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.

 

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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.

Mix Tape

Yesterday I met with a student to work on a writing assignment for a 200-level English class at a Big Ten university in my town.  The assignment requires the student to, in seven pages, validate his reasons for wanting to have a particular album or playlist if he were to find himself stranded on a deserted island.  His paper, the assignment states, must have threads, or themes, that reveal why the music choices are significant to him.

(First of all, seven pages?  Seriously?  Who wants to read all that?  The instructor must have graduate student minions to do the reading for him.  All I can think is seven times twenty-six (the number of students in my class this semester) — that is a lot of pages to read and respond to!! Anyway, I digress.)

So, I was thinking after I left this student yesterday, what music would I want with me if I were to be stranded on a desert island. I don’t know how I could limit the music I would need to one album or play list, but I am going to do my best here.  In the process, we will see what kinds of threads, or themes appear.  Ok?  Let’s play!

Category 1: Music from classic guys: Billy Joel, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, Elton John. I mean, …. ok, I just paused my writing to turn Pandora to my Elton John station…what’s playing?  “Don’t Let the Sun go Down on Me!” Can’t you see me jamming out to this on my own island, playing my air piano, and crying out to God, “Don’t let the sun go on me…” Yeah, I’ll admit, I don’t know many more of the words, but I’ll be alone on an island; I can sing whatever  words I want!  The music of these guys — Billy, Phil, Stevie, Elton — makes me so stinking happy!  I won’t be able to be depressed; I’ll be too busy performing my own concerts at full volume!

Category 2: Some female pipes: Christina Aguilera, Aretha Franklin, Crystal Lewis, Kim Massie, Alicia Keyes.  Since I’m performing concerts, I might as well channel my inner diva and belt out some soulful tunes.  I mean, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” “Ain’t No Other Man,” “People Get Ready Jesus is Coming,” Mm–mm–mm.  I’m holding my palm frond microphone, closing my eyes, and sainging. 

Category 3:  Queen. Yes.  They get their own category.  Clicked my Pandora, and what started playing? “Don’t Stop Me Now!” This is my jam!!!!  “…two hundred degrees, that’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit! I’m traveling at the speed of light!” I’m picturing me singing this and dancing through the jungle on my island, picking bananas, and laughing as loudly as I can.  I think I’m going to like island living.

Category 4: Crowder and company.  David Crowder has a way shifting my jam to worship.  In one little click I went from being the master of my own universe to remembering that “You Make Everything Glorious.”  I’m sitting on my beach, looking out at the crashing waves, drinking in the sunshine, arms in the air, worshiping with abandon, “…from glory to glory, You are glorious!…and I am Yours!”

Category 5: Fernando Ortega. Crowder paved the way for Ortega’s even more worshipful and reflective acoustic sounds.  As I sit on the beach, the sun starts to set on the horizon. I hear “I need thee every hour…” and I realize all of a sudden that the concert and the dancing are over for the day. The darkness is falling and I am utterly alone.  I needed Him all day, but in the darkness, I am painfully of aware of that need.  So, I let the music continue to play and I hear the words from my youth, “…just as I am without one plea…I come, I come.” I dare to harmonize with Fernando, because, I mean, no one’s listening.  If I am flat, who will know? who will care? And as, in my mind, our voices blend, the words sink into my soul and I feel the presence of God. I am not alone.

And that’s my thread, isn’t it? That although I would be the only person on my deserted island, I wouldn’t actually be, you know, deserted. I would be in the company of Greatness and I would celebrate that, ponder that, and be thankful for that.

Thanks for the help, ladies and gentlemen, you make a great mixtape.

 

 

Struggling Still

So, I’ve been sitting here with my laptop open for quite a while now.  I’ve finished my Bible study.  I’ve responded to several student emails.  I’ve looked at and managed my calendar for the week. But I’m not feeling inspired to write anything.

I have this problem.  I want to be authentic — to not sound cheesy, or preachy, or packaged in any way.  I want what comes out of my fingers to be a genuine reflection of where I’m at.  And, to be honest, ‘where I’m at’ is in my pajamas, sitting on a futon in my office, covered in warmed flaxseed pillows with my dog squished up next to me.  It’s a pretty good life, actually, but it’s not much to write about.

Yet, I’ve committed to writing more.  So, I’m going to write.  And then, for the most part, I’m going to spend my day being still.

I still struggle with this — with stillness, that is.  In my former life, I didn’t have very many times of stillness.  Days, weeks, months, and years, were full of activity — of doing, going, achieving, completing, accomplishing.  So, sitting here halfway through a Monday morning , still dressed in the same clothes I slept in with no intention of changing anytime soon, still seems odd.

I’m telling you, my Missouri friends would not recognize me.  I had a colleague who used to say, “I wish I understood how you get so much done.”  Me, too, friend, me, too.  I’ve said before on this blog how by this time of day in my former life I would’ve showered, put dinner in the crock pot, transported three or four kids to their various schools, tidied my classroom, reviewed my lesson plans, met with a family and their child to craft an educational contract, set up an appointment to observe a teacher, tracked down two delinquent students in the hallway, taught one section of composition, attended chapel, and managed any number of other administrative tasks.

Today? I’ve played my turn in about ten games of Words with Friends, started a load of laundry, finished last night’s dishes, drank some tea and a smoothie, heated some flaxseed pillows, sat down next to my dog, completed my Bible study, and sent some emails.

The rest of my day includes some lesson planning for the upcoming semester and editing a short paper for a student. Period. Ok, fine, I will try to do some Pilates. But seriously, I’m not doing anything else.  I’m not leaving the house.  At all.

And why am I struggling with this?  This is the new reality that was Hand-crafted for me.  This is the Next Chapter I’ve been blessed with.  It’s not boring. It’s not unsatisfying.  In fact, it is exactly what the Doctor ordered to put me back on the path to health.

Yet the do-er in my still sometimes feels like I should be accomplishing something, checking more off my list, making a difference, proving my worth. There it is. Something in me (and in you?) tells me that I don’t have worth unless I have accomplished something in my day. My value is in direct proportion to all the things I have managed to complete.  But ladies and gentlemen, that is a lie.  It’s a lie that I chose to believe for a long time.  And I believed it really well.  So well that I denied myself the opportunity to be still and recover from all the doing.  So, really, (wink, wink) I’m making up for lost time.

Do yourself a favor today.  Remind yourself that your worth is not based on what you do.  It is based on Whose you are. You have been purchased at a great price.  Your value is unfathomable.  Sit down for a minute and fathom that.  Drink it in for a moment while you are being still.

I Corinthians 6:19-20

 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price.Therefore honor God with your bodies.

Write anyway.

The first piece of advice I give to writing students is that if they want to improve their writing, they have to commit to writing every day.  I often say, “Set a timer for ten minutes and keep your hands or fingers moving that entire time.  It doesn’t matter what you are writing about; just write.”

Often I get the response, “But I don’t know what to write about!”

And I say, “Write anyway.”

So, today I am taking my own advice.  I found the time in my afternoon to do some writing and I thought to myself, “I don’t know what to write about!” And then I heard my answer, “Write anyway.”

Since I’ve been finding threads in this blog for the last couple of posts, I might as well acknowledge that ‘writing about writing’ is one of my threads.  I don’t know if every blogger is so drawn to writing as I am.  I mean, they have to like writing a little bit if they take the time to blog, right?  But do they feel the tug to get to the keys?  Do they feel refreshed and energized after they have found the way to order their thoughts in words on a screen?  Do they turn to the laptop to make sense of their chaos?

Because I do.  In fact, if I haven’t written in a while, I get a little cranky…all the thoughts get jammed up in my head, almost begging for a way to get out.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Now, Kristin, I have met you and you certainly say a lot of words every time I am with you; doesn’t that do the same thing?”

Actually, no.  You’re right;  I do use a lot of words.  I like to fill up silent spaces when I am around other people.  In fact, I can’t seem to get myself to shut up.  But often those words aren’t deeply reflective or fully indicative of what is happening in my soul.  They may share insights I have gained through my prayer/Bible/writing, but they aren’t the way I typically get to the insights.

I have found that my best thinking and processing are done when I am quiet.  For instance, at this moment, I have been alone in my house for almost two hours.  I haven’t spoken a word to anyone other than dear old Chester, our golden retriever.  I ate some lunch, read the book of Hosea, wrote in my prayer journal, then turned to my blog.  I’m not entirely sure why, but this process of reading, praying, then writing, creates an openness through which my thoughts can order themselves and find a new expression.

Several years ago, before I entered this next chapter, I would go running every day after school.  I felt I needed that time to ‘download my day’.  While I ran, my stream of consciousness would sort out the moments and file them into folders for later use.  It was a useful transition from my day at school to my day at home.  However, I think all those years I was missing a step.  I rarely sat down in silence to open the folders, reflect on their contents, and find meaning from the moments.

I am taking the time now.

See what happens when you “write anyway”?

Psalm 34:8

Oh, Taste and see that the Lord is good!

Blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him!