a day’s portion every day: growth in relationship.

I have a note card taped on the window frame by my kitchen sink that reads “A day’s portion every day.”  It’s taken from the story outlined in Exodus 16–God has delivered his people, they’re in the wilderness and they’re hungry, they moan that it would have been better to stay in Egypt if they’re just going to die here and so God provides miraculous food from heaven that falls to the ground every day. God tells the people to gather up just enough for each day and use it all up, except on the sixth day when they’re supposed to gather enough for the next day too, since it’s the Sabbath and they won’t work that day. Simple enough, right? Except the people try to take more and stockpile it. Just in case. So the manna rots and gets all wormy and stinky.

Motherhood has always been my crucible. I’ve always believed that long term relationships are the place where growth happens–we simply can’t experience the same level of change all by ourselves. Sometimes marriage is the crucible, or that one friendship, or our relationship with our parents. Every single one of our long term relationships force us to mature, all the time, but in my experience there’s usually one that is at the forefront leading that charge toward higher ground. Motherhood is that for me.

I’ve been parenting from a deficit the entire time I’ve been a mom. That deficit got bigger over time as my mental health deteriorated, but it’s been true since the beginning. But even though my deficit might have been bigger or more preventable or categorically different than yours, we all enter our relationships with some kind of deficit and that deficit is what forces us to grow. The problem with those opportunities for growth is how much they look like hardship or failure, right? So we shy away from them.

I spend a lot of time holding onto what I think I need as a mom. I jealously ration my attention, my emotion, my time. I grasp it all and hold it so tightly because for a long time I was afraid of what would happen when it ran out, and that habit of fearful living is hard to break. It never works out the way I hope, though, because when you hold onto your resources instead of using them, you don’t end up with more of what you need, you end up with a moldy, rotten mess.

These days I’m trying to use a day’s portion every day. I set aside my book to look babies in the eye, when I remember to (it’s still a learning process for me). I do what I can to prioritize connection over the to-do list. When I am getting panicky, I try to lean toward my kids instead of away from them, because it’s mostly true* that the healing is found in close proximity to not in space from the people I love. I still very much prioritize the things I want to do for me, like reading and writing and playing my guitar, but I speak that truth into my heart the entire time, especially when things inevitably fall apart: A day’s portion every day. I have what I need. Tomorrow I will have what I need. God’s grace and provision are not going to run out, and here–with my people–is where I will grow.

 

 

 

 

*I say it’s mostly true because there are certainly long term relationships in which space is needed, perhaps permanently. These truths about growing in the context of relationship apply to the healthy, normal hardships that occur whenever we live for a long time with people (in our homes or otherwise), not the destructive, aberrant evil of abuse.

when everything needs to change.

I spent the last ten years of my life, maybe even a little longer, spiraling downward so slowly and gradually that I didn’t understand what was happening to me. After each major life change—marriage, moving to Indianapolis, having kids—I got worse, but couldn’t put the pieces together. Eventually my body began to deteriorate because it couldn’t handle the load my mind was putting on it. My husband thought that I had become a completely different person, and honestly, so did I. I couldn’t recognize the person I saw in pictures from happier times. I kind of hated her. Then, two years ago this summer, I experienced a personal crisis so debilitating in my already compromised state that I spent months practically catatonic. With counseling, meds, removal from toxic situations, the grace of God and good old fashioned grit, I’m on the path toward health. But it’s a long road. That crisis began two years ago, and I sometimes feel like I’m not in all that different a place, in any easily quantified way. The wisdom and growth gained are easier to see, the mental health and the practical life changes are a little more difficult to pin down. Because life doesn’t just take it easy on you so you can catch your breath and assess things. At least, that has not been my experience.

Which has had me wondering how to prioritize. What do you change first, when you want to change everything? How do you know what is most important? Over the last six months, the answer I’ve arrived at is that you can’t actually know what’s most important, not at first. Especially when your struggle is mixed with mental health factors. But I have come to some conclusions that have helped me a little, and they might help you too. So, here goes.

  1. You have to start with the life you have right now, not the one that you wish you had. I really want to wake up early in the mornings, read my Bible and write for a good little chunk of time and drink some tea in the peace and quiet. But we have things scheduled every early morning: I work most mornings and on the ones I don’t, we have meetings with friends to read the Bible and pray together. My dreamy picture of how I want reading my Bible and prioritizing writing to look is not compatible with the life I have right now. So, when I get home from opening the coffeehouse, I drink my tea and read my Bible and get sucked into researching Nephilim or patriarchy before the fall or the sacrificial system for an hour while my kids watch tv or ride their bikes outside. I write in little spurts during the time I find at home, or take the kids to the Y and instead of exercising I work on my various projects. It’s not “ideal” but life isn’t going to just give you an ideal opportunity to pursue wholeness. Don’t wait for things to change so you can fit the things you want into your day. It’ll never happen.
  2. Work with your challenges, not against them. As one example, for me this means I acknowledge that I am not all the other moms or homemakers I know. I am getting rid of so so much of our stuff because I simply cannot manage it. My life is better without all the junk, and yours probably would be too, but I can’t actually function the way things are now, while you maybe can. I truly, deeply believe that we use way too many resources and are drowning our one precious planet in humanity’s trash, but my slow pursuit of minimalism has less to do with that principle and more to do with the fact that I personally am drowning in our family’s junk. So, instead of figuring out a complex laundry schedule, I’m getting rid of most of our clothes. Instead of trying to find ways to organize our stuff, I’m donating it. It’s a process. Nothing happens all at once, but it goes a lot faster once you stop pretending to be somebody you’re not.
  3. Remember that each small thing makes a difference. I can’t have a perfectly neat and visually peaceful house right now. But I can sweep the floor, or clear my kitchen counters. Even if I can only do one thing, that one thing makes a big difference. I don’t know why this is true, because to me it is not logical–one tiny thing in the face of all the vastness of change that is required does not really equal a change in circumstance. Empirically though, that one small thing makes a bigger difference than it should. So the small thing I can do now is what I will do. Then in a little while, I’ll be able to do something else. Pretty soon everything will be perfect! Just kidding. Life is growth and change. It’ll never be perfect. I hate this truth the most, that I have to do one thing at a time, because I’m impatient and can see everything I want to change. I just can’t do it all at once.
  4. Remember that you can’t have everything. Anything you choose to prioritize means another thing you neglect. It might not be a one-to-one ratio, but something always gets set aside. This doesn’t mean that you are a bad person, it just means that you are a person. Right now, writing is more important to me than exercising. It feels like a fundamental piece of me that has been missing for years that I’m just getting back. So I use my childcare hours at the Y to pursue my writing, not my weight loss goals—which honestly are really just wishes at this point, since I’m writing instead of exercising. I expect that sometime down the road I will be able to prioritize a few more things, but the truth remains that I will never have it all. But when I know the thing I’m choosing, and I do it with intent, it is much easier to say no to the guilt that is always telling us that we should be doing all of the good things.

These are the few truths I have been repeating over and over to myself during this season. Hopefully they will encourage you on your own painstaking journey towards change. There’s a verse in the Bible that says “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin.” It’s so easy for us to be really hard on ourselves, especially if we’re Christians. We’re supposed to be like Jesus, so it’s easy to think that perfection is our goal. But we’re never actually going to become like God, and when you get right down to it, that was our first sin. Accept your humanity and your limitations. Let them point you to the things that you should really be focusing on right now. And remember that if God delights in the process, you’re allowed to find happiness in it as well.

almost famous, and this one is mine: emptiness and the search for happiness.

A few weeks ago, Matthew and I sat down and watched one of my all-time favorite movies for the first time in years, I think for the first time since having kids. Almost Famous is about a young kid who gets the opportunity to follow one of his favorite bands and write a story about them for Rolling Stone. I’ve watched it close to ten times, and it contains some of my favorite lines ever, from the flippant “It’s all happening” that I’ve morphed into a one-size-fits-all expression and use in sarcasm or excitement, to the genuinely moving quote by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” I loved everything about this movie, from the music, to the dreamy Penny Lane, to the flawed but oh-so-cool Russell, to the coming of age of William and the fantasy of getting to roam the world in this alternate reality of writing and music. I mean, it’s a magical movie. It paints this picture of people who are doing what they want, regardless of what the established norms are. That really resonated with me.

It’s just a little different watching it as a mom, with a little more life experience. It’s still an amazing movie, but it was jarring to watch after such a long lapse. Matthew and I were so horrified by the fact that Penny Lane is maybe only 16 that it almost made it impossible to finish the movie. I mean, I knew that when I first watched it, but when you’re 18 and think you’re so grownup, it’s easy to think there are exceptions to rules and that you could totally be in a mutual relationship with an age gap like that. Russell became less complicated artist (“the band’s holding me back”) and more self-absorbed narcissist who wanted adulation and “inspiration” rather than self-awareness and growth, despite his ability to spin words to the contrary. It’s a movie, like life, full of people using other people to thinly mask their sadness at best, abusing and hurting each other at worst.

I stuck with it and finished the movie, and found the ending even more powerful than I remembered it. I didn’t want the stereotypical happy ending even when I watched it before kids and maturity colored my perception, but it was so much more meaningful when I realized that for each main character, the ending signified a major step toward personal growth independent of some outside person, without which I don’t believe happiness is possible.

So then a couple days ago on a daytrip I read a book called This One is Mine, by Maria Semple. Semple is a gifted writer whose book Where’d You Go, Bernadette I really enjoyed. This book is an earlier work. It was a good but tough read, so difficult that I almost quit halfway through when various characters were having affairs, aborting babies, and punching trees. So much need, so little real connection, and a complete lack of self-awareness all around that I found myself spiraling sympathetically. But once I put the kids to bed, I finished it and again, was so glad I did.

Each character had to dig deep within her- or him-self to figure out how to be happy, which for one meant going to rehab and not being able to fix the damage she caused, but finally being able to be real with and content in herself. For another it meant marital reconciliation was actually possible because neither partner was looking to the other for fulfillment anymore.

Both of these, book and movie, got me thinking. So much grief and disconnect, abuse and exploitation happens as a result of us acting out of emptiness. We feel a need or a sadness or anger and sooner or later someone will enter our life and seemingly present the answer. You want inspiration and connection? Here’s this young girl who gives that to you. You want to be a writer? Here’s this band who will let you come on the road with them. You feel this malaise and lack of purpose and excitement with your family life? Here’s this poet musician who makes you feel alive and seen for the first time in years.

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work. It never, ever works.

It doesn’t work because any time we’re interacting with people out of our own emptiness, we are taking advantage of them, and when we’re taking advantage we are not meaningfully connecting. We feel this inherently, when people are using us in this way. I’ve been on the receiving end of both adulation and the attempt to take more from the relationship than it could or should offer, and neither was at all pleasant. Both caused me extreme amounts of anxiety, in fact. I knew when something was wrong, even before I had the experience to identify it like I (hopefully) do now. Sometimes when we use each other, the damage is overt, like when the rocker in his thirties takes the young teen to bed. Sometimes it’s less obvious, like the marriage where each partner resents the other more over time, simply because they can’t actually make you happy. Nobody can.

Our schemes for dragging our own happiness out of other people always backfire, and when they do, it’s an opportunity for growth. This movie and book played out dramatically what your life is probably already hinting: that your emptiness can’t be fixed by another person. Happy, healthy relationships between equal parties can only exist when both people are whole on their own. Are you feeling discontent? Are you feeling unseen and unfulfilled? Look inside, friend. Stay there awhile.

sketch 3

She walks in quick little bursts, leading with her left foot and slightly dragging her right behind. Her oversized white tshirt drapes over her curved spine and hangs past her hips, extra baggy on her slight frame. After an incident where she peed on a bus and berated the other passengers, now when she comes into the coffeeshop  we have to call the police. I always feel bad about it, because it feels like another piece of dignity taken away—she doesn’t even get the chance to determine what this visit will be like, she just has to leave. She doesn’t get to decide this anymore.

Before that, she would come into the Foundry pretty regularly, asking the customers for money in the voice she uses to do that, the higher, softer voice that sounds more helpless but also more soothing. She’d make the rounds til I’d tell her she couldn’t do that. Then she’d walk into the bathroom where she’d spend a nerve-wracking amount of time, and emerge smelling eye-wateringly of the boutique air freshener we buy in little spritz bottles. It actually looks like it could be body spray, but I suppose she’d use Febreze if that’s what was in there.

When she would come back up to the counter, she’d stand for awhile asking the prices for things or trying to wheedle her way into a cup of coffee. “I just need something hot and sweet,” she’d say. “It’s cold out there.” It was always cold, even when it wasn’t. She’d pull out her change with her hardened hands, knuckles cracked and white against her dark skin. Sometimes she’d end up convincing the person behind her to buy her a bagel, the customer always looking blank and dazed like it all happened too fast to process. She might not have all her faculties about her but she is crafty and quick. I wonder what happened to her to get her to here.

She doesn’t come into the shop much anymore. When I see her shorn head bobbing up and down with the irregular beat of her steps as I’m driving through town, I smile a worried smile and I pray for her. I miss her, in some way that I don’t quite understand.

the birthday post.

I am 31 today.

It’s been a rainy, dreary kind of day, the kind that is hard at work bringing forth new life. It’s kind of the way the past year has been, and how I expect this year to continue. Messy, occasionally ugly, and really inconvenient. But under the surface, I can feel seeds germinating, sprouts breaking through the skin and reaching for the surface.  It’s going to be beautiful.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the verse in Joel where God promises to restore all the years that the locusts have eaten. It’s been a really comforting verse for me to cling to that this past year, because it means I haven’t entirely lost these years when I was drowning in my anxiety. It’s not over yet. All the hard and horrible things that have happened don’t get the last word. It’s not the end. There is such hope.

Today I re-read that chapter in Joel and was struck not so much by that verse but by the verses that follow. They are verses that promise abundance and joy, and an overflowing of the Spirit. Of prophecy and dreams, for men and women equally. All things I have been mulling over and longing for.

I look forward to the remainder of my thirties with expectant hope. This is a season of restoration for me. I am rediscovering who God made me, uniquely me, to be, after losing years of myself to my unrealized anxiety. For the first time in a decade, I’m excited to figure out what I’m called to do with my life and my voice. It is hard and unglamorous work, and some days it’s more than I can bear. Like today, honestly. But I say let each day come and bring what it may.

Because I am 31 today, and I’m coming back to life.