I am celebrating a few significant anniversaries this year. The year began with our 20th wedding anniversary; our church celebrated 25 years last weekend; in September it will have been 25 years since I moved to Dublin; the charity I work for will celebrate 25 years next year. So I’m in the midst of many opportunities to remember and reflect in the hope that hindsight might somehow provide some wisdom, if not foresight, for the years ahead.
As you might imagine so much has happened in this past quarter of a century – including the fact that I’m now old enough to talk about a quarter of a century in adult terms! Twenty-five years ago I moved to Dublin as an eighteen year old, leaving home and traveling south to start student life and independent living. I learned how to navigate a new city and culture while living on a diet of cereal, toast, pasta and chocolate bars (good to remember as I despair over my children’s eating habits!). Two years later I dropped out of university (blame naivety, immaturity and not asking for help). Two jobs later, at the tender age of twenty-one, I got engaged to my boyfriend of four months – a drummer in a band, and a year after our first date we said “I do”. (I’m now convinced my mother must have been quietly slipping Valium) However, three children later, we have just celebrated twenty years’ of marriage. (Aside: he now works as an office manager and no longer has his hair dyed flame orange.) That said, I will still be researching lockable towers if my daughter even thinks of following in those particular footsteps! Motherhood can often afford us a renewed appreciation for our own mothers and what we might have put them through.
University and marriage just being the start of that era, needless to say a lot has happened in those twenty-five years – births, deaths, house moves, being at home full-time with little people, going back to work, caregiving, burnout, friendships, losses – the list goes on. While there have been many victories and celebrations along the way, when I look back I’m glad I didn’t know what was coming. I might have gone into hiding there and then! One day at a time, one step at a time, is the best way for me. My standout lesson though has surprisingly been from a quote on a fridge magnet! It was fifteen years ago now, a few months after my Mum had died. I was attempting to manage a then toddler and young baby while caring for a sick family member. There had been a few blind bends in the journey and I was shaken, running on adrenaline and praying I could keep it together as I was now wary of what might be coming round the corner. That’s when I came across this magnetic quote and exhaled breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. “What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us” (accredited to Ralph Waldo Emerson). Having learned the hard way that I hadn’t much control over what life threw at me, the quote reminded me that I could however take my values, passions, faith, my “inside” and make the most of how I dealt with this funny (and sometimes not so funny) thing called life. Now, looking back, I realize my putting that lesson into action has often looked a lot like ‘showing up’.
You see “what lies within us” can conjure up ideas of seriously impressive qualities and laudable gifting. I do firmly believe that every single one of us has characteristics, gifts and talents inside us that make up who we are and can be used to benefit the world around us. But the reality is that we don’t always feel like that. At times of grief or newborns or when events have blindsided me, I have felt drained, exhausted, confused, fearful or overwhelmed. There have been times when I just haven’t known what the next step should be or when I’ve realized there simply isn’t a ‘right answer’. There have been times when I have felt like I was barely hanging on, when I was so deeply weary that just functioning was a win. There have been times when I’ve felt ‘stuck’, uninspired, trudging through. In these times, I really didn’t feel like I had much left within me to give. I felt weak and uncomfortably messy so I’d tend to shut down. At the times when I most needed other people, I was least likely to let people in. But my saving grace was this – I kept showing up.
I kept showing up. Does that mean I accepted every social invite, that I didn’t take time out? No; absolutely not. By showing up I don’t mean no boundaries or an excuse for people-pleasing. If we want to care for others, we need to be well enough to do that which means taking care of ourselves too. What I do mean is that, in the main, whoever were “my people”, whatever were my priorities and non-negotiables, I kept showing up for these. Sometimes showing up was literally just my physical presence, there in body. Sometimes it meant getting real and letting trusted ones in. A couple of times it meant showing up at the doctor’s office to get help. And many times showing up meant getting on with it, putting in the groundwork when I didn’t feel like it, investing out of sheer commitment, seeing through the unseen, Instagram-unworthy moments. The anniversary celebrations are great – parties, well wishes and a real sense of achievement. But with the highs and lows, there’s a lot of mediocre in-between. We haven’t reached those big anniversaries without a lot of hanging in there, loving when the ‘butterflies’ are asleep, emails and appointments, messiness and difficult conversations, cleaning up and sorting through. The boring business doesn’t usually make for pretty photographs or garner lots of “likes”, but we can’t get to the milestones without it. In an era where we seem to be exhorted to seek ever-increasing fulfilment and quick gratification, real long-term dedication can get left behind. But the real treasure is found in the deep and the dark places, and it takes work to mine for that prize. Diamonds don’t look like much before the mining, processing and polishing. I know, for me, that is the work of a lifetime, ongoing and sometimes painful, but I’m believing it will change me and hopefully uncover the lasting treasure that I can hand down.
Hand in hand with showing up is stepping up. What lies within us is important. Every single one of us has values, strengths and talents that we can use to contribute to the world around us. I’m not talking about the global stage, but about our sphere of influence. Our “world” may be one person, may be a family, a community or an organization. But whatever our “world” looks like, it needs us. I want to use what’s within me to make a difference, to hand down a legacy that leaves my world better for having had me in it. It doesn’t need to be grand to be important. My Granny was simply there for me, constant, in everything – present, available, reliable. Her name may not make it into the history books, but her faithfulness was my rock and she made a deep difference to who I am and consequently to my children. That’s legacy.
Right now, stepping up for me looks like being brave and actually putting pen to paper, investing time and energy in writing instead of spending even more time thinking about it and hiding from it. I feel more ‘myself’ when I use writing to express what’s going on inside and hopefully encourage others in the process. But stepping up looks different for each of us. I’m inspired daily by those around me who day-in and day-out care for family members – children with special needs, elderly and ill parents, foster children. Their commitment can go unseen and uncelebrated, but they see the intrinsic value in those who are often overlooked and, because of their dedication, those in their care know that they are worthy, loved and secure. I think of my friend who has been through a difficult season of loss and mental health struggles, yet who continues to show up and give life her best – real, compassionate, vulnerable and brave. I understand belonging because of the people who made room in their lives, welcomed me in and treated me as their own. And I don’t know what I’d do without my tribe – my people who know the power of tea and cake, who can make me laugh ‘til I cry, who send texts and give hugs and leave space for tears – those people are true gifts for my soul. So whatever our individual strengths and talents are, our people need us to step up and to use what we have inside for their benefit as well as our own. That will look different in different seasons. For now it might mean doing something about a long-held dream, supporting a loved one through treatment or it might mean putting the kettle on and listening well. But I want to be brave enough to explore what my next season holds and to step up.
I am certainly not the teenager I was twenty-five years ago. There are wrinkles and scars, freedoms and depths, lessons and victories earned and won. I appreciate better the complexities of life and people; I spend more time navigating the grey areas and the in-between. Yet I’m also more aware of how I’m made, of my strengths and my vulnerabilities, of what matters to me, of what lies inside. This “middle age” offers hindsight into what’s gone before as well as some perspective on what’s to come. So I’ve figured out I want the deeper treasures of faithfully showing up. I’ve been around long enough to realize my world expands beyond me so I need to step up. And from experience, I suspect the next twenty-five years will go by quicker than anticipated and I want a legacy to hand down. It may not be recorded in the history books, but I know deep within me that it will make a lasting difference to my people and consequently to their people too. My Granny taught me that.