Growing Old, Staying Young

Bess Tom and Mum April 14

Aunt Bessie, Uncle Tommy and Mum

Two weeks ago, Aunt Bessie died. She was my (Dorothy’s) last remaining aunt and was in her 99th year, outdoing my Mum who died two years ago, just before her 98th birthday. Those two girls were definitely at the front of the queue when longevity genes were given out! Aunt Bessie is survived by Uncle Tommy who, at 98+, still lives at home, cooks for himself, does his own food and clothes shopping (he’s a natty dresser who likes a nice shirt) and enjoys reading and watching the football. When I told him a couple of years ago that we hoped to go to Slovenia on holiday, he described without hesitation the countries we would need to drive through in our campervan from Amsterdam to get there. He is a mine of information on all sorts of topics and never seems to have to pause to try to remember someone’s name – yet I need to do that all the time! At the funeral meal we met up with cousins, friends and neighbours we had not seen for years and there was lots of reminiscing about childhood school holidays spent at Bessie and Tommy’s farm. They had no children of their own but gave so much time, love and care to us as nephews and nieces. Since the funeral I have been thinking about their long lives and great ages – Bessie, Tommy, Mum – and how they managed to keep young within themselves for so long. Their secret? As with most mysteries, the answer lies in a combination of factors. First, they were always interested in other people – us as children; later, our children and later still, our grandchildren. Even in her last few years of some confusion, Aunt Bessie smiled to see her nephew’s grandchildren come to visit and she loved to nurse the baby on her knee. Uncle Tommy still remembers all our birthdays and the names of our children and grandchildren. The second part of the secret, I believe, was their sense of contentment in life. They were not greedy people; they shared their homes, their time and their resources and enjoyed simple pleasures without constantly looking for more. Mum was always glad to see visitors and never scolded anyone for not coming often enough! The third part of the secret was their very real sense of humility before a greater power – their God – who had made them and given them all they had. Now that Mum and all our aunts have gone, my sisters and I have become the older generation – strange thought – and it is our turn to find the secret of growing old while staying young! As the prophet Isaiah says in the Bible:

They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with    wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

School’s Out!

It’s late July and school’s out. Here in the Netherlands, the school holidays are set by the Ministry of Culture, Education and Science. The three main holidays – Autumn (around Hallowe’en), Spring (around Easter) and Summer – are staggered in order to avoid excessively busy times on the roads, ports and airports. How do they manage this? Easy: the country is divided into three regions and each region has different (but overlapping) holiday dates. All the schools in each region have the same holidays. After two years, the schedule is swapped around, so you get a chance to have early, middle and late timings for your holidays. How sensible! This also means that the government does not allow parents to take their children out of school for holidays during term time, though exactly how that is policed I don’t know. At the Baptist House, where we work, most people are now on holiday. That’s turned out to be a good thing for them, as this week temperatures have been in the mid-30s and it is exceedingly hot in our flat-roofed offices. At home we manage to keep cool by closing all the windows, doors and curtains and by having a fan on at night. Our holiday times are generally off-season these days, so we are looking forward to September when it will be cooler and everyone else will be back at work! Meantime, Happy Heatwave!

David’s Defence

Yesterday was a different kind of D-Day. David was defending his PhD thesis in the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. The European system is quite different from the UK one, where you sit in a small room with one or two examiners and discuss the finer points of your work before they say yes or no and usually advise changes to be made before you have passed. Some months later there follows a grand graduation ceremony with robes and processions and speeches… Here in the Netherlands you get it all over in one day – actually in about one and a half hours!  Aula 18

The procedure went something like this: at 9.45am precisely, David (wearing the regulation tuxedo) processed into the auditorium behind the beadle (a university official carrying a mace); the ‘rector magnificus’ (who chaired the ceremony); five ‘opponents’; his two ‘promoters’ (supervisors) and two ceremonial assistants (oddly referred to as ‘paranymphs’). In David’s case Sarah and Catherine acted as paranymphs: the theory is that if the candidate collapses or cannot for any reason complete the defence, the paranymphs will take over on his behalf!  First off, David was invited to give a 10-minute introduction to his work and then each opponent had 10 minutes to question him on any aspect of the thesis. After exactly one hour, the beadle re-entered the hall and announced: ‘Hora Est’, whereupon the proceedings ended (this happens even if someone is speaking at the time). The platform party then trooped out to have a private consultation to decide if he should be awarded the PhD. Since the thesis has already been passed by a majority of five readers prior to D-Day, some say the Defence is really a piece of theatre. However, it’s not all over until the procession re-enters the hall and the official announcement has been made, the certificate handed over and the congratulatory ‘laudation’ delivered. David’s laudation was delivered by his supervisor and dear friend Parush Parushev.

Unknown to David, his thesis had been sent out to three extra readers who agreed with the other five that it was an exceptional piece of work and so he was awarded PhD cum Laude – a rare honour and the first for an IBTSC Amsterdam student.

mcmillan family 5

L to R: Catherine, David, Dorothy, Philip, Sarah

After the ceremony we all went off to a nearby restaurant for lunch with family and friends and it was all over. No robes, no garden party, no Vice Chancellor’s speech… suits David’s taste down to the ground! There is the wonderful satisfaction of having finished the job and the icing on the cake was being awarded a cum Laude. We all had a wonderful day. Well done, Dr David!

We’re on the road again…

D and D in flower power car Yes – we’ve been doing lots of travelling recently. No – we haven’t swapped Monti for a vintage Beetle!That’s a picture of us in a ‘flower power’ car at the world-famous Keukenhof tulip festival at Easter. Sarah, Simon, Joel and Luke came to stay over Easter weekend and we all drove an hour and a half to Zwolle to visit Dinoland. Dot Dave and boys at Keukenhof The seven million tulips at Keukenhof (all planted by hand each year for the six-week festival) were hugely impressive and very beautiful, but our grandsons definitely preferred the dinosaur centre activities (and actually the adults quite enjoyed them too!). Family at DInoland A few days later we packed up Monti and headed for the Hoek van Holland to Harwich ferry. After one day in Bicester with Tom, Cathy, Isla and Eve, it was time to be off again – flying to Belfast to begin our four-week annual Home Assignment, when we visit friends, family and churches across the UK that support us in our work in Amsterdam. We’ve spent the first two weeks in Northern Ireland – visiting our home church, Windsor Baptist, and meeting lots of friends at an Open Day kindly hosted by Sarah and Simon and the boys at their house near Lisburn. We shared a service at Windsor Baptist with an energetic group of four young people (appropriately named an Action Team) who have just returned from six months working with BMS World Mission in Thailand. They were inspiring! We’ve also fitted in some house hunting to get an idea of possible places to settle when we finish our term with BMS next March. In a day or two we’re off back to England and Wales for more visits …

Tulips and Tragedies

Spring is here at last. AvalonTulipTimeCruise That sounds happy, doesn’t it? Little lambs are playing in the fields, tulips and daffodils are coming into bloom in our gardens, cherry blossom is blowing in the wind… you can almost smell Spring. Here in the Netherlands, Keukenhof has opened for its short annual season of amazing tulip displays and thousands of tourists are making their way there every day. What a lovely picture!

But then you listen to the news and it’s anything but lovely: fifty people murdered in New Zealand at their place of worship; three people shot dead on a tram in Utrecht in the Netherlands; three teenagers killed in the crush to get into a St Patrick’s night party in Northern Ireland… and just before that hundreds of people were killed in a plane crash in Ethiopia. All this in addition to the suffering of thousands made homeless in the floods in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

floods-in-malawi Why does all this tragedy happen? Whose fault is it? Does the God we believe in care? What can we do about the suffering? How do we live with the contrast between the tulips and the tragedies? These are huge questions and – let’s be honest – as human beings we don’t really know the answers. Many philosophers and theologians have written about the problem of suffering; many sermons have been preached on the subject and yet no clear conclusions are reached. The famous writer CS Lewis described the problem of pain as ‘a fundamental theological dilemma, and perhaps the most serious objection to the Christian religion’. He admits that ‘suffering is not good in itself’ but goes on to say, ‘What is good in any painful experience is … the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.’ Maybe instead of trying to answer the unanswerable questions we need to weep with those who weep, work harder to prevent suffering caused by neglect or abuse and not forget to enjoy the tulips along the way.

How do we measure success?

Sarah and Simon

Sarah and Simon

This blog was written by our daughter Sarah and first posted on her blog Killultales, which you will find here.

This has been on my mind a lot recently.  My insecurities about my own career ‘success’ were compounded this week by the the myriad (often self aggrandising) social media posts and news features on International Women’s Day (IWD) about women who have smashed the glass ceiling before they turned 30, who are changing the world in their gap year, who have become millionaires overnight, and more.

Naively, I was expecting IWD news stories primarily to be raising awareness of the opression of women being trafficked for sex.  To be drawing our attention to those women around the world who die during or after childbirth, or lose their babies, because they haven’t got access to basic healthcare for themselves and their families.  For those women who still don’t have the right to make their own decisions about work and family life, who are forced to marry young or to undergo FGM.

There certainly are issues of gender inequality in the UK, and these should not be ignored.  But the more I read about IWD this past week, the more I felt women were being encouraged to stop at nothing for the sake of achieving success in a way that society can measure.

Don’t feel bad about missing out on school plays, concerts and sporting events – the dads don’t… 
There’s social care for a reason, so get someone in to meet the needs of your family.  Don’t be held back by the age old assumption that the women will provide the care.
Don’t forget to prioritise your ‘me time’.  You need to have some down time from the busyness of juggling everything.

So what are we modelling to our children?  That we should pursue our dreams at all costs?  Not to worry about family, they’ll muddle through when we don’t have time for them and we’ll expect them to show up to celebrate our successes anyway?

We live in a country where one fifth of the population say they are lonely.  There’s a Minister for Loneliness.  There’s a Campaign for Loneliness.

Perhaps we have it all wrong.  Instead of celebrating women succeeding in a man’s world, we should be changing the measure of success.

Men and women who seek to balance personal and professional life should be celebrated, because that is really hard.

I read an article recently about a gentleman whose mother was diagnosed with dementia.  He left his job, rented out his home, and moved in with his mum to care for her.  He misses his job, friends and colleagues and is losing out in terms of career, but feels this is a once in a lifetime chance to show her how important she is to him.

I read an article about a barrister returning from maternity leave whose clerk now contacts Court in advance of her appearing, to request that the judge will rise at intervals to allow her to breastfeed or express milk for her baby.  This enables her to prioritise caring for and bonding with her child whist remaining committed to her clients.

I have a husband who has repeatedly taken jobs with reduced salary and career opportunities to ensure that he can be home in time to bath the boys every day and tell them crazy bedtime stories.  Not only am I enormously grateful for this, but the boys love spending time on their own with him and shun me at least once a year for “boys’ holiday with dad”.

Everyone should be supported in striving to achieve all that they can in their career.  We should stop measuring success in terms of fame, or reaching the top no matter what.  The things we might have to neglect in pursuit of this sort of success really matter.  Family.  Friends.  Mental health.  The loss of these compound the problem of loneliness in our busy society.

IWD 2019 got me thinking about the people who have had most impact in my life, who exhibit the characteristics I’d like the boys to develop.

They’re there in our everyday life: friends and acquaintances who take the time to ask how things are going; neighbours who pop by to check all is well because it’s been a while; strangers who stop to offer encouragement when someone is struggling with a teary toddler, to offer a hand when someone falls; people who volunteer their time at community groups to play with little ones or sit with the infirm, giving exhausted carers a breather; and listeners who listen.

There’s a million more things to say on this topic.  But, if you’ve made it this far, don’t worry, I’m stopping now!  May your week ahead hold opportunities for you to show support to those around you, and to benefit from the same yourself.

 

Ruth and Uel

They joined us two years ago. We called them Ruth and Uel. At first, they were easy house guests, happy to stay at home all day while we were out at the office. They enjoyed the sunshine streaming through the living room window and, as long as we gave them plenty of water to drink, all was well. We have quite a lot of visitors and, at meal times, Ruth and Uel sat close to the table and listened intently to every conversation. Just like their namesakes (known to some of you, I’m sure), they were quiet and unobtrusive. After a few months, they really needed to spend some time outside, so we let them stay in the back garden during the day, taking care to bring them inside every evening before dark. Then the summer heat came and we were able to leave them outside day and night without any problems. Finally, last spring, it seemed the back garden wasn’t really big enough for both of them, so we separated them and moved Uel to a nice spot at the front of the house. They are both well settled now and seem likely to be here long after we leave.

‘Wouldn’t it be nice to leave an Irish oak tree in the Netherlands?’ said Uel (the acorn donor, two years ago). Looks like we have exceeded that by leaving two! That got me thinking about what else we might be leaving behind when our time in Nieuw Vennep and Amsterdam is over: will our neighbours be saying; ‘I remember those Irish people – they planted two Irish oak trees’, or will there be something more enduring than that?

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