Band-aids, Duct Tape, and the Fragile Fine Art of Holding-it-all-Together

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Breathe. Just breathe.

Sometimes this is easier said than done. Sometimes it feels like each breath is an act of sheer will that may crumble into a spasm of tears despite your very best efforts.

BE strong. Chin up buttercup. YOU can DO this. You can hold your fraying self together in a presentable public package that says “I have it all together. My life is picture-perfect Facebook and Instagram ready at any moment.”

This is a lie. Plain and simple.

Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Your life is more than a filtered iPhone photo moment in time illusion. Your precious existence is more important than a stiff upper lip. Much more.

We are, all of us, multi-dimensional flesh-and-blood-and-bone messes. I am a cracked pot, a broken bowl of quivering, quaking, quantized humanity. So are you. We are fallen, fragile, frayed, and fallible.

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We are also the stuff of stars. We are dust and dirt, light and laughter, pain and sorrow, joy and hope.

And all of that is truly impossible to hold together 24/7. Yet for some reason, a lot of us keep on trying (and buying and consuming and falling short of the incredibly high bar we set for ourselves). Here’s the thing:

No one gets out of this life unscathed.

Your public face, you know, the one you want the world to see and believe is incredibly fragile. Its smoke and mirrors image is possible only through the careful application of mental duct tape and emotional Band-aids artfully applied to keep the real you from seeing the light of day.

The truth of the matter is that life is hard–especially when one tries to go it alone and keep all the plates spinning, the balls in the air, and the “perfecto-meter” in high gear. Holding our human mess together is a fragile fine art.

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Want to master it? Sure you do. So do I. So do all of us if we are honest.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all handy-dandy recipe for instant life success. The technique is learned only in the living. Here are a few things I’ve learned from my multiple attempts at getting life right. The list is by no means exhaustive, and what works for me may not work for you at all. Heck, it doesn’t even work for me 100% of the time. We are works in progress, people in process, and dearly beloved by the Creator of the Cosmos. So here goes. Feel free to use what you can.

  1. Quit trying so hard. You do not have to impress anybody. Your job is to live this one precious life and be who you are created to be.
  2. Life works better in community. This means you need to find a diverse group of folks to walk alongside you on this crazy journey. The old saying “there’s safety in numbers and more fun, too” has a real ring of truth to it.
  3. Be vulnerable. Yep. You heard me right. Let down your guard. You will get hurt. Perhaps often. You will hurt others because you are human. But the alternative sucks. Crafting a protective shell around yourself adds unnecessary weight and prevents you from fully enjoying all that life has to offer–both the highs and the lows.
  4. Be generous. Life is more about giving and sharing than getting. You don’t get to take ANYTHING with you when you leave. Most likely people won’t really want the stuff you leave behind, so save them the trouble and travel light NOW.
  5. Take risks. This is the only way you will grow (refer to #3 again). Don’t be stupid, but know that safety and certainty are highly overrated.
  6. Don’t work solely for the money. Passion and joy should be an important part of your compensation package. If you are working only for the money, it will never be enough. You will always need (translate want) more.
  7. Travel. See the world. Meet people. Expand your horizons and value experiences over possessions. Oh, and be sure to travel light (refer to #4 again). You don’t need as much as you may think you do.

Remember: Life is short. Make the most of it. Quit worrying about perfection and appearances. Be real. Ditch the duct tape and Band-aids. If you fall apart, then pick yourself up and try again. Then you’ll be able to breathe. Well, most of the time.

Photos: vagawi and Ansel Edwards, Creative Commons. Thanks!

 

Where Did Lent Go?

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Why yes, Lent has come and gone for another year. My Lenten discipline of plastic-less living has timed out (theoretically), and I didn’t write about the journey once. Not one time. Let’s just say life got in the way in some really big ways. More about that later.

So what about all those plastic avoidance tactics? Were they just so many words?

Actually…no. You may remember my goal was to eliminate these seven simple plastic “sins” from my Lenten life:

  • plastic cutlery
  • straws
  • bottled water
  • take-away beverage cups
  • plastic toothbrushes
  • plastic shopping bags
  • take-away containers
  • plastic wrapped toilet paper

I made some significant progress. I managed to avoid plastic cutlery all during Lent. When we take our lunches (which is frequently) we either pack metal cutlery or use some from the office. That one was pretty easy.

Straws were a bit trickier. I don’t use them at home, and I normally don’t use them when I’m dining out either. Only one time did I almost fail. I say almost because I thoughtlessly began to peel the paper from the offending article because everyone else at the table had already done so. I stopped, and sadly I’m sure that unused straw with the damaged wrapping ended up in the trash anyway. But I did stop, and I have reflected frequently on the power of peer pressure, societal conformity, and normative behavior that works against plastic avoidance. Some restaurants even bring you straws in your water WITHOUT ASKING.

Bottled water was easy. I have a lovely stainless steel water bottle (thanks, Maggie!) that helps me say NO to plastic disposable bottles. I carry it everywhere.

Takeaway beverage cups were also pretty easy. I have a stainless steel coffee mug that I fill at home. It’s cheaper than purchasing coffee out–and much more environmentally friendly. Plus, the coffee we make at home is usually better. I will admit to drinking from a Starbucks takeaway cup once this month. It was a lovely and thoughtful gift/gesture from my husband who was taking pity on my early-morning-caffeine-needy brain before an important presentation. It’s not something I would have done for myself, but one should never refuse radical generosity given in love.

No more plastic toothbrushes for me! I have switched to bamboo and won’t go back. It’s been a happy switch after the first couple of days of getting used to the “mouth feel” of unfinished bamboo vs. smooth plastic. Yes, it’s a little bit more expensive (but not significantly more than a good plastic toothbrush), but I feel better about the choice. n added plus with the brand I bought is that there was no plastic packaging! The four pack was completely packed in recyclable paper Woohoo!

Plastic shopping bags are something already we try at all costs to avoid. We carry reusable cloth bags in all of our cars; however, occasionally we do get caught out without our bags. There were at least two occasions that I had to resort to plastic during the month (for shame!). In retrospect, I could have asked to have the items loaded back into my cart and hauled them home in the trunk sans bags. One lives and learns.

Because we rarely dine out, take-away containers are not usually a concern. This month, however, we did order in Indian food for my birthday, so we ended up with some plastic and Styrofoam containers. We did recycle them, but still. We could have opted to dine out and bring our own glass take=away containers.

The purchase I’m most proud of during this Lenten discipline was toilet paper. I looked in the stores at the price of toilet paper wrapped in paper. All I could find were single rolls, and they were almost double the cost of comparable rolls wrapped in plastic. I am a frugalista, so that was simply unacceptable. I looked on line at office supply stores and found a cardboard case of 80 rolls of Angel Soft commercial grade at 40% discount. Wow! Who would have thought one could get so pumped about purchasing toilet paper?

In the end, I’m convinced that we could all live with a lot less plastic if we simply try and are aware of our purchases and choices. I’ve made some good changes that I’ll keep on doing–buying TP in bulk and using bamboo toothbrushes, for example. I will also keep on trying to avoid plastic in other areas of my life, including avoiding purchasing items that are grossly over-packaged in, yep–you guessed it–PLASTIC.

What tips do you have to avoid plastic whenever possible?

Photo: Your Best Digs, Creative Commons. Thanks!

 

 

Lenten Plastic-Less Discipline

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Every year for the liturgical season of Lent, I identify one or more disciplines on which to focus and practice for the six week season. This year, I was convicted by a Facebook post to choose going plastic-less. I say “plastic-less” because as I’ve been preparing for this discipline I’ve become ever more aware of just how prevalent plastic is in our world and in our daily lives. Some people, like Julie Fathy and Béa Johnson, manage to do an amazing job at eliminating all or most plastic (and other forms of waste) from their lives, but it’s tough and it takes effort.

Thanks to Sarah Wilson I’m removing eight simple kinds of plastic from my life, hopefully way beyond Lent. No more

  • plastic cutlery (I have a backpacking set to use)
  • straws (don’t use them anyway)
  • bottled water
  • take-away beverage cups (they’re plastic lined–ick)
  • plastic toothbrushes
  • plastic shopping bags (I already try to use cloth.)
  • take-away containers
  • plastic wrapped toilet paper

My biggest challenge is to find bamboo toothbrushes locally so I don’t have to increase my carbon footprint by ordering them–and that has to be done by Wednesday. Everything else should be pretty easy to implement, a little more difficult to remember, and hopefully habit-forming.

What are you choosing for a Lenten discipline this year?

(Photo: Dean Hochman, Creative Commons. Thanks!)

Just Tell the Story Already

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“Either you want to tell a story or you don’t. Do you want to draw attention to yourself and your own writing and your beautiful style or do you want to be invisible and let the story and the characters take over for the reader. That’s what it comes down to for me. What comes into it with crime is just conflicts. I like conflict in any kind of popular art. There is no greater conflict than life versus death, so there it is. I’m not that interested in the crime aspect of my books. I am interested in the characters.” — George Pelecanos

Writing is hard work, at least I find it to be tough. If I’m tired (which is a lot of the time), distracted (which happens more than I’d like), or bogged down with work (which happens WAY more than it should), I find settling down in front of my computer screen and tap, tap, tapping away to be a daunting prospect. And so I find other things to do. I avoid the very thing that nourishes me and gives me life.

George Pelecano’s opening statement above, convicts me. If I really want to tell a story, what’s stopping me? Why, for heaven’s sake, am I letting all the STUFF of life get in the way? Why do I settle and sign and fail to put words to page, even as the story snippets wind through my brain and heart? I’ve decided that it’s not so much a fear of failure (I’m far too old for that to matter) as it is fatigue and the busyness of life.

Frankly, however, that is no excuse. I own it, and I’m going to do something about it (in all my spare time). More to come on this subject…

For now, I want to share with you a video series that has been inspiring me to move forward. If you’re dealing with a bad case of writer’s block, a general malaise resulting from current world events, or whatever else ails you, check out Pixar’s “The Art of Storytelling”. I think you’ll be glad you did.

More than JUST a Dog

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On Wednesday evening, January 18, we said goodbye to our family’s faithful canine companion whose full name was Beechwood’s Peter Rabbit, but who was affectionately known simply as Pete. He was 14 and a half years old, had been with us since he was a pup, lived in four states, seven homes, and was the most wonderful goofball of a Springer Spaniel I’ve ever encountered. He was more than JUST a dog.

Pete’s heart was strong right up to the end, even though his body was fast failing him. I’m convinced his big heart was so full of love for us that he kept on going on the strength of that alone. This good dog would just gaze at us with eyes full of love, and he was always girls-pete-2002there with a lick, a nuzzle, and warm fur coat ready to hug after a hard or horrible day. Even the best of days were better with Pete because of his zest for living. You see, he was more than JUST a dog.

It’s taken me a while to write about Pete’s death because of my grief and because the decision to euthanize him was one of the toughest I’ve had to make. It was, I am certain, the right thing to do. Pete had reached the point where his back legs were no longer supporting him, he was losing control of his bodily functions on a regular basis, and the neon signs of doggy dementia were clearly evident. Still, it was an agonizing choice because Pete was much more than JUST a dog.

This good boy walked with our family through some really tough times. We drenched his brown and white fur with our tears on many occasions. He carried us in his paws of love and loyalty through a difficult and traumatic divorce, through the aches and pains of two daughters’ growing up, and through my bout with breast cancer. One of my most treasured memories of Pete is the image of him curled up at my feet after every chemo treatment watching me, never taking his eyes off me to make sure I was going to be all right. Pete held so much of our family’s pain, fears, hopes, and dreams in that big heart of his with no  expectations beyond our affection and a few biscuits. When I married the love of my life five plus years ago, Pete gladly transferred some of his allegiance to Rob. Pete had more than enough love to go around. He was just that kind of dog, and he was way more than JUST a dog.

Pete was eight when a pickup truck clipped him, and we almost lost him. He came through the ordeal in typical Pete style, and although he spent the rest of his days on a daily regimen of drugs, really never missed a beat. Sometimes I wondered if anything could do that dog in. One Christmas he managed to get an entire pan of rising yeast rolls off of the counter and into his belly before any of us could get into the kitchen. Then we learned what rising yeast does in a warm, moist tummy. His poor stomach ballooned up, and we spent a long time walking the miserable pup around town trying to get him to rescind his potentially deadly snack. He did, but rather than outside he chose to deposit his yeasty offering on the blue carpet right in front of the Christmas tree.  Oh, Pete. You were much more than JUST a dog.

The boy definitely had no governor on his appetite. Throughout his life he downed entire pans of brownies, plates of cookies, assorted sandwiches, pounds of ham, steaks stolen off plates, a large bag of brown sugar, and a pound of Kilwin’s dark chocolate truffles with a wag of nub and happy-go-lucky-but-guilty look on his face. Pete had a sideways stealth move that was second to none. From kibble to groundhog and everything in between, the boy surely enjoyed his victuals. Even so, he was so much more than JUST a dog.

img_0363Dogs may be  man’s [sic] best friend, but Pete was definitely this woman’s faithful companion and sounding board, and I miss him so much. One of my seminary professors, the late Rev. Dr. Sue Hedahl, often quipped that “dog” is “God” spelled backwards. Maybe that helps explain our canine companions’ purpose in our lives, to help show that unmerited, unconditional love of our Creator. Oh yes, Pete was more than JUST a dog.

We tried to make Pete’s last day with us as good for him as possible. We bought him a McDonald’s cheeseburger and cut it into pieces which he ate bite by bite with clear relish. He enjoyed a Starbuck’s “pupaccino” (whipped cream in an espresso cup). When I told the barista what the occasion was she wrote his name on the cup and drew a paw print. He even had a photo shoot thanks to Aaron Amato Photography. I give special thanks to the wonderful and compassionate team at Colonial Park Animal Clinic for how they handled this difficult step. This great group of folks truly cared for our beloved boy, and they showed it in spades that January night. Thank you. I know you all understand that Pete was more than JUST a dog.

Pete’s cremains came home in a lovely carved box this week, and it’s good to have at least some element of him back. Part of me wishes he came with instructions “mix with water and watch your puppy come bounding back into your life.” But none of us, no creature, is meant to live forever in these flesh, blood, and bone bodies. There’s much more to life and death and eternity than that. I take comfort in the scientific principle that matter doesn’t go out of existence but only changes form (sorry for the non-scientific way of saying img_0231this) and in the words of the writer of Colossians

So spacious is he [Christ], so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe–people and things, animals and atoms–get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross. (1:19-20, The Message)

You see, Pete was more than JUST a dog to me and to my family. If you have pets I’m pretty sure you understand what I mean. Another way to spell dog, I think, is L-O-V-E pure and simple, and love never dies. Knowing that, I’ll just gaze into the clear night skies and try to see my beloved Springer Pete romping as floppy-eared stardust across the cosmos with his brother and litter-mate Fred by his side. Good dog, Pete. Good, good dog.

Photos: Black and white photo courtesy Aaron Amato Photography.

 

Why Neighboring Matters

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Do you know your neighbors? Can you name the people and pets who live in the houses on your block? Have you shared stories and/or meals with one another?

When we moved to our current neighborhood three years ago, we were determined to get to know as many people as possible. I had just finished reading The Art of Neighboring by Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak, so I was motivated to draw a map of our block, post it on our refrigerator, and start being, well, neighborly. Why? Because neighboring matters.

Both my husband and I grew up in neighborhoods where we could leave the house in the morning and play all day with friends. We were welcome in one another’s homes, our parents made sure we were safe and reasonably well-mannered, and neighborhood moms dispensed many a popsicle and Bandaid. Casserole dishes crossed streets and warmed hearts after births or illnesses. We knew about major life events and both celebrated and mourned together.

Neighboring matters because people matter. We are stronger when we work together, when we build relationships and communities. Humans are meant to be connected with one another.

Unfortunately neighboring doesn’t happen automatically. Relationships aren’t built overnight, getting to know folks takes time and effort (as well as trust and vulnerability), and one must actually get out of the house and into the neighborhood to truly be a neighbor.

We’re still working at it in our neighborhood. We know most of the people on our block by name. We watch each other’s cats at vacation time. We exchange gardening tips. We check on elderly neighbors, and we keep an eye on each other’s houses. One young family even hosted “Neighbor’s Table” potlucks last summer, hand-delivering invitations door-to-door. Lots of people walk their dogs, and my husband (an extreme extrovert) is always ready to strike up a conversation.

Our hope is to continue cultivating relationships and growing a neighborhood web of interdependence and friendship that enriches everyone’s life. Are we there yet? Not hardly, but we’re working on it.

What simple things might you do to begin neighboring (or increase your efforts) where you live?

For Further Reading/Reflection:

Check out The Art of Neighboring website and book.

Here’s an interview from NPR with Professor Peter Lovenheim on the value of getting to know your neighbors.

Community Dinners is an interesting take on how a worshiping community decided to get to know its Seattle neighbors through dinner churches and how that has expanded in surprising and wonderful ways.

Check out the story of Sarah and her backyard dining “room” where she connects people and creates community. Here’s her Neighbor’s Table Facebook page.

Photo: Carl Mueller, Creative Commons License. Thanks!

 

2017: The Year of Interdependence

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The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.  — Thomas Merton

Citizens of the United States have long prided themselves on their independence, on the notion that anyone can succeed with a firm tug on the old “bootstraps” and a little bit of elbow grease. Unfortunately, that ideal that’s been held so dear and romanticized is not true. We are bit islands unto ourselves with equal opportunity and equal outcome.

Life can be hard. It’s often unfair. Some folks just can’t seem to get a break. Lots of people are left behind. One in five children in America is hungry. It’s tough to earn a living wage. In short, our independence has not served us well to knit a strong fiber of community, a viable safety net, so that all citizens can live decent, relatively secure lives with access to the basics of food, housing, work, and healthcare.

2016 was a particularly contentious year, with the presidential election bringing to light the fears, concerns, and anger of people of both major parties. Many are now hopeful that there will be change for the better. Many now fear that we will suffer greatly. We are a nation divided in our quest for independence and our vision of what it means to be “America.”

In response to last year’s division, I’m going to work this year to lift up examples and possibilities for interdependence in hope that we can all begin in some small ways to work together for the common good. Folks, we need one another. We need to listen. We need to share. We need to tell stories and listen to stories and write stories. We need to open our homes and hearts and minds in ways that move beyond  social media rants and fake news.

I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I don’t have much at all at this point except a desire to make a difference, to be as Gandhi once said “the difference I wish to see.” Will you join me in my quest? Will you commit to finding ways to be interdependent, to knit together our fabric of community in your neighborhoods, workplaces, houses of worship, and families?

I hope so. I think we can have some fun in the process. And I pray we can leave this world in just a little bit better condition–one conversation and one person, one day or hour at a time.

Photo: Nic McPhee (Creative Commons License) Thanks!

Enough

Adventures in Thanks-Living

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Enough! Enough already! Lord have mercy! Christ have mercy! Lord have mercy! What’s going on, people?

This is not the way I would normally start a blog post, but these are the thoughts running through my head against the backdrop of this week’s Revised Common Lectionary gospel (Luke 10:25-37) and my social media newsfeed. Basically it’s a verbal mash-up of who’s my neighbor and who’s acting like a neighbor versus brutal public murders of black men and police officers, anger and hate-filled rhetoric flying willy-nilly in all directions, and competing claims about what will make America great again. Lament seems the only viable response.

And yet…

Jesus calls us to action. He calls us to show mercy, to go and do likewise. Sure, Jesus wept and grieved and mourned for the brokenness of the world in which he walked; however, he was not stymied by the enormity of it all. Sure, he wanted…

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Whatever Shall We Do?

Whew! June has been quite the month in the social media and news world. There’s been more than enough of tragedies, disasters, political posturing, and hateful rhetoric, and we still have four days to go. Summer is here, tensions are rising, anxiety is growing, economic disparity is widening, and our elections in the U.S. are less than five months away. What’s a person of faith to do?

Public faith in actionHow about starting with a book discussion this summer? Released last week from Brazos Press, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity by Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, is a wonderful new resource to stimulate discussion and provide additional study and resource suggestions.

I just finished reading the book and have already found it useful in sermon preparation, in conversation, and in challenging me to think outside of my own preconceived notions about how the world ought to operate. Volf and McAnnally-Linz make it clear from the start that the book is framed from this basic commitment: “Christian faith has an inalienable public dimension” (3). They argue that Christ must be the center and norm not just of our religious/faith and family lives but also in every aspect of the public sphere in which we move and breathe. Importantly, they encourage readers to see the book as a call to action, that of following Jesus and patterning the entirety of our lives after his example. Jesus was definitely a public figure; as his disciples we, too, are called to be active in public life to work for justice, top seek the common good, and to be God’s hands, feet, and heart in the world.

Public Faith in Action will appeal to a wide range of folks from theological thinkers to folks in the pew who are trying to make sense of the craziness they perceive all around them. The book is divided into three parts: Commitments, Convictions, and Character. The core of the book explores current issues—ranging from wealth and poverty to borrowing and lending, and from life and aging to marriage and family—and identifies relevant Christian convictions while also faithfully exploring ambiguities. Woven throughout are stories that illustrate the markers of character and convictions.

Whatever shall we Christians do about the current state of affairs? We can begin by recognizing that our response is a matter of stewardship, of being responsible for our actions and choices, of spending our time, resources, and talents wisely. It’s about stewarding relationships as we work together to knit the fabric of community through conversation, fellowship, and sharing.

Now get your hands on a copy of Public Faith in Action and read it post haste. But whatever you do, don’t stop there. Engage others in conversation and reflection, ponder what you as a person of faith are being called to do, and then commit yourself fully to act on your convictions for the sake of this beautiful, broken, and beloved world.

Click here to be redirected to the book website. Click here to watch a short YouTube video of Dr. Miroslav Volf discussing the book.

(Image: Courtesy Brazos Press)

How’d all that STUFF Happen?

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I kid you not; STUFF multiplies like dust bunnies under the bed. I’ve been working toward greater simplicity for several years now, and I still have too much stuff. For the second year in a row I participated in “The Month of 100 Things.” This Facebook group pledges to rid their lives and homes of 100 unnecessary things during the first month of the calendar year. It never  fails to amaze me how much can be gotten rid of in 31 days!

From cleaning out a drawer in the office to my closet, it was pretty easy to eliminate 100 things that weren’t either necessary or perceived as beautiful and essential. And then tonight, on my way home from a meeting, I hear The Minimalists on WITF-FM (NPR) say that the average American home has over 300,ooo things in it. Goodness! How much do we need to consume to be happy? How much do we have to hang on to “just in case” we might one day need it? Hmmmmmm….maybe I’ll go clean out another drawer.

What are your ideas for avoiding the consumption of excess stuff?

Check out this blog post from embracinghomemaking.net aptly entitled “200 Things to Throw Away” to get  started (if it doesn’t exhaust you just by reading the list!). I really like the Oscar Wilde quote “There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid others would pick them up.” There’s that “fear” thing again! Remember there’s enough if we all just do a better job of sharing.

(Photo: Kevin Utting, Creative Commons. Thanks!)