of Soeren and Silas and seasonal singing (aka, Jesus wept)

child singing

Tis the season, friends. By which I mean the season for singing . . . about chestnuts and sugar plums and the wonders of His love. And as someone who mostly doesn’t sing, at least when I have a choice, I have had wonders all my own this season. About, for example, whether singing can ruin children’s lives.

This fall, Silas and Soeren sang with the Capo and Cadenza divisions of the Lawrence Children’s Choir. It all ended in a darkened theater, on a big stage, in full view of the ticketholding public. And friends, it was painful.

Leading up to the concert, we have some inkling that the performance might not go well. Choir practice for the semester gets off to a dreadful start, and though Silas warms up to it after a few weeks, he’s not one for novelty. It takes him weeks to stop actively physically resisting the move from the orchestra classroom to the choir classroom to practice on the risers. What, then, of the much-less-practiced transition from one high school to another, and from classroom to actual stage and live audience?

And Silas is not my only concern. Both of my children march to their own beat much of the time—this is part, in fact, of why I wanted them to have a structured experience in a group of other children. But there’s a limit to what an hour a week can achieve. In fact, there are limits to what can be achieved, period. Soeren spent three years of his life in highly structured Montessori environments. I’m sure he benefited in some direct ways, but love of order and tendency to follow directions are not among them. The long view is that I have been trying to instill these particular values for many years. The deeper truth is that Soeren has been himself, and resistant to being molded, since before that.

Which brings us back to the final rehearsal. Of seventeen (17!!!) numbers, the youngest children are slated to perform in six of them. My sons’ favorite of these, “Turn the World Around,” captures their hearts, but the instructions for performing it have not captured their attention. At least, not in a way that is helpful for choral performance. The entire song is repetitions of three harmonies, one of which predictably includes the line “turn the world around.” The children have been instructed to, upon singing this line, turn slowly and carefully around, exactly one time. All 46 children. 44 of whom appear to follow directions.

Soeren, who is 7 and a dreamer, who loves music and performing in the Nutcracker, but who also lives nearly entirely in his head, is so transported by the experience of the singing that surrounds him that he stands, staring straight ahead, while around him the entire group pirouttes in place. Soeren’s face is transfixed, eyes gazing into middle distance; his body, meanwhile, is frozen. The outside appearance is that a chorus of children are blithely singing and dancing as one child, trapped in the middle, speechlessly beholds an approaching catastrophe that he is powerless to prevent.

The music director says Soeren’s name twice, snaps her fingers, waves an arm in a theatrical gesture. My older son doesn’t so much as glance in her direction. The director shakes her head sharply and abandons the effort as in front of her, the choir continues to sing.

It’s my business, Soeren explains later. I suggest that from where I’m sitting, at least, following directions is everyone’s business, but Soeren states, calmly: our teacher says it’s ultimately my business whether I decide to turn or not. Ultimately means in the end. I ultimately decided not to.

In the same rehearsal, meanwhile, Silas is positioned amid 8 other tiny children on another section of risers. And Silas does turn. He turns, as instructed, on “turn the world around.” He also turns on “we come from the fire” and additionally, for the entirety of the later “Do you know who I am” section. In fact, Silas continues to turn for the rest of the song, and then for the following three numbers, songs that have nothing whatsoever to do with turning.

The music director, perhaps knowing when to cut her losses, barely glances in Silas’s direction, but Si’s own teacher, a woman whose gentleness and humor have only slightly frazzled in the company of my younger son, reaches out to remind him to stop. Silas proves as resolute as his brother, however, and continues his slow, continuous turns until eventually he falls off the riser and disappears from view. He takes another child, a little girl with neatly parted hair and a ruffled pink skirt, down with him. She is fine. Silas is fine. Silas begins to spin, again.

Miss Sara assumes a position right next to my still-revolving child. She shakes her head. I put my own in my hands. Across the room, two of my mama friends laugh silently. One pantomimes with her hands, mouths “Can I help?,” and I shrug, palms up.

The teachers seem mostly unperturbed, the entire choir is singing, and in that moment, what can you do? In the immediate and unforgiving space between the theory and practice of parenting, what can any of us do?

Eventually, mercifully, it ends.  We survive, the three of us, and the bystanders do, too.

We get dinner. I take some of my trademark deep breaths, the ones I began practicing while pregnant, never anticipating that I was preparing not for childbirth, but for the entirety of the rest of my life.

And much later, after bedtime, I retell this story. And then I casually mention to my husband that I’m not sure the concert—the public one, on taller risers—is a great idea. And I remind him, much more emphatically, that I work on Sundays. In a neighboring state. And that it might turn out that I cannot be there to watch this event. That he might be on his own . . as I have been for choir practice all semester. (I actually don’t say that last part out loud.)

And yet, on concert day, I am unwilling to stay away. I tell myself that it’s because it’s one of those moments that you’re always glad you went to. Because I’ll regret it if I don’t. Because what kind of a mother would miss this, though in truth I don’t set much store by What Kind of A Mother. I’m not that kind, whatever that might be.

In actuality, I probably leave church early and drive an hour in pouring, icy rain because I have earned this. We deserve each other, this concert and I, after the hours I’ve spent—hours in which I contemplated the meaning of parental sacrifice more acutely than ever before—singing, out loud, in front of other people, in order to convince my four year old to do the same.

And so, I find Craig, who has dropped the boys off in the specified location, and we take our seats. And we watch.

The audition-only tour choir performs beautifully, notes hanging briefly in the air and then melting away. And then our own children appear.

Si and Soeren take to the stage twice, for three songs each time. For this performance, the older choirs—choristers and above—wear special show-choir outfits. Our children, meanwhile, are in corduroys and sweaters.  Or rather, they were.  In front of 800 people, among small children attired in their Sunday best, Soeren and Silas make their choral debut in Skydive Colorado t-shirts.

Craig goes off to fix this at intermission, and we watch with satisfaction as the children troop back onto the stage, ours, this time, matching the others.

Or not.

No one is watching Soeren, who is entirely obscured by the “grandma choir” which has joined the children for the finale. Whether he turns or not is indeed his own business, as predicted.  Even in front of 800 people.

Silas, on the other hand, is visible.  Or rather, parts of him are. There are nearly 150 people on stage, all singing, and there are instruments and motions and a riot of color. But two of us only have eyes for the tiny blond child at the foot of the risers. Who is swept on stage with the others, and who, in the middle of the crowd, and in the middle of the song, is standing and singing, with his eyes shut and both arms wrapped entirely around his head.

To cover his ears, he tells us later. It is so very loud.

He looks pained up there, and we are pained, too. We should not, after all, have done this to him. To either of them. To ourselves. Choir, with its lessons and its joys, it is not for everyone. It is not for my children. And now we know.

Except that Soeren is ecstatic, proud to have been onstage and to have sung with the big kids and even because I behaved myself. Silas, meanwhile, has fallen asleep, but later, after the post-concert crush and the cold rain and the rather shell-shocked dinner, I take yet another deep breath. I ask, as casually as I can muster:

So . . . how was the concert, Silas?

And Si looks up at me, smiles proudly and says,

It was awesome.

Really!?, I ask, unable to keep the incredulity from my voice.

Really, says Silas.

I SANG.

And so he did.

singing kids [Converted] copy

Integrate THIS . . . seriously

Once upon a very brief time, I had the freedom that sometimes, these days, feels like my dearest fantasy: exclusive focus on one thing. One hat, one role, one set of responsibilities. In this case, it was caring for my home and children. And, during that period, I may have mentioned to my mother-in-law something of the Sisyphean despair that I felt in confronting the kitchen each morning. A complaint to which she responded, “Yes, the days are long. It’s the years that are short.”

I didn’t actually get to the “years” part of stay-at-home parenting. It just felt like I did. On Mondays.

If you’ve been following along at home, you probably already know that I was not winning any prizes at the SAHM gig. If you are, I bow before you—this post is not for you.

Anyway, back then, in the midst of a PTSD recurrence/existential crisis (I’m still unclear on which of those begat which) my therapist said, “Jordinn, we’re just getting through the days. If nobody dies, we’re gonna call that a success. Just get through the days.”

 

I appreciate that, now.

Because I can, sitting in this same kitchen, parenting these same children, almost empathize with how very overwhelmed that woman—my former self—was.

Only now I’m like: Sister, can I get some of those minutes?

You can hang out in your pajamas or yoga pants or whatever, and don’t worry about those dishes in the sink . . . but while you’re not doing anything, could I just . . . yeah, thanks.

 

And I know what I’d do with those minutes. Wanna hear?

Things. I would do Things. And probably, in every case, I would do them while fielding questions about something else, or while singing or shushing or driving or snuggling.

Especially this year, with schooling at home and churching online and both of us working in a neighboring state . . . the roles and time allocations are admittedly a bit unclear.

Enter the new catchphrase for figuring out how to live amidst multiple roles and blurry boundaries and can’t-turn-it-off technology:

Work-life integration.


This copy-ready phrase has been around for a couple of years, but I first heard it a few months ago. I raised a concern about a meeting time not working well for my family, and possibly not for other families either, and was met with a two-part response from a meeting organizer: 1. This is a sacrifice for my family, too, and 2. The task here isn’t to balance your life and work—it’s to integrate it.

Hmm.

Perhaps, I reasoned, wrapped in this annoying response was a worthwhile idea; I have thus spent the past few months mulling it over. And believe me, I have ample opportunity. My work—whatever you call it—and my life—such as it is—are integrating all over the place. Work and life may indeed soon have sticky but eloquent love children given to fingerpainting, tantrums, and quoting Friedrich Schleiermacher.

And yet I wonder: is this loud, messy, occasionally fragrant collision really what “integration” looks like? I am not sure, and in the midst of trying to figure it out, I’ve taken to mouthing the phrase—work-life integration— to myself in moments of stress.

Note: this is actually kind of fun. For best results, apply lipstick. Sit up straight. Articulate carefully.

 –

Ready? Try these on for size:

Babysitter, despite having completed half of a bachelor’s degree in the hard sciences, forgets what day it is; you have meeting in neighboring city in an hour.

(work life integration)

 

You retrieve smaller child from preschool; you must carry a sparkle leaf*–into the wind—against the pants you just had dry cleaned.

(work life integration)

 

Screen on, sound on: smile at a group of gathered people and explain pastoral care in a digital community; screen off, sound off, threaten misbehaving children with loss of privileges and/or life.

(work life integration)

 

Stop, mid-collegial conversation, to listen to 7 year old explain, again, about how Santa is going to bring “fire lizards” in a highly specific range of colors. Your colleague is treated to a lengthy filibuster, which ends only when you agree to “feed them meat.”

(work life integration)

 

Run personalized and highly physical daily warrior dash; hurdles day 3 include “mop floor” and “find lego man’s head before I diiiiieeee” and “bring snack for 24; no nuts” as well as “racial justice meeting,” “make meme” and “write pulpit testimonial.”

(Yep. Work life integration again.)

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. . . Or is it? Is allowing this jumble of competing claims to become more and more interwoven really an accomplishment?

Is the trick to somehow do the weaving better?

Or is it that I should do less with more . . . or was it more with less?

 

What is missing in this phrase is the how. Which, when you think about it, basically means everything important. How does one integrate fingerpaint with a finance committee?

I have a theory, y’all. I think what’s needed in considering the “how” of work-life integration . . . which I have begun to hear as “the how of everything–all at once” is a quick history lesson. Because the trouble with the idea becomes evident when we consider the “integration” push not as a step toward the middle from “work-life balance,” but as a cultural pendulum swing away from it.

Truth: in these last two decades—the work/life balance decades—the pressure has been on both employees and employers to acknowledge that work isn’t everything. That family and vacations and space to relax and breathe are important. Work/life balance, in fact, echoed the ideals of the labor movement. Many of us have forgotten the history, but the slogan from the days of bread and roses,–8 for work, 8 for rest, 8 for recreation!—still speaks to how we might spend our hours. This balance lay at the heart of a vision of self-advocacy that paired corporate responsibility with employee health.

And so, in the second decade of this new millennium, with communication technologies that could reshape our working lives, we might be moving toward greater balance. But statistics say we aren’t. In fact, we’ve gotten far afield of the idea, in a way that suggests that the “balance” movement was a smaller pushback against a larger tide of workaholism, and not a sea change in itself.

Balance has actually failed, for many reasons, to take root in the context of our national working life . . . and now, with work-life integration, we may forsake balance altogether.

Work vs Life Balance Choices Two Way Street Road SIgns

But is that what work-life integration is? The death knell for off-duty time, achieved by a rebranding of the same old dollar-driven agenda?

Maybe so, but even if the push to integrate work and life has dollar signs between the whites of its eyes, there is something more at stake here—an opportunity, in fact. As work stakes a claim on family life, we have a chance to consider—and even redefine—not just where we work, but also how, with whom, and for what purpose.

In the end, we’re not just combining a thing called “work” with a less productive and more self-indulgent thing called “life.” We are discovering and defining how to incorporate new technologies into the entire package of our daily realities (you know—the thing we might actually call ‘life.’ All of it.)

 

So: what could this look like, if not the stressed-out, grown up Peter Pan in Hook or Diane Keaton’s character in Baby Boom? Short of a radical conversion to a more stripped-down reality, what can we achieve for real quality of life with an “integration” mindset?

 

As it turns out, it depends on the model we use. There are two very different ways of framing work-life integration, and we ought to choose carefully—they seem likely to lead us to very different places.

The first way may look familiar; we might call it more-better-faster. It’s control-oriented and fear based. Be available now and later and always or THE MARKET WILL LEAVE YOU BEHIND. You MUST answer e-mails at home. You NEED to be available on vacation. Those who refuse will be fired.

Probably unsurprisingly, the writers describing work-life integration this way tended to be men, and to take an uncritical view of top-down, short term capital-driven decisionmaking. The gospel here is that the world has changed, you may have already been left behind, and the only option is to paddle hard and jettison what’s slowing you down. Those vacation days, for example.

This is depressing, consumerist, and right in line with the dominant culture. I think I’ll pass.

Businessman among child's toys

Fortunately, there is an alternative–a second lens on work-life integration which could be labeled the new work-smarter. This is the framework in which sudden life challenges for committed employees inspire creative, win-win solutions ranging from flexible scheduling to job sharing to videocommuting to intercompany partnerships. It’s the “better box” that we work to build together, in which new moms—or dads!—bring their babies to work, company R&D offices partner with grad student studios, and pastors give blessings to holiday shoppers and hear confessions (and all manner of other things) on Facebook or in the local coffee shop.

This vision of work-life integration is status-quo disruptive. It empowers lower levels of hierarchies, or circumvents hierarchy altogether. It provides—and even celebrates—the means through which an articulate layperson speaks directly to denominational power via the blogosphere, a programmer creates an app and gets it to the marketplace in the same day, and consumers, congregants, and care recipients communicate their needs in real time to those who can help.

The choice of how we’ll respond matters, because this—this lovely, magical, muddled, troubled present—it’s a given. What is up for grabs is whether we will act with intention and mindfulness to use technology to make human life better. To infuse our days, and those of others, with quality, the kind that imbues purpose and meaning and, in the reflective moments, even connects us with wonder.

 

Which brings us back to this moment. The one in which sticky jam hands are drawing oh so near to the ipad where I’m drafting my sermon, and in which my husband and I are likely to meet on the highway to swap caregiving roles, and in which I will run OR write, and will assuredly think about thorny problems while I do either.

Here, in this space, I find that even with a clear sense of hope and possibility, what’s missing amid all of this integrating is a clear sense of limit.

It’s true, in my experience, that this “integration” stuff—blending my life with . . . well, my life—it means more energy, and more joy.

 

But the price of cross-pollination, at least the way it’s happening in this house, is more tasks. Just as we should not expect church membership to bring with it an economy of scale—more members bring more energy demands more programs invites more services creates more costs—don’t believe for a minute that these invigorating conversations and meaningful connections of the “integration” model are going to do anything but ask more of you, in a net sense.

And more tasks? Well, friends, no new discoveries here. Eventually, something’s gotta give.

 

Yes, I am blessed to have these conversations and inspired to do this reading and grateful for these opportunities . . . and even so, my to do list has not morphed into a melting pot of productivity. A walk with a glitter leaf constitutes a success only in my own mind, or, if he’s feeling particularly generous, that of my four-year-old. Ditto saving the hamster from certain death, cannily avoiding a parking ticket, paying the one from last year that I forgot to avoid, changing out of pajamas into yoga pants and then into dress clothes like some sort of underaccessorized superhero. Even writing stuff (look, we’re on to adult tasks here) doesn’t magically “count” for any person who’s not directly benefiting from it.

Fact: I work for inspiring, butt-kicking women in service-dedicated, person-first institutions. But people, reasonably, still want their stuff done. And that includes the tiny people. There’s just more stuff now, and more people, and I have, maybe, more of a smile on my face. Yet ten hats are ten hats, too much is too much, and I have found many of the tasks of mommyhood to be utterly insoluble in the waters in which we swim.

Integrate that.

 

Further, I attend a cutting-edge seminary, but cutting edge also means in-the-process-of-creation. In this evolving reality, it is on us to envision—and speak to—what the future might look like, especially where there’s a reason to push the door open just a bit wider.

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Where is the potential for integration in this?

I’m still thinking about that. And in the meantime, I’m breathing through stress and caffeinating through tiredness and shifting my to do list in my head yet again . . . and I am also remembering about the need to put on one’s own oxygen mask.

 

There must be limits. We must make choices.

Including the choice of how to respond when “work life integration” is handed to us not as a point of exploration, but as a slippery non-answer to a request for consideration.

When that moment next comes,

We might choose to take what’s offered.

We might choose to view technology as another way to enforce scarcity.

Or we might just hand those shiny words back, raise our voices again, and ask that our real, live, bad mama selves be accommodated.

 

Because that, in this time and place, would be an integration worth seeing.

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*A sparkle leaf, friends, might once have been an actual fallen leaf . . . and is now an admirably horrific combination of wet paint, microglitter, and all of the hopes and prayers of your four year old. Good luck with that.

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.

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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

 

 

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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j

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.

jYep. That happened.

jAnd because God is twisted– 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.

In some places, it still is.

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

Smiling young woman having an idea with light bulb over her head

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.

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 leadership development.)

Blessings, my people!

j

*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.

summer vacation (a dialogue about questionable life choices)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

So: here goes.

What’s CPE?

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

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

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

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

Do you get paid?

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

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

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

How is that ok?

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

“First Day of CPE,” via EverydayImPastorin’

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

 

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

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

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

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

Eureka. Insanity explained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet—and here is that maddening ministry piece again

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

And then you do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why do you have to do that?

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

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

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

 

That sounds really, impossibly hard.

I agree with you.

Seminarians do it anyway.

Yay.

anger: a love story

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

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

and I have felt angry.  

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

I’m talking about anger as a drug.

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

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

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

It feels like love.  

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

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

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

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Why is it so hard to change things?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has this worked well for me?

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

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

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

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

What if I do something else simply because I can?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wow?

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

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

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

Kindling on a pyre, my friends.

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

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

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

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

Hard?  Yes.  It was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-j

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

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

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

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

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

Theresa Soto