If I could give one gift to myself and all the people I love for the year of 2019, it would be connection.
A few days ago, my dear friend, Cindi, asked us to send her a word or sentence describing her husband, Len, in honor of his 60th. A lot of words came to mind, and I settled on “a man after God’s own heart” – or I could say “a couple after God’s own heart” when describing the 2 of them. I kept thinking about why I grabbed onto those words when I thought about them, and I think I’ve figured it out.
Len and Cindi are pretty amazing people. Most people would look at their lives and say, “Yeah – they are good people.” They probably didn’t spend too many days on God’s naughty list.:) But that’s not anything close to what I was thinking about.
When I go to their house, I always sleep well. I NEVER sleep well the first night I’m in any bed other than my own – except at the Woods’ house. It’s because I’m safe there. And I’m safe there because we are real. I described Len as a man after God’s own heart because of relationship. God is love, and God as three-in-one is relationship by essence, the ultimate definition of relationship. So in my book, a person who constantly seeks relationship, love, and connection is a person after God’s own heart.
The best relationships are like a mountain. You keep climbing together, through all life’s challenges, over years of time, and the view just keeps getting better. Sometimes to get up a mountain, you have to climb a cliff. I’m not a good rock climber. Heights and upper body strength are not my thing, but I have done it enough to understand that the key to climbing a cliff is cracks in the rock.
Connections in friendships are like that – we connect in the cracks, the broken places. The cracks are the places where love has a way in. Vulnerability is the process of showing each other our cracks, scars, fears, and failures. When we tell our stories and cry our tears together, we are shouting up the cliff face, “I’ve got you! You’re safely roped in, and your next foothold is about 2 feet to the left, 9 inches up.”
Our celebrity-drenched, social-media-driven society takes all those cliff faces and smooths them out. I LOVE all the Christmas cards I get every year, but I have to tell you – the filters just keep getting better. We show our smooth parts, our successes, who we want to be, who we think others want us to be, and often we leave no handholds for people to climb the mountain of friendship with us.
When we are struggling, there is a big temptation to cover it up with confidence and the veneer of achievement, but in doing that, we are shoving away the very people we need to connect with to help us in our struggle. What a vicious cycle!
I wrote an intimate song about connection after spending some time with a couple who met late in life and had no secrets about where they had come from. This is the kind of connection we want.
Completely uncovered, stripped down and unashamed
Unhindered affection in this sweet and strange late-life season
Not bothered by our yesterdays or scared of what’s to come
It’s just you and me darling – we’ve got love beyond all reason
C’mon and show me your scars now baby inside and out
Let me ease your darkened mind and lift up this burden of doubt
I’ll trace them with my little finger and fold them deep in my heart
It won’t erase our checkered past, but it’s a good place to start
You peel my layers slowly, with soft and tender care
My body worn and rounded I can safely bare
You don’t seem to mind – you need me a little bit broken
Old wounds begin to heal with deep mercy unspoken
So I’ll hold you tight with no desperation
And you’ll love me with wide open eyes
And we’ll walk this path together till the final fog
Laughing, grateful twilight lovers, you and I
Obviously, this involves romantic love, but I think that is beside the point. All lasting connections begin with love – love with eyes wide open for the friend or lover on vulnerable display. It’s knowing and being know. The lack of this is what is at the core of the political chaos, the spiritual divides, the loneliness that surrounds us.
I’m not sure what my exact steps will be when it comes to seeking and offering deeper connections this next year, but I am super excited about the views to come. If I get to any cool places, I’ll try to snap a photo and share it with you.:) I’m climbing alongside some precious friends these days.
And now… I’ll kick off the season of vulnerability by getting way out of my comfort zone and post the old, amateur, living-room MP3 of my song – if you’re interested. It’s not easy being vulnerable. I want to post the song sounding awesome, with a strong voice and better guitar skills. But alas, it’s a little cracked and weak in some spots, just like me, just as it should be.
“True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” ― Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone
Today is all about the books, and boy, did I read some books this year! Here’s my favorites list, broken into categories. I read about 90 books this year, and 86 of them were excellent, so this is the truly the cream of the crop.
Just for the fun of it, on the last day of 2018, I am going to randomly select 3 people and send them the book of their choice from my list. To enter my drawing, leave me a comment – tell me 1 book you loved from 2018, name a book from my list you would like to receive if you win the drawing, and make sure I have a good e-mail address so I can reach out to you if you win!
Lila by Marilynne Robinson – This is a contender with Circe. This is the 3rd book of the Gilead series. Robinson is one of the greatest novelists on the planet. These books will sink into your soul. If you pick this one, let me know if you’ve read Gilead and Home – if not, you’ll get the set.:)
Leaf By Niggle by J.R.R. Tolkien – a short little gem that stuck with me throughout the year. Thank you to my friend, Len Woods, for recommending. This is my favorite quote: “He was kindhearted, in a way. You know the sort of kind heart: it made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything…” Sounds familiar.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng – This was hard to put down – insightfully drawn cast of characters intricately intertwined by a gripping plot. Culturally relevant without being preachy.
If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie – poetic, lovely, challenging, encouraging. I read this and listened on Audible (the audiobook was beautifully done). I placed this under memoir, but it is artfully blended with other stories and ancient Celtic mythology.
A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions of Lent by Walter Brueggemann – I will read this again during lent in 2019. “Christians in our society are cast between these voices in terms of political and economic power, to see whether we can honor the pain-filled voices of marginality or if we will notice only the tired claims of the old monopolies.”
Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps by Richard Rohr – another one of my all-time favorite writers. This is a grace-filled, honest, and merciful look at the cycle of addiction and how we can break out of destructive patterns. “To finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened up within us—and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.”
The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life by Frederick Buechner – If you know me, then you are not surprised to see his name on my list. This is a wonderful collection of his writing – much of it was new to me. “So, art is saying Stop. It helps us to stop by putting a frame around something and makes us see it in a way we would never have seen it under the normal circumstances of living, as so many of us do, on sort of automatic pilot, going through the world without really seeing much of anything.” A great quote to lead into the next section.
The older I get, the more I appreciate poetry. Maybe I’m more still and patient? I loved what a I read this year.
Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil – I am trying to learn how to pronounce her name because I want to be able to tell people about her writing. She awakens curiosity and invites us into the deep waters – not easy poetry, but it was well worth my time.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – This book has the highest Amazon star rating of any on my list, and that is well deserved. This is a riveting, gut-wrenching (yet hopeful) story. Highly recommend for everyone 14 and up.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai – This brilliant book was inspired by the author’s childhood experience as a refugee from Vietnam, immigrating to Alabama. I read and listened to the audiobook. The audiobook would be a fantastic choice for a family car trip. This tale is gripping, enlightening, and hilarious at times.
These kind of cross between self-help and memoir; all of them were enlightening.
That’s it! A reminder about the book giveaway – leave the following in a comment below: a book you loved from 2018, the book you would want from my list, and how to get in touch with you if you are one of the 3 winners from my drawing at the year’s end.
My list of all the places I want to see is far longer than the list of what I am actually going to see in my lifetime, and I have had the privilege of seeing some incredible views already. But I have come to find that my favorite views are in the land that is already mine. I claim any land as my own that is public and that I can get to, enjoy, and return from in 1 day. Fortunately for me, that includes coastline, urban parks, riversides, and diverse forestland.
How, when I’ve gazed down at the Grand Canyon and hiked 14ers in Colorado, could Hunstville State Forest and Brazoria Wildlife Refuge be my favorites? I found that answer in this poem. I never cease to explore, but at the end of my exploring, I always find myself back where I started. I am stunned to find that even if I have been to a place 100 times, if I get quiet and look with care, it is always like getting to know the place for the first time.
This is a beautiful picture of my cyclical life. History constantly repeating itself. When my shortcomings get repetitive, I can become scornful of my own heart. But we are all repetitive – with our histories and personalities and fears and habits. What if, when I find myself at a familiar crossing (or a familiar patch of mud where I face planted), I could get quiet and see the place as if for the first time? It is never the same, because even though my stumbles are familiar, I am always new – hopefully more steeped in love and grace!
I certainly enjoy the spectacular and the new, but I love the subtle changes of places like my trail along Spring Creek as the seasons change and the years slide by. These places have infused bits of themselves into my soul and remind me that being my regular old self is enough. Some people might be like the Tetons or Niagara Falls. I’m good with being the neighborhood hiking trail, hopefully just as accessible – a comforting place for the other regular folks around me.
I imagine myself treading water. I am alone in the middle of the vast ocean of life. It surrounds me on all sides, as far as I can see. My struggling, panicked body has deep scars running down both sides from where life has cut me, from where I have cut myself.
I finally lose the fight, let go, and slip into the wet darkness. But then, to my astonishment and extraordinary delight, my ugly scars immediately transform into gills that allow me breathe underwater.
“I feel like one who has had his violin out of tune with the orchestra and at last is in harmony with the music of the universe.”~Frank Laubach, Letters By a Modern Mystic
This is what it feels like to swim free, no longer afraid of drowning.
Grace gives us gills, transforming our wounds into windows for love – and the love gives us life.
“Suffering opens the channel through which all of Life flows and by which all creation breathes, and I still do not know why. Yet it is somehow beautiful, even if it is a sad and tragic beauty.” ~Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water
I have been trying to write a book filled with the things I want to teach my kids, but lately I’ve been wondering if I should ditch it and write a book about the things my kids teach me.
I have talked a good game to other parents about having perspective about the mind-numbing game of college entrance. The top 10% rule is toast at UT and A&M. UT announced that it is now top 6%. Will it be 5%, 4% in 2 years? Who knows? The latest I heard about A&M is that they are going to be exempt from this rule – or that they are allowed to restrict it to 30 percent of their admissions. Either way, it’s changing.
The pressure started for my kids in 5th grade. A high school counselor visited my oldest kid’s school during assembly, and he came home in tears because he was sure he was in the wrong math class. He still holds the math against me – even though it all worked out JUST FINE.
Back to my daughter – she plays tennis, which has a fall and spring season and requires her to miss a lot of school in the spring, and she is an amazing artist. She decided this year that taking 6 AP/ Pre-AP classes was ridiculous and would keep her from her art. So, she dropped Pre-AP Computer Science for Money Matters (already proving to be one of the most practical classes in all of high school) and dropped out of AP World History which would have been the biggest time sucker of her year.
She is transformed. Seriously, her shoulders are more relaxed, her skin has cleared up, her mood improved, she is sleeping better, and she is working hard on her art. She feels like she has reclaimed a big chunk of life. Because she is less overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work, her engagement in her classes has jumped. We are having great conversations about Algebra concepts, Fahrenheit 451, 401K’s, and ancient civilizations. We did not do this last year when she was trying to keep her head above water and was constantly sleep deprived.
To be clear, my daughter is a smarty – really smart – but even for the really smart kids, the path they feel obligated to take to be competitive in high school is terribly unhealthy. Are they capable of taking all of these classes and passing their AP tests? Some of them clearly are, but most of them are zombies. Her friends who are at the top of their class are not the happiest kids I know. They look like they live in a pressure cooker – because they do!
School districts, counselors, teachers, parents, and even some Ivy League school admissions counselors have begun the serious discussion about the need to cap the number of AP classes students take in any given year. Without a cap, kids will always be tempted to game the system instead of approaching high school as a way to broaden their horizons and explore their potential.
My son played 4 years of tennis and spent 4 years in choir – 3 in Chorale. Choir was one of the most challenging courses he pursued – the sight reading and all-state music they performed was mind-blowing. But it was not a 6.0 class, so he paid a price. Most students at the top of his class dropped any fine art after their freshman year and many of them also dropped out of sports in order to stack their schedule with 6.0 classes. We did the math upon his graduation to see what would have happened if he had gamed the system a little and given up tennis or choir to stack in the computer science. He would have competed for the top spot in his class! But at what cost? His experiences in tennis and choir were more important for his personal development than any one of his big AP classes.
Back to the second kid… I wish I could tell you I was jumping for joy when my daughter told me she was not going to play the AP game, but honestly, it took me a day to come around to it. I was scared of how it would impact her to be lower in class rank. I got over it. I’m even more over it after seeing the positive impact on her spirit. She is still in 4 6.0 classes, by the way.
The only way we are going to help all of our students pursue more balanced and healthy lives (besides changing our ridiculous school start time) is to place some kind of cap that encourages them to broaden their horizons. Because our school offers an IB program that would give an unfair GPA advantage to IB kids, I would suggest that there be a cap of 4 AP classes for freshman and sophomores. Kids would be more likely to spend another year in the arts or try out for a sport, try an on-level class that is out of their comfort zone, spend time with their families, get more involved in their community, or sleep!
As far as college admissions – this was my observation over the past 2 years of counseling various graduating seniors: Every kid who wanted to go to college is going to college. Many kids got into great universities. Most of them were not guaranteed entrance. I saw several kids gain entrance to A&M who were NOT close to the top 10 percent of their class. Some of them went the Blinn route. Some were required to show up a few weeks early to take a couple summer classes. Many kids landed in fantastic programs at smaller universities and are already telling me how thankful they are to have smaller class sizes.
I have also seen a Lone Star College trend. Mostly due to the financial crazy of college, many kids who are capable of getting into universities are still deciding to spend a year or 2 taking all of their basic requirements at community college. I know people who teach at Lone Star. I wish my kids could be in their classes. Several kids I know would have struggled to get into the “big 2” TX schools, but they received a scholarship to Lone Star and will enter university as juniors having not spent a penny on tuition.
The point is – your kid can go to college without burning themselves out trying to game the system. There are a handful of kids in each of our Magnolia classes who will be looking at Harvard/MIT/Rice and the like. I’m not writing about them. I’m writing about the other 200 something kids who are making active plans to go to a university. My advice to them? Do your best – but have a life, develop as a human, and know it will all work out.
If you still can’t stand it, I’ll let you in on one more observation. You are better off encouraging your kid to be realistic about coursework and invest a little time and money in solid SAT/ACT tutoring. Most of the universities (including UT and A&M) put as much or more weight on these test scores as they do class rank (not fair, but true). In fact, outside of the guaranteed entrance thing, the colleges my son applied to did not want his weighted GPA. They wanted his real GPA – the one that does not take AP classes into account. His scholarship at LA Tech was based on his straight GPA and his test scores. His AP classes were hugely beneficial, and the teaching was excellent. He learned a lot, improved his SAT/ACT scores, and is very thankful not to be taking those classes all over again in college. I’m all for hard classes and AP, but I’m also for healthy kids!
So, do you homework and understand the system. Know your kid and be willing to advocate for his or her health, even if it means not playing the game. 4 years of exhaustion is a long 4 years. It takes the love out of learning. Our kids are more than numbers. We all know that deep down – now let’s help them put that truth into action.
After a steady diet of CSI shows and Netflix, most of us know how to set up a bad guy for interrogation: sleep deprivation, isolation, poor diet, bright lights, overstimulation and noise. Then at the beginning of questioning, fill them with fear. Sound familiar?
This is the American lifestyle (my past lifestyle that I am trying hard to change) – sleep deprivation, loneliness, inadequate nutrition, constant exposure to blue light and information from our e-devices, and noise. We are primed and ready, so when the political party of our choice bombards us with tales of terror from the other side, we fold – or more likely explode.
Our lifestyle puts our brain in continuous fight or flight mode, flooded with cortisol. Twitter, Facebook, CNN, and Fox News all lead us to believe we walk out our door in constant danger. Is it any wonder that we feel like we live our entire lives at Defcon 1? We no longer debate, banter or agree to disagree. We instantly scream, curse, hate and burn anything we consider a threat.
Our friends and family who we believe have gone to the dark side are not possessed by evil. They are in fight mode. They are primed by our fast-paced lifestyle and then triggered by the constant assault of information and fear, and they are reacting like any normal human does when filled with cortisol and adrenaline.
Maybe if we can step back and understand the mechanics at work, we can remember that people are not their political party. Most people don’t even fully understand their political party. They only know what has been fed to them by their information faucet of choice, and those sources of information keep them on the hook by reinforcing their fear with every “news” segment.
Stress hormones can be addictive like any other substance. They give us a temporary high and power to overcome dangerous situations. Most of us are probably walking around with cortisol levels far higher than what is healthy. Some of the signs of this? Moodiness, overall fatigue, addiction to coffee, drinking too much alcohol, brain fog (high cortisol shrinks the hippocampus, the part of your brain where you consolidate memory and regulate your emotions), and extra weight around our midsection due to chronically elevated blood sugar levels (so that we can be constantly ready to flood our cells with energy in case of attack).
Most of us need to be actively pursuing lifestyle changes to lower stress hormone levels and break our addiction to the cortisol/adrenaline high, but I’ll save that for another post. The point I wanted to make today is that we need to extend GRACE to each other through understanding. We are not our true selves!
If we understand that our friends and family who have “gone to the dark side” (the dear readers of my blog fall just about equally on both sides!) are set up to be easily triggered, we can see them as more than their politics. If I understand that I am set up to be easily triggered, I can remember to take a deep breath before responding or take the social media apps off my phone.
One side or the other will “win” the election in a couple months. Only one person will be elected president in 2020. We all lose if we let hate rule our hearts and stop seeing each other as fellow human beings.
The power of the people is being decimated by hate and fear, but it can be restored by love and grace. Pollyanna! I know… but I do believe that it’s not too late. We can change our filters, then our minds, and finally our hearts – one family, one friend group, one neighborhood at a time.
“Humanity is like an enormous spider web, so that if you touch it anywhere, you set the whole thing trembling…The life that I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place and time my touch will be felt. Our lives are linked together.” – Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark
2 days ago, I had a delightful conversations with my kids regarding specific teachers in their past. The topic of the week was history class. My middle child made the decision to ditch AP World History for on-level, much to the shock of her brother and sister. Here was the gist of the conversation.
The child making the move had very mature reasons for doing so. She is wise well beyond her years sometimes.
My oldest said he understood, but thought if she had Mr. Parson’s for history, she would love it. He concluded that Mr. Parson’s had not only given him a love of history, but also encouraged him to engage with philosophy and read great books. I would add that I think Mr. Parson’s also gave my kid permission to be his quirky, nerdy self no matter what other kids thought about it.
My youngest chimed in with a story about 2 of her teachers. In 2nd grade, her teacher managed to connect the dots of modern community, ancient civilizations, and dinosaurs into some creative, engaging project that ended with breaking open concrete eggs — or something like that. My kid found a T-Rex toy when she broke open her egg. She said, “T-Rex was my favorite, so I thought it was a sign that I would always want to learn more about history. I was hooked and have been ever since.”
Then she launched into reflections about Mr. Novosad and how she hoped she would one day be able to make kids love history and science the way he made her love history and science. A side note about how deep this love of learning runs with this one – I found her secretly studying her older sister’s AP Human Geography study guide, to which she admitted to stealthily doing at night throughout the summer.
After all of this, my middle child who started it all said, “I’m still going to on-level. Maybe if I’d had a teacher like Ms. Eaton for history when I was younger, I’d love it, too.” Then she went on to explain that Ms. Eaton had changed her life, made her love writing and feel confident about it, and made her want to ask better questions about spiritual things. Wow. I think she is still sneaking back into Ms. Eaton’s classroom to decorate her whiteboard.
In his beautiful book, Learning the Vocabulary of God (amazing), Frank Charles Laubach asks, “God, what is a man’s best gift to mankind? To be beautiful of soul and then let people see into your soul…” I think that is what these teachers did for my kids.
Maybe all of these teachers know what a huge impact they are having on the world, but I wonder if they have days like me, when they wonder what it’s all about and if it’s worth it. If they had a bigger platform than a single classroom, would the power of their reach grow? I’m not so sure.
In the introduction of Gilbert White’s book The Natural History of Selborne, this caught my attention this morning: “By focusing attention on Selborne alone, White was not limiting the reach of his work but expanding it.” I think it might be the same with teaching, and with parenting and mentoring, too. By focusing our attention on a small group of individuals, the depth of our imprint reaches further than it would if we instead had a diluted influence over many.
I contemplated the math of a teacher’s influence this morning – take the 100’s or maybe 1000’s of students a teacher has over his or her career. Now, let’s be conservative and say that even a great teacher only makes a huge impression on 10 percent of those students, but then those students have children and enter into their own careers. Who will those students then influence? What about their children? Their children’s children? It starts to boggle the mind.
In his book, Prayer, Richard Foster contemplates the age-old conversation concerning the sovereignty of God and the power of the human will. “He invites us into the workshop of his creativity, where we can be co-laborers with him, working together to determine the outcomes of events.”What a wonderful filter for the way we view our work!
Much of what most of us have to offer seems small. I photograph my corner of the world and write my little words. I volunteer and vacuum, clean toilets and grocery shop in order to create a kinder environment for my family. It is easy to write off these simple tasks, but they are important. Who knows what trembles on the web of humanity my small acts of kindness might cause?
French philosopher (as well as Jesuit priest, paleontologist and geologist!) Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Do not forget that the value and interest of life is not so much to do conspicuous things…as to do ordinary things with the perception of their enormous value.”
For good or for evil, whether you know it or not, you are changing the world.
I am mildly anxious much of the time, but there have been periods of my life when anxiety has risen from a simmer to a boil. Once was during a twenty-something transition and who-the-heck-am-I crisis, once when each of my girls was 10 months – hormonal, postpartum craziness that landed me in the hospital the first time for cardio tests, and for reasons that are yet unclear to me, it’s gotten pretty bad in the last 3 months. During these times, I have occasional, debilitating panic attacks out of the blue.
My kids all have big stuff going on. That is usually the case as they are all teenagers, but my ability to handle it with healthy boundaries broke down this week. I don’t let them in on that, but it can trigger me. So, I was sitting in my living room a couple morning’s ago, worry-praying for one of them and stuck in a significant panic attack. It felt like my chest was filled up with cheap polyester stuffed animal filler and it was creeping its way up my throat. My heart pounded, and my brain felt like slime. I couldn’t process or see straight.
I started whispering, “The Lord is my shepherd,” over and over again. That’s a new one for me as I’m not much of a chanter, but it’s what came out. After about the 20th utterance, I went one phrase further and managed a faint, “I shall not want.” And BAM, a light went off – my slime brain returned to its natural sponginess and the polyester filling that threatened to choke me receded.
The “I shall not want” part has always felt like a passive thing to me, but it occured to me that if it was passive, David would have said, “I do not want.” I checked in on the Hebrew (as if I knew what I was doing) and remained convinced that “I shall not want” was indeed his direct intent – he was choosing it, or at least strongly agreeing to it. Remember Gandalf on the bridge in the The Fellowship of the Ring movie? “YOU… SHALL… NOT… PASS!” Worth watching again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJZZNHekEQw
Anyway, that’s the scene that came to mind, so I gathered my inner Gandalf and said out loud, “I SHALL NOT WANT!” It has stuck with me ever since. I keep repeating it in my head every day, over and over again, because the truth is, no matter how many green pastures I lay in or how many quiet pools of water I wander by, I still want. I still want what I want when I want it. I struggle finding contentment in the midst of chaos, especially when that chaos is surrounding my kids.
It’s not that the temporary wanting of peace and prosperity for my kids is a terrible thing – it gets ugly when I elevate that want to the point of worship, when I center my emotional stability and joy around things going well for them. It’s a real problem when my want of temporary victories trumps my want of long-term growth and deeper love for them and for me. The question is not what do I want, but what to I want most? “I SHALL NOT WANT TEMPORARY SUCCESS IN EXCHANGE FOR LEARNING HOW TO LOVE!” Gotta go full-Gandalf on it.
My kids will certainly know the other part of the passage, the valley of death, during their lives – death of people, dreams, security, esteem, jobs and confidence. I will struggle when they find themselves there, but I want them to know that they do not need to fear the evil because God is with them every step of the way, just like he is with me when I panic.