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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I refuse to do it all

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The other day I was talking with a dear friend about marriage and family life. “My only problem with my marriage,” Anna exclaimed, “is my children!”  I laughed in immediate recognition—how well I know that feeling.  Marry your best friend.  Make a home together.  Have a sleepover party every night.  Enjoy a life so beautiful that the only rational answer to it is to create a pair of expensive, destructive, talking-chewing-pooping machines and abandon all attempts at conversation for the next decade.

But Anna’s not just talking about her relationship with her husband . . . she’s also feeling the Parenting Effect on her self-image—and on her life.  “I just do not like parenting,” she confessed.  “I mean, I’m very good at it.  I do what needs to be done, and I do it well.  But I do not enjoy it, and it takes everything I have just to get through it.”

Some things about Anna: she knows her son and daughter’s fears, hopes, accomplishments and petty jealousies.  She has cultivated bedtime and birthday rituals that make my own family’s catch-as-catch-can habits look downright negligent.  And once when we were on a trip together, sans kiddos, I watched Anna, hearing sadness at the other end of the phone line, stop cold and sing—in French—a favorite song, repeating it until her daughter could calmly go on with her day.  Anna is what you would recognize, whether on the street or in the paper or in a court of law, as a Very Good Mother.

Now let me remind you, also, of a few things about me.  First, I’m no stranger to the ennui, fear, and even outright depression that stay-at-home parenting evokes in some of us.  Second, I’m really not in Anna’s league in rising to the daily requirements of the parenting challenge, particularly while juggling other tasks.  Photographic evidence here.

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And third, despite those two things — or maybe, in some strange way, because of them —  I do enjoy parenting.  I love it.  It’s messy and maddening and terrifying, but I find that parenting, like life, is mostly quite hilarious.  But if I held myself to half the things Anna does (I try to be reliable in my promises, which I accomplish by making approximately two per year, and if you ever see me holding a hand-piped rosette, you can assume it’s because I’m about to pop it into my open mouth), I would be miserable.

Thus, to review: I like my raising my children and I like living my life.  But NOT because I am awesome at either.  On the contrary.  I struggle, and I mess up, and sometimes I fail epicly—and then I get up and do it again.

So, knowing this, I wonder what to do with messages like the ones I’ve been receiving recently:  “I don’t know how you do it all.”  “You are better at balancing than anyone I know.” “Wow, when do you sleep?”

These things really feed my perfectionist monster, quite honestly.  And it’s dangerous, because while on some level I would love to be that person—or at least, to look like I am — it’s a lie, and not a impression that I can keep up at close range.

In short, I’m not this person, friends.  And you know what’s hilarious?  There is someone who might be, in my own mind at least.  That’s right: it’s Anna.  Anna keeps those balls in the air.  Anna gets shit done.

Why do we do this to ourselves, and to each other?  And might we be happier if we walk away from the illusion that anyone we know, including us, is really doing it all?

So here you go, folks.  I’ve wondered whether to share this—if the projection people see matters, somehow.  It probably does, but not more than the truth: “I do it all, all the time, and I do it well” is an invasive weed.  It bars honesty, stifles potential, and feeds neurosis.  And in the meantime, I have seen post after post on Facebook this week–it’s that time of year, after all–featuring beloved mama friends and respected fellow seminarians, wondering if they are alone in their inability to juggle/accomplish/consume all of the tasks assigned to them.

Secret File Drawer Label Isolated on a White Background.

My big “secret,” and the reason I’m writing this post:

I don’t do it all.

You probably already knew that, right?  You actually know what, for example, my house looks like on a daily basis, or you’re familiar with laws of physics and know that they apply to us all equally.

Ok, then here’s the next part, which sort of is a secret.  It’s a societal secret, a thing that no one is going to tell you, something we’re all stumbling toward on our own:

I don’t even try to do it all.

Not parenting.  Not church.  Not graduate school.

I just don’t even try to catch a lot of the balls thrown my way—I know that I can’t.  And you can’t, either.

This might seem obvious, but for those of us still living by the Good Girl Playbook, it’s not.

Why? Because every person or organization you work with has a vested interest in getting you to catch what they’re throwing at you.  And they will use whatever they can to convince you that their pitches are the most important.  Frankly, if we’re in the modern mommy mindset, it’s likely that no one has to convince us at all—we’ve been carefully taught what “success” looks like.  And so–unrealistic expectations? We’ll bring ‘em.  Guilt?  Shame?  Got it covered.  Comparing ourselves disfavorably with others, but without any real knowledge of what the ins and outs of that woman’s life look like?  Plenty of that, too.

So overall, I get it.  I like to look like I have it all together.  I know that I in fact do not have it together–and in the space between those ideas, I struggle.

Interestingly, the most helpful tip I’ve ever received on this topic came not from a parenting manual, but from the dean of admissions at my law school.  Addressing our entering class on the first day, Reyes Aguilar said, “You may think that what makes sense is to work around the clock in these three years, so that you can relax after law school.  But I’m here to tell you that the way you live your life now will be the way you live your life later.  If you want to sleep, if you need to exercise, if your significant other is important to you—make time for it now.  Don’t wait.  Do what you love to do, right now, and you will be able to arrange your life around it.

Guess what?  That was true.  I read fiction each night before bed.  I spent time each week volunteering at the local grief counseling center.  I ditched a week of school to meet my husband in Paris, took a semester off to stay home with my adorable baby, and decided at the last minute to skip the on-campus interview process and apply instead to work for Seeds of Peace.

I certainly got some strange looks; a number of my classmates probably thought I was actually certifiable (a suspicion I imagine I’ve only reinforced in the years since).  I also got great grades, developed a clearer sense of myself, and a landed a job I loved in a field I am passionate about.

Do what you love to do, right now” is, in fact, some of the best overall life advice I’ve ever received.  It applies to working in any field . . .  including parenting.

So, you wonder if I sleep at night?  The answer is yes.  Yep, I do.  Eight hours, if at all possible.  I also run almost every day.  With the exception of the last month, I write for an hour (or three) at least three times a week.  Not school papers or e-mails or CPE applications—I just write.

I always have a book on my nightstand that I’m excited to jump back into.  I text and facebook chat with friends—the ones who make me laugh and the ones who have seen me cry—every day.  I make alone time with my husband a major priority—with kids like ours, scheduled quiet couple time is a necessity.  I have a long and lazy cuddle with my kiddos every single morning that I’m home.  And finally, I cook.  Not a ton, but one meal and one soup per week, both from scratch.

Why am I sharing this list of random things with you?  Because this is what I do for me.  This is what feeds me.  This is, at bare essentials, what matters to Jordinn-the-adult-human-being.  And so, this is what I make time for, in a sacred way.

What’s the cost?  I think you’ll find it in what I don’t make time for.

My house is guest-ready only when we know ahead of time that we’re having guests.  (Sometimes not even then.  Take it as a compliment if you get the family treatment.)  Preschool is hit and miss these days, and we have yet to contribute to a bake sale, turn in a book order or attend an optional evening activity.  Si wore his Superman t-shirt to school picture day, in small part because he always wears his Superman t-shirt and in greater part because Mama didn’t have “picture day” on the iphone schedule.  Ren can dance in the Nutcracker again this year, but you’ll only see Daddy on showbiz duty.  Everyone will wear clean clothes, and not jeans, to church, but hair combing may be optional for the junior set.  Birthday treats come from Eileen’s.  Birthday parties happen at locales I am not responsible for cleaning.

And how about my school work?  How do I juggle that?

The short answer is, I do what I have to, and I use what I love to power through it.  I love our classroom work together.  I love most of the reading.  I love some of the writing.  And a lot of the rest is just box-checking.  I finesse some things.  I go for big points when it counts big, and low-hanging fruit when it doesn’t.  I apologize a lot.

And you know what?  I am not only ok with this; I am 100% for it.  In fact, I fully intend to carry this approach into my religious professional life.  As a mentor in ministry told me recently: You have to get there if someone is dying, and you must have a sermon in your hand when you step into the pulpit on Sunday.  Everything else is negotiable—what, when, and how.  You do what works, when it works.

Friends, this isn’t about color-coding your planner, learning to do five things at once, or extending your productivity to any second in which you might otherwise sit down, stare into space, and let your mind simply breathe.

It’s about finding what feeds you, taking in the joy and delight available in each moment, and tapping into that as you discern what needs to be done, and when.

Rumor has it you’re “supposed to” catch those balls, but here’s a secret: the people pitching them to you are dodging balls all the time, too.  And more to the point, no one is waiting at the finish line of your life to give you a cookie for completing all the tasks that no one else cared about.  If you choose unhappiness to prove that you’re “good enough” for it, your own resentments will be your reward.

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So: is there something you can do, right now, in whatever area of your life feels most unfulfilling, to connect with the yearning of your own sacred self?  You can’t sing one more bedtime song; would you rather be dancing?  Is there a way you can let go of some of the box-checking, and in so doing, have more fun?

I can’t answer for you, and I will be the first to say that I am leading a blessed life and even writing this speaks to a place of privilege.  I believe, though, that we all have some blessings—so what’s here to support you right now?  If your soul is screaming, what does it want, and who could you enlist to carve out some precious time for that need?  Are there some things you could access . . . if you simply put down the facade of I-can-handle-it and asked?

You are worth it; no faking, no fooling.  Find what you love to do, right now—and go do it.

(After you sleep.)

j