Corn chips, anyone?

Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I ran across a meme that said,

“Is anyone else just going through life like ‘I just gotta get past this last difficult week and then it’s smooth sailing from there!’ but like…every week?”

I chuckled.

I had just been reminiscing about how when we were first married every need we had seemed to cost $5.  We needed $5 for a last minute item from the grocery store to finish dinner for guests who would arrive in half an hour, $5 for the hardware to fix the door that wouldn’t latch quite right, $5 to contribute to the group gift at work.  Each item was just $5, but when we added them all up, the total pressed us.

Later, when our children were small, it shifted to $10.  A package of diapers was about $10, so was the team t-shirt, or enough burgers and fries at McDonald’s to feed three kids and justify their time in the Playland. It seemed we never had enough $10 bills to cover all the items on our list.

Before long, the price of ‘everything’ grew to $20.  Then it was $50, then $100. Each time we had an unexpected expense, we shifted, braced, ponied up, and prayed that if we just “got past this last difficult week” then it would be “smooth sailing.”

Back then ‘crises’ looked different than they look now, too. I remember the time, for instance, when my husband and I returned from a long day at our respective teaching positions, looking forward to the chicken dinner that had been roasting in the crockpot all day, only to find that I hadn’t turned the crockpot ‘on’ and that the chicken was still raw.  I thought the world had ended.  I had wasted “all that food”; certainly I was a failure as a wife.

Or the time when I had planned the menus for a three-day visit from out-of-town guests, budgeted carefully, brought all the groceries home, prepared the first meal, and discovered one of our guests snacking on the corn chips that had been purchased for the next day’s nachos. I dragged my husband into the bedroom and said, “What are we going to do? Now I don’t have everything I need for tomorrow’s meal!”  I was seriously distressed.

Over the years we have certainly weathered much worse that prematurely noshed nacho chips.  We have managed through many ruined meals, illnesses, broken hearts, car accidents, disappointments, and surprises.  And still, I keep hoping that this will be “the last difficult week” before we hit the period of “smooth sailing”.

We have had seasons of smooth sailing. Many. However, I haven’t seemed to grasp that “smooth sailing” isn’t what is promised.  In fact, it is far more likely that we will face “troubles of many kinds”.  The troubles are the given.  The reprieves are the unexpected blessings.  So why do I set myself up to believe the opposite?

I guess I want to believe the best. I am inherently a glass-half-full girl.  Yes, our finances are going to work out.  Of course, our children are going to be healthy.  Surely, we will be successful and well-liked.  Naturally, everyone will agree with us. I choose the path of hopefulness to a fault.

The problem with believing the best will happen in every situation is that I don’t always prepare for any alternative.  I don’t guard myself for the ‘given’ of disappointment.  I don’t store up for the days of famine. I believe that everything is going to run just how I planned. I don’t buy extra ingredients just in case; I buy exactly what I need. So, I’m often found standing, mouth agape, in shock that someone is standing there eating my corn chips.

But here’s the thing — people are going to eat the corn chips.

Now, I do realize that corn chips are not a big deal.  They are hardly even a $5 item. But the $5 items teach us what to do when we are one day faced with a $100 or a $1000 item (or even several of them all in the same week).  I can get pissed that someone ate my corn chips, I can ask them to run to the store and pick up another bag,  or I can simply say, “Oh, I’m glad you felt at home enough to help yourself!”

In trying out different responses to these $5 items, I am building resiliency–muscle–that will sustain me when I am hit with a more substantial crisis — someone I love is hospitalized, or we discover we owe Uncle Sam a lot. Again. Or we lose a loved one, or get a life-altering diagnosis.

We face troubles of many kinds. All of us do. All the time. My troubles seem huge to me right now. So do yours. Our hearts are broken in a million places and we are devastated. We’ve been lied to, cheated on, forgotten, abandoned, mistreated, and deceived.

The corn chips pale in comparison, don’t they?

But the $5 problem and the corn chip crisis have a lot to teach us.  I wish when I came home to the cold chicken in the crock pot my first response would have been, “Ok, God, what’s for dinner now? And what do you want me to learn from this?” Instead, if I remember correctly, I spouted lots of self-deprecating phrases, stormed around the house, probably cried, and ultimately got a pizza. It’s ok. I had a human response. However, I think that ultimately God wants more for me than self-blame, shame, and anger. I believe that in my $5 problems and my $100,000 problems, God longs for me to look to Him.

What if, in every decision, instead of mustering my resolve and believing that I myself will be able to manage every situation, I instead turned, raising my eyes and my hands to God, and admitted that all of it is too much for me?  What if I acknowledged that my pennies and my corn chips all come from God?  How would I experience life differently?  How would I weather crisis and even trauma?

I’m not too old to learn a different way.  Honestly, I’m given opportunities every day.

If you are in the habit, as I am, of kicking butts and taking names, of putting out fires on the fly, of keeping multiple plates spinning, of trying to handle everything on your own, this type of change will be a challenge.  The impulse in every difficult situation is to be a first-responder — to stop the gushing blood, provide oxygen, perform compressions, and avert any casualties.  Fighting that impulse is hard, especially if ultimately you are truly the only one who can help.  But here’s the thing: God has every situation in the palm of His hand. He’s got it. He can handle everything for the few moments it takes you to pause, look Him in the eyes, and ask, “Is there something you’d like me to do here?”

That’s all. Just pause and ask Him.  He may say, “Stand by. Help is on the way.”  He may say, “Yes, I really need you to stabilize this situation until help arrives.”  He may say, “Stand down.”

Mm.  This soldier certainly does not like to be told to “Stand down.”

But. If I trust that God has everything in the palm of His hand and that He alone knows the best course of action, don’t I want to check with Him before I act? Before I pay the $5? or before I lose my mind about a stinking bag of corn chips?

It sounds pretty simple when I put it like that, but I’m telling you, this is the lesson of my life. It’s about time I learned it.

John 16:33

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Bits of Truth

Words matter so much to me.  I realize this is pretty obvious: I do put a couple thousand on this page every week, and my chosen profession requires me to use tens of thousands  every day. Yeah, I love words; I’m drawn to them.

I typically read several hundred pages of fiction and/or non-fiction every week, and when I see words arranged in a way that resonates with me, I use my iphone to snap photos of them. Also, whenever I gather with two or more, I arrive with a notebook and a pen, prepared to write down the meaningful and the trivial.  I scratch out notes at work, at church, and in my small group.

I spend my life surrounded by words, and I tend to horde them. As I was making my way to this space today, I grabbed a couple scraps of paper from my desk, my phone, a notebook crammed with sermon notes, a book I’m reading, and my laptop.  What do these items have in common?  They all contain words that I have gathered from one place or another and carried home with me. One bit of paper travelled all the way from my trip to St. Louis last November. Another is from a visit to Cincinnati about a month ago.  My shoes and toothbrush might not have made it home, but these scraps of paper not only survived the trip, they have remained on top of my desk through several frantic clutter-clearing purges.

What could they possibly say that would validate my gripping them so tightly?

The one from November, which I scribbled while sitting in church with dear friends, says “I can have hope that He will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.”

The paper I shoved in my pocket after church last month in Cincinnati says,  “Lord, if you don’t do something here, we are in trouble.”

In my notes from our small group Bible study I find, “This life is unsettled and incomplete,” and “hope wins.”

Last night, I started Jodi Picoult’s small great things.  I opened the cover and read these words from James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”

Pithy phrases all.  Concise.  Succinct.  Power-packed.

Why do I store these clusters of words?

Because in the emotional haze in which I have been existing, I wander around searching for beacons of truth. And, for me, truth is usually found in print.  I don’t write down every word I see, but when I see words that speak truth, I capture them. I hold them.  I carry them around.

Here’s why. Emotions are powerful.  They are expressions of deep feelings that need to be experienced, but they don’t always tell the truth.  My emotions tell me that all is lost, that hope has died, that everything counts on me, that I’m the only one with problems, and that none of this will ever work out.  I weep on my bed and get so carried away by my tears that I never want to stand up again.  Overwhelmed with sorrow, I reach out my hand and grab something to read to quiet myself.  Without fail, I find some shred of truth that breaks through my exaggerating and misled emotions.

I find myself speaking out loud:

All is not lost; God will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.

Everything does not count on me; Jesus is doing something here.

I am certainly not the only one with problems — despite what social media wants me to believe — but my only chance at working through the problems I have is to face them.

All of this will work out. Sure, life is unsettled, but hope wins.

My pulse slows.  My breathing returns to regularity. I close my eyes and move toward sleep.

Yes, I feel dark things still — anger, sadness, grief, and pain.  These feelings are valid,  and I will quash them no longer.  I will sit with them.  I will feel them.  And, I will speak truth to them.  I will not be overcome.

John 16:33

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

 

 

 

 

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;

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. 

 

 

 

 

Choosing Community

I can spend days in solitude — reading, writing, working on puzzles, going for long walks.  I love to be alone.

In my childhood, I would retreat to my room to listen to the same song over and over again on a record player, spend hours in the side yard of our house twirling my baton, read a whole afternoon away in the living room recliner, and take solo rides on my bike to the boundaries of the small town I grew up in.

As an adult,  I have looked forward to whatever private moments I have been able to carve out for myself — reading, writing, walking.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends and family with a deep committed love.  However,  while I enjoy lively family dinners and picnics with friends, I also long to retreat to solitude — sometimes to a fault.

In fact, when the going gets tough — when I am battling interior or exterior demons — I tend to go a little beyond solitude to isolation.  If my troubles seem a bit too heavy to bear, I might bunker down in a small cubicle on the top floor of a library every evening for an entire semester, for example. If I’m barely surviving my responsibilities, I might put on a veneer of friendliness over a heavily armored soul before venturing out among the citizenry.  I am not quick to reach out; I am sure to turn in.

My husband, on the other hand, is very intentional about connecting with others.  Wherever we have been, he has initiated small group interaction.  He believes so strongly in the power of  community that he makes it happen, often in spite of my foot dragging.

“I’d like to start a small group in our house on Saturday nights.  Ok?”

Every Saturday night? Who? Why?

My introverted self whines and moans,  and then I tidy the house, make some food, and open the door.  I’m always glad I did, but it is not in my nature to initiate it.  I tend toward the solitary.

In St. Louis, we led a small group community that started one Monday night when my husband said, “I invited two guys over tonight.  You don’t have to do anything, but I think they are going to come every week.”   I sighed and grumbled “every week?” as I quickly kicked shoes into closets and threw dishes into cupboards.

I’d been soldiering internally at the time, and I wasn’t looking forward to anyone getting too close.  The thin veneer that I wore into public spaces was tenuous at best.  We were a bit of a mess, truth be told, and I didn’t want anyone to see the ugly underbelly of our lives.  However, my husband had been pressing for community, so finally, I gave in.  What harm could a couple of grad students bring?  Certainly we would be caring for them in their struggles, not vice versa.  I could easily keep them at arm’s length.

They arrived after dinner — two young single guys who hadn’t eaten.  We sat in our living room and chatted, read a few Bible verses, and prayed.  At the end of an hour I heard myself telling them to arrive a little earlier the next week;  I would have a meal ready for them.  Before long, the two grew to about twenty young adults who crammed into our living room every week, eating whatever I happened to scrounge together.  Sometimes we had guitar playing and singing, sometimes pranks and laughter, sometimes headier conversations.

At first, I maintained my comfortable food provider/discussion leader role, veneer firmly in place, but those kids had a habit of showing up, petting our dog, talking to our kids, lying around on our floor, and making me laugh that allowed them to worm their way beneath the armor and into my heart. This soldier who marched down school hallways kicking butts and taking names all day long, often went home on Monday nights, made a meal, and then quietly wept as these kids prayed for us — for our lives, for our children, for our health, for our future.  When my husband moved to Ann Arbor a year before me, they kept coming to our house every Monday night without fail.  They were a constant encouragement and a source of unconditional love.  Toward the end, as we were emptying our house for the final move, they lugged furniture, painted walls, and scrubbed floors beside us.

I grieved leaving that group more than anything else that we left in St. Louis. They had taught me the value of community — of sharing life together, of listening to one another’s concerns, of helping to carry one another’s loads. Certainly, I thought, I would never find that kind of connection again.

I was wrong.  Since I’ve been in Ann Arbor, I have had plenty of solitude and time for reflection, but I have also repeatedly found myself in close community. I landed in my Bible study battalion almost the minute I got here.  Soon after that, I was sweetly surprised by reuniting with a college suite-mate who meets me for mall-walking that often leads to burden-sharing and tear-wiping — right there among the shoppers. A little over a year ago, I started getting out of bed at 6 am twice a month to join four other women for breakfast — we’ve read several books together and have grown close as we’ve discussed how these texts apply to our individual journeys. We are learning together how to be vulnerable, how to support one another, and how to take off our armor in the safe space that we have created.

Additionally, my husband and I have together recently joined a small group with other members of our congregation and are part of a launch team for a new worship service at our church.  In each group we are hearing stories, making connections, and finding meaning.  We’re leaning in to difficult conversations, we’re praying over one another, and we’re building community.

I am continually overwhelmed by the richness of these relationships — the kind that can see the underbelly with compassion rather than judgment, that can sit in the difficulty rather than searching for solutions, that can both laugh and cry within the space of an hour.

I had learned these lessons earlier in life, to be sure, but in my soldiering years I forgot,  probably because I was so intent on guarding, protecting, and surviving.  I didn’t want to let anyone in; I didn’t want them to look under the armor and find out that I was wounded and weak.

Truthfully, it doesn’t always feel pleasant to peel off the armor and expose what’s beneath.  I would prefer to keep my unspoken broken* just that, but in the safety of close community, wounds are witnessed, tears are shed, and healing begins.  And not just mine.

As it turns out, everyone has their stuff — their unspoken broken — health issues, failed relationships, struggles with work, and money, and time.  The surprise to me was that when others saw the pus-filled wounds beneath my armor, they didn’t gag and look away; they leaned in, applied some balm, and showed me their own scars. I didn’t feel judged, but loved.

Building community takes bravery, commitment, and time.  It’s worth it, even for a lone soldier like me.

Hebrews 10:25

Continue meeting together, encourage one another.

*Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way

The Occasion

As a student, I hated group assignments.  I dreaded the moment when the teacher would put me with two or three other students and give us a task to accomplish.  I would groan, shoot the instructor a micro-glare, and reluctantly move over to join the others who were equally ‘enthusiastic’.  Why did I hate it so much? Was it because every group has a slacker and I hated the imbalance of effort? Or because I truly am an introvert?  Or was it the fact that I would have to approach a problem in a different way than I was familiar with?  Because if a teacher gave me a page of math problems, I could fly through them pretty quickly and end up with fairly accurate results.  If I had to answer comprehension questions on a chapter in US History, no problem.  Zip, zap, zoop. However, if a task involved more complexity and I had to sit in that complexity with a group of people who approached problems in different ways than my slam and jam method, that was uncomfortable for me.  I didn’t like it.

You might think that in my role as teacher I have avoided assigning group work because it made me so uncomfortable as a student.  Not true.  It’s been a bit of a psycho/social experiment for me to watch my students obediently trudge from their desks to the groups that I have put them in.  The ones who are like me grab the paper and just ‘get it done’, huffing and rolling their eyes the whole time.  They are missing the point — just like I was.

Often learning is not about the product, but about the process.

Teachers don’t put students into groups so that they can find the answers.  The answers have already been found.  Teachers put students into groups so that they can witness the processes of other people and so that their own processes might be refined.

In my current position, I am working with two students on a course of elementary science.  [If you know me well, just take a moment to digest that last sentence.] One student is a nine-year-old who is sitting beside me in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She has pretty dramatic difficulty with reading and paying attention. The other student is an eight-year-old with less dramatic learning challenges who is sitting in front of a laptop in London, England.  We meet every day from 10-11am EST, which is 3-4pm in London.  As you can imagine, this arrangement requires involved technology, elaborate communication, and creative scheduling.  Why go to all this trouble for two little girls? We go to all this trouble because — and I have witnessed this first hand — the girls learn better together than they do apart.  Not only that, they share their lives with each other — tales of pet cats, horseback riding, and celebrating learning accomplishments. They giggle together as they squish clay to discover the properties of a solid, pour water to measure the volume of a liquid, and watch a steaming kettle to see a gas. They are learning about science, yes, but they are also learning how to learn and that the process of learning does not always have to be drudgery.

As a student, I was always pretty good at learning.  Give me the problems; I’ll find the answers.  I could figure things out on my own, thankyouverymuch.

I’m writing about this like it’s ancient history, but as you might’ve already guessed, not much has changed.  I still think my systems are working pretty well. Give me a problem; I’ll try to find a solution. Slam, jam.  I don’t go out of my way to find the refining process, nevertheless, it finds me.

Recently, our pastor, Gabe Kasper, referring to the writing of Kirkegaard, said that in moments when we meet a challenge to our preferred way of thinking and living we can find opportunities that produce personal transformation. Kirkegaard called such moments ‘the occasion’.

I am not a fan of such ‘occasions’.  I do not like change, perhaps because in order to change I have to acknowledge that my system wasn’t the best one after all.  My slam and jam method of getting assignments done wasn’t (isn’t) really teaching me anything other than how to check off boxes.  It wasn’t (isn’t) allowing me the space to sit in the complexity of a problem. My box-checking was (is) productive, but not transformative.

I recently stumbled upon a book by Barbara Brown Taylor called Learning to Walk in the Dark.  I had requested the book from the library because another author I love, Jen Hatmaker, often refers to Taylor in her own writing and speaking.  I didn’t know what I was asking for when I requested the book, but I was a few pages into the introduction when I found myself face to face with ‘the occasion’.  I was staring down a challenge to my preferred way of thinking and living. I had grabbed the book in the middle of a sleepless night, so I faced a choice at 2am — step into this transformational space or put the book down and forget I ever saw it.

I stepped in.

Taylor’s premise is that we are conditioned from childhood to avoid dark spaces.  Our parents tell us to come into the house when the streetlights come on.  We have night lights beside our beds.  We know where the emergency flashlight is for when the power goes out.  When things go dark — literally and metaphorically — we rush to grab a light.  My approach to getting caught in the dark is similar to my approach to math problems–I quickly find a solution. I turn on a light. Taylor suggests a different approach.  What if, she says, we sit in the dark spaces for a while? What if we acknowledge the complexity of difficult situations instead of rushing to find solutions? After all, she says, “when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless I have not died…Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again” (5).

I have another student who reminds me of me.  He wants my help super-fast so that he can score well on the test and get a good grade on the paper.  I sometimes get frustrated with him.  I say, “I know you want a good grade on the test, but I am more concerned that you fully understand the concepts.”  He sometimes blurts back, “What? You don’t care if I do well on the test?”  I do. I do care about his test, but life has taught me that the test will be over in a blink; the lesson might matter for much longer. If we don’t master the concept, we are going to have to revisit it over and over until we finally have it.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time, you know that this concept of sitting — literal sitting or figurative sitting — is not easy for me.  I want a super-fast solution to every problem.  I don’t know why, because each time I find a solution to one problem, another one takes its place as though it had been waiting in the wings for its turn.  I continually find myself standing in the dark.

In fact, at this very moment, I (and maybe you) face several circumstances that are pretty dark.  I would really like to turn on some lights, clean up some messes, and make everything perfect.  However, I’ve been using that system for most of my adult life, and I’m beginning to see that it’s a flawed strategy. So, I’m going to get comfortable here and just observe the space.  I’m  hoping that “the things I learn” here will “save my life over and over again.”

But guys, I’m not approaching this lesson alone.  I’ve assigned myself to a group project.  I’ve asked a few of my dear friends to join me because I know that although it’s not my preferred way of learning — I’d rather hunker down and check off all the boxes myself — they have different approaches that I can learn from.  What’s more is that they are willing to sit in the dark complexity with me for a while — not trying to turn on lights and clean up messes, but just to sit and observe and learn from the dark.

Exodus 20:21

The people remained at a distance,

while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

How hard can it be? pt. 2

So, it seems like the turning would be the hardest part, doesn’t it?  If you are headed down a road of your own choosing, recognizing that you are going the wrong way and deciding to turn around should be the most difficult step, shouldn’t it?  I have not found that to be so.  I have found two other parts of repentance to be much more difficult — 1)  keeping my eyes from looking back, and 2) continually stepping forward.

Here’s the thing — walking down the road of my own choosing causes a ton of collateral damage.  You would think that once I realize this, I would want to turn quickly toward a path of safety and run just as fast as I can.  Not so.  I am drawn to looking back at all the wreckage.  I get lost in regret and what ifs.  I keep thinking, “Oh my gosh, why did I do that? Why couldn’t I see how much I was hurting myself and others?”  My eyes turn back and guess what happens next; my feet follow.  Just that quickly I have lost my way again.

I can lose hours of my time paging through the photo albums of poor choices and missed opportunities.  I mean, I can still lose sleep over the way I treated a childhood friend in 1972.  A terse word with a student can occupy my thoughts all evening.  I can make myself physically sick by rehashing parenting decisions and formulating ways to do things differently.   It’s as though I think I can rewind the movie, cut out the scenes I don’t like, and splice in a version of how I wish it would’ve played out.  But we can’t do that.  What happened happened. I can’t undo what I did, and I can’t undo what others did.  I can’t, but for some reason, my brain still wants to pretend as though I can.

And I think I know why. My mom and I were sitting side by side last week, watching the Olympics and lightly chatting.  I mean, I thought it was light chatting until she said something about getting lost in her regretful thoughts.  She said that she can spiral downward very quickly when she starts thinking about the mistakes she has made in her life, but when she feels herself doing that she says, “Get behind me, Satan!” I about jumped out of my rocking chair — she had hit the nail on the head!  If the enemy can get my eyes turned toward regret, my feet follow.  He just has to grab my chin and turn my gaze toward what I did wrong in 1983 or 1998 or 2004 and pretty soon my whole body has made its way back to a path of my own choosing and I am no longer aware of Jesus walking beside me.  I can’t hear his voice any more.  I don’t care to look into his eyes.  I am a soldier on a mission to make things right, and you’d better get out of my way.

But, guys, I can’t make things right.

It won’t work.

I can’t undo what’s been done.

And I’m not supposed to try.

In these moments, I need the second part of the clause, but, so often, I miss it.

I hear, “repent,” but I don’t seem to hear “believe the gospel.”  Or maybe I hear the words, but I don’t understand the message.  I mean, what is the gospel, after all?  It’s God’s commitment to me — He already knows that I am human, that I am bent on turning, and that I cannot of my own strength follow Him.  He knows that I am going to continually walk down a path of my own choosing, and yet He has promised to be with me wherever I go.  He doesn’t leave me or forsake me.  He has seen all my lousy decisions.  He has watched me ignore the people in front of me.  He has seen me choose myself over others time and time again.  And yet, He loves me.  He has patience with me.  He forgives me.  He continually chooses to walk beside me, to reveal himself to me, and to allow me the time and space to choose over and over again to turn away from my destructive path and toward His Way.

And that is not all.  He is in the business of redemption and restoration.  He takes the wreckage from my past and transforms it into beauty.  It’s beyond my comprehension.  I thought my parents’ divorce was the end of my life, but God used that experience to prepare me to be the wife of a divorced man and the mother of his child.  I don’t hold my husband’s past against him. It’s just part of his story, and now it’s part of mine.

In the mid-80s, I was anorexic.  My whole life revolved around reducing the amount of food I ate and thereby reducing the amount of me.  I was on a path of destruction that many never walk away from.  However, God, in his grace kept walking beside me, he kept talking to me, and before I knew it, I had turned around.  I was worried that I might have done irreparable damage to my body and that I would never have children, but my worries were for nothing, because God is in the business of redemption and restoration.  Not only did he restore my physical and emotional body, he has used my path to minister to others who have similar stories.

Time and time again, I’ve heard stories of people who have witnessed God transforming much greater disasters into stories of restoration. It is what God does.  He creates, he redeems, he restores.

Lately I’ve been spending way too much time in the photo albums of regret.  There is a time and a place to look back and grieve.  Sometimes we need to spend seasons in mourning.  However, when mourning turns into self-blame and punishment, it’s time to close the album for a bit.  It’s time to turn around, walk down the path that has been designed for me, listen to the voice of the One walking beside me, gaze into His eyes, and recognize that He is in the business of redemption and restoration.

God is faithful, and He will do it.

Psalm 30

11 You turned my wailing into dancing;
    you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
    Lord my God, I will praise you forever.

How hard can it be?

It sounds pretty easy.  I mean, it’s really just one independent clause. I’ve read it, or had it read in my hearing, certainly dozens of times in my life.  I have an image of Jesus peacefully walking along a dirt path, probably next to the Sea of Galilee, wind blowing through his hair, gazing lovingly toward his hearers.  His voice is gentle, and he’s giving the simplest of invitations, “repent and believe the gospel.”

How hard can it be to do two simple things: 1) repent, and 2) believe in the gospel.

Pretty darn hard it turns out.

If you have been with me since the beginning of this blog you are aware that I have spent a fair amount of time writing about repentance.  It’s such an archaic sounding word, isn’t it?  Kind of King James-ish, if you ask me.  Why in the world would I want to utter a word like repent in 2018?  It conjures another image, one of a wild-eyed, locust-eating John the Baptist, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Repent and be baptized!”

Can’t we just all hold hands and sing Kumbaya?

We could.  We could all gather together, hold hands, and sing kumbaya. It might be soothing for a moment,  but it wouldn’t provide the healing and restoration that true repentance gives.

Perhaps way back in confirmation class was the first time I heard repentance described as “a turning”.  I have imagined myself walking down a street of my own making headed toward a future that only seems bright, and then, realizing that the path is truly headed toward my certain demise, I turn on a dime to head in the opposite direction toward a future hand-crafted for me — one that I don’t have to manipulate myself into.

Doesn’t that sound blissful and so “one and done”-ish? Yeah, true repentance isn’t like that.  True repentance is realizing that I keep ending up on that same darn street and I have to keep turning around and heading in the other direction.  I am bent on turning.  I keep figuring out a better plan, a more exciting path, a way that seems right to me.

The road I typically end up on is one that promises to make me happy.  In my younger years, it promised make me thinner.  Over the years it has offered financial security, family peace, work satisfaction, physical healing, or some other sort of relief from some other sort of stress.  It promises an escape from the troubles of this world.  But guess what  — it has not once delivered.  Oh, sure, I walked a path for a while that certainly made me thinner, but it also left me empty.  I have patched together short-term fixes for all kinds of messes, but none have lasted.  All of my efforts lead me to the same conclusion — I do not have the answers.

So, I turn.  I walk away from my own path, and I promise myself, and God, that I’ve learned my lesson.  I’m done trying to soldier through. I’m done coming up with my own solutions.

About two seconds pass, and, whether I realize it or not,  I’m back on my own path.

Why?  Because I forget the second half of the clause — “believe in the gospel”.   I know, I know, more John the Baptist, but guys, the dude was running around shouting because he understood the good news!  He knew what has taken me a lifetime to learn — all my answers are crap.  They set up me to be my own rescuer and they inevitably fail.  Good ol’ JTB understood that Jesus was the answer, and not just in the Sunday school answer kind of way.  He was the solution. The remedy.  The Way.

But ya know, even though I believe that, I don’t always believe that.  Instead I believe that I need to solve my own problems, pay for my own mistakes, and forge my own path.  I get confused and think that repentance means guilt and punishment.

It doesn’t.

Let’s picture the scene a little differently.  Let’s have Jesus walk right up beside us wherever we are today.  Let’s have him walk with us on our path for a little while; let’s hear his voice and begin to trust him.  I see him walking as quickly or as slowly as we want to go.  I imagine him making a lot of eye contact, so much so that I stop looking at whatever it is that I’ve been chasing at the end of the path of my own making.  Before long I  want to go wherever He is going, just so that I can continue to see those eyes and hear that voice.  I imagine hearing him say things like “don’t worry about tomorrow, I gave the birds their clothing, I’ll make sure you have things to wear,” “follow me,” “I love you,”  “I forgive you,” and “I’m going to prepare a place for you.”

Turning isn’t so hard when you know that you are turning toward love, when you recognize where you belong, and when you understand, finally, that he’s had you all the time in the palm of his hand.

Isaiah 30:15a

In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength.