on failure to fly in four-year-olds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, who knows where the cord keeper went?

Who knows when the pull became unknotted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings, my friends.

j

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would we stop before we drop?

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

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

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

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

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

-j

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

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

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

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

It turns out, my people, that cobbling together responses from questions you didn’t care about answering in the first place will not lead to a compelling narrative about your life for a reason.  And, though you are hopefully writing your own essays using a process that doesn’t involve recycling old forms, the take-home message here might still be helpful.

The unifying thread of an effective personal essay isn’t simply a coherent path from point A to point B.

Rather, a good story requires a heart, a soul, and a vision.

I find that there is a particular clarity of focus that comes from knowing why I am telling a story.

Ideally, that knowledge is present from the moment I start writing, and that awareness becomes purpose: it guides me as I choose how I will hold each piece, where I will shine a light, how I will catch your attention.

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

There are three things to include when talking about your life as an applicant-for-something-you-really-want: a compelling introduction (of yourself, by yourself), the answers to the questions being asked . . . and a great story.

I know, I know.  They only told you about the second part.  Here’s the thing, though: that second goal is the substance of your application, but it alone doesn’t get you there.  In fact, substance alone is painful to read.  (And did I mention boring?  BORING.  Repeat after me: Do not bore your admissions committee.  Also do not annoy them–that’s fatal–but I’m pretty sure scholarship dollars have yet, in the history of this world, to be awarded to those who cure insomnia with the click of the keyboard.)

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

The first and most important task of an admissions essay:

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

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

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

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

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

She should.

2. Deliver the goods

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

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

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

3. Tell them a story.

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

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

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

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

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

.  .  .

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

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

j– moonlighting as your friendly Grammar Witch

ps: If it is indeed seminary that you seek, you might also check in here (we’re just kidding.  truly.  mostly.) and here (we’re serious. actually.  completely.)