Decade Turning

 

In the months leading up to my birthday this year, the big questions have often and repeatedly pushed into my thoughts: am I living the life I want to live? The life I was meant to live? Have I accomplished all that I should have by this age? (What is it, by the way, that I should have accomplished?) This was, you see, the year I turned 40.

Even just typing those two digits is surreal. Forty-year-olds can’t claim the hint of youth that thirty-somethings can claim (and that twenty-somethings possess outright). And the evidence is there. My body doesn’t recover as easily as it used to from exertion and injury. Also, forty is the age that women are supposed to begin getting yearly mammograms–how’s that for a sign of aging?

On the flip-side, I have less fear of people’s judgement of me, but more fear for the fragility of life. Fewer things make me panic, but when I do worry, it’s a can’t-sleep-at night kind of worry. The way I respond to life’s surprises has changed, and I hope it’s for the better.

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I realize I’ve traveled many miles when I look back at the last decade: my belly has swelled and deflated three times with the growing of three new lives–well, not fully deflated, but that is a topic for another day. I have nursed those three infants for a total of almost three years. My family has suffered, and survived, the sudden loss of my father. I have completed a professional degree, accomplished some work missions that I am proud of, and written my first book. I have learned immeasurable lessons about forgiveness, bravery, kindness, love, and a number of other things that make us human.

The time for textbooks and swaddling blankets is behind me. Turning forward, I know that many personal and professional opportunities for growth and failure await me, as do more lessons in humanity. Looking forward, I also know that my mission, along with my husband, is to lead those three lives in our charge through childhood and adolescence and nurture them towards the best of themselves.

Forty is in part a look back at one’s life to see if any of those 14,610 days have been wasted, but it is also a reckoning that my life, assuming God grants me a long one, is half over, more or less. And do-overs are not guaranteed. Time is fleeting; you can neither pause nor repeat it.

If I miss enjoying my kids at a certain age, that chapter is gone. They keep growing and cannot revert. If I miss the opportunity to do something new, that opportunity may never come again. If I decide to give the markers of our lives (birthdays and holidays, for example) a pass one year because I just don’t feel like it, that occasion is gone. If I have the opportunity to lift a stranger or friend up in their time of struggle, and I do not, for whatever reason, I forgo that gift. The place for those memories is empty, and I think one of the things I fear most is to look at my life, both at its end and in the after-life, and find that where those riches should be, there is only emptiness.

So the question I have to ask myself is this: what do I consider riches? When I am old or gone, what will give me pleasure and pride to remember? What kinds of memories will allow me to say that I have lived a good, rich life? What memories are worth storing up? Whatever those are, that is what I have to pursue, earnestly, in the present.

Forty-year-olds are supposed to have it together and be settled in life. They are supposed to know themselves and have answers to all the big questions. I for one don’t have it together and the answers to the big questions evade me as much as they ever did. OK, maybe not as much, but neither do I have it all figured out. And in a way, I hope never to, because when you think you have all the answers, you stop asking questions. When you stop asking questions, you close yourself off to all the mysteries that remain unanswered in this wild ride called life. And this ride is one I very much am still on.

The Holiday Ache

The Holiday Ache

A buzz is in the air. I see, even as they go through their routines, people attending to work or school with a light touch and the gleam of warmth and turkey in their sights. It is Thanksgiving week.

Many of us will be seeing loved ones. Many of us are preparing for the holiday. Meals. Travel. The house for hosting. Something. There is an aura that surrounds people at the thought of the holidays. Busy-ness and anticipation. All most of us long for is to enjoy one another, yet these memories don’t create themselves. So as soon as Thanksgiving’s over, it’s full-on holiday frenzy. Gifts and Christmas parties and holiday greetings. I’m already drained thinking about it.

This year, I’m not in the spirit. And I know I’m not the only one. So to all the others out there who will work to put the festivities into the upcoming holidays, even though your heart’s not in it, know you’re not alone. Thank you for doing it anyway. In her book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin quotes, “It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light.” This little nugget of wisdom has burrowed itself in my mind, and it often comes to the forefront of my thoughts these days. So take heart, fellow non-jolly people. New Year’s will arrive. And then we can let winter be winter. And then, while we wait for March, I will do my daily work, then revel, in between the scarves and warm boots, in winter’s gift of cozying up in the early dark.

Seeing the Pixels

Seeing the Pixels

I shut my ears to the voices of discord and anger. I shut my eyes, searching for the peace that the God of all things bestows. Colors flow through my mind: ruby anger and amethyst death and obsidian fear and jade destruction.

In the face of darkness, emboldened and unveiled these past months, I find myself mute.

The fact is, I’m tired of being outraged, of watching greed and narcissism use power to oppress. I’m tired of being sad, of grieving for all the senseless loss of life and love and for all the pointless, useless pain.

‘Hug your loved ones close and appreciate the good in your life.’ We’ve all heard a variation of this message in response to life’s hardship. It is important, because gratitude gives richness to our lives. But is it enough? In the face of active corruption and cruelty, is it enough?

A still Voice reminds me that there has always been and always will be darkness in the world, but that there is also light. The Pantocrator urges me to keep my own peace in the world around me. Reminds me that this life exists for how I use it to prepare for what comes next. Urges me to be the light. And so I imagine what would happen if more of us tried to be light.

What does it mean to be light? With each oversimplified meme and soundbite I encounter, I am becoming more and more convinced that it means shining light on things as they are, not as they’ve been made to look. We live in an age of spin doctors–that wasn’t just a nineties band. Shining a light means looking beyond the spin: listening to or reading actual sources, not just someone’s interpretation of them, and evaluating them on their own merits. It means analyzing leaders’ messages and then calling out their inconsistencies, because too often the stories they tell change on a weekly basis, and it takes someone reframing what has happened for us to see the truth. Be that someone.

Yes, there are some diametrically opposed beliefs about how we should proceed as a country, and there are some very, very strong feelings about them. Feelings of anger, of defensiveness, of contempt, of hurt. These feelings are valid. And I’ll be honest. Speaking for myself, I don’t always know what to do with them, other than be aware of them, examine them, and when appropriate, direct the fire they ignite into a solution.

My point is this: there are proponents for every cause and every political stripe that use the same tool to their own ends. They use a broad brush with which they paint the “other” side, dismissing it as stupid or evil (the adjectives used are harsher), or with which they paint their stance as flawless. Those strong feelings we all have are exacerbated by those with the giant paint brushes who would convince us that the other side hates us and, if left unchallenged, will take away everything we value.

Can we leave the fear mongering and diversion tactics to our current head of state and his team of trusty sidekicks? (And by that I really mean call it out.) We the people are being played, and it is time to step away from the tweets and direct our attention to what the government is and ought to be doing.

We are, as I’ve said before, a big, complicated country. Healthcare, public education, gun control, welfare, emergency and disaster management, environmental regulation, tax reform, taking a knee and the NFL, name the issue. Now read something longer than three sentences about it, or have a respectful conversation with someone who disagrees with you. It doesn’t take long to see that the issues are multifaceted and often intertwined. If they were simple, smart people would have solved all the things.

We have to start applying our minds and not only our anger to these issues. We have to zoom in and see the pixels. They are not just red, yellow, and blue; they are all the colors that emerge therefrom. And if we can’t each zoom in on everything –and none of us can–then we have to choose what we can zoom in on and let others do the same.

I love that so many people are talking about topics that in other days would have been obscure: gerrymandering and redlining, to name a couple examples. I believe very strongly that information and awareness among citizens are crucial to developing a truly democratic civilization. And I am realizing that forbearance and a willingness to listen before defending are also important–and skills I need to work on. I won’t ignore that there are those who will always hold their broad brush and only see red, refusing to see anyone on the “other” side as anything but a *#&^%#. But they are by no means the majority, and they cannot be the force driving this country. Our strength is in our many diverse experiences and voices, and we ought to allow each other the space to question, explore, and learn.

When I was in college, I attended a talk given by the outgoing president about the college’s motto: Lux Esto. He reflected that the Latin phrase actually had two translations: “be light,” the commonly used translation, and “let there be light.” In other words, shine your light and enable others to shine theirs. I don’t know why that message stuck with me, but I understand it now. I cannot think of another time in my life when it has been more important.

In the face of darkness, emboldened and unveiled these past months, lux esto.

Dread

Dread

Near the end of a charity ride I rode recently, there’s this long, steep hill. I know this because I’ve struggled up it in previous years’ rides. Without fail, each time I’ve ridden, I’ve seen riders hop off and walk their bikes up, sometimes before even attempting the climb. The memory of that hill filled me with dread as I pedaled through rural Ohio backroads that day. “If I can just make it up that hill,” I kept thinking, “I can enjoy the rest of the ride.”

The thing was, that hill was only five or six miles from the end, which meant that I wasn’t enjoying the first several dozen miles. So fixated was I on this one point on the road that I was not enjoying all that came before. Instead of taking in the scenery and basking in the sun and fresh air as I rode, and instead of enjoying zooming down then coasting up the rolling hills, I was thinking, “I need to conserve my energy to get up that hill. I need to slow down.”

So it goes with life sometimes. Mostly we don’t know when we will encounter obstacles in our path, but occasionally we do, and the tendency that I, like most, fall into is to worry about it. As if worrying will change anything.

We often confuse worrying and planning. I am a big believer in planning ahead, especially for obstacles or difficulties that will take skills or resources I don’t naturally have at my disposal. Planning, I believe, is a necessary component for success. And it alleviates, or at least reduces, worry. In past years, for example, I have followed a cycling training plan and, on the big day, been able to enjoy the ride, confident that I would make it up that hill. And I did make it up. But life isn’t always neat or predictable, and this year, despite my best intentions, I just wasn’t prepared enough for an obstacle I knew was coming. So even though I had planned, life had happened, and I regressed to worrying.

With age, I’m slowly learning that I must balance how much effort and time I put into preparation with the attention I pay to my immediate surroundings and what joy I might find in unexpected places. Life is beautiful, and it’s bittersweet, and yet sometimes, for all of us, it is hard and dark. And one thing I know is that we are not meant to live our lives in dread of those dark and difficult chapters. It takes deliberation to not allow dread to overshadow joy.

I like riding my bike. I love it, actually. I love seeing a stretch of empty road ahead of me, flat or rolling or curvy, and just pedaling. I like reaching that point where my cycling is rhythmic, and my speed fast enough to feel like I’m flying but slow enough that I truly see the surrounding scenery. It calms me and rejuvenates me. I shouldn’t have wasted a single mile of my ride worrying about that hill.

As it turns out, I did make it up, though I came within a hair’s breadth of putting my feet down and walking up the rest of the way. But you know what? If I hadn’t made it, it would have been just fine. Sure, I would have been a little disappointed. But I’d still have finished. And the funds that I raised would still be going towards a worthy cause, which is what is important. Next year, my goal will be to enjoy the ride. Be prepared as much as possible, but enjoy the ride.

Living at the Speed of Walking

Living at the Speed of Walking
In the world of running, it’s known that those early minutes and miles are important in setting your pace. Once it’s set, your pace is much easier to maintain. In our lives too, the pace we set for our days become easier to maintain once we’ve established the routines and habits that determine that pace. For many of my peers in the U.S., that pace can border on frantic. “Busy, but good,” (or some variation thereof) has become the standard answer when someone asks how we are. We must be busy. If we’re not busy, we must not be doing worthwhile things. We must not be taking full advantage of our days, or being as efficient as we “should” be with our time. If we’re not busy, it must be because we don’t have anything important enough going on.
Where does this view come from? I think the answers are almost as numerous as the people who would answer them. For some, staying busy may be a way of avoiding–or if one is fortunate, of answering–a more serious but less pressing question: am I living the life I want to live? Am I fulfilled? Do I have people in my life who I love and who love me? Do my actions show who (or what) I love? Have I made the right choices in life? Surely being busy is a reassuring sign?
For others, it may be a way of proving to the world that one has indeed made the right choices,  and that one has succeeded. The fact that I am so in demand and have so much to do is proof of the value of my contribution to the world (or to my own pockets–but it’s not polite to talk about that).
Maybe another type of person stays busy aimlessly and without intention, with activities that could easily be cut out of their lives. (But if I’m less occupied, I might get–horror of horrors–bored.)
And certainly for some, busy lives are a necessity: low wage jobs, financial obligations, and/or family obligations force some to work far more than the 40-60 hour weeks that many work, and to stay moving at home even when they’re not at a work site. Leaving aside for a moment why people are busy–the above examples are only illustrative–the question I’ve been asking myself is why we (not all Americans, of course, just me and almost everyone I know) are so accepting of being–no, aspiring to be–so busy. Why do we want to be able to say we are busy? I have to wonder if an important force behind it is the American conviction that a successful life is a life full of doings. People will see or hear the lists of projects, organizations, etc. that someone is involved in, and be more impressed the longer the list. And in all fairness, it is probably why we as a country are so dazzlingly productive.
I can certainly say of myself that I am tethered to this value of doing. I do not, for the record, want to be. Yet here I am, working on untethering myself, but still far from it. In this sense, Australia was a great teacher.
In the 18 months we lived there, thousands of miles away from the work I did and the activities I was involved in, I saw and experienced a different life. The people around me, working parents, retirees, at-home parents: they were not quick to say they were busy. Their lives were and are full, there was always something that needed to be done. But that rarely prevented them from stopping to talk for a while before continuing on their respective paths. They did not try to impress with their lists of accomplishments–or at least none that I’ve met did, despite the fact that some certainly could have. Even allowing for a moment that my sample of Australian culture could be skewed, and Australian society (in larger cities for example) is generally just as doings-obsessed as the United States, it still begs the question: is there something to this lack of value placed on being busy?  Can I learn something from it?
I once had a person from the States ask me, while we were in Australia, what I did all day. The question, of course, itself carries a value judgement: are you busy? If you’re not, what’s wrong? But more pertinent to me was my own response. I rattled off a list of all the things I had done in the past couple of days, just to prove I am still doing a lot. I no longer want to answer that way, and I don’t want to be doing something all the time.
I am working on un-tethering myself from this mindset, but it is an old and deeply ingrained habit. I have made progress though: before going to Australia, I would not even have dared challenge myself to break this mindset. If my pace is broken, can I regain it? Can I reacclimate to my old life? The question should be: why do I want to?
And the answer is: I don’t want to, and I am working on removing from my life the sense of obligation that I have to. I don’t want to because there is more to life than being productive. There are more important goals for me, like making time to reflect on my life and constantly adjusting my choices to match my values: loving and serving others, being the best parent I can be, and tending to the state of my own soul, to name a few. Yes, my life is full. (How can it not be, with three kids, lots of family and friends, and work?) But when I have meaningful conversations with loved ones, they are not about time-saving hacks (those are useful, but not what I will value in my old age), but about our inner lives. So my goal for now is to have more meaningful conversations more often. It is to ask, and truly seek an answer to, “how are you?” It is to find joy and laughter, because those are among the first things that busy-ness steals from me. So is self-reflection.
Will I be able to change my mindset, if not my pace? I don’t know, but I am trying. And in the trying, I am hopeful that I can set a new pace.

No Bow Can Wrap This Up

No Bow Can Wrap This Up

It’s still winter in Queensland. Though we’re now back across the Pacific and across the equator, the scene that flashes across my mind is an unremarkable one. I am standing over the laundry sink, the Queensland sun streaming in the window, scrubbing my daughter’s school socks and cursing the fact that she’s once again managed to embed that singularly Aussie red dirt into the fabric.

It was only weeks ago that I was standing there, but it could have been months. It is summer here in Ohio, everything is lush and green and hot and humid, and my sense of place is still suspended. People ask how it is to be back, and my answer is usually a patchy attempt to explain that, while our plane landed weeks ago, I’m still waiting for my feet to hit the ground. We have flipped seasons and calendars (we left mid academic year and are arriving in time to start a new academic year next month). We have moved back into our home only to find that, though it’s unchanged, our habitation of it has. We’ve reconnected with so many family and friends, and it has been overwhelming to hear and see everything that has changed in the past 18 months. And we’ve only just begun to catch up.

Before we’d left, a year–or year and a half–didn’t seem like long. And it’s not, in fact. It flew by. But you know that expression about not stepping in the same river twice? Well, it’s true. I knew things would change while we were gone (including our own views and experiences), even if I didn’t know how. Neither did I know know how the transition back would go.

While in Australia, I had started half a dozen lists in my head of things I didn’t want to forget. They went something like this:

Things I’ll Miss Hearing:
The Aussie accent. Being called “dahl.” Even, dare I say, the screech and song every morning of magpies, cockatiels, lorikeets, rosellas, and cockatoos.

Things I’ll Miss Seeing:
Our friends and neighbours. Gum trees. The ocean. The one-of-a-kind colors of a Queensland sunset sky.

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Foods and Drinks I’ll Miss:
Pies. Lemon Lime & Bitters. A really good flat white or mocha being easily available. (I have yet to have a Starbucks coffee since being back, and am in no hurry to reintroduce that brew into my life.) Date scones. The cornucopia of flavour-packed seasonal fruits and veggies, which would require a dedicated blog if I were to name them all.

Our Time in Queensland, Tallied:
Our oldest daughter learned to braid hair. We washed easily over 150 loads of laundry. Our younger daughter saw her first movie in a movie theater. The kids went to their first (and second) circus performance. My husband learned about half a dozen new classes of venomous snake bites to treat. We drove thousands of kilometers…on the left side of the road. I read probably 40 books. Our oldest daughter was introduced to the game of Monopoly. Both older kids fell in love with the game of Trouble. I wrote one book, and a first draft of a second. Our younger daughter’s speech went from the toddler speak that only those closest to her could understand to the very precocious–and intelligible–speech of a preschooler. Our oldest daughter fell in love with soccer. We went, most significantly, from a family of four to a family of five.

 

That was there. This is here. Here, when I haven’t been trying to return our home to some kind of physical order or to catch up with family and friends, I’ve been swept up in the political discourse currently consuming the societal psyche. It has, in fact, generated a lot of material for a future blog post. But I’m not ready to go there yet. Not until I can more firmly answer the simple question of how I am doing, how we are doing. Not until I can wake up in the morning and plant my feet on the ground with a solid sense of where I am and what I am meant to do that day.

There is a pair of my daughter’s shoes, shed mid-stride, in our entry way. Along the sides and bottom is a coat of that red dirt, picked up on our last trip, in Uluru. I think about wiping the shoes clean, but I am not yet ready to let the red disappear.

Joy Finds You

Joy Finds You

 

It is the first night of the junior school musical at our kids’ school.
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While the children prepare with their teachers nearby, parents take the chance to catch up and chat amongst each other. Slowly, we find seats in the covered court that has been transformed into an outdoor theatre of sorts. My neighbour points out the kookaburra singing their song as dusk starts to settle.

 

20160318_182615I look down at the baby, sleeping beside us. The musical, incidentally, is about the story of Daniel (in the Lion’s Den). I look up and see the nightly path of the flying foxes over the car park beyond the court’s wall. Dusk has deepened.

 

Our kids parade onto the stage. Along with all the other parents, we snap our photos, beaming.

As the play ends, I am standing several rows back and off to the left rocking the baby, watching the joy on the faces of the kids, parents, and grandparents around us. I am thankful for this perfect evening, when the kids are beaming with pride at their hard work, and we are full of joy. We are all together and healthy, and life is good.

Fast forward to a few days later. It is Orthodox Easter weekend, one of the highlights of our year. This year, we have a newborn who is still nursing and crying often. Getting into the spirit of the services will be hard, a fact we are reconciled to; we know it is just temporary.

We celebrate what parts of the weekend we can with a small and loving congregation in Bundaberg, almost all of us expats, almost all of us far from the family and traditions of home, though those living permanently in Australia are more rooted in a new home and new traditions. A prayer comes to mind from the liturgy: a prayer for the “strangers, travelers, and visitors.” A prayer for us.

My husband and I have a few moments to pray and reflect on the significance of what we are celebrating. That’s something. But it is not the profound experience that comes from the culmination of a whole week of services and reflections. I don’t realize until it doesn’t come that I was still hoping for that penetrating joy.

Absent is the usual gathering of family, and with it, the chatter of my sisters, cousins, and in-laws as we congregate at home after a long Good Friday service. Absent is the pre-dawn awakening on Saturday and the most poignant liturgy of the year. Absent are my mother’s inimitable stuffed grape leaves, and the other delightful dishes that mark this feast. Absent is my father’s invitation to each of us to have a bit of wine with our dinner, telling us a little about the bottle he has selected.

This Easter weekend, our home isn’t pervaded with the smells of roasted, stewed, and breaded meats. I think to try and replicate some of the dishes that might make it feel more like a feast, but I don’t know how to make any but the simplest of them. Besides, even if I did, I lack the energy to prepare such a meal.

We call and FaceTime our family back home, the pace of the weekend out of sync with theirs. We call on Saturday, when they are still celebrating Good Friday. We talk on Monday, when they are still celebrating the feast.

What should have been one of the most joyous points in our year was understated this year, and what might have been a mundane weekday night attending a school event wasn’t. It was perfect.

I am glad I was in the state of mind to see that perfection and to feel such joy. I could easily have been distracted and wishing that Daniel was past this phase, or stressed about how to feed him and keep him quiet while the musical was on. But I wasn’t.

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A cappuccino from Paradise Pie & Pastries, one of my favourite HB spots.

It is perhaps one of my greatest lessons from our time here: allow yourself to experience joy. Be open to it always. Sometimes it will be in the most mundane moments of the day. A pure and joyous smile from one of the kids. An unspoiled landscape. A conversation with my husband over a cup of coffee, perfectly prepared.

Be open to joy, for it won’t always come in the ways you expect.

 

 

 

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