Category Archives: Grace

Focus

This is one of my favourite images. It is a copy of a stained glass window in a beautiful location in the Lake District. It is visually rewarding and special to me personally because I discovered it with my husband when we visited Blackwell some years ago together. I love the Arts and Crafts style, the colours and the subtle shape play. I love the curves and the suggestions of beauty beyond.

What makes it work? The repeated forms of birds frozen in flight? The flattened light textures or spaces for imagination? Perhaps it is a cunning simplicity. What is beyond changes: matching, adjusting, growing, dying. What is within remains. Echoes of ecclesia or delicate domesticity. A window of hope.

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                                     MH Baillie Scott, Stained Glass at Blackwell                                      © Lakeland Arts Trust / Jonathan Lynch 2001

A window which also demands focus.

Unlike me, my husband has spent his life focused on the task in hand. I have been focused on the possible and the scenes beyond. I flit. I miss the beautiful window while staring outside at something blurred. I take interest in so many things that I have needed the guiding hand he has offered me to slow down and do One Thing At A Time. 

It works, you know; Focus. I complement my husband by dreaming big and he loves me by showing me how to work on the detail. He has taught me to focus. To recognise beauty more. To enjoy the right pace and the reward of undisturbed work. Task by task, achieving great things together. 

I focus on many tasks as a wife, mum and home-maker. I focus on many strands as a writer. I have learned which tasks are wise to layer (or multi-task), such as getting the washing on or a slow-cook recipe and which are best done in order, such as the sequence of putting clothes away or creating a meal plan. 

My week now has a much better rhythm to it, in order to give time to many mundane but important routines and some exciting but less urgent matters and a great deal of thinking, researching, reading and writing work on the book. Focus. Each thing has its time and place. It makes a lot more sense of things, calms me and means greater efficiency. 

I have some way to go still on this journey, but I am seeing the blessings of living by Grace. Learning to let go of my own agenda to focus on what matters – and then responding to that. In doing so, I discover a far better agenda and far greater rewards. 

So where is the book up to?

Lots of work is happening and lots of connections are being made. I have a rough working plot and a number of elements of first draft, some of which show promise. I work on the book as often as I can, but it is something like creating a patchwork quilt and will need to be put together once I have all the pieces. I have a good idea of the colours and overall impact. I am preparing a number of elements which will be worked on carefully and may be stitched into the final product.

I am also working on different aspects of the book, depending on the time and resources and energy available to me. I have to focus on each one in turn, rather than flitting around on any given day. So one day I might be working on some dialogue between characters, developing them and discovering who they really are. Another day I am researching ancient eating habits or architecture. Another day I am working closely on Hebrew lemmas (words) and how connections between certain ideas can inform the story. I may be gardening and discover something I can use in the story. Or parenting. Or considering universal emotions, in a specific context. When I am tired I work on my characters. When I am busy I listen to the world around me. When I am full of ideas I compose words. When I am calm I read and research. Focus and focus and focus. 

Gradually the story is coming into view. 

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Reality and Writing

Ah, the blog. I have not forgotten you. I have been pursuing Exciting Other Things. I have missed you though, so I will post an update.

The first Exciting Other Thing is my health. Having made great progress mentally and because the timing is well-suited, I am now working on my physical health. I won’t bore you with details and numbers, but I am excited because we are making a number of small but significant changes to our diet as a family and I am already seeing results.

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For starters this sort of thing is not allowed. Neither is it allowed for pudding.

I’m being kind to myself and not overly dogmatic. The occasional chocolate at the weekend is fine. No snacking between tasks however, unless it is at least very healthy and preferably dull. And no customary late night nibbles, which had a lot to answer for. We’ve surprised ourselves by enjoying making and eating new recipes with strange ingredients like low-fat natural yogurt, roasted vegetables, pine nuts and oats. Not all together of course: Change 4 Life have some lovely ideas. I’m tracking my alcohol intake with a phone app and getting more exercise because my body is asking for it. There is an excitement in getting relegated jeans back into circulation, and exhilaration in getting the circulation going on foot or on the bike. I can work harder for longer and am getting lighter.

I believe that the results I’m seeing so far are because I am valuing myself more and because I am being driven spiritually rather than emotionally to improve my health. Listening to my body in parallel to listening to God. A verse which has meant a lot to me in the past few weeks is 2 Timothy 1:7: For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

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So now I have the self-discipline not to make a dog’s dinner of dinner.

The second Exciting Other Thing is my husband’s new job. Having been at British Telecom for his entire working life and having moved last August to Cambridge, my very clever man landed himself a new job with the leading provider of application-intelligent networking I/O software and hardware that accelerate, monitor and secure network data… the pioneer in high-performance, low-latency 10/40GbE server networking solutions. Yep, I pasted that in. Despite being one quarter engineer I still haven’t worked out what he is going to be doing. But he will be able to cycle there and be home more at the right times and move on with his career and all these are very good things. Also he has wisely decided on a few weeks between jobs to be with the family, which is superb and exciting and warrants getting our passports updated. Even more cause for celebration.

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The third Exciting Other Thing is my library. Since we moved I have spent parts of each week preparing my writing space. It is the size and shape of a long garage and needed to fulfil various purposes. Deals on Ebay and Gumtree have lined the walls with second hand pine bookcases, a stripped pine desk and a recycled whiteboard for plotting and organising. There are strategically arranged maps and children’s art and memories around and everything has a home. It is a haven and my own little library-office. Although work on it is ongoing it is functioning and practical. This week I got two old but comfortable office chairs for a pound and, having shared my workspace all winter, I have finally evicted my guinea pig roomies. It is much quieter and less sneezy now. Far from being a distraction, creating a place I can work in properly is getting real results.

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Which all leads to the fourth exciting thing. Actual Writing.

I love writing. I love the relief it brings when words play fair. To me, there is nothing so gratifying as wrangling a complex thought into submission. There is a delicious moment of proposing order. Of saying to the chaos ‘be still‘.

If it weren’t for my time of illness punching all productivity out of me I would not have taken my passion seriously at all. Our choices on many levels took much evaluating. Assessing what I was doing – and by what authority – unlocked something special for me. I had always respected words and enjoyed playing with ideas and the power of texts. I was aware that the hunt was rarely successful without much hard work and I pondered what it might mean to commit time to something which did not promise to deliver. I do have a teaching qualification; in the future it may be necessary to fall back on it, but I am not passionate about maths teaching. I am passionate about communicating well and passionate about the subjects I want to communicate and the power of story.

There is a steep learning curve ahead and everything that has led us to this point adds to the richness of the journey. To learn to tell truths in a story, by way of a thousand lies. To wrestle with structure and awful early drafts. To find, within a character and a plot, timeless truths which may heal, challenge and delight.

I am practising allowing my thoughts to explode creatively again, now that I have finally learned how to keep them focused. Oh yes, there is still so much more for me to learn about writing fiction. Reading great literature is proving rewarding, but recognising great art is daunting too. I am not competing with anyone and I am not actually desperate for publication. I just want to pursue a passion which will not leave me alone. The conviction that accompanies the task is as intoxicating as the relief when words appear in the right order.

With order, discipline. Perhaps it would be good to get in the habit of blogging on a regular basis as part of my new discipline. A weekly round up on a fixed day. Or a series on things I am researching. Or on the process of writing, parenting and life in general. Comments on this are welcome. I cannot promise long blog posts weekly, but I am interested to know if others would like to hear more frequently from me.

House-hunting Outside the Box

 

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My dad calls it divergent thinking, but I suspect my need to think outside the box in any and every situation has been a large part of my mental health issues these last twelve months. If I have one thought it spreads like a firework. If I have a box of thoughts, I need plenty of space to watch all the fireworks.

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When I got very ill twelve months ago the fireworks fizzled and fell. I had to accept limitations and let go.

This letting go has not come about lightly: there are a dozen areas I would like to do more in, a hundred people I would like to help, a thousand things that need thinking through.

But I am learning to let go. Let go of ideals I cannot reach. Let go of people who hurt me. Let go of wrong self-image. Let go of anger. Let go of trying to ‘achieve’ to impress. Let go of turning up the heat. The cold never bothered me anyway.

I am now at a stage where I need to harness what is good and right about my divergent thinking. The instant creativity when I’m in a good place and Joe decides we need to make an apple tree from things in the kitchen, for example. Or helping Lily remember a new times table. Or finding a recipe for ingredients we already have in. Being academically thorough because it hurts not to. Little baby steps that indicate I’m heading in a good direction.

And I’m part of a great team. My husband is single-minded and inspires me to focus rather than diverge. As a result we now have a great ‘get the house ready for viewings’ system, including keeping things in sensible places, having empty drawers at the ready for items on surfaces and not panicking when the ‘wrong’ load of washing is doing as I know it will all get straightened out soon and that I’m going to be ok whatever the outcome. Just keep swimming, Lucy.

We are convinced that God’s purposes are driving our endeavours to relocate, so the emotional energy I have can be spent focused on practical and reasonable tasks. Today Joe and I got to toddlers; a wonderful opportunity to see friends and how things have developed in great ways there. Later this afternoon I showed the fifth couple in eight days around our house. It used up all I had left emotionally. Corners have to be cut elsewhere: manageable cleaning and tidying, efficient use of time, time off alone, not counting the calories, not stressing over what I cannot control. Improvements are evident in lots of directions, for which I am utterly grateful, even when pushed to my emotional limits.

One task I love doing is house-hunting, and I go at it with a combination of God-driven purpose, single-mindedness learnt from my husband and outside-the-box problem-solving techniques I can’t help but bring to the table. One of my sustaining strengths is writing and it appears that another is researching.

Cycle of Grace

Armed with access to the internet and a couple of clever spreadsheets, I review the houses that have appeared on our search radius on a frequent basis. They are constantly changing as we are moving to an area of short supply and high demand. A house we viewed at the weekend is currently in a bidding war and already at  £43,000 above the asking price, days after appearing on the market. We did not bid on it, as we cannot buy until we sell. But I am making sure I do my outside-the-box homework. Systematically.

Rightmove is the most useful of the property search websites I use, with their various search tools, floor plans, school distance maps, and invaluable Saved Properties feature. Zoopla is better for learning about sold house prices, with interesting heat maps and information on what sold in various streets if you are prepared to work through in detail when you are serious about a property. As we are searching within a target geographical area we’ve realised it also pays to get registered with local agents who send you information ahead of homes appearing on the market and to check their own websites, which update sooner than Rightmove.

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We like to know how long a property has been marketed, and whether the sellers have changed agent at some stage. While EPC checks on the energy rating are some use if they have a date, they are valid for up to ten years so weren’t necessarily produced for the most recent sale. We downloaded a toolbar from Property Bee (which uses Firefox) with a sidebar listing price changes and number of weeks on the market. Fascinating stuff. As our own house is proving to be a niche market, we know this doesn’t prove everything, but is useful to check out whether a property has not sold for some months, so that we can check why that might be and whether the vendors are willing to consider a lower offer.

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If a house looks promising, I like to familiarise myself with the area. Nothing beats driving or walking around in person, but some useful sites for getting extra information from a distance are Google Maps (especially with Street View and to check distances and routes by car, foot, bike or public transport, which may impact upon the children as they get older), Bing Maps (for Bird’s eye views of the location from North, South, East and West) and the Environment Agency‘s pages on flood risks from rivers and elsewhere. Online regional planning information is useful to determine the scale and dates of development for a property, currency of local greenbelt, the year the street was built and an indication of whether extensions of one sort or another might be granted. Wikipedia is a surprisingly good source of information on village life if there are links to local community websites as well as history of the area.

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I have learnt a lot about school catchments (including relevant high schools) from Cambridgeshire’s education admissions website, and we applied for Joseph’s school place based on data we picked up online as well as a couple of visits. If he should not get any of our three choices, we will be able to find out quickly where there are spaces in both his and Lily’s year groups for September so that they can be together if possible in another local school. Ofsted reports and data tables tell you a certain amount, as do schools’ own websites, but going around a real school and meeting staff there, as well as learning about schools from local people where possible are much more fruitful. We have also taken a keen interest in location and websites of churches in the places we’ve been looking at, as a strong community church will have a big impact on us as a family and we’d like it to be not too far to travel to. Hakuna Matata, as they say.

So, lots of things to keep this divergent mind happy in a useful way on days when I want to crawl into my mindspace all by myself and shut the door. When we are moved I know what my next project will be, as I am preparing a book. However, I cannot write a book and move house and raise a family at the same time. I have learnt to let go and focus on what is best. Freedom within fixed constraints allows me opportunity to thrive and feel useful. I am moving from the first quadrant in the Grace Cycle (Acceptance) to the second (Sustaining Strength). I am allowed to write. I am allowed to research. I have a value and a purpose, and I feel like a room without a roof.

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Quote

Shell

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Sugar: You collect shells?
Joe: Yes. So did my father and my grandfather. You might say we had a passion for shells. That’s why we named the oil company after it.

Brilliant writing. Fantastic delivery by Tony Curtis, mimicking Cary Grant in Some Like It Hot.

I love a great joke.

Words are great.

Words are not always what is needed, however.

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Which is why these shells spoke to me this week. They were a gift from a wonderful friend on a beach in Albania and remind me of our time there. They are beautiful homes for tiny, insignificant creatures. They are engineered to be strong so that the little molluscs don’t need to be. I love how they combine art and maths. Creation and evolution. Grace and freedom.

This week we are making huge family decisions and several centre on identity and belonging. Location. Careers. Finances. How much to sell for. Value. Cost. I am out of words. I am pretty much out of numbers too.

But I am not out of feelings. I still feel the ache when my son gets a high temperature. I still grieve when my husband’s company mess him about for the umpteenth time. I still reel when my daughter’s school require three non-uniform outfits in the space of eight school days. I worry for others in my family going through big changes. I tremble as the inner anxious me faces the enormity of spending money on a house – a bunch of rooms – while others struggle without. I don’t want a grand place. But I do crave somewhere we can each be who we are truly meant to be. To grab hold of the dream and live it. We feel called to a particular spot and convicted in the need to move there, from a place of love and great memories and super friends, to a place where our names are only known to a few and where we need to forge our passions in a brighter furnace. Engineering. Writing. Ministering to students, immigrants, parents, young adults, those with needs. Enabling. Connecting in community and church. Raising our family. Living the adventure of Love we set out on together ten years ago by enabling each other and growing stronger together. It will come at a cost, but not doing this would certainly cost us more.

Thank goodness for Grace, tying it all together so that there is sense and purpose when we might otherwise give up. This season of brokenness has also been a season of refining and focus.

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Dangers, Toils and Snares

The children have been taking a keen interest in road signs, since I have been occasionally allowing them to sit in the front of the car. According to Joe, these signs really are quite clear:

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no blue paint allowed,

nowhitepaintno white paint allowed.

For this and many other reasons I am not allowing him driving privileges just yet. He sees signs, but he cannot interpret them correctly. He knows there are dangers but he usually trusts me to get him from A to B. That is, as long as he can have Radio 1 or One Direction playing. And hot air blowing in his face. And his feet resting on the glove box. And lots of questions about levers, buttons and how many minutes until something happens. And a host of opinions only a parent can listen to. When that parent is in the mood for listening.

Clearly his passenger seat privileges are not automatic. But I learn a lot about him while he is showing a keen interest in engines, driving and making sense of his world.

Lily is another story. Lily is well aware of dangers, real and imagined and cannot believe she will ever be brave enough to take responsibility for a vehicle. She has decided she never wants to use a gear stick. She reads signs and understands the words. If she sees any of these, she is keen to make sure that I have too:

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But she is a very interesting passenger for other reasons. Sitting next to me with the road ahead of both of us, she opens up more about aspects of her life, thinking and dreams. I learn a lot about her while she is showing a keen interest in facts, ideas and making sense of her world.

All this driving around with the children, their interests and the dangers they are and aren’t aware of resonates with my thinking on Grace right now.

Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come;

‘Tis Grace has brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home.

This mad journey through depression, anxiety and everyday parenting is littered with signs of every description. Books, music, advice, jokes, stories, blogs, sermons, events, friendships. Some are clearly in my best interests, guiding me or slowing me down. Others are harder to interpret – perhaps I don’t have the tools right now – and I cannot navigate alone. I have a wonderful set of friends, counsellors and family working with me through these spots, and God’s Grace is clearly carrying me through even the darkest miles. There are clearly dangers – visible and invisible. Toils – hard work, sacrifices and tough decisions to make. Snares – temporary and habitual. Blood, sweat and tears. The world, the flesh and the devil. So many signs. Sensory overload at times – frequently, in fact.

The experience of learning deep trust for our relocation is strangely healing. It is necessary to focus on one thing at a time. The stress levels do rise at times – this week alone there have been hard decisions to make, and there will be more. But the journey is progressing and the companionship of God and his utter faithfulness and love is readily apparent because we are on the journey. Sitting in the passenger seat I can talk about my passions and fears with God and allow his Grace to carry me, help me make sense of my world and navigate me on routes I do not recognise. He’s brought me safe thus far. Against all the odds. I know he will bring me safely home.