Go!

For too long, stop signs permeated my faith. “Don’t believe this.” “Don’t do that.” “Don’t go there.” “Don’t listen to that.” And I grew up in a relatively comfortable home. I can’t imagine what a legalistic faith would feel like. These stop signs were sometimes fear-based. They were often a warning to prevent me from going where God didn’t want me to go. People who disregarded these stop signs weren’t serious about their faith. They didn’t trust that the stop signs were meant to keep them safe.

As I got older, the problem I increasingly grappled with was that the stop signs weren’t producing healthier individuals. People who followed these rules were just as screwed up, though perhaps in different ways. I began to question some of the stop signs and eventually cautiously move past them. To stay compliant to the stop signs would have been to become stagnant in my faith and eventually have it die altogether, like repeating freshman year over and over and over. There is only so much of that one can take, especially freshman year.

My Christian faith had taught me this idea that there is the letter of the law, or the rules one is meant to follow; and then there is the spirit of the law, understanding the greater intent of the law. Jesus was often cited as the example of one moving from the law to the spirit of the law. Did he break a rule by healing on the Sabbath? Yes. Was it wrong? Jesus said it wasn’t. Interestingly Christians would use Jesus as an example to shame Jews for getting it wrong. And yet this is exactly what I experienced from Christians.

When I began to venture beyond some of the stop signs, I encountered a number of people who cautioned me, who judged me, who bullied me, who shamed me. There is a lot of negativity in some religious systems. And it’s hard to not be impacted by it. It’s hard to not have one’s faith hardened by other people’s negativity. It’s hard not to have one’s faith soiled by constantly being told what’s wrong with you, with what believe or who you are reading or what you find inspiring.

I have had to learn how to be fueled by what is working. I now listen for the “Go!” moments in my life. I am still learning to quiet the voices yelling at me to stop. I try to relish the inspiration and I do my best to move past what would otherwise shut me down. It’s not that there isn’t a periodic “no” or “not yet.” Sometimes it comes in the form of “What about this?” or “Are you sure?” The difference is that the stop sign was put there by someone else. The “no” or “not yet” or “slow down” or “are you sure?” requires on ongoing engagement with my faith.

I get the purpose of stop signs. They aren’t inherently bad. But if those stop signs are the point of your driving experience, you aren’t really focused on the experience of driving. I trust my acquired skills to navigate and stay safe. Feel free to disagree. We can even have a great conversation about that. But if all you are going to do is to yell at me to stop, to tell me I don’t understand, to point out how you know much more than me, then I’m going to have to keep on going.

Redefining “Living Well”

Part of living life well requires a definition of what “living well” means. What do you want from your life? What do you want to contribute to this world? What will your legacy be? What is important to you and how will you incorporate that into your daily life? These things don’t happen naturally. They require intentionality, sacrifice and decisions that reflect what you want.

In my 20s, “living well” included as many adventures as I could fit into my life and afford. The adventures were not just about enjoyment, but learning about the world and myself. Between the ages of 18 and 27, I lived in seven states. (I would add four more states to the list in the years that followed.) I lived on each coast and a few states in between. It was exciting to experience so many different parts of the country. Moving, settling, moving again were ways to learn and grow and be challenged and make decisions about who I would be as an adult. I met and married young. We were aware at the time of how atypical our lives were, but it felt right for us and we did our best to be faithful to our definition of “living well.”

In my mid 20s through my 30s, “living well” meant quality time with my kids. One of the greatest gifts my mom gave me was this bit of advice, “Jen, when you have children of your own, make sure you really take the time to enjoy them. I regret not having done that more with you and your brother.” I could see she meant her words and I was compelled to take them seriously. When I had children, I knew I would soak up everything I could in the time I would have with them. My husband and I sacrificed many things to live on one income. It was hard. But when I think back on that time, I can’t tell you how rich I feel. The time we had together is priceless. It would become the foundation of the deep and rewarding relationship I now have with both of them as adults.

In my 40s, my time as mom was beginning to wane and so I began to focus on what would come next. “Living well” shifted to include significant internal work on my well being. I had a lot of therapy, examined patterns and healed old wounds. At first I thought maybe I had failed in my 20s with the work I had done. But I don’t think I could do the work that was needed until my 40s. It took courage, time and patience. Being adventurous is not the same as being brave. It makes sense that the deeper work had to wait. It was painful. And it was freeing. It was scary. It was riddled with missteps. “Living well” broadened to include all of these descriptors, and maybe more importantly, my willingness to embrace them.

I now find myself at the start of another decade. Children are grown and my next career is well underway. As I think about what “living well” means now, I feel like I am somewhat returning to the beginning and the relationship with my spouse. I am deeply grateful for the companionship he has provided and the life we have built together. I am not an easy person to live with. (Neither is he, for the record.) As our lives simplify, we have more time for each other. Again, as we did in the beginning, but now with a rich history and the legacy of our two kids. The marriage could have broken a number of times because it can be so hard. But we did a lot of work to maintain as much health in our relationship as two dysfunctional people could muster. We are now enjoying the fruits of our labor. We still want similar things and we still make each other laugh. Wanting to come home, to lie next to him at night, to grow old together, all of this bleeds good things into every other area in my life.

My quest to define what “living well” means has been rewarding. It has helped sooth the hurts and mend the mistakes. (I could write a book on the ways I have messed up.) It has brought clarity, conviction and purpose. The point isn’t how I defined “living well.” This can vary from life stage to life stage, sometimes even day to day, and certainly from person to person. What is important is that I continued to redefine “living well.” The fluidity was forgiving and adapted more easily. The flexibility enabled each day to truly be a new day. I could incorporate my mistakes and the consequences into my new definition. Shame didn’t have a place or purpose in my framework.

I hope my reflections have sparked some thoughts of your own, and what “living well” has meant to you. Don’t get caught in the trap of comparing your definitions with mine. And if you have difficulty identifying how you have defined it in the past, that is okay. Reflection can be beneficial, but we don’t want to stay in the past. My question to you is:

How do you want to define what “living well” means today?

Bone-Tired Tired

I guess I’m fortunate that I haven’t had too many seasons in life that were so chaotic I was stripped of nearly all my reserves. And if I had any reserves right now, I’d be grateful for that. It’s not just been an awful year. It’s been a slow building depletion of the last few years. Thank God I’m good with self-care because I can usually get the energy I need on most days to stay relatively healthy and well. But I recently realized that the reserve tank is empty. On the days I don’t have quite what I need, I simply stall and sometimes putter out.

This is helpful to realize. To name and sit with.

I’m not sure if I can build up reserves right now. That feels too lofty and I don’t have energy for lofty goals. It’s time to be practical and focus on what is right in front of me. So if you are at all with me, I thought maybe it might be helpful to share how I am doing that.

  1. Take care of my physical self. Eat well and get enough sleep. Don’t drink too much alcohol, as tempting as that is. Move and strengthen my body. (Having a very active dog with adorably pleading eyes helps.) I didn’t make huge changes to my physical self-care. But I found small ways to improve how I care for my body. I might not be able to change what I am going through, but my body can help me to better endure the stress and strain.
  2. Know what has to be done and what can wait. Bills need to get paid. Garbage needs to be taken out. House does not need to be spotless. Animals need to be fed. Projects do not need to be started. Plans can be postponed. Annoying friend can wait. Being clear on my non-negotiables vs. negotiables helps me adjust my schedule as needed.
  3. Always make time for what feeds my soul, even if it’s just for five minutes here and there, and do it multiple times throughout the day. Earlier I spent a few minutes sitting on my porch, eyes closed, listening to the rain fall. It was cathartic. I use my breathing app to remind me to take deep breaths, one minute at a time. I fill my bird feeders and watch them be used as I drink my morning coffee. I stare at the dusk sky. I listen to music that gives me hope. I read poems that name my heartache. I knit because it’s meditative. I write. These moments do many things: help me to recalibrate, remind me of who I am, ground me. Collectively the moments make a big difference.
  4. Be accountable. It’s easy to fall off the path on a good day. When life is chaotic, it’s nearly impossible to stay on the path unless I track what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I set small, attainable goals (I’ve already mentioned most) and track my progress. I don’t beat myself up when I fall short. But I experience much more success when I set goals and track my progress than if I were to just try to do my best.
  5. Practice love and gratitude. It’s easy to complain. It’s easy to hate. It’s easy to divide. It’s easy to be entitled. Love and gratitude require intentionality. I have people who are easy to love and things that are easy to be thankful for. I challenge myself to love those who are not easy to love and be thankful for tasks I’d rather not be thankful for. My experience is that while energy gets depleted, there is something magical about it too. I’m not exactly sure what happens – more energy or better use of energy or what – but it’s the equivalent of physical self-care for my mind and heart. Love and gratitude do something wonderful. And when I am depleted, there can’t be enough wonderfulness in my life.

Maybe there are other things but I feel like those five are the primary ways I have avoided getting consumed by what is going on. So far.

Now I need a nap. I guess that should’ve been number six – nap often.

What I See

What I could see is my hair turning white,

Or fine lines becoming more pronounced each year.

I could see the way my face and body are changing shape.

I could see that I still don’t really know how to style my hair, even at 51 years old.

If I look closely, I could see the evidence of battle scars from a life lived, including the hurts, betrayals, and failures.

But that’s not what I see. Not today.

What I see are my eyes that still manage to convey compassion and hope.

I see signs that I smile and laugh regularly.

I see life lessons learned well and applied.

I see joy.

I see peace.

I see love.

I see contentment.

I see me.

What I’m Learning in the Midst of a Pandemic Situation

  1. Toilet paper is what Americans covet the most. This surprised me. I would’ve thought the answer would be money or unlimited data or selfie filters. But it turns out that we can’t live with the thought of not having toilet paper. When all of this madness subsides, I’m going to make, produce and sell Pandemic Bidets. I think it’s a million dollar idea.
  2. Empty nesting is overrated during a world crisis. I couldn’t be happier to have my kids home with me right now.
  3. The second refrigerator that seemed unnecessary once we became empty nesters would be very helpful during the pandemic crisis. (See #2.)
  4. I have great job security as a hospital chaplain. I don’t love this one because it is the hardest parts of life that ensure my work is valued. But it has been interesting to navigate the crisis without worrying about whether or not I have a job. My heart is heavy for the many people who can’t work or won’t have a job to go back to once this ends.
  5. More information is not necessarily going to make a difference. For weeks we were preparing for the inevitable Stay-At-Home order and learning why it was so important to practice. And yet some (or perhaps many) ignored that information and act like it is time to catch up with neighbors and friends. Hey folks, IT’S NOT SUMMER VACATION!
  6. Spend time not thinking about the worldwide pandemic. Nature is an essential stabilizer. To see the birds go on as if it is any other day reminds me that life is moving forward; that summer will come; that people will rise to the occasion; that we (collectively) will get through this. I watch those who are oblivious to COVID-19 because they remind me of life beyond COVID-19.
  7. Self-care is essential in maintaining my sanity. I learned during my stay-at-home parent days that no one was going to take care of me so I damn well better learn how to do that for myself. My mind and body tell me when I need to amp up taking care of me. Lack of motivation, fatigue regardless of how much sleep I got, excessive negativity are all indicators that I am depleted and need to be refilled. I have learned that what I need to do is do something, anything, to remind myself of who I am. Weeding the garden, making a delicious meal, organizing a closet, going for a long walk in the woods, playing with my dog, zooming with great friends are all things that help recalibrate my mind and body when the work has become too much. And these days, the work is a lot. Self-care isn’t a luxury. Self-care is a necessity.
  8. Financial health is like any other aspect of health. Sometimes a person’s decisions contribute to his or her overall health. Other times it has nothing to do with decisions made and has everything to do with things out of that person’s control. Most of the time it is some combination of the two. I’ve been learning this lesson for awhile, awakening out of my white-middle-class-fog. The lesson began as I better understood the complexities of poverty (FYI It’s not just a matter of working harder). But I see this now more than ever as we learn in the current crisis who is most vulnerable and asking myself how can I help.
  9. Laughter is still the best medicine. Practice it daily.
  10. The purpose of faith in my life isn’t to provide answers but to help hold the tough, important questions. The faith of my past would have told me what God is and isn’t doing right now, but I have become quite skeptical of that kind of belief. Instead I find faith as sort of a book binding. The pages move back and forth, can be bent and even torn. And yet there is something that prevents the pages from flying apart in all different directions. The movement of the pages, the creases and tears all remind me that life is fragile. It is important to take that reality seriously. The binding provides hope that the fragility may overwhelm but does not have to prevail. The binding is the presence of the Collective Good, of God.

Maybe there are more lessons I have learned. I am sure there are more to be learned. But that feels like enough for today. The rest of today will be my own restorative work so that tomorrow I can do the hospital work of how to provide the best possible care under our current circumstances. Godspeed, friends.

A Daisy Forever

I like tattoos. I’ve seen some really cool ones. But I never found an image that I thought I would want on my body for the rest of my life… until my daughter announced that she was getting a tattoo of a daisy. Not just any daisy, but one that was designed by my friend who had died unexpectedly a few years ago. Six years ago, to be exact. I knew immediately that I, too, wanted that same image forever placed on my body.

I sat with the idea for a few months. I don’t make big decisions impulsively. Time turned the idea into something that felt so right I didn’t even feel like I had to decide anymore. I reached out to my friend who has some beautiful tattoos and asked him who I should see. He sent me to a local artist and I booked my appointment.

I chose March 5th, the anniversary of my friend’s death, to get the tattoo. It’s been a shitty day since 2014. And while nothing can make the day not be terrible, I wanted something good to go with the awfulness. I wanted to make a new memory, a good memory that I could hold with the painful ones.

I invited her sons and my daughter to accompany me. I normally like to do things on my own. But not this. I wanted these three by my side. We each have had to figure out how to do life without Catherine’s physical presence. And we have leaned on one another as we’ve done that work. I wanted to share this moment of homage with them. They understood its sacredness. They would be able to grieve her and honor her by my side without effort or explanation.

Did getting the tattoo hurt?

Yes. Yes it did. It felt like a needle was being inserted into my skin and dragged. I guess that’s because a needle was being inserted into my skin and dragged. But eventually I got used to the sensation and it felt more uncomfortable than painful. The white knuckling subsided.

And I love the result.

For you, Catherine.

My Favorites

Sometimes I am with people who seem to bring out the best in me. Sometimes it’s the opposite. The people I’ve learned to hang onto are the ones who see the best in me. It’s not that they overlook my faults. But they see my strengths – my love, loyalty, deeply-felt feelings, intentionality, humor – in spite of my shortcomings – impatience, pushiness, tendency to correct whether one seeks a correction or not. These people are My Favorites, the ones I love more than life itself.

I think it’s a choice, that we can actually authentically be who we are regardless of who we are with. But that is a hard, maybe lifelong skill to learn. It’s normal to allow insecurities or uncertainties or hurts or anger to adjust our demeanor. In fact it’s really hard not to be defensive with someone you don’t trust. But what My Favorites teach me is that I can be my authentic self no matter who I am with. They remind me I am worthy, and in turn can make others feel worthy too, of love, of friendship, of kindness, of gentleness, of patience though God help me with that one.

Life feels very different when I am in that place of grace, even though circumstances might be exactly the same. My perspective softens. Hope is a bit more tangible. And with my ongoing existential crises, I’m deeply in need of both.

On March 5th, I’m getting my first tattoo. I’m 51 years old. I never really wanted a tattoo. I had a hard time imagining what I would want on my body for the rest of my life. And then my daughter, Liv, told me she was getting a tattoo of a flower drawn by one of My Favorites. I knew immediately that I wanted that tattoo as well. It felt right before the thought even fully formed. I asked Liv how she felt about her mom getting the same tattoo. Thankfully she thought it was a pretty great idea. March 5th, 2020 will mark six long years of Catherine being physically gone, a reality that still hurts so much.

This morning I’m realizing the tattoo will mean so much more than an homage to one of My Favorites. It will be my reminder to see myself as she saw me. It will be my reminder to be my best self no matter what. I think she’d like that a lot. I just wish she were here with me, but so continues the journey. She will always be one of My Favorites.

The Cost of a College Education

I remember my dad saying to me many years ago that he would pay for my college education because he felt it was important for me to start my adult life debt-free. I wish I would’ve taken him up on that free bachelor’s degree. I left college before finishing.

Shortly after having our first child, Jeremy and I were talking with friends who had also just had a child. Our friend announced that their daughter would be responsible for her own college education. I thought it was weird that the decision was already being made. But it got me thinking about what we would do for our child. It didn’t take me long before I said to Jeremy, “I think we need to pay for Isaac’s college education.” I didn’t really know what I was saying because I didn’t know what the cost would become. But I said it anyway and I kept saying it even after we had kid #2.

As a stay-at-home parent, I often heard, “That’s so great you can afford to stay home.” The thing is, we really couldn’t afford it if you compared our life to the lives of those who were saying this to me. They had bigger houses, nicer cars, fancier vacations, and much better summer camps for their kids to attend. We were regularly reminded how we couldn’t really afford to be a single income household, and yet we made it work. I knew the sacrifices we were making were worthwhile. Summer vacations and sick days weren’t an issue. The pace of our lives was not only manageable, it was enjoyable. I have so many memories of time with my kids. Now that they are grown, these memories have become priceless.

We did have to come up with a plan to pay for college. We decided once our youngest finished third grade, I would go back to work full-time and my income would go towards college savings. Soon enough those 529’s would be busting at the seams. It was a great plan until a year into my full-time job I realized I really wanted to pursue something that would require more education. And so I went back to school, now costing money rather than making money. Our college savings plan was derailed.

But we were used to sacrifice and simplifying. We were experts at modifying our lifestyle. I earned my master’s degree and finally started to earn some money for education. Our son earned his bachelor’s degree. He started his career two months after graduating, debt-free, and has been financially independent ever since. Our daughter is finishing up her third semester of college. We have had to take on some debt in order to get to where we are. All of my income goes to education expenses, either current or past. The college savings plan had to be modified, but it is working.

I remember that friend saying many years ago that he thought his daughter would appreciate her college education more by having to pay for it. Well, both kids express their gratitude regularly to me for their education. They are well aware of what a gift it is to not be drowning in debt or worse, having to walk away from an education because they can’t afford it.

Obviously what a parent chooses to do is up to that parent, and what a parent is able to do can greatly vary. I have never said to someone, “Why aren’t you paying for your kid’s college?” That choice is theirs alone to make. But I would like people to stop saying to me, “That’s great that you can afford to pay for your kids’ college.” The statement fails to recognize the sacrifices we have made and continue to make in order to do so.

Many times I have wondered what we would be doing if we hadn’t made this decision so early on: the trips we would take, the home remodeling projects we would do, the animals I would adopt… Our decision was a big one. We were uninformed and somewhat impulsive. But I think it was the right decision for us. Sure, the cost is high. But the benefits are way higher.

Thanks, Dad.

Moving Forward Five Years Later

Almost five years ago, I began this blog with the post, Why I Left the Church to Start a Church. It’s a good time to give an update on that church. First I am struck by how much that post still reflects where I am. If I didn’t have my community of faith, The Other Church, I’m not sure what I would do to replace it. I have outgrown the organized church. Or maybe a more accurate way to say it is that my faith has outgrown the organized church. I need a space that allows doubt, questions, anger, and disappointment along with hope, joy and peace. And I need the room to go where I need to go, not where the church tells me to go.

Lots of people inhabit this space, “spiritual but not religious” you might say. Many have deep questions of meaning and purpose. As I have sought to provide a safe space for exploring these questions, I have learned several things about that space. I thought I’d share some today.

  • Being vulnerable is hard. In our social media culture, we are more comfortable with our filtered photos than our messy lives. Vulnerability is an invitation to be honest with self and others. For people who carry deep pain, that invitation can be particularly frightening. Unless they are willing to face their pain, vulnerability will feel like too big of a risk.
  • It is easier to be told what to do or believe than to decide for oneself. Believing what someone else tells you to believe removes accountability. It lessens the need for reflection. The parameters have been set and one simply has to move within those parameters. To pick those parameters for oneself can feel scary. My observation is that for most of us, we only do so when those set parameters no longer make sense.
  • If one can avoid hard work, most of us will. Numbing is a quicker fix than feeling the pain. Fighting or blaming is easier than listening. We are a culture of immediate gratification, and we are dying because of it. We refuse the work before us, or we pour ourselves into work that brings little or no change. Maybe that feels safer. Maybe that’s just who we’ve become.

Shortly after my initial post almost five years ago, a church-of-sorts was officially launched along with a website and social media platforms. The tools were developed to find others who were interested in going on this journey with me. In this carved out space for exploration of faith and meaning, I found a group of people. We are learning to be more vulnerable. We are exploring what we believe individually and collectively, and what we will do with those beliefs. We are learning to do the hard work, encouraging and helping each other along the way. We don’t do any of these things perfectly and we fail regularly. But we keep trying as we also do our best to love and care for one another.

As The Other Church community moves forward, know that there is always room for one more. And in our next steps of moving forward, I have decided to shut down the church’s website and social media platforms for now. At this stage, I do not see these tools helping us with the work we do. We are not meant to be a community that is watched, but rather one that is engaged. We all need a community of people who know us, love us, challenge us and accept us. If you have followed The Other Church, I want to thank you. If you have supported The Other Church, a double thank you to you. Now go find a place for you that will embrace all of you. And if you want to be part of mine, you are always welcome.

Godspeed.

Tough Love

I have been the recipient of tough love on several occasions. I am referring to the experience of being told something I didn’t want to hear because it was hard to hear. But as the pain ebbed, I could see that I needed to hear what was being said. It is that moment of truth you initially push aside because it hits a little too close to home; a truth that challenges the narrative you have chosen to believe; a truth that feels like a mirror being held up too close to reveal a flaw you would rather not see.

Rarely does a tough love moment work the first time its message is conveyed. Its effectiveness usually requires multiple supporting messages and a recipient willing to listen or at least unable to ignore. One of my tough love moments was about money. And in hindsight I realized how that moment had been years in the making. I didn’t enjoy my tough love moment. But I was changed by it, for the better.

Initially I didn’t believe any logical and loving person could vote for Trump. When he was elected, I was shocked. When I realized some of my friends and family voted for Trump, I couldn’t really talk about it. I was so incredibly uncomfortable with the thought that one could believe Trump deserved the office of President. The only argument I heard that made any sense was the struggling coal miner who believed that Trump might revitalize the coal industry. I didn’t believe Trump would actually do that. But I could wrap my head around it.

I still can’t comprehend how a logical and loving person supports Trump. I’m not saying that a Trump supporter can’t be logical and loving. I am saying that a Trump supporter has a malfunction going on in both logic and love. That is my tough love message. Trump is a malignancy and in order to support him, you must deny the damage and ignore the hurt he is causing.

It doesn’t matter how he advances your convictions, who he puts into power for you, or what you gain. Nothing is worth the damage this president is causing at the expense of others. Without love, we are nothing and we gain nothing. And so we need to cut out the fucking cancer. If you are a Trump supporter, put forth a decent candidate for 2020 who represents you without decimating decency. Put forth a candidate who is able to argue his or her ideas rather than relying on cruelty towards another. Put forth a candidate who serves more than his or her own ego. Put forth a candidate with integrity. I believe with all my heart that Trump supporters need this tough love moment.

I am aware of a paradox here. While I articulate my belief that Trump supporters need to do better, I am convicted of the reality that I too need to do better. I must move past my disbelief and discomfort and have the conversation with my family and friends who support this president. I need to speak and listen, which will not be easy. I propose, if you are also willing, that we try to give each other room. Thank you for reading this far. Now tell me what it is you are fighting for. Tell me what the tough love message is for me. It might be difficult to do, for both of us. But isn’t it time we choose something other than division or superficiality?

I have one final thought to share. It is not only our convictions that reveal who we are, but it is the substance of our lives: the quality of our relationships, the sense of peace versus fear we carry, and the love or lack thereof that we give. I hope my life is about love, whether I am standing up for the marginalized, or listening to someone I completely disagree with because love never fails.