celebrate

The importance of our stories and why we should share them

Stories are powerful. The best ones can freeze-frame time and steal our breath. They can stop us from feeling alone, remind us that we’re part of something bigger, give us a sense of our shared humanity. They can build bridges and expand horizons, deepen empathy and dissolve division.

They have been shared since prehistory. We’re told them from birth. They surround us - not just in books, films and plays - but at the heart of the messaging we absorb each day from a thousand different sources. 

Stories build identity and a sense of belonging. In my family we still talk about my grandfather’s childhood adventures, long since he left us. How he launched a makeshift aeroplane off a warehouse roof, how he blew his eyebrows off with a home-made chemistry experiment, how he learned to drive a lorry at the age of 13. The stuntman genes have not necessarily been passed down in my direction, but my children hear these stories, just as I did, and they know what they are part of and where they belong.

The stories you lean towards reveal what defines you. They say something about who you are and they shape and reinforce the deeper narrative through which you see the world. I have always sought out stories of redemption, of rescue and the power of hope over all that hurts and breaks us. I grew up hearing about a father who watched and waited for years for his long-lost, dissolute son, and hitched up his clothes to run at the sight of him, to welcome him home with arms open wide, despite the shame and smell and grime of the life to which his boy had sunk.

I love novels; my shelves are groaning under the weight of them stacked two deep and several high. I love the inventiveness involved in a talented person’s creation of a brand new story. But in their shadow, often overlooked, is the quiet, true story from your own life, or your family or community, now or mined from the past. There is richness close to you. You don’t have to go far. You just have to notice.

I have a story to share that stands up to any tale of high heroism I could find in a book.

It starts when I met a fellow parent at the school gates when my children were little. I liked her immediately and we became friends over a shared love of good books and funny stories. She was an A & E nurse at the local hospital. We were part of the same book group, and later prayer group. I remember the day a couple of years later that she told us of her diagnosis with breast cancer. All the people who knew her and loved her (same thing) were winded, blindsided.

But over the next few years we watched her walk her journey.

Despite what she was going through, her house was open and her laugh was loud and her friends were countless.

She made caramel shortbread once, and put it in the freezer to cool down. Carrying the tray out from the kitchen she suddenly bent double as she realised that the chocolate and caramel had frozen into the drawer above, and all she’d brought out was the shortbread. I can still hear her laughter.

She was honest about the grimness of what she was going through. She would share her heart and her thoughts and then turn the conversation towards the other person, to hear all that was happening in their life.

A few weeks before she died she took her children to the seaside with a friend, and despite lungs that were ceasing to work, she jumped in the waves with her son and he turned to her and said,

‘This is heaven’.

Before reading prayers at her funeral I had to stare at my feet and empty my mind to keep my tears at bay. Once I’d finished, I returned to my seat and looked up for the first time to see the flowers and the card her son had written that said, ‘Didn’t we have a lot of fun, Mummy?’

It would have been her 50th birthday tomorrow, and we would have been dancing and raising a glass, probably in some pretty preposterous fancy dress. 

So I tell her story, which is one of courage and laughter and love. She will not be forgotten.

 

[She was a galvaniser of people and a raiser of funds, and her daughter is just like her. In honour of them both, I’m sharing the link to Sarah’s fundraising page for Cancer Research UK, in case you would like to make a gift: https://www.justgiving.com/catherinesangels1 ]

 

 

 

 

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He slowed down - lessons from life with a seventeen-year-old daughter

 

After we decided that we’d like to share a future, the boy I fell in love with and I used to imagine what our first child might be like. Not so long afterwards, we met her. She was tiny and feisty and beautiful. We blinked twice and she started school. Days later, it seems, she was trying on her secondary school uniform. And now she is 17 and university prospectuses are falling heavily through the letterbox. 

My husband went to collect her from a friend’s house recently. It was a short, unremarkable journey. He has quite emphatically never been known to take his time driving anywhere.

But this time he slowed down. 

To make time stand still and to savour the conversation.  

Because she is full of life and getting older and her sights and thoughts are fixed firmly on the future. He knew he wanted to enjoy her company while it was still his.

I share his growing realisation that what we thought would always be - the five of us together at the end of every day - will change very soon. I am excited for my daughter, and my heart aches. Time is revealed for what it is - insubstantial and elusive. 

We trade our time every day for something, but I think we're selling ourselves short. 

Modern life is built on the premise that fast is good and faster is better. Place an order online and have it delivered in hours. Read and respond to your work email at any hour of day or night. On demand: the phrase is revealing.

Thanks to my phone I need never sit quietly with my thoughts. I can read other people’s, then comment on them, like them, share them, re-tweet them.

It’s easy to assume that busy-ness now will buy a calmer future. 

But there is a problem.

Life gets blurred in the rush and we stop seeing what matters.

Things of true value often take time to unfurl. They need to be noticed. They deserve to be celebrated. You can’t do that if you are hurtling, distracted and preoccupied, through the life you have been given.

This is relevant to our lives both personally and professionally. Our working self cannot be separated from the person we are for the rest of the day. Living life too fast and shallow depletes us and we can’t give our best to anyone. 

The benefits of slowing down and paying more attention can be widely felt  -not just by us but by those who get to live with us, work with us, share their lives with us. Here are six ways you can do this: 

1. Live outside your own bubble. Look up and see who’s around you, and how they are, really are. Bring your life - and the lives of the people you love - back into focus. See them, listen to them and look for active ways to contribute to and nurture them wherever you can so they flourish rather than diminish. 

2. Be deliberate with your goals. Time is not infinite. It quite definitely runs out. What do you want to single out as important in the midst of the urgent? It’s hard to make valuable progress across a thousand little goals. But it’s more possible against one we’ve identified, set our sights on and pursued relentlessly. Do you know what yours is? For one of my friends it’s securing change in the treatment of imprisoned mothers, so their children aren’t part of the cycle of poverty and neglect. She’s eloquent, and people are listening. 

3. Prioritise quality. Occasionally high quality is achievable immediately, but more often it is the result of considerable thought, preparation and skill. Take time to review and improve before releasing. The world is a noisy place. We can generate a lot of content or product, or take the time to hone and develop and produce something so good it stops people in their tracks. 

4. Refuse to fall for the lie that only what is new has value, that novelty and the next big development are all that matters. That people have a sell-by date, that old means redundant. It takes years for wood to develop a patina. With repeated polishing, resting, absorbing, the true warmth of the wood's colour and grain slowly emerges. Real beauty grows; it’s not diminished by time.

5. Go deep. It’s hard to do more than skim the surface when you’re going fast. Don’t be satisfied with shallow. Take time to push down into the depths and explore them. Don’t be defined by what you give a Facebook ‘like’ to, or how many you get. But what you give your heart to. What you love, what you fight for. Have a grand passion, and be faithful to it. 

6. Enjoy. Savour. Intensify your experience. Spend long enough in the present moment for it to leave an imprint in your memory, in your cells, in the grooves of your habits and behaviour. Identify what is good in your life - a table full of family, a laugh with a friend, an unexpected compliment, kindness from a stranger -  and celebrate it.

Life can be hard and painful, but it’s also bursting with wonder.

Just make sure you don’t miss it.

 

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