Narrative threads

In Michigan this year, winter had stamina.  It seemed to begin way back in October and continue halfway through April. The temperatures were low, the snow banks were high, the skies were gray, and all felt bleak.

My daughter once informed me, after I had been an English teacher for well over a decade, that when nature imitates the mood of the story, literary critics refer to the phenomenon as pathetic fallacy.  

We see it all the time in literature and movies: rain falls during funerals, the sun shines on parades, lightning flashes and thunder claps as the evil villain hatches his plan.  Writers use the setting of a story to create mood and to signal for readers how they might feel about the action of the narrative.

Sometimes it seems to happen in real life, too.

As the winter wore on this year in all its bleakness, and as circumstances in the narrative of my life unfolded, I took my signal from nature and wrapped myself in gray.  I didn’t see any buds on trees, any new growth in my garden, or any other signals from nature that I should hope.  I saw the earth hunkering down under the weighty blanket of snow, and I hunkered, too.  I wrapped myself in crocheted afghans, drank cup after cup of tea, and waited for the earth’s axis to tilt once again toward the sun.

Some moments, I didn’t believe it would. I felt we were stuck in winter forever. Storm after storm raged. Winds blew. Temperatures dropped. The world outside was harsh and unforgiving.  I had no reason to believe that we would ever again see tulips sprout from the earth.

I didn’t, of course, spend the whole winter under covers. I did what everyone who lives in the north does in the winter. I slathered my body in moisturizers, layered on clothing, pulled on boots, hat, gloves, and coat, and trudged into the elements. Day after day after long, cold, dismal day, I drove over slushy roads, stepped in salty puddles, and scraped icy windshields. The cold gray weather was both real and symbolic.

The problem with pathetic fallacy — with letting the setting signal the mood — is that you can lose your frame of reference. All winter I was shrouded in gray, so all of the action in my narrative seemed to take on that hue. Now, to be honest, my life narrative is cluttered at the moment with conflict and unresolved tension. Villains too numerous to list are executing evil plans and threatening to harm those that I love. However, in the midst of the gray of winter, I failed to see that simultaneously, a parallel plot is unfolding — one in which battles are fought and won, victory parades are held, and loved ones are reunited.

All. is. not. gray.

It’s been hard to see that — what with winter lasting so long. It’s been easy to fall for the fallacy — the mistaken belief — that all of life is cold, dark, dormant.  In fact, I have over the last several months been pathetic — filled with all kinds of emotion. I have leaned in and felt things that I have not allowed myself to feel for a very long time.  I have cried and yelled and moaned because I have looked fully at one strand of the narrative. I’m not sorry; I needed to see it. But guys, winter is gone.

I have a rhubarb plant outside my back door that peeked through the soil on my birthday at the end of March. Since then, it’s been slammed with winter weather — snow, sleet, wind, and rain — and still it is thriving.  My garden is a bed of weeds, my yard is a mole metropolis that is sorely in need of raking and mowing, but the sun is shining, and all I can look at is that rhubarb.

The villains haven’t dropped their weapons, the conflicts have not all been resolved, but one stubborn plant that pushed its way through frozen ground way before winter had subsided reminds me that there is more than one thread in my narrative.  I have reason to bake pie, to plant seeds, and to fold up my afghans.

Earlier this week when I arrived home from work, my husband said, “Before you sit down, go look at the patio.” I knew before I looked what I would find — the adirondack chairs that my father-in-law made for us years ago had been put out after their long winter inside.

He had seen it, too: the sunshine, the rhubarb, the reason to hope.  So hope we will, as we sit on our patio, faces tilted toward the sun, and let this season have a chance to direct our feelings about our narrative.

Psalm 27:13

I am confident in this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

 

 

Corn chips, anyone?

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

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

I chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 16:33

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

Bits of Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do I store these clusters of words?

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

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

I find myself speaking out loud:

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 16:33

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

 

 

 

 

Feel This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was over thirty years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m ok with that.

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

Ecclesiastes 3:4

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

In Violation

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

A cop.

Seriously?

Had I been speeding?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m tired.

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

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

Revelation 21: 5

“Look!  I am making all things new!”

 

 

In my anger

Psalm 4:3-5

    the Lord hears when I call to him.

Be angry, and do not sin;
    ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. 
Offer right sacrifices,
    and put your trust in the Lord.

 

I’ve been angry lately.  Frustrated. Hurt. Angry. Downright pissed.  Life, as my friend said to me recently, isn’t turning out the way I might have expected.  Reality is not meeting my expectations, and I’m livid. I literally cannot see straight.

For most of my life I’ve had a default response to mad — seethe, mutter, slow boil until bursting, then slam, yell, stomp, and verbalize the snot out of anyone in my path.  It’s pretty gratifying, actually.   It’s a release that refreshes.  Ah,…I got that off my chest, I grin. However, that release and refreshing lasts a maximum of four to five minutes before regret and shame show up. I see the carnage in my path of destruction, and I realize what my anger has caused.  My rage hasn’t cured my problem;  I have just transferred my hurt onto whoever or whatever was in my path.  While momentarily satisfying, rage is not productive; it’s destructive.

After a face-to-face encounter with reality over the weekend, I was already well into the slow boil of anger on Monday evening when I walked into our small group.  Because the anger is related to the unspoken broken* in my life, I had resolved to armor up, batten down the hatches, and ‘get through’ our Bible study reflection with my husband and the three others in attendance. To my relief, others carried the conversation, so I was able to  focus on keeping my yap shut and clutching my pain in my fists.

The discussion was business-related — projects, strategies, etc.  I was thankful that the topic was outside my area of interest and enjoying my silence when a friend said, “Kristin, are you familiar with the Lean strategy?”  My answer, “No,” was probably curt and clipped.  However, since I’m an adult and I am truly not trying to be overtly rude, I did turn my gaze toward him and maintain eye contact for the next few minutes.  I heard nothing except, “you can’t set goals until you determine what the problem is.  People always want to talk about the symptoms, but you have to identify the problem.”

And so began an internal spiral past all kinds of symptoms in search of a root problem.  This one is complex. What, Kristin, is the problem here?  Don’t just look at symptoms. And so, the internal hum gained some fuel and continued its slow boil.

My body doesn’t know what else to do.  This problem and its symptoms will not abate overnight, and though not essentially mine, they have immediate and far-reaching impact on my reality.  I can feel the hum in my cells.  They are trying to do what they know how to do — solve, soothe, fix — but they are coming up empty.

Yesterday,  a conversation with my therapist allowed some deep hurt to surface, and I came home a bit calmer.  My slow boil had been reduced to a simmer.  I quietly and slowly moved through the motions for an hour or so — preparing dinner, changing the laundry, sweeping the kitchen floor.  I ate dinner with my husband, brushed out the dog’s coat, then took a warm shower.

It was only 7:45 when I climbed into bed, picked up Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, and started the slow descent toward what I hoped would be sleep.  Sleep has been difficult — I take elaborate measures to calm the hum that churns all day.  Sometimes if I read fiction, I can calm myself enough to close my eyes and fall asleep.  Other times, like last night, I can sense that quieting the hum is going to require a little more intentionality. After about an hour of reading about two brave women surviving World War II in France,  I reached to my nightstand and grabbed Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, the book that my breakfast club and I are reading.

Taylor’s book is a slow examination of literal and metaphorical darkness. It asks questions like why are we afraid of the dark? what would happen if we turned out some lights, put down our technology, and actually sat in the darkness? how important are the rhythms of light and dark (both literal and metaphorical) in our lives and what happens when we subvert those rhythms? It’s contemplative to be sure.

The chapter I opened to last night first met me where I was: Taylor affirmed that “we find ourselves unable to […] sleep, […with] several free hours to obsess about everything from how we will pay our Visa bills to who will take care of us when we can no longer take care of ourselves” (64). Indeed.  My solve, soothe, fix mechanism is strong, and I can spend a whole nighttime obsessing about how to alleviate symptoms or searching for the root problem.

Then, Taylor spoke to my heart with the words of poet Li-Young Lee, “All light is late.” Four small words that reminded me that understanding often comes after acting, that wisdom is found in hindsight, and that, though late, light always arrives.

Finally, Taylor spoke right to my unspoken broken* in words that can only be ordained by God and penned by her hand: “it is sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down” (67).  It is truly hard for me to discern whether the ache inside is a symptom of dying or resurrection, but I trust in the God of restoration even when I cannot see.

He is with me in the light and in the dark.  He calls me to lie down on my bed and be silent.  He encourages me to read and to ponder in my  heart.  He urges me to offer my unspoken broken up to Him. He reminds me to trust Him because He holds everything in the palm of His hand.

In my anger, I call out to Him. He hears me.

 

*Voskamp, Ann. The Broken Way. 

 

 

 

 

Old dog, new trick

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

Click.

Gasp!

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

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

So many.

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

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

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

Why did I drive in that snowstorm? 

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

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

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

If only I had _____________, then ___________________.

Over and over and over again.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.  It’s pretty toxic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 12:2

“be transformed by the renewing of your mind”

 

 

 

Choosing Community

I can spend days in solitude — reading, writing, working on puzzles, going for long walks.  I love to be alone.

In my childhood, I would retreat to my room to listen to the same song over and over again on a record player, spend hours in the side yard of our house twirling my baton, read a whole afternoon away in the living room recliner, and take solo rides on my bike to the boundaries of the small town I grew up in.

As an adult,  I have looked forward to whatever private moments I have been able to carve out for myself — reading, writing, walking.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends and family with a deep committed love.  However,  while I enjoy lively family dinners and picnics with friends, I also long to retreat to solitude — sometimes to a fault.

In fact, when the going gets tough — when I am battling interior or exterior demons — I tend to go a little beyond solitude to isolation.  If my troubles seem a bit too heavy to bear, I might bunker down in a small cubicle on the top floor of a library every evening for an entire semester, for example. If I’m barely surviving my responsibilities, I might put on a veneer of friendliness over a heavily armored soul before venturing out among the citizenry.  I am not quick to reach out; I am sure to turn in.

My husband, on the other hand, is very intentional about connecting with others.  Wherever we have been, he has initiated small group interaction.  He believes so strongly in the power of  community that he makes it happen, often in spite of my foot dragging.

“I’d like to start a small group in our house on Saturday nights.  Ok?”

Every Saturday night? Who? Why?

My introverted self whines and moans,  and then I tidy the house, make some food, and open the door.  I’m always glad I did, but it is not in my nature to initiate it.  I tend toward the solitary.

In St. Louis, we led a small group community that started one Monday night when my husband said, “I invited two guys over tonight.  You don’t have to do anything, but I think they are going to come every week.”   I sighed and grumbled “every week?” as I quickly kicked shoes into closets and threw dishes into cupboards.

I’d been soldiering internally at the time, and I wasn’t looking forward to anyone getting too close.  The thin veneer that I wore into public spaces was tenuous at best.  We were a bit of a mess, truth be told, and I didn’t want anyone to see the ugly underbelly of our lives.  However, my husband had been pressing for community, so finally, I gave in.  What harm could a couple of grad students bring?  Certainly we would be caring for them in their struggles, not vice versa.  I could easily keep them at arm’s length.

They arrived after dinner — two young single guys who hadn’t eaten.  We sat in our living room and chatted, read a few Bible verses, and prayed.  At the end of an hour I heard myself telling them to arrive a little earlier the next week;  I would have a meal ready for them.  Before long, the two grew to about twenty young adults who crammed into our living room every week, eating whatever I happened to scrounge together.  Sometimes we had guitar playing and singing, sometimes pranks and laughter, sometimes headier conversations.

At first, I maintained my comfortable food provider/discussion leader role, veneer firmly in place, but those kids had a habit of showing up, petting our dog, talking to our kids, lying around on our floor, and making me laugh that allowed them to worm their way beneath the armor and into my heart. This soldier who marched down school hallways kicking butts and taking names all day long, often went home on Monday nights, made a meal, and then quietly wept as these kids prayed for us — for our lives, for our children, for our health, for our future.  When my husband moved to Ann Arbor a year before me, they kept coming to our house every Monday night without fail.  They were a constant encouragement and a source of unconditional love.  Toward the end, as we were emptying our house for the final move, they lugged furniture, painted walls, and scrubbed floors beside us.

I grieved leaving that group more than anything else that we left in St. Louis. They had taught me the value of community — of sharing life together, of listening to one another’s concerns, of helping to carry one another’s loads. Certainly, I thought, I would never find that kind of connection again.

I was wrong.  Since I’ve been in Ann Arbor, I have had plenty of solitude and time for reflection, but I have also repeatedly found myself in close community. I landed in my Bible study battalion almost the minute I got here.  Soon after that, I was sweetly surprised by reuniting with a college suite-mate who meets me for mall-walking that often leads to burden-sharing and tear-wiping — right there among the shoppers. A little over a year ago, I started getting out of bed at 6 am twice a month to join four other women for breakfast — we’ve read several books together and have grown close as we’ve discussed how these texts apply to our individual journeys. We are learning together how to be vulnerable, how to support one another, and how to take off our armor in the safe space that we have created.

Additionally, my husband and I have together recently joined a small group with other members of our congregation and are part of a launch team for a new worship service at our church.  In each group we are hearing stories, making connections, and finding meaning.  We’re leaning in to difficult conversations, we’re praying over one another, and we’re building community.

I am continually overwhelmed by the richness of these relationships — the kind that can see the underbelly with compassion rather than judgment, that can sit in the difficulty rather than searching for solutions, that can both laugh and cry within the space of an hour.

I had learned these lessons earlier in life, to be sure, but in my soldiering years I forgot,  probably because I was so intent on guarding, protecting, and surviving.  I didn’t want to let anyone in; I didn’t want them to look under the armor and find out that I was wounded and weak.

Truthfully, it doesn’t always feel pleasant to peel off the armor and expose what’s beneath.  I would prefer to keep my unspoken broken* just that, but in the safety of close community, wounds are witnessed, tears are shed, and healing begins.  And not just mine.

As it turns out, everyone has their stuff — their unspoken broken — health issues, failed relationships, struggles with work, and money, and time.  The surprise to me was that when others saw the pus-filled wounds beneath my armor, they didn’t gag and look away; they leaned in, applied some balm, and showed me their own scars. I didn’t feel judged, but loved.

Building community takes bravery, commitment, and time.  It’s worth it, even for a lone soldier like me.

Hebrews 10:25

Continue meeting together, encourage one another.

*Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way

My Sweet Experience

As a new volunteer for Patient and Family Centered Care at the University of Michigan, I have been asked to share part of my story at Kellogg Eye Center to a group of new Kellogg employees.  What has my patient experience been like?  Since I am more accustomed to writing than to speaking, I thought I’d share what I plan to say here. 

In the summer of 2012, while my family and I were living in St. Louis, MO, I started experiencing joint pain.  I had been, up until that time, a full-time teacher, school administrator, mother of four, and avid runner.  I was a very busy woman in excellent shape, so when I first experienced pain in my elbows, I believed I had an overuse injury.  However, over the next several months, I began experiencing pain in my hands, feet, neck, and shoulders. The moderate sacroiliac pain and issues with my skin that I had dealt with for most of my adult life intensified.  When I began to feel so exhausted at the end of my work day that I couldn’t remember driving myself home, I started the long journey toward a diagnosis — a journey I am still on almost six years later.

You might imagine that this journey has involved visits to my primary care doctor, a rheumatologist, and a dermatologist.  Indeed, it has.  And, since I’m standing in front of you now, you have probably concluded that my journey has also included ophthamologists.  Correct again.

Throughout 2013 and 2014, my doctors were convinced I had psoriatic arthritis.  They had confirmed that I have the genetic marker, HLA-B27, joint pain, and psoriasis.  Although I did not have any inflammatory markers, they agreed that a diagnosis could be given in the absence of such evidence.  I was therefore treated with the standard course of medication: NSAIDs, biologics, and other standard pharmaceuticals — certainly I cannot remember everything I have tried.

In the spring of 2014, I was winding up the academic year, one daughter was graduating from college, and another was graduating from high school.  I was exhausted and in a significant amount of pain.  My rheumatologist decided to treat me with a prednisone taper to give me some relief during this very busy time.

I did experience relief; however, the combination of immunosuppressant drugs and steroids created the perfect environment for ocular herpes.  I woke up on Memorial Day 2014 with excruciating eye pain and extreme sensitivity to light, so I called my St. Louis ophthalmologist, Dr. Todd LaPoint.  He saw me right away –came into the office before a family picnic – and immediately got me started on a course of medication that got the situation under control.  I saw Dr. LaPoint several times over the next few weeks, but then another problem surfaced — I was moving to Ann Arbor at the end of July with a newly diagnosed chronic eye problem.  What would I do for care?

Dr. LaPoint said he would do a little research and get me a referral.  It wasn’t long before he suggested that I make an appointment with Dr. Sugar at Kellogg Eye Center.  He had attended a talk that Dr. Sugar had given and knew he was the best of the best.

I remember quipping, “Dr. Sugar?  I wonder if he is sweet.”

Dr. LaPoint replied, “He is!”

I want to tell you that almost four years later, I have visited Kellogg over twenty times, and I must say that Dr. Sugar is indeed sweet — one of the sweetest — and that Kellogg has been an oasis as I have wandered the desert of my medical journey.

I will certainly not recount twenty office visits for you, but I do have a few highlights I would like to share.

When you saw me walk up to the podium this evening, you might not have expected that I have battled chronic pain and fatigue. In fact, if you ran a battery of tests on me right now, you would find virtually no clinical evidence that I suffer.  Patients like me often meet health care providers who believe that there is nothing wrong with us.  We are hypochondriacs, pill-seekers, and whiners. Even well-intentioned doctors shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t have anything to offer you.” Time after time we walk into doctors’ offices with concerns and questions, and we leave feeling humiliated and defeated.  Because we have experienced this so often, we often walk into doctors’ offices with our defenses up.  We expect to be judged, dismissed, and disappointed.

Since I’ve moved to Ann Arbor, doctors at U of M and St. Joseph’s have removed my psoriatic arthritis diagnosis.  One doctor says I have fibromyalgia; the other says I have degenerative arthritis.  Frustrated with the confusion I experience from this continually changing diagnosis, I discontinued the biologics and anti-inflammatory medications and spent a year trying out homeopathic remedies.  Finally, after years of trial and error, I am currently on a path that seems to be working — physical therapy, chiropractic care, lifestyle changes, and steroid injections.  I’m just a few months into the first significant relief I’ve had since 2012.

In the midst of that long season of struggle, I have had one recurrence of ocular herpes and  two rounds of scleritis.  Both of these illnesses are quite uncomfortable, so one day when I felt a slight change in my left eye, I called Kellogg and arranged to see Dr. Sugar.  When he entered the examination room he said, “How are you doing?” I answered, “I may have jumped the gun, but I just feel like something is wrong with my eye.”  I was already putting up my defenses, expecting Dr. Sugar to be like many other doctors I have seen; I could already imagine him saying  ‘there was nothing wrong with my eye’.  However, he didn’t say that.  Instead, he said, “I always want you to come in, whether we find something or not.  If you think something is wrong, I want to see you.”

It may have been during that same appointment, or it may have been at another one, when he examined my eyes and said, “I don’t see anything, but that doesn’t mean you are not experiencing anything.”  This may seem insignificant to you who practice medicine, but to those of us who suffer with invisible illnesses, finding a doctor who does not dismiss our complaints or deny our reality is rare and life-impacting.

In January of 2017, my husband and I were planning for a trip to Israel.  Because I had recently struggled with a round of scleritis, I was concerned about traveling abroad. What if I had a flare in Israel?  When I mentioned my concern to Dr. Sugar, he pulled out a pad of paper and wrote the name of a colleague– a cornea specialist — who practices in Tel Aviv. He assured me that if I had a problem, I should contact that doctor and he would be able to help me.

One weekend last spring, I woke up on a Saturday morning with pain in my eye.  I immediately called Kellogg.  The on-call doctor opened my file and said, “I see you are a patient of Dr. Sugar.  He likes to be called whenever one of his patients has trouble on the weekend.  Let me try to reach him, and I will call you back later today.”  Not fifteen minutes later my phone rang.  The on-call doctor had already spoken to Dr. Sugar who had given him a message to convey to me including the fact that a prescription was waiting at my pharmacy.

Surely you agree that Dr. LaPoint’s recommendation was spot on.

Let me just take a moment and share one other layer.  I am a life-long educator.  I have had students of all ages from early childhood up through college. One extra joy I experience at Kellogg is the mentorship I witness.  While some patients may be annoyed that a resident or an intern is in the room, I love witnessing the interchange of Dr. Sugar with these future-specialists.  His approach is intentional — I have seen him be encouraging with one resident and direct with another.  I have watched him peer through one side of a dual-microscope while a resident peers through the other.  He listens to the ‘student’ describe what he sees and points out anything he has missed.  It’s quite phenomenal to witness. I have remarked to more than one resident that they are quite privileged to learn from such a distinguished physician.  I do recognize that his standards are high, and that working under his supervision may not be easy, but I believe the experience they are getting just standing in the room with him all day long is among the best training they could receive in the nation.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that along with Dr. Sugar I have received care from others within his office including Dr. Shtein and many fellows.  Each time I have received quality intentional care that leaves me feeling heard and understood. I have not had one bad experience.  This is uncommon.

I have visited many health facilities in the past six years — both in St. Louis and in Ann Arbor.  I have met numerous health care professionals.  Kellogg is at the top of my list of a very few places that I actually look forward to visiting to receive care.  Please continue this tradition of excellence as you join the Kellogg staff.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is within your power to act. –Proverbs 3:27

Surprise!

Today I was getting ready to do a lesson with one of my students when our office manager informed me that one of my coworkers had gone home sick.  Would I mind combining two students’ instruction —  one, a nine-year-old doing language arts and one, an eleven-year-old who had a math assessment to finish?  Both of these students have specific learning needs and both typically receive one-on-one instruction.  I answered  I would be happy to combine them while thinking to myself, “well, this could get interesting”.

It is for good reason that most of our students receive one-on-one instruction.  They have all struggled in school and have the scars to show for it — low self-esteem, a tendency toward frustration, and the constant and desperate need for encouragement.   How was I going to juggle their needs?  No way to find out but to step into it.

I was almost immediately surprised.  “Hey you two,” I said, “Why don’t we find a space with a large table so that we have plenty of room?”  “Yeah!” they said almost in unison.  While a change in routine or venue can sometimes signal distraction or disruption, they surprised me by rallying and seeing this as an opportunity.  They helped me gather all their supplies — laptops, files, paper, etc — and we relocated so swiftly that I barely had time to register the change.

Still, I was cautious.  I wondered if we would get anything done at all.  Both of these students tend to need a lot of direction and re-direction; I pictured an hour plunked between them, dividing my time between getting each of them back on task and squeezing in little spurts of instruction.  Again, I was surprised.

The eleven-year-old almost immediately located the online assessment that he had to complete and announced that he could do most of it on his own.  The nine-year-old found herself a “special pen” to work with and then, looking at her ‘classmate’, decided to find him one, too.  “What a good idea!”  I said.  Her classmate received the pen, said “Thank you!” and got right to work.

While I guided the nine-year-old through her lesson, the eleven-year-old worked diligently on adding and subtracting fractions.  He politely asked me once if he had reduced the fraction as far as it could go. After I checked his answer and said,  “yes, good job,” I turned back to the other student.  She looked at him and added her own “good job!”  When the older student heard me tell the younger student, “You got it,” he chimed in with “Way to go!”

Guys, I did not script this.  They were genuinely delighted for one another.  He watched her jump up and down when she heard two target words in a song that I played.  She waited patiently when he and I worked through a more difficult problem together.  They even teamed up to good-naturedly poke fun at my singing ability! I praised them and rewarded them for their cooperative spirits and strong work ethics, but I truly believe that the opportunity to work side-by-side was a reward in itself.

The three of us were elbow to elbow smiling at one another at a table buried under two laptops, paper, pens, scissors, and scraps.  I said, “Hey, guys, I think we should do this more often.  What do you think?”

“Yes!” they agreed, in unison.

If you are not a teacher, you might not know that school doesn’t always go like this.  Classmates aren’t always encouraging toward one another.  They certainly don’t always celebrate the small accomplishments of students with learning differences.  In fact, it is often the opposite.  Students who struggle often have the added discouragement of being teased by their peers and even, I’m sorry to say, their teachers.

Not today.

Today was a sweet surprise.  Perhaps these two who have struggled so much have learned the value of being kind.  I learned a little myself.

Surprise!

Isaiah 11:6

“a child will lead them”