20/20 in 2020

Click the arrow if you’d prefer to listen as I read. Ignore if you’d prefer to read it yourself.

My husband and I have a long-running joke between us that he could paint the house purple and it would take me a few months to notice.

I don’t see everything.

Once, one of our children got multiple piercings on body parts that were not covered by clothing, and I didn’t realize it for a couple of weeks.

I miss details.

It’s not that my vision is poor. I mean it is (-7.75 for those who know what that means), but my glasses correct me to 20/20.

My vision is fine; I just don’t see stuff.

For example, we can drive down the same street every Saturday for five years in a row and one day I will ask my husband, “Is that a new gas station?” He’ll say, “No, it’s always been there.” Or, he’ll say, “Doesn’t the road feel great now that they’ve resurfaced it?” and I’ll say, “They resurfaced it?”

Now, I might be able to blame a little of this on the cell phone. I mean, my husband often drives, and I’m often checking texts, getting navigation, or responding to messages, so I might miss some things because I’ve got my face in the screen, but guys, the piercing incident happened way before iPhones. I barely even knew where my phone was back then.

The fact that I miss so much probably has more to do with my laser focus on the mission — a last vestige of the soldiering life.

[If you are new to my blog and don’t know what I mean by ‘soldiering’, you can get a quick snapshot by clicking here. Or you can type ‘soldiering’ into the search bar at the top of the page.]

One important skill of soldiering is to be able to tune out distractions so that you can focus on the mission. The brain can’t attend to every stimulus it is exposed to all at once, so a soldier learns to zoom in. She can see an enemy approaching at a great distance while filtering out a whining dog at her feet. She can detect an approaching storm that will necessitate a tactical shift, while overlooking the construction crew working on the highway she’s driving on. Her mission is survival, so she prioritizes necessity and imminent threat.

For much of a decade, during my soldiering season, I was laser-focused on survival. I saw what was necessary for that mission — feeding my family, putting clothes on their backs, and getting them to doctors, therapists, sporting events, and concerts. I also attended to my students– planning their lessons, grading their papers, and writing their college recommendations. If my child or my student brought an issue to me — put it right in front of me — I saw it as part of the mission. I would work to solve, soothe, or fix whatever was broken and then get back to whatever I was working on.

I saw little in my periphery, little that wasn’t pointed out, little that lay hidden beneath the surface.

Now, I’m obviously not a trained soldier; I was just pretending to know what I was doing as I marched through some very difficult years. In the face of uncertainty and possible harm, I strapped on my backpack and started kicking butts and taking names. I turned my eyes to problems and crises in an attempt to control my surroundings, but I missed so much — some of the greatest threats to our family and their well-being. An untrained soldier might manage to survive, but she’s likely to mess up all kinds of missions along the way.

In these last five years, during my recovery from soldiering, I have dropped my weapons, taken off my backpack, and slowed my pace, but I’m still trying to adjust my vision. I still tend to scan for danger or obstacles rather than giving a more realistic assessment to a situation.

Just last week, I met a new student with some significant learning challenges. Even after decades of working with students with all kinds of learning profiles, I was intimidated. He’s got some real barriers to learning and all I could see were the obstacles we would have to overcome so that we could complete the learning tasks in front of us. I was looking at those challenges, and my anxiety started to rise. How would I be able to work with this student during the last hour of my day when I was already fatigued and facing challenges of my own?

My focus on potential problems was for nothing. Not long into our session this teenager and I were laughing, learning, and listening to one another! What I had seen as potential disaster ended up being a very successful hour of instruction.

In my attempts to survive by hyper-focusing on potential dangers, I’ve missed a lot, but shift is happening. I’m beginning to see more clearly. I’m beginning to understand that the period of uncertainty and crisis is over — my strategy of scanning for danger is no longer necessary.

In 2020, I’m praying for new sight. I’m praying that I’ll see what’s important, that I’ll notice what’s essential, and that I’ll comprehend what has meaning. I’m praying that I won’t focus so hard on potential danger but that I’ll keep my eyes wide open to possibility.

I’m praying for sight, but I’m also asking for vision. I’m longing to see what’s right in front of me while also being able to dream ahead. I long to see clearly enough where we’re going so that I follow the path that will get us there.

And in 2020, I want to understand that there is really just a more connected here. It’s a here where I see the pain of the person in front of me, even when she is doing her best to hide it, where I hear insecurity when I’m presented with bravado, and where I acknowledge the actual fragility of the bravest of soldiers.

May 2020 be the year that we clearly see one another and acknowledge that we’re all trying real hard to do the best that we can.

Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

Mark 8:25

From Mourning to Hope, a re-visit

After posting on Monday about choosing hope over despair, I thought I’d revisit one of the first pieces I wrote this year, to remember how far we’ve come.

2018 was the year that I stopped rucking. I finally had to set down my pack.

According to my son, who served in the 82nd Airborne, “rucking” is a long march, 15-20 miles or more, with a heavy pack of gear strapped on your back.

Image result for ruck march
Ruck March

The soldier carries necessities — provisions, weapons, extra socks, and the like — and moves forward. The more he does this, the better he gets at it — the longer he can go, the more he can carry. Soldiers practice rucking, of course, so that when they have to go on a mission, they have the strength and endurance they need to endure.

I had gotten pretty good at rucking in my former life of soldiering — when I survived a season of high demand by butt-kicking and name-taking. That old lifestyle was built on the premise that I had the strength within myself to accomplish whatever task was put in front of me. It depended on bravado; I believed that by the force of my will I could solve all the problems and complete all the tasks. I could ruck.

I’ve learned a lot since then.

Over the last four and a half years, I’ve chronicled in this blog the retraining I’ve undergone to stop living the soldiering lifestyle. I’ve changed physical things like my diet, exercise, healthcare providers, and job, and emotional things like the taking time for therapy and daily writing and rest. Yet, while I have been very intentional about stepping away from soldiering, I am still prone to strapping on that backpack when the going gets tough.

And it does get tough, doesn’t it?

This past year was one of the toughest yet. And I might’ve gone back to soldiering, if it would’ve done any good. But even I couldn’t muster the strength to carry the kind of heavy that 2018 brought. The inner mantra I used to live by that said I could handle anything was silenced. The heaviness of 2018 was more than I could carry. I could no longer ruck.

I sat down, let my pack fall to the ground, and I cried. Over and over this year, I cried, and I cried, and I cried.

I grieved most of 2018. I grieved for many who are dear to me whose losses are great, and I grieved for myself — for all the losses I have failed to grieve over the years. Likely the biggest grief of all was realizing that — that I hadn’t felt all the feelings when I should have been feeling them; instead, I had been rucking. I’d been carrying a load of hurt shoved down deep in a bag, when I should have been spreading all the griefs out on a blanket, examining them one by one and recognizing the weight of each loss.

So, that’s where I started — I opened the bag, dug deep inside, and brought out all the hurts that lay crumpled deep inside. I spread them all out, sorted through them and described each piece in writing. I took stock of the damage, and I prayed and prayed and prayed. I invited others to pray with me. I spent hours and days and whole weeks talking with my husband — rehearsing forgiveness and grace. And, finally, I think it’s time: I think I’m ready to take a break from grief.

At the very beginning of our season of grief, as though to provide for me a literary symbol, the necklace I wear every day was broken. It’s a gold chain that carries a small heart charm– a baptism gift from my godparents that I wear to remember whose I am — and a butterfly charm that my mother gave me when I earned my master’s degree that I wear to remember that I have been transformed. I’m not big on jewelry. In fact, my skin rejects all but the finest of gold, so when the chain broke about a year and half ago, I didn’t find the wherewithal or the resources to deal with it.

But on Christmas morning, just a few weeks ago, as we started to believe that the gray fog of grief was lifting, my husband gave me my repaired gold chain. I’ve put it back on, because I need a physical sign that the season of mourning is over. I need a daily reminder that I am a child of God who has been transformed and that the times of refreshing have come.

Certainly 2019 will not be free of trouble. We may be devastated again today or next week or next month, but for now, I am going to acknowledge that we were carried through 2018 not by our own might, but by the Hands of God who saw every tear, heard every prayer, and who, right now, is turning our mourning into hope.

You have turned my mourning into dancing for me;

You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy”

Psalm 30:11-12

How Many Times do I have to Tell You?

“How many times do I have to tell you?”

I’ve said it to my children.  “How many times do I have to tell you to rinse out your dish and put it in the dishwasher?”  “How many times do I have to tell you to hang up your wet towel?” “How many times do I have to tell you to call me when you get there?”

I’ve said it to my students. “How many times do I have to tell you that MLA format requires you to double space and use 12 pt. font?”  “How many times do I have to tell you the due date?” “How many times do I need to tell you to document your sources?”

But today I am hearing the words myself, “How many times do I have to tell you?” But while I growl my words in exasperation at my children and my students, I am hearing the words spoken gently into my heart as my chin is lifted tenderly by gentle fingers that draw my eyes upward.

How many times do I have to write the same blog?  How many times do I have to admit that I am “bent on turning” and that I did it again, I turned and went my own way.  In this very busy semester, I went back to what I know — soldiering.  Ok, fine, it has been a milder version of soldiering.  My regimen now includes daily doses of rest, reading, and recovery.  It mandates several repeats of yoga and walking.  It requires completing responsibilities to family such as laundry, cooking, and bill paying.  On the surface, it looks pretty healthy.  But it’s subtle soldiering.  Want to know why? Because I’ve been relying on myself and listening to the voices in the trenches.  How do I know? Because I’m surly.

There, I said it.  I’ve been surly.  Again, it’s a subtle surly.  I’ve been able to be fairly pleasant to the people in my life, but my internal monologue is grumbly and negative.  That’s part of the reason that I didn’t blog last week or the week before.  I sit down to type and the interior pops onto the page. It’s the only thing my fingers know how to do. I mean, they try to produce a positive message, but it ends up sounding saccharine — not at all genuine.  And I can spot fake from about a mile away.  Even when it’s coming out of my own fingers. Yuck.

So, today I’m waiting for student papers to come in.  I’ve graded everything that’s in my possession. I have nowhere to be today.  I’ve got the day to myself.  Yes, I plan to do some baking, but I feel the pull to my Bible and prayer journal.  I feel the need to catch up on my YouVersion reading plan — I’m about three days behind.

Being my surly self, I got diverted several times on my way to my reading, but finally I plunked down on the futon and opened the app on my phone.  Yes, I know, even getting caught up on YouVersion is a bit like soldiering…shhhh…it got me there, ok?

I was scrolling through the daily readings…blah, blah, blah,….fine, Isaiah, I see you. I kept reading and scrolling, reading and scrolling, Isaiah, my friend, you have so. many. words. Like a true soldier, I continued to read and scroll, gonna get caught up, you know. But then something happened.  My soldiering self sat down when I heard a voice that I recognized.  It wasn’t a voice from the trenches.

It wasn’t saying “do more, be more, get more;” it said, “he will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.”

It didn’t say, “be the greatest, prove your worth;” it said “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.” (Hop. Flit. Jump.)

I’m tired of hopping and jumping, I thought.  And almost immediately I read, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”

What must that be like, I grumbled weakly, to not grow weary?  And I read, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God.”

Oh, yeah.  I’m not alone, am I?  The world does not spin because I’m trying so hard. “Fear not, I have called you by name; you are mine.”   I am His.  I don’t have to prove my identity through my performance.  “I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember my sins.”  Really?  You don’t remember that I was just blogging about my propensity to turn and here I am again, confessing to the same exact sin?

“I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like a mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.”

I hear you.  I’m turning. How could I not?  You are speaking directly to me.  How did you manage to do that through the Bible reading plan on my phone?

“I call you by your name.” Yes, you sure do.

“I name you, though you do not know me.” You’re right.  I haven’t been acting like I know you.

” I am the Lord your God. I am God and there is no other.”

Yes, yes you are.  And let’s just get it out in the open.  I’m bent on turning, so you’re probably going to have to tell me again.

“Fear not, I am the One who helps you.”

Isaiah 40-44, selected verses

Back at it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I John 1: 3, 5 Rathje Revised Version

Being Held

I’ve been putting a lot of things together over the past couple of weeks — connecting a lot of dots — writing things down in indelible marker — trying to nail these lessons home.  But, even as I type this, I know that these are lessons I am going to have to learn over and over again.

I’ve written so many sentences, paragraphs, and blog posts about my soldiering — how I’ve marched through battles, brandishing weapons, kicking butts and taking names.  I’ve confessed that my years in the battlefield of my own making have wreaked havoc on my body.  I’ve vowed to put down my weapons and rest in the palm of the hand of God.  Yet, I gaze longingly at my fatigues that are propped up over in the corner.  I long to get back in the game, to live the life of my former self.

I mean, wasn’t it great? The camaraderie with the troops — working side-by-side to tackle issues like failing students, families in crisis, and new programs for success? The daily soldiering — lesson planning, writing exams, reading essays, and teaching grammar? The little skirmishes — with students, with parents, with colleagues? The victory parades — parent/teacher conferences, faculty parties, graduation?

Yes, it was great.

So what went wrong?  Why couldn’t I hang in there like some who have been marching for forty years or more? Why did I have to take my honorable discharge so early?

Perhaps because there is work for me in the reserves? Could I be as effective as a reservist as I was while on active duty?  Could I use the same skill set? Could I meet with a different population this way?

I mean, let’s be honest, I’m certainly not ready to retire. I have ideas, opinions, and strategies formulating in my mind all day long. Yet, it’s obvious that I can no longer sustain active duty.  A few hours of interaction with students and I am ready to put my feet up.  Sometimes I sit down at 3:00pm and don’t get up again for the rest of the evening.

Last Thursday as I lie on the bed at the physical therapy office, I heard the therapist say, “Your body is kind of twisted in on itself, as though you were holding yourself together so that you could move forward.”  I was silent as I thought about that for a moment. Actually, I keep thinking about that one sentence.

Perhaps the reason I couldn’t sustain forty years of teaching is because I exhausted myself in just ten years by simultaneously attempting to hold myself together while kicking butts and taking names. And don’t I feel foolish for attempting to do what has already been done? I could never hold myself together anyway. Nor did I have to.  I am, after all, being held together in the palm of His hand.

Silly me.  Let me get out that Sharpie.

Colossians 1:16-17

all things have been created through him and for him.17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

The Tough Cookie Crumbles

In my former job, I was often called upon to mete out justice — all teachers are.  It falls upon all school staff to make sure that students follow the rules: wear the uniform appropriately, keep your hands to yourselves, respect others, abide by the honor code, etc. Any of my students would tell you that if I saw a shirt untucked, I would address it.  If a student was eating in the hallway, I would take their food and throw it in the trash.  If two students began a verbal exchange that threatened to escalate, I was quick to march them to the office to see the Dean of Students.  I was on it. I often joked that I actually worked for the FBI, teaching was merely my cover.

Perhaps the fact that I owned that responsibility so tightly contributed to my soldiering.  While teaching in the high school, I could quickly “put on” my Michelle Pfeiffer Dangerous Minds persona if I needed to “kick some butts and take some names”.  Tough times call for tough personas.  Truth is, that persona often clung to me a little longer than necessary.   I was in the business of “getting it done” for many years.  I was a tough cookie. As with anything else in life — being a tough cookie has its pros and cons.

Tough cookies don’t have a lot of time to be sensitive to the needs of others, but they can hold it together under extreme pressure.

Tough cookies don’t let their guard down very often, so they are often first to see when something isn’t quite right.

Tough cookies demand respect and often get it, but at what price?

Tough cookies are difficult to enjoy — they have to be dunked and dunked and dunked before they soften up enough to make them palatable.

Did I go too far?  Probably.

Here’s the thing…the past 2.5 years of dealing with health issues have put Michelle Pfeiffer on the shelf, probably permanently.  I don’t have enough energy for all that bravado.

The good news is that I am no longer in a position where I have to scrutinize the behavior of others.  I am no longer required to mete out justice.  I am now in a position where I can offer grace — a second chance.

Ahhhh…..

Let’s look at all the places that God has provided for me to offer grace:

  • I’m a new grandmother — guys, all I have for that little girl is love and grace.
  • My new job is working with students who have failed and failed and failed.  They think they will never read and never be successful in school.  The strategies I am learning can and often do,  in a matter of weeks, result in improved reading and comprehension scores — often multiple grade levels! I get to watch kids get another chance at success!
  • I am the only mother living on a college campus — I have already had a few opportunities to walk students through decisions or to provide resources with no strings attached.
  • In all of the roles I’m in right now (including my new job) I am easily twenty years older than everyone else.  I am praying that the wisdom of those years will transform into grace in all my interchanges.

Dear Michelle Pfeiffer,

It’s been a good run.  I’ve appreciated borrowing your leather jacket; you can have it back now. This tough cookie has begun to crumble, I think I’ll be buying a few cardigans.

John 1:17

Now the law was given through Moses;

grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.