Friday, April 17, 2015

The best things in life...

A montage of ours...
When I was growing up in the 1980s, a tradition my sister started was to create funny family photo
montages. She'd cut up photos and stick them into clip frames to hang on the walls of our parents' house.

Even all these years later these montages are still there to remind us of growing up together, holidays and other memorable or comedy moments.

Mainly when I look at them I think how young and slim I look, but they never fail to make me smile, even if these days they only adorn the walls of the downstairs toilet.

In this digital age it's tempting not to keep hard copies of our photos but, in a similar tradition, my wife and I have created a photo wall upstairs in our house.

Each time we pass we're reminded of happy memories of our children when they were younger, and we also have holiday montages framed in our kitchen. When we were visiting family in Florida the other year we picked up a photo frame with a quote from Cesare Pavese "We don't remember the days, we remember the moments". For us that's what the photos remind us of, shared moments as a family.
"The best things in life aren't things"
Bear Grylls said "The best things in life aren't things" and I'd agree. Not that "things" aren't nice to have, but relationship is what we're wired for, which is I think why we love photo montages  - they remind us of people we love, or experiences we've shared.

A survey was published recently with the 50 top things that make Britons happy. What's striking is that the list isn't about "things" at all but is dominated by "moments" - feeling the sun on your face, doing something for others, a freshly brewed cup of tea, time to yourself. As much we tend to accumulate stuff, it's the moments we remember and which make us happy.

Magic Moments
Memories are important. Not just big holidays but the little everyday things, the daily family moments - like my sister's montages growing up. Lots of the photos are of us in our kitchen, around a table.

Our kitchen was the centre of our household, full of laughter, meals, arguments and everything else. When I recorded my first album in 2002 I called it "Songs for the Kitchen", as the songs were for the centre, the heart, and I imagined my mum playing the CD in the kitchen!

In the excellent book "The Sixty Minute Father" by Rob Parsons he positively encourages creating silly memories in the ordinary - the power of fun - like all sleeping in the lounge one night, or surprising your kids by doing something really silly.

These become family legends, the narrative of relationship: "those" stories that keep coming out at family reunions long into the future. Stories that make you laugh and cry as you remember together.
"Memories are important. Not just big holidays but the little everyday things..."
Of course it's not just stories and photos that have sentimental value. I know that some "things" do too. We've recently hung an old bell in our hall that belonged to my wife's grandfather. It's got a lovely tone, and it's a nice thing, but what makes us cherish it is that it spent 50 years in the house of a loved one and it's chime evokes memories. Sounds and smells can stir us. Like the smell of my dad's workshop, or model steam engines, or creosote, or freshly cut grass.

Our scars also tell events in our story. I have a smallish scar on my left knee, for instance. Sadly it's not from anything exciting but instead from tripping over at a drinks station in the Winchester 10k race one year and cutting it open. It made for a dramatic end to the race with quite a bloody leg!
These are the things that make us “us”. The stories to share. Living memories.

Times we pushed ourselves. Times we conquered and overcame. Or times we didn't – like the time I came 3rd in the senior cross country at school THREE YEARS IN A ROW, being beaten by different people each time! No physical scars associated with this one though!

Part of our photo wall...
It's a cliche that we realise the value of something when it's not there - and we can crave relationship and interaction when we're lonely and isolated, tragically something that affects many elderly people here in the UK. So I was delighted to see a creative response to this in the news this week.

In exchange for spending time with the elderly residents, a nursing home in the Netherlands is offering rent free accommodation to students. I suspect that the students will benefit just as much as the other residents by the inter-generational companionship and friendships formed.

Another cliche is that we can’t take our stuff with us - one day we'll leave it all behind. Recently I heard the charity Open Doors share some of the devastating stories of persecuted Christians in Syria and Iraq who have had to leave their possessions and homes behind to flee from the tyranny of IS jihadists. At times like these, and in the refugee camps they find themselves, the importance of sharing happy memories to displace the recent trauma is even more important.
"We've all been the prodigal at times..."
There's a well known parable about someone who learnt the hard way that the best things in life aren't things. Jesus tells a story of a young man who asked his father for his inheritance, share of his stuff, in advance of his time. Essentially wishing his father dead. Painfully, lovingly, his father assents, only for the young man to blow the lot in decadence far away.

Soon he's left with nothing except memories and decides to return home and offer himself as a servant to his father, knowing the disrespect he has shown him, and the shame and dishonour he's brought on himself. In one of the most moving passages of scripture, the father sees his son returning, and leaving dignity behind he runs to embrace him and welcome him home. The best things in life aren't things. 

Henri Nouwen's profound book about this story "The Return of The Prodigal Son" is a brilliant unpacking of this simple parable. We've all been the prodigal at times, and many of us can also relate to the jealous older brother. But Nouwen's main point is that we're called to love as the father loves and allow ourself to be loved like the son. 

I was reminded of this as I've been listening to the new album by Josh Garrels, particularly the track "At The Table", which speaks to me of the father's love toward the prodigal, especially the line "There will always, always be a place for you at my table".

It's around the table that many memories are made, especially in our kitchen growing up, like the photos at my parents' house. Maybe you're drowning in things, in which case it might be time to give some of it away. Or maybe this week it's time to get some friends round your table, laugh, tell your stories and enjoy some of the things that really are best in life.
"We're called to love as the father loves and allow ourself to be loved like the son"


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