thank you for: three words for my best friend

 

Taking my hand

Loving my family

Saving my butt

Believing in me

Saying I Do

Going to church

Committing to change

Keeping the faith

Sticking it out

Reminding me why

Inspiring my best

Refusing my lies

Being a Daddy

Watching them grow

Folding the laundry

Taming the monsters

Cooking the omelettes

Mowing the lawn

Paying the bills

Feeding the hamster

Walking alongside me

Warming my fingers

Reading my words

Painting the pictures

Mending the broken

Carrying heavy things

Spotting the meteors

Waiting quite silently

Holding me close

Risking to cry

Safekeeping my heart

Helping me fly

 

of spiders and scariness (a pre-Halloween challenge)

photo credit Rebecca Gant. This was in her garden. Which is why I will not be.

A couple of years ago, I discovered trail running.

I love running in nature, and I love autumn, and I am thrilled to be living in a part of the country that offers both, and for months at a time.

You take the good with the bad, though.  And you could certainly argue that there is something bad about fall around here.

A dangly, sticky, creepy, crawly, hangy, sneaky, and sometimes hairy thing.

Spiders.

I have lived in the Missouri river valley for a total of 12 years. I grew up, on the other hand, at 6200 feet, and the local fauna, while impressive in their own right, were much less horrifying. Living here, I have seen creatures that would have sent my Wyoming schoolchild self running into . . . well, Nebraska.

Except that I would run north. Because: spiders.

I have made some progress around my phobia. I don’t have actual proof for you, because have spent most of the last decade grabbing a projectile rather than a camera, but I have encountered orb weavers and crab spiders, wolf spiders and enough recluses to become thoroughly bored of them. And also, jumping spiders (my least favorite because, well, they jump. And so will you. It is wrong.)

And I have survived them all.

I have outlived them, in fact.

Which brings us back to this fall. Where running meets homeschooling, in that a couple of times each week, my older son and I take to the trails while Silas is at preschool.

don’t be fooled by the civilized-looking trail marker. anything could happen in here, people. and I will probably scream when it does.

There is a story here.  It happened a couple of weeks ago on one of those amazing crisp-air, blue-sky mornings that only fall can offer.

I was excited to reach the first fork in the path so I could run a few circuits of the white trail. Soeren was excited to examine every object in front of him. And that was fortunate, because it is how I avoided stepping on what Soeren identified as The Second Largest Spider I Have Ever Seen. (It is not, I will note, the second-largest spider I have ever seen. I spent part of a summer in Costa Rica, which is a country populated by people who appear to be peaceful, yet who will reliably launch a full-scale military assault against a two-inch gecko in a shower stall. Those same people also appear to be rational, yet not one of them batted an eye while tarantulas the size of salad plates claim space on the sidewalks at sundown. Costa Rica is a beautiful and worthwhile travel destination . . . and it’s the “Switzerland of Central America” only in the way that Tim Burton’s land of Halloween was the true home of Santa Claus.)

While probably not a tarantula, Soeren’s spider was, if you are someone with misgivings about arachnids, rather heinous. Furry. Marked with dramatic lines and swirls. Camouflaged almost perfectly in the dappled sunlight of the leaf-lined trail. And large enough to neatly cover the top of my shoe. Had it walked onto my shoe. Which it did not.

[Makes the sign of the cross before continuing to type]

I offer, as evidence of my progress, my ability to make comments appropriate for a parent of a science-loving child, and for a minister-in-training who is mindful of the Interdependent Web of Which We Are All a Part.

It is true, however, that I did this while backing away slowly.  Subsequent conversation as follows:

Soeren: You don’t like him, do you?

Me: I like him fine. Over there.

Soeren: I don’t think he’s going to hurt you.

Me: I don’t think he’s going to hurt me, either.

Soeren: You’re not even standing on the trail anymore.

Me: Yikes! I mean . . . you’re right.

Sooooo. [deep breath.] I’m gonna run now.

Soeren: I’m gonna stay here and investigate.

Me: Ooohkay.

There are some things that I would like you to know before I tell you the next part of this story: I have been terrified of spiders for most of my life. I have spent parts of nights awake after seeing one in my room, afraid to close my eyes in case it walked on me. I finally learned to kill them on sight, because this at least was preferable to wondering where the object of my fears was at any given moment. I once launched a full-on administrative (and pesticidal) offensive, when volunteering in an old house that was truly overrun with recluses. And until the house in which we live now, I bug bombed every space I ever inhabited before moving in—and not for the bugs. For the spiders.

I am, to put it mildly, an unlikely candidate for arachnid coexistence.

And yet, at first grudgingly, and then in a spirit of détente, and finally with an open curiosity that astonishes those who love me (and also, somewhat freaks them out), the truth is that things have changed.

I wrote about the beginnings of this, from a different angle, a couple of years ago. I’m as surprised as anyone, but it turns out that the things I was saying to Silas back then were not just lip service.

I really do think that spider is of God, as I am. And once I realized that I couldn’t rationally refuse to acknowledge this, I also could not help but act differently. And then, to think and feel differently.

Results, thus far:

*I left a spindly little spider in her tiny web in the far corner of my room. She never bothered me, nor, to my knowledge, I her. Eventually, she disappeared. I don’t worry about it; I wish her well.

*I considered the many, many recluses scrabbling around in the night in an old house where people slept on pallets on the floor, and weighed that frightening number of spiders (xxxx?) against the number of people there who were ever bitten (0).

*And just the other day, Silas came running in from the yard to bring me to see a black spider the size of a small hamster sunning himself on our doormat. We counted his eyes, declined to invite him inside, and speculated, later, on where he might have gone.

I wouldn’t say that arachnidae and I are friends, exactly, or even allies . . . but I’m working on something like appreciation. And leading the way has been curiosity. With respect trailing right behind.

And so, I am sad to tell you what happened next. Which is this: The experience of nearly stepping on the camouflaged spider fresh in my mind, I headed down the trail. I made the turn. I leaped over the muddy area separating the trailhead from the uphill climb onto the ridge. I tucked my chin. I watched my feet.

I ran full-body into a large web extending between two trees.

Now, perspective: I run a lot, which means I actually run through webs, or parts of them, very frequently. And occasionally, I even end up with an actual spider on me, too (this is actually rarer than you might think—orb weavers are extraordinarily canny about getting out of the way when something big trip over their guide threads). In those moments, that spider is at least as eager to be off of my person as I am to remove it; orb weavers are much, much smaller than their webs would lead you to believe. Also, they are in no way dangerous.

Orb Weaver Spider

I know all of this. I know it in my head. Sometimes I know it at a gut level, too.

But on this day, friends, I utterly lost my shit.

I ran through that web and within one second, I had thrown my phone, screamed bloody murder, smacked myself upside the head, and knocked my sunglasses so far into the brush that I thought I’d never find them. I DID never find them. Soeren found them. I think it’s because he’s closer to the ground. Or perhaps it was because Soeren wasn’t searching while simultaneously hyperventilating and clutching at the air near his head and face.

And since that morning, I’ve been doing some thinking. About where fears become phobias, and memories become trauma, and also, about how kneejerk impulses might become immediate, unreflective actions. The last time I played Wii Fit it suggested that my reaction time is not so great. But friends, I know better. I may not be able to react intentionally or constructively as soon as I would like, but I can definitely react quickly.

In fact, I am pretty sure we all can—even those of us who never can make it down the fake ski slope or head the soccer ball can move effortlessly to defend ourselves from perceived mortal threat.

This is simply a human reality, right? Soeren told me the other day that he wishes he had more instincts. Sometimes I wish I had fewer, or different ones, at least.

I’m going to preach about this soon . . . the sermon’s called Something Wicked, and before I deliver it, I’m going to lead the congregation in an exercise: assembling our own personal monster.

I doubt that monster will look like a spider, but for those of us for whom it might, I also offer an alternate possibility:

Someone I know—a colleague—took a walk.

Through a graveyard.

At midnight.

Speaking of assembling monsters—how many things might we fear to meet in this situation? How many of those fears might even feel perfectly logical?

Personally, I don’t need come up with any additional answers, because what Lisa actually met in that graveyard just happened to be none other than a spider. And its web.  Which she walked through, in the dark, face first.

And in the end, her glasses looked like this:

photo credit (and, let's be real, badassery credit) the Rev. Lisa Schwartz

photo credit (and, let’s be real, badassery credit) the Rev. Lisa Schwartz

Which I can report because those glasses were not thrown into the bushes. Rather, they were held carefully, with honor for the magic of the evening and respect for a weaver whose work was inadvertently destroyed.

I have been thinking about this–was thinking about it even, as I calmed my breathing and removed the stray web pieces from my forehead.  And I wonder: how might I walk with such wonder and poise, even through the scary places?

How, in fact, might we all?

I have a theory . . . let’s call it a sneaking suspicion . . . that calmly confronting our fears might be a skill worth practicing.  In our congregations.  Where the spiders have different names, and are sometimes shaped more like elephants.

And I think we have the tools to do it.

Let’s talk more about this here.  But first: let’s do it in person–Kansas City, October 5th, 11:15 a.m.

See you at #allsoulsKC.  With . . . just maybe . . . Something Wicked.

j

homeschooling for happiness (wherein our family tries again)


Fifteen months ago, I told you that I planned to stop homeschooling my older son after a rough first year.

That decision was a great relief, an end to months of internal wrestling and ceaseless dialogue. I wanted, finally, to fall on one side of the fence; I hoped to escape, with a word—No!—the battles and the stress and the painful uncertainty of no-right-answer. My choice was months in the making, but the related blog post came quickly, inspired by those beautiful words shared by Rachel Macy Stafford, I Love to Watch You Play.

Thus, it might be unexpected that this morning I took both boys with me to drop my younger son off at preschool. That we then walked, my older son and I, to a coffee shop. That they know us by order—one hot chocolate, not-too-hot, extra whipped cream; one latte—and that we know them, too. That we come armed with handwriting work, and math, and we revel in the almost-autumn, the luxury of familiarity and togetherness and in time enough for a conversation about infinities (plural) amid an assessment of where we stand at the start of this school year.

It might astonish you to hear that this is the beginning of not just a second, but a third year of homseschooling.

It might be surprising to learn that the first year, we began with a kicking and screaming power struggle, and the second with both curiosity and resignation . . . and this year, this morning, with joy. Mine, irrepressible, the smile that comes unbidden even as I shake my head at the silliness around me. (In our house, silliness doesn’t just reign. It cavorts.) Soeren’s, on the other hand, is bubbly, contagious, and delightfully unexpected—I get to do school again? Finally! This—it’s just like last year! And I missed it!

 

My people, I am not only homeschooling, I am glowing, overflowing with joy at the small moments and small miracles. It has been a long process toward this place; these days, I’m walking alongside, journeying with, encouraging, witnessing. Not so much leading. Not so much setting the pace. So no, I don’t know where we’re going, except in the broad strokes of my hopes—but I can tell you that once I got out of the way, it’s been, three bears style, just right for our family.

This story, its hardships and triumphs, and above all its details, they are personal. And fraught—this is very much alive for us, my family and me. Reality is an adjustment. All of which has made me a bit hesitant to share. And also, there’s the fact that I’m probably not quite like you. I’m a licensed teacher. My focus is special ed. I’ve taught third graders and fourth graders and infants and toddlers and kindergartners. I’ve worked in a “great” school district and a “struggling” school district, and in two private schools.

But the thing is, I don’t have to be like you. This is a story about people who are not quite like other people, and what we might do to celebrate and teach and learn from them. You might have one of those people at home yourself. And some days, you might want to tear your hair out. Some days, you might envision lying down on the floor and yelling . . . except that your child is there already. I do not have a solution for you, but I offer this story—this set of truths and lived experiences—as you try to figure out what yours is. And also, a hug. Because, mama: it is hard.

My son Soeren is twice-exceptional; that’s an educational label for children with both giftedness and one or more disabilities. Soeren has motor dysgraphia. When he does formally start school, he may also be diagnosed with dyslexia and sensory processing disorder.* (It is, to my parental and professional eye, highly likely that he fits both of these categories; whether he is actually labeled as either will depend on how he is performing at that point.) He also scores literally off the charts in measures of vocabulary and comprehension, has been speaking in adult-like sentences since before age two, and has a grasp of mathematical concepts that eclipses my own understanding (and has for awhile, which isn’t saying much, but still).

So that’s, on the face of things, what we’re dealing with right now. And there are some things I have learned about this path. Let’s call them homeschooling Tips from the Trenches:

 

You are gonna need mentors and cheerleaders.

There will be days when you wonder if you’ve lost your everloving mind. There will be other days when you won’t wonder, because you will know very definitely that you have. This path is one of connection, love, and abundant joy. It is an invitation to live in the beauty of this moment. But the truth, my people, is that there are moments that none of us really want to live in. And so, for the stubborns or the boredom or the my-God-how-does-anyone-get-anything-done, it helps to know who you can call.

To do this, work your networks. Ask around. The quirk factor in homeschooling can be high; as in anything child-related, not all HS families are going to be a match for yours. If you can find families, though, whom you like and admire, and with whom you can keep in touch, you will be so grateful to yourself. And to them. If you’re a mama, you may especially want to seek out other mothers who do work or keep a schedule like yours, because some days it will be hard to remember that that’s even possible.  If you’re a dad, I’m told you may find it helpful to seek out other HS dads to swap war stories and simply to know that you’re not alone.   For me, seeing that Audette and Mandie and Beth make this life work helps me keep my chips together on the bad days. And their advice and suggestions help to make most of our days good ones.

 

People who don’t know you, your child, or your family situation will feel completely free to prescribe, proscribe, engage, criticize, exalt or condemn your family’s educational decisions.

Some of them will say unbelievably stupid things. This may be infuriating.

People who do know you, your child, and your family situation, including many of those you love, will also feel free to prescribe, proscribe, engage, criticize, exalt or condemn your family’s educational decisions.

Some of them will also say unbelievably stupid things. This may be hurtful.**

 

You will need decent childcare at least some of the time if you as an adult person are going to do anything else. And coordinating that during “school hours” is a particular challenge.

The task is Not My Favorite Thing—there are weeks when I am certain I spend more time coordinating care of the children than providing care to the children. My best advice is cultivate relationships with your nearby mama friends, swap and swap alike, use your church connections, if you have them, and when you find a great sitter, to keep that person close. People who are excellent with your kids will enhance life for your entire family, and did I mention your mental health? Because I should. Your. Mental. Health.

 

You chose this in part for the flexibility to do what works for your child and for your family—so empower yourself to do that.

K-12*** and other similar privately funded, for-profit companies are spending a ton of money to convince you, often via your local school district, that learning at home needs to be highly regimented. Also, that it takes the same amount of time and should involve the same kinds of tasks as learning at school. That’s a lie, y’all. There are many, many ways to structure effective learning, to measure outcomes, and to plan your days and weeks. Experiment a bit. It’s ok to try things on until you figure out what feels right for you. And (whispers) . . . expect that to take you about a year.

 

You will wonder, parenting a special-needs child outside of the formal school system, if you’re doing the right thing.

Yep. You will. And I don’t have an answer for you. But I know that perspective is key. When, for example, you’re hearing, again, a concern about social skills, about appropriate behavior, about task orientation. And most especially when those concerns echo your own—which are not so much about homeschooling, but about whether things are ok with your child, and whether they ever will be, and whether someone, somewhere, might have a magic solution that you’re overlooking. Here, then, is where I tell you a story, of where my heart breaks. And of what helps.

It helps me to remember that Soeren has been one with the floor multiple times a day for most of his life. That finally, last year—he’s seven now–he threw himself to the ground much less frequently. That now, for the first time ever, I find I cannot remember when the last time that happened was.

It helps me also when I recall that this is a child who watches everything in his world, and who also lives there. In his world. And always has. Who, at 15 months, would initiate a counting game with caregivers, joyfully alternating numbers in the twenties . . . and who, for more than a year after that, “played” only by lining things up. Shoes. Soap. Cars. Who pulled himself to standing at five months, walked at 10 months . . . and repetitively banged his head for entertainment. Who has been fascinated by the concept of infinity since age three, and who could not draw a circle until four and a half.

It helps me to remember that while Soeren can make you laugh with his razor-sharp wit, he has always had a hard time holding another’s gaze—and that now, finally, he has sufficient emotional resources to pair with the intellectual ones to make eye contact an intentional practice. Soeren can tell you about the scope and scale of the grains of sand on the beach, and later you will understand that scale in the depths of your soul as he refuses to walk upright again until every last one of those grains has been removed from the bottoms of his feet. Remembering those moments helps me to have compassion for myself and for him and for the challenge of this path—and to deeply appreciate that we are not sitting there still. That even sand does eventually come off.

children's feet in the sand

Thus, if Soeren looks you in the eye, shows you dimples when you pay him a compliment, or scans your face with a hesitant willingness to try to see what you’re feeling, know that this is what growth looks like. If he takes a breath when you invite him to, opens his palms when he wants desperately to clench them, accepts a cuddle when he’s feeling anxious, I invite you to see that for what it is: progress.

And in this story, if it looks like we’re missing the mark of normal, well . . . you’re right. But what you have been spared, in the lack of daily living with us, is the knowledge that we’ve been missing that mark from the beginning. Not on the school days. Not in the years that we learn at home. We are missing it every day, and have been. If anything, we’re getting closer to that vague watermark of ordinary—we might, someday, learn to pass. In the meantime, we are all learning together, while offering a gentle oasis to a beautiful soul.

I do realize that this hard to accept. So very hard. My mama heart has taken quite a walk to reach this place. Babies come shrouded in mystery, and between that and the beauty that blinds and the strengths that draw our gaze away from the weaknesses and the love that’s so big it’s unspeakable and the fear—O, God, the fear—it is hard. It is a difficulty both daily and eternal to see in our child’s face not our dreams but their reality.

But here is truth, and I dare to speak it, not in resignation but in acceptance—an acceptance of what is that kindles a realistic hope for what may come. I speak, I believe, in the truest love I know: Soeren is not a normal kid. Our baby is not what we expected.

And we love him and we are grateful for the gift of him and we are deeply excited at the learning that he is doing.

I don’t know, truly, if there is a right decision. But my gut says that this isn’t a wrong one.

 

And finally, know that homeschooling now doesn’t necessarily mean homeschooling forever.

We are taking it year by year. If we need to, we’ll adjust semester by semester. Your child’s education is not, first or foremost, a political issue; needs may vary across time and even across a single family (I don’t know if we’ll homeschool Silas at all. He’s a very different kid.) If you can give yourself permission to adapt and experiment, you may find that it means less pressure for everyone. In our family, less pressure equals more joy. Yay.

____

And so, back to this morning. We finished handwriting, reading, math. We talked about infinities and I pretended to know something. And then Soeren quietly thanked the barista, reported to me, “I received a compliment on my behavior,” and skipped past me out the door, notebook in hand.

This isn’t what I thought it would look like, this day.

This child.

This life.

I am learning to be a minister now . . . but still, I teach.

I teach my son.

And he teaches me right back.

 

Blessings on your journey.

j

*Yes, in case you’re wondering, the baffling constellation of autism-related developmental delays often referred to as The Spectrum is something we’ve considered, discussed, screened for.  It’s a tough call in Soeren’s case, and more to the point, it hasn’t been a label that’s had a lot of meaning for us.  High-functioning asperger’s is the best match we’ve found–and it is not a great match.  Soeren is verbally gifted and uses those gifts to connect.  More to the point, he’s wired to connect, and always has been–it’s simply that everything going on around him sometimes overwhelms that ability.  Maybe someday, we’ll discover that there’s a word for all of this.  In the meantime, what we mostly have is a phrase: take it as it comes.  I’m happy to talk with you about this if you’re struggling or questioning or in a similar boat.  From a diagnostic point of view, however, if you don’t personally happen to be a developmental ped, you’re probably not telling us anything we haven’t already heard.  

**These tendencies are perhaps indicative of shared beliefs around public education and social contract, and in a way that actually makes me feel hopeful. We do indeed feel responsible for one another and for the system itself, and we collectively appear to believe that education matters for our future. That said, the people in either category above usually wouldn’t dream of publicly leveling the same criticism, much less in the same tone, toward those close to them who have pulled their children (and their tax dollars) out of the public schools to spend thousands on a private-school education. I believe that, inherent in this discrepancy in attitudes, we may have solution and problem wrapped into one tension-filled package. Communal obligations, individual choices, special needs amid a system based on conforming inputs and outputs, and big, big money. We should talk about this. And I feel confident that we can find a more intellectually honest and emotionally mature way to do it than by scapegoating homeschooling families.

***It might interest you to know more about those companies, the actual outcomes of their products, and the amount of money your local school district is paying them in hopes of attracting per-student dollars via “virtual school” programs. You could, you know, Google it sometime. Homeschool research project. Best paired with a tea and a discussion on the how and why of public policy.

12 weeks; 25 lessons . . . my summer in CPE

Greetings, friends.

As the ink dries on my final self-evaluation, presented just this morning, I rejoice in part by sharing this list with you.

I send appreciation to my CPE cohort group (and our supervisor) for sharing laughter, tears, and learning, and for serving as draftreaders of this post.  Appreciation also to the many incredible SLH staff members with whom I’ve had the privilege of working.  Big thanks to my beloved support team who have helped me through this experience in many ways–you know who you are.  And finally, I offer gratitude, wonder, and respect for the patients and family members I’ve had the honor of companioning these past weeks.  Prayers and blessings to all.

Much love,

j

Hospital surgery corridor 12 weeks; 25 lessons (and colleagues, I’d love to hear YOUR lessons as well.)

1. Moving toward any situation, there’s what you expect.

Then there’s what you see.

And then there’s what there is.

Sometimes there is a lot of space between those things. 

 

2. GSW means gunshot wound. MVC is short for multivehicle collision. And STAT is classical Latin for get your butt down here right now.

 

3. People make decisions about me and who I will be to them in seconds.

Sometimes less. Some of that is what they project from without. Some is what I project from within. And amid the projections, there is a circle of space in which I have control over a part of my image. Herein lie power and identity, service and sacrifice. Who am I willing to be for you? How will I move to do that?

 

4. When grief finds you, you can cry. Or, you can not cry. Both choices might change things.

 

5. Your religion matters, even if your denomination is tiny and has an unusually long name.

I never understood as a patient or parent why I was being asked to share my religion upon admission, and I have hesitated more than once to even try to explain that I am a Unitarian Universalist. At one visit to the local children’s hospital I hemmed and hawed, explaining, “probably ours isn’t even one of the choices.” The admissions clerk replied smoothly, “No, we have that. I’ll put it right in.” That was a small moment, but it was one of great hospitality, and I remember it clearly amid a day that is otherwise mostly a blur.

From the medical side of things, I can now tell you that we ask not so we can report your hospitalization to your church (you would need to ask us to do that) or to sort or classify you in any particular way. We ask because your faith and its rituals are important to your life, and that makes them important to your healing.

And who knows—your local UU chaplain may be ready and waiting to talk with you. So make your presence known. Consider that pre-admission faith statement to be part of your ministry, to yourself and to the world.

uu_oval_car_sticker_im_a_unitarian_universalist

6. The most intimidating spaces I walk into are the ones where I will be alone with myself.  Yours are probably different, but if you can identify the scary places, you will hold a key to changing both frame of reference and behavior.

 

7. I feel the sting of failure acutely. And then I reliably reflect, stand up, and keep going. From here on out, we’re calling that success. Which in CPE language means “good enough.”

 

8. Editing means loss. So does stepping forward. So does simply continuing to breathe. In the formation process, you chisel and sculpt and free from the rocks a new version of yourself. And you will, inevitably, leave pieces of yourself on the cutting floor.

 

9. On a related note, it can be scary to move out of draft form. To use periods rather than commas. To bid farewell, walk away, close the door. There is beauty in openness; there is honesty and integrity in closure. The boundaries of this work require both.

Goodbye

10. Moments are shared, bonds are formed . . . and then, as attends the work of all caring professionals, it is time to let them go.

The place between life and death has been called the thin space, the valley, the hinge, or the knife edge. Whatever words we use, it is a privilege and an intimacy to be invited into it.

As chaplains, our walk through this space with you is often short in duration; then we commend you back into your wider communities of care, trusting in your combined strength and resources, and in the Whatever-Is. There are next steps, but we will not know about them. I find God in that mysterious unknowing.

And I root for you still.

 

11. You took hundreds of risks today, some tiny, some larger. You’ll take hundreds more tomorrow. Which ones did you notice?

 

12. I am constantly surrounded by blessings. And sometimes that bounty feels like too much to take in, and I’m tempted to push them away or live at the edges, with words like “earn” and “deserve” echoing in my mind.

I haven’t figured out why it’s ok to have so much. And I cannot know that things will be the same tomorrow. This means it’s possible and even understandable to meet extreme generosity with shame or fear.

And yet, I find a lived answer to this every Sunday. I love the ancient liturgy, and I wonder if the most powerful words within it are “given for you.” I subscribe to a faith with generous love at its core. Might holding that truth in my heart mean learning to be fearless about receiving?

Deeply grateful . . . and fearless.

 

13. If you’re tempted to say something stupid, try not talking. Truly. There are events for which the solidarity of silence is the only reasonable response.

 

14. I have told myself for a very long time that I “don’t do well with blood.” I can now tell you, post trauma center, that when it comes to the physical realities of bodily fluids, blood is only the beginning. There’s also vomit, sputum, cerebrospinal fluid . . .

As it turns out, I can handle more than I thought I could, in the moments where “handling it” is what is needed. Blood running down the wall? Alrighty then. Wound vac at the bedside? Ok. But later, post-fluids, what needs processing are my feelings. Life in the trauma bay is a buy-now, pay-later endeavor for care providers. I choose to pay later in a way that affirms life and hope, and that means remembering that good stewardship of resources begins with my own emotional and physical energy.

 

15. People are often not sure what a chaplain might be for. Nor a Unitarian Universalist. Explanations can be invitations, obligations, or apologies. They can also be opportunities.

 

16. There is both magic and danger in the spaces between us. When I walk into your patient room, or come into the trauma bay as a fellow staff member, we are immediately negotiating and sharing power. We might also be mediating God.

 

17. I would rather scrub floors or skip meals or, on some days, cut off fingertips than ask for help.

Even when it matters. Especially when it matters.

I hope to continue challenging this tendency in myself. In the meantime, I pray that the realization inspires a more generous pastoral awareness—the reluctance to request or receive assistance of any kind is not uncommon in our congregations, and it presents challenges around concepts of covenant and care.

Support

 

18. Holding the hand of a dying person will encourage you to touch your faith. Holding the hands of fifty dying people will demand, instead, that you challenge it.

So do it. Lean in to the questions. Despair, even—can it be faithless to cry out into the expanse of space My God, My God, Why if Jesus did just exactly that? And to notice that that the question goes unanswered?

Wrestle. Observe.  Acknowledge, get mad, throw anything you need to overboard . . . and then, return to what is simple. To what you know about living and meaning and this moment. And find with the darkness and the questions and the numbered, labored breaths the faith that will carry you forward. It is, now, a faith fit for the valley . . . a faith worthy of the sacred steps you will take holding so many other hands.

 

19. I do not know why bad things happen. I just know that they do, and that sooner or later, some of them will happen to you. And when they do, I hope that you let yourself fall, as Rev. Kate Braestrup advises, and, when you’re ready, that you notice what catches you. That you can number each blessing, each piece of grace and beam of love as it finds its way to you. Comfort and solace amid the Very Worst.

You don’t have to call that God . . . but you could.

 

20. Sincere affirmation opens many doors.

 

21. Food does not heal sadness.

Like the children’s story We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, the fundamental truth of grief is that we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, and we can’t go around it. We have to go through it.

For me, despite many attempts, chewing has not turned out to be an instrinsic part of the healing process . . .  and even so, the hospital cafeteria offers surprisingly good meals and its staff engage in a cheering ministry all their own.

Bon appetit.

Slice of apple pie

 

22. People will tell me they are “spiritual, but not religious,” in any of the ways that people say this, approximately 500 times between now and when I’m ordained.

And infinitely more times after that.

I have come to accept this. And believe that my task is to see it as an invitation to exploration, using language, symbols, and values that hold meaning for the individual. This will be how we do faith in this time . . . and it’s actually not a bad place to start.

 

23. Both/and isn’t just seminaryspeak. It is an invitation to find oneself within the complexity of life, where things are rich and ambiguous and multivalent.

This way of looking at things can be deeply uncomfortable—it offers none of the easy answers of either/or. It also offers possibilities and hope that remain obscured within a two-dimensional view of conflict.

Developing the emotional range and creative tools to live into ambiguity, and to encourage others to explore it with us, is one of our most important tasks as religious leaders. It is risky, deeply countercultural, and requires the use of imagination and prophetic voice. And it just might offer a future in those spaces where the horizon seems the darkest.

 

24. The fact that a thing needs to be done does not mean that the thing is mine to do. Sometimes simply taking care of my own square is an act of love and faith.

 

25. Some days, it is worth planning an outfit around your shoes.

(Any day you spend working in a hospital is one of those days.)

 

Ballet flats

on mothering from afar

Watermelon slice

There are watermelon slices sitting, in an alchemy that somehow encompasses both rotting and drying, uncovered in the fridge. Perhaps they’re from the one I bought 10 days ago, green and heavy and slightly lopsided. I forgot we had it. For me, this summer, the kitchen is just something that came with the house.

It’s morning now, and silent, but a riot of color, lent by stains I can’t identify and toys I don’t recognize, shouts from the oak floorboards of the kitchen and living room. I pick my way across, alone with the sunrise on that rarest of weekdays—no work, no hospital rounds, no trips, no sitters, no guests. Just me, here. Present in the company of my family, in the comfort of my home, but no one else awake.

I’m told that lunch yesterday consisted of chicken nuggets with peanut butter sandwiches on the side. A pair of shoes is missing. Soeren’s shoulders are sunburned. And Silas’s hair has gone from supernova to rock star to Laura Ashley model (on, it should be noted, the girls’ side). The compliments he gets from women have shifted from adoration of his cuteness to envy of his mane.

I am determined to trim that mane today, because last night as he talked to me, I sometimes couldn’t see Si’s eyes . . .

Or is it because yesterday, he used a long-fingered hand to casually sweep the surfer-white curls from his forehead as he addressed me, and was suddenly not four, but fourteen? I sat, transfixed, taken, awed, horrified. How magical and terrible that you must become something so separate and strong and unpredictable. How audacious of you to do it here before my eyes. How practical of you to do it, mostly, while I am not watching.

I’m cutting it, I tell you.

You will be four again. And perhaps, my blond-curled babe, I will forget that even now I can’t quite know you.

And Soeren. Your eyes, ever changing, now look like sea glass. You are so tan. And so tall—another few inches and I will be able to rest my chin on the top of your head. And you might let me, in the stray moments, in the same way you acquiesce, with a soft smile, to being hugged, or toweled, or tickled. I don’t wonder, yet, if it’s the last time for thoughtless cuddles . . . but I can see the wondering coming, ambling toward us on the winding, unpaved lane of growing up.

All of this—the changes, the surprises, the tallness—they would be happening, all the same, if I were here. But the inexorability of the process, when remembered, comes anew as a shock and a revelation. Because, at the heart of things, we mothers still think that growing up should not happen without us.

I don’t want you to keenly feel my absence. Wishing you pain for the benefit of my ego is too big of a burden for either of us to bear. But I do wonder what it means that my lack of everyday presence is not a tragedy. That you, my children, appear to flourish anyway.

Perhaps the lesson is that the real loss is simply mine. I miss kisses. Whispers. Small gifts with four or six or eight legs, or petals, or staples. The creak of the porch swing. Domain over the kitchen sink.

What does it mean that I never wanted that kind of household eminence—don’t want it still—but I ache as I type this?  Not enough to turn back, or quit, but enough to know, for sure, that there is indeed a cost.

Enough to add fervor to my prayers that “ok” comes in all shapes, that love comes from lots of places, that enough is enough is enough, whoever’s providing it.

My faith tells me there is no hell, but amazingly, that doesn’t touch the fear of damnation here, on this earth.

Not by others. They could condemn me or my choices—maybe they do—but in the final estimation, it’s not any person’s judgment that frightens me.

What I’m afraid of is bigger and deeper, a theological matter for our time. The final judge will be the limits of each 24 hour day and the reality of opportunity cost and the truth that to love is on some level to leave your heart lying helpless.

In the face of that, I wish–I wish us all, in fact–comfort and peace and strength for the journey.

-j

Absolution for the working mother

My love for you would break hearts
It does. It has–
I would know.

But not as a sun on a leaf through a magnifying glass
Or a portrait drawn from a single sitting
Or an unbroken line of oatmeal mornings and chocolate chip cookie afternoons.

I see you in the dappled light of moving tree branches
And candid photos
In full color, not sepia
Real and shining
And part of a true story–

Part.

The rest told in mudpies and milkshakes
served to other mouths
Footprints cleaned by other hands
The laundry, the sink, and the bathrooms
that say Daddy’s Rules

You laugh, and I hear you;
You laugh when I don’t hear you.

I know this.

And I smile
and swallow
and pray
That word,
balm to souls
who always knew
you can’t really have it all

Enough.

Just let it be enough.

Depositphotos_13362499_xs

on the road (OR, what I’m NOT learning in CPE this summer)

Image

I’ve been having some trouble with my commute.

Kansas City, with no functional, centralized public transit system, is a city of freeways.   It has byways and beltways, bridges and merges, and, as I lately am painfully aware, near-misses and sheer miracles. Also, it’s summertime, which means construction. And my schedule at the hospital often means a choice between driving at the height of rush hour or sacrificing precious hours I could spend with my family.  Or, you know.  Sleeping.

Additionally, I have discovered something: there is a lot that we take on faith in rush-hour highway commuting.

You do, anyway.  I, on the other hand, just haven’t been able to get with the rhythm. Not lately.  I want more information, you see. What is that car going to do? And that one over there? Andohmygoshthere’s a huge truck in my way and an entire lane obscured from view. And he’s braking and she’s coming over and I have to move right now but I can’t and

 

This is new. I have spent a total of seven years making some version of an urban highway commute, but until now, I never noticed the rules.

You probably haven’t either—we drive largely with our bodies, and if you’ve been lucky, there’s likely been no reason for your head to become overly involved.

Suddenly, though, I’m as a stranger in a strange land on these roads I’ve traveled for my entire adult life.  And that means the rules have become as obvious as they are impossible. And they go like this:

Make a plan. Pick your opening. Use your turn signal (this one’s a bonus for non-assholes and those who like to minimize their risk of collision). And finally—and, it should be noted, swiftly—make your move.

I’ve been struggling with all of it.  In fact–particularly on those mornings when I cross the Missouri river, take the short ramp that connects one highway with another, and then, in the space of about one minute, merge across FIVE lanes of rush-hour traffic to take a left exit–I find myself remembering days of carefree lane-changes like I’ve lost the Golden Age of Driving.

I’m sure commuting “back then” wasn’t as magical as I’m making them seem in my mind  . . .  but I do know that things were different.

Because then, I wasn’t skittish.

Because then, I wasn’t scared.

 

As it turns out, being at the scene of a major accident 36 hours before starting CPE may have had some effects. Especially when stressed. And tied to both a commute in the morning and a midday trek between hospitals. And when absolutely, bone-wearily tired.

But each day, I get up and do it again. And most evenings, I am confronted by the dreaded onramp at Metcalf and 435. Right at 5 p.m.

The main thing is, I can’t ever get on it—there is no space for me, with cars overhanging the intersections for more than a mile before the onramp, people cutting in, and two lanes merging into one just in time to fly into six other lanes (that’s on ONE side, my people) which are moving or not moving as impatience and construction and rush hour dictate.

So that’s happening, or rather it’s not happening, and it’s been taking me 90 minutes on alternate routes to travel home.

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on second thought . . .

Meanwhile, I’ve been wanting to explain to you about CPE—what I see, what I hear, how I hold those things in the charged moments, and what I do later with what remains.

I’ve been wanting to share some of the messiness in hopes that you might also see the magic.

I’ve been hoping to communicate, somehow, my fledgling understanding of what all of this means in the larger process of growing into ministry.

 

But I’m not ready yet.

 

So I won’t tell you that I’m learning about ministerial authority when I claim my space in the trauma bay, or work alongside the medical team, or stand in front of an altar in a chapel not my own.

I won’t assert that I’m learning about God in every patient room, about my faith every time I record a name in the “death book,” about myself in the moments that I spend on my knees in the chapel.

I won’t describe how I’ve learned patience in the refraining from clobbering, or perseverance in the wanting to quit.

And I will say when I struggle as hard as I have been lately with theology . . . in fact, with life . . . it’s challenging to decide whether I’m assigning meaning out of truth or out of need.

Which means that perhaps it’s suspect even to link these things.

So I won’t try.  No point.  Not yet.

Instead, I will just tell you this:

I’ve been doing CPE.

The experience, taken in total, has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I fight several battles every day. And while my toughest opponent is myself, what I’m learning is how to stand my ground with everyone else.

And that when I do that, even by myself, I am not alone.

 

And today, my people, I got on that road.

The one that leads to my home.

There were just as many cars as before.

There was no magical open space.

But then I made one.

Out of a possibility.

I hooted.  And cheered.  I made it home in 45 minutes.

And I am going–in the same way that I will definitely hold hands and invoke Spirit and be present–to do it again tomorrow.

-j

Image

finding Jesus on the first floor

I first considered taking a unit of CPE a couple of years ago.

It was 10% because I thought I might want to be a chaplain.  It was 90% because I didn’t want to be a minister.

CPE seemed like a perfect solution, because I knew that it stood between me and ministry any way you slice it.  So, if I hated it, then probably that scary “calling” thing would return from whence it came. And if I loved it, then perhaps I could find an easier way to chaplaincy than the current Unitarian Universalist path to ordination allows.

What I envisioned doing, after all, was about patient care. And there are lots of ways to do that. The majority of which don’t require a deep understanding of denominational polity or skills in congregational conflict resolution.

In short, why seminary? And, more to the point, why ordained ministry? I just wanna be there for people.

 

Next month it will be two years since this particular brand of insanity began in earnest . . . and in those two years of Trust the Process (and Fight the Process, and Kick the Process, and . . . ), I can tell you that the answers to the above questions are so much deeper and richer and more complex than I ever imagined.

And also, after the last three weeks, I can tell you something else.   About CPE.

 

It is not about patient care. 

Professional chaplaincy mostly is, but to be in that role and present in a way that is simultaneously simple and delicate and risky and generous . . . you gotta go through the stuff above. The ministry stuff. The formational challenge, and the time, and the struggle. The arduous path that initially seems unrelated to the end result–it cannot be skipped.

And meanwhile, I have discovered that this—my mandatory summer of crisis and opportunity—it, too, belongs to the formation process, and all its deep mysteries, and not to the world of healthcare.

I expect I’ll say more about that soon.  Or someday, at least.  I’m really in it, at the moment, and that means, for now, that I’m not sure from one day to the next if there will be anything left over after I complete task 1.  Which is to simply be.

In the meantime, though, I will tell you something else.

If what I really wanted were a continuous focus on patient care, I have discovered a role that actually does this:

[whispers . . . ]

It’s the CNAs.

This is a stock photo. Not a patient photo. Everybody breathe.

 

These people, at their best, are the moving hands and walking feet of Jesus in these tiled hallways.

The doctors or the administrators or even the accountants may well be God.

But Christ is somewhere else.

These weeks, I’ve seen Him in the whispered joke in a patient’s ear as her bed is wheeled down a too-public corridor, in bringing a quiet, determined dignity to tasks that otherwise offer a patient precious little, and in the touching and talking and being human with a person in a bed or a line or a wheelchair who is, first and foremost, a human, too.

 

And I am so grateful for this reminder.

 

We are humans, all of us. As professionals, and as patients, we deal with this reality—our frailties and our incredible possibility— in every moment. Some of us are ignoring it, some of us acting it out in one hundred small ways . . . and some of us struggling to remember how we might connect with our humanity once again.

The institution is not human. The procedures are not human. But this hospital . . . that insurance company . . . this government . . . it is made up of and designed and remembered and carried on and implemented by people.

j

Insurance Forms

Things feel so big, the dealings so impersonal, the daily workings so unalterable, that it’s hard to see, at first glance.

So look again.

 

I am continually inviting myself to do this, too.  And when I do, I wonder:

What if we made it our number one job each day to remember that we aren’t a role or a title or a degree, not really? And that the one across from us, with the hair the color of your sister’s, or freckles, or dimples, or a gold tooth, and a look of fear or dread or hope or resignation—that person isn’t a patient or a stroke victim or a financial concern, not really?

What if we truly remembered this, with each phone call or e-mail or data input task:

I am a human being, here to serve other human beings–in love–and this entire institution exists, whether it knows it or not, to fulfill that mission.

 

Here. Now. In this very moment.

Whatever I believe in most deeply, my hands and my heart belong to it.

And whether I intend to or not, I serve that spirit with my every breath.

Please, God . . . let it be love.

-j

 

 

here is what will happen ( involving a man, a motorcycle, and a bridge over the Missouri river)

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There will be a motorcyclist.

Passing you on the I-70 bridge, headed downhill over the Missouri river, he will gun his engine.

You will approve of the helmet on his head.

You will appreciate the distinctive, wide blue of his ride.

And as he disappears (from view, or just from your awareness?) you will return to Important Thoughts.

It’s good that I found the on-ramp.

I’m not sure I like the church I just visited.

I’m glad I’m meeting my family for dinner.

I have a headache.

You won’t remember coming around the corner.

You won’t understand that the mannequin-the man-whyishebleeding–is the same person you just saw.

Your mind will refuse to process, consciously, that this is a person at all, even as you act, without understanding, not to hit him to stop to get out to go to him, OhmyGod.

You will not understand, then, or later, or probably ever, how the motorcycle came to rest, alone, a quarter mile down the highway. You will be astonished, eventually, that you have left your own car running.

And now, at this moment, amid blood and broken pieces and things out of place, you will struggle to understand anything at all.

It will be surprisingly quiet.

There will not be a sign that flashes THIS IS WHAT AN EMERGENCY LOOKS LIKE. There will not be background music from ER or Law & Order. There will not be someone to give you instructions.

And so, you will wing it.

You will make an unlikely partner of the man, and he is a man, not a mannequin, not a body, as he follows you with his eyes, saying nothing. You will think, later, of a trout gasping on a riverbank.

This riverbank is made of concrete and set 60 feet in the air, strewn with debris, and no shoulder (no shoulder!?), no buffer–just two lanes and a white line and a wall.

And you. The trout’s cheerleader.

You will ask how he’s doing. You will ask if he can move. And when it’s clear to both of you that he can’t, you will still think that you are a team, you and him.

Your job in this team is to stand in front, to wave frantically as traffic comes around the corner, to jump up and down, and to yell at the 911 people who must determine, before helping you, if your square of the bridge is in Kansas or Missouri.

Your job is to plan quickly. Your job is to pray.

The man’s job is not to die.

You will say inane things like “stay with me” and “you’re gonna make it” and you’re ok, you’re ok, you’re ok.” You will know while you’re saying them that it’s not enough. Then you will say them again, jumping up and down and waving your arms for emphasis, furious with the cars, the drivers, the bridge, the minutes.

Shall I tell you that the center I reached in a state sounding a bit like “misery” first shared, via recording, that they were “too busy” to take my call?
Yes, I think I shall tell you.

 

The first responders, the real ones, the ones not standing outside of their bodies and waiting for a script and hoping not to die, those people will take forever to reach you.

Truly, it will seem like it. Three forevers.

One of sheer disoriented panic.

Two in which you try, both of you, to survive, and you wonder, as if about someone else, what the woman on the bridge is going to do about the first driver to come around the curve who is not paying enough attention to see.

And three in which you no longer have to go it alone. Three is the best. You still might all die, but now there is someone else to yell at the dispatchers, to wave to the fire trucks circling below (on the BRIDGE, my people, the bridge), and to enact, from farther back, vigilante traffic control.

DO NOT STOP THERE, you will roar at the man whose car is causing traffic to come around the corner even more ferociously than before.

I’VE GOT YOU COVERED, he will yell back—I’M GONNA SLOW THEM DOWN.

So you will trust him. And he does.

Three forevers, as best you can tell from your phone, its outgoing call log now a record of this improbable evening, takes exactly eleven minutes.

And then they come: ambulance, fire truck, police cars, SUV. They will do their actual work, and because you did not hit the man or his motorcycle, yours is done.

Cheerleading is neither recordable nor reportable.

And so, you will shake your head, say a prayer for this man, and stand to leave.

You will wonder, later, how there came to be blood on both sides of both arms, none of it your own. You will marvel, in contrast, at the cleanness of your clothing. The relative order of your hair.

But first, you will hug two strangers and high-five a third. It will feel like not-enough, not for this team, but you look into each other’s eyes, and you know. You offer each other blessings. You’ll walk away, back to your still-on, highly air-conditioned car.

And there, in flashing lights and a slump of relief, you will notice that your hands are shaking, and you will call who you call in situations like these.

You’ll pick someone good.

And she will answer. She will help.

And then, you will drive away down the ghostly highway before it reopens, before the ambulance is ready to go, before it takes the man somewhere else. Later, you will realize that you know his name, his wife’s name, his boots, his t-shirt, his blood, but you will not know what happens to him.

It will be many hours later when, at home and in the arms of the safest person you know, you can cry.

But you will. And this will help, too.

And the next day you will find, again, the shirt that you got for your older son. The one you initially thought better of—words on shirts have to be good, and these are also neon yellow. But it was two dollars, and has long sleeves, and is the right size to grow into.

Your husband keeps hanging it in your closet. You keep taking it back out and reminding him to put it with the size-up clothes.

But today you will think maybe it’s yours. Or that, for one evening on a bridge in a borderland that no one quite wants to lay claim to, it could have been.

Image

 

And, amid the everything-else that you are still trying to sort out, you will feel proud.

j

leading failure (a tutorial)

Leadership development, particularly in an organizational context, is not among my usual topics.  

There are, however, a few things that I keep wishing that we could talk about as we dig deeper, denominationally, around the issue of growth.  

I posit that we are only as engaged, as committed, and as strong as our members themselves, and that the talent development piece of lay leadership is therefore key to our work.  It’s also potentially countercultural, particularly if we choose alternative models of partnership and dialogue.  Thus, I give you thoughts from teacher-land . . . after which we shall return to regularly scheduled programming.  Probably.  :)

-j

Imagine . . .

You’re heading up a team or task force, and one of your members keeps dropping the ball. She just doesn’t get it. She shows up late. She’s unprepared. Or maybe she volunteers to do things but never completes them.

Or, you’re a paid part of an organization, and you hire someone to do a job that seems like a great fit. He’s excited. You’re excited. And yet, he spins his wheels at first, and then, month after month, performs below the curve. He’s not delivering results, and that seems unlikely to change.

In either case, you shake your head as you wonder why the people who at first seemed so promising, in other contexts, are not able to perform as expected. Something must be wrong with the selection process. Or the applicant pool. Or with today’s volunteers or church members or college graduates.

 

Sound frustrating? Sound . . . familiar?

 

Whether as lay leaders, as ministers, or in our lives beyond the church walls, effective leadership is a critical skill for those who aim to truly transform lives. And like it or not, part of leadership is providing critical feedback in a way that fosters learning and change.

Scary?

It is. And the options we’re most familiar with—ignore the person, “fire” them, suggest politely that this might not be a great fit, express frustration to uninvolved third parties, or cross our fingers and hope—no, pray—that next time we are able to select a better team—those don’t seem to be working well.

And so, I’m suggesting an alternative, one that keeps the locus of control on ourselves:

 

WE as leaders must become experts at “caring confrontation.”

This, in short, is our own courageous willingness to call each other, and ourselves, out when we miss the bar. Caring confrontation requires an eye on long-term results and an understanding that failure is a necessary (but intermediate) part of the learning process. Most of all, it requires us to think like educators.   In designing learning experiences, setting goals, and providing feedback, we become teachers—and we gain the opportunity to celebrate successes broader and deeper than we previously imagined.

If this sounds utopian, it may be because the more common approach—the one we perhaps learned by watching our own supervisors—is to avoid confrontation of any sort, all the while noting failures and storing up frustrations.

When we don’t know how to speak directly and honestly with one another about failure, we wait, instead, for a sanctioned opportunity: our chance to really lay it on the line. That chance is often an annual review or a final evaluation—and there, finally, we feel entitled to point out failure, and we do it by laying out our case. See here. And here. And here. You failed. I’ve been waiting to tell you, and I hoped that in the interim, you’d get it together. But you didn’t. How unfortunate.

Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson (the One-Minute Managers) call this the “Gotcha Approach.” Everything rides on one meeting or summative document, and one never knows what it will say, as if the elements of fear and surprise are somehow integral to the learning process. Pro tip: they are not.

Ideally, those we supervise should be able to self-report, from moment to moment, their strengths and weaknesses. They know what the goal is, are personally invested in meeting it, and have the necessary tools to gauge their own performance.

This awareness doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however—effective feedback lies at the very heart of the caring confrontation model. It’s just that feedback should not be delivered annually and in a summative way, unless it literally is a summary of what both parties already know. (You’ll know if this is the case because the summative document will feel boring to both of you.) True feedback is ongoing and support-focused.

That feedback works as follows: first, we openly acknowledge failure when and where we find it. This is brief, private, and non-punitive. Then we point, again, to the bar that the learner is expected to clear, and we strategize together about the steps needed to clear it.

True feedback engages the learner—she’s making predictions, taking action, observing what happens, and then, with support, pausing to reflect. Then the cycle begins again.

Think, here, of the teaching strategy of scaffolding—what the learner already knows provides the supportive framework, and we are encouraging her, always, to reach up in planning her next action.

With feedback, the learner can also make mid-course corrections—in fact, she’s expected to. And the organization, while spending more time in the training and supervision process, is also more likely to benefit from that investment because job satisfaction is higher and frustration and hopelessness are lower.

 

So what does caring confrontation require?

It asks, in short, that we each become teachers.

 

Before you argue that you didn’t become a teacher for a reason, consider what you stand to gain by adding “educator” to your supervisor persona.

Leading like a teacher provides tools to break the gridlock and frustration of supervisees who “just don’t get it”—and it also provides organizational motivation to do things differently. As any good educator will tell you, the failure to learn lies first with the teacher.   This may initially sound unpalatable, but in responsibility lies freedom: we can change ourselves!

 

How does this work, in the caring confrontation model?

1. Teacher-leaders must approach any task—the “bar” that the learner must clear—as a set of key skills, in sequence.

Have you visited a preschool or kindergarten classroom lately? Did you stop to wash your hands? If so, you may have seen a diagram like this.

task analysis, handwashing. Created with Boardmaker.

This is obviously very simple, but there was a time when it applied to you, too. You had to learn, part by part, what to do to clean your hands, and in which order—and to make it easier to learn, someone broke the task down for you.

 

In teaching, we are always asking, “What’s the next step?”

Competence is the goal, but to get there, we must outline the path.

What is Rosie trying to accomplish? Think of the end goal as the top of a mountain, and imagine a long, winding trail leading up to the summit. Along the way are a series of huts—places to rest and take stock. The first step on Rosie’s path will be close to where she is now. The second will move the bar just a bit closer to the goal.   (Is this disappointingly un-magical? The path to results often is.)

This gets tricky when we are teaching someone a skill that feels like second nature to us. Perhaps it came so easily that even the steps to learning were masked—we mastered them internally. Unfortunately, it is in these areas—where we have no memory of struggling to learn—that we may instead struggle to teach.

Fortunately, step 2 can help.

 

2. Teacher-leaders must know the learner’s skills and weaknesses, and meet her where she is.

Each step on the path needs to be achievable with the tools available, plus effort.

Imagine that what you’re actually teaching is tightrope walking: falls are ok; injuries are not.

This analogy might seem overly dramatic, but keep in mind that the learner who fears doing actual damage to herself or others will spend energy on worry and hypervigilance, be less willing to take needed risks, and will struggle in a feedback process that feels fraught rather than encouraging and curious.

It is therefore critical to be sure that skills are firmly in place before the stakes are high. Suicide prevention counselors practice their skills in dozens of hours of roleplays before they ever touch an actual crisis call. Medical students practice on cadavers for a reason.

Danger and praxis coexist effectively only under extremely close supervision, and with a very carefully vetted admissions process. Actual danger is not often the case in congregational life—but tell that to the person ascending the pulpit for the very first time, comforting the newly bereaved, or chairing a contentious meeting, yet doesn’t feel prepared for the task.

To assess what kind of net your learner needs, you’ll have to evaluate where they are.  This is where that step-by-step task breakdown is helpful: when you put those steps into a document and assign a number to each one, you’ve created a rubric.  You and the learner can now work with it together to determine current skill levels–and make a plan to reach up.

3. Teacher-leaders know that their primary contribution to the learning process is their time.

Skill development takes time. Supervision and feedback also take time. This investment is key—and unfortunately, it’s often given short shrift in busy schedules.

We want to see results, and we want those we supervise to deliver them. That’s a reasonable expectation . . . the part we hate to hear about is the hefty amount of work required up front.

No one needs a micromanager, but inattention has its limits as a growth strategy. If you need team members to go farther and do more, prepare to evaluate, strategize . . .and teach.

From the point of view of your schedule, that means some planning and research time up front while you figure out how to break the task into manageable learning segments and what skills need to be isolated (Public speaking? Database management? Tools for leading meetings?) It means being available to have a conversation early on if things aren’t on the right track.  Finally, it means time for shared planning around goals.

These tasks are more or less time-consuming depending on the nature of the work and your supervisory relationship—but the time required will never be “zero.” The learning process is collaborative; that’s not the same as being independently-managing.

 

And finally:

4. Teacher-leaders view learning roles as flexible and fluid

The best teachers know what it’s like to be in a learner’s shoes because they engage in continuous learning themselves.

The openness and humility needed to keep our “learner” hats on even as we supervise others encourages further growth in us, in our students, and in our movement. Better still, this outlook reflects reality—we are all learning, all the time, regardless of our titles and assigned roles. Ideally, even our supervisory relationships model “power with” rather than “power over”—a profoundly countercultural message that is right in line with our Unitarian Universalist theology of worth, dignity, and deep interconnectedness.  Some are mentors; some are supervisors–but we are learners, together.

 

We can embrace failure as an intermediate outcome . . . and then, acting as educators, we can use it as a growth tool.

Really excellent mentors, bosses, and leaders: Those who can teach.

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of love and failure

Truth: The routines of my daily life depend on good juggling, but sometimes I mess up.

Good showmanship requires that I grab that dropped ball, work it into my routine and never stop smiling, but that doesn’t always happen as smoothly as I’d like. And occasionally, it’s worse–it’s not just one ball that gets dropped.

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A few weeks ago, life caught up with me in a large and multicolored explosion. I was late here and half-arsed there, and in a stunning coup-de-grace to my face-saving efforts, I managed to no-show to a meeting full of people gathered to hear me speak.

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Yep. That happened.

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And because God is twisted or my brain sees patterns the way Haley Joel Osment saw dead people or because this is simply a ridiculously busy time of year for those of us who set watches by church or academic calendars,* I was also on the receiving end of some major ball-dropping.

 

It was kind of a mess, friends.

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In some places, it still is.

And so, waiting for the dust to settle, I have been thinking about failure. And my first question was, why do we let it happen? And wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t?

As your dutiful enneagram Type 1, my goal when it comes to mistakes is to avoid them entirely. Failing that—and somehow, I often do fail—I simply strive not to repeat them. EVER. Not on the acting end, and not as a recipient of shoddy work, either.

Thus, I’ve been considering a menu of meltdown-prevention plans. And I’ve come to a surprising conclusion: the opportunity to screw up is accorded unequally. In fact, it is often awarded not necessarily to the most competent individuals, but to those people we love.

That’s right: I am persuaded that when we love others, we give them room to FAIL.

 

And so, considering weeks like these past ones, I offer this suggestion: we shouldn’t. We simply should not trust one another this much—not if our goal is to avoid disappointment.

Trust means we expect good things, focus less on the bad outcomes that might happen, and thus end up with less of a safety net.

We are putting ourselves at risk, friends.

And so, an alternative: I’ll just do everything.

Scratch that, you do everything. Or maybe I can do what I’m good at, and you’ll do what you’re good at, and nobody should do the things that are hard or risky.

Yeah, right.

We trust, of course, because we have to.  As a people deeply dependent on one another simply to live, the truth is, we have no other choice. Disturbing though this is for my failure-management initiative, it’s actually great news for the missional church. We must trust one another a bit just to get through the days, but as it turns out, we trust even more than we have to when we love one another.

Why? Because it is messy, and risky, and sometimes even a bit miserable when we allow people room to grow. It’s challenging. Our baby birds, or grown-up employees, get into difficult situations, and they bring us with them. And as anyone who has ever been responsible for a toddler (or, I’m told, a teenager) knows—it is really hard to give people the space they need to become something else, because they are going to make a mess. And we have to be willing to hang in there through the entire process, sometimes cringing and gritting our teeth throughout, if we want to see results we can be proud of.

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Who is willing to do that but someone who can continuously hold in their hearts a guiding image of what we might grow to be—even as they step in our spilled milk, or stumble across the holes we dug spinning our wheels?

Our toddlers and teens don’t wait for us to create opportunities for their explorations—whether we’re ready or not, they must grow, and they will seize the attention and resources they need, one way or another. Adults, however, can function in a state of stasis, and this less-risky way of being is highly incentivized in most areas of our lives. And thus, how many of us encounter opportunities in our professional lives to truly grow? To become? To live into potential?


This kind of encouragement requires resources. It takes vision.

There are a few companies famous for devoting time to truly developing their talent pool, but most organizations—and many of us as bosses and leaders—are simply living in the now, feeling relieved just to match present skills with immediate job requirements. “Maintenance” focus is deeply ingrained in short-to-medium-term planning, and it feels much less risky than the alternative.

It is thus counter-cultural to invest this time and care in another—to let him fail so he can grow. A room-to-fail approach requires missional thinking with long-term results in mind. Alternatively, it takes love.

Know a place powered by both?

I do. It’s the thriving church in your community.

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It takes courage to stand as witnesses to potential, but encouragement to grow is exactly what the best lay leadership programs provide.

From finance to teaching to project management to public speaking, we stand ready to challenge and encourage you . . . even when we have to dust you off a few times or bite our nails for awhile while you find a steady foothold.

In working collaboratively with you around your talents and interests, we become part of the forces that call you into your best self. Your next self, shared with us all.

And, inevitably, we open ourselves to disappointment. To hurt, even. You will fall short of the mark sometimes, and we must not only pick up the pieces, but celebrate the progress: when we give you room to fail, we give you room to grow.

Outside of formal leadership training programs, we don’t talk about this much in the adult world.  However, the fail-to-grow (the complete opposite of “failure to grow”) concept is well-known to educators. The Zone of Proximal Development is the range just beyond a person’s current abilities, and the place into which, if properly challenged, they will stretch themselves. The process of providing that challenge is known as “scaffolding”—we are building the supportive framework for what comes next, simply by encouraging the learner to reach up a bit rather than staying where she is comfortable.

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But he might fail: he’s climbing a tree that’s growing even as he climbs, trusting branches to appear, and making the reach on the promise that they will. It’s an uneven and imperfect process. Sometimes things won’t line up. Sometimes growth will slow, other objectives will distract, he’ll need to climb back down for a bit. Sometimes he will even fall.

In the zone of proximal development, some failure is guaranteed. But the zone is where all the growth happens. And we need to be brave enough, missional enough—loving enough—to be willing to go there with one another, again and again and again.

Because as we each grow, our faith communities do, too . . . and the transformation begins in earnest.

Which I’m going to try to remember, myself.  The show must go on.  (And in the meantime, I’m looking forward to exploring part II with you–what happens after we fail: the role of caring confrontation in church life.)

Blessings, my people!

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*Potentially life-saving advice: those of us who do both—the seminarians in your lives, for example—are not to be trifled with in August, December, and April. You have been warned.