Reflections and Ruminations

PeasantGirlwithEmbroiderybyFilippMalyavin

Peasant Girl with Embroidery by Filipp Malyavin

It doesn’t seem to matter where I look, I can’t avoid seeing the usual persuasive messages to make improving resolutions as the next year rolls around. I’ve turned the television off for now and am now sitting in the peace and quiet of my studio . . . reflecting.

I am not going to make any New Year’s Resolutions! There – I’ve said it. Year after year has gone by, and the same old resolutions rear up again and again, much like in the movie ‘Groundhog Day’, and for once I’m going to do something different. Has my life really changed that much for all the intention put into it at the beginning of each January? I think it’s time to cut myself some slack.

We watched the news tonight, and the New Year’s honours list of New Zealanders who have been awarded various orders of merit. And they probably all deserved them. But I’m a little tired of hearing about achievements, or people who have become famous for this or that, and the huge drive we seem to have for fame, fortune and the reaching of self-imposed pinnacles.

Where am I going with this?

TheAngelusPaintingJeanFrancoisMillet

The Angelus by Jean Francois Millet

For all that I can admire the hard work and achievement of others, there’s another part of me that is drawn to the other side of that spectrum.

The people who have been of the greatest influence in my own life, have not been the sort to be awarded medals or special honours. They have probably never sat down and contemplated how to be nicer, or kinder, or slimmer or simply more happy. It’s probably the last thing they would be thinking of.

In my early years I worked at the Government Printing Office, as a new graphic designer, and was full of the excitement and energy of the job and the potential for improving my situation. Working alongside me in the office were a number of other artists, but nearby there was a plate-making facility for transfering our designs into separated artwork for the presses, and in this area was a small non-descript desk. At this tiny table a little woman sat, bent almost double over her book of accounts. I called her Birdie, for she was as bright and cheerful as one, and she would shuffle over to speak to me first thing in the morning when she arrived. She must have been in her late forties, and her arms were twisted in upon themselves, and her feet were clubbed, and she walked bent over with slow and painful steps. Such was the condition of her twisted feet, that she made her own shoes! And she got herself in to work each day by train from Lower Hutt, and walked up from the station to the building. I visited her once at her house, and we shared a cup of tea and admired her two cats. For all the difficulty each day must have brought her, I cannot remember one complaining word out of her. Not one. She just got on with her life, recognized its limitations and adjusted her viewpoint, and looked for ways to enjoy it. That humbled me and has stayed with me since.

My own mother was a sweet and gentle woman, limited not physically but brought up to be frugal and careful with her money, and living with many more restrictions upon her than I currently enjoy. That elusive ability she had to feel joy over so little, is something I remember of her. She made occasions for us out of scant resources, and her face always lit up upon seeing any of us—even if we had only been gone an hour!

MilletbyRomainRolland

Millet by Romain Rolland

My bookshelf has books about people who have moved apart from the norm, and chose to follow a road of hardship and ignominy (in some cases), because they had seen something more important, something that acted upon them in vision or revelation. It became less about them and more about answering that ‘call’. Mother Theresa certainly is within that category, and she worked away all her life answering it not for the celebrity but because it had become as breathing to her. I mention her, because in the end she was very well known, but there are many who have come and gone without sending a ripple through the wider world. Watchman Nee was another, a Chinese man who gave up a promising career because he knew he was called to totally different path. His writings are rich and show a rare insight that is inspirational.

Most recently I came across some school children I taught at a local primary school who are now 45 yrs old. Along with them came a teacher from the neighbouring class. This teacher is now 87 years old, and I popped around to see her yesterday. Her story was amazing. She had a map of the world out and highlighted on it were all the places she has been, where she has offered her expertise as a teacher, freely. It looked like only a bit of Russia, Mongolia and upper Canada were unmarked. She has helped start schools in the most obscure places of the world, in hardship and enduring primitive conditions, and looks and sounds as she did when I worked with her forty years ago. She has an amazing faith, and I sat and soaked up her story in awe.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is how important it is to know yourself. And when you know yourself, and have taken stock of what you have and are, be grateful. I cannot look at any other person and think, ‘this year I am going to try to be more like them.’ Let’s face it, if we sat down and critiqued ourselves based upon ideals others have reached, we would have an interminable list. I will never be thin enough, funny enough, rich enough, pretty enough, loved enough—and to start at the point of measuring myself up against others will always be a disappointing and disheartening exercise.

Instead, I would like it to be less about me, and more about what truly drives me. If it is family or children, wonderful! If it is writing or art or dance or gardening, then let me revel in that. If it is a ‘call’ upon me, to reach out to others and share what I have found, then I will go for it with all my heart. Personally, I have found that the more passionate I am about the things that matter to me, the less I think about myself and what I lack. I would like to be remembered, as Birdie is to me, as the one who knew real joy and gave it back in abundance. That is what I remember about her – her triumph over her straitened circumstances. It is no small thing.

JozsefSoproniHorvath

Portrait by Jozsef Soproni Horvath

It is a wonderful and rare thing to be content. Not lazy, not indolent, not apathetic—content.

Oh – and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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The giving and receiving of LOVE

It is not enough to live, we all need to love and know we are loved. I’m going to scuff around the edges of a subject so overworked and laboured that it is almost impossible to go near. The ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ scenario.

However—I am sitting here by myself, the day after Christmas, that one day of the year when we are most likely to see a generous and visible aspect of Love at work—and I am thinking about love, and how we/I measure it.

For we DO measure it to some degree. It is the nature of man to stand somewhere in that spectrum of a conscious awareness of how many people know us and like us, how many love us (despite our faults), how many we easily love back through to the ones we put effort into liking to a lesser or greater extent.

This puts me in mind of one of my favourite books: ‘The Four Loves’ by C. S. Lewis. In it he describes three types of love we humans are capable of expressing, and love as it truly means. Let’s look at the first three, and bear in mind that even here, many do not experience all three.

MitraShadfar painting

(Painting by Mitra Shadfar)

Our first source of love experienced usually comes at birth, from our mother. He calls it ‘affection’ and says it is the love ‘least different to that of the animals.’ He hastens to add that in no way does this lessen its value. It is a love born of need—the need for the child for nurture, the need for the mother to give birth or die, growing beyond that into true affection and care. It is this love that is the least discriminating, Lewis says, because it does not rely upon the beauty or cleverness or skill or similarity in the one loved. And I must agree that in my own experience, the day I found out that my mother had died, (my father having died four years earlier), I felt myself entirely lacking anyone on this earth who had known me so long, and despite my quirks and annoying traits, loved me unconditionally. My siblings know me almost as well and I hope, forgive much, but that reliance I had in my parents’ affection was suddenly gone.

I am single and childless, and so it was not, for me, a case of having children looking to me for that same sense of safety and ‘home’. And despite being a loved and familiar ‘Aunty Jenny’ to some of my nieces and nephews—something I value beyond words—it is not the same as being their parent.

Painting by Vidal Cuglietta

(Painting by Vidal Cuglietta)

This leads me to another love C.S. Lewis talks about: Eros. This is the ‘being in love’ kind of love. This love singles out one other, and most times but not always, involves our sexuality and the satisfaction of those impulses. It is much more than that of course; it singles one other person out and when returned, each is wholly caught up in the eyes of the other. They think about each other all the time. Lewis goes into much more detail about the subtleties of this love and it does, indeed, underpin much of our human existence. It is the basis for romance—and in case you wondered, romance novels are the largest selling genre in the world of fiction. We all want to feel special to that one other person, and to feel we have someone with whom we can share our experience of life.

In my own experience, for whatever reason, I did not ‘find’ that person. And I know I speak for many others who did not either, or who now have suffered the devastation of losing their ‘other’. Without plunging more deeply into those miry depths, let me just say that it is possible to appreciate the value of this particular love, without actually experiencing it. Much as I can appreciate motherhood without having been a mother. To be frank, sometimes the idea that there are still many couples out there who are selflessly devoted to each other, and pushing through all the tragedies of life without wavering in their love, is a very heartening thing to me. Long may that be true.

Painting byLeonid Afremov

(Painting by Leonid Afremov)

The third kind of love C.S. Lewis talked about was friendship love. He was clear that although this was not usually regarded by us as important as affection (parent-child-family) or eros (lovers), it was no less important. Here is where you meet someone else with whom you go “What? You too?” in delight at a shared interest or understanding. Here is where you do not just stare like lovers into each other’s eyes, but shoulder to shoulder move forward and gather others of like mind to join you. Here, you love each other by choice and shared experience, out of any range of age or gender, eagerly enlarging your shared experiences and broadening your bounds. This kind of love can be enjoyed and experienced by anyone, and is the one I am most familiar with. Real friendship is something held lightly and carefully, requiring nothing of the other that they do not want to give, and allowing them the freedom to engage as they will. Some friendships run so deep that long absence does not affect them, and a return to their company is as simple as starting the next conversation. Other friendships are truly just for a season, and by mutual consent drift apart (whether they are truly friendship as a love, is doubtful).

At this point Lewis brings up the last Love, and it is here that I struggle to find words to express my thoughts. You see, all of the other loves mentioned are to some degree or other, flawed. We humans don’t have a good track record at reaching our ideals, and the loves already mentioned are ideals—something we know just enough about to value them, but dissatisfying-ly elusive in nature.

As I mentioned at the start, at Christmas we experience a situation that requires of us the need to express that love we feel—in any or all of the ways described above—through the giving and receiving gifts and sharing a meal together. With all the commercialism associated with the season, it’s a lot of pressure on any one person, and even more difficult if you are one of the many who do not have a wealth of those three loves in your life. I truly do feel for you.

Lewis calls this last love Charity. It is an old-fashioned word which has been subsumed to mean many other things, but at its heart it means unconditional, unearned, overflowing acceptance, nay—Love—from One who knows you better than you know yourself. Nothing humbled me more, nor changed my perception of life more, than my realization that this love not only existed but that it was personal and intimate. And I cannot let Christmas go by—with all its reliance on our weak human love—without pointing out that it was in fact, a celebration of the birth of this fourth Love upon our world. I speak from my own personal experience when I say that I know this Love exists. It is not political. It has no human agenda. It is not there to right the wrongs you perceive about the situation around you. Those are all too lowly and small to encompass a Love that is much more than that. (This is another whole discussion I don’t have blog enough to go into here.)

It is the sort of Love you can only surrender yourself to, without conditions.

Honestly, at one of my lowest ebbs when I was a teenager, when all hope felt gone and despair clutched at my heart, having heard (but hardly believing) that I had but to ask and God would reveal himself, I cast myself down by my bed and did just that. As I knelt hardly knowing what I was doing, but waiting, I felt a growing presence behind me. It was personal. It wasn’t a thing (the universe, mother earth, a weird extra-terrestrial). It was Love personified, and I felt for the first time unconditionally loved. So much light filled me and seemed poised just behind me, that I feared if I turned around and saw that much love, I would die. I was answered in ways I had never dreamed, and I have never been the same since then. I cannot ‘unsee’ Love as he exists.

You would think that I would have looked different from that day on, wouldn’t you? In fact, the glory is that I fail and fail again, I know disappointment, and singleness, and childlessness, and health issues, and yet, despite or because of it, I can never, ever shake the deep unswerving knowledge that I am Loved. And it makes all the difference.

And if it is true of me, believe me, it is true of you.

Jenny

IMG_3965

2018 was a good year

Two things involving words that I have not done for a while: I haven’t written a blog and I certainly have not sent off any Christmas cards. So here I sit on a Friday night, deciding to kill two birds with one stone.

Looking back at this last year, I must say it is a vast improvement on some of the recent previous. We lost Mum in 2016, and it took a while to get used to not having her wonderful presence around. Last year I wrote my longest self-published book ‘Auckland to Orkney’ after spending weeks roaming Scotland. I figured I’ll have a go at jotting down the significant events of this year, which (unbelievably) is nearly over.

February: The week long camping trip up at Kai Iwi lakes. This is a wonderful summer tenting holiday–usually–and although my sis and I got a few days of swimming in the clear fresh water and reading, the winds began to howl around us, and the rain threatened, so we packed up and went North instead. Visited a few places I haven’t been in a while and stayed in motels or B&Bs.

April saw the weather more settled and a small but heartwarming gathering of our small church to see the sun rise for Easter morning.

May and June: Helen (sis) and I headed off for six weeks to the UK. We hung out for a few days with our dear friends in Bournemouth visiting some of the local sites.

We flew from London to Tirana, Albania, to meet up with some folk from small house church gatherings along with other women from the UK, USA, Canada and the Netherlands. It was glorious.

Then we went to Paris for a couple of days, staying in Montmartre.

We took the fast train to the south of France, and stayed in St. Remy, Provence, going out each day to visit various of the many quaint picturesque spots nearby. Every day was full of glory, from a clear green river that poured out of a mountainside, to the Van Gogh sanitarium where he spent many years, to the Roman ruins just outside St Remy. Two weeks of enjoying Provence- and we even found an early field of lavender.

We flew direct from Marseilles to Dublin, where Helen experienced Ireland for the first time, and I saw how much it had changed since I saw it thirty years ago. Our trip to Ireland finished with a trip out to County Wicklow.

July, and we were well and truly back in wintery Auckland, both of us at new jobs. Mine was as a PhD Administrator for the School of Engineering, Computer & Maths Sciences at AUT University. I am working three days a week there, but it is busy, and the other two days are spent even busier at home. I had found out the day before we left to go to the UK that my first fiction book – An Unexpected Highlander – was accepted by a publisher, and so I came home and began my second historical romantic fiction (of course!). Somewhat surprisingly, my strongest supporters turned out to be a group of engineering tutors and supervisors who I got to know going up to level 6 to make my coffee in the morning. I became known as ‘Enid’ in honour of Enid Blyton. But of course, truly, my largest band of encouragers are the many friends I have made through the Outlander fandom, who all love well – Scotland, history, adventure, romance, and a good yarn.

And so the long winter months progressed:

By September, I completed the final edits on my new book, and in October it was published and for sale through Boroughs Publishing Group (LA) or Amazon. Needless to say, I was and still am, excited and thrilled.

Also this month, I received an intriguing request from someone I didn’t know. Initially I ignored it until the person identified themselves as a child who I had taught back in 1980, in my third year teaching. They had organised a meet up at a local pub, and to my delight and surprise, a small group of ex-pupils from Edendale Primary School were there, and one of the teachers I had taught with. A happy reunion indeed!

Mid-October I flew to Brisbane, and was picked up by a fellow Outlander fan and her husband, and stayed the night with them before Amanda drove us on a lengthy day-long journey down to Glen Innes in NSW for a ‘Through the Stones’ Outlander Gathering. Here I met up with a wonderful boisterous bunch of mainly women from the ANZOFs group (Australian and New Zealand Outlander Fans), and we spent three days delighting in all things Scottish and Outlander, even meeting David Berry, who plays Lord John in the show.

In November, I sent my second novel to the publisher and am currently awaiting the response. I am halfway through my teen novel about a boy who is transformed by a magical pearl and can breathe underwater.

It is now December. Endless functions rounding up the year have happened at work. I have taken to cycling the three days I work in town, to try and improve my exercise – if the weather is not too bad. Have even managed to cycle a couple of times with my older brother and younger sister, which was great. We are all looking forward to summer, which has only hinted at being here. Christmas is a couple of weeks away, and then the true holidays begin.

I hope you who are reading this, have a peaceful, festive, fun season, and can face 2019 with hope and cheerful anticipation, as I am.