Righting the Course

Three years ago at the end of May, my husband and I retreated north, so far north that we couldn’t get a cell signal. We each brought the materials we would need to plan the courses we’d be teaching that fall. Away from the Internet and the daily routine, we found time to go for walks, take naps, eat well, and outline goals and objectives for our in-coming students.

Two years ago, we escaped south — we spent two weeks in Fort Myers and even rented a car and drove south, south, south, until we got to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States. We didn’t plan for classes on that trip — no, we’d been particularly busy all year, so we devoted time to beach exploring, CSI Miami binge-watching, puzzling, and pleasure reading.

Last year was the year of the Great British Baking Show — the year of sitting on our couch, the year of grief, the year of remembering how to breathe. We didn’t go north or south — we were doing well to stay right where we were.

This year, in the middle of winter, we marked off this week to head north. Our bags are packed, and we’ll soon be on our way. We won’t be writing any courses this year, but we may continue ‘righting our course’.

We’ve been ‘righting our course’ since we came to this little house by the river. We weren’t really planning on that. We knew it would be a new season with our kids all moving into adulthood and us moving back to our home state, but we didn’t really know how much our lives would be under re-construction.

We knew that we were stepping into change –my husband was leaving congregational ministry and moving into a much different role at a university, our kids were moving on, and I was committing to healing. What we didn’t know was that my physical healing was just the beginning. Our move back to Michigan would be the start of a much more global transformation.

We’d been living a propped up existence — caulking leaks and mending seams with duct tape — for a long time. We’d been moving too fast to make thorough repairs in the moment, so we’d patched up what we could and just kept moving, unaware of the extent of the underlying structural damage caused by years of neglect. My health crisis was the impetus for slowing down and dealing with the repairs, and once we started looking, we kept finding more and more projects. However, since life doesn’t have a pause button so that you can do a full renovation before you move on to the next chapter, our reconstruction has been a work in progress.

In the past five years, we’ve witnessed our children move into adulthood — facing and navigating obstacles, chasing and re-defining dreams, finding and losing love, losing and finding themselves. We’ve watched, supported, and done our best to encourage, while we have at the same time found ourselves figuratively pulling down dated wallpaper, exposing water-damaged drywall, and tearing up old floor boards.

As each project has presented itself, we’ve surveyed the damage with crossed arms and furrowed brows, and have then chosen — sometimes reluctantly — to do the hard work of repair. We’ve addressed our health through different approaches to diet, exercise, physical therapy, and medication under the supervision of myriad medical professionals. We’ve examined our emotions through intentional work together, separately, and with therapists. We’ve explored our work/life balance through experimentation with different levels of responsibility and various forms recreation. We’ve invested in our spirituality by spending time with our congregation, our small group, and our own individual study. And bit by bit, little by little, things are starting to come together.

And, now that we are able to sit comfortably in this reconstructed existence, we are finding ourselves sipping tea, taking walks, and questioning our thinking — testing long-held positions on most every imaginable topic.

Every day it seems, my husband and I look at one another and say, what’s God doing here? how do we feel about that? why do we feel this way? what steps should we take? what needs to shift? how do we still need to heal? what is the root of this problem? what is our part in the solution? where are we going? what are we doing?

We don’t have the answers — just a lot of questions.

This is new.

We have been the leaders, the doers, the deciders for most of our adult lives. We have written the courses, made the plans, and mapped out the journeys for ourselves and others. We have called the shots, made snap decisions, trusted our guts, and driven the bus.

But guys, we found ourselves on a course set for collapse.

And now that we’ve taken stock and submitted to a period of reconstruction, our posture is very different. We are realizing that life is full of nuance and complexity: we couldn’t possibly know all there is to know. We have admitted that we got some stuff wrong, and, we are asking some serious questions.

And the interesting part of all this is that, now in our fifties, we aren’t scared. In fact, I would say that we are energized. We’re reaping the benefits of the changes we’ve made in these last five years, and we are on the edge of our seats, big goofy grins on our faces, waiting to see where the questions lead us.

So this trip north is going to be a little different. We’ve packed sweatshirts and flip flops, notebooks and pens, trail mix and tea, and so many questions. We’ll carry them with us — tucked in our pockets, shoved in our bags, and strapped to the roof of the car. We may take them out and look at them, we may discuss a few, and we may leave a few on the beach among the rocks, but I am picturing most of them will come back with us unanswered. And that does not discourage me, in fact, it’s a relief, because I am reminded that we are no longer in the season of having all the answers.

We have moved comfortably into the season of holding all the questions. And you, know, I’m starting to like it here.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 6:68

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Blessing upon blessing

I was standing in a local thrift shop sorting through 50-cent coffee cups. My husband had asked me to grab a half-dozen or so for his office so that college students who come in to grab coffee can take one ‘to-go’. I visit this section often — not only to stock the student life office, but also to replace the many cups that I break or absent-mindedly leave in my path. I was picking out some sturdy looking cups for the students when a beautiful floral pattern caught my eye — it was a little small for my taste, but it was so lovely I decided to put it in the basket with the others and make it my own. Only when I got to the cash register did I realize that it had scripture written on the inside of the rim.

….one blessing after another…

Sometime in the months since I brought it home, I made an un-official decision that this cup will be for special circumstances only. It’s not to be carried out the door in the morning rush, clutched through rush hour traffic, and plunked on my desk at work. No, this cup is for the lingering pondering cuppa. It’s for sipping while sitting and savoring. It’s an object of beauty that I’ll use when I need a little encouragement, a little healing, a little celebration, a little recognition of the grace that has poured out one blessing after another.

I’ve got it in my hand right now.

I’m by myself in my little house by the river for 48 hours of self-imposed solitary confinement. My husband is out of town, so I am seizing the opportunity to be quiet, forget about the clock, take care of a couple tasks, make a few long-overdue phone calls, and spend some time reflecting.

Regular doses of solitude heal and restore me.

So what have I done so far? I’ve practiced yoga, done some writing, read a few chapters in Michelle Obama’s Becoming, slept until I woke up — twice! — and watched six episodes of Queer Eye (a delightful show with a message of healing and hope).

I’ve done some cleaning and organizing, paid some bills, folded some laundry, and worked on a puzzle. I’ve spoken at length to both of my parents and to my parents-in-law. I’ve eaten when I’ve been hungry, lounged on the couch in yoga pants, and sipped several cups of tea.

My dog has been following me from room to room, plunking down wherever I plunk, and occasionally standing in front of me, staring me down, until I remember that it is time to walk around the yard.

It’s on these kinds of days, when the agenda is fluid and my expectations for productivity are low, that tucked away thoughts and feelings jangle loose. I’ve poured a lovely cup of tea to enjoy while I observe them.

I’ve been thinking about the visit I had with my breakfast club girls last week. We got together to celebrate my recent birthday; they showered me with gifts and treated me to dinner. As we chatted and laughed, I was struck by the contrast between this birthday celebration and the one we had last year, when I’d been been buried in grief and had cried as they’d leaned into my pain. This year, I was filled with gratitude for their partnership in my suffering, for their unconditional love, and for willingness to acknowledge and celebrate my blessings.

I’m also looking back at my weekend away with one hundred or so pastors’ wives. I pulled out my notes this morning and remembered our time in Bible study where we sat around tables using pens and colored pencils to draw visual reminders of what we were learning. I heard our voices singing together — both in worship and in fun. I saw friends who I only see at this conference, smiling and saying, “We missed you last year!” I felt the compassion of a soul sister who pulled me aside, probed gently, and let me share just a bit; she bore some pain with me and then shared in my gratitude.

I’m scrolling through thoughts of dinner with my godparents, laughing with friends until my sides hurt, and car rides with new and old friends. I’m relishing in the realization that unlike the last time I gathered with these women, I didn’t need rest breaks, or pain medication — not even when I stayed up way past my bedtime.

Blessing upon blessing upon blessing.

I’m spending this weekend alone so that I can reflect on these blessings. I said no to a few people (probably disappointing at least a couple) and chose solitude. And because I did, I’ve had the time to notice each of these jangly thoughts as they’ve settled down beside me. I’ve had opportunity to look closely at how I’ve been blessed, and I am now restored so that I can step away from my solitude.

It’s a new way — a new rhythm.

Toward the end of the soldiering years, I remember my husband, who was also trying to slow his pace and find a different way, telling me about a rhythm of sabbath. The idea was to pause daily, weekly, and yearly — to intentionally plan for space to pause. I remember thinking, “That’d be nice, dear, but you do see that I’m busy here, don’t you?”

And somehow, after almost five years in this little house by the river, we have joined this rhythm. Each day the two of us wake up in the dark — before we see our people or do our things — we each take a time of reading, writing, reflection, and intentional movement. On Sundays we extend this rhythm by continuing on to worship with our community. Each year, we’ve miraculously been able to get away for a week or two alone to put our phones on silent, to forget about the clock, and to read, write, reflect, and rest.

This is one more realization that just floated down and snuggled in next to me. I never would have believed we could live this way, and here we are.

I’m going to make another cup of tea and savor every last moment of this solitude, this sanctuary, this sabbath. This in itself is one more blessing.

Ten out of ten would recommend.

Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.

Mark 6:31

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

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

Routine

I’m such a creature of habit.  Once I find a groove, I like to stay there.  I like to wake at the same time, eat the same foods, listen to the same podcasts, drive the same roads, and watch the same shows. 

Lately, I’ve been getting up at 6am, doing a little yoga, showering, fixing some kind of breakfast egg scramble, listening to my daily Bible reading followed by a favorite podcast, and driving to work.  At lunchtime, I take a walk and finish my podcast. Then, on the drive home, I listen to music, make a phone call, or simply drive in silence.  Once home, I typically spend some time in the kitchen  — cooking or prepping food for the week’s lunches.  My husband joins me for dinner, then we might take a walk or watch some TV.  We read, then we sleep. 

Now, of course, weekends are a little different, and sometimes I have an appointment or some other detour, but typically, the routine is pretty consistent.  

However, the last week has been a bit out of the ordinary. We had a couple of our kids over for visits. We accepted an offer on our Missouri home. We voted in the primary election. I attended a day-long training. We took a day trip to see my parents, and a few more out-of-the-ordinaries popped up. Most of these were welcome interruptions; nevertheless, my routine has been tampered with, and although I managed well for the first few days, the cumulative effect is grouchiness and irritability. 

I’m sitting on the couch in my pajamas right now, tapping at keys, though I am thoroughly exhausted, because I really need to process and shake off this funk before I ooze grumpiness on any more innocent bystanders.  I “put myself to bed” around eight tonight because I was just that tired, but I’m still awake after 10 because the grumble just won’t be put down.  

I crave my rhythms that much!  I really need each moment of every shower, each breath of every yoga pose, each bite of every breakfast, and each step of every noontime walk. I can’t skimp — not for more than a couple days in a row.  

I’ve become high-maintenance; I admit it. I’d feel guilty if these rhythms didn’t contribute to my overall health, but they do! 

Life in this chapter has taught me that if I want to be kind and attentive to the people in my path, if I want to do my job well, if I want to reduce my pain and increase my stamina, I must oxygenate myself first every day.  And, for me, oxygen is obtained in the purposeful rhythm of routines. 

One of the routines that sustains me is writing.  And, for me, maybe three hundred words a day is just a stop-gap for the days that I can’t write just a little bit more.  It seems that my preferred rhythm is to write anywhere from 700 to 1400 words at a time.  I think it takes me that long to dump out what’s building up, find out where it’s headed, then write myself back off the page.  Perhaps that is what I am doing now. 

It took me the first several paragraphs (the blue text) to dump out my frustration.  Only when I had fully expressed those initial emotions could I move on. The next few paragraphs (the green text) allowed me to analyze those feelings. And now (in gray) I’m just trying to finish.

I’m trying to tell you that I think I use this same model every time I write — I come to the page with some logjam of ideas and words that is just begging to be put down. I write and write until I see that I’ve shifted from expression to contemplation — figuring out why the logjam existed in the first place. I then keep on writing until I can find a way to end, because by the time I’ve gotten to this place, I feel better, I think I might be able to sleep, and I’ve remembered why this part of my routine is one of the most important of all. 

I need all of my routines — the sleeping, the eating, the exercising, and the relaxing — but perhaps the routine that holds all those other routines together, the one that allows me to understand all the others, is the writing.

Now let me go get some sleep.

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.

Psalm 4:8

 

The Assignment: #1

Recently a friend of mine gave me a writing assignment. He handed me a book entitled 300 Writing Prompts and included a handwritten note implying that this assignment was ‘required’.  I was so touched!  It was mid-semester when I would have liked nothing better than to run home, ignore the stack of papers on my desk, and get started.  However, I am nothing if I am not responsible, so I put it on a shelf with a promise that it would get my attention “after December 15”.

It’s December 21, so here goes!

I am thinking, that if you are willing, this will be a participatory series.   From time to time, I will blog with the heading “The Assignment”.  You can read the prompt and my post here and then  decide whether or not you want to post your own response to the prompt.   You can reply in the comments on Word Press or in the comments on Facebook where I typically share blog posts. Ok?  Good.  Let’s try it.

#1 What is your favorite way to spend a lazy day?

Oh, man.  I spend a lot of space in this blog writing about my struggle to be still.  I am a body in motion,  and I like to stay in motion.  However, anyone who stays busy will tell you that once in a while they have to pause.  They may do it willingly; they may push so hard that their body is eventually forced to crash.

When our children were small  (we had three babies within three years!) my husband, seeing the fatigue on my face, would pack everyone up and disappear for a day or two leaving me at home — alone!  After days and weeks of nonstop mom-ing, cleaning, cooking, and busy-ing, I would have 24 to 48 hours of solitude.  The gift was so precious to me that I quickly learned how to squeeze as much relaxation out of this time as possible.  Now that the children have all left the nest, I still observe many of the same strategies whenever I find a day with no commitments:

  1.  If at all possible, I do not drive.  During the mom-ing years, I was continuously behind the steering wheel driving someone to school, to practice, to a lesson, to church, or to purchase an item.  A lot of life involves hopping in the car and getting somewhere — work, social engagements, the gym, church, etc.  The first step to my total relaxation is to promise myself that I will not have to sit in a car. I won’t go anywhere that requires me to drive.
  2. I refrain from speaking.  Seriously.  I don’t talk on the phone.  I don’t make a coffee date.  I hardly speak to my dog.  Because I don’t get in my car, I don’t even risk the possibility that I will have to exchange niceties with the pharmacist, the librarian, or a fellow shopper.  My days as a teacher involve so. much. talking.  Sometimes a girl just needs a break.  I still encounter words — I write, I read, I might even watch a favorite movie or Netflix series, but I commit to absolutely no talking.
  3. I stay in pajamas or yoga pants.  I mean I’m not going anywhere or seeing anybody, so….no explanation needed, right?
  4. I blog. This is actually probably the first stop of the day.  Once I get a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of tea, I head to the keys.
  5. I do some sort of Bible study/reflection. (Actually, #5 should come before #4, but remember I’m out of practice.)  I’ve found over the years that if I start my day by making contact with God’s Word, I am more grounded.  It makes sense, but I don’t always do it.  In fact, since the advent of the iPad and the iPhone, I have found it very easy to fall into the habit of losing the first hour of my day to checking social media, reading email, and playing Words With Friends.  Yeah, you read that correctly, I sometimes lose the first hour of my day.  (If this sounds familiar, you might want to check out this YouTube video or this podcast.   Both have challenged me to reconsider my behaviors.)  I sometimes need the reminder that what I feed my brain first thing in the morning sets my tone for the rest of the day.  A day with no commitments can bring me back to those solid routines.
  6. I eat whatever I feel like eating.  Back when the kids were small and my husband took them away for the day, I often planned a special meal– one that was a little too fussy for the kids or that took a little more preparation time than I usually took with three little ones running around.  These days my food choices are more about eating whatever I want to eat whenever I am hungry — I am not bound by the clock or by any cultural norms regarding what I should eat at a particular time of day.
  7. I lose track of time.  I don’t have to be anywhere, so I do what I want when I want.  I might watch a movie or three movies.  I might read a whole book.  I might iron for two hours because, guys, I really do like to iron.  I might clean the kitchen.  I might go for a long walk. I might fall asleep in the middle of the day.  I don’t look at the clock.  I remove that constraint, and I am automatically more relaxed.
  8. I probably exercise.  Years ago, I would make sure I got in a three to five mile run.  These days, I go for a walk or do some yoga.  Moving my body is restorative — it makes me feel better.
  9. I might soak in the tub. This is a luxury that requires nothing more than the time to do it. It soothes my achey joints and slows my RPMs.
  10. I remind myself  to have another day like this soon.

How about you?  What is your favorite way to spend a lazy day? As I tell my students, you have no rules.  You can write without the constraints of form or style.  Don’t worry about whether you spell every word correctly or put each comma in the right place.  Share your thoughts freely.  I have no judgment waiting for you.  Your ways of being lazy are probably not the same as mine — because they are yours.  Mine are valuable to me, but yours are equally as valuable to you.  One is not better than the other.  Be free.  See how it feels to write down your thoughts.  Share them or don’t share them.  I’m giving you an invitation, not a mandate.  But if you choose to play along, I promise to read every word.  I’m excited to see what happens.

Galatians 5:1

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free

 

300 Writing Prompts. Picadilly, 2017.

 

Sitting with it

I literally have to sit here with it.

I would rather run from it, but I don’t have that option any more. I have to sit with it.

In my soldiering years, I was continually in motion. Dawn ’til dark.  I was picking up, dropping off, buying, cooking, cleaning, planning, teaching, grading, and when I could squeeze it in, I was literally running.  Though I was acutely aware that I had four other humans living in the house with me (who else was I picking up, dropping off, buying, cooking, and cleaning for?), I rarely sat still very long to actually look at them, listen to them, watch them, hear them.

I have to sit with that now.  I’d much rather be running.

When one got migraines, went off to school, and then developed an eating disorder, I didn’t stop what I was doing.  No.  I drove to emergency rooms, packed boxes, drove miles, dropped off, made appointments, picked up, and kept moving.

When another joined the military and started jumping out of planes, I didn’t sit down and think about what that meant.  No.  I bought supplies, cooked farewell dinners, drove to a bus, dropped off, and kept moving. I can’t even remember if I wrote letters.

When another was brutally assaulted, I was so busy moving I didn’t even realize it had happened. For almost two years. And when I finally found out, still, I didn’t stop what I was doing, sit down, and grieve.  No. I grabbed broken pieces, dropped them in the passenger seat of the car, and drove them to someone who I thought could put them back together again.  And I kept on moving.

I have to sit with that now.

I didn’t choose this.

No.  Even when disease started crawling into my joints, I tried to keep moving.  I trudged through long days trying to manage responsibilities and ended up collapsing at home at the end of each day.  All my good hours were spent in hot pursuit while my hours at home, with the ones who needed me most, were spent in a daze of pain and fatigue.

It’s been over three years since I admitted the need for change. In those three years I have tried again and again to return to my former ways, but I can not. This disease is literally slowing me, sitting me down, and forcing me to face the things that I have not wanted to face.  It’s forcing me to learn new ways.  And, still, I resist.

I try, futilely, to keep busy.  I have crocheted a hundred scarves, hats, afghans.  I have put together probably a million puzzle pieces. I have read thousands of pages of print.

But, without fail, fatigue comes, and I must stop the busy-ness and turn to stillness. And even when I am exhausted, as I am right now, it’s as though I fight against rest.

The past several nights I have limped to my room lugging heated packs that I drape on my neck, hips, back after I’ve awkwardly lowered myself into bed.  Then begins the battle of shifting and moaning and repositioning that sometimes lasts several minutes but tonight lasted so long that all the images kept playing out over and over on the HD screen that is my imagination. Finally I groaned myself out of bed.

Come on, Kristin. Sit with it.  Admit that you missed so much. Acknowledge that the ones you love have hurts that you haven’t wanted to see. Grieve that. Cry.

Acknowledge that you couldn’t do it all.  You couldn’t soothe all the hurts.  You sometimes didn’t even try. You can’t undo what was done.

And the hurts keep coming.  The car needs servicing. The dog is aging and ill. A laptop isn’t working. Can’t a girl get relief from some of this pain?

And then comes the realization that the physical pain is a symbol. A tool.  A gift.

Man, I hate to admit that it’s a gift.  But without it, I would still be running. I would still be accumulating regret.

The illness hasn’t solved my problems, but it has revealed some.

And as I see them, I am finally taking the time to sit with them and cry. And lately my tears seem to have no end. They keep coming as though they just have been waiting for the opportunity.

I’m trying, really trying, to sit with that.  I believe the healing will come in the grieving. So, I’m going to take some time to grieve.  Soldiering me wants to schedule the grieving for Mondays at 10am for the next three weeks and be done with it.  Sitting still me isn’t in a rush.

I’m trying to sit with that, too.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Applied Learning

In the spirit of learning from my lessons, let’s apply the last two blogs to my current reality.

Fact #1 – I can’t plan for everything.

Fact #2 – I’m not in control.

How do we live in the tension of recognizing these facts while living out our daily realities?

My current reality is this: I just returned from three weeks away from my home.  I intentionally didn’t plan any work for this week — not even tutoring — because I knew I would need a week of recovery.  Autoimmune disease is such that any stressor — good or bad — can cause a physiological response.  Flying can cause a response. Eating a delicious Cuban sandwich on fresh – delicious –  glutinous bread can cause a response. Working seven days in a row in an unfamiliar environment can cause a response.  Seeing an old friend can cause a response. Taking a detour can cause a response. Eating sorbet — before or after lunch — if it is out of the routine, can cause a response.  (Yes, in the past three weeks I have done all of those things.)

A ‘response’ can mean different things to different people.  For me, a ‘response’ is typically any of the following — fatigue, eye inflammation, increase in pain or fatigue, or, if the stressors are cumulative or particularly intense, what I call a ‘knock down’.  I got ‘knocked down’ a couple of times during the vacation. It’s really not pleasant.  I usually get a pretty solid headache, gastrointestinal distress, systemic pain and fatigue, and usually, the symptoms are so intense that I can’t sleep.

In the past five years, I have been knocked down enough times that I recognize the feeling and have come to take these episodes as reminders that I am trying too hard, that I am doing too much, and that I have to be mindful. I used to feel frantic during a knock down; now I lean in.  I fill a tub full of epsom salt water and slither in.  I lie there for as long as I can with a cool cloth across my forehead.  I drink a lot of water.  I take a homeopathic remedy called nux vomica (as recommended by my doctor), and I rest. I eat healing foods — rice, popsicles, scrambled eggs — and I prop myself in front of something mindless on the television. A standard knock down takes about twenty-four hours of intentional recovery.  Some have taken longer, some have resolved more quickly.

I fully anticipated a knock down during this week.  So, I planned nothing.  Well, not nothing. I planned things that would set me up for success in the coming weeks.

While stressors can lead to a ‘response’, intentionally proactive behaviors can build resilience, like money in the bank.  They don’t prevent a knock down, but they do build my core strength so that the likelihood of a knock down is reduced and the recovery from one is perhaps shorter.  What builds resilience for me?  Well, a regular schedule, for one.

If I follow routines — get up at the same time every day, eat the same breakfast (gluten-free oatmeal with coconut oil and honey has been a recent trend), drink the same drinks (one green tea followed by one black tea), exercise, complete a task or two around the house, have one or two social interactions, and complete one or two professional tasks, all while taking periodic breaks throughout the day — I build resilience.  If I am being proactive,  I have to create my to-do list with this in mind.  I have to ‘plan’ blank spaces into my day.  Margin is essential.

Intentional reading and blogging are perhaps more important steps to building my resiliency than I give them credit for. Long ago, I learned to override feeling with doing. Because I didn’t want to feel pain or get lost in any type of emotion at all, I busied myself. That is a temporary fix, but feelings don’t go away.  They get buried.  Deeply buried.  I have found that if I read a particular genre of books (I’ve referred to many of these types of writers in this blog — Ann Voskamp, Shauna Niequist, David Sedaris, Joan Didion, and the like), then I gain access to emotions that I long ago buried.  While I am ‘hearing’ and feeling the stories of others, I recall my own stories and am able to attach meaning to them.  The follow-up, of course, is this blog.  If, in the wake of reading and reflecting, I sit down at my computer here in the quiet of my little house by the river, I give myself time to process the emotions that have been stirred up.  For you teachers out there, the reading is the receptive portion of the lesson; the blogging is the expressive.  I, like most students, need both in order for the lessons to have any hope of sticking. (And, like most students, I need repetition of most lessons in order to achieve mastery.)

How did I get the privilege of the time that enables a lifestyle with margin? that allows for reading and processing?  The only explanation I have is that the One who has eyes to see me and who knows my needs better than I know my own, determined that because I would never plan this type of life for myself, He would plan it for me. I was living a life that powered through and led to an epic ‘knock down’.  He saw it, and in compassion, He set me down into a new reality–one that allows for margin, one that allows for reflection, one that allows for healing.  Which exposes the next lesson:

Fact #3 – I am held in the palm of His hand.

I am really trying to rest in this reality.  Muscle memory makes me want to jump up and start doing so that I won’t have to feel the pain that has been exposed in the stillness of this chapter.  However, the knowledge that comes through the power of the knock down coupled with the words of some key people that are speaking into my life right now remind me of the words of Elizabeth Elliot that Ann Voskamp quoted in The Broken Way :

…”out of the deepest pain has come the strongest conviction of the presence of God and the love of God.” [Voskamp follows with] The most crushing lie a life can hold on to is that life is supposed to avoid suffering, avoid loss, avoid anything that breaks.  Loss is our very air; we, like the certain spring rains, are always falling toward the waiting earth…

I embrace the knock down because His hand is holding me and leading me to a better life in this next chapter.

Psalm 103: 13

The Lord is as kind to his followers as a father is to his children.