Myth busting the Nativity

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There are so many traditions and embellishments that over the years we have added to the Biblical account. Many are lovely, they can help us imagine the scene, some draw us in and bring it to life. Some however can give us the wrong idea about the story altogether. It’s really useful for us to have clarity about what’s there in the Bible, what we know and to separate out the add ons – not necessarily to ‘banish’ them but to know them as extras.

My girls need that clarity. It’s hard to have to unlearn something later and have to build trust again with the story itself, and the people who told it. Far better to be clear from the beginning (great with hindsight I know!).

Little Donkey is unfortunately never mentioned in the Biblical accounts. It’s true that we know with some certainty that having a donkey with you when you traveled at that time, in that place was common – if you were well off enough to have one. But the donkey would probably have been used to carry things not people routinely. So yes, it is lovely to imagine Mary having the assistance of a donkey for the really long journey on foot to Bethlehem whilst heavily pregnant – but we are having an educated guess. We don’t know for certain they had one with them.

Three Kings are a neatening up of the story. The Bible describes simply ‘some wise men from the East’. We have made the logical step of assuming they had wealth and social standing to be able to abandon what they were doing and set out on the long journey of discovery, and because of the expensive presents they brought. We’ve also neatly assumed three when writing carols and nativity plays – easy, one for each present. But it could have been a group all coming together to bring the three presents. They could have had an entourage of servants with them, there could have just been two out on an adventure together… we’re simply not told.

Stable round the back of the Inn Now this is a tricky one. Almost all Christmas cards show the nativity scene in a wooden stable that we in the west would recognize. It’s usually either at a small distance from the town or like a lean to against the Inn. Also I think we have translated the word ‘Inn’ looking at the story through western eyes, imagining perhaps an old fashioned public house taking in weary travelers with rooms for hire upstairs – and it’s full to bursting. In fact that kind of Inn was not the norm in the Middle East at that time. The culture had at it’s heart the expectation of hospitality. Every home would be ready to give it. Those who could afford to had a guest room set slightly apart from the busyness of their family life, maybe up on the flat roof, or perhaps just separated by a wall from the family living area which would most likely have been one room, bringing the precious animals in for the night to give warmth and security, and all sleeping within that family space with the animals. So it was probably not a wooden stable building that Mary and Joseph were offered for the night, but the chance to squeeze into someone’s family space – animals and all because all the guest rooms were already full. Not secluded, not quiet, not private as we perhaps have got used to picturing it. But yes, he was placed in the manger and yes he was born in with the animals that belonged to that household and I expect they were very glad of the warmth.

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Shepherds and wise men visit. We are used to telling the story all in one go – especially for children, and so we have grown accustomed to imagining the shepherds and wise men all arriving on that first night. But actually the Bible says that the wise men visited Jesus in Bethlehem much later, perhaps months later. We know Jesus was still young because Herod (otherwise known as Herod the Great – there were a few Herod’s in Biblical times) ordered all babies 2 years and under to be killed in the hope that he would remove this ‘new king’ the wise men had come to see but he was described as a ‘child with his mother’ when they saw him, not as a baby lying in a manger.

Another thing that can so easily get muddled is stars and angels – angels came to the shepherds and the star led the wise men.

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‘No crying he makes’ – no chance!!! How worrying would that have been for Mary. Babies need to cry, to take in that first big breath and to get fed when they are hungry and cleaned when they are dirty. It’s true Jesus was perfect, the Bible tells us he was without sin. But babies crying is not sinful it is necessary (Don’t ask me why we say ‘oh they were such a good baby’ when we mean they didn’t cry too much more than was convenient!! Maybe it harks back to the Victorian adage ‘children should be seen and not heard’). Yes, Mary would have been relieved to hear baby Jesus crying. And just to clarify he would have been a beautifully ordinary Bethlehem baby; olive skin, deep brown eyes, really dark hair – just like his Jewish, Middle Eastern Mum & Dad – he was really, truly human.

 

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How can it be nearly December?? what happened in November

I’m not sure what happened to November this year!

It’s been fast and furious in our family this year. After the settling down into new patterns of school and college at the beginning of term, November has seen homework and assessments… and the planning and organizing of work experience placements which is daunting. This term A has been involved in the school musical again, ‘Legally Blonde’ so he’s been busy with rehearsals and this week with the shows. We went to see it together, really fun. (Came away with plenty to unravel and talk about with T afterwards though, maybe more of that in another blog.)

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Little Jaffsie enjoying a secret hideout in the garden

The kittens have reached the age to begin exploring the garden – though I am nervous, and closely supervise still. My worries not at all calmed by Jaffa discovering how to get up on the garage roof already. Padfoot is still being kept inside, his health has not been good since we’ve had him and there are ongoing investigations and tests with the vets. So for now it’s easier to monitor him in the house. It’s easy to make sure he gets tonnes of cuddles and fuss – he just laps it up. They are becoming a wonderful part of family life, Padfoot particularly seems to sense when to curl up near someone who needs calming, and Jaffa is a bundle of energy and curiosity which is a great motivator.

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helping with bathtime

All the usual stuff of course is still being shoehorned into each week – although sadly the washing Himalayas is actually a mountain range of epic proportions as I write despite my best efforts! And no matter how often I hoover, it always needs doing. And best not to even comment on the lack of tidiness – it’s overrated I reckon.

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Padfoot (aka paddington!) investigating our latest creation – a gingerbread house

We have had some together time of Friday evening – one week even a film we all watched together (quite often we divide into two groups for Friday chillin out) – and we made our kittens a gingerbread house at the same time, partly inspired by the film choice: ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. Little projects to occupy while we wait for the start help such a lot, and I’m on high alert all the time I find it near impossible these days to relax with a film so it kept me busy too! We’ve also ‘enjoyed’ some Friday family times shaped by meltdowns and struggle – so it’s good for me to sit and remember a good one.

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It’s been difficult to say goodbye to one of our lovely loyal guinea pigs this month. Custard Cream died very unexpectedly. And we miss him. We have planted a beautiful Hebe where he is buried. And the other half of the duo – Bourbon Biscuit – has been brought inside for the winter and is getting a lot of looking after from T. The two hamsters are fine – rather cheeky around the kittens, always popping out to stare at them, and trying to have a little nip if the kittens get too close. And the chickens, bless them, have been malting so look a bit scruffy and sorry for themselves but are fine.

Church life is gearing up for Christmas on top of all the usual busyness – I have yet to begin everything that needs doing for family Christmas of course, but somehow it seems to always come together in time (and what doesn’t, doesn’t matter). And schools have a lot of extras, Christmas Fairs, services, concerts, mufti days, discos… most weeks I struggle to keep up with what’s happening when and for whom!! I’ve also finally got round to filling in yet more forms to apply for carers allowance with the encouragement of a good friend. These things take such a lot of energy! Really thankful Andrew is a detail person, November has been a month and a half!

 

 

peace, not necessarily peacefulness

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Goodness it’s been quite a half term in the Porter house! A new school for T, college for the first time for B, and the beginning of the exam years for A. Plus new chaplaincy work for Andrew alongside church, and all the usual responsibilities. Of course, for me this has brought yet more steep learning curves and the challenges of stepping up to the new ways support from me is needed for everyone. Trying to understand and navigate the Further Ed support systems, beginning to build partnership and communication with new tutors and teachers. Reading and re-reading policies and guidelines, law and recommendations to try and work out what adjustments and support it is reasonable to ask for, what I need to find independently and what simply isn’t out there that I’m going to need to creatively put in place myself. One of my friends reminds me that I once said to her that chaos is chaos – no matter how much more you put into the mix, but my goodness it feels as if we have chaos full to bursting at the moment!

Yesterday the secondary school where I’m on the chaplaincy team had a service all about peace. At the end there was a time of reflection with beautiful music being played. In between the boys behind me asking me what different questions on the reflection sheet meant (which I loved chatting about) I sat and read, and re-read ‘my peace I give to you… do not be troubled, do not be upset’. And I sat there and heard Jesus say these words into all of the above and more, and I became aware of my aching painful permanently stressed out shoulders and neck, and I pondered this gift of peace. Given into the midst of the storms of life.

“I’m telling you these things while I’m still living with you. The Friend, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send at my request, will make everything plain to you. He will remind you of all the things I have told you. I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.” (John 14:27, MSG)

We rarely have ‘peaceful’ times in our family life together. And when we do it’s short lived. We work hard to find ‘peacefulness’ and rest for each of us – we each find it in different ways and places. A good book, quiet, dancing to loud music, gardening, walking, animals, being alone, being with others, baking, drawing and painting, playing, minecraft, SIMS… But it’s elusive and fleeting, the ‘peace’ we can find for ourselves in those ways. It’s needed respite but it doesn’t come close to the deep seated, welling up, strong, protecting all around me kind of peace that I sense Jesus is talking about.

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I think I began learning what this Jesus peace might be like when I was only a child. Words from a song we played on a record over and over, and sang along to have stayed with me through the years and pop into my mind to remind me of the truth I grabbed hold of as a child listening to ‘the music machine’: ‘peace is holding Jesus’ hand’. It is active, holding onto him, trusting in who he is. It is a gift, he stands next to me with his hand stretching out to be held onto, giving himself. He is our peace. We are accepted, loved, understood. We are safe and held through every storm of life. We are not defined and restricted by the systems we have to navigate but defined by and in this belonging with Jesus. Our well being and purposefulness rests in our belonging with him.

My belonging in him can give me the courage I need. I can lean into his love for me when worries yet again try to overwhelm me. When everything feels as if I am wading through treacle I can be sure I am with the one who can speak to howling wind and dangerous waves – and put them in their place! The troubles, worries, concerns, mountains we face do not disappear but we are not bereft or alone. We are ‘holding Jesus’ hand’.

 ‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33 NIV)

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sensory pit-stops: invitations to find calm

We are counting down now to beginning a new term – new teachers, new classes, and for two of mine new schools. There is definitely a need for me to be providing and enabling as many calming sensory activities as possible – yesterday I just couldn’t keep up!

Our emotions and physical responses to them are so complex I wonder how any of us actually learn to regulate ourselves. For many of us no doubt it comes easier than for others. Certainly if our understanding and recognition of different emotions is still a work in progress then instinctive self regulation is going to be almost impossible. It has to be learnt. So the more varied and frequent opportunities to learn to become calm and collected when feeling huge emotions the better.

These are some of my favourite activities to leave out dotted around the house that can become calming sensory pit-stops:

  • cornflour gloop – best in a room with a wipeable floor: cornflour and just enough water to make a gloopy paste in a shallow bowl or tub. This is great, it gives a sensation of resistance when poked and pushed and also soft fluidity when dangled or allowed to ooze back into itself. To dispose of it afterwards I leave it to dry out a little and then put it in the bin. Bits on the floor or table leave to dry then brush and scoop into the bin. (It blocks drains if washed down the sink)
  • playdough – We make our own, and then for extra sensory input can give it a scent like lavender, citrus, peppermint etc. The best bit of making your own is that it needs to be kneaded like bread dough as it cools down and the warmth with the kneading is amazing… just check it’s not still very hot before you hand it over to the kids. (Our recipe came from a good friend: 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup salt, 2 tbsp oil, 2 tsp cream of tartar, 1 cup of water with food colouring in if desired… beat it together as it heats up in a saucepan.)
  • painting- not perhaps something I would leave out casually all the time but this can be really absorbing; big plain paper, brushes, sponges, fingers etc, paint & imagination.

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  • wobble board – we have a circular board with a curved underneath that was being sold as a toning piece of equipment for keep fit, but we use it simply for fun balancing. When movement and concentration come together it can prove very calming. And this can simply be left out in a place with some space to be used in-between things, or on the way from one part of the house to another.
  • Animals – in our house one of the key strategies for self-regulation is to spend time with animals. Before we had the kittens days like these would be better if the guinea pigs came in and were easily available for cuddles. Now of course the kittens are always to be found somewhere in the house, and thankfully they crave attention and fuss. The only problem is when the attention given to one of them becomes a stress trigger for a sibling- either because they are not ‘doing it right’, or the kitten was found in someone else’s space, or its not considered to be ‘their turn’… but despite those (very frequent) moments I still think being in physical contact with animals brings such a lot of calm and reassurance.
  • blankets – and hot water bottles which add weight and warmth. Always on the sofa and beds ready to snuggle up in, hide under or tuck in tight around you.
  • water – another I cannot simply leave out, but there are so many opportunities during the day whether it’s to encourage lingering over hand washing, helping with some washing up, or allowing some pouring play between jugs tubs and cups. And there’s always the bath & shower on a day without time pressure which for our youngest is probably one of the best ways to really ground her when very anxious. Yesterday we resorted to a bath in the afternoon – and I got time to clean the bathroom at the same time!
  • a familiar activity – whether it’s a film that’s been seen a hundred times, reading a book that is known word for word, or a puzzle that’s a favourite, or a sorting activity with buttons or marbles etc that always gets done in the same way, a familiar activity can be very soothing.
  • music – a tricky one to balance everyone’s different needs at any given moment but brilliant nonetheless. As I write A is playing the piano which he gets completely absorbed in. B likes to listen to music on headphones which shuts all other hustle & bustle out. T loves to move and sing, and tends to want music loud when she wants it. Dance mats, dance games on the Wii, and listening to songs over and over again seem to really help T… but for the sake of everyone else we try to manage how long each time! Another absorbing and regulating music & movement activity is hand clapping rhymes and other nursery rhymes. T still asks for ‘this is the way the lady rides’ (a bouncing on a knee rhyme), and loves ‘a sailor went to sea, sea, sea’ etc.
  • hugs! – almost always on their terms of course, but being available for regular deep squeezing hugs is essential – and so easy, no prep required!

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  • marble bowl – simply marbles in a shallow wooden bowl. They can be swirled, spun, sifted through fingers and listened to as they spin gradually getting slower and slower.
  • mini sensory bin – again a simple bowl or tray, with rice, pasta, cous cous or sand in that is simply available to arrange things in (small world play figures or stones, shells, beads etc) and feel.
  • balloons – not for everyone I know, but the process of blowing up a balloon slows breathing down, and makes us take deep breaths in. And they are really fun when you don’t tie them but fill them and let them go over and over. And for the daring moments when the thought of the clearing up doesn’t phase you, balloons with some water in that can be held (it has a weight to it) and that move about in your hand are fascinating too.
  • dens – safe, inviting spaces to retreat into and block out the hustle and bustle. Soft glow light, flumpy cushions, paper & pens to doodle with and some cuddly toys.
  • tearing and cutting – leaving out an old newspaper or magazine with scissors if that’s appropriate. Prepare for easy to clear up mess, but T can be absorbed in cutting, tearing and scrunching paper for some time and this can be a good distraction from the times when anxiety begins to show itself as restless frustration.

 

transitions and anxiety

Monday was ‘transition day’, the day when our local family of schools all have a taster day for the following year, whether that’s the next class in the same school or in a new school altogether. A day to meet the teacher, meet your new class mates and get familiar with the routine and lay out of a new place. For T it’s a change of schools, up to juniors. For A just a change of tutor and timetable. And also Tuesday was leavers assembly and prom day for B, really making it clear that the familiar routine of school is finished and it’s time to try and get used to the idea of college in September.

Add into that sports day, talent show rehearsal, school musical rehearsals, doctors appointments, unexpected visits to family, the house beginning to fill up with church holiday club scenery and its been quite a time since my last post, with huge amounts of anxiety, plenty of avoidance, tears and clingyness.

T is getting a lot more confident with reading at the moment, and as we walked to school this morning she read ‘transit’ on the back of a van.

“That van says transition day Mummy”

“It does have the beginning of that on it doesn’t it. It says ‘transit’, it’s a transit van”

quizzical look.

“Transit means to move something. The van is designed to help us move things. Transition means moving from one thing to a new thing”

“It’s moving me. Transition day was about moving me to a new school?”

“Exactly”

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Movement is a funny thing, it can be soothingly repetitive (as long as you are the one in control of that movement I think – nothing more irritating that someone else’s pacing or tapping!), it can on the other hand cause motion sickness, or dizziness, or tinnitus on days when nothing is still or quiet for a second. Movement can be exciting, getting us to places and people we’ve been looking forward to being with. It can be scary, getting us to unfamiliar or stressful places and people. Movement is tiring. It is tiring to think that life could be thought of as perpetual transit! But life is full of movement, of transitions.

When I got home from the school drop off (which by the way was really stress free this morning! Always unexpected and a relief) I played with Padfoot & Jaffa for a bit (trying to make sure they get good attention before I get stuck into work) and when they got tired they both climbed onto my knee and flopped to sleep purring loudly. It was beautiful. But I was kneeling on the kitchen floor, so soon my ankles were going to sleep, and my knees aching (must be getting old!), so I tried to gently move. Not even the smallest movement was possible without waking them. Eyes opened, ears pricked up as if to say ‘what? why? where?’ They readjusted, shuffled, tried to get floppy comfy again every time but the movement stopped them feeling safe and relaxed. After a couple of attempts of freeing my ankles and sitting differently they hopped off in disgust and went to find a predictable, un-moving resting place – where they have happily stayed curled up as I am writing.

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They remind me of my girls. No matter how gradually, how small each movement, transitions make them twitchy and uncomfortable. They are unsettled by it. They both find it really difficult to visualize an unfamiliar place or event, they cannot prepare for change easily without support. So anxiety is high, meltdowns increase, and sensory overload is pretty much round every corner because senses are heightened when they are in constant alert.

There are things that can support transitions.

  • Good visual social stories can help with visualizing the unfamiliar and are tangible, and can be referred to over and over (and over) again.
  • A visual timetable for the transition, with definite dates and times.
  • Collecting factual information about the unfamiliar event or place.
  • chocolate (- that’s just for me!!)
  • A visual timetable in advance (and taken along) of each small step of the transition.
  • Doing the steps with someone familiar alongside.
  • Practice walks of new routes, or places.
  • support with emotions, identifying them and ‘sitting with’ them as they come and go.
  • prayer!
  • A steady pace with rests – not always possible of course! Grab resting places wherever you can (time with special interests, chances to zone out)
  • patience!
  • Keeping other things as steady and familiar as possible while change is happening – again not always possible but usually we can find something that can stay constant even if it is something as seemingly insignificant as not changing the bedding until next week if it’s all a bit much this week.

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