From One Attitude to the Next

A rare Sunday skipping church, home with my boy who has the flu. My world is all Pedialyte,  Tamiflu, vomiting, and Phineas & Ferb.

Outside it looks like the flu too. Blank gray sky, wet brownish ground, still-bare trees. Winter’s leavings. But the goldfinches are starting to shine a sunny yellow and two days ago it topped 70 degrees. We soaked it up with windows down and radios blaring, knowing it wouldn’t last. Yesterday it was 45 and raining. Thirty degree shifts in 24 hours is par for the course in a Michigan spring. But it does seem to make us all a little sick.

As I write this, Sunday school is getting out and people are pouring their coffee and placing cookies on napkins in the library at my church. My husband will be walking between there and his office and the sanctuary, talking with his flock and getting things in place for worship. The kids (minus one) will be bouncing and running through the halls, slaloming past the old ladies with their walkers. Chatting and laughing will filter through the air until people find their way to the sanctuary and settle down as the first notes of the prelude emanate from the piano.

It’s a time of transition from one place to the next, one attitude to the next. Like March. Like Lent. We’re now in the second half of that liturgical season, a time when it is easy to forget about what we intended to do or not do. I have read three of my five books for Lent. Tomorrow I start Here I Walk: A Thousand Miles on Foot to Rome with Martin Luther. I’m excited to begin my armchair pilgrimage, the story of going from one place to the next, one attitude to the next.

It is now fifteen minutes before the service begins. The microphones will be in place. The sound check done. The choir has finished running over their song and are now milling about with friends and grabbing a last cup of coffee or popping throat lozenges. I run upstairs at home to tell my son to take another sip of Pedialyte but he says his stomach doesn’t feel very good, so I decide to wait another fifteen minutes. I wonder when to try the Tamiflu. It’s been a few hours with no vomiting and I don’t want to get him started again, but I also know that if he can keep the nasty stuff down it will help shorten the whole ordeal.

So often we resist what is good for us because it seems unpleasant in the short run. And maybe it is unpleasant. March is unpleasant. The self-denial of Lent is sometimes unpleasant. Certainly contemplating one’s own sinfulness or mortality is unpleasant.

I understand that molting feathers is unpleasant as well. But without sloughing off the old drab colors of winter, the goldfinch will not find a mate, which is his purpose in life. He first needs to lose his old identity as an olive-gray bird before he can embrace his new identity as a drop of sunlight. He doesn’t do this himself. He doesn’t decide one day to molt his old feathers. That is something outside of his control. Just as my son cannot decide to be well and will the flu virus out of his body. Just as we do not simply decide to be holy and then do it in our own strength.

I hear those first notes of the prelude now. The worship service is beginning. So I need to stop my chatting. I need to make that transition from one attitude to the next. I can’t be among the saints and sinners at church this morning. I can’t join my voice to theirs in song. But I can commune with them and with our God in prayer. So that’s what I’ll do now.

Right after I check on my little boy.

On the Beauty of Stepping Back

A Rose Blooms on Veteran's DayLike it or not, twenty-four hours is all you get. Subtract sleep (eight hours if you’re lucky) and work (another eight hours if you work full time) and you have eight left. Personal hygiene, prepping and eating meals, doing dishes and laundry and picking up after yourself, gassing up the car, driving to and from work, getting the kids off to school and activities, church and volunteering, hopefully getting in some reading time or an episode of Brooklyn 99 or The Man in the High Castle

Friend, your day is slipping away fast. And that means your week is slipping away. In aggregate, your life is slipping away and you probably don’t have the time to properly lament that fact.

I have been asked on more than one occasion how I “do it all.” Work, kid, writing, gardening, canning, sewing, teaching, etc.

Well, here’s the dirty little secret: I don’t. Not all at once, at least. I haven’t sewed a piece of clothing for myself in well over a year. I didn’t manage to can cherries, raspberries, pears, or apples this year. I did the absolute bare minimum in the garden this summer. I also barely manage to keep my house in working order. I often go to bed with dishes in the sink (and on the counter), with laundry getting wrinkled in the dryer, and with toys strewn all over the house.

And every once in a while I have to step back, look at where I’m spending my time, and reevaluate. I did this back in 2007; the result was quitting grad school. I did it again in 2012 and decided I needed to quit being a docent at the zoo. Suddenly during this crazy fall, I felt the need to reevaluate once more.

I realized that I was overcommitted in general, but specifically in two places: in my local writing group and at church.

As a board member and the marketing/communications chair of CCWA, I was committed to monthly meetings, but also to developing and keeping up the website, helping to plan events that required extra meetings, attending as many organizational events as possible, blogging and asking others to blog, trying to remember to tweet, developing and giving talks, etc. It wasn’t an everyday commitment, but over the year it amounted to a lot of time away from family and, ironically, from writing.

At church I have been prepping and teaching an adult Sunday school class, serving as a deacon, practicing and singing in the choir, attending two worship services, doing building renovations, and often leading singing, lay leading, prepping and serving communion, and trying to be a semi-decent pastor’s wife type person on top of that. On Sunday mornings especially I was rushing from activity to activity with not a moment to stop and chat with church members or visitors on the way. On some weeks, I might find myself at church three or even four days out of the week.

At an especially busy time, I realized that my entire week was spoken for by these two very worthy, fun, and rewarding aspects of my life, plus my son’s one extracurricular activity:

  • Monday night: deacon meeting during which my son had to entertain himself at church (family grabs fast food on way home, son gets to bed too late)
  • Tuesday night: take the boy to karate (family eats whatever I can scrounge up and make into a meal at home)
  • Wednesday night: choir practice and midweek service (husband takes the boy to karate; family either scarfs down early dinner at home or eats separately)
  • Thursday night: CCWA board meeting (family eats out again, again separately)
  • Friday night: take the boy to karate (family would eat at home but no one has had time to plan meals or cook, plus the kitchen, somehow, is still a disaster even though we’ve eaten out nearly every night)
  • Saturday: spend 9 hours at church sanding floor, prep for Sunday school at night
  • Sunday: teach Sunday school, practice choir number, sing choir number in service, come home to crazy-messy house and try to reacquaint myself with my husband and son

It was easy to see that this was just too much, despite the fact that, taken individually, I valued each of these things. I had no margin, no white space, no mental rest or physical rest, no time to let my mind breathe, no time to take care of myself or my family or my home.

So I looked at all of the things I was doing and found the ones that could be done by others. No one can be my husband’s wife but me. No one can be my son’s mom but me. No one can write my books but me.

But could someone else be a deacon? Absolutely. Could someone else serve on the CCWA board? Absolutely. Could someone else sing soprano? Absolutely. And probably there is someone out there dying for the chance to do those things, looking for an open spot, for a need to fill. Me stepping down could create that open spot.

So that’s what I did. I contacted the leaders and supervisors and directors of those groups and let them know that, come 2016, I was stepping back. Not one of them was upset with me. All of them understood. And once they had all been told, a weight lifted off my shoulders I hadn’t realized was there, even though I hadn’t really gotten anything off my plate just yet. There are still Christmas baskets to distribute as a deacon. There’s still the Christmas cantata and all the extra practices that entails for choir. There’s still the annual writer’s conference (Write on the Red Cedar) to advertise and execute for CCWA in January. But just knowing that within a matter of months those commitments would be over put my mind at ease.

Maybe you’ve found yourself in a similar situation — overcommitted and exhausted and wondering where each day is going, unable to find the time or mental energy to serve your family, take care of yourself, or pursue your passion. Why not take some time as this year draws to a close to reevaluate where you’re spending your time and energy. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I doing this out of a sense of obligation?
  • Does this bring me joy?
  • Is this good for my family?
  • Could someone else do this?
  • Is this how I want to spend my time?
  • What do I really want to do — both now and in the future — and how do each of my current activities feed that dream or drain time and energy and imagination from that dream?

I think you’ll find that the answers you give will tell you what you can step back from and what you really want (and need) to do with your precious twenty-four hours.

How Far We Haven’t Come

Remember how I was so pleased in my last post to be able to work on something new? Well my brain swiftly switched gears back to something old. Something incomplete. Something festering.

Back on December 10, 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled Adventures in Shameful American History that discussed a number of cultural and historical realities I was struggling with as I completed research for a novel I was writing called The Bone Garden. It was before the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, before the unrest in Ferguson and the riots in Baltimore, before the massacre in Charleston.

In January and February of 2014, I wrote the first draft of a novel that turned out to be frighteningly timely. It traces the race relations within several generations of one white family, from auspicious beginnings as participants in the Underground Railroad, to a mixed bag of love and hate during the Civil Rights era, to a new reconciliation in the modern time. For the next year, I worked hard on that novel, revising it multiple times, editing it to a high gloss. But there was always a problem with the modern-day timeline. I fixed some of it, but it still never felt quite right to me. It wasn’t as good as it could be. Compared to the other two timelines, it seemed…too easy.

The day after the shooting in Charleston, I attended a prayer vigil at Union Missionary Baptist Church in Lansing, Michigan. The crowd was relatively small in number but great in spirit. There were mostly African American worshipers, but a fair number of white worshipers as well. The Spirit was moving and pain was released and anger was expressed and sorrow was felt. It was deeply emotional and raw.

Growing up in a white small town in the Lutheran church, I had never been part of a service quite like that before. I’m a Baptist since I married a Baptist pastor, but it’s not a “shoutin’ church,” if you know what I mean. It’s not a charismatic congregation. It’s pretty tame. But I have been privileged to join together with other churches in the city every year, usually during Holy Week, to worship together. Stiff white Methodists and shouting black Baptists and proper Presbyterians and calm Congregationalists, all worshiping together. These have been some of my most memorable times in the house of God.

Even so, this prayer vigil was qualitatively different. It was a lament.

I drove away from that service with a heart that was still heavy. Yes, I believed God would give comfort to the bereaved. But it still happened. There was still a terrible racist person who murdered nine people, including some in their seventies and eighties, for no reason other than his idiotic, misguided, backward, reprehensible beliefs. Beliefs that were taught. And are taught. All over the place. Still.

And I realized what bothered me about the modern-day storyline of The Bone Garden. It wasn’t true. Fiction — good fiction — tells the truth. And I wasn’t doing that. I wanted my modern day white characters to be better than their fictional predecessors. But they aren’t. Yes, some are more understanding and more accepting and more loving. But others are not. They cannot be. Because Dylann Roof exists. Thousands of Dylann Roofs exist, and more of them are being trained up every day. And I do a disservice to the truth to ignore that when writing this story.

So I’m back at it, working hard to make things real. No matter how difficult it is for us to stomach. We look back at our parents’ generation and think that we are better than them. We would never support segregation or turn the other way when peaceful marchers were set upon by dogs and attacked with fire hoses. We would never have let 100 years pass between the Emancipation Proclamation and Selma.

But is that the truth? Obviously not. That Confederate flag flying high in South Carolina? It’s not down yet.

My Easter Dress (Plus Two Dapper Dudes)

Here’s what I was sporting this Easter in the SEVENTY-TWO DEGREE weather! It’s Butterick 6582, a vintage reproduction pattern. The linen-look fabric was snapped up at Jo-Ann’s with a Christmas gift card back in January (many thanks to Zachary’s grandmother for that). The sash was just something I threw together in lieu of a self-fabric belt.

It was a beautiful day in all ways: weather, music, message, baptisms, and friends old and new joining the church.

My photographers didn’t get the bottom to show the length, but pretty close. This is my handsome husband/pastor.

The boy looked especially handsome, I think. As we were walking out the door in the morning, he announced to us that “We’re an Easter egg family.”