Purpose and Audience, an interview

For quite a few years, I’ve been teaching students how to write, coaching writers through the writing process, and providing editing support to writers at all phases of maturity and ability.

No matter what project we are working on or where we are in the process, I find myself returning to two critical questions:

  1. What is your purpose?
  2. Who is your audience?

These questions matter. They direct all of our writing.

What message is our message? Who are we conveying that message to?

Sometimes, beginning writers say to me, “I have to write a five-page paper about [insert topic here],” and I reply, “What do you want to convey? Are you trying to inform? persuade? entertain?” They often don’t know, so we spend time in that realm for a bit. Next, I ask, “Who is your audience? Do they have background knowledge of your topic or are they strangers to it? Are they adults? children? How does knowledge of your audience shape what you plan to say?”

These questions are clarifying. They help the writer start to shape her message, to choose vocabulary, to select anecdotes. When she has a group of people in the seats of her mental auditorium and she can picture their backgrounds and level of expertise, when she understands the reason she is writing and the message she hopes to convey, she can begin to frame her message.

I have been having conversations like this for a very long time, so this morning, when I was preparing to draft this week’s blog and I had, as I often have, a crisis of identity, I asked myself the same questions.

It went something like this.

What am I even going to write about this week? Why do I think anyone will want to read it? Do I have anything valid to say?

I was sounding like one of my students. So, I replied to myself:

“Ok, ok, come back off the ledge…breathe…think…what is your purpose? why are you still writing this blog after five years? What compels you? What are you hoping to accomplish? Who is reading your writing? What do they hope to hear? How will you convey that message? What is your message?”

Wow. Thanks for asking. I think I need to spend some time on this. I often write about healing — physical, emotional, and spiritual. I write about writing. I write about recovering from a life of soldiering. I write about finding rest. I write about creating space. I write about my faith. I write about my failures.

“That’s a good start. Who do you picture as your audience?”

That is more difficult. I have 170 followers, and a typical post gets about 40 views. I imagine most of my readers resonate with something I have to say about faith, autoimmune disease, or living intentionally. I guess that a chunk of my readers are friends and family. And the most important, and surely most critical, member of my audience is myself.

“And how does that inform your writing?”

Whatever my topic is has to originate with something I am processing on my own — a current autoimmune flare, a family transition, something I am learning in my spiritual life. I think what I try to do in my blog is to narrate the inner workings of my mind — first to help myself process, but also to allow others to see that process because I am, and always will be, a teacher. I did this in the classroom — I worked through every assignment my students did, walked them through my process, explaining it as I went. And I just can’t stop my think aloud protocol.

“See how clarifying this conversation can be? Do you ever wonder if you might expand your audience?”

From time to time, I wonder if I should take one more step in my writing. Should I be intentional about promoting my blog? Should I put some of my blog posts together in a book and publish it? Should I start from scratch and write my story of soldiering, crashing, and finding life in the next chapter? Who would read it? Who would even publish it? Who am I kidding? I need to just stay in my lane.

“This is your lane, dear. Writing has always been your lane. It’s as natural to you as breathing. When your fingers aren’t clicking on keys or scrawling out notes on a page, you begin to wither. You must — you must — keep writing. You said it yourself, primarily it is for you, but because you are also a teacher, it’s natural to explore the opportunity of allowing others to watch your process. They may just observe for a while and then quietly walk away. But you might inspire someone to try something new — homeopathy, yoga, openly grieving, or dramatically changing the way that they live out their days. Who’s to know?”

But I’m scared! I don’t know where I would even start. It’ll be so much work! And what if it’s all for nothing.

“The writing itself is the gift. You already know that. The power is in the process.”

It’s true. And that’s what I’ve always wanted my students — my friends, my family — to know more than anything. Often we don’t [I don’t] know our purpose or our audience before we step into the process and start putting words on the page. And it is in putting the words on the page that we discover our purpose, our audience, ourselves.

“Exactly.”

Yes, I know that not everyone is compelled to spend an hour or more every day putting words on the page. I know that that not every single person would feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with an audience that might just include family and friends but also might include someone sitting at a laptop in her kitchen in India.

But I am compelled. And I am, oddly, comfortable.

So I continue. Because this is my purpose, and you, apparently, are my audience.

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.

Proverbs 19:21

On and Off the Couch

Five years ago, when I moved into the little house by the river, I was exhausted and physically ill. For the first time probably since my childhood, I gave myself permission to plop on the couch and be unproductive. I didn’t come to this on my own — my medical team had advised it, and my husband had supported it. I needed some time to let my body recover from years of hard work. I needed to exit crisis mode and hit ‘reset’.

This is no news to you if you’ve read my blog — in fact, one of the reasons I began to write was that I was, for the first time in over thirty years, not going to be working or caring for children. I had no idea what I would do with myself if I didn’t come up with a daily task. And, writing proved, as you might have guessed, one of the means for healing. The pouring out of thoughts onto a page allows them to be seen and felt. In the seeing and feeling, the healing begins.

So, the first layer of healing began with time on the couch and a commitment to writing. I spent a lot of time on the couch (and in bed, and in a chair, and on the floor). I drank countless cups of tea and have now written over 400 blog posts in addition to the countless pages that I have written in spiral notebooks and journals in the past few years.

That decision to spend some time on the couch and to commit time to writing every day laid the foundation for a much more thorough mental and spiritual healing that would follow the initial physical healing. I didn’t know it at the time, but the first six months in the little house by the river, was a dress rehearsal for the next several years.

In addition to the physical fatigue and illness that I brought with me to Ann Arbor, our whole family also carried with us some deep wounds from years of dysfunction. Some of that dysfunction was not too atypical — a family doing too much, trying too hard, and overlooking critical moments and emotions in the frenzy of day-to-day living. However, some larger issues were less than typical– eating disorder, depression, alcoholism, and sexual assault. And even writing the words, I realize that though these were devastating, they are not as atypical as I would like to believe.

And I think that’s part of the reason I keep writing about them. Sure, it is hard to admit that our family — the one for which I had high hopes for perfection — suffered in ways that we had never expected, but just as surely, pain happens to everyone. Every one of us suffer.

And so, when, a couple years into life in this house by the river, we looked our pain full in the face and crawled back onto the couch and cried and cried and cried. I didn’t stop writing. I didn’t retreat into my room, as I had in the past, to “close the door and draw the blinds”. I didn’t want to air each of our private pains publicly, but I also didn’t want to hide the fact that we were indeed hurting. I am not sure it was a conscious choice at the time — after all, I was lying wounded on the side of the road bandaged and bleeding; how much clarity can you have in that situation? However, I believe I instinctively knew that my recovery was dependent on my writing — writing that was honest and transparent.

I didn’t write the details — I guess each of us can fill in our own. We can all find ourselves on the couch, immobilized, hurting, and in need of a re-set.

And I am here to tell you that resets happen. People get off couches. They start walking. They begin to smile. They feel hope again.

It doesn’t come quickly. Some people find themselves plunked in a great big sectional sofa for a couple of years or more. In fact, they’ve been there so long that the sofa itself takes on an appearance of grief, anguish, and decay, and they hardly notice. They sink into dilapidation, and it feels like home. So they stay there, watching Netflix night after night after night.

But slowly, gradually, light starts peeking in from behind the blinds, and they start to notice that the couch is visibly tired of performing this service.

It’s served its term.

So they stand up. They start taking walks, dreaming dreams, and envisioning a world where every day isn’t laden with grief. They start picturing places that exist away from the couch — places inhabited by people and experiences and opportunities. Venturing out seems a little daunting at first, so they proceed with caution — a coffee date here, a shopping trip there.

Soon they realize they are meeting in groups outside of their home, not only to gather support to sustain them in their long hours on the couch, but also to share support, love, and friendship. They discover they have energy for a walk before dinner, shopping in the afternoon, and rearranging the furniture.

But that sectional takes up so much space — what with the grief lying all over it, spilling over the edges.

It’s got to go.

It’s all part of the reset. Room must be made for the new — new experiences, new dreams, new life.

So out it goes.

And just like that, a weight is lifted. A corner is turned. A brightness is felt.

Imagine the possibilities of life away from the couch. A life of dinners at the table, of walking in the park, of meeting up with friends. Of laughter, of joy.

I am here to tell you that resets happen.

I am here to tell you that I am off the couch.

Now –if you’re slunk down in the cushions, chest sprinkled with potato chip crumbs, staring at a television playing mindless shows with laugh tracks, I have not one ounce of judgment for you. I only offer this: when you have cried countless tears and lain awake long nights, when you have thought that you will never feel joy again, hold on.

It may be a while, but the light will peek in from behind the blinds, and you, too, will find yourself rising from the couch. You’ll start walking. You’ll find yourself smiling. You will again begin to feel hope.

I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

Process-ing

I had been trying to get back into the swing of writing consistently, plopping down 300 words a day in front of all of you, following Anne Lamott’s suggestion to just get them on the page. Every day I was stumbling along obediently, in true teacher fashion, modeling what I hoped my students would do — dump out the story; clean it up later.

I wasn’t liking any of what I was writing, but I believed that if I kept at it, I would eventually get some gold.

About that time, the group of ladies that I meet with for breakfast suggested that we begin reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  I wasn’t with them when they made the decision, but I got a text with the title that the others had chosen. We’ve read many books together already: Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, and Brene’ Brown’s Braving the Wilderness among them. We often make our selection based on a hunch one of us has that a book going to be good. Without fail, each of the books has served almost as a guide to the narratives of our individual lives — just the thing we needed to hear at a particular time.

For example, when we read The Broken Way, one of us was walking her mother through her last days, another was hearing for the first time the brutal details of a horrible event in a family member’s history, and another was learning that her husband’s cancer had returned.  We were collectively broken, and Ann Voskamp helped us not run from it, but sit in it.

We read Braving the Wilderness against the backdrop of a highly divided nation and discussed how we could be open to conversations with people who don’t agree with us and how we must be brave enough to do this crucial work.

We’ve come to expect that when one of us suggests a book, we should all just jump on board because each of the books we’ve read have guided our conversations and shaped our hearts. Over and over, in the space of a morning-dark living room, we have together been changed.

So why, when I got the text about The Artist’s Way did I turn up my nose?  Well, besides being stubborn by nature, I hadn’t heard the reason for this choice.  And, to be honest, the word ‘artist’ in the title came with a whole bunch of associations that I didn’t feel connected to. Finally, my work schedule had been such that I figured, “Yeah, maybe my season with this group is done. This one probably isn’t for me.”

And so I didn’t buy the book.  I just kept tossing out three hundred words a day like magical seeds that might one day sprout into something.

Then a few weeks later, one Sunday morning at church, one of my breakfast club friends said, “Aren’t you loving this book?  I can’t believe how much I love all the writing!”

Wait. What?

“The writing?” I said.  “I’ve gotta admit, I haven’t bought the book yet, what kind of writing are you talking about?”

“Oh, my gosh, you’ll love it! You have to commit to writing three pages every morning. I keep getting up in the middle of the night, and I can’t believe all the things I’m putting on the page.”

As she’s talking, I’m opening the Amazon app on my phone, searching for the title, and clicking “purchase”.

“Really? I didn’t know it involved writing. I guess I thought it was going to be about art.”

“No!  It’s about the artist inside of all of us. Oh, Kristin, you’ve got to read this book. I’m telling you, you’re going to love it.”

“Well, I just purchased it. So, I’ll start this week.”

And then the book arrived.  I opened to the introduction, because I’m one of those people who reads introductions, and I just didn’t like the tone of the author. She sounded very know-it-ally, and I just couldn’t. So I set the book on the table next to where I usually write and walked away.

For a week I didn’t write anything. Granted, we were busy at work and I didn’t have a lot of steam left when I got home, and getting up extra early in the morning seemed out of the question.

Until I found myself writing this around 2am:

Technically it’s morning. It’s the middle of the night. Up with pain and brain again. I grumbled about this book today — didn’t want to get it in the first place — dumb title.  Irrelevant. Then the self-important tone of the intro made me want my money back. But I’m not even through the first chapter and I know that Julie Cameron is right. If I write — actually write — three pages every morning, I will create an opening.  

And I started getting up every day at 5:45 — yes, 5:45 — to use a pen and a notebook to write at least three pages. And, like my friend, I’ve been amazed at what has shown up on the page. I’m not censoring, because I’m not writing for an audience. Instead, I am letting whatever is in me come out. Some days I’m writing about things long past. Other days I’m scratching out my current to-do list. I’m writing anger and anxiety and regret and sadness and hope and prayer.  I’m filling my second spiral notebook with no intention of accomplishing anything other than creating an opening.

I met with the breakfast club girls this week. Four of the five of us are writing these pages each morning (or sometimes in the middle of the night).  The one who isn’t said, “So, you’re writing?”  And the rest of us practically pushed each other out of the way to share how profound the experience has been. Then, I sheepishly admitted, “I’m only on chapter two of the actual reading.”  Surely by now, I thought, two months later, everyone else would be almost finished with the book.

“Me, too!” one said.

“I’m only on chapter four,” said another.

And it dawned on me — getting through the book is not the point. This book is not about finishing, it’s about being open to the process. And that is the message of relevance this time around. Just like every other book we’ve read, this one is speaking into our individual narratives. One of us is learning how to be a widow. Another is walking into retirement in a new home in a new community. One is about to become a grandmother for the first time. Another is navigating the comings and goings of young adult children. Me? I’m discovering after thinking that my professional career was over, that I might just have another round in me.

We’re all in phases that aren’t really about arriving or finishing; they are more about being, practicing, living, and breathing through the process.

So, it’s 6:32 am, and I’m spending this morning’s time to reflect, because, writing three pages every morning isn’t so magical that I can’t take a break to put my fingers on keys. I’ve created enough space to see that I can allow myself space.  And that is some kind of gold.

Psalm 5:3

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

One mediocre blog post

I had three goals for today: 1) blogging, 2) planting my garden, and 3) cleaning up paperwork on my desk. My husband was leaving early in the morning, and I would be home alone all day; certainly I could accomplish these three tasks.

We fell asleep early last night, watching an episode of The Great British Bake-Off, so both of us were awake by six this morning.  My husband suggested we take the dog on a short walk before he headed out.  I agreed; certainly morning exercise would set me up for success. We stripped the bed, tossed the sheets into the washer, and headed out the door.

When we returned from our walk, I picked some rhubarb and then tidied the kitchen while he packed his bag. Since I was in the kitchen, I figured I might as well wash the tea cups and saucers that my mother-in-law had sent home with me yesterday, and since my husband had a drive ahead of him, I decided to make us a hearty but simple breakfast — sautéed summer squash, onions, and potatoes with a couple of fried eggs.

We ate our breakfast and then he loaded the car while I cleared the table and moved the laundry into the dryer. He kissed me goodbye, and I headed to my desk. I sent a few emails, moved a few papers around, and attempted to write a blog post.  I sat at the keys for a few minutes with not one thought in my mind except, “actually, it’s going to get hot today; maybe I should start with the garden.”

Before I knew it, I was pulling weeds, turning dirt, and discovering volunteer tomato plants sprouting from the remains of last year’s crop. I worked on the garden for about an hour before the heat became so oppressive that my thoughts turned to the watermelon in the fridge.  Maybe, I thought, if I eat some watermelon while reading Learning to Walk in the Dark, I’ll be inspired to write something.

As I read a chapter and enjoyed the cool melon, Barbara Brown Taylor’s words definitely inspired me to write something, so when I got to the end of the chapter, I moved again to my desk. I pushed a few more papers around and opened a fresh document on my laptop.  Again, I sat staring at the blank screen.  Nothing.

Maybe music would help.  I turned on Pandora and listened to David Crowder while I dusted my bedroom. I grabbed the vacuum and was midway through cleaning the entire house when I decided to go back outside and push a little more dirt around. I still hadn’t planted any seeds, but the garden, which had been overrun with weeds this morning was starting to look a little more intentional.  I got hot again — it passed 90 degrees in Michigan today — so I brought the dog outside and gave him a bath.

I talked to my dad on the phone while I did food prep for the week, then I talked to my daughter while I folded laundry.  By this point, I had pretty much concluded that I wasn’t going to be able to write today. That’s been happening a lot lately.  I’ve been having difficulty reading, too.  I can’t quite keep my focus. So, instead of going back to my desk, I ate a late lunch/early dinner then popped in my earbuds to listen to a podcast as I headed back out for a third go at the garden.

My podcast, On Being, was an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, who among myriad other topics, talked about writing — how it can be magical, like a meeting with the Divine. Sometimes a writer sits down and words fall on the page as though directly dictated from the mouth of God. Those times are sweet. However, she reminded me, “90% of almost everything interesting is pretty boring.”  Most of the time, writing is discipline, committing to sit down and put words on the page. Good words, mediocre words, and as Anne Lamott says, a lot of “shitty first drafts.”  I let the thoughts sink in as I built dirt mounds and poked holes for cantaloupe seeds. Then, I sprinkled grass seed on a dirt square that was a trial garden a few years ago. She’s right, I thought.  I tell students all the time that magic isn’t guaranteed. If you can’t think of something amazing to say, say anything.

Determined for the umpteenth time today to write,  I came inside, took a shower, and finally began to put some words on the page.

Here they are.  They are nothing to write home about, but they are part of what I set out to do today.  I began my garden, I cleared some paper from my desk, and I blogged. None of it was magical; it was all just mediocre.

A lot of life is like that, to be honest. It’s setting a goal, getting distracted, finding your way back, and doing the best that you can.  I’m ok with that. All of life isn’t meant to be fireworks and celebration.

In fact, I think I’ll go find something ok to watch on television, and then I’ll lie down for an average night’s rest. I’ll just stay with the current theme.

That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—

this is the gift of God

Ecclesiastes 3:13

Bits of Truth

Words matter so much to me.  I realize this is pretty obvious: I do put a couple thousand on this page every week, and my chosen profession requires me to use tens of thousands  every day. Yeah, I love words; I’m drawn to them.

I typically read several hundred pages of fiction and/or non-fiction every week, and when I see words arranged in a way that resonates with me, I use my iphone to snap photos of them. Also, whenever I gather with two or more, I arrive with a notebook and a pen, prepared to write down the meaningful and the trivial.  I scratch out notes at work, at church, and in my small group.

I spend my life surrounded by words, and I tend to horde them. As I was making my way to this space today, I grabbed a couple scraps of paper from my desk, my phone, a notebook crammed with sermon notes, a book I’m reading, and my laptop.  What do these items have in common?  They all contain words that I have gathered from one place or another and carried home with me. One bit of paper travelled all the way from my trip to St. Louis last November. Another is from a visit to Cincinnati about a month ago.  My shoes and toothbrush might not have made it home, but these scraps of paper not only survived the trip, they have remained on top of my desk through several frantic clutter-clearing purges.

What could they possibly say that would validate my gripping them so tightly?

The one from November, which I scribbled while sitting in church with dear friends, says “I can have hope that He will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.”

The paper I shoved in my pocket after church last month in Cincinnati says,  “Lord, if you don’t do something here, we are in trouble.”

In my notes from our small group Bible study I find, “This life is unsettled and incomplete,” and “hope wins.”

Last night, I started Jodi Picoult’s small great things.  I opened the cover and read these words from James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”

Pithy phrases all.  Concise.  Succinct.  Power-packed.

Why do I store these clusters of words?

Because in the emotional haze in which I have been existing, I wander around searching for beacons of truth. And, for me, truth is usually found in print.  I don’t write down every word I see, but when I see words that speak truth, I capture them. I hold them.  I carry them around.

Here’s why. Emotions are powerful.  They are expressions of deep feelings that need to be experienced, but they don’t always tell the truth.  My emotions tell me that all is lost, that hope has died, that everything counts on me, that I’m the only one with problems, and that none of this will ever work out.  I weep on my bed and get so carried away by my tears that I never want to stand up again.  Overwhelmed with sorrow, I reach out my hand and grab something to read to quiet myself.  Without fail, I find some shred of truth that breaks through my exaggerating and misled emotions.

I find myself speaking out loud:

All is not lost; God will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.

Everything does not count on me; Jesus is doing something here.

I am certainly not the only one with problems — despite what social media wants me to believe — but my only chance at working through the problems I have is to face them.

All of this will work out. Sure, life is unsettled, but hope wins.

My pulse slows.  My breathing returns to regularity. I close my eyes and move toward sleep.

Yes, I feel dark things still — anger, sadness, grief, and pain.  These feelings are valid,  and I will quash them no longer.  I will sit with them.  I will feel them.  And, I will speak truth to them.  I will not be overcome.

John 16:33

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

 

 

 

 

Pacing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Stop laughing at me!]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 46: 10

Be still, and know that I am God.

 

 

 

The Sum of the Lesson

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

Today’s Lesson: Time, Tension, and Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Psalm 90:12 NIV*

 

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

 

 

 

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.