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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Becoming Well(-er)

Five years ago, I was getting ready to transition away from a job I loved and a beautiful home in a community that had forever re-shaped us. One of several reasons for all of this change was my health. I had been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis after a series of symptoms — extreme fatigue, skin outbreaks, and joint pain — had led me to a rheumatologist. I was depleted. I could no longer sustain the demands of teaching and staff development, let alone maintain our home or do any level of caring for our family. Something had to change.

I began this blog in the midst of that transition because I needed a space to process all that was happening. Our oldest son and his wife were expecting our first grandchild. Our oldest daughter was graduating from college and moving across the country. Our younger son was in the military, and our youngest daughter was heading off to college. My husband was in a new position, and I was just going to focus on getting well for a while. While everyone else was moving, I was going to be still. (You can find the very first post from this blog here.)

A lot has changed since that first blog post. My husband and I were talking yesterday and it became clear that I don’t always articulate the changes that have happened inside of me — partly because they have happened slowly over the last five years and partly because I talked and wrote about my physical health so much in the first few years of my blog that I’m kind of over it. Certainly every one is sick and tired of hearing about me being sick and tired!

But here’s the thing, I’m not as sick and tired as I was five years ago. So perhaps it’s time to explore that reality. Maybe putting words to the ways that God has provided for my recovery will be an encouragement to me and to you. Shall we see?

First of all, I no longer have the psoriatic arthritis diagnosis. Bam! It’s gone. I used to be angry about this. When the doctor told me that I did not have psoriatic arthritis, I felt dismissed. Certainly I still had pain, and psoriasis, and fatigue, and the HLA-B27 genetic marker often associated with certain autoimmune diseases. And I had also had two rounds of scleritis, an autoimmune affliction of the eye. I thought the doctors’ removal of my diagnosis was a denial of my symptoms. However, over time, I have come to feel emancipated. I don’t have psoriatic arthritis, so, in some ways, my symptoms feel less permanent, less limiting; I feel hopeful for improvement.

Second of all, I am no longer taking medications to treat pain or inflammation. In fact, other than a daily pill to inhibit the growth of herpes in my eyes (a result of some of the psoriatic arthritis treatments), I take only supplements — Vitamins B, C, and D, fish oil, and magnesium. Occasionally, I have to take some ibuprofen if I’m having a particularly difficult day, but mostly I am able to manage pain with movement, ice, epsom salt baths, and (a surprise to me!) peppermint essential oil. This is also quite liberating. In addition to the side effects from taking daily medication, I also experienced the feeling that I was some kind of invalid, particularly when I was injecting myself when Enbrel or Humira or Cosentyx. And since none of these drugs really benefitted my physical symptoms, I was actually getting an overall negative impact. Eliminating each of them, over time and with doctors’ supervision, was further removal of that permanent diagnosis.

Next, I have been blessed by a fabulous team. I first wrote about them here. I have found that the best way to improve my health is to regularly attend to it, so I see a specialized physical therapist twice a month, a chiropractor once or twice a month, and I recently added monthly visits to a structural medicine practitioner who specializes in Hellerwork. This regimen, along with my daily practice of yoga have worked together to strengthen, care for, and realign my body in ways that decrease my pain and increase my ability to participate in my daily life. I feel stronger, more flexible, and more capable. Imagine my joy last summer when I was able to have a daily plank challenge with my students — me, the oldest member of our staff, on the floor in full plank with a room full of elementary school boys.

Do you hear it? The sound of healing and hope? I do! That alone is worth writing about. The mental shift from “I have a chronic illness,” to “I am getting stronger,” can not be overstated. I have written often about how this “illness” has actually been a blessing for me. It gave me a reason to slow down, take stock, and re-configure my life in a way that supports physical, emotional, and spiritual health. And that process — that slowing, that experimenting, that shifting — has allowed for miraculous transformation in my thinking.

Do I still have pain? Yes. I have persistent pain, predominantly in my right sacroiliac joint and low back; the intensity of this pain varies depending on activity — how much I sit, stand, move, stretch– and how often I receive proactive treatment. (In addition to the work my team and I do, I occasionally get a steroid injection in that joint to reduce inflammation.) Do I still have fatigue? Yup. However, I’ve been amazed that since last summer I have been working 35-40 hours every week. Although this is do-able, it does limit my ability to interact with friends and family. (I need to sleep anywhere from 8 hours on a typical night to 12 hours when I’m really wiped out.) Optimally, I would like to work 30-35 hour weeks so that I can still have the energy to go for a walk and have dinner with my husband, develop friendships, and travel to see family frequently. Do I still have psoriasis? Very limited. I call my psoriasis my “barometer”. If I am doing too much, the palm of my right hand becomes inflamed — that’s my first signal that I need to slow down and attend to self-care. If I ignore it, I get more outbreaks, but even then, they are much easier to manage than they were five years ago. Do I still have issues with my eyes? Yes. Like my psoriasis, my left eye will become inflamed if I am overdoing it. I have learned to take that signal and slow down to provide extra care. In this way, I have avoided major issues.

Do you see it? Do you see how God has used these signals to transform my life? Probably more than any other topic in this blog, I have written about my soldiering ways. I was really good for a really long time at doing whatever needed to be done. I was constantly in motion — driving, teaching, cleaning, shopping, directing, running. I thought I was getting it right, but I was getting it all wrong. I was missing all the critical moments — the seeing, the listening, the caring, the holding. So rather than letting me continue in that fashion, God slowed me down. First, He sat me flat on my butt and got my attention. He has since re-instructed me in how to live a healthy life. And, because He knows that I am bent on going right back to my old ways, He allows a few signals to remain — to remind me, “Hey, Kristin, you’re doing it again.”

That’s how much He loves me, guys. He created a plan just for me to specifically address my particular learning needs.

I remember the flood of emotion back when I got my initial diagnosis — anger, sadness, helplessness. Now? I am so thankful for this journey. I am forever changed by my experience. I would no longer say that I am ‘sick’, but that I am becoming more well every day.

I know that my story is not the same as everyone’s story. Some people experience chronic illness very differently than I do; some people suffer terribly. And certainly, my route to healing is just that — my route. However, I pray that you, too, may experience whatever kind of healing you most need and that you would be aware of how God demonstrates his deep love uniquely for you. Your journey may not look like mine, but I am confident of this: like me, you are being carried in the palm of His hand.

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

Hey, Thanks

A year ago, my husband and I were at the beginning of a season of difficulty. We were experiencing impact from past trauma which was affecting our emotions, our health, our faith, and our finances. Each day, it seemed, revealed new levels of despair, and we felt powerless. So what did we do?

Well, we cried a lot. We sought counsel — pastoral and professional. We prayed — “in groans that words cannot express.” We enlisted a trusted group of prayer warriors — confidants in arms. We made tough decisions. And we watched hours and hours of The Great British Baking Show — no joke, that show was one of the best choices we made last year. So much pleasantry and punniness — you can’t not feel lighter after having watched it.

And yet no quick rescue came.

Instead, month after month we continued — in counsel, in prayer, in judicious adherence to the decisions we had made, and in periodic detachment from reality by way of Brits engaged in a battle of the bake.

And slowly, over time, we began to experience restoration.

I’m reflecting because some friends invited me away this past weekend to engage in some restorative practices. It seems we’re all always walking in brokenness, and sometimes a pause can allow for healing.

We ate great food and talked and laughed. We did yoga together. And then one friend pulled out presentation boards and a pile of magazines, scissors, glue, and markers — she had provided a project. Our goals were broad — to find words and images that could express who we are, where we have come from, or where we are hoping to go.

We sat at a large oval table in front of a window overlooking a frozen lake, quietly flipping through pages, clipping out words and images, and arranging and re-arranging them on our boards. Pandora was playing Lauren Daigle and Corey Asbury, and voices could be heard humming or singing along. We occasionally commented on what we were doing, but mostly we were focused and quiet.

After we had each gathered a pile of clippings, we began the process of arranging them on our boards.

the process

As I experimented with layering images, I discovered themes emerging. I began reflecting on the past year and how our difficulty had led to so. much. healing. One section of my board captures my continued physical healing with images of tea and yoga and aromatic flowers and fruits. Another reflects on the transformation of my spiritual life — praying hands, a solitary walk, and ‘searching the scriptures’. A roll of dollar bills sits on a plate near the words “Reset your expectations” and “God Provides” signifying financial healing.

I was surprised by the number of flowers on my board, particularly after such a long year of grief wherein I cared little about what I wore or how my hair looked, let alone the adornment of jewelry or flowers. But as each bloom grabbed my eye — roses, wildflowers, hibiscus, and lilacs — I tore and clipped. I lavished my board with flowers. I couldn’t seem to get enough, because, guys, I’m not mourning any more. I’m celebrating. I’m thankful.

As I arranged words and images on my board, I was overwhelmed with thanks — for physical healing over the last several years, for spiritual healing in the past several months, and for newly discovered financial healing.

I heard Pastor Brian Wolfmueller say recently that when we give thanks, we “shift our view from doing to reviewing.” That’s what this process of clipping and arranging was for me — an exercise in reviewing.

A long Margaret Townsend quote about the importance of breath sits in the lower right corner near a box of tissues, a hand, and a photo of my husband and me taken at the height of last year’s difficulty. We’re smiling in the photo, but I can assure you that tissues were not far away. I am thankful for this photo because it shows that despite the fact that we were desperate for most of last year, we were committed to being desperate together. In the midst of trauma, our marriage bond was strengthened. We learned the importance of breathing through difficult situations and sitting in them together. One of the reasons that we were able to grow through these very difficult circumstances was the support of loving friends who continually made their presence known in very tangible but unobtrusive ways. They were compassionate rather than judgmental. They loved us when we were hurting.

And I guess that leads me to the last set of images. Our story of unspoken broken is centered in a city. Most of our trauma happened there, so you would think we would want to run from all things urban, but the opposite is true. Although we are safely nestled in a little house on an idyllic little campus, in a cushioned community, our hearts continue to lean toward the city.

Just before Christmas, we traveled to Detroit. We hopped off the highway to get a view of the neighborhoods — to see the brokenness and abandonment and to witness the opportunity for transformation. As I was paging through magazines this weekend, I found images of Detroit and I couldn’t turn past them. We love our life in Ann Arbor — our church, our friends, our jobs. We have experienced so much healing here and are so thankful for all the opportunities we have been given. I don’t know why I was drawn to this photo, but I put the city in the center of my board. It seems to belong there.

finished product

When we were all finished creating, we each retreated to privacy — to soak in a tub, or nap, or write — and then we gathered again. As one-by-one we shared our boards and what we had discovered, I was reminded of one more thing to be thankful for — the community that surrounds me, supports me, weeps with me, and celebrates with me.

I am so, so, thankful. And the words of Pastor Wolfmueller remind me that I can sit here and be thankful to the One who is making all things new. I can review the blessings for a bit. I can focus on what what’s next some other day.

 I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.

Psalm 9:1

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

 

Making it happen, for 28 years and counting

Yesterday, when a friend heard that today was our twenty-eighth wedding anniversary, she said, “Sometime we’ll have to talk about how you made that happen…”

Yeah, so, that’s not exactly how I would characterize the last three decades.

I didn’t make anything happen.  I’ve made numerous mistakes, swift judgments, and poor choices.  I started off strong — making the assumption that I knew how to be the best wife and mother there ever was, and so I’ve spent the last twenty-eight years learning humility. I’m not an expert at communicating, loving, being patient, or putting someone else first.  The fact that we’re celebrating twenty-eight years of marriage today is not a reflection of our success, but a testimony to the grace and steadfastness of God.

We got married in our mid-twenties both of us having been touched by divorce. We had little in our savings, and I was still paying off student debt.  During the first year, we lived at three different addresses  — moving once when my job location changed and again when our son moved across the state.  We changed jobs, too!  My husband left teaching to be a full-time graduate student, and I switched from being a classroom teacher to a resource room teacher to a teacher in a residential school all before our first anniversary!

The stress of that first year alone might have done us in, but we were starry-eyed and convinced that we had won the lottery, and we were going to have the best life ever, even if we did have moments where insecurities led to worry that lead to yelling or tears or silence.

Because we did (and do) have those.

I remember one time, it had to be in the first month (or even week) of our marriage. Who even knew what started the squabble, but there we were in the kitchen, standing like two giant X’s, arms and legs splayed, chests out, voices raised, fingers pointing, spouting the kind of words we had never said toward one another before. It was terrifying — ours was to be the perfect marriage — how could this happen? Doors were slammed; we fell to silence.  And then we began to learn how to repair.

Undaunted, on the heels of that first year, before John had even finished his counseling internship and secured a salaried position, we decided that we’d like to start our family.  Before our second anniversary, we’d moved again, he’d begun an internship, and we were expecting a baby!

Shortly after our third anniversary, he was settled into a position on a church staff, we had purchased our first home, and we were expecting another baby!

By our fifth anniversary, our youngest was on the way!

It was the season of babies. We were elbow deep in diapers, blankies, and sippy cups. My husband, on a church staff, worked long hours while I navigated days of feeding, reading, playing, and rocking. It was such a rich time what with all the cooing and snuggling, but the pure physicality of it all was exhausting.  I was daily relieved when John joined me in the second-shift — the bathing, rough-housing, and putting to bed. We had established a partnership — he picked up where I left off and vice versa, but it wasn’t all hearts and flowers. Sometimes, utterly exhausted, I glared at him for arriving home five minutes late or for forgetting to pick up milk on the way home. Often, when he saw me hanging on by a frazzled thread, he pushed me out the door to catch a breath, take a break, or sit in silence. He’s always been quick to care for me — to see my needs often before I know I have them.

Throughout the years, we’ve shifted roles many times as we navigated five more moves, two more graduate degrees, various stages of parenting, and numerous professional positions. Recently, we’ve found the most cherished roles of our lives as Oma and Opa to our two precious granddaughters!

We’ve walked many roads together.  We’ve attended weddings; we’ve been eye-witnesses to divorce.  We’ve visited hospitals to welcome new born babies; we’ve been in the room for the last breath of life.  We’ve been in conference rooms and court rooms.  We’ve been in churches and synagogues.  We’ve been to Austin, Boston, Chicago, and Detroit. We’ve even been to Canada, Africa, Israel, and Haiti! We’ve heard the best news and the worst news — all of this,  together.

After twenty-eight years we’re still happy to sit across the table with one another and talk for hours or to share the couch as we watch a whole Netflix series in a weekend.  We can power clean our little house together in a just over an hour or spend an entire day cleaning out one storage closet. We are comfortable talking and laughing while surrounded by friends and coworkers or simply drinking tea on our patio in the quiet of the morning, each reading our own book and saying absolutely nothing.

How did we make that happen?  How did we live through more than 10,000 days of groceries and schedules and arguments and chaos and laundry and car repairs and taxes and track meets and homework and work functions and insurance claims and health challenges and road trips and still want to spend the next twenty-eight years together?

We didn’t make that happen.  None of our choices made that happen. Except one, maybe.  We decided, way back in 1989, that if we got married, we would stay married.  We would make our marriage vows to God, and He, we trusted, would make it happen.  Though we were young and ill-equipped, we knew already that if we were going to have a life-long marriage, God would have to carry us in the palm of His hand.

And He has.

Isaiah 46:4

Even to your old age and gray hairs I am He,

I am He who will sustain you.

I have made you and I will carry you;

I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

Time Trial

You knew it was coming.  You read some blah, blah, blah I wrote about working 20-30 hours a week, and you rolled your eyes and thought to yourself, “Yeah, that’ll last.”

You think you know me?

Ok, fine.  I’m pretty predictable.

I was a few months into my current position when my supervisor asked me if I would be interested in doing a little more training to become a mentor to other instructors — newly hired clinicians who, by design, receive scheduled coaching. Well, yeah. I’d like to do that. I mean, 1) I’ll take any training you will give me. I love to learn;  2) I love observing  other professionals. It sharpens me as much as it sharpens them. So, bam, I became a mentor.

I was getting used to that position when I was approached again: would I be interested in being an instructional pacer. I’d have to get a bit more training regarding standardized tests and analyzing student scores. I’d also have to see how our instructional practices target the specific learning needs of each of our students. In other words, I’d have to understand the why and how of instruction.  Was I in? Definitely.

I was willing to step into these positions knowing that I would be called upon to work more than the hours I initially agreed to because although I’ve struggled with my health for six years now, I have been feeling fine since I started this job. Maybe it’s the fact that I had a series of steroid injections in my S/I joint in January (about the time I hired in), and my pain has been greatly decreased. Maybe it’s the consistency of the schedule — my work day never falls outside of standard 8-5 hours. Maybe it’s the positivity of the work environment — we clap, hooray, and celebrate all day long. Maybe it’s a combination of all these factors that have made this position a good fit for this time.

Whatever it is, I have decided that I’m willing to try full-time employment for the summer.  I’ll give it a shot and see how it works. If you’ve read my blog for any amount of time, you realize that I’m willing to experiment a little — I’ve followed an ultra simple diet, I’ve tried multiple medications, and I’ve worked a variety of jobs.  Each of these experiments has taught me something about myself and the ways that my body and mind function best. I’ve learned that my body prefers tea over coffee, that my skin breaks out almost immediately if I eat corn (even my much-loved popcorn!), that pharmaceuticals aren’t the best option for my super sensitive body chemistry, and that I work best in positions that provide boundaries that I wouldn’t normally observe on my own.

Let me tell you a little more about that.  Instruction at Lindamood-Bell is broken into hourly segments. Most of our students come in for four hours a day.  Each hour they receive 55 minutes of instruction followed by a five-minute break. The instruction — 55 minutes of highly focused cognitive work — is tiring. Our students work hard, and so do our clinicians! Because of this, everyone stops once an hour to take a break, get a snack, go for a walk, use the bathroom, play a game, juggle, laugh, or otherwise rest from the intense work of instruction. Likewise, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, everyone stops for a fifteen-minute break. Often during these longer breaks, we celebrate student accomplishments, have a group treat like ice cream, or engage in group play like the center-wide nerf gun war we had recently. Everyone works hard; everyone takes breaks. It is required.

This is not a rhythm I fall into on my own, but I’m learning from it.

This very healthy rhythm of work and rest is further emphasized by the expectation that employees are only to work while on the clock. For the first time in decades, I punch a clock before I meet with a student, answer a question, or even reply to an email! Last weekend, while on a short vacation with my husband, I logged into my work email and quickly replied to a question.  Not long after that, my supervisor emailed me and said, “Thank you for the response, now STOP CHECKING YOUR WORK EMAIL WHILE YOU ARE ON VACATION!”  I chuckled to myself,  logged out, and walked down to the beach. This position requires that I work while I’m at work and rest when I’m not. That’s a good rhythm for me, too.

The boundaries of my work environment make it a healthy place for me to work, and so does the climate. Because most of our students have experienced multiple educational roadblocks and frustrations, it is critical that we provide a positive climate. All day long we praise, give rewards, and slap high fives. Each time a student responds to a question, he receives a “good job” or a “great try”. If she masters something that has been tricky, bells ring and the whole center applauds. Instructors get celebrated, too!  If one staff member sees another staff member do something great, he writes it down, points it out, and gives recognition.  All day long, we work hard to create a culture that celebrates individual effort and achievement. We smile, we laugh, and we cheer.

This, too, is not natural for me.  I tend to analyze, criticize, and strategize. These skills have been necessary and useful in a variety of positions I’ve held, but they don’t necessarily build a positive culture. Rather, in isolation, they support a climate of striving and perfectionism. Anyone who’s lived in such a culture knows how stressful that can be. What I’ve learned though, is that I can quickly adapt to a culture of positivity, support, and celebration. In fact, just like many students who have struggled in other learning environments, I thrive here. I am even finding that my skills of analysis, critical thinking, and strategizing are welcome, as long as they are tempered by compassion. And, I’m remembering that compassion comes naturally to me, too.

Yes; this position seems to be a good fit for me, but will I be able to sustain these good feelings while working 8 to 5, Monday through Friday?  I’m not sure, but I hope so. It seems that I’m learning at least as much as my students are.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and establish the work of our hands

Psalm 90:17

One mediocre blog post

I had three goals for today: 1) blogging, 2) planting my garden, and 3) cleaning up paperwork on my desk. My husband was leaving early in the morning, and I would be home alone all day; certainly I could accomplish these three tasks.

We fell asleep early last night, watching an episode of The Great British Bake-Off, so both of us were awake by six this morning.  My husband suggested we take the dog on a short walk before he headed out.  I agreed; certainly morning exercise would set me up for success. We stripped the bed, tossed the sheets into the washer, and headed out the door.

When we returned from our walk, I picked some rhubarb and then tidied the kitchen while he packed his bag. Since I was in the kitchen, I figured I might as well wash the tea cups and saucers that my mother-in-law had sent home with me yesterday, and since my husband had a drive ahead of him, I decided to make us a hearty but simple breakfast — sautéed summer squash, onions, and potatoes with a couple of fried eggs.

We ate our breakfast and then he loaded the car while I cleared the table and moved the laundry into the dryer. He kissed me goodbye, and I headed to my desk. I sent a few emails, moved a few papers around, and attempted to write a blog post.  I sat at the keys for a few minutes with not one thought in my mind except, “actually, it’s going to get hot today; maybe I should start with the garden.”

Before I knew it, I was pulling weeds, turning dirt, and discovering volunteer tomato plants sprouting from the remains of last year’s crop. I worked on the garden for about an hour before the heat became so oppressive that my thoughts turned to the watermelon in the fridge.  Maybe, I thought, if I eat some watermelon while reading Learning to Walk in the Dark, I’ll be inspired to write something.

As I read a chapter and enjoyed the cool melon, Barbara Brown Taylor’s words definitely inspired me to write something, so when I got to the end of the chapter, I moved again to my desk. I pushed a few more papers around and opened a fresh document on my laptop.  Again, I sat staring at the blank screen.  Nothing.

Maybe music would help.  I turned on Pandora and listened to David Crowder while I dusted my bedroom. I grabbed the vacuum and was midway through cleaning the entire house when I decided to go back outside and push a little more dirt around. I still hadn’t planted any seeds, but the garden, which had been overrun with weeds this morning was starting to look a little more intentional.  I got hot again — it passed 90 degrees in Michigan today — so I brought the dog outside and gave him a bath.

I talked to my dad on the phone while I did food prep for the week, then I talked to my daughter while I folded laundry.  By this point, I had pretty much concluded that I wasn’t going to be able to write today. That’s been happening a lot lately.  I’ve been having difficulty reading, too.  I can’t quite keep my focus. So, instead of going back to my desk, I ate a late lunch/early dinner then popped in my earbuds to listen to a podcast as I headed back out for a third go at the garden.

My podcast, On Being, was an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, who among myriad other topics, talked about writing — how it can be magical, like a meeting with the Divine. Sometimes a writer sits down and words fall on the page as though directly dictated from the mouth of God. Those times are sweet. However, she reminded me, “90% of almost everything interesting is pretty boring.”  Most of the time, writing is discipline, committing to sit down and put words on the page. Good words, mediocre words, and as Anne Lamott says, a lot of “shitty first drafts.”  I let the thoughts sink in as I built dirt mounds and poked holes for cantaloupe seeds. Then, I sprinkled grass seed on a dirt square that was a trial garden a few years ago. She’s right, I thought.  I tell students all the time that magic isn’t guaranteed. If you can’t think of something amazing to say, say anything.

Determined for the umpteenth time today to write,  I came inside, took a shower, and finally began to put some words on the page.

Here they are.  They are nothing to write home about, but they are part of what I set out to do today.  I began my garden, I cleared some paper from my desk, and I blogged. None of it was magical; it was all just mediocre.

A lot of life is like that, to be honest. It’s setting a goal, getting distracted, finding your way back, and doing the best that you can.  I’m ok with that. All of life isn’t meant to be fireworks and celebration.

In fact, I think I’ll go find something ok to watch on television, and then I’ll lie down for an average night’s rest. I’ll just stay with the current theme.

That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—

this is the gift of God

Ecclesiastes 3:13

Trouble Drives the Narrative

Real life stories, just like fictional ones, consist of ups and downs, twists and turns,  successes and failures, joys and disappointments. We expect these rhythms when we read stories of fictional characters and even when we read biographies and autobiographies, but when we are living out our own life stories, sometimes we get trapped in the mistaken belief that life is only good when it is free from trouble. It’s unrealistic, to be sure; honestly, I doubt many of us would even bother to read a fictional story in which everything goes smoothly or in which the main character never faced a challenge. What would be the point?

If when Mayella Ewell accused Tom Robinson of violating her, someone had stepped up and said, “Come on now, you just want to accuse an innocent black man because it’ll make you feel better about yourself,” and Mayella had said, “Oh, you’re right. Sorry about that,” To Kill a Mockingbird would hardly have been worth reading. Harper Lee wouldn’t have had the means by which to make Atticus Finch our hero. We wouldn’t have seen him stand up to prejudice, shoot a rabid dog, or try to explain the harsh realities of life to Jem and Scout — and those are the reasons we love this story! We don’t love the trial of an innocent man, his conviction, or his death — we like the character who endures despite injustice, who doesn’t lose his head, who is able to speak truth into the situation and maintain hope. We don’t love the conflict, we love what the character does in the face of the conflict.

Without conflict a story hardly exists.

In fact, from early grades, we learn that stories have an arc — the exposition in which the writer provides context and sets the stage for the action, the rising action that introduces the conflict, the climax where the outcome of the conflict becomes evident, the falling action during which the loose ends get tied up, and the resolution that enables us to close the book and move on to the next story. The heart of every story is the conflict — the trouble drives the narrative.

The trouble, however, is not the story;  the ways in which the character faces, weathers, endures, or overcomes the trouble — that is the story.  We can get confused about that part, too.

In real life, when conflict is introduced — divorce, crime, illness, addiction — we can be tempted to believe that the story is over — surely if our dreams are dashed we will die. However, any writer knows that the introduction of conflict is the very beginning of the story.

The Wizard of Oz opens with a tornado that lifts Dorothy’s home off its very foundation, hurls it through the air, and lands it in a far away land with an impact that kills an evil witch. Talk about trouble! The story, however, is not about the tornado or the traumatic journey through the air but about Dorothy’s ability to take step after step down the yellow brick road in a quest to find her way back to the people she loves.

The trouble is not the end of the story; it is the beginning.

Each of us has faced trouble.  My close circle of friends could sit sipping coffee and share tales of betrayal, abuse, illness, financial ruin, scandal, and broken relationships.  In fact, as we get to know one another, it is not typically our successes that we share but the troubles that have played out in our lives. Why? Because these times of trouble shape us. Just like Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson revealed his integrity and his ability to keep his cool when an angry mob confronted him in the middle of the night, our experience with trouble exposes our inner grit — that strength that lies dormant inside of us until a moment of crisis requires it to surface. Dorothy would’ve never known that she was capable of standing up to the Wicked Witch of the West if she hadn’t been hurled through the air and found herself in completely foreign territory.

Trouble reveals what we are made of.

In the smooth sailing sections of my life, I have been tempted to think that I know all there is to know.  I have lived with the mistaken belief that I have it all together — that I can handle life all by myself, thank you very much. I’ve even been prone to judge those whose lives are not sailing smoothly — certainly their trouble is the result of some fault of their own.

However, when crisis arrives in my life — and it surely does — I have to admit that I don’t know everything, that I can’t work things out by myself, and that trouble comes in various ways — with or without my help.  And one thing remains certain: times of trouble shape me.

That’s what conflict does.  It allows the character in the story to be transformed — to be dynamic — to be reshaped.  Dorothy arrives back home with a new gratefulness for the people in her life.  Scout, having watched Atticus navigate the trial of Tom Robinson, gains a new compassion for those who have a different experience than she does.  Me, I learn humility and reliance on God.

Trouble brings me to my knees and forces me to admit that I am poor and needy. From this position on the ground, heaving with sobs, I hear a still small voice: Be still. Know that I am God.  I will never leave you or forsake you. My sobbing softens. I remember that I am but dust. I am not exempt from suffering. No crisis has afflicted me that is not common to man. And certainly this trouble is not the end of my story.

I whisper a thank you. I wipe my tears. I push myself up to standing. I remember the words prayed over me many years ago, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”  That is my grit. That is my inner strength that sometimes lies dormant but never fails to surface in times of trial.  The strength of my character is not in my ability to have all the answers but in my realization that I have none of them. That realization keeps my pride at bay and allows me to turn for guidance and strength to the One who knew me before I was born and who has written every page of my story.  He is not surprised by the trouble, but He is using it to re-shape my character.

John 16:33

 In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.