Thursday, May 12, 2016

On Thankfulness

I'm reading a book about thankfulness, at the moment. The author talks about how she made a decision to find 1000 gifts - or graces - for which she could be thankful. Not, she hastens to assure the readers, in a 'Pollyanna' way, but truly honouring God for what he gives us daily, weekly, or just occasionally.

I decided to start writing a list myself. On the first day I easily came up with about sixty items - mostly people - for which I am thankful, without much thought. I listed many family and friends, and other individuals who have been instrumental in my learning and growing over the years. I listed other random things as they occurred to me: chocolate, books, beanbags, coffee, our new bathroom. There is much which I take for granted, but in global terms I am wealthy and have a great deal more than most.

On the second day, I slowed a little, jotting down names of authors who have inspired or encouraged me, abstract concepts such as laughter and love, small pleasures such as walking along a nature trail, playing with my grandson, stroking a cat. I thought of scents and sounds, of the evidence of God in all creation.

On the third day, it felt harder; I started listing individual fruits and vegetables for which I'm thankful, board games I like to play, books I have enjoyed reading. I didn't remember everything I had listed on the first day, and it started to feel like a chore.

On the fourth day, I didn't write anything down, but I thought of some of the things I had previously listed; even if I never come up with more than 180 'things' it's a lot to be thankful for. And I found that, starting the day by being thankful, I continued the day feeling grateful for those around me, for my health, for the comfort of my home. When I am deliberately being thankful, it's much harder to feel anxious or irritable or frustrated.

The Bible is full of exhortations to be thankful. Here's a list of Bible verses about thankfulness; skimming down, some aren't directly about thanks, but it's simpler to refer to this than come up with my own. Paul gave thanks even when in prison, and started all his letters by thanking God for those he was writing to, for gifts he had been given, for the responsibility he had to spread the good news.

We Christians should be known for our love, but also for being thankful people, acknowledging God in all we are, all we have, and all he has given us. I know there will be occasions in future when I won't feel at all thankful, but that's all the more reason to get into the habit of gratefulness now, when there is so much to be thankful for.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Categorising (or 'Us and Them')

Skimming through this blog, I noticed that almost exactly two years ago I wrote a post entitled 'Normality and Judgement'. It was about the way we tend to make generalisations and assumptions, and how important it is to be open to different cultural and generational traditions and habits, without compromising our faith and what we understand to be ethically important.

I'm currently reading an excellent book: 'Disunity in Christ' by Christina Cleveland. She's an American academic who writes in a very readable and accessible way, and I'm finding much to ponder. An early chapter discusses the way that we categorise things and people around us, and ways sociologists and psychologists describe this.

Categorisation is extremely useful in many situations: we need to know that something is (for instance) edible or not edible. A baby doesn't know this distinction and will often put non-edible items in his mouth to explore. Likewise a young toddler, seeing a four-legged object, doesn't necessarily know whether it's a chair for sitting on, or a table which should not be sat upon. Our grandson, at eighteen months, used a step-stool as a table. When one of the adults with him showed him that it could be sat on, he tried to climb on the coffee table to sit on that.

When we categorise other people, however, we can run into danger. That's not to say that it's always a bad idea: we are aware, for instance, that an elderly person might move slowly and could be somewhat hard of hearing and we make allowances for that. When we hear a certain accent, we have a good idea of where someone might come from. We assume that taxi drivers are competent in their vehicles and probably good at knowing the neighbourhood. When we want building work done on the house, and cannot (or don't want to) do it ourselves, we call a builder.

However we also make generalisations based on stereotypes and hearsay. The Japanese (we assume) eat sushi. The British (we are told) drink tea. People of one religion (it's believed) are peace-loving, people of another religion violent. Graffiti (we imagine) is probably the result of a young and disillusioned person getting hold of a can of spray paint.  And so on. In some cases there is more than a grain of truth in our assumptions.

But not always.

We are Brits who do not drink tea. Any religion is likely to attract a few violent types and some non-confrontational pacifist types, and large numbers of people who are somewhere in between. I'm sure there are some Japanese folk who loathe sushi. And I see no reason why an elderly lady in a wheelchair shouldn't be a secret graffiti artist...

Does that last sentence cause you to shake your head a little, thinking I've gone too far? And yet, why not? Why should it be assumed that young people are likely to deface their environment and old people (who were young themselves once) wouldn't do such a thing?

According to the book I'm reading, there's a tendency to align ourselves with people who are like us in some respects, while avoiding, as far as possible, those who are different. Inevitably we belong to or develop interest-related groups: that's not a bad thing in itself. An orchestra consists of people who are musical and like playing together; a gathering of philatelists isn't going to be enhanced by people who have no interest in stamps.

The problem occurs when we assume only positive things about 'us' and our 'in group', and negative things about everyone else. And we do it, the author tells us, to help us feel more comfortable about ourselves.

As I was reading about this, I felt a tension in my neck, a tightness in my chest. Surely this doesn't apply to everyone? I thought. Yes, I can see that there's a great deal of aggression around the world and negative assumptions about 'others' can certainly contribute to it. But we're not all like that. Some of us are quite able to accept anyone and everyone.

Then something was mentioned that was specifically relevant to the USA, and my shoulders relaxed as I remembered the author's nationality. Ah, I thought, she's writing about Americans here. Americans see things in extremes, in black and white, whereas we Brits...

I caught myself mid-thought. There I was, categorising 'Americans' as 'them'. Which is quite unfair as I know it's a stereotype: some of my closest friends hail from the United States and are not judgemental at all.  But still, the generalisation is in my psyche; and yes, for a moment I took comfort in being in group that didn't categorise negatively.

The good thing, apparently, is that all we need to do to overcome this tendency is to be aware of it. It may take time and effort, but so long as we stay open-minded, and realise that generalisations and categorisations are at best limited and at worst untrue, then we're moving in a less judgemental direction.

As an INFJ 'Idealist', one of my important values is knowing that everyone is a unique and valuable individual, and I don't believe it's right or helpful to judge or negatively categorise anyone at all, even those I find most difficult to relate to, or whom I understand the least...

... in other words, 'we' are those who accept everyone, and 'they' are the ones who categorise and judge....


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Spoon Theory and Health

Spoon Theory is an analogy developed to explain the difficult choices that have to be made, day by day, by those with chronic diseases, serious depression, fibromyalgia and other debilitating conditions. Here's a link to the original story, created in a restaurant, to help a healthy, able-bodied person understand just a little better about how difficult it can be when one doesn't look ill, but has drastically limited energy for even the most basic of tasks.

The idea is now widely known, and used in many contexts. But the disabled community - in the broadest sense, including the chronically sick and exhausted - insist that it's only relevant for those with health conditions of some kind. It does not, some of them say, apply to the able-bodied. The difference is apparently about the need for choices; healthy people (one blogger wrote) have an endless supply of 'spoons', and thus don't need to make constant decisions about which of two options they must do.

I think it's unfortunate that it's seen as so black and white. For one thing, 'health' is a vast spectrum of conditions. Even amongst the chronically sick, one person might have twelve 'spoons' worth of energy for the day, another might have only six. Someone else might wake up with just one, if their condition worsens, or if they've made choices the day before that deplete their entire energy for the rest of the day.

Amongst the generally healthy, too, there are ups and downs. After a bout of influenza, even the fittest of people can feel entirely lacking in energy. Just getting out of bed to go to the bathroom can drain them for hours. Yes, it's temporary. Yes, they will almost certainly get better. It's not to be compared to the chronically sick, who have to suffer in this way day after day. But the reason that the analogy is so powerful is that the rest of us DO understand, not just in theory, but from having been in that situation ourselves, albeit temporarily.

More significantly, though, different people have different amounts of energy. And different activities replenish or diminish it, through the day. I don't think anyone starts the day with an infinite number of spoons; even the most energetic bouncy person will eventually flop.  A child usually has more energy than a young adult. A young adult has more energy than a busy mother. A busy mother has more energy than an elderly person. There are a limited and varying number of spoons for each of us.

I'm fortunate enough to sleep well, usually. So perhaps I wake up with a hundred spoons, rather than just ten or twelve. My situation is undoubtedly much easier than that of someone with chronic illness. I feel rich in spoons; I get out of bed and pull on clothes with barely a thought; yes, the actions take up a couple of spoons, but that's okay; there are lots left.

But there aren't always sufficient spoons to last the day. I have to pace myself too. Not in the ordinary chores which pose so much difficulty to the chronically sick; I certainly understand that there's a wide gulf between someone who has to sit down for half an hour after walking downstairs, and someone who can hurry straight back up the stairs because they've forgotten something. I am very thankful for the spoons I receive every morning, and that, most of the time, they are sufficient.

But I'm an Introvert; that means that simply being with other people is an energy drain.  A pleasant evening with two or three friends is very enjoyable, but it depletes my spoons rapidly. That's okay if I'm going straight to go to bed when they've left; I recharge well when I'm asleep. But if I still need to clear the kitchen, and put the rubbish out, and think about what I'm doing the next day, my mind will go blank; it will be difficult to drag myself to bed. Sometimes I barely have the energy left to brush my teeth.

I'm also growing older. I like pottering in the kitchen; I make almost everything from scratch. It's a choice I make, and I'm thankful that I can. But if on one morning I make soup, and ketchup, and granola, and a cake, none of which is particularly difficult by itself, my spoon supply depletes rapidly. Sometimes there's nothing left by the time everything is finished.

I'm immensely thankful that I'm not chronically ill. I'm thankful that I am able to make choices - genuine choices, to make this, or go there, or do that. But those choices do have an impact on the rest of my day, particularly if I'm with other people. There have been times when I've said 'no' to a suggestion of activity that would probably have been enjoyable, because I know that if I do it, I won't have the energy I need for the following day.

Energy levels can be reduced by pain of any kind, by standing for too long, by stress or arguments. I rate almost 100% on the 'highly sensitive person' scale; in recent years I've adjusted my life so that few of these things impinge too much. I avoid bright lights and loud music; I don't watch television; I make sure I have plenty of time to do things, and try not to run into stressful deadlines. But all those things can deplete my energy - or reduce my spoons, depending on how you prefer to look at it - in ways that are hard to understand by those for whom they are energising.

We each have our own likes and dislikes, our own stresses and concerns. We each have our own energy levels which vary from day to day; we each have different things or people who drain us. There's no easy formula to maximise energy, and sometimes it's inevitable that we run out. Those who are chronically ill have it far worse than those who are able-bodied and healthy, but that doesn't mean we don't or can't 'get it'.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

I love reading with a four-year-old...

Sometimes I see comments online (or even hear them said in real life) to the effect that it's so difficult to read to a small child, because they keep interrupting and it's impossible to read 'properly'. I usually respond that this is what it's supposed to be like - the words and pictures in a young child's book are the starting point for imagination and discussion, not something to be sat through and endured.

And since I had the privilege of reading to one of my favourite small people this morning, without further ado I present an approximate transcript:

E (nearly four-and-a-half) asked me to read 'Mister Magnolia' by Quentin Blake, after a couple of other books. I hadn't read it for a while and it's not too long; I was happy to oblige.

Me: 'Mister Magnolia, by Quentin Blake.'

I turned to the first familiar page and read the classic catchphrase that recurs throughout the book:

Mr Magnolia has only one boot. 

E: And a stripy shirt
Me: Yes, he does, but the words don't say that.
E: What do the words say?
Me: Mr Magnolia has only one boot.
E: You should say 'BOOOT' (said in a high-pitched tone).
Me: Mr Magnolia has only one BOOOT.  No, that sounds silly.
E: Read the words.
Me: I've read all the words on this page.
E: You didn't read the words on the other page.
Me: They're not very interesting.
E: Read them!
Me: Okay. Text and illustrations copyright 1980 Quentin Blake. All Rights Reserved. First published in Great Britain 1980 by Jonathan Cape Ltd.... are you sure you want me to continue?
E: Yes!
Me: (several more lines about where the book was first published in various countries)
E: Now the other page
Me: You know what it says.
E: It should say Mrs, that's a girl
Me: No, it's a man. Mr Magnolia
E: That long word, that says Magnolia
Me: That's right. And 'M-R' says 'Mister'.
E: I think it says OOT.
Me: Well the last word does if we cover up the 'b' at the front. Then it says 'Mr Magnolia has only one oot'.
E: You covered the 'b'
Me (uncovering it) Yes. That word says 'boot', so if I cover up the 'b' it says 'oot'
E: Turn the page!

Me (with relief) He has an old trumpet that goes rooty-toot--
E: That's a guitar case on the floor. So he must be a girl.
Me: Boys can have guitar cases too
(Brief digression involving other members of E's family about people of both genders whom we know who play the guitar, eventually agreeing that a guitar case could be owned by a man or a woman).
E: Why does he keep a trumpet in his guitar case?
Me: Ah. Good point. It's not a guitar case, it's a trumpet case.
E: It looks like a guitar case
Me: Yes, it does, but it's not really the right shape.
E: And Mr Magnolia has only one boot
Me: True, but it doesn't say so on this page.
E: Turn the page

Me:And two lovely sisters who play on the flute --
E: They are girls
Me: Yes, they're his sisters so they must be girls
E: I know they're girls because they have long hair. This one is VERY long
Me: True, but boys can have long hair. And girls can have short hair...
E: They're not very pretty
Me: No, and their dresses are too long. If they stood up they might trip over.
E: Do they have any boots?
Me: I don't know. We can't see their feet because the dresses are so long.
(Brief digression as we all discuss the possible footwear, or lack thereof, which the sisters might be wearing, and a comment about Quentin Blake's drawings always looking that way, and discussion about whether or not the sisters are actually lovely.. mention, too, of the cups of tea and biscuits shown in the picture, and whether they could eat biscuits while playing the flute...)
E: Next page!

Me: In his pond live a frog and a toad and a newt --
E: Which one is the newt? (points) I think that's the frog (pointing at the toad)
Me: No, the one squatting down is the toad, I think the other one is the frog.
E: Hmmm.
(I turn the page)

Me: He has...
E: Why are those birds making holes in his suit?
Me: Because they're parakeets
E: Why does he have them?
Me: I don't know. I don't think he should: that cage is too small for even one parakeet, and there are four of them in the picture.
E: Read it!
Me: He has green parakeets who pick holes in his suit --
E: What's that word? (points at the long one)
Me: Parakeets. A very useful word to be able to read...
(E's mother points out that it's at least phonetic)
(I turn the page)

Me: And some very fat owls who are learning to hoot --
H (E's six-year-old sister, who was busy doing something else) What is 'hoot'?
H&E's mother demonstrates hooting
E: But Mr Magnolia... go on, read the rest!
Me: But Mr Magnolia has only one boot.

By this stage, I was eleven pages into a book which - if read straight through - would only take about a minute to read, and we had been reading and discussing it for at least ten minutes.

I did finish the rest of the book rather more quickly... although we had further discussion about what a salute is, whether the dinosaur was realistic, and why it was raining.

Not every book is discussed this extensively - I think this is the longest we've ever taken with this particular one! - but this is the kind of conversation that makes reading aloud to young children so very enjoyable.

<--- and this is a link to 'Mister Magnolia' on Amazon UK, just in case anybody who reads this post is wondering what happened at the end of the story, or would like to have a copy to read to their own small child.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

You are what you read?

I was tagged on Facebook by a friend who had listed ten books that 'stayed' with her. The challenge was not to think hard or come up with great literature, but to list, off the top of my head, ten books that had affected me in some way.


Only ten books!

We own about three thousand, and while I freely admit that I am unlikely to read some of them again (and at least a few hundred are thrillers which I don't suppose I'll ever read) I feel most comfortable when I am in a house with plenty of books. When I know I will never run out of things to read. I keep a couple of hundred unread books on my Kindle, too, just in case.

I think, if I absolutely had to, I could reduce my books to around one thousand, so long as I knew that the rest were going to good homes. But even that would be difficult. So many good books, so many wonderful authors. Even if I don't re-read a book in its entirety, I may well dip into it again.

But it was a challenge I could not resist. I certainly wasn't going to write about the first ten books that came into my head; I wanted to make sure they really had influenced or affected me in some way - that they had genuinely 'stayed' with me over the years.  So I started jotting down a few titles...

Taking my cue from the old 'Desert Island Discs' radio show, I decided to assume that the Bible and the entire works of Shakespeare can automatically be included, so I wasn't going to list either as part of my ten. The Bible has affected me more than any other book; or, rather, collection of books - it's kept one volume, usually, but is 66 books in all. Some of them are very short, and some have influenced me a lot more than others. John's gospel and letters are probably the ones I would choose if I had to pick just a few.

As for Shakespeare, I'm not an unqualified out-and-out fan, but several of his plays have stuck in my mind and I love watching them; Shakespeare coined so many phrases that we're all affected by him regularly.

I thought more about the insistence that I should choose books should have STAYED with me. I decided that, for that to be the case, they must be books which I first read at least 20 years ago. So that excludes Philip Yancey's 'What's so Amazing about Grace?' (and all else he's written), JK Rowling's Harry Potter series,  Susan Howatch's 'Glittering Images' (and sequels), plus Wayne Jacobsen and Brian McLaren's books - all of which will undoubtedly stay with me and be re-read in the future. These books have affected my philosophy and worldview within the past twenty years and I'd recommend them to anyone. I make no apology for the Christian themes (overt or otherwise) for all the above. (Links are to my book reviews blog).

When I started thinking about books that had influenced me profoundly, I really wanted to include the original 'Good Housekeeping' cookery book, which we were given as a wedding present and which I still refer to, even though it's falling to pieces (and even though I have an updated modern version - which is still good, but completely different). But something had to go, so I decided to limit my list to fiction, if I was to have any hope at all of choosing just ten.

Below is the list I posted, in roughly the order in which I first read them. I decided to see which of them I had read in the past 16 years and thus reviewed on my book blog, and was a little surprised to find eight of them - some of them I read more than once, even in this timeframe. I think that underlines just how much these books have, indeed, stayed with me. As for the remaining two, one is too short for a book review on my blog, and one of them is long out of print and unavailable.

1. The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton - this is the earliest book I can recall reading, when I was about five or six. I was - well - enchanted by it and its sequels, and re-read them many times. This book introduced me to fairies and fairy-tales, dreams and wishes, and the concept of good triumphing over evil. (They're not at all politically correct, but I didn't notice until I read them aloud to my sons many years later).

2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis - I suppose I was about six or seven when I first read this. Maybe younger - it's a book that's always been on my shelves, along with its sequels. I do know that the first time I read it, I took it all at face value as a wonderful adventure story. A couple of years later I read the whole series again and had an amazing 'aha!' moment as I realised that it was all connected with God. I'm so glad I discovered that for myself, and that nobody tried to explain the allegories to me.

3. Margaret and the Currant Bunny by Edith Elias - I read this book almost every summer from the time I was about seven; it was on the shelves in my bedroom at my grandparents' house; an old book, even in the 1960s. It sent shivers up my spine but I couldn't resist it. I wish I knew what had happened to it - it's apparently impossible to find a copy of it now. Maybe I would hate it as an adult. But I've never forgotten it.

4. The School at the Chalet by Elinor M Brent-Dyer - This is another book which I initially discovered at my grandparents' home, along with about fifteen of the sequels. I was perhaps eight or nine when I started reading these; I already loved Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers books, but there was so much more depth in the Chalet School series. I was thrilled to find the entire series (over 50 books!) in the library at my secondary school. The first book isn't my favourite by a long way; it's a bit slow-moving and I'd recommend new readers to start with the second. But it was my entry into the wonderful world of thinking, discussing, interesting education. The books also reinforced the importance of honesty and authenticity, and close families; it also helped me understand good sportsmanship. I wanted to be Joey Maynard when I grew up.

5. Gemma by Noel Streatfeild. I'd read 'Ballet Shoes', of course, and various others by this author, but I think I was about ten before I came across 'Gemma' and its three sequels, and was totally captivated. Wonderful family stories, even if they do include the typecast highly gifted children!

6. Mystery at Witchend by Malcolm Saville. Again, the first of a series and not my favourite of the 20 'Lone Pine' books; but it was the introduction to yet another world of friendship mixed with loyalty and love.

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - We had to read the first two or three chapters of this for English homework one weekend when I was around 14. I started reading.. and couldn't put it down. I emerged, starry-eyed, when it was time for lunch and kept reading afterwards. I asked for a copy of my own for Christmas and re-read it many times. It was my favourite book for years.

8. An Old-fashioned girl by Louisa M Alcott - I'd read the 'Little Women' books, but came across this lesser-known teenage novel by the same author when I was about fifteen. I fell in love with it and have read it many times.

9. The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, age 37 3/4 by Adrian Plass - I first read this shortly after it was published in 1987, and it was the first book ever to make me laugh out loud on almost every page. It pokes gentle satirical fun at the silliness of some (all right, a lot of) Christians, and yet is incredibly thought-provoking at the same time. I became an instant Plass fan, and have read all his other books, but the first one (which STILL makes me chuckle when I re-read it) has a special place in my heart.

10. Dogger by Shirley Hughes. I first came across this when a friend's small daughter borrowed it from school - so although it's a children's picture book, I didn't actually read it until around 1990. She read half of it to me, and I read the rest to myself later; it was so lovely, it brought tears to my eyes. I bought it for my sons, and read it to them - difficult without choking up - and gradually they grew out of it. But it's one of the picture book I've kept, and when I got it out to read to small friends in the past few years, it made me cry all over again. I love all Shirley Hughes' books, but 'Dogger' is, I think, my all-time favourite picture book.

So - that's ten books, all of which influenced me in some way, all of which have reinforced positive character traits and the importance of family and friends. I think that's probably why they stood out in my mind; a couple of hours after writing the Facebook update, I think these are still the ten I would choose.

As I was writing my list, I did remember many other books that have been important to me over the years. As a child, I loved the Paddington series by Michael Bond, AA Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, books by E Nesbit, Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery, and many more. In more recent years I've discovered and enjoyed the 'Sophie' series by Dick King-Smith, and the series starting with 'Saffy's Angel' by Hilary McKay. And I suppose if I want to be literal about a book staying with me, I should also mention 'I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew' by Dr Seuss, which I used to read nightly to my sister, and can still recite, pretty much, from memory.

But while I read and enjoyed all those books, and others, I don't think they affected me on a deep level as the ones on my list did. Having said that, I should give a special mention to 'Treasures of the Snow' by Patricia M St John; I first read that when I was about six and it had a profound influence on my life and my early Christian faith. It certainly affected me as a child, in a far-reaching way; but I haven't read it in a long time, and didn't think of it until I'd finished my list. Perhaps I should re-read it soon.

As a young adult, I enjoyed books by Georgette Heyer, and PG Wodehouse, and Rosamunde Pilcher; these were my stepping stones from children's fiction into books intended for adults, so they are significant in that respect; I've discovered many great authors in the past thirty years or so. But I haven't been influenced by fiction as an adult nearly as much as I was as a child. But then, my core values and beliefs were mostly formed by the time I was in my twenties.