Source: Glimmers of Brilliance
For the past month or so I have been consuming print as though my life depended on it. This happens at the end of a semester for all instructors, but particularly for those who teach English, and even more so for those who teach writing.
A couple weeks ago, I stood in the doorway of the office of a seasoned English professor with another colleague. All of us were bleary-eyed from days and days of reading stacks and stacks of papers. We were grumbling, of course, because our charges hadn’t heeded every single word that we had breathed over the course of the semester. The nerve! Hadn’t we told them how to frame a thesis? Hadn’t we told taught them about depth that goes beyond surface observations? Hadn’t we expected them to sustain an argument? And what had we received for all our labors — a few glimmers of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity.
And isn’t that our life, a few glimmers of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity.
After long days with students, I come home at night and read more. Recently, I’ve been reading Ann Voskamp and Shauna Niequist. They write in ways that I imagine I might one day write if I keep at it. They pour their truth onto the page as I do, but they make it so,…so beautiful. I often have to pause and take a photo of a line or a paragraph because I am so captured by the words themselves — how they are arranged on the page — and also by the image that they conjure in my mind — what they arrange in my head. For Mother’s Day, one of my children sent me a book of essays by David Sedaris — a pioneer in this way of writing that I find myself compelled to follow. His Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is, in the first few chapters I’ve read, like a home movie that has been painstakingly crafted into vignettes that illustrate the truths that his childhood taught him. And that’s really all I am trying to do here.
My writing is all about finding the glimmers.
I sit down in the morning and I take a look at the film I have captured since the last time I wrote — that image of me standing in the doorway with the two professors, a still of me bent over a stack of papers at my desk, a clip of me in the front of a small lecture hall demonstrating how to integrate a source into a line of text, and a close-up of me lying in bed at night using my phone to snap a photo of a paragraph. I move these images around on the desktop of my mind in an effort to find some little glimmer of meaning. Why, I ask myself, do I spend so much time with words?
Guys, I spend so. much. time. with words! I mean, it’s 9:30am and I have already read posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I’ve played several rounds of Words With Friends. I’ve given feedback on two essays. I’ve texted two daughters. And, now, I’m writing. In a couple of hours I will be in my car listening to a podcast or two, then later today, I will tutor a student in English grammar and writing to help her prepare for the ACT. After all that, I will curl up in bed and read some more.
Why? Why do I spend so much time with words? Well, of course I have more than one reason. I love the way words fit together like miniature puzzles; when each piece is put just where it belongs, an image appears out of nowhere!
eaigm becomes image!
I love that!
I love the way words can be arranged and rearranged in sentences to alter their meaning.
Kids love moms. Moms love kids. Kids moms love.
Isn’t that fun!?
But mostly, I love the way that words manipulate the brain. Even as I write this, the clips of film are rearranging on my desktop. I am seeing how the reading I do at night informs what I say to my students in the front of my class. What I say in the front of my class impacts (even if I don’t always see evidence of it) the writing of my students. The writing of my students inspires my conversations with my colleagues. The conversations with my colleagues motivate my desire to read and write more.
And the realization that each aspect of my life is somehow connected to every other aspect of my life reminds me to be present in each moment, to keep my camera rolling, to record what I see so that I can later review the tape and see the connections, to not wish any moment away, but to look for the glimmers of brilliance in every great sea of mediocrity.
And that, my friends, is why I spend so much time with words.
I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
I have underestimated the power of friendship. If I sit and think about all the people I have loved or been loved by over the years, I have to admit that I have not been a very good friend. I … Continue reading
You’ve seen a Rube Goldberg machine haven’t you? It, according to source-of-all-sources, Wikipedia, “is a deliberately complex contraption in which a series of devices that perform simple tasks are linked together to produce a domino effect in which activating one device triggers the next device in the sequence.”
Artist and engineer, Rube Goldberg, drew many of these machines, like the one posted above, I think, to poke fun at humanity and our tendency to take too many steps to accomplish a simple task. It’s just like us, isn’t it, to create a contraption that involves two people, a kitchen timer, a series of pulleys, and fire, for heaven’s sake, to get an olive out of a jar.
I was thinking about Rube Goldberg earlier today when I started piecing together the series of events that was involved in securing an appointment to get a third opinion on my medical diagnosis. You’d think it might be as simple as taking the darn lid off the jar, reaching in, and grabbing an olive, wouldn’t you? Pick up the phone, touch a few numbers on a screen, ask a question, put a note on the calendar. Easy.
But not really.
I’ve put the process off for a while. Over twenty months ago, my then rheumatologist told me, not for the first time, that since she didn’t agree with my former rheumatologist’s diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis but rather thought I had fibromyalgia, there was no longer any need for me to be seen by rheumatology. In fact, any primary care physician could manage my pain with prescription NSAIDS. I should, she said, attend a workshop on fibromyalgia at the university and come to terms with my diagnosis.
I didn’t agree.
I had, and still have, three other members on my team. (I have written about this before. If you want to meet my team, click here.) They supported my decision to disagree with the fibromyalgia diagnosis. So, for twenty months, I have worked with this team and have been functioning quite well, as long as I keep my Kristin dial set at about 50-70%. If I keep my self at a reduced level of functioning, inserting yoga, rest, physical therapy, chiropractic care, healthful eating, and regular walking, I have a manageable level of pain, psoriasis, fatigue, etc.
The problem is, that after a while of 50-70%, I get a little restless. I think to myself, “Hey, self, you feel pretty good. It probably wouldn’t hurt if you had three social engagements the week that you are planning to go out of town on a retreat. I’m sure you’ll be fine.” Yeah, I say things like that to myself and I believe them. Still. After almost four years in this adjusted reality. Sigh.
Well, if you read my last post, you know that for about the last six weeks I have pushed myself to function consistently between 70 and 80%. About 10 days ago, I “fell” pretty hard, and I’ve been hobbling along, still trying to keep the dial set at about 70% ever since. No surprise, I’ve still got significant pain, sustained eye symptoms, and the kind of fatigue that causes me to fumble with words, collapse on the couch, and sleep sometimes 10-12 hours at night.
So I got to thinking, as one does when she’s packed in ice, maybe I should give rheumatology another try. Maybe 50-70% is my sweet spot; maybe, as I’ve been saying, I do my best caring and listening when I slow myself down enough to notice what’s happening around me rather than constantly pressing full steam ahead. But maybe, just maybe, at fifty-one years old, I should explore the possibility of improving my health so that I can function at say, 80-90%. Wouldn’t it be worth a try?
I’d had this thought before the crash, too. In fact, I tried to have my last rheumatologist re-examine my file. In the large university where she dwells, I have to reach out to her through an electronic portal. I did. A month ago. No reply.
So, last week, when I was face down, I crawled over to my laptop (figuratively, of course) and requested an appointment with her. They gave me her next available — three months from now. Sigh.
So, I Googled rheumatologists in my area and called one that is in my vicinity. They are scheduling four to five months out. The receptionist suggested I call another nearby practice since they have more docs on staff and might not have such a long waiting list.
Let me just say here that I really don’t like talking on the phone. I make exceptions for my parents, my siblings, and my children, but when it comes to businesses or, worse, doctor’s offices, I try to avoid phone calling like the plague. The fact that I was willing to pick up the phone twice in one day last week is evidence of the fact that I was indeed miserable. I felt so badly I was willing to call not one but two doctors’ offices.
And you would think, like I did, that I was pretty close to getting the olive out of the jar. No, I had miles to go, my child, miles to go. The second practice said they were indeed taking new patients, and they were scheduling in the next month. All I needed to do was get a referral from my doctor and fax my medical records.
Those were the words that Rube was waiting for. You see, my primary doc, a DO who has coached me through homeopathic remedies, advised some nutritional changes, and has prescribed the fabulous physical therapy described here, recently relocated her practice and reduced her office hours. I sent three emails before I got a reply. I’ll admit that that last one may have had a tone. Ok, it definitely had a tone, which is why she called me back and left a message. She asked me to send her a detailed message fully explaining why I wanted this referral. So, I sent email number four. It was a page long.
Then, I tried to request medical records. Here’s the thing — the new doctor’s office said they needed my medical records faxed to them. My two prior rheumatologists’ offices said they could only email a record. I plead with the new office. After all, I had two zip drives on the desktop of my Mac. I could send them my full record from January of 2013 until now — every test, every x-ray, every prescription — in a couple of clicks. Nope. They “don’t receive email.”
I shared my plight on Facebook and two friends came forward with a plan for how I could use a free website to convert my documents to a fax right from my laptop. Who knew?
So, while all those gears and pulleys were doing what gears and pulleys do, the weekend arrived and I knew I wouldn’t hear whether or not my primary care doc would give me the referral until Monday.
Saturday morning, after yoga, I was running a few errands when a friend texted me. She and her husband had tickets to a concert that night. They couldn’t attend due to illness, would we like the tickets. My husband and I exchanged a few texts and decided that yes, since going to the concert meant sitting with several other couples from our church we would go. It would be late, but we were planning on attending the late service the next morning, so it should be fine. (This is how people with chronic illness make decisions, by the way — always measuring.) A little while later, one of the other couples who was attending the concert texted to say that several were meeting for dinner first, would we like to join. Well, I mean, we’ve got to eat, right? These are people we don’t know well; it would be good to get to know them better. I’d be fine to go out for dinner and a concert. (Yes, this is me, continuing to press limits even when I’m already down.)
Why am I telling you about dinner and a concert? Because the weirdest twist was added to the Rube Goldberg machine. Eight people at a table and my husband and I end up sitting next to a physician with the same genetic marker that I have. I don’t usually bring up genetic markers over dinner, but he did. It was weird. We shared stories and frustrations. At a dinner we weren’t meant to attend before a concert that we hadn’t planned on. The next morning, after Easter worship, this same physician waited for me at the back of the church and handed me the names of two rheumatologists at the practice I was trying to get a referral to. He had researched them when he got home the night before and thought that of all the doctors at that practice, these were two he would recommend.
Monday morning, I had an email from my primary care doc. She had sent the referral. Today, Wednesday, I got a phone call from the new doctor’s office. I pulled the recommended names out of my purse while I was on the phone with the receptionist and took a deep breath before I asked if there was any chance that my appointment could be with one of them, who just happens to not only be a rheumatologist but also an optometrist.
And just when I was starting to think that the whole thing would come crashing down, that I wouldn’t get my olive after all, the receptionist booked me with that specific doctor for an appointment just under two weeks from now.
Rube Goldberg? I think not. I know only One who can take a very frustrating and seemingly hopeless situation and make it work out better than I had asked or imagined. And do you know what? The elaborate machinery of it all, the Divine intervention of it all, has dispelled my anxiety about going to one more doctor, telling my story one more time, and risking the possibility that she won’t have any answers for me at all.
Because I know who does have the answers, and, because of that,I am not afraid.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
It couldn’t have been the women’s retreat over a month ago. It probably wasn’t the day trip over Spring Break. Or the hours of tutoring. Or teaching two classes. Or two recent back-to-back road trips. Or the fact that I haven’t found a free hour in the past month to do any blogging. No, not one of those things slammed me to the floor. In fact I was standing up straight and moving around freely even through this weekend’s musical that went way past my bedtime and through the day-long festivities yesterday at our church. Not only that, I woke up today, planned two classes, graded some papers, taught on my feet for two hours and then gave a private lesson before coming home at 5 and making a double-batch of caramel corn. I had two loads of laundry folded and the ironing board set out when I finally admitted that I could do no more. I grabbed an ice pack and found my way to the floor.
I stayed there icing through the news, Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy. Then, I switched to heat for The Voice. The ache was deep in my hips, sacrum, and sacroiliac joints. Nothing was dulling the edge. Glass of wine? Tried it. No help. Then, although I have been committed for over a year to no NSAIDS or other pain meds, I finally caved around 8:30 and took 400 mg of Ibuprofen. An hour later I took 400 mg more.
I put myself in bed and willed myself to sleep. No chance. It’s been a while since my pain, which usually fluctuates between and 3 and a 6 out of 10, has climbed the scale up to what I would call an 8. I’m calling it an 8 because I can still move — slowly and with audible involuntary groans — from standing to sitting to lying, but I can’t stay in any of those positions for very long before I determine to try yet another strategy.
Around 11:45pm, I climbed into the tried and true epsom salt and baking soda bath. The deep ache persisted. I stayed there for more than 30 minutes, trying to give the magic a chance to work. Finally, I admitted one more defeat, crawled out of the tub less than gracefully, dressed, ate a banana, and thought to myself, “Have you found a limit, then?”
Just yesterday, a good friend said to me, “You need to find some time to rest.” My husband, bless his heart, also gently reminds me and then lets me figure it out. He knows that I want to seem ‘normal’, even if temporarily. The longer stretches I have of doing well, the more I question the validity of my limitations. When I begin to doubt my limitations, I attempt to accomplish even more. It’s a vicious cycle.
Anyone with a vague diagnosis or an invisible illness will tell you that we are our biggest skeptics. Although we may have very difficult days, characterized by extreme fatigue, insistent pain, or a rash that erupts (right on my face, thank you very much), we also have days, weeks, and sometimes up to a month or more, when the symptoms seem not so noticeable. We begin to question ourselves, “Surely, you aren’t really as sick as you think; certainly you can see one more student and sit through a play on a Saturday night. Toughen up a little.” It’s as though our worst symptom is amnesia — the forgetting of the consequences that come from forgetting.
When I forget to pace myself, I may do alright for a few days, or a week or a month. However, if I keep forgetting, I will eventually get a reminder. I’ve had many over the last month. When I sleep for over 10 hours in a row, that’s a reminder that I’m depleted and I probably need to take a few slow days. When I get a psoriasis or eczema breakout, that’s a reminder. I call it the ‘slow simmer’. The symptoms are beginning to bubble up, and if I don’t turn down the heat, they are going to reach a full boil. When I notice that I have to take stairs one foot at a time, I’m probably too far down the path to avoid the crash. Yesterday, when my friend, who has noticed my pace, gently nudged my memory, I said, “Yes, if I don’t willingly take a break, it will be thrust upon me.” And in a very speedy fulfillment of prophecy, here I am.
It’s been over four years now that I’ve been living in this strange reality — the reality that was named, and then unnamed,… That’s part of the struggle, too. I don’t know what to call this ‘thing’ that I have. People ask me. Often. And I give some kind of mumbled reply about autoimmunity blah blah arthritis blah blah eyes blah blah skin blah blah. By then they are more confused then I am. They don’t understand, because neither do I, why I choose not to eat gluten or dairy if I don’t really notice a difference when I do. If I try to explain that no, I don’t drink coffee because it cancels my homeopathic medicines, again, I just hear myself sounding like the teacher in the old “Peanuts” cartoons. Blah, blah, blah.
So, why am I writing about this at 1 o’clock in the morning? Because that’s what I have. Writing continues to be the way that I think through all of this and try to find the meaning. And yes, I realize, I just have to go back a post or two to the last time I wrote about how blessed I am that God has provided this season of slowness, that He has allowed me time and space to be aware, to be available, to just be. But just like every other gift I’ve been given, sometimes I don’t appreciate fully it. I want to take it back to the store and see what I can exchange it for. I think I’m going to find something better, you know?
If I go just a few posts further back, I will be reminded of the drawbacks of soldiering. Just typing that word calls me out, doesn’t it? I don’t even want to go back to the first paragraph I wrote here today, because that’s what I’ve been trying to do — go back to my soldiering ways.
If I don’t stop writing here, I’ll start drawing parallels to the ancient Israelites…and it’s already 1:15 am and I’m already at over a thousand words. So, go ahead and draw your own conclusions. By now, I’m sure you’re way ahead of me.
As for me, I repent. I’ll try to get some rest. And then I’ll probably cancel my tutoring for tomorrow. Because sometimes even retired soldiers need a little R ‘n’ R.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
During all my years of soldiering — of butt-kicking and name-taking — I was in constant motion, often simultaneously cooking, doing laundry, answering email, talking on the phone, and granting or denying permission to one of my children. I got a lot done. It seems that I was able to keep a clean house, feed a family, teach hundreds of students, and arrive most places fully-clothed for quite a few years. The down side? Very little time to reflect — very little time to examine options, consider outcomes, or feel.
I’m making up for lost time. Obviously.
In days of yore (Why, sonny, when I was your age…), I looked at the myriad obligations of the members of my family, the limited functions of two vehicles, and the tight schedules my husband and I kept, and I quickly formulated and executed a plan that accommodated everyone. I planned my work and worked my plan. “Here’s what’s happening today,” I would say, “You two will come with me to school. After school, while you are at practice, I will get groceries. I’ll be back to pick you up. When we get home, you’ll unload and put away groceries while I cook dinner. Meanwhile, Dad will take you (other child) to your different school. He’ll go to work then pick you up after your practice, stop by Walgreens to fill your prescription, then meet us back here. We will eat at exactly 5:30 because then, Dad has a meeting, I have parent-teacher conferences, two of you have homework to do, and the third one has to be at a study session on the other side of town.” I would hit the start button and the plan would be executed.
Nowhere was there time for contemplation, negotiation, or revision. We were in “go” mode. In some ways, it was necessary for the season of life we were in with three kids in high school all at the same time, however, I think it could’ve been handled differently. I think I could’ve let some stuff go. I could’ve slowed down, allowed the kids to eat cereal for dinner more often, and let my laundry pile up. I could’ve valued processing over producing. Contemplating over completing.
So, yeah, I’m making up for lost time.
I’m currently reading three books. One is a book I am reading with my Bible study gals, Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way. Another was given to me by my physical therapist/counselor/friend, Doing Well at Being Sick by Wendy Wallace. I also picked up Shauna Niequist’s Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes. Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s interesting to me that I have time to read three books, for one thing. Also, I notice that I am interacting with these books, writing notes in the margins, going back to my notes, and thinking about what the books are saying to me. And, third, I am intrigued by the fact that these three books are speaking to each other. It’s like they are three friends that said to one another, “Hey, guys, Kristin’s been still for quite a while now. She might finally be able to hear us.”
And what are they saying? Well, it’s not really shocking, because they are saying the same things that I have been discovering, thinking, speaking, and writing about for the past three and a half years. However, I think what’s interesting is that I am noticing. I am processing. I am digesting. I am not more interested in completing these books than I am in connecting with them. I am not compelled to finish them; I am drawn to understand the meaning they have for me.
And really, the meaning is this — my soldiering is done. Even though I’m tempted almost every day to go back to that life, I am no longer capable. God, in His mercy, has chosen a better way for me. He has allowed limitations in my life — real physical limitations — that stop me from soldiering so that I can live a life that reflects, that feels, and that makes space for others. Because on my own, I wouldn’t have stopped soldiering, guys. I would’ve keep right on kicking butts and taking names. God had something better for me. Yes, you heard me right. My “broken” life, my life with the limitations of chronic illness, is a higher quality life than my “un-broken” life. In fact, my “broken” life is more whole than the “unbroken” one was.
It’s a paradox, to be sure. God is often paradoxical, isn’t He? His brokenness makes us whole. By His wounds we are healed. He turns our mourning into dancing. He doesn’t always make sense, but today I’m not going to question Him. I’ll just thank Him.
I Peter 2:24
“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
Time change. Spring Forward. I did not want to wake up this morning. I stayed up to watch the end of a basketball game last night. You know, March Madness. It’s the first weekend of our Spring Break and I guess I was feeling a little like celebrating. I made popcorn and baked muffins. I wanted to snack, sip wine, and watch collegiate basketball. It wasn’t terribly late, mind you, but when my husband gently woke me this morning at 7, I grumbled. Ugh. “Five more minutes.”
I’m not great at morning. It seems I used to be. I think I used to bound out of bed ready to face my day, but this has changed. I’m a morning grumbler. My husband is good in the mornings. He is cheerful, kind, thoughtful, and ready to face his day. Poor guy. He unsuspectingly tries to engage with me, and I snarkily reply. Before he knows it, my snark has inspired a response from him. That’s when I notice that I’ve been less than kind.
So, yes, this all happened this morning. By the time we were in the car making our way to church, the banter was a little testy. I feel bad because he’s on his way to church to preach, and I am going to sit in our church’s coffee house for about two hours doing whatever I choose to do. I can read, grade papers, blog. I have time to shed the snark before I go to the second service; he is going to walk right into serving. He has to quickly use whatever skills he has acquired from twenty-six years of living with me to shed the snark and return to his normal cheerful self. I know he is able to do it, but still feel badly.
While he’s doing whatever he does to prepare to greet people and deliver the message that he’s been working with all week, I shuffle down the stairs to my corner seat, unpack my bag, open my computer, and begin to review an essay that I’ve been helping one of my students with. I’m reading through her claims, her analysis, and her evidence when I find myself singing with the coffee house’s piped in music,
Be still my soul, Lord make me whole
Lord make me whole*
I pause. Hm. Yes, that’s why I am snarky this morning. My soul is restless. I’m tossing around complaints and worries. I’m holding them in my hands and examining them over and over. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about. I’ve gathered items all week — the health issues of family and friends, the knowledge that people in my life make choices that I don’t agree with or approve of, the constant barrage of the ‘news’ feed, my own persistent health issues, and countless other gems. I’ve been caressing them all week, and I haven’t changed their reality one bit. I involuntarily join the plea of the song, “Be still my soul, Lord make me whole, Lord make me whole…”
The song ends, and I go back to the essay. I give the feedback I promised then order a pot of extra strong tea. I can feel the snark hanging heavily on me, so I know I can’t turn right to my blog. Come on, Kristin, you know the drill. Turn to the Scripture, first. That’s where you’ll find your truth.
If you aren’t convinced yet of the power of a regular reading plan, let me share with you what I found today. It was waiting for me — Day 132, Psalm 66.
For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads;
As I’m reading, I’m shaking my head. I’m embarrassed. It’s not like my worries and troubles are a crushing burden. Yes, I do have concerns that are real. However, in the grand scheme, I have been very gently ‘tried’. In just this past week I have heard stories of others who have had true ‘crushing burdens’ on their backs, who have actually felt like ‘men [were riding] over their heads’. Comparatively, my troubles are small. I read on.
yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.
I just have to sit here for a minute. Indeed, I have been brought to a place abundance. Even if I didn’t have a church I loved to come to every Sunday, even if I didn’t have a committed husband who wakes up happy each day, even if I didn’t get to live in a community that energizes me, even if I didn’t have my dream job, even if I didn’t have four children that make me very proud, I would still have much abundance to write about.
I’m convicted, obviously. I examine the gems in my hands and realize that they are mere pebbles. I exhale and continue to read.
I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I mean, I’m already here. In just a little while, I will ascend the stairs and enter the sanctuary. I will carry my pebbles up with me and leave them there for You. I think You’ll probably be more effective with them.
Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul.
Truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer.
Guys, I can’t make this stuff up. Mere words transform my snark into confession, humility, and gratefulness. It’s a miracle –one that I don’t want to overlook today. He cares enough about me and my ‘burdens’ to speak directly to me. He has stilled my soul again. May He still yours, too.
*The Brilliance. “Dust We Are and Shall Return.” Brother.
I know a lot of really strong women. For example, I know a woman who, right now, is caring for her husband who earlier this week had a tumor removed from his brain and was sent home from the hospital less than 48 hours post-op. And it’s not like she was just sitting around eating bonbons and resting up for this very taxing time in her life. No, this comes on the heels of more than a couple decades of married life, raising children, working full time, and navigating the everyday stressors that all of us face.
Another woman I know is married to a high-level professional. She gracefully carries the responsibilities that come with being the wife of someone in his position while also being mindful of the needs of her aging mother, her married daughter, and her young adult son. For as long as I’ve known her, she has been ‘on-call’ for one crisis or another, yet she still thinks to make me gluten-free snacks, to collaborate on planning a women’s retreat that she won’t even be able to attend, to volunteer at a family business every week, and to listen to and encourage those around her.
This whole blog could be example after example of the women I’ve been blessed to know over the years. I picture them smartly dressed, sitting in the drivers’ seats of their cars, hands at 10 and 2, looking from side to side and straight ahead, driving toward their destinations ever mindful of oncoming traffic. They see a familiar person standing on the edge of the road, so they stop to offer a ride. They notice a friend’s mailbox overflowing, and they stop and carry its contents to the door with a smile before heading back on their way. They fit in a full day of work, a quick stop at the grocery, a phone call to a child or a parent, and a workout before heading home to start a load of laundry and transport something edible from the fridge to the table. They are on the move, and they are happy to be. They enjoy their lives. They want to be available to the people they love. They enjoy feeling connected.
Each of these women looks so swift and efficient that you might not notice the bag on her back, strapped on tightly so that she can keep moving. What’s in the bag? Information, mostly. The knowledge that her husband is really stressed about a situation at work. The thought that her daughter is trying to navigate school and work and finances as a young adult. The nagging feeling that she hasn’t seen her parents in a few months. The grocery list. Her son’s recent injury and his need for a medical consult. The name of the plumber who has to be called. The way the cashier looked at her. The situation her friend told her about last Tuesday. Her retirement fund. The shoes that need to be polished. The need to make a dentist appointment. A work deadline.
The bag has been pretty full for a while, but she still seems to be able to heft it around. She hasn’t missed a day of work. The fridge has been well-stocked. Every kid has been picked up and dropped off at the appropriate place and time.
But then something gives. A diagnosis. An accident. An argument. A crisis.
It doesn’t quite fit in the bag, but she jostles some things around, does some squishing, and keeps stepping, because this is the moment she’s been training for. Her people need her, so she doubles down and powers through. She manages even more than she ever thought possible. For months. Yeah, her face might look a little more drawn. Her words might be a little clipped, but people understand. Look at the stress that she’s under. She’s a rock, isn’t she? Look at all she’s managing.
But in a subtle moment, when she isn’t even aware that the crisis has begun to subside, comes the need to shift the weight. She’s exhausted, finally. She has been carrying too much for too long. She’s got to sit down, loosen the straps, and look inside the bag.
It’s a time for inventory really. At a time when she doesn’t really have the time for an inventory. No matter. It’s mandatory. So, she looks. She places her hands on each item. She sets them out around the room. As she surveys the array, she determines that a few things can go in the trash. She can’t even remember putting them in the bag. Some items can be filed under nostalgia, some under forgiven, some under to be discussed, and others under been there, done that.
But some items need to be held for a little while. They need to be wept over. They need to be introduced to a few trusted friends who will appreciate their significance and meaning. They need to be processed, repackaged, and perhaps finally put on a shelf– maybe a shelf of remembrance, maybe a shelf for trophies.
And way at the bottom of the bag, she might find one or two very heavy items that need to simply be placed on an altar — offered up to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than she could ever imagine doing or asking someone else to do.
Just a few items make it back into the bag, and as she straps it back on, she feels so much lighter. But before she rushes back out the door, back into the driver seat, back onto the highway that was her life, she pauses. She gives thanks for the moment to pause, for the opportunity to turn, for the offer of support. Then, she walks on.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
In my trudge through the mundane and my continuing struggle with crabbiness, I am making an effort to be intentional about my ‘best practices’. Why is it so hard to do the right thing?
I get pretty methodical about attending yoga class 2-3 times a week, but this has a pretty significant physical pay-off almost immediately. The strength and flexibility I am obtaining and maintaining from regular yoga is noticeable. Of course, the mindfulness of attending to my breathing and setting aside my “brain activity” for an hour or so a few times a week has emotional pay-off as well.
I also don’t struggle with eating foods that improve my health. Although I don’t notice an immediate positive payoff from eating the right things, I do experience almost immediate consequences if I eat the wrong things. For instance, because I take homeopathic remedies, I don’t drink coffee. Apparently coffee can ‘cancel’ any benefit you get from homeopathic remedies. Last weekend, to celebrate my mother’s birthday, I had a small glass of kahlua — the only alcohol my mother drinks. (And when I say ‘drinks’, I mean “flavors her ice cream with.”) It didn’t dawn on me until about 24-48 hours after that glass of kahlua that kahlua is made from coffee. Why did I remember? Because the psoriasis on the palm of my right hand that had been almost completely under control, raged angrily. When I had scratched my palm to the point of bleeding it occurred to me that perhaps I had ‘cancelled’ out my homeopathic benefit. Ok, fine. I’ll stay away from coffee and kahlua.
Exercise and diet are very easy for me to maintain. I probably owe that to my history with an eating disorder. Although, my motivation has changed over the years from losing weight to feeling well, the ability to stick with a plan is pretty solid. However, the best practices that attend to my spiritual health are so much harder for me to maintain.
One hundred and twelve days ago, I got the YouVersion Bible app on my phone. I committed to reading the entire Bible in one year because our campus pastor told me to. I’m pretty good at following instructions, but I’m also pretty good at procrastinating. I’m almost always running about three days behind in my reading, but I discovered recently that if I put in my headphones and listen to the daily readings while I walk, I am more inclined to stay on track. I’m not as religious about Bible reading as I am about getting my steps in. (Insert eye-roll here.)
Last year, you might remember that I was reading Beth Moore’s Whispers of Hope: Ten Weeks of Devotional Prayer. The book encouraged me to write down my prayers in a journal after reading each devotion, so I did! It was a great practice. In fact, I think I have read through the book almost three times. But when I don’t pick up the book, I don’t write down my prayers. And, full disclosure, when I don’t have a regular time devoted to writing down prayers, my prayers often devolve to haphazard spur-of-the moment utterances. Yeah, it’s embarrassing.
And you remember my battalion? My group of ladies that I met with on Wednesdays the first two years that I was in Ann Arbor? The ones I did countless Bible studies with, prayed with, and got encouragement from? Well, my schedule doesn’t permit me to join them any more. And, though I claim to be mostly an introvert (yes, I know I look extroverted sometimes), I need the community of ladies and the regular time in my schedule to ensure that I am working through a Bible study, challenging myself, and connecting with God through Scripture in meaningful ways.
Not only that, I need my Sunday morning body of believers and a regular message from my pastor. Even that has been disrupted over the last several months. Because we had the distinct privilege of traveling to South Africa and Israel, the opportunity to visit with family over the holidays, and the honor of joining other congregations where my husband preaches, our attendance at our own congregation has been spotty. Yes, we have worshipped in other places — almost every Sunday, but it is not the same as gathering with our own church family and experiencing the spiritual journey that happens when you join with others in one place.
Failing to follow these spiritual best practices — daily Bible reading, prayer, group Bible study, and community worship — has consequences that, although not immediately noticeable, build over time and become quite evident eventually. Eventually has arrived. The evidence of spiritual apathy over here is quite real.
So, how am I returning to these best practices? Sluggishly, I’ll admit. As I mentioned, I’m plugging into my Bible ‘readings’ while I walk. I am meeting with a few other women who have committed together to reading Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way. And, on weeks like this one, where I am not attending my own congregation, I am re-committing to regular attendance at chapel services here on campus. I guess you could say that the campus community is our second congregation — we grow within this spiritual family, too.
My blog seems to follow a theme. I’ve been teaching my literature students that authors use themes to convey messages through their writing. Those themes, I tell my students, can be stated in terms of a subject plus a verb — for example, ‘struggle transforms’, ‘tradition endures’, and ‘lies always surface’.
I force my students to follow a formula when writing analytical thesis statements — Author, in Title, verb + how or why. For example, I might write this on the board tomorrow: ‘Mark Haddon, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time uses Christopher’s struggle with autism to convey the theme that difficulties can be overcome.’
Or, I might write this: ‘In the story of my life, God, through continually offering grace despite my habitual turning away, conveys the theme that He loves me.’ That’s His best practice.
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
I was sitting in the waiting room of my physical therapist’s office yesterday morning, thumbing through a People magazine. I was early for my 8:15 appointment, so she was still moving around me, tidying the office. She greeted me, of course, and I continued to “read” meaningless celebrity “news”.
“Have you done any blogging lately?” she said out of nowhere.
“No,” sigh, “I’ve been kind of in a funk. Writing would probably get me out of it, but I just haven’t found my way there in a while.”
“Yeah, it really centers your spirit, doesn’t it?”
Man, we haven’t even started my PT yet and she’s already getting at the core. How does she do that?
The last time I blogged, I was sitting in Jerusalem. Today I am sitting, still in pajamas, on the futon in my office in my little house by the river. Then, I was floating high on the experience, the relationships, the food — have I mentioned the food? Today, I am back in the mundane — classes, laundry, tax preparation, and the like.
It’s a lot easier to write about the fantastic, isn’t it? It’s lovelier to live in the beautiful. However, we do most of our dwelling in the ordinary, so coming down from the extraordinary sometimes involves a crash landing. And crash I did.
Some of the crash was circumstantial. I went from touring brilliantly-farmed land lush with oranges, strawberries, and figs to trudging across frozen tundra. I transitioned from touring on a bus full of enthusiastic learners who scored one another’s jokes, sang together, laughed together, and cried together, to spending a lot of time on my own sorting receipts, preparing for class, and putting away suitcases.
Some of the crash was self-inflicted. My doctor had recommended before the trip that I do a 21-day elimination diet to see if any foods were causing my pain and/or inflammation. I postponed it until after the trip (yes, the trip where we ate like kings three times a day), but started immediately when we got home. For the past three weeks, in addition to not eating gluten or dairy (both of which I have avoided for three years), I also eliminated soy, corn, citrus, peanuts, pork, and it seems like most everything else. Oh, and at the same time I finished weaning myself off Zoloft.
Yeah, I’m nuts. I mean if you’re going to come off the mountaintop, you might as well swan-dive, right? The thing about swan-diving, though, is that you can go pretty far down pretty darn quickly.
The casual observer might not detect the shift in position — from mountaintop to deep, dark valley. The physical therapist? The husband? Oh, they saw the shift. I did, too. I could feel the snark, but I couldn’t shake it.
It probably didn’t help that we came back right before the presidential inauguration and all the virtual “noise” that ensued , because I certainly have difficultly not engaging with all of that. And, rather than turning to my writing, which I know is an outlet for my emotions, I instead turned my gaze to the other things that need my attention — grading, a project I started for my in-laws a year ago, unfinished tax prep — and I thought to myself, it would be pretty selfish of you to sit down and blog for an hour right now. You have other people depending on you.
And I believed that voice. I muted the truth that says, “Oxygenate yourself first.” I forgot that “in repentance and rest is my salvation; in quietness and trust is my strength.” I trudged onward, avoiding my need for self-care, while attending to tasks that preserved the facade — cleaning the house, preparing for teaching, ironing clothes, cooking…anything but taking the pause that refreshes and centers my spirit.
So, after a sermon on Sunday about suffering and the encounter with my physical therapist who noted that my body is “all over the place,” I give up. I turn to the keys. I am honest. I’ve been struggling, but I’m turning, guys. I’m turning. It might take a minute, but I’m turning.
I will exalt you, Lord,
for you lifted me out of the depths
and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
2 Lord my God, I called to you for help,
and you healed me.
3 You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
you spared me from going down to the pit.