Hymn’s come home

If I were to choose a playlist of songs to make up the soundtrack to my biography, at the very top of the list tied for first place there would be classic rock and Methodist hymns. The top artists would be Heart and Charles Wesley. The former as a nod to the music I was raised and the latter as a testament to the music that played over and over in my head after church on Sundays. Both formed my spirituality.

I owe so much of my literacy development and my mad sight reading skills to having to read out of a hymnal in church. From the tender age of five I was singing along to hymns in church accompanied usually by the organ. We sat in the third row towards the center, so I generally wasn’t within the proper angle to see the organist plugging away at her work, but I was mesmerized nonetheless. If I remember correctly, I sat between my grandma and my mom. Or sometimes between my grandma and my sisters. If I remember correctly. But for sure I knew that my grandma was on my left, at the ready with Mentos or Winterfresh gum.

We would mark the hymns ahead of time with little ribbons by looking through the bulletin. I remember the anticipation of singing a hymn I loved. I adore hymns for so many reasons, only one of which is how beautifully the chords move through their progressions and carry a swelling and then fading melody. Then of course how many verses rhyme. I especially love the way that it’s easy to harmonize – the only question for me is which note I start on. To find this I hum along while the introduction is played and that usually sets me straight. I love to be a sole chorus of altos in a sea of sopranos and tenors and basses. I love hymns so much that I may have swiped a hymnal from the church I grew up in, and still have it on my shelf to this day. Truthfully, I probably borrowed it to practice songs on the piano and then forgot to give it back.

Hymns were my prayers, and some 30 years after beginning my formal journey in organized religion, I realize that. In the fine print below each hymn, you can see from where and when the words and music originated. My favorites are the ones where the words come from a translation of Latin from the 9th century (like “O Come O Come Emmanuel”) or when a hymn was written during a pivotal moment in history like the Civil War. But it doesn’t have to say “written during the Civil War”; I know that the years of 1861 through 1865 bear significance. It meant a lot to me that I was also singing the same choruses as my spiritual predecessors from ages ago.

I often committed words and music of hymns to memory. This will happen after you sing something so many times. Not only does repetition play a huge part, but so does the context in which you sing the hymn. We know from modern brain science that the body remembers first – whether an event was traumatic or not. It makes pathways from sights and smells, warmth and cold. This is how I made memories with hymns. I know that “For the Beauty of the Earth” is usually sung in the spring, with spring banners and colors adorning the church, trying to decide if I would wear a raincoat to cross the alley to church or just run for it. Memories of Christmas Eve hymns like “Silent Night” are laced with the scent of tiny candles blown out, and during the late service my belly would be full from a dinner with family.

Just like Scripture I’ve memorized (which by the way, isn’t much: I kind of suck at memorizing just words out of context), hymns will come back to the forefront of my mind at different times. During this time of Advent, the song “O Come O Come Emmanuel” plays in my head over and over. I find myself searching for the newest renditions by artists like Piano Guys and Gungor. I listen, and satisfy that craving for a comfort that’s enveloped in a minor key, Thys and Thous, and a predictable rhythm. I also find nuances I’d never noticed before and appreciate the song through fresh ears.

Many years after my first foray into church, I decided to begin attending a new church of a very different denomination than the one I grew up in. This church did not sing many hymns during their worship services, and if they did it was accompanied by drums and lights and not a lot of harmonies. To my knowledge, the only organ was a small one that hid in the corner of the platform, collecting dust.

In that tradition I learned many different types of music and worship that were much more “extroverted,” or so it seemed. Hands raised, voices crying out, sometimes even with non-English and non-other-known-language utterances. Lots of repetition of the same phrase became a very emotional thing, and as a teenager who had always been moved by music (apparently I was rocking to the beat by 8 months old) I took it all in.

However, it was odd to me at first. I never felt so much emotional while singing in church before, not unless it was at a funeral. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t emotional about God, however, or didn’t care as much or wasn’t as “saved” as my new fellow congregants. I know that now.

I slowly picked up on the culture of the new church – one of valuing extroversion, that revered people’s willingness to pray out loud in front of people. We held hands, and I learned to pray out loud very long prayers. With lots of Lords and Gods and Jesuses. I think I prayed like that because to some extent I was being authentic and I wasn’t afraid to do it, especially if I felt comfortable with the group. It was my way of being like the leader I’d been in my Sunday School classes, being the teacher’s pet.

But I also think I prayed like that because it’s what was valued and seen as “real” prayer. For some reason I began to think that all the praying I’d done before wasn’t good enough, or sincere enough. And God surely would answer prayers were I was bold enough to speak out loud to a group. Apparently praying in my head just wasn’t enough anymore, and that was the beginning of my turning away from what I grew up with into a new denomination that would dominate my ways of thinking and being and interacting for about a decade.

What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe?

in Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor

I have since returned to the tradition I grew up in. When we moved cross-country and returned to civilian life, I needed something different. I have a lot, lot more to say about my experiences in right-wing evangelical church. It turns out many people do But in unpacking the hurt and shame and uncertainty and division of my spirit and my body, I have found that the prayer I have felt comfortable doing is the right prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer prayed out loud with my church family is the right prayer. The Apostle’s Creed recited aloud is the right prayer. The brief silent prayer after communion is the right prayer. The “graces” we pray before meals in my house are the right prayers. The prayers I follow along with during a virtual service while also cross-stitching or crocheting are the right prayers.

I have also realized that the hymns I sang and memorized were prayers. I was actually praying so much when I was singing. And if part of meditation is sitting on a line or song or idea for awhile, then I was meditating too.

I’m sad that for many years I taught myself to reject the faith and mode of worship I developed as a child into adolescence, that I inherited from both sides of my family, that I celebrated in basements of country churches. I learned to look down my nose at my supposedly unenlightened friends and family who just didn’t have enough of the Holy Spirit… yet. I told myself I was better than they were because I prayed out loud and sang loud songs with drums and electric guitars and listened to sermons that were 45 minutes, not 15. And I had extreme guilt if I couldn’t “convert” my friends and family, who had a faith and belief of their own, to my new way of thinking. However, as Rachel Held Evans writes in Faith Unraveled, “We are saved by a restored relationship with God, which might look a little different from person to person, culture to culture, time to time.”

I’m also kind of angry at the leaders and people in those churches (yes, I attended more than one) for encouraging the elitism, whether they knew it or not. They preached that Jesus is the only Way, and also that the way we worship Him is the only Way. If you disagree with the sermon or theology presented, or think about Jesus in multiple historical contexts and perspectives, there’s probably something you need to be sorry for during that really emotional song that’s played after communion.

When I rejected my original mode of faith I also had to grieve it in context. I missed old creaky pews and hazy sunlight streaming through stained glass. I missed old hymnals and pipe organs. I definitely missed short sermons and the simplicity of a hymn, which if you study them, you will find that so many are much more theologically sound and linguistically complex than they are given credit for.

What a comfort to know that this loving and merciful God will not be disappointed, that his word falls over the earth like rain, covers it like snow, and nourishes it for an abundant harvest. What a comfort to know that God is a poet.

in Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans

I don’t think everyone gets the chance in their lives to “come home” to the faith they had as a child. I think many people didn’t have a faith home to begin with, which is fine, or their home was unstable and emotionally manipulative or even abusive. But I had a really great home of faith and religion in my formative years. I had many healthy experiences that taught me about the Bible but also about being in community with others. In the process, I gained a large understanding of literacy and musicality. I was taught so much by loving and reliable Sunday School teachers.

Fortunately I was able to come “home,” and it was the right choice for many reasons. I wasn’t sure what I would find among creaky pews and old-church-building smell and the organ and hymns and robes and seasons like Lent and Advent, but I knew it was a good place to start.



Running is for humans

Early on in my running journey, I did anything and everything I could to not think about what I was actually doing with my body. I kept abreast of cracks in the sidewalk and gusts of wind. But if I could distract myself from the physical duress I was voluntarily enduring, I did.

Many times, though, I was convinced that my choice to run was not voluntary. It was some sort of cruel punishment for eating too much, or in anticipation of eating too much (Turkey Trots, anyone?). It was to get my body ready for a very long race that I had impulsively signed up for: marathons come to mind.

At first I felt so self-conscious running up and down University Street, a very busy thoroughfare with four lanes. I thought, surely people are wondering why this tall slightly overweight girl is flailing her arms and legs about. But what I learned is that no one cares, or very few people do. And the ones who do aren’t worth my time. I have my music up so loud I can’t hear them anyway.

I grew accustomed to the feeling of badassery and triumph upon completion of a run, whether it was 2 miles, 5 miles, or 15 miles. I’m a purist, so I relish the roundness of the number on my round watch face. I also loved the self-confidence that running imparted to me.

At the beginning I spent a lot of time choosing specific songs to add to my playlists, first on an iPod and finally on Spotify on my regular smartphone. There were many times, either running outside or working out at the gym, where forgetting to charge my phone or headphones would leave me mentally unable to hang with the planned activity for the day. And then guilt would enter, and then the next day I would work twice as hard to work off my guilt, and so on.

The other day I had an absolutely beautiful run. When trying to decide to go for the run or not, two things were not factors in my decisions. I ignored my slightly sore legs from walking and hiking the few days prior, and I ignored the blustery wind I saw from my home office window, bringing down the next-to-last stubborn leaves, not quite given the opportunity to complete their cycle.

As soon as work was done for the day, my physical body matched what had been going on in my head for a couple hours, and I stepped out the back door and pushed “start” on my watch.

Cue exactly 3.10 miles (I’m a purist, remember?) of bliss incurred by the combination of the autumn angle of the sun, a cool breeze off the river, the perfect pace, and the perfect music. I celebrated the best run I’d had in a long time and I’m sure my husband could tell you that my mood was elevated for the entire evening. I was high.

The high didn’t come from a manufactured experience like it did early on in my running days, nigh on a decade ago now. I wasn’t purposely trying to distract my entire being, physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional, from what I was choosing to put my body through.

No, I was one hundred percent present. I was present with the leaves on the ground, their crunch barely audible above the Mumford and Sons song blaring in my ear. I was present with my breathing, very labored at the pace I was maintaining. I was present with the contact of my shoes on the sidewalk, then on the board walk, then on the road. I was present with the fact that so many people cannot run because they are sick with this virus ravaging the human race.

And then, I was present with my own thankfulness running up and down Union Avenue. For being alive, for being at the very heart of it, human. And that’s why I run.

Boundaries

I don’t normally write for this blog on my work laptop and I usually have my Sunday post done by now, but my personal laptop seems to be dead. At least for now. Quite a bummer, too, because I was working on a very cozy vibe for a mid-autumn Sunday morning – complete quiet, a drowsy and cloudy sunrise, French press coffee. A few years ago something like my laptop completely kicking the bucket would have really thrown me off, but here I am writing about it.

I think we can all agree that in this time of the pandemic, having boundaries is good and helpful. Obviously we have the concrete example of a face mask, a literal boundary that we wear every day. We have “social distancing” as another concrete physical boundary. I hope that people also are beginning to understand the importance of work/life boundaries.

Fortunately, I’m no stranger to this practice of creating and enforcing boundaries. Long before infertility, long before moving to the East Coast, tunneling through time to when Aaron and I were first married, I had to set a boundary with work and life. He had been laid off and was in the process of joining the military, active duty. I was in my first year of teaching – which many teachers say that no matter what, is like this year for everyone.

In February of that year, Aaron took his last paycheck at the job that laid him off, and he was set to leave for basic training in April. Only two months away. I knew that it would be at least ten weeks from the time he left for Missouri to the time I’d see him again, and who knows after that. So I created a boundary with work, that I would get what I needed to get done at work, and come home at a decent hour so we could take advantage of the time we had together.

My memories of my first year of teaching are becoming fuzzier as I make room for more memories of teaching high school, but I do remember that not everything got done every day. My to-do list was long and never-ending, but I had to draw a line in the sand and say, “Done. I’m done for the day.” Because spending time with my new husband was more important. Because enjoying time we had together before an enormous change in our life was important. I was fortunate to have to learn about boundaries so young.

As the years went on throughout our experience as a military family, many boundaries were created, especially with time. When he would come home for a visit, such as Christmas break during Advanced Individual Training (AIT) or on leave from his tour in Korea, I would drop everything so we could 100% focus on being together – just the two of us and also with family. Yes, work was important, but our time and health of our marriage was more so.

As it turns out, this practice with concrete situations has really served me well throughout our time of attempting to add to our family, failing in the “natural” way, making decisions about which treatments to pursue if any, and then finally deciding to live without children.

It has not been easy, and for most of it I’ve been afraid of pissing other people off or at the very least, making them uncomfortable. However, at some point when you are so desperate for some peace and quiet in your mind, you stop caring about what people think and you just do what you need to do to feel safe.

I had not really considered that avenue before, as growing up I was taught to just deal with the feelings, push through, get over it… whatever phrases there were circulating from parents to children born in the 1980’s or early 1990’s, I heard it. I was taught to make people feel welcome and comfortable. I think that’s a good thing to teach your children, but it crosses a line when that becomes a detriment to the emotional safety of the individual.

Over the last six and a half years, since we officially started “trying” (those of you in the “actively trying” camp, please revise the list of jargon…), I and my husband both have had to lay down some boundaries.

Consequently, they have come in quite handy over the past few weeks. I’ve written a lot about church and the pressure on anyone who is not married with children to become married with children, be it single people, young married people thinking about becoming parents, or older people who have been widowed (minus the children part). I have a lot to say about the culture of the church, but I will leave that there for now.

There are many activities at church that just aren’t comfortable or welcoming for us. They weren’t even as young married people who weren’t ready for children yet. Trunk or Treats… small groups that are demographically alike… certain children’s ministries… They are all difficult, we have had to put our foot down about it. Sometimes we give a reason, sometimes we don’t. Mostly whether we give a reason or not depends on the apparent willingness to empathize of the intended party.

It had been awhile since I waved my infertility flag at church, probably since a Mother’s Day where I wrote in to the person who works on the service order and request that a single carnation be placed on the altar in honor of all mothers who could not become mothers for whatever reason. But I was asked to help out with a virtual “children’s/family ministry moment” and I had to decline, and in addition I have many feelings about the use of the word “family” in church vernacular.

Immediately when in my head I decided “Nope, can’t do it” all the justifications were running through my mind… Things like: ,Don’t get me wrong, I like kids but… or I just don’t have time right now…

But I didn’t use those to justify saying no. Instead, after reviewing the situation and the person asking, I decided to be honest and speak my peace. Having not done that in awhile, I was nervous… and this was over email! So I told the person something to the effect of, “Thank you for inviting me, but after our struggle with infertility, some things involving children are difficult and I cannot participate.” And guess what, my faith in humanity rose even the slightest bit with receiving a very empathetic and caring response.

So that happened shortly before Halloween.

Then Halloween arrived, and we were ready with costumes we bought from Walmart and full size candy bars. Yes, friends, we want to be those neighbors. Just like the folks who lived on Washington Street in our hometown gave out full size candy bars.

I really anticipated that I would be okay. The first few Halloweens of our infertility journey found me grocery shopping – all the kids would be out and about, so it was pretty peaceful to run my errands. For the past couple years, I sat on the fence, one foot in the tradition and one foot out – I would sit on my porch with candy, but have a drink in my hand. Alcohol does wonders for numbing feelings, let me tell you.

This year, I haven’t been drinking, so I’ve been having to deal with my feelings as they come up. It sucks when the feelings are in the “bad” category. And on Halloween, instead of participating like a “normal” human being (I’ve been lied to and tricked into thinking that alllllll Americans participate… and they don’t), I sat in my house, front porch light off, not dressed in my Halloween best, because at the last minute I had to draw a boundary. I didn’t anticipate it, but I whipped out that skill like a pumpkin pie out of the oven on Thanksgiving. (You can see where my mind is…)

So not only have I been running interference on boundaries, but my husband has as well on our behalf. It was pretty clear to him that I was struggling with some things and so when a situation arose with a family member, he shut it down. He didn’t even consult me first, and that felt really nice. Like he had my back. And that comes from me continuing to communicate about the boundaries I need and how I use them, and from his confidence in shutting down certain situations. We’re still a team, children or not, and that is worth its weight in….. candy bars? No, gold. It’s worth its weight in gold.

Making amends

For a long time I was at odds with my own past. My own experiences. It’s a weird place be to because there’s animosity and sadness and regret, but the only person it’s directed to is the person in the mirror. Or out into the void. It’s very confusing.

I went to a small private university only 15 minutes away from where I grew up. It was the only college I applied to, and with my grades, GPA, and “well-rounded” experiences, I knew I would get in, and I did. I was majored in Spanish and secondary education, and I remember with my mom meeting the head of the foreign language department in his dingy office that smelled like old books and cigarette smoke. I was a little unsure of my decision, but my conscience reminded me that this was the only school I applied to, the only one I believed and told I could go to, so I just went with it.

Westlake Hall, Bradley University | where I learned how to be a teacher

And I went with it for four years, four really difficult years. I worked a couple jobs outside of my 15 to 16 hour semesters and carefully plotted my classes so that I could graduate in four years. I even took a literature and an earth science class at the community college and a Spanish grammar class at another university close by so I could transfer the credits.

I lived in my room at my parents’ house, but also out of my car and in the university library. I found solace in coffee and green tea in travel cups and those ridiculously expensive smoothies they served at the student center. I racked up a credit card with purchases of bottled Starbucks frappuccinos.

And then I graduated with about $50,000 in student debt, a mixture of different kinds of loans all with low interest rates (thank goodness). I couldn’t study abroad due to jobs and bills, so I took some loan money and flew to Spain to visit a friend. I went on a missions trip to Bolivia. I tried to have as many immersion experiences in the Latin world so I would be ready to teach Spanish.

For a long time, the student debt hung over me, hung over us. We got married right when I graduated, so then all my private school debt became our private school debt, and I felt horrible about it. Every day. It was a dark cloud hanging over our new life together.

Eventually we paid all of it off (February 2017, nine years after my graduation). That helped me feel better about what I thought was a ridiculously expensive degree and a mediocre experience. Representatives from the university calling me on a Sunday evening asking me for more money couldn’t get off the phone without hearing an earful about how I worked two jobs and now was a teacher who could not afford to give even more money to the institution.

“Mrs. Mercies Per Mile, we’d like to hear about your experience at Bradley. What were some of your favorite extra curricular experiences as a student?” the bright-eyed work-study student would ask.

“My extra curricular experiences involved working two jobs and visiting my long-distance boyfriend. I had no time for anything else, not even friends, because I wanted to escape that expensive place as fast as possible, ” is what I wanted to say. Eventually I stopped answering the calls.

Recently, indirectly, I’ve come to terms with the difficult experience of undergrad. I realize how fortunate I was to even go to college, to have at least one parent who was college educated, and other family members who were, too. To have a working vehicle, and to be employed. To study something that actually has never failed me as far as acquiring skilled work. To study something that gave me a springboard for graduate studies and a slight shift in my career. To have a really solid liberal arts education that got me thinking outside my own world, that actually did a great job of teaching me how to be a teacher (besides the one measly foreign language methods class).

I’ve been back to visit the university only a couple of times in the past 12 years. Once to try to change my name on my diploma (didn’t realize that I couldn’t, and now I don’t want to) and once with my sister just to walk around. I guess you could say I’m not your typical alumnus, going to homecoming, sporting all the gear, reminiscing on the parties and social gatherings (I never did go to a college party…).

This transition in my feelings towards that era of my life is actually a transition in my feelings towards the person I was during that time. I was the extremely busy and overworked person I harp about now. I was nervous and anxious when it came to just about everything. I was very intimidated to speak Spanish or act like I knew anything about the culture. I was unsure of myself in so many ways, and I think I was actually embarrassed of the person I was.

pensive, unsure, full of doubt but trying to make it look like I have it all together
ca. 2006

But it’s okay. I’ve grown a lot in the past 15+ years. I’ve had some incredible experiences in life, in further education, in other cultures that have given me something new to latch onto.

First, I heard that high school was the best time of my life, and then when I got to college I heard that no, that was the best time of my life. Both were not the best time of my life, and it’s very depressing to think that for some people, they peak in high school or college. What about the (hopefully) 60+ years beyond that?

I think making such a black-and-white declaration of what is supposed to be the best time of someone’s life is myopic at best and damning at worst. We don’t know what everyone goes through in those stages. Some people, like me, have hope that other parts of their life will be the best.

For example, the life I’m living now is pretty damn amazing. I have an education, a long-term partner, a beautiful and safe home, a career that’s been built up over many years and experiences. But more than that, I’ve made a series of good decisions (and been a recipient of some blessings and luck) to get me here. Somehow I was able to see beyond the debt and the hardship and the infertility and even the Illinois River Valley to something new, perhaps wild and untamed, but always worth it.

I want to always pine for the life I’m living right now, not get snagged on the hard things in the past, or the attitudes I had, or the person I was. It’s all important and worthy of mention and meditation. All experiences in life converge into one tiny pin prick in the expanse of time – this moment right now.

The journey to delighting in boredom

By training in…boredom, we train in accepting things as they are. This helps us wean ourselves from the habit of closing down into our soothing world of familiar, imputed meanings.

Pema Chodron, Welcoming the Unwelcome

I used to be terrified of being bored. As a teenager in high school who lived life at 90 miles an hour, I anticipated but dreaded times like spring break or winter break. In my mind’s eye, I could see myself totally enjoying time off – waking up late, lazing around, maybe reading or writing or watching TV – but when that time actually came, I was a ball of anxiety.

This continued well into my 20’s, and even into my early 30’s (almost in my mid 30’s!). At some point, though, I was able to sit with the uncomfortable feeling of being bored. I started small. Instead of browsing through some app mindlessly on my phone while waiting in line at the post office, I’d just stand there and let my mind wander. Maybe smile at the person in front of me. Maybe strike up a conversation if it felt right. Instead of picking up my phone immediately when my lunch date got up to use the restroom, I’d sit, take a sip of my drink, and just contemplate whatever came to mind.I’m not going to lie – that was hard at first. And if I had to think back to when I began doing this, it was probably when I began practicing yoga.

The town I live in now has a very cute riverside yoga studio connected to a marina (with real sailboats!) just a couple blocks from my house. About a minute walk as the crow (or osprey, or heron..) flies. After having some back issues and paying good money at the chiropractor’s office to get some relief, I decided to treat myself to a monthly membership at this yoga studio. I was apprehensive, as much as I wanted to “get into yoga” and cultivate a regular practice… and get rid of my horrible posture… and be able to do a real pushup.

But the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes of class were near tortuous for me during that first month or so. I hated sitting cross-legged “in a comfortable seat
… it wasn’t comfortable. I did not like focusing on the sounds outside, which included other people breathing, cars passing by, the occasional siren sounded for the volunteer fire department. I couldn’t understand the point of focusing on those sounds. And focusing on my breathing? I was here to get a workout, dammit. I breath in, I breath out. Simple enough. Let’s move on.

Savasana, or corpse pose, was equally horrible when I first began. I couldn’t fathom laying still on my back (total side/belly sleeper here) for any amount of time, let alone trying to focus on a guided meditation about letting basically all my muscles slacken (even my face! what!). My favorite part of savasana at the beginning was when we were told to “carefully roll over to one side and press yourself up to a comfortable seat.”

But the thing about savasana is that it’s sometimes hailed as the most important pose in a yoga practice, when all the good stuff from your yoga practice settles into the body and mind. It’s when the body rests after working to keep you upright and moving for about an hour. It’s boredom but it’s everything good that boredom could be.

As we individuals grow in our resilience–as we become better at staying conscious and not losing heart–we will be able to remain strong in challenging conditions for the long haul. This is within the capacity of all of us.

Pema Chodron, Welcoming the Unwelcome

So now that I’ve contemplated the genesis of my being able to sit still for any amount of time, I’ve been growing in my practice of boredom. This can look so many different ways. Right now, boredom for me looks like having no music or TV on as I write this, just an awareness of the other sounds around me: the comforting syncopated sound of the dryer tumbling the bedding, the dog breathing as she sleeps, the clack-clack-clack of typing on the keyboard, the occasional creaking of the stairs as my husband comes down from his office for a snack or something to drink.

While sometimes I choose to be bored, mostly I’m forced into it, and that is where the anxiety has come from – having expectations of going to the store and getting out quickly but actually having to stand in line for a long time. Getting stuck in traffic and getting home late when I’d already mentally planned out my obligation-less evening. Boredom happens in the moment, and that’s the key I think. When I’m okay with being bored, with my mind being temporarily unoccupied, I can be in the moment. Instead of driving at 75 mph in heavy traffic down Interstate 95, my mind is on a drive out into the country, perhaps stopped at a park for a few minutes before we continue on.

I think I wrote about silence before here… about going to my grandparents’ and wondering why in the world they didn’t have music or TV on and it was just… quiet. But now I get it. The more in tune with myself I am, the less I want mindless influence from outside. More often than not, I welcome the quiet. It doesn’t make me nervous or anxious like it used to. I’ve learned to sit with it, embrace it, and ask it questions.

And almost 100% of the time, it answers. I come to interesting revelations that I share, or keep to myself. I’m able to sit and spend an entire day reading.. something I’ve always wanted to be “able” to do. I can breathe in the moment and find gratitude for the simple things – the amazing invention of the dryer, the furry, warm companionship of a dog, the fact that my husband is here in “quarantine” with me while years ago he was 7,000 miles away.

Learning to embrace boredom has helped me do some settling. I feel more settled in my own intentions and motivations, in what I like and don’t like to do, watch, see.. in what I want in friendships and relationships.. in the fact that what I do is not who I am. (Whewweee.. I could write a LOT about that last one…). And in the settling, I find flight and change and invention and creativity.

However, learning to embrace boredom that’s forced upon us (kind of like we might experience now in self-isolation) helps prepare us for more dire situations where we must focus on something without warning – where we have to be aware of our surroundings and make decisions on the fly. And, we might have to direct our attention to said situation for a long period of time without a break. This is a skill that at some point is common to all humanity, and we must know how to face such a challenge.

What can boredom teach you? And will you open yourself up to learn from it?

We are who we’ve always been

I have read a lot of good books lately – twenty so far in 2020. I recently finished The Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas and I can say that I had a book hangover for a good couple days. I also read another fantasy book, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip, for a book club. (Check out the cover – beautiful artwork!) Yes, I am part of a book club where non-nonfiction books are read by yours truly. I’ve been channeling my energy throughout this past month of isolation into all the things I pursued pre-adolescence… reading, sewing, crafting, cooking – all the things that bring my joy and comfort and are simply me.

Welcoming the Unwelcome by Pema Chodron caught my eye at the library. You know, the day I went and loaded up on books before it closed for an undetermined amount of time. But I saw the title in the “new nonfiction” section and thought, Hmm, welcoming the unwelcome… sounds like my life. Let’s get that one too.

It’s a gem. I’m almost halfway through and it seems every sentence is quotable. But here is one of my favorites:

The wonderful irony about the spiritual journey is that we find it only leads us to become just as we are. The exalted state of enlightenment is nothing more than fully knowing ourselves and our world just as we are.

Pema Chodron, Welcoming the Unwelcome

This has been so true for me. The longer I delve deep into the core of my soul, the more I see myself, actually. The unencumbered 4-year-old Elizabeth is there. The 12-year-old Elizabeth beginning to become unsure about her new body is there. The 30-year-old Elizabeth devastated by infertility is there. And the soon-to-be 34-year-old Elizabeth is there. And she’s the same and different all at the same time.

I think this phenomenon is something I also see in the protagonists of these books I’ve been reading, nay, devouring. Searching for something new but seeing themselves as a result. Having gone through some crazy messed up shit, but ending up seeing the same face and soul in the mirror, just changed, a new version of themselves.

I hope that when we come out of this “new normal”, we can all find the same soul in the mirror – farther along in our spiritual journeys.

Vanishing

With all this time at home and so many headlines, I find I’m spending way more time on my phone in the past week than I have in a long time. As a result of scrolling, I saw this video of Kelly Clarkson (have always been a fan) doing an a cappella version of Mariah Carey’s “Vanishing”, or “track 5” as Kelly called it. I felt that in my soul – the eponymous album by the diva hooked me as a little girl and up into my teens I was still purchasing her CDs with my piano teaching money and listening to them on repeat. Of course, the listening came with an attempted vocal accompaniment by yours truly… attempted. By an untrained amateur alto.

After watching Kelly belt it out in her bathroom in a Montana cabin (ugh, that sounds awesome), I played “Track 5” by Mariah while working in the kitchen. That in itself felt strange, to play the song out of context. The album is one to be enjoyed in its entirety, preferably with the huge 80’s-era headphones of my dad’s, sitting on the living room floor completely oblivious to the world, bass cranked.

I was finishing up picking the meat off of a homecooked “rotisserie” chicken and putting the bones and some veggie scraps back into the Instant Pot to make a broth. My alto voice was (attempting to) sing along to the first verse, chorus, second verse… then I was putting away dishes from the dishwasher to make room for dirty ones.

If I could recapture || All of the memories || And bring them to life Surely I would

Before I knew it, I was in tears. Utterly blindsided. I could not have seen it coming from miles away. It all happened so fast, the train of thought that left the station quickly and then slammed on the brakes. I was swaying a bit (I’m home alone this afternoon so who cares) and in a split second I was reminded of my mom telling me that when I was little, she and I would dance to this in the kitchen. I was four years old when the album was released, in 1990.

Hear the distant laughter || Wasn’t it you and me || Surviving the night || You’re fading out of my sight || Swiftly

And suddenly the four-year-old blonde haired blue eyed girl became the nearly 34-year-old woman holding the four-year-old girl, swaying and dancing with her. Not in the Bacon Street kitchen, but in my kitchen in 2020 during a global pandemic. I, the almost 34-year-old woman was not looking at my mother, but I was mesmerized, gazing at my own daughter, at her messy ponytail swaying and her little legs and bare feet kicking and her mouth open, laughing. And that, with the lyrics and music and felt experience, I was realizing just how real the song felt in my bones and I just started crying.

Oh, I was so enraptured || No sensibility || To open my eyes || I misunderstood || Now you’re fading faster || It’s suddenly hard to see || You’re taking the light || Letting the shadows inside || Swiftly

So, like any sane person does when a song moves them, I played it again, while letting myself not just feel the feelings, but experience the feelings. The loss. The life that could have been. How this quarantine could be so different. How my life certainly must be playing out in a different way in a parallel universe. That’s the way we have to be present and sit with it (or sway to it in your kitchen with a dish towel in hand). It’s really not an option for me anymore to acknowledge the feeling with a nod of my chin and a few teary blinks and move on.

Fuck, it hurts. It’s a physical pain in my heart and chest. It’s intense, and lasts for a little while. But it’s necessary. And a reminder that while in general I am content with my life, and free from worry about bringing children into this crazy-ass world, I am not immune to my own grief and hurt and despair. It comes to the surface every now and then, a reminder that I am human and I am or was a mother (in another life) and that for some reason the souls of my children never made it to this world.

Reaching out into the distance
Searching for spirits of the past
Just a trace of your existence to grasp

I could feel this coming.

As far as I know, the world is spinning at the same rate as it was only a week ago. A month ago. A year ago. But now, as of 5:42 AM on March 17, 2020, we’re living in a much different world. And it’s weird to think I could feel it coming.

For several months now there’s been an disquiet in my soul about how fast life is moving. About how much for granted we all take that fact that we’re alive and breathing in this world. It’s bubbled up here and there, encouraged me to write or think or have important conversations with people. It’s sometimes been flashing this word in my mind: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

So that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I’ve been decluttering rooms in my house but also my calendar. I’ve been saying no to things. I’ve been triaging my tasks at work to focus on the one most important task – educating and advocating for English learners and their families.

Now, being a teacher whose state of residence has shut down schools for at least two weeks, I have nothing but time to ponder these things. And in such times as these, I think it’s very important to chronicle my thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is not going away.

I will admit, upon hearing schools were closing I was a little excited. Finally, finally, we were all going to get the break we needed. The need was palpable every day at work, no matter the school. Teachers are tired. Students are tired. We’re all a little tired of each other, I think. What tasks could I accomplish during this time at home? Painting, rearranging, rehoming decluttered items, finishing a book series. Feeling a sense of karma coming back to me because after the grief of not having children, I have a quiet house for the foreseeable future.

Overall I’ve had a strange sense of calm. I’ve checked in with or family members have checked in on me as far away as Washington State, the American epicenter of this whole thing, and as close as North Carolina. I’ve been checking in on my students and making sure they know where they can get lunches this week and next. I’ve also been worrying about them – their home lives during this time. The lack of direct instruction, especially for the ones who are still in the beginning stages of learning English. I’m wondering what this will mean when we finally do come back to school, and how this will impact their lives going forward.

But yes, an overall sense of calm and okayness. I’m okay. Aaron’s okay. We’re both on the same side of the planet, in the same zip code, in the same house. We have jobs that will not lay us off. Bills are paid. I know what’s important right now and I can focus on that. I’m grateful for the time to slow down and take stock of life. It’s okay to be okay.

At some point Emily and I will start a podcast (maybe this is a great time for it?) but one of the things we were talking about a few days ago was that we feel so much more in tune with the earth and the divine and the ‘collective consciousness’ (or whatever other name there is for this) than we did years ago. I feel aware of the earth groaning and creaking and sometimes even screaming out. I feel aware and even sensitive to the vibes that people throw off when they’re tired, exhausted, running ragged, just need a break. I feel aware of my own heart expanding to take in not the feelings but the people, and especially children, who need this awareness.

As I lament to my therapist, “Being woke sucks sometimes” because you see how not woke the rest of the world can be. There’s so much more to life but busyness and the illusion of busyness. Of the self-inflicted pat on the back for a job well done. There’s more to life than getting the newest car or cutest shoes or having take-out every day for lunch.

There’s delicious homemade food, made with time that you carved out intentionally from a crazy schedule. There’s special phone conversations with loved ones that you can have because you’re not scheduled with activities from 6AM to 9PM seven days a week. There’s daily walks around the neighborhood, nodding to passersby and chatting with a neighbor. There’s early morning times of devotions or reading a much-loved book because you got a good night of sleep and could wake up early.

At times I feel my journey to a simpler and richer life echoes many people (mostly women) who have now written books about it.. and not just about simplicity in the concrete things, but some about their journey to a faith that makes sense to them. Books like Present Over Perfect, Out of Sorts, Faith Unraveled, Eat Pray Love, Wild, Searching for Sunday, The Year of No Nonsense, The Untethered Soul, The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen, Slow Church, Leaving Church, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Some would say these books are a dime a dozen now, but I think it speaks to a societal shift that could be happening… where we again value presence with nature and people and not dependence on things or titles.

Writers and artists have often been the prophetic ones, sometimes the canaries in the coal mine. They have not only admonished us but given us a way out and action steps to take, and this momentous and pivotal time is no exception. I will leave you with this song.

When ‘no’ means ‘yes’

Busyness is a form of people pleasing, and people pleasing is a coping strategy. If I can’t feel good about myself from the inside, then I make sure to get as much external validation as possible. The more I say yes, the harder I work, the more validation I receive which, because of how I grew up and interacted with the world as a child/teenager, makes me feel good.

But at the end of the day, crawling into bed, it just makes me tired.

Not only does being busy for me mean the relentless act of people pleasing, but it also means I get to escape from my reality. I don’t know much about the history of why humans are the way we are, but I get the idea that humans have needed some form of escapism as a means of survival.

Sometimes escapism is just me daydreaming about the clock saying it’s time to go home, and at other times, I’m so not at home in my own skin that I absolutely need a promise of something otherworldly to allow me to relax, even for a second.

Our forms of escapism are wide and varied. Mostly, I think about vacation and not having my cell phone (like, forever banishing it to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay), and walking the gangway onto a cruise ship bound for warmer waters. I think about early retirement or tending a large garden outside our homestead in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains (we do not in fact own a homestead in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains). I think about camping among the huge evergreens of the Pacific Northwest, of the breeze on my face as I ride the ferry out to the San Juan Islands. I think about the freedom of a day with no worries, cares, checking the bank account, making grocery lists, doing laundry.

My preferred form of escapism is busyness. Always floating and moving from commitment to commitment, filling up my calendar to the brim and always being on the move. If I’m always moving, I never have to actually sit and be faced with the fact that I’m not in fact on vacation right now or sailing away from Baltimore or taking a hike up to a waterfall. I can just move from event to event, place to place, and maybe stop for a second to fill up the gas tank but just keep ignoring the fact that the car needs maintenance, that it’ll be just fine for a few more miles.

But at some point, the car will break down. I will have to take an entire Saturday to either sit at the repair shop waiting for it, or work out a way to get a ride to and from and anticipate that fated call that tells me I’m going to take a chunk of savings to fix the damn car (and a part of that savings was probably for real vacation). And the Saturday I was planning on using to relax and do some “self-care” will be shot.

For some reason, cultivating a life that’s a mix of work + play, consistently, seems not only outlandish but also irresponsible. To open my calendar during a regular workweek and not see anything scheduled outside of my working hours just seems unnatural.

It seems unnatural because it is. But my body and soul and spirit are reeling, they’re telling me,

Elizabeth. It’s been 30 years of this busyness & people-pleasing bullshit. We can’t take it anymore. Please stop.

I think the things I daydream about while entrenched in my reality are clues to things I could actually do now to live the life that makes sense to me. I could go for a hike after work, or on a Saturday morning. I could load up the kayak on a Friday afternoon. I could sit on my porch with coffee and a book in the morning before work. I could spend a weekend in the woods.

But if I say yes to all those things, then I’m saying no to other things, and *gasp* ‘no’ to people. The horror. It’s a skill I have not yet mastered, but I’m working on it. Practice with me. (Disclaimer: this might feel a little bit like a grammatical exercise. Bear with the linguist/teacher here.)

  • No, I can’t work a part-time job in addition to my full-time job.
  • No, I can’t take on a leadership role in this ministry.
  • No, I can’t volunteer for that event on that day.
  • No, I can’t donate money to that cause.
  • No, I can’t stay after school and plan unless I’m getting paid.
  • No I can’t stay after school, period.
  • No, I can’t chair that committee.
  • No, I can’t bring something for lunch day.
  • No, I don’t want to be out past 8 on a work night.
  • No, I need to stay home tonight to cook a healthy dinner.
  • No, I have a therapy appointment that I will not miss.
  • No, I am taking a break from drinking.
  • No, [what you can’t or won’t do].

Great job. You said your peace (piece? I think it can be both…). Now, let’s practice by adding ___ + so that ____.

  • No, I can’t work a part-time job in addition to my full-time job so that I can pursue a passion project such as writing.
  • No, I can’t take on a leadership role in this ministry so that I can do a really good job leading the ministry I’m already leading.
  • No, I can’t volunteer for that event on that day so that I can have time for exercise.
  • No, I can’t donate money to that cause so that I can fully contribute to retirement.
  • No, I can’t stay after school and plan unless I’m getting paid so that I communicate to administration that I will not work for free.
  • No I can’t stay after school, period so that I can get home and make a healthy dinner.
  • No, I can’t chair that committee so that I can devote my undivided attention to planning engaging and high-quality lessons.
  • No, I can’t bring something for lunch day so that I can relax with my partner after making and cleaning up dinner.
  • No, I don’t want to be out past 8 on a work night so that I get enough sleep.
  • No, I need to stay home tonight to cook a healthy dinner so that I can take care of my body.
  • No, I have a therapy appointment that I will not miss so that I can continue to heal after saying goodbye to the dream of having my own children and losing loved ones.
  • No, I am taking a break from drinking so that I can have a clear mind and work on dealing with reality.
  • No, [what you can’t or won’t do] so that [insert positive alternative here].

Can you see that the statement that comes after so that is actually a value statement about your own life?

  • I can pursue a passion project such as writing.
  • I can do a really good job leading the ministry I’m already leading.
  • I can have time for exercise.
  • I can fully contribute to retirement.
  • I communicate to administration that I will not work for free.
  • I can get home and make a healthy dinner.
  • I can devote my undivided attention to planning engaging and high-quality lessons.
  • I can relax with my partner after making and cleaning up dinner.
  • I can get enough sleep.
  • I can take care of my body.
  • I can continue to heal after saying goodbye to the dream of having my own children and losing loved ones.
  • I can have a clear mind and work on dealing with reality as it comes my way.

Last step, my friends. Let’s add yes to those statements. And now you have guiding affirmations.

  • Yes, I can pursue a passion project such as writing.
  • Yes, I can do a really good job leading the ministry I’m already leading.
  • Yes, I can have time for exercise.
  • Yes, I can fully contribute to retirement.
  • Yes, I communicate to administration that I will not work for free.
  • Yes, I can get home and make a healthy dinner.
  • Yes, I can devote my undivided attention to planning engaging and high-quality lessons.
  • Yes, I can relax with my partner after making and cleaning up dinner.
  • Yes, I can get enough sleep.
  • Yes, I can take care of my body.
  • Yes, I can continue to heal after saying goodbye to the dream of having my own children and losing loved ones.
  • Yes, I can have a clear mind and work on dealing with reality as it comes my way.

FYI I did not copy-pasta ‘yes’; I typed every single one. It felt good.

I hope you can see that this form of self-care actually extends beyond self and into the world. If you believe that we are all in this together, we sentient, feeling, emoting human beings, then you probably agree that if we take care of ourselves, put on our own oxygen masks first, then we’re taking care of all of us. We provide a much-needed yet humble model for forging a new path in our burdened, overworked, stressed society. And we make it better.

Just Say No, AKA the Year 2020

How are your New Year’s goals and resolutions going? Did you make any? I haven’t made them since probably around 2013 when I resolved to make the bed every day. I have to say, it’s stuck and I still make the bed five out of seven days.

Instead of resolutions, I try to stick with a theme that’s a bit more overarching and esoteric. 2019 was the year where I declared to myself to Be Honest. And I was. I was honest about everything from what I ate making my body feel like garbage to the nasty habit of rarely cleaning my bathroom to the negative garbage I continue to spew at the girl in the mirror. I was honest about my feelings about my weight, my house, paint colors on my walls, how I really feel about baby showers (heh), and about the things on my calendar that I actually like doing (I’m at about 70% right now).

It was a year of self-discovery, though I am ashamed that it took me 32, wait no, 33 years to discover the person I’m with all day long. But guys, I did it. And did I die? No. I did not.

Twenty-twenty is the year of Just Say No. I have to say that the DARE program with the cute little bear we got to pass around the class (and Mom made me tumble said bear in the dryer for no fewer than 30 minutes) didn’t do much for me in the way of saying no to drugs (probably because I came off as a goody-two-shoes and was never offered them…). But hell, it would have been nice if someone had told me as a young woman, There are going to be lots of people who will pressure you to do all the things. Just say no to 80% of the things, and focus on the other 20%. Nope, none of that.

I’m on to you, all you people who keep asking the same people over and over and over again to do more things. My type of people are responsible, organized, loyal, dependable, and sadly, but not so sadly for you, yes people. And frankly, I’m sick of it.

I know the door swings both ways. I do not absolve myself of responsibility in saying yes to all the things. And I will not deny that there was a time in my life I really needed to say yes to all the things… during college, for example (as in classes and papers and odd side jobs). During student teaching… working my way through new and different jobs the first ten years of my career as we moved around the country.

Goals are weird, amirite? You make a goal and think you want to reach it until you’re almost there, or actually there, and then it’s like, huh. Wow. Okay. That’s it? (This has been my personal experience for the accomplishment of many goals.) I think that actually, one of my goals all along has been to put myself in such a position that I could say no to things and either 1) not give a shit about what people think of that dreaded two-letter word coming out of my mouth and/or 2) financially and professionally afford to say no.

I’m now a recovering yes person on a multi-step program (don’t ask for specifics, maybe that’ll come later) to becoming a no person. So, let’s focus on the positive… what are the things I’m currently working on saying yes to in 2020?

  • Reading. Lots and lots of it. Mostly in front of my YouTube fireplace. With a dog. And a blankie. Because 10-year-old Elizabeth is resurfacing. My current goal is to read 40 books this year.
  • Spiritual introspection and discipline. Continuing to find new ways of approaching my Christian faith in a way that edifies myself and the Church.
  • Exercise that isn’t running. Gasp. Hold the damn phone. I know. This year I think might be a running sabbatical.
  • Making good food in my beautiful kitchen.
  • Drinking less caffeine. Also on the list of things that don’t make sense.
  • Being honest about who I am and what I want out of life. Approaching my weirdness with a curiosity rather than contempt.
  • Connecting with family and friends.
  • Reflecting and revising my teaching practice.
  • Making the bed every day (???)

[Insert conclusion here]. Aren’t conclusions the worst things to write? All said, I’m on this journey to become a more decent human being. To treat myself and other with respect and dignity. To stamp out evil and poverty of the mind. To expose myself to new experiences and live in the moment. Whew. Let’s do it.