Reclaiming Symbols (and vegetables)…

After picking up a pumpkin from the shop, my middle son expressed surprise on the journey home. “But that’s a Halloween thing!” He said. “We don’t celebrate that.”

My response: “It’s a vegetable. It doesn’t have to belong to Halloween. We can scoop it out and put a candle in, just for fun. Or we could make pumpkin soup if you kids would eat soup. We’re celebrating autumn (Americans: that’s the British term for ‘fall’) and harvest time. Who says people who don’t celebrate Halloween can’t have a pumpkin in their home?!”

As I ended this minor rant to a perplexed car full of kids, I found myself pondering other things or symbols that have been hijacked by causes or organisations that I don’t hold in high esteem. How about the dove, used in Christianity to symbolise the Holy Spirit, frequently used by CND or other political organisations to denote peace?

Or what about the rainbow, which signifies a reminder of God’s faithfulness, being used by LGBT groups such as Gay Pride to symbolise acceptance of non conventional sexual relationships? Will I stop my children from drawing rainbows or wearing a rainbow sticker because of the alternative meanings it represents? Of course not!

In a democratic nation people are free to use non trademarked symbols or objects for any purpose they wish. I’ve decided, along with many other Christians, to stop demonising pumpkins and candles at this time of year. They’ll feature in my home because I like them during this season, nothing more, nothing less.

I may object to some of the monstrous commercialism and hints of darkness that have overtaken our supermarkets at Halloween, but I will not succumb to over-spiritualisation of everything.

Now –  whether we’ll carve a smile, a weird shape or a cross into the pumpkin… We’ve yet to agree on that.  Perhaps something a little arty or tasteful, as seen in the featured photo above, may be more appropriate now the children are a bit older.

Living in Community: Reinforcing my Humanity

Photo credit: Creative Commons

This morning I stopped in our street to chat with a neighbour who’s recently moved in. I’ve known her for quite a while, since her children attend the same schools as mine. Among other topics, we talked about a great baker’s in town, which was previously unknown to me. Note to self: must buy some fresh bread there next time I’m passing that way.

Later in the afternoon my retired next door neighbour came by to ask if we’d be able to put his bins out while he is away next week. “Of course”, I replied, “that’s no problem at all.” We then went on to chat about his planned trip to Italy before I returned to finish unpacking my shopping.

Last night another neighbour a few doors down dropped in to talk about how our rabbit was adapting to his new environment. (She was temporarily minding him while we were looking after a rescue dog for the week.) She stayed a while and we had a good laugh over the antics of rabbits.

Throughout the week I’ve had various exchanges with individuals who live all around me, not necessarily long conversations – but certainly more than a cursory glance and a wave.

I live in a neighbourhood that reflects the diversity of our city. In our street alone there are young families and families with teenagers, students, elderly folk, Italians, Slovakians and Pakistanis; singles, unemployed people, blue collar and white collar employees – perhaps mirroring a whole cross section of British society.

Like most places, my area has its pros and cons, but on the whole I like it. I enjoy being in touch with those who live around me. It reinforces my humanity and confirms my part in building positive relationships with others – even those with whom I might not easily get along.

The other day my Slovakian neighbour dropped around a couple of packages that the postman had left with him. He often signs for our parcels (we order a lot online) and brings them over with a smile. We’ve passed on a few items of furniture to him, for which he has been grateful. There are some obvious, mutual benefits to living in close proximity.

Compare this to the time we lived in a large house in New Jersey for three years, when we only spoke to our immediate neighbours a few times. We didn’t know anyone else in the street, hardly ever saw them – let alone conversed with them. Driving everywhere most of the time probably didn’t help. Around here, people walk quite a bit and there’s a park nearby where one nearly always bumps into a few known faces.

Here in our city street I know at least ten individuals or families by name, as well as some others. Most of us have lived here several years, which helps in this regard. Many have children of similar ages to mine. Yet we are all quite different – whether in age, style, background or ethnicity. I got to know several of them when I joined the committee of our Residents’ Association a few years ago.

I’m pretty sure I would be utterly bored to only live life around others just like me. It’s the differences that make community interesting. I guess that’s part of my eclectic nature: I like variety; uniformity just doesn’t appeal to me. The thought of neighbourhoods reminiscent of The Truman Show movie scares the heck out of me.

Perhaps what I appreciate most of all about my community? There are no dilemmas concerning ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. There’s freedom to be yourself and maintain your own preferences. No one cares less what car you drive or whether there’s dust on your mantelpiece. And that about sums it up: we accept one another and support one another. As true communities should.

Will Young, 33, quoted in the Daily Mail. Read more here.

Somehow, I think we’ve known it all along, though we really might not wish to believe it’s true: That we could have all the things we’ve ever wanted and still be unhappy.

In a recent interview, British pop-star Will Young admitted the raw truth of his own life:

“I’d buy houses and get nothing from it. Bought cars – got nothing from it. I’ve gone out and spent £5,000 in Selfridges – and nothing. I don’t even wear the stuff. All those things I thought would bring me happiness, don’t.”

Inner satisfaction is not found in the acquisition of stuff; Mr Young confirms what, deep down, we already knew. To grow as an individual it’s imperative to explore the areas that do bring joy in life – quality relationships, and finding and pursuing our life’s purpose.

I’m also convinced that time spent outdoors, enjoying beauty, creation and wildlife, brings immense happiness.

All the rest is not of such great value as we once thought. How long it takes us to learn this lesson is up to us. 

“All those things I thought would bring me happiness, don’t.”

A Question of Time…

Revive: Blink

Earlier today I was challenged as I recalled an anecdote that I heard many years ago in a Sunday morning service. It’s a well known story that you may have heard before regarding the importance of prioritising certain aspects of our lives. It goes like this:

One day an expert in time management was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration those students will never forget. As he stood in front of the group of high powered overachievers he said, “Okay, time for a quiz.” Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed jar and set it on the table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar. When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?”

Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” 

Then he said, “Really?” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the space between the big rocks. Then he asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time the class was on to him. “Probably not,” one of them answered. “Good!” he replied. He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in the jar and it went into all of the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Is this jar full?”

“No!” the class shouted.

 Once again he said, “Good.” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?” One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard you can always fit some more things in it!”

“No,” the speaker replied, “That’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.” What are the ‘big rocks’ in your life? Your children; Your loved ones; Your education; Your dreams; A worthy cause; Teaching or mentoring others; Doing things that you love; Time for yourself; Your health; Your significant other? Remember to put these BIG ROCKS in first or you’ll never get them in at all. If you sweat the little stuff (the gravel, the sand) then you’ll fill your life with little things you worry about that don’t really matter, and you’ll never have the real quality time you need to spend on the big, important stuff (the big rocks). So, tonight, or in the morning, when you are reflecting on this short story, ask yourself this question: What are the ‘big rocks’ in my life? Then, put those in your jar first.”

Every so often I remember this message of ‘getting the big rocks in’ and like to take stock of whether I’m doing this. Amidst the daily flurry of activities in a family, from overseeing homework to sorting out faulty heating, along with the pressures of health concerns and a variety of appointments or deadlines, it’s easy to get swept up by the mundane and the necessary. Little thought is given to purposefully planning time with a loved one or friend, or to achieving a specific goal, and it’s easy to think  “Well, there just isn’t time!”

The image of the jar stays with me. It would be so easy to fill it with gravel and water, only to find no room for any of the big rocks. Days, weeks and years can go by, where all sorts of plans, ideas or visions simply lie dormant in your heart as you see no way to pursue them. Time for fun activities may be dismissed as insignificant or unnecessary. And yet, at the end of it all, the fun memories are important. That amazing idea you had could have helped or blessed many people. Building relationships is worthy of effort.

Time is fleeting. The lyrics in the video reflect that so well, and none of us knows how long we have left. The song is almost haunting with its compelling question “What is it I’ve done with my life?”

I’d like to focus on ‘getting the big rocks in’ – in both my family life and my spiritual life – and to pull back from sweating the small stuff. All the minor issues and activities can easily lodge their way into the remaining gaps. How about you? How could you better rearrange your time to ensure that the most important features of your life are given the priority they deserve?