Cerebral Traffic Control

I was driving home from the market this morning and I took a short-cut through a neighborhood near my house.

There were several pieces of construction equipment blocking parts of the road and a person standing there, ostensibly to direct traffic. I couldn’t see far enough down the road to tell what was on the other side of the trucks, so I trusted the person standing in the middle of the road to tell me when I could go.

She held up both of her hands, looking back and forth from me to the other end of the road, then sort of waggled both hands at the same time in a meaningless way. Then she stepped back out of the way. Baffled, I started to go. The trouble was, another driver at the other end did the same thing. Luckily the two of us were able to carefully edge by each other as our would-be traffic controller stood there haplessly looking on.

It made me think of my brain.

Like the lady in the hard hat, I don’t have total control over what comes driving through. I have various expected inputs. Some thoughts barrel through while others come gently by. Of course, brains are much more complicated than two-way streets. Some thoughts approach like a missile strike and others seem to walk by without even stopping, though we wish they would.

Sometimes, I get “busy brain.” There are just too many thoughts. Too many things to care about. Too many puzzles to figure out. So, like the lady in the hard hat, I sometimes get overwhelmed and just waggle my hands ineffectually and hope for the best.

I don’t judge myself for that. But after this morning, I’m left with the reminder that if I can practice effective cerebral traffic control sometimes I might arrive at more conclusions with less inner chaos.

Be the Lady in the Minivan You Want to See in the World

I had a rough week a few weeks ago. My Stuff just got so big and I had a hard time dealing.

This is just part of my process. I know what to do, and I know who my people are (I have a lot of people). So it’s going to be ok. I want to tell you a story though.

One of the Things I Can Do is to go to yoga class. Because having someone remind you to breathe for an hour straight is SO HELPFUL when it feels like you’ve forgotten how. So I took myself to a yoga class at Abide Yoga because I called them the morning after a bad night and had approximately this conversation with H, Yoga Studio Owner and Kind Phone Speaker:

K: Do you have any yoga that’s good for….anxiety….? I mean, I’ll be ok but right now I’m just…ugh…
H: Yes. Please come here.
K: Are you sure? I might cry. I’ll try to be quiet though. Because yoga.
H: Just come here. It’ll be ok.

So I did. After an hour of steady reminders (I did cry, and it was ok), I felt like I could breathe well again. I headed home in my van.

There’s a neighborhood I cut through to avoid the lights on the main streets by my house. I arrived at an intersection where there is no light, but it’s close to another light which was red and cars were lined up. I began to edge into the street to turn left.

A lady in a metallic blue jeep laid on the horn and started yelling at me through her open windows. “What the F*%< do you think you’re doing? STOP!” For her sake, I kind of hope she was just having a terrible day. But I digress.

I was…caught off guard. I called out feebly, “But…the light is red…” She was not convinced. She continued to yell while pulling directly in front of me and sitting there, middle finger extended angrily, until several seconds after her light turned green. Then she pulled away.

What the what?! I thought…but then I looked at the lady in the grey minivan behind her, who had watched the whole thing. She shrugged at me, gave me a kind smile, and waved at me to go in front of her.

I drove home, bemused.

I went back to yoga that afternoon because Abide was having a special day of free yoga for their first anniversary, because my husband is awesome and played with our kids all day, and because I still needed to remember to breathe more. After class was over, I told them the story and said, “Thank you for being the lady in the van today.”

Sometimes the world seems full of stress. It feels like one big middle finger. Ladies in metallic blue jeeps will yell at you, figuratively (and sometimes literally!) speaking. But if you look hard, after that, you can often find well-placed acts of loving kindness. A glass of water. A kind word from a friend or stranger. A yoga class. If you are stressed or otherwise unwell I hope for those things for you, and I hope you are given the grace to see them. It really makes all the difference.

A Princess Worth Mentioning Again: Rosamond

Another excerpt from The Lost Princess by George MacDonald. For me, where I am now, anxiety = group of some dozen wolves and hyenas. As Robert Frost tells us, “The best way out is always through.”

*****

Then said the wise woman:—

“Below there is the forest which surrounds my house. I am going home. If you pledge to come there to me, I will help you, in a way I could not do now, to be good and lovely. I will wait you there all day, but if you start at once, you may be there long before noon. I shall have your breakfast waiting for you. One thing more: the beasts have not yet all gone home to their holes; but I give you my word, not one will touch you so long as you keep coming nearer to my house.”

She ceased. Rosamond sat waiting to hear something more; but nothing came. She looked up; she was alone.

Alone once more! Always being left alone, because she would not yield to what was right! Oh, how safe she had felt under the wise woman’s cloak! She had indeed been good to her, and she had in return behaved like one of the hyenas of the awful wood! What a wonderful house it was she lived in! And again all her own story came up into her brain from her repentant heart.

“Why didn’t she take me with her?” she said. “I would have gone gladly.” And she wept. But her own conscience told her that, in the very middle of her shame and desire to be good, she had returned no answer to the words of the wise woman; she had sat like a tree-stump, and done nothing. She tried to say there was nothing to be done; but she knew at once that she could have told the wise woman she had been very wicked, and asked her to take her with her. Now there was nothing to be done.

“Nothing to be done!” said her conscience. “Cannot you rise, and walk down the hill, and through the wood?”

“But the wild beasts!”

“There it is! You don’t believe the wise woman yet! Did she not tell you the beasts would not touch you?”

“But they are so horrid!”

“Yes, they are; but it would be far better to be eaten up alive by them than live on—such a worthless creature as you are. Why, you’re not fit to be thought about by any but bad ugly creatures.”

This was how herself talked to her.

All at once she jumped to her feet, and ran at full speed down the hill and into the wood. She heard howlings and yellings on all sides of her, but she ran straight on, as near as she could judge. Her spirits rose as she ran. Suddenly she saw before her, in the dusk of the thick wood, a group of some dozen wolves and hyenas, standing all together right in her way, with their green eyes fixed upon her staring. She faltered one step, then bethought her of what the wise woman had promised, and keeping straight on, dashed right into the middle of them. They fled howling, as if she had struck them with fire. She was no more afraid after that, and ere the sun was up she was out of the wood and upon the heath, which no bad thing could step upon and live. With the first peep of the sun above the horizon, she saw the little cottage before her, and ran as fast as she could run towards it, When she came near it, she saw that the door was open, and ran straight into the outstretched arms of the wise woman.

The wise woman kissed her and stroked her hair, set her down by the fire, and gave her a bowl of bread and milk.

When she had eaten it she drew her before her where she sat, and spoke to her thus:—

“Rosamond, if you would be a blessed creature instead of a mere wretch, you must submit to be tried.”

“Is that something terrible?” asked the princess, turning white.

“No, my child; but it is something very difficult to come well out of. Nobody who has not been tried knows how difficult it is; but whoever has come well out of it, and those who do not overcome never do come out of it, always looks back with horror, not on what she has come through, but on the very idea of the possibility of having failed, and being still the same miserable creature as before.”

To the Girl Who Came Out to My High School Youth Group

People murmured uncomfortably to each other, “What’s she doing here?”

“I don’t know!”

“I mean, she came out. As a Lesbian. She likes girls!”

Churchgoers between worship services continued to whisper behind their hands and awkwardly avoid eye contact.

You stood there in the middle of the crowded lobby, not moving. Looking at people’s faces one by one. We made eye contact for a brief moment, and then you looked away to the next person as I uncomfortably averted my gaze. I had nothing to offer you. We knew each other but hadn’t been close, and I did not have a grid for how to accept or even understand your presence there because I had been taught that what you were claiming as your identity was an immoral action and so I should pass judgment on it. I was to love you by hating your sin. I was young and impressionable and didn’t yet know that loving someone should not involve voting “yes” or “no” on them before being their friend. So when someone I’d attended youth events with and known moderately well “admitted” to being gay and then came and stared at us on a Sunday morning, I didn’t know that maybe what you needed was for us to look at you like you were still a person; maybe you wanted to know you were still worthy of being looked in the eye and cared about. Better yet, for someone to say, “I don’t know how this works yet because there’s a lot of cultural baggage around this, but I care about you enough to try to figure it out.”

God forgive me.

~~~~~

A few years later, I was home visiting from college when I saw in the church bulletin that the teaching in a couple of weeks was to be on homosexuality. A few years in the school of music and a few key friendships in which I cared about actual gay people having informed my thinking, I emailed the pastor and asked him to please keep three things in mind:

1. That while many Christians think of being gay as a choice or action, most gay people think of being gay as an issue of identity.

2. That when you say that being gay is wrong, you are telling someone that the way they understand their identity is wrong.

3. That even if being gay is a sin, like gluttony or pride, we don’t make people stop doing those other things as a prerequisite for deserving our respect.

I wasn’t home the weekend he gave the teaching, so I don’t know whether my words had any impact. But I want you to know that by that point I had begun to see that our church had mishandled something important by not looking you in the eye that day.

~~~~~

If I go back and think about the day you stood there, I hope that someone in that whole crowd of professed Jesus followers was willing to stop and really look at you. I hope someone, anyone, was able to see your coming and standing there for what it really was: an act of bravery. You came and you said, “this is who I am. This is who I understand myself to be. Do you still love me?” I feel deep shame as I write that knowing it wasn’t me. But wallowing doesn’t help either of us. Guilt is only useful if it propels us to do better because we know better. So I promise to continue learning how to really look at people. I will put away from me, as a doctrine of the Pharisees, the practice of passing judgment on people as though they are nothing but a collection of choices for me to weigh in on.

Congratulations, M. I hope that, wherever you are, the recent ruling from the Supreme Court regarding gay marriage affords you some measure of peace and validation. And I hope and pray you’ve found people who can love you well and see you for the precious child of God that you are.

 

This is The Work.

A number of years ago, a friend of mine was going through a bad breakup (turns out most breakups are bad in some way; people don’t usually break up if things are going well…but I digress). At the time, I was working for her out of her house. I showed up assuming we would work on some administrative tasks we had planned, but neither of us could really focus. So we watched Zoolander instead.

At one point in the movie, she turned to me and said, “You know, I get caught up in thinking I have to be doing work with people, or we are just wasting time.”

“I know that about you,” I replied. “That’s why I started working for you. I wanted to be friends.” See what I did there? I was as subtle back then as I am now.

“But R keeps trying to tell me that really being with people, right in their stuff, is the work. That it’s the important part.”

“He is right about that.”

“I needed to be watching Zoolander. This is The Work.”

~~~~~

Several ladies at the Jewish preschool daycare center where I worked shortly after moving to Cleveland used to tell me I was a “balaboosta.” I liked it then; I like it even more now. I’m growing into it as a major part of my identity. For those of you like me who don’t speak yiddish, a balaboosta is a woman who makes her home and her life a safe and welcoming space for those around her. In prefeminist terms, it meant a sort of super-housewife, who can pull off dinner for 20 at the drop of a hat without mussing her pearls or starched apron. Believe me when I tell you this is not me (well, maybe the dinner part). But underneath the pearls and the endless laundry and vacuuming is the idea that really being with people and creating space for them to really be with each other is The Work.

One of my favorite things about being married to J is that he really, really gets this about me. He understands that my plan to bring dinner to a friend in the hospital is not ancillary to my day; it is a small outpouring of me doing what I feel in my bones that I’m on the planet to do.

I doubt I’ll make much of a career out of it. I have yet to find a university that offers a master’s degree in having a friend over for coffee, or in watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because that is the best way to be present with someone in a particular moment (doing The Work is not always about talking). Sometimes I think it sounds silly to describe such simple gestures as my calling in life. But I think when it sounds silly to me, it’s really because I am underestimating the usefulness and value of meaningful emotional connection.

TPM’s

New measure of thought quality: Thoughts Per Minute (TPM’S). Thinking a lot isn’t always bad. I like the way my brain works most of the time. But as my brain revs up when I get stressed, I think about something until I get stuck and can’t figure it out, then jump tracks and think about something else. The more the stress, the quicker my brain switches from item to item, without really ever finishing a thought. Too many TPM’S.

There are a variety of ways to address this, I think. Part of the solution is to do the work of thinking about hard things past the point that feels comfortable. I should probably come up with a list of the more productive…what’s that? Sure, I’ll get you a glass of water. Drinking a whole glass of water is good for refocusing, theoretically. Yes, and a snack. Yes, we can play Chutes and Ladders. Goodness the living room’s a mess. Are those bobby pins on the floor? My hair itches. I’m hungry. What are we having for dinner? Hey, groups of people cook dinner at the Ronald MacDonald House. That’s so cool. Wait, what was I doing…?

p.s.- I’ve been told by someone whose opinion I trust that this doesn’t even cover the half of it. “More isn’t always better Linus. Sometimes it’s just more.”

S at age 4

After spending time with us, people sometimes say things like, “You’re writing these things down somewhere, right? He’s HILARIOUS.” (Lest you think I would portray my children as perfect, I also feel compelled to share that after spending time with us, other people sometimes say things like, “We’re waiting a LONG TIME to have kids.” Nobody is just one thing.)

S is lots of things. He’s funny. He’s crazy. He’s serious and thoughtful. He’s wild and doesn’t think things through. He doesn’t like large groups (until he really, really does).  He still doesn’t really like to wear pants. He’s strong and shy and little and big and I love him. Here are a few examples of why.

 

8:30 p.m.

K: You just stay here and calm your body. I’m going to go check on something and I’ll be right back.

S: You’ll be right back?

K: Yes, I’ll be right back. You stay in bed.

S: What are you going to do?

K: I’m just going to check on some boring mama things.

****

5:30 a.m.

K: zzzzzzzzzz

S: MAMA?

K: Ahh…huh?

S: You stay right here.

K: Ahh…huh?

S: I’m going to go check on some boring kiddo things.

****

Dinner time

K: Thank you for this food. Please use it to nourish our bodies so we can do your words. Amen.

****

Dinner time, a few moments later

S: Thank you for this food. Thank you for this day. Thank you for Mama’s body, so we can do Jesus’ amen.

****

S: When we die we see God. Do we go to heaven? Where is it? Like the one in ‘…and heaven and nature sing?’ That one?

****

S: When I’m in the bathroom, and someone knocks on the door, I say “octopi!” Because they will think that I said “occupied!” Isn’t that funny?

****

S: Can you make me a hot cocoa, but make it with coconut oil? Because I can’t have dairy.

****

S: Look at all the beautiful butterflies! They are so, so beautiful!

K: Yes, they sure are! I see them.

S: Let’s see more! Over this big dam river!

K: What river?

S: This one! This big dam river! Let’s cross the big dam river and we can see all the butterflies over there!

****

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Míliath: on Kindness and the People Nearest to Us

I’m tired of reading children’s books that endorse that idea that brothers and sisters being awful to each other all the time is just a fact of life.

I’m realistic enough to be clear that they need to learn to work things out with one another, and that the friction between siblings is a useful and important part of the process. But within that reality, I think I can help my children to learn to disagree (discuss, argue, and yes, fight…) well. It’s tricky, but I think it’s possible. In fact, I think the skill of working out differences graciously is one of the most important relational tools I can give them.

Family relationships ought to be a safe space for children and grown-ups to be other than their best, to have their big feelings, and to feel accepted for who they are. However, I think this is often conflated with a somewhat lazy approach to relationships “I can be a jerk to them, they have to love me anway.” There is some basis for this belief. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do things. I also don’t like the implied, “so I don’t even have to try to be kind,” that too naturally follows on that train of thinking.

What if our daily family life together can be the very setting for us to practice all the virtues we read about or hear about? Peace, love, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control….keeping these abstracted away as ideas reserved for “out in the world” makes them much more likely to be practiced only occasionally. But what if our close relationships are the exact places we should be using as a safe space to practice being good to other people? What if my children are, in fact, capable of receiving and growing kindness within them, if I can just sow it carefully?

We are not perfect people. Weeds like selfishness, angry shouting, and other unkindnesses are a fact of life. That doesn’t mean they should be ignored. That’s how you end up with a garden choked with weeds.

With that in view, we are studying kindness this week. We’re making trips to the library to learn about it. We’re studying what wise people have said about it. We’re defining what it means to us personally, and how we can recognize and practice it in our lives. As an attempt to highlight kind actions when we recognize them, we are exclaiming “míliath!” whenever we witness a kind action. Míliath means “kindnesses” (in Sindarin, because why not?).

What has worked to help you to promote kindness within your home or important relationships?

GM courtesy brown

One of us

“If God didn’t do this to us, then what? Who’s in charge here?”

Some version of this has been rattling around in my heart for months.

I can’t read accounts of Jesus healing people right now. It hurts too much. When I read about Jesus raising the little girl from the dead, I feel deep anger and confusion.

But I went to an Evensong service last weekend, because I am not prepared to give up on the idea that God is there, God cares about me (us), and that God is involved in our lives in significant and meaningful ways.

The first lesson was from Zechariah and said, among other things, “I will turn my hand against the little ones.”

What the Hell? What. The. Hell?

 

And then in the sermon, she spoke about Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers because he didn’t want people to think about interacting with God as a transaction. We give so many pieces of silver in exchange for our safety, or for that of our loved ones. Part of me still wishes it worked that way. It would be so much less confusing.

In Evangelical Christianity, there is a rampant idea that if we

do the right things,

say the right things,

agree with the right things…then God will approve of us and our life will look a certain way.

 

It’s not usually said in so many words. And if that’s not the way your life looks, there is always a ready explanation.

“God is teaching you ________________.”

“God is protecting you from ______________.”

“God needed another angel.”

 

But really, behind all of that, when nothing bad is present that needs explaining, the idea is that if you

do the right things,

say the right things,

agree with the right things…then God will approve of you and your life will look a certain way.

 

The other thing she mentioned in the sermon was that the night before being crucified, Jesus asked not to have to go through it. I think we tend to focus on the “but not my will” part because it sounds more noble or because we are unable to deal with negative emotion or something. But you know what? Jesus was scared. He felt, and verbalized, “I don’t want to have to do this.”

And it still happened.

 

That changes God from someone who Does Things to us into someone who has Been Through Things with us.

 

And some part of me deep down, which feels very tired, thinks that is very good news.