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.

 

 

 

The Assignment: #1

Recently a friend of mine gave me a writing assignment. He handed me a book entitled 300 Writing Prompts and included a handwritten note implying that this assignment was ‘required’.  I was so touched!  It was mid-semester when I would have liked nothing better than to run home, ignore the stack of papers on my desk, and get started.  However, I am nothing if I am not responsible, so I put it on a shelf with a promise that it would get my attention “after December 15”.

It’s December 21, so here goes!

I am thinking, that if you are willing, this will be a participatory series.   From time to time, I will blog with the heading “The Assignment”.  You can read the prompt and my post here and then  decide whether or not you want to post your own response to the prompt.   You can reply in the comments on Word Press or in the comments on Facebook where I typically share blog posts. Ok?  Good.  Let’s try it.

#1 What is your favorite way to spend a lazy day?

Oh, man.  I spend a lot of space in this blog writing about my struggle to be still.  I am a body in motion,  and I like to stay in motion.  However, anyone who stays busy will tell you that once in a while they have to pause.  They may do it willingly; they may push so hard that their body is eventually forced to crash.

When our children were small  (we had three babies within three years!) my husband, seeing the fatigue on my face, would pack everyone up and disappear for a day or two leaving me at home — alone!  After days and weeks of nonstop mom-ing, cleaning, cooking, and busy-ing, I would have 24 to 48 hours of solitude.  The gift was so precious to me that I quickly learned how to squeeze as much relaxation out of this time as possible.  Now that the children have all left the nest, I still observe many of the same strategies whenever I find a day with no commitments:

  1.  If at all possible, I do not drive.  During the mom-ing years, I was continuously behind the steering wheel driving someone to school, to practice, to a lesson, to church, or to purchase an item.  A lot of life involves hopping in the car and getting somewhere — work, social engagements, the gym, church, etc.  The first step to my total relaxation is to promise myself that I will not have to sit in a car. I won’t go anywhere that requires me to drive.
  2. I refrain from speaking.  Seriously.  I don’t talk on the phone.  I don’t make a coffee date.  I hardly speak to my dog.  Because I don’t get in my car, I don’t even risk the possibility that I will have to exchange niceties with the pharmacist, the librarian, or a fellow shopper.  My days as a teacher involve so. much. talking.  Sometimes a girl just needs a break.  I still encounter words — I write, I read, I might even watch a favorite movie or Netflix series, but I commit to absolutely no talking.
  3. I stay in pajamas or yoga pants.  I mean I’m not going anywhere or seeing anybody, so….no explanation needed, right?
  4. I blog. This is actually probably the first stop of the day.  Once I get a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of tea, I head to the keys.
  5. I do some sort of Bible study/reflection. (Actually, #5 should come before #4, but remember I’m out of practice.)  I’ve found over the years that if I start my day by making contact with God’s Word, I am more grounded.  It makes sense, but I don’t always do it.  In fact, since the advent of the iPad and the iPhone, I have found it very easy to fall into the habit of losing the first hour of my day to checking social media, reading email, and playing Words With Friends.  Yeah, you read that correctly, I sometimes lose the first hour of my day.  (If this sounds familiar, you might want to check out this YouTube video or this podcast.   Both have challenged me to reconsider my behaviors.)  I sometimes need the reminder that what I feed my brain first thing in the morning sets my tone for the rest of the day.  A day with no commitments can bring me back to those solid routines.
  6. I eat whatever I feel like eating.  Back when the kids were small and my husband took them away for the day, I often planned a special meal– one that was a little too fussy for the kids or that took a little more preparation time than I usually took with three little ones running around.  These days my food choices are more about eating whatever I want to eat whenever I am hungry — I am not bound by the clock or by any cultural norms regarding what I should eat at a particular time of day.
  7. I lose track of time.  I don’t have to be anywhere, so I do what I want when I want.  I might watch a movie or three movies.  I might read a whole book.  I might iron for two hours because, guys, I really do like to iron.  I might clean the kitchen.  I might go for a long walk. I might fall asleep in the middle of the day.  I don’t look at the clock.  I remove that constraint, and I am automatically more relaxed.
  8. I probably exercise.  Years ago, I would make sure I got in a three to five mile run.  These days, I go for a walk or do some yoga.  Moving my body is restorative — it makes me feel better.
  9. I might soak in the tub. This is a luxury that requires nothing more than the time to do it. It soothes my achey joints and slows my RPMs.
  10. I remind myself  to have another day like this soon.

How about you?  What is your favorite way to spend a lazy day? As I tell my students, you have no rules.  You can write without the constraints of form or style.  Don’t worry about whether you spell every word correctly or put each comma in the right place.  Share your thoughts freely.  I have no judgment waiting for you.  Your ways of being lazy are probably not the same as mine — because they are yours.  Mine are valuable to me, but yours are equally as valuable to you.  One is not better than the other.  Be free.  See how it feels to write down your thoughts.  Share them or don’t share them.  I’m giving you an invitation, not a mandate.  But if you choose to play along, I promise to read every word.  I’m excited to see what happens.

Galatians 5:1

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free

 

300 Writing Prompts. Picadilly, 2017.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Swan-dive to Mundane

I was sitting in the waiting room of my physical therapist’s office yesterday morning, thumbing through a People magazine.  I was early for my 8:15 appointment, so she was still moving around me, tidying the office.  She greeted me, of course, and I continued to “read” meaningless celebrity “news”.

“Have you done any blogging lately?” she said out of nowhere.

“No,” sigh, “I’ve been kind of in a funk.  Writing would probably get me out of it, but I just haven’t found my way there in a while.”

“Yeah, it really centers your spirit, doesn’t it?”

Man, we haven’t even started my PT yet and she’s already getting at the core.  How does she do that?

The last time I blogged, I was sitting in Jerusalem.  Today I am sitting, still in pajamas, on the futon in my office in my little house by the river. Then, I was floating high on the experience, the relationships, the food — have I mentioned the food?  Today, I am back in the mundane — classes, laundry, tax preparation, and the like.

It’s a lot easier to write about the fantastic, isn’t it?  It’s lovelier to live in the beautiful. However,  we do most of our dwelling in the ordinary, so coming down from the extraordinary sometimes involves a crash landing. And crash I did.

Some of the crash was circumstantial.  I went from touring brilliantly-farmed land lush with oranges, strawberries, and figs to trudging across frozen tundra.  I transitioned from touring on a bus full of enthusiastic learners who scored one another’s jokes, sang together, laughed together,   and cried together, to spending a lot of time on my own sorting receipts, preparing for class, and putting away suitcases.

Some of the crash was self-inflicted. My doctor had recommended before the trip that I do a 21-day elimination diet to see if any foods were causing my pain and/or inflammation.  I postponed it until after the trip (yes, the trip where we ate like kings three times a day), but started immediately when we got home.  For the past three weeks, in addition to not eating gluten or dairy (both of which I have avoided for three years), I also eliminated soy, corn, citrus, peanuts, pork, and it seems like most everything else.  Oh, and at the same time I finished weaning myself off Zoloft.

Yeah, I’m nuts. I mean if you’re going to come off the mountaintop, you might as well swan-dive, right?  The thing about swan-diving, though, is that you can go pretty far down pretty darn quickly.

The casual observer might not detect the shift in position — from mountaintop to deep, dark valley.  The physical therapist?  The husband?  Oh, they saw the shift.  I did, too.  I could feel the snark, but I couldn’t shake it.

It probably didn’t help that we came back right before the presidential inauguration and all the virtual “noise” that ensued , because I certainly have difficultly not engaging with all of that.  And, rather than turning to my writing, which I know is an outlet for my emotions, I instead turned my gaze to the other things that need my attention — grading, a project I started for my in-laws a year ago, unfinished tax prep — and I thought to myself, it would be pretty selfish of you to sit down and blog for an hour right now.  You have other people depending on you.

And I believed that voice.  I muted the truth that says, “Oxygenate yourself first.”  I forgot that “in repentance and rest is my salvation; in quietness and trust is my strength.”  I trudged onward, avoiding my need for self-care, while attending to tasks that preserved the facade — cleaning the house, preparing for teaching, ironing clothes, cooking…anything but taking the pause that refreshes and centers my spirit.

So, after a sermon on Sunday about suffering and the encounter with my physical therapist who noted that my body is “all over the place,” I give up.  I turn to the keys.  I am honest.  I’ve been struggling, but I’m turning, guys.  I’m turning.  It might take a minute, but I’m turning.

Psalm 30:1ff

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

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

Pray continually

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gulp.

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

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

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

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

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

I Thessalonians 5:17

[Start, and then} “pray continually.”

Reflection

After long absences from my blog, I never know what is going to come out of my fingers when I finally make the time to sit down.  Will I start writing about why I haven’t written sooner?  what we have been doing with our time? what kind of students I am working with? How my health is (or is not) progressing? Or how I am looking forward to what’s coming up in the next few weeks?

I don’t know.   Today I don’t feel a drive to write about any of the above, but I do feel compelled to get back to my blog.  I love the discipline of writing every day, and I love how it causes me to reflect on how I am living my life. Writing causes me to pause and take stock of what is happening and what I think and feel about it.

Last weekend, I visited our two daughters who are currently living in Boston.  We did some sightseeing, yes, but we also had chunks of time when we were just together. We rode in the car from the city center to where we were staying.  We visited coffee houses. We sat together on the couch and watched the Olympics and reality TV.  I found myself, in those moments of sitting with my adult daughters, reflecting on how my husband and I parented our children.  From time to time my musings became audible.

“I wish I wouldn’t have freaked out over the little things so much.”

“I wish I would’ve taken more time to show you kids how to do more things.”

“I wish I would have stepped into some situations more thoughtfully.”

My girls were very gracious.  “Mom, you had three babies in three years!  We were a lot to take care of!  You did your best!”  “Mom, we turned out pretty good.”

They’re right.  We did have three babies in three years and we were very busy for many consecutive minutes.hours.days.weeks.months.years.  And, our kids are pretty great.  We are blessed.

But, you know, twenty-five years flew by pretty darn quickly.  And sometimes I even wished that the moments would speed by. Parenting is hard work. It is exhausting and sometimes overwhelming.  And, in true Kristin fashion, I muscled through.

At one moment last weekend,  in the proximity of my girls, I heard myself say out loud, “You know what I wish the most? I wish I would’ve taken more time to reflect. I wish I would’ve been still long enough to say to myself, ‘How is this working out?'”

They were silent, so I said, “If I could give you one piece of advice right now it would be that: take time to be still and reflect.”

It took me a chronic illness and a six-month vacation from work to realize the power of stillness and reflection.  What began as a crutch to help me hobble through the unchartered territory of unemployment turned into a vehicle that helped me explore my thoughts and feelings about my current reality.  In exploring those thoughts and feelings, I have also explored my past and its impact on my life and the lives of those that I love.  These explorations have, I believe, contributed to my healing — if not my actual physical healing, then certainly my mental and emotional healing.

Over the past eighteen months, I have gradually transitioned from not working at all to working about 20-25 hours a week. This was part of the goal all along.  I love teaching,  and God has provided so many opportunities for me to work with students that don’t require me to have a full-time position. However, in transitioning back to more regular work, I don’t want to flush the lessons I learned during the stillness.

This is the challenge of real life, isn’t it? How do I find balance?  How do I get the fulfillment that comes from work while also taking the time to care for myself? How do I care for myself through exercise, healthy eating, and time for reflection, without overlooking the needs of the people closest to me?  How do I attend to the needs of my family while still finding time to connect with friends?  How do I make time to connect with friends and still have regular time to connect with God?

I sure don’t have a simple answer.  However, what I have learned is that, for me, one way to take the pulse on how I am doing with finding that balance, is to take some moments to reflect through writing.  So, here I am, returning and reflecting so that I can continue to heal and continue to grow.

Psalm 116:7

Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.

Students of the Months

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind and compassionate to one another.

Writing

Over the last several weeks I have been thinking about writing and writing instruction.  In a little over a week I will be leading two groups of high school students through a summer course in essay writing.  In the fall I will be teaching three sections of freshmen the fundamentals of writing at the college level.  With these courses in mind, I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I’ve also got Axelrod and Cooper’s Concise Guide to Writing 

I spend a lot of time reading, writing, and talking about writing.  I know it’s not as important to everyone else as it is to me, just like I know that some people care more about balancing their checkbook than I do.  (Like everyone.)  I try not to make every single conversation about writing, but all of my conversations are inextricably linked to my writing process.  It’s like I’m carrying a giant Santa-bag full of words over my shoulder.  In conversations, I am able to off-load some of the words in my sack, but at the same time, the words of others are crawling up the sides and into the mouth of that same sack. They mingle in there, all those words.  They jumble; they bump against each other.  They smooth each other’s edges. They rearrange and form ideas that I hadn’t thought of before.

All that shuffling and processing goes on and on…then I sit down to write, and stuff comes out of my fingers in ways that I had never imagined.  I start picturing, for instance, that my words are kept in a giant Santa-bag, but that other  people carry all of their words, at least the ones that they want to share, in an attractive little Coach bag neatly slung across their body.  I can’t even imagine that!  I am constantly stumbling along, wielding this enormous load of words — they are continually falling out, even when I try to close the top of the bag or shove it in the trunk of my car.

This is why I write. I write to use up some of the words in that bulky sack.  I write to allow the newly formed ideas some space to express themselves.  I write to protect you, my friends, from the fire hose of words that would come streaming out of my mouth uncontrollably if I did not temper the flow by putting 500 to 1000 words on the page in a day.

I teach writing because not everyone is as obsessed about the written word as I am, but almost everyone has to find a way to put their words down in print for one reason or another. Some people, I’ve found, want to improve their writing so that their work emails won’t be misconstrued.  Some have to improve their writing so that they can be admitted into a college or program.  Others are quite proficient in writing in another language but struggle to convey their meaning in English.  And occasionally, a student wanders into my class, stumbling through the door, trying to find a space to cram his extra large Hefty bag full of words.  He looks desperate.  His eyes search my face pleadingly.  I smile knowingly, show him where to sling his bag, pull out a chair, and tell him to start writing it all down.

He’s overwhelmed, of course.  How could he possibly put it all down?  Have I seen that bag?  I nod compassionately and show him my Santa bag sitting outside the window of the classroom — it no longer fits through the door.   He swallows hard, opens a blank notebook, and looks up at me.  I nod and urge him on.  His pen starts moving across the page.  He doesn’t notice the other students filling in the chairs around him.He doesn’t look up when I start class. He doesn’t realize, either, an hour later when they’ve all left to go to their next classes.  He’s still bent over his notebook.

So, I sit down, too.  I open my notebook and pick up where I left off.  We sit there and put our words on paper until they stop streaming out of our pens…or until we are exhausted or famished.

Then quietly we push back from our desks, shove our notebooks into our bags, and notice that they are a bit more manageable to carry.  Our steps are a little lighter.  We nod silently at one another and each go our own way.

For those moments and so many more, I am thankful for writing.

2 Corinthians 12: 4-6

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.