“Our greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” William James (1842 – 1910)
My parents raised me to look at the bright side. Not only did they call me ‘bright and shining’ they raised me to believe that life was full of light.
I grew up in church houses because my father was an Anglican minister. Church of England they say in England, Episcopalian if you live in the United States. Regardless of the denomination or the title religion chose to label the church with, my experience of ministry was that of frequently moving from one rambling house on a main road, next door to a church to the next. One was opposite a nightclub, all were on major roads, and none were on the leafy side of town.
The houses we grew up in were referred to as The Rectory and my father used to jest that my younger brother James was the ‘wrecker of the Rectory’. If you asked me, these houses were already wrecked. Everything was broken, poor quality and covered in layers of dust. Mum would do all that she could to transform these places into a home, spending her days up ladders wallpapering the rooms, sewing cushions, bedcovers and curtains but just when it felt like things were in order it would be time to move on, to start again in another house, in another suburb, in another church.
Life arrives in segments of time. We are looking through the rooms knowing it’s where we’ll be for a while. It’s not always what we want but we think to ourselves we can make it work. We’ve got what it takes and instead of letting it get us down, we see the possibilities. We ‘batten down the hatches” and weather the storm.
Living through Leukaemia was like that last year. The CNC told us, “It can take two years to be cured but a lot depends on the first 90 days. The goal is to get her in remission and then we will have some indication.”
We were going to be one of the lucky ones. We were positive that remission would be reached, that the journey would be over, that one term off work for me would be ample and 6 months off uni for Sam. Segments of time can be useful; one step at a time is manageable, you move into the space in your mind, you make adjustments, you get on with your life. At least that’s what you attempt to do.
John Milton writes, “the mind is its own place and in itself it can make a heav’n of hell or a hell of heav’n.” I am grateful to my parents who raised me to do the former.
If you ever met my mother you would think she had a privileged life. From my earliest memory right through to the present she is the most beautiful and well-groomed woman I have ever met. Yet her life has never been easy, raised as a coal miner’s daughter in the north of England her life was hard. Then as a young bride she discovered there were complications with my father’s health and so they have battled his disability all of their life. That is their story not mine to tell but from observing their lives for 44 years I have discovered some wonderful keys, the best of all being the ability to pay attention to the present.
In the epic poem Beowulf it is written, “Every life has more than enough sadness and more than enough joy.” It is up to us to choose which to focus on. My mum always focused on the joy. She was always delighted by the opportunity to give sandwiches to the drug addicts who knocked on our door for cash. Over dinner she would entertain us with her stories of their dialogue. Sometimes they would say they needed money for food. “Then I’ll make you a sandwich,” she’d say or others would ask for money for the train and she would respond, “Then I’ll take you to buy your ticket.” There was no spare cash lying around our house but that didn’t stop them from coming back in the night to see. We were broken into on numerous occasions and calling the police almost became routine.
Still my mother would be grateful. Grateful that we hadn’t been home at the time, grateful she’d been wearing her gold necklace, grateful that the police fingerprint tests said they had probably just been teenagers looking for some quick cash and been frightened away by our returning. Most of all she was grateful that parish council might now decide to close in the front porch and make it a room.
On the day that Sam was diagnosed with Leukaemia I phoned my mum to tell her the doctor’s words. At the end of the line I could hear her swallowing her tears,
“Darling, I thought so but we will get through.” My mum is a nurse and from the pieces of information I had sent throughout the day she had worked it out and prepared her response. She was positive but full of compassion.
The ability to pay attention is an art I learned from my mum who always focused on the beauty around her no matter how hard things became. If ‘God is in the details’ then so is my mum and with His help she furnished the rooms of my life like she did with those rectories, until the cracks in the plaster could hardly be seen. The beauty all around us doesn’t take away the broken pieces but focusing on the good things prevents us from falling apart.
There are many reasons to crumble as we wait for Sam to fully recover from her transplant. On Friday afternoon she mentioned that the little bruises on the top of her legs had now travelled around the back and up her lower abdomen. Inspecting her skin I felt fear rise in my cheeks like hot flushes. “I think you’ll be fine.” I said and then, when she went out for dinner with her boyfriend I searched the web for answers.
We are caught; it seems between hope and fear but in the end, hope wins out. Sometimes fear parades as powerful, pounding in my heart, narrowing my view until God reminds me that perspective is found in the big picture. I took myself along to our connect group, even though I do not want to go, as the leader I sensed that it was right that I did. On arriving I shared the situation and my girlfriends encouraged me. We had a great discussion about last week’s sermon with our husbands, we laughed and we prayed for each other but mostly they prayed for me. I was grateful, like my mother and I considered the beauty of the evening, the comfort of conversation, the power of prayer and returned home filled with joy.
I don’t know what the bruises are from or why they are there but “The Lord is continually at my right hand therefore I will not fear.” Psalm 16:8
Winifred Gallagher writes “if you could just stay focused on the right things, your life would stop feeling like a reaction to stuff that happens to you and become something you create, not a series of accidents but a work of art.” That is the kind of beauty I aspire to. No matter what comes our way it is our decision to respond, to not react; to see the potential for miracles not the cause for defeat, to continue to live out in the open allowing our lungs to enlarge and to breathe.