Tell Me Your Story

I am a hypocrite.  Although I have stood on my soapbox pointing out injustices and crying out for equity, I am a prejudiced person.  I’m racist. I’m classist. I’m sexist.  And that’s only the beginning of it.  I’ll judge a person based on one Facebook status.  I’ll incriminate a whole group of people for their stance on whether they think athletes should stand for the National Anthem or not. I’ll sort you into a group so fast, it’ll make your head spin.

It’s embarrassing, actually.  I’ve lived my professional life encouraging students to write narratives – to tell their stories of defining life moments — their parents’ divorce, the death of a sibling, a betrayal of friendship, a proclamation of love. These stories cross all lines of race, class, gender, political affiliation, music preference, and lifestyle choice.  Our stories reveal our humanity; they bind us to one another.

In my classroom I have made space for students to laugh with one another, cry with one another, challenge one another, and embrace one another.  I, too, have laughed, cried, challenged, and embraced.  I have revealed my humanity to an audience of twenty or so students at a time.  I have met and loved kids who are rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Arabic, Christian, atheist, Jewish, Hindu, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, extroverted, introverted, funny, serious,…

It’s not hard to love someone – anyone – once you have heard his or her story.  But you’ve got to take the risk of getting close enough to hear their story.  That’s the challenge for me, because I’m prejudiced.  Before I even hear your voice I have made all kinds of assumptions about you.  I have looked at your hair, your clothing, your skin color, and your car. I have seen who you hang out with, what you share on Facebook, and what you retweet on Twitter. I know who you are, I think to myself.  You are ‘that kind’ of person.  I sort you into a clump and make assumptions about you before I have even asked you one question.

Last week I returned to a job that I left about two and a half years ago.  Since I left, my former supervisor, who I loved, had to leave her position for health reasons.  I had had a couple interactions with the woman who took her place, but before I had even worked with her one day, I had decided that since she wasn’t my previous supervisor she would be not as amazing, not as on top of things. I pre-judged her.  The other day, for the last hour of a two-day-long training, the new supervisor partnered with me for some role-playing activities, and I got my first up-close glance at her personality and heard the first few lines of her story.  My prejudices were confirmed but they were also dashed – She isn’t, actually, exactly like my previous supervisor; rather, she has her own unique personality and gifts. (Shocking, I know.)  I wasn’t anticipating laughing out loud with my new supervisor as she pretended to be a rather precocious nine-year old to my role of reading instructor, but there we were – giggling like close friends lost in make-believe.

Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness, “People are hard to hate close up.  Move in.” From a distance, even the length of my arm, I can keep you handily sorted into a category – liberal, conservative, educated, ignorant, friend, or foe.  However, if I take the chance to ask you, “what’s your story,” everything can change.  My beliefs can be challenged, my assumptions destroyed, my heart opened.

Years ago I picked up my first Jodi Picoult book; I believe it was My Sister’s Keeper. It’s the story of a girl who was conceived by her parents in the hope that she would be a donor match for her critically ill older sibling.  Gasp!  One glance at that premise and I formed an opinion.  How could they?  What kind of parents….? However, Picoult, I soon learned, is a master at using narrative to bring her readers in close to see issues in their complexity – issues that most of us find ourselves firmly positioned on – euthanasia, gun violence, infidelity, and the like.  She weaves her narratives, often from multiple points of view, to expose these issues as more than dichotomies.  She can move me from my Gasp! How could they? to a Wow! I can’t even imagine what kind of love that is! in 400 pages or less!

Real-life stories are no different from fictional narratives – they are full of complexity and factors that don’t appear on the surface. If I judge someone based on her skin color, clothing, language choices, or friends, I am missing out!  I am missing her story – all the characters and plot twists that have led her to today.  Not only that, I am diminishing her humanity – I am relegating her to a category rather than appreciating her individuality. Most importantly, I am denying the connectedness that she and I share as members of humanity – children of the Creator.

On Sunday (Jan 7, 2018), our pastor, Gabe Kasper, spoke about the necessity for genuine relationships in the church (read or listen to the full-text here).  He said that genuine relationships are characterized by vulnerability, empathy, love, and the willing of good for the other person.  Often we don’t enter into such relationships because 1) we are afraid of getting close to people, and 2) we don’t want to take the time.  However, if we are willing to take the risk to move in just a little closer, to ask others to tell us a little piece of their story, everything — EVERYTHING – can change.  Story has the power to transform us – our understandings, our experience of life, and our relationships. Imagine the impact of a couple hundred people who have chosen to be vulnerable, empathetic, loving, and supportive of one another. Intentionally and consistently. What ripple effect might that have?

Are we willing to, knowing better, do better.  Are we willing to call out our prejudices and stereotypes?  Are we willing to set those aside, move in a little closer, and take the time to hear the stories of people who may not be just like us?

Consider this: Because I am a 51 year old white woman who has been a teacher and a pastor’s wife, you may draw some assumptions about me.  You might be pre-disposed to believe certain things  – that I’m Christian, heterosexual, pro-life, Republican, and financially secure. You might believe that my family is immune from tragedies such as chronic illness, sexual assault, alcoholism, eating disorders, family conflict, depression, or anxiety.  Some of your assumptions may be right; some would certainly be wrong.  How will you know which is which? You will have to lean in and listen to my story.

Some of the things you learn about me might be confusing.  They might challenge you.  You might not agree with me.  You might choose to walk beside me anyway, and in that walking, I might learn some things about you that are confusing and that challenge me.  I picture us taking lots of long walks together, learning about one another and growing together.

I am picturing that if we are willing to take the chance to move in close and learn the stories of those who we might have previously sorted into categories, our assumptions will be destroyed, and we will never be the same again.

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

 

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.

 

 

 

Fallow [fal-oh] adj.

I remember as a little girl trying to wrap my mind around the concept of letting a field go fallow — the practice of letting a field rest for a season or more so that its fertility — its ability to be productive — could be restored.

The idea that we would let a field — a piece of dirt — “rest” seemed weird to me.  I mean, why wouldn’t a farmer want to keep planting that field every opportunity he had so that he could reap the highest yield?

It’s a concept I have a hard time applying to farming and to my own life.  I struggle to give myself a break from productivity — just imagine what I could be accomplishing in the time that I might be resting!

For the past three months or so I’ve allowed this blog to sit fallow.  I taught three classes this past semester — three different classes which means three different preparations. It took a lot of my mental energy and my time to process and package all the content that my students consumed (or didn’t consume as the case may be). I thought about my blog from time to time, but I reasoned, this just isn’t the time.  You’ll get back to it.  I wouldn’t say it was an intentional choice to let my blog go fallow, but I am reaping the benefits just the same. Over the past week or so while I was finalizing grades, finishing my Christmas shopping, and tying up other loose ends, I kept thinking, pretty soon, pretty soon you are going to be able to blog! 

In my excitement to begin my personal writing again, I’ve been considering some unusual ideas for what to write about and how to write about it. Maybe I could change the blog’s layout.  Maybe I’d like to play around with a series — a participatory series in which I use another platform to allow readers to dabble with my topics and try their own hands at blogging. Where were these ideas coming from? Why hadn’t I considered them before? Perhaps taking a break from production had allowed my mind a chance to restore.

The practice of letting fields go fallow is not too different from giving ourselves a rest through the practice of sabbath.  Sabbath, by design, is a scheduled break from our labor.  A pause in productivity.  An opportunity for our lives to have a chance at restoration.

[I’m not very good at observing a sabbath.]

Historically, sabbath has been observed one day a week — maybe Saturday, maybe Sunday.  Perhaps it originates from creation wherein God rested on the sabbath day.  It is echoed in the story of the Israelites who gathered manna six days a week, but not on the seventh.  The Ten Commandments also mention the sabbath with the admonition to “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.”  It’s a model and a mandate intended for our benefit.  It’s a reminder, “Guys, take a break. Remember that it’s God who created you, who provides for your needs, and who will sustain you. Sit down.  Take a break.  Let your body have a chance for restoration.”

And here I am folding a load of laundry, running to get my groceries, wrapping my Christmas presents, and even disinfecting the bathroom floor.  Why wouldn’t I want to keep busy so that I can reap the highest yield?

I’m missing the point.

Again.

On Sunday afternoon, after a morning of (gosh, I hate to admit this) grocery shopping and worship, I came home and entered my students’ final grades into the online portal.  Then, I crocheted while I got caught up on old episodes of Call the Midwife.  That’s my idea of a sabbath, guys.  I’m often willing to give myself a pause, but a whole day?  Come on.

And two weeks ago, when my husband and I were discussing the fact that I did not have a teaching contract for this semester, we agreed that perhaps I should keep my semester open so that I can catch my breath and allow some space for restoration.  I posted my grades on Sunday, and today — Tuesday — I went on an interview.  Sigh.

I am telling you: I push back against this concept of letting myself “go fallow” — of letting myself practice the sabbath.  Why? Perhaps I’m afraid.  Perhaps I don’t fully trust that God created me, sustains me, and will provide for every eventuality.  Perhaps I think of myself more highly than I ought — that I’m the only one who can meet that student’s need or answer that email or edit that paper.  Or perhaps I don’t want to be confronted with the thoughts and feelings that might surface if I take some time to be still.

Perhaps all of those possibilities are true.

Over the years, I have found one way to embrace the stillness — writing.  So, after this season of letting my blog go fallow, I am re-engaging.  I am going to turn over some soil, plant some seeds, and see what grows.  I might explore some of my fears and some of my feelings.  I might also invite you to have some fun.

Join me?

 

Leviticus 25:3-4

For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.

 

For Us

A friend of mine is writing a book, and he asked me if I would read a couple of chapters. Actually, two weeks ago, ‘friend’ might have been assuming too much on my part.  I knew this guy from church and from around the university, but other than a few standing-around-after-church conversations, we hadn’t spoken much.  However, in one of those conversations, he mentioned a book that he is writing.  He said he’d been giving chunks to people to read, and I casually said that I’d be willing to take a look.

 

Not long after that I found a stack of papers on my desk with a note on top that said, “Please call me before you take a look at this.”  Last Monday, the day before the first day of fall classes, I called.  We chatted about his goals in writing  and his purpose for my reading. The whole conversation lasted maybe fifteen minutes before I said, “You know, God’s timing is very interesting.  I think this is a book I need to look at as I face yet another transition in my life.” He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If you are getting ready to step into something big, you’ve got to settle in your mind that God is for you.  Obstacles are going to pop up and you need to see them as God preparing you, strengthening you, using those very obstacles in your favor. You have got to believe that Romans 8:28 is true; God will work all things together for good.”

Well, I hadn’t anticipated the conversation going there.  I heard those words as though they had been the main intention of the call, even though they were an impromptu 90-second add-on.

The rest of that day was a blur of activity —  helping my daughter prepare to go back to college and preparing myself for the first day of class.  The next morning I woke up early, checked and double-checked my schedule, my bag, my clothes, my hair.  I ate my standard bowl of oatmeal and prepared my cup of green tea, my cup of black tea, and a tumbler of water.  My daughter snapped my ‘first day of school’ pic which I quickly uploaded to Facebook and Instagram, and then, realizing that I had better get going if I wanted to rearrange the classroom into a circle before the students arrived, I tucked my Macbook, my notebooks, and my water tumbler into my school bag and grabbed both cups of tea because I hadn’t had time to drink either yet.

Yeah, that was a juncture.  You can see it coming, can’t you?

I mean, why? Why do I have to take all those drinks to a 75-minute class.  I end up drinking my tea at room temp most days anyway.  Why not take one cup of tea in one hand and one tumbler of water in the other hand? Two drinks is plenty.

Nope.  I had to have all three.

I  walked to class, set my bag down, placed all three cups on the teacher’s stand, and rearranged the classroom.  As the students filed in, I grabbed my Macbook and noticed that a few drops of water were on its cover.  I wiped them off casually as I opened it up. As it came to life, I also noticed that a few drops were on the keyboard and on the screen.  A little frantically, I wiped those away as I looked around the classroom and noted the students filling the seats.  I clicked a couple keys to pull up attendance and noticed that my MacBook was not responding. I panicked a little, then set it aside; I had student relationships to establish and a lesson plan to complete.  The laptop would wait, but guys, I knew it was dead.

As I moved through my day — that first class, chapel, online chatting with Apple, a trip to a local computer store — I kept hearing my friend’s words in my head.  You have got to settle in your mind that God is for you. Did I believe that?  Did I believe that God could be for me even when I made a very careless mistake? Could He be working even my mistakes together for my good?

Well, apparently I was intended to get this lesson settled because also during the same week, I lost a notebook that I was using as a model with my composition students, the lenses on my glasses became ‘crazed’, we lost both of the keys to our house, and let’s not forget that I am still dealing with compromised health and the stress of observing two adult children move out of our place and go back to school.

Of course you know that if I am willing to write about all of this, a few of the issues have been resolved — I have filed an insurance claim and my MacBook has been sent off for repairs, the university has given me a loaner to bridge the gap, the optical shop has ordered replacement lenses because mine were still under warranty, a student found my notebook in an adjacent classroom, and the keys? Well, the keys are still missing.  We’re working on that.

But more importantly, I finished reading the chapters my friend had given me to read, and we agreed to meet to discuss them.  I gave him my feedback on content and, less importantly, mechanical issues, and then I told him the story I just told you.  I said that even when I was yelling, crying, and fighting my way through all these setbacks, I wasn’t without hope, because I kept hearing him say, You have got to settle in your mind that God is for you. I kept reciting Romans 8:28.

He smiled and nodded as I told him everything that had happened, and he said something like this, “God is strengthening you because He is getting ready to use you. As you managed all these difficulties, He was building your stamina, getting you ready for what is coming next.”

He doesn’t know me.  He doesn’t know that for years I have told students that “God is always preparing us for what is coming next.”  He doesn’t know that I have been kind of beaten down lately — grieving a bit, wallowing a bit.  He doesn’t know that I needed a dramatic reminder that God is still God and that even in the midst of my failures He is for me.

But God knew.

It still blows my mind. Every time.

I’ve got a new friend, guys, and a fresh perspective.

God is for us.

Romans 8:26-28, The Message

26-28 Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

Driving Lessons

Early in my driving career, I didn’t pay much attention to the rear-view mirror.

It’s not because my driver’s education teacher, Mr. Horn, (Yes, seriously.) didn’t teach me to use it, or remind me to use it.  It’s not my stepfather’s fault either (bless his heart for taking me out driving in his meticulously-kept Caprice Classic).  Both Mr. Horn and my stepfather emphasized the need to adjust the mirrors so that I could glance at them from time to time to make sure I wouldn’t run into anything.

It’s not their fault.  They taught me the value and necessity of using the rear-view mirrors, but I was all about the forward motion.  I wanted to get on the road and make progress toward my goal  — friends’ homes, work, school, dates, etc.  I had places to be that were in front of me; I didn’t have a lot of time to look back.

The problem is that those mirrors are there for a reason.  Just ask my friend’s dad — he no longer has a tree next to his driveway.  I wasn’t paying attention to what was behind me; I was looking at my friend,  saying goodbye as I got on the road to the next destination.  I also hit my share of mailboxes. And once, forgetting that we had purchased a second car, I backed the first car out of the garage right into the new-to-us vehicle that was parked behind it. (Insert eye-roll here.)

Through trial and mostly error, I have learned the value of the rear-view mirror.

Lately I have been looking into it quite a bit.  In fact, I have been looking back so much that it has been hard to keep my focus on what’s ahead of me.

Here’s the thing — when you put the car in park, and you are no longer moving forward, you take a few minutes to pick up the crap that fell on the floor, you check the visor mirror to see if you have anything in your teeth, and then, if you sit there long enough, you start thinking about all the places you’ve been.  And I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot more time thinking about missed turns and fender benders than I do about grand voyages and thrill rides.  You know what I’m saying?

Now, so that I don’t forget the value of sitting with it, I must point out here that it is good to look back at the traffic violations, detours, and collisions.  After all, beside the inherent value in grieving losses, we can also learn our best lessons from the mistakes that have cost us dearly.  However, we must not stay stuck back there on the side of the road weeping over the loss of property or, God forbid, life.  We must grieve, yes, but we must also be brave enough to get back in the driver’s seat, buckle up, set a direction, and put a foot on the gas.

Have you had enough of my extended metaphor? How about just one more thought.

The best drivers, I’ve heard, find a way to balance their determination to get to the next stop with a sustained consciousness of their surroundings and a sober realization of what is behind.

I look forward to being a better driver.

 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory..

2 Corinthians 3:18

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

Controlling and Carrying

Since we are on the topic….let’s talk a little bit more about control.  I mean, if I’m gonna scratch the surface, I might as well pry off the scab and take a look at the festering sore underneath, right?

I began trying to control my life at a very early age. At the risk of making this a confessional, let me just say that I routinely lied, falsely (and sometimes accurately) implicated my brothers, and physically overpowered my friends to get what I wanted. And that was all by the time I was in elementary school!  As I grew older and learned what was socially acceptable, I found other methods such as emotional outbursts, dramatic power plays, and sly slips of the hand to orchestrate my life.  My college years brought more maturity.  I learned that I could not control my environment, my peers, or my family, so I controlled myself down to a mere shadow of a human through anorexia.

You would think that therapy and recovery would’ve exposed the truth that I am not in charge of my own life either, but I am either a slow learner or a control savant. I have devised many ways to create an illusion of control.  In fact, once I had children of my own, I was sure to create a rigid daily schedule to ensure that their lives were under control. I was going to make sure that they were safe and secure. No harm would come to them under my watch. We prayed together.  We memorized scripture verses. I only let them watch PBS.  We ate dinner together every evening. They went to church every Sunday and often several times during the week. I was going to do this parenting thing right. My kids would be perfect, you know?

I couldn’t control everything, though, as I’m sure you can imagine. They didn’t stay safe and secure.  Harm did come to them.  Heart-breaking harm.

Many sleepless nights I have cried over my failed attempts at controlling my life, many more I have cried over my realization that I could not prevent my children from being hurt. And where has it led me?  Literally to my knees.

For many years now, when I have found myself facing the stark realization of my own powerlessness in the lives of my children, I call to mind an image that gives me great peace.  I picture a cupped hand with my child nestled safely inside.  I imagine that cupped hand held close to an all-powerful chest much like I might hold a newborn chick or kitten.  The hand is strong and able to lift my child out of harm’s way, and sometimes, when harm determinedly finds its way inside of that hand, two compassionate eyes are bearing witness — they are seeing and knowing and caring in ways that I am unable to see, to know, to care.  This image of the One who does have control gives me peace in those moments when I am able to acknowledge that I have none.

But there are many moments when I am not able to acknowledge that.  Most of the moments, actually.  Most of my moments I am filling with doing — I know, I know, if you have followed this blog from the beginning, you may be face-palming about right now. Doing, as I implied yesterday, gives me an illusion of control.  It calms my anxiety.  It makes me feel like everything is going to be ok if I just get my house clean, if I just meet one more student, if I complete one more task.

But that is a lie. Everything is not going to be ok.

Last night, when I finally admitted that I had done enough for the day and I finally lay down in my bed, I picked up Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way. As usual, God spoke directly to me through it; I think reading is the only time I slow down long enough to truly listen.  This is what I heard:

Suffering asks us to bear under that which is ultimately not under our control, which proves to us we have no control.  And maybe that’s too much for us in our autonomous, do-it-yourself culture to bear.  Maybe more than we can’t stand physical suffering, we can’t stand not feeling in control (171). 

It’s silly when she puts it like that, isn’t it? And if I admit that trying to be in control is silly, then I have to admit that much of my life has been one big silly futile exercise. That’s embarrassing. And humiliating. And heartbreaking.

But it’s true.

However, it is also true that regardless of my foolish attempts, I, too, have been sitting in that all-powerful hand.  I have been kept out of harm’s way many, many times.  And, when harm has found me, One has born witness with compassion, forgiveness, and love. I am His child, after all.  He has ordered my world.  He has hemmed me in on all sides. And He will continue to carry me.

Psalm 139:5

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

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…