Giving less than 100%

The first day of school is tomorrow! I’m excited — so excited! — but I am also grounding myself with intention. For the first time in my life, I am planning to give less than 100%.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve written lesson plans and have had them reviewed. I’ve organized my classroom — putting up posters and alphabetizing my classroom library. I’ve prepared Google slides and have read through them aloud. I’ve planned my scope and sequence for the first quarter and have already analyzed the interim assessment. However, when it comes to the day to day interaction with students — my output is going to look much different this year. I’ll be giving less than 100%.

The last time I was a classroom teacher, I gave so much of myself to my classroom and my students, that I forgot to take care of myself and I failed to fully take care of my family. My classroom got the best hours of my day, and my family got the scraps that were left.

It’s got to look different this time.

In my previous chapter, I launched out of bed at 5:30, hit the shower, dressed, and was in the kitchen prepping dinner and nudging teens to breakfast by 6:00. I’m sure my eyes scanned what my kids were wearing and what they were carrying as they piled into my car so that I could drop one at another school and drag the other two with me. I’m sure we talked through check-lists and after school activities in the car as I simultaneously scanned my mind for any lingering tasks I needed to complete before my students started trickling into my room.

Once I pulled into my parking space, my mind, fueled by the first cup of coffee I had sipped greedily on the drive, was fully engaged in the day’s instruction. What did I need to pull up on my screen? Did anything need to be printed? Was there a student I needed to speak to? Was a parent already waiting to meet with me?

I launched out of the car, grabbing bags full of papers, lunch, and a change of clothes, climbed two flights of stairs, unlocked my classroom door, and began the perpetual motion of the day — straightening desks, erasing and writing messages on the white board, wiping down surfaces, checking displays, and moving stacks of paper — so many stacks of paper.

In my classroom, students entered knowing that I would expect their engagement, their participation, and at least feigned interest in whatever essay we were writing, poem we were analyzing, or story we were reading. I loved the content I was teaching — composition, poetry, literature — and I operated under the assumption that if I threw all my passion into my teaching, that love I have for the content would spill over onto my students.

However, along with all my passion, I threw all my energy, all my resources, all my emotions, all of my self into the hours of the school day, and then when the bell rang at the end of the day, I didn’t sit down and take a rest. No — I found another gear and kept going. In the early days, I accompanied two of my children to cross country practice, ran their drills with them — all of their drills — and then drove them home. I finished preparing dinner for the family, washed dishes, showered, did laundry, responded to needs and demands, and sometimes even did more school work.

I don’t think there was ever a day that I didn’t make sure everyone had their physical needs met for the next day, but I am quite sure that I routinely missed checking in with their emotional needs — seeing the hurts they experienced throughout the day, stopping in my tracks to give them a hug, or taking the time to just sit in their presence and be. I know I missed doing all of that.

Sure, I got up early on Saturdays, went for run, drove to the outdoor market to buy fresh produce, picked up enough groceries to feed a small army of teenagers, and made sure the house was picked up, vacuumed, and wiped down, but did I, on those packed Saturdays, parent my children? come beside them in their own personal struggles? help them access their emotions? or did I merely model how to power through?

I’ve had to come to terms with the harsh reality that what my children ultimately saw from watching their mom power through for 10 years in a high school classroom was that she couldn’t sustain it. She was a tough old bird, and she kept that pace going strong for about 9 of those years, but that last year? Whew! That last year’s performance was strictly mediocre. Very average. Just so-so.

The body can only take so much powering through. And when it has had enough, it will shut right down on you. My most important students, the ones who lived in my house with me, learned that lesson right along with me. They learned that when you power through and fail to attend to your emotional and spiritual health, when you try by the force of your own will to do all the things for all the people, you miss some of the most precious parts of life — the face to face, nose-to-nose, cheek-to-cheek moments that give life meaning.

For the past six years, I have been sitting with that reality and tending to my body and to my emotions — intentional every day tending in the form of yoga, writing, therapy, massage, walking, talking, and sitting with all of the joy, hurt, pain, love, anger, sadness, and happiness that life has brought because of and in spite of my actions.

I have experienced so. much. healing.

And so, though my children all now live in their own homes and I have lost my in-person chance to model a better way for them, I am going into the classroom this time with re-set expectations for myself and for my students. I will be doing things differently.

I’ve been practicing a phrase that describes my new approach: giving my best without giving my all. I’m not sure exactly what it will look like, because this mindset is new to me, but I am picturing a me that is more present, that walks a little more slowly, who leaves her stack of papers on her desk when she walks away at the end of a long day, who decides in the moment that we aren’t going to finish the lesson as planned.

Will my students still know that I am passionate about writing, about reading, about poetry, about literature? I hope so, but more importantly, I hope that they see me demonstrate compassion, balance, flexibility, integrity, and kindness. I hope that I am able, in the moment, to say, “It seems we are all a little overwhelmed right now, how about we just pause for a minute and breathe?”

I never allowed myself that space in the last chapter. I never gave myself a moment to recognize that I was overwhelmed. I never took the opportunity to take a long calming breath. I kept on pushing, giving my best and giving my all.

And it showed — maybe not always to my coworkers or the students in my classroom, but it was definitely evident to my family. I was overtaxed and in denial, so I was often detached, preoccupied, reactive, and short-tempered with the people I care about most.

I’m planning to do it differently this time. Even in the season of Covid-19 where all of my students will be online, where I have to create a Google slide show for every class I teach, where I will be training my students to move from Zoom to Google classroom, to a short story, to Khan Academy, to a physical book right in front of them. Now, more than ever, it’s important that we take a breath, check in with one another, and allow ourselves to be mediocre, average, and downright so-so — even on our journey to excellence.

Because true excellence is recognizing your strengths AND your weaknesses; it’s knowing when to work hard AND when to walk away; it’s knowing when to push through AND when to sit down.

It’s knowing that it’s probably best to give less than 100%.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

2 Cor 12:9

A letter to my (our) mother(s)

Many, many years ago, you carried me in your womb, labored me into the world, and cradled me in your arms. You took me home to the nest you had prepared and began a daily practice of making sure that I was clean, well-fed, and protected.

You bathed me, diapered me, rocked me, fed me, and made sure that my older siblings were gentle with me. I was safe and secure in your nest.

My earliest memories have you shampooing my hair in the kitchen sink, combing out my tangles every. single. day., providing me with Sunday dresses and patent leather shoes, bringing home my favorite dot-to-dot books, and baking hand-cut Valentine cookies. I was loved and nurtured in our nest.

As I grew older and discovered my full-range of emotions, you laughed too loudly with me, listened compassionately as I railed about the injustices in my middle school life, stood on the other side of my slammed bedroom door, and felt my hurts.

In those early years, we often drove an hour to visit your mom, my grandma, in the space where you had grown up. She always greeted us with hugs and delicious meals. Although she was seemingly invincible–keeping an impeccable house and creating gourmet dishes for masses — I saw you quietly stepping in to help her — going up or down stairs to save her steps, lifting heavy loads, and helping her care for her mother, your grandma.

And when we visited your grandmother’s house, where laughter was abundant, the cookie jar was always full, fresh cut flowers were set out with intention and care, and my great grandma was queen, her daughter (your mother) stepped in with ease to fill a cup, lend a hand, or wipe a dish.

I grew up watching all of you, three generations of women, quietly care for your people — providing meal after meal, buying gift after gift, tending one sick or frail creature after another.

Eventually, I left home, but as I struggled to build my own life, I often came back to familiarity. On every return, I found a refrigerator stocked with my favorite foods, a bed made up with freshly-laundered sheets, and a heart full of love ready to receive and see me in whatever state I was in. You were one of the first to notice that I’d lost too much weight, that I’d found the wrong –and eventually the right — man, and that I was overwhelmed with parenting.

And, when you saw a need, you came to my nest — swooping in, as moms and grandmas do — bringing treats for the kids and a breath of reinforcing fresh air (and coffee) for me. Time after time you showed up and saw me where I was — in the midst of my less-than-perfect nest-building years — and you brought judgment-free support, some gadget or tool I needed, and candy. Always candy.

You also continued, during this time, to fly frequently back to your mother’s nest to care for her and your dad. As they grew older, you stepped in to accompany them to the doctor, to take them for lunch at Wendy’s, to arrange for care in their home, and finally, to help them leave their nest for good.

I believe it was the hardest work of your life.

Nevertheless, you carried on, not only helping me at my nest, but helping your other children with the nests they had, too, created. You flew from one to the other, providing support, offering food, and sharing joys and sorrows.

In time, you helped me launch my own into the world. We threw parties and wrapped gifts, and washed dishes — so many dishes. You’ve cheered them as they’ve found their way and consoled them when they’ve wandered off. When they’ve been absent, you’ve prayed them through, in groans sometimes too difficult for words.

And after so many decades of showing up, delivering supplies, and coming through in times of need, you find yourself at home, limited by illness and injury, and unable to do all the things that you’ve always done and still, in your heart and mind, would like to do. You feel frustrated and sad and so tired.

I see you, so I get in my car and drive to you. I don’t bring much other than companionship, an offer to drive you to the store, and a compelling need to eat all the candy in your candy dish.

I want to help — to decrease your pain, to take you places, and to support your desire to see your people — but mostly we sit and watch football, Animal Planet, or — finally — The Great British Baking Show. We look through pictures, we eat meals that you still insist on preparing for me even though I’ve been preparing my own meals for over thirty years, and we go to bed early.

You make sure I have plenty of blankets, something to read, and snacks that I can eat, when I am the one who is trying to help you. And finally, you allow me to iron a few pair of pants and a couple of blouses, to wash a load of towels, and to drive you to the doctor.

Thank you.

Thank you for showing me how to show up, how to pay attention, how to lend a hand. Thank you for letting me show up, pay attention, and lend a hand to you.

I am, after all, the next generation of women who care for their people.

And you are, after all, my people.

Her children rise up and call her blessed.

Proverbs 31:28

Of passing laws and changing behavior

This year eight states have passed laws limiting access to abortion; Alabama passed a law this week directly prohibiting abortion except when the mother’s life is at risk or the baby has no chance to survive.

As the news is reported, the reactions can be heard across the nation. One camp is celebrating, believing these battles are signs they’ve won the war. Another is rallying its troops, preparing for the fight of their lives.

And I’m sitting here asking if we’re doing it all wrong.

Will passing these laws eliminate abortion in our country?

Do laws change behavior?

Does the law prohibiting alcohol consumption under the age of 21 stop underage drinking? Did it stop you? Or did it merely force you to find ways to conceal the fact that you were drinking?

I had one of my first drinks around age 15 in a friend’s basement an hour before a school dance. A dozen of us drank too much, piled ourselves into cars driven by those who shouldn’t have been driving, and, by the grace of God, made it to the dance. Things could’ve gone much differently.

Actions pressed into hiding don’t often turn out well.

Prior to Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion up to the age of viability, women got abortions illegally. No official records were kept, obviously, but researchers now estimate that approximately 800,000 illegal abortions were performed annually prior to 1973 (The Guttmacher Institute). Women snuck around corners into dark alleys, paid people who may or may not have had medical expertise, and took risks that often ended their lives or left them permanently unable to bear children. They sought out secret abortions regardless of a law that prohibited them.

Let me stop right here and say that I am not pro-abortion. Actually, I imagine very few people would say that they like abortion — even among the most liberal pro-choice advocates. However, I am questioning whether restrictive legislation will decrease the number of abortions performed in our country.

I am wondering if the answer to decreasing the number of abortions and changing the hearts and behaviors of those who would choose abortion lies instead in changing the culture in which women are pressed into desperate situations –a culture where sexual impropriety is the norm and where the words of women are often not believed.

What if we could change the culture that recently elected a president who has bragged about his sexual exploitation of women? a culture that leaves thousands of rape kits in warehouses — untested for years — while perpetrators make more women into victims? What if we could change a culture that shames women who rely on public assistance into one that provides all women (and men) with resources — for contraceptives, mental health, medical costs, and child care?

We need to look at such a cultural shift because creating bills and laws that outlaw behavior do not, in and of themselves, eliminate that behavior.

In a country where it is illegal to buy, sell, or use illicit drugs, we have one of the biggest opioid epidemics in history. In 2017, 47,600 people died from an opioid overdose in the United States alone — where heroin is illegal and prescription opioids are supposedly regulated (Centers for Disease Control). In 2017, 2.2 million Americans admitted to using cocaine monthly; 473,000 admitted to using crack monthly (Delphi Health Group). The last time I checked, both cocaine and crack were prohibited in the U.S.

Laws do not eliminate behavior, they merely push it behind closed doors.

Not only that, laws often position us one against another. They put us in camps, as though we are at war with one another. Haven’t we sorted ourselves as either pro-life or pro-choice, as if this complex issue could be boiled down to either/or?

The problems we face are more complicated than that — abortion is but a symptom of a much larger problem. One that is quite complex. In this country, which was founded on the principle that all [men] were created equal, we have not historically extended liberty to people who were not [white] men. Women (and people of color, and most especially, women of color) in our country have long felt unheard, disrespected, and undervalued. They have long been dismissed, abused, underpaid, and neglected.

Women who have found themselves in desperate situations, have sometimes chosen abortion when the alternative has been shame, condemnation, parental or spousal punishment, physical harm, an inability to provide, or having to raise a child born of assault. Deprived of other forms of agency, women have chosen the most desperate of actions — taking the life of a child.

The solution to the problem is not merely prohibiting abortion. No, if you want to value life, you have to value all life, and that starts with valuing the lives of women. Seeing women, listening to women, paying women equally, promoting women, electing women, and most important of all — caring for women.

In this country of wealth, education, and privilege, certainly we can handle complex problems such as this. Surely we have the wherewithal to consider a solution that is multi-faceted and takes into account the welfare of all — the unborn and those who are already living.

So, instead of pouring time and money into overturning Roe v. Wade, a law that has been affirmed as constitutional, what if we tried a different approach? What if we tried to change our culture by coming together, listening to one another, hearing each other’s stories, and working together to find unique and complex solutions? Right now, we are staying in our own lanes, each convinced that he is going the right way, refusing to cross paths, take detours, or share the ride. When we refuse to communicate, when we resist difficult dialogue, we lock ourselves in opposition; we prohibit change.

And don’t we want change? Don’t we all want what is best for our country and the people who live within it? Don’t we want all women, men, and children (born and unborn) to be safe and valued?

I don’t have the answers, but I do have plenty of questions.

If you stand against abortion, do you also stand with and for women and children? Do you befriend them? even if they don’t look like you? Do you encourage them? how? Do you provide for them? In what way?

If you are pro-choice, what actions are you taking to support and sustain the lives around you? to offer a variety of choices that may or may not include abortion? Are you willing to interact with those who say they are pro-life? Are you willing to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a real conversation? Are you willing to listen openly, without formulating rebuttal in your mind?

I recently had the opportunity to share the room with some recovering alcoholics. I listened carefully to their stories and their conversations, and I learned from them. Do you know what got them to stop drinking? Was it a law? Not typically. Sure some addicts dry up when they are arrested or thrown in jail, but more stop drinking and stay sober when they have, in finding the bottom, looked up to see a support system gathering around them — a bunch of fellow wanderers who are stumbling together toward a better life. They aren’t shaking their fists and pointing fingers at each other. No, they are lending a hand or sharing a ride; they are reaching out, listening, and showing up.

Wouldn’t it be great if the mere passage of laws remedied the ills of a society?

It doesn’t work that way.

We’re much more broken than that, my friends. Pointing fingers, passing judgement, heaping on shame, and throwing people in jail do not fix brokenness.

Brokenness can only be healed in community — in partnership– through love.

Rather than passing more punitive laws, I wonder if we might try a different way — a coming together, a collective sharing of lives, a genuine care for the people around us. A gathering, lifting up, supportive kind of sharing that is willing to walk with people through complex situations and even, dare I say, pass laws and policies that provide alternate paths, financial support, and an entrance ramp to a different way of life.

Are you willing to give it a try? Where do we start?

Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.”

Psalm 25:4

Whatever you do…Re-visit

I wrote this post in my very early blogging days, when I was just starting to recognize others after my long period of mission-only focused soldiering. Now, as I finish just my second full week of staying home, sheltering in place to flatten the coronavirus curve, I’m doing it again — noticing what others are doing. Some of you are wishing you could help, others are drowning in the flood of responsibilities and activity you find yourselves surrounded with, and some of you are just plain lonely. Whether you are a medical professional, a displaced worker, or a parent of young children, whatever you are doing right now has value — so hang in there and reach out for some support. We’re in this together.

Many of the conversations I have had with women lately have been about how we spend our time. It is probably no surprise that most of the women I have time to have lunch with or walk with are not working at the moment either, but let me tell you what some of these women do when they are ‘not working’.

One is homeschooling two children, aged 10 and 11, coordinating and leading worship at her church, and working as administrative support to its two pastors, one of which is her husband.

Another is teaching Pilates, leading Bible study, coordinating a MOPS group, working part-time at her daughter’s new business, maintaining two residences, and supporting her husband who is a physician.

Then there is the gal who is on a board that is trying to open a preschool for hearing impaired children, planning for a state-wide women’s conference, traveling with her husband, and maintaining several other projects.

And another woman who is helping her daughter and son-in-law relocate with their infant child, coordinating a state-wide event, cheering on three other adult children, and partnering with her executive pastor husband as he travels all over the country.

And guys, they all had time for me. 

Each of these women shared a heart to do the work of God and to do it well.

Each of them have set their own needs aside for significant periods of time to care for others: one had a parent with cancer, another had a father-in-law with a degenerative disease who lived in her house for seven years (!), another had a child and husband with cancer — at the same time (!), and another had two children with hearing impairments. Yet none of them complained about the burden that they had carried, but rather, I am not kidding, rejoiced at the blessings that God had provided in their circumstances. They smiled as they shared their stories.

Pretty humbling, right?

Yet, just as humbling is the mother I was to meet with today. She has been raising three daughters for the last umpteen years, just started a part-time job, and is home today with the youngest who is sick.  She is setting aside our time to walk and talk together, so that she can attend to her first calling — loving that little girl.

It’s not glamorous most of the time, is it?  We clean up messes, kiss away hurts, wipe tears and noses. We shop for the exact see-through divided folder that every student has to have. We scurry to soccer practice in the rain and then wash the muddy uniform after.  We hold a ponytail while a little girl throws up in the toilet. We bake a batch of cupcakes at 11 pm then clean up the kitchen afterward.

This is God’s work.

God’s work is also getting up early to go to work before your children are even out of bed. It’s caring for the children of others — in the classroom or the NICU. It’s tending to the sick, the elderly, the dying, and the lonely. It’s punching a clock, mopping a floor, preparing a meal, and balancing a column.

Whatever you have to do right now — stay at home, travel far away, go to school, or look for work — is God’s work. It’s His work in you, through you, and for you.

As we show up and do our best (or even our semi-best), He sees us and He supports us. He offers us His love and patience when ours is all but gone. When we blow it — lose our temper or say the wrong thing — He offers grace. He shows us the power of forgiveness, and we get to see first hand how God changes hearts. Maybe even our own.

Today my day is not likely to be glamorous. It’s another day of making a meal, folding a load, making some calls, and finishing some tasks. It’ll be nothing to write home about. Nevertheless, I’ll be doing God’s work, so I’ll give it my best shot.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for God not for a human master.

Colossians 3:23