need a mini break. Perhaps if I was living somewhere else, did a different job, was surrounded everyday by a commune of like-minded and inspiring writers, immersed together in our art, I would be OK. Writing would flow out of me like a fountain and I would be Inspired. Creative. Brilliant.

But this is just a crutch, I know. Creativity isn’t imparted to us by the Universe, some benign and celestial gift that falls one day from the heavens and anoints us as we stand to one side passively and await its benediction. And contentment does not work that way either. So how do we find those twin blessings that so easily allude us and seemingly conspire in their hidden-ness to conceal themselves from our uncovering?

How do we find inspiration – in our lives, or in our art – in the midst of the everyday? How do we uncover those divine sparks that are already all around us and above us and underneath our feet, lighting up the path that we so readily tread and so thoroughly trample on most every, single day?

Take a break

Breaks are not for wimps. They are carefully constructed moments of pause, reflection, breath that punctuate and slow down and reset. Having the wisdom to learn that sometimes, stepping away from your desk is much better for your brain than sitting there, staring dully at that screen is a lesson well learned. So go change your scenery, take five minutes to sit in the sun – it will do you more good than you know.

Look up

Take a walk, sit outside – and look up as well as down. At the trees, the stars, the clouds passing by. Exhale. Lifting my head never fails to lift my mood, and makes me lift my eyes from my own naval. When I am feeling overwhelmed by expectations or to-do lists, getting out and looking up always helps me re-focus.

Take note

In your head, in a book, however it works for you. Sometimes we are so plain busy and under pressure that we stop taking note of anything good at all. Take a moment and make a note – of anything that you are thankful for right now. Anything that makes you smile. Family that love you, friends that make you laugh. The warm smell of coffee, a favourite book, the sun’s warming rays, a sofa to sit on….

Say thank you

And then say thank you. Giving thanks, even for the everyday and the seemingly insignificant, cultivates beautiful grace in us, and who couldn’t do with a little more of that? As Ann Voskamp, the doyenne on thanksgiving tells us, eucharisteo comes from the root word charis, or grace. Giving thanks is everyday grace.


So that’s it – if you have any other thoughts or tips on how you capture those little, divine sparks, do feel free to share in the comments below!

 

For more on thanksgiving, see Ann Voskamp’s New York Bestseller One Thousand Gifts. Divine Sparks by Donna Lazenby is a beautiful collection of short essays on how we find God in the everyday, and how the everyday sparks thoughts of the divine.

 

 

Just turn up

‘Sometimes’, she told me, as we sipped tea and talked across the breakfast bar, ‘it’s just about turning up. I get to the end of the day, and that’s literally all I can say that I’ve achieved. I managed to get out of my house, and sit at my desk. I turned up.’

It isn’t the most inspiring pep talk I’ve ever been given, but it is the one that sticks. The words that float back to me through the fog and cut through the long, dry months of nothingness.

Just turn up.

Just keep turning up.

These are the words that hold me fast when days slip into weeks slip into months and I am slipping slowly, slowly further down a slippery path of doubt and self criticism.

I can’t do this.

I don’t have the words.

I can’t find my voice.

I have nothing to say.

You see, when life gets tough, the easy thing to do is quit. To turn back. To give up and go back and find the easy way. I am not good at sticking, not good at knuckling down and pressing on and pressing in. But sometimes, that is just what it takes.

It doesn’t seem glamorous, to see success as just taking your seat at the table every day. Just turning up to do the task that you have been tasked with doing. We want to see progress, movement, some small indication of recognition at least. Me? I want big steps, quick wins, milestones marked off. Not every day mundane the same-ness, and struggles to make the steps that are not just tiny but practically microscopic.

I’m just not wired that way. And neither is the world we live in. Dopamine-inducing social media highs teach us that instant gratification is our right reward. We had big dreams and big visions, but when do we ever hear it preached from the pulpit, the school assembly hall, the classroom or the lecture theatre that it isn’t just big dreams and big visions we need to chase hard after, but the character, and the perseverance to see them come to pass.

The world is your oyster.

You can do anything you set your mind to.

Yes it is, and yes we can, if only we first set our minds to the faithfulness in the small things. And measure success in the turning up and sitting down sometimes.

A world champion athlete doesn’t hunt down that gold medal success with a quick blast in the gym and a jog round the park, and not every training day looks like personal bests and #goals reached.

Some days are just plain long, hard slogs.

Some days, winning is just not quitting.

Some days, it is enough to just not give up.

I’ve seen a fair few of those days. Days that look like questioning everything I’ve ever wanted and everything I thought about how to get there. Days when rejoicing in the small seems meagre and unsatisfying. But rejoice we should, because it is there that success is truly found.

They say that the sum is greater than the parts, but without those parts, there would be no sum to add up to. So keep adding those parts, and rejoicing along the way, because one day, the sum will be all the greater for it. Just turn up.

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, please share it. If you’d like to receive new posts from me directly to your inbox, please use the subscribe button (top right) to let me know your email address, and it’d be a pleasure to stay in touch!

Stories that shape us banner

Stories that shape us

We sat in the nurses office, me with a baby on my knee and a hysterical toddler clinging to my side. The nurse eyed me and nodded. We’d exhausted all other possibilities. Taking my daughter firmly in her grasp, the nurse crouched down to eye level and tried to reason with her one more time, but Kate was having none of it. The needle appeared and she actually made a run for the door. I put the baby down and the nurse and I grappled her to the floor. Both of us, almost bodily smothering her as the needle went in and she screamed like someone was removing her insides with a spoon. It was more like a rugby scrum than a visit to the clinic. I was amazed at the strength with which that little body could fight.

She was 3 and a half. The injection was a pre-travel immunisation so that we could visit her Aunt in Brazil that summer and introduce her to her newest niece, whom she had not yet met. There was no reasoning with a child that age. We’d tried every pre-school trick in the book: Mummy had had her injection first, look how brave she was, it didn’t hurt a bit. Did Kate want a go? Could Kate be brave like Mummy? Kate shook her head forcibly and cried some more. We injected her 18 month sister, and attempted some sibling rivalry to spur her into action. There, look: Sarah can do it and she’s just a tiny baby. I am sure big brave Kate can have her injection too….

Nothing.

Point blank refusal that quickly turned to more tears and screaming.

We even injected her favourite teddy, Boris, who was just as brave as all of the other family members and set an excellent example in suffering in silence and maintaining an immovable poker face throughout his ordeal. Separated from us by her fear, nothing touched her. All of our coaxing and cajoling was to no avail, and we were running out of time. There was nothing for it but to wrestle her to the floor and get it over with. So we did.

I have no qualms about what we did – it was necessary to protect her from a whole host of nasty illnesses, and is one of the many times I have had to be the bearer of temporary pain in order to prevent long term suffering for my kids. It’s life as a parent, as many of us know.

No doubt Kate would barely have remembered it, had no one ever reminded her again. And that, I guess, is the point of today’s post. Eight years have elapsed since that horrendous Injection Incident, but we have retold the story a thousand times. To friends, to family, sometimes in Kate’s presence and sometimes not (but often, in her presence). Everyone knows of Kate’s fear of needles (despite the fact that she was 3 1/2 the last time she had a jab) as well as her almost-legendary overreactions to very small medical procedures, such as the screaming that often accompanied the removing of a plaster, or how it once took 4 adults to pin her down and remove a splinter whilst she howled like a banshee impaled on a spike.

Everyone knows, including Kate.

I’m telling you this story because yesterday, we returned to the nurse at the travel clinic in order to find out what immunisations we might need for another trip; this time to Ethiopia in October (which is another story, that I will tell you about another time). Kate has been dreading this appointment for weeks, despite my attempts to calm her with an (eventually misguided) assurance that this was just a consultation, no needles today. After chatting through all our plans, making lists and consulting guidelines, the nurse cheerily clicked her mouse on more time, shut her screen and turned to face us with a smile.

‘Right, shall we get on with it then? I have the Typhoid and Hep A injections in stock, I could do them right now.’

I looked at my 11 year old as the colour drained from her face and she shifted uneasily from foot to foot. She wasn’t ready for this. She looked petrified and like she might burst into tears any second.

I went first. Then her younger sister. She sat on my lap and gritted her teeth, knowing it was important not to show any fear or give her big sister any more reason to freak out. It was a beautiful show of sisterly love.

Then it was Kate’s turn. I smiled and winked at her.

‘You’ve got this Kate, you’ll be fine.’

She stood bravely and gave the nurse her arm, but I knew with a Mother’s instinct that she was a hairs breadth away from a full size Freak Out. I locked eyes with her and held her gaze. A flicker of pain passed across her face when the needle went in, but she didn’t run this time. Then the realisation that it was all over already sank in, and she grinned at me, pride spreading across her face that she hadn’t lost the plot and needed to be wrestled. As she’s nearly as tall as me now, I doubt we’d have been too successful had it come to that anyway.

‘That wasn’t that bad, Mum,’ she said

No, it wasn’t. And I suddenly realised that it probably wouldn’t have been half as bad for her in the run up, if we hadn’t told that story so many times over the years that it stopped being a story to her and became, instead, her reality. A label, imposed on her because of our need to raise a laugh; to bask in the warm glow of approval that comes from the contribution of a witty anecdote to an after-dinner conversation. That rises above the need of the object of said witty anecdote to be protected, afforded anonymity, or the opportunity for the funny-but-probably-personally-painful-in-some-way incident to drift away forever into the mists of time.

Kate’s Injection Incident was never afforded that luxury. Never allowed to fade away into her memory, but was instead wheeled out time and time again, becoming one of those legendary Family Stories that all of us have. Most are mildly embarrassing at worst, cringe-worthy tales that pop their heads up when new boyfriends are invited home to dinner for the first time, or that make their way into wedding speeches and raise a few inside laughs as you stare hard into your wine glass and ask God Above why he couldn’t have please given you a different family.

But some, like this one, shape you somehow. Instead of becoming who you are intended to be, your growth is shaped, stunted by The Story. Like a little bonsai, or a topiary tree. Sculpted not by experience, or real memory, but by some-one else’s retelling of it. As the realisation burned in me, I wondered how many of us pass through life like this, shaped by the stories told around us and of us and to us. Not in anger, or malice, but just with no thought as to their impact. I’ve heard it said a million times in parenting manuals, blog posts and articles in magazines; be careful what you say in front of children. They have ears like bats and memories like elephants. They are giant sponges, hoovering up every word you say, good or bad, and storing it away, good or bad. But it’s hard. Hard to resist sharing that funny story, or just plain hard to find a time when they’re not there; when the story isn’t funny, and you’re not sharing it for the laughs but because you need to, need advice or just to lessen a burden by making it not all yours.  But I will try harder, now that I have seen it play out with my own eyes, in my own child.

‘Do you think you’re still scared of needles Kate?’ I asked her later on that same evening as she sat at the breakfast bar in our kitchen.

‘No’ she shrugged, looking up at me.

‘I’m not sure you ever were, really’ I said.

‘No’ she replied again ‘I don’t think I was’.

Pure new light – a poem for Easter weekend

Header Image Pure New Light

Light creeps round the edge of the curtains, gentle steel-grey washing newness across this new day.

Pure morning light is a beautiful unsullied

blank canvas

stretching out, unmarked, unhurried

heavy-laden with opportunity

laced with forgiveness.

Today we get to start again

breathe deep and start over

forget that which is behind, and with optimism and anticipation clear as faith, press on again

towards that which we imagine with eager hope but cannot yet see with mortal eyes.

 

It seems impossible now to remember what it felt like in the dark

hues of black blue

and all it’s bruising heaviness wrapping itself around us like drowning

and we are left gasping for air, clambering for the surface and

dipping under and under and under again

no sense of time in the drowning

no sense of

tomorrow

 

Is that what it was like? To hope and not know?

To live and learn and love

and to see it gone

and not know whether it will return? whether it was all that it was meant to be.

Is that what they lived with when he was taken from them?

their friend

God

King

hunted down

handed over

hung up to die.

 

To wander in the abyss of the unknown

where time does not fit a frame

speeds up

slows down

relentless

crawling

Is a particular kind of itching torture

that brings in eager bedfellows:

doubt

fear

pain

who revel in their role in tormenting the mind already tormenting itself all well and good enough.

 

But then it comes again

rising like the morning son and washing us still all over again

that blue-grey steely hope

that never dies.

 

———————————————————————————————————————–If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, please share it. If you’d like to receive new posts from me directly to your inbox, please use the subscribe button (top right) to let me know your email address, and it’d be a pleasure to stay in touch!

 

 

 

 

Certain

There are some things I am certain of.

When everything else is in flux, and I am not sure what part of the life plan is supposed to come next, there are some things that remain.

This is the revelation that hit me as I walked; me and my dog, muddy feet and muddy paws splashing down paths as spring sprang around us in the trees. As I looked up and watched branches budding velvet silver, it was like it was writ large in the season-turning just for me. Catkins bursting into yellow flame and illuminating it all golden.

Catkins

Catkins

Trees in Spring

Because sometimes, I need to be reminded that it’s often just the shift in perspective that makes everything feel like it’s shifting from under my feet.

They say the only constant in life is death, and that nothing ever stays the same. That changes come when we least expect it and often in the most unexpected ways. Sometimes it’s good. Often it’s not. Nearly always, it can make us feel unsettled, unsure, afraid. We move house, or town or country. We change jobs. People we thought would be in our lives forever are lost, or leave, or die. Change comes in many forms and in many ways.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not good with uncertainty. Which is not a great trait for someone who is also fairly easily bored. So, if things sit still for too long, I get restless. Twitchy. Itchy-feeted in the extreme. But then when things start to move and change – unless I know the exact game plan all laid out in advance and to the T, I can feel myself again twitching, although not this time out of restlessness.

You see, I want to move on, do the next thing, and the next and the next, but I also preferably want to be certain what that next thing is. Wholly and completely and can I know it all right now please God?

It’s difficult.

And in all of that, I am so caught up in trying to make the right decision, the best decision – not only for myself now, but for our whole family unit – that I end up paralysed. ‘I’m so unsure‘ I rant. ‘I need clearer direction, clearer instructions, a more detailed map.’

I love the line from Baz Lurhmann’s ‘Sunscreen’, although it also terrifies me half to death as well.

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things
That never crossed your worried mind
The kind that blindsides you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday

I try to recall it’s wisdom as I stamp along well-trodden paths, past water-logged meadows and gaggles of geese floating on flooded fields.

Try to remember that almost certainly, worrying about what comes next, about the whys and wherefores of changes is almost always a complete and utter waste of time and energy. And as I do, I remember this too:

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” ( The Bible. The book of Hebrews, chapter 11, verse 1 )

 

I have a faith. In a Creator God who loves me, and who holds me fast, and who works out all things for the good of those who love Him. And that faith means I am sure of what I hope for, and certain of what I do not see.

I may not know what step comes next, but I am certain that God guides my path in all righteousness.

I may not know what changes are ahead for us, but I am certain that this life will be a life well lived if I live it all for the glory of God above.

I may not know how to ‘be’ in the midst of change as well as I should, but I am certain that I am being transformed daily by the renewing of my mind, so as to be more like Christ.

There are so many things that I am certain of, and fixing my eyes on them seems to suddenly make all of the uncertainties fade to black as I tilt the lens one more time and adjust the angle of my focus. When I choose to view the uncertainties in my life through a lens of trust and obedience, the perspective shifts once more and my footing becomes sure beneath me again.

It’s the miracle of God that brings the blessing of peace to hearts that are troubled and minds that are not still.

I turn and walk back along the path, dog bounding by my side and geese hooting spring calls over the water and fields and trees.

 

Things I wish I had told my daughters when they were little

things-i-wish-id-told-my-1

We drove home along the country road, fields flashing past the window and the sun hanging low over a winter sky. For once you were quiet; sleeping seemed to be the only time you weren’t jabbering away, giving me a constant kids-eye critique of what you saw, heard, touched, held. A stream-of-consciousness toddler’s insight into the joy and wonder with which you beheld everything that happened all around you; the never ending commentary on the details of your day that never stopped, even now when you’re 11.

As the wheels turned and you slept and I took a moment – a quiet moment to just breathe, remembering what this headspace felt like and how precious it had become since you came clattering into our lives with your noise and love and newness – it washed all over me and took me by surprise all over again.

Does anyone ever expect this? Can you ever really explain it? That despite the tiredness and the noise and the relentless everything; among the chaos and the out-of-control and the days when you slid down the wall and cried hot tears of wondering: am I really ever going to get through this? Can I do it? Am I enough? – there is this. This stillness. This quiet love that comes – mostly when you sleep, I must admit – and I am again overwhelmed with love.

I drove home and promised myself that I would write it all down. And when your sister arrived a year later, that I would write you both a letter, each and every year, marking the milestones and the dizzying passing of time. But the years flew by and now you are grown and I never did get to put those precious words down on a page for you to read in years to come. So many things left unsaid, unrecorded.

I tried to write them later, but the words came out untrue. It felt contrived to backdate the memories, the emotions; like they were validated only by being spoken then and there in the hubbub of those toddler years.

I wanted to tell you how much it all meant. That despite the overwhelming feeling that I was getting it wrong most of the time, and the frustrations and the tiredness that boiled over far too often into harsh discipline and hot words, that I loved every second of it. That it was – and is – my greatest privilege to be your Mum, and not one single day goes past that I take that for granted, despite my words and my attitude sometimes.

I wanted to tell you that I’m thankful to you for letting me experiment with you. So many firsts. So many late night discussions and how-do-we-deal-with-this? The not knowing is perhaps the hardest thing – how will this turn out? Have we made the right choice? Will they one day thank me for what they hate me for right now? I guess that bit never gets any easier, but despite the look in your eyes that sometimes tells me you don’t think that it’s true, every decision we ever make is only ever intended to nourish you, protect you, grow you into the amazing human beings that we know you were created to be. And every time we get it wrong, know this: we’re sorry. Today and yesterday and for always – I am sorry for the times we’ll get it wrong, the pain we’ll inflict when we’re trying to love you, the times that we miss the mark when we’re trying so hard to protect you.

If I could tell you one thing, it would be this: you are amazing. Without us and in spite of us and 100% of your own volition: You. Are. Both. Amazing. You have qualities and talents inside of you that could change the world. And in this world, you have a sea of opportunities from which to choose. I hope that we have done enough to help you choose wisely. To be brave and courageous, especially when courage means walking hand-in-hand with fear. When it’d be easier to sit still, keep your head down and not risk. I hope that we have given you enough to know that you have it in you to do more. That it isn’t about friends, or money, or success or fame; but about doing what’s right, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God (Micah 3:6). Putting others first is always the source of life’s richest blessings.

And above all, I would tell you this: we love you. And even more than we love you, God loves you. So whatever happens, whatever mistakes you make along the way, we’ll always be here, and so will He.

So go get ’em. We’re right behind you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Serbia and refugees and kids like mine…

It’s raining outside. Water pouring down for the past three days apparently, turning my garden into a veritable mud bath. I slip on my ‘garden shoes’ – the old trainers I no longer choose to wear out and about but that are still perfectly serviceable – not stopping to untie laces but jamming in my toes and trampling down the heel, and stamp across the mud to let out my chickens. The sky is grey and I am damp when I return from the school run and shake off the rain.

I glance at the trodden-down trainers and swallow hard. Last night I returned from a freezing-cold Serbia. Three days in sub-zero temperatures visiting the impromptu shelters that have sprung up across the capital as neighbouring borders have closed and refugees have found themselves stranded here, in Belgrade. The conditions were worse than horrific. Worse than anything I could have prepared myself for. We met boys as young as 13 sleeping in car parks in the snow, bedding down under blankets that grew frost as they slept. Derelict warehouses that now sheltered clusters of men and boys in the most unsanitary, unsafe environments you could imagine. We wrapped scarves around our head as we entered, the smoke from a thousand little fires stinging our eyes and making our chests hurt. Futile attempts to stave off the cold instead poisoning lungs as thick, dark smoke belched upwards from burning wood coated in who-knows-what.

Serbia Refugee Collage

img_2418

My shoes look back and reproach me. They look like the shoes I saw on so many feet this week. But their heels were not trodden down because of laziness or lack of time. Heels poking naked out of shoes that were 3 or 4 sizes too small, bare and vulnerable without socks to shield them from the snow and ice. Not garden shoes or a second pair of shoes (or God forbid the 10 or so pairs that I have in my wardrobe right not) but the only shoes; shoes that have travelled who knows how many miles and that offer the only protection those feet know.

The contrast with my own life is feeling hard to bear this morning, as I settle back into old clothes and old routines and my normal, comfortable life. I know it’s to be expected, and many others have been and seen and felt similarly on their return.

But it’s hard.

Hard to come back and hug your own children and try to imagine them out there, on their own. Try to imagine a circumstance – anything at all – that would make it seem preferable that they leave me and here and our family to make a journey of many thousand miles, alone, in search of safety and a better life.

I tried to put my snowboots in the washing machine, and somehow couldn’t quite manage it. They are filthy and muddy from playing football in the melting snow with refugee boys. I never knew how much joy a football could bring, how much it could mean to try and fashion a moment of ‘normal’ in a life like this. Somehow I don’t want to wash all of that away just yet. I don’t want to stop seeing their faces.

img_2457

img_2459

I cried as I put away the children’s laundry, feeling ridiculously grateful and guilty all at the same time that my children own many pairs of clean, dry socks.

I don’t know where they’ll go, or how their stories will end, and maybe that is hardest of all. But I pray that they find peace, and safety, and a way to be with their families again – wherever that might be.

And I pray I will never forget what I have seen, never stop feeling it, even if it does make it hard to breathe sometimes.



I travelled to Serbia with Creation Fest. To read more about their work with refugees, click here. Whilst there, we worked with Calvary Chapel Bible College Europe and volunteered with three amazing projects in Belgrade: Hot Food Idomeni, Refugee Aid Serbia and Refugee Aid Miksaliste. All are doing amazing work feeding, clothing and providing refugees with a safe space to access services. If you’d like to donate to any of them, please visit their websites.