Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Middle Places

Last weekend I was at a birthday lunch where I got into a conversation with extended family I had not seen for a while. The couple began asking me about our adoption journey, something they had heard about briefly from another family member. I have not advertised much about our recent walk back into the adoption world, guarding the facts in a very tender place of uncertainty and hope. 
So, a bit unpracticed, I began to share details of where we are currently in the process. I spoke about all the paperwork and finger printing and delays in translation. I told them about our referral, his age and name and what all the paperwork says about how he became an orphan. I showed them pictures of his sweet little face. Then I emphasized how tenuous international adoptions are, how quickly things can change in his country and thus, how loosely we are holding this specific referral. 
The conversation lasted twenty minutes or so, full of logistics and caveats and administrative details. Early the next morning, as I sat in stillness, the conversation played back through my mind and I felt myself watching the whole interaction as if I were a third party. I sensed my own guardedness, all the lack of emotion, and watched the flat routine of words coming from my lips. I was deeply struck with this distinct thought, “What would your words be if you were mindful of spirit?”
I saw in that moment how disconnected my words were from my heart; how often disconnected I am from spirit. I grimaced at the appearance of more facades, more formalities, more living from the surface. Despite all the becoming, all the spirituality, all the writing and creating and talking of depth, I saw how often my life is lived in the wading of shallow waters. How routinely I stick to routine, checking off my lists, thoughtlessly encountering each moment. 
This mantra began to resonate within me, “Mind your spirit.” I sat with it and felt the weight of knowing, the longing to undo so many days, so many words, so much life that continually slips through my fingers as I exist in a half-awake state. Greeting a friend, but forgetting the embrace, forgetting to stop and really see her. Smiling at the cashier, but only out of habit, distracted by kicking legs and yelling lips and long lists and what Jane is doing at cash register five. Looking up from the computer when husband gets home, but only for a moment - not nearly long enough for all his effort, all his support, all his love. 
My mind jumps from one missed opportunity to the next and at first I slip into a downward spiral of self-loathing. I anticipate the regret, the guilt, the burden of not doing more, saying more, being more. I fight the current of thoughts and feelings, willing myself back to steady ground. But, then I remind myself that the guilt alone is not the enemy. That, in fact, girded with self-love, regret and guilt can guide me back to what I value most. That if I listen, calmed by self-acceptance, they will be my flags home, highlighting a part of my soul that needs my attention, my love - not my dismay or disgust
So, this time, instead of running or wallowing, I listen to the message. I write on my arm for the day, “Mind your spirit.” My son, Kyler, notices it first and reprimands me for drawing on myself. I acknowledge the discrepancy, pleading adult know-how as my excuse. Moments later, he comes back with full sleeves drawn up both arms in blue and green and black marker, “notes like mama.” He says, his message reads, “Vacation was nice.” 

Even with my new ink, I struggle to remain aware of my spirit throughout the day, to stay awake to soul in the mundane moments of making lunch and straightening house and wiping bottoms. I try to listen more fully, look more intently. I struggle and most often, I fail. By the end of the day, my penned message has smudged and faded, much like my will.
I tell myself not to despair. I will pen messages on my arms for years to come and end many of those days with faded ink and faded will. I relate to author Anne Lamott’s words from her book, Stitches:
                    "We try to be more present and less petty. Some days go better than others.                 
                     We look for solace in nature and art and maybe, if we are lucky, the quiet 
                     satisfaction of our home.” 
I know it’s not in me to give up, and yet I get so discouraged and so stuck sometimes. I get so lost in the hum-drum of life, the lists, the routines, the empty smiles and shallow greetings. I will for more than failed attempts and missed opportunities.
In the days that follow, I retrace my temporary tattoo multiple times so that it remains legible, an ever-present reminder: Mind your spirit. I oscillate between optimistic effort and frustrated encounters, between hopeful thinking and discouraged being. The past continues to carry regret, so that only in looking ahead can I remain completely positive. I will the ink, the words and their meaning, to sink into my veins and become a part of me. To take on a life of their own and animate my being. I want to be better at all of this now - fully engaged every moment, complete, whole, authentic - now. I want to love better today. 

I am reminded of one of my favorite author’s, Sue Monk Kidd, who penned an entire book about her own journey of rushing spirituality. In, When the Heart Waits, she writes: 
                      "A lot of us have spent our lives in shortcut religion. We haven’t been willing 
                       to face the fact that while the spiritual journey is joyous and full, it’s also long 
                       and hard. It asks much - too much sometimes.” 
Her words continue to resonate inside of me, reminding me both to look to my fellow travelers, to know that I am not alone, and to honor the lifelong process of becoming.    


Later in the same book, Kidd writes:
                     "We seem to have focused so much on exuberant beginnings and victorious 
                      endings that we’ve forgotten about the slow, sometimes tortuous, unraveling 
                      of God’s grace that takes place in the “middle places”.” 
So much of life for me has been a “middle place” - a place of waiting, of groaning, of becoming and growing. Much less glory and exuberance than in my dreams. Perhaps that is, in fact, life for all of us. But, oh, how I have wrestled and writhed and struggled with all that I am to run to the end or dive into another beginning. How I have hated the “middle places”, despised the slow and steady processes of becoming.  
Today, I can look at my day and make another list full of things to regret and imperfections to perfect. Words spoken too harshly, embraces let go too soon, majoring on all the minors and the mundane, checking lists off rather than checking in with spirit. I can see my shortcomings well and feel the longing within for more. But, feebly, failingly, ferociously, I trust in the “middle place”. I remind myself, over and over and over again, that the process is life. That the middle is where I belong, where I most want to be.

Tomorrow, I’ll be minding my spirit, failing, forgetting, trying again the next day, for endless tomorrows. There’s no glory in the messing up, I know. No fireworks or rounds of applause. No fairy tale endings and neatly wrapped boxes. No grand entrances or encore performances. Just a slow and steady unraveling of God’s grace. 

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lunar Spirituality: Embracing Darkness


"I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season..."


For several months, I have planted myself in a rich, dark, earthy soil of acceptance and becoming. I have seen myself take root, awakened by the richness of wisdom and daring from authors like Sue Monk Kidd, Barbara Taylor Brown and Anne Lammot. I have felt the rising of, at first fragile starts, gaining strength and height as I grow out into the world, embracing my place in it.

Much of the growth has come at the hand of this revelation: Darkness is not evil. And inherent in that, mystery and questioning and uncertainty, too, are not evil. What is more, darkness and all it’s allies, are beautiful and holy. You should know, I do not use those adjective lightly. I have come to believe in the deepest parts of my being that the greatest challenges of our lives are likely, too, the most holy. That the deep questioning and the endless searching out of Mystery is, at it’s core, a truly holy act. And that weeping and wandering and leaving the staleness of the past may in fact be exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

What greater poverty of spirit is there than to admit, “I’m not sure”? What greater humility and breaking-open - in the midst of loss and tragedy and injustice and sickness - is there, than to voice the unknown and walk bravely into the darkness? To lay one’s soul bare to the mysteries of the world? To stay true to your own heart, despite convention, despite criticism? 

In my own spiritual journey, I ran to the darkness out of necessity. I ran from the rigidity and the staleness and the certainty and the suffocation of my previous way of living and believing. In the wake of deep personal sadness and loss, questions rose from my gut and mystery enclosed me. And I allowed them to. I gave my soul space to not know, space to sit in sadness or confusion, room to thrash about and question and not accept all the petty, pretty answers that were being thrown at me. I let my heart be - timid, unsure, free. And as a result, I found myself in the midst of darkness way before I knew it was a place of beauty or holiness.

Initially, I hated the darkness. I wanted the light, the answers, the confidence of knowing what came next. The inclusion. The perceived control. I wanted to belong, I wanted familiarity and clarity. And yet, I could never will myself to swallow all the questions or suffocate all the becoming that was leading me away from those systems. As much as I mourned the loss of that former self, and sometimes ran from my new reality, I count it as one of the greatest blessings in my life that I honored my soul enough to let her wander, and ask, and become her own. I was choosing to be in the darkness, desperate for freedom. And still - it was hard. And lonely. And frustratingly dark. 



The first few years of my journey into the dark were very much like the first few months of a baby’s life outside the womb. For those of us who have experienced newborns, it’s easy to observe that in many ways these tiny creatures seem completely underprepared for life on the outside. Some refer to these post-birth months as the “fourth trimester”. Baby's virgin digestive system struggles to process mother’s milk, leading to gas and belly aches and all-night wailing. Baby is incapable of self-soothing and so, sleeps in tiny increments at all hours of the day. Baby is completely dependent, has an assortment of bizarre bodily fluids and occasionally one is so furious about their new environment, they are labeled “colicky”. From my personal experience with such a baby, colicky seems to means, “Put me back in the f-in womb or I’m going to make your life a living hell.” Unfortunately, since the logistics of putting the baby back into the womb are SLIGHTLY less conceivable than dealing with the turmoil of a baby that cries hysterically for several hours a day, we grit and bear it. And eventually, {Thank God!} we emerge from the darkness and sleeplessness and hellishness of those first months.

In my own spiritual journey, I experienced a "fourth trimester”, which included all the wailing and inconsolability of a colicky newborn. In many ways, for months, even years, I was simply angry and wanted out of my circumstances. I wanted to be miraculously transported to days of less knowing, less asking, back to days of blissful certainty and belonging. And like a newborn, I spent much of my time focused on the basics of survival: eat, sleep, poop, repeat. I tried to numb the pain with the busyness of life, the simple logistics of working, eating, paying the bills and cleaning. I often sought out the “here and now”, tried to let the questions and the pain wane into the background of my soul. I willed myself to believe the myth that time will heal, all the while hating the darkness I found myself in. 

When I finally awoke to the fact that time was not working as the cure I had expected it to be, I was fortunate in my awakening to encounter voices of hope and encouragement and truth. I was fortunate to stumble across others who had experienced life and loss and lived to write about it. I was fortunate to learn that the darkness could in fact be from God, could in fact be beauty, holy. 

Author Barbara Brown Taylor describes her own spiritual “fourth trimester”, her own struggle in the darkness and eventual embracing of it. Every line feels as though it came straight from my soul, so much so that I struggled to narrow which selection of paragraphs to include here. Brown captures the heart of my and many others' struggles, the pain of well-intentioned spiritual communities, and the journey to find purpose outside the walls of the "Light”. She begins by introducing the idea of our obsession with labeling the dark “bad" and the light “good”. Brown writes:

“At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part.….to embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it “full solar spirituality” since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationships, and unwavering in faith. This sounds like heaven on earth. Who would not like to dwell in God’s light 24/7?

   If you have ever belonged to such a community, however, you may have discovered that the trouble starts when darkness falls on your life, which can happen in any number of unsurprising ways: you lose your job, your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in some attention-getting way, you pray hard for something that does not happen, you begin to doubt some of the things you have been taught about what the Bible says. The first time you speak of these things in a full solar church, you can usually get a hearing. Continue to speak of them and you may be reminded that God will not let you be tested beyond your strength. All that is required of you is to have faith. If you still do not get the message, sooner or later it will be made explicit for you: the darkness is your own fault, because you do not have enough faith. 

   Having been on the receiving end of this verdict more than once, I do not think it is as mean as it sounds. The people who said it seemed genuinely to care about me. They had honestly offered me the best they had. Since their sunny spirituality had not given them the skills for operating in the dark, I had simply exhausted their resources. They could not enter the dark without putting their own faith at risk, so they did the best they could. They stood where I could still hear them and begged me to come back into the light. 

   If I could have, I would have. There are days when I would give anything to share their vision of the world and their ability to navigate it safely but my spiritual gifts do not seem to include the gift of solar spirituality. Instead, I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season….after I stopped thinking that all these fluctuations meant something was wrong with me, a great curiosity opened up: what would my life look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it?" 




Today, so many years removed from that "full solar spirituality" I once strived and struggled to live within, I find myself awakening to a new kind of faith, a hope in the darkness. I find that I, too, seem to have the gift of lunar spirituality and am learning to embrace the waxing and waning of my soul's seasons, the questions, the darkness and all the mystery life holds. I am finding meaning, truth, even God, here in the moonlight. 




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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Broken Hallelujahs


Last night I ran farther than I’ve ever run before. Eight miles. An hour and ten minutes of straight running, my feet hitting the cement and my chest heaving with each step. Civil Wars on my iPhone belting out their glorious southern harmonies and Gatorade in my fuel belt sloshing back and forth (the one my loving husband makes me wear). The cool evening breeze on my cheeks, the still water in the creek below, masses of trees sprawling to the sky in a breathtaking Hallelujah

This summer, I’m training for a triathlon and a half marathon, both physical goals I never, ever would have expected to achieve. Goals I could hardly even have expected to set for myself a year ago. It’s amazing how much can change in a year




I can hardly believe that today I sit on the anniversary of a dear friend's passing, a tragic death, a life gone from this earth far too soon. It seems so fresh, too close to accept that it all happened a whole year ago. 365 days of life in the wake of loss. Endless minutes of remembering and regretting, honoring and hoping. 

I can hear the voice on the other end of the line vividly, frantically waking us from sleep, sharing the news of the accident. I can remember my first reaction - the shock, disbelief, absurdity - and then the long, long dreaded ride to embrace other mourners. To face the truth. I can see bloodshot eyes, drained of more tears that any human should ever cry, weary, gutted, hollow. I can hear the silence, throats suffocated with the weight of circumstances.

I can see her pale face clearly, feel the touch of cold skin on my trembling fingers as though it was yesterday. I can feel the ache in my heart, the wailing in my soul, the hopelessness that engulfed me in the days and weeks to follow. I can see family and friends lost in their own seas of grief, all of us trying to reach out a hand in the midst of our own drowning. I can feel the guilt, the regret, the weight of our mortality. 

Today, one year later, I can hear her voice, our last conversation filled with all the kindness and thoughtfulness she so richly possessed. I can see her glowing skin, her bright smile as she asked about a recent trip our family had taken. As she sat there in quiet confidence, so interested in my answer, so concerned about our lives. I can feel the softness of the couch, the warmth of that Fourth of July day, the tenderness of her presence. I can hear my then two year old son crying from another room, beckoning me away from her, forever

I cannot find the words to express how her life affected me, how her death forever changed me. I know I am different now - because she lived, because she died. 


Taken on our way to run the Loryn Memorial Thanksgiving 5K

As I ran last night - joyful about my training accomplishments, energized from a productive day, sobered by the approaching anniversary - my heart filled with a deep sense of gratitude. A gratitude birthed out of grief, watered by tears, fertilized by seeking. I ran and breathed in a profound knowing that each step I took was a gift. That each breath I breathed was holy. I ran in awe of all the days I have gotten to live, all the souls I have gotten to embrace, all the words I have gotten to write. 

Just as my feet rhythmically hit the ground, my soul found a perfect cadence of Thank You’s. Thank you for health to run, the gift of freedom, the joy of deep, fresh breaths. Thank you for glorious sunsets and fields to play in and mud to clean up. Thank you for the privilege of caring for two beautiful children, the wonder of living life alongside such an amazing man. Thank you for the home I get to make memories in, the words I get to write, the life I get to live. Thank you for green grass on my feet and warm sun rays on my skin and kind words in my ears. Thank you for questions, for mystery, for the opportunity to love. Thank you for every day, every minute, every second that I am. 

I spoke my Thank You's to the sky - to Loryn, to the Divine, to the trees, to all who would listen. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I sung it, shouted it, breathed the fullness of it. Thank you, thank you, thank you. 




Nothing will ever justify such a loss. Nothing will ever explain such a senseless tragedy. No amount of time will satisfy the questions or remove the aches. We are right to weep, to wail, to scream with furled brows at the sky. We are right to mourn, to wear our tear stains publicly, to retreat for a season. We are right to keep remembering, seeking, wanting. 

And we are right to keep living. We are right to find a mysterious weaving together of sadness and joy, of grief and gratitude. We are right to laugh, to sing, to shout our Thank You's with hopeful hearts to the skies. To believe each day is a gift and to seize every moment with open hearts. We are right to keep loving, building, hoping.



~These words are dedicated to Loryn Cassady~




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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ahoy It's A Boy! {PLUS Discount}


My baby sister inspired me to make a "101 things to do in 1001" days list last summer. The list is full of meaningful, random and insanely challenging things, like meet a new neighbor, expand our garden and run a half marathon.  On that list I wrote: "Reunite with an old friend", not having anything particular in mind, but knowing such a feat is possible with the Internet and Facebook.  


 I never imagined number 37 on my 101 list would turn into a full-fledged friendship with an old high school friend - getting to share life and raise children side by side with such an amazing woman, who knows more of my past than almost anyone else in my life right now.  It's been an honor reconnecting with Julie and so I was thrilled when I got to co-host a "Sprinkle" for her soon-to-arrive baby boy, Dane (AND I got to co-host with another old high school friend, Sarah, who's recently moved back to Columbus - so thankful!). 


Sarah picked an adorable nautical theme in aqua and orange. We made a diaper cake for the main table decor and decorated with baby's breathe and whale tails. I realized the morning of the party that our family portraits probably weren't an appropriate background for the Sprinkle, so I found coordinating fabric and lined the frames with aqua polka dots and orange chevron stripes - easy fix! 


Kelly with Green Jazz Face Banners made this adorable "Ahoy It's A Boy" banner that was really the show stopper of the decor. She was very fun to work with and very accommodating with our custom requests. She has a great Etsy shop and is offering all our readers 20% OFF all party banners, shipped everywhere! Just enter code WHALE20 at checkout and enjoy. Thanks, Kelly!  


It's amazing how many whale oriented things you can find to serve when you look - we served fruit salad in a whale watermelon, GF cupcakes with whale cookie toppers, GF chicken salad sandwiches cut out in the shape of whales and whale crackers! 


It was a fun, low-key celebration amongst old and new friends. Now we're all waiting to welcome baby Dane and congratulate his family! 


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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Permission to Hope




I have not written much in the past couple months. The first reason is the same, stressed song I find nearly everyone I meet singing: Busy, busy, busy, lalalalala, too busy, busy, busy. No matter how much writing feeds my soul, no matter how magnetized my fingers are to the keyboard, no matter how many ideas and thoughts are swirling around in my head - without a concious, disciplined routine, and frankly just a lot of mad determination, I do not write. It is as I've heard beloved author, Anne Lammot, exhort over and over again: If you want or need to write, you have to create a consistent space for it in your life. I assume this is true of most any soul feeding or meaningful activity, whether it be writing or painting or running or sleeping. We have to conciously, consistently, madly make space for it in our lives. And with space being so crammed, day in an day out, that can feel like a truly impossible feat.

But the second reason that I have not written much recently is more intentional and really completely opposite as far as soul-caring goes. I gave myself permission, several weeks ago, to stop writing, to stop publishing, to step away from the keyboard completely if need be. It may sound odd to say that I gave myself permission not to do something, but if you have any experience with that inner urge to please, that debilitating sense that everyone's expecting you to perform or that compulsory feeling that your life is only meaningful when you produce something useful - well, then, you will understand the need to give oneself permission to just let go. And so, I let go. 




I found, sometime during the month of March, that writing had become compulsory for me. Not the lovely, artistic sort of compulsion where you just have to get this growing, living thing out of you and onto paper, but the shadow-self compulsion that functions by performance and rules and have to's and "what would he/she think?". The compulsion of the Performing Perfectionist: always doing, always pleasing, always useful to the world around her. I know many of you can relate. 

I was surprised when I first discovered how influential the Performing Perfectionist had become to my writing habit. Just last Fall I began discovering the joy of writing, with no strings attached, no need to edit, no particular performance or expectations surrounding it. In a season of deep grief and turmoil, writing became a place of freedom, clarity and becoming. I know for some people this magical space is contained when they run, or go for early morning walks, or paint. For me, I found deep peace and meaning in writing.

And so, I began writing, pouring my version of the world out onto the page, sometimes for all to see, sometimes hidden away for just myself. Somewhere along the way, however, the purity and peace that originally defined the habit of writing for me began to be overshadowed by the Performing Perfectionist. Her strangle-hold, so long known; her grip, so slow and deceptive.  The subtelty of her invasion would leave me unaware and upon eventually discovering her influence, bewildered. How had I fallen into this trap again? How had writing, birthed out of freedom and peace and joy, given way to motives of musts and appearances? When had my authentic, artistic expression of self become another muse in the game of Please & Produce? 

I would discover the invasion, finally, in counseling one day, as I lamented about a stall in my creative energy. The conversation went something like this: 

"I just don't feel as free or drawn to writing as I did a couple months ago? And I'm discouraged about that. I love writing. And I need to write.” 

"Why do you need to write?” 


"Because it keeps me healthy and sane.” 


"Is that all?” 

"Well, no, I guess I feel like I have to write, too, like it's my responsibility now to be a writer. Like others are expecting it of me and there's this thing to be accomplished in the writing world.” 


"I see.” 


I'm simplifying and dramatizing the conversation a bit, but essentially, that was it. My compulsions and motives may seem blatant enough to an outside ear, but so used to the game am I, so ingrained is the need to please, to produce, to perfect all I touch, that it truly wasn't until that counseling moment that all those motives and habits and thought-patterns finally came into focus for me again. It wasn't until the words "have to write" delicately rolled off my tongue, subconcious confessions of a deeper inner truth, that my concious woke up and gears started clicking. 

In that same session, I would go on verbalize the pressure I felt to be a writer, now that I had started to identify myself as one. It became clear that writing couldn't just be a love, a hobby, a thing I did from time to time - at least that’s what the Performing Perfectionist in me wanted me to believe. As with all things in my life, if I chose to do it, it would need to be perfect. It would need to satisfy every expectation I had, or anyone else around me had, of what a writer is. It would need to be consistent, receive only positive, deeply meaningful feedback and be completely vulnerable every time. “Do this or else! Oh, and do it well!" had become my subconscious writing motto.

And so, rather than being a salve, soothing and curing the illness of performance and perfectionism, my habit of writing had fallen prey to the same cycle. Produce. Please. Perfect. Produce. Please. Perfect. Rather than allowing me to weave meaning and truth out of my days, I now felt constricted when I wrote, suffocated by the cycle. 

It was hard to let go, still. I guess letting go always is. There was this heart-wrenching mix of purity and confinement, beauty and compulsion, tugging me back and forth, back and forth. I justified to myself for at least a month that nothing was really wrong, that the good writing did to my soul was totally out-weighing the suffocation of performance I often felt even while doing it. I tried to set boundaries, without really letting go, and found that only in letting go completely could I return to my writing with freedom.

And so, I have not written much in the past couple months. Yes, I've been busy. Yes, I've found a million and one things to fill my time and distract my mind. But time, for once, hasn't been the issue. The battle, for me, has been with fear. Initially, I was scared to let go of all the expectations I had mounded on my shoulders, afraid that I would be seen as inadequate or a phony. I was worried about what others would think, how they might judge or scoff or nod in "I told you so's" as I let weeks and then months pass by without writing. I longed for the satisfaction of a completed piece, the esteem of positive feedback, the sanctuary of achievement. I feared that without writing, I wasn't enough.  

And now today I write again, not wholly free of fear or naive enough to think that these compulsions have faded, once and for all, into the past. I write with awareness, with a hint of righteous fear and trembling, with vulnerability and courage and heart. 

I write with hope, for hope. Hope that whatever your soul salve is, you, too, will find the courage and the determination to pursue it whole-heartedly - despite the setbacks, despite the demons that cloud your motives, despite the fear. Hope that you will find the space, make the space, and that your soul will breath deep and free and true. Hope that, in the end, courage will win.

Today, I give myself permission to hope. 




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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bridal Bliss

I have had the joy of walking into the world of weddings recently with my bowtie business. It's breath-taking to see my creations alongside so much beauty and heart and creativity and love. A talented photography recently shared several images of my peach gingham bowtie that she captured - and I couldn't wait to pass these beauties along to you. Hope they inspire you and bring you joy!














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Saturday, April 19, 2014

So Much To Do



Why do I feel so compelled to keep all the plates spinning and to respond to the incessant to do lists? 

Why does productivity matter to me so much? 

Why do I always say "yes"?

Why am I so distracted all the time? 

Why is it so hard to stop? 

~:~

I have been extremely distracted lately. And this state of being distracted, well, it's distracting. I don't think it's likely that anything new is distracting me, just that I'm waking up to all the noise that's been there all along. I sit down to play baby dolls with my two year old daughter and almost instantly my mind wanders to the bowtie orders I need to be making and the fabric that needs ordered and the emails that need sent and I'm down a mile-long list of business to do's before I realize she's still sitting there, waiting with her baby doll. It's excruciating for a moment, but my wheels are spinning too fast to stay in one emotion for long.

Later on, I sit with my son to build trains and again, like second nature, my mind is racing with writing prompts and analogies I want to remember and books I need to read and others I forgot to return and fines that need paid and the spinning mental to do list consumes me all over again. I decide to give myself ten minutes to send a couple emails and get all the laundry gathered, hoping that by checking off a couple boxes from the to do list, I will again be able to focus and breathe. I excuse myself from the kids, pleading with them to play kindly with each other while I’m gone. I send the emails, but am distracted by the mess of the office and in the midst of sorting piles and picking up crayons, I hear crying and screaming from the basement. I find both children sobbing at the bottom of the steps, one having been hit by a sword and the other bitten in retaliation. I fume at them for not being able to play together for ten minutes while mama gets some work done. I situate them on the couch with a cup of raisins, then resume my sorting and cleaning and, after checking emails again, gather the laundry. 

By this time, the kids are frantic for my attention and I’m consumed with guilt for all the distraction and stressed even more by the endless list of to do's. The "ten minute" break has turned into a half hour of frenzied doing, and I plead with myself to just slow down and let my focus rest entirely on these two beautiful children. I drop the laundry basket at the top of the stairs, straighten a few cushions on my way back, then plop down beside warm, welcoming bodies.

I'm able to breathe into some time with the kids, cuddle with them to books and sit down for lunch together. My mind flitters off here and there throughout our cuddles and conversations, but mostly I'm present and warding of the Do Demon with the hopes of productive nap time hours, quickly approaching. We chitter chatter and cleanup from lunch and I have this urgent sense of wanting to freeze time, to savor these moments forever. For a moment I am caught up in what really matters. 


But then, I race to lay the kids down for naps - dreading the day I won't have those hours to slash my to do lists in half - and run downstairs, dashing from item to item, responding to more emails, finally throwing in that load of laundry, cleaning the kitchen, timing my every step. I check in with my list, check the clock for the hundredth time. I allow myself a four minute shower, respond to more emails, numb with a scan of the news feed, then race back downstairs to switch the laundry. Multiple times, I realize my heart is racing from trying to squeeze four hours into an hour and a half. I try to take deep breaths, to think of a better way. I add "exercise" and "write" to my to do list as I race upstairs to gather too-soon woken children. 

The day continues on, with laundry to fold and floors to sweep, groceries to buy and errands to run, food to cook and kids to love. We stop by the park for a mental breather, and I'm able to relax again, briefly, and breathe deep when we look eye to eye. But all too soon my mind races and in my frenzy, I find myself repeating tasks, over-checking emails, numbing to news feeds and staring past the people I love the most. By the end of the day, I'm exhausted, guilty, frustrated and still have a few more to do's to finish up before I can collapse into bed. I end with a pending to do list and set my alarm for earlier the next day. Maybe an earlier start will help?

~:~  

I have long, long been a juggler of many plates. I've proudly received the comment, "I just don't know how you do it all?" hundreds of times and have breathed deeply of my ability to stretch the limits of a tight schedule and check off every last to do on my list. I've also found room to check off others' to do lists, being the go-to-girl for hosting baby showers and birthday parties and babysitting and volunteering for some project or another. My "yes's" have outweighed my "no's" a million to one, while I meticulously schedule each minute and, then, write another to do list. 

When my husband and I met and married in 2005, I was working a 30 hour a week job, volunteering at least 10 hours a week with our church's college ministry, keeping up a packed social calendar and finishing out my senior year at Ohio State University, where I petitioned the dean every quarter for permission to take above the maximum allowable credit hours. I was paying my way through school - refusing to take on any debt - living on my own and planning a wedding. I literally ran (or sped) from one responsibility to the next, rarely uttering the word "no". In fact, I volunteered myself - my time and energy and talents - constantly, to family and friends and any reasonably needy cause. When people would ask, "Are you sure you have time for that?", I would proudly answer, "Oh, yeah, I really thrive best under pressure!" Which I whole-heartedly believed. And so the responsibilities would pile on and I'd somehow manage to keep all the plates spinning, with astonishing success, and would marvel with others at my ability to take on so much. 

My husband has always been my biggest fan, and in those early years of marriage, I remember how impressed he was with how much I could handle and how thoughtful I was about using my time intentionally, even it did mean a bit of steam-rolling and constant motion. I lived by this "intentional time use" mantra. I was obsessed with productivity and using every second of my day to check something off my to do list, which fortunately included relationships and ministry and volunteering. But instead of endless evenings of laughter or sharing, my friendships were grown during volunteer hours or while doing the laundry or over a ministry planning meeting. Which wasn't wrong, but certainly imbalanced. I had a hard time allowing myself to stop and saw little value in activities purely intended for pleasure. Life was being shared, but largely because we were all rushing through it together. Everything had a point, a plan, a purpose.

~:~


Only very recently have I awakened to the value of personal time or down time. And even more recently have I acquired play and creativity and rest as meaningful values. It is so new in my life to ask for an evening out alone, that I often still feel a twinge of awkwardness and guilt when I hear the words come out of my mouth. I feel as if I should look over my should to see if someone else has made the request on my behalf, or if, in fact, it was really me. I am new at setting boundaries and am an amateur at saying "no". It is a daily discipline to stay mindful of my limitations and a new practice to ask for help.


In Brene Brown's book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she focuses extensively on these concepts of play and creativity and rest as aspects of a whole-hearted, healthy lifestyle. In fact, it is this book and the corresponding e-Course that have started to engrain these values meaningfully into my soul. Brown speaks directly to my exhausting, endless to do lists when she writes:

"In today's culture - where our self-worth is tied to our net worth, and we base our worthiness on our level of productivity - spending time doing purposeless activities is rare. In fact, for many of us it sounds like an anxiety attack waiting to happen. We've got so much to do and so little time that the idea of spending time doing anything unrelated to the to-do list actually creates stress. We convince ourselves that playing is a waste of precious time. We even convince ourselves that sleep is a terrible use of time."

I read this and think, "Oh my God! She is in my head. How did she know exactly what happened the other night?!" I am too often verbatim the Doer she's describing, feeling far more stressed at the thought of sitting still, than running frantically on behalf of my list. I have long shirked play and creativity and rest as unintentional wastes of time.

And where has it gotten me? Exhausted. Distracted. Guilty. Empty.

Brown later encourages, in her matter-of-fact way, "Stop pretending play and rest are optional" and, at least for the moment, it resonates deeply within me. I sense the value and I adopt the practice.

I keep practicing, and on some days I find myself in the midst of chaotic distraction, but on others, I find I've chosen a calmer way. I'm becoming ever more mindful of the pull to define myself by doing and increasingly convinced that pleasure is purpose enough.





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