If you are swimming in deep waters (Holding sadness and joy at the same time)

If you are swimming in deep waters (Holding sadness and joy at the same time)

In the middle of a midnight drive, in a terrible rainstorm, I saw it. A giant boat rising up on the side of the interstate out of the chaos.

A bubble of laughter burst from my throat unexpectedly. “That’s a boat! I mean seriously there’s a boat on the road!”

I thrilled a little in imagining it to be a modern day Noah’s Ark sort of situation. I giggled like a kid at the silliness of finding a boat all by itself on the interstate, ready to face the oncoming deluge should it devolve into a worldwide flood.

It had been a really terrible night. And a wonderful night.

My family and I had been visiting with old friends and were on our way back from Long Island to PA where I have family, when I accidentally directed us through Time Square. Yes. Accidentally. Who does that? I still think my GPS owes me an explanation for THAT set of directions. But we got to show that place of bustling craziness to our oldest son who had lived there with us as a baby.

“Mom, what is this place? Why are we here?”

“It’s New York City. And I don’t know.”

“I LOVE it Mom! Look at all the people Mom! This is amazing!”

We skipped through the traffic and did our best not to hit jaywalkers. We both laughed heartily when a car pulled around us in our left-turn lane to turn left from the right hand lane because we were not FAST enough. And I got a phone call, somewhere in the middle of the mad dash through Manhattan, that somewhere a baby had died.

Softly in his sleep. His mother, my community member, fellow teacher and fellow Mom, sat somewhere in devastation.

And I had to look back to my family. To give us directions so that we could find Lincoln tunnel before we got lost in the labyrinth of NYC forever. To talk to my son about where we were until he fell back asleep. To squeeze my younger son’s leg and make sure he was still breathing, because I needed to hear that. Over and over again I checked.

And my husband and I had this magnificent conversation about life, and love, and sadness. I had just received permission to use the name of another Son who had died almost exactly one year before. To use his name for the unborn child I now carry, a child who is to be my third son. He will bear the name of my own family’s lost son so that we can remember, and take joy in a life well-lived, and bring forth new life in the midst of sadness.

And it was one of those conversations that marks a place in time. As if we were getting to step outside of time for just a little bit to review where we had been. To muse on where we would go and ponder how we would walk through great tragedy should it ever come to us. We laughed, and we cried (Ok, I mostly cried and my husband sat in respectable somber silence). And we were at once joyful and hopeful and devastated. And I did my best to hold all of it without dropping any of those feelings, wrapping it like gossamer and thorns around my own heart. I held the meaning of the grief and the memories and the giggling all at once…

as we drove into one of the worst thunder storms I have ever been in.

And we spent 3 hours blundering through rain so thick we couldn’t see the lines on the road, only forging ahead because every other car had their emergency flashers on too, little blinking lighthouses to follow into the night that, themselves, could take a tumble off the road. My knuckles gripped my seat in anxiety as I continued to cry and laugh. I thought about our beautiful night, the real fear of driving on a road we could not see, and that I was experiencing all this at the same time another mother somewhere was having the worst night of her life, and two more I know were remembering the not so distant worst night of theirs.

And Jonathon and I, we held all of these things up. We tried to bear the weight with courage. To fully exult in the joyful and mourn for the brokenness and loss.

And that boat rose up from the storm, like a whimsical love letter to us straight from the God I’ve always thought was just a touch sarcastic and wry (in the best way of course). And I honestly don’t know if I was laughing or crying more.

And we drove home to where my brand new baby niece sleeps in her brand new home with my brother and his wife. Where there were more snuggles to be had and new life to be enjoyed.

And I was so very truly sad-happy in terrible and wonderful sincerity.

It was a treasure-all-these-things-up-in-our-hearts-night.

And we held it all together as we crawled into our bed to try and sleep. Full of wonder, free of fear, trusting that God would hold us whatever would come.

We laid there believing he holds those in grief so closely: past and future, all who have ever mourned and all who ever will. Like children believing our parent knows where we are going in the storm and that somehow, simply because of who they are, who HE is, no matter what happens, the car will stay on the road and we will be ok.

And I still believe that we will be.

If You’ve Ever Yelled at Your Neighbor (Thoughts about Quirks and Bad Behavior Vs. Spiritual Gifts)

If You’ve Ever Yelled at Your Neighbor (Thoughts about Quirks and Bad Behavior Vs. Spiritual Gifts)

“I’m a monster,” said the shadow of the Marquess suddenly. “Everyone says so.” The Minotaur glanced up at her. “So are we all, dear,” said the Minotaur kindly. “The thing to decide is what kind of monster to be. The kind who builds towns or the kind who breaks them.”

Catherynne M. Valente

Most people don’t think it when they first meet me, but I have been in an impressive set of verbal and physical altercation stories for someone who is often assigned adjectives like “nice,” “quiet,” and “I don’t know who that is.”

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Recently I got into one such altercation which I detailed on Facebook and then later deleted, because:

  • The responses I got from friends were not quite what I was hoping for,
  • Just in case my neighbors could somehow connect with me on Facebook now or we actually become friends later I really don’t want that post hanging out
  • It came off as way more judgmental than I wanted even though I was trying to leave out any details that sounded condemning of others involved.

Responses were overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and while I feel really ungrateful for saying this, they didn’t really give me any comfort. I think this is what I had on my mind:

  1. Does this happen to other people? Please tell me it does.
  2. It makes me feel better to tell the story of how silly I was to stand on a milk-crate and put my leg through it causing bleeding and bruising (for some reason). But also I want sympathy for physical discomfort and being an idiot.
  3. I actually kind of want to know what other people do in this situation instead. And most of the time that kind of advice would come off as preachy and I appreciate that people didn’t just give it. But although #1 is on my mind, I’m pretty sure by now out of experience that other people (ones I respect anyway) generally deal with these situations differently.

I did finally just ask a friend what she would have done and she said, “I would have walked away and told him I’d be happy to talk when we could talk without yelling.”

I had a seriously “well duh” moment just about then,

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along with my own head commentary which carries full knowledge of how I handle conflict when it’s not directed at me.

I used to work as a cashier at Wal-Mart. When customers inevitably got angry and aimed their accusations at me, I had a line: “You can stand here and yell at me, which I’m happy to let you do, or you can let me go get you someone who can actually solve your problem. I don’t really care which, but one is definitely faster. Your choice.” And I really would serenely stand there and nod empathetically if they kept yelling.

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Once I single handedly solved a years long neighborhood dispute with a little old lady who always came out to yell when kids in the community space made too much noise. In the middle of a really tense shouting match between her and one of the mothers I simply stepped in, rested my hand on the older woman’s arm and asked, “Are you feeling ok? You seem like maybe something is really wrong other than the kids.” She broke down into tears and told me her life story, apologized for yelling at the kids, and said she wouldn’t bother us anymore. (She never did as far as I know).

I can take joy in just how calm I can be in the face of spitting red faced fury. Calmness is both offensive to the angry and completely impenetrable. It’s beautiful. So why can’t I seem to keep it when I’m in situations where someone actually has the power to hurt me and I really do have responsibility for what they are angry about?

One of my dearest friends in the world thought very seriously about NOT being in relationship with me at the beginning of our friendship because I admitted that I occasionally have a scary temper, and then she witnessed it.

We were walking on a sidewalk together when a car who was trying to take a shortcut to a parking lot was actually driving up on the sidewalk behind us. She immediately stepped out of the way and motioned for me to join her. But I instead slowed down to a painful speed and said, “I’m not moving. We are supposed to be here. That car is not.” She nervously joined me, not fully knowing what to do. When the car finally honked at me I spun around in a second, and slapped a hand on his hood. I yelled, “THIS IS A SIDEWALK! PEOPLE WALK HERE!”

Guys, it was a car. It could have run me over. I was in a foreign country where I really wasn’t sure they wouldn’t try. That story simultaneously makes me laugh and feel like a complete fool.

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And how could you not wonder, as my friend (or boss), about what would happen if I ever aimed that temper at you? Or couldn’t hold my tongue in a situation where it was harmful to everyone not to do so? I think about that all the time. If I make myself feel like a bomb that could go off at any moment, how must I make other people feel?

That same friend who witnessed the car slapping, DID eventually decide I was worth the trouble, and (I am so grateful for this) decided that at least usually my escapades involve me seeking some sort of justice.

In a recent conversation we discovered we had both had similar experiences involving a Ouji board and a party. Neither of us (being people who seriously believe in the spiritual realm and that messing with it is a very bad idea) wanted to play. My friend had cleverly avoided conflict by moving the Ouji dial around intentionally herself to make sure nothing else could. She got out of an actual spiritual encounter and freaked all her friends out at the same time–but she wasn’t sure she felt good about it.

Me? I said very soundly to my friends, “You guys can all get yourselves killed by a demon if you want, but if you get that thing out I swear I’m walking home right now.” (I lived miles away and it was very late at night, but I meant it.)

“See?” said my friend, upon hearing the story. “That’s why you are the way you are. Every friend group needs someone who does that.”

I guess at least my friends would never end up victims in a horror movie. That’s something right?

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I wish I had a more thoughtful way to end this, except to say that I have insisted over and over again that though we may sometimes use our gifts badly, those quirky attributes often ARE gifts and they are there for a reason. If you start out on a maze and a mythical minotaur gives you a key, there will be a lock you can open with it somewhere–and it won’t matter if you pick your nose with it or use it as a hair barrette. And God is so much kinder than minotaurs.

As long as you keep the keys you are given (and try to keep them out of your nose), they will make sense and be there when you find the locks they are for. That’s what I’m hoping.

If Your Voice is Small

If Your Voice is Small

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

I’ve seen you, fellow quiet sojourner. I know people ask you why you don’t talk too. I admire you, because you are probably better at just saying nothing rather than letting awkward dribble escape now and then, just to prove you exist, like I do. I wish I only talked when I really wanted to. That I didn’t feel pressed into small-talk, which it turns out isn’t often remembered at all anyway. I feel kinship with you, even while I want to give you space and not insist on doing the same thing to you which most people do: expecting friendship, or entertainment, or patronizing conversation where I’m only insisting we talk because I somehow think it’s my job to get you to do it. I see you. I tend to think you are better than me, because you are more comfortable with your backstage place, less worried about how much you exist in the worlds of others, less inclined to fill in the spaces with conversation you don’t really want to have.

Do you, like me, sometimes keep your mouth closed because you know the only thing that would come out would be disappointment or disdain? Or maybe sometimes because you aren’t interested in the conversation going on, and you just honestly don’t know how to pretend to be excited? Or maybe you accidentally dropped off into your own fantasy about a magical land where cups of coffee are always bottomless and naps are long and thunderstorms always come at 3 o’clock sharp after plenty of sunshine so that rain is always whimsical and dreamy (and never just cold and dark) and animals really do understand what you are saying and people never ever think that being quiet means that you are less capable, or less smart, or less important?

And I’m guessing that you, like me, are always just a little startled when the label “quiet” is applied at all. Because it’s not quiet in your head. Because when you are one-on-one with someone you really care about you can go on for hours. And if you measure only the talking that people do that they really care about, and really deeply mean, the amount is really about the same. And I bet you, like me, have a hard time regretting not being into fluff conversations. And hopefully you, unlike me, don’t have a lot of regrettable fluffy conversations on your conscience, because you, unlike me, are a more dignified version of “quiet.”

Maybe you, like me, trust words more when you’ve had time to think about them and when you can set them down on paper. Or screen. Not a place where they just float out in the air to be forgotten, or misconstrued later, but in a place of permanence where they can be counted, measured, and heard again and again. Because words can be such slippery dangerous things when you don’t pin them down properly. (It’s so much easier to be held responsible for something I can prove I said, rather than for something I don’t quite remember saying or that I’m sure I said in another way).

And do you, like me, struggle not to roll your eyes when yet ANOTHER charismatic go-getter with a loud voice and a tendency toward pandering and a total lack of appreciation for thoughtful types has been elected as your boss, or pastor, or mayor, or president of the adorable cats appreciation club? (Just kidding, obviously cat lovers would never do such a thing.) Do you sigh with relief on the rare occasion when someone who values substance and reflection and honesty, and occasionally quiet, actually manages to be the leader of something? Do you then roll your eyes again as all the charismatic go-getters scramble to be that person’s friend now that he has some influence?

I think God made sure Moses was in the bible just for us. People talk about his speech impediment, but they act like he must have been yet another charismatic go-getter who just happened to have a stutter and would be just as loud and charismatic and go-getting as the popular leaders they are used to. They forget about his reluctance to lead at all, or his quiet response over and over again to merely go and pray when the Israelites were ready to kill him. Or the fact that when more charismaticky go-getters thought they deserved leadership just as much as he did that they were struck-down with leprosy or sucked straight into a hole in the ground.  (Look it up. It’s not smart to spurn God’s quieter ones). God has raised us, defended us, loved us, valued us, and occasionally smote the loud ones on our behalf. And a quiet man got to deliver the law, organize God’s nation, and see the Messiah when he first showed his true form.

 

Know that when I see you, I do not think of you as quiet at all. You speak volumes beloved friends. Not all words are spoken. Not all meaning needs words at all. And sometimes, silence can be the loudest response of all.

 

*Note: I do not actually advocate for the smiting of loud people…mostly.

 

If You Really Love Trees (When Anger is Hard to Explain)

If You Really Love Trees (When Anger is Hard to Explain)

I like to think of myself as a bit of a hobbit–because I can be the same old boring and quiet person day in and day out until out of nowhere…

I hurl an apple as hard as I can with a Tarzan-like scream at school bullies.

I try to break down the door someone had curtly slammed on my nose and wake up my entire dorm floor throwing myself at it.

I calmly and coldly stand still in front of a car threatening to run me over because he is driving on a sidewalk illegally behind me and it pisses me off.

I stand between two men about to fight and break it up even though my BABY is strapped to my chest.

I personally chase down on foot a bunch of football players on ATV’s throwing water balloons at people with that same Tarzan scream because one landed inches from my ear.

These are things I actually did. There are more stories like that too. If something gets me killed one of these days it’s definitely going to be my crazy out of nowhere volcano temper. Sometimes I think the only thing that saved me was that no one ever expected it from me. I always used to just shove those events back in the dark recesses of my mind as quickly as possible. I probably wasn’t going to do that again. Right? And I never really wanted to ask myself why they had happened at all.

Secretly, I have often thought of myself as a grumpy slob who would rather just live in a cave with cats (and probably resemble something like the crazy cat lady in the Simpsons who throws her angry cats at people for no reason at all) and a good coffee machine and maybe some books and video games. And some rocks to throw at squirrels. Because I think I am a horrible and selfish person. I only have good qualities because other people seem to want them and I seem to want other people in spite of myself. So I have been angry at everyone. And no one. And mostly myself.

Once, when I was at a a big church conference, there was a sermon on the power of healing people through faith. I don’t remember much, other than that at the end there was this opportunity to experience one of the most beautiful sacraments of the church–being anointed with oil. I sat and listened and casually noted that I had no physical needs for healing. I watched friends go down for healing who had cancer, or migraines, or various other needs. But to my own astonishment, I found myself walking down toward one of those doing the anointing. I had no idea what I was going to say. These are the words that came out of my mouth:

“I’m so angry I can’t bear it. I’m angry every day and every night and I think I hate everyone. I’m. Just. So. Angry.” A torrent of unexpected tears came, as I sank into my own horror at myself, and the relief that came at admitting to the acrid secret that tore at me constantly.

He awkwardly told me that my need wasn’t really what they meant by healing, but he prayed with me anyway.  He gave me no anointing. I walked away feeling empty and really unsure of why I had felt compelled to go down. And my own words were a shock to me. The angry cat lady was a thought I barely acknowledged even to myself. I shook off the tears and emotion and put the awkward healing prayer I didn’t need behind me.

Years later, after getting married, 3 moves, 2 kids, and a lot of realizing that I seem to be discontented pretty much wherever we were, it happened. I was sitting at a ladies lunch with friends listening to the story of another friend. She told a story similar to the one I had as a kid. She had moved to a new town and it hadn’t gone well. She eventually learned how to fit in and got new clothes and a great hair-do and became student council president and was successful in so many ways. (I know her own story was one about the follies of chasing approval by other people, and painful for its own reasons, but those things faded completely in the light of my own regret at my own life). It cracked me wide open. A hurricane of jealousy and hatred and rage filled me in that moment so that I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move.

Her story was not my story, and I wished it was. I was never popular, and never managed to look particularly cool or beautiful. We never had much money and my clothes were either used or from Wal-Mart. I had some academic achievement and a handful of friends and I knew that should have made me feel blessed. But in so many ways for so many reasons, some real and some imagined, and some so bad I’d never told anyone, I felt cheated.  And in that moment of jealousy and anger I was so ashamed that I couldn’t move on from these things. I put my head in my hands and cried great big ugly tears.


When I was small, there were these two beautiful trees in the back yard of our parsonage home. They stood next to a big chain link fence that divided our yard from the highway and the train tracks that lay on the other side. My brother and I each claimed a tree as ours. We used to climb up into our trees, hang on with one arm and wave and yell things at the conductors of trains that passed. One day one of the parishioners cut them down. All that remained were stumps. Someone claimed they were ugly and too close to the gorgeous (*cough) chain link fence back there. My young self didn’t understand at all, didn’t they ask if those trees belonged to anyone? I visited the stumps afterward, like grave stones. I talked to them (Ok, I know I’m admitting something about myself right here, but I also talk to my cats, my lamps, and oh whatever–I like trees and I talk to them.) I told them I missed them and I was sorry.

Years later, there was this tree in the front yard of the next parsonage we moved to. It was this enormous Maple tree that turned the color of fire in the fall. I loved that tree like a dear friend. But it only ever had leaves on half of it’s branches. The other half were dead and bare. It was broken, but in a way I delighted in forgiving it for. It was like me. Beautiful and Ugly. Dead and Alive. Awake and Asleep. I adored it.

One day, driving back from school with Mom, I came home to find it cut down and sliced up into pieces on our front yard. It’s sap was still visibly oozing and dripping down the slices. Like blood. I picked up both of my feet and slammed them into our car’s dashboard when I saw it. And I screamed something like “OF COURSE THEY WOULD OF COURSE THEY WOULD BECAUSE I LOVED THAT TREE! OF COURSE THEY WOULD!”

I think my mother almost drove into the curb in surprise at my outburst and complete change in demeanor.

Someone told me the tree was rotten inside. That it wasn’t any good. I think I said, “Oh, sure. I guess that makes sense. It’s just sad.” Inside I felt murderous. The people who killed the tree were the same people who had shut one of my cats in a room alone while my family was on vacation. He had died slowly of dehydration and infection as a result. I wasn’t exactly trusting of their respect toward living things.

It was the lack of control of my life that drove me crazy. My family didn’t own very much. We borrowed most of it. House, trees, furnishings, carpets, bathrooms, yards. Other people could decide at a moments notice there needed to be a change, or something had to go. And no one ever seemed to care or ask me how I felt about things. But I was also sure that it wouldn’t take anything too out of order for me to get my Dad fired or at least very very embarrassed. So I held it in and smiled at everything. And when I wrote in my journal sometimes I wrote so angrily I tore holes through the paper with my pen. And I secretly whispered to trees that I loved them and that I was on their side.

As an adult, I once had an ESL student tell me she thought I was the happiest person in the world. I laughed and without thinking said, “Oh that’s probably just because I’m from the MidWest! We all smile there. Even when we’re not happy at all. It’s pretty creepy actually.” I looked at her blank stare and realized it was probably the wrong thing to say. “Ha, ha, hey creepy! That’s a great word. Anyone know how to define the word creepy?…”

Smiling when I didn’t mean it had gotten to be a lifelong habit. And hating people who wielded any sort of power had as well. But it was buried so deep I could only find it in a moment where someone was throwing water balloons at me or hitting my face with a door. But it was unmistakable. I did not believe that the vast majority of people were on my side at all.


At that moment, the one where I was crying big ugly angry tears after my friend told her story, I felt a gentle touch on my head. I looked up to see the face of a lady at my church, smiling with so much compassion it melted my resentment in a moment. She had neat curly hair and square glasses perched on the tip of her nose. The eyes behind them were so kind. She didn’t ask me what was wrong or make me tell my story. She held my head in her hands and she prayed with me. And then, from her purse, she pulled out a vial of oil. She anointed me and asked God for healing.

One touch, even far after the fact, from one person willing to accept my anger and sadness and have compassion on it took this huge weight off of my shoulders I’d been carrying for so long. She didn’t make me prove I deserved compassion, like so many other people, or weigh me or judge me in any way. She was Jesus to me like that man at the conference had failed to be. Or the tree killers, the cat killers, or that guy driving his car on the sidewalk behind me.


Two years ago I got to plant trees in the backyard of the house I bought with my husband. My kids and I watched as the tree guys put them in the ground and tethered them to posts. “Look mommy! Baby trees!” squealed my oldest. I smiled, a real smile, and gave him a squeeze.

“Yes kiddo. We’ve got to take care of them as a family. They’ve got a lot of growing to do, but we’re going to help them.”

When all my family was asleep I snuck out into the backyard that night to water the new trees. I touched each one and let their leaves brush my cheeks. I whispered to each one.

“We love you. You are ours. We’re going to take care of you.”

If You’re Busy Taming Lions (Some Thoughts on Stress and Procrastination)

If You’re Busy Taming Lions (Some Thoughts on Stress and Procrastination)

If you were to open up my Senior High School year book and turn to the section where “best smile” and “class artist” are listed, you would also find my picture. My snarky one eyebrow raised visage can clearly be seen peeking out from behind the book I was actually reading at the time. It is captioned: “Class Overachiever.”*

The next day, I mentally made a list of goals for college:

  1. Get some B’s.
  2. Don’t work so hard on things you think are stupid.
  3. Have more fun.
  4. Stop basing life decisions on what other people think.

Putting in the effort had only gotten me a bunch of good grades based on work that I mostly didn’t care about or like, and the ridiculous slap-in-the-face-epiphany: “you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.” I had thought if I worked hard people would like me, or at least respect me.  But trying to please people is like taking a bath with a plugged in toaster: idiotic and terrible for your health.

I’ve been thinking about that stupid stupid picture in that yearbook a lot this week. After a long  time of really not ever trying to take on extra responsibility and only achieving privately whenever I could manage it, I’ve finally decided that high school me had some good qualities and trying to DO stuff and take on responsibility might be something I’d like to try again. I’ve signed up for some writing, a little speaking, creating a little bit of written material for an event, some event planning of my own, and just some extra hospitality for the people I care about. Nothing crazy. And this stuff is spread out over months.

And right now I’ve turned into a sort of lion tamer with my stress.

“Back! Back I say you dirty beasts!”

A friend recently asked me “did you just take on too much?”

“No,” I said. “I know I can do the stuff I volunteered for, and when I will do it. It’s all very manageable. But somehow also terrifying.”

When I get in this state, no amount of organization seems to cure that sickly feeling behind my belly button. No lists or schedules can tame it. And no amount of trying to get a jump on the work and do it early helps either. In fact, usually I just find myself staring at my computer or phone almost unable to push the keys. Or I DO push the keys and what comes out is absolute garbage. And then all the little chores I could do around my house catch my attention and I let whatever I was trying to do disappear to somewhere in the back of my mind where tomorrow Andi can worry about it. Today Andi is going to go take a bath. Or read. Or cane a dozen episodes of the Great British Baking Show (and if you ever need a pick me up and some time to idealize the world beyond all sanity, I highly recommend it. British accents and cake are miraculous).

But I saw this video recently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QetfnYgjRE&index=95&list=PLwxNMb28XmpckOvZZ_AZjD7WM2p9-6NBv

I am not too busy, which is an excuse I always used in college. I am not unable to complete the work. I have not signed up for too much. I absolutely have time for leisure and things I enjoy right now. But I am absurdly afraid of failure.

And not just failure mind you, because I know that everyone makes mistakes and that many of them can be laughed off and learned from. But I am afraid of creating something so bad that my life will be objectively worse off from trying to do a thing than if I had never attempted it at all. I’m afraid I will be summarily judged as too much or too little and discarded with nothing but a stupid picture and label condemning my effort.

Deep breath.

But here’s the good news: this is the first time I’ve ever ever admitted that. I do not have too much to do: I’m afraid to do it. Admitting you have a problem is the first step right? So here’s my list, for now:

  1. I am no longer trying to please people, nor do I expect to.
  2. Risk is part of a full life.
  3. Being an idiot is part of the human condition and I need to practice at least a little crashing and burning so that I can get better at it.
  4. I can  trust that I have everything I need to accomplish what I signed up for, even if it means knowing who to go to for help.
  5. I was not created to sit on my butt, even if it IS safer.

As far as I can figure, to get good at something you have to tolerate being bad at it for awhile. And I think doing things on a reasonable time frame and without worry about risk or what other people think is something I just have to do and be bad at for now. And luckily, adults don’t tend to make yearbooks or vote on “most” or “best” anything.

So instead of cleaning up elephant poop because it’s safer, this week I will head into the lion cages with my whip and chair ready to make those lions behave. Wish me luck, and try to figure out what part of that metaphor actually works and which part is just silly. (Answer: all of it.  All of it is silly).

*I begged to hold the book upside down as a sort of protest, poke at myself, and ironic comment all at the same time. I was refused.

If You’re Having Trouble Staying Awake (Adventures of a Wayward Lenten Fast)

If You’re Having Trouble Staying Awake (Adventures of a Wayward Lenten Fast)

For Lent this year, I decided to take a fast from self comfort and fill in the void with self compassion and intentionality. Basically I’m trying to force myself to feast on mindfulness until Easter. And you know what? So far I’m failing pretty hard. Even though I’ve totally refrained from coffee and tv and social media outside of communication (ok I slipped a little out of forgetfulness, but really I’m doing ok!), but it hasn’t really kept me mindful. It turns out that I can slip into a self comforting state of forgetfulness and distance from any pain in my world without any prop whatsoever. I literally have the ability to just sit there and turn off my brain. How on earth do I have this ability? I didn’t used to be this way.

I don’t know at what point exactly when everything became so hard. When I was a kid, I used to spend hours digging up rolly pollies just so I could watch them crawl across the ground and curl up into those funny little balls when I poked at them.  My best friend and I used to dig under bushes in almost religious silence, wondering about the complexities of the smallest thing.  Rain was glorious and produced fantastic puddles.  Chocolate was good. Tag was fun.  Blowing bubbles was a majestic miracle. And when you liked someone and wanted to be their friend, by golly, that’s exactly what you did.  The world was challenging, but always simple.

But as an adult, I flop the equation.  Most of life doesn’t seem that hard anymore. I fold laundry. I sweep floors. Money must be made to buy food. Kids must be bathed. Maybe when the challenge and wonder goes out of so much of life from repetition and familiarity, the sacred goes with it. I don’t see wonderful tiny creatures in the ground, I see dirt that can be tracked in. I don’t see the beauty of rain, I see the inconvenience that comes with being cold and wet. I don’t see playing tag, I see exhaustion and how out of shape I am. Everything is complicated but nothing is sacred and valuable. Things are easy but joy is hard to find.

I think at some point I decided that if I trip along, mostly surviving, never intentionally doing anything (good or bad, because I could mistake one for the other and that is not a risk I’m willing to take), arriving at the end of the day without any idea really how I got there, it was somehow better than making real decisions with actual responsibility taking. I want to be doing more than surviving and avoiding blame. I want to be awake to life!

So I decided that in order to accomplish this, I might actually have to consider planning my day. This is not something I really ever do. And I realized as I sat down to make my first plan, that it horrifies me. That much intentionality highlights what probably undergirds the whole problem: I don’t even know what I want to do because I am so afraid what I want might be wrong or it might not work. And that’s not a silly fear. I want a lot of wrong things and I do a lot of stupid stuff when left to my own devices. What can I do?

Quite awhile ago I was reading through The Jesus Story Book Bible with my oldest son. To my great frustration, he kept flipping the pages on me instead of letting me read. In my usual habit I unnecessarily flipped out at him. Bedtime was almost over. I was almost free! I couldn’t handle the delay.

“If you aren’t going to pay attention to me reading then I’m just going to be done reading to you!” *huff huff grimace.

“But mommy,” he said. “I just want to look at Jesus!”

My heart melted. I was a jerk. I let him look at Jesus all he wanted. I apologized for being rude. We talked about who Jesus was and why he is so good. I was  grateful that my son had managed to draw in my focus and push me up out of my need to just move past the things in my day that I had to do.

Every time something like this catches me, it feels like waking up. And every time I don’t really remember why I fell asleep again. Until I do.  Why is this so hard?

I’m only a few days into this, and I’m not sure I have any idea what I’m doing. Why on earth did I pick such a big huge thing as being mindful? But I have a feeling my son had the right idea. I can’t do this thing alone. And after all, it seems that what I’m continually looking for is cheap comfort in the face of a world that is too terrifying to think about very often, if I can stomach it at all.

But there is real comfort out there. So again and again, every time I’m feeling tired, or very mortal, or like eating when I’m not hungry, or tuning out to tv, or books or movies, or even just sitting still and thinking about nothing at all–I try to think about how my son knew exactly what he needed to be doing.

And I just want to look at Jesus.

This could totally be yet another example of how I really suck at picking reasonable project scope. But let’s face it, even if I crash and burn horribly at this and drive up to Starbucks tomorrow demanding a Venti-triple-shot-half-caf-mocha (Oh goodness, that was just off the top of my head. I don’t drink anything like that. Don’t judge me!), I’m headed in the right direction. And I will be present a whole lot more which is really good. And I will look at Jesus a whole lot more, which is priceless.

That’s my plan for now. That and maybe blowing some bubbles. Is there anything more like paying attention to the tiny pieces of the moment than blowing bubbles?

Anybody else out there feel like they may have bit off more than they can chew for Lent?

If We Are Becoming

If We Are Becoming

This pain has worn me well

This sorrow has made me rich

What is sadness then?

In the hands of the blessed

The children of glory

It is only the path to becoming

A way of wealth and joy

For we love a man of sorrows

Whose tears were more than gold

Whose heart held riches through pain

And who made a way to become

So we do not despair

We become

What greater joy is there

Than for one who has seen death

One who has seen the hellish broken

To delight in the early morning

To breathe deep and fully

Who knows doubtlessly

It was only becoming

And she is becoming still

I did not feel the rush of joy and protective hormones you are supposed to feel when they put my son in my hands for the first time. I found myself instead, scrounging around for something anything that would help me grasp the moment. But I couldn’t. This little squishy and slightly sticky bundle was a stranger to me. What I felt upon the birth of my son was not love, or new identity, but relentless, heavy, unbreakable duty. And that was all I had to go on.

I was not prepared at all for the relentless nature of motherhood. The diapers that always had to be changed again. The fact that the next time he would need to eat would be very soon. Always soon. The endless need for sleep and the constant realization that what sleep I got barely touched the ever growing debt of exhaustion that had wound itself around every cell in my body and settled deeply into my soul.

And when I looked at him,  I felt all the freedom I used to have and how very very dead it was now. And always duty. And pity too, because none of this was his fault. And he had me as a mother. And I did NOT feel like a mother.

There were so many things that made me feel that way. Breastfeeding was not possible for me and my son became dehydrated and lethargic before I discovered that fact, to my horror. I did not handle sleep deprivation with any kind of grace. I did not find sitting next to my son all day alone as he made gurgling noises thrilling in any way. I had already begun counting down the days until he turned 18–because my new mom brain thought that it would be exactly like this forever.

What I wish I could tell myself back then more than anything is “hormones or not, no one becomes a mother in a day, or in many ways even in a year or in two. Becoming a mother takes a long time, and I suspect, it never stops. You are becoming one right now, even if you don’t see it yet.”

In many ways, I think my own identity of mother is more a mark of what I have done than of any ability I ever had before that. I am now a mother to two very special boys. A mother of a 4 year old and a 2 year old. I cannot be a mother with all the wisdom of one who has say, a 10 year old until I have earned that by doing it over the next 6 years. I am becoming. I have become. And it is that becoming which matters so much.

I have always struggled under the weight of feeling like I simply AM things. I AM good at math or I AM bad at directions. Hard work wasn’t really about anything other than sheer production to me. I did not know you could get better at things, as strange as that may seem.

But as I have tried to get away from this faulty idea in my adulthood, I have run into the wall that I think so many in my generation do. That I also cannot be ANYTHING I want. If I decided I wanted to be a professional basketball player, I could not make that happen. My lack of any natural grace, and short stature would ensure that. I could get better at it than I am, but I cannot choose what I can be excellent in outside of a narrow set of skills and tendencies and biological leanings. So then I have to ask myself, what is it that I am actually capable of becoming? Can I even know that? Can I be a good mother simply because I want to be? Or a writer? Or a friend?

For the most part, I think all we can choose is what to grow toward. If I go outside when I can be alone, and manage to find a moment to slip off my shoes and feel the earth beneath my feet and I breathe deeply and let the world feel big and myself feel small–one thing is obvious. We were brought into a world of ever growing things. We are made to be ALIVE and not to be still.  We WILL grow in some way and toward something. And growing things tend to always grow toward that which gives them the most energy.

I really hate to think of what growing toward Netflix looks like. Or comfort eating. Or 8 cups of coffee in one day. But by grace, by so much grace we can grow back again and again toward something better, no matter how much we lean to lesser things. I don’t think we always have to know what it is we need to become if we fix our eyes on the work that has specifically been set before us, and on what is good, and worthy, and true. It is not the seed who ultimately ordains this miracle, or the planter, but the God who made them both. 

There were so many places in my life where I was not yet who I wanted to be, but those moments were often the ones that eventually pushed me closer to who I was supposed to be, and to the passions that make me who I am. And I do not regret a single ounce of pain from any of those moments. For they brought me here, to this place in my life and every blessing or gifting I have. And I do not know if I am the best mother that has ever existed (I can guess pretty well that I am not), but I am the best mother I can be to my very own two boys and I will be better yet tomorrow. Even more than this, the joy I find in my identity as Mother now is breathtaking. I leaned in, I showed up, I watered that ground with faith and transformation happened so slowly I never saw it until it already was.

I wish I could say to so many many pieces of myself scattered back through time, “You are becoming. You were not made for this moment alone, but for another one, and many more–and for all of them put together.”