Since Then

June was insane.  I finished a draft of my third novel by writing every day for thirty days, no excuses, including weekends (I logged about 40,000 words).  During ten of those days, my husband was singing in California, leaving me to parent our 12, 13, and 14-year-old on my own (read: forage for brightly colored foods like pop ice and cheese and binge-watch old episodes of House while the kids played too many video games when they should have been sleeping).

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(Photo by my son, Ivan)

By the time my husband finally came home in early July my youngest sister and her three kids were already visiting our home to celebrate Independence Day.  Then, suddenly, my grandmother passed away, and my middle sister and her three kids drove thirteen hours to join the rest of us during that hard time.  The last seven days are a smear of lipstick and tears.

And, to quote Sarah Mclachlan, I’m so tired that I can’t sleep.

A few things come to mind: 1). Life happens in contractions.  There’s the normal we get bored of and there’s the pain we resent.  2). We don’t appreciate the respite without the strain in-between, and 3). You can still get a lot of stuff done in chaos, but you’re always glad when you managed to work ahead and can somewhat avoid that I-can’t-feel-my-feet feeling.

And then there’s this.  God is always good, even when life isn’t.

The Routine God

 

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I love the liturgies of daily life.  I scramble to bring order to my days and I sometimes think I’m nothing without my routine.  So when things come along to throw off my groove (and they do, routinely–see what I did there?), I feel lost.

I could lie and say this love of habit blossomed after I finally woke from a compressed and super-intense baby-producing phase in which I trust I was present but only have scrapbooks and stretch marks to prove it.  But, no.  I was making workable life plans for myself in second grade.

The thing is, I have seen daily disciplines work.  I have, in fact, used them to lose weight, to read through the entire Bible in a year, to play certain difficult pieces on the cello, to learn to speak Hindi, to write a novel.  I also know that the slapdash, open-ended ways of a creative often hinder her from getting actual stuff done.  The Muse visits the writer whose bum is already in the chair, etc, etc, etc.

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But the workable routine always wants to become my god.  It promises to save me from sloth and chaos and irrelevance.  Or that’s what I hear it say, anyway.  And then the real God, the One who helps us even when we didn’t ask him to, castrates the fake god by letting mess happen, instead.  Not because routines are bad–they’re helpful–but because they aren’t more important than life, or God himself.

All of that is to say that I haven’t written in a week and I feel crazy.  I’m working on a project with a deadline I made up because it helps me accomplish more when I pretend disaster is looming.  But, like I said, life happened this week and I ended up thinking instead of doing.  My teenagers needed me and so did some friends.  And after that I just wanted to watch Netflix and read books that have nothing to do with the one I’m writing.  I wanted to go limp.

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So now I’m trying to get back to my former routine (again!) without loving it too much. Oh,  how I hate getting back into something instead of already being in the middle of it.  I also hate confronting the fear that fills the vacuum my ruined routine leaves in my psyche.  On the other hand, I want to grow trusting and flexible enough that I can ride these longterm contractions with quiet confidence that God knows what’s best for me, that I can trust him with all the things–including my writing habits and my time.  That I can get back to work eventually.

I should be working on my novel.  But I’m blogging instead.  Baby steps.

Back and Forth

We said goodbye to our four-year-old nephew today.  We’d kept him for a few days because his parents were out of town.  It’s amazing how much having a little one changes the dynamic in a family.  With two teenagers in the house (and one who’s almost there) things are different for us than they were an eyeblink ago.

These days our lives are marked by large swaths of the predictable.  There’s lots of quiet and a fair bit of angsty journal writing.  But four-year-olds need to yell, to jump straight up in the air, to be reminded to go potty.  They need eye contact and physical touch and snacks.  They need sleep.

As we re-arranged our lives to provide those things for our nephew I realized that my teens need a lot of the same things he does–still, after all this time.  I watched them hunker down and watch kid cartoons with the pre-schooler, wrestle till they were sweating, play hide-and-seek, and evil robots.  I watched them grab books and blankets during the little guy’s nap, giving in to the old relief of a time-out.  I watched them be kids, and also, I saw their rapidly approaching adulthood as they helped meet the needs of someone smaller.  Someone they used to be.

And I remembered:  deep down, we are all four-year-olds.

 

 

Things That Are Saving My Life Right Now

It’s February, the shortest month that lasts forever.  Of course, I kind of like it because my birthday is in February, along with my mom’s.  Still, it’s a gray month if you don’t count all the pink and red from Valentine’s Day.

Though there are plenty of things that seem to suck the life out of us during the cold months, over at Modern Mrs. Darcy people are talking about how they’re surviving, and even enjoying, winter in a series entitled ‘Things That Are Saving My Life Right Now.’  I’m adding my two cents below.

  • Celestial Seasonings Bengal Spice Tea and Half-Caf Coffee.  This tea is heavy on cinnamon and is caffeine free.  It’s sweet, too, without any added sugars.  I’ve been drinking it throughout the day, and at night before bed.  As for the half-caf, it’s my weak attempt at ever-so-slowly reducing the amount of caffeine I consume because I read that higher levels of caffeine are linked to anxiety in women (something I battle).  In the end, I just can’t give up coffee right now because the warmth and ritual of drinking it is so powerful–especially in the winter when it seems I never get truly warm for more than a few minutes.  I don’t want to go cold turkey and drink full-on decaf coffee, either, because I’m chicken about the headaches and flulike symptoms of withdrawal.  Half-caf is my solution for now.
  • Music on Pandora Radio.  This is not new for me, but music becomes even more important in the winter when the sun is stingy.  I have a couple of favorite stations I play on the laptop (I work from home) while tidying up the house in the morning.  The good news is that the right music can set the tone–pun intended–for the entire day.  The bad news is certain kinds of music can be depressing earworms that also set the tone, but not one I want.  I try to choose carefully.
  • Reading Aloud to My Teenagers.  I kind of thought we were done with this aspect of our family life since my kids are voracious readers themselves and increasingly seem to have their own agendas for…everything.  It turns out, though, that spending a few minutes a day re-reading a favorite series while my teens loll on my bed and stare at the ceiling has made winter more bearable so far.  I didn’t plan it, i.e. we fell back into reading aloud from sheer weather induced boredom, but we’re all secretly becoming attached to this ritual again (some of us not so secretly).
  • Very Hot Baths with Epsom Salt before Bed.  Again, not something I actually planned because I’m not old yet.  But it happens that old timers have lots of wisdom.  When they say that Epsom salt is the solution for several of life’s little problems, including muscle ache, fatigue, and trouble falling asleep, they’re right.  At least in my case.  I’m taking hot baths for a few minutes before bed, soaking up the magnesium found in Epsom salt through my skin, and heading under the covers soon after.  While I may not fall asleep immediately, at least I’m warm to my bones for a while and feeling relaxed.

Those are a few things that are saving my life this winter.  Of course, prayer, off and on all day, everyday, is my actual lifeline.  And then there’s poetry reading and writing, which feels increasingly like its own kind of prayer.  But these are things I cling to even when the sun is out.

What are some things that are saving your life this winter?

The Most Typical Time of the Year

It’s almost Christmas.  Yesterday I sat down with the kids and told them how this week will unfold if everything goes the way I suspect it will– that there will be fun but also boredom; sweet moments but also snippy responses from siblings and parents with cabin fever; excitement but also hints of the blues, maybe.  I reminded them that Christmas morning will come with presents under the tree, but also visits to two separate nursing homes, where my grandparents wait out the ends of their lives without knowing what day it is.

I wanted my kids to be prepared for the everydayness of this week–the truth that, even with the sparkle of the season, there’s going to be plodding and flashes of frustration.  Even in the happiness, there might be secret (or not-so-secret) undercurrents of grief and insecurity, as there are for so many of us.  I wanted them to understand, when they’re slightly let down after ripping the last package open, that having mixed feelings about all of it is OK.

Because I feel that way, too.  And so do most people I talk to about this season of high expectations.  It’s only when we accept that joy will steal up on us while we’re not expecting it, that it will be interspersed with normal–even banal–things like loading the dishwasher, standing in the doorway of a hospital room, or serving cookies to someone who can’t quite chew them the way she used to, that we are set free to celebrate the baby who was born in a drafty barn on an ordinary night.

*For another take on helping kids set reasonable expectations of the season, see this.*

On Being the Audience

I grew up on the stage, playing my first violin recital at age three. I vaguely remember the corsage on my shoulder being bigger than my face at the time, and that I got a white ribbon afterward.  Everything else is a blank–including what I played, which was likely three notes.

At six, I switched to the cello.  From then on I performed, year after year, in venues as diverse as they were plentiful.  It got to be a thing where I felt a little nervous before a performance, sometimes, but usually only if I found myself queued up in an endless stretch of fellow recital-bots.

Weddings, office parties, tours?  Not so much.

It was probably good for me to have started so young, to have learned from an early age how to use the energy we call nerves instead of letting it use me.  There were crash-and-burn moments, of course, when my bow hand shook so violently it cut audibly anxious paths across my strings. But in time I got less nervous about getting nervous.  Or else I got numb.

Flash forward.

My kids started taking piano lessons this semester.  For one reason or another, my husband and I did not emphasize formal musical instruction with them for several years.  For one thing, we wanted to see if they actually wanted to put the time in to practice before we made the commitment.  We homeschool, and practicing an instrument felt like one more thing we’d have to “encourage” if it didn’t go well.  Then there was the fact that we lived for three years in a remote place where we couldn’t secure music lessons.

But we’re in the States now, and they really wanted to learn how to play the piano, so we let them.  The only problem is that they’re 14, 13, and 11.5–old enough to be self-conscious.  So I had no idea how they were going to handle their upcoming recital.

Who am I kidding?  I had no idea how I was going to handle it.

In the end, they did very well, though my daughter was shaking so bad she had to steady her hands before she began her piece.  They didn’t crack under pressure, didn’t goof up, didn’t get up and walk out, or nervous-burp, or barf.  Believe me when I say that those things are fairly common, and that I’ve seen enough recital train wrecks to have lost my innocence forever.

So they played while I cried in the audience like some kind of unstable Tiger Mom.  And, yeah, I aged a couple of years.  But the thing I learned is, they’re really going to be OK, after all.

And so am I.