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.

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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.” 

If You’ve Never Been an Immigrant (When you need a Human Life Preserver)

If You’ve Never Been an Immigrant (When you need a Human Life Preserver)

Immigrants are some of the bravest people I can think of in this world. And if you have never been one, there is just almost no way to explain how incredibly terrifying and difficult it is to step into a new place where you not only don’t know the rules, but you don’t even know that there are rules you don’t know. I have been an immigrant in another country, and that was tough for sure. But I was somewhat prepared for it as an adult. It doesn’t hold a candle in difficulty to the first time I ever immigrated within my own country.

The first time I stepped foot into the cafeteria at Doudna Elementary, I had no idea where I was supposed to sit. No one had told me where to sit, or how seats were assigned in the cafeteria. At every school I’d ever been in, seating was assigned. At the previous elementary school I attended, it was not only assigned, but done by class in alphabetical order. For four years I had always sat next to the kids whose names were nearest mine in the alphabet. Four years is practically an eternity for a 9 year old.

So with great anxiety, I looked for the kids who my cubby was next to in my new 4th grade class: Daniel H. and Beau H. And I was in luck! They were sitting together! They must do alphabetical too. Not wanting to stand there looking stupid any longer I hurried over to sit with them.

They looked at me like I was some kind of cockroach. Something was definitely wrong. My calculations were definitely off. But not knowing what else to do I ate my lunch as fast as I could and left. I walked out onto the playground where all my new classmates were playing. None of the games looked familiar. No one invited me. I really had no idea where to start and I had already tripped up pretty badly in guessing, so I just sat alone.

Later on I would find notes that my 4th grade teacher made about me and wrote to my mother. “Does not play with the other children. Does not get along with classmates. Spends too much time alone.” Not once had my teacher EVER asked me what was going on or why I wasn’t playing with my peers. What I DO remember was being told soundly that trying to talk to my teachers at recess was inappropriate and I needed to stop. (I had tried to start there because I was generally comfortable in the world of adults. Or at least had been before that.)

A couple days in, I realized something that seemed totally overwhelming about the cafeteria debacle. Kids sat wherever they wanted to. That had just not been the culture of the blue collar school I had come from where such enormous choice might be dangerous. It had not even occurred to me ONCE that the reason the cafeteria was indecipherable was because there were no rules at all to where one sat.

I finally settled on sitting at a table which was mostly occupied by girls from my class. They didn’t seem too thrilled about my presence either, but it was at least getting less of a shocked reaction than the boys I tried. I had no idea that I was sitting at the “popular” table. I just quietly sat at one end, and tried to put as much of my body as I could into the hole that the tables were folded back into when the cafeteria once again became a gym. I listened to what people said, and mostly didn’t talk.

Once I made the mistake of engaging in a game from my old school and tried to “match” boys and girls from my class as couples–but mostly based on putting people with the same color of hair together, the same height, same nose shape, and so on. Kids at my old school weren’t really seriously pairing off yet, so the game was pretty innocuous. But at my new school, couples were already serious business and one of my first couplings was one of the cool girls with a less than cool boy. She immediately told me she would put me with the very large kid in class and started to tell other people about it. I was horrified. I wasn’t trying to mean, but she clearly was.

I was trying to play by the rules I knew. And it did not work.

One day I showed up to sit in my spot at lunch, and the queen bee of the table was already sitting in it.

“Look Andi!” she called out mockingly “I’m sitting in your spot! Are you going to cry? Are you going to try and make me move?”It felt like she saw me drowning and decided that it was high time she took my life jacket, and maybe gave me a good push under as well. I stared at her for a moment. People weren’t perfect at my last school. I knew that when someone was getting made fun of it always got worse when they fought back. So I just picked another spot and I said nothing. I intentionally never sat in my favored spot again.

That was the beginning of a lot of days where I said absolutely nothing. When kids stomped on my feet, I got Mom to buy me steel toed shoes and never explained why. When someone punched me at school and the teacher took his side, I swallowed it. I didn’t want my parents trying to fix it or defend me. When a teacher decided she HATED me because of my Dad’s politics, I just went about my day and tried to dodge her accusations and back biting as much as I could.

Do you know what eventually happened? You should.

I started cracking. The kid who had once kept her head down and really really tried to make the best of things and put a positive spin on everything died. Sometime in Middle School I started arguing. I threw things back at the bullies. I even hit a few kids (careful not to get caught mind you.) I got in food fights. I snarled when people even sounded like they might be thinking of being mean. By the time I graduated with those kids I was known as abrasive and opinionated and definitely oversensitive.

I know this can come off as a long oh poor me kids were mean to me once blog. I hate that. Please know I hate that. Because what I’m really trying to point out is NOT that those kids were bad and I was good. I’m not trying to make any statements about the relative pain of my own school experience compared to anyone else. I’m saying that because of my different culture and expectations for how things worked, I got off to the wrong foot in my new home–and I really never got back on totally. I made new friends, but I never recovered with those first people and I had a very very hard time trusting people in my community.

I was from Kansas, friends. I moved to another state in the same country. The people in that town were not bad, so much as completely unequipped to deal with someone who did not know what they knew. And it did not have to be much. I spoke the same language. I looked quite a lot like them. But it was still enough difference to make a mess of things before I had hardly even gotten started.

I now work with immigrants and people who don’t speak English well because every time I look in their eyes I feel like I just get a little of where they are in life. They are doing everything they can to fit in and blend just like people want them to. And they work so hard to do just that. But what do you do when you have no idea how to pay your rent or that putting garbage out at regular scheduled intervals is a thing? What if you have no idea most Americans aren’t really into a kiss on the cheek and that pointing with your middle fingers is not a good idea, even if that’s how you pointed back home? The only thing that fixes that is if someone comes along and is 1. Kind enough to tell them 2. Understanding enough to forgive them for any previous mistakes.

And even stupid little mistakes in a brand new community can set you up to fail basically forever.

You know what DID eventually help me find a place to belong, and enough to survive, so that thank the good Lord, food fights and a few kicks to the shins were the worst things I actually did? The people who adopted me. The friends I had until the end of high school who were gracious to me and who filled me in on what I was missing (and forgave me for being a bit grumpy and oversensitive at times.)

Friends save lives people.

Friends save immigrants who don’t know how to do very basic things to function in their communities.

Friends save minorities swimming against a sea of people who want them to be just like themselves.

Friends save silly lost girls in grade-school cafeterias.

Friends save anyone who by no fault of their own is a little off the right path and doesn’t know how to get back to a safe place.

Always ask yourself if someone did something rude because they ARE rude, or if there is some piece of culture or personal history you might be missing. And you know what? You can always always ask. Often, almost always, people have reasons for what they do.

I think standing in the gap for someone is one of the most enriching and empowering things I have ever ever been blessed to be able to do. Because in some small way, I feel like I am getting to reach a hand of comfort back to my child self, who didn’t even know where to sit in the freaking cafeteria. And all it really takes is friendship freely offered with room to understand someone with a different story than my own.

So I’m pleading with you. Wherever possible, figure out where people are drowning in culture or even just in life and throw them a life vest. Heck, go and be a damn human life preserver. Because one day, if you are very lucky, you will need a human life preserver and someone will be that for YOU.

And you will never ever forget that person.

If You Hate Small Talk

If You Hate Small Talk

I am the ultimate queen and reigning champion of absolutely despising small talk. That’s right, if hating small talk were an Olympic event, I would take gold, silver, and bronze and I would solemnly cross my hand over my heart as they played the national anthem for my complete and utter domination at hating it.

But I’m also disgustingly good at it. Not by choice mind you. The skill was drilled into me as a matter of self-preservation. But that doesn’t mean I always play by the rules of appropriate small talk. Sometimes out of boredom, or maybe just a wild need to experiment, I tend to…try and spice things up a little.

In Middle School, whilst extremely bored one day in the girls’ locker room, and not a little bit on edge about the aerobics we were about to be forced to take part in (Richard Simmons is still a man of my nightmares thanks to Middle School girls’ gym), I found myself listening to a conversation about the upcoming frog dissection in Biology.

“Oh my word, it’s so gross! Do you think we have to actually cut them ourselves?”

“I hope not! I think I’m going to throw up!”

Just for fun, I decided I’d cut in. “Oh, we have to do more than cut the frogs. I hear Mr. Bray has tiny barbecues set up for us to cook the meat when we’re finished and we have to try some. Well I guess probably only if we want an A.”

A wail immediately went up from the girls around me. “You’re joking right? They’d never make us eat the frogs! Right?!” Girls were actually crying.

Without skipping a beat I said, “Why would I lie about something like that? Besides, I’ve heard frog meat is pretty good!”

I need to cut in right here to tell you that I never once thought of myself as a pathological liar. I always assumed that it was obvious when I was being super ridiculous that I didn’t intend anyone to believe me. The problem is that I didn’t always pick up on social cues–and when I did, sometimes I was already too caught up in my story to stop myself. And it was just so much more interesting than regular chit-chat!

The thing is, child Andi was forced into completely controlled and very stressful small talk on a regular basis. I am of course speaking of the fact that I am one of those curious souls who grew up with a minister for a father. And let me tell you—people are very weird about their pastors a LOT of the time. And the family that tags along with them usually get sucked in one way or another. People would tell me about their strange medical problems, goiters and colostomy bags included. Sometimes I was regaled on that latest new fad that was obviously sending everyone to hell and have witnessed brochures on the evils of playing cards, geometric coloring books, movie theaters, the Internet, and obviously those portents of evil: bar codes. But most of the time it was about subjects so mundane and expected that I could barely keep my eyes focused and remember to add the occasional smile and “ya” to the whole thing. And through all of it I gained the ability to grin and nod and make a good listening comment on absolutely any subject. I saved my wild stories (lies) for classmates and friends out of what was probably an overly wound up imagination and a whole lot of stored stress.

In my adulthood, it has been very hard to not duck out of absolutely every occasion in which small talk is required, since Dad’s job is no longer on the line. I have a tendency to go right for the meaty stuff like “What was your most painful childhood moment?” Or perhaps, “Who is the first person you ever knew really well that died?” I’m kidding of course (was that obvious?), but I often find myself almost incapable of listening to whatever appropriate topic of chit-chat we’re on and wondering what dark or ostentatious tid-bits might be lurking behind every perfectly normal looking pair of eyes. Now those things would be worth listening to.

But I’m learning that small-talk is actually absolutely necessary. It can be abused, sure, but it has a very real and very needed function. Hating small talk is like hating to boil water before you make tea. Sure, it’s not the most interesting part of the whole event (I am definitely guilty of slipping into existential quandary while insisting on watching the kettle boil), but it’s very important. Without boiled water all you have is a soggy tea bag in some cold water. It’s not very appetizing. You could drink it anyway and pretend it’s tea, or you could give the tea bag a chew or two but it really doesn’t work at all. (Translate that metaphor as you will into actual conversation tactics.)

I am coming to believe that everyone, and I do mean everyone in some part of their souls is longing desperately to connect with others at a deeper level. But we simply cannot dive into the very heart of real conversation without making sure the temperature is right if you understand my meaning. We have to take the time to make people feel validated, and safe, and like they are talking to a kindred soul before they can really dive in deeper. But without that—we have no idea what kind of person or context we are spilling out the deeper parts of our souls onto.

And just to take the metaphor a bit too far (because what fun would it be if we didn’t), there are definitely people who go on boiling water without ever making any tea. Conversation tea is vulnerable and risky business, and boiling water for no reason can get to be such a habit. We need tea! And by that I mean eventual deeper conversation! It’s the part that gets me down the most—that some people just really aren’t interested in “tea” at all. And constantly being the one who tries to introduce the tea to a very reluctant audience who are happy with their shallow con… I mean boiled water… can start to be very dreary business.

I still struggle to be sold on the whole business. At times I think that small-talk is a symptom of living in a broken world. If we could only all be totally and absolutely trustworthy to the people around us—and know that everyone around us cared for us at the deepest level—maybe we wouldn’t need it anymore. Or maybe it would only be for fun (and not to make Pastor’s daughters queazy with stress while they consider what exactly IS the correct response to someone who has just told you that they have bleeding ulcers on a regular basis?). But on better days, I think of it more like little affectionate touches in conversation form.

I’m here. I notice you. I’m available.

What I think the business of small talk requires, more than anything, is the ability to be fully present and to take joy in it for what it is. Like a ray of sunshine, or a wisp of wind across your face, or birdsong. I think of God listening to us being absurd humans and smiling, just like a mom who smiles while listening to her children talk nonsense or invent silly games together. If God can take joy in us, even in our sillier and shallower moments, surely I can find the patience to be with someone and appreciate who they are, even if I never find a way to the deeper stuff. I think I can do that. I know I can.

On a side note, if you find yourself occasionally being a bit absurd just for the fun of it and find that people are believing you when you really did NOT expect them to and you know the secret to getting out of it—please please tell me how to get away without being awkward or making other people feel bad. Because I have yet to totally solve THAT problem.

If You Are Afraid the World is Ending

If You Are Afraid the World is Ending

I used to have this childhood fantasy; it was so real you could almost call it a vision.  I used to wish every place I’d ever stepped, and every thing I’d ever touched could light up.  That way I’d always know if I’d been somewhere before, or if I had held a thing before. Rest stops somewhere in Iowa would glow with the footsteps of family vacations from my childhood and I would always know if I had held a dollar bill before.  I just wanted to know I had been there.  Like real time graffiti.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as troubling news reports and scary things scroll by on my newsfeed and Facebook page. With every article I share I feel more useless. With every response to misinformation I am tempted toward a bit more of existential despair. Where have I been lately? Does any of this information sharing matter at all? When I put down my phone and go to do something mundane like wash the dishes, or even something better like playing with my kids–am I just shutting my mind to the problems in this world when I should be fighting? How does a person function when the world is so stressed out? How stressed out should I actually be?

I told my husband today, “I keep being horribly tempted to be afraid.  But then I remember that we are not supposed to be afraid. Then I think, ‘so what on earth am I supposed to be feeling right now?'”

Jonathon said, “Faith, and that it IS all going to be ok.” I thought for a moment.

“But is it the kind of ok where I still need to be worrying about where my kids are going to go to college, or the kind of ok where first Armageddon comes and then Jesus comes back? Because those are very different kinds of okay.”

He laughed. I laughed.  We both got that far away look you get on your face when you know what you’re laughing about isn’t really that funny.

The thing is that I’m bone tired from the cultural and political climate we find ourselves in. I know I’m not the only one, and I highly doubt that I’m even anywhere near to the most tired. It’s easy to want my Facebook to go back to nothing but cat pictures and babies. I do not blame people who are desperately trying to steer it back that direction with lobbed pictures of kittens or ANYTHING, that can distract even for a second from the panic. Even total despair feels like a rest from the constant weeding and combing through articles for truth. But here is what I believe, what I think I know if I know anything at all.  We have to keep caring.

Do you remember in 1999 how the world was flipping the heck out over Y2K? How people were preparing bunkers and fallout shelters for the end of the world? And then when it came it pfft’d by with no more than a few outrageous overdue fees at video stores. It’s easy to make fun of ourselves for that pandemonium, but one could easily argue that Y2K didn’t happen because we flipped out about it beforehand.  I am hoping this is like that. We have to keep flipping out. Take breaks, tag team, whatever you have to do. But we can not give in to apathy and lay down.

This is a hard message for a lot of reasons. First, the world is not newly broken. It’s been broke for awhile and it’s easy to wonder why it’s special enough to drop everything for it now. Second, we disagree wildly about exactly WHAT is broken and HOW it’s broken. How do we come together over that?

I don’t know.

But I do know that caring about things is important. I generally don’t affect my world by standing back until I know what to do and how to do it correctly.  Personally it has usually involved running into the mess and making an awful lot of mistakes, backing up, and then making a lot more. People tend to bounce off of each other really uncomfortably even when they end up doing a lot of good. I know I’m being vague. I look at the problems of the world and it seems like one big Schrodinger’s cat problem. Is it right or wrong? Good or bad? Alive or dead?

It is really really tempting to decide to leave the box be and walk away. Maybe it will all be ok if I just don’t touch anything. Or maybe I am walking away from something I could actually change if I just did the scary thing and looked into the box. But that’s hard.

The thing is, we don’t generally get to keep track of a great amount of what we have done or where the things we touch go. So it can start to feel like we’ve gone nowhere and touched nothing. It’s not as easy as opening a box. And the problems of the world are a whole lot worse than a potentially dead cat.

And we don’t even agree on what needs to be done. The political fences are high and the perspectives could not be more different. How do I work with my neighbor to improve the world when we just don’t even seem to be talking about the same world sometimes? As far as I can tell, it’s this: I do it anyway. I find people who want to take care of people the way Jesus taught us, and I assume we are on the same team. Maybe we think that means different things. Maybe we think that works different ways. But I have to believe that if our goal is to serve God and keep our fight against evil and not each other that we will get there. No matter who we voted for or what policies we disagree on.

The truly difficult part is giving up our ability to feel any amount of control over the pain of the world or how our actions affect it. We must take up what we believe is right and do it knowing that we may never know if or why it was important. We might be planting the seeds of a good life for our children if not for ourselves. God can rule between the different actions and perspectives we take. But we can’t give up. Please don’t give up.

Because you know what I believe? Even though I cannot say a magic word and cause all the steps and touches I’ve ever made light up–that exists. Those things are known. The God who knows when every sparrow falls knows where I’ve been and touched. And he makes these efforts toward peace and love matter.

So do not grow tired of caring, friends; or of witnessing other people care. Care on the Internet and off. Care if you’re washing dishes or being an activist. Care if you are running into the fight or taking a break for awhile. But apathy is such a dangerous enemy. Good people need to hold apathy as a greater enemy than making mistakes or disagreeing.

Because I think, and I hope that caring is what makes all those fall-out shelters useless and the doomsday prophets silly. It’s what keeps the darkness at bay.

Do not ever stop.

If Hindsight Looks like Regret

If Hindsight Looks like Regret

Maybe redemption has stories to tell

Maybe forgiveness is right where you fell

Where can you run to escape from yourself?

Where you gonna go? Salvation is here.

–Switchfoot, “I Dare you to Move”

I’ve had a very hard time following politics lately. I know, it’s ugly out there and I’m definitely not the only one who wants to permanently delete Facebook. But the thing is–that’s never bothered me before. In fact, the uglier it was the more I wanted to run into the fray and put in my two cents. Not in real life, mind you, just on the internet where I could walk away from my computer and pretend I hadn’t just pissed a bunch of people off who I might see tomorrow. My favorite fights were with people I wouldn’t see tomorrow anyway.

And last year, I was really, really into politics. And it started because I saw that little three year old Syrian immigrant boy wash up on the beach in Turkey.  And all it really took was one solid look into what was going on in the world for me to end up sitting in a corner crying and hugging my own son and shaking over the horror of it.  I could feel what that boy’s parents felt.  Or at least imagine it, whether I wanted to or not.  I followed up with reading more stories of beheadings, babies hanging from trees, and the Arabic letter nun written on houses.  Bad stuff guys.  More than I had let myself be aware of in awhile.

So I wanted to save the world. Ok, I knew I couldn’t do that.  But I wanted to do whatever I could from my rather shut-in position as a stay-at-home Mom in NYC.  Which mostly meant making people aware and praying.  I felt helpless, but I wasn’t content to do nothing at all.

Follow that up with the attacks in Paris by Muslim extremists.  And the moment that happened I knew what was coming–people were going to be even more afraid of letting in Muslim refugees than they had been.  The children washing up on beaches was going to increase.  I grew frantic.  And then it happened–one of my family members, my cousin Sam, made comments against the importation of refugees.

We argued on the internet for the next year.  Or really, if I’m being honest, every time he posted something I thought was wrong–I called him on it.  Relentlessly.  I corrected, criticized, and made it basically unpleasant for him to post anything against my own political views. I wasn’t nasty, but I wasn’t empathetic for a moment.  Why should I be?  He was wrong.  That was all that mattered.

And then, in the middle of the election and Trump vs. Clinton craziness, and after several exchanges between me and Sam about who was more evil, it happened.  Sam died.  Suddenly.  On the way to his birthday party in a motorcycle accident. On the way to the house he grew up in that I had always visited every summer as a child. He was just gone.

After I got the call from Dad I went out into the field next to our house and did something I never do.  I swore.  A lot.  I screamed it.  I scared a few hikers on the pathway nearby.  And then I swore some more.  It came from somewhere deep in my soul I didn’t know was there.  I try so hard to be good.  To be fair.  I do everything I can to do what is right.  And there I was, feeling like I couldn’t have gotten anything more wrong in the entirety of my life. It was so incredibly and horribly unfair. After I was done screaming I just laid down with my face mushed into the grass feeling the awfulness in total silence.

And then I walked quietly back to my house and told Dad that I was flying to my Aunt and Uncle’s house as soon as I could.  I didn’t know if I would be wanted, or needed at all.  But I told him I’d sleep under a rock for just the mere chance of being helpful.

And so I spent a week sitting in Sam’s childhood home, learning about the life of my cousin who I hadn’t really talked to since we were kids. I met his girlfriend and learned about their life together. I met his friends and heard so many stories about Sam, a joyful man who protected his friends and worked hard and with integrity. I listened, and then I listened some more. And I died a little every time I realized just how much I didn’t know about Sam, even though we were family. I was horrified about how little I had tried to learn about him in the middle of needing to be angry at someone, of being convinced that my so differently opinionated family didn’t have a place for me any more.

And for a week they welcomed me into their house, told me stories, and cried with me. I was still family. I was still welcome. I was overwhelmed to find something remaining from a childhood I thought was completely gone.

And I watched my Aunt and Uncle embrace the girl who hit and killed Sam. I watched them do it without reservation or hesitation. I don’t know if I would have actually expected them to do otherwise, but there was something so breathtaking about watching them give a girl back her life like that.  With complete generosity and humility of spirit.

And just like that, Sam’s death gave me back so much of my own life. I didn’t deserve it, but there it was. I couldn’t be angry anymore. Not like before. I’m still devastated about children washing up on beaches. I still want to help. But maybe, just maybe, people who don’t have the same eyes for global trauma and politics are often heroes in their own backyard. Maybe they are giving life to their neighbors and friends right where they are. Can I even say that I am doing that?

I’m not saying all people who voted for Trump are good.  Or that I have changed my political opinions. I’m saying that I feel like I don’t know anything anymore. I’m not entirely sure if my lack of desire to engage the political conversation anymore is a result of deep sadness, or maturity.  Maybe it’s both. But I do know that I missed out on the opportunity to really know someone who was worth knowing. And that I have a serious hunch that no matter what it feels like sometimes, the mix of people, of selfishness and blindness, of good intentions and heroism–is exactly the same in people who voted for Trump as it is in those who didn’t. And truly good things can come out of truly awful things. And I have so little control over any of it. And I have a peace about all these things that I can’t explain.

So I’m devoting my time these days to trying to help people really see each other. To being a peace keeper. To becoming more than my personal opinions and a person who is gracious to people who are difficult to be gracious to. To making sure we keep in mind who we are really fighting against. And it’s not each other.

Nothing ever steals our ability to keep doing the right things that are in front of us. Nothing prevents us from carrying out compassion every day in small ways and calling our Senators and attending political marches. Nothing can prevent us from learning about and bonding so tightly to those with whom we disagree that we can’t help but move forward together.  That goal is not dead. Don’t forget that we live in a country where not only are we not in total submission to our leaders (and in fact have many reasons to believe the opposite is still true), but we live in one where we do not have to sacrifice our relationships because of politics.

So forgive me if I seem shallower these days, or if I have less fight in me. It’s not apathy. I’m so afraid of being too hard or too soft all at once–but my gut says I have it right this time. I do know that now more than ever I am praying that we can all transcend the political situation we find ourselves in to make something new out of it that doesn’t seem possible now. None of that is at Donald Trump’s feet, or any political leader’s. And I refuse to move ahead by keeping my eyes on what I want to destroy, but instead I will keep them on what God is calling us to create, and how we are called to be a part of his great story of redemption.

I haven’t forgotten about the little Syrian boy on the beach who reminds me so much of my own sons. But now I see all boys in that little boy, including Sam. Truth and reality are so much greater than the tiny parts that I am able to focus on with my limited ability. I simply cannot see the whole of it. I will no longer deny the humanity and lives and stories of the people around me who are just seeing the world from a different vantage point, though I may not yet know them. God can judge.  He calls us to love–lavishly, unreservedly, inconveniently, and sometimes with great sorrow and sacrifice.