Writing Trouble

Since I wrote Sunday’s blog post about my recent experiences taking Cosentyx, I’ve heard remorse humming through my being.  I mean, why do I always have to go ahead and say it all?  Why can’t I stop saying EVERYTHING.

A few weeks ago we were at a family reunion and one of my nephews sat down next to me with his son and a paper plate covered in various colored cubes of finger jello. Because I love his son, and him, I said, “Mmmmm, jello!”

My nephew, who with his son was consuming bite after bite of the jiggly treat, said to me, “Yes, but you don’t like jello, do you, Aunt Kristin?”

“No, I am not a fan.” I answered truthfully, as I seem always compelled to do.

My nephew grinned as he recalled a time, some years ago, when he said I had gone off on a ‘rant’ about how jello has “no nutritional value whatsoever.”  As he said it, I could hear myself on just one of my many diatribes.  He, and another of my nephews, also now a father, watched me for a reaction. When I said, “Man, sometimes I wish I could just shut my mouth,” they both laughed out loud.

I am that aunt.  Ok, let’s get real. I am that human.

I am compelled — yes, driven — to fill in the empty spaces with (so many) words.  And, guys, it can be embarrassing.

How many times riding home from an event with my husband have I said, “did I talk too much? did I say anything offensive or that I need to apologize for?”   In recent years, my husband has answered with a kindness, “Kristin, just be you.”

I, in case you don’t know me, am a person for whom no number of words, it seems, is ever too many words. I love to read them, listen to them, write them, and speak them. This week, the first in my self-imposed month-long preparation for fall classes, I have read literally thousands of words every day.  I have jotted notes to myself on stickies. I have listened to podcasts. I have had multiple conversations,  both virtual and in person, about language and pedagogy.  I’ve asked questions, made lists, and edited syllabi. At the end of these long text-filled days,  you would think I would be ready for a break.  Nope.  This word-nerd then watches Wheel-of-Fortune and Jeopardy, plays Words with Friends, and then reads for pleasure for an hour or two before sleeping.

I guess the fact that I love words and language so much is a blessing since I have made the teaching of English, especially writing, my career. However, sometimes my compulsion to put so many words — particularly those that expose my struggles — on public display, causes me to feel anxious, regretful, and downright insecure.  Why can’t I be one of those people that moves through social situations with a calm reserve?  Why can’t I listen to the conversations of others replying simply, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

More to the point of this blog, why can’t I stick to topics that are uplifting, that celebrate God’s faithfulness, that don’t expose my struggle, my weakness, my — gasp — troubles? This mantra, this hum, has been trying to distract me all week.

“Write a follow-up. Write a retraction. Go back and edit.”

Be quiet, I say. Can’t you see I’m trying to plan my courses?  Can’t you see I’m trying to focus on best practices for teaching others how to write? 

“Yeah, why don’t you go ahead and teach them since you’re so good at it?” the snide voice replies.

Hush. 

And then, this morning in the middle of a text on writing theory, I saw this:

“Trouble is the engine of the narrative.”*

I stopped in my tracks.  Wait, who said that?  Jerome Bruner, noted educational psychologist, and apparently also, for me, a voice calling out in the wilderness of text.

“The trouble is a violation of the legitimate, the expectable, the appropriate.  and the outcome of the story depends upon seeing legitimacy maintained, restored, or redefined.” *

Suddenly, in the middle of my study and preparation, I felt like I was in church.  Indeed, all of life is a grappling with the “violation of the legitimate” and the longing to see “legitimacy restored or redefined.”

The legitimate, expectable, and appropriate of my life — and surely yours — has been violated time and again — sometimes by circumstance, sometimes by others, often by my own doing.   My story includes troubles such as divorce, eating disorder, chronic illness, and myriad poor choices and betrayals.  Yours might include any of a variety of other troubles.  Together, we are all walking through troubles of many kinds, and as Ann Vosskamp says,

“More than anything, [we] don’t want to feel all alone in [our] unspoken broken.”**

And that, I have to confess, is what compels my incessant need to share.  I hate to admit that this self-proclaimed soldier longs to feel connection with others who are also struggling — who also have troubles.  But I do.  I long for it.  And I do experience it.

Sometimes I am able to find that connection over a cup of tea with a girlfriend.  We share our troubles and our victories.  We are honest, and in that honesty, we find community, support, connection. Other times, I need the luxury of words in print — the time that it takes me to type each letter, think through each sentence, and delete two or three false starts.  I need to process the trouble through text; that’s just who I am.

Its an unexpected bonus that sometimes my need to type out my troubles results in a forged bond with someone with whom my words resonated — a person who also, more than anything, doesn’t want to feel alone.

We are not alone. We are all broken.  We are all longing for restoration, and when we see it, we celebrate it. As we wait for it, if we are willing to expose our wounds, our brokenness, we are often surprised by the blessing of connection with other wounded broken souls.

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:2

*as cited in Graham,  Steve, Charles A. Mac Arthur, and Jill Fitzgerald. Best Practices in Writing Instruction. The Guilford Press, 2013.

**Vosskamp, Ann. The Broken Way. Zondervan, 2016.

 

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Applied Learning

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

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

Fact #2 – I’m not in control.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 103: 13

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

Best Practices

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.

Jeremiah 31:3

“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.

 

Swan-dive to Mundane

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.

Psalm 30:1ff

I will exalt you, Lord,
    for you lifted me out of the depths
    and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
Lord my God, I called to you for help,
    and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
    you spared me from going down to the pit.

Pray continually

People who have read my blog often ask me if I mind being so transparent.  Does it bother me that everyone can see my thoughts, witness my frailties, know the specifics of my challenges? Nope.

I’m kind of a right-out-there kind of a girl.  I always have been.  I am sometimes jealous of those who are able to conceal their true feelings, withhold information, or refrain from commenting.  I mean, I’m learning…I am 50, after all…but at heart, I’m truly ‘what you see is what you get’.

And where else should this be so than in my personal blog?  I just pointed out yesterday that one of my main purposes in writing this blog is to reflect.  I do this best through writing and not holding back.  Now, I do realize that not everyone functions this way.  It’s just the way I am wired.  I often, as I have written numerous times, don’t know what is going to pop out of my fingers until it does. I surprise myself.  And while, at least for the sake of blogging,  some topics are off limits for me — such as what happens in the bedroom or the bathroom — I don’t want to suppress myself or compromise the integrity of my writing.

I read somewhere this summer — I’ve read so.many.books. about writing this summer — that writing is all about finding your truth.  And, for me, writing this blog is, if nothing else, an exercise in telling the truth.  Often that truth is framed by what I am studying in the Bible on a particular day, so when my devotion this afternoon was about prayer and Daniel’s faithfulness in his daily exercise of prayer, I knew I had to go there.

So here I go: I’m not a faithful pray-er.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the power of prayer — I do!  It’s not that I don’t know what to pray for — I do!  It’s not that people don’t share their requests with me — they do!  It’s not that I’m so busy that I don’t have time to pray — I’m not!  I have no excuses!! I just am not a faithful pray-er.

That is why I started reading the book by Beth Moore, Whispers of Hope: Ten Weeks of Devotional Prayer.  I started reading this book over a year ago!  I’m on my third time through.  The idea is that you read a devotion every day, and at the end of the devotion,you write out your prayers.  Wouldn’t you think this would be a great fit for me?  It is!  In fact, I have written about the effectiveness of this book in this blog before!

[Oh my gosh, guys, I just Google searched “Whispers of Hope” and “Kristinsnextchapter” and I found a whole bunch of blog posts written by … Me! That is super weird!]

So the concept is great, and when I am disciplined about reading my daily devotion, I am usually good about writing down my prayers in my little notebook.  In fact, I’m on my second notebook!  However, you can probably already guess that I’m not super disciplined about doing my daily devotion!  I’m about as disciplined with my devotion as I am with my blog.  And I’m a little less disciplined with daily prayer as I am with either of those!

This blog entry is turning into true confessions of the poorly praying pastor’s wife.

Gulp.

But I haven’t given up. I am a work in progress.

I have champion prayer warrior examples all around me.  I have mentioned before, our great pastor friend, Rev. Wm. Gatz whose life-long ministry is teaching others the power of prayer.  His prayer life is inspiring. I think he’s been praying for our family for well over twenty years at least weekly, if not daily.  I don’t believe I know anyone who prays more, with the exception, possibly, of our good friend, Laurel, who I haven’t seen in years.  We haven’t lived in the same state in over ten years, but I am confident that Laurel prays for me and my family regularly.  That is terribly humbling for someone who often forgets to pray for her own husband and children, let alone anyone else.

Just this week, a good friend, who recently received his first call as a pastor mentioned on Facebook that he is creating a prayer wall in his new office.  He was soliciting requests to put on his wall.  You know I was one of the first to submit a request, but it never occurred to me that I could create my own prayer wall.  (Ok, I do realize that it just occurred to me now.)

So, I just had an idea. While I was in Boston last weekend, I was standing in the kitchen of one of my daughters.  She and her roommates use the front of their fridge as a white board to keep track of what items need to be purchased and who did what chore last — brilliant.  I have also been in the bathrooms of friends who use the mirror to list the prayer needs of family and friends.  So, I’m thinking that if I use a dry-erase marker on the side of my fridge that faces the sink where I stand to do dishes several times a day and on the mirror I stand in front of to dry my excessively thick hair each morning, I would find two (or more) times each day to be reminded to pray.

That’s it.  I’m gonna go start my lists right now.  You know I’m gonna let you know how this goes, right?   Wanna give it a try with me?

I Thessalonians 5:17

[Start, and then} “pray continually.”

Students of the Months

So it’s been a while, guys. If you’re my friend on Facebook, you may think I haven’t been writing simply because I’ve been putting together a particularly difficult 1000 piece puzzle.  That’s not really the reason.  The puzzle is my forced stillness in the midst of a pretty crazy summer lifestyle.

In addition to visiting family in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio this summer, I have also had the opportunity to work with quite a few students.  While some of my regulars from the school year take the summer off, a handful have continued their lessons.  I have a Korean brother and sister who are transferring from a public school to a fairly rigorous private school this fall.  We are sharpening skills to ease the transition.  I have an Indian brother and sister who are entirely bi-lingual and whose parents choose to have regular English lessons to ensure that their English skills for academic purposes rival those of their native-speaking peers. I have a Romanian woman whom I’ve been working with for eighteen months now — we’ve done everything from grammar to pronunciation to reading to writing to nursing school assignments to spelling. I work with a young man, also bilingual, who has challenges in comprehension.  He and I work on vocabulary, test prep, and life skills including interviewing for jobs.  These ‘regulars’ are officially adopted into my heart and have become part of my the larger body I call “my kids”, but they aren’t my only students.

For a willing teacher, the summer also provides some temporary liaisons — opportunities for just a ‘touch’.  This summer I chose to be part of a program called Summer Discovery .  In this program, students from across the country and around the world, move to a university campus for 2-5 weeks to live in a dorm, experience campus life, interact with other students, and take some classes.  They don’t all take English.  In fact, of the hundreds of students who are attending the program at the University of Michigan, here in Ann Arbor, only 18 have chosen to take my “Essay Writing Workshop”.  I mean, they had over forty options — including  architectural design, business management, exploring medicine, sports management, and even a cooking class at Zingerman’s!   So, you can probably imagine that the seven students I had during the first three weeks of Summer Discovery and the eleven students I am working with during the last two weeks are pretty serious about improving their writing.  Most of them have one thing on their minds — completing and even perfecting the college essay that they will use in the admissions process this fall.

Although they have that goal in common, in many ways they are quite diverse.  I have met a competitive horse back rider from Chicago, one boy and one girl from Manhattan, a Japanese boy who happens to actually live in Switzerland, a Chinese boy who goes to high school in Korea, two IB school students — one from Turkey, one from Memphis, a poet from Southern California, a hippie from New Hampshire, and a bantam-weight Korean-American defensive lineman from Kansas City.

Our task?  Each needs to identify a dominant characteristic that he or she wants to convey through the college essay.  One chose ‘hard-working’, one chose ’empathetic’, one chose ‘creative’, etc.  Once each student has determined which characteristic to convey, he or she then has the job of creating a written ‘highlight tape’ in the form of a college essay that just happens to respond to one of five prompts required by the Common App.  Easy? Nope.  Possible? Absolutely.

Today, as part of our class, I invited students to read their first completed essay out loud to the class.  Keep in mind that we have read many models, we have examined the prompts, we have brainstormed and pre-written together, we have drafted, we have participated in peer review, and we have had opportunity for revisions.  Also keep in mind that ALL of these kids are high achievers.  They are planning on attending selective universities.  They have high expectations of themselves.  I just wanted them to read out loud the 500-650 words on the page in front of them.  I had a few volunteers, but most were reluctant.

I pulled out all the stops — I gushed over volunteers.  I gave specific praise.  I offered targeted tips to those who had taken the risk to read out loud.  And then the classic Rathje showed up, “I LOVE reading your essays.  On Monday you walked in eleven strangers that I would get to interact with for ten days, but as I read your writing, I get the inside view!  I get to see who you really are!”

I don’t know if they care, but I LOVE doing this!!  I love the privilege of meeting students from different backgrounds.  I love hearing their stories — of growing up in a family where everyone is taller than 5’10”, of organizing a fund-raiser to benefit children with autism, of interviewing Kevin Durant for a school newspaper, of the challenges of having one Arabic and one Jewish parent, of growing up in Puerto Rico where half of the classes are in English and half are in Spanish, of  experiencing prejudice, health issues, language barriers, and success.  Their stories, though very different from one another, remind me of what is common among humanity — the desire to be seen, the desire to be heard, the desire to be accepted, the desire to be loved.

For a teenager, these desires can feel like desperation.  Imagine the courage it takes to travel to a place you have never been, to live there for several weeks, to put yourself onto a piece of paper, and then to read it out loud in front of people you’ve known for just a short while.  For any of us that would daunting.  For a teenager, it can be terrifying.  Yet today, five students out of my eleven dared to expose themselves, because of that, they had an opportunity to be seen and to be heard, and quite possibly the opportunity to be accepted and loved.

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind and compassionate to one another.

Struggling Still

So, I’ve been sitting here with my laptop open for quite a while now.  I’ve finished my Bible study.  I’ve responded to several student emails.  I’ve looked at and managed my calendar for the week. But I’m not feeling inspired to write anything.

I have this problem.  I want to be authentic — to not sound cheesy, or preachy, or packaged in any way.  I want what comes out of my fingers to be a genuine reflection of where I’m at.  And, to be honest, ‘where I’m at’ is in my pajamas, sitting on a futon in my office, covered in warmed flaxseed pillows with my dog squished up next to me.  It’s a pretty good life, actually, but it’s not much to write about.

Yet, I’ve committed to writing more.  So, I’m going to write.  And then, for the most part, I’m going to spend my day being still.

I still struggle with this — with stillness, that is.  In my former life, I didn’t have very many times of stillness.  Days, weeks, months, and years, were full of activity — of doing, going, achieving, completing, accomplishing.  So, sitting here halfway through a Monday morning , still dressed in the same clothes I slept in with no intention of changing anytime soon, still seems odd.

I’m telling you, my Missouri friends would not recognize me.  I had a colleague who used to say, “I wish I understood how you get so much done.”  Me, too, friend, me, too.  I’ve said before on this blog how by this time of day in my former life I would’ve showered, put dinner in the crock pot, transported three or four kids to their various schools, tidied my classroom, reviewed my lesson plans, met with a family and their child to craft an educational contract, set up an appointment to observe a teacher, tracked down two delinquent students in the hallway, taught one section of composition, attended chapel, and managed any number of other administrative tasks.

Today? I’ve played my turn in about ten games of Words with Friends, started a load of laundry, finished last night’s dishes, drank some tea and a smoothie, heated some flaxseed pillows, sat down next to my dog, completed my Bible study, and sent some emails.

The rest of my day includes some lesson planning for the upcoming semester and editing a short paper for a student. Period. Ok, fine, I will try to do some Pilates. But seriously, I’m not doing anything else.  I’m not leaving the house.  At all.

And why am I struggling with this?  This is the new reality that was Hand-crafted for me.  This is the Next Chapter I’ve been blessed with.  It’s not boring. It’s not unsatisfying.  In fact, it is exactly what the Doctor ordered to put me back on the path to health.

Yet the do-er in my still sometimes feels like I should be accomplishing something, checking more off my list, making a difference, proving my worth. There it is. Something in me (and in you?) tells me that I don’t have worth unless I have accomplished something in my day. My value is in direct proportion to all the things I have managed to complete.  But ladies and gentlemen, that is a lie.  It’s a lie that I chose to believe for a long time.  And I believed it really well.  So well that I denied myself the opportunity to be still and recover from all the doing.  So, really, (wink, wink) I’m making up for lost time.

Do yourself a favor today.  Remind yourself that your worth is not based on what you do.  It is based on Whose you are. You have been purchased at a great price.  Your value is unfathomable.  Sit down for a minute and fathom that.  Drink it in for a moment while you are being still.

I Corinthians 6:19-20

 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price.Therefore honor God with your bodies.

Write anyway.

The first piece of advice I give to writing students is that if they want to improve their writing, they have to commit to writing every day.  I often say, “Set a timer for ten minutes and keep your hands or fingers moving that entire time.  It doesn’t matter what you are writing about; just write.”

Often I get the response, “But I don’t know what to write about!”

And I say, “Write anyway.”

So, today I am taking my own advice.  I found the time in my afternoon to do some writing and I thought to myself, “I don’t know what to write about!” And then I heard my answer, “Write anyway.”

Since I’ve been finding threads in this blog for the last couple of posts, I might as well acknowledge that ‘writing about writing’ is one of my threads.  I don’t know if every blogger is so drawn to writing as I am.  I mean, they have to like writing a little bit if they take the time to blog, right?  But do they feel the tug to get to the keys?  Do they feel refreshed and energized after they have found the way to order their thoughts in words on a screen?  Do they turn to the laptop to make sense of their chaos?

Because I do.  In fact, if I haven’t written in a while, I get a little cranky…all the thoughts get jammed up in my head, almost begging for a way to get out.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Now, Kristin, I have met you and you certainly say a lot of words every time I am with you; doesn’t that do the same thing?”

Actually, no.  You’re right;  I do use a lot of words.  I like to fill up silent spaces when I am around other people.  In fact, I can’t seem to get myself to shut up.  But often those words aren’t deeply reflective or fully indicative of what is happening in my soul.  They may share insights I have gained through my prayer/Bible/writing, but they aren’t the way I typically get to the insights.

I have found that my best thinking and processing are done when I am quiet.  For instance, at this moment, I have been alone in my house for almost two hours.  I haven’t spoken a word to anyone other than dear old Chester, our golden retriever.  I ate some lunch, read the book of Hosea, wrote in my prayer journal, then turned to my blog.  I’m not entirely sure why, but this process of reading, praying, then writing, creates an openness through which my thoughts can order themselves and find a new expression.

Several years ago, before I entered this next chapter, I would go running every day after school.  I felt I needed that time to ‘download my day’.  While I ran, my stream of consciousness would sort out the moments and file them into folders for later use.  It was a useful transition from my day at school to my day at home.  However, I think all those years I was missing a step.  I rarely sat down in silence to open the folders, reflect on their contents, and find meaning from the moments.

I am taking the time now.

See what happens when you “write anyway”?

Psalm 34:8

Oh, Taste and see that the Lord is good!

Blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him!

 

 

 

Try Waiting in Silence

I don’t usually know what I am going to write about before I sit down.  Today’s no exception.  I find the time in my day and then sit down at my desk.  I read a devotion and then start moving my fingers over the keys.  Today, my devotional book, Beth Moore’s Whispers of Hope, which I am reading through for the second time, directed me to Psalm 62.  I read the Psalm and then turned to what Beth had written about it.  About half way through her page, she told me to go back to scripture and read aloud verses 1-2 and 5-8.  If you are so inclined, you could read them aloud right now:

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from Him comes my salvation.  He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from Him.  He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.  On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.

Since, as of yesterday, I am getting back to writing my blog, perhaps this verse is a fitting reminder of where I started eighteen months ago. I had just committed to taking six months to be still and wait.  I, a self-proclaimed butt-kicking, name-taking soldier, had agreed to put down my weapons for a season in order to recover from some battle wounds.

In fact, if you recall, my injuries had rendered me useless to the soldiering business.  I hadn’t surrendered willingly, but had been pulled from battle per executive order.  I would like to say I left kicking and screaming, but in reality, by the time that I was summoned from my position, I was too exhausted to utter much more than a whimper of acknowledgement.

I was plunked down in this little house by the river with a laptop, my Bible, and nothing but time. If you’ve been reading with me for the past eighteen months, you know that my journey to recovery has been slow and circuitous. I have made progress in fits and starts, proving, time and again, that I am no longer fit for battle.

Nor was I ever intended to be. I wasn’t called to fight or conquer or even defend.  I was called to wait in silence.  I was called to run to my refuge, seek my shelter, and find my salvation in the Rock.

Now, it might seem that seeking shelter means taking myself out of the war entirely.  Not true.  I can enjoy shelter in the midst of chaos, in the midst of trial, in the midst of downright warfare.  I won’t be oblivious to the turmoil that surrounds me, but I will be safe, secure, and held.

For a very long time, I thought it was my job to keep peace, to quiet cries, and to overcome the enemy.  And, boy did I try.  And fail.  In fact, I would say that my efforts to fight battles that were not mine actually caused more harm than good — to myself and others because the battles were not mine; the war is already won.

That’s why I have permission to wait in silence.   If I am busy soldiering on, I miss the action.  But if I watch and wait, I “see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13).  How do I know this? Because I’ve been seeing it.

I wonder if in your stillness you are seeing it to….

Back at it

When I started this blog about eighteen months ago, I had every intention of writing every single day.  I had read in Stephen King’s On Writing that he required himself to write 2000 words each morning before he allowed himself to do anything else.  That’s a lot of words. His theory was that the exercise of writing itself would produce better writing.  And, I mean, it has worked out pretty well for him, hasn’t it?  So, agreeing with his premise, I purposed to write every morning before I did anything else.

For the first six months, that writing was my anchor.  That, and exercise, and all the other healthful routines I built into my life for this Next Chapter.  The anchors were critical to my well-being.  I hadn’t yet made many friends here in Ann Arbor.  I wasn’t working.  We didn’t have a church family.  I needed those anchors to bring order and sanity to my days.

The bonus, of course, was that I had created a venue through which to process all my thoughts about the major move we had made and all the transitions it involved.  And, the unintended benefit was that I was also able to see, through my writing, all that had transpired during the soldiering years. This writing, this daily discipline, had become a pouring out of my soul in the presence of many witnesses — a confessional that provided deep healing.  So, I continued writing.

When I started tutoring last January, I was still able to maintain my daily writing, my exercise regimen, and my weekly Bible study.  It wasn’t until April, when I went back to work on a more regular schedule that something had to give.  And, as in the past, those healthful routines were the first things to go.  I let go of my regular exercise and instead tried to fit in a walk every now and then.  I stopped going to my weekly Bible study because it met during the day. My blogging became more sporadic while I learned to juggle work with family and sleep.

Even so, I was still able to find time for my personal Bible study and blogging at least a couple times of week.  This routine continued to anchor me and provide a venue for all the change that was happening inside of me — the learning, the healing, the growing.  And, in fact, I have been able to add back the other disciplines over time, too.

So I get to a day like today, where I look back and see that I have not blogged (or done personal Bible study) in seventeen days, and I say, “What’s up? For what have you abandoned this discipline? What have you decided was more important than this daily breath that centers you and allows you to process emotion? Have you been soldiering?”

Well, not exactly.  But kind of.  I mean, it is December — the month of parties, and semester finals, and travel, and gifting, and preparing.  So everyone has been busier than they were just a month ago.  And, yes, I have tutored more in the last four weeks than I have all year.  I have edited countless papers, met with more than a dozen different students, and graded close to one hundred essays.  I’ve gone to weekly physical therapy, and two doctor appointments.  I’ve exercised, socialized, cooked, crafted, and shopped til I dropped.

So, it’s time.  It’s time to get back to the discipline that orders my thoughts. It’s time to be still and breathe.  It’s time to get back to my writing.

 

[I] proclaim to you what [I] have seen and heard,…  [I] write this to make [my] joy complete.

I John 1: 3, 5 Rathje Revised Version