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.”

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;

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”

 

The Occasion

As a student, I hated group assignments.  I dreaded the moment when the teacher would put me with two or three other students and give us a task to accomplish.  I would groan, shoot the instructor a micro-glare, and reluctantly move over to join the others who were equally ‘enthusiastic’.  Why did I hate it so much? Was it because every group has a slacker and I hated the imbalance of effort? Or because I truly am an introvert?  Or was it the fact that I would have to approach a problem in a different way than I was familiar with?  Because if a teacher gave me a page of math problems, I could fly through them pretty quickly and end up with fairly accurate results.  If I had to answer comprehension questions on a chapter in US History, no problem.  Zip, zap, zoop. However, if a task involved more complexity and I had to sit in that complexity with a group of people who approached problems in different ways than my slam and jam method, that was uncomfortable for me.  I didn’t like it.

You might think that in my role as teacher I have avoided assigning group work because it made me so uncomfortable as a student.  Not true.  It’s been a bit of a psycho/social experiment for me to watch my students obediently trudge from their desks to the groups that I have put them in.  The ones who are like me grab the paper and just ‘get it done’, huffing and rolling their eyes the whole time.  They are missing the point — just like I was.

Often learning is not about the product, but about the process.

Teachers don’t put students into groups so that they can find the answers.  The answers have already been found.  Teachers put students into groups so that they can witness the processes of other people and so that their own processes might be refined.

In my current position, I am working with two students on a course of elementary science.  [If you know me well, just take a moment to digest that last sentence.] One student is a nine-year-old who is sitting beside me in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She has pretty dramatic difficulty with reading and paying attention. The other student is an eight-year-old with less dramatic learning challenges who is sitting in front of a laptop in London, England.  We meet every day from 10-11am EST, which is 3-4pm in London.  As you can imagine, this arrangement requires involved technology, elaborate communication, and creative scheduling.  Why go to all this trouble for two little girls? We go to all this trouble because — and I have witnessed this first hand — the girls learn better together than they do apart.  Not only that, they share their lives with each other — tales of pet cats, horseback riding, and celebrating learning accomplishments. They giggle together as they squish clay to discover the properties of a solid, pour water to measure the volume of a liquid, and watch a steaming kettle to see a gas. They are learning about science, yes, but they are also learning how to learn and that the process of learning does not always have to be drudgery.

As a student, I was always pretty good at learning.  Give me the problems; I’ll find the answers.  I could figure things out on my own, thankyouverymuch.

I’m writing about this like it’s ancient history, but as you might’ve already guessed, not much has changed.  I still think my systems are working pretty well. Give me a problem; I’ll try to find a solution. Slam, jam.  I don’t go out of my way to find the refining process, nevertheless, it finds me.

Recently, our pastor, Gabe Kasper, referring to the writing of Kirkegaard, said that in moments when we meet a challenge to our preferred way of thinking and living we can find opportunities that produce personal transformation. Kirkegaard called such moments ‘the occasion’.

I am not a fan of such ‘occasions’.  I do not like change, perhaps because in order to change I have to acknowledge that my system wasn’t the best one after all.  My slam and jam method of getting assignments done wasn’t (isn’t) really teaching me anything other than how to check off boxes.  It wasn’t (isn’t) allowing me the space to sit in the complexity of a problem. My box-checking was (is) productive, but not transformative.

I recently stumbled upon a book by Barbara Brown Taylor called Learning to Walk in the Dark.  I had requested the book from the library because another author I love, Jen Hatmaker, often refers to Taylor in her own writing and speaking.  I didn’t know what I was asking for when I requested the book, but I was a few pages into the introduction when I found myself face to face with ‘the occasion’.  I was staring down a challenge to my preferred way of thinking and living. I had grabbed the book in the middle of a sleepless night, so I faced a choice at 2am — step into this transformational space or put the book down and forget I ever saw it.

I stepped in.

Taylor’s premise is that we are conditioned from childhood to avoid dark spaces.  Our parents tell us to come into the house when the streetlights come on.  We have night lights beside our beds.  We know where the emergency flashlight is for when the power goes out.  When things go dark — literally and metaphorically — we rush to grab a light.  My approach to getting caught in the dark is similar to my approach to math problems–I quickly find a solution. I turn on a light. Taylor suggests a different approach.  What if, she says, we sit in the dark spaces for a while? What if we acknowledge the complexity of difficult situations instead of rushing to find solutions? After all, she says, “when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless I have not died…Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again” (5).

I have another student who reminds me of me.  He wants my help super-fast so that he can score well on the test and get a good grade on the paper.  I sometimes get frustrated with him.  I say, “I know you want a good grade on the test, but I am more concerned that you fully understand the concepts.”  He sometimes blurts back, “What? You don’t care if I do well on the test?”  I do. I do care about his test, but life has taught me that the test will be over in a blink; the lesson might matter for much longer. If we don’t master the concept, we are going to have to revisit it over and over until we finally have it.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time, you know that this concept of sitting — literal sitting or figurative sitting — is not easy for me.  I want a super-fast solution to every problem.  I don’t know why, because each time I find a solution to one problem, another one takes its place as though it had been waiting in the wings for its turn.  I continually find myself standing in the dark.

In fact, at this very moment, I (and maybe you) face several circumstances that are pretty dark.  I would really like to turn on some lights, clean up some messes, and make everything perfect.  However, I’ve been using that system for most of my adult life, and I’m beginning to see that it’s a flawed strategy. So, I’m going to get comfortable here and just observe the space.  I’m  hoping that “the things I learn” here will “save my life over and over again.”

But guys, I’m not approaching this lesson alone.  I’ve assigned myself to a group project.  I’ve asked a few of my dear friends to join me because I know that although it’s not my preferred way of learning — I’d rather hunker down and check off all the boxes myself — they have different approaches that I can learn from.  What’s more is that they are willing to sit in the dark complexity with me for a while — not trying to turn on lights and clean up messes, but just to sit and observe and learn from the dark.

Exodus 20:21

The people remained at a distance,

while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

 

 

 

Pacing

Last semester I was teaching three classes — three different classes. I loved it.  I interacted with students almost every day.  I was teaching writing, literature, and even a methods class — a class of future writing teachers.   I was steeped in theory and practice and I was loving every minute of it.

I had agreed to teach the methods class first.  I considered it a great honor to work with students who would one day be teaching others how to write.  I had high expectations of myself for what I wanted to expose these future educators to — instructional strategies, cultural considerations, and personal practices that I feel are important to instruction.  From the moment I agreed to teach the class I was fully committed to creating a high quality experience.

I had cleared the month of August to prepare for this class when I received a request to also teach one section each of composition and literature.  I opened the envelope and instinctively said, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Three preps?! That’s too much!”  But, instead of saying, “Thank you so much, but I think it would be best if I just taught one or the other,” I signed on the dotted line saying to myself, “It’ll be fine!  I’ve taught these two classes before; they shouldn’t require too much preparation.”   I was then informed that the English department had adopted a new textbook for the literature class which would necessitate a new syllabus and a new plan.  And, once I wrapped my head around the fact that I was going to be essentially creating two courses from scratch, I went totally rogue and decided to re-craft the composition class, too.

It just snowballed from there.  As I read composition theory to prepare for the methods class, I discovered strategies that I wanted to try with my own writing students.  As I tried new strategies with my writing students, I convinced myself to alter instruction in my literature class, too.  That’s kind of how I am as a teacher; left to my own devices, I keep tweaking and re-tweaking.  I don’t ever really find a groove to settle into.

So, as you might expect, the whole semester I was reading, thinking, planning, reworking, teaching, scoring, and conferencing.  I think it’s as close as I’ve come to being fully in the classroom again.  I loved the relationships I was building with students, I loved speaking into their writing, I loved leading classes, but guys, I gotta admit, it was too much.

I don’t think I even acknowledged it was too much until November, when I was asked if I would take a couple of classes for this semester and I reflexively answered, “Nah, I don’t really like that schedule.” I was only being asked to teach two classes three days a week, but I was sitting in the midst a mountain of work of my own making, and I instinctively grabbed the white flag and started waving with all my might.

Of course, three weeks later, when the semester ended, I second-guessed that decision  and heard myself asking the same old question,  “Well, then, what will I do?”

[Stop laughing at me!]

A weird series of events involving a car ride to Detroit, phone conversations with both of my daughters, and a few emails with a friend landed me back at Lindamood-Bell where I worked in the summer of 2015.  Lindamood-Bell is a private agency where students get one-on-one intensive instruction.  The incredibly rewarding work is based on brain research.  It’s quite remarkable — I have watched students improve their reading and/or comprehension by several grade levels in a matter of weeks!  On any given day, I might work with four to six different students, for an hour each,  performing tasks that are prescribed by a learning consultant based on the Lindamood-Bell model of instruction.

You read that correctly — I implement the plan; I do not actually write the plans.  Further, I do not do any grading or scoring.  I punch in at the beginning of my shift, work with one student each hour, then I punch out and go home.  Once home, I work on puzzles, I read books, and I find time to write.

All last semester, I found it very difficult to get to my blog.  I wrote with my students, as I always do, but that is a different kind of writing. When I write with my students, I model the process and produce whatever type of writing that I am asking them to produce — a narrative, a research paper, an argument.  That kind of writing builds my skill, of course, but it isn’t the kind of writing that I produce for my blog.

The kind of writing I produce for my blog is very personal and very restorative.  It’s the kind of writing that grows from deep reading, purposeful thinking, and sitting. (I discuss this in an early blog post you can read here.) I can’t produce this type of writing when I am overcommitted.  It’s just not possible.

When I started back at Lindamood-Bell in early January, I  committed to working no more than 20-30 hours a week.  Almost immediately, I found that I had space in my days, so I returned to my blog.  As I began to write again, I saw, almost immediately, how God continues to work in my life.

He gave me the option last semester to commit to one, two, or three classes. I chose three.  He let me see, again, what it is like to fully commit to the classroom for a season.  He allowed me to run on all cylinders as I tend to do so that I could see what I exchange for that kind of pace.  And then, he allowed me to have a moment of clarity last fall to say “no” to more adjunct teaching so that I could stumble back into the pace that He has been offering me since I moved into this next chapter. Finally, He nudged me toward the keys.

God works through my writing.  He speaks to me.  He says, when you slow yourself down long enough to put your words on a page, you finally hear what I’m trying to tell you. And what is He telling me today?  I think He’s saying, settle in.  Enjoy this pace. And, you know, I think I’m gonna listen.

Psalm 46: 10

Be still, and know that I am God.

 

 

 

The Sum of the Lesson

In education, when teachers have identified a learning objective, they design instruction in such a way that the student encounters the content in multiple settings using multiple modalities so that the student’s likelihood of achieving mastery is increased. For example, when a child is learning the alphabet, he might see the letters, say the letters, and sing the letters.  He might write the letters with his finger on his desk or in the air before practicing with a pencil on paper.  In life, I have found that the lessons I most need to learn are presented to me across various contexts through various means until I finally throw my hands up and declare, “Ok, Ok, I see what’s happening here!”  At that point, I typically sit down and write about these observations so that 1) I can fully process them,  and 2) I can create a public record of my learning in an attempt to hold myself accountable.

Today’s Lesson: Time, Tension, and Technology

Sometime last fall, I discovered that I often felt anxious around bedtime.  I would lie down and begin to have restless thoughts about stuff that hadn’t crossed my mind during the day or even during the past several months or years.  I’d begin to wonder if I had been a good enough mother — if I had made enough home-cooked meals, had enough candid conversations, or provided my kids with the lessons and assurances that breed confidence and independence.  Then I’d move on to wondering whether I’d been a good enough wife, friend, sister, daughter, teacher, etc.  I would fuss and stew over conversations and decisions that had taken place years ago, coming to no peace, of course, but rather escalating my anxiety further.  I wouldn’t say I ever had a full-fledged anxiety attack, but these anxious thoughts were keeping me awake at night.

About this same time, I started seeing studies and reports about the increase in anxiety among teens, children, and young adults and some researchers’ theories that such anxiety was tied to the amount of time that kids spend on social media now that practically everyone always has a Smartphone in his or her hand. I got to thinking — I have a Smartphone in my hand most of the time, too.  In fact, I often play Words With Friends, scroll through Facebook, read my Twitter feed, and check emails right up until bedtime.  What if I took a break from that habit to see what impact it has on my bedtime anxiety?

To answer that question,  I began to conduct some rather informal research of my own — a private and inconsistent case study.  It didn’t take long for me to come to the conclusion that I feel less anxious when I don’t use my phone right up until bedtime.  I know, I know, this is a mind-blowing discovery.

In the midst of my ‘study’, I kept finding myself encountering content reinforcing my conclusion.  I heard a podcast that, among other topics, talked about the need for boundaries in the use of technology.  I had a conversation with my therapist about technology addiction. A friend shared a YouTube video about the impact of devices on our sense of peace. I read articles.  I examined my life. I was convicted.

However, although I realized the benefit of using my phone less, I routinely fell back into old habits. And I’ve continued to have anxious thoughts.

One thread of anxiety I have been experiencing is related to growing older. At 51 I am hardly old, but I’ve begun to have thoughts (late at night when most unsettling thoughts plague me) that I’ve already lived more than half of my life, that my body will never again be as fit and agile as it once was, that other people must look at me, seeing my gray hair and aging body, and think thoughts about me that I probably thought about people older than me when I was much younger.  I’ve begun to think about what I want to do with “the rest of my career” and to discuss retirement options with my husband.  For some reason the thought that time is running out and the realization that life actually comes to an end sometimes pop up even when it is not my bedtime.

Ironically enough, one thing I do sometimes to ‘quiet’ the anxious thoughts is to get out my phone, play a game, check social media sites, and respond to emails.  It’s a Catch-22.

For Christmas, one of my children got me a book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman.  The other night before bed, I lay down and opened to the first tale. Reading stories has always been  a calming way for me to end the day.  Much of what I read at bedtime is what I call “candy bar fiction” —  stuff I can consume and forget about.  The goal of such reading is not to get deep; it’s to fall asleep.  To that end, I opened the book and began to read the two-page tale “Sum”.  The tale suggests that when we die we relive all of our life experiences but that they are re-arranged so that similar events are clumped together.  “You spend two months driving the street in front of your house,” it says, and “six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line.”  As I read, I started thinking, If this really happened, how much time would I spend scrolling through Facebook, playing Words With Friends, having a cup of tea with my husband, reading good books, appreciating the sunshine?  

It wasn’t a particularly good story to read for falling asleep, but it was an excellent concluding activity to nail home this learning objective, which is not that all technology is evil or that I (we) should shun all forms of social media but rather that if my (our) days and minutes are numbered, I want to consider my choices wisely.  I am still going to check social media and play Words With Friends, but I am also going to be intentional about turning off my phone at day’s end, I’m going to engage with the people in the room, I’m going to have a cup of tea with my husband, I’m going to read good books, and I’m going to appreciate the sunshine.

 

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12 NIV*

 

*I finished writing this blog and went to find the address for this very verse on Biblegateway.  To my surprise, it is the verse of the day.  Perhaps this lesson, too, will be ongoing.

 

 

 

Sorbet before Lunch

So much is jangling around inside my head this morning.  Over three weeks ago my husband and I left on a two-week vacation — we slipped away to an undisclosed location where no one recognizes us and we could begin to recognize one another again.  We spent hours together, just the two of us.  It was quiet; it was restful; it was lovely.  At the end of the two weeks, I jetted off, instead of coming straight home, to a week of AP English Literature Exam scoring with hundreds of strangers.  Inside of those three weeks, I read a couple of books and several articles, I listened to podcasts, I watched meaningless television, I had long, and short, conversations in person and over the phone, and I read thousands of words written by high school students.

Now I’m home.

I’m back at my desk in my little house by the river.  My dog is under my desk at my feet. I’m halfway through the first cup of tea, and I am trying to get the jangling to coalesce into some kind of meaning.

What do you learn from three weeks outside of your routine?  If you sort all the pieces into piles, what do you have?

First, I have the realization that the things that I planned — the ones that we just had to do– weren’t the ones that I valued the most. In fact, the sandwich that I just had to eat from that particular restaurant did taste delicious, but its gluten- and dairy-rich delicious-ness left me feeling miserable for the next twenty-four hours.  The things that I thought would make the experience ‘perfect’ weren’t really the highlights.  No, the unexpecteds, the ad libs, were the nuggets I will cherish — a last minute detour, a lunch time phone call, impromptu sorbet right before lunch.

This plan-happy girl needs to be reminded from time to time that her plans aren’t always the best and that she can’t plan for everything.  In fact, often the best parts of life are the ones I didn’t, or couldn’t anticipate.

In the weeks leading up to the AP Reading, I was feeling a bit apprehensive because I had been assigned a random hotel roommate.  Although, you might not expect it, I tend a little to introversion.  While my career has involved standing up in front of students, cracking jokes and calling out bad behavior, I truly love my end-of-day quiet alone time. What if my roommate loved to chat until all hours of the night? What if she was a slob? What if her personality got on my nerves.  It’s not like we would just have to get through a weekend.  We would be co-existing for eight days!!  I had a plan, though — if she was super creepy, I told myself, I would request a single room and just pay the difference. Phew!  Glad I solved that dilemma.

Since I arrived at the hotel before she did, I situated my stuff, got myself registered, went for a swim, showered, and then waited…..She arrived on a different schedule, so we didn’t actually meet until almost 8pm on the first day.  I quelled my anxiety by staying busy, of course, but my worries evaporated when she finally arrived. The Southern twang in her greeting —  a virtual “Hi honey, I ho-ome!” — put me at ease even though I was already in pajamas, reading in bed.

Not for one minute did I feel that awkward let-me-ask-questions-to-get-to-know-you feeling. From the start we chatted like old friends, laughing over ridiculousness and tearfully sharing our hearts.  We were ok being quiet together, too.  I didn’t feel like I was imposing when I felt poorly and had to cash-in early.  I didn’t feel like I had to explain myself or justify my actions.  I felt like I was living with a sister.  Probably my favorite moment of the week was the last night when our conversation went something like this:

“Hey, thanks for not being a creepy roommate.”

“Hey, thanks for not snoring.”

“And thanks for not being a slob or watching tv until 4 in the morning.”

“And thanks for not judging me for going to bed before 9.”

I couldn’t have hand-picked a better roommate.

So what’s the take-away here?  Do I suddenly turn from my planner-ly ways and go forth in a life of abandon? (She says as she glances over at the to-do list she made for today and the one she made for this week.) Every teacher-fiber of my being loves to plan.  In fact, two items on my to-do list involve planning — for the summer class that starts next week and for the new course I’m teaching in the fall.  Writing lists and anticipating alternatives is in my DNA. I won’t ever not be a planner, but is there a way for me to plan for spontaneity? for margin that allows for ad lib?  Of course! Many books have been written on the topic — I’ve read several!

Something about filling my days with plans reduces my anxiety.  If I fill in all the spaces, I leave no room for the big scary unknown, but, also, if I fill in all the spaces, I leave no room for surprise, for serendipity, for spontaneity.

Leaving space is taking a risk.

Do I dare? Do I dare let myself sit quietly in the chair on my patio, watching nothing, anticipating nothing, expecting nothing? Do I dare have a day that’s not planned wall-to-wall with activity? What could happen?

I might eat sorbet before lunch. I might take a last-minute detour.  I might make a new friend.

Psalm 130:5

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.

Putting it in Practice

I’m beginning to think that lessons are never really learned, or as we say in the field, mastered, but rather that our lessons are practiced.

I’m picturing a small child sitting at a piano slowly fingering the do, re, mi, fa, so of a C major scale.  Over and over she plays, usually faltering at one particularly tough spot where the thumb has to cross under two fingers in order to hit all eight notes in the octave. Sure, sure, after hours upon hours of practice, the scale becomes easier, the rhythm more consistent and measured, but let that pianist take a month away from the keys, and almost assuredly, the falter will return.

The learning is only safe within the practice.

I’ve been blogging at this space for almost three years and I continually come back to the same lessons — the ones that my fingers need to rehearse over and over and over.  Perhaps the one that needs the most practice, the one for which my Instructor has utilized multi-modal approaches, is this idea that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

One problem I encounter in learning this lesson is the fact that I had been practicing a different way for decades.  The old way was a rushing, plate-spinning frenzy of activity that involved checking items off lists, accomplishing tasks, and powering through no matter what was thrown at me.  I’ve often described this practice of mine as soldiering — task-driven, focused doing with minimal regard for relationship or self-care.  As a soldier I didn’t reflect or take time to decompress; I went on to the next mission as though my life depended on it. And, if you know me or have read my blog, you know that I was ultimately given a medical discharge — diagnosis? chronic battle-fatigue.

So, per orders, I’ve been undergoing job retraining for almost three solid years.  It’s been cyclical.  I rest and recover, then, feeling restless, I get busy.  I try for moderation, but since my historical practice has been frenetic, I usually devolve to that pre-set.  I end up sick, of course, so I back off and review the lesson — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

The layers of instruction involved in my practice of this lesson are many.   I am sure I am not even aware of all of them.  First, and most obvious, is the actual physical slowing of my body. I feel as though my major joints of propulsion — my hips, shoulders, feet — have somehow been coated in a rigid rubber-like compound that limits movement. The compound has, it seems, been grafted into my bones in such a fashion that if I do find a way to make the rubber pliable enough to allow movement that is too fast, too insistent, or too prolonged, the grafting sights become irritated and inflamed like a newly healing surgical site.  The pain then slows me and reminds me that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

The second layer of instruction is delivered through my practice of yoga.  So much about yoga reinforces the lesson I am trying to learn. For seventy-five minutes I stay within the confines of a very small space — 24″ x 68″ — thinking about my breathing, being very intentional about every move I make.  Rushing is not allowed.  Multi-tasking is impossible.  It takes all of my attention to hold warrior two with my right knee at a forty-five degree angle, my right heel in line with the arch of my left foot, my arms extended as though drawing an arrow across a bow, my gaze looking across the middle finger of my extended hand.  Once there, I breathe; I rest; I am still.  This practice, which was absolutely foreign to me in my former life, makes me feel stronger than any butt-kicking and name-taking ever could. Yet, in this strength, I am not calling the shots; I am trusting the voice of the instructor and moving only where she tells me to move. She assures me that I can do this — I can live this way even when I step off the mat.

A third —  and certainly it cannot be the last — layer is my reading list. The reading in my pile comes from a variety of sources: from a member of the breakfast club Bible study I attend, from my child as a Mother’s Day gift, from a summer reading list for some of my students, and from my YouVersion daily Bible reading plan. Despite the varied sources, the message is resoundingly the same — I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

Last week I saw my new rheumatologist who is offering a trial of the medication Cosentyx.  As I wait for the prior authorization to come through, I find myself wondering if this drug will break up the rubberized coating, free my joints, increase my energy, and allow me to do a little more.

Seriously.  I am actually hoping for that. Sigh.

So, I was sitting with the breakfast club the other day, sharing this news about the potential drug trial, when one of my friends asked, “Kristin, how would you like us to pray?” Surprising frustration rose in me; I think because I realized that what I was hoping for is in direct opposition to what I have been trying to learn. I snarled, “I don’t even know, because if this drug works, I know that I will go right back to doing too much.  I’m practically doing too much already, and I’m in the middle of a flare!” My poor friend, she hasn’t known me too long and probably isn’t accustomed to my surliness.  She said, “Do you guys need the money that badly?”  I reflexively burst out, “Not at all!  I mean, sure, we could use more money, but that is not how we live our lives.  We don’t make decisions based solely on money.” I was stunned at my clarity and embarrassed by my tone.

I am the most reluctant of learners — the little girl who needs to be nudged back to the piano bench, a finger poking her between the shoulder blades. Why do I have to practice, I whine. I understand all the notes in the scale;  I know where my fingers belong! However, if I ever want to get past these darn scales and on to playing some real music — enjoying the freedom and bliss of playing outside of the practice — then I have got to stick to the practice.  I have got to keep rehearsing the truth that I can breathe — I can slow down — I can rest — I can be still.

Why? Because I can trust the voice of my Instructor.  I can stay in a limited space, listen to His voice, and believe what He believes about me — that I can do this; I can live this much richer connected way.  I want to learn this lesson so well, that even if this medication works, even if I am free of pain, and even if I regain my energy, I won’t go back to my soldiering life, but I will live in the freedom that I have been given to breathe, to slow down, to rest, and to be still.

Psalm 46:10

 Be still, and know that I am God…

Jerusalem Juxtaposition

This entire trip has been illustration after illustration of juxtaposition.  For instance, today, day eight, ended with a visit to the Israel Museum and its Dead Sea Scroll exhibit.  We entered through a narrow cave-like passageway, as though walking into the caves in which the scrolls were found – the very ones that we visited under a week ago.  The passageway took us to a large exhibit which displays tools that the Essenes would have used both in their daily life and in the production of the scrolls. It has case after case of artifacts including replicas of the scrolls themselves and the very jars in which the scrolls were found. Our group spent about thirty minutes in this exhibit examining the artifacts and the pages and pages of copied text.  We exited the room that housed the ancient and entered a very small exhibit that housed the modern – the NanoBible.  This silicon chip, really not much larger than a grain of sand or two, has printed (yes, actually etched on it) the entire Bible – Old and New Testaments.  Two Scriptures. Ancient and Modern. Massive and miniscule. Juxtaposition.

On our drive to the museum, we passed a monastery near Jerusalem that houses a sect of monks who don’t speak.  They take a vow of silence.  Not too surprising, right?  But how about the fact that the monastery houses a concert hall where many famous performances are given every year – including Handel’s Messiah?  The silent is home to the celebrant. Juxtaposition.

Earlier today, we visited a 750 square acre city built within caves that had been carved out of enormous hills of chalk.  For 1400 years, Sidonians lived and worked in these caves, mining the chalk and worshiping idols.  The caves were several stories tall in some sections, and our guide, having witnessed our group singing inside many churches and synagogues over the last few days, asked us to sing inside one of the larger caves.  Indeed, the acoustics were phenomenal and the sound reverberated beautifully.  However, it felt a little strange bringing our sacred music into a place formerly used for idolatry.  The contrast, the mismatch, is tangible.

We’ve gone from mountaintops to valley floors.  We’ve, within the space of hours gone from wearing multiple layers with hats and gloves, to shedding it all, donning swimsuits, and getting sunburned.

Last night, the Sabbath, we wanted to witness the observant, or religious, Jews at sundown at the Western Wall.  Our trip leader had done so on a previous trip and said it was not to be missed.  So, we walked from our hotel through streets crowded with Jews, Muslims, and a mixture of tourists. Vendors lined the streets offering everything from baby clothes to pomegranates to olive wood nativity sets to beautiful scarves.  The colors are indescribably vibrant.  And right beside us, in the narrow space between us and the vendors, traveled single-minded Jews clad in black and white from their hats to their shoes.  They traveled with purpose to the Western Wall.  There, hundreds of them crowded into the courtyard right in front of the wall where they prayed, sang, and danced to celebrate the Sabbath.

Today, we were leaving the old city one more time.  We are quite obviously American tourists.  We travel in our group of thirty-three, led by our guide who carries the flag of Texas high in the air for us to follow.  We snake through the narrow streets with purpose; we know we are on a schedule.  We glance side to side at the gaudy and the beautiful, the ornate and the plain.  We move between Jews, Muslims, and Christians of all denominations and all nationalities.  We approached the Jaffa Gate a few minutes before our bus arrived to gather us.  There, just outside the wall, was a Hassidic Jew, in traditional garb, playing an electric violin, his case open beside him to gather tips.  If that isn’t a picture of juxtaposition, I don’t know what one is.

It is not lost on me that Jesus himself is the ultimate juxtaposition.  He is at once Lion and Lamb, King and Servant, Mighty and Humble. He is God and Man. I’ve seen his place of birth and his place of death. He reigns with God in heaven while

residing within us. It’s unfathomable, isn’t it? Yet, I didn’t come here to see so that I could believe.  Instead, because I believe, I came so that I could see.

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard,

which we have seen with our eyes,

which we looked upon and have touched with our hands…”

I John 1:1

Traveling Companions

Every day in Israel has been full of surprises — the beautiful and excellent food, the wide variety of geographical features, the incredible detail of the archeological finds, and today, the leathery knees and elbows of camels.  However, the best surprise I have had is the quality of the group that I am traveling with.

I’ve already mentioned Hela, our guide, a Messianic Jew from New York City; she is rich in knowledge of Israel after extensive training and twenty-two years on the job.  She keeps spewing out facts, answering questions, and throwing in an occasional pun. Oy. Then there’s Dan, a friend and colleague from Ann Arbor; this is his fourth trip to Israel. He started planning this trip about eighteen months ago, brought John into the plan over a year ago, and added me last Spring when the number of students necessitated a third chaperone.

Of course I am thrilled to have my husband and best friend, John, on this trip of a lifetime.  He is very conscientious, not only of me, but of everyone on the trip.  He is so aware of what everyone’s needs are and anticipates how he can best be of service on the trip.  He’s our Johnny on the Spot.  Beyond that, he is fun to be with.  He is always ready to try something new, like float on the frigid deep sea water before breakfast this morning, climb onto the back of a camel with me and ride it across the sand of the Negev, or eat candied mushrooms — I promise you, they were amazing!

But most amazing of all? The students we are traveling with.  I gotta admit that in the days leading up to the trip, I might have had some reservations about traveling to the other side of the world with thirty college students.  I had met almost half of them in Ann Arbor, but the rest were absolute strangers to me.  Not only would I have to co-exist with these people, who, by the way, are aged 19 to 56, but I would be responsible for leading ten of them in small group meetings every evening, keeping track of them throughout the day, and being available for any crises that might arise.  What if we had one (or more!) high maintenance travelers? What if roommate conflicts arose? What if students got lost?  What if they refused to follow the rules?  Well, I thought, we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.

All of my worries were unfounded.  Seriously, all of them. From the moment we gathered on the morning of January 6, these students have been easy going, friendly, receptive to one another, willing to lend a hand, and genuinely interested in all the information they are being exposed to.  Granted, they are getting a grade for this adventure, but they could still be apathetic.  Many students are, but these kids are engaged. Let me show you what I mean.

Almost every day, they have had to be up, packed, finished with breakfast, and on the bus by or before 8am. They ALWAYS are.  We have not had to wait once for anyone. Several times a day, we stop at a site, Hela says, “bring your Bible and your camera,” and all thirty jump off the bus, follow Hela, and start taking pictures and notes the minute she starts talking.  When she says, “go,” they disperse and milk the site for as much information as they can squeeze out of it.  If Hela says we are staying together, they stay together.  If she says, we are going to eat falafel, they eat falafel.  If she says, “You should order the St. Peter’s fish,” they order the St. Peter’s fish.  I am telling you, they don’t whine, they don’t complain, they don’t wrinkle their noses, they are all in. Always.

And in the evenings, after we have all had dinner and Hela has retired to her room for the evening, the rest of us convene to worship and debrief.  Again, no one has ever been late. Two of our students take turns playing the guitar and leading worship.  Others have volunteered to pray or read Scripture.  After some announcements and singing, we break into groups of ten — the same groups every night — where we share about the experiences of the day, ask questions, and encourage one another.  This all happens at 8pm, twelve hours after they boarded the bus!  And they are still engaged and invested, sharing their hearts and listening to one another.

I know, I know, I sound like I am gushing.  And, yes, I know, I always am bragging about my students; it’s like I think I have better students than anyone else in the world. And, you know, I think I do!!

This morning, when John and I walked down to the beach to float in the Dead Sea, we passed two young men who were working out together, one coaching the other.  We found another girl, sitting alone, practicing the Hebrew alphabet.  In the water, we met up with three students who hadn’t met before this trip, who were floating, laughing, and taking pictures of one another.  While we were in the water, others joined, then Dan walked down to the beach to take our picture for the video he is publishing online most evenings.  Because the water was very cold, John and I left the beach and walked inside the hotel where there is a pool full of filtered, heated Dead Sea water.  In the pool, we joined Dan, some other students, and the last member of our tour, our driver, Elan.

Let me talk about Elan for a minute.  He is a Jewish native of Israel in his fifties. His first language is, of course, Hebrew, but he speaks English rather well, too.  The guy can drive that bus, a fifty-five passenger Mercedes,  in places I wouldn’t drive my car. Today he wound us through hairpin curves from 700+ feet below sea level to 2500 feet above sea level and back again.  He fits that bus through gates, into parking spots, and past busses and truck with inches to spare — I promise I am not exaggerating.  He joins us at dinner and in the pool, cracks jokes, and is quick with a witty response.  Two times he has missed a turn and said, dead pan, “I went a different way to show you the cows.”

If I had to interview and hand-select traveling companions, I couldn’t have compiled a group this magnificent.   They are becoming members of my extended family — people who will matter to me for the rest of my life.  I wasn’t anticipating that; it is a bonus blessing. I am so thankful for these traveling companions.

“walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

with all humility, bearing with one another in love,

eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Ephesians 4:1-3