Sunday, December 21, 2014

You Better Watch Out

You know that Christmas song, "I'm getting nuttin' for Christmas?" My son had one of those days today. It's like the part of his brain that is designed to say "This is kind of a dumb idea" got unplugged so the part of his brain that is designed to say "I wonder what will happen if..." ran on high speed.

And all I wanted to do all day was threaten to return his Christmas presents. It's been on the tip of my tongue, "You better watch out or there won't be anything under that Christmas tree."

I could set up a YouTube channel of the songs that warn kids to behave themselves or they won't receive any presents on Christmas day. "You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I'm telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town... he sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good so be good for goodness sake!"

I'm all for good behavior. I want my kids to be kind and respectful, to think through their actions before they do them instead of after, to love each other and share their toys and be patient and eat their meals in a timely fashion. I want all of these things. I will threaten to take away electronics time, to send them to time-out, to take away Legos, to separate them until the conflict simmers down, but I will not threaten to take away Christmas.

Here's why. The God I believe in loved me before I loved him. He gave me life and grace and freedom and forgiveness and redemption long before I ever blinked in his direction. The peace and joy and hope that are promised this time of year and all year round through Jesus Christ, God the Father and the Holy Spirit are unearned. They are gifts given whether I deserve them or not. They are gifts given because God loves us.

I give my kids presents at Christmas because I love them, because God loves me, because that gift of love that is remembered at this time of year through Jesus Christ's birth is not intended to shape up the sorry sinner into a better behaved little boy; no, the gift of love we remember is the one that rests solely on grace, solely on the goodness and holiness and unconditional love of Christ that is given to make us holy.

I want to deny my son those presents. It would be a very effective threat... an empty threat, but effective nonetheless. Earned gifts make so much more sense than unearned gifts. The god with the scales weighing good deeds and bad makes way more rational sense than the Christ child. My God is baffling in his extension of grace and mercy, humbling in his constant reaching out to the lost and needy, overwhelmingly compassionate to the broken and world worn. If I am to be like Christ, then that's the love and forgiveness I must strive for.

It's impossible on my own. Oh, how I want to just snatch away that hope, threaten an empty Christmas tree to see him wriggle and worry over his behavior.

Really? Did I just say that out loud? He is seven (today it is Elvis, tomorrow it'll be Henry, don't worry, they take turns being jerks to each other); I am certain that he does not seek out to be bad. I am certain that part of his brain just doesn't engage until he's already in the midst of some impulsive "I wonder what would happen if..." moment.

We have to teach them everything. Everything. I have had to learn these things, too. Consequences to actions. Reward for hard work and good behavior. How to love well. How to receive love. Forgiveness. How to rely on someone else's strength. How to believe. Permission to doubt.

And grace, outrageous, extravagant, mysterious, beautiful, amazing, unbelievable Christmas morning grace.

Why will my children receive presents on Christmas morning? Not because they were good or moderately good or kind of good or amazingly good. Only because we love them. Only because of Love. Oh, and also, we have a bad spending habit.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Be Who You Are

This is my son, Henry:

My son, Henry, participated in his first Christmas program at his preschool on Tuesday:

My son, Henry. 

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Back When:
2013: Sharing the 'Good News,' with a little excerpt from Walk the Line that relates to Ralph Waldo Emerson... "Or, would you sing something different. Something real. Something you felt. Cause I'm telling you right now, that's the kind of song people want to hear."
2012: The Third Candle: Joy, Mary's Candle (Poem)
2011: Swimming in Troubled Waters: Writing about Faith (The essay I refer to, "Underwater," was published by Relief not too long ago!)
2010: Mama and Papa Bear vs. Parents of Three-Year-Olds
2009: Baking Cookies, but the finished version of this poem makes a decent little YouTube clip:

2008: Pruning Burning Bushes: first poetry publication (also in Relief, ironically)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Praise God from whom all shopping bags flow...?

I stood in line for an hour and a half without a cart carrying a basket full of stuff and two boxes full of more stuff for $160 worth of merchandise today. There was much sighing. I kept telling myself, this might be the only day you have free child care and can actually go to the store and pick stuff out, so buy the stuff and get out, get out, get out!

I love this season. I love the anticipation, the longing, the delight, the promise of hope and joy and peace, all of which I think are essential to practice and promote when the darkness seems to encroach from all corners.

Lydia's Christmas List
It's hard to practice peace and hope and joy in a line that wraps around the perimeter of a store with a hundred other Scrooges out to buy buy buy some joy joy joy joy down under the tree.

I am a planner; I set up certain expectations for myself and I expect myself to deliver or exceed those expectations. No one says, Sarah, you really should blog daily in the month of December like you have the last two years, but here I am wrestling anyway with whether to attempt to blog daily in December or whether I should give it up. It's a challenge, so part of me looks at the doubting part of me and says, "Oh yeah, you BET I can do it, just you watch, I'll prove it to you," while the doubting part says, "Yeah, you're crazy." But surely I could get up earlier, stay up later, sneak it in over lunch, rush home to rush off to make cookies to wrap cookies to deliver cookies to sing and pray and read and hurry UP sit DOWN buckle UP let's GO... Surely I could make it happen. I can make it happen.

Advent is the celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ; it is the period of time during which Christians sing, "O Come, o come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel..." the coming of Christ marks freedom from the slavery of sin, ransom paid, release from debt, burden lifted. We are supposed to hope for things yet unseen, and yet, instead, I yoke myself to obligation and ritual - I have to do this because this is what I do, this is what is expected, this is what will earn me love and appreciation. "Rejoice, rejoice, Immanuel shall come to thee O Israel..."

It is hard to lift your hands in praise when you're still carrying your Black Friday shopping bags.

"Advent" is a part of the word "adventure," a pursuit to explore spaces we haven't before. This is a new season, new territory, with new challenges and new opportunities. An adventure has plenty of elements we hope for that are yet unseen.

Advent also means "a coming into being," like the advent of computers, or the advent of cell phones. Once there was none and now there is. Once it was one way and now it is another way. I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see.

So, too, with this advent.

I do not think it is possible, or realistic, or healthy, to set for myself a quantifiable goal of blogging/crafting/reading/event-ing every single night of December leading up to Christmas. I think it might serve the opposite purpose of the season - where there could be hope and joy and peace, there would be despair and frustration and anxiety. I do not want this season to be despair and frustration and anxiety. I want to use whatever minutes of the day I have for sowing love into my kids, and this is surprisingly difficult when you begin to believe the best way to demonstrate love is by signing them up for lots of activities or planning lots of outings or buying all the things.

I think what I will do this year is string up "hope" and "joy" and "peace," and maybe we will weave these in with some unscheduled nights to play board games or in the early morning hours on the couch under a blanket. Maybe we will pray for ways to make hope and joy and peace real in our daily goings-about.

And maybe, just maybe, there will be a moment like tonight after the giggling ceases and only the tree is illuminated, when I will feel so moved I'll sing, "Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright..." and believe.

2013: I was saying the exact same thing to myself.
2012: This is when I got this stupid I mean awesome advent activities calendar idea.
2011: This was the half-marathon, parents-30th-anniversary, season-of-Beans-going-crazy year
2010: This is when I was trying to make more quality time for my kids. I've obviously solved this problem.
2009: I was super-duper excited about Christmas and poetry and life.
2008: I posted a poem about Snow in Auburn that I still like because it's really a poem about hope and God's presence although you might not know it because it isn't the best poem ever.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why do we need spiritual leaders?

In a team building exercise at work today, we were given fifteen people and a life raft that only holds nine. The Titanic is sinking, basically, so who gets in and who stays behind? My team kept Obama but dumped Jay-Z, we kept the carpenter but dumped the line cook at Denny’s, we kept the pregnant lady but dumped Meryl Streep, we kept the stay-at-home mom but dumped John Boehner. At the end of the discussion, we had a priest and a rabbi in the boat with us and Oprah Winfrey in the ocean. My teammates wondered, why are we keeping the priest and the rabbi? “I suppose maybe someone might take comfort in a spiritual leader,” someone said. “I’m agnostic, so…” someone else said. “If we dump the priest, I’ll feel guilty about it,” someone else said, crossing herself simultaneously, “and have to go to church.”

I didn’t know how to answer. Why should the priest and the rabbi get a spot in our hypothetical life raft? What do they have to offer?

I had just brought up my come-to-faith college experience during the earlier ice breaker, so one colleague asked, “Are you still religious?”

I process my thoughts so much better with a keyboard and a backspace button, so when these kinds of conversations happen, I get a little nervous. I always work up in my head this big deal about how I love Jesus but I’m not that kind of Christian, you know, that kind, and I’m not that other kind either, I’m serious but not legalistic, saved but not a six-day Creationist, deeply interested and educated in the history of religion and a lover of the word of God that I really believe is the word of God but also believe that all truth is God’s truth so I also like science and math and philosophy and the advancement of new ideas and the realization of wonder and awe in nature and the power of mystery and miracle and relationship and love, love, love, so you see I’ve really thought a lot about all of this so please don’t think I’m crazy. That’s what happens in my head.

“Uhh, yeah… well… yes, but not in a ritualistic way…” I stuttered, “I care very much about faith, still.”

“Oh, okay,” she said.

She really doesn’t care about all of that. All she really wants to know is if I’m going to be offended because we are thinking about saving Oprah and ditching either the rabbi or the priest.

So I offered the priest up to the sharks. After all, I said, he’s a man of God. He’d do that kind of thing to save someone else. Plus, if he’s Catholic, he doesn’t have a family waiting for him at home, and he’s on good terms with God, soooo… pull Oprah back into the boat.

The question bothered me all day long—why should we keep the priest and rabbi in the boat—all through the afternoon trust equation discussion, through happy hour, on my drive home, and even through our Friday night house church meeting.

We studied the first part of James 3 tonight, which is all about the power of the tongue. How does bad language and our speech affect our behavior and attitude? How do words impact our children, our neighbors? How should we speak? What should we expose our kids to?

And in the midst of all of this I thought—all of the people I work with, all of the people I’ve interacted with year after year, they are all trying to be good people. They generally know the difference between right and wrong. They have their own moral codes, adopted from their parents or from their culture or reshaped and redefined along the way, and they are all not perfect. They try to watch their language and speak kindly to other people and encourage their children and spouses. They are all trying to be better. My office and school and higher education is filled with people who are generally good human beings trying to be better at something, trying to succeed.

The conversation tonight wasn’t just morality, but isn’t that what you hear most days from spiritual leaders? Do this. Don’t do that. Be kind. Follow the golden rule. Do better. Be better. Even corporate America and business educators are suggesting that businesses flourish by becoming agents of world benefit. World benefit – isn’t that what Christians aspire to? Do good? Serve the poor? Care for the earth? Treat each other with kindness (it was, after all, World Kindness Day yesterday)?

Which brings me back to an even bigger question than why spiritual leaders… why God? Who needs him, anyway, now that world leaders and business educators and philosophers have reasoned out the best ways to live? They are preaching the same gospel, aren’t they?

As we hashed out the ways our words affect other people tonight at house church I imagined the same conversation taking place in my secular work environment. It was nearly the same, minus a few Bible verse references.

Except for this one thing: Grace.

Grace—an undeserved gift that releases us from slavery to “do good things” and delivers us into “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” This love frees the spirit from the burden to perform, the burden of guilt, the burden of fear. It is rooted in relationship. It filters the muddy waters. It strengthens and encourages and emboldens because we know there is a force that is stronger than our imperfections who is working in and through us for wholeness, for completeness. It is compassion in a hurricane of brokenness and disease. It is freedom from the hells we have been given and the hells we’ve made for ourselves, in addictions, in poverty, in selfishness, in greed. It illuminates so we can see how we have been fearfully and wonderfully made. It resides in us through the Holy Spirit as compass. It clarifies, purifies, mends, heals, hones, hammers, and polishes. Because it is unearned by definition it does not consider your qualifications or your past failures; grace loves and loves and loves, all day long, whether I take it or not, whether I recognize it or not, whether I call it “Jesus” or “God” or not, it shows up in truth, it shows up in beauty, it shows up as forgiveness, it shows up all over the place.

Spiritual leaders, then, shouldn’t be morality instructors. Even though the internet loves the “ten ways” lists, and people love to know how to become better people, the priests and rabbis might do better to stop telling people how to be better. Spiritual leaders should be more like scientists who observe and announce, “Look! Look what I found!” or maybe like poets who ponder and write, “I saw this small thing in the world and look how full of meaning it is,” or maybe they should be like stargazers who point to the heavens and declare, “There, isn’t that marvelous?” Spiritual leaders should say, “Let me show you grace. Here it is. Here it is. Here it is again. This is grace. This is love. This is Christ. This is God. Here is the Father. Here is the Son. Here is the Holy Spirit. Here they are again, ever-present, everlasting, loving you forever and ever and ever, loving you even after you screwed up, even after you’ve been ‘saved,’ even in your attempts to earn it, loving you, beautiful you, stunning you, masterpiece you, God loves you. That’s it. That’s all.”

Maybe I’ll grant the spiritual leader this one final benediction, “Now act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.” We don’t need the priest who preaches morality. We need the priest who points to the heavens and says, “God. Have you seen this? Have you seen this grace? Have you seen this love?”

Friday, November 7, 2014

Things Beyond My Control

I am writing this in Word on my laptop in the living room because of things that are beyond my immediate control.

A week or so ago, the buzzing from the doorbell xylophone in the hallway at our new home began buzzing so persistently and at a gradually increasing buzz rate that Brandon decided to flip the breaker for the hallway, disconnect the doorbell, cap the electric wires, and screw a plastic cap over the top. This was all completed without any electric shock and with my flashlight holding assistance, and we are all a hair less insane for it. Not to mention quite impressed with Brandon’s handy-man-ness.

However, the cable internet box is on the same electric line, apparently, and when it turned back on, something happened. I don’t know what. Something. I can no longer connect to the wireless on this laptop. Don’t start with your internet-guru recommendations for powering down the box and counting to five and then to ten and then if that doesn’t work, 30, or removing the saved network and resetting the blah-dee-blah so that the yippity-do can reset… I tried all of that already. And, it’s only this computer. This network. My phone, the other wireless devices in the house, other laptops in the house, they all connect. And, I took this wireless-less laptop with me out of town last weekend and guess what. It connected to THAT wireless network.

Now, back on my home turf, there it is. The “wireless networks are available” signal with the optimistic gold star over a gray set of internet connectivity stairs. But, no.

My husband found this little thing called an “Ethernet” cord that connects the computer to the router. Ta-da! Wired network. Except that the router or modem or whatever is sitting on our piano and the cord is only three feet long, so in order to connect to the internet I have to sit on the floor by the piano. This is what the internet calls a first-world problem.

So I am sitting on the couch in the family room without internet access writing this blog post in Microsoft Word, because of things beyond my immediate control.

I like control. I like to do things a certain way because I know I will do things right and efficiently and in the time I want to have them done. I’m not sure you are aware, but this is not the best attribute for team building in a workplace (or family or marriage or church or friendship or life), and I’ve fought this personality trait for years. The “I’ll just do it myself” mentality is a dripping poison toward breakdown with a possible side effect of insanity and in some cases, a slow and lonesome death. It’s best to monitor yourself for symptoms daily in order to avoid the onset of a serious episode.

So I’ve been watching for things beyond my immediate control lately, things like the slowdown at the same places on Interstate 77 every morning, or where the lane ends heading southbound every evening, also the on-ramp at I-90 and Chester, and the driver(s) in the left-hand lane that belong in the right-hand lane. They are all beyond my control. The slowdowns, the traffic jams, the crawl toward home, the turn signal driver sitting in the ended-lane after whizzing by at 90… all beyond my control.

And then there’s the late meeting, the pack of undergrads walking slow in front of me, the cars that breeze through the crosswalk, all beyond my control, there’s the rain and the time change and the sudden virus attack and the fever and the chills, there’s the husband who has other priorities than laundry, there’s the children with their homework and their reading and their games and their practices, the children who want me always, the car that needs gas to go on the highway, the child who is not sleepy and is singing, all beyond my control.

When things are beyond my control, my instinct is to wrestle them into submission. “I’ll just do it,” I think, and I finagle maneuvers that will advance me through rush-hour traffic at the expense of my nerves and possibly someone’s fender (or middle finger). I rearrange traffic patterns. I consider edging my front end out into lane-ending traffic so to block the cheaters. I pray for the souls of the sinning Honda drivers of the world with their inconsiderate attempts to bypass the rest of us—graceful and humble—who have all waited our turn to get on the southbound ramp like good citizens of traffic land.

You wouldn’t believe how effective this is(n’t).

I was reminded last week that when we are so focused on the problem, we often miss the more creative solution and innovative opportunity that exist beyond the box. Focusing on the things that are beyond my control only reminds me over and over again how out of control I am. I have no control. Almost all of the time circumstances are beyond my control.

I think I spent most of last week staring at this problem: things are out of my control. I cannot see my old friends. I cannot go on a date with my husband. I cannot make the traffic go faster. I cannot make new friends because I do not have time to see my children. I cannot write because I need to read. I cannot read because I need to see my husband. I cannot see my husband because he is working. I am working. I am driving a long way to work. I am stuck in traffic. I am stuck in traffic. My wireless internet is not working on my laptop. Things are beyond my immediate control.

Sigh. This is a lousy place to stay. This loop, this constant hamster wheel, this anxiety spinning circus, I’m pretty sure that short-circuited my immune system and landed me in bed Saturday night for fifteen hours after two days at a writers conference. I could hear God saying, “How’s that ‘I’ll just do it’ attitude working for you now?” as I texted my mom and mother-in-law to watch the kids for one more night, as I pulled off the highway to park in a rest area and sleep for twenty minutes before finishing my drive. How’s that working for ya?

Once you stop staring at the problem and accept these circumstances—these completely immediately uncontrollable circumstances—real-life solutions start to materialize. Hey, did you know that time actually speeds up when you talk to your mom on the phone for your morning commute, and it works going home, too, with a friend you haven’t spoken with in months? Did you know that the other drivers on the road kind of disappear when you are so engrossed in a phone conversation or radio show, and you drive and drive and suddenly, you are pressing the garage door opener and saying, “Hey, I gotta run, I’m home already”? Did you know that when the time is compressed with your family into two-and-a-half hour blocks it distills stronger, its quality is sometimes better, purer under pressure, each second of Sorry or dinner or living room yoga or Harry Potter kind of sacred, kind of holy?

I wouldn’t have known these things except that I stopped staring at the problem. Do you know what looped in my head most of last week as well? I-miss-Brandon-I-miss-Brandon-I-miss-Brandon with a side dose of Why-doesn’t-he-do-this-Why-won’t-he-say-that? You can guess how productive those two navel-gazing loops were. But when I stepped out of the hamster wheel and said, “I miss you,” when we started to communicate again about date night and commiserating schedules and began to plan for the future (see “possibilities,” see “innovation,” see “creativity”), suddenly there was love again.

Staring at the problem breeds despair. Looking beyond the problem fosters hope.

Did you know that you can write a lot more with a lot less distractions when you are writing on a computer that doesn’t have an internet connection?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Breaking the Workaholic

It's the first TGIF of my first week at a new job, and because the week was so full, here is the amplified version: the (awesomely delicious) tortellini soup my (amazingly productive and generous) mother-in-law made while watching my three (exuberant, exhausting, active, loud, snuggly) children has cooled and is stored in the fridge along with the (requisite saucy Fat Boy's) Friday night pizza, we've watched (zoned out to, fell asleep during) Hotel Transylvania and an episode of Phineas and Ferb and an episode of Girl Meets World, and now the (bouncy but exhausted) children are asleep (sprawled under and between blankets, one asleep since Hotel Transylvania on my lap and carried to bed conked out, one hugging a polar bear, the other with a leg draped over the edge of the bed), asleep, and the house has settled (silent, dark, fridge turning off and on, heat turning off and on, computer humming, couch comfy, quiet), and I have settled (cross-legged, contacts removed, sweat pants donned, glasses on) to contemplate (consider, ponder, ruminate over) the aftereffects of the fault-line quake (earth shake, lightning strike, whiplash) that is changing jobs.

It's a tricky thing, leaving a job and starting a new one. I lean toward (darn near walk with the peg leg of) workaholism. I know this about myself, and I also know that sometimes you need a complete change of environment in order to change habits. Habit changing is difficult, but here's your chance to establish new patterns of behavior. Here's your chance to create boundaries. Here's your chance to break the workaholic.

Burning Bridges, aka Removing Yourself from Admin Status on Social Media Accounts
If it isn't evident by my 6,909 tweets on Twitter, let me be clear: I have a thing for social media. I love the little chirp my phone makes when I've sent out my latest clever-ism into the world. Until yesterday, I had six Twitter accounts logged in on my phone so that at any moment in time, I could share with any of those audiences some tidbit, some link, some quote, some rumination, some witticism, or some photo. I loooooooove social media.

However, it isn't good for anybody but especially me to keep my nosy nose in all of my old business. Every time I opened Twitter on my phone this week (and it was often), I had to look at those accounts. Just look at them. Sitting there. Waiting for me to send something out. It was actually quite difficult and time consuming for me to figure out how to get those Twitter accounts off of my phone. (Note to those who may need to know: Log off. ... Mmm hmm. It was that easy.)

But when I did finally master the art of logging off...ahhh, freeeeee!

This might seem like a strange problem-- not doing a job you aren't paid to do-- but some habits are hard to break, and I'm telling you as a borderline (darn near erase the line altogether) workaholic that it is a tic, an itch, an impulse, to unlock my phone and check those social media accounts. With them off of my phone, they are happily out of sight and thus somewhat out of mind. It's much more involved to check social media when you have to track down a wireless signal and a laptop and log in and start an internet browser and cue up Twitter and log out of your personal account just so you can log in to your old job's Twitter account.

All addictions are kind of stupid when you think about them. But this one? Silly.

Other Nonsense That Shouldn't Be On Your Phone
Do you guys sync your work email to your mobile device? How about to your personal computer? Do you use your work email for personal communications?

Another habit of the casual (darn near hardcore) workaholic I am trying to break is being distracted when I am at home. For the past seven years, I have been terrible at creating separation between work life and home life. This week I spent at least 10 hours in my car and around 40 hours at my desk. I spent 20-30 minutes walking to and from my office each day (depending on the type of shoes I had on). This left around 3 to 4 hours each day with my husband and children. What does it say to my family members about my priorities if I spend dinner scrolling through email messages and Twitter feeds instead of actively engaging them? With all of that time spent on work, there's just not that much time left to spend with my family, and those are the hours that return the highest yield.

Let's be honest: How many of us are critical employees at our workplaces that we must be on-call during all waking hours? How many of us who are considered critical employees would be contacted via email in the event of an emergency?

I edit people's writing. I write essays and poems. I used to send out tweets promoting someone's latest publication. What ignored email received at eight p.m. on a Friday night ever resulted in a major crisis? What publication credit ever disappeared over the weekend because I didn't share it on Facebook?

None. Nunofem.

There will be no syncing of the work account on my phone. There will be no checking of the work email at night and on the weekends. There will be no using the work email account for personal communications... that's what my personal gmail account is for, and that one won't bombard me with a mildly annoying alert about a task I won't get to until Monday anyway.

And last, but certainly not least....

Stop Doing Other People's Jobs
Working at Ashland, I had the sincere privilege of wearing about a dozen hats and keeping my fingers in every tangle of fun I could get my hands on. I loved that about my job - the breadth of it - being involved in some aspect of social media and marketing and admissions and recruitment and retention and registration and publications and promotion and alumni relations.

But now, I'm just the managing editor. "So... you want me to just write. And edit. And write. And edit?" Yup. That's it. That's all. And I guess that's plenty.

The impulse of the dabbling (darn near drowning) workaholic isn't to just do one's job. Healthy ambition pushes a person to try her hardest to be the best at her job, innovate within her job, and look for opportunities to improve her workplace and organization from within her job; unhealthy ambition, as far as I can see, takes a glance around and thinks (then jumps in) about how it can perform that other person's job as well or better. It looks like the Right Thing To Do in the moment -- what does it hurt to have one other person tweeting on behalf of the program? what does it hurt to have one other person overseeing the electronic newsletters? -- but it's the Wrong Thing To Do! Stop it! Stop it now!

The trouble with doing other people's jobs is that you are DOING OTHER PEOPLE'S JOBS. FOR FREE. WITHOUT PAY. WITHOUT SOMEONE ASKING YOU. So stop it.

I am used to doing all sorts of different things in my last position, some within my job description and some I invited into my job description and others that arrived uninvited but I let them stay and drink anyway. The workaholic's virtue and vice is that she wants to remain productive and effective, even at the detriment of the self and the family. Productivity and effectiveness gradually gain weight until they are so morbidly obese they can't budge off of their mobile devices because they're so attached to those gigabyte calories that stream in nonstop, telling them what they need to know in order to keep being effective and productive. Feed the machine. Feed the machine.

Confession: I added my new job's Twitter account to my phone this week, even though my job title has nothing to do with social media. In fact, there's this whole other guy whose job is interactive marketing. In my department. What will he do if I go stomping around in his office with my Twitter account and web access? Twiddle his thumbs all day? And why should I do both of our jobs? Because I can? Who cares?

Hey Sarah, remember when you were having a mental breakdown about trying to do everything and be everything to everyone a few springs back? People think you're crazy because YOU ARE.

So stop it. Disconnect from the workplace Twitter account.

Break the workaholic. She's no occasional abuser; she's weak, she's addicted, and she needs to be stopped.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The In-Between

I spent today in the in-between, standing on the bridge that connects where I've been and where I'm going. We moved into Brandon's grandma's house in Copley this past weekend, and although it's now our brown couches we sit on in the living room, our photos propped up on our bookshelf, our candles lit and lamps aglow, it still feels like vacation, like transition, like unknown.

I know that this feeling will fade as our stuff settles and collects our own dust, as novelty and newness becomes regular and routine. Right now, in the in-between, I am celebrating so many possibilities, so many new hopes for the future right as the future begins to unfold.

From this high ground-- because the in-between somehow always comes with altitude and vision-- I can glimpse what the future looks like. In quiet moments looking out over our new backyard, I have witnessed the spirits of distant backyard gatherings. As I sit back in one of the lounge chairs in the living room, I can imagine the Christmas tree twinkling in the window, a fire roaring, friends and relatives laughing and eating. As I climbed the bleachers at the Copley homecoming game last Friday night with the kids, I could feel the rapid pace of seasons on the breeze until ten years away arrived and it was my children I watched march down the field, my children on the defensive line, my children in the high school student section, my children cheering on the track.

But today, Lyd and Elvis got on the school bus and went off to Arrowhead Primary. Henry "helped" us around the house as we did laundry and cleaned, prepped for painting more in the basement, and put away more boxes. And this afternoon, I picked out some new artwork for the living room, blending the old with some new. House, house, house, someday soon home.

Tomorrow is my last day at Ashland University as administrative director and managing editor, after seven years with the MFA program, Ashland Poetry Press, and River Teeth. In a week and a half, I will begin my new position at Case Western Reserve University as managing editor in the marketing office of the Weatherhead School of Management.

Here in the in-between, I straddle the pivot point of a teeter-totter, balancing the love I have for a place I must leave and the excitement I have about a place that is yet unknown. How do you stay in this place for long, straining your hamstrings and calf muscles as the two by eight quivers and wavers?

It's coming. The moment when the in-between closes and the gap between the past and future shrinks back down to the plain old present. But the present, wow, what a place to be!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

You're Going the Wrong Way: God's Plan and Purpose

I spent most of my late teens and early twenties trying to discern God's will for my life. Does God want me to be a creative writing major or a religion major, or an English teacher, or should I do all three? Should I keep going to Ashland or should I transfer to another school? Which school? Is this guy the man I should marry? Is this guy? Is this guy? Does God want me to go to graduate school for writing or should I go to graduate school for Christian ministries or should I go to graduate school to be a teacher? How does God feel about birth control? Did God will for me to miscarry? Is this God's plan? What is God's plan for me?

As a zealous follower of Christ, I plastered verses about God's plan for me all over: "I know the plans I have for you... plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future," "I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, down unfamiliar paths, I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them," "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight," "We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose."

I worried over God's plan and God's will constantly. When I didn't get a job I applied for, I thought, "It must not have been God's plan." When God isn't the one you look to in order to dictate your life's path, you might say, "It wasn't in the cards," as in Fate and Random Chance did not deal you the ace, or "It wasn't meant to be," as in the gray fog of Destiny did not align with what you thought should happen.

And then I miscarried. And then I miscarried again. "I guess it wasn't meant to be."

It wasn't meant to be? Did God mean for this to happen to me? Am I supposed to learn some kind of lesson from this? Does God cause bad things to happen in order to make good? Were these things in God's plan?

I still believe those verses. In this current season, I'm seeking out God's plan and God's will all over again, trying to discern whether to turn left or to turn right.

I still believe God has a plan and a purpose for my life, but not in a Magic 8-ball, "Should I ask Chris on a date," way. I still believe that God intimately cares about the details of our lives. I don't believe that he's micromanaging the details.

The trouble with "It must not have been God's plan" is that we screw up "God's plan" all of the time. "God's plan" looks like this:

"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

As a species, we're almost always doing it wrong. The abuse, the cheating, the lying, the selfishness, the pride, the arrogance, the hatred, the prejudice, the stealing, the killing, all of the sneaky ways we try to manipulate circumstances to keep ourselves comfortable... they all contradict God's plan. Even nature has its ways of stepping out of bounds, in cancer, disease, abnormalities, all challenging what we might call "the natural order."

If I'm not offered a job that I thought I should get, shrugging my shoulders and saying, "It must not have been God's plan," just doesn't work. I didn't get offered that job because some other candidate seemed like a better fit than me, and the hiring committee might have been right. They also might have been wrong.

God, from what I can tell, has left a lot of the daily grind up to us. He has given lots of control over to us through the whole free-will business. Bad things happen. Good things happen. His concern seems to be about how I respond in situations rather than the situation itself. When bad things happen, he grieves with me. When good things happen, he celebrates with me. He is present in it.

If we combine what is said of who we're created and called to be, "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus," "You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb," and more, then part of God's plan is identifying who we are, what our strengths are, and what we are passionate about individually. Then, as we make or discover opportunities to exercise those talents in the broader world, we must apply part two of God's plan - to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with him.

"Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.'"

Part two of God's plan is harvesting the fruit of the Spirit in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, exercising love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

When new opportunities or challenges present themselves, it would be great if someone would just say, "Nope. Wrong." or "Yup. Do that." Where is my bright red, flashing God sign? Sometimes it is not clear whether one thing or the other is the better choice, and possibly even God doesn't care one way or the other. You might be equally effective whether you stay or go.

And yet, we can ask God for wisdom and discernment to figure out the costs and the benefits, to weigh the opportunity against the challenges, and to be aware when intuition and spirit are shouting, "You're going the wrong way!" These gifts will help us come to a decision free of anxiety, resting in the peace that whatever direction we decide to turn, God's way along the path is filled with both justice and mercy. Now walk in it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What are we going to do today?

We are going to do nothing. Nothing at all, nothing planned, nothing scheduled, no agenda, no calendar items, no outings, no play dates, not even laundry. We are doing nothing.

I am out of the office (again) after the two-week summer residency. Because I worked so much during the last two weeks, I've been itching to schedule out all kinds of fun during this week of vacation, this final week of honest-to-goodness summer before I go back to regular hours and they get ready for school. It has taken me a few days to feel like a thinking human being instead of a gray lump of motionless clay, but now, there are plenty of things-to-do on our things-to-do calendar, like the zoo, a Rubber Ducks ballgame, a wedding, a birthday party.

But TODAY, there is nothing. I laughed at Lydia and Elvis as they whined, "There's nothing to doooo," creating two syllables where there's only supposed to be one. Yes, there's nothing!

I feel a certain mix of guilt and delight knowing that my kids have to figure out for themselves what to do to keep entertained without the default television or video game. I have to resist the urge to monologue, "When I was your age..." but in my head, I remember it being just me and my brothers, or me and my cousins, inventing games and playing for hours. Or reading, how many hours did I sit and just... read?

Today, the kids have thirteen potential playmates within 500 feet of our house. It is a rare occasion when none of them are home, but it does happen, like this morning, when some are off to camp and others off to daycare and others still off to dentist appointments. It takes a little perseverance to break through the whining, but sooner rather than later, the default settings of boredom are overridden by creativity, and now they play Spy or build castles in the sand, or, like right this minute, they go to the pound and bark like dogs.

Meanwhile, my "nothing" is reading The Circus Train by Judith Kitchen, a novella-length essay that turns inward and outward, tracing trains of thought and circus trains and memory itself the way that one can only do when sitting still. Paused. Besides following Henry from the front of the house to the back and then to the front again in some subconscious attempts by him to keep me from being productive, I have wandered with her through memory and into my own past, where cousins counted different colored cars as they passed, where we stretched out on a blanket and stared up at the clouds, making shapes and figures out of vapors.

Now, I have sat here long enough to hear the dozen honey bees humming in the Russian sage. I have sat here long enough to watch a monarch butterfly dart from flower to flower, its lemon wings folding and unfolding. I have sat here long enough to watch a hundred cars accelerate and brake up and down our street, darting along their roads between somewhere and somewhere else, off to do something, and I have done nothing except observe and travel through Judith Kitchen's memory into my own and back again, back to the monarch on the flower, back to the buzz of cars and bees and children, back to the nothingness of activity.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Holiday Greetings from Nine-Month-Contract Land

I'm a Donkey on the edge!
Back in November, I surveyed the approach of the holidays, the onset of bowl season, the ramping up of my husband's travel season, and the end to my four-day work-week on an 11-month contract. With all of the calm and clarity of a person anticipating the possibility of another mental breakdown, I sent an email off to my boss and the chair of the department declaring my desire, the necessity of a modification to my contract. Either I work less or I look for another job. Boom.

If life was organized into collections of photo albums like it is on Facebook, then for me, the Spring of 2013 is the cardboard box of photos and negatives that got dropped in a mud puddle and then a toddler crawled inside and crinkled them all up. Every single thing was difficult. A quick peek back around February/March 2013 is funny-sad-bad.

I wasn't positive that this spring would be different, but I knew one thing. I didn't want to do that again.

It turned out that Spring 2014 was not the same soggy cardboard box of photos that Spring 2013 was, though when May ended I stumbled out of it feeling a little shocked and surprised.

Well. *Looks around at the lack of wreckage* That wasn't so bad. That actually went well. Brandon worked more local games, and I think that is the primary reason my head didn't implode.

There was also the shining beacon of The Future ahead: As of June 1, my 11-month contract at Ashland University turned into a 9-month contract.

After the first month of my new arrangement in which I had anticipated hours of free time spent with my family laughing and dancing in sunlight while Bob Marley sang "Don't Worry, Be Happy" and evenings cozied up on the couch with my man and my laptop writing the Next Best American Essay Collection, I am here to report that living in nine-month-contract land is not all that it is cracked up to be.


On Wednesday, I was off in nine-month-contract land checking email, because that's what I do from home when I'm not in the office, and Henry crawled up onto my lap between me and the computer, grabbed both of my arms and held them against his chest. He would NOT let me type. No matter how much I tried to break away, he just wouldn't let go. He thought it was SO funny, me chuckling and trying to type. 
"Now, Henry, let me just... if I can just finish this one thing... Just... Let go, Henry!" I said, for about twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes. That's how long I tried to do WORK from HOME on an UNPAID VACATION DAY while my son held my appendages hostage against his chest.

Here is the only trouble with nine-month-contract land that I can see, and it's all my fault: I still feel an obligation and necessity to work twelve months out of the year, to check my email and answer questions, even when I have a new administrative assistant I can delegate things to out of sheer necessity of NO TIME to do all the things anymore. I care a lot about my work, and I want it to be successful.

But Henry wouldn't let me work, so with a huge exasperated sigh I closed my laptop. This is where it gets really tough. Prepare yourselves for the horror of nine-month-contract land.

I took the kids to the pool.

We swam for a full hour with no pressing deadline to hurry up get out we need to go home to eat dinner and then bathe and then sleep. Normally, if I took the kids to the pool, we would go at 6 p.m. after eating the fastest dinner on earth, swim until 6:30, get out because it takes my children 30 minutes to move from the pool to our car, go home and take the baths that require 45 minutes of undressing and peeing and splashing and redressing, and then FINALLY bedtime. During that stretch from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m., I am in constant forward-thinking mode - hurry up and fill-in-the-blank so that we can hurry up and fill-in-the-blank. 
But Wednesday, in nine-month-contract land, there was no hurry up. There was only swim. Okay, you've had enough swimming? I guess we should get out then. Ho hum. Tweedle dee. Off we go. Meander and twiddle. Into the car. La dee da. Home again home again, jiggedy jig. At home, I made lunch at my leisure. 

Here, kids. Here is some food. Eat when you are hungry until you are hungry no more. The sun peeled back the clouds and the atmosphere warmed up, so, kids, why don't we go to the spray park? La la la. Off we go. Have some snacks, there's nowhere to be except here, right here, in nine-month-contract land.

On Thursday in nine-month-contract land, I worked from 7:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., and sweetheart, you ain't seen nothing until you've seen me wanting to get all the things done before needing to be out of the office in nine-month-contract land for a week and a half. I am an administrative rock star. I administrate the heck out of work. Projects were zinging back and forth off the walls and into other people's offices; proofs zooming here, final versions swooping there, to do lists shot through the heart with check marks. At the end of the day, I kicked some checklist butt.
And today in nine-month-contract land, because I have an awesome husband with some fantastic friends, I spent nine glorious hours by myself. First, I left my phone downstairs and woke up when my body was ready to wake up. Ahh, I said, rolling over and stretching, is that daylight I see? Time to wake up, tra la, tra la! 
I exercised. No need to look at the clock-- there's nowhere else to be, sister. Just lift your weights. Just run on your treadmill. Then walk back home, because no one is waiting for you, so you don't need to drive the quarter-mile to and from the gym, there's all the time in the world. Take as long as you want in the shower. Drink some coffee. Switch a load of laundry. Type a while on the computer. No hurry. No worries.

All of that anxiety back in May about whether or not we could make it on two-months-less pay, and this is what I get? Relaxation and sunshine with my family?

What a waste of emotional energy.

"There is more to life than increasing its speed." - Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Just One More

I am confident that everything I have to give to my kids is never enough. All night long, they ask for things, all the things, every single thing. Just one more kiss. Just one more hug. Just one more song. Just one more book. Just one more game of tag. Just one more slow gathering of the outdoor toys. And if I ask them to do something beyond themselves, like, say, pick up their shoes and put them in the closet, it is as if I have shot their dog and sentenced them to a lifetime of slave labor.

I hate that all of the asking for more all of the time makes me so angry and irritated. I don't want to give you another hug because I just gave you SIX, AND we read a story, and you've gone to the bathroom twice, and before that I rocked you and sang "Wagon Wheel," and before that, you took a bath that lasted ten minutes longer than I wanted it to because you started to whine about letting the water out of the tub, and no, you can't watch until the next commercial break, because that's what you said the last commercial break.


Just, just, just be content, please! I love you so much and I don't want to yell or make you cry or turn you down or leave you kicking and screaming in bed because you pushed us all beyond your regular bedtime and now you are over-tired and I am angry that you aren't listening. I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you. Just be content. What more can I give?

I think this is why this job of mothering is so exhausting. I can do the dishes and the laundry and make the dinners and vacuum (occasionally). I can do those things with ease and a jolly spirit. It's the Just-One-More disease that kills me. It wipes me clean out. After a night of severe Just-One-More-itis, I am bankrupt. Fill me with American Honey and send me to the couch for a romantic comedy or a dozen rounds of Candy Crush Saga or a book. Or just send me to bed.

I don't know the antidote to Just-One-More-itis. It appears as if I will daily disappoint my children by denying them just one more of something.

Unfortunately, it's the human condition. Ambition bites the heels of contentment all day, every day - in my case, it's just one more publication, just one more essay. I have to fight against my successes and failures defining my self-worth and instead remind myself that the things that I find most satisfying do not come with an acceptance letter: planting seeds and watching them grow, laughing with my husband, snuggling with my kids on the couch, writing for the sake of creating art, reading a good book, long talks with wine or coffee with friends, eating together with family... these activities dwell in the land of contentment. Ambition runs right over those things. Just one more level on Candy Crush Saga. Just one more.

What does it take to kill Just-One-More-itis? Persistence. Rationale. Setting priorities. Prayer. Patience. I think it's one of those diseases that keeps dormant for a time, and then just when you think you're cured, the symptoms start popping up again: oh, maybe just one more. It's no big deal. Just one more.

No more. Be content.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April Showers

It is the end of National Poetry Month today, and while I wrote not a single poem for the month, I have been busy chiseling away at my memoir-in-essays, which has its own sort of lyricism and poetic turns, and that totally counts, right? I have done much to celebrate poetry in April, however, giving readings and talking enthusiastically about iambs and line breaks to ever-patient audiences.

I'm also celebrating the end of the spring semester today. There were many leaps forward made this semester in the Ashland MFA Program for me. I even have the first draft of my memoir-in-essays all saved in one Word document. This is a slight hazard to my health, because every time I make a change in an essay, I then have to go in and make a change in the book-length document, which drives me slightly batty.

I was thinking about "book-length" the other day. A few summers ago, I posted to Facebook or Twitter how daunting the idea of writing a book seemed. I told myself, better to write a sentence. And then a paragraph. And then maybe a couple of paragraphs. And then maybe an essay. And then start over. And then see what happens from there.

So that's what I did. Little bites. Just like every single other thing in the world, just take it in little bites.

More things happened this month-- I went to my best friend's Orthodox Church for a service during Holy Week that was lovely and refreshing; the kids and I tagged along with Brandon to South Bend, IN for Easter weekend; I spent a hilarious weekend with writer friends in Grand Rapids at the Festival of Faith and Writing, where I twisted my ankle dancing to American Pie; I read loads and loads of poetry to people.

And I've been thinking about a lot of things. I've been thinking a lot about bravery and bearing witness in writing and the power of vulnerability. I've been thinking about how my garden needs to be tilled. I've been thinking about how I'd really like to write some poems again someday. I've been thinking about how I'd really like to go to yoga or maybe even exercise again. I've been thinking about how I am changing to a nine-month contract beginning June 1 and what that means for our family financially and what that means for our family's health. I've been thinking about how we teach our children faith and hope and love and mercy and patience and how those methods differ from teaching them to study the Bible. I've been thinking about budgets and patience and stability and contentment and when you feel called to a place and how to tell when you've been released. I've been thinking about friends and community and large backyards and sandboxes and neighbors. I've been thinking about grilling out and being barefoot. I've been thinking about what a great winter and spring it's been, and how the tree outside my office window is sucking up the precipitation and pushing out leaves right now, right this minute, dripping and growing and greening up as if it takes nothing at all to do these things, nothing at all to recover from winter, to grow and to thrive.

Monday, March 31, 2014

My Writing Process

My good friend, Kate Hopper, has invited me to participate in this fun little blog tour about writing process. Kate is a brilliant writer and teacher who has published two books you might be interested in: Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood and Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers. She has taught at the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference since its inception, and that's how I've gotten to know her. She is fun, thoughtful, and passionate, and I just love reading her stuff and getting to chat with her!

So, here's a little bit about my writing process:

1) What am I working on?
I am currently shaping and straightening, like a hairdo, a collection of essays-in-memoir about my relationship with my dad and my relationship with my husband. It travels from youth through adolescence and then takes a hop, skip, and jump into the tenth year of marriage. The essays wrestle with body image, temptation, love, romance, obsession, faith, self-confidence, transitions from father's daughter to husband's wife, role reversal, the objectification of women, and parenting. And everything else I can jam in, too. The collection is tentatively titled, American Honey. This is the primary focus of my writing world right now, although I have sent out some poems here and there, just for fun.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
A lot of my material is rooted in faith and in doubt, wrestling between the two, and even though God might not come up directly in essays, underneath the surface he's always there. Like many essayists, I write to know more and to ask questions about what I think I know already or hope to know soon. I try to achieve what in yoga my friend, Jody, calls being "rooted and reaching" - my feet are generally planted firmly in the practical details of life while my hands are reaching upward and outward, seeking meaning beyond the physical world.

3) Why do I write what I do?
I write what I do because it is what feels most urgent right now, and I don't know of many books in which marriages survive. I wanted to write a marriage memoir that shows the nitty-gritty details of daily life, with all its challenges and compromises and promises, in the midst of living. Most marriage memoirs I know, the spouse either leaves or dies. In case you don't know yet, I am still happily married to my husband, and both of us aren't dead yet. The funny thing about trying to write these essays is that my dad kept appearing, and I decided to let that thread develop in my writing, to follow where Dad led me. This turned out to be a good idea. I have learned so much about myself and my marriage and my husband and my father by following the flitting butterfly through the field.

4) How does my writing process work?
I tend to write blathering first drafts that are horrible and ugly and resemble the title of my blog, "And so" first drafts. The lovely thing about these first drafts is that often one essay actually contains two... or more... essays that can be yanked out and shaped until they look more like something someone might want to read someday. I jam writing time into the crevices of the day - I am writing this on my lunch break while my husband plays basketball and my son takes a nap - or in the evenings after the kids are asleep. Sometimes, if a thought is really nagging on me, I'll carry my laptop around the house from task to task. It sits on the dryer while I fold laundry. It sits on the counter while I chop carrots. I usually work on more than one essay at a time because I'm thinking about more than one thing at a time. Lately it's all nonfiction, but maybe someday I'll write a poem again.

Next Up!
Here are three ladies you should get to know. They will post their blog tour replies next Monday, but check them out now!

Sonya Huber - I met Sonya through the Ashland MFA Program when she taught for us, and I adore her passion, her laugh, and her compassion for others. She is a lovely writer and a lovely person.

Callie Feyen - Callie and I are social media pals. I've never met Callie in person but we've exchanged packets of writing together for over a year, and her blogs about parenting are just phenomenal.

Yankee Drawl - Jayna and I have known each other since high school. She blogs about parenting three little people, and I think she is hilarious.

Monday, March 24, 2014

I Don't Read Postcards from Hell

I got a soul that I won't sell, 
And I don't read postcards from hell. 
- The Wood Brothers

It's been about a year and a half since I wrote this post, "Crazy Jesus Parables and Dead Pigs." In hindsight, it's a rather cryptic post. I don't give any context to why driving out demons and the house of the impure spirits meant something to me right then, that fall; I don't let on that I felt like I was constantly pushing off the temptation to engage another man who was interested in me, I don't let on that I did not want anything to do with him but I also didn't mind hearing that someone found me attractive, I don't share how conflicted I felt, how guilty I felt, how weak and needy and lonely I felt, even though my husband was around, yes, around, but I missed him. I was distracted and tense, trying desperately to stay pure, to resist temptation, to keep it together.

I wrote about what was happening in my life but I didn't really write what was happening in my life. My world was under threat, and I was the first guard at the gate. What better weapon to wield than the Word of God? 

I am not sure what would have become of me and my marriage if it wasn't for the Bible. 

This sounds crazy. 

Crazy Jesus Parables and Dead Pigs sustained me. Letters from the epistles reminded me what to do when my emotions reeled, when my immediate heart's desire was to be filled, to be filled with something, anything, when the easiest access was this other man who so readily handed out compliments, who readily flirted, who assumed I wanted to hear these things... and I did.

Except I wanted to hear them from my husband, the man I had committed to love, til death do us part, not him.

As fall crept into winter and winter sloshed into spring, resistance built on resistance, brick by brick. Gradually, it passed. It passed, and I survived. Our marriage survived. The notes and emails from him didn't stop, entirely, and some of the things he said ran on a random loop in my brain, but I knew what was right. I knew what was good. I knew what was true.

Lately, my guilt and shame about being tempted at all has dissolved away into rage. How dare he? I find myself thinking, from the safe distance of a healed marriage, from behind the wall of love and security my husband has built around me. This is one truth: I did not ask for those things. The realization that what I put up with for almost a full year could have been, should have been, called sexual harassment, this realization obliterates everything else.


Because this is another truth: I was still vulnerable. There is something inside me that longed to be filled, to be openly adored and desired, and, let's face it, after nine years of marriage, isn't everyone a little tired of trying so hard all of the time? The temptation was strong. It would be a lie to push the burden of responsibility entirely onto the other person. But it would also be a lie to take the full weight of that responsibility.

From this side of mercy, Brandon and I tell each other all things. Everything has been laid bare here; every temptation, every hurt, every longing. He has seen it all, and he still loves me. He loves me, he loves me, he loves me.

From this side of mercy, I see the Word of God a bit differently. As a new believer, I viewed the Bible and its rules as guidelines to earn God's love and acceptance. The B-I-B-L-E: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. How clever. The laws of God were given to keep me in line; if I followed them, then God would bless me. If I broke them, God would turn his back on me.

Over and over again, the psalmists praise God's laws and precepts. "Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long," the psalmist says in Psalm 119. What?! How could someone sing about rules? How could someone love the law, those restrictions, those barriers, how could someone praise God for the law?

From this side of mercy, however, I find myself singing along with the psalmist, "Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long." It was the law, the Word of God, that showed me the way and said, now walk in it. The heart only wanted to be filled, immediately. I used to think the Law was given to earn God's love, but now I see that the Law was given as a gift of love from God. The Law was a grace bearer. The Law, fulfilled in Christ, delivered me. 

Here, child. I love you. I don't want to see you in pain. Here, let me tell you what to do, even though you think this is the hardest thing you could do, here, let me show you the way so that you might walk in it, so that you might walk into the valley, through the desert, and enter the promised land. You will persevere; perseverance will produce character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint. You will do more than survive, my child, you will thrive.

Daily I sing, from this side of mercy, from this side of grace, from the broken but healed side of redemption, "Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Beauty Everywhere

A raging feminist has been lurking dormant in my system, it seems, and lately I find myself enraged at the objectification of women, lies we're told about our bodies, lessons we learn by osmosis-- how to talk about ourselves as never meeting the Photoshopped standard, too big here, not enough there, flaw after flaw after flaw, how to measure our self-worth, whose opinion matters. How dare they, I think. How dare I be judged and judge myself only on appearance?

Because of this, I have wrongly started to resist the word "beauty," hesitate to label a person as beautiful. The beauty of a human body is too closely aligned with sex appeal in our culture. I find myself thinking, "Wow, she is really beautiful," and then flinch - oh, no, am I a product of my culture? Have I fallen slave to the sex selling machine?

I want to be beautiful. Not just the inner beauty we all tout around, I also want to be beautiful outside; to leak joy and hope, yes, but also to view my physical being, not just my spirit, as a thing of beauty. Instead, I have been trained to analyze every perceived flaw in my figure. 

Beauty, we say, is in the eye of the beholder, but I don't think that's true.

When we look at the mountains, do we think, "Well, that range sure would be stunning if the trees were a little taller." When we look at a flower, do we think, "Oh, if only that marigold had a few more bunches of yellow, then it would be beautiful." When we are overwhelmed to the point of silence by a sunset over water, clouds pierced by rays of light reflected on waves, an array of color so bright we have to squint, our eyes tear up, can we think anything except awe, anything except, "Wow. Stunning. Amazing. Awesome. Gorgeous. Beautiful."

No. The thing itself is beautiful, whether we say so or not. Even the crumbling brown landscape underneath the frozen pack of snow finally exposed in the bright March light this eternal winter is beautiful, its grasses crisp, its dirt soaked, the buds on its branches so real, so good, so true. It is beautiful because it is. It is beautiful because it is real. It is good. It is true.

The philosophers of the ages hold up beauty as transcendental, equal to and paired with truth and goodness. Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are the defining characteristics of God in the church. Where one goes, the other two follow. Complete truth, beauty, and goodness is holiness; it is what Christians aspire to in order to achieve wholeness in Christ, who is the embodiment of these three characteristics. 

Beauty is fine in nature, it is fine in art, fine in landscape, fine in architecture, fine even in the perfection of math, in science, in physics, beauty as theory as measurement as precision as symmetry as color as prism as light. 

Why not the human body?

This, I asked myself today as I walked from my office back to my car, surrounded once more by college students, all in their late teens and early 20s, bodies embellished or hidden, tucked in skinny jeans, falling out of tank tops, topped with ball caps, pierced, tatted, booted, some bare, some smiling, some talking, some frowning, some laughing, and all I wanted to do was stop each one and say, "God, you're beautiful." All of you. Miraculous you. You are beautiful because you are. You are real. You are good. You are true. You are beautiful, God-breathed, unique.

There's a quote that is often mis-attributed to C.S. Lewis that says, "You don't have a soul. You have a body. You are a soul." I used to love this, loved it even after I knew that C.S. Lewis didn't say it, because it de-emphasized the part of my being that I have always been most critical of, scorned and embarrassed by. Good, see, I will shed this body and be an eternal soul, and that's all I need to worry about, my soul, its truth and goodness and beauty, not my body, withering and dull and flawed. 

But this is not true. We are souls. We are also bodies. We are also minds. We are also spirits. We are all of these things, so intricately woven together that we still cannot unravel them to find where soul ends and body begins, where mind stops and spirit starts. We are all of these things, mystery of creation and dust, mystery of growth and decay. We cannot deny that we are also bodies; we cannot rail against the structure that holds the rest of us together. To deny the body is to deny a part of our being, and now we are denying ourselves wholeness. Truth. Goodness. Beauty.

Can we begin to separate sex appeal from human beauty? Can we begin to celebrate the human body in its strength, its tone, its architecture, its flexibility, its aesthetic design, its full range of motion and its ability to heal? How drastically different would it be to think of ourselves this way, instead of comparing ourselves to the cover of a magazine, judging a woman who walks down the street, casting a downward glance to avoid the crazy thought that someone else is lovely? Can we begin to speak truth into ourselves, into our children, into our family members, into our friends, maybe even into strangers, "God, you're beautiful." Beautiful because you are

Beauty. It is not such a difficult word.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Westbound and Down, Rollin' Up and Truckin'

"we gonna do what they say can't be done. We've got a long way to go, and a short time to get there, oh westbound just watch ol' Bandit run!"

Yeeeee hawwwww!

Tomorrow morning at the wee hour of 4 a.m. I'll be zooming out of here to the airport for another year of AWP, this year, all the way in Seattle. I am so happy that I am not in the state of mental breakdown that I was in at this time last year. I have not been dreaming about flies hatching out from underneath my fingernails, and no one in my immediate family has suffered from a kidney stone this week. Given those two things, I'm in paradise.

I am reading my work TWICE at this year's conference - first as part of the River Teeth 15th Anniversary Reading (I'll be excerpting "Country Boys, City Boys") and then later that night as part of the WordFarm/Rock&Sling/and someone else poetry extravaganza (planning to read "Making the Bed" from PBB). It's going to be a busy conference, with two dinners/parties for River Teeth and the MFA Program, plus readings and signings and meetings galore. PLUS I am staying with two of my favorite writer friends! We will be... Sleepless... in Seattle.

This is the first time in recent history that my children have been sad that I am leaving. I feel a little bad because... well... I'm not sad that I am leaving. ha ha ha. I AM sad that they were sad at bedtime - Lydia even cried. I held her for a long time until she got sleepy. Henry told me, "Don't go to work, Mom," which darn near broke my heart. Why don't they do this when Brandon leaves? He's gone ALL THE TIME. (Well, not all the time. But, he certainly travels more frequently than I do.) Of course I'll miss them. Of course. But MAYBE, it's time for mama to get out of Ashland and see her writerly friends.

At any rate, three little love letters are waiting on the counter for them when they wake up. And there will be Skype sessions ahead for the three little people, too. I will get my fill of writer egos, black clothes, books, and bars, and happily return ready for hugs and kisses from the sweet ones.

My husband, on the other hand, I will miss terribly, miss him already because he's working tonight in Cleveland. Sigh. Excuse me for one second, but how good is it to be loved and to love? It's a good kind of missing happening. I already can't wait to see him on Sunday.

And now I am off to sleep as much as I can before 4 a.m. Egads.