How are you doing?

Now that it’s become more obvious that we are actually doing this — social distancing at a minimum and possibly even sheltering in place or quantining…

Now that you’ve purchased groceries and supplies with a different mindset than you’ve likely ever had before…

Now that your daily life has been transformed and you’re working from home, working under extremely stressful circumstances, or not working at all…

Now that you’ve been physically separated indefinitely from loved ones — the aged, those who live far away, or those who you don’t dare risk exposing to something you might be carrying around…

Now that schools are closed and you’re feverishly preparing lessons to deliver virtually or you’re exhaustedly managing all your responsibilities while also navigating your children’s schooling or your finishing your own coursework from home…

Now that restaurants and bars can only provide take out…

And — gasp — now that hair salons have been ordered to close…

How are you doing?

Are you experiencing unexpected emotions? Are you afraid you’ll get sick or, worse, that someone you love — someone who is at risk — might get sick? Are you worried about finances — is your job insecure or has it already been eliminated? Are you disappointed that your plans — graduations, vacations, weddings — will likely be postponed or cancelled? Are you angry that this is happening right now and to this extreme?

I’m right there with you. I’ve been riding an emotional roller coaster and trying to find my we can do this attitude — and sometimes I can, but I’ve also found myself more defensive and snarly and volatile.

My husband asked me the other day if I was washing my hands after touching the laundry and my thickly sarcastic response almost left a mark, “No, dear, I’m actually not washing my hands seventy-five times a day.”

This is a lot, guys. In a matter of just a couple of weeks we have moved from business as usual to a starkly different reality. We’re all dealing with a lot — relocation, disappointment, financial stress, and possibly illness — and most of it is out of our control. It makes sense that we might be having some feelings about it all.

And what are we to do with all of these feelings?

If I’ve learned anything in the last several years, it’s that we do well to feel them — feel them all. Then talk about them, write about them, paint them, create them, notice them — feel them.

It’s not shameful to have feelings — it’s human.

Last week, I watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and one of the most significant scenes for me was when Mr. Rogers visited the bedside of his friend’s dying father. The family was gathered, aware of the reality, but nobody was able to speak it. Mr. Rogers, in his characteristic style, remarked that often people don’t like to talk about death — they consider it unmentionable. He then said, “Death is human. Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable is manageable.”

If you are having all kinds of emotions right now, that is human. And I am willing to bet that you know some other humans who are also having all kinds of emotions. We are not alone in our feelings right now. In fact, my pastor said this morning (his sermon is here) that “all of us are feeling isolated together”. Now is a very rare moment — a moment of world wide shared experience. A moment where many are reaching out and actually sharing the experience.

And during this time, we can mention the mentionable — we can speak about our fears, our worries, our disappointments, and our anger. These are all human responses, and they are mentionable.

When we are willing to mention them to one another, we might be surprised to find that they are manageable.

In the moments after I realized how harshly I had responded to my husband’s reasonable question yesterday, I quickly backpedaled, sputtering a few more comments in an attempt to recover, and finally saying, “We’re all doing our best right now.”

We are all doing our best to manage the manageable.

And we are bearing witness to one another — watching one another do our best. We see teachers practically moving mountains to deliver content in ways that they’ve never done before; we see our friends and celebrities popping up on social media reading stories, playing music, and posting encouragement; we see health care workers going in to work, putting themselves at risk to provide care; we see our spiritual leaders delivering God’s word through live streams, Instagram stories, and YouTube videos; we see grocery store staff scrambling to keep shelves stocked, offer delivery services, and provide sheltered hours for those at risk; we see one another stepping up and doing our literal very best.

So guys, when we have some feelings and they spill out onto one another — in rude comments, in unfiltered facial expressions, in clippy tones — let’s do our best to check in with one another. Instead of reacting, let’s pause, let’s ask one another how we’re doing, and let’s provide some space to share our feelings.

Over the past few days, I’ve found myself on the phone more than usual — talking with my parents, my children, and my friends. I’ve even joined several video chat platforms to participate in our small group Bible study, to watch our granddaughters jump into a pile of pillows, and tonight to catch up with a group of friends. I need the connection right now, probably because I’m having so many feelings.

I need to know that my people are ok. I want to hear how they are feeling. I want to tell them how I’m feeling.

This is time is unprecedented. It’s unsettling. We need each other, so let’s keep asking one another how we’re doing.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

I Thessalonians 5:11

Time Out

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On Wednesday, as I was leaving work, I heard a parent ask our center director what our plan was as the coronavirus epidemic became more serious. I kind of shrugged my shoulders and walked out the door. I figured it would all blow over while I was out for a couple of days to help my mom recover from shoulder replacement surgery.

By the time I arrived at my mom’s house two hours later, the NCAA had determined that March Madness would be played without spectators. Before I went to sleep that night, our governor had ordered all Michigan schools closed for three weeks. The next day, all NCAA sports for the rest of the season were cancelled, Disneyland closed, and all of us entered a new reality.

Each day brings more closures, more cancellations, and more restrictions. Most of us have been impacted at work, at school, or at home. Some have had to reconfigure their daily lives for the foreseeable future.

Consider a two-parent family with three school-aged children who regularly rely on day care and school while both parents go to work. When the schools and the day care close indefinitely, what are they to do? What if they are doctors? police officers? paramedics? nurses?

Or consider a single father who counts on his hourly wage to support his small child. What if his place of business closes for the next several weeks? How will he earn money to pay his rent or mortgage? to buy food and diapers?

People in all kinds of unexpected situations are scrambling! What will they do?

Since I’ve been away from my normal life for the last few days, I’ve been able to pause and observe the varied responses of the people I have interacted with in person, over the phone, through email, and on social media.

I’ve been a bit removed.

I haven’t been, like many, scrambling at work trying to determine how to sanitize, shut down, and communicate an action plan. I haven’t had the necessity to trouble-shoot child care or purchase extra groceries or devise a work-at-home strategy.

Many of you have been in the middle of all that, and I applaud you. You are doing the hard things and figuring it out.

I watched one family hire a displaced child care worker to care for their young children who can not go to school or day care for a few weeks. I’ve seen my workplace switch all of our in-person students to an online platform in the space of one 8-hour day, even while they met the immediate instructional needs of all of our students. I saw our church community first adapt our worship gatherings and then shift course to cancel all gatherings and then begin rallying our troops to reach out and meet the needs of those in our city.

You all are showing up, caring for one another, and rising to the occasion.

We can do that — we can rise to this occasion!

While all of this bustling was going on, my mom and I were looking for something to do as she sat in her chair resting and icing. She suggested we watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Tom Hanks playing Mr. Fred Rogers, beloved children’s television icon. I couldn’t help but be touched as I saw Mr. Rogers’ character teach the journalist who was interviewing him about appropriate ways to express emotion — how to manage fear and anger and sadness.

Aren’t we afraid and angry and sad? We’re angry that the store has run out of the things that we need. We’re afraid to go to work where we might get sick or unknowingly share a virus we might be carrying. We’re afraid of staying home for so long. We’re sad our plans — for trips, gatherings, and celebrations — are being cancelled for who knows how long. And what will we do with all those feelings?

Will we isolate? Will we lash out at those closest to us? Will we find ways to express how we’re feeling? Will we talk it out? write it down? cry?

I see some of you asking the hard questions — is this an overreaction? isn’t the flu even more dangerous than Covid 19? is this just the media’s attempt to whip us into a frenzy? And, I hear you. It does seem extreme.

However, whether we think the recommendations are overblown or not, they have moved beyond recommendations to directives. We’ve been told to create social distance, to avoid gatherings, and to stay at home. Nevertheless, even when the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and our governmental leaders all say to “shelter in place,” we still have some choices.

We can choose what to do with our feelings about this. We can grumble about how ridiculous all of it is; we can piss and moan and shake our fists in the air. We can push against the communal flow, or we can turn.

And maybe we need to.

It seems to me that for quite some time many of us have found ourselves positioned against one another, pointing fingers and shouting accusations. We’ve argued over everything from healthcare to guns to sexuality to abortion. We’ve gotten really good at converting our fear, our anger, and our sadness into attacks on each other. And how’s that been working out for us?

Do we feel good about the distance we’ve created with all this finger-pointing and name calling? How would we respond to our children acting this way? Would we allow them to continue, or would we give them a time out?

As we are forced to pause our lives in the midst of a political climate that is so emotionally charged, are we being offered a communal time out?

What if this virus, this quarantine, this season is an opportunity for us to check ourselves? What if being stopped dead in our tracks is giving us an opportunity to see that we’ve lost our way? What if we pause inside our homes, look at the people that we love, and decide that we can do better than we’ve been doing? What if we can choose right now to care for others regardless of the differences we’ve had with them in the past?

Mr. Rogers said that his mother responded to scary news by telling him to ‘look for the helpers’. This week I have seen many helpers. I’ve seen you reaching out to one another, being creative, and finding ways to encourage one another. You’re posting cheerful videos, providing suggestions for stay-at-home activities, and cheering one another on. I saw one dear old friend post a video of himself reading The Cat in the Hat and challenging others to post videos of themselves reading their favorite stories.

That’s the kind of people you are — the kind who show up in difficult situations to care for friends, strangers, and even those who tend to annoy you.

While I was cheering my mom on this week — encouraging her to exercise, helping her get dressed, and offering her ice cream cones — the world around was feeling a little chaotic, and still friends brought food, family delivered flowers, and others made phone calls, offered prayers, and provided guidance.

Many were helpers.

I think one way that I’ll deal with stress, fear, disappointment, and anger in the coming weeks is by watching how all of you show up for each other. I’ll be looking for the helpers and learning from them during this time out.

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Psalm 34:14

From Fear to Peace

If we weren’t already fretting and stewing — what with climate change, the presidential election, forest fires, and one report of sexual assault after the other — now we’ve got Covid-19, the corona virus. First it was just in China, then Italy and Iraq, but now it’s in Florida, New York, and even Indiana. Am I the only one who checks the map every day to see how far it has spread?

When I walk into work every morning, I see a sign taped to the door:

And, dutiful employee that I am, I take a pump on my way to the time clock.

The other morning, a potential new employee came to our suite. I heard the doorbell and went to let her in, “Hi, I’m Kristin,” I said as I offered her my hand. She looked a little startled, but she took my hand, and then, when we were done shaking, immediately spotted a bottle of hand sanitizer and took her pump.

I wasn’t offended. This bug is real, and all of us are being a little more diligent about washing our hands, disinfecting surfaces, and covering our coughs in the bends of our elbows. We are doing everything we can to prevent contamination and contagion.

However, Covid 19 isn’t the only thing that’s catching — a culture of fear has been infecting humanity, and it didn’t start with the corona virus. This high-alert culture has been gaining speed by way of the twenty-four hour news cycle that becomes increasingly theatrical what with it’s dramatic musical themes and foreboding voice overs. It’s been fueled by Twitter (not to mention Reddit) threads that provide a venue for instant confrontation between strangers who virtually shout accusations and point fingers. And it’s been stoked by public figures who use their platforms to raise anxiety rather than suggest solutions, provide reassurance, or take action.

And we are quickly becoming a society that scurries through life, checking our phones, looking over our shoulders, and distilling its opinions into 280-character statements that it frantically flings into the cosmos.

We are scared — scared of disease, scared of climate change, scared of war and fire and crime and each other.

Drunk on adrenaline and cortisol, we stumble through our days, checking our news feeds, judging (and berating) those we don’t agree with, and posting carefully curated photos to convince our friends (and ourselves) that we’re fine — really, we’re better than fine.

But then we lie awake at night worrying about if we have enough money to pay our bills, if our kids are alright, if we will indeed catch the corona virus, or if that old white dude will win the election. The worries keep cycling in our minds, and we can’t get back to sleep, so we open our phones and start scrolling to see if anything has changed. But guess what? It hasn’t, yet we keep scrolling and posting, thinking that we’re up anyway, so what will it hurt, not realizing, that we are merely adding more fuel to the fire.

When we finally drop the phone back on the night stand, we feel no better than when we picked it up — only more tired, more worried, and more unable to sleep.

How can we break this cycle? How do we protect ourselves from the pervasive fear epidemic that is infecting all of humanity?

Prayer.

It’s that simple.

You may think it’s corny. You may be thinking to yourself, “oh, geez, here she goes with that Christian stuff again,” but let me tell you, prayer is the only thing that calms my fears. The only thing.

I’ve tried logic: making claims, gathering evidence, and providing reasoning.

I’ve tried self-determination: see the last five years of my blog for anecdotal evidence of how that worked out.

I’ve tried blaming everyone around me for what’s wrong in the world — predators, politicians, and people who don’t think like I do. All that does is make me angry on top of scared.

The only effective way of dealing with fear, is surrender. And it’s so counter-intuitive that it takes me way too long to get there. I try all other strategies first every time. I come up with a good plan, I try to work the plan, and then when the plan doesn’t work out, I blame myself and everyone around me for the failure.

Then, weeping and wailing, I crawl into an empty room, open up my notebook or my laptop, and begin to write. Often I start with raging and railing vitriol — oh, the injustices!, then I move to grief — oh, the agony!, and then to the realization that my writing has become a prayer.

You see all this, don’t you? You see how we are pointing at one another and shouting accusations. You see how angry we are, how hurt, how afraid. And you are the One who can change this — You can stop a virus. You can restore the earth. You can make us whole. You can bring us together. And will you? Will you please? Will you stop this virus dead in its tracks? Will you show us how to do better at taking care of all you have created — plants, animals, and the people we love? Will you show us how to open our clenched fists? Will you fill us with love and understanding for one another? Will you show us how to to bring our fears to you?

And I find I’ve brought them to Him, and I’ve trusted that He will make a way when it seems there is no way. He will wipe the tears of those who grieve. He will sit beside me when I’m lying awake at night, and He will invite me to tell Him all that is on my mind. And He will listen. He will change my fear into compassion; He will motivate me to take action — to not let worry paralyze me, but to let it propel me.

When I pray, when I share my heart with the One who created me, fear floats away and peace descends.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

Close Contact

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Last week I spent both of my posts on the positive impact that community can have on us — how choosing to spend time with others can provide an environment in which change can happen. When we feel loved and accepted, we can let down our guards, open our minds, and be open to new ways of thinking and being.

However, spending time in close proximity to others does come with risk. The moments we spend with others — our family, our community — are not often picture perfect; frequently they are characterized by friction, collision, and pain.

In fact, when I look back on the mental movie of my life, I can see the people I love most standing nearby as I have yelled, thrown things, and slammed doors; they’ve born witness as I’ve lain wounded, cried, and struggled to get back up. What impact must these moments have had on the bystanders? I am sure they left marks on the people I love most. And when I sit with that truth, my body aches.

But, here’s the thing: we can’t avoid leaving marks on the people we love the most.

We. are. broken.

All of us.

And when broken people come close to one another, we hurt one another.

Hurt people hurt people.

And all of us — from time to time — are hurting.

I remember one particularly difficult morning during the soldiering years when our whole family was headed to join a gathering of friends for a meal. Everyone else was ready and waiting, but I was upset about something — probably a larger internal issue — and I couldn’t get comfortable with the way I looked. I closed the bathroom door, tore everything out of the cabinets, and began violently cleaning and rearranging as I cried. I was hurting so badly, but I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know how I could pull on a face that would not expose my pain for public viewing. My husband and my children — all in middle and high school by this time — could certainly hear me wailing and slamming as they watched the clock, knowing we were going to be late. When finally I emerged, tears wiped, make-up applied, and silent, they watched cautiously as I climbed in the car. We all rode quietly to the event, where I took a deep breath, got out of the car, and engaged appropriately (or at least more appropriately) with those who had gathered.

What impact did that make? How did I affect my children and my husband, all of whom were also hurting during this period, by processing in this way — behind closed doors — and then presenting a different face to those who were one step removed? What was I teaching them about pain? About emotion? About friendship? About community?

Of course many experience bigger hurts than my emotional melt down. When families and communities experience accidents, trauma, or disaster, all feel the blows and carry the resulting injuries. If one member of the family is injured in a car accident, everyone’s life gets bumped out of its rhythm — all those who care stop what they are doing, show up on the scene, rally to help, and adjust their schedules until further notice. When one person is the victim of a crime, all in the vicinity feel the violation — they experience fear, anger, grief, agony — sometimes for years after the fact. When someone in the family loses their house to fire or their livelihood is destroyed by hurricane, the impact can be felt by the children, the parents, and the whole community who might see the course of their lives redirected for decades in the wake of such devastation.

Not every hurt is remarkable, of course, some impacts go virtually unnoticed. Others are among the everyday bumps and bruises incurred with close contact.

The other morning, my husband of almost thirty years was driving me to work on one of the coldest mornings of the year. We were chatting matter-of-factly as he drove when something he said struck a cord and I felt defensive. I heard myself respond directly, and soon I knew my reply was sharper than I’d intended when I heard his tone change, too. Before we knew it, we were both feeling agitated and exchanging charged comments. We arrived at the office building where I work, said our goodbyes, and both tried to proceed into our days carrying the bumps and bruises from that conversation.

Now, because we’ve been married for almost thirty years and because we’ve done the heavy lifting that has taught us how to repair, he texted me within moments and I texted back. We both acknowledged our part in the conflict and agreed to table our discussion until later. We’d both felt the pain of contact, but we were willing to back up, reassess, and try a different approach that wouldn’t cause damage.

When you are willing, you can experience growth and change in your relationships with others. Over time, having experienced many collisions and close calls, you can learn how to navigate more safely, how to give each other a wide berth, how to forgive missteps and even outright hurtfulness.

In fact, if you are going to stay in relationships with people, you are going to have to learn how to consider one another, how to forgive one another, and how to give one another chance after chance after chance, because when we live in close proximity, we bump into each other, and sometimes it hurts.

It can be painful to think about the impact that our choices, patterns, and words have had on those closest to us. We want so badly to get it all right, but we never will. So, we trudge on, doing what we can.

We don’t have to — we don’t have to keep trying, keep trudging. We have options.

We could avoid this hurt altogether. We could choose to live as individuals — insulating ourselves from others so that we don’t hurt them and so that they don’t hurt us — but what would we lose in so doing?

We would lose the opportunity to love, to learn, to grow. We would lose the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven. We would lose the chance to laugh together, to share experiences, and to weep with one another.

This morning at church, right before I witnessed my friend and her husband give bread and wine to her aging father, right before I saw them, along with our pastor, envelop him in a hug and pray for him, I heard these words:

…what if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life?

Where is there some “self” which has not been communally created? By cutting

back our attachments and commitments, the self shrinks rather than grows.”

Stanley Hauerwas

In my closest relationships I have experienced the deepest pain, and I have felt the fullest joy. Knowing I will continue to experience both the pain and the joy, I will not cut back my attachments; I will not shrink into myself. I will open my arms and embrace the brokenness that is inherent to all relationships, because our truest selves are indeed made from the materials of our communal life.

“Be kind to one another — tenderhearted, forgiving one another — even as God, for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.”

Ephesians 4:32

Tempted by Despair; Choosing Hope

And just as I’ve set my resolve to Take Care and to Be Kind for the holidays, just as we’ve decked our halls humming fa-la-la-la-la, I find myself with a weight on my chest and a lump in my throat.

It’s December 1, the first Sunday in Advent, and I am sitting here talking myself away from the ledge of despair. Why? One innocent Instagram post suggested that my hopes might be disappointed — that all my resolve-setting, and hall-decking might not end up in joyful reunions, restored celebrations, or a meeting of healed hearts.

After all of our healing work and intentionality, we might still find ourselves broken.

I can’t bear to face that reality. I can’t imagine the possibility of another holiday sprinkled with tears and punctuated by slammed doors followed by hours of silence. But I am beginning to imagine it, just as I was beginning to have hope.

I was beginning to picture smiling embraces, laughter at the table, and intimate conversations filled with sustained eye contact. In my mind, I saw four generations sharing stories, sitting closely, leaning in. I imagined games and coloring and gifts and food. I saw tenderness, forgiveness, cuddling, and love.

These images were born out of longing — a longing for restoration, for healing, for reconciliation, for an end to a long, long season of grief.

All year, we’ve been removing layers of mourners’ clothing — a black veil here, a grey dress there — and we’ve been eyeing the party gowns in the closet. Do we dare to hope that we might be celebrating? That we might kill the fatted calf, invite all the neighbors, and make a feast to announce the return of joy?

We’ve prepared rooms — fluffed all the pillows, set out new towels, and lined the manger with straw — but what if no one comes? Or what if they come, and they leave disappointed?

What if the gifts are not right, the food too much (or too little), the conversations strained, and the accommodations inadequate? What if there is no joy?

I can’t, I won’t entertain those doubts.

I won’t feed my longing with manufactured images of despair. I won’t, sitting here hungry, imagine a table filled with rancid food. I will hold onto hope.

We’ll prepare the space, hold onto hope, and wait.

Sarah Bessey wrote on her blog this weekend: Advent simply means “coming” – so for me, it is about the waiting. When people talk about “living in the tension” I think of Advent. It’s the time when we prepare to celebrate his birth and we also acknowledge that we are waiting here still for every tear to be wiped away.

And as I’m waiting for them to be wiped away, they just keep coming.

We’ve come so far! We have seen evidence that all things are being made new — the blind receive their sight, the sick are made well, we’ve had good news preached to us, and then one Instagram post can send me reeling.

I spiral quickly from choosing hope to drowning in despair.

Like Sarah Bessey, I need my Saviour who suffers with us, my God who weeps, who longs to gather us to himself as a mother hen gathers her chicks.

I need to be gathered, just as I long to gather my own, to hold them close, to provide warmth and comfort, and to feel their warmth and their comfort.

I am longing for that warmth. That comfort.

Advent is for the ones who know longing, says Sarah Bessey.

And, if she’s writing about longing, she probably is familiar with it — that ache, that desire, that wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night hunger for wholeness, for healing, for restoration.

I’ve been so caught up — for actual years now — in longing for the restoration of my family and for healing for those I love, for peace in our world, for an end to violence, poverty, hunger, and pain. I’ve been feeling my brokenness.

We’re all broken — every last one of us.

We all are longing to be made whole, aren’t we? We’re longing for all things to be made new. We are watching in the distance for the arrival of a Savior who, we trust, is coming to gather us into His arms.

And He. Is. Coming.

In fact, He is here. He is already making everything new. We see evidence all around us — when long-lost friends reunite, when we share small kindnesses with strangers, when we realize we are forgiven.

We rejoice when we see these glimmers of hope, and we will celebrate even more when we finally see every broken piece put back into place.

We will see every broken piece put back into place.

And in the mean time, we’ll deck our halls, fluff our pillows, and make some room.

And I will continue to hope, even if reality doesn’t meet my expectation — if my gifts are all wrong, the food doesn’t turn out, and if everyone leaves disappointed. Because although I am longing for restoration, I know that it comes in ways that I don’t always expect and that I don’t always recognize.

Small glimmers accumulate over time…and then all at once, He wipes every tear from our eyes.

I will not lose hope, because Hope. Has. Come.

And He is coming again.

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Revelation 22:20

Warning Flags!

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I got up early one day this week and headed into work with an extra spring in my step. I was looking forward to some concentrated time to attend to several tasks that needed to be completed by the end of the week and was expecting about two hours of almost uninterrupted time to focus on them. I was charged up to be super productive, and I drove to work practically whistling “Hi ho, Hi ho!”

I parked my car, walked into the building, and ascended two flights of stairs, excited to get right at my work. However, when I walked into our office and saw our office assistant on the phone, I had an uneasy feeling. A 7:55am phone call could mean one of two things: 1) a student was cancelling instruction, or 2) a staff member was calling in late or sick.

I quickly learned that it was the second option, and I would need to cover a session with a student, sacrificing one of my coveted hours of uninterrupted work.

My inspiration and positive attitude quickly turned to frustration and irritation. I mentally stomped through the center gathering materials, grumbling under my breath about how I would be behind for the rest of the day.

I was annoyed, and it was going to take real work to shift my attitude.

Now, I love working with students, but this was not the morning I had expected. The plan that had me whistling and practically skipping into work had been altered, and my psyche was flung from enthusiasm to disappointment. I had to take action so that I could still give my student — and myself — a quality hour of instruction.

With set jaw, I mentally talked myself down — certainly I can recover from one lost hour. I could ask our office assistant to reschedule an appointment, I thought, logging into my computer. I could still get everything done. My blood pressure was coming down; it’ll be ok, I thought. Then, I settled in with my student.

By the time we were finished with our surprisingly fun and effective session, I had mentally realigned my tasks and developed a new set of expectations for how the rest of my morning would go.

And then, you guessed it, my office manager informed me that after my meeting, I would have to take another student hour and sacrifice my newly adapted plan.

I bet you are thinking that at the second change in plans, I much more easily adapted.

Nope.

I am quite sure my face said it all, “I am not happy. This is not how I pictured my day going.” I glowered and muttered a few discontented comments as I looked at my calendar and my list of tasks. I was definitely and obviously frustrated.

Once again, I talked myself down: Ok, Ok, shift this here, shift that there. It’ll be fine. Come on; you’re a professional. I completed a couple of tasks and then moved into the meeting. I celebrated with a parent who shared some great news, I fully enjoyed my second hour of instruction, and I did, actually, manage to once again redistribute my work and make another plan for its completion before the end of the week.

Everything I was hoping to get done, would get done; it just wouldn’t happen in the way that I had expected.

So here’s the question: why did these small interruptions make me so upset? Why couldn’t I more easily shift gears? Why did I get emotional at each transition?

I retold this saga to my husband when I got home that day, still kind of simmering emotionally. “Why,” I asked him, “why did this make me so upset? I hate feeling this way! I want to be a team player, to go with the flow, to step in and help. Why is it so hard for me to shift gears?”

He, the therapist, said, “That’s your flag. When you respond to something in a way that seems off, you need to ask yourself why.”

As we talked some more, we unearthed a couple of things that were bothering me — some stressors that I hadn’t been realizing were stressors– and I made a plan to address them.

By the next day I was able to communicate some of those frustrations with the people who had the ability to do something about them. This allowed me to stop burying my emotions and, rather, express them appropriately.

I am feeling stretched thin. I am disappointed by this reality. I don’t feel heard.

When I stated my grievances, I was told, “Please be sure to share these things when they come up; don’t carry them around for so long.” But, you know what? I didn’t know how much I was bothered until I started paying attention to the flags.

When my husband said, “That’s your flag,” several images popped up in my mind of other times recently when my emotions flipped like a switch as a result of seemingly insignificant circumstances. I thought to myself, I’ve been overreacting to small things for quite a few weeks. I guess I have been more bothered than I was aware.

This has, of course, happened throughout my life. I’ve snapped at an inconvenience, I’ve growled at a surprise turn of events, and I’ve stomped and slammed when the people in my life didn’t behave in the way that I expected them to. However, rather than noticing these behaviors as flags, I often just chided myself and felt guilty for reacting so emotionally.

I saw myself as too emotional — I cried too much, laughed too loud, and had big emotional responses to almost everything. But I’ve come to see my emotions as a gift — they reveal what’s going on inside of me when I am unaware, and they stand by the side of the road, waving bright red flags so that I’ll stop and take notice. They draw my attention to internal hurts and frustrations so that I will do the work that allows me to be present for others.

Paying attention to the flags this week helped me unearth the real issues. I was never upset that a coworker called in or that I needed to work with a student when I wasn’t planning on it. I was upset for legitimate reasons that had nothing to do with the current situation. I just wasn’t allowing myself to admit it.

Now that I’ve acknowledged some underlying stressors and have some strategies for managing them, I’m hoping to have a more balanced response to the unexpected changes that will undoubtedly arise this week. Maybe when my plans get rearranged, I’ll be able to roll with the punches, unfazed.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4:6

Off the couch, at the table

Trying something new. Click above to listen to me read this post.

I recently wrote a post, On and Off the Couch, which was both an acknowledgement that I had been grieving some substantial losses for quite some time and an announcement that I was ready to move away from that period. A recent experience helped me take the first steps.

While I was still sitting on my dilapidated pleather couch, the University of Michigan reached out to me — would I be willing to participate in a study the Nursing School was conducting? The participation requirements were that you a) be over 50, b) have a chronic illness, and c) have a wifi connection. The study would take 6-8 weeks, and upon completion, I would receive a $150 gift card.

Well, why not? Since I’ve lived in this little house by the river, I have been open to experimentation. In fact, I once even called myself a lab rat! What did I have to lose? The goal of the study is to determine if ongoing nursing care can impact the lives of those with chronic illness. Let’s find out.

Going into the study, I was picturing that a nurse would come to my house, clipboard in hand, checking boxes to make sure that my home environment was safe. I was guessing that she would give me some tasks to do. I knew that I would be expected to make a voice recording every day and to meet with my nurse via video conference once a week.

I was not anticipating being nudged off the couch and supported into a new rhythm of life. I did not see that coming.

Yes, I was ready. The couch was sodden from all the tears I had shed on it and was practically disintegrating under me. I could see that I was going to have to stand up soon, but I gotta tell you, I was still pretty comfortable, so I was lingering for as long as possible.

Then in walked this nurse, who sat across the table from me, asking me some non-threatening questions and inviting me to set some goals. What types of change was I interested in making, she asked.

I told her all the changes I had already made — practicing yoga, avoiding gluten and dairy (and now corn), and writing every day. I said, “If there is any stone that has yet to be turned over, it is probably addressing my weight. Since chronic illness benched me from running in 2013, I have gradually put on about 10 pounds.”

I wouldn’t say I am overweight, but I am not overly thrilled with the way I look, even if by lifestyle I have diminished most of the symptoms of my illness and I feel the best I’ve felt in years. I keep trying to decide if I should just be content and accept this as how I look as a 50-something woman, or if I should try to make a change.

I don’t overeat. I do yoga usually five or more days a week, and I often go for a 20-30 minute walk sometime during the day. What more could I do to drop some of this weight?

“Maybe,” I suggested to the nurse, “my husband and I need to stop eating our dinner on the couch in front of the TV. Maybe we should go back to eating dinner at the table.”

I cringed as I said it. I didn’t want to make this commitment. We had established quite a rhythm during the Season of the Couch. Come home, utter a few words to one another, fill our plates, and plunk down in front a string of meaningless shows. It was quite comfortable. We were together, after all, and we didn’t need to say a lot. Couldn’t we just continue coexisting in our misery?

But I knew, I knew, it was a change that needed to happen.

We were the ones who, when our children were small, ate all our meals at the table. We all ate a big breakfast together before the kids left for school and he left for work. Those who were home with me ate lunch at the table. At dinner, we all gathered for a sit down meal — no matter how fatigued we were, how distressing the conversations got, or how many glasses of milk were spilled (typically three). Although it was sometimes stressful, we valued the face time this gave us as a family.

Even when the kids were teens, we still made an effort to eat breakfast in close proximity to one another (maybe standing with a bagel or a bowl of cereal in hand) and come together for dinner. I’d be lying if I said that every meal was blissful and meaningful — they were not. However, this rhythm allowed a check-in, a reading of the temperature of the room, a moment to gauge the health of the family and the individuals in it. It was sometimes difficult to look all that hurt straight on, but we continued.

I think when we moved — just the two of us — to this little house by the river, we started out at the table. It was natural. He was working all day, and I was taking some time off. Making dinner and setting the table gave me a project in the afternoon. We would sit across from one another, sharing a re-telling of the day, making plans for the upcoming weekend, or discussing a planned purchase or a current event.

But when our bottom fell out and we found ourselves scrambling for something to hold onto, we landed on the sectional in the living room, plates in hands, eating quietly, and watching Jeopardy or Law and Order. It was a comfort to be together, not talking, just existing in our grief.

So we stayed there.

Until I uttered those words, “maybe we need to stop eating our dinner on the couch in front of the TV.”

When I said them, the nurse asked me, “Will your husband be open to that?”

“Well,” I said, “I think he’ll initially grumble a little, but I think he knows we need this change, too. I think he’ll be on board,”

And he was. When I told him my goals, he gave a sigh, then said, “Yeah, I’m in.”

We started that evening. I made dinner, we filled our plates, and instead of walking toward the couch, we sat at the table, across from each other, and practiced having conversation over dinner.

“What was your day like?”

“Have you spoken to any of the kids today?”

“How are your parents doing?”

It was a little awkward at first, using those conventions that we hadn’t used in quite a while, but over time, we remembered how to have a conversation over dinner. We found the rhythm of clearing our plates and putting away leftovers together. We discovered that we can watch a television show or two in the evening rather than scrolling through several.

It might not seem like a big deal, but it was one of the first steps in getting us off the couch and out of the season of grieving.

I met my nurse, Karen, about six weeks ago. My husband and I have carried our plates to the living room three times since then. All of the other nights we’ve eaten together at a table, either at home together or out with friends or family.

We’re talking to each other; we’re laughing. It sometimes feels like we’re celebrating.

And, in a sense we are. Our reason for grieving hasn’t changed, but we have reason to hope that God is in the process of making all things new.

I haven’t lost any weight — not the kind that can be weighed on the scale. Instead, I’ve found some joy that I was beginning to think I wouldn’t feel again.

It seems to me that ongoing nursing care can make a difference in the lives of people with chronic illness (and chronic grief). I’m thankful to Karen and the University of Michigan Nursing School for giving me the opportunity to participate in this study.

I’m not sure this is the kind of change they were hoping to make, but it was the kind of change that we needed.

I will turn their mourning into joy;

    I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

Jeremiah 31:13

On and Off the Couch

Five years ago, when I moved into the little house by the river, I was exhausted and physically ill. For the first time probably since my childhood, I gave myself permission to plop on the couch and be unproductive. I didn’t come to this on my own — my medical team had advised it, and my husband had supported it. I needed some time to let my body recover from years of hard work. I needed to exit crisis mode and hit ‘reset’.

This is no news to you if you’ve read my blog — in fact, one of the reasons I began to write was that I was, for the first time in over thirty years, not going to be working or caring for children. I had no idea what I would do with myself if I didn’t come up with a daily task. And, writing proved, as you might have guessed, one of the means for healing. The pouring out of thoughts onto a page allows them to be seen and felt. In the seeing and feeling, the healing begins.

So, the first layer of healing began with time on the couch and a commitment to writing. I spent a lot of time on the couch (and in bed, and in a chair, and on the floor). I drank countless cups of tea and have now written over 400 blog posts in addition to the countless pages that I have written in spiral notebooks and journals in the past few years.

That decision to spend some time on the couch and to commit time to writing every day laid the foundation for a much more thorough mental and spiritual healing that would follow the initial physical healing. I didn’t know it at the time, but the first six months in the little house by the river, was a dress rehearsal for the next several years.

In addition to the physical fatigue and illness that I brought with me to Ann Arbor, our whole family also carried with us some deep wounds from years of dysfunction. Some of that dysfunction was not too atypical — a family doing too much, trying too hard, and overlooking critical moments and emotions in the frenzy of day-to-day living. However, some larger issues were less than typical– eating disorder, depression, alcoholism, and sexual assault. And even writing the words, I realize that though these were devastating, they are not as atypical as I would like to believe.

And I think that’s part of the reason I keep writing about them. Sure, it is hard to admit that our family — the one for which I had high hopes for perfection — suffered in ways that we had never expected, but just as surely, pain happens to everyone. Every one of us suffer.

And so, when, a couple years into life in this house by the river, we looked our pain full in the face and crawled back onto the couch and cried and cried and cried. I didn’t stop writing. I didn’t retreat into my room, as I had in the past, to “close the door and draw the blinds”. I didn’t want to air each of our private pains publicly, but I also didn’t want to hide the fact that we were indeed hurting. I am not sure it was a conscious choice at the time — after all, I was lying wounded on the side of the road bandaged and bleeding; how much clarity can you have in that situation? However, I believe I instinctively knew that my recovery was dependent on my writing — writing that was honest and transparent.

I didn’t write the details — I guess each of us can fill in our own. We can all find ourselves on the couch, immobilized, hurting, and in need of a re-set.

And I am here to tell you that resets happen. People get off couches. They start walking. They begin to smile. They feel hope again.

It doesn’t come quickly. Some people find themselves plunked in a great big sectional sofa for a couple of years or more. In fact, they’ve been there so long that the sofa itself takes on an appearance of grief, anguish, and decay, and they hardly notice. They sink into dilapidation, and it feels like home. So they stay there, watching Netflix night after night after night.

But slowly, gradually, light starts peeking in from behind the blinds, and they start to notice that the couch is visibly tired of performing this service.

It’s served its term.

So they stand up. They start taking walks, dreaming dreams, and envisioning a world where every day isn’t laden with grief. They start picturing places that exist away from the couch — places inhabited by people and experiences and opportunities. Venturing out seems a little daunting at first, so they proceed with caution — a coffee date here, a shopping trip there.

Soon they realize they are meeting in groups outside of their home, not only to gather support to sustain them in their long hours on the couch, but also to share support, love, and friendship. They discover they have energy for a walk before dinner, shopping in the afternoon, and rearranging the furniture.

But that sectional takes up so much space — what with the grief lying all over it, spilling over the edges.

It’s got to go.

It’s all part of the reset. Room must be made for the new — new experiences, new dreams, new life.

So out it goes.

And just like that, a weight is lifted. A corner is turned. A brightness is felt.

Imagine the possibilities of life away from the couch. A life of dinners at the table, of walking in the park, of meeting up with friends. Of laughter, of joy.

I am here to tell you that resets happen.

I am here to tell you that I am off the couch.

Now –if you’re slunk down in the cushions, chest sprinkled with potato chip crumbs, staring at a television playing mindless shows with laugh tracks, I have not one ounce of judgment for you. I only offer this: when you have cried countless tears and lain awake long nights, when you have thought that you will never feel joy again, hold on.

It may be a while, but the light will peek in from behind the blinds, and you, too, will find yourself rising from the couch. You’ll start walking. You’ll find yourself smiling. You will again begin to feel hope.

I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

We are all Learning

It was an extraordinary day that I’ve been thinking about for a week.

It started when one of the people I love called me at 7 am to admit a failure at work. Some words had been spouted toward a coworker — the kind that aren’t easily called back. Supervisors had gotten involved and, rather than meting out punishment, had normalized the situation saying something like, “We are all learning. We want to support you as you grow through this.”

As I hung up that phone call, a nurse arrived at my door. I’ve agreed to be part of a study in which I set some goals to improve my health or quality of life, I track my progress, and this nurse follows my path, provides coaching and encouragement, and we see what happens.

Perfectionist that I tend to be — I immediately identified a few habits that I am ashamed of and stated my intention of eliminating them. The nurse, fellow human that she is, reminded me that we are just setting goals — some days we will meet them, some days we won’t. That’s how life is.

We are all learning. Not one of us has it all together. She wants to support me as I grow through this.

When the nurse left, I started listening to a sermon I’d missed a few days prior. We’ve been in a series on Exodus for several weeks, hearing about the Israelites’ journey through slavery, the plagues God used against Pharoah, and — this week — the miraculous rescue of the Israelites.

They’d been suffering in slavery for four hundred years and just like that, he swoops in with shock and awe and delivers them out of slavery.

And you have to ask yourself why? Why did He wait so long?

And then, once he had parted the Red Sea and delivered them from the Egyptians, why did He allow them to wander in the wilderness for an additional 40 years? Couldn’t He have spared them so much pain? Didn’t He see their difficulty? Couldn’t He tell they were lost?

And questions like that lead me to why? why did you let me continue in my soldiering for so. damn. long. Why didn’t you send a messenger much earlier? Wouldn’t you have spared us all so much pain? Didn’t you see the difficulty? Didn’t you see the looming consequences? Couldn’t you tell we were lost?

And I hear our pastor, Gabe Kasper, say, “In the difficulty of the wilderness, God shapes His people…God will place us in difficult circumstances, in challenging situations, in order to shape and form our character…and to strengthen our faith.”

We are all learning. Only One of us has it all figured out. He wants to support us as we grow through this.

I can see it. I can. I can see how through that difficulty my character has been formed. The most desperate of situations have pressed me to make new choices, live differently, and see clearly. They have, indeed, strengthened my faith.

I was lying on the table of my physical therapist the other morning, chatting about some recent develops in the long journey we are on, when she said, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

I’m ready.

As the Israelites stood next to the not-yet-parted Red Sea, the Egyptian army bearing down upon them, Moses said, “Fear not. Stand firm. And see the salvation of the Lord which He will work for you today. The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be silent.”

I have only to be silent.

I was sitting in an instructional meeting at work — me, an educator for the last thirty years — and I found myself being challenged to consider how my tone, my energy, and my language can motivate or demotivate my students. How the nuance of my voice, its inflection, and my message can make or break a lesson. The presenter said that we should use language that is calm, neutral, and assertive to direct our students toward their tasks. We should use messages like, “Read this paragraph, starting here,” in a calm tone, as we point to the page and then wait expectantly. When we give a clear direction and the space to respond, we provide safety — a secure spot for our students to step into.

And safety is everything!

Knowing I am safe, emboldens me to take a chance — try reading the words or even make a mistake. If I feel safe, I can try, because I don’t fear judgment or punishment or embarrassment. When I’m given direction from a calm, neutral, assertive voice, I don’t feel bribed, used, or threatened. I feel free.

The nurse from the study spoke in a calm, neutral voice, offering reassurance as we wrote out my goals. She showed me how to record my progress and scheduled our visits for the next eight weeks when she will check in and offer support.

I breathe easily, I know I’ll be ok whether I meet my goals or not — whether I walk more, watch less television, or sit on the couch all day.

Moses (perhaps in a calm, neutral voice) said, “Fear not. Stand firm. And see the salvation of the Lord which He will work for you today. The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be silent.” The Israelites bravely stood there; the Red Sea was parted, and they walked through on dry ground to safety. When their pursuers followed, the sea un-parted and swallowed them up.

Now, long story short, the Israelites didn’t immediately apply all the lessons they’d learned from their time in slavery or from this amazing rescue, so they ended up wandering around in the wilderness for an additional 40 years, so that God could continue to shape them and turn their hearts back to Him.

And, coincidentally, after my rescue from the soldiering years, I did not immediately apply all the lessons I learned, so I ended up walking through some additional challenges through which God has continued to shape me and turn my heart back to Him.

Just yesterday, our pastor delivered the truth that I’ve been clinging to– the words that let me know I’m safe and that I can step into this learning day after day — “God in His sovereignty is in control of whatever situation I am in.” He, the one who has been with me through the soldiering, through every difficulty, through every rescue, through every lesson, is in control.

He keeps showing up because He wants me to know that He is the Lord my God. He knows I’m just learning, and He wants to support me as I grow through this.

He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.

2 Sam 22:20

Game Tapes

A couple of weeks ago, the Michigan State Spartans, in the last moments of a tight game against the Arizona State Sun Devils, attempted a field goal to tie the game and send it into overtime. Although Matt Coghlin put the ball cleanly through the goal posts, the field goal was disqualified because the Spartans had twelve men (rather than eleven) on the field at the time of the kick. They were given a five yard penalty before another shot at the kick, but Coghlin’s second attempt went wide right. The Sun Devils won the game 10-7.

It wasn’t until the next day, after countless replays of the game tape, that officials admitted that a Sun Devil defender had illegally leapt over the Spartan offensive line during the second field goal attempt which should have resulted in a fifteen yard penalty and a third attempt at the field goal. The referees had missed the call.

If the Spartans would’ve only had eleven men on the field, if Coghlin would’ve made the second field goal attempt, or if the officials would’ve seen the violation, MSU would’ve tied the game and sent it into overtime.

They should’ve had that chance because they should’ve only had 11 on the field, Coghlin should’ve made that kick, and the officials should’ve seen the violation.

I wonder if any players, coaches, or refs have replayed those tapes and thought to themselves that it could’ve gone much differently. The Spartans could’ve had a win. The Sun Devils could’ve lost.

But all the would’ve, should’ve, and could’ve won’t turn back the clock and change the result. It is what it is. What happened happened.

We watch ‘game tapes’, too, don’t we? We rewind to times of difficulty, loss, or failure and review in slow motion the exact moment where things might’ve gone differently. We try deleting scenes and inserting new clips, but it doesn’t work. The film is indelible. It is what it is. What happened happened.

My husband and I recently took a trip to St. Louis, mostly so that he could officiate at a wedding, but also so that we could bear witness to some old films. We lived in St. Louis for ten years, and surely we had moments of both victory and defeat, but it probably won’t surprise you to learn that our eyes were drawn to the twelve-men-on-the-field/missed-field-goal moments and not as as much to times of celebraton.

A drive through our old neighborhood pressed play on events surrounding our unspoken broken — memories of what we witnessed, what we missed, and what we can’t change. A stop at a traffic light on a busy road called forth images of a broken down car, a frantic teen, and a failure to understand the layers of pain underneath the surface. A walk through our old grocery store took me right back to the soldiering days of fitting in shopping between school and workouts and dance lessons and soccer games.

What a harried life we led. We were doing so much and moving so fast, that we didn’t take the time to assess the damages along the way. We didn’t watch the game tapes in the moment, so we kept making the same mistakes over and over again.

And now that I’ve finally taken the time to view the tapes, I can’t seem to look away. I rewind again and again, slowly analyzing missteps, oversights, and outright failures. I get trapped in regret and what ifs and I feel myself spiraling downward into a bottomless sea of grief.

If only I would’ve when I should’ve than I could’ve.

But I can’t. It is what it is. What happened happened.

On our recent trip to St. Louis, we grieved, but we also went to lunch with good friends, had coffee with former neighbors, and spent the day with former ministry partners who might as well be family. Our loved ones sat with us in our reality as we showed them clips of our game tapes — the grief and the celebrations. We laughed, we cried, and we dreamed.

We can’t go back and rewrite what happened, so how do we move forward?

I’m quite confident that Mark D’antonio called his team in for a film session on the Monday after the Arizona State game and, with them, analyzed each play — each one that worked, each one that didn’t. I’m confident they had a moment revisiting the twelve men on the field situation and the failure of the refs to make the call that would’ve given them one more try. I’m sure they clarified lessons learned and strategies to try again. And then, I’m confident, they put the film away.

And we’re trying to do that, too. We don’t want to delete our films; they hold too much. However, we can choose, after having looked their reality straight on, after having acknowledged our roles, counted our losses, and seen our strengths, to archive them. We can put them away in the vault for safekeeping. We don’t want to forget what happened, or deny it, because all of life changes us, informs us, softens us, propels us.

The Spartans couldn’t stay steeped in regret or what ifs; they had to move on. The next game was days away, and if they allowed themselves to swirl downward into the pit of despair, they would be missing an opportunity to prepare for their next challenge, their next game, their next opportunity.

And that’s what I’m trying to do now. I’m trying to prepare for the next challenge, the next game, the next opportunity. I’ve analyzed the mistakes, I’ve dwelt in the what ifs, and now I’m going to try to move forward differently.

Slowly. With intention. Eyes wide open.

I’m looking for redemption and restoration. And won’t He just do it?


Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.

Psalm 71:20