Follow the leader

February 20, 2017

As I’ve been examining my identity and the path I’m on in life, I’ve noticed a lot of synchronicity. I’ve always been fairly aware of recurring themes at different times in my life, but I’m seeing it more clearly and frequently recently. Numerous references have come up across all areas of my life – in books I’m reading, songs I hear, conversations with people and weekend messages at church – to things like mountains (literal and metaphorical), dreams and the archetypal hero’s journey.

One somewhat surprising theme that I’ve seen emerging is leadership and, more specifically, that God is wanting to build into me as a leader. That message couldn’t have been much clearer than this past week. As I was leaving a friend’s house after discussing with her this pull toward leadership, the song playing on the radio was Foxygen’s “Follow the Leader.” I’d never heard the song before, but immediately upon starting the car, I heard the line, “Follow the leader, and the leader is you.” This was followed by Prince’s “Purple Rain,” which includes the line, “You say you want a leader…” Around the same time, I received a text message from a friend who was interested in joining a small group I’m hosting.

I say this idea of leadership is somewhat surprising because I can be shy, and I’m often pretty quiet among people I don’t know well. I’m sometimes awkward, and I’m not as adept at communicating verbally as I am through writing. And while I have convictions I stand up for, I tend more toward being agreeable a lot of the time.

When I really think about it, though, I can also see an inclination toward leadership. I took on training roles in two different restaurants. In another restaurant, while I didn’t have an official training role, I often had new servers shadowing me, and I was occasionally granted permission to assist with managerial duties. I also took on the position of arts and entertainment editor, then assignment editor for my student paper in college. Starting out as a student reporter, I didn’t see myself pursuing the role of an editor. However, I loved it, and I thrived on managing, organizing and delegating.

I’m not sure where or how I’m being called toward leadership at this time. What I do know is that I’m seeing qualities that are important in leaders, and they’re areas in which I hope to develop.

  • A leader is adaptable

There are definitely times when things need to done a specific way, or when a story needs a certain perspective to be complete. But leaders know it’s not uncommon for things to change, to turn out different than how they were planned, and they roll with it.

I actually get excited when I get an opportunity to problem-solve, or when I’m challenged to approach a story from a different angle than the one I’d originally expected. When I’m struggling to come up with a solution, I reach out to my editor, who rather than scrapping the story says something like, “Maybe we can try for some perspective from these people instead.”

  • A leader is persistent and perseveres

One article I’m particularly proud of is a story I wrote last year about a construction project in a Northern Kentucky school district. It wasn’t the most exciting story ever, nor was it the most shining example of my writing. The average reader wouldn’t know it, but this particular assignment is a testament to my persistence and perseverance.

I spent the better part of two weeks trying to reach a second source, someone who could offer some input beyond the information the communications director had given me. Having already pushed the deadline back once, my editor and I conferred that I should put the story on the back burner. A few weeks later, I was in need of a story to maintain my workload. I called the district’s facilities director, who (finally!) answered and took a few minutes to talk, and I had my story.

  • A leader is willing to listen and let others lead

Members of a team each have their own unique set of gifts and talents. But if the person leading the team doesn’t take time to listen, it can be difficult for him/her to recognize these abilities. This flows into the strength of delegating tasks, too. When a leader knows team members’ strengths and challenges, s/he can assign duties accordingly, allowing those team members to lead in ways that align with their gifts and talents.

Leaders almost always have someone leading them as well. When I first looked at my phone and saw my friend’s text message asking to join my small group, all I saw on my locked screen was a message that read “*be led.” It was intended to amend a typo from her original message, but it was quite thought-provoking for me, as I listened to the aforementioned song, by Foxygen. I was beginning to get this sense of being drawn toward leadership a few weeks ago. I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t yet know how to expand on the topic. Although I didn’t know yet what to write, and I hadn’t yet heard the Foxygen song, I had the title “Follow the leader” in my mind (at the time, thinking of Disney’s 1953 adaptation of “Peter Pan”). Because I have it on my heart to be a leader, but I know to be the leader I’m supposed to be, I have to follow God.

While discussing my upcoming vacation with my best friend the other day, she said there might be days when things don’t go how I expect or plan, and I might get frustrated, but I’ll be OK, and it will be good. Thinking back to that conversation this morning, I had to laugh a little bit, thinking, “You mean, kind of like parenthood? Or for that matter, life in general?”

It might seem odd to expect a vacation to have stress associated with it. Shouldn’t it be relaxing? Sure. Except when you’re planning an epic road trip for yourself and a 2-year-old.

The funny thing is, the stress of it – for now, at least – isn’t dealing with tempter tantrums and long stretches in the car, although I’m sure those will be challenging. Right now, one of my biggest challenges is being challenged – “Are you sure you can afford to do that?”  “It might be good if someone else went with you, to help you.” My response to these  questions and statements are, “Yes,” and “It might be, but I feel like this is something I need to do.”

I’m incredibly grateful to have multiple people who love me and care for my well-being and my daughter’s. And I try to seek counsel from various people because think it’s good to have different perspectives to keep me accountable, to offer input and keep me in check. But I also feel a bit like in the absence of one person against whom I used to weigh my visions and with whom I built my dreams for the future, I now have many voices telling me what they think I should do and how I should do it. And in the midst of it all, I’m trying to figure out what are my dreams and visions for the future?

It’s a question I’ve considered from time to time, but it’s not something I’ve really had to think much about. Pretty much all the things I’d set my sights on from about two years before meeting Matthew until two years into our relationship came to fruition. I took on the identities of professional reporter, wife and mother, just as I’d hoped I would. But when you’re married, your dreams and identity get intertwined with those of another. Sometimes, maybe, you put your identity too much into that role you took on.

Between the two of us, Matthew was always the visionary, while I was the practical one, who put things into action. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Humans are created for companionship and partnership, and a team works best when its members’ unique gifts and skills complement each other. When you’re suddenly without that, though, you’re faced with the challenge of finding within yourself and building into the traits and abilities you didn’t have to possess as part of that partnership. And if you’re like me, that means identifying your visions for things – from vacations to home improvement projects to where you see yourself in five years.

I feel like the answer to that came a lot easier 10 years ago, even if the things I wanted back then aren’t so different from what I want now. I’m beginning to see now that it’s less about what I want and more about fulfilling the purpose I was created for. I have a hunch that through that, I’ll find what I want, too.

As a writer, I’ve been shaped quite a bit by things I’ve read, so for lack of a more solid or clear topic today, I thought I’d share some of my favorites. As with albums and movies, these aren’t necessarily my totally fixed top three in order, but they’re up there.

  • Desperation, by Stephen King

Stephen King is one of – if not my top – favorite authors. I started reading his books at a pretty young age, and I’ve acquired a pretty decent collection of them over the years. I’ve had to get rid of a lot of books due to lack of space or moving, but I pretty much refuse to part with my Stephen King books, even though I’ve already read them all. In fact, Desperation resonated with me so much, I read it twice (if it’s any indication of how much I must have liked it to read it a second time, the book in question is 690 pages).

The novel is set in fictional town in Nevada, for which the book is titled. Faith and religion are common themes in Stephen King’s writing, as are the less defined elements of good and evil, light and dark. This particular book is heavy on these themes. And as with many of his stories, the antagonist takes on different forms at different times and isn’t always obvious. A dark force that cannot be seen, the idea that something evil could take on the form of someone we love – these are the things that make some of Stephen King’s stories so scary, especially in this book. As frightening as it is, though, there are also elements of self-sacrifice, redemption and the idea that sometimes people not linked to us through bloodlines become our family.

  • Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, by Chuck Klosterman

When my childhood best friend turned 21, she had a party at her apartment and a get-together at a bar on a different night. She was living in Columbus at the time, so I headed up there to meet up with her for an evening out. Apparently, I mixed up the nights, and she’d lost her phone or something, so I couldn’t reach her. Still a smoker at the time, I spent the evening smoking on the bar patio, throwing back more drinks than I probably should have and chatting with a stranger who also was from out of town. He wound up suggesting this book to me, and I can’t begin to say how spot-on he was with the recommendation.

Chuck Klosterman is a journalist/pop culture writer, who, among other works has written three books of pop culture essays. The essays cover topics from Billy Joel to Thom Yorke to the relevance and reality of The Real World. Interspersed with the essays are thought-provoking questions for the reader, like: You can live in the state you live in for the rest of your life but never leave it, or you can go anywhere in the world but can’t return to your home state ever again. Which do you choose? (I’m paraphrasing, and this is one of his more tame hypotheticals). His wit and his tone have had a great influence on my personal writing. So much that when Matthew told me a blog I wrote last summer reminded him in a way of Chuck Palahniuk, I was incredibly flattered because I aspire to somewhat of a Chuck-meets-Chuck style of writing.

  • The Shack, by William P. Young

For anyone unfamiliar with it, The Shack is a popular Christian novel, which was recently made into a movie adaptation due out this March. It tells a story of forgiveness and redemption, with a protagonist who’s angry and seeking answers from God after his young daughter is abducted and murdered. It also challenges readers’ perceptions of God, casting Him for most of the story as a black woman. Some might argue Young tries too hard with this, but with the explanation given in the book, I thought it made sense enough. And hey, regardless what God’s appearance is, I’m pretty sure He has the ability to appear to people however He pleases – kind of along the lines of how people can “be Jesus” to one another at times.

I’m pretty sure I first read it for a book discussion group, and I loved it so much, I started recommending it to anyone who would sit still for five minutes. For me, the big takeaways were the main points of the story – forgiveness and grace. And I love and identify with the imagery used in certain scenes, like working in a garden representing the protagonist’s heart and exuberant souls bursting with color and light.

I recently was reading some of my writing from about eight or nine years ago. In the midst of feeling horribly embarrassed by my brashness and overuse of profanity, I realized that there were some things there that still hold true. Like my penchant for getting lost in my own city.

Not wanting to be alone on what would have been my anniversary this past Thursday, I went out for karaoke with some friends at the bar where I met Matthew. I hadn’t stepped foot in the place in years, and I felt it was time to go back. I’m sure a big part of it was the company surrounding me, but it felt surprisingly refreshing, and we all had a lot of fun.

Leaving the bar, I would typically have made a left turn onto the main road that runs past the bar. But for whatever reason, I turned right instead. Maybe it’s because it tends to be a busy road with limited visibility, and I don’t like making left turns under such circumstances. Or because of recent construction that altered the route I used to take to get on the highway from there. Or, it could have been some sort of symbolic psychological thing, a need to do something different in a formerly familiar circumstance.

From my experience, and from other people I’ve talked to, there’s a difference in the way men and women understand and give directions. Generally, it seems that women are more inclined to instruct people to turn right or left, whereas men often will give cardinal directions (north, east, south, west). If you would have asked my younger self, who wrote about “getting lost in my own backyard” nearly a decade ago, I would have told you I had no sense of cardinal direction. I still don’t usually use them in giving directions unless I’m referring to a highway. But I at least knew that when I turned right onto Hamilton Avenue, I was heading north and that if I didn’t encounter any highway signs on my route, I could find my way home by traveling north and east.

So, I continued on this relatively unknown trajectory, enjoying the time to myself, unconcerned about the fact that I knew only vaguely where I was. Eventually, I took a road that curved more than expected, and I resorted to using my phone’s GPS. By that point I was right around the corner from the cross-county highway that I often take to and from home.

I’ve been feeling lately like I’ve been standing in place waiting for clarity in a lot of areas of my life. And little by little, I’ve gotten some clarity in some of those areas. Sometimes that can lead to a desire for further clarity, so you continue standing in place. Until eventually you realize that this isn’t one of those instances where there’s a clear answer to “go here” or “do this.” And that if you have your bearings and know where you’re trying to get to, sometimes you have to trust in that and start moving in order for the path ahead to be illuminated.

 

 

How did you love?

January 23, 2017

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This was the image we used for the cover of our comic book wedding invitations.

This Thursday would have been my and Matthew’s fourth anniversary. It was something I enjoyed celebrating almost as much as I love celebrating birthdays. Being the sentimental person that I am, I liked to give the “traditional” anniversary gifts, or creative variations of them. This year being linen, I’d planned to get monogrammed handkerchiefs for him. As sappy or impractical as this might seem, it actually would have been an excellent gift for him, since he often would leave the house with a hand towel to manage sweat when the weather was hot.

I never thought I would instead be receiving my own handkerchiefs from a friend at Matthew’s funeral. I never thought that at 30 years old I would be receiving in the mail a certificate of ownership for a burial plot I purchased. I never thought I would feel so defensive or question myself so much as when I respond to someone’s inquiry of my well-being with, “I’m pretty good,” and s/he immediately repeats the question, as though to say “How are you really?”

People still occasionally ask the more specific question of how I’m coping. I guess the answer depends on the sense in which the question was asked. Asked in a similar vein to, “How are you doing overall?” (which I believe is generally the implied meaning), I’m coping pretty well. I still cry more than is normal for me, but it’s not necessarily an everyday occurrence. Sometimes, I’ll go a week without any tears; other times I might find myself crying three days in a row, or more than once in a day. Sometimes, it’s because I miss Matthew. Sometimes, it’s brought on by a more general loneliness. Sometimes, it’s for other reasons, some of them having little or nothing to do with Matthew. I still occasionally find myself staring at a picture, feeling disbelief, wanting to hit or break something (Those who saw my post the other day about the destructive protestors may think this is hypocritical. But there’s a vast difference between breaking something like an empty glass bottle that would otherwise be recycled and busting a stranger’s car windows. Even so, I’ve learned that intentionally breaking things rarely offers the catharsis one hopes for.). At times, the only thing that keeps me from self-destructive behaviors is knowing from experience that it would only reap shame and other negative feelings. But most of the time, I’m fine. OK. Pretty good, even.

If, on the other hand, the question of my coping is an inquiry as to what I’m doing to cope, the answer would be: I’m keeping busy. I’m working, attending Financial Peace workshops, going to church, taking my daughter to swim lessons, spending time with friends and family, writing and sorting through things, both tangible and emotional. These last two things are the least predictable. I’m not always sure how these tasks are going to make me feel. They also, I believe, are the most instrumental in healing and growth.

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My grandfather was a graphic design artist and sometimes created art for a hobby. This old ink bottle is a nice reminder of him.

There’s a certain weight to sorting through and deciding the fate of someone else’s belongings. How do you sum up the tangible impact of a person’s life? Am I keeping the right things, the things Matthew would have saved? One thing I’ve realized is that the two types of objects most difficult for me to get rid of are those that are tied to memories and those that are tied to the creative self (I’m apparently not the only one on the latter. At least once, I’ve come across reporter notebooks that magically reappeared after I put them in the recycling bin.). For me, it’s my writing. With Matthew’s stuff, it’s art. There’s something about the development that can be seen in a person’s work over time and the way their process changes over time that tells the individual’s story in a way few other things can. And these things stem from the gifts God gave to that person. What about you? What is hardest for you to let go of? If you were charged with the responsibility of deciding what to save from what a loved one left behind, what would you keep? What would you want to leave behind for others to remember you by?

 

One of the things that I love most about journalism and parenting is that these roles offer ample opportunities for teaching. I wanted to be and do many different things when I was growing up. While I may have briefly flirted with the idea of being a teacher from time to time, it wasn’t a role I saw myself fulfilling in an overt way. Yet, it’s one of my greatest strengths.

I’ve been in training positions in two different restaurant jobs, and despite my impatience in some areas, I can be (almost) infinitely patient explaining new information. And while I can be independent to a fault, I’m pretty good about stepping back and guiding someone through a task verbally and offering encouragement. These qualities are so ingrained in me that while I’ve begun seeing “prophet” characteristics emerge more of late and want to build into those, “teacher” was my top result on this “true talent indicator.”

Here’s the thing, though: To be a teacher, you have to be teachable. This is a challenge for me – a big challenge. I love learning new things, and another thing I love about journalism and parenting is that I get to learn new things all the time. But I prefer to learn on my own terms. I love the image of sitting at a the feet of another teacher, taking in new knowledge and wisdom. I like to picture myself patiently putting down a book I’m reading or stepping back from whatever I’m doing and saying, “I don’t know very much about that. Tell me more. Help me understand.”

The truth is, I tend more often than not to get irritated when I feel I’ve been interrupted from a task (or even from my own thoughts). When someone offers new information I didn’t ask for, I don’t always pay attention as much as I should. I let my mind wander and maybe even question the significance of the knowledge.  I’m prone to challenging others too quickly, when maybe I should be trying to consider or learn more about what they’re telling me. And when it comes to criticism, it’s hard enough to accept it when I’ve opened myself up for it. When it comes without request, I’m even more inclined to respond defensively.

This is one of a few things I’m trying to change. I’ve found myself a few times lately in situations where I felt I was being bombarded with information, and as I felt my blood pressure rising, I tried to change my mindset from, “Why do I need to know this?” to “What can I learn from this?” While I am trying to be a better listener at times like this, the lesson isn’t always that I need to pay closer attention. Sometimes, it can lead to self-examination and the realization that the very thing driving me crazy is something I do too.

When it comes to subjects I’m well-versed in, I’ve been trying  not to give into the urge to say, “Oh yeah, I know about that.” The current message series at the church I attend is about resilience, and it’s focused on Joseph (of coat-of-many-colors fame). I’ve learned quite a bit about resilience in the past year, and of the people in the Bible, Joseph was one I remember learning about a lot from my grandfather (perhaps second only to Moses and the Israelites). But there are still aspects of resilience and Joseph’s life that I hadn’t considered before.

As far as criticism…I’m working on that one. I’ve seen some ways I have improved in this area, but it’s still a challenge. And I have a feeling I’ll have opportunities to exercise the ability to accept criticism. Kind of how when you pray for patience, you don’t just receive patience, but suddenly are faced with opportunities for growth in that area. So, this tidbit from the pastor’s message this past weekend jumped out at me. It was something to the effect that when criticism is given isn’t the time decide how to react to it, but beforehand; it’s a mindset.

I sometimes find myself having conversations with God in bathrooms. Maybe it has something to do with the cliché of parenthood depicted on sitcoms and in comic strips, of a parent who can’t find peace anywhere else. Whatever the reason for this habit, I found myself last week jumping up and down in my bathroom (super mature, I know) in a silly, lighthearted expression of how I was feeling:

God, I feel you putting on my heart this sense of excitement and a feeling that I’m being called to make changes and take risks. But I have no idea what, or how, or when! I’m trying to listen patiently for the guidance to follow this call, but it’s so hard waiting when I’m filled with a desire to run to where you want me to be.

As the morning went on, I thought about a moment I’d had earlier that morning, sitting with my daughter in her room, captivated by this beautiful gift that I don’t deserve. And I thought back to this picture and another bathroom prayer, nearly three years ago.

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March 23, 2014

I’m really not a big fan of this picture. I snapped it sitting in my car in Mt. Adams on a cold, windy day, and I only took it to make sure the cover image on my phone’s photo album wasn’t a picture of a pregnancy test (ironically, Matthew actually used my phone to take a photo of a meal I’d made that night or the night after). That morning, I’d said a silent but elated prayer of thanks, when I saw a faint second line on said pregnancy test.

I also thought about a chalk sign I saw in a gorgeous house Matthew and I toured in 2013, whimsically dreaming about having the ability to purchase it. Written on the sign in the home’s entryway was the message: Faith in God includes faith in His timing.

I don’t know why God sometimes plants a feeling in my heart before revealing why, but I know the answer usually isn’t  as far behind as it might feel like. There were times when I was pregnant that I would see an infant, and I could have just about come out of my skin with anticipation to see and hold my own baby. But she took time to develop until the time was right for her to make her arrival. And while I kind of figured that I would eventually have a 2-year-old, I never could have imagined when I took that photo of myself in the car that nearly three years later I would be sitting on her bedroom floor, looking at her with the same sense of elation I had that morning.

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January 4, 2017

There are two times of year when I get particularly excited and optimistic about the future: The onset of autumn and the start of a new year. While fall can be a reminder of endings, things drawing to a close, I always associated it with my birthday and the start of a new year on a personal level. And of course, New Year’s Eve/Day is the same, on a more collective level.

I’m probably more excitedly optimistic than ever starting off this new year. Last year was undoubtedly the most difficult year of my life. It also was a year filled with love and unprecedented growth. And I can say with great confidence that the growth will continue in 2017. A friend of mine texted me yesterday that “It’s going to be a good one (year) for you.” And I believe she’s right. Not just in the sense that it has to be better than last year, but that I trust there are some very big and good things in store for me.

I might not be so certain of this were it not for the lessons I learned in 2016. Here are a few of them:

  • Ask more questions

Back sometime around August, I remember a conversation with a friend over text during which I said something to the effect of, “I feel like everything in my life requires explanation.” At the time, I was trying to describe the complicated reasons for why I had less time than usual to get things done during the day. They were valid reasons, and the conversation was with a  friend who cared about not only the “what” but the “why.” But I’ve also realized by being on the receiving end of similar conversations, that overexplaining can seem chaotic and can be stress-inducing for the listener.

It really hit me while listening to The Strokes’ “Hard to Explain.” Maybe when I’m struggling to explain myself it’s because I don’t really need to. Sometimes a simple answer is all that’s needed, and if someone wants or needs to know more, s/he can and will ask for more details. And maybe sometimes when I’m seeking to be understood, I should instead be asking questions and seeking to understand.

  • Don’t put things off … but don’t forget to be patient

One of the biggest lessons I learned this year was that if you want, need or feel like you should do something, do it. We never know how much time we have here, or how long those we love will be with us. I know this is something we’ve all heard a million times, and we know it’s true, but it’s all too easy to take people for granted and/or to accept the comfort of not taking action to change our circumstances. Life is too damn short to waste time on things that aren’t worth our time, and it’s too short not to take chances or to make decisions based on fear. It’s why I quit a part-time job of 11+ years in 2016, why I take time for personal writing, steal moments during my work day to play with my daughter and why I say and do things even when I’m scared or anxious to. Because for every one of those positive things I do, there are as many that I didn’t do – things I never said, attention and affection I didn’t give, things that got put off for stupid, selfish reasons that now will never happen.

While it’s good practice to not put things off, though, it’s important to remember to be patient. I’m a lot more aware now when I see people losing patience over petty things. I find it easier to stand and wait in a long, slow line at a store (even if it still frustrates me a little). But I do still struggle in some ways to remain patient with God, myself, other people. I got a reminder last week at the gym of the benefits of slowing down my pace. I usually like to do my cardio workout on the elliptical, but that day I decided to start off with the stair stepper. I have to set it to a super low level, but it kicks my ass. As I climbed for 10 minutes at what felt like an interminably slow pace, my heart rate rose beyond a healthy threshold (incidentally, one of my goals for this year is to do a full 30 minutes on the stair stepper). It occurred to me that sometimes maintaining a slow pace, however difficult that might be, is more beneficial in the long run.

  • When you have nothing else, give gratitude

As someone who’s always been pretty independent and self-sufficient, it can be difficult for me to accept help from others. Last year, though, I learned just how powerful it can be not only to receive but to ask for help when I need it. It’s also important to give back. I really enjoy giving, actually. I get more excited for opportunities to give gifts than to receive them. So, when I wasn’t able to give back – either because I couldn’t or people wouldn’t allow me to – I found that giving gratitude works pretty well, too.

These learning lessons aren’t my only cause for optimism. I don’t generally set resolutions for myself, but I do try to establish some hopes at the start of every new year and goals to guide them. These are the hopes around which my goals are set for 2017:

  • Simplify more

I grew up in a household that was cluttered to a point of what some (including me) would consider hoarding. It wasn’t always the case, but that’s how things developed over time. As an adult, I’ve chosen a different path, finding that I prefer simplicity over the chaos of having a lot of things. Preparing to move in 2015, I stepped up my efforts because I didn’t want to move a bunch of crap I didn’t need. And last year, I did a clothing challenge that helped me get rid of a few weeks’ worth of clothes. But I still have plenty more to get rid of before I can rest easily in the amount of stuff I have. It’s not just my belongings I hope to simplify. In line with the lesson on overexplaining, I hope to simplify my mental and emotional burdens as well.

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My inquisitive nature leads me to search some pretty random things. Often the result is silly. Other times, it’s painful.

 

  • Love myself more

While I might not always like my circumstances, I’m pretty happy with the person I am. I felt a shift recently, a sense of stabilizing, like I’m myself again. A new self in some ways from who I was a few years, or even a few months ago, yet the same in a lot of ways, too. And I’ve gone from feeling intensely lonely to being alone and being mostly OK with it. But a few days ago, I accidentally pasted a text message I’d “cut” into the internet browser on my phone, and the search results were painful to face – to a point that I almost let out an audible “ouch” reading them. They revealed some things about myself that I don’t like very much. But I needed to face them, so I can work through them. I’m not someone who likes to shrug such things off, or to excuse things with assertions like, “That’s just how I am.” I’ve long been aware of some of the contributing factors to these characteristics I dislike about myself, and that can be a helpful place to start. One way of addressing and changing these things is to love myself more.

  • Be more outwardly focused

While I’ve needed (and still need) to take time to focus on myself, I’ve realized that I’ve grown pretty inwardly focused in recent years. After Violet came along, my main objectives became taking care of my family and investing in the friendships I already had. Sure, having a kid is life-changing, and especially in that first year, it can kind of put people into survival mode. And there’s nothing at all wrong with serving God through caring for family and fostering friendships. But there’s more to life than that. I’m still working on my goals for this one. I have a project I’m working on, which I hope will help others as well as myself. And I recently started back up in a volunteering role, so maybe it’s leaning into that. Or maybe it’s taking on more work, since that puts my focus on telling other peoples’ stories. Whatever shape it winds up taking, I think it’s going to be good, and – as with whatever other lessons, growth and opportunities are in store this year – I’m looking forward to it.

More like falling in love

December 26, 2016

I didn’t get a single toy for my daughter for Christmas. And I’m OK with that. That isn’t to say I didn’t give her any gifts. I got her a pillow, a step stool, a new coat and snowsuit and a reusable swim diaper. She’s also getting swimming lessons, to go along with the diaper. Maybe I’m a killjoy for giving as gifts what seem to be fairly normal, everyday things for parents to give their kids. But she just got toys for her birthday last month, and she received toys for Christmas from my mom, sister, grandmother and friends. So, I saw nothing wrong with focusing on wants that also meet needs or practical purposes.

I feel like the same is true, in a way, with the gifts I received. My mom is contributing to a new pair of glasses. The money my grandmother gave me is going to go toward a child carrier/hiking backpack. My sister and friends gave me gift cards and a book. Most of these things – even the more practical items – are “treat yo self” things for me. In the midst of all these other gifts, God has been giving and continues to give me what I need. This Christmas season, I’ve been given a new way of seeing Jesus.

It had been building up for longer than I realized. In retrospect, I can see it as far back as February, when I was sitting in a funeral home with a handful of close family members, helping plan my grandfather’s funeral. As the arrangements were being made, my sister was excitedly talking to me about how she was in love with Jesus. Matthew, unaware what we were talking about, was annoyed by what he interpreted as a sign of disrespect. Looking back, I can’t help but think about the man who tried to tell Jesus he needed to bury his father before he could follow him. “Let the dead bury the dead,” was Jesus’ reply. Or, there’s the story in the book of Luke about Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha. As Mary sat and listened to Jesus, Martha was busily trying to prepare things for their guest and getting irritated with Mary for not helping. Jesus wound up admonishing Martha, telling her that Mary was the one who was doing the only thing that was needed – listening to him. Please don’t misunderstand; my grandfather was like a dad to me, and I adored him. But sitting there at the funeral home, I needed to hear what my sister was saying because it was revealing to me how much she had changed and grown. And because while I loved God and Jesus, I had never fully experienced what she was talking about.

Then, there was the prayer in October. I’d had a pretty good day and was filled with a sense of peace and joy. But when I went to a Saturday evening church service, and the pastor encouraged people to stay in their seats afterward and receive prayer, I did. There are people there available to pray for those who stay in their seats every weekend, and I’ve taken advantage of that before. At this particular service, though, they seemed to really be encouraging it, and although I was feeling really good and had been receiving prayer from so many other people and had been praying a lot myself, I felt like I should stay put and continue receiving. This guy around my age, who is married himself, wound up approaching to pray for me. We talked some, and he acknowledged that there are surely ways that are difficult to see God show up tangibly to fill the emptiness from losing a spouse. Then, he prayed for God to remove any feelings of guilt or shame I might be struggling with (things I was indeed struggling with, but that I hadn’t mentioned) and for me to see myself as a bride in a new way.

It was about another month-and-a-half until I started seeing these things. After making a commitment to be still and listen – and then actually doing it – I started to hear more clearly the message that was being spoken to me. There’s a lot to it, but when I took a moment to try to consider the big picture, three main themes emerged.

  • There is more to the story

A day or two after writing a blog about being still and listening, I was listening to music on Spotify. A song that I’d saved a few weeks prior came on, and I was struck by the lyrics – “I would never break your heart. I would only rearrange. All the other working parts will stay in place.” I couldn’t remember the name of the artist, so I checked my computer screen and noticed that the song was on an album called “Ellipsis.” This also happened to be a word I’d used in my blog in the context that there would be more to come following my instructions to be still and listen. Another day or two later, I wanted to listen to the song “Heartbeat,” by The Fray. It was the first track on their album “Scars and Stories” (how fitting, right?). On a whim, I decided to listen to the whole album, and nearly every song on there seemed to be speaking to where I was in some way. To top it all off, the last song on the album is called “Be Still.”

  • God loves me and wants me to love Him fully

Music is a passion of mine. It’s something through which I communicate at times, even a love language of sorts. As such, it’s a tool God often uses to communicate to me what I need to hear and know. I even made a playlist out of the songs I was hearing recently that I felt described how God was trying to tell me of His love for me. But music isn’t the only way I hear that. A few weeks ago, I got a wrong-number text message from a stranger, which included a link. It occurred to me that the link could be a scam or virus, but something told me it wasn’t, so I clicked on it. It turned out to be a sermon. I wound up watching it, and while the pastor’s style of preaching wasn’t exactly what I prefer, it was a pretty good message about Peter, a disciple who I’m particularly fond of. What stood out to me more than anything else about the message was the story of Jesus, after his resurrection, asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?” I’d heard before this idea that Jesus asked the question three times because Peter had denied him three times. But what I hadn’t heard was that in this conversation, Jesus was asking Peter using the Greek word “agape,” (which describes unconditional love) and Peter was responding using the word “phileo” (which describes an affectionate, or brotherly love). In other words, Jesus wanted Peter (and all of his followers) to be all in.

As I was thinking about the relationship of God, Christ and those who follow them I had another realization, too. There are numerous allusions to God’s followers as his children, but the Christian Church is referred to as Christ’s bride. So, going back to that prayer about seeing myself as a bride in a new way, it occurred to me that if as a believer, I am part of the body that is Christ’s bride, that would mean God would adopt me into His family, like a father-in-law. While I feel like I should have experienced being “in love with Jesus,” as my sister described, before committing myself to someone in a worldly sense as a wife, I realized that I needed to experience being a wife and a daughter-in-law to understand this relationship. As I was trying to connect the dots on this thought process and the message about Jesus and Peter, here’s what I felt God was telling me: Through Christ, you are a bride and my daughter, and through loving me fully, you will find the healing that you need.

  • Draw “near to the wild heart of life”

I heard a song I liked on the radio recently, called “Near to the Wild Heart of Life.” I didn’t realize at first that the song’s title is actually a phrase from James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” I found out its origin last week, while reading Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.” I’m not sure what the odds are of such a random phrase coming up in two different places within a week or two of one another, but I love the description, and I couldn’t help feeling like it was telling me something. My first thought was, “I think I should read some of James Joyce’s work.” And indeed, I intend to. But when I thought a little more about it, I realized that maybe the phrase itself is an instruction, “Draw near to the wild heart of life. That is where you will find me; it is where I AM.” And it’s where I feel like I am. It’s where I’m headed, and it’s where I want to be.

 

 

I’ve seen these shareable posts lately on Facebook instructing people to share a non-political view or opinion that isn’t popular. Mine is informed by my views, but it isn’t an opinion as much as a stance, or a commitment: I don’t teach my daughter to believe in Santa Claus.

Before I go any further, let me preface what I’m about to write by saying that I’m not trying to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t do when it comes to raising their kids. This is just where I’m coming from, and because people often question my decision when they find out about it, I figured I’d share my reasons.

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it if I hadn’t married who I did. I would have gone ahead with the tradition I was raised with. But, as many of you know, Matthew was very intentional in the way he lived his life. It wasn’t enough to do something because of tradition; he liked to know the reasons behind the traditions, and if those reasons were based in things he didn’t think were right, he didn’t want to do it. And while he wasn’t always exceedingly diplomatic in his language when he pointed these things out, he often was correct when it came to the information he shared.

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Matthew got this on a camping trip, and he kept it near his work space. He wasn’t afraid to be different in standing up for his convictions.

 

Because of Matthew’s passion for research and abiding in God rather than societal norms, we didn’t really celebrate Christmas as a couple. Every Christmas and Easter, I was treated to diatribes about how they had been co-opted by the Christian Church from Pagan celebrations. So, we would go to my grandparents’ house on Christmas to eat dinner and open gifts with my family, but he wouldn’t say, “Merry Christmas,” we didn’t have Christmas trees and he and I exchanged gifts on Boxing Day (for those unfamiliar, this is a day when in Europe and other parts of the world, service people traditionally would receive gifts and time off to spend with their families).

In 2010 or ’11, Matthew got unfriended on Facebook by at least one person for asserting that teaching kids to believe in Santa Claus (and other fictional characters) was a lie. He also got a lot of responses along the lines of, “Just wait until you’re a parent…” There are definitely some situations where – no matter who you are – your vision of how things will play out ultimately differs from reality. Santa Claus was not one of them.

I’ll admit, he drove me a bit crazy at times with things like these, but I also enjoy being challenged within reason. And as with many areas of my life where he drastically changed or shaped my way of thinking, my arrival at certain conclusions are still my own. So for me, the question, “Why don’t you teach your kid to believe in Santa Claus?” could easily be met with, “Why would or should I?”

I don’t raise my daughter to believe in Santa Claus because the story about a man in a sleigh led by reindeer is untrue. I read a stupid clickbait list a couple years ago with people sharing their experiences of finding out that Santa Claus wasn’t real, and some of them (supposedly) felt betrayed by their parents. When I think back to my own childhood and my sister telling me the truth when I was 7, it wasn’t really a big deal. I just accepted it and proceeded to pass the news along to my best friend. And sure, the people sharing anecdotes in that clickbait list were very likely being dramatic. But if three’s a risk of making my daughter feel I’ve betrayed her because I knowingly told her something that wasn’t true, why would I do that? Moreover, as a Christian who is teaching her daughter the live by faith as well, why would I knowingly give her any reason to doubt that the things I say are true?

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No tree topper and mismatched Christmas light wires, but it makes me happy. 

 

I still haven’t decided what exactly I’ll do as far as other Christmas traditions. Despite Matthew’s stance on it, I’ve never had a problem saying, “Merry Christmas” or exchanging gifts on Christmas. While the holiday is very likely a few months off from when Jesus of Nazareth was actually born, and its established timing was co-opted from Pagan traditions, I’m still happy to take a moment to reflect on his arrival and what it meant. I guess you could say that’s my way of living and celebrating intentionally. And while there is some folklore behind the whole tree bit, I do have a Christmas tree for the first time in years. It wasn’t an issue that was important enough that I felt it was worth fighting for, but I do like the warmth it brings to my home. I know I won’t be teaching Violet that Santa is bringing her presents, though.

It’s not like I’m going to ignore her curiosity when she sees images of Santa Claus or people dressed up as the character. I do and will tell her just that – he’s a character. And I’ll teach her about the real-life basis for the character, St. Nicholas.

While discussing the topic with some friends recently, their final argument was that, “It’s make-believe.” When I talk about my daughter, I’m talking about someone who pretends a spoon is a phone, who says, “Night night” to her inanimate toys when it’s time to put them away and whose favorite books feature animals wearing clothes and driving vehicles. She’s got a fantastic imagination, and I don’t think I need to tell her some dude’s going to come down our chimney and leave gifts under our tree as a means of encouraging her to use it.