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

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

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

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

Break for Silence

A coworker asked me if I had plans for the weekend.

“Well,” I said, “my husband is going out of town, so I’ve made it my goal to not speak to anyone for the entire weekend.”

She laughed and said, “I get it.”

Now, I might’ve been being a little dramatic. After all, I did speak to one of my kids for a few minutes. I did visit with two members of my health team, and, ok, I did talk to my dog, Chester, while I was brushing him out.

Otherwise, silence.

Ok, not exactly. I did listen to some music and my daily Bible reading, and I, of course, watched a few episodes of Queer Eye, but otherwise, I’ve been quiet.

Right now the only sound I can hear is the clicking of the laptop keys and the sound of Chester’s breath going in and out.

I’ve paid the bills, worked on two writing projects, pulled some dead matter out of the almost done garden, and dragged all my clothing and shoes to the living room for a sort and purge while I watched Michigan State football.

Other than the two health appointments and the kick-off time of 4pm, I’ve been pretty oblivious to the clock. I’m so still and chillaxed that I’m sitting here with nothing to write about except how still and chillaxed I am.

We need this, don’t we? We need a morning to wake up, write down three pages of what’s first on our minds, do thirty minutes of restorative yoga, process the latest with our therapist, and allow a trained professional to assess the alignment and strains in our bodies and put them all right again.

We need a slow walk on a cool morning, a cup of hot tea, and a golden retriever lying at our feet while we do the things that have been set aside. We need the windows thrown open, the taste of fresh-picked tomatoes, and a couple low-key projects that can be finished in a an hour or two.

The world’s been yelling at us all week long about what it needs from us, and before we head back to it, we could really use some time to rest, to recover, to remember who we are and what is important to us –how we like to spend our time, what kinds of things make us feel healthy and whole.

You might have a different strategy — you might recover by surrounding yourself with people, by reading a book or taking a nap, by cooking a gourmet meal or going for an extra long run. You might want to watch the game in a sports bar or a crowded stadium or you might prefer hiking a mountain alone. You might want to sleep ’til noon or dance ’til midnight.

Whatever it is that restores you, that fills you up, that heals you — take the time to do it.

Our lives are so busy, and the demands on us are great. We manage so many responsibilities and process so much information. We need to give ourselves time to recover, to be still, to be silent.

And that’s all I have to say on the subject.

I’ve used up my quota of words for the day.

The apostles then rendezvoused with Jesus and reported on all that they had done and taught. Jesus said, “Come off by yourselves; let’s take a break and get a little rest.” For there was constant coming and going. They didn’t even have time to eat.

Mark 6: 30-31

A Return to Best Practices

Early in this blog, much of my content was about my ongoing journey through chronic illness — pain, fatigue, and issues with my eyes and skin. I don’t write about it much any more, because most of my symptoms have leveled out; I don’t often have a crisis. Sure, pain is still present every day; yes, my eyes can give me challenges from time to time; and, of course, my skin continues to be my first alert system. However, for the most part, I have found a new rhythm that sustains my health and has even allowed me to work full-time and enjoy life outside of work. (Read my latest health update from March here.)

In fact, I’ve been in this rhythm so long, that I can forget how miserable I was just a few years ago — when I had to limit myself to 1-2 activities a day, when I frequently found myself doubled over in pain or lying on the bathroom floor waiting to throw up, when I had to lie down for a while in the morning and in the afternoon due to extreme fatigue. Yeah, it was really that bad, so now when I work 40 hour weeks for months in a row, occasionally meet friends for dinner after work, or travel two weekends in a row, and suffer no consequences, I can get a little amnesia — the kind of amnesia that leads me to push the limits.

For the past month, I have been pushing the limits. We have had out of town visitors at least four times and have attended two family reunions, one wedding, one dance lesson, and at least two dinner dates with friends. No problem. I was feeling fine. Yes, I had to go to bed early a couple times, but I recovered quickly. I was able to keep writing most mornings, do yoga, go for walks, and still manage my regular household tasks like groceries, laundry, and cooking. I didn’t miss work or cancel any plans.

But this past week, I kicked it up a notch — I threw all caution to the wind.

After church last Sunday, my husband and I shopped for a few hours while we waited for new tires to be installed on our car. Monday, we met after work to grab a quick bite before cheering on our son in a local 5k; we even hung out with him for a while afterward. Tuesday, I attended my end-of-summer staff party complete with Chipotle and trivia. Wednesday, I met an old friend from high school for a quick reunion. Thursday, I ate out, played, and laughed with my son and godson. What a fun week!

And it might have been ok, if I hadn’t missed my last PT appointment or skipped my chiropractor for three weeks running, if I hadn’t been up later than usual every single night, if I hadn’t omitted yoga four days in a row, if I hadn’t had the corn chips with my Chipotle, if I hadn’t had two slices of pizza (all that gluten and dairy) at work on Wednesday, or if I hadn’t said, “sure Ethiopian food will be fine.”

People often ask me, “What do you notice when you avoid gluten and dairy?” or “Does yoga really help you?” or “Really, a chiropractor makes a big difference?” or “That PT sounds weird, are you sure it works?”

I typically say something like, “I’m not sure what does what, but I know that when I do all the things, I feel good enough to live my life. When I don’t do the things, I’m on the couch or in the bed.”

After a month of rich living, I abandoned my good practices for a week, and when I woke up Friday morning, I felt rough — my head hurt, my eyes were begging to be closed, I was nauseous, and I really thought I wouldn’t make it through my work day. I allowed myself an extra 30 minutes in bed, then begged the hot shower for transformation.

I dragged myself to work, mentally marking the four-hour countdown to lunch hour when I would finally see the chiropractor. It was a particularly challenging morning at work — complete with schedule changes, atypical student behavior, and two parent meetings –but I did my best and made it to lunch time.

I willed myself to drive to the chiropractor, rubbing my aching neck and fight back nausea. I was miserable. “Please, Jesus, let this adjustment at least alleviate this headache.” The chiropractor may have said, “wow” a couple of times as he moved up and down my spine putting each piece back in its assigned location, and he may have said, “well, that should make a difference” as we heard the pop of my sacroiliac joint jumping back into place. I can’t remember exactly what happened, because he then applied acupressure to two spots right below my eyes and then two spots on my forehead and the pain of my headache was instantly cut in half. I was astounded and relieved.

I walked to my car promising the doctor (and myself) that I’d return on my regular schedule. I drove back to work, where my office manager met me with a Whole Foods delivery — warm goodness without gluten or dairy or corn. I sat at my laptop with an ice cold Coke and my roasted chicken and vegetables and began to feel well again.

It was a quick turnaround — unlike the systemic flares from just a few years ago that would take 24 to 48 hours, this one lasted only about six hours. Just long enough to scare me straight.

All during those six hours I was picturing the tile of the bathroom floor and imagining myself packed in ice on the couch. I had forgotten those realities, but they showed up to remind me to return to my best practices.

I made a home-cooked meal on Friday night — roasted pork cutlets with rice and sautéed fresh vegetables and then slept for nine hours. I started Saturday with writing, yoga, and oatmeal before heading to a 90-minute structural medicine appointment where the practitioner moved all the muscles and ligaments to support the chiropractor’s work. I spent the afternoon doing food prep — making Kristin-friendly muffins and cutting up veggies and melon– and organizing my office. I finished the evening with three episodes of Queer Eye because it’s wholesome and friendly and hopeful.

I’m writing this on Sunday morning, and I’ve already journaled, done yoga, and am writing now to remember — that the full life that I enjoy is a gift. In a little while, I will head to church where I will give thanks for this gift– this physical restoration that is a mere shadow of the more complete restoration that has been happening inside. I will give thanks for both, and I will continue to return to all of my best practices.

Addendum: It’s now Monday morning. Yesterday on our drive to church, my husband and I started filling our day with visits and errands, and chores. We had quite a list, so we both agreed to “see how it goes.” By the end of church and a congregational meeting, I had decided I needed to see a doctor; I had symptoms that suggested an infection. So, we drove to our practice’s walk-in clinic to have me checked out. No infection, just more evidence of inflammation–I needed more than twenty-four hours to recover, apparently.

So, we scrapped our plans, came home to nutritious leftovers, an hour at the puzzle, a nap, and two episodes of The Great British Baking Show — yes, we’ve pulled out all the stops! In a little while, I will start my week with a trip to the physical therapist for the final “laying on of hands” in this series.

I am so thankful for my current health and this journey I’ve been on — a journey that tangibly shows me the value of self-care, a journey that allows me to do my best and gives me grace to recover when I’ve gone off the rails, a journey that reminds me to return to my best practices.

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

John 1:6

Of Gardens and Growth

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 cukes, 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. My mom is still talking about those cantaloupes.

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 — that’s another thing I’ve learned — it happens in its own time. 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 planted it in the garden, thinking it would produce multitudes of kale to support our kale chip habit, but it actually just 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