A return to the story

Walking through the grocery store, I heard a ping, then another, then another. I looked toward the sound and saw a woman grabbing her phone, looking at the screen, then smiling. She put the phone down and continued pushing her cart down the aisle. I saw her several more times as I made my way through the store. Each time, it was because I heard the ping first. Her phone was calling her attention, and it caught mine, too.

As I pulled into campus where we live, I drove past a half a dozen teenagers who had just finished rowing practice on the river that flows behind our house. Waiting for their rides, they sat in a silent clump, all hunched over their phones.

I get lost in my phone, too. In fact, as I sat next to my mom yesterday, watching a football game, I was scrolling mindlessly — looking at social media, checking email, Googling to fact-check.

We’re on our phones all the time. We’re always taking in information– seeing what’s going on in the world– trying not to miss anything. We read, we post, we comment. Much of our daily life revolves around our phones.

My attention has been drawn to our phones over the last few days as I’ve simultaneously been hearing a narrative in the settings I’ve found myself in. From a collection of very diverse voices I am hearing the same words in a resounding cacophony: The world we live in today..so much violence.. hurricanes… fires…total destruction… racism… sexism… broken systems ..crime… poverty… corruption…. what can we do? It’s terrible…

Terrible…

Terrible…

And you know, I think the fact that we are continuously scrolling through our cell phones (or sitting in front of our televisions), is related to this narrative –this growing societal anxiety. If we are frantic — about the weather, the environment, crime, money, scandal — then we continue to scroll. When we scroll, our anxiety increases. What can be done? It’s terrible!

The cycle is self-perpetuating.

And we’re becoming a culture of reeling, hand-wringing, panicking worriers, chanting with the masses, “It’s no use! We’re doomed! This is surely the end of the world!”

And, to be fair, these issues are real. and significant. and scary.

I’ve found myself reeling and worrying, too.

Friday morning, as I was writing out three pages of mind-dump, I cried out, “Lord, help! Lord, lead! Lord, please!”

Not long after, I was listening to a sermon I missed recently, which centered on the text in Exodus 1-2 where Pharaoh was ordering that the Israelite slaves be beaten and that their babies be murdered, a time when certainly the people were reeling, wringing their hands, and panicking. As I pictured the slaughter of innocents, I heard our pastor read these words:

We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be.”

NT Wright

I got kinda choked up, and I leaned in.

As I listened to the rest of the sermon, I remembered how God had shown up for the Israelites, how He had miraculously delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians, how he had saved even little baby Moses as he bobbed down the stream in a basket made of reeds. I felt a peace wash over me as I remembered that the God who rescued Moses and the Israelites is the same God who hears me as I “cry out” on the pages of my notebook.

The same God who heard David and Hannah and Mary and Peter.

I am part of a bigger story — a story that was written before the beginning of time, a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

An end! Guys, we already know the end!

Last weekend, my granddaughter wanted me to watch a “scary movie”. When I told her that I don’t like scary movies, she said, “It’s ok, Oma, I will sit next to you and cover your eyes if you get really scared.” So, figuring that I’d probably be ok if a four year old was coaching me into bravery, I agreed. Throughout the movie, whenever a scary part came up, she put her little hand on my glasses so that I wouldn’t get too frightened. Toward the end of the movie, the scariest part of all, she narrated for me ahead of time exactly what was going to happen so that I would know in advance that everything was going to be ok in the end.

And guys, we already know that even if it gets pretty darn scary, it is all going to be ok in the end.

“See, Oma, I told you!”

Sometimes we need to return to the story, remind ourselves how it all turns out, where the story has come from, where it is going, and what our part within it ought to be.

So I listened to that sermon. Twice. (Click here if you’d like to hear it.)

Then, I turned on Pandora and heard these lyrics:

The weapon may be formed, but it won’t prosper.
When the darkness falls, it won’t prevail.
Cause the God I serve knows only how to triumph;
My God will never fail.”

“See a Victory” Elevation Worship

Hundreds of times during the day, I check my phone — for texts, for calls, for updated news, for weather reports. Just once every morning, I return to scripture as I drive into work. And I wonder why I feel a bit unsettled and somewhat frantic. My dosage is off. I’m taking in too much frenzy and not enough fact. And when I do that, I can forget.

I can forget that:

I was lost, ’til You called me out by name
And I was down, ’til You picked me up again
And I was wrong, ’til Your love it made me right
I was dead, ’til You sang me back to life.”

“Garments” Cory Asbury

When I return to the story — not only the story of scripture, but the story of God’s faithfulness in my own life — when I see where it has come from and where it is going, I start to wonder what my role within this grand story might be. I wonder if my role is to join the masses in frantic scrolling, hand-wringing, and worrying, or if it is to continue to return to the story, to remember that I already know the ending, and to live a life a hopefulness — a life that knows that times get dark and scary, but it’s going to be ok in the end.

Because guys, we live within a story that has been crafted by the Author and Creator of life. He has designed for each of us a life of hope and significance. Each of us matters before Him, and we have the great privilege to live into that truth and to share that truth with all of our fellow scrolling, hand-wringing sojourners.

We are not a people without hope.

We are a people who know the story of how God has been kind and merciful to His people over and over again — in the direst of circumstances: famine, flood, subjugation, tyranny. We have seen Him provide for us, connect to us, and lead us.

We know how the story ends.

Death is all around us
We are not afraid
Written is the story
Empty is the grave.”

“This Dust” Kip Fox

Let’s keep returning to the story; we’re gonna be ok.

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Screw ups

We’re pretty hard on ourselves, aren’t we?

Last week, when the phone rang at work, I answered and gave the answers the caller was looking for. I stumbled a little bit, because the call had interrupted me in the middle of another task, but I heard the mother’s heart of questions, and I gave her honest answers. However, I didn’t follow protocol and provide only the prescribed answers I was supposed to give on an initial phone call. Instead, I provided a few bits that are usually reserved for a lengthier conversation so that they can be provided in context. In carelessly oversharing, I might have said too much and gotten in the way of a student receiving the help he needs.

Ask me if I scolded myself, tried to offer excuses, or felt shame.

I think you already know the answer.

In an Instagram post, an athlete who competed over the weekend expressed the emotion that comes from a missed goal, a less-than-hoped for performance, a perceived failure. I heard frustration, disappointment, and even anger — a bludgeoning of the self for not doing better.

I see it in my students, too. Even though we celebrate every success, hooray for each minor victory, and applaud the journey of all of our students, they know when they’ve read a word incorrectly or when they’ve missed the point of a story. I see their eyes look down, their shoulders slump. I hear their internal (and sometimes external) voices saying, “Ugh! I’m so bad at this!”

And, you know, sometimes we are bad at this — all of this.

We undercook the roast. We drip bleach on the darks. We spill coffee on our white shirt. We break glasses, run over nails, and forget to pay the bills on time.

Even worse, we spend time with family and fail to look our loved ones in the eyes. We don’t ask about one another’s relationships or jobs or health, and we poke open wounds intentionally.

We screw up, make mistakes, lack empathy, and are sometimes downright mean. And when we realize it, we can really rake ourselves over the coals, can’t we? We can stay up all night rehearsing and re-rehearsing scenes, imagining what could have been different if only we’d left the roast in the oven a little longer, had put the bills on autopay, or had really leaned in to see what was going on in the lives of the people sitting right next to us.

And if we stay there too long, we can begin to believe that not only do we screw up, but we are indeed screw-ups. We are losers, miscreants, pond scum.

And once we have re-named ourselves, it becomes very easy to own that identity: I’m a screw-up, and I’m probably going to screw up more today. I don’t even know why I bother trying, I’m just going to get it wrong again. We might not say the words out loud, but we can get a pretty elaborate tape running. Or am I the only one who tells myself, “Geez, why do I even go out in public? I always say the wrong thing! I miss the point over and over again. When will I ever learn?”

The narrative can get so loud that it can drown out the still small voice that says, “Yeah. You screwed up. You’re human. Forgive yourself. Apologize to the ones you may have impacted. Try again.”

Our internal narrative is frantic — wanting to go back and un-do. Its mantra is shoulda, coulda, woulda. It refuses to believe that life can go on, that this too, shall pass, that anyone could forgive us or give us another chance.

But if we can hear the quiet voice of the One who designed second (and third and hundredth) chances, the One who can restore even the most broken of relationships, the One who forgives the unforgivable, we might just hear (and believe) a different narrative.

We might be able to tell ourselves that people make mistakes. It’s a fact. We can’t get around it. I can probably expect to make a hundred mistakes on a given day. I’m definitely going to say the wrong thing, make the wrong facial expression, and laugh at the wrong time. It’s a given. I am going to forget to pick up an item even though it’s on my list, take the wrong exit, and leave a sweater in the dryer for way too long.

And when I do, I can shrug my shoulders and say, “Yup, I blew it again,” but instead of berating myself and burying myself in shame, I can forgive myself, apologize to the ones that were impacted by my actions, and try to move forward. Of course, I can take steps to minimize my errors. I could, for instance, slow down and double-check my list. I could pause and think about my words before I let them come out of my mouth. I could stand, for a moment, in the shoes of the person in front of me, and consider her needs, her heart, her life.

And, I might find that I’m able to hear that she, too, is listening to the shoulda, coulda, woulda mantra of self-blame and that she, too, is being tempted to own the identity of screw-up. I might be able to reach out, touch her hand, and say, “It’s ok. I screw up, too.”

And, you never know, we might embrace and offer one another absolution, “You’re forgiven. I’m forgiven. We’re forgiven.”

And, acknowledging that, as humans, we are going to find ourselves in this same space over and over again, we might agree to stick close, to lean in, to walk together, even when — especially when– times get tough, and messy, and it seems like all is beyond repair.

Because on our own, we can’t always distinguish what voice we are listening to, and we might need someone to call us back from the ledge — to take our hand and remind us that we’re gonna be ok.

We are. We’re gonna be ok.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Ephesians 3:32

“Both Sides”

After a clash of demonstrations that turned deadly last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, the president notoriously commented that there were “good people on both sides”. Since then, whenever I hear the phrase both sides, my antenna go up.

The other day, a news reporter said that people on both sides of the immigration debate were upset by a recent decision. Senators from both sides of the aisle are contemplating impeachment, and both sides of the abortion debate are reeling from recent legislation. This language might lead us to the conclusion that many of our issues are binary — pro or con, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, black or white.

But isn’t most of life more complicated than that?

Is it even possible to break the US population, which today is 328,983,273 strong, into “both sides”? Can we neatly fit three hundred million people into two (or even three!) groups that would be able to agree on a political stance, an ideological framework, a common belief system? To me it seems unlikely — I can’t even get consensus on what to put on a pizza.

Yet spurred on by this type of rhetoric and our own human nature, we continue with this binary thinking — this either/or mentality — that puts us one against the other, fingers pointing, heels dug in, and shouting. We have assumed a posture of opposition, and in my experience, opposing forces with no intention of bending can do little less that push against one another and cause damage.

People in opposition.

Is that what we’re aiming for?

My coworkers and I were recently discussing strategies for shifting a student who is resistant to instruction. This is an important discussion where I work because most of our students have experienced failure after failure in the classroom, and we are asking them to do the thing that is most difficult for them, usually for several hours a day, five days every week. It makes sense that they start out resistant and often return to that resistant stance over and over again. It’s pretty easy to spot. Just this week I saw a little boy, lower lip hanging, eyes brimming, sitting across from an instructor, refusing to engage with the questioning that is at the core of our programs.

What’s an instructor to do?

Will yelling at this child inspire him to engage? “Tommy! You’ve got to do this instruction! You don’t know how to read! We’ve got to do this right now!” No. That just leads to more resistance.

How about guilt? “Tommy, your parents are paying a lot of money for your instruction. Right now you are wasting their money and wasting my time.” Effective? Hardly.

Begging? “Please, Tommy, please, will you read this word?” No; at best this is a short-term solution.

What I’ve noticed throughout my years of teaching, but most vividly in the environment where I currently work, is that relationship has to come first. The student needs to see that you like her, care about her, and want to have fun with her. She needs to see that you are willing to get in the trenches with her, that you care about what she has to say, that you are invested in the process, and that you are willing to be flexible.

Time and time again, I have seen students on the first day of instruction, believing that they will never improve their ability to read, sink into a chair, turn their eyes down, and prepare themselves to resist. Just as many times, I have seen a well-trained instructor start by building rapport, explaining the steps simply and carefully, then setting the climate for teamwork and fun. Slowly, the student sees that he is not alone, that he can take a chance, that he can begin to believe differently. Maybe, just maybe, he really can learn how to read!

If we can create a space for our students to step into, if we can show them the possibility of a world in which they can, with our support, learn how to read, then they will more likely be willing to shift from their position of resistance in to a position of cooperation.

What if we took that approach when speaking to people on the “other sides” of the discussions that we are having. What if we started by building rapport (which would require that we stop shouting)? What if we explained our positions simply and carefully (which might require that we think through the complexity of those positions and understand our own reasons for our beliefs)? What if we set a climate for peaceful, even fun, conversation (which might require that we refrain from blaming, oversimplifying, and name-calling)?

Could we, in this way, create a space for all of the sides to step into, where they might imagine not binary discussions that tend toward polarization, but complex discussions that are willing to wait patiently for resolution?

I’ve recently been part of a study of Ecclesiastes, a book of the Bible, that is built on the premise that Ecclesiastes, a book of wisdom literature, was specifically written to teach people to live wise lives. The study defines a “wise life” as one that makes right decisions because it’s willing to ask the right kinds of questions. If one is truly pursuing wisdom, she has to ask these questions with open ears, an open heart, and an open mind. She has to be open to the possibility that she might be wrong.

Gulp.

What would that look like?

What would it look like if all the sides were committed to making the right kinds of decisions because they considered the right kinds of questions? What would it look like if all the sides entered the conversation with open ears, open hearts, and open minds? What would it look like if all of the sides were open to the possibility that they might be wrong?

Would we approach one another with humility? Would we ask one another to help us understand the reasons behind our positions? Would we listen carefully without mentally forming rebuttal? Would we pause and think before we replied or asked for further clarification?

Would we first build rapport?

(Hi, my name is Kristin, I am happy to be having this conversation with you today. How are you?)

Would we explain our positions, after having considered our own reasons?

(I come from a Christian perspective, and my life experiences have complicated some of my earlier held positions on political matters. I am wondering if you would be willing to step into that complexity with me.)

Would we set a climate for peaceful, even fun, conversation?

(Would you join me for a cup of tea and maybe lunch. I am not expecting any solutions; I am just wanting to toss around some ideas. Maybe when we’re done being serious, we could get some ice cream or see a movie.)

What might shift if we created such spaces? if we created an environment where folks didn’t have to cling so tightly to positions that they may not even fully understand or agree with? if we could stop pointing fingers, look into the eyes of the person sitting across the table from us, and see their humanity?

It certainly wouldn’t be as simple as having two sides. That’s true.

Is it worth the time and energy to admit that we might be more complex than that? Are we brave enough to try a different way?

Are we willing to make right decisions because we have considered the right questions?

Are we willing to stop believing that we are merely both sides?

It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise

    than to hear the song of fools.”

Ecclesiastes 7:5

Righting the Course

Three years ago at the end of May, my husband and I retreated north, so far north that we couldn’t get a cell signal. We each brought the materials we would need to plan the courses we’d be teaching that fall. Away from the Internet and the daily routine, we found time to go for walks, take naps, eat well, and outline goals and objectives for our in-coming students.

Two years ago, we escaped south — we spent two weeks in Fort Myers and even rented a car and drove south, south, south, until we got to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States. We didn’t plan for classes on that trip — no, we’d been particularly busy all year, so we devoted time to beach exploring, CSI Miami binge-watching, puzzling, and pleasure reading.

Last year was the year of the Great British Baking Show — the year of sitting on our couch, the year of grief, the year of remembering how to breathe. We didn’t go north or south — we were doing well to stay right where we were.

This year, in the middle of winter, we marked off this week to head north. Our bags are packed, and we’ll soon be on our way. We won’t be writing any courses this year, but we may continue ‘righting our course’.

We’ve been ‘righting our course’ since we came to this little house by the river. We weren’t really planning on that. We knew it would be a new season with our kids all moving into adulthood and us moving back to our home state, but we didn’t really know how much our lives would be under re-construction.

We knew that we were stepping into change –my husband was leaving congregational ministry and moving into a much different role at a university, our kids were moving on, and I was committing to healing. What we didn’t know was that my physical healing was just the beginning. Our move back to Michigan would be the start of a much more global transformation.

We’d been living a propped up existence — caulking leaks and mending seams with duct tape — for a long time. We’d been moving too fast to make thorough repairs in the moment, so we’d patched up what we could and just kept moving, unaware of the extent of the underlying structural damage caused by years of neglect. My health crisis was the impetus for slowing down and dealing with the repairs, and once we started looking, we kept finding more and more projects. However, since life doesn’t have a pause button so that you can do a full renovation before you move on to the next chapter, our reconstruction has been a work in progress.

In the past five years, we’ve witnessed our children move into adulthood — facing and navigating obstacles, chasing and re-defining dreams, finding and losing love, losing and finding themselves. We’ve watched, supported, and done our best to encourage, while we have at the same time found ourselves figuratively pulling down dated wallpaper, exposing water-damaged drywall, and tearing up old floor boards.

As each project has presented itself, we’ve surveyed the damage with crossed arms and furrowed brows, and have then chosen — sometimes reluctantly — to do the hard work of repair. We’ve addressed our health through different approaches to diet, exercise, physical therapy, and medication under the supervision of myriad medical professionals. We’ve examined our emotions through intentional work together, separately, and with therapists. We’ve explored our work/life balance through experimentation with different levels of responsibility and various forms recreation. We’ve invested in our spirituality by spending time with our congregation, our small group, and our own individual study. And bit by bit, little by little, things are starting to come together.

And, now that we are able to sit comfortably in this reconstructed existence, we are finding ourselves sipping tea, taking walks, and questioning our thinking — testing long-held positions on most every imaginable topic.

Every day it seems, my husband and I look at one another and say, what’s God doing here? how do we feel about that? why do we feel this way? what steps should we take? what needs to shift? how do we still need to heal? what is the root of this problem? what is our part in the solution? where are we going? what are we doing?

We don’t have the answers — just a lot of questions.

This is new.

We have been the leaders, the doers, the deciders for most of our adult lives. We have written the courses, made the plans, and mapped out the journeys for ourselves and others. We have called the shots, made snap decisions, trusted our guts, and driven the bus.

But guys, we found ourselves on a course set for collapse.

And now that we’ve taken stock and submitted to a period of reconstruction, our posture is very different. We are realizing that life is full of nuance and complexity: we couldn’t possibly know all there is to know. We have admitted that we got some stuff wrong, and, we are asking some serious questions.

And the interesting part of all this is that, now in our fifties, we aren’t scared. In fact, I would say that we are energized. We’re reaping the benefits of the changes we’ve made in these last five years, and we are on the edge of our seats, big goofy grins on our faces, waiting to see where the questions lead us.

So this trip north is going to be a little different. We’ve packed sweatshirts and flip flops, notebooks and pens, trail mix and tea, and so many questions. We’ll carry them with us — tucked in our pockets, shoved in our bags, and strapped to the roof of the car. We may take them out and look at them, we may discuss a few, and we may leave a few on the beach among the rocks, but I am picturing most of them will come back with us unanswered. And that does not discourage me, in fact, it’s a relief, because I am reminded that we are no longer in the season of having all the answers.

We have moved comfortably into the season of holding all the questions. And you, know, I’m starting to like it here.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 6:68

Blessing upon blessing

I was standing in a local thrift shop sorting through 50-cent coffee cups. My husband had asked me to grab a half-dozen or so for his office so that college students who come in to grab coffee can take one ‘to-go’. I visit this section often — not only to stock the student life office, but also to replace the many cups that I break or absent-mindedly leave in my path. I was picking out some sturdy looking cups for the students when a beautiful floral pattern caught my eye — it was a little small for my taste, but it was so lovely I decided to put it in the basket with the others and make it my own. Only when I got to the cash register did I realize that it had scripture written on the inside of the rim.

….one blessing after another…

Sometime in the months since I brought it home, I made an un-official decision that this cup will be for special circumstances only. It’s not to be carried out the door in the morning rush, clutched through rush hour traffic, and plunked on my desk at work. No, this cup is for the lingering pondering cuppa. It’s for sipping while sitting and savoring. It’s an object of beauty that I’ll use when I need a little encouragement, a little healing, a little celebration, a little recognition of the grace that has poured out one blessing after another.

I’ve got it in my hand right now.

I’m by myself in my little house by the river for 48 hours of self-imposed solitary confinement. My husband is out of town, so I am seizing the opportunity to be quiet, forget about the clock, take care of a couple tasks, make a few long-overdue phone calls, and spend some time reflecting.

Regular doses of solitude heal and restore me.

So what have I done so far? I’ve practiced yoga, done some writing, read a few chapters in Michelle Obama’s Becoming, slept until I woke up — twice! — and watched six episodes of Queer Eye (a delightful show with a message of healing and hope).

I’ve done some cleaning and organizing, paid some bills, folded some laundry, and worked on a puzzle. I’ve spoken at length to both of my parents and to my parents-in-law. I’ve eaten when I’ve been hungry, lounged on the couch in yoga pants, and sipped several cups of tea.

My dog has been following me from room to room, plunking down wherever I plunk, and occasionally standing in front of me, staring me down, until I remember that it is time to walk around the yard.

It’s on these kinds of days, when the agenda is fluid and my expectations for productivity are low, that tucked away thoughts and feelings jangle loose. I’ve poured a lovely cup of tea to enjoy while I observe them.

I’ve been thinking about the visit I had with my breakfast club girls last week. We got together to celebrate my recent birthday; they showered me with gifts and treated me to dinner. As we chatted and laughed, I was struck by the contrast between this birthday celebration and the one we had last year, when I’d been been buried in grief and had cried as they’d leaned into my pain. This year, I was filled with gratitude for their partnership in my suffering, for their unconditional love, and for willingness to acknowledge and celebrate my blessings.

I’m also looking back at my weekend away with one hundred or so pastors’ wives. I pulled out my notes this morning and remembered our time in Bible study where we sat around tables using pens and colored pencils to draw visual reminders of what we were learning. I heard our voices singing together — both in worship and in fun. I saw friends who I only see at this conference, smiling and saying, “We missed you last year!” I felt the compassion of a soul sister who pulled me aside, probed gently, and let me share just a bit; she bore some pain with me and then shared in my gratitude.

I’m scrolling through thoughts of dinner with my godparents, laughing with friends until my sides hurt, and car rides with new and old friends. I’m relishing in the realization that unlike the last time I gathered with these women, I didn’t need rest breaks, or pain medication — not even when I stayed up way past my bedtime.

Blessing upon blessing upon blessing.

I’m spending this weekend alone so that I can reflect on these blessings. I said no to a few people (probably disappointing at least a couple) and chose solitude. And because I did, I’ve had the time to notice each of these jangly thoughts as they’ve settled down beside me. I’ve had opportunity to look closely at how I’ve been blessed, and I am now restored so that I can step away from my solitude.

It’s a new way — a new rhythm.

Toward the end of the soldiering years, I remember my husband, who was also trying to slow his pace and find a different way, telling me about a rhythm of sabbath. The idea was to pause daily, weekly, and yearly — to intentionally plan for space to pause. I remember thinking, “That’d be nice, dear, but you do see that I’m busy here, don’t you?”

And somehow, after almost five years in this little house by the river, we have joined this rhythm. Each day the two of us wake up in the dark — before we see our people or do our things — we each take a time of reading, writing, reflection, and intentional movement. On Sundays we extend this rhythm by continuing on to worship with our community. Each year, we’ve miraculously been able to get away for a week or two alone to put our phones on silent, to forget about the clock, and to read, write, reflect, and rest.

This is one more realization that just floated down and snuggled in next to me. I never would have believed we could live this way, and here we are.

I’m going to make another cup of tea and savor every last moment of this solitude, this sanctuary, this sabbath. This in itself is one more blessing.

Ten out of ten would recommend.

Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.

Mark 6:31

It’s About Time

Time. We have just enough time.

It never feels like it.

When I was a little girl, I couldn’t believe how much time I had. What was I supposed to do with three months of summer? No school, no homework, no obligations whatsoever. What should I do with all the hours of a Saturday and not a plan on the horizon? Why did it take so long to get from Thanksgiving to Christmas and from my birthday to summer vacation. Passing of time seemed to take so long.

As an adult, I never think I have enough. How will I fit cooking, laundry, and housework into a week that is already crowded with work, let alone find time for friends, family, and self-care? How will I be ready in time for a vacation or the holidays or the family that is coming to visit? When will I have the time?

I have it right now. I already have all the time I am ever going to have. It’s right here. I’m spending it as we speak. I’m trading in my minutes for an opportunity to put words on the page in the hope that they will reveal what’s been trying to surface from beneath layers and layers of doing.

Earlier today I spent some of my minutes paying bills, reading, doing yoga, and taking a shower. I’m sorry to admit that I also spent some of my minutes in rage at an inconvenience — an unexpected interruption to my day. And then I spent more minutes, possibly even an hour, dwelling in the emotion that the rage unleashed — sorrow, regret, and deep hurt.

I had plenty of time for all of it…because I have plenty of time.

We have plenty of time.

Sometimes I believe a series of lies — I have no time, I have so little time, I’m running out of time, or I’ll never have the time. But the truth is, time is the most abundant resource I have. One of the few knowns in human life is the fact of twenty-four hours each day. We each get the same amount, and we often get to choose how we spend it.

Now, I can’t deny that some choices are more malleable than others. We all typically feel obligated to spend large chunks of our days on some form of work or schooling or other endeavors that support our lives — earning money, buying and preparing food, caring for our homes and vehicles, and attending to the needs of those who are in our care. And some of us, through circumstance, or health, or position have much less say over how we spend our moments and hours and days.

However, many of us have liberty with significant blocks of time. In our culture of privilege, many of us have the luxury of spending hours scrolling through social media, playing games, watching television, or shopping. I must admit that in the past few weeks I have spent many hours watching college basketball — and I have loved spending my time this way. (Especially now that my Spartans are in the Final Four!)

I know many people who use what ever spare moments they have to explore creativity, to invest in education, to be entrepreneurial, or to serve others — family, friends, and even complete strangers. And some people try to do it all.

The pattern of my adult life has been to frantically cram as much activity into each hour as possible. I often blame this habit on the demands of our busy life in St. Louis — my husband in seminary and starting a new ministry, me working as a teacher/administrator, both of us raising three school-aged children. Yes, we had plenty to do, but we also had plenty of time. I didn’t believe it at the time, but after much reflection (both on this blog an away from it), I now believe that I chose to make myself busier than I needed to be. I crammed more activity and more stress into those days than was necessary. I had options for how to use my time.

I could’ve delegated more tasks, especially to our children. I could’ve let some things go, particularly housework, television, and my desire to make it look like I had it all together. I could’ve been more present, more flexible, more conscious of the ability to call an audible.

But what I’ve found in these less hectic, less demanding days of the empty nest, is that I still feel that urge to fill my minutes — with busy-ness, with usefulness, with any activity that will keep me from being still. I think deep in my core I am afraid of facing what will bubble to the surface when I finally stop churning out activity. So rather than face it, I just keep busy.

Did you know that years can go by before you finally sit still long enough to examine all the feelings you’ve suppressed by filling up your minutes and hours?

And do you know what happens when you finally do? You realize that you had a lot more time than you were aware of and that you could have been spending it much differently. You could’ve processed those feelings when they were happening, changed the way you viewed life, and interacted more with the people around you. If you’d slowed down in some of your moments, you might’ve lived differently. You might have made different choices. You might have seen more and felt more.

You might have realized before now that you have all the time in the world.

But you’ve realized it now. So sit down, breathe, and reflect. Write it all down if it helps. See a therapist. Change some patterns. Begin to live differently.

It’s safe. You have the time.

So teach us to number our days
    that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12

Calling an Audible

I was standing in our son’s kitchen Sunday morning, two granddaughters moving around between us. Just chatting, I said, “I have about four things on my checklist for tomorrow, and you know how when you order at a restaurant thinking, ‘I can definitely eat all that,’ and then having eaten only half, you realize that your eyes were bigger than your stomach? Well, I think my plan for tomorrow might be bigger than my stamina. I want to do it all, but I don’t know if I’ll have the steam. I get so attached to my list; I need to find a way to adapt in the middle of it.”

Very matter of factly, my son said, “It’s hard being comfortable calling an audible.”

And that little phrase has been echoing in my head all week.

The day that we were talking about, Monday of this week, my husband and I planned to get up early and drive a few hours so that we could be present for a family member’s surgery. He was going to stay with that family member for the week, and I wanted to drive home stopping once to visit an aunt and uncle, another time to pick up a gift, and a third time to attend a going away party for a coworker. It was going to be a long day packed with things that I really wanted to do, each of which had the potential to use up my energy. I had to admit from the start that I might not be able to do it all. I had to prepare myself to ‘call an audible’.

This is not easy for me. Remember me? the one who does all the things? After all these years and all this writing, I still hate to admit that I have limits, but I do. I need to get comfortable calling an audible.

A quarterback or coach, my son told me, calls an audible when he recognizes that the defense is set up to stop a play or that the conditions aren’t favorable for success. Seeing that his initial plan is not going to work, he calls an alternate plan right in the moment.

Why is that so hard for me?

I think in my soldiering years I became rigid — inflexible — because I was trying to pack so much into every moment in order to get every detail managed; I didn’t leave myself any margin for an alternate plan. If I had three hours to get groceries, swing by the dry cleaner, and get the dog to the vet, ALL of those things had to happen in that window or they just wouldn’t happen. I didn’t have another three hours in that week, so I set my focus, gripped the steering wheel, and got moving. I got it done, dammit.

I got it done, but not without damaging my body and my psyche and not without missing countless opportunities. I was moving with purpose leaving no margin for chance encounters, incidental conversations, or calling audibles.

What I didn’t realize was that it is in the moments that we don’t put in our plan where we often find the gold.

On Monday, in the midst of my checklist, two sisters-in-law and one brother-in-law arrived at the hospital for the surgery, too. We weren’t planning on seeing them — what a treat! The surgery was cancelled so we got to go out to a family lunch — what a surprise! My husband didn’t end up staying with the family member for the entire week, so we got to ride home together! A friend from three decades ago called me on the phone right before the party, and I got to take a few minutes to hear her voice, share some stories, and laugh! None of this had been part of my plan!

All the success of the day, all the stuff I will remember, all the interactions that mattered were born out of audibles. The day didn’t match my original plan — it was much richer than I had expected.

I have long struggled with mid-stream changes. When things haven’t gone according to plan, I have tried to cope, begrudgingly huffing and puffing all the while, but I have often missed the gold because I have not been comfortable calling an audible.

Coaches and players get comfortable with audibles, according to our son, when they get very good at recognizing and diagnosing situations and when they know the playbook and all the backup/alternate plays that might work well in given situations. They anticipate that things won’t always go according to plan, so they imagine alternatives in advance.

That’s what I did this week. We got in the car on Monday morning and I thought to myself and spoke out loud — “I have these four things I would like to do today, but I am going to see how it goes and adapt as needed.” Simply taking this one step, I was able imagine a variety of outcomes. I didn’t paint a full picture of the day in my mind, but I left the canvas mostly blank with just a few light pencil lines sketching out the plan.

This one shift left me in a position to adapt. I was able to recognize when the day wasn’t going according to plan and to change my mental direction in the moment. I wasn’t disappointed that the surgery was cancelled but was able to be compassionate and understanding. I wasn’t in a hurry to leave lunch to go visit my aunt and uncle, but could sit in the moment and enjoy the conversation. When we discovered we had plenty of time to drop by unexpectedly, we were pleasantly surprised to find my aunt and uncle together and available for a visit. After a leisurely visit with them, we were able to take the time to browse and find the gifts I was looking for, receive the call from my long-lost friend, and still get to the party on time! And, the biggest unexpected bonus was that my husband and I were able to spend the day and the rest of the week together.

All of that adapting had felt pretty comfortable. It’s a new way for me, this being flexible, but I am thankful to have had the practice this week when the stakes were low so that I might be be more comfortable calling audibles in the future.

Because let’s be honest, things rarely go according to our own plans.

In their hearts humans plan their course,
    but the Lord establishes their steps.

Proverbs 16:9

Being Sick

Day 9: I’m on day nine of sore throat, cough, sinus pressure, and fatigue. It’s just a virus — perhaps the common cold, certainly nothing to write home about. Yet, this annoyance has driven my decisions for over a week. It has kept me home from work and church. It has forced me to cancel plans. It has diminished my appetite. Both my husband and I have searched stores for relief — homeopathics, over-the-counters, and all sorts of home remedies such as soup, and tea, and popsicles. Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to greatly impact this bug; I have just had to endure the seven to ten days that the doctor told me to expect.

This morning, when I woke up to a new symptom, I thought to myself, “That’s it! I’ve had it!” I jumped through the shower, took a second trip to urgent care, and heard the doctor say, “These things usually start clearing up in seven to ten days. Since it is persisting, we will try an antibiotic.” I was momentarily encouraged. “Yay! An antiobiotic! I’ll start feeling better!” However, on the ten minute ride back home I deflated quite quickly. Hadn’t I thought several times over the past week that I was getting better? Hadn’t I almost willed myself to health with positive thoughts? And yet hadn’t I crawled into bed dosed with cold medicine, clutching tissues, and sucking on cough drops every night for the last nine nights? Why did I think one little antibiotic would change anything. I’m doomed to be sick forever!

Melodramatic? Certainly. Authentic? Absolutely.

It’s just a cold. This, too, shall pass! It’s not like I have a ruptured spleen or a broken arm or even an infected tooth. I have survived countless colds in my life. So have you. But, you know, that isn’t much comfort to me right now, because I don’t see myself surviving. I see myself suffering. And although my husband is doting and my employer is understanding, I’m not looking at the positives right now. I can only focus on the fact that my sinuses are dripping front and back, I have gunky clogs in my throat, and I’m running a low grade fever. I’m not even mildly comforted by the fact that I’ve got a reason to wear yoga pants and a sweatshirt on Sunday morning.

Guys, I am focused on my misery.

Why is it that such a temporary minor situation can toss me to the depths?

To be fair, I hung in there like a champ all week. On day one, I wouldn’t even really admit I was sick until around 5pm when I finally admitted that, “gosh, my throat has been hurting since yesterday and my whole body kind of aches.” On day two, I missed church, but had every intention of making it to work the next day. After calling out on day three, I thought, “I’ll be able to kick this if I can just stay home one more day.” On day five, I trudged into work, fueled by alternating cups of tea, water, and cold medicine. Day six and seven I soldiered through, and even when day 8 found me falling asleep on the couch in the middle of the day, I thought to myself, “just one more day of resting and I will be able to function normally all next week.”

And today? Today I just can’t rally myself. I buried myself in blankets and slept for a while. I rehearsed all my miseries and the fact that nobody likes me, everybody hates me, and I might as well go eat worms. I started a new book. I ate a popsicle, and I am finally acknowledging that no, my throat really doesn’t feel any better. No amount of positive thinking is going to change that. It’s just gonna take more time.

My students used to say, “it be like that sometimes.”

Day 10: I came to a realization about 2:30 am when I woke up coughing and dripping, having already notified my employer that I would miss yet another day of work. I groaned audibly as I pushed myself to sitting and trudged to the kitchen for the next round of cold medicine.

In that semi-conscious state I heard myself saying, “Kristin, you can’t do anything about it. Just be in it. You’ve been pushing back and trying every treatment you know for nine days. How about today you just lie in bed, read a book, drink your fluids, and wait for the healing. It’s gonna come.”

And something shifted. I started this journey in denial, “I’m not sick,” and quickly moved to pragmatism, “I’ll kick this bug with the old rest and fluids regimen.” Then I donned my positive, “I’m feeling better every day,” for as long as I could until I found myself slunk in misery muttering, “I’ll never be well again.” But at 2:30 am, when I acknowledged that there was nothing more I could do, I just had to be, I relaxed. I slept soundly until 8:30 this morning before crawling into a warm bath. Then I had a little breakfast and cuddled up next to my dog.

And now that I’ve chronicled this very mundane journey, I’m going to climb back into bed with my book. I’ll be there the rest of the day.

The Lord sustains them on their sickbed and restores them from their bed of illness.

Psalm 41:3

Body Signals

The physical body is uniquely designed to send us messages that help us take care of ourselves. For example, I have a ten year old student who has beautiful long eye lashes. These eye lashes serve to keep dirt out of his eyes, but occasionally one, rather than staying where it belongs, pokes in and causes irritation. His eye begins to water, and my student does everything he can to get that lash out of his eye. Feeling the irritant, the eye signals my student to make eye lash removal a priority.

Similarly, our bodies signal fatigue at the end of a long day, prompting us to go home and get some rest. They signal hunger so that we will be sure to eat foods that fuel our many activities. They tell us when we are cold so that we’ll put on more clothes, and they signal pain when we have an injury.

Most of us respond to these signals. We get sleep when we are tired. We eat when we are hungry. We wear warmer clothes in the winter and tend to injuries when they occur. However, the human body is also able to ignore these signals for short periods of time in order to meet immediate demands, respond to crisis, or push through difficult periods. Soldiers and rescue workers have demonstrated this ability to be highly effective for long periods of time without rest or proper nourishment. However, all of us, after a period of ignoring the body’s signals, must take time to recover, to heal, to restore. If we continue in a chronic state of over-doing, the body has to develop some next-level signals — it begins to demand attention.

Several years ago, my body did just that. After years of trying to power through responsibilities without responding to my body’s physical, spiritual, and emotional signals, I began to develop symptoms: skin rashes, joint pain, extreme fatigue, and eye inflammation. At first, these symptoms side-lined me. They were so insistent that I had to take several months of intentional care and then several years of refined practice to move back into the game. These next-level signals forced me to care for my body after a long period of neglect.

Now that I’m off the bench, I’ve learned that these chronic issues can be kept at bay if I work a moderate number of hours, practice yoga, avoid triggering foods, and get plenty of rest — if I make it a habit to listen to my body’s signals. However, if I fall back into old patterns — working too many hours, ignoring my self-care practices, or eating carelessly — my eye begins to hurt, my skin rashes flare, and occasionally I get knocked down. I find myself on the couch with ice packs and fluids, tending to my body after a period of neglect.

For the past month or so, my sessions with one particular online student have been fraught with technical issues. We lose our internet connection, my screen freezes or her screen freezes, or we experience an irritating lag that makes our communication difficult. When I opened her virtual room last week, it was evident almost immediately that we were going to struggle, so I called our IT department. They started trouble-shooting the session, and it became apparent that other instructors’ sessions were suffering, too. Finally, after many attempted fixes and much frustration, IT recommended that each of us clear the cache on our web browsers. None of us had done that in quite a while, and our chrome books were bogged down. They couldn’t continue to function until we gave them some of the maintenance that they needed. It didn’t take long, just a couple clicks, and the efficiency of our internet was restored.

It seems that our habits of hurriedly moving from student to student had prevented many of us from completely powering down our computers, from doing regular computer maintenance, from clearing our cache. Neglected, our computers stopped working.

Similarly, I’ve been pushing my body lately. We’ve been short on staff since the beginning of the year, and all of us have been working long shifts and managing extra responsibilities. It’s hard on all of us. And while I am making sure that I write and do some yoga every day, I’m not taking time to clear my cache. I’m getting bogged down. I have noticed little glitches — I make a sarcastic remark, I run just a little bit late, or I miss a significant detail. Then all of a sudden, I find myself on my couch — unable to function properly.

So what’s going to change? What have I learned from repeating this cycle over and over again? Sure, some things are outside of our control. We definitely are short-staffed, and since I am in a leadership position, it only makes sense that I would be working all the available hours. So what can change in my attitude about work? That’s a good question.

My husband has a saying, “care, but don’t care” —care for my students and their welfare, but don’t own responsibility for them. Love my students, give them my best, but remember that I can give them my best without giving my all. I’m not good at this. I’m an all-in kind of a girl, but I’m thinking I have to find a way to set my idle a little lower. I want to be present with my students and coworkers without owning their successes so deeply, without feeling each of their struggles so personally.

I think my tendency to overwork and over-care stems from a desire to be needed. I mean, I don’t get up in the morning and say, “Let me go pour my whole life into my students so that they will appreciate and value me.” It’s not that simple. Belief systems run deep; they operate in the subconscious. Perhaps I have this thought deep in my core that if I meet all the needs of my students, I will be worthy and acceptable. And that thought, which stems from insecurity, actually masquerades as superiority — they need me, what would they do without me? 

But guess what, when I called in sick today, my agency did not close. All the students are still meeting with instructors. Progress is still being made. I’m an important player, but not so important that I can’t take a beat for self-care. I can pause to clear my cache.

To be honest, I do. In addition to taking time to write and do yoga, I regularly do several other forms of self-care. I just need to not work as though my worth depended on it.

Because it doesn’t.

I am valuable, needed, and appreciated, even when I am in yoga pants and an oversized fleece on my couch. Right now that’s what my body is telling me it needs — at least for today.

I’ll try to keep listening to its messages tomorrow.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Matthew 6:25-26

Language Learning

On Saturday, I worked with two students online. The first is a high school junior who I’ve worked with since she was in eighth grade. The second is an eighth grader who I met when he was in sixth grade. Both students are bi-lingual. Both students are high-achieving. Both students are expected by their parents to work hard.

“Gina” and I worked on SAT prep. She had taken a practice test and wanted to review the items she had missed. We analyzed her mistakes and discovered that almost all were related to vocabulary. Over the years, Gina and I have talked about the strength she has in knowing two languages. She can communicate with people in both Chinese and English. In fact, while she takes AP English Language and tutors Chinese students online to help them improve their English skills, she also studies AP Chinese! She has traveled to Taiwan many times with family and can spend weeks speaking nothing but Chinese. Then, she can come back to Michigan, slide back into her public school classroom, and navigate the language needed in all of her rigorous classes. This is a huge strength! However, since she holds in one hand all kinds of Chinese vocabulary and in the other hand all kinds of English vocabulary, neither hand has room for quite as many words as they could hold if they were cupped together holding words from just one language.

cupped hands

For example, although she holds the word ‘vague’, she may not also have obscure, dubious, ambiguous, and nebulous. Her hand simply doesn’t have the room. ‘Vague’ can usually do the job, except on the SAT, which may require Gina to know that obscure, vague, and ambiguous are all synonyms, and explicit is their antonym. The distinctions are challenging. So, we often spend our time working on vocabulary and helping Gina build images for new words so that she can put them on index cards and practice them when she’s not studying Chinese or psychology or one of the many other classes she is taking. She also has an English vocabulary app on her phone and plays freerice.com. She’s always trying to find ways to fit more words into her hands.

And then there’s “Kyle”. Kyle is fascinating to me. Although he is fluent in both Korean and English, although he speaks only Korean at home, although he is only in eighth grade, this kid has so. many. words. He did even when he was in sixth grade. I popped into our online room and asked him, “So what’s up? Your mom says you need some help with writing.”

“Well, my teacher says that I write too much. She says I need to be more concise.”

I’m chuckling to myself right now because in eighth grade, my teachers way back in the 70s didn’t expect me to write paragraphs and essays. I certainly hadn’t been given any feedback on my writing because I hadn’t produced any, but if I had, I am quite sure my teachers would have said I needed to be more concise.

“So what kind of writing are we talking about here — in class writing? or more formal writing?”

“Both.” Kyle is a striking young man — crisp haircut, sharp glasses, angular features. And he’s almost always deadpan. He cracks me up.

“Ok, so give me a typical in-class prompt.”

“Is The Giver a dystopian or a utopian novel?”

Again, I’m laughing inside. I don’t think I knew what ‘dystopian’ was until I taught Brave New World, but I digress.

So, together we built a very structured response to that prompt — topic sentence, three supporting points, and two pieces of evidence for each point. When we were finished, I looked at his face, read it, and said, “Pretty boring, huh?” He cracked a slight smile. “Well, tell me how you might’ve answered that question.” He admitted that he would’ve rambled and that his points would’ve been all over the place. “Ok! And that is what your teacher is asking you to work on! So, although it might be boring, I want you to practice this format for a while. Once you have the format, you can begin to experiment a little.”

He then shared a current assignment he is working on — a story told in two voices from two points of view. He chose to write about a hunter and a deer — one page for each character to tell the story of one day in the woods where they have an encounter. It’s vivid, and the language is clean.

“Kyle! This is beautiful. Your words are making me picture this snow-covered woods — I can even hear the hunter’s boots crunching in the snow! I can see him lift his bow, reach for an arrow, and take aim. This is fabulous!”

“She says we need to have sensory language, two adjective clauses, two adverb clauses, and ….” He’s reading from a list, discounting my praise.

We walked through his essay, which truly was well-written, particularly for a rough draft, and especially for an eighth grade bi-lingual student. We found his sensory language. I showed him how to combine his sentences by way of adjective and adverb clauses, and I pointed out how he had included the stylistic elements that his teacher was looking for. And then I said what I often tell writers who have too many words.

“I want to challenge you to make this even more concise. Right now this essay has 1000 words. I want you to cut that count by 10%. You have written a great essay, but play my game with me. See if you can cut 10% of the words, and then notice what impact that has on your story.

“Also, for your in-class writing, I want you to practice that format for a while. Learn the discipline, then you can experiment more.”

“So in other words, follow the rules and forget my voice,” he said pointedly.

“Well, no! Your voice is fantastic and natural. I don’t want you to lose your voice. And you won’t. As a matter of fact, when you practice this discipline, I think you will find more room for your voice.”

And he gave me that deadpan look again.

“Try it,” I smiled.

Gina is trying to expand her vocabulary, Kyle is trying to rein his in. Both are going to take work — practice, discipline, and courage. It takes real guts to admit that you don’t know everything — that you could learn something.

But when we do — when we admit that we have more to learn, when we listen to the voice of our mentors, and when we utilize that expert advice — we are transformed.

When I met Gina in the summer of 2015, she was timid. She gave me one word answers and was struggling to do schoolwork because each sentence was labored. Yesterday, when I asked what she’s been doing, she said, “During first semester we worked mostly on rhetorical analysis, but since Christmas we have started writing — what do you call them — oh, yeah, arguments.” She, an adolescent, has been leaning into her language process for three and a half years, and she is seeing the pay-off.

When I first met Kyle, he reminded me of my young self. He had a quick answer to almost everything. When he didn’t know the answer, he had several strategies for faking his way through. Now, at the ripe old age of 13, he is beginning to acknowledge that he has room to grow. He articulated the areas that had been identified by his teacher, and he at least considered the strategies that I offered him.

What a delight I have to witness their transformational journeys. And no, the metaphor isn’t lost on me. I, too, have admitted that I don’t know everything, that I have much, much more to learn. It’s taken practice, dedication, and courage, but I’m already beginning to see glimpses of transformation.

And yes, I did try to cut 10% of my words.

let the wise listen and add to their learning,
    and let the discerning get guidance—

Proverbs 1:5