Becoming Well(-er)

Five years ago, I was getting ready to transition away from a job I loved and a beautiful home in a community that had forever re-shaped us. One of several reasons for all of this change was my health. I had been diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis after a series of symptoms — extreme fatigue, skin outbreaks, and joint pain — had led me to a rheumatologist. I was depleted. I could no longer sustain the demands of teaching and staff development, let alone maintain our home or do any level of caring for our family. Something had to change.

I began this blog in the midst of that transition because I needed a space to process all that was happening. Our oldest son and his wife were expecting our first grandchild. Our oldest daughter was graduating from college and moving across the country. Our younger son was in the military, and our youngest daughter was heading off to college. My husband was in a new position, and I was just going to focus on getting well for a while. While everyone else was moving, I was going to be still. (You can find the very first post from this blog here.)

A lot has changed since that first blog post. My husband and I were talking yesterday and it became clear that I don’t always articulate the changes that have happened inside of me — partly because they have happened slowly over the last five years and partly because I talked and wrote about my physical health so much in the first few years of my blog that I’m kind of over it. Certainly every one is sick and tired of hearing about me being sick and tired!

But here’s the thing, I’m not as sick and tired as I was five years ago. So perhaps it’s time to explore that reality. Maybe putting words to the ways that God has provided for my recovery will be an encouragement to me and to you. Shall we see?

First of all, I no longer have the psoriatic arthritis diagnosis. Bam! It’s gone. I used to be angry about this. When the doctor told me that I did not have psoriatic arthritis, I felt dismissed. Certainly I still had pain, and psoriasis, and fatigue, and the HLA-B27 genetic marker often associated with certain autoimmune diseases. And I had also had two rounds of scleritis, an autoimmune affliction of the eye. I thought the doctors’ removal of my diagnosis was a denial of my symptoms. However, over time, I have come to feel emancipated. I don’t have psoriatic arthritis, so, in some ways, my symptoms feel less permanent, less limiting; I feel hopeful for improvement.

Second of all, I am no longer taking medications to treat pain or inflammation. In fact, other than a daily pill to inhibit the growth of herpes in my eyes (a result of some of the psoriatic arthritis treatments), I take only supplements — Vitamins B, C, and D, fish oil, and magnesium. Occasionally, I have to take some ibuprofen if I’m having a particularly difficult day, but mostly I am able to manage pain with movement, ice, epsom salt baths, and (a surprise to me!) peppermint essential oil. This is also quite liberating. In addition to the side effects from taking daily medication, I also experienced the feeling that I was some kind of invalid, particularly when I was injecting myself when Enbrel or Humira or Cosentyx. And since none of these drugs really benefitted my physical symptoms, I was actually getting an overall negative impact. Eliminating each of them, over time and with doctors’ supervision, was further removal of that permanent diagnosis.

Next, I have been blessed by a fabulous team. I first wrote about them here. I have found that the best way to improve my health is to regularly attend to it, so I see a specialized physical therapist twice a month, a chiropractor once or twice a month, and I recently added monthly visits to a structural medicine practitioner who specializes in Hellerwork. This regimen, along with my daily practice of yoga have worked together to strengthen, care for, and realign my body in ways that decrease my pain and increase my ability to participate in my daily life. I feel stronger, more flexible, and more capable. Imagine my joy last summer when I was able to have a daily plank challenge with my students — me, the oldest member of our staff, on the floor in full plank with a room full of elementary school boys.

Do you hear it? The sound of healing and hope? I do! That alone is worth writing about. The mental shift from “I have a chronic illness,” to “I am getting stronger,” can not be overstated. I have written often about how this “illness” has actually been a blessing for me. It gave me a reason to slow down, take stock, and re-configure my life in a way that supports physical, emotional, and spiritual health. And that process — that slowing, that experimenting, that shifting — has allowed for miraculous transformation in my thinking.

Do I still have pain? Yes. I have persistent pain, predominantly in my right sacroiliac joint and low back; the intensity of this pain varies depending on activity — how much I sit, stand, move, stretch– and how often I receive proactive treatment. (In addition to the work my team and I do, I occasionally get a steroid injection in that joint to reduce inflammation.) Do I still have fatigue? Yup. However, I’ve been amazed that since last summer I have been working 35-40 hours every week. Although this is do-able, it does limit my ability to interact with friends and family. (I need to sleep anywhere from 8 hours on a typical night to 12 hours when I’m really wiped out.) Optimally, I would like to work 30-35 hour weeks so that I can still have the energy to go for a walk and have dinner with my husband, develop friendships, and travel to see family frequently. Do I still have psoriasis? Very limited. I call my psoriasis my “barometer”. If I am doing too much, the palm of my right hand becomes inflamed — that’s my first signal that I need to slow down and attend to self-care. If I ignore it, I get more outbreaks, but even then, they are much easier to manage than they were five years ago. Do I still have issues with my eyes? Yes. Like my psoriasis, my left eye will become inflamed if I am overdoing it. I have learned to take that signal and slow down to provide extra care. In this way, I have avoided major issues.

Do you see it? Do you see how God has used these signals to transform my life? Probably more than any other topic in this blog, I have written about my soldiering ways. I was really good for a really long time at doing whatever needed to be done. I was constantly in motion — driving, teaching, cleaning, shopping, directing, running. I thought I was getting it right, but I was getting it all wrong. I was missing all the critical moments — the seeing, the listening, the caring, the holding. So rather than letting me continue in that fashion, God slowed me down. First, He sat me flat on my butt and got my attention. He has since re-instructed me in how to live a healthy life. And, because He knows that I am bent on going right back to my old ways, He allows a few signals to remain — to remind me, “Hey, Kristin, you’re doing it again.”

That’s how much He loves me, guys. He created a plan just for me to specifically address my particular learning needs.

I remember the flood of emotion back when I got my initial diagnosis — anger, sadness, helplessness. Now? I am so thankful for this journey. I am forever changed by my experience. I would no longer say that I am ‘sick’, but that I am becoming more well every day.

I know that my story is not the same as everyone’s story. Some people experience chronic illness very differently than I do; some people suffer terribly. And certainly, my route to healing is just that — my route. However, I pray that you, too, may experience whatever kind of healing you most need and that you would be aware of how God demonstrates his deep love uniquely for you. Your journey may not look like mine, but I am confident of this: like me, you are being carried in the palm of His hand.

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8
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Being Sick

Day 9: I’m on day nine of sore throat, cough, sinus pressure, and fatigue. It’s just a virus — perhaps the common cold, certainly nothing to write home about. Yet, this annoyance has driven my decisions for over a week. It has kept me home from work and church. It has forced me to cancel plans. It has diminished my appetite. Both my husband and I have searched stores for relief — homeopathics, over-the-counters, and all sorts of home remedies such as soup, and tea, and popsicles. Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to greatly impact this bug; I have just had to endure the seven to ten days that the doctor told me to expect.

This morning, when I woke up to a new symptom, I thought to myself, “That’s it! I’ve had it!” I jumped through the shower, took a second trip to urgent care, and heard the doctor say, “These things usually start clearing up in seven to ten days. Since it is persisting, we will try an antibiotic.” I was momentarily encouraged. “Yay! An antiobiotic! I’ll start feeling better!” However, on the ten minute ride back home I deflated quite quickly. Hadn’t I thought several times over the past week that I was getting better? Hadn’t I almost willed myself to health with positive thoughts? And yet hadn’t I crawled into bed dosed with cold medicine, clutching tissues, and sucking on cough drops every night for the last nine nights? Why did I think one little antibiotic would change anything. I’m doomed to be sick forever!

Melodramatic? Certainly. Authentic? Absolutely.

It’s just a cold. This, too, shall pass! It’s not like I have a ruptured spleen or a broken arm or even an infected tooth. I have survived countless colds in my life. So have you. But, you know, that isn’t much comfort to me right now, because I don’t see myself surviving. I see myself suffering. And although my husband is doting and my employer is understanding, I’m not looking at the positives right now. I can only focus on the fact that my sinuses are dripping front and back, I have gunky clogs in my throat, and I’m running a low grade fever. I’m not even mildly comforted by the fact that I’ve got a reason to wear yoga pants and a sweatshirt on Sunday morning.

Guys, I am focused on my misery.

Why is it that such a temporary minor situation can toss me to the depths?

To be fair, I hung in there like a champ all week. On day one, I wouldn’t even really admit I was sick until around 5pm when I finally admitted that, “gosh, my throat has been hurting since yesterday and my whole body kind of aches.” On day two, I missed church, but had every intention of making it to work the next day. After calling out on day three, I thought, “I’ll be able to kick this if I can just stay home one more day.” On day five, I trudged into work, fueled by alternating cups of tea, water, and cold medicine. Day six and seven I soldiered through, and even when day 8 found me falling asleep on the couch in the middle of the day, I thought to myself, “just one more day of resting and I will be able to function normally all next week.”

And today? Today I just can’t rally myself. I buried myself in blankets and slept for a while. I rehearsed all my miseries and the fact that nobody likes me, everybody hates me, and I might as well go eat worms. I started a new book. I ate a popsicle, and I am finally acknowledging that no, my throat really doesn’t feel any better. No amount of positive thinking is going to change that. It’s just gonna take more time.

My students used to say, “it be like that sometimes.”

Day 10: I came to a realization about 2:30 am when I woke up coughing and dripping, having already notified my employer that I would miss yet another day of work. I groaned audibly as I pushed myself to sitting and trudged to the kitchen for the next round of cold medicine.

In that semi-conscious state I heard myself saying, “Kristin, you can’t do anything about it. Just be in it. You’ve been pushing back and trying every treatment you know for nine days. How about today you just lie in bed, read a book, drink your fluids, and wait for the healing. It’s gonna come.”

And something shifted. I started this journey in denial, “I’m not sick,” and quickly moved to pragmatism, “I’ll kick this bug with the old rest and fluids regimen.” Then I donned my positive, “I’m feeling better every day,” for as long as I could until I found myself slunk in misery muttering, “I’ll never be well again.” But at 2:30 am, when I acknowledged that there was nothing more I could do, I just had to be, I relaxed. I slept soundly until 8:30 this morning before crawling into a warm bath. Then I had a little breakfast and cuddled up next to my dog.

And now that I’ve chronicled this very mundane journey, I’m going to climb back into bed with my book. I’ll be there the rest of the day.

The Lord sustains them on their sickbed and restores them from their bed of illness.

Psalm 41:3

Body Signals

The physical body is uniquely designed to send us messages that help us take care of ourselves. For example, I have a ten year old student who has beautiful long eye lashes. These eye lashes serve to keep dirt out of his eyes, but occasionally one, rather than staying where it belongs, pokes in and causes irritation. His eye begins to water, and my student does everything he can to get that lash out of his eye. Feeling the irritant, the eye signals my student to make eye lash removal a priority.

Similarly, our bodies signal fatigue at the end of a long day, prompting us to go home and get some rest. They signal hunger so that we will be sure to eat foods that fuel our many activities. They tell us when we are cold so that we’ll put on more clothes, and they signal pain when we have an injury.

Most of us respond to these signals. We get sleep when we are tired. We eat when we are hungry. We wear warmer clothes in the winter and tend to injuries when they occur. However, the human body is also able to ignore these signals for short periods of time in order to meet immediate demands, respond to crisis, or push through difficult periods. Soldiers and rescue workers have demonstrated this ability to be highly effective for long periods of time without rest or proper nourishment. However, all of us, after a period of ignoring the body’s signals, must take time to recover, to heal, to restore. If we continue in a chronic state of over-doing, the body has to develop some next-level signals — it begins to demand attention.

Several years ago, my body did just that. After years of trying to power through responsibilities without responding to my body’s physical, spiritual, and emotional signals, I began to develop symptoms: skin rashes, joint pain, extreme fatigue, and eye inflammation. At first, these symptoms side-lined me. They were so insistent that I had to take several months of intentional care and then several years of refined practice to move back into the game. These next-level signals forced me to care for my body after a long period of neglect.

Now that I’m off the bench, I’ve learned that these chronic issues can be kept at bay if I work a moderate number of hours, practice yoga, avoid triggering foods, and get plenty of rest — if I make it a habit to listen to my body’s signals. However, if I fall back into old patterns — working too many hours, ignoring my self-care practices, or eating carelessly — my eye begins to hurt, my skin rashes flare, and occasionally I get knocked down. I find myself on the couch with ice packs and fluids, tending to my body after a period of neglect.

For the past month or so, my sessions with one particular online student have been fraught with technical issues. We lose our internet connection, my screen freezes or her screen freezes, or we experience an irritating lag that makes our communication difficult. When I opened her virtual room last week, it was evident almost immediately that we were going to struggle, so I called our IT department. They started trouble-shooting the session, and it became apparent that other instructors’ sessions were suffering, too. Finally, after many attempted fixes and much frustration, IT recommended that each of us clear the cache on our web browsers. None of us had done that in quite a while, and our chrome books were bogged down. They couldn’t continue to function until we gave them some of the maintenance that they needed. It didn’t take long, just a couple clicks, and the efficiency of our internet was restored.

It seems that our habits of hurriedly moving from student to student had prevented many of us from completely powering down our computers, from doing regular computer maintenance, from clearing our cache. Neglected, our computers stopped working.

Similarly, I’ve been pushing my body lately. We’ve been short on staff since the beginning of the year, and all of us have been working long shifts and managing extra responsibilities. It’s hard on all of us. And while I am making sure that I write and do some yoga every day, I’m not taking time to clear my cache. I’m getting bogged down. I have noticed little glitches — I make a sarcastic remark, I run just a little bit late, or I miss a significant detail. Then all of a sudden, I find myself on my couch — unable to function properly.

So what’s going to change? What have I learned from repeating this cycle over and over again? Sure, some things are outside of our control. We definitely are short-staffed, and since I am in a leadership position, it only makes sense that I would be working all the available hours. So what can change in my attitude about work? That’s a good question.

My husband has a saying, “care, but don’t care” —care for my students and their welfare, but don’t own responsibility for them. Love my students, give them my best, but remember that I can give them my best without giving my all. I’m not good at this. I’m an all-in kind of a girl, but I’m thinking I have to find a way to set my idle a little lower. I want to be present with my students and coworkers without owning their successes so deeply, without feeling each of their struggles so personally.

I think my tendency to overwork and over-care stems from a desire to be needed. I mean, I don’t get up in the morning and say, “Let me go pour my whole life into my students so that they will appreciate and value me.” It’s not that simple. Belief systems run deep; they operate in the subconscious. Perhaps I have this thought deep in my core that if I meet all the needs of my students, I will be worthy and acceptable. And that thought, which stems from insecurity, actually masquerades as superiority — they need me, what would they do without me? 

But guess what, when I called in sick today, my agency did not close. All the students are still meeting with instructors. Progress is still being made. I’m an important player, but not so important that I can’t take a beat for self-care. I can pause to clear my cache.

To be honest, I do. In addition to taking time to write and do yoga, I regularly do several other forms of self-care. I just need to not work as though my worth depended on it.

Because it doesn’t.

I am valuable, needed, and appreciated, even when I am in yoga pants and an oversized fleece on my couch. Right now that’s what my body is telling me it needs — at least for today.

I’ll try to keep listening to its messages tomorrow.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Matthew 6:25-26

Hey, Thanks

A year ago, my husband and I were at the beginning of a season of difficulty. We were experiencing impact from past trauma which was affecting our emotions, our health, our faith, and our finances. Each day, it seemed, revealed new levels of despair, and we felt powerless. So what did we do?

Well, we cried a lot. We sought counsel — pastoral and professional. We prayed — “in groans that words cannot express.” We enlisted a trusted group of prayer warriors — confidants in arms. We made tough decisions. And we watched hours and hours of The Great British Baking Show — no joke, that show was one of the best choices we made last year. So much pleasantry and punniness — you can’t not feel lighter after having watched it.

And yet no quick rescue came.

Instead, month after month we continued — in counsel, in prayer, in judicious adherence to the decisions we had made, and in periodic detachment from reality by way of Brits engaged in a battle of the bake.

And slowly, over time, we began to experience restoration.

I’m reflecting because some friends invited me away this past weekend to engage in some restorative practices. It seems we’re all always walking in brokenness, and sometimes a pause can allow for healing.

We ate great food and talked and laughed. We did yoga together. And then one friend pulled out presentation boards and a pile of magazines, scissors, glue, and markers — she had provided a project. Our goals were broad — to find words and images that could express who we are, where we have come from, or where we are hoping to go.

We sat at a large oval table in front of a window overlooking a frozen lake, quietly flipping through pages, clipping out words and images, and arranging and re-arranging them on our boards. Pandora was playing Lauren Daigle and Corey Asbury, and voices could be heard humming or singing along. We occasionally commented on what we were doing, but mostly we were focused and quiet.

After we had each gathered a pile of clippings, we began the process of arranging them on our boards.

the process

As I experimented with layering images, I discovered themes emerging. I began reflecting on the past year and how our difficulty had led to so. much. healing. One section of my board captures my continued physical healing with images of tea and yoga and aromatic flowers and fruits. Another reflects on the transformation of my spiritual life — praying hands, a solitary walk, and ‘searching the scriptures’. A roll of dollar bills sits on a plate near the words “Reset your expectations” and “God Provides” signifying financial healing.

I was surprised by the number of flowers on my board, particularly after such a long year of grief wherein I cared little about what I wore or how my hair looked, let alone the adornment of jewelry or flowers. But as each bloom grabbed my eye — roses, wildflowers, hibiscus, and lilacs — I tore and clipped. I lavished my board with flowers. I couldn’t seem to get enough, because, guys, I’m not mourning any more. I’m celebrating. I’m thankful.

As I arranged words and images on my board, I was overwhelmed with thanks — for physical healing over the last several years, for spiritual healing in the past several months, and for newly discovered financial healing.

I heard Pastor Brian Wolfmueller say recently that when we give thanks, we “shift our view from doing to reviewing.” That’s what this process of clipping and arranging was for me — an exercise in reviewing.

A long Margaret Townsend quote about the importance of breath sits in the lower right corner near a box of tissues, a hand, and a photo of my husband and me taken at the height of last year’s difficulty. We’re smiling in the photo, but I can assure you that tissues were not far away. I am thankful for this photo because it shows that despite the fact that we were desperate for most of last year, we were committed to being desperate together. In the midst of trauma, our marriage bond was strengthened. We learned the importance of breathing through difficult situations and sitting in them together. One of the reasons that we were able to grow through these very difficult circumstances was the support of loving friends who continually made their presence known in very tangible but unobtrusive ways. They were compassionate rather than judgmental. They loved us when we were hurting.

And I guess that leads me to the last set of images. Our story of unspoken broken is centered in a city. Most of our trauma happened there, so you would think we would want to run from all things urban, but the opposite is true. Although we are safely nestled in a little house on an idyllic little campus, in a cushioned community, our hearts continue to lean toward the city.

Just before Christmas, we traveled to Detroit. We hopped off the highway to get a view of the neighborhoods — to see the brokenness and abandonment and to witness the opportunity for transformation. As I was paging through magazines this weekend, I found images of Detroit and I couldn’t turn past them. We love our life in Ann Arbor — our church, our friends, our jobs. We have experienced so much healing here and are so thankful for all the opportunities we have been given. I don’t know why I was drawn to this photo, but I put the city in the center of my board. It seems to belong there.

finished product

When we were all finished creating, we each retreated to privacy — to soak in a tub, or nap, or write — and then we gathered again. As one-by-one we shared our boards and what we had discovered, I was reminded of one more thing to be thankful for — the community that surrounds me, supports me, weeps with me, and celebrates with me.

I am so, so, thankful. And the words of Pastor Wolfmueller remind me that I can sit here and be thankful to the One who is making all things new. I can review the blessings for a bit. I can focus on what what’s next some other day.

 I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.

Psalm 9:1

Can I ask you a question?

An adult student with some cognitive challenges works with us two hours every morning. She has been learning how to read for as long as I’ve known her; the process moves very slowly. Each word is a labor, and ‘Kelly’ is on her own time table. She will work hard for a few minutes and then take a singing or “knock, knock” joke break. When she wanders off topic, it can be challenging to recapture her attention, but I’ve found a pretty reliable way to call her back to work. I sit quietly with my hand raised, student style. She soon sees my hand and then points at me and says, “Yes, Kristin?”

I’ll say, “Can I ask you a question,” and she’ll say, “What’s your question,” and just like that we’re back in business.

My husband and I have been challenging each other to ask questions. We started this dialogue shortly after we admitted that we didn’t know all the answers. My personal recovery started something like this:

“Hi, my name is Kristin. I’m a know-it-all.”

My journey as a know-it-all started early. I was a straight A student my whole educational career in every class that I cared about, which was all of them with just a few exceptions:

US Government my senior year of high school because 1) it was right after lunch and I’d been up since 5:30am, and 2) our teacher, bless his heart, didn’t really sell his content in a way that sparked my interest;

Anthropology my freshman year of college because 1) a cute ROTC guy (in uniform!) sat on the other side of the auditorium, and 2) the instructor, bless her heart, stood at the podium in the front of the lecture hall droning on and on about slide after slide;

Principles of Fitness in college because 1) I was anorexic, and on day one I was shown how to use calipers to measure my body fat, and 2) the instructor, a soon-to-retire coach, bless his heart, seemed less than thrilled to be stuck teaching a required course.

See a pattern? If I had a reason not to learn it and the instructor didn’t engage me, I had better things to do with my time and energy.

And besides, as I said, I’m a know-it-all. I’m basically right about everything — education, parenting, marriage, writing. Just ask me. And if you don’t ask me, don’t worry, I’ll let you know what I think anyway, either by telling you, by showing you, or by wearing an all-knowing expression on my face.

Yeah, my know-it-all attitude has never really fostered communication, let alone transformation. Unchallenged for much of my life, I forged onward, knowing what I knew and operating from that core until — whoops! — I realized that I didn’t actually know everything.

Over the past few years, my husband and I have been faced with very difficult questions, and we haven’t had all of the answers. To complicate matters, we keep finding ourselves in conversations with people who don’t agree with. In the past, as a confirmed know-it-all, I would’ve used my position, power, or sheer force of will to press my opinions and beliefs on others, using words or actions to convince them that I was right — about ministry, about marriage, about parenting, or about politics. But guess what — force-feeding doesn’t convince people to eat what you are serving. People don’t actually like to be told what to think, feel, or believe. They like to be challenged to find their own answers. They like to be invited into conversations. They don’t want to be lectured or tolerated or pacified.

I know — it’s mind-blowing!

So, as a recovering know-it-all, I have, with my husband, been considering an alternate strategy — asking questions. What if, instead of telling everyone I know the best way to teach writing, I ask other teachers what strategies they have found to be effective? What if instead of promoting one particular type of school, I ask parents what factors guided their educational choices? What if instead of insisting that the best way to deal with chronic illness is to find a homeopathic doctor, I ask a friend what she has found to be most useful in dealing with her illness?

Do you see what happens? Telling keeps people at a distance. Asking brings them into your space! Telling keeps me isolated. Asking gives me community! Telling sets my feet firmly in the ground. Asking creates space for me to move!

Now, I will admit, that this new stance — asking — feels more vulnerable than my previous one — telling. When you bring people into your space, they have much more opportunity to hurt you, but I’m learning that they also have much more opportunity to love you and to be loved by you. 

I will also admit that because the former way was so well practiced, it has been difficult to re-train the muscle memory. Our quest to transition away from telling started in the theoreticalWhat if we asked people questions rather than debating the correct answers? It then moved to the pedagogicalCertainly asking questions invites others to join in conversation. But it has taken us a while to move from the theoretical and pedagogical to the practical — actually asking people questions.

Coincidentally — hah — at the same time that we’ve been exploring questions as a means of making conversation and building community, we have had opportunity to witness a member of our small group community, who, in every discussion we have, starts each thought with, “Could I ask you a question?” It is quite evident that he has trained himself in this practice. He is very intentional. He asks questions and he waits for answers. (You know what he does for his job? He guides organizations through change! I can’t make this stuff up.)

So, we had the theoretical discussion. We determined an appropriate action. A model was provided, and then the occasion appeared — the moment in which we met a challenge to our preferred way of thinking and living that produced personal transformation*.

It happened last weekend at the prayer conference we attended. One of the presenters, Chris Paalova, of All Nations Church in St. Louis, MO, spent his forty-five minutes asking us if we would be willing to change the way we pray from telling God what we want him to do to asking Him.

He built his case for this method by citing numerous passages where the big players of Scripture — David, Abraham, Paul, and even Jesus — prayed in questions — from David in the Psalms asking, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1) to Jesus on the cross asking, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

And as he gave example after example it dawned on me that even with God, I have been a know-it-all. I don’t ask, “What are you showing me through this illness?” Rather, I say, “Lord, give me the strength to make it through today.” Instead of asking, “Lord, will you please encourage my kids and show them who you are?” I say, “Lord, encourage my kids and provide for their needs.” Instead of asking, “Lord, what am I missing here?” I say, “Lord, lead me through this circumstance.” It’s subtle, but in my prayers, I am still calling the shots. I am not being vulnerable with God. I am telling Him what I want when I could be asking Him what I need.

Like ‘Kelly’, I’ve been working on this lesson for as long as I can remember. I’ve been trying to learn that God is God and I am not. He is the only one who knows everything. My stint as a know-it-all was all smoke and mirrors. He knew that. And because He wants to engage me, to draw me closer to Him and be in relationship with me, He keeps varying his instructional methods and providing models for me.

So, at last, I’m sitting here raising my hand, and I can almost hear Him say, “Kristin, what’s your question?” I think we’re back in business.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

Matthew 7:7

*Kirkegaard, again.

Practicing Yoga

The first time I walked into a yoga studio, I looked around and did what the others were doing — got a mat, sat down cross-legged, and quietly waited for instruction. I hadn’t done any research, had no idea what I was getting into, and struggled to mimic the poses that were being demonstrated at the front of the class. I was a distance runner at the time, so I was in great shape for running, but I had little to no upper body strength, a poorly-developed core, and little to no flexibility — physical or mental. I ended the class feeling frustrated and nauseous and didn’t try yoga again for a long time.

When chronic pain and fatigue ended my running career, I joined a gym. My regular routine included thirty minutes on an elliptical trainer, light weight lifting, and then some restorative movement in the warm saltwater therapy pool. Once in a while, I joined a pilates class. I stayed in that rhythm for a year or so, and then my daughter gave me a month-long membership at a yoga studio. I decided to give yoga another try.

Since I had only had one previous experience with yoga, and that had ended badly, I asked my friend to go with me. I’m so glad I did. Without her, I was the only ‘mature’ woman in a room filled with college students. The instructor was a young man whose body reminded me of the bendable figures our oldest son used to take with him on long car trips — I’d never seen such a strong and limber human. To make matters worse, it was an advanced vinyasa flow class. If you know what that means, you know that I was in the wrong room at the wrong time. I tried to keep up, but I didn’t know the poses, or the vocabulary, and I still had neither the strength nor the flexibility for much more than child’s pose.

Child’s Pose


Sure, my inner soldier made a valiant attempt. I tried to move through a vinyasa, even though the word was brand new to me. I tried to be any kind of warrior — I would’ve settled for one, two, or three. I pretended to be a mountain, but what that class taught me was that I needed to take the posture of a child — physically, mentally, and emotionally — and start to become comfortable with learning a new way.

Lesson #1: You don’t learn a new way over night.

That class was a few years ago. Since then, I’ve been practicing yoga. I’ve been learning how to breathe. I’ve been building core strength. I’ve developed some vocabulary and even some flexibility.

I often say, “God is always preparing you for what’s next.” In school, we first learn letters and sounds so that we will be prepared to read words. Once we have some vocabulary, we can begin to read sentences. Sentences lead to paragraphs which lead to stories which lead to all the ways that print can open up the world for us.

Menial jobs like babysitting or lawn mowing provide opportunities to learn the basic practices of showing up on time and finishing a task. They build experience, or muscle, that enables us to take on more difficult jobs such as food service or sales. These jobs teach us about working in teams and being able to adapt under pressure — they teach us flexibility.

All of life is preparing us for what’s next. When, as children, we learn how to line up and take turns, we are learning the basics of how to function with others. When, in adolescence, someone says something unfriendly about us, we feel the pain that reminds us to treat others with kindness. When we experience our first heartbreak and someone listens to us as we cry, we learn how important it is to be compassionate. When we face the many challenges of juggling finances and deadlines and friends and work, our core strength is being established. All of life is practice — practice for what’s next.

In advance of my soldiering years, I had several experiences that built up my stamina and developed a fearlessness that allowed me to step into responsibility and to manage difficult situations. God had given me what I needed; He knew what was coming. When those years were over, He provided an opportunity for me to learn a new way, but first He had to teach me how to be still. He had to remind me to breathe.

When I first started practicing yoga, I thought it was weird that the first 5-10 minutes and the last 5-10 minutes of the practice focused on stillness and breath. How could I get stronger by being still? How could bringing my attention to my breath have any lasting impact on my physical body? In my mind, exercise was about exertion, pushing the body, and burning the calories. These messages — remnants of the soldiering years — had to be put aside. Although the way of yoga seemed strange to me, I moved into child’s pose and began to learn to listen to the sound of my own breath, to watch the rise and fall of my body, and to pay attention to how I feel physically.

This way is new to me. I have long walked/trudged/powered through life giving attention to my body only when it cried out in pain or shut down in illness. Then I have patched it up as quickly as possible and resumed my forward motion. And my body has suffered, but not just my body. I have also ignored my emotions. And my spirit. I have put myself on a course with the goal of finishing. Period.

But in this chapter, I find myself over and over again in the posture of a child, often helpless and crying, needing to learn a new way. And, as my pastor said this morning, new ways are “not something we arrive at, but something that we practice”.

So I’ll continue to practice — yoga, yes, but also returning to my spiritual practices of prayer, Scripture, worship, and community. These are the practices that have been re-shaping me, re-wiring me, re-pairing me, and pre-paring me for whatever comes next.

 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 1For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

2 Corinthians 4: 15-16

Take Care for the Holidays

I’ve been easing myself in to the holiday season.  It all starts with emails and phone calls early in October.  Who is doing what for Thanksgiving? Who is hosting? Who will travel?

Discussions of Thanksgiving turn into talks about Christmas. Who will we see? Who will we miss? Where will we worship? What gifts will we buy?

Holidays matter. They have been historical points of connection. Even if they haven’t been perfect, they have had meaning. So each year we start early to anticipate reunions and traditions, fondly remembering turkey dinners, caroling door to door, sledding down snowy hills, eating Christmas cookies, and unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. And we build expectation that our holiday gatherings will be Norman Rockwell perfection — even if they never have been.

All of this hope and expectation filters into our holiday conversations, which, if they haven’t already, will start this week.  You’ll ask or be asked, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” expecting to hear something like, “Well, we always go to my grandmother’s,” or “We host a huge feast every year,” or “I’m getting together with my friends locally.” These questions seem harmless or even polite, but you may be surprised to learn that they can be emotionally laden (and even triggering) for many among us.

  • For the young man estranged from his family because of differences in beliefs.
  • For the grieving parents whose only child lost the battle to cancer in February.
  • For the recovering addict who isn’t up to managing the annual toast or maneuvering through family drama.
  • For the woman who was molested by a family member every holiday during her childhood.
  • For the newly widowed man who lost the love of his life last summer.
  • For the family who is recovering from years of dysfunction and trying to start new traditions.

They are all around us — these brave souls who are taking great pains to get out of bed every day, who struggle on a Tuesday to shower, dress, get to work, and feed themselves. Regular days are hard.

Holidays?  Those are next-level difficult.

I was lying on a table last week as one member of my health care team was attending to my body. We entered into the pre-Thanksgiving questioning protocol benignly enough, but before I knew it, there were silent tears and flashes of memory. Holidays do that.  They conjure up images of joy and pain — the full tables and the empty places. They invoke feelings of contentment and regret. They raise expectation and anxiety.  Cordial exchanges that seem casual on the surface, may trigger an emotional reaction in those among us who are quietly struggling or suffering.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t ask the questions, or that you should veer away from discussions of family and Christmas and tradition and celebration? Not at all.

I’m saying, take care.

I’m saying look people in the eyes. Ask, and then listen. Don’t assume that every person in your world is looking forward to the holidays with joy.  Rather, know that for many this is a very difficult time of the year. As you move through your pre-holiday interactions with the people in your life, you may be the only person to see the hard swallow, the averted gaze. You might be the only one to notice the dodged question or the avoidant joke.

And when you do, lean in.  That hurting person needs to know that you saw, that you noticed, that you heard.

After I got up off that table last week, my provider and I exchanged a hug. That’s all. No prying. No awkwardness. Just a hug. The tears were seen and acknowledged. That was enough.

Yesterday, I began my search for gifts for the important people in my life.  My focus was on the objects, of course. I was trying to find just the right items. A salesperson asked me if I was just looking; I said yes and then continued to browse. She kept talking, wanting to tell me about the sales. My initial reaction was to be annoyed, “Just let me shop; I said I don’t need any help.” I didn’t say it out loud, thankfully. Instead, I stopped, listened, and chatted with her a couple of times. I looked at her eyes. I listened to her voice.

I’m trying to live differently.

I think that’s where it starts, don’t you? If I just pause from churning through my to-do list for a moment, slow my roll a bit, I can see the other people around me. And when I see them, I will begin to notice the ones who just can’t wait to get home to be with their families and the ones who are aching and anxious and wish we would just knock it off with all the angels and bells and Santas already.

And when I notice, I can take care, lean in, and listen a little bit more.

 

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Time Trial

You knew it was coming.  You read some blah, blah, blah I wrote about working 20-30 hours a week, and you rolled your eyes and thought to yourself, “Yeah, that’ll last.”

You think you know me?

Ok, fine.  I’m pretty predictable.

I was a few months into my current position when my supervisor asked me if I would be interested in doing a little more training to become a mentor to other instructors — newly hired clinicians who, by design, receive scheduled coaching. Well, yeah. I’d like to do that. I mean, 1) I’ll take any training you will give me. I love to learn;  2) I love observing  other professionals. It sharpens me as much as it sharpens them. So, bam, I became a mentor.

I was getting used to that position when I was approached again: would I be interested in being an instructional pacer. I’d have to get a bit more training regarding standardized tests and analyzing student scores. I’d also have to see how our instructional practices target the specific learning needs of each of our students. In other words, I’d have to understand the why and how of instruction.  Was I in? Definitely.

I was willing to step into these positions knowing that I would be called upon to work more than the hours I initially agreed to because although I’ve struggled with my health for six years now, I have been feeling fine since I started this job. Maybe it’s the fact that I had a series of steroid injections in my S/I joint in January (about the time I hired in), and my pain has been greatly decreased. Maybe it’s the consistency of the schedule — my work day never falls outside of standard 8-5 hours. Maybe it’s the positivity of the work environment — we clap, hooray, and celebrate all day long. Maybe it’s a combination of all these factors that have made this position a good fit for this time.

Whatever it is, I have decided that I’m willing to try full-time employment for the summer.  I’ll give it a shot and see how it works. If you’ve read my blog for any amount of time, you realize that I’m willing to experiment a little — I’ve followed an ultra simple diet, I’ve tried multiple medications, and I’ve worked a variety of jobs.  Each of these experiments has taught me something about myself and the ways that my body and mind function best. I’ve learned that my body prefers tea over coffee, that my skin breaks out almost immediately if I eat corn (even my much-loved popcorn!), that pharmaceuticals aren’t the best option for my super sensitive body chemistry, and that I work best in positions that provide boundaries that I wouldn’t normally observe on my own.

Let me tell you a little more about that.  Instruction at Lindamood-Bell is broken into hourly segments. Most of our students come in for four hours a day.  Each hour they receive 55 minutes of instruction followed by a five-minute break. The instruction — 55 minutes of highly focused cognitive work — is tiring. Our students work hard, and so do our clinicians! Because of this, everyone stops once an hour to take a break, get a snack, go for a walk, use the bathroom, play a game, juggle, laugh, or otherwise rest from the intense work of instruction. Likewise, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, everyone stops for a fifteen-minute break. Often during these longer breaks, we celebrate student accomplishments, have a group treat like ice cream, or engage in group play like the center-wide nerf gun war we had recently. Everyone works hard; everyone takes breaks. It is required.

This is not a rhythm I fall into on my own, but I’m learning from it.

This very healthy rhythm of work and rest is further emphasized by the expectation that employees are only to work while on the clock. For the first time in decades, I punch a clock before I meet with a student, answer a question, or even reply to an email! Last weekend, while on a short vacation with my husband, I logged into my work email and quickly replied to a question.  Not long after that, my supervisor emailed me and said, “Thank you for the response, now STOP CHECKING YOUR WORK EMAIL WHILE YOU ARE ON VACATION!”  I chuckled to myself,  logged out, and walked down to the beach. This position requires that I work while I’m at work and rest when I’m not. That’s a good rhythm for me, too.

The boundaries of my work environment make it a healthy place for me to work, and so does the climate. Because most of our students have experienced multiple educational roadblocks and frustrations, it is critical that we provide a positive climate. All day long we praise, give rewards, and slap high fives. Each time a student responds to a question, he receives a “good job” or a “great try”. If she masters something that has been tricky, bells ring and the whole center applauds. Instructors get celebrated, too!  If one staff member sees another staff member do something great, he writes it down, points it out, and gives recognition.  All day long, we work hard to create a culture that celebrates individual effort and achievement. We smile, we laugh, and we cheer.

This, too, is not natural for me.  I tend to analyze, criticize, and strategize. These skills have been necessary and useful in a variety of positions I’ve held, but they don’t necessarily build a positive culture. Rather, in isolation, they support a climate of striving and perfectionism. Anyone who’s lived in such a culture knows how stressful that can be. What I’ve learned though, is that I can quickly adapt to a culture of positivity, support, and celebration. In fact, just like many students who have struggled in other learning environments, I thrive here. I am even finding that my skills of analysis, critical thinking, and strategizing are welcome, as long as they are tempered by compassion. And, I’m remembering that compassion comes naturally to me, too.

Yes; this position seems to be a good fit for me, but will I be able to sustain these good feelings while working 8 to 5, Monday through Friday?  I’m not sure, but I hope so. It seems that I’m learning at least as much as my students are.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and establish the work of our hands

Psalm 90:17

Corn chips, anyone?

Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I ran across a meme that said,

“Is anyone else just going through life like ‘I just gotta get past this last difficult week and then it’s smooth sailing from there!’ but like…every week?”

I chuckled.

I had just been reminiscing about how when we were first married every need we had seemed to cost $5.  We needed $5 for a last minute item from the grocery store to finish dinner for guests who would arrive in half an hour, $5 for the hardware to fix the door that wouldn’t latch quite right, $5 to contribute to the group gift at work.  Each item was just $5, but when we added them all up, the total pressed us.

Later, when our children were small, it shifted to $10.  A package of diapers was about $10, so was the team t-shirt, or enough burgers and fries at McDonald’s to feed three kids and justify their time in the Playland. It seemed we never had enough $10 bills to cover all the items on our list.

Before long, the price of ‘everything’ grew to $20.  Then it was $50, then $100. Each time we had an unexpected expense, we shifted, braced, ponied up, and prayed that if we just “got past this last difficult week” then it would be “smooth sailing.”

Back then ‘crises’ looked different than they look now, too. I remember the time, for instance, when my husband and I returned from a long day at our respective teaching positions, looking forward to the chicken dinner that had been roasting in the crockpot all day, only to find that I hadn’t turned the crockpot ‘on’ and that the chicken was still raw.  I thought the world had ended.  I had wasted “all that food”; certainly I was a failure as a wife.

Or the time when I had planned the menus for a three-day visit from out-of-town guests, budgeted carefully, brought all the groceries home, prepared the first meal, and discovered one of our guests snacking on the corn chips that had been purchased for the next day’s nachos. I dragged my husband into the bedroom and said, “What are we going to do? Now I don’t have everything I need for tomorrow’s meal!”  I was seriously distressed.

Over the years we have certainly weathered much worse that prematurely noshed nacho chips.  We have managed through many ruined meals, illnesses, broken hearts, car accidents, disappointments, and surprises.  And still, I keep hoping that this will be “the last difficult week” before we hit the period of “smooth sailing”.

We have had seasons of smooth sailing. Many. However, I haven’t seemed to grasp that “smooth sailing” isn’t what is promised.  In fact, it is far more likely that we will face “troubles of many kinds”.  The troubles are the given.  The reprieves are the unexpected blessings.  So why do I set myself up to believe the opposite?

I guess I want to believe the best. I am inherently a glass-half-full girl.  Yes, our finances are going to work out.  Of course, our children are going to be healthy.  Surely, we will be successful and well-liked.  Naturally, everyone will agree with us. I choose the path of hopefulness to a fault.

The problem with believing the best will happen in every situation is that I don’t always prepare for any alternative.  I don’t guard myself for the ‘given’ of disappointment.  I don’t store up for the days of famine. I believe that everything is going to run just how I planned. I don’t buy extra ingredients just in case; I buy exactly what I need. So, I’m often found standing, mouth agape, in shock that someone is standing there eating my corn chips.

But here’s the thing — people are going to eat the corn chips.

Now, I do realize that corn chips are not a big deal.  They are hardly even a $5 item. But the $5 items teach us what to do when we are one day faced with a $100 or a $1000 item (or even several of them all in the same week).  I can get pissed that someone ate my corn chips, I can ask them to run to the store and pick up another bag,  or I can simply say, “Oh, I’m glad you felt at home enough to help yourself!”

In trying out different responses to these $5 items, I am building resiliency–muscle–that will sustain me when I am hit with a more substantial crisis — someone I love is hospitalized, or we discover we owe Uncle Sam a lot. Again. Or we lose a loved one, or get a life-altering diagnosis.

We face troubles of many kinds. All of us do. All the time. My troubles seem huge to me right now. So do yours. Our hearts are broken in a million places and we are devastated. We’ve been lied to, cheated on, forgotten, abandoned, mistreated, and deceived.

The corn chips pale in comparison, don’t they?

But the $5 problem and the corn chip crisis have a lot to teach us.  I wish when I came home to the cold chicken in the crock pot my first response would have been, “Ok, God, what’s for dinner now? And what do you want me to learn from this?” Instead, if I remember correctly, I spouted lots of self-deprecating phrases, stormed around the house, probably cried, and ultimately got a pizza. It’s ok. I had a human response. However, I think that ultimately God wants more for me than self-blame, shame, and anger. I believe that in my $5 problems and my $100,000 problems, God longs for me to look to Him.

What if, in every decision, instead of mustering my resolve and believing that I myself will be able to manage every situation, I instead turned, raising my eyes and my hands to God, and admitted that all of it is too much for me?  What if I acknowledged that my pennies and my corn chips all come from God?  How would I experience life differently?  How would I weather crisis and even trauma?

I’m not too old to learn a different way.  Honestly, I’m given opportunities every day.

If you are in the habit, as I am, of kicking butts and taking names, of putting out fires on the fly, of keeping multiple plates spinning, of trying to handle everything on your own, this type of change will be a challenge.  The impulse in every difficult situation is to be a first-responder — to stop the gushing blood, provide oxygen, perform compressions, and avert any casualties.  Fighting that impulse is hard, especially if ultimately you are truly the only one who can help.  But here’s the thing: God has every situation in the palm of His hand. He’s got it. He can handle everything for the few moments it takes you to pause, look Him in the eyes, and ask, “Is there something you’d like me to do here?”

That’s all. Just pause and ask Him.  He may say, “Stand by. Help is on the way.”  He may say, “Yes, I really need you to stabilize this situation until help arrives.”  He may say, “Stand down.”

Mm.  This soldier certainly does not like to be told to “Stand down.”

But. If I trust that God has everything in the palm of His hand and that He alone knows the best course of action, don’t I want to check with Him before I act? Before I pay the $5? or before I lose my mind about a stinking bag of corn chips?

It sounds pretty simple when I put it like that, but I’m telling you, this is the lesson of my life. It’s about time I learned it.

John 16:33

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Bits of Truth

Words matter so much to me.  I realize this is pretty obvious: I do put a couple thousand on this page every week, and my chosen profession requires me to use tens of thousands  every day. Yeah, I love words; I’m drawn to them.

I typically read several hundred pages of fiction and/or non-fiction every week, and when I see words arranged in a way that resonates with me, I use my iphone to snap photos of them. Also, whenever I gather with two or more, I arrive with a notebook and a pen, prepared to write down the meaningful and the trivial.  I scratch out notes at work, at church, and in my small group.

I spend my life surrounded by words, and I tend to horde them. As I was making my way to this space today, I grabbed a couple scraps of paper from my desk, my phone, a notebook crammed with sermon notes, a book I’m reading, and my laptop.  What do these items have in common?  They all contain words that I have gathered from one place or another and carried home with me. One bit of paper travelled all the way from my trip to St. Louis last November. Another is from a visit to Cincinnati about a month ago.  My shoes and toothbrush might not have made it home, but these scraps of paper not only survived the trip, they have remained on top of my desk through several frantic clutter-clearing purges.

What could they possibly say that would validate my gripping them so tightly?

The one from November, which I scribbled while sitting in church with dear friends, says “I can have hope that He will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.”

The paper I shoved in my pocket after church last month in Cincinnati says,  “Lord, if you don’t do something here, we are in trouble.”

In my notes from our small group Bible study I find, “This life is unsettled and incomplete,” and “hope wins.”

Last night, I started Jodi Picoult’s small great things.  I opened the cover and read these words from James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”

Pithy phrases all.  Concise.  Succinct.  Power-packed.

Why do I store these clusters of words?

Because in the emotional haze in which I have been existing, I wander around searching for beacons of truth. And, for me, truth is usually found in print.  I don’t write down every word I see, but when I see words that speak truth, I capture them. I hold them.  I carry them around.

Here’s why. Emotions are powerful.  They are expressions of deep feelings that need to be experienced, but they don’t always tell the truth.  My emotions tell me that all is lost, that hope has died, that everything counts on me, that I’m the only one with problems, and that none of this will ever work out.  I weep on my bed and get so carried away by my tears that I never want to stand up again.  Overwhelmed with sorrow, I reach out my hand and grab something to read to quiet myself.  Without fail, I find some shred of truth that breaks through my exaggerating and misled emotions.

I find myself speaking out loud:

All is not lost; God will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.

Everything does not count on me; Jesus is doing something here.

I am certainly not the only one with problems — despite what social media wants me to believe — but my only chance at working through the problems I have is to face them.

All of this will work out. Sure, life is unsettled, but hope wins.

My pulse slows.  My breathing returns to regularity. I close my eyes and move toward sleep.

Yes, I feel dark things still — anger, sadness, grief, and pain.  These feelings are valid,  and I will quash them no longer.  I will sit with them.  I will feel them.  And, I will speak truth to them.  I will not be overcome.

John 16:33

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”