Viral Vitalities – Day Ten – Burning Up the Dross

Last night we had a ‘bonfire’ in our small garden.

I love bonfires.

I’ll take any excuse to make a fire and throw all the wood and other bits and pieces on… cardboard, garden foliage waste etc.

The thing that struck me about the fire last night was that whilst it was raging away, we couldn’t get close enough to enjoy the warmth – maybe it was the situation and the location of the fire pit.

We did get close enough for our clothes and hair to stink of smoke!

I love watching the flames lick up the latest item to land on top, as it rapidly disappears into ‘nothingness’…

We managed to rid the garden of every last bit of prickly branch and unfriendly thorn.  Finally the fire had done its job and we could sit down next to it, glass of wine in hand and be warmed by the very hot embers, that rather resembled burnt dauphinoise potatoes.

As the fire approached the end of its natural life and purpose, that was when I appreciated it the most. The evening had turned chilly and my feet were cold.

After just a few minutes of sitting next to the embers, I was warm all over, enjoying the relative peace and quiet – albeit with some relaxing music on in the background.

Life can sometimes be a little bit like the raging fire don’t you think? Lots of activity, noise, excitement and fun – all of which can be good – in and of itself. But it doesn’t always warm the heart.

That can be What Went Well.

But Even Better If can sometimes be about the slowing down, the reflection of what just took place, the deep appreciation of the experience we’ve just had and the slow figuring out of what it all means to us now, going forward.  What is left after all the fuss and noise has gone?

Maybe it’s just me but I’ve already discovered that other people have had bonfires last night and just maybe, people up and down the country, all over the world even, are having similar contemplations?

Happy fire-making!

 

Guest post from my wife, Serendipity – Blessed To Be At Rest

Firstly, a caveat; there is much to be concerned, prayerful and sad about. Please understand that I am not suggesting – for a second – that this is not the case.  However, were we not to look for the good, we could easily get disheartened.

I am also aware that parents of young children reading this blog could feel cheesed off – unable to relate.  Never mind.  I trust that each of you will find something of encouragement here.

Rest.

Even during the holidays, it seems a battle to find rest sometimes.  I have to fight the urge not to feel guilty if we don’t organise at least one or two outings or activities that require getting up early and rushing around preparing ‘stuff’.  The pressure leaks in.

Two days ago, Paul told me he was going to set the alarm.

I was quiet for a few moments while I thought carefully about my response. And then I gave it.

“No.”

I am not usually dictatorial – perhaps a “CF” (control freak) at times… but not dictatorial or particularly direct at home.  Carefully, because we had time, I constructed my explanation.  It started with a question… “Why?”

There are so many reasons why one might deem it necessary to set an alarm when working from home and I get that.  You could argue that it is needful in order to maintain motivation; that it’s good to have a routine and set goals.

Getting enough sleep and waking up naturally is one of the most healthful things that you can do for yourself – did you know that?  It takes me so long to settle into rest that I rarely end up getting sufficient amounts of it even over the holidays.

Did you know that in Old Testament times, the land was farmed for six years and then given a year to lay fallow? To rest?  The Sabbath year.  I can’t stop thinking about this at the moment.  Rest is a beautiful biblical principle. Whether you are a person of faith or not, you cannot fail to recognise that Sundays have lost their ‘quiet’ and that we have lost the ability to rest.  In a story in the New Testament, the disciples are stressed out in the middle of a storm on the Lake of Galilee – note what happens next, they have to WAKE Jesus up… he is sleeping in the boat, in the midst of the storm. He is resting.

I recently had some minor surgery.  This really wound me up.  I am not good at taking time off work.  I hated it and was itching to get off the sofa as soon as I could possibly stop wincing in pain to return to the grindstone.  Imagine my frustration when, two weeks later, I was clearly in the throes of Covid-19 and had to self-isolate.

Now the schools have closed.

However, something magical has been happening.  I have slept.  I have begun to take enforced rest.  Not rest that stops when I am better… or on Monday morning… but rest that surrounds me like a blanket.  Rest that is a balm to my tired soul.  Rest that whispers through the quiet streets.  Rest that cradles the flourishing spring flowers and rest that seems dense in the blue and cloudless skies.  Rest that – when it isn’t whispering – sings the songs of reinvigorated songbirds.

I won’t be supporting a bid to set a regular alarm clock in these strange, unfolding times.

May I suggest that you also sink into the new rhythm of life and stop pushing against the tide?  Find rest and reacquaint yourself with this friend who only has blessing for you.  I have almost felt a very gentle warning for myself ­– this opportunity may not come around again… take it now. If you can go with it (PLEASE bear in mind my caveat at the start) I have even had a feeling that the positive flipside of the very obvious and difficult negatives is that this is almost a Year of Jubilee – these came around every 50 years – after seven lots of seven… a year when debts were forgiven, amnesties made and rest ruled.

I am a teacher and – you will probably know that – we NEVER stop.  I am blessed to have a head who recognises this opportunity and finished her email to us this morning with this:

MOST IMPORTANTLY – take time out.

Thanks, I will.

I Didn’t End Up Where I Expected

Apologies for the slight delay in delivering this post to you today.

The truth is, I felt a bit bereft of ideas so I decided there was only one thing for it…

A morning walk up on to the South Downs, despite the frost and freezing temperatures.

I’m so glad I did it, even though there was a point, on a long, drawn out steep incline, where  I began huffing and puffing a bit – realising I am not quite as fit as I was the last time I came here in September. Back then however, I was accompanied by a band of brothers who love walking together once a month.

Somehow, it is simply easier when you have people in front and behind you.

But it didn’t take long for the glories of rural, winter scenery to help me maintain my motivation.

I pressed on, sensing that it wasn’t too much further before the ground would plateau out and the worst part of the walk would be over.

It is always well worth the extra effort of course. If only for the views across the hills that begin to reveal themselves. The ageless fields in the foreground, the magical mist hovering over the land beyond and the clear blue sky providing a beautiful back drop.

Once I got to the top of the hill, I was instantly reassured it had all been worth the effort. An appreciation for the beauty of creation – right on my doorstep – and the resolve to do this more often echoed in my mind.

I then began the descent – but down a different route, although I felt sure, very similar to the one we had all taken in September.

I recognised some of the beautiful country houses and was convinced where I would end up.

But no, it was not to be.

As in life itself, you often learn many, many things about yourself and others and you think you are going to get to a certain destination.

Somehow, and you may never discover how, you end up somewhere different. It may be very different indeed to what you expected.

Or, as in my case this morning, I didn’t end up where I expected but it was only about a quarter of a mile to the east.

I doubt very much if there is anything significant for me in that slight miscalculation.

It didn’t hurt me, It didn’t upset me or annoy me. It didn’t even confuse me.

I simply accepted it.

I did however, walk a lot further than I think I would have done if everything had gone to plan.

I still don’t know how it happened.

Next time I may take a map or more likely, I will simply look for clues and enjoy the views.

 

Trust the Signs

On the first day in Tirana, Albania this week, I decided to walk back to my hotel for lunch. Partly because I wanted the exercise of a brisk walk through the city and also because I love the challenge of remembering a route.

I was staying in a new hotel for the first time and so was unfamiliar with the short drive to the office in the morning. I therefore paid much closer attention than normal in the back of the car, while we spent much of the time in the relentless, rush hour traffic of Tirana.

So, when it came to walking back to the hotel, I was up for the memory challenge!

It wasn’t that difficult to be honest. I had a pleasant lunch and then looked forward to the walk back – this time keeping a look out for the various landmarks I had taken even closer notice of an hour or so before.

What struck me about this exercise was that the landmarks – let’s call them ‘signs’ for the purpose of this blog – were not always obvious at the large junctions, where I had thought they might be. Or rather, I had tried to notice something at a certain junction but in fact, the ‘sign’ I did recognise came after I had made the decision to turn right for example, at a set of traffic lights.

The mural I had registered in my mind only appeared a bit further along the road – not at the corner.

If you’re anything like me, you want the signs to show up and point you in the right direction when you expect them or would like them to be there. You probably don’t know or can’t remember what that sign looks like but you hope to recognise it when you see it.

In life however, the signs usually show up when they need to be there – not necessarily when you expect or prefer them to be there.

Sometimes I find at least, you need to be prepared to go with your inner sense that “this feels right”. Soon after, you very often see that yes, it felt right for a reason. The sign you were hoping for does indeed show up – just not where you thought it would be.

With or without an active, daily faith, the reality is, we all have to live by faith one way or the other.

Faith in our subconscious memory, faith in our ability to find our way back, faith in that often dormant ability that enables us to be as good as we can be – if we learn to trust the signs.

 

 

 

When I Woke Up, I Couldn’t See!

One morning, when I woke up, I couldn’t see.

I called out to my Mum (I was only about eight years old at the time!) who came in to see what the matter was.

It turned out, I had conjunctivitis. The nasty pus that comes with it had effectively congealed over my eye-lashes and therefore, I could not open my eyes in the normal way.

Imagine for a second, if you woke up one morning and the effect was permanent!

As Helen Keller famously said, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

At the beginning of this year of all years – 2020 – why not look around you and begin to imagine what could be a reality at some point during this year?

Could it be the realisation that your life is far more impacting than you previously imagined?

Perhaps the reconciliation of a relationship that you need to see happen?

Maybe that creative idea you’ve been putting off for so long has finally clambered its way to the top of your To Do list?

Whatever it is, let’s all do our best to ensure that when we look back on 2020, we can confidently say it was a year when we really pressed in to our vision for life and all that can happen within it.

 

 

A Year To Be Very Thankful For…

Yesterday, I created some time to sit in a seaside cafe and reflect on the year that is almost over, and think about the year that is to come.

It occurred to me that almost exactly five years ago, I did the same thing and today my life is almost unrecognisable. I am truly thankful for all that has taken place in between.

Outside, the weather was wet and windy.

Inside, I was made warm by the heating and the coffee no doubt but more significantly, my heart was warmed by the mere writing of a list of things I am thankful for.

Here are just a few of them…

The kindness of my wife

Moving to the countryside

Tash & Rob’s wedding

A whole month in Italy

Lorenzo, Paolo & Salvatore

Steve Carell’s acting in My Beautiful Boy

My Beautiful Boy becoming beautiful again

30 years since I first believed!

My dear Mum (who always provides positive feedback)

Liverpool overcoming all odds to defeat Barcelona

Confirmatory, encouraging word about re-writing The Hearts of the Fathers

Gift of a car

Safe flights to various places & back

Time with Mark & Vanessa

Liverpool winning the Champions’ League

Redemptive meeting with loved ones

XCC Leadership weekend

Terry & Maria

Impacting workshops

Andrew & Wendy

Watching Liverpool win from The Kop with Isaiah & David for the very first time

The Marriage Course @ Home

All three children finding their way in the world

James Tetley

Mike & Dot

Lunches with Dad

James & Lou

A community of believers in Ashington

Patrick & Philly

I could go on, I really could…

I was so encouraged when I began remembering so many different things throughout the year.

You will no doubt notice that interspersed throughout my list  are all the people I am enjoying getting to know, the people I have known all my life and some who I may never see again.

Without these people and many, many others like them, my life would not be worth living. With them, in whatever way and capacity it plays out, every single day has purpose.

Why don’t you make a similar list before the end of this year?

Once you have done that, turn your attention to 2020 and expect to get a vision for it as befits this year of all years?

“This Story Has Obvious Motion Picture Potential…”

I haven’t always had a study but now that I do, I never want to be without one.

Having only recently furnished it with a couple of pictures and most of my favourite books, it finally feels like a home from home.

A place of peace.

Somewhere to work, write and read.

 

As I embark on rewriting a novel I wrote almost twenty years ago, this is crucial for me at this time in my life. Needless to say, the original draft did not get published (even though one well known literary agency was initially very enthusiastic, while someone else in America offered me a contract with the unforgettable words, “This story has obvious motion picture potential…”. Sadly that ‘offer’ turned out to be a scam).

I eventually gave up on it and continued in my day to day life, occasionally wondering what might have been.

Recently however, I have been doing a bit more than merely wondering what might have been and actually returning to the novel that took me two years to write (early mornings before work and late nights after putting young children to bed).

I asked someone to read it and they eventually came back with some honest feedback, which confirmed what others had said, and made me realise how much I wanted to not simply leave the manuscript as it is, gathering dust, going nowhere.

Some things in life are better left alone. Acknowledge what they were, be grateful for the good they ushered in and then move on.

Other things deserve a touch of resurrection.

A fresh breath of life, perhaps with far more maturity attached. Maybe a more secure and stable structure could make a huge difference and who knows what that could lead to?

For me at least, I can apply that to the novel as well as my life in general.

What about you?

 

A Tale of Two Old Men

The other day, I went in to my local Costa coffee shop. As my favourite coffee shop chain, I was very happy when I discovered that our nearest one is literally a three minute walk away from our front door.

Working from home on a couple of intense, ongoing projects meant that I needed a change of scenery to help with some ideas. To be honest, even if I didn’t need the change or the ideas, I don’t usually require an excuse!

I got my coffee and looked around for somewhere to sit. Thankfully, it was early afternoon and not too busy.

I was about to settle on a spot near a window when I saw an old man respond to another old man a few tables away. The second man had been speaking with someone else and they had now left. He called across to the first old man (are you still with me?) and invited him to come and sit with him.

I only took notice because the first old man I had seen accepted the invitation and was vacating an even nicer spot for me to occupy.

I had barely sat down when I noticed a small sofa was also now available and I rather fancied that even more. (It doesn’t normally take me this many attempts to get settled!) Whilst it took me further away from the two old men, I was able to observe them without appearing to be nosy.

I couldn’t and didn’t want to hear what they were talking about but a good one hour later, they were still busy chatting away.

Normally perhaps, I wouldn’t pay much attention to such things.

That is what people do in coffee shops isn’t it? Chat, catch up…

Discuss a variety of things with each other, make each other laugh here and there.

It is in fact, becoming increasingly rare and we all know why…

We gave someone a birthday card recently that said across the front:

Dance like no one is watching,

Because they’re not,

They’re checking their phones.

So, back to my tale of two old men…

I marvelled at how one minute, one old man can appear to be looking a bit lonely and the next minute, he is engaged in a lengthy conversation with another person of a similar age (I have no idea if they are friends, acquaintances, former customer/supplier or merely familiar pedestrians on a village high street).

Maybe as I get older, I am learning to appreciate such mundane but I believe marvellous small things.

Maybe, as Remembrance Sunday approaches, I am once again reminded of the sacrifice so many made on our behalf, and am therefore noticing my older, fellow villagers more.

I know that sounds rather random but it’s not really is it? Not when you take a moment to consider how much older generations have been a blessing to us.

Perhaps I was also being reminded by the two old men that no smartphone, tablet or any other future form of electronic distraction can begin to compete against a spontaneous coffee shop conversation.

Ever.

 

Hurry Up Or Else!

Last week, I was working with my friend Andrew in Albania again. During one of the sessions he was delivering, I was completely taken by surprise to learn that my primary ‘Driver’ is Hurry Up.

Some of you may not be at all surprised, while others may be completely shocked – especially given that I spend a lot of time encouraging people to slow down and find some healthy balance in their lives. And well, stop ‘Hurrying up’!

Living in the countryside is supposed to be all about ‘peace & quiet’ and a great deal of slowing down, so I am satisfied that we have made the right decision moving to where we now live.

There are however, regular challenges for someone with the Hurry Up ‘Driver’. Things like drivers (no pun intended) of all ages, driving extremely slowly, especially when they arrive at mini or even larger roundabouts. I have written before about the art of roundabouts and how so many people don’t seem to get it.

Well here in the Sussex countryside, there are many people who don’t get it.

I am however, coming round to believing that they are crossing my path in order to help me slow down.

Just yesterday afternoon, I went off in search of some duck eggs at a nearby farm my wife recently discovered. Alas, according to the owner, the ducks are primarily concerned with mating between now and April and therefore, supply is going to be a bit sporadic it seems.

On the way back home, I pulled up behind a queue of cars along the country lane. This time it wasn’t someone dithering at a roundabout but a long trailer ferrying a large tractor somewhere. The trailer was so wide that whenever the road narrowed even slightly, the driver had to stop and allow the oncoming traffic to pass by.

Talk about slow!

Thankfully, I was not in a hurry of any sort and I attempted to use this as a bit of test.

I am happy to report that I passed (according to my own set of criteria of course) and happily ambled along until the very considerate trailer driver pulled over, put his hazard lights on and allowed the by now, very long queue of cars to overtake on a wider stretch of road.

The more I think about it, the more I strongly fit the profile of a Hurry Up. I could give you more but here are just four examples of my symptoms of the Hurry Up driver:

always skip through the adverts and never watch live commercial TV if I can possibly avoid it (doesn’t everyone nowadays?).

I will always try to choose the queue (on the road or my feet) that I think is moving the fastest.

When I rode a bike, whilst living in London, I would see the lights turn red for the adjacent set of traffic and then peddle as fast as I could, to see how much distance I could create between me and the cars coming up behind me.

I became an expert in knowing precisely which part of the tube train to get on in order to get off, bang opposite an exit (at many different stations) and be away, ahead of the crowd.

I must add at this point that for a season, this was an essential skill due to my role of camera assistant/delivery boy for a Friday night arts & entertainment programme called This Way Out. After the final edit had been completed in the offices of the London production company, I would be given the video tapes to be used to broadcast across three sub-sections of the South-East of England.

Normally, this was a simple case of carefully guarding them in my bag, travelling by train to the broadcaster’s base in Southampton and handing them over to the relevant staff.

The tricky bit came whenever the edit took far longer than normal and I was still expected to deliver the crucial merchandise on time. Failure would mean no programme that night – literally!

Most people would find that kind of pressure extremely stressful to say the least.

I on the other hand, LOVED it! I would deploy all of my ‘natural ability’ (now known to me as my Hurry Up ‘driver’), fly past the crowds on the underground – this being rush hour on a Friday night. I would then grab the first train I could board. Then straight into a taxi to the broadcaster’s station, and finally, run into the building and hand over the tapes.

The adrenalin rush of completing my critical mission in time was a regular highlight of my working week.

That was in 1990 and if my memory serves me, the latest I ever got there to deliver the goods was perhaps half an hour before transmission. No doubt the station boss would have instructed his team to start looking for something else to put on everyone’s TV that night, just in case I didn’t make it.

What about you?

Just to prove to you that I am learning to slow down, here is a picture of a T-bone steak I ate whilst in Albania, where I was forced to slow down to stand any chance at all of finishing it…which I did!

And finally, the day after I got home, I went on an early morning five and a half mile walk with some friends, that thankfully began just three minutes walk away from my house. Here we are waiting for breakfast to be served – the perfect antidote to the Hurry Up ‘driver’!

Come Sun or Cloud…

Given that I’ve not long been back from an extended holiday period in Italy, I found it interesting that I should have the following insight in my own back garden only a couple of days ago…

It is very simple and frankly, I’m amazed it has never occurred to me before but then that is the nature of some thoughts – one day it simply dawns on you doesn’t it?

Anyway, the other day it was shaping up to be quite a pleasant sunny afternoon. So I took my lunch outside, sat on a chair and picked the bits of meat and cheese off my plate. When I had finished, I realised it was a lot hotter than I had anticipated and removed my shirt, soon followed by the t-shirt I had on underneath also. I rarely miss an opportunity to maintain a recently acquired tan!

I sat there for a good while, truly appreciating a bit of sunshine and thinking about a specific situation I am facing.

With my eyes closed, I was deep in thought when the sun went behind a cloud. At this point, I invariably grab my prescription sunglasses and ascertain how long the sun will be absent. If it’s a huge cloud, I normally go back inside and return to whatever I was doing before lunch.

On this particular occasion, the cloud was not too big and so I waited, sunglasses having been returned to the table.

Ever since I can remember (probably beginning in the famous, seemingly endless Summer of 1976) I have loved the feeling of the sun eventually emerging from behind a cloud and the sheer warmth landing perfectly on my closed eyelids.

It is almost magical and I love it every single time.

This time, when it came, I suddenly realised something that went deeper than my eyelids.

It went all the way to my heart.

Things can be extremely difficult when there are clouds in your life.

Sickness, relationships, business, work (or lack of). Anything that is causing delay and the ensuing frustration that follows can be tiring as well as a source of great stress and pain.

But when the sun finally comes back out, all the darkness can be left behind. Not always easily forgotten for most of us but bask in the sun long enough and it becomes easier to imagine a brighter future. Remembering how good it felt can help you to patiently wait for it to return yet again.

And it will. Always.

Come sun or cloud – and there will always be plenty of both – it is a wonder of creation. You can only do what you can do and then you simply have to wait.

(This is not my back garden!)

And the best bit of all is, you don’t have to go to Italy or anywhere else to have your eyelids licked by a ray of hope.

Simply look up, close your eyes and be encouraged when the warmth comes.