41 – Just another number?

I turned 41 this weekend.

How did that happen?

The funny thing about that question is that the assumption you probably made when you read it is that I am in denial about my age, that, perhaps, I am going to rail against aging and bemoan the youth that is lost.. etc. etc.

I will not be so prosaic… I hope.

I love being 41.

There! I said it!

Over the past year, it is as though I have passed through a veil into security, confidence, a little more self-knowledge.  I didn’t expect to actually wake up and feel different, you know, the way you think you will on a “big” birthday like 16 , or 18 or 21.. or even 30! Yet, somehow, this weekend, it is as though I really did feel different.  I don’t believe that there is something magical about the actual day, but rather that the introspection this season has afforded me is allowing me to walk in more fullness, more courage, more passion.  I know who I am, I know who I can be and, I am confident that I am on a journey worthy of the telling.

When you are struggling through your 20s and 30s, it seems impossible to hear the gentle voices of secure identity, voices who long to share the joy of freedom with you… you who are so concerned with the way the world sees you…  you who cannot hear the Still Small Voice for the clamor of your life.

Oh, how I wish I could have heard!

How grateful I now am for those dear friends, who planted themselves, gentle and firm, within the whirlwind of my 20s and early 30s. How honored I am that men and women of God stood in the raging rapids of my arrogant proclaiming and anguished wailings and spoke, “Grace and Peace”.  How I treasure brothers and sisters who could see through the maelstrom and steady the quailing, fainting heart within and say to me, “Take Courage”.

Those seeds of Grace, Peace and Courage have slowly, subtly rooted.  They have continued to grow, stubbornly reaching up, through marriage and miscarriage, through babies and on into teenagers, through stifling restriction and joyous release.  They have grown into great trees, and, like the tree that has grown slowly from sapling to beauty in our backyard, I am a little awed by their presence, sudden-seeming in their fullness, in their insistence of their place, in their confidence.

For me, 41 is not just another year, but seems like a beginning of sorts.

Come along for the journey and let’s see where the road leads!

Grace and Peace,

Ally

 

A Story in Stages – Part 1

Stories are funny things, ethereal and yet eerily concrete, fact-laden and yet totally open to interpretation, to shifts in perspective and the softening of time. My story begins in an Edinburgh hospital, the welcomed, loved daughter of an Army officer and a Scottish speech therapist.  My story begins with a christening gown and a promise made in an ancient church. My story begins with a “normal” childhood, well, normal to me anyway!

I grew up in the sheltered, rarified, Downton-Abbey-esque, English upper classes.  I went fox-hunting, attended boarding school, played polo and watched a lot of cricket. Home was safe and warm and laden with promise. Summers were filled with holidays in Cornwall and the sun drenched beaches of Malta and France; winters drew in around roaring fires warming ancient halls; spring was heralded by the glimpse of bluebells carpeting a beloved wood and the promise of long days on horseback or in the garden.  School was endured. Told, as we were, that it was just as hard on our parents as it was on us, we children crafted survival identities within a Lord of the Flies hierarchy that adults knew not of. We survived, building “character”  and “independence”, expression of which was generally unwelcome, non-conformist as it’s expression generally is in the young.

In many ways unremarkable, my childhood and adolescence pointed me down a path unchosen, expected. I would have thought this path not the slightest bit noteworthy had I stayed within my culture and family circle and married a soldier or a country lawyer. Had I stayed the path, eventually it would have been me packing my  children off to boarding school with a heavy heart and an empty wallet. Had I been less restless, less longing, less… less me… I would have gone about my days arranging pony club camp, cricket teas, and school runs, ignoring the deepening ache within my soul.

My family tree is rich with strong women and heroic men, with suffering and hardship borne with grace and a stiff upper lip.  My school years passed in a blur of miserable terms at school, sharply counter-pointed by wonderful holidays spent galloping over beloved countryside, digging vegetables and drinking gin and tonics with my indefatigable grandmother. I was loved, am loved still, by a family that is delightfully diverse in life choices and yet extraordinarily capable of community and grace.  I didn’t always see that grace, and perhaps seeing the community is part of that perspective shift we gain with distance.  At the time though, Granny Cecily, my father’s mother, often seemed to be the only port in a storm, my rock, my safe place.  A far better writer than me, Amber Haines, in her beautiful book, “Wild in The Hollow” writes, of her own grandmother, the words I lived in my Granny’s home:

“She had the strength of one anointed, one who could claim you. She kept the shame out. It would snarl at the door, but inside was safe. maybe that’s why we rebellious ones always clung to her.  She wasn’t our favorite because she was lenient toward us. She was our favorite because she was a reprieve. There was something of the rest of Eden in there, something of my Jesus”

excerpt from “Wild in the Hollow” by Amber Haines

Never very good at expectation, I hated feeling like I didn’t measure up, and as is so often the case for young women who blossom too early, (according to whom, I wonder?) I never felt like I fitted in. I absorbed the words said about me, the bullying and criticism, the insecurities of others foisted upon me to keep the fear at bay in themselves, and lost myself.  The wild-haired girl who galloped bareback over hill and down dale was buried by conformity to a meeker, shallower girlhood, one for whom the word “supposed” became a straight-jacket.

I slogged through my school years laboring under the weight of an identity I hated, the belief that I was unacceptable to my peers and unloved (or unlovable) by my family,  pervaded my worldview until I found myself at the brink of a life wasted.  My gap year (a British convention whereby after graduation, young people take a year out between school and university to explore the world, serve others and hopefully, grow up a little) was a revelation.  I spent it in Brazil, teaching and traveling and discovering myself outside of the context of my family name.  I was, for the very first time in my life, not someone’s daughter, or sister or cousin.  I suffered no comparison, labored under no expectations and encountered in myself a young woman whom I actually liked!  This made homecoming all the more painful, the old clothes didn’t fit, the shoes were uncomfortably restrictive and I didn’t know how to squash my rediscovered personality into my old life. No-one else had changed, but somehow I had begun to discover that the straight-jacket was really made up of fragile post-it notes, stuck on me by others, and, devastatingly often, by myself.  I had shed so many that I no longer blended in and it was scary, as freedom often is.

The promise of continued freedom at University was for a while, at least, enticing. But, even though the school-days names had finally stopped following me, even though I was, momentarily, free from the family Name; the hedonistic culture of university life pushed in on me. Since I didn’t feel like I fit in anyway, I decided to reinvent myself as a “bad girl”. Let’s be clear, my expression of “bad” was pretty tame, and since I was still the very definition of posh and  well brought up, even a bad girl had standards!  I was still broken, however, and looking for confidence and approval in all the wrong places.  I took up with all the wrong people and tried to attain the world’s version of “cool”, “sexy” or “beautiful”. Six months passed in a blur of caffeine, booze, parties and lectures I have zero recollection of. When I returned to Oxford after Christmas, I found myself home-less, broken-hearted and friendless, with a serious marijuana and alcohol problem, and desperately praying that second pink line didn’t appear and lead to a trip to the nearest clinic…

In short, to quote Rachel on Friends,

“… it’s like there’s rock bottom, then 50 feet of crap, then me.”

Now, I am not so naive to think that I couldn’t have picked myself up, dusted off the bruises on my heart, and, perhaps my liver 😏 and moved along.  After all, my lineage had some pretty incredible examples to follow.. a grandmother who divorced her first husband for lying … another grandmother who parachuted into Mussolini’s Italy during WWII… a mother who had survived raising me (no mean feat!) and achieved her Masters degree at the same time. But that was not my path.

... click here for part 2…

Reflections on the Invitation of Advent – Week One

Advent has traditionally been a time of joyous anticipation for me.  It really is my kind of celebration, you know you are getting a present, and you know what it is, and when you get to open it!  I am not patient, and consequently I have never really engaged in the suspense of Advent. The waiting, the invitation to walk each day without anticipating the fulfillment has not been how I passed these precious weeks.

Like me, most of us, are so caught up in the preparations and celebrations of the season, that the faithful persistent call to wait, to trust, to reflect, is drowned out.  We want to rush on to the big day, we long for the awaited Saviour to make his appearance, to save us from our sin, to rescue us from the darkness that engulfs us. Consequently we rush headlong to that day with little pause in our spirits to prepare us.

One of the rediscovered joys of the liturgical calendar for me is the rhythm of a calendar that draws us into seasons of hope and repentance and joy.  A liturgical Advent is symbolised by violet (or blue), the colour indicative of fast days, but this is not a traditional fast, this fast is one of hope, of peace, of trust.  During Advent, we are asked to walk in the waiting, to enter into the Inter-testamental longing of the Israelites for their Messiah and seek him for ourselves.

What a contrast this is to the hustle and bustle of the world.  Where in all the noise and shopping and feasting is there room for reflection, for silence?

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 3.41.24 PMThis year our little community is mediating through Enuma Okoro’s Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent. We are journeying to Bethlehem in the company of Zechariah and Elizabeth, sitting with them in their waiting, their faithfulness and doubt.

How are you waiting?