Applied Learning

In the spirit of learning from my lessons, let’s apply the last two blogs to my current reality.

Fact #1 – I can’t plan for everything.

Fact #2 – I’m not in control.

How do we live in the tension of recognizing these facts while living out our daily realities?

My current reality is this: I just returned from three weeks away from my home.  I intentionally didn’t plan any work for this week — not even tutoring — because I knew I would need a week of recovery.  Autoimmune disease is such that any stressor — good or bad — can cause a physiological response.  Flying can cause a response. Eating a delicious Cuban sandwich on fresh – delicious –  glutinous bread can cause a response. Working seven days in a row in an unfamiliar environment can cause a response.  Seeing an old friend can cause a response. Taking a detour can cause a response. Eating sorbet — before or after lunch — if it is out of the routine, can cause a response.  (Yes, in the past three weeks I have done all of those things.)

A ‘response’ can mean different things to different people.  For me, a ‘response’ is typically any of the following — fatigue, eye inflammation, increase in pain or fatigue, or, if the stressors are cumulative or particularly intense, what I call a ‘knock down’.  I got ‘knocked down’ a couple of times during the vacation. It’s really not pleasant.  I usually get a pretty solid headache, gastrointestinal distress, systemic pain and fatigue, and usually, the symptoms are so intense that I can’t sleep.

In the past five years, I have been knocked down enough times that I recognize the feeling and have come to take these episodes as reminders that I am trying too hard, that I am doing too much, and that I have to be mindful. I used to feel frantic during a knock down; now I lean in.  I fill a tub full of epsom salt water and slither in.  I lie there for as long as I can with a cool cloth across my forehead.  I drink a lot of water.  I take a homeopathic remedy called nux vomica (as recommended by my doctor), and I rest. I eat healing foods — rice, popsicles, scrambled eggs — and I prop myself in front of something mindless on the television. A standard knock down takes about twenty-four hours of intentional recovery.  Some have taken longer, some have resolved more quickly.

I fully anticipated a knock down during this week.  So, I planned nothing.  Well, not nothing. I planned things that would set me up for success in the coming weeks.

While stressors can lead to a ‘response’, intentionally proactive behaviors can build resilience, like money in the bank.  They don’t prevent a knock down, but they do build my core strength so that the likelihood of a knock down is reduced and the recovery from one is perhaps shorter.  What builds resilience for me?  Well, a regular schedule, for one.

If I follow routines — get up at the same time every day, eat the same breakfast (gluten-free oatmeal with coconut oil and honey has been a recent trend), drink the same drinks (one green tea followed by one black tea), exercise, complete a task or two around the house, have one or two social interactions, and complete one or two professional tasks, all while taking periodic breaks throughout the day — I build resilience.  If I am being proactive,  I have to create my to-do list with this in mind.  I have to ‘plan’ blank spaces into my day.  Margin is essential.

Intentional reading and blogging are perhaps more important steps to building my resiliency than I give them credit for. Long ago, I learned to override feeling with doing. Because I didn’t want to feel pain or get lost in any type of emotion at all, I busied myself. That is a temporary fix, but feelings don’t go away.  They get buried.  Deeply buried.  I have found that if I read a particular genre of books (I’ve referred to many of these types of writers in this blog — Ann Voskamp, Shauna Niequist, David Sedaris, Joan Didion, and the like), then I gain access to emotions that I long ago buried.  While I am ‘hearing’ and feeling the stories of others, I recall my own stories and am able to attach meaning to them.  The follow-up, of course, is this blog.  If, in the wake of reading and reflecting, I sit down at my computer here in the quiet of my little house by the river, I give myself time to process the emotions that have been stirred up.  For you teachers out there, the reading is the receptive portion of the lesson; the blogging is the expressive.  I, like most students, need both in order for the lessons to have any hope of sticking. (And, like most students, I need repetition of most lessons in order to achieve mastery.)

How did I get the privilege of the time that enables a lifestyle with margin? that allows for reading and processing?  The only explanation I have is that the One who has eyes to see me and who knows my needs better than I know my own, determined that because I would never plan this type of life for myself, He would plan it for me. I was living a life that powered through and led to an epic ‘knock down’.  He saw it, and in compassion, He set me down into a new reality–one that allows for margin, one that allows for reflection, one that allows for healing.  Which exposes the next lesson:

Fact #3 – I am held in the palm of His hand.

I am really trying to rest in this reality.  Muscle memory makes me want to jump up and start doing so that I won’t have to feel the pain that has been exposed in the stillness of this chapter.  However, the knowledge that comes through the power of the knock down coupled with the words of some key people that are speaking into my life right now remind me of the words of Elizabeth Elliot that Ann Voskamp quoted in The Broken Way :

…”out of the deepest pain has come the strongest conviction of the presence of God and the love of God.” [Voskamp follows with] The most crushing lie a life can hold on to is that life is supposed to avoid suffering, avoid loss, avoid anything that breaks.  Loss is our very air; we, like the certain spring rains, are always falling toward the waiting earth…

I embrace the knock down because His hand is holding me and leading me to a better life in this next chapter.

Psalm 103: 13

The Lord is as kind to his followers as a father is to his children.

Controlling and Carrying

Since we are on the topic….let’s talk a little bit more about control.  I mean, if I’m gonna scratch the surface, I might as well pry off the scab and take a look at the festering sore underneath, right?

I began trying to control my life at a very early age. At the risk of making this a confessional, let me just say that I routinely lied, falsely (and sometimes accurately) implicated my brothers, and physically overpowered my friends to get what I wanted. And that was all by the time I was in elementary school!  As I grew older and learned what was socially acceptable, I found other methods such as emotional outbursts, dramatic power plays, and sly slips of the hand to orchestrate my life.  My college years brought more maturity.  I learned that I could not control my environment, my peers, or my family, so I controlled myself down to a mere shadow of a human through anorexia.

You would think that therapy and recovery would’ve exposed the truth that I am not in charge of my own life either, but I am either a slow learner or a control savant. I have devised many ways to create an illusion of control.  In fact, once I had children of my own, I was sure to create a rigid daily schedule to ensure that their lives were under control. I was going to make sure that they were safe and secure. No harm would come to them under my watch. We prayed together.  We memorized scripture verses. I only let them watch PBS.  We ate dinner together every evening. They went to church every Sunday and often several times during the week. I was going to do this parenting thing right. My kids would be perfect, you know?

I couldn’t control everything, though, as I’m sure you can imagine. They didn’t stay safe and secure.  Harm did come to them.  Heart-breaking harm.

Many sleepless nights I have cried over my failed attempts at controlling my life, many more I have cried over my realization that I could not prevent my children from being hurt. And where has it led me?  Literally to my knees.

For many years now, when I have found myself facing the stark realization of my own powerlessness in the lives of my children, I call to mind an image that gives me great peace.  I picture a cupped hand with my child nestled safely inside.  I imagine that cupped hand held close to an all-powerful chest much like I might hold a newborn chick or kitten.  The hand is strong and able to lift my child out of harm’s way, and sometimes, when harm determinedly finds its way inside of that hand, two compassionate eyes are bearing witness — they are seeing and knowing and caring in ways that I am unable to see, to know, to care.  This image of the One who does have control gives me peace in those moments when I am able to acknowledge that I have none.

But there are many moments when I am not able to acknowledge that.  Most of the moments, actually.  Most of my moments I am filling with doing — I know, I know, if you have followed this blog from the beginning, you may be face-palming about right now. Doing, as I implied yesterday, gives me an illusion of control.  It calms my anxiety.  It makes me feel like everything is going to be ok if I just get my house clean, if I just meet one more student, if I complete one more task.

But that is a lie. Everything is not going to be ok.

Last night, when I finally admitted that I had done enough for the day and I finally lay down in my bed, I picked up Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way. As usual, God spoke directly to me through it; I think reading is the only time I slow down long enough to truly listen.  This is what I heard:

Suffering asks us to bear under that which is ultimately not under our control, which proves to us we have no control.  And maybe that’s too much for us in our autonomous, do-it-yourself culture to bear.  Maybe more than we can’t stand physical suffering, we can’t stand not feeling in control (171). 

It’s silly when she puts it like that, isn’t it? And if I admit that trying to be in control is silly, then I have to admit that much of my life has been one big silly futile exercise. That’s embarrassing. And humiliating. And heartbreaking.

But it’s true.

However, it is also true that regardless of my foolish attempts, I, too, have been sitting in that all-powerful hand.  I have been kept out of harm’s way many, many times.  And, when harm has found me, One has born witness with compassion, forgiveness, and love. I am His child, after all.  He has ordered my world.  He has hemmed me in on all sides. And He will continue to carry me.

Psalm 139:5

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

Sorbet before Lunch

So much is jangling around inside my head this morning.  Over three weeks ago my husband and I left on a two-week vacation — we slipped away to an undisclosed location where no one recognizes us and we could begin to recognize one another again.  We spent hours together, just the two of us.  It was quiet; it was restful; it was lovely.  At the end of the two weeks, I jetted off, instead of coming straight home, to a week of AP English Literature Exam scoring with hundreds of strangers.  Inside of those three weeks, I read a couple of books and several articles, I listened to podcasts, I watched meaningless television, I had long, and short, conversations in person and over the phone, and I read thousands of words written by high school students.

Now I’m home.

I’m back at my desk in my little house by the river.  My dog is under my desk at my feet. I’m halfway through the first cup of tea, and I am trying to get the jangling to coalesce into some kind of meaning.

What do you learn from three weeks outside of your routine?  If you sort all the pieces into piles, what do you have?

First, I have the realization that the things that I planned — the ones that we just had to do– weren’t the ones that I valued the most. In fact, the sandwich that I just had to eat from that particular restaurant did taste delicious, but its gluten- and dairy-rich delicious-ness left me feeling miserable for the next twenty-four hours.  The things that I thought would make the experience ‘perfect’ weren’t really the highlights.  No, the unexpecteds, the ad libs, were the nuggets I will cherish — a last minute detour, a lunch time phone call, impromptu sorbet right before lunch.

This plan-happy girl needs to be reminded from time to time that her plans aren’t always the best and that she can’t plan for everything.  In fact, often the best parts of life are the ones I didn’t, or couldn’t anticipate.

In the weeks leading up to the AP Reading, I was feeling a bit apprehensive because I had been assigned a random hotel roommate.  Although, you might not expect it, I tend a little to introversion.  While my career has involved standing up in front of students, cracking jokes and calling out bad behavior, I truly love my end-of-day quiet alone time. What if my roommate loved to chat until all hours of the night? What if she was a slob? What if her personality got on my nerves.  It’s not like we would just have to get through a weekend.  We would be co-existing for eight days!!  I had a plan, though — if she was super creepy, I told myself, I would request a single room and just pay the difference. Phew!  Glad I solved that dilemma.

Since I arrived at the hotel before she did, I situated my stuff, got myself registered, went for a swim, showered, and then waited…..She arrived on a different schedule, so we didn’t actually meet until almost 8pm on the first day.  I quelled my anxiety by staying busy, of course, but my worries evaporated when she finally arrived. The Southern twang in her greeting —  a virtual “Hi honey, I ho-ome!” — put me at ease even though I was already in pajamas, reading in bed.

Not for one minute did I feel that awkward let-me-ask-questions-to-get-to-know-you feeling. From the start we chatted like old friends, laughing over ridiculousness and tearfully sharing our hearts.  We were ok being quiet together, too.  I didn’t feel like I was imposing when I felt poorly and had to cash-in early.  I didn’t feel like I had to explain myself or justify my actions.  I felt like I was living with a sister.  Probably my favorite moment of the week was the last night when our conversation went something like this:

“Hey, thanks for not being a creepy roommate.”

“Hey, thanks for not snoring.”

“And thanks for not being a slob or watching tv until 4 in the morning.”

“And thanks for not judging me for going to bed before 9.”

I couldn’t have hand-picked a better roommate.

So what’s the take-away here?  Do I suddenly turn from my planner-ly ways and go forth in a life of abandon? (She says as she glances over at the to-do list she made for today and the one she made for this week.) Every teacher-fiber of my being loves to plan.  In fact, two items on my to-do list involve planning — for the summer class that starts next week and for the new course I’m teaching in the fall.  Writing lists and anticipating alternatives is in my DNA. I won’t ever not be a planner, but is there a way for me to plan for spontaneity? for margin that allows for ad lib?  Of course! Many books have been written on the topic — I’ve read several!

Something about filling my days with plans reduces my anxiety.  If I fill in all the spaces, I leave no room for the big scary unknown, but, also, if I fill in all the spaces, I leave no room for surprise, for serendipity, for spontaneity.

Leaving space is taking a risk.

Do I dare? Do I dare let myself sit quietly in the chair on my patio, watching nothing, anticipating nothing, expecting nothing? Do I dare have a day that’s not planned wall-to-wall with activity? What could happen?

I might eat sorbet before lunch. I might take a last-minute detour.  I might make a new friend.

Psalm 130:5

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.