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

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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

Can I ask you a question?

An adult student with some cognitive challenges works with us two hours every morning. She has been learning how to read for as long as I’ve known her; the process moves very slowly. Each word is a labor, and ‘Kelly’ is on her own time table. She will work hard for a few minutes and then take a singing or “knock, knock” joke break. When she wanders off topic, it can be challenging to recapture her attention, but I’ve found a pretty reliable way to call her back to work. I sit quietly with my hand raised, student style. She soon sees my hand and then points at me and says, “Yes, Kristin?”

I’ll say, “Can I ask you a question,” and she’ll say, “What’s your question,” and just like that we’re back in business.

My husband and I have been challenging each other to ask questions. We started this dialogue shortly after we admitted that we didn’t know all the answers. My personal recovery started something like this:

“Hi, my name is Kristin. I’m a know-it-all.”

My journey as a know-it-all started early. I was a straight A student my whole educational career in every class that I cared about, which was all of them with just a few exceptions:

US Government my senior year of high school because 1) it was right after lunch and I’d been up since 5:30am, and 2) our teacher, bless his heart, didn’t really sell his content in a way that sparked my interest;

Anthropology my freshman year of college because 1) a cute ROTC guy (in uniform!) sat on the other side of the auditorium, and 2) the instructor, bless her heart, stood at the podium in the front of the lecture hall droning on and on about slide after slide;

Principles of Fitness in college because 1) I was anorexic, and on day one I was shown how to use calipers to measure my body fat, and 2) the instructor, a soon-to-retire coach, bless his heart, seemed less than thrilled to be stuck teaching a required course.

See a pattern? If I had a reason not to learn it and the instructor didn’t engage me, I had better things to do with my time and energy.

And besides, as I said, I’m a know-it-all. I’m basically right about everything — education, parenting, marriage, writing. Just ask me. And if you don’t ask me, don’t worry, I’ll let you know what I think anyway, either by telling you, by showing you, or by wearing an all-knowing expression on my face.

Yeah, my know-it-all attitude has never really fostered communication, let alone transformation. Unchallenged for much of my life, I forged onward, knowing what I knew and operating from that core until — whoops! — I realized that I didn’t actually know everything.

Over the past few years, my husband and I have been faced with very difficult questions, and we haven’t had all of the answers. To complicate matters, we keep finding ourselves in conversations with people who don’t agree with. In the past, as a confirmed know-it-all, I would’ve used my position, power, or sheer force of will to press my opinions and beliefs on others, using words or actions to convince them that I was right — about ministry, about marriage, about parenting, or about politics. But guess what — force-feeding doesn’t convince people to eat what you are serving. People don’t actually like to be told what to think, feel, or believe. They like to be challenged to find their own answers. They like to be invited into conversations. They don’t want to be lectured or tolerated or pacified.

I know — it’s mind-blowing!

So, as a recovering know-it-all, I have, with my husband, been considering an alternate strategy — asking questions. What if, instead of telling everyone I know the best way to teach writing, I ask other teachers what strategies they have found to be effective? What if instead of promoting one particular type of school, I ask parents what factors guided their educational choices? What if instead of insisting that the best way to deal with chronic illness is to find a homeopathic doctor, I ask a friend what she has found to be most useful in dealing with her illness?

Do you see what happens? Telling keeps people at a distance. Asking brings them into your space! Telling keeps me isolated. Asking gives me community! Telling sets my feet firmly in the ground. Asking creates space for me to move!

Now, I will admit, that this new stance — asking — feels more vulnerable than my previous one — telling. When you bring people into your space, they have much more opportunity to hurt you, but I’m learning that they also have much more opportunity to love you and to be loved by you. 

I will also admit that because the former way was so well practiced, it has been difficult to re-train the muscle memory. Our quest to transition away from telling started in the theoreticalWhat if we asked people questions rather than debating the correct answers? It then moved to the pedagogicalCertainly asking questions invites others to join in conversation. But it has taken us a while to move from the theoretical and pedagogical to the practical — actually asking people questions.

Coincidentally — hah — at the same time that we’ve been exploring questions as a means of making conversation and building community, we have had opportunity to witness a member of our small group community, who, in every discussion we have, starts each thought with, “Could I ask you a question?” It is quite evident that he has trained himself in this practice. He is very intentional. He asks questions and he waits for answers. (You know what he does for his job? He guides organizations through change! I can’t make this stuff up.)

So, we had the theoretical discussion. We determined an appropriate action. A model was provided, and then the occasion appeared — the moment in which we met a challenge to our preferred way of thinking and living that produced personal transformation*.

It happened last weekend at the prayer conference we attended. One of the presenters, Chris Paalova, of All Nations Church in St. Louis, MO, spent his forty-five minutes asking us if we would be willing to change the way we pray from telling God what we want him to do to asking Him.

He built his case for this method by citing numerous passages where the big players of Scripture — David, Abraham, Paul, and even Jesus — prayed in questions — from David in the Psalms asking, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1) to Jesus on the cross asking, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

And as he gave example after example it dawned on me that even with God, I have been a know-it-all. I don’t ask, “What are you showing me through this illness?” Rather, I say, “Lord, give me the strength to make it through today.” Instead of asking, “Lord, will you please encourage my kids and show them who you are?” I say, “Lord, encourage my kids and provide for their needs.” Instead of asking, “Lord, what am I missing here?” I say, “Lord, lead me through this circumstance.” It’s subtle, but in my prayers, I am still calling the shots. I am not being vulnerable with God. I am telling Him what I want when I could be asking Him what I need.

Like ‘Kelly’, I’ve been working on this lesson for as long as I can remember. I’ve been trying to learn that God is God and I am not. He is the only one who knows everything. My stint as a know-it-all was all smoke and mirrors. He knew that. And because He wants to engage me, to draw me closer to Him and be in relationship with me, He keeps varying his instructional methods and providing models for me.

So, at last, I’m sitting here raising my hand, and I can almost hear Him say, “Kristin, what’s your question?” I think we’re back in business.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

Matthew 7:7

*Kirkegaard, again.

Process-ing

I had been trying to get back into the swing of writing consistently, plopping down 300 words a day in front of all of you, following Anne Lamott’s suggestion to just get them on the page. Every day I was stumbling along obediently, in true teacher fashion, modeling what I hoped my students would do — dump out the story; clean it up later.

I wasn’t liking any of what I was writing, but I believed that if I kept at it, I would eventually get some gold.

About that time, the group of ladies that I meet with for breakfast suggested that we begin reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  I wasn’t with them when they made the decision, but I got a text with the title that the others had chosen. We’ve read many books together already: Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, and Brene’ Brown’s Braving the Wilderness among them. We often make our selection based on a hunch one of us has that a book going to be good. Without fail, each of the books has served almost as a guide to the narratives of our individual lives — just the thing we needed to hear at a particular time.

For example, when we read The Broken Way, one of us was walking her mother through her last days, another was hearing for the first time the brutal details of a horrible event in a family member’s history, and another was learning that her husband’s cancer had returned.  We were collectively broken, and Ann Voskamp helped us not run from it, but sit in it.

We read Braving the Wilderness against the backdrop of a highly divided nation and discussed how we could be open to conversations with people who don’t agree with us and how we must be brave enough to do this crucial work.

We’ve come to expect that when one of us suggests a book, we should all just jump on board because each of the books we’ve read have guided our conversations and shaped our hearts. Over and over, in the space of a morning-dark living room, we have together been changed.

So why, when I got the text about The Artist’s Way did I turn up my nose?  Well, besides being stubborn by nature, I hadn’t heard the reason for this choice.  And, to be honest, the word ‘artist’ in the title came with a whole bunch of associations that I didn’t feel connected to. Finally, my work schedule had been such that I figured, “Yeah, maybe my season with this group is done. This one probably isn’t for me.”

And so I didn’t buy the book.  I just kept tossing out three hundred words a day like magical seeds that might one day sprout into something.

Then a few weeks later, one Sunday morning at church, one of my breakfast club friends said, “Aren’t you loving this book?  I can’t believe how much I love all the writing!”

Wait. What?

“The writing?” I said.  “I’ve gotta admit, I haven’t bought the book yet, what kind of writing are you talking about?”

“Oh, my gosh, you’ll love it! You have to commit to writing three pages every morning. I keep getting up in the middle of the night, and I can’t believe all the things I’m putting on the page.”

As she’s talking, I’m opening the Amazon app on my phone, searching for the title, and clicking “purchase”.

“Really? I didn’t know it involved writing. I guess I thought it was going to be about art.”

“No!  It’s about the artist inside of all of us. Oh, Kristin, you’ve got to read this book. I’m telling you, you’re going to love it.”

“Well, I just purchased it. So, I’ll start this week.”

And then the book arrived.  I opened to the introduction, because I’m one of those people who reads introductions, and I just didn’t like the tone of the author. She sounded very know-it-ally, and I just couldn’t. So I set the book on the table next to where I usually write and walked away.

For a week I didn’t write anything. Granted, we were busy at work and I didn’t have a lot of steam left when I got home, and getting up extra early in the morning seemed out of the question.

Until I found myself writing this around 2am:

Technically it’s morning. It’s the middle of the night. Up with pain and brain again. I grumbled about this book today — didn’t want to get it in the first place — dumb title.  Irrelevant. Then the self-important tone of the intro made me want my money back. But I’m not even through the first chapter and I know that Julie Cameron is right. If I write — actually write — three pages every morning, I will create an opening.  

And I started getting up every day at 5:45 — yes, 5:45 — to use a pen and a notebook to write at least three pages. And, like my friend, I’ve been amazed at what has shown up on the page. I’m not censoring, because I’m not writing for an audience. Instead, I am letting whatever is in me come out. Some days I’m writing about things long past. Other days I’m scratching out my current to-do list. I’m writing anger and anxiety and regret and sadness and hope and prayer.  I’m filling my second spiral notebook with no intention of accomplishing anything other than creating an opening.

I met with the breakfast club girls this week. Four of the five of us are writing these pages each morning (or sometimes in the middle of the night).  The one who isn’t said, “So, you’re writing?”  And the rest of us practically pushed each other out of the way to share how profound the experience has been. Then, I sheepishly admitted, “I’m only on chapter two of the actual reading.”  Surely by now, I thought, two months later, everyone else would be almost finished with the book.

“Me, too!” one said.

“I’m only on chapter four,” said another.

And it dawned on me — getting through the book is not the point. This book is not about finishing, it’s about being open to the process. And that is the message of relevance this time around. Just like every other book we’ve read, this one is speaking into our individual narratives. One of us is learning how to be a widow. Another is walking into retirement in a new home in a new community. One is about to become a grandmother for the first time. Another is navigating the comings and goings of young adult children. Me? I’m discovering after thinking that my professional career was over, that I might just have another round in me.

We’re all in phases that aren’t really about arriving or finishing; they are more about being, practicing, living, and breathing through the process.

So, it’s 6:32 am, and I’m spending this morning’s time to reflect, because, writing three pages every morning isn’t so magical that I can’t take a break to put my fingers on keys. I’ve created enough space to see that I can allow myself space.  And that is some kind of gold.

Psalm 5:3

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

Wow. Thanks.

Have you ever found yourself replaying the blooper reel of your life, only you’re not laughing?

It seems the highlight tape — all the moments where you really shined —  has been lost or erased and the only film left is your missteps, failures, and blatant rebellious choices?

And you watch it over. and over. and over.

Yeah, I’ve been attending a private viewing for a while, so when our pastor opened up Titus on Sunday morning and started ticking off all the requirements for leaders in the church — being hospitable, self-controlled, upright, disciplined — and all the disqualifiers — being arrogant, quick-tempered, insubordinate, or greedy– I knew right where to cue up examples of how I have blown it and have proven myself to be unfit for the call, which is ironic, since my husband and I have spent our entire adult lives in church work.  It wasn’t long into the sermon when I found myself slinking down into the pew, buried under the weight of conviction.

And at 52 years of age, it’s tempting to think “I’ve ruined it all. I can’t go back. I’ve caused so much damage.” And once that thought has formed, it threatens to become a truth that one might believe, even cling to.

So, I was sitting there slunk down, feeling pretty pitiful, when I heard the words, “to the redeemed, all things are redeemed.” I wrote them down; my ears perked up.

I heard my pastor admitting his tendency to be so exceptionally hard on himself, afraid that he will get it wrong and fail his family, his church, his God. He said that when he had admitted this to a friend earlier in the week, the friend had replied, “If you are teaching your child how to ride his bike and he falls down, don’t you run to him and say, ‘it’s ok, we’ll try again.'” And I could see the scene: I could see my pastor bending down to his child, scooping him up, wiping his tears, and speaking those words of encouragement.

And as I saw my human pastor in my mind’s eye, I simultaneously saw my Father, looking at my blooper reels. I heard Him say, “It’s ok. You can try again.”

And then, while I was still taking in that image, I heard my pastor say, “Every failure has been wiped clean because we are in Christ.”

And then we were receiving communion.

And then I heard myself singing: Let no one caught in sin remain/ inside the lie of inward shame/ but fix our eyes upon the cross/ and run to Him who showed great love/ and bled for us/ freely he bled for us (full song here.) 

And I was choking on the words because they were what I needed to hear.  Inward shame is a lie. I have been caught in sin, but I don’t have to remain there, wallowing, slinking, hiding.

All has been redeemed.

If I believe that Christ died for my sins, then I believe that my sins are paid for — they are redeemed.  I don’t owe a penalty.

It sounds really cheesy and Sunday school-ish.

Unless it’s true.

And it is.

Tonight, a full 36 hours after the pew slinking and song singing, I was reading Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow, and I saw this prayer:

Hi, God, 

I am just a mess. 

It is all helpless. 

What else is new? 

I would be sick of me If I were You, but miraculously, You are not. 

I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am. 

Wow. Can this be true?  If so, how is this afternoon — say two-ish? 

Thank You in advance for Your company and blessings.  

You have never once let me down. 

Amen. 

And I think to myself, didn’t He just meet me where I was yesterday? Say noon-ish?  And didn’t He prove again that He will never let me down?

He sure did.

Wow.

Thanks.

Romans 8:1

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus

 

Routine

I’m such a creature of habit.  Once I find a groove, I like to stay there.  I like to wake at the same time, eat the same foods, listen to the same podcasts, drive the same roads, and watch the same shows. 

Lately, I’ve been getting up at 6am, doing a little yoga, showering, fixing some kind of breakfast egg scramble, listening to my daily Bible reading followed by a favorite podcast, and driving to work.  At lunchtime, I take a walk and finish my podcast. Then, on the drive home, I listen to music, make a phone call, or simply drive in silence.  Once home, I typically spend some time in the kitchen  — cooking or prepping food for the week’s lunches.  My husband joins me for dinner, then we might take a walk or watch some TV.  We read, then we sleep. 

Now, of course, weekends are a little different, and sometimes I have an appointment or some other detour, but typically, the routine is pretty consistent.  

However, the last week has been a bit out of the ordinary. We had a couple of our kids over for visits. We accepted an offer on our Missouri home. We voted in the primary election. I attended a day-long training. We took a day trip to see my parents, and a few more out-of-the-ordinaries popped up. Most of these were welcome interruptions; nevertheless, my routine has been tampered with, and although I managed well for the first few days, the cumulative effect is grouchiness and irritability. 

I’m sitting on the couch in my pajamas right now, tapping at keys, though I am thoroughly exhausted, because I really need to process and shake off this funk before I ooze grumpiness on any more innocent bystanders.  I “put myself to bed” around eight tonight because I was just that tired, but I’m still awake after 10 because the grumble just won’t be put down.  

I crave my rhythms that much!  I really need each moment of every shower, each breath of every yoga pose, each bite of every breakfast, and each step of every noontime walk. I can’t skimp — not for more than a couple days in a row.  

I’ve become high-maintenance; I admit it. I’d feel guilty if these rhythms didn’t contribute to my overall health, but they do! 

Life in this chapter has taught me that if I want to be kind and attentive to the people in my path, if I want to do my job well, if I want to reduce my pain and increase my stamina, I must oxygenate myself first every day.  And, for me, oxygen is obtained in the purposeful rhythm of routines. 

One of the routines that sustains me is writing.  And, for me, maybe three hundred words a day is just a stop-gap for the days that I can’t write just a little bit more.  It seems that my preferred rhythm is to write anywhere from 700 to 1400 words at a time.  I think it takes me that long to dump out what’s building up, find out where it’s headed, then write myself back off the page.  Perhaps that is what I am doing now. 

It took me the first several paragraphs (the blue text) to dump out my frustration.  Only when I had fully expressed those initial emotions could I move on. The next few paragraphs (the green text) allowed me to analyze those feelings. And now (in gray) I’m just trying to finish.

I’m trying to tell you that I think I use this same model every time I write — I come to the page with some logjam of ideas and words that is just begging to be put down. I write and write until I see that I’ve shifted from expression to contemplation — figuring out why the logjam existed in the first place. I then keep on writing until I can find a way to end, because by the time I’ve gotten to this place, I feel better, I think I might be able to sleep, and I’ve remembered why this part of my routine is one of the most important of all. 

I need all of my routines — the sleeping, the eating, the exercising, and the relaxing — but perhaps the routine that holds all those other routines together, the one that allows me to understand all the others, is the writing.

Now let me go get some sleep.

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.

Psalm 4:8