Finding Space to Turn, a re-visit

Just over a month ago I wrote this post — I was noticing the impact of taking a brief intentional pause from my regularly hectic life to do a little reflecting. Little did I know that less than a month later, much of the world would make a hard stop to shelter in place. As I re-read this post, I am well aware of how much time I now have for introspection, for evaluation, and for turning.

Is your life as jam-packed as mine is? Do you find yourself rushing from task to task, commitment to commitment, often running late because you are trying to cram in one more thing?

Work, social engagements, exercise, caring for our homes, and myriad other commitments can leave us little room for contemplation, for feeling, or for processing all that happens within one of our very busy days.

Instead of pausing to do the most important work — to consider the ways that we live, the ways that we communicate, the beliefs we hold, or the opportunities we might be missing — we cycle through our days, getting up, going to work, and collapsing, day after day after day.

It can take an act of the will to get ourselves to step out of that cycle — to meet friends for dinner, to take a class, or to go on a long walk. Trapped in our crowded schedules, we find it difficult to see where we might find the space (and the energy) for such pursuits. So we continue in our patterns day after day after day. We eat the same foods, drive the same routes, and see the same people.

Sometimes, though, we do take action — we pause the cycle and get a glimpse at a better way.

Yesterday, I found myself sitting in a room with nine college-aged couples attending a workshop on relationships that my husband was leading. The day focused on three key topics: 1) the keys to healthy relationships, 2) what our personalities bring to our relationships, and 3) how to communicate more effectively about emotionally-charged topics.

I was most struck by the fact that these college students — who certainly have lives that are at least as busy as mine — willingly hit the pause button so that they could do the hard work of considering a new way. They engaged in conversations, took a personality inventory, and practiced a communication tool that showed them how to be vulnerable with one another. I watched as they turned to one another, heads leaning in, speaking their hearts and listening.

You might have guessed that my husband and I did all the activities, too. We paused to consider the marks of healthy relationships and which areas we might continue to improve in; we acknowledged how our personalities play off one another; and we practiced a communication strategy. And, you know what? We learned a few things. We may change some of our patterns because of our participation in this workshop.

Pausing for a few hours on a Saturday — breaking our usual routine — allowed us some space to take a look at our standard operating procedures and to find some areas for refinement.

Crowded lives don’t allow for much turning — when we are pressed in on every side, we don’t have much room to move, to turn. We continue our routines, finding little space within which to navigate. We feel frustrated: we grumble, we growl, we lash out. From that position, it can seem impossible to find space in which to make change.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the traditional start of Lent, the day where we remember our mortality — we are but dust, and to dust we shall return. Lent is a time that many Christians pause from their busy-ness, their very crowded lives, to take a long look at how they are living — what are their priorities, what practices have become unproductive, what patterns have become destructive.

Some do this by “giving something up” — chocolate or television or technology — in an effort to open up some space for reflection. Some do this by adding something in — a daily devotion, a Scripture reading plan, or additional worship services — in an attempt to refocus their thoughts, to turn toward God.

You certainly don’t need Lent in order to shift a few aspects of your life to find space, but Lent can serve as an impetus for those of us who are stuck in our routines.

When we pause, when we find a way to step aside and make some space, we have the opportunity to reflect, to consider our options, and to turn — to try a different way.

When we entered Lent this year, we had no idea how hard a pause we would be making or how much space we would suddenly have — space to see ourselves, the ways we’ve been living our lives, and the people we choose to spend them with. If in all this sudden space you find yourself reeling, anxious, grumbly, or even euphoric, you might consider turning. I don’t know the turns that might impact your life, and maybe you don’t either, but perhaps there is a first turn that might inform those that follow.

In all this time and space you suddenly have, I invite you to return to prayer — a simple turning of the eyes to the One who always provides us with space to turn.

“Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.”

Psalm 116:7

Close Contact, a re-visit.

On Monday, I asked if you were willing to take some risks for the sake of others (post here). I’ve asked this before. In February, after the Super Bowl, I asked if you’d be willing to enter into dialogue about what in our culture perpetuates sexual violence (post here). In March of 2018, I wondered if you’d be willing to spend time in community, to be vulnerable and open to the change that can happen there (post here). Today, I’m reposting this piece that I wrote one month — one month — before we went inside to protect ourselves from a pandemic. In this post, I explore what we have to gain from looking at the ways we have hurt one another and committing to do the hard work of healing those hurts. I was writing on a more personal/community level, but it seems that this type of work — this coming together, this commitment to vulnerability, this openness to change — is needed on a societal level right now. It’s gonna be hard, but if we are willing to take the risk, we just might experience a new kind of freedom.

Adapted in days of Covid: As we continue to distance ourselves from others, by working from home, by wearing masks, by keeping six feet away from one another, we long for the days when we could be up close and personal — when we could drop by one another’s homes, sit side by side in a movie theater, shake hands, and hug. Living in close contact with those we care about can have a positive impact on us. It lifts our spirits, it connects us to our humanity, it gives our lives meaning.

However, spending time in close proximity to others does come with risk — and not just the risk of disease. 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 have 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

I look just fine

Click the arrow to hear me read this post, or simply ignore and read on.

Friday afternoon, I sat at my desk grading some student work. I had untied the blanket scarf that I’d had wrapped around my neck and transitioned it from scarf to blanket so that I could wrap up as I worked. I was tired. And chilly.

Then, when my supervisor entered my office and shared some sadness with my coworker and I, I moved the blanket from my shoulders to up around my head, like a babuska. I huddled inside, rounded my shoulders, and audibly sighed.

Any stamina I had left after two forty-hour weeks was quickly dissipating. I didn’t have the bandwidth to take in sadness. I only had enough left to finish my tasks for the week so that I could stumble home.

Nevertheless, my coworkers and I paused for a minute and were sad together.

When the day was finally ended — most of the t’s crossed and most of the i’s dotted (I couldn’t be bothered to ensure all) — I tied the scarf around my neck, put on my coat, grabbed my backpack, and started the journey home.

I knew, as I walked out of the building, that I would spend most of the weekend in recovery, most of the next three days resting, hydrating, and giving my body time to heal.

I’m not sick. I am not injured. I have an autoimmune disease. And when your spoons are gone, they are gone, baby. After a couple long weeks — even a couple long hours — you can find yourself sitting at your desk wrapped up in a blanket, practically sucking your thumb.

I look just fine. You wouldn’t know that most of the past month I’ve been caring for a persistent case of iritis, which has involved — so far — two trips to the ophthalmologist and a course of steroid drops, OTC ibuprofen, and plenty of rest. You wouldn’t be able to see that for most of the week I’ve been trying to convince myself that I don’t have a urinary tract infection (sorry for the TMI) and that at this very moment, I’m contemplating a trip to the doctor to pee in a cup and find out if it is an infection or just inflammation.

I look just fine. In fact, I want to look just fine. I try very hard to look just fine.

Before I even walk out the door each morning, I do two HOURS of self care so that I can have the stamina to live my life — complete my job requirements, maintain my emotional health, and prevent myself from an autoimmune flare.

The alarm goes off at 5:30. I go to the bathroom and give the doggy the same opportunity. Then, I head to my home office, sit on the futon, read some Scripture, and write my three morning pages. Next I do yoga. (I am currently following a 30-day plan called “Home” by Yoga with Adriene.) By the time I’ve done all this, I am usually rushing to grab the clothes I’ve lain out the night before on my way to the shower. I wash with delicate soap and shampoo that won’t incite psoriasis, and I take time to apply carefully-selected moisturizers and cosmetics that do NOT annoy my skin. I dress in clothing that is comfortable and shoes that won’t irritate my feet. Finally, I make gluten-free oatmeal (yes, that’s a thing) and a cup of green tea, both of which I carry out the door with me so that I can make it to work by 8. I cherish this luxury of time to connect with God, connect with my mind, connect with my body, and prepare myself for the day.

In addition to my daily work, I also have other regular maintenance routines that I follow. I go to regular physical and dental check-ups like anyone else, but I do much more. Weekly, I see at least one member of my team — my chiropractor, my physical therapist, or my functional medicine practitioner. Once a month, I see a therapist, and twice a year I get an injection from a pain management specialist.

I love this routine. And, I have noticed, after having developed it over the past few years, that it makes me feel and look just fine — most of the time.

Even all this preventative practice can’t consistently keep autoimmune flares at bay.

It does a pretty good job, I must say. When I first started struggling with autoimmunity, I felt (and, quite frankly, looked) lousy most days. My eyes hurt, my skin was inflamed, my joints were stiff and sore, and I had zero stamina. I could barely keep my eyes open on my drive home after a typical day. I was convinced I’d landed in a new reality. I would never be able to hold a full-time job again. I would always be in pain. I would always feel (and look) miserable.

That was seven years ago this month.

Fortunately, the past seven years have led me to this place — a place that is full of hope. I have found a different way to have a career — where forty hour weeks are the exception not the rule, where I can occasionally sit at my desk wrapped in a blanket on a Friday afternoon, and where I can spend my weekend recovering instead of worrying about 75 AP essays that need to be scored and returned.

It would probably be a healthier rhythm even without autoimmune disease, but my dream was to teach in a high school or college where current systems don’t typically allow teachers to have a reasonable amount of work. High school and college English teachers work much more than 40 hours a week and have very little, if any, time for self-care or recovery — especially not teachers who have high expectations of themselves and their students and who are soldiering through their own personal crises.

Ironically, I was living my dream of speaking into the writing of people who were finding their way, when I realized I had lost my own way.

Autoimmunity has given me back my life — a better life than I could have imagined, even considering the frequent eye issues and other systemic flares. Because of the routines I have had to employ in order to function, I am much more aware of who I am and what my priorities are.

Because of autoimmunity, I look — and actually am — just fine.

I have spent most of the weekend recovering. I’ve stayed mostly in pajamas, wrapped in an afghan, eating foods that don’t contribute to inflammation, and using all the practices that restore me — Scripture, writing, yoga, crocheting, college basketball, and movies. I’m feeling a bit better. I may head to the doctor yet, but for right now, I’m going to crawl over to the couch, turn on a good flick, and continue to rest.

I’m sure I’ll look just fine in the morning.

My son, pay attention to what I say;

    turn your ear to my words…

 …for they are life to those who find them

    and health to one’s whole body.

Proverbs 4:20 and 22

Finding Common Ground

Click the link above to hear me read this post (pardon the early morning voice), or simply read on.

January 2020 is the start of a new year and a new decade. It is also a leap year, and, in case you hadn’t noticed, an election year.

It’s been pretty hard not to notice, what with the numerous debates, countless political ads, and the twenty-four hour news cycle.

And, for me, talk of the election and all things political has seeped into daily discourse, family gatherings (much to my mother’s dismay), and, most notably, my social media feeds.

I am happy to say that I have a pretty diverse online community; I’m quite sure it includes representatives from the far right, the moderate right, the moderate left, the far left, and people who claim to not care about politics at all. I don’t block people, even when their posts piss me off, because I want to hear divergent views. I don’t want to live in an echo chamber, so I sometimes see, as I scroll, posts that encourage me, posts that confuse me, posts that irritate me, and posts that make me want to reply in a way that I would likely regret later.

Recently, I saw a post from a friend who said it was all the [insert specific political party]’s fault that [fill in current political issue] was happening. I saw that another friend of mine had replied, so I scrolled on.That friend said that, no, it was actually the [insert opposing party]’s fault because “look at all this evidence”. And so it ensued — a virtual exchange between representatives of two different parties. Now, I will say, that these two individuals, both intelligent and well-read, were able to isolate some key issues and continue their exchange beyond the typical name calling and finger-pointing, but neither granted any space to the other; no allowances were made. Both stood firm in their convictions, unwilling to budge.

When I saw this conversation, I wanted so badly to step in and ally myself with one of the speakers. I placed my cursor over the “write a comment” space, started to type, then, in a moment of sudden good judgment, hit the backspace button and closed the lid on my laptop. (I would like to here record this adult-like behavior since I don’t always make such sound-minded choices.)

I considered those two friends over the next few days. I am aware that they have known each other for decades. They have fond memories together, but they, at least in this post, had positioned themselves against each other and were unable to find common ground.

I wonder what would’ve happened if they had had the same conversation across the table from one another, over a sandwich and a coffee, looking into one another’s eyes. Would they would have been able to cede some of their firmly-held ground or been willing to step across the line into one another’s territory if only to look around?

It’s hard to know.

Another friend posted about a family gathering at Christmas where a [insert family member here] had come in spouting rhetoric from [insert political figure here], inciting an argument. Both parties continued to engage, firmly arguing their own positions, until one asked the other to leave. They couldn’t be in the same house together — on Christmas — because of their differing political views.

I don’t think these are isolated incidents. Scenes like these are becoming common. It seems that we have allowed ourselves to be drawn into these opposing factions that position us one against the other, heels dug in, fingers pointing. And where do we picture it will end? Do any of us believe — truly believe — that we can shout “the other side” into submission, that we can prove our “rightness” and their “wrong-ness”? Do we think that one side will ever “win”?

Because guys, I’m not seeing anyone winning right now. I’m seeing a lot of anger and posturing, name-calling and accusing, and all kinds of refusal to find the common ground where we can come together.

And isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want to come together in the United States of America? Don’t we want to live in a “more perfect union”? Don’t we want to embody e pluribus unum, ‘out of many, one’?

Can we accomplish that through finger-pointing, name-calling, and accusation? Not in my experience. I picture that the longer we glare across the line, attaching blame to those on the other side, the further we get entrenched in our positions, the less willing we are to change.

And change doesn’t have to mean surrender — for anyone! If we could find, in the space between us, just enough room to set up a table, if we could invite one another to sit down, we just might have a beginning.

Of course, we’d have to shift our approach. Instead of trying to cram our own beliefs and opinions down the throats of the others, we’d have to agree to ask one another questions and listen to the responses.

For example, when one side says, “We need to do more to fight climate change,” we could respond by saying, “Oh? Tell me more about that. What kinds of ideas do you have?”

When someone says, “I don’t want anyone to take away my right to own a gun,” we could ask, “Really? Tell me why?”

If someone says, “Women have the right to do what they want with their bodies,” we can say, “I can see you are passionate about this. What’s your story?”

When another says, “We have to do what’s best for this country,” we can say, “What do you picture that looking like?”

What might happen? What kinds of conversations could we have if we just opened up some space and agreed to step inside of it, leaving our need to be right and our firmly held convictions behind?

Might we be able to see that we are indeed united on many issues — caring for our parents, providing for our children, reaching out to those in need? Could we be surprised to find that everyone on that other side doesn’t meet all our preconceived notions? Is it possible that in the space we find ourselves standing, we might see new possibilities that we’d never before imagined?

I’m just saying, it might be worth a try. Of course, we might decide that it feels safer to stay in our own yards, fists clenched, jaws set, unwilling to compromise the beliefs we hold so dear.

What were they again — those beliefs you hold so dear? What were the causes you were willing to fight with an old friend about? What issues kept you away from the Christmas gathering? What might you gain by clinging so tightly to them?

It could be a really long year if we stay in our trenches flinging grenades at one another.

Can’t we find enough common ground to stand together on? Can’t we reconcile with one another? Don’t we have enough grace for that?

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Romans 12:18

20/20 in 2020

Click the arrow if you’d prefer to listen as I read. Ignore if you’d prefer to read it yourself.

My husband and I have a long-running joke between us that he could paint the house purple and it would take me a few months to notice.

I don’t see everything.

Once, one of our children got multiple piercings on body parts that were not covered by clothing, and I didn’t realize it for a couple of weeks.

I miss details.

It’s not that my vision is poor. I mean it is (-7.75 for those who know what that means), but my glasses correct me to 20/20.

My vision is fine; I just don’t see stuff.

For example, we can drive down the same street every Saturday for five years in a row and one day I will ask my husband, “Is that a new gas station?” He’ll say, “No, it’s always been there.” Or, he’ll say, “Doesn’t the road feel great now that they’ve resurfaced it?” and I’ll say, “They resurfaced it?”

Now, I might be able to blame a little of this on the cell phone. I mean, my husband often drives, and I’m often checking texts, getting navigation, or responding to messages, so I might miss some things because I’ve got my face in the screen, but guys, the piercing incident happened way before iPhones. I barely even knew where my phone was back then.

The fact that I miss so much probably has more to do with my laser focus on the mission — a last vestige of the soldiering life.

[If you are new to my blog and don’t know what I mean by ‘soldiering’, you can get a quick snapshot by clicking here. Or you can type ‘soldiering’ into the search bar at the top of the page.]

One important skill of soldiering is to be able to tune out distractions so that you can focus on the mission. The brain can’t attend to every stimulus it is exposed to all at once, so a soldier learns to zoom in. She can see an enemy approaching at a great distance while filtering out a whining dog at her feet. She can detect an approaching storm that will necessitate a tactical shift, while overlooking the construction crew working on the highway she’s driving on. Her mission is survival, so she prioritizes necessity and imminent threat.

For much of a decade, during my soldiering season, I was laser-focused on survival. I saw what was necessary for that mission — feeding my family, putting clothes on their backs, and getting them to doctors, therapists, sporting events, and concerts. I also attended to my students– planning their lessons, grading their papers, and writing their college recommendations. If my child or my student brought an issue to me — put it right in front of me — I saw it as part of the mission. I would work to solve, soothe, or fix whatever was broken and then get back to whatever I was working on.

I saw little in my periphery, little that wasn’t pointed out, little that lay hidden beneath the surface.

Now, I’m obviously not a trained soldier; I was just pretending to know what I was doing as I marched through some very difficult years. In the face of uncertainty and possible harm, I strapped on my backpack and started kicking butts and taking names. I turned my eyes to problems and crises in an attempt to control my surroundings, but I missed so much — some of the greatest threats to our family and their well-being. An untrained soldier might manage to survive, but she’s likely to mess up all kinds of missions along the way.

In these last five years, during my recovery from soldiering, I have dropped my weapons, taken off my backpack, and slowed my pace, but I’m still trying to adjust my vision. I still tend to scan for danger or obstacles rather than giving a more realistic assessment to a situation.

Just last week, I met a new student with some significant learning challenges. Even after decades of working with students with all kinds of learning profiles, I was intimidated. He’s got some real barriers to learning and all I could see were the obstacles we would have to overcome so that we could complete the learning tasks in front of us. I was looking at those challenges, and my anxiety started to rise. How would I be able to work with this student during the last hour of my day when I was already fatigued and facing challenges of my own?

My focus on potential problems was for nothing. Not long into our session this teenager and I were laughing, learning, and listening to one another! What I had seen as potential disaster ended up being a very successful hour of instruction.

In my attempts to survive by hyper-focusing on potential dangers, I’ve missed a lot, but shift is happening. I’m beginning to see more clearly. I’m beginning to understand that the period of uncertainty and crisis is over — my strategy of scanning for danger is no longer necessary.

In 2020, I’m praying for new sight. I’m praying that I’ll see what’s important, that I’ll notice what’s essential, and that I’ll comprehend what has meaning. I’m praying that I won’t focus so hard on potential danger but that I’ll keep my eyes wide open to possibility.

I’m praying for sight, but I’m also asking for vision. I’m longing to see what’s right in front of me while also being able to dream ahead. I long to see clearly enough where we’re going so that I follow the path that will get us there.

And in 2020, I want to understand that there is really just a more connected here. It’s a here where I see the pain of the person in front of me, even when she is doing her best to hide it, where I hear insecurity when I’m presented with bravado, and where I acknowledge the actual fragility of the bravest of soldiers.

May 2020 be the year that we clearly see one another and acknowledge that we’re all trying real hard to do the best that we can.

Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

Mark 8:25

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

Of Gardens and Growth, a re-visit

On Monday, I wrote about what happened last weekend while we were preparing our garden for planting. This morning, I found this piece that I wrote last year — a reminder of what can happen when we dare to plant a couple seeds.

For Mother’s Day, when my husband asked what I would like for a gift, I asked if he would enlarge our garden, so out he went, shovel in hand, in the rain, to remove the sod layer. The next weekend, he and our son dumped a couple hundred pounds of top soil and manure on the newly exposed dirt and we began to plant.

We put in a few tomato plants, radishes, carrots, and some peas, along with yellow squash, cucumbers, and cantaloupe. We watered thoroughly then walked away.

Literally walked away. For two weeks.

We went on vacation and came back to find that everything had grown — the tomatoes had doubled in size, rows of radishes, carrots, and peas had surfaced, and even our mounds of cucumbers, squash, and melon had green fingers poking out of their tops.

If you’ve done any gardening, you know that other stuff surfaced as well — grass from the lingering roots, volunteer tomatoes from last year’s crop, and weeds. So many weeds.

I couldn’t get to the garden right when I returned, but last weekend, I put on my gloves, plugged in my headphones, and plunked myself down in the dirt. For over an hour I raked and pulled, shifted and sifted, then hauled the debris to the woods.

By the time I had finished, I had enlisted a couple of those volunteers into service and cleared some room for growth. I grabbed the hose, gave the garden a good long drink, and walked away.

A couple times this week, I bent down, pulled a weed or two, sprinkled some water, and harvested a few radishes, but mostly I assumed my typical gardening stance — watching in awe as seeds sprout, green appears, and red orbs emerge from the dirt.

My husband moved to Michigan a year ahead of me, and when I finally arrived, he was excited to show me that he had planted a couple of tomato plants in a small patch of land at the back of our house. He knew I’d want something to tend to make this place feel like home. Since that time we’ve moved the garden to a spot with more sun, transplanted rhubarb from my cousin’s yard, and experimented with different seeds and plants. Along the way, I’ve learned that growth happens in spite of us. Sure, I’d like to claim credit for the amazing cantaloupes we harvested a couple of years ago, but truly all we did is push seeds into the ground, spray some water, and watch sweet, buttery fruit appear.

As I’ve watched my garden over the seasons, I’ve experienced my own growth here, too. When I arrived, like a plant dug out of the ground, wrapped in burlap, and shipped across the country, I was wilted, frail, and in need of some attention. For several months I just sat here, recovering. Now, five years later, I’m stunned to discover a network of friends, a satisfying job, and, a whole different rhythm here in our house by the river.

This growth didn’t happen all at once. For a while, I sat buried in dirt and crap, taking in sunshine and water. For whole seasons, I waited for the first glimmer of green to break the surface, and just as I was losing hope, I discovered strength rising from the ground up. All of the energy had been developing roots — a deep, expansive network that would support the growth that was and is still yet to come.

This morning I took Chester out early for his morning relief walk, and I looked at my garden to see if, after some gentle care yesterday — some more weeding, a sundown drenching — my plants had miraculously doubled in size overnight. They hadn’t. It doesn’t usually happen like that. I can’t quite figure it out — when I am watching for the growth, my plants seem to be standing still, making no progress, but when I look away, when I get busy with life responsibilities and then turn back, ‘suddenly’ it is time to harvest.

All growth seems to work that way. Just a week or so ago, I was introducing a student to the vowels — the names and sounds of a, e, i, o, u. He was really struggling, so unsure of himself that he was tentatively whispering every answer. Then, on Friday, I noticed him swiftly reading words like pin and pine, easily maneuvering the vowel sounds and even taking chances like changing pin to pain to pan. He was high-fiving his instructor and running through the center celebrating his accomplishment. I turned my back for minute, and there it was — growth.

It happens in spite of us — though we often forget to water and we sometimes ignore the weeds — growth happens. You stick a tiny seed into dirt and manure and hope for the best. And typically, our hope does not disappoint us.

Now, I must concede that growth doesn’t always match expectation. One year I was working in the garden, and I pulled up what I thought was a rather large weed, only to find potatoes attached to the roots! I hadn’t even planted potatoes! (I guess they had grown from the previous year’s compost.) Another time I bought a kale plant and plunked it in the garden, thinking it would produce multitudes of kale to support our kale chip habit, but it actually only spit out two or three new leaves each week — hardly enough for a garnish.

When I moved to Michigan, I carried with me a seed of hope that I would get my health under control and maybe find a part-time gig working in a library. (I never dared to imagine that I would be able to work full-time as a teacher again.) I planted and prayed over that tiny seed, and it was transformed into a life I couldn’t yet see — one that was way beyond my expectation.

I have lots of little seeds of hope that I have clutched in my hand, watered with my tears, and dared, finally, to toss onto the ground. I have released them to the power that miraculously transforms the tiniest of seeds into beautiful realities. I am trusting that despite my carelessness these seeds will be transformed, in their own time, into extravagant fruit that we’ll be talking about for years.

We plant our seeds (of vegetables or of hope) and then we wait expectantly. We water. We watch. We pray.

I keep watching my garden. I am waiting for fresh shelled peas, warm tomatoes, and maybe a buttery cantaloupe. And while I wait, I continue to sow seeds of hope — and I pray that they also will transform into realities I don’t dare yet to dream.

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.

Psalm 126:9

Struggle is real, Re-visit

Well, kids, this one goes back to February of 2015 — way back then our struggles were building our muscles and preparing us for today. Each of us faces different levels of difficulty, but for all of us, the struggle is real.

Last weekend I struggled with a high school senior who is trying to raise her ACT score a few points so that she can get into a college of her choice to become an event planner. Her struggle? Although her grades are As and Bs, her ACT score is at the 12th percentile — meaning that she scored better than 12 percent of all the students who took this test. Her goal is modest — she just wants to climb three points, which would put her at the 30th percentile. We’ve spent four hours together at this eleventh hour — two weeks before the February ACT.  She is realizing, painfully, that her education has not prepared her for this test.

Last night I struggled with a different student — a high school junior who is also trying to raise his ACT score a few points to that he can get into the college of his choice and become a physician. His struggle? He goes to a premier private high school in Detroit and has been exceptionally well-prepared, but he ‘only’ scored at the 95th percentile, when he really needs to be at the 99th percentile. Again, it’s only a jump of three points. And he’s got a year to raise those points, but let me tell you, scoring in the 99th percentile doesn’t leave much room for error. And the elite schools that he and his family expect him to go to require that high score.

What do these two students have in common? They are both willing to meet a middle-aged English teacher in a public library in the evening or on the weekend to pour over grammatical rules and to talk test-taking strategy so that they can gain access to a dream. The pressure on each of them is significant. Their struggles are real.

Almost everyone I talk to has real struggles — illness, financial strife, marital conflict, employment issues, car trouble.

Struggle is not the exception to the rule. It’s the rule.

A friend and I were talking about our struggles — the things that have happened in our lives that we never would have expected. She said, “All these difficulties have given me perspective. I find it much easier to not sweat the small stuff.” Depending on how much ‘perspective’ you have been given, your ‘small stuff’ may be different than mine.

Early in our marriage, when we had very little disposable cash, I combed grocery ads to stretch my dollars as far as they could go. It might have given me undue stress, at that time, to find the money in our budget to make a meal for a friend. Today, after years and years of cutting the budget incredibly close and living to tell about it, making a meal for a friend is ‘small stuff’.

A few years ago I had to miss three days of school in a row because I had the flu followed by pink eye. I couldn’t believe I was ‘so sick’! I was distraught at having to lie in bed for three days with little to no energy. Now, after living for two years with chronic pain and fatigue, minor illness such as the flu has become ‘small stuff’.

And yet I am learning that my ‘big stuff’ is someone else’s ‘small stuff’.  I know a woman about my age who is undergoing her second bone marrow transplant for cancer. She will not be able to return to her home for several months as she recovers from this procedure and re-gains her strength under the watchful eyes of her doctors. My chronic pain, in comparison with her life-threatening illness, is ‘small stuff’.

When we look at it that way, we might be tempted to think that we can’t feel badly about our ‘stuff’ because it really isn’t as bad as their stuff. But, guys, to each of us, at any given time, our ‘stuff’ is real.

Our struggles are real.

My struggling senior will likely lose sleep tonight and tomorrow worrying about the ACT on Saturday morning. She really needs her score to go up. And the fact that my struggling junior has a score that is over twice the score of my struggling senior doesn’t diminish the amount of pressure he feels. His score also really needs to go up. They each at this moment are experiencing a difficult struggle.

You may be in such a financial place that making dinner for a friend would be a hardship. That’s a difficult struggle.

You may be sick in bed with the flu and pink eye. That’s a difficult struggle.

You may have chronic pain and fatigue. That’s a difficult struggle.

Fill in the _________________. That’s a difficult struggle.

We’re all struggling together. I am convinced that we move through life from struggle to struggle. Those brief periods where we experience a lack of trouble should be breathed in and fully appreciated, because they are momentary. And so are the struggles. Yes, so are the struggles.  

Each episode that we think is the worst thing that could possibly happen fades into that one thing that we lived through. 

In two years, or possibly even two months, my students will be past the ACT and onto the struggle of living with roommates. And after that they will be struggling to pay back student loans, to find a job, to get into grad school, or to find an apartment. You will one day be able to make dinner for your friend. Your pink eye will heal. Your pain and fatigue will diminish. Your cancer will be no more.

This too shall pass. One way or another. So what do we do now? “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ,” (Galatians 6:2) for one thing.  

Walk beside one another in hardship.  Share ‘Trouble Talk.’ Help carry a load. Laugh when you can. And try to keep your perspective.

I have told you these things so you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, for I have overcome the world.

John 16:33

Don’t wait for Christmas, a Revisit

Back in December 2014 when I first wrote this post, I was just starting to recognize how hard the holidays can be — how isolating, how anxiety-producing, how uncomfortable. I’ve always loved Christmas, but I’ve had a taste of how celebration can feel during a season of grief. I’ve begun to understand how difficult it can be to be with family and friends — even when you love them. And I’ve been learning a new way.

We spend a lot of time and money getting ready for the holidays. Over the last month many of us have attended parties, dinners, and gift exchanges with family, friends, and coworkers. We have cooked special foods, decorated our homes, and dressed in finery in order to celebrate.

We celebrate the love of family. We celebrate that we get time off from work. We celebrate our friendships. We celebrate the birth of a Savior.

We celebrate by eating, drinking, laughing, and sharing. We celebrate by giving and receiving gifts, by sending Christmas cards, by calling those we love, and by worshipping with our church families.

But there are many among us who just can’t celebrate. And they probably aren’t telling you about it. They may decline invitations, bow out early, or just refuse to answer your calls. It’s not that they don’t want to be there. They really do want to be there. They just can’t. 

It would be easy if they had a contagious disease, were recovering from surgery, or had a compromised immune system that prohibited them from joining in the festivities. Then you would understand. “Oh, too bad Bobby can’t be here, you know he just had that surgery, and he’s recovering in the hospital.” Everybody gets that. In fact, many of us would load up our gifts and drive over to the hospital to bring the celebration to Bobby because we love him and don’t want him to be left out.

But some people can’t celebrate and it’s because of something that you can’t see — something you may not understand.

Kay Warren, wife of well-known pastor, Rick Warren, who lost a son to suicide in 2013, recently posted on Facebook and then wrote in Christianity Today about the pain she has endured over the last two Christmases as well-meaning friends and acquaintances have sent Christmas cards filled with photos of smiling families and newsletters proclaiming all the good stuff that has happened for them over the year. She received these celebratory cards and letters and got angry. She couldn’t possibly celebrate. How could she, knowing that her son had taken his own life? Even if she believed that Jesus was born in a manger to save the world from their sins, even if she trusted Him and believed that He held her in the palm of His hand, she couldn’t possibly smile, or laugh, or rejoice.

She’s not alone, guys. While we deck the halls and kiss under the mistletoe, many around us can’t fathom the “oh what fun it is”. Not today. Not yesterday. Not Christmas Day.

They’ve lost a child. They are in the middle of a divorce. A loved one has cancer. They just lost their job and can’t pay the mortgage. Their father is on life-support. They have experienced pain that they can’t even talk about. And the idea of joining you or me in our merriment, knowing the pain that they know, is unconscionable. It just can’t be. 

So they stay home, miserably wishing they could be there, wishing they could celebrate, wishing they could be part of the joy. Angry that you can be. 

Moving forward, I’m going to spend less time and money getting ready for the holidays. I’m going to try to shift my focus to the here and now — to little moments that I can be with those I love —  in their tears,  in their laughter,  in their anger. And if we get glimpses of celebration, we will seize them — we won’t wait for Christmas.

And, if they happen to come at Christmas, well then, we’ll be all the merrier.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Matthew 5:4

Invisibly Ill, and being still, a re-visit

Click above if you’d like to hear my creaky morning voice read this post; otherwise, read on!

On Monday, I wrote about autoimmunity (full post here) and how I function daily in January 2020. Many of you wrote to thank me for sharing my journey. In light of that, I thought it might be useful for this week’s re-visit to be my very first post on autoimmune disease from way back in July 2014 — my second blog post ever. A lot has changed since then — my diagnosis, my symptoms, and my reality. Everyone’s struggle with illness is different, and many of those struggles we cannot see. Many more than I are invisibly ill.

In my first entry on this blog, I mentioned that my doctors had advised me to take some time off to rest. Some of you who know me might be thinking, “Well, shoot, you look fine to me.”  Let’s talk about that for a moment. 

People who have autoimmune diseases have a unique experience: although they may look fine, they are sometimes debilitatingly ill. In addition to feeling horrible, they have the added burden of people questioning the validity of their illness, or worse, accusing them of hypochondria. I have been extremely blessed to have very supportive people in my life, but many do not have this experience. [There are other invisible illnesses. However, since this blog is my experience, I will write about how my disease, psoriatic arthritis, affects me. I am learning that everyone’s experience is unique.]

If you didn’t know me prior to 2012, you might see me on the street and think I am an average middle-aged woman, and in most ways I am. In fact, even if you did know me before 2012, you might not notice that much has changed — I’ve gotten a little older, a little grayer, a little rounder, but overall, I look the same. However, my life has changed dramatically.  

Some things you may notice.  

  • I wear glasses more than not now. When I was 15 I replaced my Coke-bottle bottom glasses with contacts, and I never went back. However, many autoimmune diseases, including mine, come with chronic dry eyes which make contact lens wearing difficult. Additionally, I am on immunosuppressant drugs. These drugs, along with a round of steroids, created a perfect environment for ocular herpes. Ocular herpes can recur, especially in people who wear contacts. So, glasses.  
  • I walk more slowly, and sometimes with an altered gait. I am especially slow when I first stand up. Stairs are a challenge. I used to run 5-6 days a week. In fact, I completed two half-marathons after the age of 40, the second one in under two hours! Chronic pain in my hips and back along with chronic fatigue have halted my running career. I now aim to walk 2-3 miles a day, 4 or more days a week. I can do this if I am careful about the other things that fill my day. 
  • I look wiped out, like I haven’t slept or like I’ve been sick. I am wiped out. My body is constantly fighting inflammation. I sometimes crawl into bed before 6 pm. This can add to my joint pain, but I sometimes physically don’t have the steam to do much more than lie down. 

What you probably won’t notice. 

  • I sometimes can’t remember your name, or the four-digit code for our house alarm that we’ve had for six years, or my social security number that I memorized in high school. Chronic fatigue causes the brain to forget things. 
  • Joints throughout my body — fingers, hands, feet, hips, knees, elbows, shoulders — not only hurt, but also seem to be radiating heat. It feels like I am constantly bathing in IcyHot. 
  • I sometimes just feel like crying — not necessarily from pain, or sadness, or fatigue, but maybe from all of those.  
  • I do have psoriasis, mostly in places you can’t see.  

All of this is exacerbated by stress, weather, environment, and fatigue. Things that help include an altered diet (gluten- and dairy-free, lots of veggies, fruit, nuts, seeds, etc.),  Pilates, walking, medication, supplements, acupuncture, massage, and rest, plenty of rest.

It is 1:45 a.m., technically morning, so I went ahead and read my Bible reading for today. Matthew 8 recounts the stories of Jesus healing a man with leprosy, the Centurion’s servant, and many others. I have thought about this extensively. Jesus healed many. Will he heal me? Should I, like many Christians suggest, pray for that healing and ‘claim it’? The prophet Isaiah says, “Surely he took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.”  

You know, I am not sure I should pray for that. You might think I am crazy. You might look at my bulleted lists above and say, “why wouldn’t you want to be healed of that?”  

Not all illnesses are physical. I am pretty convinced that my emotional/spiritual health is improving as my physical health has become limiting. But wouldn’t Jesus want to restore all of me? He will one day, for sure, but perhaps he is using this illness, in this season, to cause me to be still so that I can know he is God in a way that I haven’t known before. 

Some blessings I have noticed in my illness:

  • I have an amazing husband who has never once doubted my symptoms, even when I have. 
  • I have friends, family, and coworkers who are supportive and who have helped and encouraged me.
  • Slowing down and being still makes me more accessible to the people in my life.  I hear more of what they have to say, even if I do sometimes forget it!
  • I am learning to be more sensitive to the needs of others and not to make assumptions. I was feeling sorry for myself one day at a school function when a parent reached out to me and asked how I was doing. Only after I had whined and complained did she share that she had terminal cancer. I never would have guessed — she was always engaging and positive!

So, for now, I am content, even in this circumstance.  I know that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28). I do love Him, so I am going to continue to be still.