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.

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The Prize is in the Process

One of the things I like about the instruction I am doing right now is that we don’t give grades. We don’t design instruction to meet a finish line; instead, we celebrate every step of the process — every attempt, every mistake, every win. All day long, I cheer on my students (and my staff) for showing up, for trying hard things, for taking chances, and for participating in the process.

It’s scary to participate in a process that you have no guarantee of finishing or winning. Would you register for a 5K if you didn’t think you could at least finish? What if every time you have attempted a 5K you have collapsed before the first turn? Who of us would sign up for something that has — for us — repeatedly ended in failure?

That’s what my students do every day. Students typically come to Lindamood-Bell when other attempts at reading or comprehension or school in general have ended in failure or severe difficulty, and we ask them to work on the thing that is most difficult for them — five days a week, often two or more hours every day. Even showing up is difficult for most of our students, yet they do show up. So we celebrate even that. We greet them enthusiastically, and we clap and hooray when they try something — especially something that has seemed difficult. The instruction is more focused on the process than the product, and, unfailingly, each of us — the students and the teachers — are changed.

These kids have taught me that the prize is often in the process.

My friend, Marv Fox, says in his soon-to-be-released book, Become, that all things are necessary steps toward achieving our goal. He sees every challenge, every setback, as an opportunity to build muscle that will propel him forward. If he bombs at a public speaking engagement, he learns from that experience — he evaluates the steps he took in preparation and delivery and determines what he can tweak before the next opportunity he has to speak. He doesn’t stop speaking because he bombed; he sees the ‘bomb’ as an opportunity to learn and grow — to be changed by the process.

Marv is not alone in this belief, of course. Yesterday, I participated in a conference on prayer. One of the presenters, Connie Denninger, co-founder of Visual Faith Ministries, reminded participants that everything that happens in our lives is part of our spiritual formation. She said, “I wish I wouldn’t have had to go through some of the things that I have, but they have brought me to the place that I am.” Part of her story is that, as a pastor’s wife, she had never been comfortable praying. When Connie’s mother died at a relatively early age and Connie felt that she had lost her best prayer warrior, she was devastated. Who would pray for her now? In answer to her question, God put Connie on a journey toward a life of prayer that she now chronicles through her blog. In fact, this ministry, formed with friend, Pat Maier, now involves others in Visual Faith communities across the country. Connie and Pat have invited others to join them as they celebrate their process.

For the past several months, I have been reading and writing my way through a book called The Artist’s Way. Each chapter invites the reader to engage in a rhythm of writing every morning (the morning pages), and exploring activities that invite creativity (artist dates). I really did not want to read this book (in fact I wrote about it here), but committing to this process has been transformative. Each morning, as I show up, I find reason to celebrate. I am amazed at what I find myself writing on the pages and how my attitude shifts from the first line to the last. My morning pages have no goal. I have not determined that I will write for 30 days or 60 days or a year and then quit. I have just decided to enter the process of writing every morning and to watch and see what happens. The process alone has been the prize.

Several months ago, my husband was asked to help lead the prayer conference that I participated in yesterday. He is invited to all kinds of events, and I don’t always join him. I have to be judicious about what I say yes to; I always have to be mindful of how much gas I have in the tank. So, when he told me he was going to be part of the prayer conference, I didn’t initially intend to go. He was leaving on a Friday afternoon and would be gone until Saturday night. After a long work week — all that cheering and clapping and such — I knew I wouldn’t have gas in the tank to travel to Lansing and participate all day long on Saturday. I knew that for my weekend re-fuel, I would have to be on the couch.

However, a week or so ago, I discovered that the conference would be live- streamed! So, I sat in my pajamas, with my dog by my side, and joined the discussion of five individuals who have committed to the process of prayer. They shared what they’ve learned by choosing to make prayer — conversation with our Father — part of their everyday lives. They haven’t determined to try prayer for 30 days or 60 days or until their prayer gets answered. They have chosen to daily enter the process and see what happens.

None of the presenters said that they have discovered the key to prayer or that they have arrived at some destination in their prayer life. Rather, they celebrated the fact that they get to join in what God is doing because of the gift of prayer. They each acknowledged that they often have to overcome obstacles to continue in this commitment, but they all affirmed that the activity of prayer itself — the process — is transformative.

I won’t be able to share in one blog post everything I learned yesterday by sitting on my couch and joining others in listening, thinking, writing, and praying, but I will tell you that my choice to show up and invite the change that comes with entering a process was rewarded. I learned. I shifted. I grew.

Yes, commitment to the process takes time, but as I’ve learned from watching my students and from being a student, the process has power to create change. So I’ll continue to show up and to participate in yoga, in writing, in prayer, in life. I’ll sign up, even if I keep falling down, because the running, the falling down, and the getting back up are building muscle, preparing me for what’s next, and propelling me forward.

 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus,

Hebrews 12:1-2

Surprise!

Today I was getting ready to do a lesson with one of my students when our office manager informed me that one of my coworkers had gone home sick.  Would I mind combining two students’ instruction —  one, a nine-year-old doing language arts and one, an eleven-year-old who had a math assessment to finish?  Both of these students have specific learning needs and both typically receive one-on-one instruction.  I answered  I would be happy to combine them while thinking to myself, “well, this could get interesting”.

It is for good reason that most of our students receive one-on-one instruction.  They have all struggled in school and have the scars to show for it — low self-esteem, a tendency toward frustration, and the constant and desperate need for encouragement.   How was I going to juggle their needs?  No way to find out but to step into it.

I was almost immediately surprised.  “Hey you two,” I said, “Why don’t we find a space with a large table so that we have plenty of room?”  “Yeah!” they said almost in unison.  While a change in routine or venue can sometimes signal distraction or disruption, they surprised me by rallying and seeing this as an opportunity.  They helped me gather all their supplies — laptops, files, paper, etc — and we relocated so swiftly that I barely had time to register the change.

Still, I was cautious.  I wondered if we would get anything done at all.  Both of these students tend to need a lot of direction and re-direction; I pictured an hour plunked between them, dividing my time between getting each of them back on task and squeezing in little spurts of instruction.  Again, I was surprised.

The eleven-year-old almost immediately located the online assessment that he had to complete and announced that he could do most of it on his own.  The nine-year-old found herself a “special pen” to work with and then, looking at her ‘classmate’, decided to find him one, too.  “What a good idea!”  I said.  Her classmate received the pen, said “Thank you!” and got right to work.

While I guided the nine-year-old through her lesson, the eleven-year-old worked diligently on adding and subtracting fractions.  He politely asked me once if he had reduced the fraction as far as it could go. After I checked his answer and said,  “yes, good job,” I turned back to the other student.  She looked at him and added her own “good job!”  When the older student heard me tell the younger student, “You got it,” he chimed in with “Way to go!”

Guys, I did not script this.  They were genuinely delighted for one another.  He watched her jump up and down when she heard two target words in a song that I played.  She waited patiently when he and I worked through a more difficult problem together.  They even teamed up to good-naturedly poke fun at my singing ability! I praised them and rewarded them for their cooperative spirits and strong work ethics, but I truly believe that the opportunity to work side-by-side was a reward in itself.

The three of us were elbow to elbow smiling at one another at a table buried under two laptops, paper, pens, scissors, and scraps.  I said, “Hey, guys, I think we should do this more often.  What do you think?”

“Yes!” they agreed, in unison.

If you are not a teacher, you might not know that school doesn’t always go like this.  Classmates aren’t always encouraging toward one another.  They certainly don’t always celebrate the small accomplishments of students with learning differences.  In fact, it is often the opposite.  Students who struggle often have the added discouragement of being teased by their peers and even, I’m sorry to say, their teachers.

Not today.

Today was a sweet surprise.  Perhaps these two who have struggled so much have learned the value of being kind.  I learned a little myself.

Surprise!

Isaiah 11:6

“a child will lead them”

 

The Occasion, revisit

This post, first written March 2018 and updated February 2019, is further exploration of the topic, the process.

As a student, I hated group assignments. I dreaded the moment when a 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 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 was it the fact that I would have to approach a problem in a way that I was unfamiliar 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 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.    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. 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 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, thank you very much.

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, in a message titled “The Healer”, referred to Kirkegaard’s, ‘occasion’. The ‘occasion’ is any moment in which we meet a challenge to our preferred way of thinking and living that produces personal transformation.

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 picked up Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark. Just few pages into the introduction, I found myself face to face with ‘the occasion’ — 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.

Like my student, I want a super-fast solution to my problems. 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. 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 take this occasion. 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.”

And guess what — 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 complexity with me for a while — not trying to turn on lights and clean up messes, but just sit and observe and learn from the dark.

The people remained at a distance,while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

Exodus 20:21

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.

 

 

 

Applied Learning

In the spirit of learning from my lessons, let’s apply the last two blogs to my current reality.

Fact #1 – I can’t plan for everything.

Fact #2 – I’m not in control.

How do we live in the tension of recognizing these facts while living out our daily realities?

My current reality is this: I just returned from three weeks away from my home.  I intentionally didn’t plan any work for this week — not even tutoring — because I knew I would need a week of recovery.  Autoimmune disease is such that any stressor — good or bad — can cause a physiological response.  Flying can cause a response. Eating a delicious Cuban sandwich on fresh – delicious –  glutinous bread can cause a response. Working seven days in a row in an unfamiliar environment can cause a response.  Seeing an old friend can cause a response. Taking a detour can cause a response. Eating sorbet — before or after lunch — if it is out of the routine, can cause a response.  (Yes, in the past three weeks I have done all of those things.)

A ‘response’ can mean different things to different people.  For me, a ‘response’ is typically any of the following — fatigue, eye inflammation, increase in pain or fatigue, or, if the stressors are cumulative or particularly intense, what I call a ‘knock down’.  I got ‘knocked down’ a couple of times during the vacation. It’s really not pleasant.  I usually get a pretty solid headache, gastrointestinal distress, systemic pain and fatigue, and usually, the symptoms are so intense that I can’t sleep.

In the past five years, I have been knocked down enough times that I recognize the feeling and have come to take these episodes as reminders that I am trying too hard, that I am doing too much, and that I have to be mindful. I used to feel frantic during a knock down; now I lean in.  I fill a tub full of epsom salt water and slither in.  I lie there for as long as I can with a cool cloth across my forehead.  I drink a lot of water.  I take a homeopathic remedy called nux vomica (as recommended by my doctor), and I rest. I eat healing foods — rice, popsicles, scrambled eggs — and I prop myself in front of something mindless on the television. A standard knock down takes about twenty-four hours of intentional recovery.  Some have taken longer, some have resolved more quickly.

I fully anticipated a knock down during this week.  So, I planned nothing.  Well, not nothing. I planned things that would set me up for success in the coming weeks.

While stressors can lead to a ‘response’, intentionally proactive behaviors can build resilience, like money in the bank.  They don’t prevent a knock down, but they do build my core strength so that the likelihood of a knock down is reduced and the recovery from one is perhaps shorter.  What builds resilience for me?  Well, a regular schedule, for one.

If I follow routines — get up at the same time every day, eat the same breakfast (gluten-free oatmeal with coconut oil and honey has been a recent trend), drink the same drinks (one green tea followed by one black tea), exercise, complete a task or two around the house, have one or two social interactions, and complete one or two professional tasks, all while taking periodic breaks throughout the day — I build resilience.  If I am being proactive,  I have to create my to-do list with this in mind.  I have to ‘plan’ blank spaces into my day.  Margin is essential.

Intentional reading and blogging are perhaps more important steps to building my resiliency than I give them credit for. Long ago, I learned to override feeling with doing. Because I didn’t want to feel pain or get lost in any type of emotion at all, I busied myself. That is a temporary fix, but feelings don’t go away.  They get buried.  Deeply buried.  I have found that if I read a particular genre of books (I’ve referred to many of these types of writers in this blog — Ann Voskamp, Shauna Niequist, David Sedaris, Joan Didion, and the like), then I gain access to emotions that I long ago buried.  While I am ‘hearing’ and feeling the stories of others, I recall my own stories and am able to attach meaning to them.  The follow-up, of course, is this blog.  If, in the wake of reading and reflecting, I sit down at my computer here in the quiet of my little house by the river, I give myself time to process the emotions that have been stirred up.  For you teachers out there, the reading is the receptive portion of the lesson; the blogging is the expressive.  I, like most students, need both in order for the lessons to have any hope of sticking. (And, like most students, I need repetition of most lessons in order to achieve mastery.)

How did I get the privilege of the time that enables a lifestyle with margin? that allows for reading and processing?  The only explanation I have is that the One who has eyes to see me and who knows my needs better than I know my own, determined that because I would never plan this type of life for myself, He would plan it for me. I was living a life that powered through and led to an epic ‘knock down’.  He saw it, and in compassion, He set me down into a new reality–one that allows for margin, one that allows for reflection, one that allows for healing.  Which exposes the next lesson:

Fact #3 – I am held in the palm of His hand.

I am really trying to rest in this reality.  Muscle memory makes me want to jump up and start doing so that I won’t have to feel the pain that has been exposed in the stillness of this chapter.  However, the knowledge that comes through the power of the knock down coupled with the words of some key people that are speaking into my life right now remind me of the words of Elizabeth Elliot that Ann Voskamp quoted in The Broken Way :

…”out of the deepest pain has come the strongest conviction of the presence of God and the love of God.” [Voskamp follows with] The most crushing lie a life can hold on to is that life is supposed to avoid suffering, avoid loss, avoid anything that breaks.  Loss is our very air; we, like the certain spring rains, are always falling toward the waiting earth…

I embrace the knock down because His hand is holding me and leading me to a better life in this next chapter.

Psalm 103: 13

The Lord is as kind to his followers as a father is to his children.

Putting it in Practice

Editors Note: This is a re-post. As part of my TBT series, I am following each Monday post with a Thursday re-post. This post, first written in May of 2017, looks at the same concept of “practicing” disciplines that I explored earlier this week. 

I’m beginning to think that lessons are never fully learned, or as we say in the field, mastered, but rather that our lessons require continuing practice.

A child sits at a piano slowly fingering the do, re, mi, fa, so of a C-major scale.  Over and over she plays, repeatedly faltering at one particularly tough spot where the thumb has to cross under two fingers in order to hit all eight notes in the octave. Sure, sure, after hours upon hours of practice, the scale becomes easier, the rhythm more consistent and measured, but let that pianist take a month away from the keys, and almost assuredly, the stumbling will return. Learning is only safe with continual practice.

I’ve been blogging at this space for almost three years and I keep coming back to the same lessons — the ones that I need to rehearse over and over and over.  Perhaps the one that needs the most practice, the one for which my Instructor has utilized multi-modal approaches, is this idea that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

One problem I encounter in learning this lesson is the muscle memory of having practiced a different way for years. The old way was a rushing, plate-spinning frenzy of activity — checking items off lists and powering through. I’ve often described this practice as soldiering — task-driven, focused doing with minimal regard for relationship or self-care. I didn’t reflect or take time to decompress; I went on to the next mission as though my life depended on it. Ultimately, I was given a medical discharge — diagnosis? chronic battle-fatigue.

So, per orders, I’ve been undergoing job retraining for almost three solid years. It’s been cyclical. I rest and recover, then, feeling restless, I get busy. I try for moderation, but since my historical practice has been frenetic, I usually return to that pre-set. I end up sick, of course, so I back off and review the lesson — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

The layers of instruction involved in my practice of this lesson are many. First, and most obvious, is the actual physical slowing of my body. I feel as though my major joints of propulsion — my hips, shoulders, feet — have been coated in a rigid rubber-like compound that limits movement. The compound has, it seems, been grafted into my bones in such a fashion that if I do find a way to make the rubber pliable enough to allow movement that is too fast, too insistent, or too prolonged, the grafting sights become irritated and inflamed like a newly healing surgical site. The pain slows me and reminds me that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

The second layer of instruction comes through my practice of yoga. Within the confines of a very small space — 24″ x 68″ — I focus on breathing, being very intentional about every move I make. Rushing is not allowed.  Multi-tasking is impossible. It takes all of my attention to hold warrior two — right knee at a forty-five degree angle, right heel in line with the arch of my left foot, arms extended as though drawing an arrow across a bow, gaze looking across the middle finger of my extended hand. Once there, I breathe; I rest; I am still.  This practice, which was absolutely foreign to me in my former life, makes me feel stronger than any butt-kicking and name-taking ever could. Yet, in this strength, I am not calling the shots; I am trusting the voice of the instructor and moving only where she tells me to move. She assures me that I can do this — I can live this way even when I step off the mat.

A third layer of instruction is my reading list, which comes from a variety of sources: one book from a member of my breakfast club Bible study, another from my child as a Mother’s Day gift, one more from a summer reading list for some of my students, and daily readings from my YouVersion Bible reading plan. Despite the varied sources, the message is resoundingly the same — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

Last week I saw my rheumatologist who is offering a trial of the medication Cosentyx. I find myself hoping this drug will break up the rubberized coating, free my joints, increase my energy, and allow me to do a little more.

I was sitting with my breakfast club friends the other day, sharing this news about the potential drug trial, when one of them asked, “Kristin, how would you like us to pray?” Surprising frustration rose in me; I think because I realized that what I was hoping for is in direct opposition to what I have been trying to learn. I snarled, “I don’t even know, because if this drug works, I know that I will go right back to doing too much. I’m practically doing too much already, and I’m in the middle of a flare!” My poor friend, she hasn’t known me too long and probably isn’t accustomed to my surliness. She said, “Do you guys need the money that badly?”  I reflexively burst out, “Not at all!  I mean, sure, we could use more money, but that is not how we live our lives. We don’t make decisions based solely on money.” I was stunned at my clarity and embarrassed by my tone.

I am the most reluctant of learners — the little girl who needs to be nudged back to the piano bench, a finger poking her between the shoulder blades. Why do I have to practice, I whine. I understand all the notes in the scale;  I know where my fingers belong! However, if I ever want to get past these darn scales and on to playing some real music — enjoying the freedom and bliss of playing outside of the practice — then I have got to stick to the practice.  I have got to keep rehearsing the truth that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

Why? Because I can trust the voice of my Instructor. I can stay in a limited space, listen to His voice, and believe what He believes about me — that I can do this; I can live this much richer connected way. I want to learn this lesson so well, that even if this medication works, even if I am free of pain, and even if I regain my energy, I won’t go back to my soldiering life, but I will live in the freedom that I have been given to breathe, to slow down, to rest, and to be still.

PS. The Cosentyx did not work. In fact, it made me more restless and agitated and didn’t decrease my pain or increase my mobility. A year and a half later, I am not taking any pharmaceuticals for my chronic pain and fatigue. For me, it has been best to adjust my lifestyle — to keep returning to the practice of breathing, slowing, resting, and being still.

Be still and now that I am God

Psalm 46:10

Glimmers of Brilliance

For the past month or so I have been consuming print as though my life depended on it.  This happens at the end of a semester for all instructors, but particularly for those who teach English, and even more so for those who teach writing.

A couple weeks ago, I stood in the doorway of the office of a seasoned English professor with another colleague.  All of us were bleary-eyed from days and days of reading stacks and stacks of papers.  We were grumbling, of course, because our charges hadn’t heeded every single word that we had breathed over the course of the semester. The nerve!  Hadn’t we told them how to frame a thesis? Hadn’t we told taught them about depth that goes beyond surface observations?  Hadn’t we expected them to sustain an argument? And what had we received for all our labors — a few glimmers of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity.

And isn’t that our life, a few glimmers of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity.

After long days with students, I come home at night and read more.  Recently, I’ve been reading Ann Voskamp and Shauna Niequist. They write in ways that I imagine I might one day write if I keep at it.  They pour their truth onto the page as I do, but they make it so,…so beautiful.  I often have to pause and take a photo of a line or a paragraph because I am so captured by the words themselves — how they are arranged on the page — and also by the image that they conjure in my mind — what they arrange in my head. For Mother’s Day, one of my children sent me a book of essays by David Sedaris — a pioneer in this way of writing that I find myself compelled to follow.  His Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is, in the first few chapters I’ve read, like a home movie that has been painstakingly crafted into vignettes that illustrate the truths that his childhood taught him. And that’s really all I am trying to do here.

My writing is all about finding the glimmers.

I sit down in the morning and I take a look at the film I have captured since the last time I wrote — that image of me standing in the doorway with the two professors, a still of me bent over a stack of papers at my desk, a clip of me in the front of a small lecture hall demonstrating how to integrate a source into a line of text, and a close-up of me lying in bed at night using my phone to snap a photo of a paragraph.  I move these images around on the desktop of my mind in an effort to find some little glimmer of meaning. Why, I ask myself, do I spend so much time with words?

Guys, I spend so. much. time. with words!  I mean, it’s 9:30am and I have already read posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  I’ve played several rounds of Words With Friends.  I’ve given feedback on two essays.  I’ve texted two daughters. And, now, I’m writing.  In a couple of hours I will be in my car listening to a podcast or two, then later today, I will tutor a student in English grammar and writing to help her prepare for the ACT.  After all that, I will curl up in bed and read some more.

Why? Why do I spend so much time with words? Well, of course I have more than one reason.  I love the way words fit together like miniature puzzles; when each piece is put just where it belongs,  an image appears out of nowhere!

eaigm becomes image!

I love that!

I love the way words can be arranged and rearranged in sentences to alter their meaning.

Kids love moms. Moms love kids. Kids moms love.

Isn’t that fun!?

But mostly, I love the way that words manipulate the brain.  Even as I write this, the clips of film are rearranging on my desktop.  I am seeing how the reading I do at night informs what I say to my students in the front of my class. What I say in the front of my class impacts (even if I don’t always see evidence of it) the writing of my students.  The writing of my students inspires my conversations with my colleagues.  The conversations with my colleagues motivate my desire to read and write more.

And the realization that each aspect of my life is somehow connected to every other aspect of my life reminds me to be present in each moment, to keep my camera rolling, to record what I see so that I can later review the tape and see the connections, to not wish any moment away, but to look for the glimmers of brilliance in every great sea of mediocrity.

And that, my friends, is why I spend so much time with words.

Isaiah 45:3

I will give you hidden treasures,
    riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who summons you by name.

 

 

 

 

Traveling Companions

Every day in Israel has been full of surprises — the beautiful and excellent food, the wide variety of geographical features, the incredible detail of the archeological finds, and today, the leathery knees and elbows of camels.  However, the best surprise I have had is the quality of the group that I am traveling with.

I’ve already mentioned Hela, our guide, a Messianic Jew from New York City; she is rich in knowledge of Israel after extensive training and twenty-two years on the job.  She keeps spewing out facts, answering questions, and throwing in an occasional pun. Oy. Then there’s Dan, a friend and colleague from Ann Arbor; this is his fourth trip to Israel. He started planning this trip about eighteen months ago, brought John into the plan over a year ago, and added me last Spring when the number of students necessitated a third chaperone.

Of course I am thrilled to have my husband and best friend, John, on this trip of a lifetime.  He is very conscientious, not only of me, but of everyone on the trip.  He is so aware of what everyone’s needs are and anticipates how he can best be of service on the trip.  He’s our Johnny on the Spot.  Beyond that, he is fun to be with.  He is always ready to try something new, like float on the frigid deep sea water before breakfast this morning, climb onto the back of a camel with me and ride it across the sand of the Negev, or eat candied mushrooms — I promise you, they were amazing!

But most amazing of all? The students we are traveling with.  I gotta admit that in the days leading up to the trip, I might have had some reservations about traveling to the other side of the world with thirty college students.  I had met almost half of them in Ann Arbor, but the rest were absolute strangers to me.  Not only would I have to co-exist with these people, who, by the way, are aged 19 to 56, but I would be responsible for leading ten of them in small group meetings every evening, keeping track of them throughout the day, and being available for any crises that might arise.  What if we had one (or more!) high maintenance travelers? What if roommate conflicts arose? What if students got lost?  What if they refused to follow the rules?  Well, I thought, we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.

All of my worries were unfounded.  Seriously, all of them. From the moment we gathered on the morning of January 6, these students have been easy going, friendly, receptive to one another, willing to lend a hand, and genuinely interested in all the information they are being exposed to.  Granted, they are getting a grade for this adventure, but they could still be apathetic.  Many students are, but these kids are engaged. Let me show you what I mean.

Almost every day, they have had to be up, packed, finished with breakfast, and on the bus by or before 8am. They ALWAYS are.  We have not had to wait once for anyone. Several times a day, we stop at a site, Hela says, “bring your Bible and your camera,” and all thirty jump off the bus, follow Hela, and start taking pictures and notes the minute she starts talking.  When she says, “go,” they disperse and milk the site for as much information as they can squeeze out of it.  If Hela says we are staying together, they stay together.  If she says, we are going to eat falafel, they eat falafel.  If she says, “You should order the St. Peter’s fish,” they order the St. Peter’s fish.  I am telling you, they don’t whine, they don’t complain, they don’t wrinkle their noses, they are all in. Always.

And in the evenings, after we have all had dinner and Hela has retired to her room for the evening, the rest of us convene to worship and debrief.  Again, no one has ever been late. Two of our students take turns playing the guitar and leading worship.  Others have volunteered to pray or read Scripture.  After some announcements and singing, we break into groups of ten — the same groups every night — where we share about the experiences of the day, ask questions, and encourage one another.  This all happens at 8pm, twelve hours after they boarded the bus!  And they are still engaged and invested, sharing their hearts and listening to one another.

I know, I know, I sound like I am gushing.  And, yes, I know, I always am bragging about my students; it’s like I think I have better students than anyone else in the world. And, you know, I think I do!!

This morning, when John and I walked down to the beach to float in the Dead Sea, we passed two young men who were working out together, one coaching the other.  We found another girl, sitting alone, practicing the Hebrew alphabet.  In the water, we met up with three students who hadn’t met before this trip, who were floating, laughing, and taking pictures of one another.  While we were in the water, others joined, then Dan walked down to the beach to take our picture for the video he is publishing online most evenings.  Because the water was very cold, John and I left the beach and walked inside the hotel where there is a pool full of filtered, heated Dead Sea water.  In the pool, we joined Dan, some other students, and the last member of our tour, our driver, Elan.

Let me talk about Elan for a minute.  He is a Jewish native of Israel in his fifties. His first language is, of course, Hebrew, but he speaks English rather well, too.  The guy can drive that bus, a fifty-five passenger Mercedes,  in places I wouldn’t drive my car. Today he wound us through hairpin curves from 700+ feet below sea level to 2500 feet above sea level and back again.  He fits that bus through gates, into parking spots, and past busses and truck with inches to spare — I promise I am not exaggerating.  He joins us at dinner and in the pool, cracks jokes, and is quick with a witty response.  Two times he has missed a turn and said, dead pan, “I went a different way to show you the cows.”

If I had to interview and hand-select traveling companions, I couldn’t have compiled a group this magnificent.   They are becoming members of my extended family — people who will matter to me for the rest of my life.  I wasn’t anticipating that; it is a bonus blessing. I am so thankful for these traveling companions.

“walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

with all humility, bearing with one another in love,

eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Ephesians 4:1-3

 

A Study in Contrasts

We’re back in the states.  After seven days in South Africa, we spent about twenty-four hours traveling to Michigan.  We got home, unpacked our suitcases, started laundry, and tried to re-acclimate ourselves to our former lives before reality struck this morning.

Several hours later, I’ve already taught three sections of students and interacted with a number of people who wondered, “Well, how was your trip?”  I’m really glad they asked, because as I answered people, I began to learn what impact this trip to South Africa has had on me.

It became rather clear early in the journey that our purpose, or at least my purpose, was to be an observer.  This was a new role for me.  Often I am a leader, presenter, director, and planner.  This past week, I was a follower, listener, observer, and receiver. In this role, I was free to take in South African culture, to hear the stories of a variety of people, to let go of responsibility, and to bear witness to the contrast between my life in the United States and the lives of the people I met in South Africa.

First of all, although I often think I need more, I recognize now how much I have in contrast with many of the people I saw.  For example, I complained at the beginning of my semester because the classroom where I teach didn’t come equipped with dry erase markers or an eraser, even though it did come equipped with a computer, projection, and wifi.  I easily purchased a pack of markers and an eraser for less than $5, a textbook was provided to me, and I am paid a fair salary to teach under 25 students in each of my three classes.  In contrast, my colleagues in South Africa have no internet in their classrooms at all — not even dial-up.  They have a few mostly outdated textbooks, worn posters on the walls, drying up markers, and classrooms crammed with up to 40 students — and that was in a kindergarten class!  And guys, despite the fact that they earn very little, they aren’t complaining.  They are teaching and learning.  The instructors are engaging their students.  The students take pride in their work.

Yes, the contrast was palpable.

It was also evident in the ways that I noticed people interacting with one another. Each time people see each other during the day, they greet one another, “Good morning!  How are you?” Even if they have seen each other several times, they still  formally greet one another before they move on in conversation.  This was a challenge for me!  I am known to jump right in with “Hey, did you get my email?” For a week, I practiced acknowledging the person in front of me instead of the task that he or she could perform for me.  The simple practice of speaking a greeting shifted my perspective.  That, plus the fact that I had no real responsibilities, allowed me to see people and listen more carefully than I am typically apt to do.

In fact, I noticed today, here in Michigan, that I was looking at people in the eyes a bit more, listening a little more intently, worrying a little less about getting to the next task on my list.  I hope it lasts.

The third difference I will note today is the energetic spirit I saw in the people of South Africa — particularly the black South Africans.  Apartheid ended a number of years ago, but the differences and division between whites and blacks could not be more obvious. In one week’s time I noticed that black South Africans have less — less status, less power, less money, and less opportunity than the white South Africans.  Yet they do not seem defeated.  Their spirit propels them to walk great distances along red clay paths — rain or shine — to work and to school.  They sit up tall in their classrooms, raise their hands high, and open their mouths to sing as they work, whether their tasks are menial or meaningful. Rather than seeming angry or sad, they exude joy!  Their worship was filled with dancing, clapping, and even marching! They smiled, laughed, and played with one another — despite their seeming disadvantage.  I was struck by this.  I have not experienced the kind of disadvantage that all of them have experienced.  I have led a life of plenty.  I have not gone one day without food, clothing, or shelter in my fifty years of life.  I have had every opportunity for education, employment, and entertainment that I have ever desired.  Yet I am often discouraged, stressed, and even angry about what I don’t have.

So, you know what’s coming, don’t you?  I opened my Bible study today and turned to the reading in Psalm 37.  (I really can’t make this stuff up.) When I read the words, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart,” I pictured my new South African  friends smiling, clapping, and dancing — delighting themselves in the Lord.  They are happy and celebrating the fact that they have Him, regardless of the things that they don’t have.

I can learn a lot from these people.  I think I have begun to.

Psalm 37: 23-24

The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way;

though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong.