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
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Can I ask you a question?, re-visit

This post, written in February of this year and tweaked just a bit for you here, unpacks my journey from telling to asking –a practice which informs my most recent post, Of passing laws and changing behavior.

I have an adult student with some cognitive challenges who 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 break to sing or tell a “knock, knock” joke. When she wanders off topic, it can be challenging to recapture her attention, but I’ve found a pretty reliable way to re-engage her. I sit quietly with my hand raised, student style.

She soon sees my hand, points at me, and says, “Yes, Kristin?”

I say, “Can I ask you a question,” she says, “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 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 as she clicked through 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 we don’t agree with. In similar situations in the past, I would’ve used my position, power, or sheer force of will to press my opinions and beliefs onto others, using words or actions to convince them that I was right — about ministry, marriage, parenting, or 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 and invited into conversations.

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 pushing one particular type of school, I ask parents what factors guided their educational choices? What if instead of insisting that the best treatment for chronic illness is homeopathy, 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 questions.

Coincidentally — hah! — at the same time that we’ve been exploring questions as a means of making conversation and building community, a member of our small group community has, in every discussion we have had, started each thought with, “Could I ask you a question?” Evidently, as an organizational change agent, he has developed this practice as an effective tool to facilitate group engagement. He asks questions and then explores the answers.

We’ve had a role model right in front of our eyes!

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 a 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, please reduce my pain.” 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 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.

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.”

 

 

 

 

Feel This

Barbara Brown Taylor, in Learning to Walk in the Dark, asks “What if I could learn to trust my feelings instead of asking to be delivered from them?  What if I could follow one of my great fears all the way to the edge of the abyss, take a breath, and keep going?  Isn’t there a chance of being surprised by what happens next?”

Gasp. Trust my feelings?  That is not one of my internal constructs.

I received the message very early that I was supposed to control my emotions, not trust them.   I’ve often been told that I laugh too loudly, cry too easily, and “wear my emotions on my sleeve.”  Although many have tried to encourage me to rein in my feelings, I’m starting to understand that I have been designed to feel fully and express loudly.

My great grandmother, bless her heart and rest her soul, was possibly the first to encourage me to tame my emotions. She was of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality that had enabled her to marry a widower, raise his daughter plus one of her own, run a household, and remain financially stable even when she herself became a widow at a fairly early age.  I loved being around her.  She was a feisty woman with a sparkle in her eye who always welcomed me into her life of baseball games, crocheting, gardening, and baking. She seemed to be at the center of  family gatherings where over twenty of us would eat, tell stories, laugh, and play. Often, near the end of these get-togethers with all the people I loved, I would become tired and sad. Most people in my family just accepted the reality of going home; they grabbed their things, piled into cars, and left.  Me? I bawled. I sobbed. I ugly cried.  Ill-equipped to handle such unbridled expression, my great grandmother tried shame: “Stop that crying, do you want people to see you looking like that?  What if I took a picture of your face right now?”  Those words still sting, but because they came from a woman I loved and admired, I tried to learn how to hold in my tears and behave like the rest of my more reserved family.

That didn’t go well.  Sadness turned in, in my experience, becomes anger.  I can be found in many family photos glaring into the camera lens, because dammit, if I can’t cry, I’m at least gonna be pissed.  And pissed I was.

When my parents divorced, my three siblings seemed to deal with their grief in much quieter ways.  I don’t remember them yelling the questions I yelled, or crying the tears that I cried.  Nor do I recall them throwing things at my stepfather across the kitchen table and stomping out the door to ‘run away’ over and over again.

My middle school memories include scenes of me sobbing in the hallway, yelling at classmates, and getting made fun of for my extra-obnoxious laugh. The reactions of students and teachers to my emotional expression gave me one consistent message — you’re too loud! Calm down!  So, I attempted to calm myself and to soothe my hurts.

How does a preteen do that?  Hours and hours of television, libraries full of books, pounds of potato chips and dip, sodas by the million, and retreats into my room to listen to music and write.

I also tried creative elaboration (lying), academic achievement (perfectionism), and subtle coercion of my friends and classmates (bullying).  None of these strategies had the lasting effect of quieting me; they merely added more emotions — shame, pride, guilt — to the pile that I was already trying not to express.

All was not terrible, of course.  I had friends with staying power and a family who loved me in spite of my emotionality. I was successful in school and well-connected at church. Nevertheless, my feelings were always simmering right at the surface.

High school, in my memory, was a blur of exploring the emotional spectrum.  I felt everything — anger, sadness, joy, love, betrayal, embarrassment, jealousy, pride, fear.  Those four years were a wild ride that involved laughing with friends, glaring at teachers, perfecting the art of sarcasm, breaking rules, being ashamed, and lashing out.  Even in the emotional hotbed of adolescence — I stood out.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was voted “moodiest” by my classmates –a designation memorialized in my high school year book.

The transition to college allowed me an opportunity to be different — to be less emotional.  I think I tried, but by the end of freshman year, my coping mechanism of eating had packed on some pounds, and my fear of “getting fat” caused an overcorrection that became an eating disorder. I turned my focus to restrictive eating to control my weight, and devoid of emotion, I moved through my routine, barely interacting with the people in front of me, and deeming each day a win or a loss on the basis of my total calorie count and the number on the scale.

I may have finally controlled my emotions, but they remained, lurking deep beneath the surface.  I was terribly sad, but I didn’t cry.  I just soldiered on until I collapsed, gasping for breath.

That was over thirty years ago.

Therapy and maturity have healed some hurts, and I have, of course, learned how to more appropriately manage my emotions.  I was certainly going to get it right with my own children.  I was going to let them feel what they felt — cry their tears and laugh their laughs. My intentions were good, but life gets complicated, and when it does, we fall back on old faithful patterns.  Surely my children watched me hold back tears; they saw me swallow anger and soldier through difficulty. Despite my best efforts, my estranged relationship with my emotions has had an impact on the people who have shared a home and a life with me.  How could it not?

So when I consider Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘what if’ question, I’m challenged to try a new strategy.  She offers me an opportunity to feel what I am feeling, to lean in and explore sadness, regret, grief, and anger.

These are not pleasant feelings, but I’m learning that they must be felt.  They don’t go away.  If I paste on a smile, square my shoulders, and strengthen my resolve, I am only delaying the inevitable.  And the inevitable eventually shows up at the front door with a summons, refusing to go away until you get in the car and ride to the place where you face all of your realities.

So now when I wake up in the middle of the night, heart beating quickly, franticly worrying over things that were or might be, I don’t wish myself back to sleep.  I lie still for a while, looking my feelings straight in the face, and after a while of sitting with these strangers, I get out of bed, come to the keys, and write.  Of all the strategies I have tried over the years, this is the one that allows me to tap deep into the well of feelings that have been locked deep inside, under armor and facades and lies.

Here, I tell the truth, and the truth is: I am hurting.

I am so sad. I have lost so much. And finally, I am going to cry.

It might be loud.  It might be messy.  I might attract attention.

I’m ok with that.

I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who needs permission to weep. I’m not the only one who needs a chance to be surprised by what happens next.

Ecclesiastes 3:4

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

In Violation

It started out innocently enough. I had just finished a counseling session, and I was going to stop by the grocery store on my way home.  In an area of town that I don’t often drive through, I used GoogleMaps to find my route and was listening to a podcast as I pulled up to a traffic light, turned right, realized where I was, and casually proceeded to drive the final mile to the store.  Pulling into the left turn lane, I noticed a black SUV was right on my tail.  When I made my turn into the parking lot, so did the SUV, which was suddenly lit by red flashing lights.

A cop.

Seriously?

Had I been speeding?

Indeed, I had.  I had been going about 47 mph in an area marked 35, where “the residents have been complaining about speeding drivers.”

Sigh.  It’s not the first time, but it’s the first time since I’ve been back in Michigan.  Because of that, the officer wrote my ticket for only 5 over the limit and informed me that instead of getting points added to my license, I could take an online driving course.  It would be easy, he said, and my insurance company would not get notified of my offense.

So here I am spending my morning taking one of several ‘certified by the State of Michigan’ Basic Driver Improvement Courses.  That’ll be $37.45, please. (In addition to the $150 or whatever I paid for the ticket. Ouch.)

One recurring message in the course is that attitude has a significant impact on driving. The content warns against driving when angry, sick, impaired, or distracted.  I am, of course, already aware of the impact of driving under emotional distress, and truly, I was pretty relaxed when I was pulled over.  I was not angry or overly emotional despite just coming from therapy.  I wasn’t distracted by my phone — I had looked at my maps, yes, but my route really required just two turns and about three miles of driving, so I didn’t need to keep the app open.  I had a podcast running, but it was Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love, which is like having a good friend riding shotgun — pleasant conversation sprinkled with laughter. Nevertheless, my mind was not fully focused on driving.  I was watching the road, yes.  I knew what street I was on and where my destination was, but I truly did not see the officer until he was right on my tail, and when he asked me if I knew how fast I had been driving, I had to admit that I had no idea. My attitude wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t fully engaged.

The course suggests a driving mindset that involves SIPDE — Scanning, Identifying, Predicting, Deciding, and Executing.  We should, in order to avoid accidents, be continuously Scanning the road ahead, behind, and around us; Identifying potential dangers such as weather, erratic drivers, and changes in traffic patterns; Predicting what might happen — slippery roads, flat tires, sudden slow-downs; Deciding what we will do if any of our predictions come true; and Executing our plans when the need arises.

Sounds like a great plan, but if I’m gonna be honest (and by this point, you know I am), that is not the way I drive or do anything, for that matter. I barrel through life ‘handling’ what is front of me.  I know, I know, numerous posts on this blog discuss my turning away from soldiering ways, and I do try.  Really, I do. But guys, these patterns are hard-wired; any attempts at change further expose how far-reaching they are.

Most of my life runs on auto-pilot. Get up. Eat. Caffeinate. Shower. Dress. Drive. Teach. Eat. Teach. Drive. Cook. Eat. Clean. Sleep.  Insert reading, puzzling, laundry, conversation, worship, exercise, etc. as needed.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

So, when I said in my recent post, Old Dog, New Trick, that I was working on reprogramming my internal constructs so that I can experience emotions more healthfully, I was actually committing to a life-time effort at change. Each minor change will expose the next area of dysfunction — kind of like that proverbial string of Christmas lights; just when you have replaced one burned out bulb, you discover that three more are faulty.  Similarly, this little three-hour basic driving course is exposing a symptom — failure to focus on driving — of a larger systemic problem — failure to focus on life.  When I fail to focus on driving, and disregard the SIPDE system, I risk a collision. When I fail to focus on life, and disregard opportunities to scan, identify, predict, decide, and execute, I risk myriad kinds and degrees of disaster.

For me, it usually takes a brush with the law — penal or spiritual — to stop what I’m doing, examine the situation, pay the fine, and consider change.

Yeah, we’re not talking about a speeding ticket any more.

As per usual in my life, the lesson is layered.  I’m a slow learner, to be sure, and I need my instruction to be differentiated.  It’s not likely that I will learn to slow down my mental processes and my life patterns unless I have a tangible representation to glue the lesson to — a speeding ticket, and not just a speeding ticket, but a speeding ticket that requires me to sit through traffic school.

My friend the other night at our small group, the one I mentioned here, reminded me that we often just want to treat the symptoms, but unless we deal with the root problem, the symptoms will not go away.  My husband said yesterday that if we have a hole in the roof and we just keep putting out buckets to catch the incoming rain, we’ll be forever emptying buckets.  However, if we climb up on the roof, assess the damages, call in a professional, and fix the problem, we can put the buckets away.

I’ve been carrying and emptying buckets my whole life.

And I’m tired.

So, what, my dears, is the root of the problem?  I think I’m getting closer to the source.  I’m picturing that it has something to do with a mind bent on surviving rather than living, on putting out fires rather than planting trees, on quieting my inner child’s cry rather than allowing her the space to find joy.

I’m getting there.  One day I may fully understand the source of the problem, but even if I never do, a Professional is already on the scene.  He’s doing his work, and I’m trying to slow down enough to lean in and watch Him in action. I might learn a few things.

Revelation 21: 5

“Look!  I am making all things new!”

 

 

Old dog, new trick

I worked on my last blog post, “Choosing Community” for a couple of weeks — drafting, re-drafting, revising, and deleting. It was late Sunday morning, and finally satisfied with what I had written, I decided to publish. During the last hour or so of wordsmithing and fine-tuning, I had noticed a message in the upper right hand corner of my drafting screen; it was in a red font that probably even used the word ‘warning’. I think it said something to the effect that my ‘latest changes hadn’t been saved’. I shrugged it off and clicked the ‘publish’ button. Hm. Nothing happened. Ok, I thought, I guess I’ll refresh the screen, then the ‘publish’ button will surely work.

Click.

Gasp!

My latest changes had really not been saved. (Imagine that!) The last hour or two of work was lost. “I feel sick!” I said out loud. “Why didn’t I copy and paste to Word before I tried to refresh the screen? How am I going to recreate what I had? Why can’t I just slow down once in a while?”

I’ve had many of these kinds of moments in my fifty-two years of life.

So many.

Why didn’t I just look in the rearview mirror before I backed out of the garage into the car that was parked behind me? 

Why didn’t I let the housecleaning wait while I took a short nap? 

Why did I use that tone when I spoke to that child?

Why did I drive in that snowstorm? 

How did I miss that?  What was I thinking?  What is wrong with me?

Sometimes late at night, like tonight, I lie down to try to sleep, and as I close my eyes, I  see a replay of all the missteps and poor choices I have made in my life.  It’s like watching a blooper reel, only I’m not laughing.

Instead, I’m fretting. My heart rate is increasing. I’m finding it hard to breathe.

If only I had _____________, then ___________________.

Over and over and over again.

Why do I punish myself so? Where did I get the idea that I would never make mistakes–that I would be a perfect daughter, friend, mother, wife, employee?  Who told me that every mistake I make would have dire and irrevocable consequences for me and all the people in my life?  I know who — me, that’s who.

I let everything weigh too. darn. much.  I’m still kicking myself for a frustrated comment I made to one of my kids around 2001.  Seriously.

As my therapist says, my expectations of myself are so high, not even I can see them.

So tonight, on the eve of my fifty-second birthday, I am deciding it’s time for a change.  This old dog is about to learn a new trick.

Today and yesterday, as I was driving to and from work, appointments, and errands, I was listening to an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, called “Emotions” (if you’d like to listen to it click here).  The episode discusses a different way to look at emotions (most of which was over my head but some of which was quite healing and liberating).  One liberating part was the idea that emotions are learned and so can be re-learned or re-directed.  The podcast, which cites the research of a professor at Northeastern University, in no way implies that emotions should be stifled or disregarded. (I’ve tried that strategy, thankyouverymuch.)   Instead, it suggests that we often experience emotions in light of constructs that we have been taught or have believed about ourselves or about the world.  For instance, I have, for whatever reason, long held the unspoken belief that I have to be right, even perfect — getting it wrong is unacceptable.  This simple subliminal construct — ‘I need to be right’ — has shaped the way I have experienced failure.  If I miss an item on a test, let down a friend, or break a glass while doing dishes (which I do about once a week), I have failed.  Imagine all the mistakes an average human makes in any given day and you will have a rough estimate of how many times a day I consciously or unconsciously give myself the message that I am unacceptable.

Yeah.  It’s pretty toxic.

Now imagine if I shifted my thinking to be based on the construct that ‘All of life is a series of missteps that provide opportunities for growth.’   If I lived my life based on this construct, I would expect myself to make several mistakes during the day,  and rather than judging or belittling myself, I would instead search around each ‘oops’ for the growth or learning opportunity. I would make no fewer or no more mistakes, I would just have a different emotional experience.  Instead of viewing a torturous blooper reel when I close my eyes,  I might drift off to sleep watching a highlight tape.

Sound too Pollyanna-ish? I don’t think so.  I think it sounds life-changing.

Get this — on Sunday, after I took a few minutes to accept the fact that my ‘final draft’ was evaporated, I sat back down and finished my blog post for the second time.  It didn’t turn out the same as the lost version. As a matter of fact, as I was rewriting, I was still processing my thoughts about community, and I wrote myself to some different ideas than I had in the previous version.  My mistake allowed me an opportunity to think a bit further about my experiences in community.   My ideas had more time to flesh out before I finally hit ‘publish’.

Before I had even listened to the podcast, I had been provided an example of the concept that it was presenting.

Yesterday morning, a friend and I had a quick exchange of text messages which ended with her saying, “I don’t believe in coincidence,” and me responding, “Neither do I.”

This morning my first errand was to drive to a hair appointment before work.  In autopilot, I took the exit that I typically take to work which was not in the direction of the hair salon.  The exit ramp landed me in the middle of a traffic jam.  I was at a juncture — I could belittle myself for not paying attention, or I could lean back in my seat and soak up the podcast. (Yes, I was at that very moment listening to the podcast about shifting mental constructs to allow for different emotional experiences.)   The funny thing is, I knew it was a juncture.  I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “Ok, I guess we’re gonna go this way today.”

It’s a small step toward a huge change.  I am not expecting that I will notice each and every juncture like this. Because mental constructs reside deep beneath the consciousness, they have the power to shape our experience in very subtle ways. I’m going to miss some opportunities; I’m going to make some mistakes.

Nevertheless, I am hoping over time to shift from self-deprecation to tender grace.  It’s gonna take some time, but I do believe this old dog can learn this new trick.

Romans 12:2

“be transformed by the renewing of your mind”