Feel This

Barbara Brown Taylor, in Learning to Walk in the Dark, asks “What if I could learn to trust my feelings instead of asking to be delivered from them?  What if I could follow one of my great fears all the way to the edge of the abyss, take a breath, and keep going?  Isn’t there a chance of being surprised by what happens next?”

Gasp. Trust my feelings?  That is not one of my internal constructs.

I received the message very early that I was supposed to control my emotions, not trust them.   I’ve often been told that I laugh too loudly, cry too easily, and “wear my emotions on my sleeve.”  Although many have tried to encourage me to rein in my feelings, I’m starting to understand that I have been designed to feel fully and express loudly.

My great grandmother, bless her heart and rest her soul, was possibly the first to encourage me to tame my emotions. She was of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality that had enabled her to marry a widower, raise his daughter plus one of her own, run a household, and remain financially stable even when she herself became a widow at a fairly early age.  I loved being around her.  She was a feisty woman with a sparkle in her eye who always welcomed me into her life of baseball games, crocheting, gardening, and baking. She seemed to be at the center of  family gatherings where over twenty of us would eat, tell stories, laugh, and play. Often, near the end of these get-togethers with all the people I loved, I would become tired and sad. Most people in my family just accepted the reality of going home; they grabbed their things, piled into cars, and left.  Me? I bawled. I sobbed. I ugly cried.  Ill-equipped to handle such unbridled expression, my great grandmother tried shame: “Stop that crying, do you want people to see you looking like that?  What if I took a picture of your face right now?”  Those words still sting, but because they came from a woman I loved and admired, I tried to learn how to hold in my tears and behave like the rest of my more reserved family.

That didn’t go well.  Sadness turned in, in my experience, becomes anger.  I can be found in many family photos glaring into the camera lens, because dammit, if I can’t cry, I’m at least gonna be pissed.  And pissed I was.

When my parents divorced, my three siblings seemed to deal with their grief in much quieter ways.  I don’t remember them yelling the questions I yelled, or crying the tears that I cried.  Nor do I recall them throwing things at my stepfather across the kitchen table and stomping out the door to ‘run away’ over and over again.

My middle school memories include scenes of me sobbing in the hallway, yelling at classmates, and getting made fun of for my extra-obnoxious laugh. The reactions of students and teachers to my emotional expression gave me one consistent message — you’re too loud! Calm down!  So, I attempted to calm myself and to soothe my hurts.

How does a preteen do that?  Hours and hours of television, libraries full of books, pounds of potato chips and dip, sodas by the million, and retreats into my room to listen to music and write.

I also tried creative elaboration (lying), academic achievement (perfectionism), and subtle coercion of my friends and classmates (bullying).  None of these strategies had the lasting effect of quieting me; they merely added more emotions — shame, pride, guilt — to the pile that I was already trying not to express.

All was not terrible, of course.  I had friends with staying power and a family who loved me in spite of my emotionality. I was successful in school and well-connected at church. Nevertheless, my feelings were always simmering right at the surface.

High school, in my memory, was a blur of exploring the emotional spectrum.  I felt everything — anger, sadness, joy, love, betrayal, embarrassment, jealousy, pride, fear.  Those four years were a wild ride that involved laughing with friends, glaring at teachers, perfecting the art of sarcasm, breaking rules, being ashamed, and lashing out.  Even in the emotional hotbed of adolescence — I stood out.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was voted “moodiest” by my classmates –a designation memorialized in my high school year book.

The transition to college allowed me an opportunity to be different — to be less emotional.  I think I tried, but by the end of freshman year, my coping mechanism of eating had packed on some pounds, and my fear of “getting fat” caused an overcorrection that became an eating disorder. I turned my focus to restrictive eating to control my weight, and devoid of emotion, I moved through my routine, barely interacting with the people in front of me, and deeming each day a win or a loss on the basis of my total calorie count and the number on the scale.

I may have finally controlled my emotions, but they remained, lurking deep beneath the surface.  I was terribly sad, but I didn’t cry.  I just soldiered on until I collapsed, gasping for breath.

That was over thirty years ago.

Therapy and maturity have healed some hurts, and I have, of course, learned how to more appropriately manage my emotions.  I was certainly going to get it right with my own children.  I was going to let them feel what they felt — cry their tears and laugh their laughs. My intentions were good, but life gets complicated, and when it does, we fall back on old faithful patterns.  Surely my children watched me hold back tears; they saw me swallow anger and soldier through difficulty. Despite my best efforts, my estranged relationship with my emotions has had an impact on the people who have shared a home and a life with me.  How could it not?

So when I consider Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘what if’ question, I’m challenged to try a new strategy.  She offers me an opportunity to feel what I am feeling, to lean in and explore sadness, regret, grief, and anger.

These are not pleasant feelings, but I’m learning that they must be felt.  They don’t go away.  If I paste on a smile, square my shoulders, and strengthen my resolve, I am only delaying the inevitable.  And the inevitable eventually shows up at the front door with a summons, refusing to go away until you get in the car and ride to the place where you face all of your realities.

So now when I wake up in the middle of the night, heart beating quickly, franticly worrying over things that were or might be, I don’t wish myself back to sleep.  I lie still for a while, looking my feelings straight in the face, and after a while of sitting with these strangers, I get out of bed, come to the keys, and write.  Of all the strategies I have tried over the years, this is the one that allows me to tap deep into the well of feelings that have been locked deep inside, under armor and facades and lies.

Here, I tell the truth, and the truth is: I am hurting.

I am so sad. I have lost so much. And finally, I am going to cry.

It might be loud.  It might be messy.  I might attract attention.

I’m ok with that.

I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who needs permission to weep. I’m not the only one who needs a chance to be surprised by what happens next.

Ecclesiastes 3:4

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

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In Violation

It started out innocently enough. I had just finished a counseling session, and I was going to stop by the grocery store on my way home.  In an area of town that I don’t often drive through, I used GoogleMaps to find my route and was listening to a podcast as I pulled up to a traffic light, turned right, realized where I was, and casually proceeded to drive the final mile to the store.  Pulling into the left turn lane, I noticed a black SUV was right on my tail.  When I made my turn into the parking lot, so did the SUV, which was suddenly lit by red flashing lights.

A cop.

Seriously?

Had I been speeding?

Indeed, I had.  I had been going about 47 mph in an area marked 35, where “the residents have been complaining about speeding drivers.”

Sigh.  It’s not the first time, but it’s the first time since I’ve been back in Michigan.  Because of that, the officer wrote my ticket for only 5 over the limit and informed me that instead of getting points added to my license, I could take an online driving course.  It would be easy, he said, and my insurance company would not get notified of my offense.

So here I am spending my morning taking one of several ‘certified by the State of Michigan’ Basic Driver Improvement Courses.  That’ll be $37.45, please. (In addition to the $150 or whatever I paid for the ticket. Ouch.)

One recurring message in the course is that attitude has a significant impact on driving. The content warns against driving when angry, sick, impaired, or distracted.  I am, of course, already aware of the impact of driving under emotional distress, and truly, I was pretty relaxed when I was pulled over.  I was not angry or overly emotional despite just coming from therapy.  I wasn’t distracted by my phone — I had looked at my maps, yes, but my route really required just two turns and about three miles of driving, so I didn’t need to keep the app open.  I had a podcast running, but it was Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love, which is like having a good friend riding shotgun — pleasant conversation sprinkled with laughter. Nevertheless, my mind was not fully focused on driving.  I was watching the road, yes.  I knew what street I was on and where my destination was, but I truly did not see the officer until he was right on my tail, and when he asked me if I knew how fast I had been driving, I had to admit that I had no idea. My attitude wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t fully engaged.

The course suggests a driving mindset that involves SIPDE — Scanning, Identifying, Predicting, Deciding, and Executing.  We should, in order to avoid accidents, be continuously Scanning the road ahead, behind, and around us; Identifying potential dangers such as weather, erratic drivers, and changes in traffic patterns; Predicting what might happen — slippery roads, flat tires, sudden slow-downs; Deciding what we will do if any of our predictions come true; and Executing our plans when the need arises.

Sounds like a great plan, but if I’m gonna be honest (and by this point, you know I am), that is not the way I drive or do anything, for that matter. I barrel through life ‘handling’ what is front of me.  I know, I know, numerous posts on this blog discuss my turning away from soldiering ways, and I do try.  Really, I do. But guys, these patterns are hard-wired; any attempts at change further expose how far-reaching they are.

Most of my life runs on auto-pilot. Get up. Eat. Caffeinate. Shower. Dress. Drive. Teach. Eat. Teach. Drive. Cook. Eat. Clean. Sleep.  Insert reading, puzzling, laundry, conversation, worship, exercise, etc. as needed.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

So, when I said in my recent post, Old Dog, New Trick, that I was working on reprogramming my internal constructs so that I can experience emotions more healthfully, I was actually committing to a life-time effort at change. Each minor change will expose the next area of dysfunction — kind of like that proverbial string of Christmas lights; just when you have replaced one burned out bulb, you discover that three more are faulty.  Similarly, this little three-hour basic driving course is exposing a symptom — failure to focus on driving — of a larger systemic problem — failure to focus on life.  When I fail to focus on driving, and disregard the SIPDE system, I risk a collision. When I fail to focus on life, and disregard opportunities to scan, identify, predict, decide, and execute, I risk myriad kinds and degrees of disaster.

For me, it usually takes a brush with the law — penal or spiritual — to stop what I’m doing, examine the situation, pay the fine, and consider change.

Yeah, we’re not talking about a speeding ticket any more.

As per usual in my life, the lesson is layered.  I’m a slow learner, to be sure, and I need my instruction to be differentiated.  It’s not likely that I will learn to slow down my mental processes and my life patterns unless I have a tangible representation to glue the lesson to — a speeding ticket, and not just a speeding ticket, but a speeding ticket that requires me to sit through traffic school.

My friend the other night at our small group, the one I mentioned here, reminded me that we often just want to treat the symptoms, but unless we deal with the root problem, the symptoms will not go away.  My husband said yesterday that if we have a hole in the roof and we just keep putting out buckets to catch the incoming rain, we’ll be forever emptying buckets.  However, if we climb up on the roof, assess the damages, call in a professional, and fix the problem, we can put the buckets away.

I’ve been carrying and emptying buckets my whole life.

And I’m tired.

So, what, my dears, is the root of the problem?  I think I’m getting closer to the source.  I’m picturing that it has something to do with a mind bent on surviving rather than living, on putting out fires rather than planting trees, on quieting my inner child’s cry rather than allowing her the space to find joy.

I’m getting there.  One day I may fully understand the source of the problem, but even if I never do, a Professional is already on the scene.  He’s doing his work, and I’m trying to slow down enough to lean in and watch Him in action. I might learn a few things.

Revelation 21: 5

“Look!  I am making all things new!”

 

 

In my anger

Psalm 4:3-5

    the Lord hears when I call to him.

Be angry, and do not sin;
    ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. 
Offer right sacrifices,
    and put your trust in the Lord.

 

I’ve been angry lately.  Frustrated. Hurt. Angry. Downright pissed.  Life, as my friend said to me recently, isn’t turning out the way I might have expected.  Reality is not meeting my expectations, and I’m livid. I literally cannot see straight.

For most of my life I’ve had a default response to mad — seethe, mutter, slow boil until bursting, then slam, yell, stomp, and verbalize the snot out of anyone in my path.  It’s pretty gratifying, actually.   It’s a release that refreshes.  Ah,…I got that off my chest, I grin. However, that release and refreshing lasts a maximum of four to five minutes before regret and shame show up. I see the carnage in my path of destruction, and I realize what my anger has caused.  My rage hasn’t cured my problem;  I have just transferred my hurt onto whoever or whatever was in my path.  While momentarily satisfying, rage is not productive; it’s destructive.

After a face-to-face encounter with reality over the weekend, I was already well into the slow boil of anger on Monday evening when I walked into our small group.  Because the anger is related to the unspoken broken* in my life, I had resolved to armor up, batten down the hatches, and ‘get through’ our Bible study reflection with my husband and the three others in attendance. To my relief, others carried the conversation, so I was able to  focus on keeping my yap shut and clutching my pain in my fists.

The discussion was business-related — projects, strategies, etc.  I was thankful that the topic was outside my area of interest and enjoying my silence when a friend said, “Kristin, are you familiar with the Lean strategy?”  My answer, “No,” was probably curt and clipped.  However, since I’m an adult and I am truly not trying to be overtly rude, I did turn my gaze toward him and maintain eye contact for the next few minutes.  I heard nothing except, “you can’t set goals until you determine what the problem is.  People always want to talk about the symptoms, but you have to identify the problem.”

And so began an internal spiral past all kinds of symptoms in search of a root problem.  This one is complex. What, Kristin, is the problem here?  Don’t just look at symptoms. And so, the internal hum gained some fuel and continued its slow boil.

My body doesn’t know what else to do.  This problem and its symptoms will not abate overnight, and though not essentially mine, they have immediate and far-reaching impact on my reality.  I can feel the hum in my cells.  They are trying to do what they know how to do — solve, soothe, fix — but they are coming up empty.

Yesterday,  a conversation with my therapist allowed some deep hurt to surface, and I came home a bit calmer.  My slow boil had been reduced to a simmer.  I quietly and slowly moved through the motions for an hour or so — preparing dinner, changing the laundry, sweeping the kitchen floor.  I ate dinner with my husband, brushed out the dog’s coat, then took a warm shower.

It was only 7:45 when I climbed into bed, picked up Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, and started the slow descent toward what I hoped would be sleep.  Sleep has been difficult — I take elaborate measures to calm the hum that churns all day.  Sometimes if I read fiction, I can calm myself enough to close my eyes and fall asleep.  Other times, like last night, I can sense that quieting the hum is going to require a little more intentionality. After about an hour of reading about two brave women surviving World War II in France,  I reached to my nightstand and grabbed Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, the book that my breakfast club and I are reading.

Taylor’s book is a slow examination of literal and metaphorical darkness. It asks questions like why are we afraid of the dark? what would happen if we turned out some lights, put down our technology, and actually sat in the darkness? how important are the rhythms of light and dark (both literal and metaphorical) in our lives and what happens when we subvert those rhythms? It’s contemplative to be sure.

The chapter I opened to last night first met me where I was: Taylor affirmed that “we find ourselves unable to […] sleep, […with] several free hours to obsess about everything from how we will pay our Visa bills to who will take care of us when we can no longer take care of ourselves” (64). Indeed.  My solve, soothe, fix mechanism is strong, and I can spend a whole nighttime obsessing about how to alleviate symptoms or searching for the root problem.

Then, Taylor spoke to my heart with the words of poet Li-Young Lee, “All light is late.” Four small words that reminded me that understanding often comes after acting, that wisdom is found in hindsight, and that, though late, light always arrives.

Finally, Taylor spoke right to my unspoken broken* in words that can only be ordained by God and penned by her hand: “it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down” (67).  It is truly hard for me to discern whether the ache inside is a symptom of dying or resurrection, but I trust in the God of restoration even when I cannot see.

He is with me in the light and in the dark.  He calls me to lie down on my bed and be silent.  He encourages me to read and to ponder in my  heart.  He urges me to offer my unspoken broken up to Him. He reminds me to trust Him because He holds everything in the palm of His hand.

In my anger, I call out to Him. He hears me.

 

*Voskamp, Ann. The Broken Way. 

 

 

 

 

Pacing

Last semester I was teaching three classes — three different classes. I loved it.  I interacted with students almost every day.  I was teaching writing, literature, and even a methods class — a class of future writing teachers.   I was steeped in theory and practice and I was loving every minute of it.

I had agreed to teach the methods class first.  I considered it a great honor to work with students who would one day be teaching others how to write.  I had high expectations of myself for what I wanted to expose these future educators to — instructional strategies, cultural considerations, and personal practices that I feel are important to instruction.  From the moment I agreed to teach the class I was fully committed to creating a high quality experience.

I had cleared the month of August to prepare for this class when I received a request to also teach one section each of composition and literature.  I opened the envelope and instinctively said, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Three preps?! That’s too much!”  But, instead of saying, “Thank you so much, but I think it would be best if I just taught one or the other,” I signed on the dotted line saying to myself, “It’ll be fine!  I’ve taught these two classes before; they shouldn’t require too much preparation.”   I was then informed that the English department had adopted a new textbook for the literature class which would necessitate a new syllabus and a new plan.  And, once I wrapped my head around the fact that I was going to be essentially creating two courses from scratch, I went totally rogue and decided to re-craft the composition class, too.

It just snowballed from there.  As I read composition theory to prepare for the methods class, I discovered strategies that I wanted to try with my own writing students.  As I tried new strategies with my writing students, I convinced myself to alter instruction in my literature class, too.  That’s kind of how I am as a teacher; left to my own devices, I keep tweaking and re-tweaking.  I don’t ever really find a groove to settle into.

So, as you might expect, the whole semester I was reading, thinking, planning, reworking, teaching, scoring, and conferencing.  I think it’s as close as I’ve come to being fully in the classroom again.  I loved the relationships I was building with students, I loved speaking into their writing, I loved leading classes, but guys, I gotta admit, it was too much.

I don’t think I even acknowledged it was too much until November, when I was asked if I would take a couple of classes for this semester and I reflexively answered, “Nah, I don’t really like that schedule.” I was only being asked to teach two classes three days a week, but I was sitting in the midst a mountain of work of my own making, and I instinctively grabbed the white flag and started waving with all my might.

Of course, three weeks later, when the semester ended, I second-guessed that decision  and heard myself asking the same old question,  “Well, then, what will I do?”

[Stop laughing at me!]

A weird series of events involving a car ride to Detroit, phone conversations with both of my daughters, and a few emails with a friend landed me back at Lindamood-Bell where I worked in the summer of 2015.  Lindamood-Bell is a private agency where students get one-on-one intensive instruction.  The incredibly rewarding work is based on brain research.  It’s quite remarkable — I have watched students improve their reading and/or comprehension by several grade levels in a matter of weeks!  On any given day, I might work with four to six different students, for an hour each,  performing tasks that are prescribed by a learning consultant based on the Lindamood-Bell model of instruction.

You read that correctly — I implement the plan; I do not actually write the plans.  Further, I do not do any grading or scoring.  I punch in at the beginning of my shift, work with one student each hour, then I punch out and go home.  Once home, I work on puzzles, I read books, and I find time to write.

All last semester, I found it very difficult to get to my blog.  I wrote with my students, as I always do, but that is a different kind of writing. When I write with my students, I model the process and produce whatever type of writing that I am asking them to produce — a narrative, a research paper, an argument.  That kind of writing builds my skill, of course, but it isn’t the kind of writing that I produce for my blog.

The kind of writing I produce for my blog is very personal and very restorative.  It’s the kind of writing that grows from deep reading, purposeful thinking, and sitting. (I discuss this in an early blog post you can read here.) I can’t produce this type of writing when I am overcommitted.  It’s just not possible.

When I started back at Lindamood-Bell in early January, I  committed to working no more than 20-30 hours a week.  Almost immediately, I found that I had space in my days, so I returned to my blog.  As I began to write again, I saw, almost immediately, how God continues to work in my life.

He gave me the option last semester to commit to one, two, or three classes. I chose three.  He let me see, again, what it is like to fully commit to the classroom for a season.  He allowed me to run on all cylinders as I tend to do so that I could see what I exchange for that kind of pace.  And then, he allowed me to have a moment of clarity last fall to say “no” to more adjunct teaching so that I could stumble back into the pace that He has been offering me since I moved into this next chapter. Finally, He nudged me toward the keys.

God works through my writing.  He speaks to me.  He says, when you slow yourself down long enough to put your words on a page, you finally hear what I’m trying to tell you. And what is He telling me today?  I think He’s saying, settle in.  Enjoy this pace. And, you know, I think I’m gonna listen.

Psalm 46: 10

Be still, and know that I am God.

 

 

 

The Assignment, #2

This is #2 in a participatory series. From time to time, I will blog with the heading “The Assignment”.  I will respond to one of  300 Writing Prompts*; you can read the prompt and my post here and then decide whether or not you want to post your own response to the prompt.   You can reply in the comments on WordPress or in the comments on Facebook where I typically share blog posts. 

The Prompt: “Have you ever spoken up when you saw something going on that was wrong? Were you scared?  What ended up happening?”

Hahahahahahahahaha.  Have I ever spoken up when I saw something going on that was wrong? That’s a good one!  1) I’m a teacher and former school administrator, 2) I’m a parent, 3) I’m a bit of a know-it-all.  Yes,  Yes.  I have often spoken up when I saw something going on that was wrong.

I might even say I am compelled to speak up when I see something going on that is wrong.  It can be a problem, actually.  Particularly if I get confused about the difference between “what is wrong” and “what I don’t agree with”.  Sometimes the distinction between these two categories is pretty clear; sometimes it’s rather subtle.

For example, the other day I watched an eleven year old dump about a quarter cup of Red Hot into a baggie full of Doritos.  I used all the restraint I could muster to hold myself to “Wow!  That’s a lot of hot sauce,” rather than saying “Dude, what’s the matter with you?  No one needs that much hot sauce!”  This was an instance of “what I don’t agree with” rather than one of “what is wrong”.  Although I myself am not a fan of hot sauce, this kid did nothing “wrong”.

On the other hand, if I overhear one teenager cruelly making fun of another teenager, I will most definitely step in and correct the first teenager. I am not a fan of bullying in any form.  It’s unnecessary. And cruel.  And wrong.

Not all issues are so clear cut.  Sometimes I can’t immediately distinguish between what is simply a matter of preference and something that is most certainly wrong.  I once saw a college student walking to class barefoot.  We chatted for a minute, and I did ask, “Where are your shoes?”  She responded, “I really don’t like shoes.”  Hm. Ok, I thought,  I wouldn’t go into a public place with no shoes, but I guess you would.  Later I learned from my Dean of Students husband that students are not allowed to go into buildings without shoes — it’s a health code issue.  Being barefoot in school is wrong.  So noted.

Further muddling the topic are situations that are “not under my jurisdiction”.  I have had more than one boss tell me, “that’s not your problem.” Hmph.  I will admit here to reluctantly walking away sputtering under my breath on such occasions.  I have a hard time believing it’s not my problem if 1) it’s wrong and 2) I’ve seen it.

You can imagine my struggle with living in a world that is full of “wrong”.  I watch the news and say to the TV from my couch,  “What?  You’ve gotta be kidding me!”  Last weekend during a basketball game between the University of Michigan and Michigan State, I yelled, “why do you keep throwing the same shot?  You’ve missed it all the other times, why will this time be different?”  Driving on the highway, I reprimand other drivers, “Really?  You’re gonna cut him off like that?”

Am I scared to speak up? No. My response when I see the wrongs of others is reflexive. I am not afraid of confrontation.  The fear comes in when I realize that I myself have been “wrong”.  And, let’s be honest, this happens regularly.  Someone with such a compulsion to call out “wrong” will certainly see her own flaws.

Last week I was sitting in my therapist’s office recalling a scenario from my holiday experience with my family.  I told her that I was lying in bed one night almost frantic that I hadn’t created the “right” Christmas.  Maybe I should’ve done something different — offered more activities, participated in more conversations, created more ‘magical moments’.   What if I had done everything wrong and had missed some opportunities?

My therapist said to me, “your expectations of yourself are so high, I can’t even see them.”  Indeed.  I really don’t want to get it wrong, especially when it comes to my family. But here’s the thing.  I’m going to get it wrong.

After my last blog post wherein I discussed my realization that I am sometimes driven by prejudice, a friend made a relevant and kind comment on Facebook.  I responded, “thanks for the grace,” and she replied, “We all need grace, but do you know who we need it from the most? Ourselves.”

It’s true.  While I am quick to call out wrong when I see it, I am also quite dedicated to offering others fresh chances.  The student who I dressed down for picking on a peer might be forgiven and encouraged by me within a few moments.  My Spartans, who kept missing shots against the Wolverines, still have my undying support and devotion. The kiddo who downed that whole baggie of dripping Doritos received high fives from me moments later when he read some difficult words in his lesson. I don’t let anyone else’s behavior determine my love for them because I know their actions do not define them.

However, I am not as quick to offer that same grace to myself.  I tend to revisit my sins and pile them up into the shape of my identity.  My failure to cover a learning objective makes me an ineffective teacher.  My inability to offer an appropriate emotional response makes me a bad mother.  My tendency to share my personal stories makes me a narcissist.

I get so carried away with “seeing”  all the “wrong” in my life that I become paralyzed. I can’t seem to offer myself the same grace that I would be more than willing to offer a friend or even a stranger.

I don’t think I’m alone.

So here’s to calling out what’s wrong,  to being defenders of the those who can’t defend themselves, and to being willing to look in the mirror and acknowledge that I don’t get it all right myself.  And in the same breath, here’s to offering forgiveness, to holding out hope, and to offering grace to the people in our paths and to ourselves.

I think we can give that a try, can’t we?

 

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

 

 

*300 Writing Prompts. Picadilly, 2017.

Tell Me Your Story

I am a hypocrite.  Although I have stood on my soapbox pointing out injustices and crying out for equity, I am a prejudiced person.  I’m racist. I’m classist. I’m sexist.  And that’s only the beginning of it.  I’ll judge a person based on one Facebook status.  I’ll incriminate a whole group of people for their stance on whether they think athletes should stand for the National Anthem or not. I’ll sort you into a group so fast, it’ll make your head spin.

It’s embarrassing, actually.  I’ve lived my professional life encouraging students to write narratives – to tell their stories of defining life moments — their parents’ divorce, the death of a sibling, a betrayal of friendship, a proclamation of love. These stories cross all lines of race, class, gender, political affiliation, music preference, and lifestyle choice.  Our stories reveal our humanity; they bind us to one another.

In my classroom I have made space for students to laugh with one another, cry with one another, challenge one another, and embrace one another.  I, too, have laughed, cried, challenged, and embraced.  I have revealed my humanity to an audience of twenty or so students at a time.  I have met and loved kids who are rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Arabic, Christian, atheist, Jewish, Hindu, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, extroverted, introverted, funny, serious,…

It’s not hard to love someone – anyone – once you have heard his or her story.  But you’ve got to take the risk of getting close enough to hear their story.  That’s the challenge for me, because I’m prejudiced.  Before I even hear your voice I have made all kinds of assumptions about you.  I have looked at your hair, your clothing, your skin color, and your car. I have seen who you hang out with, what you share on Facebook, and what you retweet on Twitter. I know who you are, I think to myself.  You are ‘that kind’ of person.  I sort you into a clump and make assumptions about you before I have even asked you one question.

Last week I returned to a job that I left about two and a half years ago.  Since I left, my former supervisor, who I loved, had to leave her position for health reasons.  I had had a couple interactions with the woman who took her place, but before I had even worked with her one day, I had decided that since she wasn’t my previous supervisor she would be not as amazing, not as on top of things. I pre-judged her.  The other day, for the last hour of a two-day-long training, the new supervisor partnered with me for some role-playing activities, and I got my first up-close glance at her personality and heard the first few lines of her story.  My prejudices were confirmed but they were also dashed – She isn’t, actually, exactly like my previous supervisor; rather, she has her own unique personality and gifts. (Shocking, I know.)  I wasn’t anticipating laughing out loud with my new supervisor as she pretended to be a rather precocious nine-year old to my role of reading instructor, but there we were – giggling like close friends lost in make-believe.

Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness, “People are hard to hate close up.  Move in.” From a distance, even the length of my arm, I can keep you handily sorted into a category – liberal, conservative, educated, ignorant, friend, or foe.  However, if I take the chance to ask you, “what’s your story,” everything can change.  My beliefs can be challenged, my assumptions destroyed, my heart opened.

Years ago I picked up my first Jodi Picoult book; I believe it was My Sister’s Keeper. It’s the story of a girl who was conceived by her parents in the hope that she would be a donor match for her critically ill older sibling.  Gasp!  One glance at that premise and I formed an opinion.  How could they?  What kind of parents….? However, Picoult, I soon learned, is a master at using narrative to bring her readers in close to see issues in their complexity – issues that most of us find ourselves firmly positioned on – euthanasia, gun violence, infidelity, and the like.  She weaves her narratives, often from multiple points of view, to expose these issues as more than dichotomies.  She can move me from my Gasp! How could they? to a Wow! I can’t even imagine what kind of love that is! in 400 pages or less!

Real-life stories are no different from fictional narratives – they are full of complexity and factors that don’t appear on the surface. If I judge someone based on her skin color, clothing, language choices, or friends, I am missing out!  I am missing her story – all the characters and plot twists that have led her to today.  Not only that, I am diminishing her humanity – I am relegating her to a category rather than appreciating her individuality. Most importantly, I am denying the connectedness that she and I share as members of humanity – children of the Creator.

On Sunday (Jan 7, 2018), our pastor, Gabe Kasper, spoke about the necessity for genuine relationships in the church (read or listen to the full-text here).  He said that genuine relationships are characterized by vulnerability, empathy, love, and the willing of good for the other person.  Often we don’t enter into such relationships because 1) we are afraid of getting close to people, and 2) we don’t want to take the time.  However, if we are willing to take the risk to move in just a little closer, to ask others to tell us a little piece of their story, everything — EVERYTHING – can change.  Story has the power to transform us – our understandings, our experience of life, and our relationships. Imagine the impact of a couple hundred people who have chosen to be vulnerable, empathetic, loving, and supportive of one another. Intentionally and consistently. What ripple effect might that have?

Are we willing to, knowing better, do better.  Are we willing to call out our prejudices and stereotypes?  Are we willing to set those aside, move in a little closer, and take the time to hear the stories of people who may not be just like us?

Consider this: Because I am a 51 year old white woman who has been a teacher and a pastor’s wife, you may draw some assumptions about me.  You might be pre-disposed to believe certain things  – that I’m Christian, heterosexual, pro-life, Republican, and financially secure. You might believe that my family is immune from tragedies such as chronic illness, sexual assault, alcoholism, eating disorders, family conflict, depression, or anxiety.  Some of your assumptions may be right; some would certainly be wrong.  How will you know which is which? You will have to lean in and listen to my story.

Some of the things you learn about me might be confusing.  They might challenge you.  You might not agree with me.  You might choose to walk beside me anyway, and in that walking, I might learn some things about you that are confusing and that challenge me.  I picture us taking lots of long walks together, learning about one another and growing together.

I am picturing that if we are willing to take the chance to move in close and learn the stories of those who we might have previously sorted into categories, our assumptions will be destroyed, and we will never be the same again.

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

 

The Sum of the Lesson

In education, when teachers have identified a learning objective, they design instruction in such a way that the student encounters the content in multiple settings using multiple modalities so that the student’s likelihood of achieving mastery is increased. For example, when a child is learning the alphabet, he might see the letters, say the letters, and sing the letters.  He might write the letters with his finger on his desk or in the air before practicing with a pencil on paper.  In life, I have found that the lessons I most need to learn are presented to me across various contexts through various means until I finally throw my hands up and declare, “Ok, Ok, I see what’s happening here!”  At that point, I typically sit down and write about these observations so that 1) I can fully process them,  and 2) I can create a public record of my learning in an attempt to hold myself accountable.

Today’s Lesson: Time, Tension, and Technology

Sometime last fall, I discovered that I often felt anxious around bedtime.  I would lie down and begin to have restless thoughts about stuff that hadn’t crossed my mind during the day or even during the past several months or years.  I’d begin to wonder if I had been a good enough mother — if I had made enough home-cooked meals, had enough candid conversations, or provided my kids with the lessons and assurances that breed confidence and independence.  Then I’d move on to wondering whether I’d been a good enough wife, friend, sister, daughter, teacher, etc.  I would fuss and stew over conversations and decisions that had taken place years ago, coming to no peace, of course, but rather escalating my anxiety further.  I wouldn’t say I ever had a full-fledged anxiety attack, but these anxious thoughts were keeping me awake at night.

About this same time, I started seeing studies and reports about the increase in anxiety among teens, children, and young adults and some researchers’ theories that such anxiety was tied to the amount of time that kids spend on social media now that practically everyone always has a Smartphone in his or her hand. I got to thinking — I have a Smartphone in my hand most of the time, too.  In fact, I often play Words With Friends, scroll through Facebook, read my Twitter feed, and check emails right up until bedtime.  What if I took a break from that habit to see what impact it has on my bedtime anxiety?

To answer that question,  I began to conduct some rather informal research of my own — a private and inconsistent case study.  It didn’t take long for me to come to the conclusion that I feel less anxious when I don’t use my phone right up until bedtime.  I know, I know, this is a mind-blowing discovery.

In the midst of my ‘study’, I kept finding myself encountering content reinforcing my conclusion.  I heard a podcast that, among other topics, talked about the need for boundaries in the use of technology.  I had a conversation with my therapist about technology addiction. A friend shared a YouTube video about the impact of devices on our sense of peace. I read articles.  I examined my life. I was convicted.

However, although I realized the benefit of using my phone less, I routinely fell back into old habits. And I’ve continued to have anxious thoughts.

One thread of anxiety I have been experiencing is related to growing older. At 51 I am hardly old, but I’ve begun to have thoughts (late at night when most unsettling thoughts plague me) that I’ve already lived more than half of my life, that my body will never again be as fit and agile as it once was, that other people must look at me, seeing my gray hair and aging body, and think thoughts about me that I probably thought about people older than me when I was much younger.  I’ve begun to think about what I want to do with “the rest of my career” and to discuss retirement options with my husband.  For some reason the thought that time is running out and the realization that life actually comes to an end sometimes pop up even when it is not my bedtime.

Ironically enough, one thing I do sometimes to ‘quiet’ the anxious thoughts is to get out my phone, play a game, check social media sites, and respond to emails.  It’s a Catch-22.

For Christmas, one of my children got me a book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman.  The other night before bed, I lay down and opened to the first tale. Reading stories has always been  a calming way for me to end the day.  Much of what I read at bedtime is what I call “candy bar fiction” —  stuff I can consume and forget about.  The goal of such reading is not to get deep; it’s to fall asleep.  To that end, I opened the book and began to read the two-page tale “Sum”.  The tale suggests that when we die we relive all of our life experiences but that they are re-arranged so that similar events are clumped together.  “You spend two months driving the street in front of your house,” it says, and “six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line.”  As I read, I started thinking, If this really happened, how much time would I spend scrolling through Facebook, playing Words With Friends, having a cup of tea with my husband, reading good books, appreciating the sunshine?  

It wasn’t a particularly good story to read for falling asleep, but it was an excellent concluding activity to nail home this learning objective, which is not that all technology is evil or that I (we) should shun all forms of social media but rather that if my (our) days and minutes are numbered, I want to consider my choices wisely.  I am still going to check social media and play Words With Friends, but I am also going to be intentional about turning off my phone at day’s end, I’m going to engage with the people in the room, I’m going to have a cup of tea with my husband, I’m going to read good books, and I’m going to appreciate the sunshine.

 

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12 NIV*

 

*I finished writing this blog and went to find the address for this very verse on Biblegateway.  To my surprise, it is the verse of the day.  Perhaps this lesson, too, will be ongoing.

 

 

 

For Us

A friend of mine is writing a book, and he asked me if I would read a couple of chapters. Actually, two weeks ago, ‘friend’ might have been assuming too much on my part.  I knew this guy from church and from around the university, but other than a few standing-around-after-church conversations, we hadn’t spoken much.  However, in one of those conversations, he mentioned a book that he is writing.  He said he’d been giving chunks to people to read, and I casually said that I’d be willing to take a look.

Not long after that I found a stack of papers on my desk with a note on top that said, “Please call me before you take a look at this.”  Last Monday, the day before the first day of fall classes, I called.  We chatted about his goals in writing  and his purpose for my reading. The whole conversation lasted maybe fifteen minutes before I said, “You know, God’s timing is very interesting.  I think this is a book I need to look at as I face yet another transition in my life.” He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If you are getting ready to step into something big, you’ve got to settle in your mind that God is for you.  Obstacles are going to pop up and you need to see them as God preparing you, strengthening you, using those very obstacles in your favor. You have got to believe that Romans 8:28 is true; God will work all things together for good.”

Well, I hadn’t anticipated the conversation going there.  I heard those words as though they had been the main intention of the call, even though they were an impromptu 90-second add-on.

The rest of that day was a blur of activity —  helping my daughter prepare to go back to college and preparing myself for the first day of class.  The next morning I woke up early, checked and double-checked my schedule, my bag, my clothes, my hair.  I ate my standard bowl of oatmeal and prepared my cup of green tea, my cup of black tea, and a tumbler of water.  My daughter snapped my ‘first day of school’ pic which I quickly uploaded to Facebook and Instagram, and then, realizing that I had better get going if I wanted to rearrange the classroom into a circle before the students arrived, I tucked my Macbook, my notebooks, and my water tumbler into my school bag and grabbed both cups of tea because I hadn’t had time to drink either yet.

Yeah, that was a juncture.  You can see it coming, can’t you?

I mean, why? Why do I have to take all those drinks to a 75-minute class.  I end up drinking my tea at room temp most days anyway.  Why not take one cup of tea in one hand and one tumbler of water in the other hand? Two drinks is plenty.

Nope.  I had to have all three.

I  walked to class, set my bag down, placed all three cups on the teacher’s stand, and rearranged the classroom.  As the students filed in, I grabbed my Macbook and noticed that a few drops of water were on its cover.  I wiped them off casually as I opened it up. As it came to life, I also noticed that a few drops were on the keyboard and on the screen.  A little frantically, I wiped those away as I looked around the classroom and noted the students filling the seats.  I clicked a couple keys to pull up attendance and noticed that my MacBook was not responding. I panicked a little, then set it aside; I had student relationships to establish and a lesson plan to complete.  The laptop would wait, but guys, I knew it was dead.

As I moved through my day — that first class, chapel, online chatting with Apple, a trip to a local computer store — I kept hearing my friend’s words in my head.  You have got to settle in your mind that God is for you. Did I believe that?  Did I believe that God could be for me even when I made a very careless mistake? Could He be working even my mistakes together for my good?

Well, apparently I was intended to get this lesson settled because also during the same week, I lost a notebook that I was using as a model with my composition students, the lenses on my glasses became ‘crazed’, we lost both of the keys to our house, and let’s not forget that I am still dealing with compromised health and the stress of observing two adult children move out of our place and go back to school.

Of course you know that if I am willing to write about all of this, a few of the issues have been resolved — I have filed an insurance claim and my MacBook has been sent off for repairs, the university has given me a loaner to bridge the gap, the optical shop has ordered replacement lenses because mine were still under warranty, a student found my notebook in an adjacent classroom, and the keys? Well, the keys are still missing.  We’re working on that.

But more importantly, I finished reading the chapters my friend had given me to read, and we agreed to meet to discuss them.  I gave him my feedback on content and, less importantly, mechanical issues, and then I told him the story I just told you.  I said that even when I was yelling, crying, and fighting my way through all these setbacks, I wasn’t without hope, because I kept hearing him say, You have got to settle in your mind that God is for you. I kept reciting Romans 8:28.

He smiled and nodded as I told him everything that had happened, and he said something like this, “God is strengthening you because He is getting ready to use you. As you managed all these difficulties, He was building your stamina, getting you ready for what is coming next.”

He doesn’t know me.  He doesn’t know that for years I have told students that “God is always preparing us for what is coming next.”  He doesn’t know that I have been kind of beaten down lately — grieving a bit, wallowing a bit.  He doesn’t know that I needed a dramatic reminder that God is still God and that even in the midst of my failures He is for me.

But God knew.

It still blows my mind. Every time.

I’ve got a new friend, guys, and a fresh perspective.

God is for us.

Romans 8:26-28, The Message

26-28 Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

Driving Lessons

Early in my driving career, I didn’t pay much attention to the rear-view mirror.

It’s not because my driver’s education teacher, Mr. Horn, (Yes, seriously.) didn’t teach me to use it, or remind me to use it.  It’s not my stepfather’s fault either (bless his heart for taking me out driving in his meticulously-kept Caprice Classic).  Both Mr. Horn and my stepfather emphasized the need to adjust the mirrors so that I could glance at them from time to time to make sure I wouldn’t run into anything.

It’s not their fault.  They taught me the value and necessity of using the rear-view mirrors, but I was all about the forward motion.  I wanted to get on the road and make progress toward my goal  — friends’ homes, work, school, dates, etc.  I had places to be that were in front of me; I didn’t have a lot of time to look back.

The problem is that those mirrors are there for a reason.  Just ask my friend’s dad — he no longer has a tree next to his driveway.  I wasn’t paying attention to what was behind me; I was looking at my friend,  saying goodbye as I got on the road to the next destination.  I also hit my share of mailboxes. And once, forgetting that we had purchased a second car, I backed the first car out of the garage right into the new-to-us vehicle that was parked behind it. (Insert eye-roll here.)

Through trial and mostly error, I have learned the value of the rear-view mirror.

Lately I have been looking into it quite a bit.  In fact, I have been looking back so much that it has been hard to keep my focus on what’s ahead of me.

Here’s the thing — when you put the car in park, and you are no longer moving forward, you take a few minutes to pick up the crap that fell on the floor, you check the visor mirror to see if you have anything in your teeth, and then, if you sit there long enough, you start thinking about all the places you’ve been.  And I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot more time thinking about missed turns and fender benders than I do about grand voyages and thrill rides.  You know what I’m saying?

Now, so that I don’t forget the value of sitting with it, I must point out here that it is good to look back at the traffic violations, detours, and collisions.  After all, beside the inherent value in grieving losses, we can also learn our best lessons from the mistakes that have cost us dearly.  However, we must not stay stuck back there on the side of the road weeping over the loss of property or, God forbid, life.  We must grieve, yes, but we must also be brave enough to get back in the driver’s seat, buckle up, set a direction, and put a foot on the gas.

Have you had enough of my extended metaphor? How about just one more thought.

The best drivers, I’ve heard, find a way to balance their determination to get to the next stop with a sustained consciousness of their surroundings and a sober realization of what is behind.

I look forward to being a better driver.

 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory..

2 Corinthians 3:18

 

 

 

 

You’d be amazed

You’d be amazed to know what happens when you sit down, shut up, and pay attention.

You notice things.  You finish writing a confessional blog about sitting with your grief, walk a few steps to your bed, lie down, open the book you have been reading on and off for over six months, and the very next words that you read are these:

Maybe grieving over plans changed is part of the plan to change us.*

Then, after sleeping for just a few hours, you hop in your car and turn on a podcast** to hear two women discussing shame and vulnerability.  You’re stunned because as they share their failures,  you feel somehow drawn into the discussion like you’re a member of the sisterhood of the fallen.

As the podcast finishes, you arrive at a restaurant to meet a  woman for lunch — someone you’ve never met before — she offhandedly mentions her struggle with autoimmune disease,  and before you know it, you’re choking out something like, “It’s so frustrating because I like to be a positive fun person, but right now, I don’t feel like that person.”

Then, a couple hours later, in a session with your therapist, you hear yourself recounting the most mortifying moments of your week when your child brought her friend to your house ahead of schedule to ‘surprise you’ and you made them leave so that you could finish cleaning and you weren’t joking. When the therapist says, “so we’re going to work on your need to be in control and your ability to be kind to yourself,” you sit in stunned amazement that 1) you actually confessed the story out loud and, 2) she gets you and this is only the second time you’ve spoken to her.

You leave your session, drive through Starbucks to buy a tall lemonade before picking up your four-year-old great nephew and taking him home for dinner.  After dinner you chat about serious things like whether or not a four-year-old can actually run faster than a race car, then hear your nephew, the four-year-old’s daddy, say “you are such a blessing to us” as he walks you to your car.

You drive home, wiping tears off your cheeks because you are overwhelmed at the richness of the day, walk into your house, plop down on a chair next to your husband, and try to give him some snippets that can somehow convey the way God spoke to you all day long, but you are so exhausted from the last twenty-four hours that you can barely make coherent sentences.

After a total knock-out sleep, you wake up and eat a bowl of oatmeal on the way to your physical therapy appointment. Then, the angel who is your therapist places her hands directly on the exact spots that have been screaming for attention.  She just barely touches you, but the warmth and intention radiating from her hands moves from your skin through your joints and directly into your heart.

It’s several hours later, after you have baked banana bread, prepared chicken curry, drank tea with a friend, choked up at the opening chapel service on your school’s campus, talked with three out of four of your children, made major financial decisions with your husband, cried over a minor miracle, started crocheting a new afghan, and laughed at the Weekend Update, when you realize that for the last two days God has been placing His hands directly on the exact spots that have been screaming for attention.  He has just barely touched them, but the warmth and intention radiating from His hands has moved directly into your heart.

That’s what happens when you sit down, shut up, and pay attention.

I think I might try sitting with this a little longer.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Matthew 5:4

*Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way.

** Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love, “Episode 2: Brenae Brown”