The purpose of stories

Do you think things happen for a purpose?

I do. And sometimes I wonder if that’s just because I’m left handed, and because I like finding patterns in things, and I know that other people often see the world completely differently to the way that I do, and that’s fine, but I still think that things happen for a purpose. And I find that when I can’t see that purpose, or lose faith that there IS a purpose, then I get stressed.

I got stressed when my boy was in hospital the other day, and not just because my boy was in hospital. I was stressed because it made no sense to me. If I believe God loves me, that He cares about my family, and bad stuff happens, where’s the purpose in that? Call me an over-thinker – after all, it was an asthma attack that would be labeled as mild compared to the episodes that some have gone through – but it made me question still. It made me think about all the parents in hospitals because their children have rampant leukemia, or are limbless, severely handicapped, on life-support, you know. I can’t answer for those parents, or speak for them, I can only speak for myself.

I found the purpose in my son’s hospitalization. It gave me three days to spend in a room with my middle child, my quiet child, my the-most-different-to-me child; the child I don’t want to grow up feeling like the overlooked or under-mothered child. Difficult though that time was for many reasons, that bit I loved. We’ve decided we need to do it again (without the hospitalization, that is) once a month. Next time it’ll be MacDonalds and a movie, just him and me.

The other day the battery in my car’s beeper-unlocky-thing died. It was pretty bad. It’s especially bad because out of the two sets of keys we had for that car one had broken off after a door-slamming incident (no joke, the key got caught in the door and snapped in half!) and the other had worn the rubber off all the little buttons so you couldn’t actually work the controls without having fingers the size of a two year old. Or, as we discovered, a small bit of stick. Suddenly I was reduced to the ignominy of carrying around two dysfunctional keys and a small stick to work them with. And then the catch that holds the boot closed (or, if you’re American, the trunk closed) stopped working. Like. I. Needed. That.

I’d booked a locksmith to fix the key thing for me finally – something we could afford to do now that we had a bit of extra money around. I tossed it up a bit, then cancelled him so I could take the car to the mechanics and get the boot looked at. Like. I. Needed. That.

Turns out I needed that. Turns out I needed that boot-needs-fixing-take-it-to-the-mechanics very much indeed. The boot problem didn’t take much, and cost me hardly anything (in mechanical terms) to fix, AND when our wonderful mechanic looked at our crazy key situation and the pathetic stick I handed him (Yes, I forgot I could key-lock the door. I carried a stick) and apologized because I’d had to choose him over the locksmith he looked at me and said “you know, I think I can fix that”. And he did. My wonderful mechanic told me all about how it worked, undid a few screws, did a bit of yada yada practical magic and bingo. My key works, and it saved me $150 at the locksmith. I see the purpose in the stuck boot.

Because of this, especially because of that stupid stuck boot, I’m believing that there’s a purpose for other stuff in my life too, the deeper stuff, the ugly parts of my story, sometimes the stories that haven’t got to the ending yet. That purpose probably isn’t for me, and it’s probably not going to save me money or help me buy groceries this week, but I believe that for someone, someday, somewhere, there will be a reason. I have been the one who benefited from other people’s stories in the past, and I’m grateful beyond belief for those times, for those stories. That is why, though sometimes it feels strange, and sometimes I don’t understand, and sometimes I go out on a limb with nothing more than a prayer and a gut feeling, I share my own.

How about you? Do you believe things happen for a purpose, or do you struggle with the idea? Do you think having a purpose helps in our suffering? Do you find it hard to believe if you can’t yet see that purpose?

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The Imaginary Friend

I have this friend. Want to meet her? She’s really nice. Although she’s a bit shy, and I’m a bit shy, so I won’t tell you her real name. We’ll call her Lucy, after Lucy from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I think she’d like that.

Lucy is one of the few people I’ve met who think in the shapes and patterns as I do. She shares my dreams, my crazy and out-there vision, and she gets it implicitly, without much explanation, when I tell her the deep and secret things of my heart. And because of that I think I’ve told her a lot of things I’ve never told anyone else. I like that. It’s comforting. She lives a long way away, so we usually just chat via email, or on Facebook, but even though she’s a long way away I know she’s there, that she’s there for me, and that sense of “presence” is comforting.

I jokingly refer to her as my “imaginary friend”, partly because she shares the same name as my childhood imaginary friend, and partly because it’s fun to pretend that, because I’ve only met her in person once and because she fills that hole in my life of people-who-think-in-those-strange-shapes-and-patterns-as-I-do-and-share-my-vision, that I’ve just invented her in my head, you know, because I needed someone like her.

And yesterday, quaking over some deep and nameless terror, wiping tears from my cheeks, I emailed her again, and knowing she was there, and that she’d understand, made me feel better. And then I laughed to myself, thinking “she’s a crutch”. I’m just resting a while on my imaginary friend because I need a bit of support. It’s a season. I won’t always need to rely on my imaginary friend. I’ll get over it.

The thing is though, Lucy is real. She’s flesh-and-blood and skin and feeling and thought and life and person. She just lives a long way away.

The things is, too, the big thing that I realised yesterday, that this is how a lot of people see God.

I know I won’t always be in this season, and that’s okay. And it’s okay that I am. And Lucy’s okay with me. But still I choose, and will continue to choose, that at that time in the future when I no longer need Lucy in my life the way that I do now, that we will still be friends, and I will still email her every now and again, even though she lives far away, too far away to see. Because, really, it’s not about a crutch, it’s about relationship.

What about you? Do you have any “imaginary” friends? Do you think God is a crutch, or do you know people who do?

The sick days

He’s all right now, he really is. Let’s just start the story by reiterating that. And, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot of time when he really wasn’t. There definitely was that time, which is why we went to hospital in the first place, because I’ve heard all the stories about asthma being a life-threatening condition, about how it can go from okay to seriously not-okay in a matter of minutes, because my friend Amber once had a near-death experience because people didn’t take it seriously enough when she had an asthma attack. So this is how the story starts: I was in hospital with my six year old for two days last week.

Nathan in hospital

It started on Thursday. He was off school because he had a cold and it had triggered his asthma, and he spent the morning quietly on the couch playing computer games, which is his idea of Heaven even when he’s well. By the afternoon though he was pale as death with circles like bruises under his eyes and struggling for breath after a short and slow-paced walk so, to cut a long story short, I ended up in a cubicle in the Emergency department resting my feet up on the trolley while I held my nearly-sleeping boy on my lap in a plastic chair while he cried and pulled at his oxygen mask and said he wanted to go home.

By half past two on the Friday morning they’d found a bed for him upstairs in the Paediatric ward in a little room all of his own, with a fold-out bed next to it made up for me. His oxygen levels were still low, but he was s soundly asleep by that time that they taped a tube next to his nose without him ripping it off, and pumped him high with Ventolin every hour.

The next morning he was awake and hyped on Ventolin and steroids and still taped to an oxygen monitor, and stuck in his room climbing the walls while doctors and nurses grimaced and aahhhed about his pallor and his pulse and how much air was properly getting into him. We stayed.

It’s a strange feeling, like I was tethered to that room too. The hospital is in the middle of the city, and I went out and bought him a Lego set to keep him amused, and later on I went to the cafeteria to buy lunch, and then dinner. I was only a ten minute drive from home but home felt a lifetime away. I felt a lifetime away, and when I messaged family or friends on Facebook it felt like I was doing it from the other side of the world. The child was hardly at death’s door by that stage, and mostly occupied with toys and books and games, but the idea of sitting in the cafe across the street for half an hour felt alien and awful, like some kind of betrayal that I just couldn’t bring myself to entertain.

By the end of the stay there, some thirty six hours since we’d come, the white room felt like a prison. The blinds only moved up so far, so to see out the window we needed to stand high on the fold-out bed. I clung to that blue sky like I’d never be allowed to wander under it again and wondered how, after two days of doing nothing but looking after and playing with my boy, I could still feel so unutterably tired.

I was glad to learn the things I did about asthma and how best to manage it the next time. I was glad for the cafeteria, and for Facebook connectivity. I felt guilty, because the very mention of the words “hospital” and “child” bring out the worst fears in people, and I wasn’t the mum whose child was dying. I was the mum playing Lego. It made me think of my friend Amanda, whose gorgeous daughter has had so many hospitalisations before and after her liver transplant, and of Anna Delauney (whose blog you really ought to read) who spends so much time in hospital with a child who is very sick. I felt grateful to be in a country where hospitalisation is free and medical care is easily accessible.

And now I just feel tired, because even though I stopped for three days, the rest of life didn’t.

The music goes round my head

Do you think it’s just me? Have I asked this before? It can’t be. Not really. Not in a world of some seven billion people, although not all of them have access to popular music like I do. I wonder if it happens in tribal cultures though, in some other form. Or, perhaps, did it happen in medieval times, but the songs that got stuck in peoples heads were Gregorian chants?

I’m talking, of course, those songs that get stuck in your head on high repeat. The ones you hear when you sit down quietly and there’s no music playing. The ones you find yourself singing for no reason while doing the dishes. I know that’s common; people all over the place talk about the song stuck in their head. It’s just that…

The song in my head the other day was one I hadn’t heard or thought of in about ten years, and it stayed there for days, which is why I started wondering whether it could be trying to tell me something. You don’t often have songs without some kind of reason, some line in the lyric prompted by something happening, or you heard it in a shop or something. This bothered me, this song, not just because it came from nowhere, and not just because I couldn’t work it out. The song was “I Am The Mob” by Welsh band Catatonia. “I put horses heads in people’s beds/because I am the mob”. Yeah. Umm…right.

Sometimes I have words, too. Just words. Is that common? Lugubrious. Obsequious. Saskatchewan. I just like words, okay? I like the way their letters bounce. But that – if you don’t already – might make you think I’m a little weird. And it’s not what I’m talking about.

The thing is, the thing I’m talking about is, when the songs that get stuck in your head turn out to have some subliminal personal meaning, or a message. I know, I know, it sounds kind of weird. It’s just that as I’ve got older I’ve learned to listen more to the things around me. Maybe you’ll say I listen too much – or maybe you’ll agree. I don’t know. You tell me.

There was the time, for instance, that I had it on my heart to do something a bit radical to bless a friend, and I had to tell her. Doing the thing didn’t bother me at all, but the idea of telling her scared me, so I put it off. The feeling in me didn’t let up though, that need to step out, be bold and brave, and say “hey, this is what I want to do to help you”. In the end I nearly chickened out, and I would have if it weren’t for the stupid clock-radio waking me up early one morning playing Duran Duran: “Please please tell me now/Is there something I should know?” I did it.

Okay, that was the actual radio, a little bit different. But there was a time, some years before, when a similar thing happened. Different friend, same fear of stepping out. That time the song in my head (that I eventually listened to) was “I Was Made For Loving You” by Kiss.

Yes, I believe sometimes the Holy Spirit can speak to people through Kiss songs. Do you have a problem with that?

But…I am the mob. Not really a fan of horses heads in peoples beds -or any kind of dismembered body part, actually. and I’m feeling pretty good about life; not planning any kind of Mafia-related career change, revenge or dismemberment. I’m happy, I’m in a good place. I’m just singing about horses heads in peoples beds for no reason.

There’s always a reason. I believe that.

There’s. Always. A. Reason. Goldfish in tank

It was these guys. More than ten years after I last heard it, my subconscious mind is concerned that our fish tank is underneath a light that, over the last week or so, is being left on all night. I was worried that it was bad for them, that my goldfish wouldn’t be able to sleep.

I know this now because I eventually googled the lyrics to I Am The Mob:

“That Luca Brasi ah he sleeps with the fishes…”

Ah. I am amazed, yet again, at the incredible amount of junk my brain stores.

We left another light on instead, so the fish could sleep.

How about you? Have you ever had songs or words or phrases that go round your head that turn out to have some kind of meaning or relevance? Do you ever, like me, wonder if your memory needs a complete spring-clean sometimes?

 

 

 

The man from Michigan

On the 28th of November 2012 I sat in Melbourne airport, forlorn and exhausted, homesick already for a country I’d only just left and had only known for two short weeks, saddened by smallness and saddened by familiar, and clutching an overstuffed pink backpack carrying everything I couldn’t leave behind and a handful of Michigan souvenirs I’d bought at the airport there some thirty hours before. I wanted to see my family, but I didn’t want to go home. More than that though, I didn’t want to be in Melbourne airport.

I was quite, quite sure that the gate I was waiting at was the one flying to Hobart, although the screens that displayed the information said something quite different. I waited, tried to catch a glimpse of somebody else’s boarding pass without seeming too suspicious. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to make small conversations with people whose journeys felt ordinary, who had been to Melbourne for the weekend to catch a show, to go to a wedding, to go to a work conference. I didn’t want to talk to Australians at all. I only wanted to talk to Americans, to people who Understood.

I didn’t know it’d be like that.

Because I was tired, and because I was heartsick and soon-to-be time poor I hauled my sorry self and my pink backpack over to the vending machine in the corner and bought myself a block of Cadbury’s chocolate, sad even that it was yummy, real Australian Cadbury’s, not the waxy strange American version (they put wax in chocolate. No joke. And when I looked at them strangely and asked why, they looked at ME strangely and said “you DON’T have wax in chocolate?” Real wax wax. Paraffin wax. No joke).

Because the departure lounge was crowded, and because my old seat was taken, I sat down with a slump and a sigh in another seat, near an old man with a kindly smile who looked at my chocolate and my overstuffed backpack and said “You look like you’ve just been on a Great Adventure; either that or you’re going on one.”

I looked at him again. He was a tall man, and his hair was white-turning-yellow, like a newspaper left in the sun, and his bushy eyebrows waggled when he smiled at me again. I smiled back. “Just been on one, actually. And you? Have you come from anywhere interesting?”

And that’s where it started, right there.

He told me he’d been to the States, and I said that I had too, and he told me he’d been to Michigan, and I told him I had too, and he told me he’d been in Michigan for Thanksgiving, and I told him I had too, and by that time the smallness of Melbourne had opened up into the wideness of memory, and we talked like old friends about the snow that almost was, and the unseasonable blue sky that day, about his experiences in the Buick factory in the city of Flint, that I’d driven through just a few days before. I laughed, and said I hadn’t seen him, although I probably should have waved.

He told me the story of his adopted daughter, adopted from Flint, Michigan, who went back with him and met her birth family for the first time, about how strange it was seeing a face so familiar on someone people he’d never met, about how her mannerisms were so similar to this sister she’d never known. I rejoiced with him, and felt that belonging, that sense of coming back to family, that love, that grief for the lostness. I felt the story there with him, right there at Melbourne airport.

I feel that story today, which is why I’m remembering the Man from Michigan. I’ve been meeting family – my own family that I didn’t know – family that look like me, that think like me, that share a history, and can explain huge chunks of who I come from that I didn’t even know about. It makes me feel like I’m the one who was adopted, the one returning to Flint, Michigan.

It’s a lovely feeling, and a happy-sad feeling at the same time. I don’t know how to explain it. All I know is that I’m holding tightly to the hand of the God who put me in Flint, Michigan for Thanksgiving weekend; the God who put the newspaper-blond man at the airport.

I wish I’d taken his photograph. I don’t even know his name. If I did I’d call him up and tell him I’m holding his hand right now too. I don’t think he’d mind.

I’m glad the Man from Michigan was there that day. I’m glad for the God who puts people in airports just when we need them. I’m glad for the God who allows flesh-and-blood people to be His hands and feet.

What about you? Have you ever met someone you think just must be an angel? Someone you don’t know who’s managed to impact your life? Have you been that person for somebody else?

 

Who do you think you are?

Who do I think I am? Queen Elizabeth?

I know exactly who I am. I’m the woman who can still keep track of every hair appointment she’s had as an adult – can still count them on her fingers.

I’m the woman who’s never spent more than $100 on her hair at any one time.

I’m the woman who’s had her nails done exactly once in her life.

I’m the woman with the cracks in the floorboards. I’m the woman who’s bathroom floor is only waterproof because of gaffer tape.

I’m the woman with the half-painted bedroom. I’m the woman who’s never once bought a new lounge suite, dining table or fridge, and who’s clothing budget has been lucky to run to $50. A year.

I’m not complaining. I know who I am. And I’ve been blessed – very blessed – with lounge suites and fridges and tables and chairs and clothing, and hair that looks okay even without much effort put into it.

It’s just that now things are weird. Different.

Today I’m the woman who is arranging passports for her children, and buying backpacks spontaneously. Today I’m the woman assessing the pros and cons of expensive suitcases, and picking up framed family portraits to hang on our need-to-be-painted walls. Today I’m the woman planning a holiday to visit places I’ve only ever heard about in books.

Today I’m the woman I dreamed of being when I was just a tiny girl, but I’m bringing it all home to sit at my second-hand table in the kitchen with cracks in the floorboards.

I can’t look back right now, either to rejoice over the blessings or grieve over the losses. I just can’t look back. I don’t know if I’m ready to look forward either, so for now I will shut my eyes and trust.

Everything changes. Even the things we swear never will.

This, I believe, is a good thing.

This. I believe.

This is…Susie Finkbeiner

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I love this picture, it makes Susie Finkbeiner look entirely like the Virgin Mary in some Byzantine painting, or a medieval saint. Which is quite fitting really, because a saint is what this woman is (in the true sense of the word) to a small handful of women in the city where she lives. She is very much a saint. A Michigan saint. A Grand Rapids, USA Saint.

I’m not here to tell you today all about how wonderful Susie is though (although she is, and I love her dearly). I’m here to tell you about her debut novel, Paint Chips. It tells two stories, that of a mother and a daughter, and the tremendous losses they faced, both separately and together. Both stories deal with the tragedy of sex trafficking – forced prostitution – and the culture that exists around that, and the amazing redemption that can come from such horrors. I had no idea such a culture existed, not to the organised level portrayed in the book  (hey, I’m a small town girl), and I’m glad there are people out there, as portrayed in the story, who work hard to rescue these girls and offer them a chance to start life again.

I don’t know anyone who’s ever been the victim of such horrendous circumstances, and I don’t know anyone actively working to rehabilitate these women, but Susie does. The reason I call Susie Finkbeiner a saint in my opening paragraph is because one of the first things I learned about her (aside from the fact that she’s a mum to three gorgeous little kids and she writes incredibly powerful novels with them tearing around her feet) is that she volunteers her time to teach a creative writing course to women who were once caught up in that culture. She helps them write stories – their own, and ones they just like to dream about – and find new skills and outlets in a life after sexual slavery. She’s loved them, she’s sat with them through the hard times, through hospitalisations, through them pouring out their hearts to her, through endless coffees and heartache. She knows their stories. When I read Paint Chips it broke my heart (and then put it back together) because I couldn’t deny that these stories were, for so many people, true.

So that’s Susie. And this is Paint Chips. Click on the link to check it out for Kindle. The paperback version is being released in April.

Here’s what Amazon has to say about it:

Paint Chips What lies beneath the layers of hurt?

Though haunted by her troubled past, Dot has found a safe haven. She has a fierce protector and a colorful collection of friends…but sometimes she wonders if her life will ever be normal again. Though college and romance await her, embracing them requires a new kind of strength one she isn’t sure she has.

Emerging from years of confusion, Cora struggles to latch hold of the sanity she needs to return to the real world. She yearns to find a place of peace…but first she must deal with the ghosts of her past.

Can this mother and daughter overcome abuse, betrayal, abandonment, and the horrors of sexual trafficking, and make it back into each others arms?

Facing the past is never easy. But as they chip away the layers, they might just find something beautiful beneath the mess.

A word of warning…this book deals with some difficult subjects but it handles them very carefully. But it’s difficult to put down. Seriously.

Seriously.