Obligatory end-of-year musings

bleeding heart image courtesy of freeimages.com, TDingess
bleeding heart image courtesy of freeimages.com, TDingess

My theme word for 2014 was soft-hearted, which came on the heels of the not-on-purpose 2013 theme of compassion. A soft heart is a spiritual condition, which means that my heart should be softer/more open towards God, and because of God, which should come out in how I am with others. And you know what, I think my heart is softer.

I know I’ve been listening more than talking; my sporadic presence here on the blog reflects that. I’ve been more alive to the fears that lie behind so much human behavior, which has made me less judgmental. I’ve been slower to anger. My starting an anti-depressant this spring has something to do with that, but I’ve also been using my imagination in a disciplined manner, creating backstories for people who annoy me, until I reach the point at which I’m no longer annoyed. Mostly I’m not perfect at it, but I’m sure better than I was a year ago. I’ve been less irritable and more gentle with my family. I no longer try to compete in my mind with my husband on who has more stress, on who has it tougher.

There has been a related sub-theme that emerged throughout the year: acceptance.

In January, I went through all the family boxes of papers, including every letter and card ever sent to me, including notes left in my locker in high school. As I sorted and categorized (and tossed some stuff), I read what people have written me over the years. It was a revelation. Normally, I think of myself as kind of a bad friend. I rarely reach out and make contact. I’m too much of a hermit. I so frequently fail to follow through on things I’d like to do for my friends (most of which they don’t know about because I didn’t do them). I’ve let people I loved just fall through the cracks until I’ve entirely lost contact. All of those things are true, but the letters and cards let me round out that picture: I am an accepting friend. Over and over in these letters, friends from across my life said some version of the words, “I can always talk to you about things and know you won’t judge me, that you’ll still accept me.”

That was huge. It took awhile, but I let those words wash over me and seep into my heart. Because they’re true. I may not be a great friend, but I am an accepting one. So I took that on as an important part of my self image, and my life became crazy rich with variety of people to love this year. I am now friends with a woman who survived years of drug addiction and sex trafficking. I have more non-religious friends than I’ve had, possibly, ever. I stood on a sidewalk and talked with strangers about praying for girls and women who’ve survived abuse and trauma. And I’ve been more real, more courageous, more risk-taking than ever before. Which has only brought about more connection with people. It’s been a glorious cycle. And one I intend to keep going.

So what is this year’s word?


It was going to be show up. But as I was writing my prayer this morning as I prayed it (for only the second time this month, tsk, tsk, tsk) it morphed into practice. Both in the sense of the things I want to work on: prayer practice, writing practice, dance practice. And in the sense that “we call it practice because we’re not that good at it yet” (something a dear friend who is a spiritual director said once, a couple of years ago, and I can’t get out of my head). So I will both go harder after my various practices, and be accepting of myself when I’m not that good at it. I will practice both patience and impatience, simultaneously (something one of the presenters at my November writing conference said).

Because this is going to be a big year.

  • I am independently publishing my David and Saul novel series this year — all three of them!
  • I am going to work on two series for my blog that I’ve been wanting to do but have avoided: my diaries project (which I abandoned right before I got to the long-form diaries of high school), and an interview project. Through a few writing jobs I had this year, I discovered that I love doing interviews. I want to interview people about times of unsticking, times of pivoting in their lives. So be warned, I do not plan to talk to famous people. I plan to talk to my friends and ask all the deep questions we don’t normally ask of each other in our brief interactions. So be warned: I may contact you (you can always say “no” and know that I’ll accept you 😉
  • Within a month, my husband and I will be credit card debt-free. I cannot fully express how much I’m looking forward to having that burden lifted.

So how about you? Any musings, either looking back or looking forward, that you want to share? Do you do the word of the year thing? If so, what’s your word?

we are all struggling children

I am gaining new appreciation for how painful it is to be my heavenly parent.

The vast majority of the time, it is truly not that difficult to make righteous choices. Yet, so often I choose my own vortex of fears, needs, obsessions, shames, distractions, and irritations over the peace, love, comfort, and challenge my heavenly parent offers and promises. Mine is not an utterly hopeless case. I often manage to act in accord with that peace and love. I do. But the chaos of my vortex is always spinning, beckoning me. I’m always fighting the pull. With varying degrees of success.

I’m appreciating how difficult this is for my heavenly parent to watch because I’m an earthly parent who is watching one of her children struggling. Making the same mistakes. Over and over. Getting it together in fits and starts, only to lose the thread again. It hurts. Physically and emotionally. Partially because I sense my child’s frustration, lostness, confusion. Partially because I can’t snap my fingers and make it all better. Partially because it isn’t all that hard to do what needs to be done. I am doing everything I can to point in the right direction. In every way I know how, I’m letting the child know I will give whatever support and encouragement necessary. But I can’t make change happen. As hard as I try, and as many systems as I might set up, and as loving and accepting as I may be, it’s not up to me: it’s up to my child.

Do I cause this much anguish in my heavenly parent?

Oh, how deaf and blind you are to me! Why won’t you listen? Why do you refuse to see? Who in all the world is as blind as my own people, my servant? Who is as blind as my chosen people, the servant of the Lord? You see and understand what is right but refuse to act on it. You hear, but you don’t really listen….Will not even one of you apply these lessons from the past and see the ruin that awaits you?    (Isaiah 42:18-20, 23)

The prophets are full of God’s frustration with his people: he’s given them everything, yet they still cheat their neighbors and break their vows. They do not give justice to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the debtor, let alone give them mercy. All this while they continue with their feasts and sacrifices as if that’s all that was required.  Which are all symptoms of the real problem: their hearts are hard. They are stiff-necked, refusing to turn their head to see that they’re on the wrong path.

Even so, and in almost the same breath (Is. 43:1-2):

But now, O Israel, the Lord who created you says: “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.”

They are God’s beloved, his special treasure who he delights to show mercy to.

We are hard-hearted, stiff-necked people, God’s beloved, his special treasure who he delights to show mercy to.

We are God’s children.

They say, “Who does the Lord think we are? Why does he speak to us like this? Are we little children, barely old enough to talk? He tells us everything over and over again, a line at a time, in very simple words!” … God’s people could have rest in their own land if they would only obey him, but they will not listen. So the Lord will spell out his message for them again, repeating it over and over, a line at a time, in very simple words. Yet they will stumble over this simple, straightforward message. (Isaiah 23: 9-10, 12-13)

Yes. I’d say God gets the anguish of watching a child struggle with the same things over and over.

Speaking of which, did I somehow think that my own fabulous/dubious parenting of my children would somehow exempt them from having a set of issues (based on personality and brain chemistry) they’d struggle against repeatedly, possibly their whole lives?

You know, like I do.

Not even God gets that deal, and he offers perfect love and redemption.

So what do I do with this reminder that God is my anguished parent?

Apologize more often and more easily, to God and to others.

Take the long view. My job is not necessarily to help my children overcome their various tendencies once and for all. It’s to work with them to find tools that will help them identify and deal with their personality and brain chemistry issues, to hold them accountable for their choices, to embrace them through both failure and success, to let them know how deeply loved they are. As is.

Waste less time and emotional energy on “we have to deal with this … again!?!” Of course we do.

Have more compassion — for myself, my children, the others in my sphere. I am not the Expert on Overcoming. I am not the Maker of Pronouncements of What Must Be Done. We are strugglers together, helping each other, figuring this out as we go, loving each other through it all.

At least that’s my hope. After all, thinking I know What Must Be Done is one of my perennial issues.


I Will Not Should On Myself

It’s 45 minutes before my alarm. I’m awake. There’s no hope of my falling back asleep. Some of you lucky good-sleep people would be able to, but not me. Instead, I get this:

I should do my devotions.

I should get out of bed and do a Twenty Minute Win of writing before I need to get everyone else up.

I should do some yoga. A few sun salutations would work this crick out of my neck and ease the stiffness in my lower back. And it would counteract the complete lack of exercise from the weekend.

I should get to the gym or hop on my bike more in the next two weeks. I’ve got that family reunion coming up and I’m going to have to be in a bathing suit in front of young cousins who look adorable in their bikinis.

I should make a grocery list so I can go straight to the store after taking my son to the orthodontist and then school.

I should get up so I can get lunches ready before I have to get the kids up (yes, my kids still have school).

I should get up and do my Morning Pages. I’m supposed to do them first thing in the morning, before I’ve had time to filter myself. That time is now.

I should bag all this stuff so I can make the kids eggs for breakfast and start their day out right.

What did I actually do?

I lay in bed thinking about all these shoulds until there was only time to make the kids’ lunches and make myself a cup of tea before going upstairs to announce, “Cold reality is back — wake up!” The kids had Frosted Flakes for breakfast. I never did my Morning Pages, nor did I do a 20 Minute Win. I did take a kid to the orthodontist, finish the laundry, do the grocery shopping, drove 40 minutes either way to attend my Artist’s Way group (having not done the Morning Pages nor all my reading), browsed Facebook and Twitter, attended the school sports banquet, called my parents, played a little online Boggle, finally did my devotions (at 10:45 p.m.), and started this blog post.

Other shoulds that floated through my head over the course of the day.

I really should eat the crust of my second 1/2 piece of toast. Then again, there are oh so many people who say I shouldn’t eat toast because the carbs are making me unhealthy, but I think I should be okay because it’s whole grain toast and I really like vegetables and fruits and quinoa and I eat them, too. (Not to mention that the last time I went totally gluten-free I lost 12 pounds in two weeks, but I was constipated for 3 months, which made it officially Not Worth It.)

I should figure out when I can get to the gym this week, because I keep missing my regular classes for other business. I miss cutting loose in Zumba; going on the treadmill is really not the same.

I should get a Zumba DVD so I can do it at home when I want.

I should sign the kids up for their final two camps that I have already promised them they are attending.

I should read and comment on my friends’ blogs. I did read, but I didn’t comment — commenting more was one of the goals I set for myself after the writer’s retreat two weekends ago. So I should get back on the wagon and comment.

I should stop playing online Boggle.

I should tackle my home in-box.

I should work on my synopsis and revamped query letter for It Is You. And go back to my agent research. And do more agent research.

I should stop using those packaged face wash cloths and just wash my face with cleanser and water again.

I should watch my son brush his teeth so he does a better job and the orthodontist doesn’t get on our case anymore.

I should vacuum. This floor is getting crunchy.

I should give the printed manuscript to my friend who has a friend who is a reader for a publisher.

A Should Vacation

And then a friend sent me the image at the top of the post.

I thought of all my shoulds. Some of them are actionable items. Many of them, actually. Others come from outside, societal pressures and not from a personal commitment. Still others are based on daydreams about the kind of life I could live. To take a vacation from telling myself what I should be doing sounded lovely and freeing.

But then … what would a should vacation actually be like? I love that image of the woman caught mid-leap. It’s inspiring and makes me smile. I love to leap. But would I want to live a life free of shoulds? Even for a day?

The more I think about it, the more I connect it to John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the idea being that we wouldn’t have strife with each other, if only we didn’t have countries, religion, and possessions to mess us up.

It turns out that I’m too much of a Calvinist to buy that. I think we’d find different reasons to hate each other and kill each other.

Besides, each of those concepts is a mixed bag of benefit and detriment. Yes, countries invade other countries, and teach their citizens that they’re the best kind of people on earth (and all other kinds of people are clearly not the best kind), and discriminate against those in their own country who are not “the right kind.” But countries also learn how to negotiate, how to take others’ needs into account. They can hurt more, but they can also help more. They provide a framework to meet people’s needs and respond to emergencies (as large as a tornado and as small as a house fire). They can inspire people to greater acts of generosity and deeper feelings of unity.

Religion has and does inspire hatred, an us vs. them mindset; it provides fuel for bullies and inspires war. But it also teaches us about love and sacrifice and fuels compassion and challenges us to act outside our comfort zones. It insists on justice for the oppressed, hospitality towards everyone, generosity to those on the margins. It gives us a reason to be one.

Possessions is a harder sell. It’s easy to see the problems of greed, of idolizing stuff. The only deeper benefits of stuff I can think of have to do with attitude: when we have an attitude of abundance (even if we don’t have very much actual stuff or not as nice stuff as those people over there), we will be generous, we will share.

My shoulds are a mixed bag, too. Some I really do need to make happen, either because they are important to the smooth running of my family, or because they tie into my deep dreams and visions for what I want to do with my life. They spur my discipline and move me beyond doing merely the good-for-now, the whatever’s-in-front-of-me. I don’t want to drop my awareness of these things, not even for a day.

So instead of not should-ing on myself today*, I will practice self-compassion. When a “should” comes, I will weigh it. Some things will be allowed to stay. But for other shoulds, I’ll talk to myself like I would to a friend who’s being too tough on herself, “Oh honey, give yourself a break on that one.”

It should be noted that I still have not vacuumed.

What shoulds will you drop today? Which will you keep?


* Is anyone else hearing echos of those KMart ads, “ship my pants,” and “big gas sale”?