Leaving Las Vegas. By which I mean Facebook. By which I mean I don’t know what I’m doing.

So I have this Facebook account.

I have friends, and “friends,” and followers- some intentional and some who I strongly suspect just got lost.  It’s a place where I speak the words that are on my heart, or I share the words of others, and people respond.

Pretty simple, right?  My Facebook works like yours does? 

This feels net-neutral, no pun intended, most of the time.  FB is a container, holding the good and the bad.  And the things it holds include the transcendent and the funny and the nearly magical and the appalling and the annoying and, occasionally, the tragic.

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I’m an external processor, and have been writing for an audience for my entire literate life.  I share real stuff, and I hear often that it matters to people.  Thank you for what you said.  For what you shared.  For what you wrote.

I myself found beauty and hope, connectedness and pieces of information that I need to survive in this moment and in whatever this era may be, on Facebook just this morning.  It’s where so much of the good stuff lives.

And yet we have a problem, Facebook and I.  And I don’t know how to solve it.

purple thumbs down

Can I have an online ministry, the question goes, and hold onto something that feels like myself?

My people, I do not know.

This year I have done some things I’ve never tried before, in the pursuit of balance.  I’ve begun to filter content, and to use the “block” feature selectively.  I think I used to feel, in an unexamined way, that cutting anyone off was against my religion.  Then I realized that self-care is also part of my faith, and that you don’t get to be intimately involved in my life just because you want to be.  That discovery been uneventful and surprisingly great, and so has this other thing: taking one-week breaks once a quarter and disabling my Facebook account entirely.  Literally disappearing, and having it disappear from my life.  It sounds scorched-earth, and in the moment I first tried it, I think it probably was– and yet, I’ve found it restorative and astonishingly easy, and the weird thing is, I don’t miss FB.  

 

Truly.  Not right away, and not later either; it’s more like waking up from having been hypnotized than taking a vacation away from beloved people and things.  In fact, I have discovered that I always dread coming back.

But I do miss you, many of you, and I miss conversation and I also miss sharing what’s happening in my world.  And then there’s the reality that FB feels fairly necessary for my work in the world, even the “real life” and brick and mortar pieces of that life–the online threads run deep.

And yet I still haven’t found a way to go halves on Facebook.

I need a workable middle rather than a freefall off the addiction cliff, and I’ll be honest: I’m no longer sure that such a space exists, at least not for someone like me, or for the work I do here.

This realization reminds me of a cartoon I once saw—on Facebook, of course– about the experience of shopping at Target.

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Like, how a person would reasonably expect that excursion to go, and what happens to your brain and hands and wallet instead.

It was this:  http://crappypictures.com/shopping-at-target/

And lately, that’s exactly how I feel on Facebook.

I sign on because I just need to do this one thing.  It’s usually something specific and work related; a question about worship or a response about pastoral care- a task on my to-do list that I intend to cross off by logging on.

And then twenty minutes later I sign off, and it’s in that second, staring at the login screen, that I realize that I didn’t do that one thing.  I suddenly realize, in fact, that I haven’t even thought about that thing from the moment that the virtual-world-a-la-Zuckerberg, the one with the urgent red numerals and the picture-filled news feed, first opened before me.

My people, I have repeated this cycle—identify task; log on to complete it; log out and suddenly remember what task, still uncompleted, was– as many as three times.  Consecutively.

This makes me worry about my brain.

FB eye

And I feel certain that it’s not accidental.  Facebook now hijacks our brains because it’s good at doing that, and it’s good at it because a policy decision was made somewhere along the line to become effective hijackers of our daily lives.

And friends, I know that “hijack” is a strong word.  I’m using it intentionally, and in the brain science way; this post is not, at least not yet, to say that I am having a theological born-again moment, or renouncing technology altogether and resolving to pastor in a more traditionally-pastoral way.

But as Facebook, so goes life.  The thing is, Can’t turn it off, can’t look away feels like a pretty good synopsis of my first year ministry experience—the real-life portion– and I know something about this deep in my bones: it’s unsustainable.

Having a public persona on Facebook, or probably anywhere, makes some pretty big asks.   Accordingly, I’ve had many conversations about authenticity with colleagues and leaders over the past few years. What to reveal, and how real do we keep things, and how do we hold ourselves or move in the face of the relentless projections of ministry and the pastor/congregant relationship.

Often we speak of these things normatively, as if there is an “answer” to be had, when the reality is that there is simply a spectrum of options.  Increased and decreased transparency.  Greater and lesser self-awareness.  More and less consistency of contact with our own internal touchstones and our larger value systems.  Times to be very vocal and times to fall largely silent.

These are things each minister must consider in her public work, and my Facebook meta-conversation is no exception.  What is driving me to distraction, however, has turned out to be none of this.

It is instead distraction itself: the loss and sorrow and ultimate opportunity cost of fractured attention.   

And again, it’s not just Facebook.  FB has become what it is because our society is what it is, our lives are what they are, our willingness and need to be constantly other-occupied lies where it does.

And maybe that’s not your story; a lot of people seem to make life online and offline cohere.

But my reality isn’t this simple.  I find Facebook addictive, and I also feel sure that this is deliberate.  And that in my case, this addiction- its processes and its inputs and deliverables– it fits right into all the fractured spaces of a larger and equally-frenetic lifestyle.

And in the meantime, I have these kids.

FB baby pixabay

Ren is wise beyond his years, savvy, wry and well-read.  And he is also dealing with emergent Aspergers, working on social skills and where his body is in space and figuring out how to love and flourish as who he is while meeting others where they are.  It’s a big job, and while he doesn’t want to hold my hand, he appreciates my standing close.

Si, meanwhile, is a tornado of boy energy, sharp and focused, exquisitely sensitive, quick to snuggle and equally quick to seek retribution when all is not right in his kingdom.  He used to beg me to color with him.  I think I did that once, while composing in my head most of an essay about how hard that was.  The next year, this past one, struggling for roots himself in a vastly different landscape, he pleaded for plants.  I promised to take him after school, on the weekend, sometime soon.  I never did; the pots sit empty in our garage.

Now my younger son wants to build, wants me to watch and learn and copilot.  And I discovered that I am so used to saying no to my child that I had to find not just time but unused muscles, unaccessed vocabularies, to say yes.

fern flickr

I am a work in progress.

But untenable is not too strong a word for this lack of attending.

Fortunately, these two have other loving adults in their lives, the ones who were present when first teeth fell out and each boy learned to ride a bike and they celebrated three consecutive birthdays, all without me present.  (Literally; I was away at seminary in every single one of those cases.  Three years.  An irreplaceable chunk of two childhoods.)

The kids are alright, but I might not be.

The costs, these days, are more than I’m willing to pay.  And so, this is the year that we lurch our way into something else.  And it has begun with this summer because when you realize that something really isn’t working, the reasonable thing is to stop doing that thing, and to try something else.    

The thing is, I’m hearing a call again these days.

It’s to come home.  

Because you know what (and this is magical): it’s not too late not to miss it.

So this is me, figuring this out, and who knows how it’s going to look.  Maybe there’s a middle space as yet undiscovered. Maybe it’s called Facebook-with-limits, or maybe it’s that we begin to meet each other somewhere else.  

But I do know, in the meantime, where my own middle space is going to be.

We’ll wave to you from the kitchen window.  

j

tiny plant in mug

All images Pixabay/flickr

Of Legos and literal warfare

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Yesterday, one of my kids threw a rock at the other one. Both are fine; it was one of those brotherly “accidentally-on-purpose” things, and fortunately didn’t even leave a mark. And believe you me, there were consequences.
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But there are also consequences for all of us–consequences that are not isolated to my family, however much you would like to pretend they are, and which are part and parcel of the political and theological position in which we find ourselves.
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It doesn’t matter that the bigger one threw the rock, in the end, because the altercation began when the little one explained that the small collection of rocks underneath his tree was his “arsenal” against his “enemies.” Scene: a pocket park in a gated planned community. Enemies: a distant gathering of three same-sized children.
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My kids are 6 and 9. They were born Unitarian Universalists, and have spent time in Montessori education, arts-based preschool, homeschooling.
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I am a minister.
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And friends, it saddens and frightens me to report that we as a family are having a hard time overcoming the culture in which our children are being raised.
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As I sat on a park bench, and then at home, with first one and then the other child, explaining that we live in a peaceful place, do not have enemies, and do not need weapons, I realized that there is something that we desperately do need: other stories to tell our children. Other stories with which to raise our boys.
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My husband and I both played with legos constantly as kids. Guess how many of our sets came with guns?
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I’ll let you reflect on your own childhood. How many molded plastic Lego guns? Ever?
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Right.
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In my six year old’s short childhood, which has involved thousands and thousands of Lego bricks, I have involuntarily amassed an arsenal that could arm the revolution. It could. My kids now just bring them and set them on my dresser as soon as they open the box. I find tiny revolvers on my nightstand, miniature semiautomatics on my make up counter.
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Friends, every package marketed to boys comes with weaponry of some sort, often with a remarkable variety of firearms. It is incredibly difficult to find large sets without them. Go look. I’ll wait.
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Now consider the movies with which our children are raised. The shows. The games.
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Now consider the narrative.
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The story.
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The only story that this contemporary moment is willing to teach my sons:
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Everything interesting that could possibly happen involves the potential or actuality of a physical fight. The entire game is preparing for one or defending against it or, better still, prevailing within it.

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We literally have no script for the story where there is peace.
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Peace, in our little boys’ games, is simply the space between skirmishes.
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When it should–and truly, I promise you, it could– be all that they know.
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What have we given them to even imagine this? What script, what story, are we illustrating and encouraging, for the world in which they are actually growing up?
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One which admittedly features more weapons than any generation in living memory– but not because we need them, have needed them, or (God forbid) will need them. No, it is because of this stupid story- “Life is one long fight to the top, composed of other, smaller fights, because this is what we do with and for resources.” It’s a story that sells, and it has crowded out so many other stories of childhood– the nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and also the stories we found and dreamed and created as we roamed neighborhoods, caught frogs, climbed dirt piles, watched ponds.
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And yeah, on those dirt piles, we sometimes played King of the Mountain.
We sometimes pushed each other. We sometimes played the game called war.
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And then somebody got a bloody nose, and somebody cried, and all of us learned that some games aren’t really games, and that there’s an edge beyond which danger lies . . . an edge beyond which none of us want to push.

Is that what my kids were trying to learn, yesterday?
Maybe. Maybe they were, and maybe they would have gotten it with their eyes still intact, without intervention.
But maybe we’ve given them too much of another story to be able to pull it back.
How long has this reality been in the works? What forces– what power, what money, what desire for control, what fight for a cultural narrative– lie behind it?  How do we quit the military-industrial complex ourselves while we simultaneously train our children to be part of it?
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How will we find something else?
And how will we (all) pay if we don’t?
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I wish I didn’t wonder these things.  But I do.
And I think the questions, and this moment, have been a long time coming.
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j

What we learned when we didn’t get divorced

My husband is an in-it-all-the-way kind of husband.  He is my best friend, teammate, foil, helpmeet, and occasionally, confessor. He has—more than once—crowded into a hotel bathroom at 1 am to listen to me preach a draft sermon. And often, he’s my first reader. That is very much the case now, and it is with gratitude to and for him, for our marriage, and for his willingness to allow me to tell a story that is not mine alone that I share this post. 
Craig, I love you so much. Thanks for adventuring with me. – j

As a law student, I volunteered in a “clinic” providing legal services to low-income residents of Salt Lake City. This particular clinic specialized in family law, and one of our primary tasks was guiding individuals through the steps of pro se divorce paperwork.

Pro se is a legal term of art from the Latin; it translates roughly as “on your own behalf.” What it means in this context is that in Utah, couples can self-divorce as long as the action is uncontested. This might be surprising in a conservative state, but it helps keep the dockets clear, encourages couples to work together wherever possible, and provides very clear financial incentives for keeping the process civil.

And so, upon joining the family law clinic, student volunteers were handed a CD-rom of forms and guidelines and instructed to spend some time at home familiarizing ourselves with it.

I was busy, though—like all law students, the reading load alone was crushing (seminary students, take note—you have no idea), and I also had Journal, a TA appointment on the main campus, and a newborn. So I never did take the time to really sit with those forms.

Until the night I decided to use them.

I don’t know how it started, exactly. It wasn’t just one thing. It was, instead, a pebble by pebble rockslide that eventually triggered an avalanche.

Lack of sleep. Worries about money. The seismic shift of new parenthood, paired with a stressful schedule, inconsistent childcare, a newly purchased house in what had turned out to be a nightmare of a neighborhood, and a long and messy commute for me paired with an increasingly isolated life telecommuting for my husband.

The end of law school was just visible in the distance, and as I had suspected—had feared, but had also, in that place of inner certainty, known for all the time it was possible to know—I had no intention of practicing law. None. Ever.

I could feel the light going not just out of my eyes, but out of my soul. By that point, it had become difficult just to get out of bed on school days. And trudging back and forth to classes for three years was one thing; contemplating the entirety of my life after that was simply more than I could bear. And so, while my classmates filled out applications for the bar exam, I began getting things in order to return, upon graduation, to teaching.

This was an incredible relief for me. The clouds parted, the horizon came into view, and like that, I had a future again—one in which I could imagine a possibility of happiness. It was, meanwhile, an incredible shock for my husband. He was enraged, underneath which he was disappointed and scared.* I, in return, felt betrayed and furious, unable and then unwilling to partner with someone so ready to offer my misery unto the world if only it could provide convenience and security in return.

And so, dark days trickled into fractious and difficult weeks, and all of them led, inexorably, to our dining table late one spring night. I sat alone with my laptop, and I did for myself what I had never bestirred myself to do for someone else: I grabbed that CD, and I read those forms. I went to the Utah State Courts website. I entered my name as plaintiff.

And page by page, my fingertips walked the journey that would end with the state of Utah agreeing to dissolve our marriage.

 

Until I got to the section about child support. Because, recall, we had a child, my husband and I—a chubby, dimpled babe, the light of both of our lives. Utah determines child support obligations based on nights spent per custodial parent. And thus, to go any farther with the forms, I was required to state, for the record, where our beloved baby would be spending each and every night of every month of his foreseeable future.

And that is when I cried.

Weeks and months of stress and anger yielded simply to pain. To grief. And, ultimately, to a hardscrabble kind of hope, one born of the realization that while I was angry, I was not—not yet—angry enough to force my way through this child support form. That probably, we could figure this out, because even the hardest conversation imaginable could not be more horrible than this.

And so, we cooled off . . . and then also, we thawed. We talked. We forged a stopgap truce, and eventually reenvisioned not just my future, but ours. Together. As a family.

Yes, that was the time that our story came closest to ending, and continued anyway. And I don’t tell this story often, but when I do, I end it here. It’s hard enough just to talk openly about marital difficulties.

But the truth is this: that moment of yielding and reconciliation gave us another day. But it was not, on the whole, enough to change things. A forgiving spirit and knowledge that we had weathered past crises successfully gave us a calmer confidence when we were in trouble.

But what we have needed in the seven years since that night at the dining table is a way to stay out of the danger zone in the first place.

And what has saved us is our sex life.

Yep. I just said that.

What has saved us, in fact, is treating our sex life like a spiritual practice.

The thing is, sex isn’t something we had to think much about in the beginning. (Though I’m sure we did think about it. Lots.) We were young, attracted to one another, and rich in time in the way that only people with no jobs and no kids can be.

Physical compatibility is not a bad place to begin a relationship, but ten years (now 17!) and many significant life changes later, it was time for an intentional revisiting of our covenant.

But we didn’t even realize we had a sexual covenant, and certainly no one encouraged us to talk about it. Yes, it’s ok to feed your baby solid food now. Also, how’s your sex life working for you? Have you considered what your priorities are? How about some goal setting?

 Pediatrician with baby

And so, we stumbled along into our future, giddy with possibility but also uncertain and afraid. Can these good times last? What happens when things become difficult again?

I think our answer, like that of so many couples might have been, “eventually you just grow apart.” Except we happened upon first one book, and then another.

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The first text, Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Sex, helped us to appreciate the holy importance of sex in a marital union. How sex is part of God’s gift to us, and how treating it with the reverent joy of sacrament might help us to value our entire relationship differently. And to make choices differently as well, or at least to understand what we may be putting on the line when we decide how we’re going to be with one another.

Examples: sex is a sacred obligation; a gift that we give, unencumbered, to one another. We should be naked when we do it—not so much as a sock on—and we should treat each other’s bodies with mystery and reverence the rest of the time. And sex is important enough to the marital relationship that choices, like extended business travel, that impinge upon it should be regarded with deep suspicion.

This book is likely not for everyone—it’s situated within the conservative reaches of the American Jewish tradition, and Unitarian Universalists can expect to do some translating as well as some theology in reading. I suggest that we engage this critical reflection in the spirit that Rev. Rebecca Parker encourages us to cultivate in her own work, Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now–that is, as theologians ourselves, engaged and passionate thinkers who bring our own lived truths to the text.  And also, to sex.

Which brings us to the second book—the one that changed everything.

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Doug Brown, sex columnist for the Denver Post (did you know that this is a thing?), and his wife, Annie, were in something of a rut. They were raising two small children, felt bored and isolated in a their new city, and eventually, began to sense a disconnection even from one another.

And so, they embarked on an experiment. The Browns planned carefully—French lingerie, yoga for toning, attending a sex expo together and experimenting with toys, lube, and even Brazilian waxing . . . but the crux of the deal was this:

The couple agreed to have sex. At least once. Every single day. For 100 days.

The Browns called this experiment “The Marathon,” let their friends and family in on the secret, and documented the results. The tangible end product is a memoir, Just Do It, that we found recognizable, hilarious (I note that Publishers Weekly hated it . . . I submit that the PW columnist might want to take some of Doug and Annie’s advice)—and also, astonishingly helpful.

And I know this because, well: we tried it. Our “marathon” was much shorter—a month—and we told no one during the experiment itself. Also, we were low key. No Sex Convention for us, no yoga, and certainly no “Brazilian” (I mean, seriously. I survived childbirth—unmedicated—for that? When do we torture the men?)

And still, the experience was powerful.

Here is some of what we learned:

*This is a LOT of sex to have in a month

*You will become a lot more comfortable in your bed, in your relationship, and in your body by the end of it

*This kind of short-term experience can alter your relationship in a way that lasts years (maybe forever).

In our own “marathon,” Craig and I developed a trust in each other we had never had. It was, in fact, a trust we never realized was lacking; it is nothing short of amazing what can blossom in a partnership when two people are truly vulnerable with one another in a sustained way. It’s like Outward Bound, for couples.

For us, the marathon acted as a covenant within a covenant—a calling back toward one another, again and again, whatever else had happened that day, or even the night before. Something didn’t go well? We both knew we’d have a chance to reconnect, and soon. This knowledge added both grace and responsibility; there was simply no getting out of doing the work of couplehood.

As for long-term results—the kind that make me know that it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to need to know whether Kansas offers pro se divorce?

First, we touched each other more, outside of bed. In yet another feature we didn’t realize we’d lost, we began to connect with affectionate physicality throughout the day.

Also, we laughed more together, let things go sooner, and took creative risks—in areas that had nothing to do with our sex life.

And finally, we kickstarted an ongoing sexual partnership that has seen us through most of the second decade of a sometimes complicated marital relationship. There is a remarkable return on investment for time spent doing this thing which, on the whole, is highly enjoyable. Need to stay connected when things are busy and it feels like there’s never any time? Have more and better sex. Want to maintain a partnership even when it feels like you’re running a divide-and-conquer offense? Have more and better sex.

In short, when we discover how much we enjoy being in each other’s company, including in bed, we can use it to build on. In our culture, we’re taught to think of sex like frosting—it’s an indulgence, non-nutritive, and, depending on our relationships with our bodies, possibly even sinful.

But here’s the thing: In a long-term romantic partnership, sex isn’t frosting. It’s foundation.

This is Rabbi Boteach’s message—and now it’s mine, too.

If your marriage matters, so does your sex life.    

And so, I offer you three tips, presented in order investment of time and energy required. Try one, try all, make your own and share . . . but your sex life is part of your life. What might happen if we make a concerted effort to live like we believe it?

  1. Talk about it!

You can do it behind closed doors. You can whisper. We don’t all have to say YOUR SEX LIFE, in writing, on Facebook. But if you are living in covenantal partnership, give this part of your covenant some space on your next date night. How is your sex life working for you? What do you celebrate about this part of your life together? What might you like to do differently? And what are you curious about?

(These kinds of questions come from a model called “appreciative inquiry,” and they—plus lots of listening—are one way to talk about things we’re often afraid to touch, conversationally speaking. Use the questions above, or make up your own, and aim for a culture of celebrating the positive and wondering about everything else.  Do this, and you are likely to come away from the conversation with an increased sense of partnership, more openness . . . and maybe a few great ideas. )

  1. Show your TV the door. Your bedroom door.  And tell it to take your iPad with it.  

I know—what!?

Here’s the thing, though: your devices are running your nightlife, whether you realize it or not. If what you see when you look up from your pillow is not the face of your beloved, but a screen, survey says, you’re having less sex. Much less. Fifty percent less, according to one study, which also noted that violence and reality TV are particular libido-dampeners.

And it’s not just the TV.  Small-device screen time–use of phones, tablets, and laptops– in the hour before bed has lately been linked with decreased melatonin and poor sleep quality, both of which may have an echo effect on your sex life.

What would happen if you took the no-tv plunge?

Only one way to find out.

  1. Just Do It.

You can read this book, if you’re interested—it formed a shared base for our own explorations, and we laughed a lot reading it—but really, no book required.

Have sex. Every day. For a week . . .

And watch what happens.**

It should be noted that if you are living in the context of an abusive relationship, following these tips may serve to further entrench that dynamic.   Further, I don’t know if this advice holds, without modification or at all, in a GLBT context. I’m not sure, either, how much of my experience transcends my own race and culture, or how it might apply later in life or with bodies that work differently than mine. I’d love to hear your perspective, though.

With those sizeable limitations, however, and a sample size of roughly 2, my best relationship advice is simply this: have more and better sex.

And I think that’s more likely to happen if we acknowledge our sex lives as part of our whole lives—a sacred, spiritual, and healing part.

Enjoy, friends.

 J

j

Lovely couple in bed, focus on feet

*Understandably, it should be noted. My husband is a practical person, a decide-and-be-done-with-it sort of person. He helps keep our family together. He helps keep me together. And also, he has known what he wanted to be since he was five. And then he grew up and became it. That is, in one sense, the whole story, which partly explains how the story of us—the melding of two individuals—is both magical, and not without intrinsic difficulty.

**Also, if your partnership is one in which pregnancy is a possible result of your sex life, and that’s not a possibility you would wholeheartedly embrace, I CAN NOT OVERSTATE the importance of effective birth control in undertaking this experiment. Use it. Before you do it.

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.

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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.

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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.