summer vacation (a dialogue about questionable life choices)

I’ve been kinda quiet here lately. In real life, too, unless you’re one of My People.  Then I’ve been rather chattery. Nerves, you see.

We here at Raising Faith are dealing with Many Big Events In the Formation Process.

Mostly, I’ve been taking lots of deep breaths. I’m getting very good at that. Someday you might not even be able to tell that I’m breathing.

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Then I’ll be like this rock. Only smaller. And slightly more responsive.

In one month and one week, I start CPE (that stands for Clinical Pastoral Education) at a medium-sized metropolitan hospital.

 

I haven’t done it yet, so I can’t tell you much about how it will be. But, thanks to numerous versions of this very conversation, I can tell you what you’re likely to ask me—in order, even.

Those exchanges generally end with you looking astonished and slightly horrified.  Which in my head I translate as, “I do not understand . . . and Wow.”  Or, maybe, “You really have made some terrible life choices.”

Maybe so.  Sometimes I wonder.  I’ll keep you posted.  In the meantime, though, I realized I can use printed words to really answer the questions.  We have time here, and space, and  . . . . it’s just easier.

So: here goes.

What’s CPE?

Clinical Pastoral Education.  It means chaplain rotations at a hospital.  It’s like a full time job, time-wise; I’ll be at the hospital through the workweek, and work an overnight shift once every six days.  Since I won’t be in my hometown, but in a nearby city, it’s fortunate that the hospital has an on-call room where I can stay during the night shifts.

That commute sounds rough. Why don’t you just be a chaplain at our local hospital?

For a CPE program, you need a hospital that has not just chaplains on staff, but resources for training and supervising new chaplains. This is like the difference between a hospital that trains and teaches doctors and a hospital that merely employs them. Facilities with the capacity for chaplain training can, in general, be found here: Like most areas of health care, programs for chaplain education are concentrated in large metropolitan areas.

Fortunately, I live near just such an area. Also fortunately, the hospital consortium I’ll be serving with is working on a deal with my smaller community hospital that would allow me to do some shifts locally.  This is probably obvious, but I am a big fan of that idea. We’ll see if it works out.

Do you get paid?

No.  In fact, it costs money.  There are several sources of potential financial aid available to help defray the costs, but completing a unit of CPE means paying fees to both the hospital and my seminary.

Hmm. And do you know what you’re doing?

Not really. I did take a required class at my seminary this spring. It was fine. But I wouldn’t say I feel prepared.

How is that ok?

I can’t really answer that. I will tell you that I have know talked with at least 40 people about their experiences going through CPE and that not one of them has said “I knew what I was doing.” At all.

“First Day of CPE,” via EverydayImPastorin’

I was going to add, “and nobody died!” but probably, that’s not true. That’s, you know, one of the reasons you might need a chaplain.

 

You don’t sound very excited. Isn’t this what  you wanted to do in the first place?

Yeah, about that. So back when I first acknowledged to myself that I was discerning a call to ministry, a primary point of terror was that it made no sense. None. I had a whole life, which I mostly loved, and none of it pointed this way.

Except. I spent five years volunteering and then working at a crisis counseling center with a particular focus on suicide prevention and grief support. Then three more years assisting a complicated grief group at a family support center. Then I got a grant to do some research around grief and the legal process. Later, in the education field, I did my masters project around supporting families of young children in grief.

So you see, I had this beautiful aha moment, one I clung to as I jumped off what felt like a very tall cliff: I’m not interested in ministry, per se. I just want to find an authentic way to be present to families who have experienced a loss. I could be a chaplain. And better still: I could be a pediatric chaplain!

Eureka. Insanity explained.

And now, 18 months later, that pediatric chaplain vision still lives in a corner of my mind. She’s increasingly cramped, though, by things like radical hospitality in congregational life, the intersection of the sacred and the secular in our voluntary organizations, the opportunities every day to recognize the humanity in another and, quoting Wendell Berry, to practice resurrection. So I don’t think about her much these days. And also, there’s the reality that she might actually need a chaplain herself.

Trigger warning: this is a very sad story. And it’s not mine. And for that reason, details have been changed.  The thing is, last month I rode home from Chicago on the train, returning from my last set of seminary intensives for this year. I ate in the dining car with my friend and colleague.  During that meal, we shared a table and talked love and life with the two women across from us. They were a generation older than we, one already a grandmother several times over, and the other excited to greet, this month, her first grandchild. It was a story of joy and expectation.

Until, over dessert, we began to talk ministry. And then the second woman told me a different story. Of another first grandchild. A beautiful baby boy, Evan—the pregnancy was perfect. His birth went fine. And Evan went home to his loving and overjoyed family . . . but he failed to thrive.

Eventually, he was scheduled for exploratory surgery. It revealed a hidden heart defect. And, during that that surgery, one which the family has been told was merely a routine step in a longer diagnostic process, Evan died.

This woman, this grandmother of loss, and grandmother-to-be—her faith and her grace, her openness and hope— she was luminous. I hold her in my heart. And Evan. And his new baby sister. Lord, let her grow.

I, on the other hand, was a mess. I was physically present, don’t get me wrong, and I managed to keep the tears mostly in my eyes. But friends, my heart is not the heart I had when I did those other things. The griefy things.

I have a mama heart now, and it throbs frequently and breaks easily and just is probably not cut out for this chaplain stuff. 

I spent that conversation listening through the treacherous haze of a mental battle, one that went something like, “OMG, I Cannot. Handle. This./Seriously woman Keep Your Shit Together/ How are you ever going to be a minister if you can’t even be present with Random Lady on a Train?

And that, friends, is when my pre-CPE crisis began in earnest. You know, the what the hell was I thinking, this is an awful way to spend a summer and maybe also my life crisis.

My casual observations indicate that we all get to this realization at some point. That we really are not enough for what is being asked of us. How could we be? No one is.

And yet—and here is that maddening ministry piece again

Then we do it anyway. You wake up, one morning in your bed, or one evening on a train in the face of hope and loss sitting across from you and your chocolate mousse, and you know you cannot do it, there’s no way you can do it, no one could do it . . .

And then you do it.

All of that said though, that experience on the train was like having a dash of cold water in the face of my pediatric chaplain vision. Because, you know, no one really comes to the children’s hospital because they’re having a really great day.

And yep, someone needs to be there with those families. To be there with each of us, when it is our turn.

I’m just not sure I’m made of tough enough stuff for that to be me.

Turtle - pélusios subniger

You’re right; that sounds terrible. Why would anyone do this thing?

The immediately available answer is: we do it because we have to.

If you know a minister in a denomination that requires an M.Div., ask her about her CPE experience. She had one.

But why do you have to do that?

Everyone I have talked to—you know, the ones who did not say they knew what they were doing—has given me the same answer about this. It’s very short. And totally predictable.  It’s like it comes to you in a personal fortune cookie at a closing CPE banquet.

That answer is: CPE breaks you open. You hold and hurt for and walk with other people’s pain—and your own—until you break. And then, eventually, with help, you put yourself back together. As a person who can be at peace amid pain.

There’s variation on the amount of collegial support or competitive torture that people report experiencing with their cohorts, or their supervisors, or the nursing staff . . . and some people have 5 minutes to answer a page and some have 30 . . . but the process and its effects sound pretty standard.

 

Sound really, impossibly hard? I agree with you.

Seminarians do it anyway.

Yay.

anger: a love story

I love my friends and my family.  They are amazing, creative, funny, loving people.

And, like me, they are imperfect.  They make mistakes.  They have done things, sometimes, that were hurtful, or offensive, or inconsiderate . . .

and I have felt angry.  

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Now, I don’t mean the kind of anger that sustains us to work against deeply unjust situations–the anger that allows us, even in dangerous places, the courage to confront, the vision to imagine a world that is otherwise, and the space to heal.

I’m talking about anger as a drug.

Anger that says, first to me and then through me, that there is a price that must be paid for the pain that I feel.  And which insists that in the meantime, the rest of our relationship must wait.  In suspended animation.  Until you do what you’re supposed to do.

Holding that anger made me tired.  Waiting left me miserable.  Imagine my relief, then, at the discovery that I could simply choose a different way of being.

At first, several months ago, that choice felt revolutionary.  Now, though, it feels like freedom.  It feels like friendship.

It feels like love.  

Which sorta begs the question: why didn’t I try this before?

And friends, there are many reasons why I should have: because it’s morally right.  Because to hold a grudge is to take poison and wait for your enemy to die. Because to forgive is divine.  Because . . . Jesus.

And yet, in the heat of the moment, there seemed to be only one way that things could go: the angry way.

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Why is it so hard to change things?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in scripting.  This is one term for the social patterns that our brains and central nervous systems use to shorten our response time.  Scripting is necessary–without it, each encounter would be a blank slate, and we would be slow to react and vulnerable to misunderstanding or manipulation.  The device, however, is not without its pitfalls, and we often may not even realize we’re using it.

In some situations, in fact, the script may run counter to all of our conscious intentions.  In this type of interaction, I’m not at all happy with the way we’re talking, and neither are you, but even so, we can’t seem to find a way out.

This difficulty can happen anywhere our sense of identity is on the line. The reality, however, is that some relationships are particularly ripe for unquestioned scripting.  Consider, for example, the well-trod trails, heavily loaded with baggage, that connect mothers and daughters, or siblings, or spouses.

Sometimes the script is so old—we know our lines by rote—that we don’t even try to find another way to engage.  Maybe it’s the only way we’ve ever learned to talk with one another.  Maybe the interaction is feeding us even as it damages—meeting a need to feel important, to say our piece, to defend our boundaries.  Maybe the hook is simply the adrenaline high of conflict.

Those same things are true of the script inside my head about How I Shall Act When Angry.

I have been deeply hooked into a particular way of being: Feel aggrieved.  Demand response.  Wait in anger until response received.  Punish other party with dark thoughts and aloof behavior.

Has this worked well for me?

Not exactly.  In fact, it reminds me of the scene in the first Harry Potter book in which Hermione announces that she hasn’t been speaking to Harry and Ron, and they respond, laughing: “Don’t stop now—it’s been doing us so much good!”

And so, a question decades in the making: what happens if I simply stop acting as a willing hostage to my anger?

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Not because I’m restraining myself, or holding my tongue, or saving it for later—what if I do something else because on the whole, it feels better?  

What if I do something else because I recognize, even in anger, that we are both human, and this is part of what that means?  

What if I do something else simply because I can?

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I am calling this the Happiness Option, and in practice, it can be summed up with one simple phrase: “In the Meantime, Be Nice.”

Truly, it felt odd at first.  It’s like exercising an underused set of muscles.

It hasn’t, however, felt bad—not in the moment, and not later.  Actually, it feels good to connect with joy, delightful to indulge my helping impulse, and freeing to step outside of the “angry” script.

And this immediate gratification is just the beginning.  I’ve discovered that ditching the misery script also yields benefits for the long term:

  • I’m clearer about where I stand in my relationships.

  • I get to spend less time apologizing, less time feeling badly, and less time worrying about having caused further damage.  (In fact, lately I have had to spend zero time doing any of the above.  This is noteworthy.)

  • I am better situated to identify the problems that actually matter—which are a real slight to life and truth, and which—the vast majority—are merely a slight to my ego.

  • I have access to creativity and the sense of Spirit that comes in calm moments, and I can use both to choose when and how to respond to particularly thorny issues.

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Wow?

Indeed.  This, my people, is news I can use.  And so I keep flexing these muscles, and wondering if this practice—indignation back burner, niceness front—might just be pointing me to a deeper truth, and to a lastingly different way of being.

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This might have remained merely a series of small experiments; I’m in no hurry here, and I have so. many. opportunities to practice.  But, life being what it is, I recently got to take the Happiness Option for a test drive in a situation in which it mattered, bigtime.

Picture a sometimes challenging relationship, and not one I can simply break off.  Imagine, now, an emotionally weighted subject.  A sense of personal affront.  An explicit questioning of motives.  And the involvement, and invocation, of family ties.

Kindling on a pyre, my friends.

It was, in short, exactly the kind of conversation in which I hate to find myself.

In other words, perfect for this experiment.  And predictably, that initial exchange did not go well.

Misunderstanding occurred.  Tensions increased.  Voices were raised.  Reciprocal shaming was communicated.

The conversation ended without a clear resolution, and in a way that left neither of us feeling great.  Afterward, my own combination of sadness, frustration, anxiety, and—yes—a healthy portion of righteous anger—begged to be vented.  And yet, the Happiness Option suggested, at least for now, that I not.

Hard?  Yes.  It was.

But even so, I didn’t.  I did not channel my anger into an e-mail missive.  I didn’t plan a long communications strike.  And, smaller but perhaps most noteworthy, I didn’t ignore the overture that my friend made the next day.

That gesture wasn’t an apology, an overt acknowledgment, or a plan to move forward.  It did not, in many ways, Meet My Standards.  But it was a hand extended toward remaining in conversation, even on this particular, very difficult issue—and after a moment to remind my muscles how to move, I reached out and I took it.

We are going to move forward, my friend and I.  We will figure this out together, or individually, or we’ll ignore it and it will be an area where we do not share an understanding.  I am now free, however, as the two of us move toward what the future holds.

In that freedom lies creativity, humility, and love.  And happiness.  Let us not forget happiness.

I took Hebrew Bible this spring at Meadville, and we looked at variations on the biblical canon.  The Catholic canon is more expansive; the Evangelical canon a bit less.  There are a few denominations, however, that hold that canon is still open.  We Unitarian Universalists are among them, and I’m making a conscious choice to live like I believe it.

I’m not writing a love story to anger anymore.  I’m writing one to you.  To us.  And to the sheer, luminous possibility, born of our own generosity, that this day yet contains.

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Thank you, Theresa Soto, for this gorgeous meditation, shared here with permission:

In the Administrative Department of my heart, which is down the hall from Feelings, Major, I wrote down the time you offended me. The clerk, my own silent witness filled out the forms in triplicate. We wrote your name. We added your number. We added the hurt to the Memory Banks, photocopied, indexed (it can also be found in the Time Department, under Times You Forgot that I am able to be cut by paper and burned by wind). We shook our heads at the bitter sharpness of the hurt.

We made the Record of the Hurt. We announced it over the loudspeaker, so no cell, no heartbeat, and no breath would ever overlook the danger you present or the pain that you can bring. And then we were proud of our work. We stood quiet in the halls of Everything, hands in our pockets, and waited.

But Human still we both remain. And while we were Recording, in the most accurate, photorealistic way possible, you grew some more, and changed some more, and so did I, and believing the best yet to come, I was surprised to see that no recording of a single moment could reflect accurately on who you are right now. In this moment, different from the last. Some people say that Forgiveness, destruction of the Record, is for my own benefit.

Perhaps. But perhaps I don’t need you to apply to the Department of Sorry, (third floor, two doors down from Master List of Everything Unreasonably Kind) because mistakes are a human condition. There are too many forms and fines and details in the Administrative Apology. I want everything good for you. And for me. And this includes the way we just, as necessary for beings of our kind, begin again. Expungements and refreshments at noon in the Atrium.

-Theresa Soto

 

yes, mothers, somebody needs you: to be YOU.

This past week I’ve seen this post again and again.  It seems to strike a needed nerve with some of my facebook friends, and so they share, often with a personal testimonial.

The sharers are some of the weariest among us, the dead-on-their feet mamas of newborns, the waiters-out of nighttime tantrums, the second (or third) shift of a job that never ends.  And what they say is that these words really resonate.

-I was in tears this morning, I felt like I couldn’t do it for one more hour, and then I read this.  

-This is so beautiful.

-This is so true.

As it happens, this post struck a nerve with me, too.  And I can see the beauty in it—I can—but my response came from a different place.  A nuanced place.  A frustrated place.

And so, I shared it with a friend, trying to find words for why those words make the bile rise in my throat every time I see them.  My friend is a mother, and a minister, and someone committed to living life as her full self rather than as the caricature that so often appears as we try to romanticize a “biblical womanhood” for the modern era.

And her response was:  Do you notice that Daddy is nowhere in this reflection?  And also, that fathers never write this?  Why is that, do you suppose?

And why, indeed?  Why is crawling on our knees across the guilt-laden minefields of early parenthood a uniquely feminine pursuit?

I can hear a whisper between the lines of this post: this is what Jesus would do.  And perhaps it is, but I would like to point out to you that Jesus is a man.  Framing self-sacrifice as a uniquely feminine calling thus isn’t inherently Christian—it’s inherently patriarchal.  It demands that women, and women alone, deny not just our bodily needs, but any deep spiritual gift that transcends our parental role.

That demand, my friends, is not beauty.  It’s also not love.  I deeply believe in, and have experienced the love of, a God who sees, holds and accepts me as me—as my beautiful, whole, female self.  A self which is not only or even first or foremost a parent, but also a noticer, a writer, a thinker, a doubter, and a lover.

And these physical parental sufferings, these sleepless nights and tired footsteps that we would hold up as the unique burden of motherhood: It’s not that men don’t experience them.  My husband, God bless him, has been the night ranger at our house for the past two years.  I personally know other men, including at least one of my seminary classmates, who do the same.

And it’s not that men don’t struggle with it.  Parenting, if you’re paying a whit of attention, is really, really hard.  And early parenting, in particular, is also physically exhausting—a marathon run one tiptoed trip down the hallway at a time.

No, friends: it’s that men don’t romanticize the physical exhaustion.  It’s that they don’t define their entire identities based on it, and then pressure one another to do likewise.  And they don’t, so far as I can tell, expect—no, demand—to go it alone, without help, without rest, without question, stopping only after the night ends to pen a ladylike missive about the honor and grace inherent in the soul-crushing demands of early motherhood.

The difference between the male and female approach to parenthood is real–and it matters, particularly for those of us fighting hard to have our words heard, our talents recognized, our lives valued as something meaningful unto themselves.

More women are actively working while parenting.  More fathers are actively parenting while working.  And yet, in 2014, we remain content to leave the emotional side of parenting, and particularly the ravages thereof, as a woman’s burden to bear.  Joy?  Dads will take that.  Guilt?  That’s all you, moms.  And survey says: men are content with this arrangement–and why shouldn’t they be?

What we’re sparing the men isn’t merely responsibility—it’s shame.  It’s the constant self-doubt, analysis, questioning of the long-term outcomes of the smallest possible choices.  It’s the crippling doubt of never-doing-it-well-enough.

What do we get in return?  Why would any of us women voluntarily take this deal?  The answers to this question are complicated and varied, but I think there may be a piece of insight in this story:

I used to work with parents of infants and toddlers as an early childhood educator. I made home visits; my caseload was particularly focused on new babies and working-but-involved fathers.  And one day one of the mothers I worked with told me a very simple story–one I came to hear repeated, in one way or another, several times in the next few years–that both surprised me and chilled my blood.

I went to the grocery store, said Amy, alone for the very first time since Tessa was born.  Jeremy stayed with her, and I knew they’d be ok, but Tessa cried the entire time I was gone!

This story isn’t unusual.  The situation isn’t extraordinary.  What is remarkable, however, is what this mom said next.

-I was glad.  

Seriously.  I smiled gently, used my “go on, please” eyebrows, and Amy added, with touching honesty:

I love it that she needs me.  

My friends, it is so beautifully human to need one another.

But what is it to need to be needed?

And what could help us feel secure enough in our own innate value that we could drop the need-to-be-needed where it exists to the exclusion of another willing and capable parent?

Remember how hard it was to get into a rhythm with breastfeeding?  Or perhaps you were one of the many, many mothers for whom it wasn’t overwhelming love at first sight when you were handed your tiny baby.

If that was you, the odds are you worked together, you and that baby, because that’s what was expected.  You had faith, and the faith of your family and community, of the hospital staff, of your friends, of your parent educator—it surrounded you.  You had all the time in the world, and you bonded.

How much of that time and patience and faith do we lavish upon a new father?  How much tolerance for what initially looks—and feels, to him—like failure?

How much do we want his success if we’re going to define this as “our” arena?

And how is this related to the story we tell ourselves about the sleepless nights of early parenthood?  How does this frame the conversation three years from now when someone needs to choose a preschool?  When someone needs to flex time to make drop off and pick up work?  When someone is pulled to leave a job that s/he loves as the reality of a two-career household begins to cause nerves, and relationships, to fray?

Without a look at what we women expect to own, exclusively, in that beloved title of Mommy, we don’t get to freely discuss any of those things, not really.  In fact, it may not occur to us to even ask for what we need.  For more than we’re getting.  For anything that might make us feel like we’re letting the side down.

The deeper story here isn’t Mommy, Someone Needs You.  

It’s Women, Suck It Up.

That’s an old story, friends, and a tired one.  Personally, I think we can collectively access a bit more creativity here.  In fact, I think we need to.

Without it, whether you’re the parent of a newborn or the writer trying to make sense of the exhaustion–or just struggling to make sense– or a mid-career executive mama whose heart is with a child she’d like to be making cupcakes with, or me: trying to follow a spark of true love through seminary, with the full knowledge that my precious baby nearly died last week while I was down the hall reading, the only answers we hear are echoes of this:

Stay home.  Keep the hall light on.  Keep pacing that floor.

But truly, unfortunately, heartbreakingly, even this small box of an answer won’t protect them.

It feels, though, like it might protect you—if the unthinkable happens, at least we’ll all know it wasn’t your fault.  You were where you were supposed to be.

Alone.  In the nursery.  On your knees.  

I’ve been on my knees, too, for too much of this past week . . . and I am getting back up now.

Yes, somebody needs me. Lots of people, every day.

They need the adult me.  The responsible me.  The vulnerable me.  The honest me.

I have worked too hard, for too long–and standing on the shoulders of my mother and my grandmothers and of their mothers–to deny all that I am.

I contain multitudes.  You do, too.

And don’t you dare call me Mommy.

j

on failure to fly in four-year-olds

I don’t yet know how we remember days like this in the long run.

This is A Day When Silas Did Not Die.  As, so far, they all have been . . . so how do you mark the moments where your day, and your life, nearly became something else?

Our younger son is four now.  Milestones of the age include: (marginally) prefers building cities to destroying them.  Discriminates between food and non-food items.  Understands, and wields, words upon words upon words.  And, cause for true celebration for those of us who have experienced early childhood without it: Si now demonstrates a sense of fear.

If those milestones mattered today, it was only in their false sense of reassurance.

How do you assign meaning when the narrative arc of action and inaction, redemption and irremediable loss, runs so tightly that it takes your breath away as you consider it?  What can we learn from being brought up short by what nearly was, laying out each “but for” as though it were a thing with teeth, a shade poised to lay claim to the breath of a now-sleeping child?

I don’t exactly know what to think, but I can tell you what I feel: sheer, incredulous relief.  This day, the sheer boredom and minutiae of it, has been delivered back to me as I blink, confused, stumbling again into the too-bright daylight after escaping the brief horrorshow behind me.

As Silas explains the noteworthy event of the afternoon: “I wanted to jump, but without hitting the ground.”  (Don’t we all want that, friends?  Isn’t jumping-without-hitting-the-ground the simplest conception of flying?)  Si’s jumping place of choice: his small dresser.  The alternative to hitting the ground: it had something to do with the long, trailing cord of the wooden blinds that hang in Si’s window.

Ah, the blind cords.  Craig and I have tied those strings in knots and stuffed them in specially-ordered “cord-keepers.”  We have taken the blinds down and put them back up again.  We have had more conversations than I can count about how the blinds aren’t for touching, ever ever ever . . . and now, in what feels like the “after” of the “intensive physical challenge” piece of our parenting life . . . we have largely forgotten about them.

I remember now, in a more zealous phase of parenting, sending an article about blind cord safety to all of our family’s grandparents.  I did a bit of research, back then, finding common sense advice inspired by a number of tragic stories—but there is one detail I read that lurked, ever after, at the back of my mind.  “The average age of children killed in blind cord accidents was four.”  That always seemed weird to me.  Why four?

I think, as the battle-hardened, gray-hair-sporting parents of seven and four year old boys, my husband and I feel, on a level both philosophical and cellular, that we have earned some peace.  Or perhaps it’s simply that if they haven’t died by now, then surely, surely with additional common sense and an increasing apprehension of danger, we’re in the clear.  At least with these things.

And also, there is this: at Si’s request, we hung curtains in his room about a year ago.  Those curtains, a smooth celadon he chose himself because it matched his idea of his big brother’s favorite color, are the show piece.  The blinds behind them hang, forgotten, squinched up to the top of the window frame since we can’t remember when.  Out of sight, out of mind is a saying for a reason

And so, who knows where the cord keeper went?

Who knows when the pull became unknotted?

Who knew that that long beige cord would speak to Silas like the serpent in the garden, assuring him that he’d never have to worry about hitting the ground if he’d only twine that string around his chest and neck, like so . . .

I can tell you now that what separates the mundane ordinariness of a Thursday afternoon from the sickening terror of too-late is, at most, a few minutes.  It’s enough air in the lungs, and enough space in a constricted airway, to scream.  It’s a parental pit stop in a misbehaving older brother’s room, leaving only one underinsulated wall between me and my baby bird, rather than a separate story and a lack of consciousness—I am home sick today and so dearly wanted to spend afternoon rest time actually resting.

I would have paid good money, up front, for the promise of sleep at 2:00 in the afternoon.  I might have traded my soul for quiet.

As it stands, there will be no nap today for anyone except Si.  I wanted sleep; instead, I have breath, hot against my hand on his pillow.  I hoped for peace, and instead I have the fury of a four-year-old who thinks band-aids are the answer for anything that hurts.  And we have, for now, the angry red reminder of a livid mark across a baby sealskin neck, barely a line in back but bright and deep in front, the place where those thin cords chafed, rubbed, and then began to strangle my would-be flyer.

I don’t know what to do with any of this, not really.  I still believe that tragic accidents happen. That not everything can be prevented, and that in that mistaken belief, we place ourselves on the opposite side of those who experience their turn with misfortune before our own, and that also, we forget to live.

And yet, there is another truth: that sometimes accidents don’t happen.  And that other times, they do—the worst thing, it happens—and yet the pieces of your life are handed back to you whole, anyway.  Sometimes we just get damned lucky, my friends.

I’m giving thanks for that, this afternoon.  For all that I had, which sometimes continues for another day to be all that I have.

But there is indeed something to be said for prevention, not as the sole objective of our lives, but as a way not to miss larger moments for smaller oversights.  And so I’m taking this opportunity to suggest, from our family to yours, that you take a moment to check those blind cords.

There is perhaps a story here about why it’s the four year olds who die.  And I wonder how many of them are youngest children of parents who assumed they were done with this safetyproofing stuff.

And so, though I know you did it last week, last month, last . . . when was it? . . . check them again.  I know you told the grandparents, the babysitter, your older son . . . tell them again.

We got lucky, so lucky, but Si is going to have the shape of that cord on the underside of his chin for a long, long while as a reminder of what we forgot.  May the only reminder that your family gets be these words.

Blessings, my friends.

j

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self-care for extroverts, and introverts, and anyone else who wants to heal the world

Last week was full of voices, and I happily went out to meet them.  I listened.  I brought more than enough of my own voice in response.  And then, each evening, I came home, wrapped myself in a brief but blessed silence . . . and got up the next day to do the same thing  with new people.

That’s a piece about talking; there’s also something about writing, or at least about writing in my world, in this: I walk around with the words long before I ever put them to paper.  The phrases parade through my head, ring in my ears, arrange and rearrange themselves on the tip of my tongue.

And something else: it has to be quiet.  It has to feel spacious.  I have to be alone, at least in my head if not in my embodied reality.

And friends, in these moments, I prefer to be alone, actually.

I wrote nothing last week.  It’s not that I tried and failed; I didn’t get that far.  It’s that I could no longer conceive of writing.  I could not imagine a space in which to try.  I felt like I had ceded every inch of myself to the roar outside, and returned home with an echo of it answering from within.  I addressed these concerns to a fellow writer and seminarian; she responded, I know–I get home and ask myself what I want to say and hear birds chirping.

By the end of last week, I was spent,  just in time for a weekend stacked with more of the same.  House meeting to listen to personal stewardship stories on Saturday (it was lovely!).  Preaching to an unfamiliar congregation on Sunday (beautiful, and so very welcoming!)

I get a lot of my energy externally, so this abundance of beauty and energy outside should beget beauty and energy inside, right?  That’s how I figured it, anyway, stacking meetings on appointments on phone calls–this is a weird way to set up a week, but all of of this stuff is happening at the same time, and hey, it’ll be fun!

It surprised me, then, that on this Monday morning –a Monday after the fourth of five consecutive weeks of preaching (all but one) or speaking (the spare) at Sunday services, I was feeling quite ragged . . . and well on my way toward wretched.  I pushed through the day anyway–fake it till you make it is a great energy secret, right?– my mind already on Monday evening.  And Tuesday . . . the towering gauntlet of Tuesday.  No time to stop, batter up!  I was thus both confounded and utterly bemused when, at 4:30, three meetings into a four-meeting day, I suddenly lost part of my vision.

It was as if perforations had appeared in the lenses of my eyes—I could see well enough to walk around, but things appeared oddly shimmery.  I couldn’t create the contiguous picture necessary to read text or type.  It’s embarrassing to say, but I spent 30 disbelieving (and fruitless) minutes trying to find a way to restructure the rest of my day before making the journey home.  By the time I arrived there, I felt truly incoherent.  I invested a ridiculous amount of time in attempting to write a check to the babysitter, made an urgent call to my husband, and promptly passed out, entering the maddening liminal space in which you think you’re doing x and saying y, but are actually doing nothing.  Besides scaring people.  Ordinarily, I’d have been scaring myself, too; as it was, I was too out of it to feel properly frightened, or to feel anything, really, but spent.

Two hours later, I awoke suddenly.  Things were back to normal, but for a headache; Dr. Facebook (thank you, colleagues near and far) assured me that I had experienced an ocular migraine.  And that I should rest, and avoid sex (really; someone told me this), and get it checked out should another one occur.

That all sounds like wise advice, and I plan to take it.  I am also taking this opportunity, however, to offer myself some non-medical advice.  It’s a little something about boundaries, firmish limits which go far beyond what I had initially thought was necessary.

You see, as a lifelong extrovert, I count on interactions with people I love to feed my energy stores.  And it’s true, those conversations do feed me: until the point where they don’t.

I don’t think I had occasion to know this limit, exactly.  At the very least, it was always masked as other things.  I am tired after dealing with a roomful of rowdy preschoolers because tiredness under these circumstances is simply a Law of Nature.  And I am tired after a week involving a revolving door of meetings-lunches-coffee dates-appointments because . . . it turns out I actually do not have the stamina for ministry?

I do, from time to time, draw bizarre satisfaction from making precisely those sorts of sweeping generalizations, but it hasn’t escaped my attention that they tend to be wrong.  And in this case, “I can’t hack it in ministry if I can’t grit it out through a week like this” is incorrect because the difficulty I’m experiencing is not about grit.  It’s about balance, and the energy that we invest or withdraw with each interaction.

There is, for me, a tipping point at which the relational interactions both cease to feed my energy and begin to rob my soul.  And I suspect that it’s not just me.  How many of us question how to get the balance right in this highly draining, highly demanding, highly relational field?

Just a few days ago, a mentor in ministry spoke of her sense of sadness and overwhelm at trying to balance her emotional wish for connection with her physical need for some down time.  She attributed the inner tug-of-war to her introversion, but I suspect that we are all playing the same game at different times each week.

This is why there must be a sabbath—and for those of us in the Sabbath business, that sure isn’t going to be Sunday.  This is why there are office hours.  This is why there are boundaries.

I sort of assumed that these lines were drawn so that others knew how to stay in the minister’s good graces.  I imagine that respecting them does help with congregant-minister relations, but seeing, now, from the other side, I also understand that those limits exist as an act of profound self-care.  They represent, for ministers, stewardship of our time and talent in the same way that we carefully place our treasure.

Speaking to the difficult decisions inherent in creating safeguards around our time, and our hearts, and our energies, one minister argued last fall that what makes sense from a planning perspective is not time management, but energy management.  Some interactions drain.  Some feed.  This must be taken into account in planning for the kind of lives we lead.  Personally, I am persuaded that this focus on managing time to maintain energy is gospel truth, and I am grateful for this opportunity to learn it early.

Including yesterday.  Temporary blindness is one of the less subtle wake up calls I’ve experienced, but today I felt I could see, and in more ways than one: there are many ways to burn the candle at both ends, and they all, ultimately, are unsustainable.  In this vein, I have been thinking lots this afternoon about a quote from Rabbi Moses Sofer: No woman is required to build the world by destroying herself.

I suspect that for the highly relational among us, living on the side of sustainability means special attention to the place where we start to build the village by cutting off pieces of ourselves.  Further, it requires that we then stop ourselves, not at that self-destructive place, but at a much earlier spot on the upside of the hill.  It is difficult to ask ourselves to stop there.  It is a struggle of will to yield in a place of unfinished business when we ourselves have yet more to give.  Yet there is deep wisdom in the timing of the pause, and it comes not just from theologians, but from teachers.

I have spent the main part of my adult life working in and around early childhood programs, and I once attended a wonderful workshop with children’s singer and songwriter Jackie Silberg.  Aside from the very catchy All the Fish Are Swimmin’ in the Water, what I still remember, years later, from that weekend is this wisdom: Never, never, never wait until the highest point of the energy to end an activity: you leave everyone nowhere to go but down, and that is where the problems happen.

Jackie was talking about the tightrope act that is singing and dancing with exuberant youngsters in confined spaces, but it’s true in life, too.  It’s true right here.  We are passionate, loving, committed people, and we are taking on the fight and the blessing of our lives every single day.  Why would we not leave it all out there?

Why would we stop before we drop?

Because, my friends: we are a people who believe in tomorrow. 

This, above all things, is our gift of faith to the world.  And living it begins right here with each of us.

So understand, please, that I will take your call in a crisis.  If you are crying, I will hold your hand or simply sit with you for all the time that it takes.  I will be at the hospital, I will bless your baby, I will be the person, and fit the role, that you need me to.

And understand also that later, in the small moments, in the full holiness of a sabbath that may to any other ear be called Tuesday, I will return to my words.  I will return to myself.  You will hear about the committee meeting not this minute or even today, but next week.  We will talk and laugh together soon, and we’ll schedule it, because you are important and we are important, and also, so am I.

I love God, and the world, so much that I will not destroy myself to build it. 

-j

helpful hints for awesome applications (or why NO ONE should have to read the essay I just wrote)

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Friends, I have been editing what is, hands down, the worst essay I’ve ever written.

In fact, I am writing this now because I needed space to make a decision.  There comes a time when you must grit your teeth and keep slogging through, take a deep breath and start over entirely . . . or shove the pages off the table, grab a cup of tea, and start a blog post about the writing process.

This is, on one level, a cautionary tale: bad writing is what happens when you try to salvage content from the form you filled out that one time.

My essay is an appalling piece of exposition, but reviewing it has been a good lesson.  It turns out, my people, that cobbling together responses  from form questions you didn’t care about answering in the first place will not lead to a compelling narrative about your life for a reason.  And, though you are hopefully writing your own essays using a process that doesn’t involve recycling old forms, the take-home message here might still be helpful.

It’s not that the pieces aren’t all there.  They are–in sometimes painful detail.  It’s that the unifying thread of an effective personal essay isn’t simply a coherent path from point A to point B–rather, a good story requires a heart, a soul, and a vision.

What’s missing here is the clarity of focus that comes from knowing why I’m telling the story.  Ideally, that knowledge is present from the moment I start writing, and that awareness becomes purpose: it guides me as I choose how I will hold each piece, where I will shine a light, how I will catch your attention.

Reflecting on this has helped me to articulate some guidelines, which I shall now pass along to you (as, I’ll be honest, a tool to further delay a return to the atrocity that awaits me).

There are three things I’m aiming for in talking about my life as an applicant-for-something-I-really-want, and what I have before me is a clear example of why meeting only the second objective is not enough.  The second goal is the substance of your application, but it alone doesn’t get you there.  In fact, substance alone is painful to read.

Thus, let’s back up, because the meat of the text isn’t where we need to start.

The first and most important task of an admissions essay:

1. Introduce yourself.  Winningly.  You must be, on paper, someone you’d truly like to know.

This is your chance to let whoever is reading “meet” you.

Depending on the structure of the application, there may be a clear space for this introduction (“Tell us about yourself,”) or you may have to frame it yourself.  In the composition commonly labeled “personal essay” and lacking further instructions, the reality is somewhere in the middle–you have to work within the space you have, but there is a lot of freedom in what and how you will do it.  The thing to remember is that what you say here and in your supporting documents (resume, cover letter, references) is the only thing your reviewer knows about you.  You are a blank slate, and what you need to become, in that reader’s eyes, is a person–and a likeable, compelling one at that.

Introduce yourself well on paper, and you will likely have a second opportunity in person. Otherwise, this is it. Either way, the stakes are high, so let your “self” shine through (think of Katniss Everdeen doing a full spin for the television audience. You are showing a stylized version of yourself, to be sure, but show it in a way that feels three-dimensional.)

As you read through your essay, ask yourself: if these words are all someone has to go on, will my reader feel that she knows me, personally?

She should.

2. Deliver the goods

This has two parts. First, make sure you give the reader whatever they have explicitly asked for. (This may seem obvious.  I can tell you, however, as someone who used to review scholarship applications for an undergraduate leadership program, and who has since sat on 2 hiring committees, that an astonishing number of applicants submit things that don’t address, or don’t clearly address, the question being asked.  This is a particular danger where you’re repurposing an essay or response you already wrote for something else, so use caution.)

Second, do it clearly and neatly. Whether anyone mentions it to you or not, your writing: grammar, mechanics, punctuation, style and flow–is being evaluated from the moment a person’s eye lands on the first page of your application.

Without this form-and-content piece, you miss the boat entirely, and your application ends up in the circular file and not in the short stack. We all know this, but the magic doesn’t happen here. For that, you need to also hit goal three . . .

3. Tell them a story.

We all want to be entertained. Style alone will not earn you what you seek (reread step 2), but the truth is, it is damned important.

Reading a bunch of anything in succession is mind-numbing. Make reading YOUR essays easy on your reviewers by drawing them in. In an application process, you will achieve this by taking the hands of your readers to bring them along on your personal journey. (Can I tell you that “The Story of My Life” has been playing loudly in my mind as I type this?)

If you want that person to feel excited about taking that trip with you, you need to feel excited, too–so if you don’t, consider it an invitation to sit back, close your eyes, and think more. Walk, in your head, the road that you have traveled. What makes you smile? What makes you cringe? What makes your heart race? What themes do you see emerging at this point in your path?

Use those themes to guide your narrative, and tell the story in your head until you’re ready to tell it on paper. Find the power and passion behind your story, and use that to propel your writing–when you’re in *that* space, it’s easier.

Writing that can move others must start with the stirring of your own soul. For myself, it’s finding that place and staying within it that’s the tricky  part–after that, the words simply come. So invest the time, and ask yourself: what story am I telling here, and what makes it powerful?

Helpful? I hope so . . . tis the season, after all. (And seminary applicants, be warned: you may find, upon receiving your acceptance letters, that it is The Season all year long. Happy writing.)

And now, off to put a certain essay out of its misery.

jmoonlighting as your friendly Grammar Witch

I did not fight the law . . . and we all win

I’ve been on the fence about sharing this story–where, and how, and if.

It’s not really an impression I want to leave you with, and it’s so simple to explain that I’m taking Soeren to visit my grandmother this week. And even if I tell you more of the truth, the easy thing is to tell it funny.

I can tell you about our late departure from Lawrence on an afternoon the week before Thanksgiving. I can describe trying to make it all the way to Cheyenne to avoid the hell that is a hotel room in western Kansas with Si and Ren. I can tell you about the dry pavement, the absence of anyone else even on the road, the clear, starry night. I can share that we were making excellent time to Wyoming, and that we shared a laugh with a sheriff who seemed truly reluctant to write me a ticket . . . but then it turned out my driver’s license was back home in Lawrence, sitting in the center console of my car (we drove Craig’s.)

Not laughing? I can’t bring myself to make the jokes any more.  I also could not look myself in the eye if I contested this ticket.

Friends, I was going 94 miles an hour. My husband was in the passenger seat. Our two sleeping children were in the back.

The truth is, speeding is my vice. I never thought of it this way . . . I never thought of it much at all, actually, except occasionally to complain about the unreasonable-seeming speed limits on various roads. I have places to be, you see. And I could get there so much FASTER without these inconvenient restrictions. And yes, it’s expensive. But mostly only if you get caught.

In the meantime, my tendency to speed has caused familial concern and quips (Craig has joked that my title upon ordination should actually be “Reverend Leadfoot”)–but nothing has happened to convince me that I should observe posted speed limits.  In fact, I’m not sure this ticket would have either.  Not for the long term.

And then, in passing on FB, I saw this clip in my newsfeed a few weeks ago. I’m not sure which of you shared it; it doesn’t matter. I knew just reading the tag line that it was for me.   I don’t mean that you particularly intended for me to see it.  I mean that the universe did.

The spot hit home, and devastatingly, as I knew from the second I saw it that it would.  In fact, I read an article about the PSA series and what they were trying to accomplish with it before I watched the clip. Because I was stalling. Because I didn’t want to see.

Once I did watch, I knew that change was coming. (I hope you’ll watch it, too; it’s embedded below this post.  But in case I haven’t convinced you, I’ll give you what you need to know.  It’s not graphic at all, and yet is utterly soul-searing.  It’s two drivers.  One is speeding.  The other has made a momentary mistake of judgment.  They are suddenly standing outside of their cars, talking.  Trying to negotiate.  Trying to change things.  But it’s just too late.  There is a child, about Soeren’s age, in the back of one of the cars . . . we watch his face, and his father’s, as everyone realizes that there is nothing to be done at this pont.  The take home message is that if you can’t find a reason in your own driving, in your own family, to slow down, then perhaps what will register is that sometimes other people make mistakes.)

I’ve spent the intervening weeks in Chicago, not driving, and that has given me some time and space to think.

For instance, I have thought–believe me–of calling Kit Carson County to plead my case. I’m a mom of two, driving 400 miles into a snowstorm to appear in court for a speeding ticket–is there any possibility of a diversion? I’d laugh, apologize, ask for understanding and a larger fine.

It might be successful. I don’t know . And I won’t know. I am not going to do it.

Instead, we went this morning to rent a car with 4-wheel drive. The “midsize SUV” I reserved turned out to be a Suburban XL, in black. We are not making this easy.

I realize that this may not seem like much of a story for a post this dramatic. I was driving really fast and . . . someone told me to stop it.

Herein lies the grace, however–and it’s that grace, that possibility of a resurrected future, the kind you get to claim BEFORE you lose it–that leads me to share this with you. I am driving to Colorado for me. But I am telling this story for you. I made a mistake, in a larger pattern of mistaken thinking, and NOTHING HAPPENED. Thank you, God, for this blessing and this opportunity.

I don’t believe in penance, but I do believe in learning through action. That means we become different by being differently in our spaces, relationships, and routines.

Know, then, that if you see a large black SUV on I-70 today driving slowly and officially, it’s not the secret service. It’s me, practicing skills to keep my kids safe . . . and yours, too.

So You’re Thinking About Seminary . . . our ACTUAL advice to you

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Dear prospective UU seminarians,

We’re back!  We had so much fun writing our last advice post that we now bring you another.  And this one contains [dun dun DUN] our actual, legitimate advice to you as you walk the heady, sometimes scary path toward seminary.

In writing this, we realized that we also wish we’d had a First Year Survival Guide, so that’s in the works.  In the meantime, though, here are the tips we wish we’d received–or in some cases, the best advice that we blessedly DID receive–in our own months of initial discernment.

j

1.  Build and care for your support network

Make your friendships a priority, even when you’re busy.  Not every friendship is built to last, but trust us that the relationships that sustain you now will continue to be important as you deal with the coming changes in your life.  The demands of graduate school and the emotional upheaval of the formation process are significant, and you are going to need all the support you can get.

Maintain your ties with the friends and family who are not connected to your church community.  As you enter the formation process, your relationship with your home congregation—and most or all of its members—will change irrevocably.  It’s normal to become very deeply connected with congregational life as you explore a call to ministry, but do not let go of your connections with the larger world.

If you are a parent of small children, the admonition to “keep track of your friends” counts double.  The family with whom you can drop your child off on an hour’s notice?  The ones you can call if there’s a middle-of-the-night emergency?  Those people are on your team in a major way, and they are worth their weight in gold.  (And, pro tip? Be as available to your friends as they are to you–so you may want to start now, while you still have some free time.  Real friends don’t keep score . . . but they also don’t continually take without expecting to give.)

Take care of your primary relationships.  Your partner (and other family members) are in for a wild ride in the formation process—one they didn’t ask for and may not even fully understand or support.  Further, seminary, and the changes you will experience as a result, will affect the dynamics of even the healthiest relationships.

When you’ve had all the New Testament you can take, or you have to pay your tuition bill, or miss another weekend at home, or find a shoulder to cry on, you’re going to want the support of those closest to you.  Feed those relationships now, particularly if you have some work to do around healthy communication patterns.   And remember, going forward, to include those people in your seminary world; discuss texts, ask their opinions, get their feedback.  There is much internal work in this process that gets lost in translation or is hard to share; where possible, let those who support you be part of it.

j

Unity Temple in Oak Park

2. Become familiar with how UU works on the ground—in your local congregation

Attend regularly.  Our world, and our churches, are changing–but for most of us, shared public worship remains a centerpiece of what we do together.  Get to know our rituals, our hymns, and our theology, and find encouragement to connect with what moves your own soul.  There are more than 1600 Unitarian Universalist congregations, and if you don’t happen to live near one, our largest congregation of all is available to you at the click of a button.

Get to know your minister.  In addition to being (we hope) a fount of information about UU and a starting place for your deeper theological investigations, your home congregation minister can facilitate your seminary journey in many ways.  S/he can introduce you to potential teaching pastors, help you find leadership opportunities that will develop your ministerial capacities, and write the letters of reference that you need for seminary and beyond.  Our movement’s ministers are also very motivated to help in the discernment process of potential seminarians, so when you’re ready, find a time to talk with yours.

Serve. To effectively prepare to lead our movement, it’s necessary to have a solid understanding of congregational life.  From worship to religious education to food prep, there are lessons to be learned in all we do together.  There is no substitute for practicing faith and fortitude through a season of conflict, helping to lead a change that you care about through a process that happens on “church time,” or committing, generally, to live within the bonds of covenant–even when you would like nothing more than to leave the table, and the building, and not look back.

Even if you ultimately opt for community ministry, you will be deeply involved in parish life through seminary and preliminary fellowship (and hopefully beyond); give yourself this opportunity to discover whether it is something, for all its flaws and frustrations, that you can love.

Lead. You will never be finished “serving” in congregational life, but sooner or later (and in your case, probably sooner!) you can expect to be asked to step up and lead.  This may mean joining the worship team or a governance task force or stepping into elected leadership.  You will be getting a crash course in congregational polity, honing your own leadership skills, and helping your congregation at the same time.

And prepare to let it go.  Congregational leadership is important work, so give it the best you have.  And then, when the time comes, prepare to step back.  When your ministry begins, your lay leadership must end, and eventually your time with your home congregation will, too.  Leaving is a tough, but necessary, reality of the formation process.  [Yep, it’s really true.  Need a tissue?  We’ll wait.]

j

3. Connect with the broader UU movement

Attend General Assembly (“GA”)and your regional/district conferences. An interesting and fast way to take stock of the larger UU landscape is to attend one of the annual gatherings.  They feature workshops for personal faith development, tools for congregational life, powerful worship experiences, and amazing networking opportunities.

Keep track of what’s being talked about.  By following along online and in the UU World, you will get a sneak peek of (and can even take part in)  some of the conversations likely to shape your ministry. On Facebook, there are many groups set up to discuss a variety of topics; you might consider the UU Growth Lab or the Congregations and Beyond group. To learn about other Facebook groups that may be of interest, see this list from UU Planet.

Once you’ve been accepted to seminary, you can also join the UU Seminarians’ Salon, as well as facebook groups to connect you with future classmates at your chosen seminary.  Elsewhere on the net, the online talk show the VUU, run by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, provides UU content in a format we find engaging and relevant.  UUpdates is an aggregator of blog content by and about UUs, and the Interdependent Web is a column, edited by Rev. Heather Christensen, highlighting some of the week’s offerings. Also, consider connecting with seminarians and ministries in the larger (read: beyond UU) religious context.  Twitter is a particularly great resource for this purpose.

Bring your faith with you when you travel.  It’s difficult to see the larger landscape from only one vantage point.   The breadth and depth of UU theology and the particularities of congregational life are more easily understood if you’ve seen them in a variety of contexts—so do some exploring when you travel.  And, bonus: in our experience, the congregations you visit will be excited to meet U(U)—and they are great sources of insider info on things to do and places to eat.o and places tj

balance

4. Take stock–is your life in balance?

Make mental health a priority. If you know that you struggle with depression, anxiety, procrastination, low self worth, relationship problems, etc (–“Yes” to one or two of the above? Us, too–), begin addressing that before you step into seminary.

You will need to be in a relatively stable place simply to deal with the demands of a rigorous graduate program, and the personal, social, and psychological challenge involved in the formation process adds to the intensity of the experience.   You will be asked to evaluate yourself many times, and you must be able to look yourself in the eye and appreciate what you see.

Consider beginning work now with a therapist and/or a spiritual director, especially if you have never been in therapy before.  In our experience, this is simply an expected part of the formation process–and if the idea of delving into your own psyche makes you deeply uncomfortable, it’s probably helpful to ask yourself why.

If you are preparing for ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister and are in seminary full-time, you can expect to spend much of your first year answering questions like “describe your childhood” and “give a reasonably full account of your life.”  You will also spend two days undergoing a psychological assessment.  All of this self-reflection can feel exhausting and overwhelming; trust us when we say that beginning your work on the big stuff is an investment of time now that will pay dividends later.

Evaluate your financial situation – Graduate school can be a drain on resources–mental, emotional, physical, and, not least, financial.  It’s a downer, but do not underestimate the impact this may have on you and on your family, both as you make your way through seminary and afterward.

The reality is that preparing for Unitarian Universalist ministry is very expensive, with costs including seminary tuition ($56,000 before financial aid for an M.Div. at one of our two denominational schools), credentialing hurdles such as the career assessment, and books, materials, webinar fees, CPE tuition, and the list goes on. The travel involved in the formation process presents further financial challenges, and is an expense often overlooked in initial planning.

The enormity of the cost of ministerial formation is something we’d like to see addressed at a denominational level.  In the meantime, our best advice to you: find a budget you can live with during seminary and after, be frugal where you can, pay close attention to deadlines as you apply for seminary (particularly where financial aid is concerned), prepare to take out loans, and gratefully accept help where it is offered.

j

5. Attend to your own spiritual needs.

Cultivate a regular spiritual practice. Spiritual practice can take many forms; the important thing is to find something that both feeds your soul and fits into your life. If you could use some help getting started, we suggest Everyday Spiritual Practice, edited by Scott Alexander–it includes a variety of creative suggestions.

Connect with others on your spiritual journey

Consider joining your congregation’s small group ministry (or help to form one); some of us have found the Wellspring Spiritual Deepening course particularly helpful.

Consider what feeds you.  

Is it time with your children?  Reading mysteries?  French cooking?  Yoga?  Know what replenishes your energy and renews your spirit, and make time for those things.  Start today–we know you’re busy, but we can also assure you that finding time is NOT going to get easier as you move into formation.  Treat your spiritual life like the priority that it needs to be from the beginning, and you’ll have a good start in the self-care and boundary-setting that accompany a healthy ministry.

Seek broadly, if necessary, for congregational community

Finally, if congregational life is a significant part of what nurtures your spirit, prepare to relate to it in a new way, and soon.  As odd as it sounds, now might be a good time for a bit of church shopping.  Keep your current congregational membership active, but know that as your role in your congregation changes, you may find it necessary to seek a new or additional spiritual home.  Many UU ministers and ministers-in-formation nurture their spirits through a local Zen center, UCC church, or other community or small group ministry outside of the congregations they serve.

We realize this is a lot to take in, so congratulations if you’ve made it this far.  (You should see what we took out–post coming soon on surviving the first year of seminary.)  For now, know that it’s a work in progress for all of us, but that in our experience, some things are more easily attended to in these months before you begin seminary.

Blessings on your journey!  And now, get back to those applications!

Jordinn, Kimberley, Alix, Shane, and Lynda

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As long as you can get yourself down: the argument for an UNsafe childhood

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Two years ago, our sons’ preschool brought in writer and consultant Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.  The purpose, amid a capital campaign for a natural playscape, was to educate us about the importance of allowing risks and exploration while enjoying nature with our children.

In this spirit, the school allowed its students to climb the trees bordering the three-acre playground.  “As long as you can get yourself down” was the rule for tree-climbing—until the day our older son fell out of one.

Soeren’s scrapes required no medical attention; he healed completely within a week.  It may sound odd, but I was delighted to learn that the abrasions to the side of my son’s face were not from falling, but from catching himself on a low branch.  Soeren has always been a reluctant physical risk-taker, constrained by an anxiety about “what if” that is uncomfortably familiar.  My parental pride and the exhortations of the nature consultant aside, however, the trees were declared off limits for the rest of the year.

Several months later, a different child fell from a metal climbing structure, breaking his arm.  In my own school experience, it was at least a yearly rite of passage for the ambulance to come and take an arm-breaker to the hospital.  The child came back the next day to much fanfare; we all signed her cast, and life continued as before.  What happened in this case was an ambulance ride, a hushed apology to the family, and the near-immediate dismantling of the offending piece of playground equipment.  The entire set was taken down and hauled away; the children played in a yard of flat grass with balls and trucks for the rest of the year.

What these events meant for our obligation as parents to “take risks” and “explore nature” was never made clear.  I still wonder, but in reality, this particular school’s interpretations are unimportant.  The larger principles at work are what is noteworthy—and concerning.

An emphasis on safety above all things as a response to competing values (Get back into nature! Without anyone becoming hurt, or frightened, or dirty!) has redefined the parental obligations for an entire generation.

Unfortunately, this emphasis encourages fear rather than eliminating it, and inflicts collateral damage in the process. Were we to truly examine what it means to expect accidents not to happen, we might realize that what we have come to expect from ourselves and each other is not just safety, but control.  Possibly absolute control—over our own thoughts and actions, over those of our children, over environments, over weather, over chance.

This expectation of control stands in stark contrast to how I was raised.  I grew up in Wyoming and experienced a childhood that, admittedly, fell at the far “free range” end of the parenting spectrum.  However,  the facebook memes making the rounds—you know, the ones listing all the things we’re “the last generation to ___”– seem to strike a nerve with my generation of parents. I’m guessing it’s because those lists acknowledge that things today are different from how any of us were raised, and those days now seem simpler and also far out of reach.

How can I keep my sons free from significant harm, yet allow them to have access to a childhood of hard-won discoveries, unsupervised explorations, and the power to invent worlds, destroy them, and start over the next day?  Most times, this might be left an idle question, read about in somebody else’s blog post, pondered briefly, forgotten by dinner.  Later that same year, however, I experienced a recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder.  This affected my own parental perceptions of danger quite acutely; suddenly it became important to find answers to these questions, or at least strategies for wrestling with them, stat.

In desperation or habit or deep ancient wisdom, I felt a pull toward Wyoming, scene of my own childhood, to look for those answers.  To Vedauwoo, specifically—a series of tall granite outcroppings rising out of the high plains between Cheyenne and Laramie, and the natural heritage and birthright of southeastern Wyoming kids.  Vedauwoo means picnics, campouts, family hikes and wiener roasts, and later hooky days from school, stargazing, college keg parties.  And, unavoidably, it also means danger.

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Here amid the echoes and the rocks (and in this part of Wyoming, even the dirt isn’t far removed from rock; Si falls down and we spend five minutes removing tiny shards of granite from his shin), parenting initially appears harder than ever.  Risk looms larger here; what I barely noticed as a child is inescapable in watching my sons scramble delightedly across the rocks.  Danger—the real kind—beckons like the pied piper from all directions.   The boys could fall from a cliff.  They could drown in the pond.  They could lose the trail.  They could cross paths with a bear or a wildcat, be struck by lightning, or, in the particular case of my two-year-old, eat poisonous mushrooms, climb into the latrine, or cut your wrists on any of the jagged pieces of glass from the beer bottles that come here to die each weekend.  This place has been called a playground for those who love nature, but it’s a playground likely to give my generation of parents headaches, if not actual nightmares.  Gymboree it is not.

It’s overwhelming.  Or at least, I am overwhelmed.  And so, in full sun next to a wall of rock my children have just disappeared behind, with Daddy following along as spotter, I set my pack in the gravel and lie down with my head upon it.  I give up, for a bit, on vigilance.  Lying there, I also give up on trying to understand.  I ask myself if I’m also planning to give up on thinking, or breathing, or being, as I stare upward from the ground.

The patch of earth on which I’m lying slopes down a bit from my back to my head.  I wonder vaguely if I’m falling off the world or held tighter to it, and as I lie there I realize I’m facing a rock formation that I have climbed many times.

Gazing up at the granite, I am speechless, taking it in as though for the first time.  The sun feels both far away and uncomfortably intense, the light unique to clear days at high altitude.  The rocks reflect the light brightly in some places, and glow softly in pink and orange in others.  The sky surrounding the cliffs is cloudless, a color that instantly evokes a hundred memories but defies naming.   It is beautiful.  It is forceful.  It is sharp, and hard, and angular and, just . . . undeniably there.

This place is a physical representation of the phrase “It is what it is,” words that irritate and even provoke me in nearly every context.  Here, though, in the face of so much unyielding rock, they are comforting.  As I have known you, so you are.  Even now.  Even still.

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As befits a person on the edge of crazy, I talk to these rocks, asking, “If you are the same, and I am the same, why can’t I keep my children safe here when my parents could?  How were they calm in the face of your danger?  How did they know that things would be ok?”

I try to remember how my parents acted.  What strategies they used to calm or caution us.  But as I think about it, what I remember most is being left to our own devices.  We played; the grownups sat, fire blazing, at a neighboring campsite and talked.  We climbed trees and explored caves; they climbed rocks and whistled down to us.  This is confusing—how could they have made sure that we were safe if they weren’t there?  How could they have known at which moment we might get into danger, and prevent it?  How could they have looked away while we climbed surrounded by only hard landings?  In my own life as a parent, I feel affronted when a playground has soft-form asphalt rather than mulch under the climbing equipment.

We yearn for control and we imagine that we wield it—but ultimately, we cannot ignore the tension created where our theories and the world-in-practice do not match up.  When accidents do happen—to someone else’s child or our own—how do we react, emotionally? With guilt?  With shame?  With condemnation?

Outwardly, we place added pressure on ourselves, on other parents, or on laws to do what the world itself refuses to—protect us at all costs.  The concept of “accident” has itself changed in the years since we were children—what once, in one sense, applied to a great mystery of life—sometimes bad things happen and we don’t know why—now indicates only negligence, whether or not we can immediately pinpoint the source.

In this context, failing to protect a child from harm is unforgiveable. We look immediately and mercilessly for someone to hold responsible when a child is hurt in any way.  As for ourselves, we believe that we simply won’t make those bad choices, and accidents will therefore never happen to us.

This attitude is a mistake, and not just because it stigmatizes those to whom bad things happen, or because places an impossible weight upon our shoulders.  It is mistaken because it cuts us off from growth.  Writing now, later, I can share that in coping with PTSD symptoms, I have had to learn two things: to see and evaluate risk more objectively, even in the face of a strong emotional response, and to accept with serenity the knowledge that there is true danger simply in being alive.  I will posit that these are the same tasks we must take on as parents guiding our children through a frightening world.

First, we must strive to see risk for what it is, and to acknowledge it where we find it.  Some things simply are too potentially damaging to allow a child to do so long as we are the ones responsible for her safety—though these determinations may vary by child, by parent, by family.  Other things, however, are not nearly so dangerous as we believe them to be, and have benefits that far outweigh the risks.  For our family, playing outside with minimal supervision fits into this second category; riding bikes without helmets into the first.

Next—and this one is the nailbiter—we must accept that it is not possible to make the world “safe.”  Dangers, known and unknown, are part of the bargain we make in living.  Our task, then, is to accept, and then move beyond acceptance to embracing the way that risk and challenge shape our lives.

In the end, whether we are willing to see it or not, our children are all climbing dangerously.  And so are we.  Maybe what they need—what we each need—isn’t a bigger safety net.  Maybe it’s actually a bigger rock, or the experience to know that the climb itself is its own reward.  The view from the top isn’t too shabby either, but the real reason we need to do it is because risk is part of what makes us human. It’s part of what makes us real.

Let’s not focus on making the world risk-free, then.  Let us instead climb to the high places, and in so doing, tap into the great pride of human accomplishment.  And let’s look to our children as we climb.  It is up to us to protect them—but they are the ones who can show us how to get ourselves back down again, and to do it with joy and grace.

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let sleeping dragons lie

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“You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don’t help.”

One of my seminary classmates posted this Calvin & Hobbes quote yesterday morning.  And it’s true– sometimes even our most faithfully held talismans fail us.  Our magic pebbles lose their magic.  We are left, staring down our fears, armed with nothing more than what is within us.

Frankly, some days it doesn’t feel like that could possibly be enough.  It’s been dark, and cold, and there is much that feels undone and overwhelming.  Whatever I consider, from my growing list of uncompleted tasks (a side effect of Refusing To Do It All, it must be noted, is that some things don’t get done) to the tangled knots inside my head and heart–my body registers an anxious warning: Danger.  Here Be Dragons.  And sometimes, friends, I just don’t have the tools or the energy to take on one more scaly beast.

This is hard.  The work is hard.  The ongoing time crunch is hard.  The change and the losses it brings are hard.  And in the midst of these hard things, life keeps happening.  Which means, in some of our families, that death is what’s happening.  Or illness.  Marital difficulties.  Financial troubles.  The list goes on.

And thinking about this larger process, the truth is that even the supportive parts are challenging.  Almost everyone I know is working with a therapist, a spiritual director, or both—and seriously, put the emphasis on “working.”  For myself, I’ve stopped wearing makeup on spiritual direction days.  That may seem like some sort of deep personal metaphor; it’s actually because from a practical standpoint it’s just pointless–why spend valuable time applying something you’ll be mopping off your face an hour later?

In short, with one semester almost in the bag, our first year class is showing decided signs of wear.  We are growing, but it costs.  We are excited, but we feel grief.  We are strong, but know fear.  And we’re tired.

I’m tired.  This is true physically, but even moreso psychologically and emotionally.  It’s the relentless schedule, in part, but it’s also that there’s a “front” involved in doing this work, and in preparing for it.   This means “make some mistakes, but be very selective when you show your struggles.”  (Or, alternately, “Show them to everyone, via your blog.”  I’ll let you know how that works out.)  In “public,” which is virtually everywhere, remember that your presence–the calm kind–is what counts.  These are critical lessons for the leadership of our movement, but cultivating them isn’t free–we pay in time, in energy, and, if we’re not careful, in personal integrity as well.

And of course there are other, procedural costs: already, we are preparing to leave our home congregations.  In my case, that’s a very formal process; for some others it’s simply an awareness of transition in the coming months.  I think most of my classmates, weary as we are right now, feel excited about this.  For my own reluctant-to-adjust self, the knowledge of looming change feels like the slow drip of water torture.

Realistically, I imagine I’ll be prepared for the move to my intern congregation right around the time that I’m scheduled to leave that community.  For now, I literally want to dig a hole underneath my current church building, curl up inside it and stay there for a very long time.  People could come visit–bringing snacks would be good—and I’d come out for worship.  (In fact, there used to be a joke among my friends in lay leadership that we needed to have cots in the sanctuary in light of the amount of time, day and night, we spent at church.  I wonder if on some level I thought that’s what seminary would mean—I could just live at church!  I’m starting to see how without clear boundaries and constant attention to work-life balance, that could someday be horrifyingly true, but not here.  Never here.)

Instead, inevitably, I put one foot in front of the other and take one more step.  We all do, leaning on one another, following those who’ve gone before . . . and wishing, lately, for a place to rest.

And I realize that I have been waiting for someone to say it’s time to wait without planning, time to reflect without acting, time to stop, survey the landscape, and take a breath.

But no one does.  Not to me.  At least, not out loud.

Meanwhile, this happened at church—the same church where I’d like to live in the wall or the floor, but apparently can’t be bothered to engage with what’s going on during the service.  (This is not our choir, but you get the idea.)

I remember that it was pretty, but I was distracted (what’s coming next?  And what’s coming after that?), so I didn’t really listen.  Frankly, I’m not sure I would have thought about this song again, EVER, had someone not mentioned the next day how the performance touched them—the sound, the words, the spirit.

So I looked it up.  I played the song.  And hearing it, I remembered the moment I heard it in our sanctuary—but this time, I truly listened.

When the song ended, I played it again.  And I’ve been playing it since, because it speaks truth to me now.

That same service included a meditation on the importance of quiet in this season, culminating in Richard Gilbert’s observation that

“In the darkness we rest our bodies and our souls;
We escape that which distracts and confuses.
We come face to face with ourselves.
We come into the deep places of our being.”

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And so, I now wonder, what more official invitation to rest is needed than this interlude of darkness and quiet?  The growing season will come soon enough.

What I need now is some space in which I might simply be.

For a brief time, I will rest my mind and my feet.  For this quiet interval, I will leave those sleeping dragons where they lie.

For a short season, let me be still.

-j

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