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.

Unknown-18

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.

Unknown-19

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.

Wait. Or, why seminarians don’t blog.

drop of blood isolated

A couple of years ago, I used to celebrate a Thursday night writing ritual with a bunch of other mommy bloggers.  It was called Five Minute Fridays, and the idea was to write for five minutes flat on a particular theme.  No edits.  No takebacks.  Feel it, write it, post it, link it.  The post came out just before midnight, and I’d stay up late and revel in the deliciousness.

I loved FMF.  I love to write like I love to run, and I bet even those of you who don’t love either can see that there’s a big difference between dashing through a field of wildflowers, laughing for the sheer joy of it, and running timed laps on a track.

Five Minute Friday, for me, was the field.  It was a place where I could play.

Until I couldn’t. 

I stopped writing FMF right around the time I entered seminary in an official way.  It became challenging even before that, though, as this blog and to some extent my formation process gained a following I never expected.  I spent awhile wrestling with that—layperson vs. seminarian, private citizen vs. public representative, mine vs. ours—and then, eventually, I quit.  In the end, there was no fighting it, not if I wanted to follow this call.  I stopped posting well before I stopped writing, and eventually, I took the entire adventure off my blog.

5-minute-friday-1

There are things you give up on this journey, and no edits, no takebacks, write-what-you-feel is among the first.

And it should be.  Do you want a minister who says, in print, whatever enters her mind at any given moment?  As a representative of your congregation?  As a representative of Unitarian Universalism, or of people of faith, generally?

Of course you don’t.

And so, there are tradeoffs.  You learn, in short, to govern yourself.

A minister I know explained to me a few months ago that she doesn’t feel called to do any particular filtering of her communications, in writing or anywhere else, because the filtering is built into her very identity.  “I am,” she explained, “fully a minister wherever I go—equally so in the pulpit and at the grocery store.  This is part of living into the calling.”

Personally, I cannot at this moment conceive of having thoughts which confine themselves exclusively to the realm of “appropriate public ministerial presence.”  In fact, unless the latter part of seminary education includes a lobotomy, I don’t anticipate ever approaching my identity in quite that way.

And so for me, at least, it’s a question of boundaries.  What I choose to say, and how and where, and what tools I will use to discern it.

And for now, that takes time.  It takes conscientious effort.  And it takes a sense of what the outer limits are.

 gesticulate hand stop sign

You can still be real, inasmuch as anyone can be, on a page.

You can still be vulnerable, if you’ve weighed the risks and benefits and can stand in self-differentiated space with what comes next.

You cannot, however, be raw.

“Don’t bleed on the congregation” is what we tell those taking the pulpit for the first time with a personal story in hand.

It holds here, too.

And that, more than anything, is why I cannot do Five Minute Friday . . . not out loud.  Raw is what gets left on the cutting floor.  Sure, I fix a few typos, fill in some bridge material, and wrestle my inner wordiness demon to the ground.  In between the lines of all of that, though, my editing process is mostly mopping up the blood.

Thus, some of the hardest things I’ve written about here have been on ice for more than six months before being posted.  I have a piece in the works, now, that may actually never see the light of day, at least for any public purpose.  And “hard” or not, there is virtually nothing I post here that doesn’t go through formal editing with draftreaders, feedback, and changes.

My words are my public face.  And my public face, now and going forward, is ministry.

This filtering process is time-consuming.

It’s exhausting, even.

And it’s necessary.

Meanwhile, in the midst of ongoing structuring and editing of my long form pieces, much of my writing is being diverted to other places.  In addition to sermons (a number) and seminary essays (a large number), I have spent the last year experimenting with microblogging—writing shorter meditations and reflections intended for Facebook.  I’ve been posting these publicly, and it’s been a leap of faith, as I try to find a ministerial voice as myself, and not just as my Raising Faith alter ego.

It’s school of hard knocks a lot of the time.  How best can I talk with people who know and care for me, but not necessarily for my ministry?  How might I be a bridge for some of the harder conversations we need to have in this moment in our society?  How can I ethically and respectfully share the words of others while advancing a message that is my own?

In addition to being time consuming, this side of online ministry has also proved frustrating—interactions on challenging topics are indeed happening, and there is little that exposes my growing edges as quickly or as fully as opening myself to true dialogue.  It is hard to be myself as individual and grow into myself as minister while trying also to act my way into the humble, honest reaching out and truth-speaking that I believe is needed right now.

Amid all of this experimentation and musing and flying by seat of my pants, I am deeply grateful to my people—those of you who are primarily from the “real life” side of my world—the people who know me as me, and demand that I keep it real, always— who have also hung in there through this time of change and challenge.

If, on the other hand, you only know me here, please feel welcome to find me on Facebook.  Search “Jordinn Nelson Long,” and hit “follow.”  Comments are enabled . . . it’s an experiment that I’m going to continue, for now, as we all learn together.

The conversation may not always happen here, but it is happening.  And I’d love to hear from you.

 

And finally, I have something to say—about this blog, and about why I have sometimes wondered if I shouldn’t—to those of you who are finding this site as prospective seminarians.  There are a bunch of you each spring (this is our third year at this, gang—can you believe it?), and this year, I’ve been wishing I could speak to you more directly.  And finally, it occurred to me that perhaps I can.  So I shall.

There is indeed a lot of great content here that will help you on your journey.  I took only a coordinating role in most of it.  There’s great advice from ministers (ie, your senior colleagues) in a three-part post about making this transition in your life.  There’s also great advice from your seminary colleagues here, and some tips about the application process here, and something to make you laugh (though perhaps moreso once you’re actually in seminary) here.

Read these things.  They are here because I wished for them when I was in your place.

What I want to talk to you about, though, is other stuff.  Things like this and this.  I cringe when you find them, and even more when you share them, and I wonder if, like Five Minute Friday, I should just take them down.

And I think about a time a couple of years ago when a ministry mentor asked me what I thought I was doing with my blog.  I explained that it was just a space to sort out my thoughts and post my long-form essays, and she said, “I understand what you’re putting there.  I just don’t understand why.”

We talked more, and aside from disbelief that anyone would possibly want to read the tortured ravings of an emo seminarian (and I’m not arguing with her; I’m not sure why anyone would, either), she expressed one other thought: if you’re going to post these things, you’re going to have to keep going.  People looking are going to need to see the range.  They’ll be looking to see that you grow.

And that’s exactly the thing, dear prospective-seminarian googlers.  I worry about you who look and see only a snapshot—and right at that scary, heady moment when you’ve realized that whisper in your ear isn’t going anywhere and you’re deciding whether you might stop running from it and say “yes.”

Here’s the rub, and maybe I should go back and write this at the bottom of every page.  It gets better.  It gets deeper.  If you indeed love it—this calling, this process—you will love it with all your heart and all your soul.

Unfortunately, formation defies words in some key ways—and so I now understand more why my mentors couldn’t say much more than “It’s SO worth it” and “Trust this” and “You’ll be fine.”

So I can’t really write you an explanation, any more than they could give me one.  All I have is a testimony, and perhaps it’s actually an artifact of history, one told, mentor to mentee, across generations:

It’s worth it.  Trust this.  You will be fine. 

Keep that with you, and don’t listen overmuch to anything else I may have said.

Each post is just a snapshot in time, like so many others.  Read it, file it, and keep walking.  I did.

And eventually, I found another word.

Wait.

That was the Five Minute Friday word last week.  It’s been many months, more than a year, since I last looked, and things have changed significantly both there and here in the meantime.  But that word is my word, and now I give it to you, too.  To all of you, and most especially to me.

Wait.

This word, above all else.

That is this process.

And that is why seminarians don’t blog.

j

Depositphotos_33863261_xs

*We do blog, actually.  Obviously.  Case in point.  But it does become hard at times.  We do still believe in blogging, and we still have things to say.

It’s just hard.  And for more on that, read Claire.

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.)

Depositphotos_1613939_xs

. . . 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.

Depositphotos_35875445_xs

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.

Depositphotos_44331583_xs

*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.

of spiders and scariness (a pre-Halloween challenge)

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

A couple of years ago, I discovered trail running.

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

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

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

Spiders.

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

Except that I would run north. Because: spiders.

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

And I have survived them all.

I have outlived them, in fact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soeren: You don’t like him, do you?

Me: I like him fine. Over there.

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

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

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

Me: Yikes! I mean . . . you’re right.

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

Soeren: I’m gonna stay here and investigate.

Me: Ooohkay.

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

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

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

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

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

Results, thus far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orb Weaver Spider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone I know—a colleague—took a walk.

Through a graveyard.

At midnight.

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

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

And in the end, her glasses looked like this:

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

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

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

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

How, in fact, might we all?

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

And I think we have the tools to do it.

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

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

j

homeschooling for happiness (wherein our family tries again)


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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

You are gonna need mentors and cheerleaders.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

children's feet in the sand

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

____

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

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

This child.

This life.

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

I teach my son.

And he teaches me right back.

 

Blessings on your journey.

j

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

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

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

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.

Image

on second thought . . .

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

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

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

 

But I’m not ready yet.

 

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

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

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

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

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

So I won’t try.  No point.  Not yet.

Instead, I will just tell you this:

I’ve been doing CPE.

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

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

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

 

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

The one that leads to my home.

There were just as many cars as before.

There was no magical open space.

But then I made one.

Out of a possibility.

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

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

-j

Image

finding Jesus on the first floor

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

It is not about patient care. 

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

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

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

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

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

[whispers . . . ]

It’s the CNAs.

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

 

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

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

But Christ is somewhere else.

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

 

And I am so grateful for this reminder.

 

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

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

j

Insurance Forms

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

So look again.

 

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

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

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

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

 

Here. Now. In this very moment.

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

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

Please, God . . . let it be love.

-j

 

 

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

Image

There will be a motorcyclist.

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

You will approve of the helmet on his head.

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

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

It’s good that I found the on-ramp.

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

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

I have a headache.

You won’t remember coming around the corner.

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

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

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

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

It will be surprisingly quiet.

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

And so, you will wing it.

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

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

And you. The trout’s cheerleader.

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

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

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

The man’s job is not to die.

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

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

 

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

Truly, it will seem like it. Three forevers.

One of sheer disoriented panic.

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

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

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

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

So you will trust him. And he does.

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

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

Cheerleading is neither recordable nor reportable.

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

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

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

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

You’ll pick someone good.

And she will answer. She will help.

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

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

But you will. And this will help, too.

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

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

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

Image

 

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

j

leading failure (a tutorial)

Imagine . . . You’re heading up a team or task force, and one of your members keeps dropping the ball.

She just doesn’t get it. She shows up late. She’s unprepared. Or maybe she volunteers to do things but never completes them.

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

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

Sound frustrating? Sound . . . familiar?

 

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

Scary? It is.

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

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

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

Red pawn figure against united yellow, isolation, confrontation,

This, in short, is our own courageous willingness to call each other, and ourselves, out when we miss the bar. Caring confrontation requires an eye on long-term results and an understanding that failure is a necessary (but intermediate) part of the learning process. Most of all, it requires us to think like educators.

In designing learning experiences, setting goals, and providing feedback, we become teachers—and we gain the opportunity to celebrate successes broader and deeper than we previously imagined.

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

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

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

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

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

True feedback is ongoing and support-focused.

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

True feedback engages the learner—she’s making predictions, taking action, observing what happens, and then, with support, pausing to reflect. Then the cycle begins again. Think, here, of the teaching strategy of scaffolding—what the learner already knows provides the supportive framework, and we are encouraging her, always, to reach up in planning her next action.

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

So what does caring confrontation require? It asks, in short, that we each become teachers.

 

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

Leading like a teacher provides tools to break the gridlock and frustration of supervisees who “just don’t get it”—and it also provides organizational motivation to do things differently. As any good educator will tell you, the failure to learn lies first with the teacher.

This may initially sound unpalatable, but in responsibility lies freedom: because we have the power to change ourselves!

How does this work, in the caring confrontation model?

1. Teacher-leaders must approach any task—the “bar” that the learner must clear—as a set of key skills, in sequence. Have you visited a preschool or kindergarten classroom lately? Did you stop to wash your hands? If so, you may have seen a diagram like this.

task analysis, handwashing. Created with Boardmaker.

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

In teaching, we are always asking, “What’s the next step?” Competence is the goal, but to get there, we must outline the path.

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

This gets tricky when we are teaching someone a skill that feels like second nature to us. Perhaps it came so easily that even the steps to learning were masked—we mastered them internally. Unfortunately, it is in these areas—where we have no memory of struggling to learn—that we may instead struggle to teach. Fortunately, step 2 can help.

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

Each step on the path needs to be achievable with the tools available, plus effort. Imagine that what you’re actually teaching is tightrope walking: falls are ok; injuries are not.

This analogy might seem overly dramatic, but keep in mind that the learner who fears doing actual damage to herself or others will spend energy on worry and hypervigilance, be less willing to take needed risks, and will struggle in a feedback process that feels fraught rather than encouraging and curious. It is therefore critical to be sure that skills are firmly in place before the stakes are high.

Let's try it once without the parachute

Suicide prevention counselors practice their skills in dozens of hours of roleplays before they ever touch an actual crisis call. Medical students practice on cadavers for a reason. Danger and praxis coexist effectively only under extremely close supervision, and with a very carefully vetted admissions process. Actual danger is not often the case in congregational life—but tell that to the person ascending the pulpit for the very first time, comforting the newly bereaved, or chairing a contentious meeting, but who doesn’t feel prepared for the task.

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

woman's hand climbing ladder drawn on green board

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

Skill development takes time. Supervision and feedback also take time. This investment is key—and unfortunately, it’s often given short shrift in busy schedules. We want to see results, and we want those we supervise to deliver them. That’s a reasonable expectation . . . the part we hate to hear about is the hefty amount of work required up front.

No one needs a micromanager, but inattention has its limits as a growth strategy. If you need team members to go farther and do more, prepare to evaluate, strategize . . .and teach. From the point of view of your schedule, that means some planning and research time up front while you figure out how to break the task into manageable learning segments and what skills need to be isolated (Public speaking? Database management? Tools for leading meetings?) It means being available to have a conversation early on if things aren’t on the right track.  Finally, it means time for shared planning around goals.

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

Teacher and students in computer class

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

The best teachers know what it’s like to be in a learner’s shoes because they engage in continuous learning themselves. The openness and humility needed to keep our “learner” hats on even as we supervise others encourages further growth in us, in our students, and in our movement. Better still, this outlook reflects reality—we are all learning, all the time, regardless of our titles and assigned roles.

Ideally, even our supervisory relationships model “power with” rather than “power over”—a profoundly countercultural message that is right in line with our Unitarian Universalist theology of worth, dignity, and deep interconnectedness.  Some are mentors; some are supervisors–but we are learners, together.

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

Really excellent mentors, bosses, and leaders: They are, above all, those who can teach.

Image