Trials

One month without writing. I had every intention of jumping back into routines.  Fresh from my time away at the beginning of the summer, I wrote three days in a row, and then the whirlwind — the 5-week summer course I taught, visits from all of our kids and our grandbaby, and a full-family excursion to see both sides of the family.  I might’ve still managed to write a little, but in the midst of all that activity, I did a new medication trial.

My new rheumatologist, who thankfully reasserted my psoriatic arthritis diagnosis, said I should try Cosentyx.  “It’s a relatively new drug,” she said, “and it has helped a lot of people with psoriatic arthritis.”

“What’s the down side?” I asked.

“Nothing!” she assured me.

Skeptical, I did my own research. I googled and queried online groups.  It seemed that everyone agreed with my doctor — the risks and side effects were minimal.

Mm-hmm.

I wish I would’ve gotten a rash. Or stomach pain.  I did get what other patients call, “a temporary spike in symptoms,” but I also had another, more bizarre reaction.

Cosentyx is injectable.  Once a week for five weeks, you use a syringe or a ‘pen’ to give yourself a 150mg dose of this drug. I’m nothing if not dutiful, so I started the day I got home from grading the AP exam.  One quick click in the right thigh.  I didn’t notice anything until the next day when around 4pm I felt like I needed to lie down and be done for the day.  I wasn’t too worried;  I am often tired.  It is not unusual for me to be in my pajamas by 7pm, so I did what my body told me and rested for the next couple of days. Then I was back to normal.

The next Sunday, I did one quick click in the left thigh.  Again, nothing immediate, but the next morning, I got out of bed barking orders, complaining, and overreacting to every little nothing.  Ok, still, I wasn’t too concerned.  I’m known to be a bit crabby, and this ‘mood’, like others I’ve had in the past, lasted about 48 hours and then seemed to wane.

Next Sunday, next click — this time in the belly.  It was the Fourth of July weekend. And I was starting to see a pattern.  I had to teach on Monday, July 3rd for the summer program I was part of.  I got up and grumbled around the house, complaining that I was the only one who had to work, the only one who cleaned up around the house, blah, blah, blah.  My family observed me from afar.  They were starting to catch on, too.  I barely made it through my class.  I was not interested in being there, neither were my students.  I went home and barked at my family and put myself to bed early.  The next day, some friends invited us over to their pool.  I agreed to go for the sake of my family.  I figured I would be less aggressive if I was in front of witnesses. And, these were close friends who were aware of my health issues and also aware of the new drug.  They were champs. They distracted me and fed me and my family.  True heroes.

Next Sunday, next click — the other side of the belly. Again, Sunday night was fine, but Monday morning I was already in a funk when my husband called me from his annual physical to tell me that he had to go to the ER for an EKG.  I rallied the troops — I sent my kids to him while I readied myself to teach and pushed pause on my emotions.  I transitioned to full soldier mode when he called again and said he had to have a heart catheterization right away.  The next twenty-four hours, which had been the hardest on this med in the previous weeks, were a whirlwind of distraction.  My husband’s tests eliminated heart disease and any blockages and suggested the need for my husband to go on — wait for it — a medication trial.  (He has had not further symptoms, thankfully.) By the time he was home from the hospital, it was Tuesday night and I was almost back to normal.

Next Sunday, next click — back to the thigh, but this time, we had a house full of visiting family.  I had no issues on Sunday night.  Maybe I would be ok.  After all, during the previous week with the medical distraction, I had kept my rage in check.  Certainly I would be able to control my tongue in front of house guests.  Nevertheless I warned them in advance while hoping for the best.

It came out of nowhere.  Unbridled venom.  I spewed.  Then the backlash of remorse and embarrassment.  Apologies, and then, wham! The second wave.  I felt desperate.  I mumbled explanations and left the house.  I was going to isolate myself until the storm passed.  I spent the next six hours alone.  I had a book, but I couldn’t read.  I had my laptop, but I couldn’t write.  My mind was swirling frantically.  I worried over every decision past, present, future.  I cried.  I raged.  I fumed.  It was terrible.  After dark, I slithered back home, showered, and put myself to bed.

The next morning, we attended a funeral for a friend where tears released any remaining emotions, then I taught my class.  Afterward, I made a meal, and by dinner time I was able to join the family around the table.  I was still careful to speak very few words for fear of saying something barbed or pointed.

By the next day, Wednesday, I was pretty much back to normal.

I am now two weeks away from the last dose.  And two weeks away from the next dose. After the five loading doses, I switch to once-a-month injections.  I’ve called my doctor. She’s “never heard of” this type of reaction.  I contacted the manufacturer.  They are “following” my case.  My doctor wants me to continue the course, if I can, to see if Cosentyx will eventually help me.

That’s the other kicker.  This med does not give immediate relief from pain, fatigue, or psoriasis.  People have varied results.  Some have noticed improvement after the loading doses.  Some after the third month.  Some after the — gulp — eighth month.

Is it worth it?  I don’t know, because right now I don’t have any relief.  None.  I had, as I mentioned, a spike in my psoriasis, pain, and fatigue. That, coupled with the bizarre emotional reaction, is what I have noticed as a result of this medication.

Nevertheless, I am going to press on.  I am going to take the next dose and not plan anything for the two days after the injection.  We are going to watch and wait.

Why? Because I am still hopeful that something is going to work.  I still believe that at fifty-one years of age I should be able to live a full life.  I still want to teach during the day and go out to dinner with friends in the evening.  I want to be able to have Bible study with the girls in the morning, teach my classes, and then be conscious for dinner with my husband.  I am hopeful that I will be able to lie down at night and sleep without groaning every time I have to reposition myself.

It feels a bit selfish when I put it like that, I guess.  I mean, psoriatic arthritis is not life-threatening.  It is only life-altering.  And, as I have mentioned in this blog, my life did need altering.  I am not angry that I have this disease, but I do want to pursue a path to healing. And, I think, for me, the healing may need to come slowly so that I don’t abandon all the lessons I have learned in this chapter.

 

 

Romans 12:12

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

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.

Putting it in Practice

I’m beginning to think that lessons are never really learned, or as we say in the field, mastered, but rather that our lessons are practiced.

I’m picturing a small child sitting at a piano slowly fingering the do, re, mi, fa, so of a C major scale.  Over and over she plays, usually faltering at one particularly tough spot where the thumb has to cross under two fingers in order to hit all eight notes in the octave. Sure, sure, after hours upon hours of practice, the scale becomes easier, the rhythm more consistent and measured, but let that pianist take a month away from the keys, and almost assuredly, the falter will return.

The learning is only safe within the practice.

I’ve been blogging at this space for almost three years and I continually come back to the same lessons — the ones that my fingers need to rehearse over and over and over.  Perhaps the one that needs the most practice, the one for which my Instructor has utilized multi-modal approaches, is this idea that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

One problem I encounter in learning this lesson is the fact that I had been practicing a different way for decades.  The old way was a rushing, plate-spinning frenzy of activity that involved checking items off lists, accomplishing tasks, and powering through no matter what was thrown at me.  I’ve often described this practice of mine as soldiering — task-driven, focused doing with minimal regard for relationship or self-care.  As a soldier I didn’t reflect or take time to decompress; I went on to the next mission as though my life depended on it. And, if you know me or have read my blog, you know that I was ultimately given a medical discharge — diagnosis? chronic battle-fatigue.

So, per orders, I’ve been undergoing job retraining for almost three solid years.  It’s been cyclical.  I rest and recover, then, feeling restless, I get busy.  I try for moderation, but since my historical practice has been frenetic, I usually devolve to that pre-set.  I end up sick, of course, so I back off and review the lesson — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

The layers of instruction involved in my practice of this lesson are many.   I am sure I am not even aware of all of them.  First, and most obvious, is the actual physical slowing of my body. I feel as though my major joints of propulsion — my hips, shoulders, feet — have somehow been coated in a rigid rubber-like compound that limits movement. The compound has, it seems, been grafted into my bones in such a fashion that if I do find a way to make the rubber pliable enough to allow movement that is too fast, too insistent, or too prolonged, the grafting sights become irritated and inflamed like a newly healing surgical site.  The pain then slows me and reminds me that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

The second layer of instruction is delivered through my practice of yoga.  So much about yoga reinforces the lesson I am trying to learn. For seventy-five minutes I stay within the confines of a very small space — 24″ x 68″ — thinking about my breathing, being very intentional about every move I make.  Rushing is not allowed.  Multi-tasking is impossible.  It takes all of my attention to hold warrior two with my right knee at a forty-five degree angle, my right heel in line with the arch of my left foot, my arms extended as though drawing an arrow across a bow, my gaze looking across the middle finger of my extended hand.  Once there, I breathe; I rest; I am still.  This practice, which was absolutely foreign to me in my former life, makes me feel stronger than any butt-kicking and name-taking ever could. Yet, in this strength, I am not calling the shots; I am trusting the voice of the instructor and moving only where she tells me to move. She assures me that I can do this — I can live this way even when I step off the mat.

A third —  and certainly it cannot be the last — layer is my reading list. The reading in my pile comes from a variety of sources: from a member of the breakfast club Bible study I attend, from my child as a Mother’s Day gift, from a summer reading list for some of my students, and from my YouVersion daily Bible reading plan. Despite the varied sources, the message is resoundingly the same — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

Last week I saw my new rheumatologist who is offering a trial of the medication Cosentyx.  As I wait for the prior authorization to come through, I find myself wondering if this drug will break up the rubberized coating, free my joints, increase my energy, and allow me to do a little more.

Seriously.  I am actually hoping for that. Sigh.

So, I was sitting with the breakfast club the other day, sharing this news about the potential drug trial, when one of my friends asked, “Kristin, how would you like us to pray?” Surprising frustration rose in me; I think because I realized that what I was hoping for is in direct opposition to what I have been trying to learn. I snarled, “I don’t even know, because if this drug works, I know that I will go right back to doing too much.  I’m practically doing too much already, and I’m in the middle of a flare!” My poor friend, she hasn’t known me too long and probably isn’t accustomed to my surliness.  She said, “Do you guys need the money that badly?”  I reflexively burst out, “Not at all!  I mean, sure, we could use more money, but that is not how we live our lives.  We don’t make decisions based solely on money.” I was stunned at my clarity and embarrassed by my tone.

I am the most reluctant of learners — the little girl who needs to be nudged back to the piano bench, a finger poking her between the shoulder blades. Why do I have to practice, I whine. I understand all the notes in the scale;  I know where my fingers belong! However, if I ever want to get past these darn scales and on to playing some real music — enjoying the freedom and bliss of playing outside of the practice — then I have got to stick to the practice.  I have got to keep rehearsing the truth that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

Why? Because I can trust the voice of my Instructor.  I can stay in a limited space, listen to His voice, and believe what He believes about me — that I can do this; I can live this much richer connected way.  I want to learn this lesson so well, that even if this medication works, even if I am free of pain, and even if I regain my energy, I won’t go back to my soldiering life, but I will live in the freedom that I have been given to breathe, to slow down, to rest, and to be still.

Psalm 46:10

 Be still, and know that I am God…

Making Up for Lost Time

During all my years of soldiering — of butt-kicking and name-taking — I was in constant motion, often simultaneously cooking, doing laundry, answering email, talking on the phone, and granting or denying permission to one of my children.  I got a lot done.  It seems that I was able to keep a clean house, feed a family, teach hundreds of students, and arrive most places fully-clothed for quite a few years. The down side? Very little time to reflect — very little time to examine options, consider outcomes, or feel.

I’m making up for lost time. Obviously.

In days of yore (Why, sonny, when I was your age…), I looked at the myriad obligations of the members of my family, the limited functions of two vehicles, and the tight schedules my husband and I kept, and I quickly formulated and executed a plan that accommodated everyone.  I planned my work and worked my plan.  “Here’s what’s happening today,” I would say, “You two will come with me to school.  After school, while you are at practice, I will get groceries. I’ll be back to pick you up.  When we get home, you’ll unload and put away groceries while I cook dinner.  Meanwhile, Dad will take you (other child)  to your different school.  He’ll go to work then pick you up after your practice, stop by Walgreens to fill your prescription, then meet us back here.  We will eat at exactly 5:30 because then, Dad has a meeting, I have parent-teacher conferences, two of you have homework to do, and the third one has to be at a study session on the other side of town.”  I would hit the start button and the plan would be executed.

Nowhere was there time for contemplation, negotiation, or revision.  We were in “go” mode.  In some ways, it was necessary for the season of life we were in with three kids in high school all at the same time, however, I think it could’ve been handled differently.  I think I could’ve let some stuff go.  I could’ve slowed down, allowed the kids to eat cereal for dinner more often, and let my laundry pile up.  I could’ve valued processing over producing. Contemplating over completing.

So, yeah, I’m making up for lost time.

I’m currently reading three books.  One is a book I am reading with my Bible study gals, Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way.  Another was given to me by my physical therapist/counselor/friend, Doing Well at Being Sick by Wendy Wallace.  I also picked up Shauna Niequist’s Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes.  Why am I telling you this?  Well, it’s interesting to me that I have time to read three books, for one thing.  Also, I notice that I am interacting with these books, writing notes in the margins, going back to my notes, and thinking about what the books are saying to me. And, third, I am intrigued by the fact that these three books are speaking to each other.  It’s like they are three friends that said to one another, “Hey, guys, Kristin’s been still for quite a while now.  She might finally be able to hear us.”

And what are they saying?  Well, it’s not really shocking, because they are saying the same things that I have been discovering, thinking, speaking, and writing about for the past three and a half years.  However, I think what’s interesting is that I am noticing.  I am processing. I am digesting. I am not more interested in completing these books than I am in connecting with them.  I am not compelled to finish them; I am drawn to understand the meaning they have for me.

And really, the meaning is this — my soldiering is done. Even though I’m tempted almost every day to go back to that life, I am no longer capable.  God, in His mercy, has chosen a better way for me.  He has allowed limitations in my life — real physical limitations — that stop me from soldiering so that I can live a life that reflects, that feels, and that makes space for others. Because on my own, I wouldn’t have stopped soldiering, guys.  I would’ve keep right on kicking butts and taking names.  God had something better for me. Yes, you heard me right.  My “broken” life, my life with the limitations of chronic illness, is a higher quality life than my “un-broken” life.  In fact, my “broken” life is more whole than the “unbroken” one was.

It’s a paradox, to be sure. God is often paradoxical, isn’t He?  His brokenness makes us whole.  By His wounds we are healed. He turns our mourning into dancing. He doesn’t always make sense, but today I’m not going to question Him. I’ll just thank Him.

I Peter 2:24

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”

Still my Soul

Time change.  Spring Forward. I did not want to wake up this morning.  I stayed up to watch the end of a basketball game last night. You know, March Madness.  It’s the first weekend of our Spring Break and I guess I was feeling a little like celebrating.  I made popcorn and baked muffins.  I wanted to snack, sip wine, and watch collegiate basketball. It wasn’t terribly late, mind you, but when my husband gently woke me this morning at 7, I grumbled.  Ugh.  “Five more minutes.”

I’m not great at morning.  It seems I used to be.  I think I used to bound out of bed ready to face my day, but this has changed.  I’m a morning grumbler.  My husband is good in the mornings.  He is cheerful, kind, thoughtful, and ready to face his day.  Poor guy.  He unsuspectingly tries to engage with me, and I snarkily reply.  Before he knows it, my snark has inspired a response from him.  That’s when I notice that I’ve been less than kind.

So, yes, this all happened this morning.  By the time we were in the car making our way to church, the banter was a little testy.  I feel bad because he’s on his way to church to preach, and I am going to sit in our church’s coffee house for about two hours doing whatever I choose to do.  I can read, grade papers, blog. I have time to shed the snark before I go to the second service; he is going to walk right into serving.  He has to quickly use whatever skills he has acquired from twenty-six years of living with me to shed the snark and return to his normal cheerful self. I know he is able to do it, but still feel badly.

While he’s doing whatever he does to prepare to greet people and deliver the message that he’s been working with all week, I shuffle down the stairs to my corner seat, unpack my bag, open my computer, and begin to review an essay that I’ve been helping one of my students with.  I’m reading through her claims, her analysis, and her evidence when I find myself singing with the coffee house’s piped in music,

Be still my soul, Lord make me whole

Lord make me whole*

I pause.  Hm. Yes, that’s why I am snarky this morning.  My soul is restless. I’m tossing around complaints and worries. I’m holding them in my hands and examining them over and over.  Perhaps you know what I’m talking about.  I’ve gathered items all week — the health issues of family and friends, the knowledge that people in my life make choices that I don’t agree with or approve of, the constant barrage of the ‘news’ feed, my own persistent health issues, and countless other gems.  I’ve been caressing them all week, and I haven’t changed their reality one bit.  I involuntarily join the plea of the song, “Be still my soul, Lord make me whole, Lord make me whole…”

The song ends, and I go back to the essay.  I give the feedback I promised then order a pot of extra strong tea.  I can feel the snark hanging heavily on me, so I know I can’t turn right to my blog.  Come on, Kristin, you know the drill.  Turn to the Scripture, first.  That’s where you’ll find your truth.

If you aren’t convinced yet of the power of a regular reading plan, let me share with you what I found today. It was waiting for me — Day 132, Psalm 66.

For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.  You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; 

As I’m reading, I’m shaking my head.  I’m embarrassed. It’s not like my worries and troubles are a crushing burden.  Yes, I do have concerns that are real. However, in the grand scheme, I have been very gently ‘tried’.  In just this past week I have heard stories of others who have had true ‘crushing burdens’ on their backs, who have actually felt like ‘men [were riding] over their heads’.  Comparatively, my troubles are small.  I read on.

yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.  

I just have to sit here for a minute.  Indeed, I have been brought to a place abundance. Even if I didn’t have a church I loved to come to every Sunday, even if I didn’t have a committed husband who wakes up happy each day, even if I didn’t get to live in a community that energizes me, even if I didn’t have my dream job, even if I didn’t have four children that make me very proud, I would still have much abundance to write about.

I’m convicted, obviously.  I examine the gems in my hands and realize that they are mere pebbles. I exhale and continue to read.

I will come into your house with burnt offerings; 

I mean, I’m already here.  In just a little while, I will ascend the stairs and enter the sanctuary.  I will carry my pebbles up with me and leave them there for You.  I think You’ll probably be more effective with them.

Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul.  

Truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. 

Guys, I can’t make this stuff up.  Mere words transform my snark into confession, humility, and gratefulness.  It’s a miracle –one that I don’t want to overlook today.  He cares enough about me and my ‘burdens’ to speak directly to me. He has stilled my soul again.  May He still yours, too.

*The Brilliance. “Dust We Are and Shall Return.” Brother. 

Bag Ladies

I know a lot of really strong women. For example, I know a woman who, right now, is caring for her husband who earlier this week had a tumor removed from his brain and was sent home from the hospital less than 48 hours post-op.  And it’s not like she was just sitting around eating bonbons and resting up for this very taxing time in her life.  No, this comes on the heels of more than a couple decades of married life, raising children, working full time, and navigating the everyday stressors that all of us face.

Another woman I know is married to a high-level professional.  She gracefully carries the responsibilities that come with being the wife of someone in his position while also being mindful of the needs of her aging mother, her married daughter, and her young adult son.  For as long as I’ve known her, she has been ‘on-call’ for one crisis or another, yet she still thinks to make me gluten-free snacks, to collaborate on planning a women’s retreat that she won’t even be able to attend, to volunteer at a family business every week, and to listen to and encourage those around her.

This whole blog could be example after example of the women I’ve been blessed to know over the years.  I picture them smartly dressed, sitting in the drivers’ seats of their cars, hands at 10 and 2, looking from side to side and straight ahead, driving toward their destinations ever mindful of oncoming traffic. They see a familiar person standing on the edge of the road, so they stop to offer a ride. They notice a friend’s mailbox overflowing, and they stop and carry its contents to the door with a smile before heading back on their way. They fit in a full day of work, a quick stop at the grocery, a phone call to a child or a parent, and a workout before heading home to start a load of laundry and transport something edible from the fridge to the table. They are on the move, and they are happy to be.  They enjoy their lives. They want to be available to the people they love.  They enjoy feeling connected.

Each of these women looks so swift and efficient that you might not notice the bag on her back, strapped on tightly so that she can keep moving. What’s in the bag? Information, mostly.  The knowledge that her husband is really stressed about a situation at work.  The thought that her daughter is trying to navigate school and work and finances as a young adult.  The nagging feeling that she hasn’t seen her parents in a few months. The grocery list.  Her son’s recent injury and his need for a medical consult. The name of the plumber who has to be called. The way the cashier looked at her. The situation her friend told her about last Tuesday. Her retirement fund. The shoes that need to be polished. The need to make a dentist appointment. A work deadline.

The bag has been pretty full for a while, but she still seems to be able to heft it around. She hasn’t missed a day of work. The fridge has been well-stocked.  Every kid has been picked up and dropped off at the appropriate place and time.

But then something gives.  A diagnosis.  An accident.  An argument.  A crisis.

It doesn’t quite fit in the bag, but she jostles some things around, does some squishing, and keeps stepping, because this is the moment she’s been training for. Her people need her, so she doubles down and powers through. She manages even more than she ever thought possible. For months. Yeah, her face might look a little more drawn. Her words might be a little clipped, but people understand. Look at the stress that she’s under.  She’s a rock, isn’t she? Look at all she’s managing.

But in a subtle moment, when she isn’t even aware that the crisis has begun to subside, comes the need to shift the weight. She’s exhausted, finally. She has been carrying too much for too long. She’s got to sit down, loosen the straps, and look inside the bag.

It’s a time for inventory really.  At a time when she doesn’t really have the time for an inventory. No matter. It’s mandatory.  So, she looks.  She places her hands on each item. She sets them out around the room. As she surveys the array, she determines that a few things can go in the trash. She can’t even remember putting them in the bag.  Some items can be filed under nostalgia, some under forgiven, some under to be discussed, and others under been there, done that.   

But some items need to be held for a little while. They need to be wept over. They need to be introduced to a few trusted friends who will appreciate their significance and meaning. They need to be processed, repackaged, and perhaps finally put on a shelf– maybe a shelf of remembrance, maybe a shelf for trophies.

And way at the bottom of the bag, she might find one or two very heavy items that need to simply be placed on an altar — offered up to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than she could ever imagine doing or asking someone else to do.

Just a few items make it back into the bag, and as she straps it back on, she feels so much lighter. But before she rushes back out the door, back into the driver seat, back onto the highway that was her life, she pauses. She gives thanks for the moment to pause, for the opportunity to turn, for the offer of support. Then, she walks on.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Matthew 11

Best Practices

In my trudge through the mundane and my continuing struggle with crabbiness, I am making an effort  to be intentional about my ‘best practices’.  Why is it so hard to do the right thing?

I get pretty methodical about attending yoga class 2-3 times a week, but this has a pretty significant physical pay-off almost immediately.  The strength and flexibility I am obtaining and maintaining from regular yoga is noticeable. Of course, the mindfulness of attending to my breathing and setting aside my “brain activity” for an hour or so a few times a week has emotional pay-off as well.

I also don’t struggle with eating foods that improve my health.  Although I don’t notice an immediate positive payoff from eating the right things, I do experience almost immediate consequences if I eat the wrong things.  For instance, because I take homeopathic remedies, I don’t drink coffee.  Apparently coffee can ‘cancel’ any benefit you get from homeopathic remedies.  Last weekend, to celebrate my mother’s birthday, I had a small glass of kahlua — the only alcohol my mother drinks.  (And when I say ‘drinks’, I mean “flavors her ice cream with.”) It didn’t dawn on me until about 24-48 hours after that glass of kahlua that  kahlua is made from coffee.  Why did I remember?  Because the psoriasis on the palm of my right hand that had been almost completely under control, raged angrily.  When I had scratched my palm to the point of bleeding it occurred to me that perhaps I had ‘cancelled’ out my homeopathic benefit. Ok, fine. I’ll stay away from coffee and kahlua.

Exercise and diet are very easy for me to maintain.  I probably owe that to my history with an eating disorder.   Although, my motivation has changed over the years from losing weight to feeling well, the ability to stick with a plan is pretty solid.  However, the best practices that attend to my spiritual health are so much harder for me to maintain.

One hundred and twelve days ago, I got the YouVersion Bible app on my phone.  I committed to reading the entire Bible in one year because our campus pastor told me to.  I’m pretty good at following instructions, but I’m also pretty good at procrastinating.  I’m almost always running about three days behind in my reading, but I discovered recently that if I put in my headphones and listen to the daily readings while I walk, I am more inclined to stay on track.  I’m not as religious about Bible reading as I am about getting my steps in. (Insert eye-roll here.)

Last year, you might remember that I was reading Beth Moore’s Whispers of Hope: Ten Weeks of Devotional Prayer.  The book encouraged me to write down my prayers in a journal after reading each devotion, so I did!  It was a great practice.  In fact, I think I have read through the book almost three times.  But when I don’t pick up the book, I don’t write down my prayers.  And, full disclosure, when I don’t have a regular time devoted to writing down prayers, my prayers often devolve to haphazard spur-of-the moment utterances.  Yeah, it’s embarrassing.

And you remember my battalion? My group of ladies that I met with on Wednesdays the first two years that I was in Ann Arbor?  The ones I did countless Bible studies with, prayed with, and got encouragement from?  Well, my schedule doesn’t permit me to join them any more.  And, though I claim to be mostly an introvert (yes, I know I look extroverted sometimes), I need the community of ladies and the regular time in my schedule to ensure that I am working through a Bible study, challenging myself, and connecting with God through Scripture in meaningful ways.

Not only that, I need my Sunday morning body of believers and a regular message from my pastor.  Even that has been disrupted over the last several months.  Because we had the distinct privilege of traveling to South Africa and Israel, the opportunity to visit with family over the holidays, and the honor of joining other congregations where my husband preaches, our attendance at our own congregation has been spotty.  Yes, we have worshipped in other places — almost every Sunday, but it is not the same as gathering with our own church family and experiencing the spiritual journey that happens when you join with others in one place.

Failing to follow these spiritual best practices — daily Bible reading, prayer, group Bible study, and community worship —  has consequences that, although not immediately noticeable, build over time and become quite evident eventually. Eventually has arrived. The evidence of spiritual apathy over here is quite real.

So, how am I returning to these best practices? Sluggishly, I’ll admit.  As I mentioned, I’m plugging into my Bible ‘readings’ while I walk.  I am meeting with a few other women who have committed together to reading Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way.  And, on weeks like this one, where I am not attending my own congregation, I am re-committing to regular attendance at chapel services here on campus.  I guess you could say that the campus community is our second congregation — we grow within this spiritual family, too.

My blog seems to follow a theme.  I’ve been teaching my literature students that authors use themes to convey messages through their writing.  Those themes, I tell my students, can be stated in terms of a subject plus a verb — for example, ‘struggle transforms’, ‘tradition endures’, and ‘lies always surface’.

I force my students to follow a formula when writing analytical thesis statements — Author, in Title,  verb + how or why.  For example, I might write this on the board tomorrow: ‘Mark Haddon, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time uses Christopher’s struggle with autism to convey the theme that difficulties can be overcome.’

Or, I might write this: ‘In the story of my life, God, through continually offering grace despite my habitual turning away, conveys the theme that He loves me.’  That’s His best practice.

Jeremiah 31:3

“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.

 

Swan-dive to Mundane

I was sitting in the waiting room of my physical therapist’s office yesterday morning, thumbing through a People magazine.  I was early for my 8:15 appointment, so she was still moving around me, tidying the office.  She greeted me, of course, and I continued to “read” meaningless celebrity “news”.

“Have you done any blogging lately?” she said out of nowhere.

“No,” sigh, “I’ve been kind of in a funk.  Writing would probably get me out of it, but I just haven’t found my way there in a while.”

“Yeah, it really centers your spirit, doesn’t it?”

Man, we haven’t even started my PT yet and she’s already getting at the core.  How does she do that?

The last time I blogged, I was sitting in Jerusalem.  Today I am sitting, still in pajamas, on the futon in my office in my little house by the river. Then, I was floating high on the experience, the relationships, the food — have I mentioned the food?  Today, I am back in the mundane — classes, laundry, tax preparation, and the like.

It’s a lot easier to write about the fantastic, isn’t it?  It’s lovelier to live in the beautiful. However,  we do most of our dwelling in the ordinary, so coming down from the extraordinary sometimes involves a crash landing. And crash I did.

Some of the crash was circumstantial.  I went from touring brilliantly-farmed land lush with oranges, strawberries, and figs to trudging across frozen tundra.  I transitioned from touring on a bus full of enthusiastic learners who scored one another’s jokes, sang together, laughed together,   and cried together, to spending a lot of time on my own sorting receipts, preparing for class, and putting away suitcases.

Some of the crash was self-inflicted. My doctor had recommended before the trip that I do a 21-day elimination diet to see if any foods were causing my pain and/or inflammation.  I postponed it until after the trip (yes, the trip where we ate like kings three times a day), but started immediately when we got home.  For the past three weeks, in addition to not eating gluten or dairy (both of which I have avoided for three years), I also eliminated soy, corn, citrus, peanuts, pork, and it seems like most everything else.  Oh, and at the same time I finished weaning myself off Zoloft.

Yeah, I’m nuts. I mean if you’re going to come off the mountaintop, you might as well swan-dive, right?  The thing about swan-diving, though, is that you can go pretty far down pretty darn quickly.

The casual observer might not detect the shift in position — from mountaintop to deep, dark valley.  The physical therapist?  The husband?  Oh, they saw the shift.  I did, too.  I could feel the snark, but I couldn’t shake it.

It probably didn’t help that we came back right before the presidential inauguration and all the virtual “noise” that ensued , because I certainly have difficultly not engaging with all of that.  And, rather than turning to my writing, which I know is an outlet for my emotions, I instead turned my gaze to the other things that need my attention — grading, a project I started for my in-laws a year ago, unfinished tax prep — and I thought to myself, it would be pretty selfish of you to sit down and blog for an hour right now.  You have other people depending on you.

And I believed that voice.  I muted the truth that says, “Oxygenate yourself first.”  I forgot that “in repentance and rest is my salvation; in quietness and trust is my strength.”  I trudged onward, avoiding my need for self-care, while attending to tasks that preserved the facade — cleaning the house, preparing for teaching, ironing clothes, cooking…anything but taking the pause that refreshes and centers my spirit.

So, after a sermon on Sunday about suffering and the encounter with my physical therapist who noted that my body is “all over the place,” I give up.  I turn to the keys.  I am honest.  I’ve been struggling, but I’m turning, guys.  I’m turning.  It might take a minute, but I’m turning.

Psalm 30:1ff

I will exalt you, Lord,
    for you lifted me out of the depths
    and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
Lord my God, I called to you for help,
    and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
    you spared me from going down to the pit.

Turn, Turn, Turn

In the midst of The Great Sunglasses Search, I may have lost my sense of humor.  Now, you could probably guess that it wasn’t just the sunglasses, or the way a friend called me out for being inconsiderate, or the way I reacted to someone else being inconsiderate, or the many errands I have run over the past couple of days, or even my obsession with the Minimalist Challenge (I’ve completed 15 days in 2 days — that’s 120 items so far, but who’s counting?).

No, it wasn’t any one of those things that made me lose my sense of humor — it was a cumulative effect. I was chugging along with tons of energy, feeling very positive about this trip to Israel, when I suddenly noticed that the space between my eyebrows was wrinkled, my jaw was set, and little things were starting to bug me.  Eh, whatever, I thought, so I’m a little irked.  I’ve still got to mail two packages, stop by the library, pick up a few things at Target, print out two documents, and doggone it, did I look in those other suitcases?  Maybe my sunglasses are in there!

Yes, yes, I know, I need to pace myself.  How many times have we been over this.  Fortunately, my body hasn’t revolted and flung me on the couch.  That is probably due to the fact that although I accomplished all of the above, I also sat at the puzzle table for a few hours last night and had the satisfaction of completing a 1000-piecer, tossing it back in the box, and adding it to the donation pile. (Yes, I’m a little out of control.) Also, I know myself well enough that I made sure to do yoga twice last week and twice this week already, following each 75-minute session with a soak in the jacuzzi.

Nevertheless, I’ve got to calm down a little.  I mean, we are leaving TOMORROW  with THIRTY STUDENTS for TWELVE DAYS! The one thing I can’t leave at home is my sense of humor!!

So, you know, in the spirit of my commitment to Return to the Lord, I came home after yoga this morning, did three more things on my to-do list, then grouchily opened my Bible Reading plan. If you have read this blog more than three times, you know what happened.  I was convicted right in the middle of my reading, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: …enmity, strife,…fits of anger, …dissensions, divisions,…and things like these.” Darn flesh.

Keep reading, Rathje, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Well, of course not, silly. Who would outlaw kindness or gentleness? patience? peace? Nah, we don’t have to outlaw those things — those are the things we forget to do, the things we turn away from.  The things that need to be outlawed are the ones we are bent on doing — like getting irritated and ticked off!

So, what’s a girl to do?   Ahem, keep reading, “…those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Really? Because my flesh seems to be alive and kicking, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”

There it is.  My flesh is alive and kicking; it’s true.  It’s got to be crucified moment by moment.  It’s a continual act of turning away from the flesh and toward the Spirit.  That’ll probably be easier to do in the Holy Land, right? Ha-ha.  That’s funny.

Alright, guys, I’m headed out one more time this afternoon.  I’m not coming home tonight until I have located one pair of sunglasses, two travel umbrellas, a pile of cash in small denominations, and a well-fortified sense of humor.

Because tomorrow, my friends, we go to Israel.

“…the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ,

will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

Amen, Come, Lord Jesus.

(I Peter 5:10)