Trading “To-Do” for “To-Be” in this Busy Life

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Lately I’ve felt there is simply too much input streaming into my life. Too many emails (even though I signed up for updates on these blogs and already weeded out the ones I just don’t care that much about). Too much junk mail in my mailbox (I’ve considered whether I should simply replace the mailbox with our recycling bin). Too many newsletters and flyers from my son’s school each week (can I unsubscribe, please?). Too many posts in too many groups on too many social media platforms (although, again, I choose to participate and I’m not planning on quitting).

Beyond school ending in a few weeks . . . oh, I’m back. I passed out there for a minute. Beyond that, there’s no end in sight. And for someone who enjoys silence, requires a certain amount of unstructured solitude, and gets a cheap thrill out of eliminating expired condiments from the fridge, I’m not really sure how to deal with it all. I have too much to read and do and it is crowding out what I really want to read and do. What I really want is a sabbatical. What I’ve really got is a normal life like everyone else.

So, what to do? It’s time again to take stock of how I’m spending my time and make conscious decisions about whether I’m really using my time wisely and purposefully. I want to enjoy time with family, to spend time tending my garden, to read for pleasure and read for research, to finish revising one novel so I can begin to write another, to eat delicious home-prepared food, to be still and commune with my Creator, to do my work with enthusiasm and passion, to keep my house clean enough so that it doesn’t clutter my mind.

I’m really good at making to-do lists. I have to recover that chair, weed the south flowerbed, make that ninja costume for my son, water those plants, sew a red skirt, vacuum that floor, sow those bean seeds, write that copy, finish that chapter, sweep up those maple seeds, sort that laundry, get that dead bird out of the garage…I could continue ad nauseam.

But somehow I feel that I might be better served by making a to-be list at this point in life…

To Be:

A loving wife and mother
An obedient child of God
An exemplary worker
A thoughtful writer
A collector of ideas and impressions
A decent housekeeper
A reader of good books
A passable guitarist
A lover of nature
A protector of creative time

All of those sound pretty doable to me. And reading them doesn’t stress me out. I can do those, whether they happen in increments or in concentrated bursts or slowly over time or whatever.

What would you have on your to-be list?

The One Who Leaves and the One Left Behind

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The summer after my freshman year in high school, my best friend Tina announced to me that she was moving to a boarding school. We were fifteen. I was crushed.

All of my fondest memories starred me and Tina. Against varied backdrops — her bedroom, her cottage, a stretch of sand along Lake Huron, the auditorium at the Bay City Players, the Wheel at First Presbyterian Church, the back of their ’80s-fabulous van — we shared secrets and music and thoughts and dreams. We laughed uncontrollably at inane inside jokes, the basis of which I can no longer pull from memory. We weathered the hell that is middle school together, walking the long stretch of road from Cramer Junior High to Lesperance Court, where I dropped out, followed closely thereafter by our friend Andrew. Then Tina would continue on alone.

She was the trailblazer, always traveling, always going somewhere and doing something and sending me a postcard written in her huge, lefthanded script with the strange M’s that looked like a hammock strung between two trees — like the one in her backyard that I would never lounge in again. When she left, I began to scheme about a way to leave as well, not because I wanted to get out of my hometown or get away from my parents, but because I wanted to be the one who leaves instead of the one left behind, the one who was embarking on a new adventure instead of the one standing on the porch and watching taillights fade away in the distance. The one who leaves and the one left behind are both parted from one another, but it is far from the same experience.

I had the distinct joy of keeping in touch with Tina. After she graduated from her boarding school, she went on to Boston then Boca Raton then Colorado then Argentina and then back to Colorado with occasional trips to Cambodia and Thailand and Scotland. Whenever she was back in Michigan I tried to make it back to Bay City to visit. She was a better letter writer than I, and so occasionally I would get a card or note in the mail. I never felt like I had much to report back to her; my life was so tied to routine and the everyday tasks of the student, the worker, the wife. In 2002 or 2003 I sat with her in the cafe at Schuler Books in the Meridian Mall in Okemos, overjoyed to hear of an important change in her life. When I drove out of that parking lot to head back to Grand Rapids where I was living at the time, I could hardly see the road for the tears — tears of joy, yes, but also tears of loss. And every time I have thought very long about her since she left me on my porch in 1995 — my God, twenty years ago — I have cried.

Five years ago I flew to Denver to attend her wedding to a wonderful man I have recently had the pleasure of getting to know a little better. A few weeks ago, I flew out again to visit for a few days and meet their little baby boy. We rambled about in the mountains, shared meals at their table, talked of our parents and our friends and our families. And like all true friendships, we picked up where we had left off like no time had passed between us. But even now, as I type this, tears are in my eyes. Because I’m still the one who was left behind, and the ache never quite goes away.

Last night, my husband and I got the heartbreaking news that our closest friends in town are moving three states and ten hours away. It’s wonderful news for them — an answer to years of fervent prayer for a teaching position. And I am truly happy for them. Yet here we find ourselves again, standing on the porch while the ones who know you most deeply, for whom you put up no front of having-it-all-togetherness, drive away to a new life. We feel emptied of something that made us us. And it sucks.

My sophomore year of high school started without my best friend. I wasn’t sure if I would make another close friend — everyone else already had their best friends. They’d been best friends, most of them, since elementary school, just as Tina and I had. But then, a few weeks into the school year, I met a senior named Zach.

And five years later, I married my new best friend.

Amazing Grace on Good Friday

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:6-11)

Jesus didn’t die for people who had cleaned themselves up, gotten their act together, stopped sinning of their own power and volition, or kept the Law perfectly.

He died for the weak. For the ungodly. For sinners. For his enemies.

That’s us. We weren’t just not “living our best life now.” Who would die for that? No, we were in opposition to God. We were thumbing our noses at him, flipping him off, and actively working against him because we wanted to do what we wanted to do.

And yet, he made it possible to be reconciled, restored, resurrected.

While we were his enemies.

That’s amazing grace.

And if he died for his weak, ungodly, sinning enemies, how should we treat those we view as weak, ungodly, sinning enemies?

If you’re a Christian, find someone today to whom you can show the love of Christ. If you’re not, thank you for indulging me in this post. And if you find the Christians you know to be unloving, please forgive us, because even when you’ve been reconciled with God, you still make mistakes and you still need grace. (I know I do.) Maybe do some reading of the Bible yourself (I’d suggest the Gospel of John and then the Book of Romans). Or better yet, team up and read it together. I’m certain great, spirited conversations will follow.

Cultivating Reasonable Expectations of Life in a World of Hyperbole

Perhaps like me you have noticed that we are living in an age where everything is AMAZING! Watch this video about this AMAZING girl! Look at photos of these fifty AMAZING bedrooms! Check out this AMAZING restaurant or this AMAZING cockatoo! If it’s not AMAZING, it’s STUNNING, SHOCKING, INCREDIBLE, LIFE-CHANGING, or UNBELIEVABLE!

At the risk of stating the obvious, most of this stuff isn’t AMAZING or any of its synonyms. At most, it’s amusing or interesting. For a moment. And then it’s forgotten.

Now, marketers and advertisers have always used hyperbole to sell products, but I find myself wondering if our age is perhaps unique in trying to sell ordinary life as AMAZING with, say, seriously overreaching claims about how much watching a two-minute video will alter your experience of the world FOR ALL TIME! Because these claims aren’t being made for products that might be sold and thus earn someone a profit. No one is making money from you watching a cute video about a cat who adopts an orphan piglet. And yet the online clamoring to get views and comments and likes is overwhelming.

I get it. No one wants to be ordinary. I don’t either. And to be honest, I’ve caught myself overdoing it when it comes to adjectives. But we seem to be living in a time where, rather than do something extraordinary, something worthy of comment or praise, we elevate the ordinary to the level of extraordinary, until everything we do, every meal we eat, every trip we take, every single thing that our child says is presented to others as a phenomenon unequaled in the history of the world. And this makes the truly ordinary stuff in your life, my life, seem pointless by comparison. Which seems dangerous. It seems like thinking that leads to depression or feelings of worthlessness or futility.

Conversely, the opposite also becomes true–that every little negative thing that happens is the WORST, most HORRIFIC, most HEARTBREAKING, most CULTURE-DESTROYING thing that has ever happened. Fearmongering news anchors or op-ed pieces chip away at our joy and our confidence. Unhappy Facebook friends drag us down with their consistent negativity.

What does this do to us, to our collective psyche? It breeds extremes of emotion and opinion that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. We become living pendulums, swinging wildly from elation to despair, all imposed on us from the outside, from YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and the 24/7 news cycle. Rational thought and measured responses are employed less and less. After all, no one else in the comments section is thinking deeply and attempting to have a rational discussion about this issue, so why should I? I get more immediate reward for that zinger I just flung into the fray than for a long, drawn-out discussion based on empathy and research.

The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with ordinary. It’s where we spend most of our time. It’s work, family, faith, and friends. It’s enjoying a concert (which, while not AMAZING or LIFE-CHANGING was enjoyable and entertaining). It’s helping your kid with his homework (for which parents should not expect accolades–it’s part of the job). It’s shoveling the driveway (without whining about it on Facebook in order to get sympathy from everyone else who also had to shovel). It’s folding the laundry (not the MOUNTAINS of laundry that are your own personal cross to bear). It’s feeding ordinary dog food to your very ordinary dog.

Why are we so afraid of this ordinary life?

I get the desire to “sell” one’s experiences as bigger and better than they are. I’m in marketing. My whole job is to persuade you to exchange your money for a book that, let’s face it, probably won’t CHANGE YOUR LIFE, even if it does help you in some way. But as much as our self-centered, consumer culture pushes us to make our lives appear AMAZING, we are most of us very ordinary. And that’s fine. If you’re looking for a reason to feel special, looking for deeper meaning in this life, I would advise you to look somewhere other than the internet. Look to God. Look to the impact you are having on your kids. Look to a service you can perform on behalf of your fellow man. Look to charity and forgiveness and truly loving your neighbor. Most of it could not honestly be described as AMAZING or SHOCKING or UNBELIEVABLE. But it would make a heck of a lot more difference in the world than another damn BuzzFeed article.