Editing: a Lenten Practice

It reveals me to myself.“ I wrote this line in my last blog as I described this liturgical planner with which I’ve entered a complicated relationship.

I also wrote “It’s only January. I haven’t even made it to Lent yet.”

Well, Lent has arrived.in-640516_960_720Wednesday I went to a noon service and received the imposition of the ashes on my forehead. “From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” the priest said to me. Over and over I heard that phrase spoken to every kneeling soul at the altar. It echoed in the sanctuary of wood and stone and now it echoes in my mind and heart.   You are finite, it says. You are one of many; only human, who you are and what you can do and how long you will last are all limited.

That voice seems to be in chorus with the planner. As I struggle with using it, seeing it merge my digital calendar and reflective journal, facing its forcing me out of my denial about who I write in my journal that I want to be and what I actually do every day, I feel the truth bearing down upon me.

I didn’t mean to start this liturgical theme in my blog, but advent brought an anxious waiting, Christmas retold a story, and epiphany began a journey toward something to behold.

It seems a Mystery beyond me is being lived in my story. A wheel-shaped diagram on the inside cover of the book represents the liturgical year of the church. My own story seems to be a wheel within the wheel.

I set myself up last week when I wrote this line…

An epiphany is a moment of pause, a moment of revelation. But the still point of revelation is brief, for we are changed by it and it demands we respond in some way. 

 This made for a nice ending, only I wasn’t thinking particularly about the ‘some way’ in which I would respond. Then came Lent.

Some of theme words on the opening page describing Lent in the Sacred Ordinary Days Planner are self-examine, discipline, prepare, empty, fast, quiet, contemplation, and reflection.

It’s a fitting beginning for Lent: Response. I read yesterday that to ask oneself, “What do I give up for Lent? “ is to shortchange oneself. The better question is what practice will I add to my life, in place of the something I might need to let go, in order to better become who I was created to be.

Oddly, the word ‘edit’ comes to mind. Is that a spiritual practice? It certainly speaks to getting rid of things. The final stage in the writing process, I tell my students, is to re-read your work, to cut out all superfluous words. Where many words are, sin abounds, the Proverbs say. While I know this is true of those of us who talk too much and too often, I’m not sure it applies to essays of AP Lang students, though after reading five or six wordy ones in a row, I’m inclined to think loquaciousness deserves punishment and needs absolution.

Say it as tightly as you can – economy of word – I tell them. The fewer words, the more important the choice of each becomes and the more power each one holds. Editing is both eliminating words and choosing better ones; sometimes it’s putting the words in a different order.

I think about the pages of my life, represented by my journal, my planner and my calendar. Are ‘choice, fewer, and powerful’ the descriptions of the life recorded there? Is the order of things what it should be?  I’m not sure. I fear it lacks power because there are not enough pauses, silences, blank spaces, and careful choices.   Yes, editing is a spiritual practice. A Lenten practice of giving up and replacing, editing the filled spaces and times on that calendar to gain the fewer, deliberative and powerful moments that are born in space and silence.

My Planner: A Love/Hate Relationship

I have a new planner.  A friend of mine found these online and knowing that I was reading Living the Christian Year and trying to live into the liturgical calendar this year,  she thought I might like to try one. I haven’t decided whether to thank her or ‘unfriend’ her.

The first day I loved it! The child whose father owned an office supply store, I had unlimited access to Blue Horse Tablets, #2 Wallace pencils, college-ruled composition notebooks,  and yellow legal pads. I loved fresh paper and new pens.  The teacher, too, loves a clean page on which to write and plan.  Maybe that type of child  becomes a teacher.  I was eager and enthusiastic when I first opened the book.

For the last few years I have used strictly a digital calendar, which I love for many reasons; not the least of which is entering the dentist’s appointment on my phone’s calendar right there in the office. Seconds later that appointment is also on my computer’s calendar. Gone is the small reminder card which once got lost in the black hole of my purse for weeks.  I miss, however, not being able to reflect on the calendar and make notes to myself about what did and did not work.   After I had completely exhausted myself over Christmas one year in the days of a paper calendar, a friend suggested I put a sticky note on next year’s December which read: ELIMINATE ONE THING!  I did. It worked.  I haven’t mailed out a Christmas card since that sticky note got put on December.  I use “old school paper” for my teacher plan book and I write in pencil so I can change easily – which I do often.  I go back and write reflections in colored ink about what works and what doesn’t, what needs more time, or less time.

I thought this new planner would be like that, a place to reflect on my pace of life and note adjustments I needed to make, and a reminder to fuse the practical tasks into the liturgical season. The planner starts the year with a space for writing one’s own rule of life, then each day provides readings from the daily office along with  a list of three projects one would like to accomplish. Underneath the project list is a daily schedule space and a small white space for other notes or thoughts related to the readings or anything else.

This was my first frustration. No way was the book adequate to serve as my journal.  I’m voluble, loquacious, verbose.  For years I’ve kept a black Moleskin journal,  the receptacle of thoughts, prayers, feelings that come tumbling out of my mind. I reflect and ponder and try to make meaning of what is happening in my daily life.  There the words excited, exhausted, afraid, overwhelmed, overjoyed show up.  In those pages is the record of what I felt, perceived, or learned from what happened in my life. Or maybe just a record of what I coped with or survived.

My second pushback was that I’m still going to use my digital calendar – too convenient to give up.

Thirdly, I was trying to fill in those three project boxes every day and complete them in spite of how much might be listed on the daily schedule – transferred from my digital calendar, mind you. I found myself becoming driven by the tyranny of my own list, obsessing over the boxes. I wanted to check those boxes.  The old taskmaster that drives me to accomplishment was rearing his head again.

I was about to give up on the whole thing, thinking it was only a complicated fusion of the calendar and the journal, duplicating what I already have and not serving its own purpose, but  I couldn’t quite let it go.  Hate gave way to love again.

The liturgical day planner is just that, a complicated fusion which represents me. It reveals me to myself.   A calendar alone lets me feel accomplished and productive; a journal tells another truth – driven, sometimes exhausted, afraid, and pensive.  In either book alone, I can deny the other side.

No wonder I love and hate this new book: it forces me to admit that my ‘to do’ list are too long and that I am the author of the list.  Nobody but me is making that unrealistic list.  When I get to the weekend it asks me to reflect on the previous week in terms of mind, body, spirit, home, relationships and work and reset for the next week.  I’m forced every seven days to look back at how my intention (who I say I want to be) matched with how I scheduled my time and energy.   My Moleskin journal and my digital calendar don’t talk to me this way. They don’t ask me to evaluate my schedule or force me to look back at previous pages.  I can continue my dualism in those two separate books.

It’s only January. I haven’t even made it to Lent yet.  I make no promises about my relationship with the liturgical planner for all of 2016.  We are ‘still just dating’ so to speak. A wise friend once told me, “When you feel yourself resisting, lean in. It’s usually what you need.”  I definitely met resistance within myself.   For now, I’m choosing love and leaning into the planner.

Epiphany: Courage, Movement, Attention

If Advent is waiting, then Epiphany is moving.

In December, in the middle of advent, a season of waiting, I wrote in my journal that “it felt like a marathon – which is a kind of waiting in itself.”  If you read my last blog, my advent was anything but the kind of sedentary waiting one does at the hospital or at the airport; rather it was wrap this, deliver that, attend this, visit them, cook this, pick up that.  The days of waiting seemed consumed with movement — all toward Christmas Day, the finish line.

Then the movement stopped. The waiting was over. We celebrated and enjoyed. Finally, after our kids were back at school, we were back at work and the holidays were over, my husband and I begin to dismantle the Christmas tree and all its trimmings.  We found ourselves finishing the task on January 6th. On the liturgical calendar it is Epiphany, a celebration of the Wise Men’s visit to the Christ Child.   They are no longer traveling, following a small star in the sky. Now they see in a human child the Word which called all light into existence.

We are putting ornaments in boxes and rolling up strings of lights. I’m packing up my collections of Santas and Nativity scenes. The live greenery surrounding them and the wreaths in almost every room come down and the dead leaves and branches shed all over the furniture and the floor.  I’m sweeping and and picking up dustpan after dustpan of needles that have fallen from our brittle tree which my husband has now dragged to the front porch. In a fit of New Year’s decluttering and cleaning, I decide to pull every piece of furniture out of the living room, remove the seagrass rug which is dry-rotted on the backside, and rearrange the furniture.

That evening a friend sent me a text with news that a research project she’s worked on during her recent graduate school experience had just been published.  She’d used her own experience with cancer as an impetus to return to school and do this important work. She’s made some courageous and life-altering decisions along the way.  I responded to her text with these words, “You’re an inspiration of where one can be in a few years with courage, movement and attention.”  And then I had my own small epiphany.  Those are the ingredients of transformation: courage, movement and attention.

In the two years prior to my taking this job, my husband’s job had him working nearly two hours away. He was really only home on the weekends. We considered moving. I’d prayed for courage often during those two years, though really not understanding why, as I didn’t recognize  fear in myself at the time. (That lightbulb moment came eventually.) The relocation of our family didn’t happen but change was coming for me in all kinds of ways and the nudge to pray for courage was the beginning of a Divine conversation.

It takes courage to move. Willingness to move a household and family, to make a job change, to get out of ‘stuck’ place, to let go of bitterness, to get out of a tired narrative, to move your mind to think in a new way, to move your body toward what it needs – courage is the fuel, but the body still has to put one foot in front of the other over and over and over: Move until you reach the destination.  The wise men kept traveling, night after night. They watched the sky, their camels plodding on.

This same friend had said to me, “Pay attention to what comes unbidden.”  The context of that quote was my contemplating an out-of-the blue offer to teach again after a twenty year break from the classroom. I’d been doing free-lance devotional writing and researching pursuing a graduate degree. The job I took was a total shift for me, as I’d been a stay-at-home mom for eighteen years. The four years prior to that I’d been in the business world. Way back, twenty two years before, I’d been a classroom teacher.  I’d been longing for freedom from an uncomfortable family situation; my freedom came in the form of a full-time teaching job. Talk about paradox. Sometimes when you arrive at the scene, it looks nothing like what you expected.

The word ‘epiphany’ means a moment when you suddenly see or hear something in a new or clear way. “The lightbulb came on” teachers say, when we see that knowing look on a student’s face. An epiphany is a moment of pause, a moment of revelation. But the still point of revelation is brief, for we are changed by it and it demands we respond in some way.  Epiphany is movement. The Wise Men didn’t stay with the Christ Child, they went home  – by another way.

Several months ago, a friend brought to my attention the James Taylor song, “Home by Another Way” in which Taylor writes, “But Herod’s always out there, he’s got our cards on file / It’s a lead pipe cinch, if we give an inch, old Herod likes to take a mile / It’s best to go home by another way, home by another way.

All of life is transformation. Epiphanies are ours for the asking and seeing – and then responding  -with courage, movement, and attention.

Anxiety and Advent: Between Conception and Delivery

Everybody over the age of twelve seems stressed this time of year.  The students in the high school where I teach are finishing their semester projects and papers, taking final chapter tests and preparing for semester exams next week.  The musicians and the dancers and actors have Christmas concerts, recitals and plays. Though football is done, basketball and indoor track are in full swing and practices follow school everyday.  The teachers are equally busy planning, grading, managing, and trying to make it to the academic finish line of the semester, only to leave school in the afternoon and go Christmas shopping, or home to bake or trim the tree.

Culturally, the ways we celebrate this season are counterintuitive to waiting. We are in Advent; but we are not waiting. We are racing, making list and checking them twice, studying, working, trying to use every available minute to accomplish the most before the deadline arrives.  For the students, it’s next Friday. The pressure is off after that last exam.  For adults, it’s Christmas Day. By then, the shopping, decorating, cooking and entertaining are culminating.

One of my students said this morning, “Sometimes the worrying is worse than the actual thing.”  He’s a pretty smart guy.  One of my school’s most accomplished young men, he is musician, scholar, and athlete:  he has an upcoming concert, is running track, is managing AP classes,  and he’s taking the ACT this weekend. He’s been given the wisdom in the moment to realize that the anxiety of all he is juggling is just that: vaporous dread. The events themselves will occur and he will get through them doing the best he can in the moment he’s got before him. And in a week, it will all be over for him.


My scholars finishing their 5-week composition projects!

I wonder if Mary, the mother of the Christ child felt this way.  I know she was a teenage Jewish girl in a culture and time unlike modern America, but surely it wasn’t all peaceful waiting.  If she was like every other pregnant woman on planet earth, she felt the anxiety of an impending labor and birth. She must’ve had a “to do” list before the Christ Child was born, gone through the nesting instinct like other pregnant mothers, dreaded the heaviness of the final month and the pain of labor and delivery. She must’ve wondered when and where her labor would start and how long it would take and if she would survive it.  I bet she had a particular way she wanted that saddlebag packed when Joseph loaded her up on that donkey and said they had to go to Bethlehem.

I’ve read countless times the story of the angel appearing to Mary and I know well the words of “The Magnificat” found in The Gospel of Luke chapter 1.  Mary was told she was favored, to not be afraid, that she would be visited by the Holy Spirit and have a baby and what to name him. She celebrated this favor and pronouncement when she visited her cousin Elizabeth who was expecting John the Baptist.  Her famous line, “Be it onto me according to Thy word,” is a breath prayer for all of us who come after her.

Still, she didn’t get a whole lot of detail from the angel (as far as we can read) about the day to day between conception and delivery. She had to live each moment letting the narrative unfold, living in the details, coping with the questions, the anxiety or outright fear, until the day arrived when Jesus was born.  Interestingly, He was with her and in her the whole time.

And so it is with us.

Only we can’t seem to stay in conscious awareness of it so we stress about the details, and worry about the deadlines, and experience the darkness even as we carry the peace of God and the light of the world within us.

A Mom and a Teacher’s Response to Fear and Terror

I was out taking a walk Friday afternoon when a friend’s text asked me if I was watching the news?  “Multiple terrorist bombs in Paris,” it read.

My daughter is studying abroad this semester in London, only she doesn’t stay in London much on weekends. She doesn’t have Friday classes so she’s been to eight countries in the last twelve weeks. Paris, France was one of those destinations just a few weeks ago.   My friends know she is somewhere abroad and immediately became concerned.  Numerous texts begin to come in and I was glad to report that my child was safe in London this weekend.  At least in the moment I felt gladness and safety.  When we think about the randomness of what happened in Paris, does anybody feel safe anywhere?

I did send her a message to make her aware of what was going on across the channel.  It had flashed through my mind that it could easily be London or New York, or anywhere else within moments or months.  She had seven friends in the city of Paris that night.  Eventually we learned they were all safe; but I couldn’t help but fear for them and empathize with what those parents, stateside like me, must be feeling in the first few hours after the news broke.

As the hours passed and the tragedy unfolded on my TV screen, my body became increasingly wound up on the  inside while being fatigued at the same time outwardly.  I noticed an unsettled feeling in my stomach, a weakness in my legs, almost a magnetic pull toward something that I couldn’t locate.  I couldn’t seem to get a deep breath in or swallow very well.  Finally I recognized the sensations as being  familiar in a “been here before” kind of way.  My body remembered something.   When else had I felt like this, I asked myself.

And then it hit me. In 1991.  My husband was a navy flyer, stationed in the Red Sea during the 1991 Gulf War.  When the first bombs were dropped, I was driving home to Virginia Beach from my job in Norfolk, listening on the radio. CNN was covering it live, Bernard Shaw reporting from under a desk.

I pulled in the driveway and was met by a neighbor who insisted I come over to their house and watch the news with them.  As the hours passed, I found myself with my legs not only crossed but twisted around each other and wound so tightly they hurt when I tried to unfold them.  I had no script for what was happening in front of my eyes.  The Navy had all kinds of protocol and I’d been through my obligatory ‘spouses’ school’ to learn about how notifications occurred, but nobody foresaw and thus trained us wives on how we should watch a war our husbands were fighting happen live on television during the dinner hour.  It would be a few days before the military and the media could get in sync on reporting downed aircraft before families were notified.

This was the familiar feeling I felt Friday night. My body recalled it before my mind did. I’m watching the news tell us during the dinner hour that college-aged adults at a rock concert in Paris are being summarily executed while my own child sits a few hundred miles away in another of the world’s major cities.  There are numerous students just like her in Paris and the other major cities of Europe.  Geraldo Rivera’s daughter, whom he talked to live on television, is one of them. Studying in Paris for the semester, she was at the soccer game when the explosion occurred.

It was just too close. Hearing him tell her that he had a plane standing by to come get her the next morning but the airspace was closed, I broke into tears.   My daughter was a first grader, six-years-old, when 9/11 happened. She processed that though the eyes of her parents, which meant that her daddy would take care of her and our family.  He was strong and brave, like most daddies of six-year-olds, and she needn’t worry.   What do we tell her now?  She is not a little girl. She’s a grown woman living temporarily on the other side of the Atlantic and we cannot shield her or protect her.

What do I tell my students, not yet to adulthood, about the world they are soon to enter?

The fact of the matter is that the control we think we have when they are with us, under our roofs, in our arms, in our classrooms, is but an illusion. None of us have the power of life and death in our hands and none of us can really ever keep our children safe, though we are designed to die trying. The challenge I find before me is how to instill courage without denying reality.  My daughter isn’t six. She is twenty. My students are seventeen.   And the world is not a safe place.

But we can’t retreat in fear and let evil have its way, so I will trust in Divine Love and I’ll give it to them, as far as I am empowered to do so. 1 John 4:8 says, “Perfect love cast out all fear.”  Words, flimsy as they feel sometimes, can communicate love.  The smallest deeds towards one another can translate love. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a place to start today. A thing to give our attention to in the midst of confusion and tragedy. Drive out fear by loving someone a little better today.

Honor the Edge

Different teacher. Different class. Same word. 

Last week I wrote  about honoring the transitions, inspired by a phrase I heard in a yoga class that week.  This week, in a different studio with another teacher, I heard a  similar phrase: Honor the Edge.  The teacher went on to say that the whole class was going to be about edges.  Turns out my whole week was going to be about them.

To honor the edge in yoga is to stretch to the point of discomfort, but not to the point of actual pain, a ‘good hurt’ as the teacher described it.  You want to go to the edge, to the place where the muscle is stretching and working and pushing the boundaries of what it normally does for you.  You stay there, breathing into that place, trying to create more space and elasticity.

I couldn’t help but think of this phrase when I read Donna Lamberti’s blog  about remaining silent and letting her students stumble and be frustrated because they’d refused to follow directions on a project.  She disciplined herself not to step in and rescue them, going for the larger life lessons and seizing the opportunity to help them grow.

I watched  “honoring the edge” play out again at my school with a student who struggled on an initial assignment in a rigorous course.   Because of a scheduling problem this student is taking a class normally reserved for students an entire year older, thus she finds herself sitting among students with an extra full year of knowledge, practice and experience in that subject. She has heretofore been a straight A student, but the rigor of this class is challenging her and she is not having the instant success that she, her parents, and her previous teachers are accustomed to seeing, rather she’s playing ‘catch up’ to her peers for a few weeks or months.   This challenge actually should be expected and is a good thing…if you can stand the stretch at the edge.

To push to a point of discomfort, not to pain or shame, just to a bit of frustration of confusion is usually where the learning takes place.  Problem is, as parents and teachers, we sometimes have a hard time letting our children or our students stay in their discomfort. For that matter, we probably don’t allow ourselves to stay in it either.

My own child, a college junior studying abroad this semester, decided to buy herself a train ticket, make a hostel reservation, and travel alone to a coastal town in her host country for a weekend adventure.  I was quite proud of her as I would have never done this at her age, but at the same also worried about her traveling alone in a foreign country, staying in a hostel with strangers, and navigating her way around a town where she knew no one.  When she arrived there the first day, she sent me a few texts indicating things were not quite as she expected to find them.  I immediately sent back that if she felt unsafe or the hostel was unclean that she should get on the train and go right back to her flat in the city.  She said it was neither unsafe or unsanitary, “just weird”, which told me she was experiencing the discomfort and stretch of traveling alone in a strange place, going to a restaurant by herself, figuring out what to do and settling in to the idea of sharing it only with her journal and her camera.  Still, she didn’t sound like her usual confident happy self and my mother’s heart wanted to tell her to go back to the comfort of the city she has become accustomed to, even though she was clearly in no danger.  My next move was to go online and start researching the destination.  I had the idea that I could could send her links of where to go, what to do.  I’d stay in constant communication with her so she wouldn’t feel lonely.  I was going to try to have the experience with her if she stayed.

Then I caught myself.  This was a “growth mindset” moment for her and I was trying to prevent it.  I need to be available only if she asks my advice, but she needs to figure out whether to stay or go, to stick it out or hop the first train back to familiarity.   The confidence or the regret needs to be hers.  Turns out, she stayed, pushed through the first day and night of uncharted territory,  went to museums, galleries, and dinner alone and the second night sent me a text saying she was 180 degrees from where she was the previous day. Text messages couldn’t mask her confident tone.  She honored the edge, breathed into the stretch, and grew stronger for it.

Last year our faculty read Carol Dweck’s Mindset as a summer read. It made me want a ‘do over’ for many days of both parenting and teaching that are already behind me, but it also inspired me to stay in the moments of discomfort, lean into resistance, breath into the stretch, and see what it can teach me – and to do that for my own children and my students.    Like on my yoga mat, the stretching and staying at the edges in life create the strength and flexibility I need to face the next challenge.

So What Happens When…You Do Hurt Them?

So what happens when…. this was the subject line of an email I received a few days after I wrote my last blog post.  I smiled. I knew before I opened the emailed what the rest of it would say: …You do hurt them?   My smile was not because hurting anyone is pleasant or funny, but because of the inevitability of it.  When you interact with other people all day long, somewhere in all those words somebody will get hurt occasionally.

My colleague went on to explain that she’d refused to let a kid off the hook in answering a question in the beginning days of school.  She assumed, like most of us  high school teachers would, that he was apathetic and unprepared.   Later she learned that he had “serious academic issues –  some processing problems,”  and now she feels “awful!”

How did I answer her?

You just do what you are doing.

Buried in her question was most of my answer.  She had already recognized what she had done.  She’s self-aware, a reflective person by nature, and willing to grow and change as a professional.  She had the presence of mind to think about what she had done and put a name to it.  To recognize is to identify, to acknowledge, to accept, to admit.

Secondly, she confessed.  In reaching out to me, in telling another person, “Hey, I messed up,” she is finding solidarity and accountability. Those two things can carry a person through most anything.   Confession to another person means somebody to feel my pain and  share my regret because they’ve had this experience too and somebody to help me lessen my chances of messing up again. Telling our stories has tremendous power both to heal ourselves and help each other.

Thirdly,  I told her to start again with awareness. We are given a sunrise every morning.  Mercy is extended to us upon waking.  She could, the very next day, just be kind and supportive to that student. He will in time see that she genuinely cares for him and her ‘push’ wasn’t personal. The beauty of the Gospel is that even our messes are redeemed and used for good purposes in the lives of others and ourselves.

Some occasions call for apologies, not an easy thing coming from the teacher to the student. We mostly expect them going in the other direction.  But there is tremendous power in that act to create a lasting relationship with a student. To show yourself as a flawed human being, to show them what humility looks like, to recognize the dignity of their feelings, to show them that power doesn’t exempt us from continuing to learn out of our own frustrations and failures,  those may be some of the best lessons we ever teach them.

Then, I told her to let it go.  In starting again, mindful of what you have learned, don’t waste time and energy and emotion on the guilt.  Nothing creative comes out of guilt and we need creative teachers in our classrooms.

And lastly,  don’t be surprised when you mess up again.  Pride is the problem when we are continually shocked at ourselves for imperfection.   If you’re like the rest of the human race, you’ll make mistakes and you’ll hurt someone with your words once in awhile.  When you do, start with step one: recognition… and repeat the above process.