Author Archives: Nicole Conner

The Relationship Glue: Kindness

“When I was young I admired clever people, now that I am old I admire kind people.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel-

 

Psychologists John and Julie Gottman spent four decades studying relationships. They set up a research centre at the Washington University and together with a colleague, Robert Levenson, analysed hundreds of relationships (now referred to as “The Gottman Method”) – some successful and some disasters. One of the critical discoveries in their research had to do with how a person responded to their partner when the partner was making a request or ‘bid’ for conversation and interaction:

“People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t – those who turned away – would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”

They concluded that contempt is the driving factor behind relationships breaking down! But what holds it all together? What is the key ingredient to healthy relationships? It’s kindness:

“Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated – feel loved. ‘My bounty is as boundless as the sea,’ says Shakespeare’s Juliet. ‘My love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.’ That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.”

I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by many kind people. Their selfless acts of kindness have often left me choked up as I consider what a cold world I would live in without them. My parents modelled kindness to me. Money or status was not something that ranked high on their value system, but kindness was. Through their actions and discussions, I learnt that accomplishments turn to ash if you cannot live a life of kindness. My ever-chirpy life partner is one of ‘booming’ kindness. His consistent acts of love and care often make me stop and think how I happen to do life with an exceptional human. Kindness really is the ancient new black 😃

But what is kindness? To me, kindness is love in action. It is creating benefits for another at the expense or risk of yourself. There are many forms of kindness. We can be kind with our emotions by showing empathy and compassion. We can be kind with a “there you are” attitude. “There you are” people exude kindness when noticing the stranger, the one that is alone, or afraid. They are the people who walk into a room and are kind (and secure) enough to put the focus on the other. In recent weeks I have had so many acts of kindness come my way – a friend who dropped everything to wash my windows when we left our home in Queensland, someone else who offered a meal and bought a banquet that lasted for days, another person who hopped on their motorbike to help unload our furniture (a daunting task considering the nightmare we experienced with our removalist), a friend who drove for a couple of hours to help sort my vast array of books onto shelves … This last month I was reminded over and over again that the attribute of kindness is the most noble of human traits.

There have been studies on the biology and evolution of kindness:

“Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that works like a hormone in our bodies, reducing fear, anxiety, and stress while increasing feelings of trust, calm, safety, and connectedness. On a biological level, it improves our digestion, reduces inflammation, lowers blood pressure, and improves healing. It’s the same chemical that is released when we feel love and have sex. No wonder kindness feels good!”

Kindness inspires me. I want to ‘hang’ in the kind space, with these giants of kindness.

People who have learnt that ultimately no one gives a flying rip about how clever we are, how many material toys we have, or how important we perceive ourselves to be. Rather, the energy and power shifts and changes when kindness walks into a room.

I want to live my life as a kind and generous human.

Kind to others.

Kind to the planet and all its inhabitants.

Kind to myself.

Will you join me on this quest?

Let’s make the world a better place one kind step at a time.

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” – Desmond Tutu –

“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”  – Henry James –

“Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain –

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Your Life as a Deep Blue Sea

“I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”
– Anaïs Nin –

In the last month, we have packed up our household, travelled two thousand kilometers south with three cars and two dogs in tow, and then unpacked what we had just painstakingly wrapped up at our new residence on the glorious Mornington Peninsula in Melbourne, Australia. Our current location fulfils a bucket list dream: to live within walking distance of the sea. I have always loved the sea, and it has been calling me closer for a very long time.

A couple of days after our arrival we took a walk to explore our new neighbourhood and discovered, much to our delight, that we had landed on the shores of Port Phillip Bay just in time to watch an annual phenomenon: the spider crab migration! As we stood on the pier and observed the ocean floor, it seemed to be alive and moving – with thousands upon thousands of crabs doing their crab thing. It was fascinating. Someone we know has spent many hours filming this nature extravaganza – have a look at her blog here.

As we walked out to the end of the pier observing these enchanting, pre-historic-like creatures, the water became deeper and darker. Eventually, the crabs disappeared into the sheer depth of the sea and no one would have known of the crustacean diaspora that was unfolding on the ocean floor. At that moment the sun disappeared behind the clouds and as the day became grey, the ocean, still alluring, seemed almost menacing. A few moments before, if the temperature was right (!!), I would have willingly and joyfully jumped into the sparkling water, but now I felt hesitant and unsure. The sea, like our life, is both enticing and terrifying, alluring and menacing, welcoming and hostile, joyful and grim. Yes, our life is a bit like the deep blue sea.

Us humans suffer from ‘chronic assumption disease’ – it is easy to assume we know one another. But how can we possibly comprehend what goes on in the depth or the shallows of another person’s life? Or, for that matter, have we taken time to consider our own life with all its ups and downs, crystal calm moments and stormy waves? Do you ever find yourself doing or saying something and wondering where the hell did that come from?

Spiritual contemplatives and mystics of all different faith traditions have encouraged us to observe the patterns of our lives and pay heed to our ways. It is the practice of reflection and recognition that brings us to maturity, contentment and/or change. The sea is a gift to us. It connects us to meaning and purpose. A sunset over the water fills us with wonder. A beach holiday rejuvenates the weary. It provides us with a powerful metaphor for our lives. We can build on an idea that our life is a peaceful lake – predictable and measurable. However, it only takes a few years of existence on this planet to discover that our life, your life, my life is a lot more like the roaring, at time tumultuous, mysterious and playful sea – full of stories and adventure.

Your life, dear friend, is not a lake or a puddle or a single stream story. No, it is so much more – it is wide and deep and blue. It contains Leviathan will all its fury, and yet Nemo can also find a home there 🙂 It is your mystery and a constant reminder that you are held in the loving hands of Divine Mystery. May you live it to the full. Happy scuba diving … surfing … sailing … swimming … snorkeling … paddling … breathing …

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.”
– Ann Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea) –

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Ignore or Silence Dissent At Your Own Peril!

Today I am reposting a blog on dissent – may you stand tall, stay true and speak up.

“Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.”
Jacob Bronowski

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Dissenters are a real pest, especially in a nice, neat, and controlled environment. When the mantra is to be happy, submissive and comfortable, dissenters, like the prophets of old, upset the royal apple cart. When the power of governments, organisations or institutions, precariously rests on the ‘happiness’ and ‘compliance’ of its subordinates, dissenters are extremely dangerous.

When I talk about dissent, I am referring to an ability to hold a differing opinion to the status quo or to protest an injustice. Please do not mistake dissent for abuse or violence. Also, if you are continually protesting and criticising, it may be wise to take time to reflect and deal with your own shadow, as it may be reflecting back to you in the mirror of others.

The brilliant Socrates provides a rather sorry example of dissent. He stood up to a system that eventually murdered him. His protest was particularly threatening as Athens began to crumble after the bloody wars with Spasocrates4-400x250rta. Athens’ Golden Age was over. Failing empires, terrified at their dwindling power, will do just about anything to silence the voices that they see as threatening. Socrates likened himself to a gadfly sent to keep a lazy and fat thoroughbred horse (the State) alert and awake. His sentiment was not appreciated, and he was put to death. History proves this to be the fate of many dissenters. In the sacred text of the Old Testament, the prophets sat on the margins of power structures and would regularly protest the shenanigans of unjust systems, and, like Socrates, they often found themselves rather dead.

The unpleasant truth is we need dissent. We need to hear the voices of disagreement and criticism. A thriving organisation will see dissent as a duty. Studies have shown that organisations where board members like each other, dine together and discourage open debate, tend to lose financially: Like-minded people, talking only with one another, usually end up believing a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. If you want a healthy organisation, then you need to invite those who think differently into places where policies are made. You need to work hard to prevent laziness of thought that breeds in comfort, sameness, and familiarity. Avoid a culture that does not allow for questions, doubt, or expressing concerns. Those annoying ‘red flag’ fliers can save your hide. You need to see dissent as an obligation and insist on a wide variety of voices. In dissent lie the keys to health and balance. A contrarian can contribute tremendously by offering a different point of view. Research demonstrates that just knowing there’s a dissenting voice is enough to ‘induce different cognitive processes that yield better judgments.’

When it comes to organised and institutional religion, it becomes very concerning to observe the disdain some religious leaders demonstrate towards dissenters. Even though Protestantism has a rather rich history of dissent (check out the name again!), it seems like in some modern churches today, any form of criticism is seen as being disloyal or unbiblical. The church, just like any other organisation, deserves and needs the same honest critique as any other. And, yes, you can be the Church, love the Church, participate in the Church, and also protest the Church.

So for those who are facing an issue of injustice and find themselves wanting to speak up but feeling threatened, remember the words of the novelist William Faulkner, Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world … would do this, it would change the earth. Remember, we need the voice of dissent, the contrarian in our lives, organisation and world, as painful as it may be. A community that ignores or silences its dissenters is a place that has begun to die a long time ago. Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable and healthiest things you can do this week is to give yourself permission to ungag the voices of dissent in your life?

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Lessons from the Fockers: The Circle of Trust

“This is the reason I created the circle of trust – so we can discuss these things.” – Jack Byrnes

What are your favourite movies? You know, those movies that you’ve watched a hundred times but if someone suggested a night that includes red wine and that movie, you would cancel the meeting with royalty to be there! One of mine is Meet the Fockers. There are many reasons why I like this film – the uncanny resemblance of the different family dynamics is uncomfortably familiar and similar to those of my partner’s and my own life. My mother could have embodied Barbara Streisand 🙂 For us, it wasn’t even a comedy – it was the story of our lives.

Jack Byrnes’ (Robert De Niro) insistence of establishing an exclusive “Circle of Trust” that is built on a very fickle set of rules, bullying tactics, and paranoia is a most interesting study in human relations. He obviously does not believe that Gregory Focker is a suitable groom for his “first-born” and threatens him with the removal from the “circle of trust” – “and once you are out, you are out – there is no return.” Ouch! Poor Focker.

Now I do not want to condone Jack’s bullying, manipulative power tactics – BUT Jack has a lesson for all of us. We all have a “circle of trust” or “club membership to our life story” – people who through history and relationship have an elevated position in our lives. We listen to their voices, even when they are long gone, and we take their advice far more seriously because they have impacted our lives in some way or another. Often this is a very positive exchange. We can all think of people who have contributed to our identity in meaningful ways. People who have added to the hopes and dreams we have held. People whose values and ethics have aligned with our own, creating a sense of belonging. Take the time to remember them.

And then there are the others …!! The people who have an elevated access to our lives because of friendship, work association, faith community or family relationship, and who routinely through their words and actions undermine us and compound a problem-laden story-line in our lives. People who break the “circle of trust” not just once or twice but who are consistent in that form of negative behaviour. Perhaps, like me, you tend to put up with this much longer than you should?

I don’t assume to know your story, but one of the reasons I have tolerated this in my life is that I was operating under the false idea that to be a “good Christian” you have to allow people to treat you like shit and then forgive them. Now there’s a lot to say about the journey of forgiveness – perhaps for another blog post. But often in religious circles, we are told we are “loved” and that we “matter” – and we drink the cool aid. So then when abuse happens, we cannot believe that we have been treated that badly. It creates a sense of unreality, confusion and we simply do not trust our perception of the situation – so we stick around. It’s called cognitive dissonance – we are holding two contradicting beliefs. On the one hand, we are told that we are loved, yet on the other, we are treated terribly by those who profess that love. When you go to confront it, you are met with passive aggressive smiles and denial that again throws you into confusion and anxiety. Don’t be surprised that this form of gas-lighting is often rampant by the power brokers of organisations or family units. We may feel powerless caught in such a circle – like Greg Focker.

We may need a neutral or impartial person to come alongside us and help us recognise what is actually going on. When your trust has been badly violated over a long period of time it helps to talk about it, recognise it and build a preferred story-line where the perpetrators are, in Jack Byrne’s words “removed from the circle.” Trust is one of the most precious components in relationships. It is an unrealistic expectation to think that no one we are in relationship with will break our trust, or for that matter, that we won’t break the trust of someone else. However, there is a massive difference between breaking trust, owning it, and providing the hurting party with an unreserved apology, and a pattern of abusive behaviour that consistently breaks our trust and spirals us into anxiety.

We also have to identify and own our complicity in often enabling a toxic circle of trust. Most of us would have played a part of controlling such a circle at some stage or another, often with good intentions. It starts in kindergarten. We form circles with people who think like us, look like us and believe like us. Like Jack, we have prided ourselves on being the guardians of such a circle and have contributed to a plethora of dogmas and policies to hold it all in place. When people don’t measure up they are ousted and become part of the throng of exiles who simply could not fit in. I stand guilty as charged.

So, dear friend, we can take many lessons from Jack Byrne and his circle of trust. Let’s take a good look at whether we are playing a role in a toxic circle that is harming people’s lives. And let’s also consider that healthy circles of trust play a crucial role in relationships. We actually have a choice about whose ‘voice’ we will elevate in our lives. You have that choice.

So, dear friend, take a leaf from the life of Jack Byrnes and choose the Fockers in your circle carefully. Live your rich and multi-faceted life with gusto! xx

 

 

 

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On the Move Again … !!!

“She took a step and didn’t want to take any more, but she did.” – Mark Zusak (The Book Thief)

I have moved thirty-seven times in my life, or maybe thirty-eight?? I can’t remember – but I moved a lot. Today I was again knee deep in boxes, packing and reducing the evidence of my existence to just over a third of what we brought with us to the Sunny Coast. Minimalising, I have found, is best taken in steps. In the meantime, I have done my bit in stocking local Salvo stores!

So much has happened in the last eighteen months. Both my partner and I have experienced an inner change that is hard to put into words, a migration of identity that has been accompanied by healing that both the liminal space and this beautiful geographical paradise helped provide.

As we head back down south for a variety of reasons, we leave behind my father who I love very much. He has now made his home in a little cottage in Tiaro, Queensland. It is a place that holds many precious memories for him. It is great to see him so content, but after ten years of living in family community together, I already miss him terribly. We will also leave behind new friends that became dear friends very quickly. People who reached out to us when we arrived exhausted and frazzled and speaking for myself, fairly angry and disillusioned. Friends whose shared laughter, tears and care have meant so much. Fortunately, the Sunshine Coast is not at the ends of the earth, so we will continue to share our lives … albeit via modern technology. We also say goodbye to three hundred days of sunshine a year and endless beaches – not an easy thing to do.

So as I channel my nomadic ancestors, I am grateful for the modern comforts of simple things such as cardboard boxes and companies that make a buck from moving our shit from one part of the country to the next. I come with some experience when it comes to moving. At this point my blog post changes gears as I thought it might be helpful to share my top ten tips for those who may be preparing to move or will one day embark on the adventure of relocation:

1. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Use that move to get rid of stuff. We spend so much time accumulating possessions that, if we are honest, hold very little value and connection to who we are. Often the stuff we own simply acts as a witness to the fact that we have bought into the extremely well-oiled marketing machine of modern times that convinced us we needed the latest gadget that fluffs our pillows and shines our lettuce leaves. Here is the horrible, hurtful truth: we don’t. If you haven’t looked at it, tasted it, used it for six months … don’t pack it.

2. Start the planning and packing process early.

The minute it becomes definite that we are on the move I gather boxes and I have 2-3 boxes open in my laundry at all times. I stare at them, size them up and, yeah, talk to them, while planning what to pack in them. The more time you have to plan the packing bit, the smoother the whole procedure. I realise that sometimes we have to move in a hurry – but for me, that does not happen very often. Most of us have weeks, if not months, to plan a move. The minute you know you will move, get those boxes and even better … get rid of stuff.

3. Make lists.

I love lists. They keep anxiety from robbing my joy when I need to be focused and present in the moment. Make a ‘To Do’ list, make a box list, make a travel plan list, and make a ‘my fur baby’s needs while I travel list’. Write it down and then you know you will remember and move on to the next thing. Got to love me a good list!

4. Make your travel plans.

For the move back to Melbourne I have planned our trip and booked all the accommodation – with three cars, one trailer and two fur children, there is no room for no room. I emailed all the hosts and explained the convoy heading their way and asked whether they have room at their ‘inn’. Having all their answers and words of welcome in writing should minimalise accommodation issues.

5. Say ‘yes’ to people who offer to help.

Accept the help of friends and neighbours. ‘Independence’ is a myth and, quite frankly, can be a real pain in times of stress. A move is made so much easier when you have support – and perhaps a cooked meal.

6. Label your boxes clearly.

Label every box with your surname and destination. I also write what room I want each box in. If you don’t feel comfortable writing the contents on the actual box, use a numbering system and store that information on your computer.

7. Use all those little spaces.

You can save money by reducing the number of boxes you take. Filling every box is not just economical but also makes for greater protection of the contents. No matter how well you pack those glasses, if they are rattling around in a box, there’s every chance they won’t make it in one piece. This may not always be a tragedy as you get to throw them away and have less stuff!!

8. Don’t have a dinner by Candlelight.

As romantic as the notion may sound when you get to your destination you will want to turn the heating on, have a hot shower and perhaps even cook a meal. So don’t forget to organise all the necessary utilities for your destination. Websites such as ‘Your Porter’ make this all very simple. Don’t forget to disconnect the utilities at the house you are leaving behind.

9. Take time to Breathe.

I find house moves all-consuming. So I choose to be present, take moments to stroll in the garden, read a magazine, or have a coffee with friends. Fortunately, I have fur children that remind me every day that a walk in the fresh air is NOT an option.

10. Be Grateful.

Amidst all the stress, planning and my whining about moving AGAIN, I am also deeply grateful. I have traveled the earth, crossed continents and seen countries and sights that others dream of. The hand of Providence dealt me a gypsy card … and I get to do it all with people I love. Here is to packing another box, here is to life which is precious, here is to adventure, and here is to pilgrimage and change … to which we are all called!

Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.” – Abraham Joshua Heschel

 

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My Addiction to Certitude

There are all kinds of addicts, I guess. We all have pain. And we all look for ways to make the pain go away.
– Sherman Alexie –

In a recent conversation with a friend on the topic of liminality and religion, I entered a path of greater self-discovery. The question he posed that allowed me to enlarge the narrative I tell myself about myself was this: “You speak of being in a form of conservative, religious fundamentalism for thirty years – what you need to ask yourself was what drew you there in the first place?”

It’s a good question. What draws us into spaces of community and belonging? Why do we hang around even when we realise that the values we hold have become juxtaposed to the policies of an organisation? And, specifically, what is it especially about religious communities that make it extremely difficult to discern that the time has come to say goodbye?

The question took me back to my childhood and the recognition from a young age that although I grew up in a loving and encouraging home this was not the reality for many other people. My parents did not shield me from the realisation that this world holds much suffering – something I would witness first hand when we moved to Africa. My pre-liminal space was one that recognised chaos … and as a young person, I yearned for order and structure. I was a prime candidate for the zealous, orderly world of fundamentalism.

In an upcoming book by Tim Carson, I will share more deeply about this experience (thank you, Tim, for the opportunity to contribute). Looking back, I recognise the longing that led me to structure and the addiction that kept me there – an addiction to certitude.

The black and white world of literalism, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”, became my ‘God drug’. I was convinced that I, and the tradition I was part of, held the truth and needed to save the souls of those who did not share this euphoric space of transcendence. I became a zealot – a zealot with the privilege of a platform. I used it to speak of absolutes around the world … and I was cheered on, fuelling my dependence on certainty.

In those days I had no room in my life for paradox – questions and doubts were tucked away and hidden. They were not to be spoken of as I did not want to upset this wonderful world I was in … a world where everything was ‘awesome’. A world that had created order out of my chaos, provided foolproof answers to my yearning and showed me a clear and triumphant way. Certitude, like the matrix, is an intoxicating hyper-reality.

This week I was reminded of my addiction. A cruel tweet from a religious leader against the rainbow community triggered me and I responded with outrage. Amidst the comments on my facebook page, a friend (Daniels Sims) wrote, “I feel for him (religious leader). I really do. It is hard to be saved from behind a wall of certitude.” His words struck such a deep chord with me.

How hard it is to be saved from behind a wall of certitude! That was me … for nearly three decades. I partook and was complicit in supplying the drugs needed to keep our certainty addiction alive and with it dulled some of the discomforts that derive from ‘not knowing’ and embracing mystery. Certitude provides us with all the answers we need to live a cloistered life of dogmatism, perhaps because the alternative is just too scary and difficult.

I look at my life now – what a far cry from the young, impassioned, self-assured, and absolutely convinced person I once was. Most of the time I am not certain and mystery has now become a dear friend. Like any recovering addict, I am still drawn to certainty but I now realise that just like the idea of normality, certainty is a myth. What St Paul wrote is true, we look at the world through a dark, smokey glass. To proclaim anything else is presumption … to recognise it is to walk with humility and compassion.

So, friend, if you, like me, have identified your addiction and need for certitude, perhaps we can sit around a virtual room of belonging together and proclaim: “I am *insert name* and I am a certitude addict.” And then smile and realise that here too, grace abounds and is sufficient.

A paradox is a seeming contradiction, always demanding a change on the side of the observer. If we look at almost all things honestly we see everything has a character of paradox to it. Everything, including ourselves. – Richard Rohr – 

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On Flying Kites: Decisions in Liminal Spaces

A post from a couple of years ago and still on the theme of liminality. These reflections are as relevant as ever for my life – especially in this season as we are about to embark on a brand new adventure and to fly some unique kites …

Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.
– Anais Nin
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Most of us have faced times of transition and uncertainty. Liminal Spaces of not knowing. In these sacred times of ambiguity, it is often difficult to reach some form of clarity for any pending decisions. This can become quite a cumbersome burden. In transition, it often feels like we have several signposts pointing us to totally different places, and each one holds a convincing argument about this being the ‘right’ direction.
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A friend of mine helped me navigate and relax regarding decision making in times of transition. He suggested that I ‘fly some kites’ and allow myself the luxury of not working it all out at once. This was a novel idea. Over the last couple of decades, my life revolved around setting goals and reaching them. There was no such thing as an unplanned day! “Flying a kite” was something to be accomplished under the ‘mother’ goals. So I had to overcome a sense of guilt that came with the luxury of simply not knowing and therefore not planning.

Those who have ever attempted to fly a kite will know the potentials frustrations this exercise can bring: no wind, tangled line, obstacles, etc. However, when you do manage to get a kite to soar and feel the wind tugging at it as you watch it dance across the sky, there is a sense of joy. I have childhood memories of flying kites in green meadows near my home. In fact, I had several kites because somewhere better suited for specific kinds of wind and weather.

Interestingly, people have been flying kites for over 2,000 years. It is believed that they originated in Shandong, a province in China. The first kites had bamboo frames and were covered in silk and paper. As kite flying spread from China across Asia to India, each area developed their own style of kite and purpose for flying them. Marco Polo was among the first Europeans to document the building of a kite and how to fly them. Kites were used as early as 1749 to determine air temperature at 3,000 feet. In 1752, the Franklin father and son team used a kite to prove that lightening was indeed electricity and the Wright brothers used kites to research and develop their first aircraft. By 1950, NASA used kites to assist with spaceship recovery operations. Kites have proven to be most helpful and remain a source of delight for young and old alike.

I took my friend’s advice and starting ‘flying some kites’. These sort of transitional life moments don’t come along very much. What was peculiar was that although I would consider myself a dreamer and idealist, it became clear that to lay aside the ‘should’ and truly consider different possibilities would take some getting used to. Over time I began to get accustomed to this strange place. I decided that no idea or ‘kite’ was to be simply cast aside as foolish. Each one would be given time to be inspected and evaluated. A natural ‘narrowing down’ process began to happen. Clarity began to come in what I did not want to do and learning to say ‘no’ became easier.

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The kites that were considered ideal in an earlier stage of life had lost their lustre. The weather had changed, I had changed, something I would not have realised if I had not taken my friend’s advice and taken time to dream and consider. Childhood memories and longings came rushing back, things that had been lost under the burden of trying to fulfill the expectations of others. Flying kites recovers dreaming – something so easily lost in our hurried lives. I discovered that there’s no perfect kite and that it’s ok to have several kites in the air and to shrug my shoulder when someone asks what I’m doing.

Flying kites takes us on an adventure of discovery. This apparent whimsical activity reminds us that life is so much bigger than what our society dictates. It re-awakens dreams and imagination long lost under the burden of being a serious adult. Flying kites reminds us that life is not about that perfect decision or finding that perfect kite. Rather, it’s about moments that come our way. We should allow time to be in them and to fully consider them. This is all part of the journey. The burden of making that perfect decision slowly dissipates and we are left with wonder and 100 colourful kites in the air … and that is life … a chaotic wonder. So please, dear friend, go fly a kite!

Imagination is the highest kite one can fly. 
– Lauren Bacall
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Love is … Fierce!

“The passion of love bursting into flame is more powerful than death, stronger than the grave.” Song of Songs 8:6.

 

Last Saturday we gathered on the pristine Barwon Heads foreshore in Victoria, Australia. The day was perfection. Sunny and 23 degrees – a gentle breeze blew the white silky banners that marked the aisle down which two friends walked and made public their love and commitment to one another. They had waited a long time to tie this sacred knot. They, like so many before them and so many in the crowd, had fought for their right to say “I Do”. We honoured them … we cried with them … so, it seemed, did half of Barwon Heads, that stopped to watch the ceremony.

The fierce words of love were read:

Love is terribly offensive
To those who would wish it silenced.
Love does not tolerate discrimination.
It does not abide bigotry.
It does not play nice with fear.
Love does not wait in the corner
For hatred to consent to it speaking.
Love always wins
And Today is the fruit of its victory.

(words attributed to John Pavlovitz)

Love, we are told, and I truly believe, is the greatest of all. Saturday reminded me of that. Love is kind and compassionate. Love listens and is understanding …
AND love is FIERCE …

Love stands up in face of injustice. Love refuses to be silenced.
Love is defiant to an empire of power and greed.
Love turns power on its head – Easter is a fine reminder of that.

And love wins … love always wins in the end …
Remember that, dear friend …

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love 
which sets us free.
– Maya Angelou –

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Unsubscribing from Normal

As I opened my emails one morning and started deleting about twenty of them without even engaging with the content, I knew it was time for another ‘unsubscribe’ purge. Over several years I had subscribed, or was subscribed by the invisible email subscription ghost, to dozens of newsletters, specials, advertisements, health tips, etc, etc… and they all wanted me to hear from them first thing in the morning … but I had lost all interest! Isn’t it peculiar how we remain subscribed to something that is no longer relevant to our lives?!

Just like those pesky emails, I wonder what social norms we have subscribed to over our lives, most often without even considering the price of subscription or their relevance? Things we do and say and judge simply because somewhere in our history and culture we determined that we needed to be subscribers to ‘normal’ in order to ‘fit in’? As an immigrant into various different cultures and contexts, I felt I was forever playing catch up to ‘normal’ … and I never felt certain that I had achieved this social, cultural or later, religious ideal that was held in high regard amongst my ‘tribe’.

I have a vivid memory of my ten-year-old school friend looking at the dark rye sandwich my mother had lovingly prepared for me, complete with cheese and pickles, pulling up her nose and commenting, “I don’t know who eats stuff like that. It’s just not normal.” There it was again! That dreaded word that I had been conscripted to and had no idea how to fulfil all of its demands.

Perhaps most of us don’t spend enough time reflecting on what normal means in our lives? How has it enhanced our way of life? How has it limited our life? In what forum are we picking up ideas about normality and are we actually applying critical thinking to those forums and the rhetoric before putting them to work in our lives? Normality can be the cruellest of taskmasters.

Jane Hutton writes, “The concept of ‘normality’ is relatively new and yet insidiously powerful. It provides the criteria we are comparing ourselves to. Normality can sometimes work for us and often works against us. Perceptions of what is ‘normal’ can marginalise individuals and groups of people and give great power to those who live their lives within its boundaries. They can be used to diminish people on the basis of cultural or spiritual practices, sexuality, physical and mental health, and ability.” (The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work 2008 No.1)

We have Adolphe Quetelet and his study of social behaviour in a hope to develop a science for managing society, to thank for our obsession with ‘normal’. His cosmic template for the “Average Man” has created all kinds of hell and headaches. This includes parents who are obsessed that their child should not just reach ‘ average‘ milestones but surpass them. Quetelet created a powerful Normal monster. But it would have NO power without OUR consent. You see, ‘normal’ is a myth.

Think about all the ideas we have about normal and then ask yourself seriously:
* What is a normal skin colour?
* What are normal clothes?
* Normal sleep?
* Normal poop?
* What is a normal family?
* What is a normal relationship?
* What the hell really is a normal person?

Normal has created absolute havoc for so many people. It has caused society to create margins for those who we deem not ‘normal’ and sadly that sort of exclusion is so often backed by religion. It’s time we consider … think … STOP!

Friend, I am suggesting that if Normal is making you miserable then it’s time to Kiss or Kick Normal Goodbye.

It is time to unsubscribe to Normal. If you can’t think of a way to do it then here is a little note – you have my permission to use and adapt it as you please … and live your precious life.

Dear Normal,

Somehow I managed to be on your list of everyday emails and I would like you to unsubscribe me.

The moment I wake up you are there dictating to me how I should dress and what I should wear. Then you berate me about my abnormal job choice, you worry me with questions about my non-compliant sleeping patterns, and you yell at me for being a peculiar sort of parent. All through the day you judge me about how I laugh, speak, walk, relate … Normal, I have had it. I am tired of you. You are no longer going to have such a damn loud voice in my life.

Don’t take me wrong – I appreciate some of your concerns about my safety and self-care – and I will allow you to whisper to me in those times. But I am turning off your bloody booming voice.

So, Normal, today I unsubscribe from your daily ranting emails. I wish you well. And I am off to live my bizarrely absurdly preposterously marvellous life.

Ciao

Sincerely,

(Insert your name)

P.s. Normal, please don’t call me – I will call you!

 

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Those Terrifying Liminal Spaces: Reflections on Not Knowing

Last week Tim Carson provided an excellent guest blog on Psalm 139: Treasures of Darkness – I thought this blog from 2015 would add to the conversation.

“This is the ultimate knowledge of God, to know that we do not know” – Thomas Aquinas
 
I was slowly dying on the inside. The many faith cliches I had used in the first half of my life were turning into ash in my mouth. As a spiritual leader, I found myself answering questions in a manner that I know would bring a sense of comfort to the ones who posed them, whilst leaving me personally deeply unsure about these ‘watertight’ interpretations. An insistent inner voice was growing louder, demanding that I give attention to some of the doubts and hesitancy that I continued to deny in my need for absolute certainty. An ‘absolute certainty’ addiction that had been fed by strong fundamentalist paradigms that allowed little room for ambiguity or paradox. Like a prickle in my shoe or sand in my bed, I could not ignore it. It nagged at me and terrified me: “If I start to question, where would I stop? Where would it take me?” I was unsure that my concept of God was big enough to take this leap. But leap I did …
DSCF0111“Liminal Space” by Lisa Hunt-Wotton
 
So I found myself in this strange place. A place that my early faith tradition did not prepare me for, perhaps because it simply lacked the language to describe it? Like someone debilitated by frenzied religious ideals, I lay waiting to see who would stop. It wasn’t who I expected. Unlike the story of the Good Samaritan, in my case, the ‘priests’ stopped and saved my life: Brennan Manning, Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Rohr – pouring healing words on my wounds and helping me to understand this liminal space. This uncomfortable place where I could no longer pretend I had all the answers.

The place of not knowing. ‘Liminal’ comes from the Latin word ‘limen’ meaning ‘threshold’. A place of waiting. A place of transition. A place where you finally let go that treasured trapeze bar and you find yourself free-falling and hope that the grace that has carried you this far will still be there as you sail through the air, with no safety net, and no alternate trapeze bar swinging to meet you.
 liminal

It was the writings of Victor Turner in the second half of the 20th century that made the term ‘liminal’ popular. He borrowed and expanded the ideas of Van Gennep. Some of his writings included, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage”,Liminality and Communitas”, and “Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas.”

His thoughts on liminality can be summarised as: “For Turner, liminality is one of the three cultural manifestations of communitas — it is one of the most visible expressions of anti-structure in society. Yet even as it is the antithesis of structure, dissolving structure and being perceived as dangerous by those in charge of maintaining structure, it is also the source of structure. Just as chaos is the source of order, liminality represents the unlimited possibilities from which social structure emerges. While in the liminal state, human beings are stripped of anything that might differentiate them from their fellow human beings — they are in between the social structure, temporarily fallen through the cracks, so to speak, and it is in these cracks, in the interstices of social structure, that they are most aware of themselves. Yet liminality is a midpoint between a starting point and an ending point, and as such, it is a temporary state that ends when the initiate is re-incorporated into the social structure.”
 
Richard Rohr describes this place most vividly: “Liminal spaces, therefore, are a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the ‘tried and true’ but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is then you are finally out of the way …  If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait – you will run – or more likely you will ‘explain’.” 

I frantically tried to ‘explain’ this place to myself, to my friends and family, to the wider faith community. You feel like an idiot at this threshold. An idiot who leaves behind a wonderful place of safety and comfort only to find yourself in a place totally beyond your control and comfort. You are left with an unanswered “Now What?” question, and a dangerous assumption that this question will be swiftly answered like Harry’s beautifully wax-sealed, owl-delivered, Hogwarts Acceptance Letter. Rarely is this the case. Rarely is it this simple.  
 castle-788400_1920
The frantic search for that one perfect answer in this disturbing, sacred place will not be helpful. The transition is slow and the transformation that happens here is painful. It is here we find ourselves suddenly faced with our own liminality. We are confronted by the lies of our age – success, influence, importance – everything that has upheld the ego and our own ideas or spiritual superiority, comes crashing down. We beg, plead, tantrum, bargain in this disordered habitat of loss, longing and disequilibrium. But as so many who have gone before us have experienced, there’s no bargaining in the desert, there’s no hidden sun in the middle of the night.
 
Finally, the struggle turns quiet. It would be nice to suggest that this happens due to mindfulness and spiritual practices. These certainly help, but I have found that you come to a place of rest because you are exhausted from the struggle and the only option is to Let Go. The more you do, the more you recognise your own insecurities, false ego and the lies you have believed, and, like Alice, you keep falling down the rabbit hole. When you finally stop freaking out, you discover to your surprise, that the grace that carried you in the hurried first half of life has not left you…
water-464953_1920
 
Grace suddenly becomes far more real. In this suspended, mid-air, confusing liminal space, you are still God’s beloved. Gradually, like a sunrise in slow motion, it begins to dawn on you: All is grace! This one magnificent life that we are given is not made meaningful because we adhere to the messaging or image of a consumer-driven culture. Neither do we derive meaning from our ability to ‘succeed’ spiritually or relationally or financially. Liminal spaces expose the unnerving reality that we are really not in control in the way we think we are. Liminal spaces confront us with our innate craving for certainty. Liminal spaces show us that ambiguity and paradox are part of what it means to be human and of the journey with the divine. It is in the not knowing that grace shines. Like Jacob, we wake up in this foreign place and exclaim: “You have been here all along and I was not aware of it.” All is grace. 
2055_9afefc52942cb83c7c1f14b2139b09ba
 
Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
 
Let it ferment and season you
As few humans
Or even divine ingredients can.
 
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,
 
My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.
 
– Hafiz –
 
If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.
– Jesus –
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