Quiet Epiphanies

sharing the everyday stirrings of mind, heart, and spirit

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When Your Spirit Is Tired

I had the chance, the first chance in a while, to go out with a group of friends without my husband or my son. It was a college alumni event, a night at the minor league baseball game. I love baseball mainly because I love being at the game. It matters less to me what happens during the game than the conversations had (or overheard) above the organ music and crunching of peanut shells. A chance to sit outside on a warm, clear summer night and watch a baseball fly high into a bright blue sky with my dear college friends sounded like a perfect chance to relax.

As I half-watched the game, my friend and I talked about how life throws you the unexpected, and sometimes a season of your life can seem like it’s just one long string of challenges that wear you down.

I wasn’t expecting the way my life turned upside down after my son was born. My pregnancy and birth were so easily managed, so peaceful and gratifying, that if the hardest part of having kids was pregnancy and birth, I would give birth a hundred times. But that hormone-fueled radiant glow I felt after my son was born faded in the face of some real worries: breastfeeding trouble, emergency appendectomy, a fall down the stairs, mysterious fevers, returning to work, quitting work, my husband’s job change, moving in with my parents, fatigue, sleeplessness, finding a rental home and moving again, and–the cherry on top–moving into the home and discovering a flea infestation.

I don’t like to complain or focus on the negative. I had been pretty good at cultivating a spirit of positivity in the years leading up to my son’s birth. But as things kept piling on and I didn’t have a chance to replenish physically or spiritually, I began to lose it. I didn’t have the energy for anything but survival.

I remember the exact moment I realized I was shutting down. In the midst of the flea infestation, I sat on our couch nursing my son in a lonely new living room crowded with full moving boxes.  I couldn’t put my son anywhere lower than two feet off the ground or he would be bitten by fleas. Fleas had buried themselves in his stuffed animals. I was supposed to be doing endless cycles of laundry to get rid of the fleas, but once I took a load out of the dryer, I had nowhere to put it that it wouldn’t get fleas on it. I was supposed to be vacuuming all the time, but how could I do that around the towers of moving boxes and while I was afraid to put my son down? Should I be unpacking? But then more things would get fleas on them. And if we flea bombed again there would be nasty chemicals on all our stuff. But maybe fleas had already made their way into the boxes. It was too much to think about. I was done problem-solving. I focused on keeping my son alive.

My parents jumped in and helped us handle the logistics of the flea situation. They took in our elderly, now flea-bitten dog and helped me bathe and groom him every other day to battle the fleas that were weakening him in his already feeble state. My mother found a professional exterminator and both my parents helped us move all of our things once again, and eventually we were able to settle into our home. We unpacked and I set about trying to create a new normal, a sense of peace. But my spirit was tired. Tired from putting on a brave face. Tired from feeling incapable. Tired from trying so hard and feeling like it wasn’t enough to make everything hold together.

I kept waiting for things to get back to normal. Especially after the fleas were gone and we were finally (mostly) unpacked in our new home. I tried to create a rhythm to my days, some sort of routine like other parents said was so crucial for their wellbeing and their child’s. But nothing I was trying was working. In fact I felt like I was actively being worked against.

On one hand, I had this incredible, priceless gift in my son. I couldn’t put into words how much joy he brought me or how blessed I felt to have him. Yet at the same time, I was struggling and it reached a point where I thought about escaping every day because I couldn’t handle the relentless need and unpredictability. I spent hours trying to get my son to sleep for just 45 minutes. At night, after finally quieting my anxious mind and falling  asleep, I was woken in the night by my husband standing over me with a screaming baby who wanted to nurse.

I didn’t know what to say to God. I wouldn’t give my son up for anything. I’ve never regretted having him. But when I thanked God for my son, I also felt ashamed. Because if I was thankful, I should be happy. Instead, when I thanked God I felt a pit in my stomach that I wasn’t a good enough mother to deserve the blessings I had.

I knew a desperate, anxious, exhausted life wasn’t what God desired for me. I felt I should be praying better, doing better. But I didn’t know where to start and I was too spent to figure out another thing.

I haven’t recovered from that year quickly. Things have gotten better one at a time. One conversation, one request, one change, one rule, one hour, one prayer at a time. It’s the steady persistence of grace, and a Spirit working through me and through people around me to bring healing.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

Romans 8:26-28, The Message

I’m still learning what it means to depend on God in situations when you’re thrown a curveball and you have a split second to decide how to react. It often feels like a full count and bases loaded, like everything depends on me.

The home team lost the baseball game by one point. But immediately after the last player stepped off the field, all the house lights turned off and the sky lit up with a fireworks show. Win or lose, if it’s Friday night, there will be a fireworks show at the stadium after the game.

I’d like to believe God’s kingdom is like that baseball field on Friday nights–that win or lose, the game ends with a celebration. That aching sighs are turned into oohs and aahs.

I wish that all along, in the midst of my tired waiting, I had been able to let my spirit rest, knowing my wordless sighs and aching groans were enough. But I’m still learning.

Things I Do and Things I Don’t Do: Determining my priorities

Things I Do and Things I Don't Do: Determining my priorities

Sometimes I need to absolve myself of my guilt for feeding our son a banana and Cheerios for breakfast.

When I was growing up, I ate Cocoa Puffs with non-organic, probably antibiotic and hormone laden 2% milk for breakfast. Do I resent my parents for it? Will I blame my every present and future malady on the fact that I didn’t eat a nutritious breakfast every day of the week when I was a kid? Of course not. But in today’s culture, we are hyper-aware of the nutritional value or danger of foods and every meal is a mark of success or failure as a parent.

There’s something to be said for trying to do better. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” As a perfectionist I already have voices in my head telling me plainly: DO EVERYTHING BETTER.

Shauna Niequist wrote about this “DO EVERYTHING BETTER” inner voice her lovely, beautiful book Bittersweet. Like so many other women, she became overwhelmed with the pressure to improve in every area of her life and “do it all.” She had lunch with an older, wiser woman one day who said something that stuck with her:

And this is what Denise told me: she said it’s not hard to decide what you want your life to be about. What’s hard, she said, is figuring out what you’re willing to give up in order to do the things you really care about.

So Shauna set about determining her priorities by creating two lists: “Things I Do” and “Things I Don’t Do.”

When I read about her lists, I immediately wanted to create my own. I have always been a perfectionist, but especially since becoming a mother I have been inundated with instructions for how to do things better. Everywhere I turn, there is a simple tip for getting something done, or getting it done better. I collected each one I came across, like a novice builder collecting nuts, bolts, and nails from bulk bins. I had a bunch of pieces, manageable in and of themselves, but putting them together to build a house is an entirely different task.

My lists are a work in progress, and they’re more aspiration than reality at the moment. But I hope by claiming my priorities and embracing my limitations, I will be freed to live a more satisfying life. Here are the beginnings of my two lists.

Things I Do:

  • Keep my body healthy by making eating and drinking as much my priority as taking care of these needs in others. I drink enough water and eat nutritious meals and snacks.
  • Make an effort to get regular exercise, even if it’s just a walk or quick yoga session.
  • Shower every day. If I don’t shower in the morning, my day is going to suck. I will feel like I just need to go back to bed the entire day. I may forget to brush my teeth, but I will never forget to shower.
  • Cook (at least somewhat) healthy meals without feeling like they have to be fancy, and I allow myself a “convenience” food (like frozen pizza) about once a week to give myself a break.
  • Recharge with at least an hour or two a week of quiet alone time, when I don’t have to meet anyone’s needs but my own. I want to use this time to read and write and generally think about things besides taking care of other people’s needs.
  • Go to church on Sunday with my family. I always feel better for it. Always.
  • Play with my son. Sometimes it’s hard not to just plop him in front of some toys and go clean something, but we are both so much happier when I engage him in play or read him a story.  I won’t want to remember the cleaning years from now, I’ll want to remember when he first stacked blocks and drew with crayons and gave his stuffed animals hugs and kisses.
  • Stay in touch with friends, making a point to see people in-person as much as is possible without feeling over-scheduled.
  • Make the bed in the morning. It doesn’t take long and it makes me feel a little less anxious about the overflowing laundry hamper in the room.

Things I Don’t Do:

  • As my opening line suggests, I do not make complicated breakfasts. It takes me a while to wake up and I don’t have the energy and brain capacity to cook well in the morning.
  • Worry about the ever-present baskets of unfolded or half-folded laundry in my living room. I despise folding and putting away laundry. Probably because I need to go through our closet and drawers and get rid of all the clothes we no longer wear or pack away what’s out of season. Ugh, I do not want to spend time doing that.
  • Extreme fitness, like running a marathon or crossfit or climbing a mountain. I’m too competitive and placing high expectations on myself only creates an “all or nothing” mentality and sets me up for either anxiety and pride or failure and depression. I’m learning to be gentle with myself and accept small victories.
  • Clean all the time. I could spend all my time cleaning so that everything was to my satisfaction, but I would miss out on a lot of Things I Do. So, yes, there are toys strewn around the living room most of the time. The kitchen sink usually has dirty dishes in it. Usually the only cleaning my bathroom sinks get is a quick once-over with a disinfecting wipe. When I finally do get around to scrubbing the bathtub, I spend extra time in the bathroom just admiring how shiny it is.
  • Thrill-seeking adventures. Skydiving, traveling to foreign remote locations and scuba diving all sound very unappealing to me.
  • Work out with groups of people. No Zuma. No hot yoga. Aside from a 5k or 10k run, I don’t like jiggling or sweating around other people. I’ll fire up a DVD or YouTube and do that in the privacy of my own living room.

What about your life? Are there things that you feel pressured to do or be better at that you want to put on your “Things I Don’t Do” list?

My Wings Don’t Flap: A Kindergarten Moment of Perfectionism

My wings don't flap: A kindergarten moment of perfectionismWhen I was in kindergarten, one of our craft projects was to make a penguin out of construction paper. It was pretty simple: black body, white belly, orange beak, orange feet. But the special twist was that the penguin’s wings were attached with metal brads, so they could twist and flap.

Our teacher introduced us to the brads and showed us how to peel the metal tabs back to secure them in place. There was a boy in my class named Brad and I thought how unfortunate it was that he was named after this weird little piece of metal. Each kid grabbed two metal brads and sat at the work tables with construction paper spread out in front of us.

I sat down at my table with three other kids and all my supplies laid out before me. The construction paper, shapes to trace and cut out, paste, safety scissors, and two brads. I quickly became absorbed in the project, cutting clean lines and making sure I had all the pieces adjusted just right. I prided myself at being very good with scissors. After I had cut out all my shapes, I looked up for a moment and realized that all the other kids at my table were almost done. Oh no! I was behind! We were supposed to be wrapping up and cleaning off our tables.

I turned back to my penguin and started gluing as fast as I could. Finally, I put the last wing on my penguin and looked at my handiwork. My teacher hovered over my shoulder. “Oh, you were supposed to use the brads to attach the wings.”

My throat tightened as I stared at the two brads still sitting on the table among scraps of paper. In my gluing frenzy, I had glued the wings on. Oh no, oh no, oh no… I immediately wanted to fix it, to tenderly peel off the wings and let the glue try and attach them again with the brads. But there was no time. We were cleaning up. My penguin’s wings would just have to dry in place, remaining immobile. I looked up to see other kids happily flapping their penguins’ wings, and I felt ashamed.

My teacher wasn’t upset with me, but I had already started berating myself for not completing the project correctly. How could I have forgotten? The brads were what this whole project was about and I forgot them. Not only had I spent more time than anyone on the project, I didn’t even do it correctly. I felt like I had let my teacher down, let myself down, and even, in some impossible way, let my penguin down. I had done it wrong.

As an adult looking back on that scene, I’m saddened that I was so hard on myself. I was in kindergarten. Was I going to flunk for not attaching a paper penguin’s wings properly? Of course not. I’m not even sure kindergartners get grades. Where was all that emotion coming from? Why do I still remember it, some 23 years later?

That incident reinforced some burgeoning fears in my five-year-old self. Even at that early age, I felt that if I didn’t do things perfectly, it meant that I was a bad person. I’m still trying to figure out where that comes from. But what’s perhaps more damaging is I also learned if I mess up, I won’t get a chance to fix it. This has lead me to live my life as though this is my one shot. I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to get things right, or catastrophe will ensue. As an adult, I need to let go of the fears I developed in my childhood of being a bad person and never being able to make up for my mistakes.

The reality is that the quality of one paper penguin doesn’t mean anything about whether I’m a good or bad person. And just like as a kid I didn’t have enough perspective to realize it, as an adult I need to remember that I still have a very limited perspective. Retrospectively, my problems may seem bigger now than at five years old. But they feel as big to me today as the penguin did for the little girl with scissors and glue.

The next time I feel stressed because I think I need to make everything perfect in my life, I need to remember the paper penguin. I need to stop and think about what I am trying to prove with my perfection and try to gain some perspective. Because in the end, what does it matter if my wings don’t flap?

Joy In Trying: A lesson from a boy learning to walk

Joy In Trying: A lesson from a boy learning to walkMy son just learned to walk. His methodology for learning fascinated me. One day he stood at the rail of his crib and started dramatically falling forward onto the mattress. He reached his hands out and caught himself, giggled and looked up at me with a cheesy grin before doing it again. And again. And again. He kept climbing up to the rail, facing inward toward the mattress, then falling forward and laughing.

He became more and more focused on his task, holding his breath for a moment then huffing and puffing, like he had to remember to breathe because his brain was working so hard on other things. He stood in the corner of his crib like a boxer on the ropes, eyes narrowed, staring down the center of the mattress as though it was his opponent. With a huff, he raised both of his arms straight above his head and took two shaky steps forward before falling onto the mattress in exactly the way he had been doing repeatedly. After a brief fit of giggles, he was up and ready to do it again.

It was at this moment I realized: at one year old, he knows he needs to practice.

My son learned to walk in his crib. Although it seems more difficult to learn to walk on the unsteady surface of a mattress, he needed the security of a soft landing to give him the confidence to try. When we tried to get him to walk independently on hard surfaces, he would go floppy and fall to the floor or cry in panic and cling to our pant legs. He walked only in his crib until he could walk all the way across the crib, from rail to rail, with a sure step.

When I see my son’s methodical nature in moments like this, it takes my breath away. Where did he learn to think ahead to prevent himself from getting hurt? He’s methodical. That’s his personality coming through.

I’m the same way. I want to see several steps ahead before I take that first step. I want to make sure I have a soft landing. I don’t take a risk unless I can see how it might play out. And while that can be a very useful trait, it can also be stifling. It can mean missing out on a fun time because I was afraid of wasting my time. It can mean settling for something that’s “good enough” rather than pursuing something that seems too good to be true.

Sometimes you can’t see ahead. Sometimes all you have is a gut feeling that something needs to change. Or sometimes the change just happens and you’re forced to take some risks in finding your way to a new normal. How do I prepare my son for those moments? How do I prepare myself?

A voice whispers in my ear: let go of fear. But how? It’s always there, like the ground beneath my feet staring me down, waiting for me to fall.

When my son falls, I cheer him on. I realized through him that we all need to know that people we love are watching us, cheering us on, even if we fall. We need people there when we fail to say, “You’re doing great! Keep at it!” We need to know from the beginning that we are loved whether or not we “succeed.”

How do I let go of fear? Instead of looking what I have to lose, I must start looking at what I have to gain. How can I live a life of joy without some spontaneity? How can I truly love others if I’m not willing to risk heartbreak? How can I embrace my passions if I’m holding on too tightly to stability?

My son laughed after falling onto the mattress. What if I found joy after each of my failed attempts? What if I looked at life like a practice session, knowing that each little fall would help me figure out how to walk? Maybe if I place my value in how hard I try instead of how little I fail, I would have more of a child-like joy.

Step One: Write

Step One: Write!

I’ve been a writer since I was a kid. I remember making my own books using cardboard covered in wrapping paper, using string for binding. But even back then I was apprehensive about others reading my writing.

One day when I was maybe nine, my parents took me along on a visit to some of their friends. I brought my little handmade book and some other activities to keep myself entertained while the adults socialized. My book was accidentally left behind we returned home. When my parents’ friends returned it to me later, I saw they had written a note of praise on the last page of my book. I was inwardly proud, but a flush of embarrassment also lit my cheeks. I had written that story for myself. I didn’t think anyone would read it!

Over time, writing became something I did for others. It stopped being an outlet for my creativity, for my own pleasure. It became something I did for a grade or for approval. At some point, I started reading my words with a critical eye toward the quality of my work and the errors of my writing became all I could see. I read the stories I had written and thought of how juvenile and unoriginal they sounded. I also began to see writing stories as one more thing that set me apart from everyone else. Adults are always looking for the things that make them different because it makes them feel special, but when you’re an awkward pre-teen or teen, differences feel more like a liability than a gift.

Looking back now, I think about what it must have been like to come across my little cardboard-bound book. If I stumbled across a book like that today, it would probably make my day to see the raw creativity and care put into it. (Do children even come up with their own crafts like that anymore?) I wish that I could see my writing now with that kind of delight. I wish that I could approach it as a precious outpouring of my individual creativity that should be treasured and encouraged.

It’s easy to feel that my voice has no place in the world. It’s easy to think that everything I have to say has been said before, and probably better. That may be true. But I think about that little girl, binding her own books with yarn and cardboard, and I think, “How dare you stop her?”

So I’m going to start writing again. It may not seem good enough. It may not be the most original content ever put to (digital) paper. But I’m going to do my best to look at myself with compassion, to nurture that little girl inside me that wants to create.

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