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

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.

 

 

 

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

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

I’m picturing a small child sitting at a piano slowly fingering the do, re, mi, fa, so of a C major scale.  Over and over she plays, usually 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 falter will return.

The learning is only safe within the practice.

I’ve been blogging at this space for almost three years and I continually come back to the same lessons — the ones that my fingers 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 fact that I had been practicing a different way for decades.  The old way was a rushing, plate-spinning frenzy of activity that involved checking items off lists, accomplishing tasks, and powering through no matter what was thrown at me.  I’ve often described this practice of mine as soldiering — task-driven, focused doing with minimal regard for relationship or self-care.  As a soldier I didn’t reflect or take time to decompress; I went on to the next mission as though my life depended on it. And, if you know me or have read my blog, you know that I was ultimately 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 devolve 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.   I am sure I am not even aware of all of them.  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 somehow 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 then 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 is delivered through my practice of yoga.  So much about yoga reinforces the lesson I am trying to learn. For seventy-five minutes I stay within the confines of a very small space — 24″ x 68″ — thinking about my 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 with my right knee at a forty-five degree angle, my right heel in line with the arch of my left foot, my arms extended as though drawing an arrow across a bow, my 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 —  and certainly it cannot be the last — layer is my reading list. The reading in my pile comes from a variety of sources: from a member of the breakfast club Bible study I attend, from my child as a Mother’s Day gift, from a summer reading list for some of my students, and from my YouVersion daily 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 new rheumatologist who is offering a trial of the medication Cosentyx.  As I wait for the prior authorization to come through, I find myself wondering if this drug will break up the rubberized coating, free my joints, increase my energy, and allow me to do a little more.

Seriously.  I am actually hoping for that. Sigh.

So, I was sitting with the breakfast club the other day, sharing this news about the potential drug trial, when one of my friends 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.

Psalm 46:10

 Be still, and know that I am God…

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.

 

Grounded

We’re halfway through day three in South Africa, and I am not surprised that my body demanded to be ‘grounded’ today.  I mean, we left Ann Arbor less than 90 hours ago and when all we’ve done, you’ll wonder why I didn’t get benched sooner.  I already know the reason why — I have been flying high on adrenaline and intrigue.  I have not stopped being amazed since I got here.  And, you know, I’m not even upset that I’ve been plunked down on a couch for the day.  I am enjoying the time to reflect and process all that we’ve seen and heard.  Want to join me?

For forty-eight hours before we left on this trip, I kept telling people, “I’m a bit anxious about being on a plane for fourteen hours straight.”  I was worried about claustrophobia mostly, but I was also concerned about the wear and tear on my body.  As it turns out, it wasn’t terrible!  We had a little hiccup in Detroit when I made it easily through the security lines only to see that all the machines had shut down just as my husband’s backpack went into the x-ray machine.  Not to worry, within fifteen minutes, someone restored the machine and we were on our way to our gate.

We were also a little concerned that although I had purchased side by side seats for the long leg of the journey our boarding passes had us sitting one behind the other.  We checked with the gate agent in Atlanta, but he said he was unable to help us.  Not to worry, the woman sitting next to me, a nurse on a mission trip, offered her seat to my husband even though she had already wiped it down with disinfectant, unpacked her belongings, and situated herself.

Then, when it was time for take-off and everyone was comfortably seated with their items stowed, the captain informed us of a delay — the baggage compartment wouldn’t lock.  We waited and chatted, wondering if we would have to de-plane and reload before we took off.  Not to worry, the problem was resolved and we were on our way. I will say that flying coach for fourteen hours is a bit cramped and sleeping is difficult; however, we both did sleep for large chunks of time — even without taking the melatonin we packed.  We ate well (they even provided me with all gluten-free trays), we chatted, we read, and we watched three movies each as we crossed the Atlantic.

We arrived in Johannesburg and wondered how we would connect with our friend who was picking us up.  We didn’t think our cell phones would work in South Africa.  We didn’t know how long it would take to get through customs or how long we would wait for our bags.  Once again, not to worry.  We waited in line at customs for what seemed like fifteen minutes; our bags arrived in about that much time, too.  When we exited the secure area, our friend was right there, waiting to buy us bottled water and tea.

We had arrived unscathed in South Africa.

You would think that after twenty-four hours of travel we would have collapsed.  Not at all.  We arrived at our guest house and met our new friends.  This couple, retired teachers/administrators from Texas, have volunteered three months of their time to come alongside the teachers here in Middleburg.  They are observing, evaluating, coaching, and supporting these teachers.  Over glasses of South African red wine, we discovered our shared purpose and kindred spirits.  We chatted late into the evening.

The next morning, (and, yes, we slept that first night — despite our confused body clocks), we made our way to St. Peter Confessional Lutheran Church for its 27th Anniversary Celebration Worship.  I’m pretty sure that this service should have its own dedicated post, but let me summarize here by saying that for three and half hours my eyes were wide and my smile was broad as I witnessed these people singing, dancing, celebrating, and worshiping.

From there, we walked a short distance to the elementary school, which is called St. Peter’s Lutheran College.  At this site, we were ushered to VIP seating inside a tent.  Many people were acknowledged and recognized, we were entertained by a local jazz/brass ensemble, and then we were fed.  I suspect a whole post will be dedicated to the food and beverages we’ve enjoyed, but just know that the red carpet has been rolled out for us — this group of about a dozen Americans who have come to celebrate what God has done and dream about what He has yet to do here.

After the meal, we were entertained by a local group of male dancers and then a group of female dancers.  By this time, I will admit, I was utterly exhausted.  The festivities were wrapping up, so we headed back to our guest house where I decided to lie down for a few minutes.  After a short but intense power nap, I was whisked away to visit our friends, the Bersons.  We enjoyed snacks and more South African wine, played with our soon-to-be five year old “niece”, and were then delivered back to our guest home where we ‘slept the sleep of the dead.’  And that was just day one!

Yesterday, day two, we toured the preschool and the elementary school.  The schools are just several years old and have grown from several dozen students to almost 900 between the two sites.  Classrooms are crammed with bodies and very few resources, yet the children are well-behaved and very attentive to their instructors. Classrooms are continuously being built.

We ate lunch, then traveled about an hour to the home of a local naturopath — a doctor who uses nutrition, herbs, and the like to treat maladies.  He is partnering with one of St. Peter’s pastors to build a worship location where people can receive not only physical but spiritual healing.  Right now, about forty people are worshiping in his home/clinic every Sunday while they plan to build a worship site.

The doctor and his wife joined us for dinner and then we began our journey home.  My body was already in distress, but I was drinking in all the details. Over dinner, I heard the stories of a couple from Chicago who are on their third trip to this ministry.  I chatted with my husband and a friend from MI as we sat in the back seat of a van.  When we arrived back at the guest house, we sat up until late again, sipping great South African wine and sharing our observations and our hearts.

My body cried all night long; it wouldn’t let me sleep.  I wasn’t angry or disappointed  but rather apologetic.  “Yes, yes, I know.  I have expected so much of you, haven’t I? Shall we stay home today to rest, reflect, and recover?” A resounding yes could be heard throughout Middleburg.

Most of our group traveled today to another site — a location that wants to build an orphanage.  They will drive a bit, tour the site, eat lunch, then visit another site.  I am sorry to miss these experiences, but I am looking forward to joining the group this evening to hear their stories.

Right now I am drinking in details.  I am filing evidence in folders called ‘juxtaposition’, ‘contentment’, ‘vision’, and ‘commitment.’  I am learning, to be sure, but the fullness of the lessons has not yet been made clear.  I will keep you posted, but right now, I am going to put my feet up and enjoy being grounded.

Psalm 34:8

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

Prepared for What’s Next

Concordia University in Ann Arbor has a great tradition. At the end of welcome week activities, on the day before the first day of classes, the community convenes for an opening chapel before students, staff, and faulty head out into the community for a day of service.  Now, I realize that the idea of service is not unique to Concordia; many universities incorporate service into their school year and even into their back-to-school schedule.  Nevertheless, I love the way this day of service sets the tone for the school year and, actually, for life.

This morning, I attended the chapel service where several hundred students, all clad in “Go for the Gold — CUAA Day of Service” t-shirts, gathered to sing and hear the word of God.  Director of Campus Ministry, Randy Duncan, reminded students of the power of service to share the love of Christ with our community, and then the sea of red exited the chapel, boarded busses and left to work at area parks, businesses, and agencies.

Concordia has long been involved in service.  In fact, my husband and I drove by the now-abandoned Maxey Boys’ Training School in nearby Whitmore Lake this week.  At first we didn’t know what we were passing, and then my memory clicked.  Way back in the 1980s, when I attended Concordia, I volunteered with other students to visit the juvenile offenders imprisoned there.  It was just one of several opportunities that Concordia offered at the time for students to step into the surrounding community to connect with people.  I was also involved in visiting psychiatric patients at the Ypsilanti Regional Psychiatric Hospital (also now closed).  Before the days of HIPPA, we students were allowed beyond two locked doors to interact with the patients.  We played games, chatted, and sometimes even held worship services with the residents there.

Service, as I began to learn as a student at Concordia, didn’t just impact the people we served.  It changed me. My husband asked me as we drove by Maxey Boys’ the other day, what impact those experiences had on me.  It didn’t take more than a second for me to respond, “They prepared me for what was next.”  Little did I know when I was a student that my first job out of college would be to work in a group home for emotionally impaired adolescent females.  My experience with the incarcerated young men and with the psychiatric patients informed my ability to treat each of my clients as human beings with stories very different from mine.  I also taught in the former Lutheran School for the Deaf in inner city Detroit.  This white girl from rural Michigan was able to interact with kids from the city because I had be allowed opportunities to interact with individuals of all kinds through my service activities at Concordia. Any ignorant preconceived notions I might have held from the limited experience of my youth had already been challenged. My next teaching job was in a residential treatment facility for emotionally impaired youth. Again, I was exposed to individuals whose experience in life was drastically different from my own, but I was able, because of my previous experiences, to view each student as a life of value — as a person worthy of my time.

Concordia’s service opportunities, like those of other schools, extend throughout the year. Students still get the opportunity to visit residents of nursing homes, to intern at local congregations and hospitals, to volunteer at agencies throughout the Ann Arbor and Detroit communities, and to offer their time and talents in many other ways.

Each experience in life prepares us for what is next.  God is continually lining up opportunities for us so that we will have the knowledge and the tools to step into what He has planned for us down the road.  Today’s Concordia students have no idea what God has in store for their future, but I can guarantee that even the most seemingly insignificant interactions they have with people today will inform their view as they step into tomorrow.

Each of my early experiences shaped me and enabled me to step into the roles God had planned for me.  For ten years, we lived in St. Louis, MO.  While there, I taught in an inner city  public high school and an urban Lutheran School.  My husband and I also had the opportunity to live in the city neighborhood where he pastored a coffee house church.  Each of these experiences was different from anything we had done before,  and yet each utilized the skills and sensitivities we had gained from our past.

And now, God  has allowed us the privilege of coming back to Concordia Ann Arbor to be part of the team that provides opportunities to another generation of students so that they, too, will be prepared for what’s next.  It doesn’t get much better than this.

Galatians 5:13

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.